Tell-all captain jumps army gun
Grenade deaths in Kashmir shrine
Get well, Mr PM, but put your foot down on Valley
Blair is back minus the bugle
Calcutta Weather

Kathmandu, June 8: 
While his story of the palace tragedy has been generally received here with much scepticism, Captain Rajiv Shahi seems to have rattled both the army and the government by giving out his �eyewitness account� at a news conference yesterday.

There were unconfirmed reports that the army authorities were considering action against him for not having taken permission from them for speaking to the media. Captain Shahi, son-in-law of slain King Birendra�s brother, Dhirendra, is an army doctor. But political sources doubted how far the army could go if Shahi had the permission of the palace to speak out.

These reports also suggested that action could be taken against the military hospital superintendent for allowing the news conference inside the hospital complex at Chhauni. There was, however, no confirmation from either the army or the government about these reports.

Apart from the question of the propriety of calling the media over to the hospital, the army authorities were reportedly upset over the manner in which the hospital security was breached. Several of the injured of Friday night�s palace shooting are still in the hospital.

But Nepal�s foreign minister, Chakra Prasad Bastola, today expressed the government�s displeasure at Shahi�s action. In an interview to a television channel he said Shahi should not have spoken to the media at a time when the two-member probe committee, headed by Chief Justice Keshav Prasad Upadhyay, was about to start work on unravelling the mystery of the palace murders.

Shahi�s action also came in for criticism from a breakaway Maoist group, Sanjukta Jan Morcha, which cited his news conference as �one more example� of the �conspiracy in the world media� to accuse Dipendra of the murder.

�He was not the murderer,� Leelamoni Pokhrel, Morcha leader, said unambiguously, while addressing the first rally by a political party since the royal tragedy at Patan near here.

In its first public pronouncement on the post-massacre situation today, the army cautioned that �anti-national campaigns and false propaganda could have an adverse effect on national security in this sensitive situation�. In a full-page advertisement in the largest-circulated Nepali daily, Kantipur, whose editor Yubhraj Ghimire, was arrested along with the publisher and the managing director two days ago, the Royal Nepal Army greeted King Gyanendra and reminded the people that the army had always done its duty to �protect the sovereignty, geographical unity and national independence under the leadership of the king�.

Analysts here read in the message an attempt to silence critics who had also pointed an accusing finger at the army for its failure to prevent the palace massacre. It was also said to be a move to set at rest speculation that there were differences within the army and between the army and the new palace dispensation, not only over the probe into the massacre, but also over the future of democracy.

It is public knowledge here that the present king had differences with his brother, the late King Birendra, over the role of democracy, with the former having taken a hardline position during the 1990 democracy movement.


Srinagar, June 8: 
Terror returned to haunt Chrar-e-Sharif six years after a conflagration when a grenade was tossed today amid a group of women worshippers, killing four and cutting short Friday prayers for the first time in one of the holiest shrines in Kashmir.

Fifty worshippers were also wounded in the explosion. Police sources said unidentified persons hurled a hand grenade on people offering prayers at the tomb of Sheikh Noor Din, the patron saint of Kashmir.

Panic turned into anger when policemen fired several rounds in the air soon after the explosion. Thousands took to the streets and started shouting anti-police slogans. A demonstration was held in the premises of the shrine this afternoon against the �indiscriminate firing�.

The protesters pelted stones at the district police chief and the district magistrate who had rushed to the spot. Their guards fired in the air to disperse the mob.

However, while talking to a local news agency, Jammu and Kashmir director-general of police Ashok Suri denied any involvement of the police in the incident. He said militants had targeted the local station house officer and his guards. The grenade, Suri said, missed the target and exploded among the worshippers.

A magisterial probe has been ordered to establish how the incident happened and whether there was excessive police firing after the explosion.

Two women died on way to hospital after the grenade attack. Two others, who had been taken to the Bone and Joint Hospital and the Soura Medical Institute, also succumbed to injuries.

Devotees had thronged the shrine for special Friday prayers following Id-e-Milad, the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad, which was celebrated on Tuesday.

�I saw women and men running for cover after a deafening sound. I noticed blood oozing from my arm and then I ran and cried for help. My relative later helped me,� a woman said while being taken to the operation theatre. �There was complete darkness in front of my eyes. Seconds later, I realised that I had been hit by splinters and found others around me in pool of blood,� she added.

