27 die in attack on Amarnath pilgrims
Hizbul claims contact with Delhi
Talks glare on Atal US tour
Ceasefire gesture to Veerappan
Jethmalani illuminates House
Calcutta weather

Srinagar, Aug. 1: 
On the third day of escalating violence in Kashmir, at least 27 persons, most of them Amarnath pilgrims, were killed and 36 injured when a heavily-armed group of militants opened fire at Pahalgam.

Many of the injured have fatal wounds. No one has yet owned responsibility for the attack. In the exchange of fire with security forces that followed, two militants were killed, a senior police officer said. Among the dead were two policemen who he identified as Irshad Ahmed and Surjeet Singh.

He said a gang of militants suddenly appeared at the heavily-guarded picturesque Amarnath base camp of Pahalgam and opened fire from automatic weapons, spraying bullets all around.

Sources said the militants fired on the pilgrims near a hotel and a camp of the Central Reserve Police Force, close to the river Lidder that flows swiftly along Pahalgam. The hill town, from where pilgrims begin the journey to the cave shrine, was humming with activity as hundreds of visitors were left stranded by heavy rains along the 40-km trek to Amarnath.

“They fired heavily in all directions,” said a senior officer on condition of anonymity. “Both the militants were later killed in the exchange with the security forces,” he added.

The sources said militants lobbed at least six hand grenades and followed it up with heavy fire, killing many of the 27 dead on the spot. Security forces deployed around the tourist resort retaliated. “For nearly two hours there was panic and confusion all around. People took shelter in every building around. We could not go out,” the officer said.

Initial reports said most of the victims were from northern India. The sources said the militants came through the forest from Auroo, another tourist spot near Pahalgam. As soon as they arrived close to hotel Heeven — on the banks of the Lidder — they opened fire. The sources said searches were being conducted at Pahalgam for militants who fled.

This is the first major strike by militants at Pahalgam during the annual Amarnath yatra and follows consecutive strikes, first on tourists at Gulmarg and then on an army camp at Bandipore.

After a relative lull, violence has erupted in the state since the ceasefire and talks offer. The burst of militant attacks is an attempt to sabotage the fledgling peace process.

In 1994, the Harkat-ul Ansar had banned the Amarnath pilgrimage. There was no such diktat this year, but the government had made elaborate security arrangements. The entire Pahalgam area, a police officer said, was “sanitised” days before the yatra began on July 15.

The attack was the second on Amarnath pilgrims during the day. In the morning, a group of militants tried to enter the registration office for pilgrims in Jammu.    

Aug. 1: 
After several rounds of shadowboxing, the Hizbul Mujahideen today claimed the first direct contact with the Centre and said home ministry officials were expected to reach Srinagar tomorrow.

The Hizbul’s nominee for negotiations, Fazal Haq Qureshi ture said in Srinagar that officials from the home ministry spoke with him on phone this morning. “They told me they were coming to Srinagar tomorrow to meet me,” said Qureshi, a veteran separatist leader who heads the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Political Front.

While Delhi did not respond to Qureshi’s statement, the government clarified that officials from the home ministry and the security forces will comprise the team that will negotiate with the Hizbul.

Qureshi refused to disclose details of his talks with the officials, but said: “I told them that I am available for anybody.” Qureshi added that he was waiting for “guidelines” from the Hizbul on the peace initiative. “I told them that since I did not have any brief from the Hizbul yet, I cannot discuss anything much with them,” he said.

Qureshi disclosed that Hizbul leaders got in touch with him in the afternoon and assured him that “they would send the details of what I have to discuss with the officials”. The separatist leader described himself as an “intermediary” whose job is to “work out modalities of the ceasefire between the Hizbul and the military”. He said the outfit will name a few of their commanders for the negotiations and “I will then request the Centre to rush an expert”.

The Vajpayee government has already stated that home secretary Kamal Pande would be its principal interlocutor in any negotiation.

Government sources said today that the proposed negotiations will be carried out within the country and the first meeting will most likely be held in Srinagar.

Officials feel the Centre’s team should comprise serving officers because of the “experience” in the Northeast. They believe that serving officials would be better placed to hold negotiations because the Hizbul’s truce offer is temporary. “Details like disarming the Hizbul cadre and surrender of weapons will crop up during the initial talks in which ranking officers from security forces can play an important role,” a senior official said.

Delhi is approaching the peace initiative by the Hizbul “very cautiously” and work on preparing the ground rules to enforce the ceasefire will start as soon as representatives of the Centre and the Hizbul have their first formal meeting.

In Islamabad, the Hizbul’s new spokesman, Saleem Hashmi, urged Delhi to “immediately” start the tripartite meeting.    

Washington, Aug. 1: 
The ceasefire by the Hizbul Mujahideen and India’s offer to talk to Kashmiri militants have already elevated Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s September trip to the US from a mere bilateral return visit to an event of international significance.

Although the Clinton administration is afraid to be optimistic in view of disappointments in the past, there is satisfaction here that last week’s developments have vindicated President Bill Clinton’s new Kashmir policy enunciated during his trip to India in March.

The Hizbul ceasefire and the Indian offer of talks have been built around the four pillars of this new policy: respect the Line of Control, do not promote violence by third parties in Kashmir, negotiate and there is no military solution to Kashmir’s problems.

The Americans are hoping that Vajpayee would meet Pakistan’s chief executive Pervez Musharraf in New York before he arrives in Washington on September 13.    

