Buddha speaks in Advani language
Centre promises firepower
BSF heat on border crooks
Airlifted al Qaida spillover scare
American team goes on Kashmir recce
Twins shy off trade talks
Transfer tag on army officer ‘removal’
Graft stink in zooming car sales of quake capital
Jaya ahead in wall war
Patna passport trail

Amta (Howrah), Jan. 23: 

CM vows war on terror

Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee today said the terror strike at the American Center yesterday was backed by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

In what sounded like an echo of home minister L.K. Advani, Bhattacharjee said: “Who are these terrorists? They are those who have set Kashmir on fire, heavily backed by Pakistan’s ISI. They will not let us live in peace.

“So far, in Calcutta and in the districts, we never dreamt of an incident of yesterday’s dimension. Pakistan and its ISI agents have now spread their tentacles to our state too,” he said while addressing the 18th district conference at the Amta football ground in Howrah.

But the chief minister, who had described Calcutta as an “oasis of peace”, absolved the police who had failed to fire even a single shot against the terrorists’ 54 rounds of Kalashnikov fire.

“Policemen guard the place round the clock. But they are there to control mobs and demonstrators who at the most would throw brickbats. They were not prepared to face motorcycle-borne assailants spraying bullets from AK-47 rifles. It was a 40-second operation,” he said, describing the attack as a “bhayankar ghatana (terrible incident)”.

Taking off from Tuesday’s incident, the chief minister promised a crackdown on terror in all its forms.

“In north Bengal, the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation wants to destabilise the administration. In south Bengal, the Naxalites and the PWG want to kill policemen. The government has to take an extremely tough stand while tackling these forces,” he said.

He warned against communal flare-ups in the wake of terrorist strikes on Parliament and the American Center. “We must ensure that communal harmony in Bengal is preserved. Peace has to be maintained at any cost,” he told the gathering.

During his 40-minute speech, Bhattacharjee also found time for some familiar America- and BJP-bashing.

“The BJP is trying hard to wage a war (with Pakistan). But, in case of war, the common people will have to face a steep hike in prices …. War is not the only solution. We don’t want war. We want the tension to be defused through talks across the table,” he added.

Coming down heavily on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government at the Centre, Bhattacharjee said that its policies were leading to “complete economic ruin of the country”.

“There are at least 15 crore unemployed in the country. Besides, industrial units are facing closure. They want to close down companies like Burn Standard, Braithewaite and Jessop by cutting down their wagon order. They also want to close down our coal mines and import coal from Australia. Have we ever thought since Independence that a commodity like rice will be imported?” he said.

The chief minister urged party workers to fight against the BJP and the Congress and called for an alternative coalition at the Centre.

He predicted the BJP’s defeat in Uttar Pradesh. “After the BJP loses in Uttar Pradesh, it will be difficult for them to remain in power at the Centre,” he added.

He accused America of creating Osama bin Laden. “In Afghanistan, they killed thousands of innocent men,” he said.


Calcutta, Jan. 23: 
The Union home ministry will extend all help to Bengal to get to the root of Tuesday’s attack at the American Center and also to strengthen the firepower of its police.

“Our aim will be to expedite the inquiry process which we are doing in close cooperation,” said Ashok Bhandari, special secretary, Union home ministry. He said all efforts will be made to complete the inquiry at the earliest.

Bhandari, who arrived in the city last night, was closeted with state chief secretary S.N. Roy, home secretary Amit Kiran Deb, state police chief Dinesh Vajpai, inspector-general of police, CID, Partha Bhattacharjee, and other senior officials at Writers’ Buildings this morning.

At the meeting, Bhandari was told about a requisition for modern firearms made by the state about a year ago. “We requested the special secretary to hasten the process of releasing the arms for our police force,” chief secretary Roy said. Bhandari assured the state officials that he would pursue the arms procurement once back in Delhi.

He reviewed the steps taken by Bengal police so far. “Besides hearing about the overall situation prevailing since the terrorist strike on Parliament on December 13, I heard what measures had been (taken) since yesterday’s incident,” Bhandari said after the meeting.

