Ambush sleuths hit suspect stone wall
Night murder in market
Estranged Left cousins trade arrest charges
Laloo dangles bait to prevent exodus
Cong rejects Jaya formula on power-share
Operation Topple unites BJP allies
Mamata for tacit mahajot
Pranab and Saifuddin hold talks
Advani deflects truce fire to Pakistan
Atal courts farmers

Siliguri, March 6: 
Police today claimed they were closing in on the masterminds of the strike on Subash Ghising as they had succeeded in making one of the prime conspirators �talk�.

An official connected to the special investigating team (SIT) said that Sharan Dewan, a former militant leader with the now-defunct Gorkha Volunteer Cell, had given some vital leads.

Dewan was �nabbed� by the police on Saturday night along with Arjun Tamang while they were trying to �sneak� into India from Nepal where they had taken shelter after the February 10 ambush. Dewan is believed to be close to Chhattray Subba, the militant Gorkha leader who has been accused by the GNLF of hatching the conspiracy.

�Though Sharan has divulged some vital information on the modalities of the blueprint of the ambush, he has proved to be a tough nut to crack regarding the actual execution of the strike,� the SIT official said.

�Some big names have cropped up during interrogation. We are now following those leads and expect more arrests in the coming days,� he added.

Investigators are looking for three �prime conspirators� � Vijay Dewan alias Dhiren Rai, Deven Gurung and the Gorkha Liberation Army�s Nepal-based �commander�, Gopal Dithal.

Vijay Dewan is the husband of Dimple Dewan, the 32-year-old housewife, who was among the first to be arrested in the case.

�We are in close touch with our Nepal counterparts as we are now searching for Deven Gurung, Vijay Dewan and Gopal Dithal. We are also on the lookout for a couple of other Nepali subjects, who we suspect had a hand in the ambush,� the official said.

The investigators are questioning dozens of �suspects� at different interrogation cells in Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong and Matighara in Siliguri. �We are interrogating several persons whose names have figured during the interrogation of Sharan and Arjun. Sharan is an expert at triggering blasts. He was responsible for scores of ambushes on securitymen during the Ghising-led Gorkhaland movement in the mid-eighties. Sharan headed the GNLF�s militant wing, Gorkha Volunteer Cell�s Kurseong unit. Subba was the GVC chief,� the official said.

He added that Sharan had disclosed that he recruited members for Subba and sent boys for training at several GLA camps in the Darjeeling hills and in Nepal.


Calcutta, March 6: 
A gang stormed into a crowded market at Hridaypore under Barasat police station and gunned down a fish trader last night. The assailants escaped after the 10-minute operation.

Police officials rushed to the spot on hearing the commotion, but failed to make any arrests. Police said the murder was the result of a long-standing rivalry between two groups.

The incident took place around 9.30 pm when the traders at Netaji Market, close to Hridaypore railway station, were doing brisk business.

They did not sniff trouble when the hitmen began assembling at the dark northern end of the market. Two of them entered the market and called Bishnu, who reluctantly followed them outside.

As soon as he came out, the rest of the gang swooped down on him and started hurling bombs. The 36-year-old trader tried to flee, but the hitmen opened fire. Bishnu slumped down when a bullet pierced his chest.

The miscreants chased him and pumped in two more bullets. The assailants then walked away from the scene as the terrified traders and the people at the station had fled.

Superintendent of police Kuldeep Singh said rivalry between two groups triggered the incident. The assailants might have come from the Nabapalli area, he added.

Police said Bishnu was once a notorious criminal and had fled the area a few years ago. �After returning a couple of months ago, Bishnu contacted the local police and said he had given up on crime and wanted to start a business. But his past rivals caught up with him,� said a police officer.


Siliguri, March 6: 
Police today arrested seven people, including the brother of a former CPM Rajya Sabha member, in connection with the twin killings at Rongbuk-Cider tea estate on Saturday.

Darjeeling superintendent of police Sanjay Chander said: �Seven people named in the FIR, including Duryadhan Rai (brother of CPRM leader and former MP R.B. Rai) and Jit Bahadur Chhetri have been arrested. All of them were involved in the murder of two CPM workers, Tilak Bahadur Rai (68) and his son, Pradeep (42), at Chandaman-dura under Jorebungalow police station on Saturday.�

The breakaway hill Marxists � the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) � has accused the CPM of hatching a pre-poll conspiracy to undermine the party�s growing support in the region.

