Mine mishap blows up 14 soldiers on western front
US-64 value myth explodes
Atal tones down war rhetoric
Bombed-out Kabul beckons Bollywood
Bush dials twins with peace plan
Calcutta Weather

 
 
MINE MISHAP BLOWS UP 14 SOLDIERS ON WESTERN FRONT 
 
 
FROM OUR BUREAU AND AGENCIES
 
Dec. 29: 
The Indian army has taken casualties even before a bullet has been fired in a formal outbreak of hostilities with 14 soldiers dying in an accident while laying mines near the border in Rajasthan.

Army sources in Delhi said the soldiers were killed on Friday night during training exercises near Lambawal village close to Jaisalmer. Four soldiers were injured.

A PTI report said the mishap occurred between Lambawal and Sadewala villages, killing the soldiers on the spot.

This is the second fatal accident in three days. On Christmas Day, 23-year-old Lieutenant Pankaj Jayal of the Madras Engineering Group was killed near Ganganagar after a dog strayed into a minefield.

It is a regular practice of armies to lay mines on frontlines to secure borders in anticipation of an outbreak of hostilities. The dangerous job is usually supervised by specialists of the army’s engineers’/sappers’ units.

Sources said the accident occurred when the soldiers were being trained to defuse land mines. The blast was heard up to a few kilometres away, spreading panic in border villages.

Since December 13, there has been mobilisation of troops all along the international boundary. In the western sector, the army has been preparing for its biggest exercise in 15 years, apart from amassing forces to match the troop build-up by Pakistan.

The sources refused to give details because they did not want to reveal either the name of the unit or their exact location. They said the four injured soldiers were taken to a field hospital. They might be moved to a military hospital in Jodhpur.

PTI reported from somewhere on the western sector that troops and defence equipment are being brought near the borders by special trains and private trucks, for an exercise due to begin early January.

The army would be testing for the second time its ability to thwart a nuclear strike for which anti-nuke attack units are also being deployed in desert areas. The newly created units, which can repulse a nuclear attack, would be exhibiting their skills for the first time in the exercises.

   

 
 
US-64 VALUE MYTH EXPLODES 
 
 
FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT
 
Mumbai, Dec. 29: 
The Unit Trust of India (UTI) today stunned its 20 million investors in US-64, its flagship scheme, by announcing a net asset value (NAV) of a piffling Rs 5.94 per unit, far below market expectations of a NAV of around Rs 7.50-Rs 8 per unit. Each unit has a face value of Rs 10.

The NAV is an indicator of the value of the investments made by UTI: a NAV below the face value of Rs 10 indicates that the Trust has been losing money steadily on its investments.

US-64 has been an equity-biased scheme with 61 per cent of its funds being channelled into the stock markets. With the stock markets going into a tailspin over the past 12 months, the value of UTI investments has eroded.

UTI chairman M. Damodaran has indicated that the Trust intends to bring down the equity exposure of US-64 to 55 per cent over time.

Investors, who had hung on to their units in the hope that the storm that arose in June when UTI announced a freeze on the sale and purchase under its US-64 scheme would pass, must clearly feel cheated especially when the Trust tried to allay fears of investors by trying to prop up sentiment by raising the administered repurchase price by 10 paise per month.

On Friday, UTI announced that investors would be allowed to redeem up to 5,000 units in January, up from the 3,000 units it had permitted under a limited redemption facility extended to US-64 investors in August.

This poses huge problems for investors — Calcutta has the country’s largest band of UTI investors — who did not push the panic button and redeem their investment when they were given the opportunity to do so in early August.

In June, UTI had frozen both investment and redemption in US-64 — the country’s largest mutual fund that was widely regarded as a safe-house investment at a time when interest rates on other forms of investment were tumbling to their lowest levels.

A UTI release said the NAV as of yesterday did not take into account the additional units to be issued under the reinvestment option. NAV for the reinvestment option, under which extra units will be issued, works out even lower at Rs 5.81 per unit.