In view of the Republic Day celebrations in the city, Bhandari said he had stressed that the state should remain extra vigilant.

Dwelling on Tuesday’s incident, Bhandari said: “Our discussions centred around a significant number of clues collected by the police from the scene of the incident yesterday. There are also some leads which I was told of.”

The special secretary, however, did not specify either the clues or the leads “in the interest of the investigation”, but at the same time, he said, he was confident the police would be able to get to the bottom of the case soon.

“You may rest assured that the investigation is headed towards the correct and specific direction,” Bhandari said.

Asked whether the Union government will seek the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) assistance, Bhandari said the FBI has been active in Delhi for the past few months.

“The Union government is already working with the FBI since the September 11 attack in the US, but I cannot say whether they will be involved in the Calcutta incident right now as it is up to the state to decide,” Bhandari said.

Asked if any FBI investigators were in the city, Bhandari said that it was not to his knowledge.


Behrampore, Jan. 23: 
The Murshidabad district administration has sought the help of the Border Security Force to prevent criminals from fleeing to neighbouring Bangladesh.

The police have also requested villagers to set up village protection committees of local youths.

“We have found that criminals flee to Bangladesh… so the police fail to arrest them. We have got several complaints that dacoits from across the border raid our villages. As the BSF plays a vital role in this regard, we have sought cooperation from them,” district superintendent of police Rajesh Kumar said.

He said special armed forces would be deployed along the border where crossing-over was easy. Twelve spots which criminals use as escape routes have been identified. Mobile police vans have also started patrolling these areas.

Police also said they have arrested a notorious gang of dacoits at Kamardear village.

Bomb found in cinema

Police said they recovered a live bomb from a cinema at Domkal last evening. Domkal sub-divisional police officer Ajoy Thakur said had the bomb gone off, many might have been injured as there was a packed audience at the movie theatre, Jyoti.

Around 8 pm, viewers heard a noise under the seats. They raised an alarm and the screening was stopped. Police later defused the bomb which was fitted to a timer.


New Delhi, Jan. 23: 
Intelligence and government officials fear that some of the Taliban and al Qaida activists who sneaked aboard American planes during efforts to rescue Pakistanis stranded in Kunduz may have infiltrated Jammu and Kashmir.

Delhi believes there are about 3,000 to 4,000 foreign mercenaries still active in the insurgency-racked state or may have temporarily withdrawn to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Intercepts and other information with the government also suggest there has been no change in the nature of instructions from some Pakistani handlers of terrorist groups even after President Pervez Musharraf’s address to the nation early this month.

Musharraf had pledged to delink terrorism from his country’s policy on Kashmir, though he stressed that Islamabad would continue to give diplomatic and moral support to the Kashmiri people.

In an article in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh, a reporter with the magazine, said the night-time airlifts to rescue Pakistani army and intelligence officials from the besieged Taliban stronghold last November “apparently slipped out of control”.

Quoting senior US intelligence officials, Hersh said: “What was supposed to be a limited evacuation apparently slipped out of control and, as an unintended consequence, an unknown number of Taliban and al Qaida fighters managed to join in the exodus.”

Though the US government denied reports of the rescue, Hersh said the Bush administration decided to go ahead with it to save Musharraf, who had angered a section of Pakistanis for joining the international coalition against the Taliban.

Musharraf had told Washington that if the Pakistani officials are killed in the attacks on Kunduz and body bags start arriving in Pakistan, his survival would be seriously jeopardised.

But what is interesting is that the Indian establishment knew what was happening in Kunduz as it had been alerted by its intelligence agencies and the Northern Alliance about the airlifting.

Quoting India’s national security adviser Brajesh Mishra, Hersh said that according to Delhi, US troops rescued nearly 5,000 Pakistanis and Taliban and al Qaida activists.

He claimed that Mishra has written angry diplomatic notes to Washington and London to express India’s displeasure and concerns over what happened at Kunduz.

Senior officials in South Block admitted that India was aware of the operation, but apart from voicing its concern could not do much to stop the rescue effort.

