Mid-air ‘miracle’ saves Omar from second ambush
Delhi to review fallout, not truce
RSS frowns on consultation gap
Unions in reform tussle build-up
Retention proposal for top officials
Naidu support for poll ally
Rain halts rail rescue
Bihar-Centre crossfire on ISI
RJD leader shot

Srinagar June 23: 
Union minister of state for industries and commerce Omar Abdullah and minister of state for home, government of Jammu and Kashmir, Mushtaq Ahmad Lone, escaped an attempt on their lives at Sogam in northern Kupwara district today afternoon.

Abdullah and Lone miraculously escaped the attack after militants made an attempt to gun down their helicopter while it was landing. They were scheduled to address a public meeting at Sogam.

“It is a miracle that we are alive. The militants fired three rifle grenades which just missed our helicopter,” a visibly shaken Abdullah told The Telegraph minutes after his return to Srinagar from Kupwara.

“The grenades exploded one after the other in air near the helicopter while we were landing. This was a close attempt but we are safe,” he added. “Our helicopter tried to land thrice but could not as the security forces closed the helipad after seeing the grenades landing near our plane. We were in air making attempts to land safely.”

A police spokesman in Srinagar said that the two ministers who were scheduled to address a meeting could not land in the area because of security reasons. The helicopter later returned to Kupwara, where police and security force officials were waiting at the helipad. Messages had been flashed to Kupwara and Srinagar following the attack. Panic stricken police officials remained in touch with the district authorities at Kupwara till the ministers arrived there.

“As the security forces blocked the runway for our safety, we had no option but to return after the pilot successfully took off and we returned to the district headquarters at Kupwara,” Abdullah said. This is the second attack on Abdullah’s life in the last three weeks. Earlier, militants targeted him at Nawakadal in downtown Srinagar.

“We cancelled our plan to address the meeting. The venue was within firing range and the militants hiding in the nearby dense forest could have easily targeted the general public.

“The jungle area is heavily infested by militants. There is no security presence in the area,” the Union minister added.

Abdullah and Lone later held a meeting with district officials in Kupwara. “We decided to cancel the Saturday’s meeting as we did not want to put the lives of people into great risk,” he said. “We will soon return to Sogam to hold the meeting,” he added.


New Delhi, June 23: 
Without committing to take a relook at the truce with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the Centre today agreed to “review the various issues arising out of the ceasefire”.

But leaders of political parties from Manipur, who were here to meet home minister L.K. Advani following the Centre’s decision to extend the ceasefire with the Naga insurgent outfit “without territorial limits”, stuck to their demand for a review of the ceasefire with the NSCN(I-M).

They also demanded removal of the clause “without territorial limits” from the agreement signed between the Centre’s representative, K. Padmanabhaiah, and NSCN(I-M) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah in Bangkok on June 14. The party leaders threatened to resign en masse if the Vajpayee government failed to review the agreement.

Briefing reporters after a three-hour meeting at North Block, home minister L.K. Advani said besides reviewing some of the key issues arising out of the ceasefire, like safeguarding the territorial integrity of the three states and the concept of Greater Nagaland, the government will consider “interacting” with Manipuri students’ bodies and leaders of political parties not represented in the state Assemblies and Parliament. “The ceasefire with the NSCN(I-M) is an issue which affects not only Manipur but also other states in the region,” Advani said.

The home minister, however, said there was no question of scrapping the Bangkok agreement. But he stressed that the Union government would “not permit anything to affect the territorial integrity of Manipur and other states in the Northeast and the Centre was committed to the Constitution, democracy and peace”.

Some of the party leaders from the state who participated in today’s discussion included Th. Chaoba Singh (minister of the state at the Centre), Lok Sabha MP Holkhomang Haokip, Rajya Sabha MP W. Angou Singh, former chief minister and state Samata Party chief Radhabinod Koijam and legislators L. Chandramani Singh, H.K.L Singh, O. Joy Singh, veteran Congress leader Rishang Keishing, Speaker S. Dhananjoy Singh and state BJP leader R.K. Dorendra Singh.

The leaders submitted a joint memorandum which, the home minister said, will be considered. Padmanabhaiah and home secretary Kamal Pande also attended the meeting.

A statement issued by the home ministry after the meeting said Advani was in favour of an “holistic approach” to the situation as “any conclusion would have effects in other neighbouring states apart from Manipur”.

Protesters in custody

Twelve activists of the All-Manipur Students’ Union, including union president O. Shyamchand, were today remanded to judicial custody for 15 days by the Imphal chief judicial magistrate.


New Delhi, June 23: 
The RSS today said the Centre should have consulted “all concerned parties and persons” before concluding the Bangkok accord with NSCN leader Isak-Muivah and extending the ceasefire to Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Referring to an interview of Manipur Governor Ved Marwah in which he had indicated that he, too, had not been consulted before the ceasefire decision, RSS spokesman M.G. Vaidya said: “From Marwah’s statement, it appears he was not consulted by the concerned persons. Had he not given out this statement this fact would not have come to light because then nobody would have said anything.”

