Indian forces on Lanka alert
Cong beats rivals to Thursday bandh
US ally, Iran partner
Sourav stays fixed on cricket
Calcutta weather

New Delhi, May 22 
India today finalised plans to evacuate Sri Lankan soldiers trapped in the Jaffna peninsula, as and when asked by the government in Colombo.

The decision was taken at this evening’s meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security which also monitored the degree of preparedness of Indian forces in the Southern Command. Not just the army, even the air force and the navy in the south have been asked to stay on complete alert.

The battle for Jaffna continued to rage as the Lankan army and air force attacked Tamil guerrilla positions, and said 150 rebels had been killed over the past two days. The Tigers denied the claim. A late night report quoting a military official said that the guerrillas had fired an artillery shell that exploded in an army base in Batticaloa, around 330 km from Colombo.

The Chandrika Kumaratunga government came down heavily on newspapers violating censorship rules and banned an English weekly The Sunday Leader for six months.

The Indian decision this evening coincided with talks between a Norwegian delegation and the Lankan foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, to broker a peace agreement. There were no details of the meeting.

Though Colombo is yet to make a formal request to Delhi, the seriousness with which the security committee members monitored the preparedness of Indian forces suggests that they expect an appeal from Colombo shortly. “Even if the request does not come, we have to be prepared,” a top official said.

The Southern Command is believed to have begun preparations for some time. The government has taken the necessary permission from Tamil Nadu allies such as the DMK, MDMK and PMK which are against any intervention by India. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee has explained to Tamil Nadu chief minister M. Karunanidhi that India would have to respond positively if Colombo asked for humanitarian help.

The official denied that the Centre was deviating from its hands-off policy on Sri Lanka, saying India would not meddle in the island’s affairs under any circumstances. But it would have to rescue the trapped soldiers as and when asked by Colombo. This, the official insisted, was part of the “humanitarian aid” which Delhi had earlier promised.

The government feels that even the LTTE would not mind the Lankan soldiers from being removed from the vicinity of Jaffna town as it would give the Tigers a greater degree of control over the peninsula. The Tigers had earlier this month offered a temporary ceasefire to allow the soldiers to be taken out. The government had rejected the offer.

Air force chief A.Y. Tipnis, during his visit to Colombo earlier this month, had discussed with Lankan officials the possibility of limited Indian involvement. General Rohan De Silva Daluvatte, the Lankan army chief who came over to India recently, had apprised the defence establishment in Chennai on how such an operation to evacuate the troops to a place of safety could be arranged. After the meeting, Vajpayee met President K.R. Narayanan.

Former Punjab police chief K.P.S. Gill, credited with weeding out terrorism from the state, arrived in Colombo today at the invitation from the government.    

Calcutta, May 22 
Bengal will be crippled by yet another day-long bandh on Thursday called by the Opposition amid competitive politics over the death of 11 persons in Saturday’s night-long clashes between supporters of the CPM and the Trinamul Congress at Keshpur, 150 km west of Calcutta.

Beating its competitors, Trinamul and the BJP, to the draw, the Congress issued the bandh call to protest against what it described as CPM-sponsored terror at Keshpur in Midnapore district on the eve of the Panskura Lok Sabha byelection.

The Trinamul-BJP combine also extended support since the the ruling Left Front is a common enemy. “There is no question of our opposing the bandh since it is a common issue affecting all anti-CPM parties,” Pankaj Banerjee, Trinamul chairman, said.

He, however, made it clear that the party would finalise its strategy for the bandh day in consultation with Mamata Banerjee who has rushed to Keshpur.

The BJP decided to extend “moral support”, but declined to get itself fully involved in the bandh. “We support the bandh call since CPM cadre have been attacking us everywhere,” Rahul Sinha, state general secretary, said.

In Writers’ Buildings, chief minister Jyoti Basu held Mamata’s “provocative” speech responsible for the eruption of violence in Keshpur, adding that none of the Opposition parties responded to his appeal for an all party-initiative to restore peace to the trouble-torn area.

Basu said CPM cadre were only responding to attacks by Trinamul supporters. “What would you have done if you were under persistent attack?” he asked.

Taking a strong position on the bandh, the Left Front said it would “urge the people not to respond to the call as it is illogical. We will have to oppose it.”

Both Trinamul and the BJP felt the Congress has tried to hijack their issue by first calling a bandh, as has been its wont of late. Congress and Trinamul leaders held separate meetings earlier in the day to consider a bandh call in the wake of the violence at Keshpur and other areas of Midnapore, in which 18 people have died over the past four days.

Pankaj Banerjee had told reporters before the Congress announcement that a decision on the bandh would be taken keeping in mind preparations for the civic polls and the Panskura by-election.

Manas Bhuniya, PCC general secretary, also indicated in the afternoon that the party would finalise the date in consultation with Trinamul. But Congress chief A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury unilaterally announced the bandh late this evening.    

Teheran, May 22 
India, which considers the US its “natural ally’’, in a clever balancing act added America’s bete noire Iran to its growing list of “natural partners’’. The tag was put on Iran at the Joint Commission Meeting here this afternoon co-chaired by Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh and his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharazzi.

Singh is here to broadbase relations with oil and natural gas-rich Iran and also to use its geographical location as a “gateway’’ for Indian goods into the huge central Asian market. The developments in Afghanistan, where the Taliban militia are in control, also brings the two sides closer. Both countries wish to improve bilateral ties on mutually beneficial issues.