“It was the American war in Afghanistan and we did not have much to say in the matter. They conducted it,” a senior official said. “Call it US duplicity, naivety or double-standards -- depending on the approach one wants to adopt -- India did not have much leverage in stopping the Americans from what they were doing.”

Though there are no substantial figures or a break-up of how many Taliban and al Qaida activists managed to form part of the Pakistani team that was rescued, Delhi fears that a large number managed to escape from Afghanistan either during the airlift or at some other time.

“Reports suggested that between 12,000 to 14,000 Pakistani officials, army regulars and other activists were engaged in fighting in Afghanistan along with the Taliban. How many of them have been captured or killed?” a senior Indian diplomat pointed out.

Questions are also being raised as to how not a single Taliban leader of substance had so far been killed or captured by the Americans in Afghanistan.

Indications suggest that while the Pakistani officials and army regulars have been re-inducted in the forces and have become part of the establishment in Islamabad, a number of Taliban and al Qaida activists have been sent to PoK.

“We are sure General Musharraf will not feel very comfortable if they continued to be in Pakistan,” a South Block official said.


New Delhi, Jan. 23: 
The US counter-terrorism group, which met its Indian counterpart over two days for better coordination, visited Jammu and Kashmir on Sunday for a first-hand feel of the impact of militancy in the revolt-racked state.

In their preliminary survey, US defence intelligence chief Admiral Thomas Wilson, ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and other members of the group visited Srinagar Valley and were taken to sensitive border areas by security forces.

The visit is significant in view of the proposal that a special joint operation may be launched by Indian and US personnel to capture al Qaida and Taliban members who could have sneaked into the Valley from Afghanistan.

Because of the sensitive nature of the proposal, Indian officials are not willing to reveal if such a move is likely to be implemented in the near future. But officials admitted that some members of the US counter-terrorism group had indeed visited Jammu and Kashmir.

“We received a request from them for a visit to Srinagar and we saw no harm in granting them permission,” a senior South Block official said.

“Since the main thrust of the group from Washington is to look into terrorist activities, it is to our benefit that they visited one of the most trouble-prone areas of the country.”

The two-day meeting of the Joint Working Group on counter-terrorism, which ended here this afternoon, “unequivocally” condemned “all acts of terrorism, whatever the considerations that may be invoked to justify them”. The group also reaffirmed the “commitment” of the two nations to “co-operate to prevent acts of terrorism and eradicate terrorist organisations which are a threat to international peace and security”.

The group expressed satisfaction over the progress of the global war against terrorism. “The campaign,” it said, “will be long-drawn and multifaceted, involving political, diplomatic, military, intelligence and financial measures”. It also underlined that the success in the war against terror depended heavily on “international cooperation as well as national commitment to renounce use of or support to terrorism”.

Officials from both sides reviewed the US-conducted anti-terrorism training programmes.

The Indian side welcomed America’s offer to expand the programme to include “preventive, protective and consequence management capabilities in both conventional and weapons of mass destruction terrorism”.

Delhi welcomed the US pilot project, involving equipment and technology, to strengthen border management and surveillance. The two sides also discussed forensic cooperation and added aviation security to their agenda.

Special stress was given on ways to beef up intelligence and investigative cooperation, including the possibility of access to each other’s database on terrorists.

Another addition to the agenda will be defence cooperation on counter-terrorism initiatives, including expansion of mutual support in this area. Defence officials of both countries briefed the joint group.

The next meeting of the group is scheduled to be held in Washington around the middle of this year.


New Delhi, Jan. 23: 
A Saarc trade meet scheduled for later this month, in which both India and Pakistan were to participate, has been called off.

Delhi and Islamabad gave different reasons for the cancellation. Pakistani officials blamed the standoff between the nuclear neighbours while Indian officials said Islamabad had backed out of the talks, saying the dates were not convenient.

The trade meet was to be held in Kathmandu from January 27 to January 28 to discuss trade cooperation among the South Asian countries and finalise the South Asian Preferential Trade Arrangement (Sapta). The seven member-nations were to send their commerce ministers for the meet. At the recent Saarc summit, the members had focused on cooperation in trade.

