Indo-US deal for hijacker hunt
Vajpayee gathers forces to weather power shock
Lean and mean telecom watchdog
Calcutta connection in kidnap bust
Death threat in charges against Sharif
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, Jan. 19 
The US today said it would work along with India to bring the “perpetrators of the hijacking to justice” even as Delhi moved the International Civil Aviation Organisation demanding that Islamabad make “all efforts to locate the hijackers, take them into custody and extradite them”.

Delhi’s move aims at keeping up international pressure to isolate Pakistan for its alleged complicity in the Kandahar hijack.

At the end of the two-day meeting between Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh and US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott in London, the two sides agreed to establish a joint working group on counter-terrorism. The first meeting of the group will be held in Washington early next month.

A statement issued after the meeting said the countries had “agreed to work together to ensure that the perpetrators of the hijacking were brought to justice as part of their joint effort to combat international terrorism”.

A few days ago India had formally slapped summons on Pakistan to hand over the hijackers and their accomplices hiding in its territory. Today’s move is significant in the context of India trying to dub Pakistan a terrorist state, and amounts to stepping up an international propaganda war.

By seeking to enlist world support on the hijack, Delhi is also trying to project that Islamabad, which harbours terrorists and does not honour global commitments, should not be given legitimacy.

Despite Washington’s assurance, Delhi is not willing to take chances. Today’s move will block any attempt by the US and western nations to seriously engage with Pakistan and accord legitimacy to Pervez Musharraf’s regime.

In a note verbale, India’s representative to the ICAO A.P. Singh listed evidence to establish that the hijackers and the released terrorists were Pakistani nationals and were in Pakistani territory. He also gave details of the hijackers’ names and their place of residence.

The representation was made to ICAO president Assad Kotaite in Montreal. Citing relevant articles from the Hague and Montreal conventions, A.P. Singh insisted that since the hijacked airbus was registered in Delhi, the country had the jurisdiction to try the air pirates and their accomplices. Hence the demand for extraditing the hijackers from Pakistan.

The ICAO is the highest international body dealing with civil aviation matters and air piracy. Almost all the 183 United Nations countries are its members, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is no apparent timeframe by which Islamabad has to discharge its obligations as a signatory to the international conventions. It is also not clear what steps ICAO could propose if Pakistan fails to apprehend and extradite the hijackers.

India anticipates that Pakistan might continue its delaying tactics and maintain that it will apprehend the culprits once they are in its territory. Hence its move to substantiated its allegation that Pakistan is behind the hijack.    

New Delhi, Jan. 19 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee today took control of labour crisis management and began marshalling forces to prevent the power and port strikes from short-circuiting the reforms process.

As the deadlock dragged on in Uttar Pradesh, the Prime Minister contacted power minister P.R. Kumaramangalam and prevailed upon him from leaving for Washington tonight to attend a World Bank meeting. Power secretary V.K. Pandit and several top officials were scheduled to be part of the minister’s entourage.

Vajpayee also kept in touch with the new surface transport minister, Rajnath Singh, who is grappling with the port action. A few days ago, Vajpayee had privately expressed happiness over the manner in which petroleum minister Ram Naik had averted a strike.

Kumaramangalam’s World Bank trip is considered crucial as his high-profile team was expected to lobby for aid for both existing and new projects. Since the World Bank meeting is on January 23, Kumaramangalam may still try to make it if there is a breakthrough in the strike stand-off. Otherwise, a comparatively junior team will be sent.

On the ground in Uttar Pradesh, the situation remained grim, but the state government said it would wait a while before dismissing more employees for defying the ultimatum to end the strike. The government said as many as 2,000 employees returned to work today.

The government has ruled out any rethink on trifurcating the state power utility — the flashpoint for the strike — but hinted at the possibility of rapprochement on other demands, such as withdrawal of cases.

In Delhi, Kumaramangalam said the strike has been engineered by a small “mafia” which was responsible for the huge power thefts in Uttar Pradesh. The Centre is also drawing up a package to pave way for the finalisation of a $1-billion World Bank loan to restructure the Uttar Pradesh power board. The trifurcation is a condition for the loan.