The CPRM alleged that the CPM was trying to implicate the breakaway party�s supporters by giving a political twist to the killings.

CPRM spokesman D.S. Bomzan said: �The entire episode is being given a political colour by the CPM and the district police. The killings were the fallout of an ongoing tussle between villagers and family members over the utilisation of MPs� funds. Moreover, since the CPM�s support in the region has been eroded following the formation of the CPRM in December 1996, the ruling party is now trying to foment trouble. Our party workers are being falsely implicated and the entire incident is being given a political twist. �


Patna, March 6: 
As more disgruntled legislators joined the rebel chorus for a change at the top, Laloo Yadav today launched a counter-offensive to battle his way through the gravest political crisis of his career.

The dissident camp of Ranjan Yadav threw the gauntlet at Laloo by claiming the support of three more MLAs and making them demand the resignation of chief minister Rabri Devi.

�The only way to avert a split in the party is to vacate the post of the chief minister and make way for the new leadership,� said Ram Das Rai, a former minister in the Rabri Cabinet, who switched camps today.

Two other former ministers, who spoke almost the same language, are Mahavir Prasad, who was in charge of health, and Jitanram Majhi, who had held the education portfolio. Both leaders have written to Laloo, saying they would now be the most �vociferous� members of the �oust Rabri-Laloo campaign�.

The rebels, who had earlier claimed the support of 40 legislators, enough to split the RJD legislature party, however, desisted from taking a hasty decision and concentrated more on a sustained campaign to gather more numbers before the Assembly session which begins Monday.

The caution stems from reports that Laloo is considering a pre-emptive strike by tabling a confidence motion in the House after issuing a whip to MLAs to vote for the RJD.

If a section of the rebels decides at the 11th hour to vote with the government, the others could then come under the anti-defection law.

The RJD has 115 legislators in the Assembly. The rebel camp will require the support of at least 39 MLAs to break the legislature party.

Laloo, who had yesterday made conciliatory gestures towards Ranjan, is in no mood to give in to his demand that some ministers be asked to quit to pave the way for a rapprochement.

The RJD chief�s aides are believed to have begun efforts to win over the rebels by offering them lucrative government posts in exchange for staying away from Ranjan�s camp.

The trouble-shooters are trying to force the hands of the minority MLAs by raising fears of a backlash if they form the government with help of the BJP.

But the state�s first family has to brace for a long-haul battle. Sending the signal that they could also go the rebel way, two senior ministers � Shankar Prasad Tekriwal (finance) and Jagtanand Singh (irrigation) � stayed away from last night�s Cabinet meeting, apparently to press their grievances harder.

Also, some MLAs who were present at Sunday�s rally in Gandhi Maidan with Laloo have now begun singing the rebel tune. Public health engineering minister Rama Devi, whose husband Brijbehari Prasad was gunned down in 1997, had shared the dais with Laloo.

But today, she said: �Expediting the process of development is everybody�s concern. The party leadership should immediately call a meeting to clarify the stand on the agenda.�

The dissident minority leaders used today�s Bakr-Id holiday to woo legislators from their community.

Monazir Hossain and Mohammad Shahbuddin are said to be holding parleys with other legislators to coax them into swelling the rebel ranks.


New Delhi & Calcutta, March 6: 
Jayalalitha today conceded five more seats to the TMC-Congress combine in Tamil Nadu, taking the number of seats allotted to the alliance to 45.

She also offered the chief ministership of Pondicherry for two-and-a-half years to the Congress in a rotational arrangement with the PMK. �I am willing to sacrifice the ADMK�s claim,� she said at a news conference in Chennai.

But the Congress expressed dissatisfaction with the seat-sharing in Tamil Nadu and virtually rejected the Pondicherry proposal involving the pro-LTTE PMK.

There is talk of floating a third front in Tamil Nadu led by the Congress-TMC combine. Tamil Nadu Congress chief E.V.K.S. Elangovan and Pondicherry chief minister P. Shanmugham, who were summoned by the party high command, are expected to reach Delhi tonight to hold a strategy session after the �snub� by the ADMK chief.

Congress general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad, however, said that the stage to form a third front had not yet come. �Though there was pressure from several quarters, a final decision had not been taken yet,� he said.