The shrine had been gutted in a fierce gun-battle between security forces and militants in May 1995. In March that year, the army had laid siege to the shrine after a group of militants led by Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader Mast Gul entered Chrar-e-Sharif. The siege ended in the second week of May and troops were deployed across the town. Gul, however, managed to escape. A new shrine is now being built at Chrar-e-Sharif.


Mumbai, June 8: 
As Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee started recovering from his second knee operation in eight months, people appeared as concerned about his health as his proposed meeting with Pakistani chief executive Pervez Musharraf.

Dozens of e-mails are streaming into Vajpayee�s mailbox created by the Mumbai unit of the BJP, wishing him quick recovery and urging him not to compromise on Kashmir. He also received a get-well note from Congress president Sonia Gandhi, but with a reminder on the Ayodhya issue.

Doctors said the leader was recovering well. Vajpayee was helped out of his bed today and made to sit on a chair, though briefly. The pain in his operated knee was subsiding and he did not have any health complaints. The Prime Minister remained on a liquid diet. He is expected to return to normal diet in a day or two.

Vajpayee�s inbox was overflowing with mails, said Mangal Lodha, BJP MLA in charge of media management. In the past 24 hours, the box received 1,200 e-mails. Most were �get well� types, but many were about Vajpayee�s summit with Musharraf.

Many even suggested how he should go about the summit � not budging an inch from India�s position on Kashmir. Ashok Dugar, in Hindi, asked Vajpayee not to take a �soft line� during his meeting with Musharraf, reminding him of the Kargil war that had cost the lives of many Indian soldiers.

Another man, wishing the leader a quick recovery, asked him not to compromise on Kashmir which, he said, was an integral part of India. He asked Vajpayee to make sure that the Pakistani chief executive really wanted peace in the embattled state. Otherwise, he said, nothing would come of the meeting.

The summit with Musharraf is high on the Prime Minister�s post-operative agenda, a Vajpayee aide said. Next is the expansion of his Cabinet, a prickly business with the Shiv Sena demanding a berth in place of former Union law minister Ram Jethmalani, who was elected to the Rajya Sabha on a Sena ticket.

Union parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan has, however, said the Sena would not get any Cabinet berth as Jethmalani was a minister before he became a Rajya Sabha MP.

According to the Prime Minister�s aide, the meeting with Musharraf is expected to take place in Delhi by mid-July, though the exact date is yet to be finalised. The Pakistani military ruler might stay in India for two or three days at the most, the PMO official added.

Lodha said many e-mailers hoped the Prime Minister would recover quickly enough to have a fruitful dialogue with Musharraf. Some also advised him on his domestic compulsions.

Doctors at Breach Candy hospital, where US-based surgeon Chittaranjan Ranawat had yesterday successfully replaced the Prime Minister�s right knee joint, said they hoped Vajpayee would start walking with a walker in a couple of days. Vajpayee today spent the day mainly reading newspapers and watching television.

No files were sent to him today, but the Prime Minister is expected to clear some soon. He was not permitted visitors.


London, June 8: 
Tony Blair established himself as Europe�s most powerful politician after his Labour Party steamed back to power today.

Such was the humiliation inflicted on the Conservatives that William Hague stepped down as the Tory Party leader within hours of defeat. A worrying trend was the low turnout of 58 per cent, down from nearly 72 per cent in the 1997 elections when Blair became Prime Minister after 18 years of Tory rule.

With all seats decided except 18 in Northern Ireland, Blair embarked on his new term with a majority of 167 in the 659-seat House of Commons. In 1997, Labour had a 179-seat majority. But, as the turnout has been the lowest since 1918, many commentators feel there is widespread cynicism, especially among the young, with politics.

Mindful of this, Blair�s return to power, predicted accurately by pre-poll surveys, was marked with little extravagant celebration. He was driven to Buckingham Palace this morning for the traditional meeting with the Queen when the monarch formally asked him to form her government. But he chose to do so in a modest Vauxall Cavalier which waited, like other London motorists, at traffic lights.

On returning to his official residence at Downing Street, he and his wife, Cherie, posed for a charming family photograph with their children outside the famous door of Number 10. The politician in Blair could not resist kissing a baby but this time it was his own, Leo, who was born during his first term.