Reports from Islamabad, which quoted a local English daily, said the talks were in danger of being postponed as clearance from the relevant authorities of India and Pakistan was “not forthcoming.”

But Indian officials deny this. The foreign ministry spokesperson Nirupama Rao said the trade talks were not exclusively between India and Pakistan and included five other Saarc countries.

“All decisions about the meeting were taken in consultation with the seven member-nations. The meeting had to be called off because of Pakistan which did not find the current dates to be convenient.”

Sapta and its later version, the South Asian Free Trade Area (Safta), were discussed at the Saarc forum in Kathmandu. Though the issue has come up for discussion several times in the past, there was no meaningful progress because of the strain in India-Pakistan relations.

At the Kathmandu summit, leaders of Saarc nations pledged to vigorously pursue the matter to ensure that the region would become a free trade area within a few years.

One of the biggest hurdles for Sapta has been the hostility between Delhi and Islamabad. India has accorded the most-favoured-nation (MFN) status to Pakistan some years back, but Islamabad has not reciprocated the gesture. As a result, neither country has been able to take advantage of tariff preferences and concessions given under Sapta.

Pakistan says it will not give MFN status to India till the Kashmir dispute is resolved. As members of the World Trade Organisation, the neighbours are bound to give each other MFN status.

But Islamabad has held out so far, citing a national security provision in the agreement.

Hardliners within the ruling BJP-led coalition have been suggesting that if the diplomatic measures announced by India against Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism do not yield results, Delhi should also withdraw the MFN status from Islamabad.


New Delhi, Jan. 23: 
Angry over suggestions that a key army officer was “removed” from the command of a crucial force at the behest of the US, the defence ministry today went on the offensive.

But it is still not clear why Lt-Gen. Kapil Vij, who headed the army’s 2 Corps till Sunday, has gone on leave. Lt Gen. Vij has been replaced by Lt Gen. B.S. Thakur who was heading the Army Training Command (Artrac) in Shimla.

Defence minister George Fernandes, who returned from the US today, said Lt Gen. Vij was “transferred and not removed”. “Though I am not well aware of circumstances, but as far as my information goes he has been transferred and not removed,” Fernandes said.

“Lt Gen. Kapil Vij, a professionally competent officer, who enjoys the complete confidence of his superiors, was given the prestigious command of the elite 2 Corps and having completed the normal command tenure was due for the next tenure. Lt Gen. B.S. Thakur, was already earmarked to take over the command of 2 Corps after the turn over of Lt Gen. Kapil Vij as per the normal practice,” the army said in an official statement.

“Lt Gen. Kapil Vij requested for annual leave due to pressing personal reasons. In view of the prevailing security environment, it was not desirable to keep the formation without a GOC and, therefore, Lt Gen. B.S. Thakur was moved on attachment to HQ 2 Corps, pending formal approval of his posting from the ministry of defence.

“Speculation that the general officer was shifted due to external pressure or directions of the PMO are totally baseless,” the statement said.

A Delhi-based newspaper reported yesterday that Lt Gen. Vij was removed after US satellites picked up the movement of armoured (tank) units of his strike corps close to the international border in Punjab-Rajasthan. The movement of armoured units can be interpreted as an offensive move.

It is inconceivable in the rigid command and control in the army that a corps commander will take such an action on his own without consulting his superiors. Lt Gen. Vij is also rated very highly for his professional competence.

The army chief has a direct line of communication with corps commanders who also report to the regional command. Lt Gen. Vij’s immediate superior was Lt Gen. S. S. Sangra, head of the Western Command.

Lt Gen. Vij’s 2 Corps, whose peacetime location is Ambala, moved close to the border as part of Operation Parakram. It is also due to go into exercises that may be rescheduled because of the level of mobilisation on the border.


Bhuj (Gujarat), Jan. 23: 
A canny businessman with 30 years of trading behind him, Arvind Thakker cannot just fathom it.

“A 50 per cent growth in diesel and petrol sale in just one year. It is too good to be true,” the portly man said, scratching his hair.

And he had a gut feeling: this is not a “healthy” sign.

“It shows that there is something terribly wrong with the local economy, where only the sale of petro products has gone up and everything else has come down,” Thakker, president of the Bhuj Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said.