�The PMK cannot be part of the Congress government in Pondicherry. The ADMK can be part of the Congress government,� Azad said, adding that the Congress was the single-largest party in the Union territory with nine members in a House of 30.

Jayalalitha asserted that there was no such thing as premier status for any party in Pondicherry and shrugged off the claim that that as ruling party now, the Congress could not be expected to step aside in favour of the PMK.

Still unwilling to experiment with the third front and finding Sonia Gandhi unrelenting, TMC chief G.K. Moopanar is in a fix. The cadre are reportedly pressing him to ditch the Congress altogether.

There could be some late-night discussions between Sonia and Moopanar after which a decision could be arrived at, sources said. The state Congress chief said he expected Moopanar to announce his decision only tomorrow.

Jayalalitha took some potshots at the media �for seeking to sabotage the alliance�, but was otherwise conciliatory.

�I�m not instigating the TMC to ditch the Congress. I�m game if the TMC and the Congress want to have their own alliance in Pondicherry. The Left should not air its grievances through the media I�m always accessible to them,� she said.

DMK alliance

The DMK front appears poised to resolve the seat-sharing amicably. The BJP is seeking a maximum of 60 seats. It has been decided that each NDA constituent will have its own manifesto and all contentious issues will be kept out.

Tamil Nadu BJP leaders today met central leaders, including party chief Bangaru Laxman and senior vice-president Jana Krishnamurthy, in Delhi to discuss poll strategy.


New Delhi & Calcutta, March 6: 
Samata Party leader George Fernandes, the prime force behind RJD dissident leader Ranjan Yadav, will hold talks with the Prime Minister and the home minister shortly to work out a strategy on when and how to set in motion the operation to topple Rabri Devi.

Fernandes, along with NDA leaders Nitish Kumar and Sharad Yadav, is in touch with Ranjan. The RJD working president held a series of meetings with rebel MPs in New Delhi. Of the party�s seven MPs, four are in the dissident camp.

Though the BJP high command still has reservations about backing a Ranjan-led government in Bihar, primarily because it is wary of Ram Vilas Paswan, the Samata and the Janata Dal (United) are confident that dislodging Laloo Yadav and his wife from power is as important to the BJP as it is to the allies.

The BJP leadership in Delhi is still not sure whether Paswan, who recently split the Dal (U) to form his Lok Jan Shakti Party, will support the move despite his assertion today that he would. Also, it is unclear whether the BJP, which has 35 members in the Assembly, will be willing to grant political space to a �mandalised� ally like Paswan, who has seven MLAs.

On the ground, however, the NDA constituents in Bihar have agreed to close ranks and bolster the sagging Opposition, which was in complete disarray until recently.

The Lok Jan Shakti and Samata, which were at daggers drawn during the Asthawan byelections, are marching to the same tune.

�Lalooraj is on the verge of being eclipsed. We are committed to ensuring liberation of the people from this ruthless regime. We will unequivocally support anybody who dares to form an alternative,� Nitish, the NDA convenor, said in Patna.

�Anybody in RJD will make a better chief minister than Rabri Devi. We have unconditional support for him,� echoed Paswan.

The BJP, which earlier had reservations about supporting the rebels because of ideological differences, also fell in line.

�There are small irritants but our actual enemy is Laloo Yadav and there is no wavering from that,� said Nandkishore Yadav, state BJP president.

The coalition legislators, who had been fighting one another in the Assembly, are now sniffing power as they believe Laloo�s removal will ultimately pave the way for a NDA government. �We will just have to wait in the wings for a more crucial role,� said a Dal (U) leader.

The Ranjan camp is taking no chances given Laloo�s penchant for last-minute strategic master-moves. The rebel spearheads are considering effecting a split in the parliamentary party first and then move in the legislature wing.


Calcutta, March 6: 
The Trinamul Congress is ready to put up dummy nominees in the constituencies of pro-mahajot Congress legislators for the Assembly polls.

Trinamul chief Mamata Banerjee has already decided not to field candidates against the family members and close associates of A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury as the Congress MP from Malda has always been in favour of an anti-CPM mahajot.

Sources said some Congress legislators have individually approached Mamata for a poll understanding to avert a split in the anti-Left votes, notwithstanding the recent breakdown of talks between her and the state Congress committee.