On a more serious note, Blair set out a reforming agenda for his government. He would give priority, he said, to education, public services, reform of the criminal justice system, keeping mortgages, inflation and unemployment low and to technological progress. This last priority might mean that Britain, like Silicon Valley in the US, might have more work to offer to IT professionals from India, widely regarded as among the best in the world.

With the exception of relations with Europe and joining a common European currency, foreign affairs did not figure very much during the five-week campaign. During his first term, Blair did not manage to pay an official visit to India, which Delhi would like him to do at an early date.

Late tonight, Blair began recasting his government. Blair replaced Robin Cook as his foreign secretary with Jack Straw but left his powerful finance minister, Gordon Brown, in place. Cook will move to become the minister in charge of parliament and parliamentary business.

Keith Vaz, the Europe minister, was returned in Leicester East with a majority reduced from 18,422 to 13,442, but few are confident Blair will find a place for him in his new government. For Asians, Vaz had symbolic importance as the most high-profile Asian face in British politics.

Vaz has been criticised for his alleged financial links with the Hinduja brothers, Srichand and Gopi, who, incidentally, arrived back in Britain yesterday, via Switzerland.

On what was a terrible night for the Tories, not a single non-white Conservative candidate was elected to Parliament. It will therefore not be easy for the Tories to present themselves as a multi-cultural party, especially when faced with new ethnic minority faces in Labour ranks.

One of the latter is a solicitor, Parmjit Dhanda, who retained Gloucester for Labour, where the previous MP, a woman, stood down because she found the long working hours in the House of Commons too disruptive of family life. Dhanda�s majority was 3,880, down from 8,259 in 1997.

This suggests ethnic minority candidates still face resistance from some white voters. Race was the biggest issue in the Lancashire town of Oldham, where Asian youths rioted during the campaigns after provocative incidents involving extreme Right-wing groups.

The British National Party, which has a near-fascist agenda and seeks the repatriation of non-white immigrants, will be delighted with its performance in the two Oldham seats where it put up candidates. The BNP, whose candidates would normally have been expected to lose their deposits, polled 5,091 and 6,552 in two Oldham seats, amounting to very respectable 11.2 per cent and 16.4 per cent of votes cast. This is clearly a sign of a white backlash against the Asian community.

The Tories had high hopes on one of its Asian candidates, Shailesh Vara, a solicitor who was defeated by only 885 votes in Northampton South. During the campaign, Baroness Thatcher visited the constituency and spoke on Vara�s behalf. His failure to become MP will be a bitter disappointment to him and to the Tories, who had seen him as one of their rising stars.

In Ealing Southall, the elderly Labour MP, Piara Singh Khabra, was returned with a majority reduced from 21,423 to 13,683. The Independent challenger, Avtar Lit, chairman of Sunrise Radio, came third behind the Tories�� 8,556 with 5,784 votes.

In Bradford West, a heavily Mirpuri constituency, the sitting Labour MP, Marsha Singh, a Sikh sympathetic to Pakistan�s Kashmir aspirations, was challenged strongly by the pro-Pakistan Pakistani, Mohammed Riaz, but surprisingly increased his majority from 3,877 to 4,165.

There are obvious similarities and differences between the world�s biggest and oldest democracies. Although the British election could have been more exciting, the level of debating was often high, and there was no violence (other than in Oldham), no booth capturing and no candidates shot dead.

Among politicians expected to stand for the Tory leadership are Michael Portillo, whose father emigrated to Britain from Spain, and Kenneth Clarke, the former Chancellor. Nothing became William Hague so much as his dignified and most un-Mamata Banerjee-like behaviour. After being defeated, he blamed no one and immediately quit.

He said: �I believe it is vital the party be given the chance to choose a leader who can build on my work, but also take new initiatives and hopefully command a larger personal following in the country. I�ve therefore decided to step down as leader of the Conservative party when a successor can be elected in the coming months.�

In the early hours of today, he telephoned Blair and conceded defeat. In return, Blair publicly expressed his good wishes for the future to his vanquished opponent. It was all very civilised.

Blair made one telling point as he prepared to take control of Britain�s destiny for another five years. He said proudly: �Britain is a very special country and its people are a very special people.�




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