Lanka bleeds in temple blast
US lines up Hindu priest for PM
Alert Atal in mid-term appraisal of ministries
Tripura rebels chop tongue of rape witness
Freedom flight costs Rs 25,000
Calcutta weather

May 17 
At least 19 people were killed and 77 wounded when a bomb exploded during festivities at a Buddhist temple in Batticaloa, 336 km northeast of Colombo, this evening.

Most victims were Sinhalese Buddhists who had gathered at the Mangalaramaya temple to celebrate Vesak. The festival, one of the holiest in the Buddhist calendar, marks the birth of Lord Buddha, and also commemorates the day he received divine revelations and attained nirvana.

There was no claim of responsibility, but the Tamil Tigers are believed to have set off the bomb, which ripped through the temple around 5.45 pm. Of the 19 killed, five were security personnel while the rest were civilians.

Political observers said that the Tigers, having been stalled in their advance to Jaffna, had triggered the explosion to incite communal passions and invite a backlash that would further alienate Tamils from the Sri Lanka government.

Around 70 per cent of areas around Batticaloa are controlled by the Tigers. The northeastern province is part of an area from which the rebels want to carve out Eelam.

The blast occurred as fighting raged in the Jaffna peninsula. An Associated Press report quoting Lankan military officials said the guerrillas had fired three artillery shells at Palaly airport, the main supply line for troops defending Jaffna.

The military officials added that the shells, fired from a 122 mm artillery gun which can hit targets within 17 km, exploded at the airport. But it was not known where the shells fell in the sprawling airport complex.

Around 40,000 soldiers fighting in the peninsula get most of their supplies through the airport, located around 10 km north of Jaffna city. The airport is also the military�s main ammunition and petroleum storage facility.

The guerrillas are believed to have trained at least one artillery gun at the airbase from the Kaithwady area towards Palaly, military officials said. Kaithady is 3 km east of Jaffna.

The rebels have been trying to open up several flanks, forcing the military to spread its forces. The guerrillas had yesterday mounted an offensive on the Tanankillappu sector by firing from Pooneryn north, southeast of Jaffna across the lagoon. By opening a new flank, the Tigers hope to take control of Chavakacheri town, 4 km east of Jaffna on the A9 highway, and target the Palaly airbase.

Amid the intensified fighting, President Chandrika Kumaratunga and leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickramasinghe held talks to reach a consensus on providing constitutional guarantees to autonomy proposals.

The government is reviewing the draft proposals, drawn up in 1997, which it wants to place before the LTTE during future negotiations.    

Washington, May 17 
When Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee arrives here in September after addressing the millennium summit of world leaders at the United Nations, he will be in for a pleasant surprise. On the day Vajpayee addresses members of the US Congress as part of his return visit to President Bill Clinton, a Hindu priest will deliver the invocation opening the daily session of the US legislature. This will be the first time in American history that a Hindu priest will have delivered the invocation. Vajpayee is expected to address the millennium summit in New York in Hindi. Together with the Hindu invocation on Capitol Hill, Vajpayee�s trip to America will thus have a swadeshi touch of the kind that will be unprecedented in the travels of any Indian Prime Minister so far.

The ball has been set rolling in the effort to coopt a Hindu priest on Capitol Hill by a founder member of the Congressional caucus on India, Sherrod Brown. He has asked the chaplain of the House of Representatives to set aside a day for a Hindu priest to deliver the daily invocation. On the face of it, the request is innocuous and fair, but it masks a carefully planned effort to make Vajpayee feel at home here and return the warmth enjoyed by Clinton during his recent India trip. Behind Brown�s move is a powerful American-Indian lobby of BJP supporters who are keen to introduce a Swadeshi element into Vajpayee�s trip.

This lobby draws parallels between Vajpayee�s forthcoming trip here and his two trips as Prime Minister to Mauritius. In Port Louis, the Hindu element of the visit often overtook the bilateral and state-to-state concerns of the Prime Minister. Brown has justified his request to the chaplain with the argument that �freedom of religion is a hallmark of the US. By inviting clergy of various faiths to deliver the invocation, we honour our diverse religious heritage.� He also pointed out that �there are hundreds of thousands of practising Hindus in this country. We should fulfill our responsibility to represent the religious diversity of this country by including a Hindu priest as a guest Chaplain.�

Brown has timed his request very cleverly. Normally it takes several months to slot a priest - usually a Christian or a Jew - for this honour. In the case of the Hindu priest, it may take longer since it has never been done before. Besides, the move may meet with some resistance � albeit surmountable � because the Capitol Hill is extremely conservative on matters of religion. The timing of the Hindu invocation will, therefore, naturally coincide with the Vajpayee visit, giving the impression that it was not planned at all, but a mere matter of chance.