Mamata intends to assess the winning prospects of individual legislators before reaching an understanding. The Congress MLAs who are likely to receive Trinamul�s tacit support during the polls include Sankar Singh, Abdul Mannan, Ashok Deb and Gyan Singh Sohanpal.

The PCC, too, is unlikely to field candidates against Trinamul nominees in all the constituencies. �We have heard that Mamata may not put up her nominees against Congress candidates in some constituencies. We will also not field nominees in areas where we are organisationally weak,� PCC vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya said.

Mamata, however, has identified some anti-Trinamul Congress MLAs belonging mainly to former PCC president Somen Mitra�s camp and will put up nominees against them. She feels the CPM will put up weak candidates against these legislators, expecting them to support the Left Front in the event of a hung Assembly.

The Trinamul chief was busy throughout the day giving finishing touches to the list of party candidates. Her list of nominees includes many actors and actresses, doctors, academicians, lawyers, former bureaucrats and police officers.

Angry Trinamul supporters, however, staged demonstrations at Nizam Palace today. They were protesting against Mamata�s reported move to nominate the daughter and daughter-in-law of Union minister of state for external affairs Ajit Panja, son of Ananda Mohan Biswas, MP from Nabadwip, and former IPS officer C.M. Jatua.

The railway minister was not present at Nizam Palace at the time of demonstration. The party dissidents, who came in trucks, gheraoed Trinamul president Subrata Bakshi and heckled Madan Mitra before dispersing.

In Calcutta, the probable Trinamul candidates are Tapas Pal (Alipore), Naina Banerjee (Bowbazar), Sobhandeb Chattopadhyay (Rashbehari), Subrata Mukherjee (Chowringhee), Pankaj Banerjee (Tollygunj), Pulak Das (Shyampukur), Sadhan Pande (Burtala), Sanjay Bakshi (Jorabagan), Paresh Pal (Manicktala), Saugata Roy (Dhakuria), Fazle Alam Mollah (Garden Reach) and Sujit Bose/Arunava Ghosh (Belgachhia East).

In Howrah, sitting Congress MLAs like Ambica Banerjee, Jatu Lahiri, Sital Sardar and Ramjanam Majhi will contest from Howrah Central, Sibpur, Sankrail and Uluberia respectively. Bani Sinha Roy and football coach Amal Dutta will be Trinamul nominees for Jagatballavpur and Shyampur.

Mamata aide and Trinamul Chhatra Parishad president Sonali Guha will face Gokul Bairagi of the CPM at Satgachhia in South 24 Parganas which had returned former chief minister Jyoti Basu. Among other candidates in the district are Sardar Amjad Ali (Diamond Harbour) and Satya Bapuli (Mathurapur).

In North 24 Parganas, probable candidates include Jyotipriya Mullick (Gaighata), Gopal Mukherjee (Barasat), Nirmal Ghosh (Panihati), Bhupen Seth (Bongaon), Tarun Adhikari (Naihati), Mrinal Kanti Sinha Roy (Bijpur) and Idris Ali (Deganga).

In Midnapore, Dipak Ghosh (Mahishadal) and Makhanlal Bangal (Sabang) will seek re-election. Other candidates include Sisir Adhikari (Contai), Chuni Hansda (Binpur) and Ramchandra Mandal (Khejuri).


New Delhi & Calcutta, March 6: 
The Congress and the CPM rebels� outfit, the Party for Democratic Socialism, tonight held talks to work out an electoral understanding for the Assembly polls.

At a meeting held tonight at an undisclosed place state Congress chief Pranab Mukherjee was closeted with PDS president Saifuddin Chowdhury. State Congress vice-president Pradip Bhattacharya and PDS treasurer Tapas Bose were also present. The leaders had initiated the dialogue last month.

The leaders discussed chalking out a common minimum programme for a joint election campaign and separate manifestos under the banner of an anti-Left democratic platform.

It was also decided at the meeting that the PDS will put up candidates in some Left strongholds and the state Congress will field nominees in areas where it has sitting MLAs.

�We will be able to finalise the seat-sharing deal with the PDS in the next couple of days,� claimed Bhattacharya.

Echoing him, Bose said there would be no problem in having an electoral understanding with the state Congress.

PDS general secretary Samir Putatunda, camping in north Bengal, told a news conference in Siliguri today that the party would join forces with the state Congress to float an anti-Left platform. �Preliminary talks are on with the Congress on the possibility. We are looking into all the pros and cons of an alliance with them. We may join an anti-CPM forum minus the Trinamul Congress and other communal forces,� he added.

