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Fernandes rules out troop recall

Chennai, May 23: George Fernandes today said there would be no troop reduction along the border with Pakistan and that direct talks with Islamabad “will still take some time”.

“Not just now,” the defence minister shot back when asked whether India planned to reduce its troops along the border as part of the normalisation process with Pakistan following the Prime Minister’s peace overtures.

After presenting the President’s Tatrakshak medal and the Tatrakshak medals to officers and men of the Indian Coast Guard at an investiture ceremony at its air station in Chennai, Fernandes said that while the issue of infiltration from across the border has cropped up “every day”, it has been “ups and downs for the troops on the border”. “One can never say the last word on it.”

Stating that the confidence-building measures between the two neighbours have just begun, Fernandes said Pakistan had asked some terrorist groups or leaders “not to venture into our areas”. “To the extent it is implemented, we should welcome it.”

However, he pointed out that there was “no authentic information yet” on the implementation of this directive.

He also iterated that no third country had been asked to “intervene by us as our long-standing position has been that bilateral issues have to be resolved bilaterally”. With the confidence-building measures just on, that time (for direct talks) “is not very close”, he said.

To another query, Fernandes said he did not see anything particularly significant about the joint naval exercises with Russia. This was an on-going activity with several countries, including the US, he said.

On helping the flood and cyclone-hit Sri Lanka, Fernandes said the army, navy and air force have extended humanitarian assistance.

Any further assistance that might be required would be provided to the extent “we can afford”.

He, however, denied any plan to send Indian troops for reconstruction of Iraq. “How can we send' Why should we send'” he shot back.

On the fishermen of south Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district fearing a threat to their livelihood if the Centre took up the Sethusamudram Project (deepening of the Palk Straits), the minister, who later flew to Mandapam down south to the Coast Guard station there, said this aspect had not been brought to his ministry’s notice yet.

“I may look around, even look at the sky,” he retorted, when asked whether his visit to Mandapam was to take a look at the Sethusamudram project area.

At the investiture ceremony, Fernandes inspected a 50-men guard of honour and gave away the medals, including the President’s Tatrakshak medal to inspector-general Prabhakaran Paleri and the Tatrakshak medal to 12. Coast Guard director-general Vice-Admiral Sureesh Mehta was present on the occasion.

Since the institution of these medals in 1989, 14 President’s Tatrakshak medals and 68 Tatrakshak medals have been awarded to Coast Guard personnel for acts of gallantry and meritorious service.

Commending the Coast Guard’s “dedicated efforts” in saving 1,700 lives at sea so far and apprehending over 850 foreign trawlers and nearly 9,000 crew engaged in poaching within India’s exclusive economic zone, Fernandes said that to deal with increased maritime crimes, countries like Japan, the US and France have come forth to join hands with the Coast Guard.

Its ships made a “visible impact” during their recent visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar and “will participate in joint exercises in Japan later this year”. Such interactions would go a long way in establishing a “standard operating philosophy and contingency plans for execution of Coast Guard-related tasks, especially in the field of search and rescue, maritime pollution and anti-piracy operations,” he added.

Fernandes also assured that the issue of disparity in the pay scale of Pradhan Navik and grant of sea-duty allowance to the Coast Guard personnel will be sorted out by finance minister Jaswant Singh with due priority.

The proposal for post-retirement medical facilities for its personnel was also under consideration, the minister said.

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