   

 
 
ATAL TONES DOWN WAR RHETORIC 
 
 
FROM RADHIKA RAMASESHAN
 
New Delhi, Dec. 29: 
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today said the most important issue on the nation’s agenda was “our decisive fight against terrorism” but promised to do “our utmost to avoid a war with Pakistan”.

Addressing an emergency session of the BJP’s national executive, the Prime Minister kept the option of war open. However, he was less upfront in attacking Pakistan and shifted the thrust of his speech to cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Our objective is to put an end to Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and in the rest of the country. We shall use all the means and resources at India’s command to achieve this objective,” Vajpayee said, leaving the sentence open-ended. “No means will be spared, although we shall do our utmost to avoid war with Pakistan.”

The Prime Minister said India did not want a war, but “a war in the form of cross-border terrorism has already been thrust on India”. He appealed to the international community to put pressure on Pakistan to stop sponsoring cross-border terrorism.

As if on cue, a political resolution adopted at the one-day executive echoed Vajpayee’s position. It said: “The BJP does not want a war with Pakistan. And if Pakistan chooses to impose a war on us, we should also be prepared to give them a befitting reply. As Shri L.K. Advani said on December 25, ‘neither the government nor the people want a war... but we definitely want to put an end to Pak-sponsored terrorism in our country’.”

The resolution urged the government to do everything necessary to stop the activities of the Inter-Services Intelligence in India, but lacked the stridency which pervaded the one adopted at the Amritsar executive in early November.

The general expectation was that today’s resolution would further raise the pitch on crossing the Line of Control and smashing terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But it did not.

The only concrete proposal it came up with was asking the government to identify Pakistanis who were overstaying in India after their visas had expired. “We believe that these drastic measures are essential to root out cross-border terrorism,” the resolution said.

BJP sources said the Prime Minister’s address and the political resolution set broad guidelines which the cadre would have to follow while speaking out on terrorism.

Vajpayee asked the BJP to launch a Jan Jagran Abhiyaan (mass awareness campaign). “Our endeavour should be to take every section of our diverse society with us on this issue,” he said, warning party men against raising divisive issues which could hurt the minorities.

   

 
 
BOMBED-OUT KABUL BECKONS BOLLYWOOD 
 
 
FROM DEBASHIS BHATTACHARYYA
 
Mumbai, Dec. 29: 
First Aruna Irani, now Feroz Khan. Bollywood has begun zooming in on Afghanistan, though the mushroom clouds of war have yet to fade from the country’s horizon.

Khan has sought permission from Afghan authorities to shoot a film on its blood-splattered soil, hoping to get the cameras rolling in the war-ravaged country for the first time in five years. “I have been to Afghanistan. I love its mountains, its people. I want to go back there,” Khan said.

The film, Janasheen (Close to My Heart), will also mark the return of Khan to Bollywood after one-and-a-half decades.

Afghanistan was one of Bollywood’s biggest markets in Asia till the Taliban swept in five years ago and shut down all movie theatres. Hindi films are so popular with Afghans that young men danced in the streets of Kabul holding aloft pictures of Bollywood stars soon after the student-militia fled.

Khan’s Janasheen, a home production, is a romantic thriller centred on an Afghan tycoon traumatised by the loss of his family in the wake of the Russian invasion.

With Fardeen Khan and Celina Jaitley in the lead, Khan plays a villain in the film, high on Hollywood-like special effects and short on Bollywood-like songs and dances.

The shooting, which started on December 17 in Bangalore, Khan’s hometown, will take the cast through Spain and Australia, before ending in Afghanistan. Khan said he needed to shoot the film in Afghanistan to stay true to the plot. “It’s necessary.”

The producer-actor, who has stayed in Kunduz, Mazar-e-Sharif and even Bamiyan while shooting for an earlier film, rued that the picturesque areas were in the news for the wrong reasons.

Along with the barren beauty of Afghanistan’s bald mountains, his film will capture the racy excitement of a popular local sport, buzkashi. Players on horseback battle for the carcass of a goat or sheep in a game not meant for the faint-hearted.