Boosted by the response from the region, Chowdhury and Putatunda will put up candidates in north Bengal.

Putatunda said that while more than 100 CPM workers from Siliguri alone have crossed over to the PDS, many more leaders from several parties are also likely to cross over.


New Delhi, March 6: 
Unsettled by wave after wave of violence in Kashmir, the Vajpayee administration is anxious about an Opposition attack on its decision to extend the ceasefire by three months.

Since the extension last month, almost every day militants have struck, killing security personnel. The latest incident took place yesterday when militants attacked a Rashtriya Rifles camp and killed two soldiers.

The government is worried that continuing bloodbath will lead to it losing the endorsement by the Congress of its Kashmir policy, looking increasingly flimsy because of lack of results.

Perhaps anticipating criticism in Parliament, home minister L.K. Advani sought to deflect attention towards the absence of an �adequate� response from Pakistan to the ceasefire.

On a trip to the Andamans, he said: �The only response Pakistan has given is to stop firing across the border. But it has not stopped aiding and abetting militant outfits like the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad based there.�

Nothing that Advani said added anything new to the government defence of its Kashmir policy. The only points of note are that the statement comes amid rising concern within the government and the BJP over the futility of persisting with the ceasefire and that the speaker himself is not overly enthusiastic about the largely Prime Minister-inspired ceasefire decision.

Advani gave in to the government�s overbearing diplomatic considerations, the ceasefire believed to be earning India international accolade and showing Pakistan in poor light.

His ministry did not make a fuss over the latest extension till May 31. But the daily loss of lives is becoming difficult to overlook. The home ministry has already said that even during the ceasefire, search and cordon operations against militants will continue, but in a limited way.

The Congress was briefed in detail by the government not long before the budget session started. An all-party meeting was organised at Atal Bihari Vajpayee�s behest to drive home the government�s standpoint. Although the Opposition has given the government almost a walkover so far on Kashmir and many other issues, within the Sangh parivar not many are convinced by the logic that foreign policy compulsions should outweigh all other considerations.

The BJP think-tank will cautiously watch how the Congress approaches the issue in Parliament over the next few days. A debate on the Kargil committee report is slated for next week. If the Congress and the Left do not demand a statement within the next few days, they may raise the question when the Kargil report is discussed.

Sources said there was no immediate need to review the situation at a political level. In any case, the Cabinet Committee on Security meets regularly and can discuss Kashmir, if needed.

�Only if the Opposition pushes the government to the wall and bickerings within the ruling party come to light will the Vajpayee administration be compelled to do a serious rethink,� the sources said. Opposition members might also use the forum of the parliamentary committee on home affairs to question the government on Kashmir.


Kurukshetra, March 6: 
The Prime Minister today carried to the nerve centre of the agriculture vote bank news it wanted to hear: protection will be granted to them when farm products become freely importable from April and they will get a �good� minimum support price for wheat.

At a mammoth rally in this farm belt, attended by over three lakh people, Atal Bihari Vajpayee�s speech sounded like a pastoral symphony � the promise of �heavy duties� to make farm imports prohibitive once India opens its doors to imports from April in keeping with a World Trade Organisation agreement.

�Farmers need not worry about the World Trade Organisation,� said Vajpayee. �We are working on how best to protect the interests of the farmers.�

The government proposes to slap high duties on these products, making them more expensive than Indian products. This, the government hopes, will give farmers the necessary competitive edge to take on imported products in the local markets.

Farmers in this region had also been protesting against the minimum support price � the rate at which the government buys their produce from farmers � for wheat. In Punjab, farmers had destroyed potatoes to protest against the government�s failure to buy their produce. In Punjab, farmers had destroyed potatoes to protest against the government failure to buy their produce. Vajpayee�s promise of a �good� price was aimed at placating the angry farm belt.

The Prime Minister, however, had a word of caution. Farmers need to diversify and employ modern techniques as farm products are cheaper abroad than in India.

Painting the picture of a strong India and a united government, Vajpayee said: �We don�t want anyone�s land. But we won�t give an inch to anyone either. I would like to make it clear that the coalition government at the Centre is very strong and working like a team. The Opposition is unnecessarily blaming us or everything. I was wondering whether they would even hold me responsible for the Gujarat earthquake.�


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