Germany and the UK are already on India’s list of “natural partners”, while France and South Africa are Delhi’s “strategic partners’’.

For the US, India reserves the term “ natural ally’’. It was used for the first time by Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in his speech to the Indian community in New York in 1998. The term was repeated in the vision statement the two sides made during US President Bill Clinton’s visit to the country this year.

With China it has recently started a security dialogue — in diplomatic circles considered a rung lower than a strategic dialogue. However, no term has been reserved for India’s most trusted ally Russia.

The decision to describe Iran as its “natural partner” is a shrewd one. It signals India’s desire to play a greater role in the region, which goes far beyond South Asia, and rope in key players like Iran, who were hitherto ignored, into a relationship which includes deepening ties in the political, economic and cultural fields.

While India wants Iran’s huge reserves of petroleum and natural gas to meet its domestic demand, Teheran wants to tap Delhi’s expertise in information technology and wants its cooperate in the field of science and technology.

Singh also met Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. Stressing on the historical and cultural ties between the two countries and the influence of Persian poets Omar Khayyam and Firdawsi on Indian lives and thinking, the leaders stressed on the need to strengthen bilateral relations. The two sides also plan to have a conference later this year in India on “Civilisation, Dialogue and National Identity”.

During the day Singh also met Iranian commerce minister Shariyat Madani and petroleum minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh.

The proposed Iran-India pipeline, which would pass through Pakistan, did come up for discussion. But Indian officials said it was not the main focus of discussions and was discussed along with hydrocarbon energy-related projects on which the two sides can work jointly.

Reluctant to get into any arrangement that involves Pakistan and accords legitimacy to Pervez Musharraf’s military regime, India stalled the issue by saying it will explore all avenues in the field of energy cooperation with Iran which were “satisfactory and mutually beneficial for both sides in the long run”.

The two sides have similar views on Afghanistan. The Sunni-dominated Taliban and its main backer, Pakistan, have caused serious worries for Iran which shares borders with both countries. It is naturally looking for major powers in the region like India with whom it can develop a strong anti-Taliban front.    

Pune, May 22 
“What’s important is being honest — with yourself and the team. That’s the way I’ve been playing and, I’m sure, that’s also been the approach of every other cricketer. So, the recent controversies shouldn’t put us under any pressure,” insisted India captain Sourav Ganguly.

Speaking to The Telegraph over lunch at the Blue Diamond, shortly after the Asia Cup selection meeting and just prior to his departure for Mumbai (en route to Calcutta), Sourav clarified the bit about his having said recent events would “add” to pressure was “total rubbish”.

“I don’t know how a website could have quoted me that way. I didn’t speak to anybody, either from or in Manchester. We should go and play our normal game without anybody being burdened by allegations. An inquiry is on, but why should we (cricketers) pay credence to mere allegations? Till somebody is proved guilty, he remains innocent. That’s the way I see it; that’s the way the world sees it as well,” Sourav said. This spontaneous support, from the captain, should alone do the players’ (specially those who have come under a cloud) morale a world of good.

Sourav added: “My message to the team, therefore, won’t be any different from that in the past: Play normally. The focus should be cricket, not what X or Y may have alleged. The job at hand is to win, not get affected by allegations. Touch wood, we’ll finish on top… The Dhaka wickets are flat and the outfield lightning fast…”

Obviously, then, he differed from coach Kapil Dev who opined last month itself that India put a stop to international engagements till the controversies were resolved?

Sourav answered thus: “Well, yes, I don’t see why we shouldn’t play? Surely, allegations can’t stop cricket. Bottomline, really, is being honest… Why should anybody worry about motives being attributed to either dropping a catch or being run out? If one is to think of that alone, it will be difficult to lead a normal life.”

Did he watch Kapil break down during that emotional TV interview earlier this month? “No, but I’ve read and heard about it. Only, I wouldn’t like to comment,” Sourav replied.

The India captain arrived here this morning — he reached Mumbai on Saturday night (incidentally, aboard that Air India flight from London was Bollywood’s Raveena Tandon, too) — and, after the 80-minute selection meeting, expressed happiness at the team placed at his disposal.

Sourav, who has completed four weeks of County cricket, reiterated the exposure (at Lancashire) would be worthwhile.

“A lot of people said an established cricketer , like myself, had little to gain. However, that’s not the case and be it because of the re-structuring (two divisions) or whatever, County cricket actually is very competitive. The wickets really test you.”

But is he disappointed at not having got a hundred, as yet?

Sourav laughed: “I should have converted that 73 in the last Championship match (versus Durham) into a hundred… Yes, it would have been nice to have got into three-figures, but… It’s a matter of time, I guess.”

Besides that 73, Sourav has two fifties and, in the initial weeks, has collected two MoM awards (Benson and Hedges Cup and the National one-day League).

Sourav will re-join Lancashire as soon as the Asia Cup ends (June 7/8) but, by then, would have missed three games —- the Benson and Hedges semis against Gloucestershire and two Championship matches.

Incidentally, Sourav moved to No.3 after just one game as captain John Crawley wished to open (with Mike Atherton). “John fancies opening for England and, so, it’s important for him to do the same at Lancashire,” Sourav remarked.

It’s certainly different in these parts.    

Temperature: Maximum: 32.9°C (-3) Minimum: 24.2°C (-3) RAINFALL: 17.5 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 97%, Minimum: 69% Today: Cloudy sky, with one or two showers or thundershowers. Maximum temperature likely to be around 34°C. Sunset: 6.10 pm Sunrise: 4.55 am    

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