The businessman had sensed right. Officials at the regional transport office also found it disturbing when registration of new vehicles, both four-wheelers and two-wheelers, zoomed in the last one year in post-quake Bhuj.

“We initially found it amusing that when people should have been struggling to survive were buying cars and jeeps. But slowly, the reason dawned on us,” a RTO staff said.

Millions poured into the ravaged Bhuj in the wake of the 6.9 quake that killed more than 20,000 people in Kutch on January 26 last year.

The last thing Gujaratis, a prosperous community both at home and abroad, could bear to see — without a tug at their heartstrings — was the sufferings of fellow Gujaratis. They had pooled in their resources and dispatched them to Bhuj.

But that money changed hands en route. Instead of reaching those in need of it, bundles of bank notes found their way into the pockets of corrupt politicians and politicians, ending in car showrooms.

Or so angry Kutchhis, as the people of Kutch call themselves, would claim as the spanking new jeeps and sports utility vehicles (SUVs) zoom past them down the potholed roads, wrapping them in shawls of dust.

They might well be right.

But an RTO staffer had a different though more plausible explanation to offer, something that bordered on the credible. He attributed the spurt in vehicle –buying — and the resultant increase in the sale of diesel and petrol — to a tax holiday the state government had declared in the wake of the disaster.

The Gujarat government, apparently with the best intentions, had said any organisation engaged in volunteer work, including relief and reconstruction, would get a 25 per cent discount of the sales tax if they bought new vehicles. All they needed to do was to get a certificate from the district administration.

Within a month or two, Bhuj had seen the registration of some 10,000 new vehicles. The trend continued for the next few months till it dawned on the government that shady outfits were taking advantage of the scheme.

A crackdown was launched, and an organisation that had bought 19 vehicles ostensibly for relief was asked to return some since the administration found that the number of purchased cars was “too high”, RTO sources said.

But the damage had already been done: Bhuj had gone from a place with too few vehicles to a place with too many. The result: less pedestrian space on its narrow streets, but a glut of SUVs waiting for lucrative marriage parties.

Thakker would not have minded this if the government had shown its ingenuity where it mattered. “The entire trade and commerce in Bhuj has crashed in the wake of the earthquake. Despite our repeated appeals, the government has done precious little to perk things up a bit.”

The wholesale grain market — on which the whole region had counted before the quake —lies in a shambles. The entire marketplace had collapsed in the quake. The land the government had promised the traders have not come about.

The market is now operating from makeshift shades, some 3 km outside the city. “We are ready with cash, but the government is still dithering,” Thakker, also the president of the Bhuj Grains and Seeds Wholesale Merchants Association, said.

Bhuj has no industry worth speaking of. But it had a bustling consumer market, catering not just to the people of Kutch region, but to the army and air force bases across the district bordering with Pakistan.

With its houses, Bhuj’s market had also collapsed in the quake, but the government has yet to come to the aid of the businesses. As the administration dithers over a new city it plans to build, the shopkeepers see the neighbouring cities like Rajkot taken away their business.

“Retailers have already started procuring their stuff from other cities because we have not been able to supply them for a year now. Things would worsen if the government did not act,” Thakker said.

Bhuj, it seems, is caught in a lose-lose situation, while it is win-win for others.


Andipatti, Jan. 23: 
Here, wall space is at a premium. Tomorrow, Amma will file her nomination papers for the Assembly by-election and her party is using that last free bit of wall space to tell the people who they should vote for.

The ADMK has managed to get a headstart in the poster-war ahead of the by-poll scheduled for February 21.

The messages — under the supervision of “dynamic campaign manager” and party MP from the area, T.T.V. Dinakaran, put MGR as much in focus as Jayalalithaa and her party’s two-leaves symbol.

“Amma does not want that imperious projection of herself alone — as in the past. She has also asked us to cut out the ostentatious stuff, lest the Election Commission picks on us,” said a party functionary.

With a controversy raging here over additions and deletions in electoral rolls, analysts feel every little move by the political parties is coming under the scanner of four Central observers — secretary-level IAS officers deputed by the Election Commission to oversee the month-long election process.

