Chhota Rajan in rope-trick escape
Atal applies balm to wounded ally egos
Ethnic hit by Lashkar
Talks offer to Pak with truce onus
PM takes notice of out-of-work ministers
Calcutta Weather

Mumbai, Nov. 24: 
Wounded gangster Chhota Rajan made a mob-movie getaway from a well-guarded hospital in Bangkok today, escaping through the window of his fourth-floor room.

Police sources, confirming reports from the Thai capital, said Rajan climbed down a makeshift rope of bedsheets tied together. The escape was as much a sequence out of a Bollywood underworld flick as the September 15 attempt on Rajan�s life in which he was shot and grievously injured by rival Dawood Ibrahim hitmen in a Bangkok apartment.

Rajan, recovering at Sukhmet hospital in downtown Bangkok, fled just when New Delhi had taken up his extradition with Thai authorities after dragging its feet for a while amid charges that Indian intelligence agencies were backing the gangster for helping fight the allegedly ISI-supported Dawood, the prime accused in the 1993 Mumbai blasts.

It is unclear how the gangster made the getaway when Thai police were keeping a 24-hour watch on him to prevent his escape or another attempt on his life. Armed policemen were stationed outside his room and at the hospital gates, sources said.

Thai police said the gangster might have escaped in the small hours, between 1 am and 5 am. They did not say what the policemen on watch were doing then.

A Reuters report quoting hospital sources said the escape appeared to have taken place at 4 am.

�You�d better ask Mr (L.K.) Advani,� Maharashtra deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal snapped when asked about the escape. �The Union home minister may know what happened because the Centre has been dealing directly with Thai authorities.�

Rajan was awaiting a hearing to decide if he should be extradited to India, which he obviously wanted to avoid. Rajan was under provisional arrest in the hospital after India revoked his passport.

Bhujbal said the state government was counting on the Centre to bring Rajan back. �The Centre should take it up immediately with the Thai government.�

An upset Mumbai police commissioner M.N. Singh went into a huddle with senior officials immediately after the news broke.

It was not clear whether the gangster had managed to sneak out of Thailand. Sources said chances, however, were slim that Rajan would remain in that country after fleeing to freedom.

If Thai police�s version that he climbed down a knotted bedsheet is true, he might have had an aircraft waiting for him to fly him out of the country, an official said.

How a grievously injured person can make the effort of slithering down bedsheets tied together and hung from a fourth-floor window is also a mystery.

No one here knew for sure when Thai police learnt of the escape or whether they had alerted border guards to prevent the gangster from leaving the country.

Rajan, a cinema ticket black-markeeter-turned gangster, was once a Dawood confidant. They fell out after the 1993 blasts with Rajan accusing the Karachi-based mob boss of engineering the explosions.

Dawood went after his former aide after Rajan got several of his associates killed. Dawood�s hitmen caught up with him in Bangkok on September 15. Rohit Verma, a Rajan confidant, was killed in the attack, but the injured gangster, bleeding profusely, escaped through a first-floor window.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
After his speech yesterday in Parliament vowing to go ahead with the Kashmir ceasefire, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has been in an ally-appeasement mode.

He assured a delegation of Shiv Sena MPs today that the speech was not a �snub� to their party whose leader Bal Thackeray is unhappy with the ceasefire announcement.

Vajpayee took the initiative to meet the MPs after the Sena hit Delhi streets today and burnt his effigy. The 20-minute meeting had a cooldown effect on Thackeray who did not come out with the expected hard-hitting editorial against Vajpayee�s speech in Sena mouthpiece, Saamna.

Under instructions from the Prime Minister, foreign minister Jaswant Singh today said �we are all together� on nationalism.

Today�s operation assuage may, however, turn out to be futile after the incident in Kashmir where five members of a community were abducted and killed by militants. The massacre will give the Sena additional ammunition in demanding immediate withdrawal of the ceasefire.

Naidu deal

Appeasement round one had taken place last night when Telugu Desam leader Chandrababu Naidu wangled a bagful of promises from Vajpayee before going back on his demand for a rollback of diesel price.

Vajpayee agreed to consider his demands for restraining BJP leaders of Andhra from sniping at him and from raking up the issue of a separate Telengana state, ending discrimination against IAS officers of Andhra cadre by the Centre and removing anomalies in the eleventh finance commission recommendations.    

Srinagar, Nov. 24: 
In a chilling response to the government�s determination to go ahead with the peace initiative, suspected Lashkar-e-Toiba militants today kidnapped and killed five people in scarred Doda district.

Police said the five men were abducted from a bus in Tali area of Kishtwar town by a group of four Lashkar militants this evening. Their bodies were recovered from forests in Kishtwar, around 200 km from Jammu.

Though no group has claimed responsibility, Jammu police chief R.V. Raju blamed the Lashkar for the attack.

The guerrillas entered the bus and after segregating the passengers on religious lines, pulled out three men � driver Raj Kumar, conductor Prakash and Romesh Kumar, an employee of the state food supplies department.

The militants dragged the men towards the nearby jungles. On their way, they stopped a group of labourers and kidnapped them as well.

The driver and one of the labourers, who knew the mountainous terrain well, managed to escape and inform residents in Patimhalla village.

Once they reached the forests, the militants lined up the men and opened fire. Police have identified the victims as Bhushan Lal, Sudesh Kumar, Ashok Kumar, Romesh Kumar and Prakash.

The killings come two days after five truck drivers were shot dead on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. The incident had triggered howls of protest from the Shiv Sena, an ally of the Vajpayee government, which said the Centre must withdraw its offer of a Ramzan ceasefire. The Lashkar has rejected the truce.