Bangalore, Aug. 1: 
Families of both captor and captive came together in their plea to Veerappan to release matinee idol Raj Kumar, even as chief minister S.M. Krishna announced suspension of police operations against the brigand.

Nakkeeran editor and Veerappan-confidante R. Gopal is learnt to have left for the forests tonight to negotiate with the bandit for the release of the 72-year-old thespian and the three others held hostage since Sunday night.

Gopal, who was in Perambalur for most of the day to attend the funeral of a murdered reporter of his magazine, made a quiet appearance in Chennai to take a letter of authorisation from the government before starting out, reports PTI.

Karnataka home minister Mallikarjun Kharge said some cases registered against Gopal in 1996 for anti-state activities would be withdrawn as a goodwill gesture, while prominent film personalities, including Tamil superstar Rajnikant, Kannada actor-MP Ambareesh and Jayaprada, have also offered to meet Veerappan.

On Day Two of the abduction drama, Raj Kumar’s wife Parvathamma appealed to Veerappan to release her husband at the earliest without causing any harm. In a voice choked with emotion, she said the actor suffers from arthritis and had not taken medicine with him. “Don’t make him walk too much. You treat me like your sister and release my husband. We have lots of hope on you,” she said in her appeal which was broadcast on All India Radio.

She found support in an unlikely quarter. Veerappan’s daughter Vidya Rani, a third standard student at a convent in Mettur in Tamil Nadu, also asked her father to release Raj Kumar. She expressed confidence that Veerappan would not harm the hostages.

Vidya was echoed by her mother. Veerappan’s wife Muthulakshmi told reporters in Salem that her husband would not harm Raj Kumar. “My husband is a kind man and will not go for revenge,” said Muthulakshmi, who lives in Mettur. She was quoted as having said that Veerappan would before long return to normal life, hinting he could be bargaining for amnesty this time and not for ransom.

A virtual bandh prevailed in Bangalore for the second day today. Barring medical stores, all shops, business establishments and banks remained closed today and vehicles remained off the roads. In some places, effigies of Veerappan were burnt.

Eight platoons of Rapid Action Force joined the 10,000 policemen already deployed in Bangalore where prohibitory orders have been clamped for a week since yesterday.

Ambareesh claimed that Veerappan had demanded the release of Tada detenus. Addressing a news conference jointly with Jayaprada, the actor-MP said he had listened to an audio cassette sent by Veerappan and that the bandit had not asked for any money as ransom.

Veerappan had also demanded that no harm should be done to Tamils in the state, Ambareesh said.

A school teacher, who had escaped from the clutches of Veerappan when he was abducted in 1994, has come forward to mediate with the poacher to secure the release of Raj Kumar, reports PTI from Coimbatore.    

New Delhi, Aug. 1: 
Former law minister Ram Jethmalani held centrestage in Rajya Sabha today: rebutting charges, lashing out at the move to set up a committee to probe leak of documents, insisting he would go on supporting the BJP government and dismissing the right to information Bill, drafted by the Vajpayee administration, as “nothing new”. He later told reporters that he would not join this government.

Finally allowed to put forward his arguments in the Upper House, of which he is a member, the lawyer-turned-politician said that even the dumbest law student would be shocked to hear that making or keeping copies of one’s own correspondence is theft. He criticised the freedom of information Bill, saying it confers no new right. “It only recognises and confirms those that arise from Article 19 of the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court.”

Jethmalani said he had committed no crime which could be considered a breach of the Official Secrets Act. Claiming the papers in his possession were authentic, he said the copies of “the documents used by me have been in my personal possession since July 20, except two letters dated July 21 of the Chief Justice of India which were delivered at my residence on July 22 and were seen and copied after July 24”. He warned that if any member of his personal staff “is harassed in any manner, it will be an act both dirty and mean; and will evoke from me an appropriate response”.

The former minister praised Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. In “many a public pronouncement, I have said with genuine feeling, without any element of flattery or hypocrisy, that I am not proud of being a minister of the Union government but I am quite proud of being Prime Minister Vajpayee’s minister. I have said this government is the best that this nation can produce today and it is better than many that we have had in the past,” he said.

The lawyer, known for his wit, said: “I am not a weather cock which keeps changing its direction with every breeze that blows.”

But Jethmalani did not spare the Prime Minister either. The blows directed at Vajpayee were short and crisp.

“A Prime Minister has a right to choose his company and it is his prerogative to rid himself of a colleague whom he perceives to be discordant. His action in asking me to resign is both legal and constitutional,” Jethmalani said.

There was another barb for Vajpayee. “He has complained that I have not learnt the lesson of silence. To this charge, I gladly plead guilty. I am nearing the end of my journey. It is too late to change and I have no desire to change either.” He added: “Being silent in the face of wrong is no different from being a conspirator and truth must be loudly trumpeted from the house tops. In my humble opinion, he is a silent beneficiary of my loud and discordant speech.”

The lawyer said: “Tension between the judiciary and executive is a welcome sign. The so-called harmony of the two may well be the expense of constitutional democracy itself.” This was yet another dig at the Prime Minister who had earlier said Jethmalani had to leave his Cabinet because he was spoiling this harmony.

“While I am a supporter of judicial activism and all my life I have fought for independence and glory of the judiciary, I will not surrender any executive privilege to please a judge.”    



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