Vaidya stressed that Marwah’s responses “corroborated the perception that concerned parties were not consulted by the Centre”. “By concerned parties, I mean the Governor, political parties and the Assam government,” he said.

However, the RSS spokesman stopped short of criticising the accord after being repeatedly asked if he thought the Centre had messed up the situation in Manipur. “The government has explained its position and Muivah said there will be no threat to the territorial integrity of any state. So we hope the agitation will subside,” he said tersely.

Vaidya, while maintaining that the RSS had not received any independent feedback from its Manipur swayamsevaks, made it clear that the Sangh did not back the NSCN’s demand for a Greater Nagaland.

On next month’s summit between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Vaidya candidly said he did not “expect much”. “That’s my suspicion. We have been talking with Pakistan and even when we had an upper hand in 1972 we could not make Pakistan accept our position,” he said.

Asked if the RSS approved of the Centre’s decision to invite Musharraf for talks despite cross-border terrorism continuing, Vaidya said, “We cannot take a tight position when dealing with international politics. After all, the ceasefire (along the Line of Control) had certain positive effects. The LoC was quiet but there was terrorism within their (the militant outfits’) territorial incursions.”

On having a dialogue with a military ruler who had anointed himself President, Vaidya said: “No government can afford to take the position that it will not talk to its neighbour unless democracy is established. That’s an internal matter of Pakistan.”

The bottomline, he said, was that “so long as a government was committed to the Shimla Pact, it is bound to talk to Pakistan”.

Vaidya also announced that the RSS’ national executive (Akhil Bharatiya Karyakar Mandal) will meet in Kanpur on June 30 and July 1 to take stock of the summer training classes held the country over for its members and chalk out future programmes.


New Delhi, June 23: 
The season of discontent is here. Trade unions of all political faiths are planning one protest after another to tighten screws on the Vajpayee government which so far has shown no signs of relenting on liberalisation and globalisation.

The day the monsoon session of Parliament begins in July, trade unions will launch their attack — a two-day strike in defence establishments with workers from all parts of the country marching to Parliament. Later in the month, labour leaders hope to organise an all-India general strike to put as much pressure as they can to prevent the government from amending labour laws and pushing through its economic policies.

Clearly trade union leaders are in a battle mode — their adversaries in the government, too, are firmly in saddle, not willing to budge an inch. Neither Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee nor his junior colleague, labour minister Satya Narain Jatiya, have so far shown any sympathy for the trade unions’ cause. At a meeting of the Indian Labour Conference last month, the Prime Minister announced his government’s resolve to keep to the path of liberalisation while Jatiya declared that labour laws will be changed regardless of opposition from any quarter.

“We have chalked out a series of agitations, but what is required to be seen is how much we can reverse the economic policies with our agitations,” S.N. Rao, leader of the Hind Mazdoor Sabha, said. But the development that has boosted labour leaders is the zeal with which the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a member of the Sangh parivar, is supporting other trade unions, even at the risk of attracting the wrath of some top BJP leaders.

There is, however, a question mark over how far the BMS will take its fight — it does have the silent blessings of some BJP leaders in and outside the government and also of the RSS, the organisation which tries to keep the BJP on a tight leash whenever it finds the party “going astray”. However, the BMS ideally would like to solve the problem within the family and avoid a split. The Shiv Sena, too, which is part of the trade union front, would not like to see this government go.

“No one wants the government to fall,” a labour leader said. Since the BMS does not want to replace the Vajpayee government, it is likely that the trade union will not allow the agitation to peak where the government’s survival could be in doubt. Ironically, even trade unions affiliated to Opposition parties are not ready for a change of guard.

“If the BJP government goes now, a Congress-led government will step in, and how will that help?” Rao asked. The possibility of a third alternative, ready with numbers to take the place of the Vajpayee government, is, at present, a remote thought.

Till then, trade unions are happy to keep the fire going. Its primary target now is the change in labour laws.


New Delhi, June 23: 
The Centre is believed to be considering a proposal to increase the retirement age of top officials holding “sensitive” posts from 60 to 62 years.

Government sources said the opinion was that the Prime Minister should be given the discretion of using the services of a top official beyond the stipulated 60 years if the ruling establishment felt his services were “of use”.

Also, it was felt that top officials should have an “uninterrupted” two-year tenure so that they can discharge their duties and responsibilities more effectively, irrespective of political changes.

If the Cabinet ratifies this proposal, it will cover the post of Cabinet secretary, foreign secretary, and the directors of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Intelligence Bureau (IB), and RAW.

The immediate beneficiary of the proposed amendment could be Cabinet secretary T.R. Prasad, who is due to retire on July 31. Prasad took over the post on November 1, 2000, and has barely completed a year. An extension until November 1, 2002, would ensure that he be in the post for two full years.

