- Four Taliban gunmen attacked the Serena Hotel restaurant in Kabul during Nowruz celebrations on Thursday evening, killing nine people, including the AFP’s senior reporter in Kabul and at least four foreigners. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi commander Malik Ishaq has been granted bail after being held since February 2013. Shakil Afridi’s alleged links to foreign intelligence agencies will also be investigated, a Frontier Crimes Regulation tribunal that imposed a fresh sentence against him earlier this week has ruled. The Afghan government has released another 57 detainees from Bagram. Afghan presidential candidates trade accusations of fraud and government support in violation of campaign rules. A planned Pakistani cabinet meeting that was expected to endorse Most-Favored Nation trading status for India has been delayed.
Pakistan — Security
- TTP Talks: Speaking on Thursday, Maulana Sami ul Haq claimed that an agreement on a location for direct talks between the TTP and government representatives could come today; no announcement in that regard has yet been reported. [ET] [Dawn]
- Malik Ishaq Granted Bail: Lashkar-e-Jhangvi commander Malik Ishaq was granted bail by the Lahore High Court on charges of spreading sectarianism through remarks against Shia at two rallies in August 2012 and February 2013; Ishaq had been detained by police on public order charges in February 2013.
- Afridi Under Investigation for Foreign Links: The Frontier Crimes Regulation tribunal which issued a fresh, 23-year sentence for Dr Shakil Afridi over alleged links to the Khyber-based militant group Lashkar-e-Islam, has also ordered Khyber officials to investigate his involvement with any “anti-state activities in collusion with foreign intelligence agencies”. Afridi was widely reported to have cooperated with the CIA in a covert surveillance program in Abbottabad under the guise of a medial vaccination campaign, but was not initially charged on those grounds, as local officials had suggested they lacked jurisdiction on the issue.
- Missing Persons: The Supreme Court has ordered a report within 30 days on the status of 35 missing persons alleged to have been taken into extrajudicial custody from the Malakand internment center. Court-ordered charges against army officials accused of responsibility for the detentions have yet to be filed in Khyber Paktunkhwa.
Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy
- Gulf Diplomacy: At the weekly Foreign Ministry press conference on Thursday, spokeswoman Tasneem Aslam reiterated that Pakistan would not “interfere in bilateral disputes or differences” between Muslim countries, insisting that Pakistan “have had very close ties with Iran and with the Gulf”. On the final day of Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman al Khalifa’s visit to Pakistan, the two sides issued a joint statement pledging to finalize a Pakistan-Gulf Cooperation Council free trade agreement and calling for an annual security dialogue between Pakistan and Bahrain. [ET]
- EU Diplomacy: Pakistan and the European Union will hold strategic dialogue talks in Brussels beginning March 25, ahead of a counterterrorism dialogue scheduled for May; trade, energy, and regional security issues are also on the agenda. [Dawn]
- PPP-MQM Alliance: Former PPP interior minister Rehman Malik told reporters on Friday that “good news” was near on a possible resumption of a coalition government between the PPP and MQM in Sindh. [Dawn]
Pakistan — Economics and Development
- India Trade Announcement Stalled: A planned Friday cabinet meeting that was expected to approve most-favored nation trading status (rebranded as Non-Discriminatory Market Access) has been delayed, The Nation reports. Anonymous government sources insist they remain committed to trade liberalization, but suggest that upcoming travel by Prime Minister Sharif had delayed the discussion, which now may be delayed until early April or into May, after the conclusion of Indian general elections.
- Tax Reforms: The Express Tribune reports that the Federal Board of Revenue is considering a proposal to cut sales taxes from the current 17% rate down to between 5-9%, but also remove input adjustments and refunds in order to reduce the gap between the nominal and effective tax rates.
- Polio Cases: Four new child polio cases have been reported in North Waziristan, bringing total documented cases to 33 so far this year.
Pakistan — Remainders
- Sindh Government May Appeal Supreme Court Order on ECP Constituency Delimitation [ET] [ET]
- ASWJ Peshawar Leader Escapes Grenade Attack [The Nation]
- Balochistan Leaders Seek Action to Recover Kidnapped ANP Leader [Dawn]
- Task Force Established to Investigate Balochistan Journalists’ Deaths [Dawn]
- Partial Strike After Death of Ex-Jeay Sindh Quami Mahaz Chief’s Brother [Dawn] [ET]
- Senate Committee Seeks Action Against Interior Secretary [Dawn]
- Prime Minister Sets March 2015 Deadline for Islamabad Airport Completion [Dawn]
- Movies Begin to Take Root in Pakistan [WSJ]
- Forex Reserves Increase by $185M [ET]
- Commentary: Quiet and Dangerous Engagement – “The danger of Pakistan getting sucked into the considerable security challenges faced by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain while its internal conditions remain deeply unsettled will likely continue to evoke controversy.” [Farhan Bokhari, Dawn]
Afghanistan — Security
- Attack on Serena Hotel Kills Nine: A team of four teenage Taliban gunmen snuck through tight security at the Kabul Serena Hotel on Thursday evening, smuggling in pistols that they used to open fire on restaurant-goers. The Serena, despite high security, has been a target for attacks in the past, most recently in 2008. The attack took place in the midst of New Year festivities; Afghan police and special forces responded quickly, as did hotel security, but contrary to initial reports of limited casualties, Ministry of Interior officials confirmed on Friday that nine people were killed. At least four were foreigners, although there are conflicting accounts on their nationalities; Afghan casualties include Sardar Ahmad, the AFP’s senior journalist in Kabul, as well as his wife and two children. [WAPO] [BBC] [Guardian] [TOLO]
- Detainee Releases: Following government review, at least 57 Bagram detainees were freed from the prison facility on Thursday; as many as 40 are reported by the Guardian to have been previously arrested by British forces in Helmand. None are directly believed to have killed UK forces, and the British embassy indicated that despite objections, “ultimately, these decisions are for the Afghans.” [TOLO]
Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy
- Election Campaign: Reuters interviews Abdullah Abdullah, who expresses concern over the risk of “massive industrial scale fraud” in the upcoming presidential elections; his campaign team has identified 800 polling stations that will be opened in highly insecure areas, a possible target for ballot-stuffing. On Wednesday, a member of Zalmay Rassoul’s campaign team accused Ashraf Ghani of receiving direct support from the Ministry of Finance and the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency; Ghani’s campaign rebutted the charges and said they would file their own charges with the Electoral Complaints Committee detailing support Rassoul had received from sitting government office. [TOLO] [TOLO] [Pajhwok] [TOLO]
Afghanistan — Remainders