But that hasn’t stopped Amma’s supporters from erecting a giant 20 feet by 20 feet wall in Kandamanur village, close to the National Highway, to exclusively project a larger-than-life image of Jayalalithaa.

Amma reached Madurai this afternoon to rousing cheer en route to Andipatti, a small upland rural constituency nestling on the windward side of the Western Ghat ranges.

ADMK supporters had been upbeat ever since Madras High Court acquitted their leader in the Tansi and Pleasant Stay Hotel cases last December.

They received a further boost yesterday when the Supreme Court declined to stay the high court judgment acquitting her, unambiguously clearing the decks for her to fight the Andipatti by-polls.

The appeals against her had been filed by DMK lawyer Alandur S. Barathi and Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy.

If this has given them a new leash of life, it has not been a walkover for the DMK. In some pockets, the split support is more than obvious.

On one wall is painted the picture of Jayalalithaa, but on the wall opposite, DMK boss M. Karunanidhi returns the smile.

However, in this graffiti war, it is the smaller parties like the MDMK that have lost.

The DMK in the last two days has been able to make inroads into public space after it announced that, Vaigai Sekhar, who hails from the dominant Kallar community, would fight Jayalalithaa.

But DMK’s poor cousin, MDMK, led by Vaiko, complained to the authorities that the top symbol of its candidate V. Jayachandran was being “erased” by rivals.

Should graffiti matter so much? Said an analyst: “After all, rival parties are using words and pictures to bestir the quiet consciousness of a rather indifferent electorate before the real players descend on the scene.”


Patna, Jan. 23: 
Dubai-based gangster Aftab Ansari was born in Allahabad, lived in Howrah and has a passport from Bihar.

Ansari, alias Farhan Malik, has a Pakistani passport, too, but the fact that he had been given one by the regional passport office of Patna was kept under wraps.

Ansari had cited a Bihar address to secure the passport, though he hails from Allahabad and used to live in Howrah. The passport (No. B-1035750) was issued in the name of Farhan Malik on November 8, 1999.

Two police officers from Nalanda had signed the verification report for the passport and testified that he had been living there for two years. An affidavit was also filed by two guarantors.

The passport plot began to unravel following two abductions, one in Gujarat and the other, the Khadim’s case, in Calcutta.

The first hint came after the Ansari gang abducted two leading businessmen of Rajkot. One of the abducted was rescued, while the other was freed for a reported ransom of Rs 3 crore.

Police managed to arrest 32 gang members who spilled Ansari’s Bihar connection but added that he went to Dubai on November 2000 from Mumbai. This is recorded in a report prepared by the Rajkot police commissioner, Sudhir Sinha, and sent to Nalanda police.

The Bihar trail turned hot after the kidnapping of the Khadim’s owner. Based on inputs from investigators in Gujarat, a police team from Calcutta eventually reached Nalanda to kickstart the probe.

Ansari had stated in his passport application that he hailed from Garhper village under the Biharsharif police station in Nalanda.

His guarantors, Vinay Kumar and Mohammad Ibrahim, then filed the affidavit before a court saying Ansari was from Nalanda.

After the visit of the Calcutta team, the Nalanda superintendent of police, Gupteswar Pandey, entrusted the probe with his deputy, Sailesh Kumar Sinha.

Sinha visited Garhper to verify the information provided in the passport application as well as the affidavit. He questioned a notary public, an advocate and a translator.

The officer found that no one called “Malik” lived in the village. Documents cited in the application, such as the ration card and school certificate, were found to be fake. One of the guarantors denied knowledge of any Malik, while the other, Ibrahim, could not be found.

Sinha said in his report that the police report filed by an inspector “appeared to be fake and was issued in a mala fide manner”.

The report quoted one of the 32 arrested in Rajkot, Mohammad Shahid, as saying that in April 1999, he had met Ansari in Tihar jail. According to Shahid, Ansari said he was from Allahabad and he lived in Howrah.

“When he is a resident of Howrah, how can he get a passport from Patna?” Sinha asked in his report.


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