In the past, there have been efforts by American Indians to include Hindu priests in the legislative process, but only at the state level. The Maryland state�s House of Delegates has had two Hindu invocations, but the Vajpayee visit has given an unexpected opportunity for those here who campaign for such a practice to go national.    

New Delhi, May 17 
The Vajpayee government is carrying out a systematic review of the functioning of all ministries.

Having completed six months in office, the government has launched the assessment to find out if it can unclog bureaucratic channels, plug possibilities of negligence, spruce up administration and streamline flow of funds.

Sources in several ministries confirmed that the review was on. The Prime Minister�s Office periodically examines some aspects of ministerial and departmental functioning. But the ongoing exercise appears to be much more comprehensive and meticulously planned.

The survey also aims to ensure that none of the ministries are slipping up on time schedules for projects marked urgent. The review is paying particular attention to a number of social sector ministries. These are ministries with which the PMO is not frequently on touch.

But sources said the review was not intended at putting any minister in the dock. If any shortcoming is noticed, the Cabinet secretary will get in touch with the secretary of the department concerned. The review will not lead to the blacklisting of any minister.

There are indications that the government may consider making such reviews by the PMO a more regular affair. Vajpayee often has first-hand knowledge of key ministries like home, defence, finance and external affairs. On the other ministries, he is briefed from time to time.

The survey is part of Vajpayee�s effort to ensure that he was not caught napping because of the poor performance of some ministries. For instance, charges have been levelled against the government that some ministries had ignored smoke signals from the states about an impending drought.

The three ministries � rural development, water resources and agriculture � could have taken up the issue in consultation with the state governments. But the drought-management process was set in motion only after it was too late.

Sources in various ministries said the survey would also help the government decide whether senior officials need to be slotted elsewhere for better use of their skills.

Though the sources insisted that the results of the survey would not be used to target ministers, they said that it coincided with complaints from the BJP against two ministers � Jagmohan (urban development) and Ram Jethmalani (law and company affairs).

The Prime Minister was unhappy with Jethmalani�s style of functioning as urban development minister in the 1998-99 government. He had openly said so and shifted Jethmalani to law after mid-1999.

Similarly, Jagmohan, who is regarded �honest but more a bureaucrat than a politician�, had to be transferred from the key communications ministry last year.

There are complaints that his recent demolition drive in the capital is too Khairnar-like and is causing political problems for the BJP. Vajpayee does not want to interfere, but he may have to talk to him to ensure that decisions are not taken in haste.    

Agartala, May 17 
Lending a macabre touch to their orgy of violence, National Liberation Front of Tripura militants dismembered a youth�s tongue before gunning him down and hacked two other non-tribals to death in different parts of Tripura over the past 24 hours.

Sources said the rebels chopped off 24-year-old Sultan Mia�s tongue and shot him dead because he provided information to the police about the rape of 37 Muslim women in his native village of Raiabari early this year.

Sultan�s bullet-riddled body was recovered from Chaplington under Udaipur subdivision last evening after his father lodged a complaint that his son was missing since Monday. The Muslim youth had gone to Chaplington, close to Raiabari, to graze cattle.

Sources said Sultan and his family migrated to Gokulpur following the mass rape in Raiabari.

The bodies of two other non-tribals, both hacked to death, were recovered from Gaynama under Manu police station in Dhalai district yesterday. The slain youth have been identified as Shubha Chandra Bhowmik and Uttam Bhowmik.

NLFT militants had abducted the duo from a place near Chhailengta on April 2. They might have been killed because of their families� failure to pay ransom, sources said.

Eight other non-tribals, including two government employees, were abducted over the past 24 hours.

Police sources said a group of NLFT militants stormed the Karbook block office under Amarpur subdivision at 4.30 pm yesterday and abducted two employees, Yogendra Biswas and Hrishikesh Chakraborty.

CRPF personnel deployed just 50 yards from the office allegedly looked the other way as the rebels whisked away the two employees.