The strike is an acid test for the Prime Minister as he has made the reforms process the cornerstone of his second term. The Prime Minister is also keen to ensure that the two strikes did not pull the listless labour movement out of the rut and expose the reform process to greater risks.

The Uttar Pradesh power strike is of particular concern to the Prime Minister for more than one reason. Vajpayee was instrumental in replacing Kalyan Singh with R.P. Gupta. Now that Gupta is in troubled waters, Vajpayee must find ways to bail him out.

Besides, Lucknow, which is also reeling under the power crisis, is the Prime Minister’s constituency, where his margin of victory had considerably narrowed during the last election.    

New Delhi, Jan. 19 
A day after the high court questioned the powers of the Telecom Regulatory Authority, the Cabinet tonight scrapped the seven-member watchdog panel and reconstituted it as a five-member policy-setting body without judicial powers.

It will be binding on the government to accept the recommendations of the revamped telecom regulator. The Cabinet has cleared an Ordinance for presidential approval.

A separate three-member Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Authority will be set up to take on Trai’s judicial functions. Appeals against judgments by the new body, to be headed by either a retired or serving Supreme Court judge or high court chief justice, can be heard only by the apex court.

Trai’s current members are being given three months’ salaries and asked to go. They will, however, be eligible for appointment on both the new bodies.

The new regulator will not only have more teeth but also a wider ambit of operation. The government will be required to accept all its recommendations on issuing new telecom licences. It can fix terms and conditions for inter-connectivity between telecom companies and lay down service quality standards.

The authority can, either on its own or at the government’s request, decide to bring in a new telecom operator in any cellular or basic telephone service circle. But it will have the sole authority to decide on when to include a third operator in a particular telecom circle.

The Delhi High Court yesterday struck down Trai’s directive, issued last September, allowing cellular operators to offer free incoming calls.

The court also ruled that Trai had no power to regulate on inter-connection charges. ‘‘Trai cannot lay down the terms and conditions to service providers on the introduction of telecom service, installation of equipment, technology and regulate in respect of the telecom industry,’’ the judges had said.

The court had also said that the authority’s powers were only ‘‘recommendatory’’ and the government was not bound to accept its advice. ‘‘Trai cannot impose its views on the government,’’ it added.

Among other decisions tonight, the Cabinet cleared the proposal for a joint venture university internet connection project called Sankhya Vahini India Ltd. This will operate a nationwide network to provide high-speed data access to educational institutions.

The government also cleared two power projects at Singtam in east Sikkim and in Talcher.    

Patna, Jan. 19 
The arrest of eight members of an abduction team has spurred the police onto the trail of a jumbo, inter-state gang responsible for kidnapping businessmen, including Exide Industries chief S.B. Ganguly.

A task force comprising officials from the Bihar and Gujarat police has launched operations to nab the 55-member gang that also operates in West Bengal. Calcutta police have received a fax from their Patna counterparts asking them to join the hunt. A team of detectives from Calcutta will leave for the Bihar capital shortly, sources said.

Interrogation of the eight youth arrested from Surat and Patna revealed that the gang —which has a network of four crack teams of seven members each — raised around Rs 50 crore from ransom over the past five years. The criminals invested the money in factories and transport businesses.

Ajay Singh, the kingpin of the arrested eight-member group, made a confessional statement to the police today after a week of sustained grilling by the Patna police. Singh, a post-graduate in history and son of a former additional superintendent of police, has a large house on Patna’s Bailey Road. Most of the gang members are from Gaya, Rohtas and Sasaram.

Based on Ajay’s statement, the police carried out a series of raids and seized incriminating documents relating to the criminals’ businesses, investments and property bought using ransom money.

Patna police special superintendent M.S. Bhatia said four groups were set up for the gang’s Bengal operations. In the past four years, they struck at least five times. Besides Ganguly, the criminals kidnapped businessmen Sajjan Jalan and Rajesh Jain as well as Siddharth Sivalka, the 17-year-old son of a trader. They also took away Jalan’s Tata Sumo.

‘‘If they are able to get hold of the car as well, the kidnappers would use it to carry out abductions in other states,’’ said additional superintendent Sashibhushan Sharma, a task force member.