Jaitley, the lead actress, said she was “very very excited” about the film, especially the prospect of working with Khan, who was making a comeback as an actor.

“He is one of the greatest actors and I was so keen to work with him. Afghanistan is certainly another big draw. I would love to go there,” Jaitley, shooting for a film in Lucknow, said by phone.

Not everybody in Bollywood, however, is sure whether the cast will be able to make it to Afghanistan, given the current situation. “War if far from over. There is no way you can shoot there,” a trade analyst said.

Jaitley said if the situation did not improve, the Afghan bit would take place towards the end of the next year after the film was shot on other locations abroad. The producer hoped he would not have to wait that long. “I am hopeful that things would return to normal in Afghanistan earlier than expected.”

Irani is trying hard to get her film, Yeh Dil Aashiqanaa, released in Kabul next month. If the permission, which she sought from the new dispensation last month, comes through, it will be the first Hindi movie to hit cinemas in the Afghan capital since the Taliban took over and banned all sorts of entertainment, including films.

   

 
 
BUSH DIALS TWINS WITH PEACE PLAN 
 
 
FROM K.P. NAYAR
 
Washington, Dec. 29: 
With the danger of an Indo-Pakistan conflict posing a direct threat to US war aims in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has drawn up a tentative timetable to defuse tension between South Asia’s nuclear rivals.

President George W. Bush today spoke to both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Pervez Musharraf.

Bush asked Pakistan to “eliminate the extremists who seek to harm India” and urged the leaders of both countries to calm tensions. Bush applauded Musharraf’s efforts to rein in “extremists” and urged him to take “additional strong, decisive measures”, a White House spokesman said.

The President told Vajpayee “that the US is determined to cooperate with India in the fight against terrorism”.

Bush’s 20-minute call to Musharraf coincided with reports that Pakistan has started shifting troops from the Afghanistan boundary to the border with India. The re-deployment is being considered a tactic to pile pressure on the US.

As part of the American road map, secretary of state Colin Powell favours a meeting between Indian and Pakistani leaders during the Saarc summit in Kathmandu next week, sources here said. Powell did not get a commitment from India to a suggestion made to this effect in his phone conversation with external affairs minister Jaswant Singh yesterday.

But a similar proposal outlined in Powell’s telephone talk with his Pakistani counterpart Abdus Sattar prompted Musharraf to speak out last night in favour of an Indo-Pakistan summit in Kathmandu.

Sticking to its public posture, India ruled out such a meeting but hinted at the possibility of a dialogue between the foreign ministers in Nepal.

If the US effort to bring Vajpayee and Musharraf face to face in Kathmandu fails, the next step will be to get British Prime Minister Tony Blair, America’s closest ally, to intercede.

Blair is due in Delhi within days of the South Asian summit and is credited with an excellent rapport with the Indian leadership. Blair also enjoys high credibility with Musharraf.

The US has already asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to exercise his influence in Delhi to show restraint. Putin is understood to have told the US that he would do his best to prevent a war but added a rider: America should ensure that terrorist acts against India are not planned from Pakistan.

The Bush administration feels that the import of Musharraf’s action yesterday in arresting “50 terrorists” has been lost sight of in Indian leadership circles. The Americans insist that these arrests are in addition to those made earlier.

The US wants India to appreciate Musharraf’s political compulsions which are so strong that he cannot even publicly highlight these arrests.

But if Blair fails to break the ice, Washington may send a peacemaker to the subcontinent. In doing so, the US will be following the pattern of its involvement during the Kargil war in 1999, which led to a White House-brokered agreement.

   

 
 
CALCUTTA WEATHER 
 
 
 
 

Temperature

Maximum: 91%
Minimum: 40%

Rainfall

Nil

Relative humidity

Maximum: 88%,
Minimum: 75%

Sunrise: 6.22 am

Sunset: 4.56 pm

Today

Mainly clear sky. Minimum temperature likely to be around 13°C
   
 

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