Tension gripped the area as news of the massacre spread. Police have stepped up vigilance in Doda district and a general alert has been sounded. Senior police officials have rushed to the spot.

The government has decided to post armed police guards on every bus plying in the remote areas of Doda district, sources said.

Most militant groups have dismissed the truce offer as a ploy to win international sympathy and vowed to intensify attacks on military camps across Jammu and Kashmir.

Chief minister Farooq Abdullah met Union home minister L.K. Advani and defence minister George Fernandes in Delhi. Abdullah later told reporters that the attacks by militants were aimed at provoking the security forces in the run-up to the ceasefire.

Abdullah said a magisterial inquiry has been ordered into the highway massacre. The probe, he added, �will determine how militants managed to surface on the highway, committed the crime and disappeared in to the woods�.

Abdullah said vigilance on the highway would be increased and movement of vehicles regulated. No vehicle will be allowed to ply on the highway after 6 pm without clearance from the government.

Earlier on Thursday, five Kashmiri boys abducted by guerrillas a week ago, escaped from a militant hideout to a security unit in Poonch district.

Police said unidentified militants also attacked the office of the People�s Democratic Freedom Party separatist group in Srinagar with a grenade on Friday, but the explosion caused no damage.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
As blood continued to flow in Kashmir, foreign minister Jaswant Singh today sought to pass the onus of the ceasefire to Pakistan by indicating that Delhi was not averse to talks with the military rulers in Islamabad provided they created an atmosphere suitable for dialogue.

Speaking in the Rajya Sabha, Jaswant said Delhi was not so much against talks with a non-democratic regime, since �it was the people�s prerogative� to choose their rulers, as it was against an administration which encouraged terrorism.

Pakistan, Jaswant said, could pave the way for talks by asking the militant outfits to reciprocate the Indian offer of a ceasefire during Ramzan.

By shifting the onus on Pervez Musharraf�s junta, India wants to send the message that if the militant groups operating out of Pakistan spurn the truce offer and trigger attacks during the holy month, the finger of accusation will point to Islamabad.

The deft diplomatic move coincided with a statement from the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen that it could consider matching the ceasefire if India agreed to involve Pakistan and Kashmiri representatives in meaningful peace talks.

�A meaningful ceasefire is one which could initiate a peaceful tripartite process for the ultimate resolution of the Kashmir issue according to the wishes of the Kashmiri people,� Hizb supreme commander Syed Salahuddin said.

He told a news conference in Karachi that India would also need to back up its truce plans by taking three other confidence-building measures to show that it was sincere in addressing Kashmir�s woes.

�It should release all the Kashmiri people languishing in Indian jails, withdraw its forces from occupied Kashmir which were sent to crush an armed struggle for independence in 1989, and a complete cessation of hostilities,� he said.

Salahuddin said the armed struggle would continue if India failed to fulfil the conditions. �Ceasefire for ceasefire means nothing at all, it is just a deception, a mockery for Kashmiri people who have faced bloodshed and illegal occupation,� he added.

But Salahuddin appeared to take a softer line than other militant groups who have vowed to launch new offensives against security forces in Jammu and Kashmir.

Jaswant�s statement today indicates that Pakistan will have to rein in these outfits during the truce period. The government is bent on piling the diplomatic heat on its neighbour in the run-up to Ramzan next week.

Jaswant tried to send the signal that the government was serious about resuming the stalled dialogue. Instead of lambasting staunch critics of the government�s Kashmir policy, as he had done yesterday, Jaswant today tried to assure the peace lobby that everything was being done to achieve this goal, but Delhi can do little if there�s no response from Islamabad.    

New Delhi, Nov. 24: 
Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has taken note of a clutch of disgruntled junior ministers who met over dinner last night to let off steam.

At least 15 ministers of state huddled at Sumitra Mahajan�s residence to discuss how they were being underworked by their Cabinet bosses and taken overly much for granted.

Most of them bitterly joked about their �status� as ministers of state, saying they had so far seen their signatures only while drawing their salary cheques and not on any file of import.

Vajpayee initially laughed away the issue when he got wind of it this morning. But after a day of discreet enquiries, he is aware he has trouble on his hands.

The issue should, however, not have come as news to the Prime Minister as it is not without precedent. Starting with Jawaharlal Nehru, many Prime Ministers, including P.V. Narasimha Rao, have had to grapple with the same problem.

According to prevailing practice, a Cabinet minister seldom entrusts his minister of state with responsibility. They would rather do without �interference� from their juniors. Even bigwigs like foreign minister Jaswant Singh or finance minister Yashwant Sinha or even railway minister Mamata Banerjee are not known to have assigned duties to their ministers of state.

A long list of peeved juniors, including Tapan Sikdar, Shahnawaz Hussain and Rita Verma, turned up at last evening�s party at the residence of Mahajan, the junior human resources development minister, to gripe and draw solace from each other�s troubles. At the end of the session, they deputed junior finance minister Balasaheb Vikhe Patil to carry their complaints to the Prime Minister. Vajpayee was surprised when Patil met him this afternoon. But the ministers� �authorised� representative reportedly did not utter a word about the animated discussion over dinner.

Though the Prime Minister appeared amused, highly-placed government sources told The Telegraph the issue was not to be taken lightly.

They added that all Vajpayee could do now was wait till the peeved ministers organised matters more systematically and formed some kind of a platform to air their grievances. Only after they petition the Prime Minister formally can he get back to the Cabinet ministers and ask them to allot jobs to their juniors.

Earlier this year, junior minister Satyanarayan Rao quit protesting against lack of work. Rao had sent a scathing letter to the Prime Minister, saying he was enjoying the tag of �minister� without the associated responsibilities. Vajpayee had then turned a blind eye to the problem.    



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