The abductors disclosed that they would take any night train from Patna that would reach Calcutta early in the morning. A car would be parked for them at Howrah station. The kidnappers would use the names of cricketers to address themselves. The hostages were taken either to Kanpur or Mughalsarai.

Bhatia said the gang would demand anything between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 2 crore. The criminals, he added, boasted that they had been able to extract the sum in 90 per cent of the cases.

The gang’s Surat operation is looked after by one Vijay Singh, a resident of Gaya. Vijay’s team had abducted one Harendra Singh Gehda, along with his Maruti.

Ajay owns a glass factory in Gaya, which, the police believe, is funded by ransom money. He also has a hotel there, which was sealed today. The factory’s papers have been seized.

Two of his colleagues — Ashim Singh and Upendra Singh — are from Gaya. While Ashim owns two buses which run on the Patna-Jogbani route, Upendra has a fleet of trucks which operates in Bokaro and Dhanbad. Upendra is also believed to be involved in an illegal mining racket.    

Karachi, Jan. 19 
More than three months after the army coup in Pakistan, an anti-terrorist court today formally charged deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with kidnapping, attempted murder, hijacking and terrorism.

Sharif and his six co-accused pleaded not guilty. The trial will begin on January 26 in southern Karachi, where the incident is alleged to have occurred.

Hijacking, terrorism and kidnapping charges all carry the death penalty or life sentence. The army accusation of treason was not among the charges filed. But no explanation was given.

The charges against Sharif stem from an incident on October 12 — the day the army took power — in which the deposed Prime Minister is said to have refused to allow a commercial airliner returning Pervez Musharraf to Pakistan to land in Karachi.

When the Pakistan International Airlines plane did land there was barely seven minutes of fuel remaining and the army was in charge and Sharif in protective custody.

“It was Musharraf who not only hijacked the plane, but hijacked democracy in Pakistan,” Sharif told the court. “He unlawfully put a Prime Minister under detention. I was detained without being charged or without a trial.”

The ex-Prime Minister accused Musharraf of staging the hijacking as a ploy to justify the end to democratic rule in Pakistan.

Sharif arrived at the court in an armoured personnel carrier amid tight security. More than 50 vehicles, packed with policemen in bullet-proof vests and wielding machine guns, surrounded the court.

Anti-terrorist courts were set up by Sharif during his tenure to hand out quick justice and to avoid the lengthy delays in Pakistan’s traditional legal system. The legislation asks the judge to try to finish anti-terrorist court cases within seven days.

However, Sharif’s defence lawyers say this would not be possible because the prosecution alone is planning to call 54 witnesses. The defence has yet to decide its witness list. Khawaja Sultan, one of Sharif’s defence team, said he will call Musharraf to the court.

The hearing was being held in the Karachi Municipal Corporation building which can accommodate more than 100 people. The reason for the venue was to allow observers to attend the trial, government officials said.

The Musharraf regime has promised to ensure that the trial is “open, transparent and fair”. Judge Rehmet Hussein Jaffri, while reading out the charges, said that the accused is said to “have committed the crime of hijacking and thus endangering the lives of 198 passengers and crew members, including Gen. Musharraf, and thus committed an attempt to murder and also unlawfully placing them in confinement”.

Charged along with Sharif is his younger brother and former chief minister of Punjab Shahbaz, a senior bureaucrat, Saeed Mehdi, former chief of the anti-corruption cell Saif-ur Rehman, former head of PIA Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, former police chief Rana Maqbool Butt and former adviser on Sindh provincial affairs Ghaus Ali Shah.

The former chief of Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority, Aminuddin Chaudhry, was given immunity when he agreed to testify against his fellow-accused.

“These are only the charges. We believe the prosecution has a weak case. We are confident and we don’t think the charges will stand up,” Sultan said.    

Temperature: Maximum: 26.4°C (-1) Minimum: 12.1°C (-2) RAINFALL: Nil Relative humidity: Maximum: 93%, Minimum: 29% Today: The weather office forecasts a mainly clear sky. Slight rise in night temperature. Sunset: 5.10 pm Sunrise: 6.25 am    

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