In another incident, NLFT militants abducted six personsafter waylaying a truck at Padmanagar in Bishalgarh.

subdivision early today. The truck was heading for Sonamura from here.    

Cuttack, May 17 
After a year-and-a-half in captivity, Satyanarayan Raghunath Mishra escaped from the clutches of Chechen rebels without paying the $ 2 million ransom but could not return home till his father paid the Indian government Rs 25,000 for the air fare from Moscow.

Satyanarayan�s family in Cuttack had no news of him since 1998, when the 24-year-old medical student was abducted from Dagestan. On March 31 this year, they read a newspaper report that he had been traced to Chechnya by Russian troops. The official confirmation came from the Russian embassy on April 24.

But as the family waited anxiously for Satyanarayan�s return after an 18-month ordeal, they were in for a shock. The Indian embassy in Moscow sent a fax to his father Ladukishore Mishra, a schoolteacher, asking him to pay Rs 25,000 for the air fare to Delhi.

�I was absolutely shocked. Is our government so poor that it cannot pay the air fare of an Indian held hostage by terrorists for nearly two years?� Mishra said.

The family had already spent Rs 6 lakh � far more than it could afford � on Satyanarayan�s medical education. Mishra, who has another son and a daughter, is retiring from his job in a government school next month. But there was no option but to scrape up the amount because he was �desperate to see my son back�.

The money was handed over to the regional passport office in Bhubaneswar on April 26. But that was not all.

The Orissa government had promised the family all helpin getting the 24-year-old back. But when Satyanarayan, accompanied by his brother and a cousin, checked into the state-run Utkal Bhavan yesterday for the night, he was asked to pay for the stay.

With no money for air tickets, the fatigued youth boarded a train for Cuttack this morning, hoping to return home finally.

�I am neck deep in debt, trying to make my son a doctor. But our dream has been shattered. He has come back without completing his course in Dagestan. What will he or we do now?� asked Mishra.

On landing in Delhi last night, Satyanarayan called his father to say: �I am not worried about my past, but my future. I do not know what I am going to do now.�

Mishra said he did not have the money to put his youngest son through a medical school abroad. But Satyanarayan, who had failed the joint entrance examination twice, was �desperate�. �Pappu has always wanted to be a doctor and we could not say no when he wanted to go to Dagestan to study medicine, as some other boys from Cuttack did at the time,� the father said.

Raising the funds was not easy. �We turned to some relatives, but were rebuffed. Finally, we had to sell off whatever land we had,� Mishra added.

In October 1995, Satyanarayan enrolled in Dagestan Government State Medical Academy. The family was overjoyed when he returned to Cuttack in May 1996 after easily getting through a preparatory course in the Russian language and medical history.

Four months later, Satyanarayan returned to Dagestan to complete the five-year degree course in medicine which, his father said, was recognised by the Indian government.

By 1998, the family had already spent Rs 6 lakh, always sending the money through his collegemates� families in north India to �avoid banking problems�.

�Most of the gold I had went towards paying for my son�s college expenses,� said his mother Sukanti, pointing to her glass bangles. �Even selling the gold was not enough. We had to borrow heavily so our son would not face any trouble in a foreign country.�

But the family could not keep Satyanarayan out of trouble. In July 1998, he was expelled by the college for non-payment of fees. Mishra said he had sent Rs 30,000 through a man in Patiala in June that year, but the money did not reach his son. �I got the money back a few months later with a message that it had been sent to a wrong address.�

That was the last they heard of Satyanarayan. �Since July 1998, we had not had any contact with him,� Mishra added. The family checked with other boys from Orissa studying there, but they could not say where Pappu had gone.

The family spent an agonising one-and-a-half years till they read the newpaper report on March 31. On April 24, the Russian embassy wrote that Satyanarayan was found with a group of Chechen militants who had turned themselves over to Russian troops on March 14. Satyanarayan was handed over to the Indian embassy in Moscow with the promise that Russia would bring his captors to book for demanding $ 50,000 as ransom from his family along with the $2 million they had asked for from the Indian government.    

Temperature: Maximum: 36.4�C (normal) Minimum: 27.3�C (normal) RAINFALL: 10.6 mm Relative humidity: Maximum: 89%, Minimum: 50% Today: Partly cloudy sky with possibility of thundershower in some parts towards afternoon or evening. Maximum temperature likely to be around 35� C. Sunset: 6.08 pm Sunrise: 4.57 am    

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