But government sources said the Centre cannot push through the policy change without consulting state governments as the all-India service rules govern top officials in states as well.

Sources said the arguments in favour of the extension would be more justified in the case of states where bureaucratic reshuffles, especially at the top, were sometimes arbitrarily carried out, depending on the whims of the chief minister of the day. Government sources said Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been under pressure from a southern ally of his to give Prasad an extension. The Cabinet secretary belongs to the Andhra Pradesh cadre.

However, a larger strategy to pave the way for the ascendancy of home secretary Kamal Pandey as the next Cabinet secretary, too, appeared to be at work, according to government sources.

Three names are being discussed as a possible successor to Prasad: N.C. Saxena, secretary, Planning Commission, finance secretary Ajit Kumar and revenue secretary S. Narayan.

Saxena and Kumar have roughly one year to go before they retire. Saxena is due to retire by July-August 2002 and Kumar by January 2002. Pandey’s and Narayan’s tenures are till January 2003.

If Prasad continues till November 2002, sources said the choice for his successor would narrow down to between Pandey and Narayan. In the power sweepstakes, it is learnt that the home secretary has the backing of two BJP heavyweights — his own boss and home minister L.K. Advani and human resource development minister Murli Manohar Joshi.


Hyderabad, June 23: 
N. Chandrababu Naidu, who has finalised a tie-up with the BJP for next month’s panchayat polls in Andhra Pradesh, maintained a guarded silence as his counterparts from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra blasted the ruling alliance at the Centre for its failures on the rural front.

At a two-day workshop of the National Institute of Rural Development on self-help groups, Naidu rallied in support of rural development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu.

He did not join issue with Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh on the “wrong guidelines” followed to identify families living below the poverty line. Even in Andhra, as a result of the faulty methodology, only 43 lakh families qualified for a scheme for rice below Rs 5 a kg, when the actual number would be close to 92 lakh families.

He also did not support Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh on employment generation schemes.

“Employment generation schemes are given to states where there is no lack of jobs for agricultural labourers. But for states like mine (Madhya Pradesh) where people are migrating in search of jobs, such schemes are not allocated,” Digvijay said.

Naidu was in favour of giving more funds to self-help groups. “Success of most of the programmes depends on the kind of sarpanch you have,” said a sceptical Digvijay. But Naidu was all in favour of these schemes.

Deshmukh demanded that Venkaiah Naidu should take decisions instead of making speeches and urged for a review of guidelines to identify those living below the poverty line.

“Figures reveal that the number of families living below the poverty line in Maharashtra has fallen from 75 lakh to 38 lakh between 1997 and 1998. This was because of a faulty Central survey which eliminated people owning ceiling fans and pucca houses. The state governments should conduct such surveys, not the Centre,” he added.


Kochi, June 23: 
Rescue operations were called off this afternoon amid heavy rains as the toll in yesterday’s train tragedy rose to 68 today. Ninety-three of the injured have been hospitalised. The condition of 15 is serious.

Rescue workers, however, said five to six people might still be trapped inside one coach, taking the toll up to 75. Three carriages of the Mangalore-Chennai Mail had fallen off a bridge in Kerala into a river yesterday.

Local people said the toll could have been higher but for the fact that the river was in low tide when the coaches fell off the bridge. Besides, the river bed was shallow, and construction workers along with villagers jumped into the rescue promptly.

Railway minister Nitish Kumar, who reached the spot yesterday, has ordered an inquiry.

Railway officials and construction workers at the scene said they suspected one of the girders of the bridge — built during British colonial rule — gave way as the train passed over it.

More than 15 metres of the 150-metre-long bridge had crumbled and railway officials said it would take at least two days to restore the track.

The Kerala government declared a two-day mourning in Malappuram and Kozhikode from today. Chief minister A.K. Antony who visited the site of the accident, promised Rs 30,000 to the next of kin of the dead.

Rescue teams had used portable generators and headlights of police jeeps through the night to light the area as they searched the smashed carriages.

Wreckage like metal calls, batteries and wheels from the derailed cars lay strewn on twisted tracks along the bridge. Concrete sleepers that held the tracks together were broken due to the impact of the accident.

The accident was the second of its kind in Kerala. At least 105 people were killed when four coaches of the Island Express plunged into a lake near Quilon in 1988.

Bengali moves Antony

A Bengali’s heart-rending cries to know the whereabouts of his wife still haunt Antony.

“Yesterday’s train tragedy has already left all of us in deep grief and to me the sufferings of the survivors are the most wounding,” he told reporters.

Antony said he was grieved and it was impossible to console the kith and kin of passengers from several parts of the country who had died. “The Bengali’s cries to know the whereabouts of his wife still haunt me and I am unable to come out of the grief,” a visibly upset Antony said.

The Bengali passenger’s wife was reportedly killed in the accident but her body was yet to be traced.


Patna, June 23: 
A Centre-state feud has erupted with the Rabri Devi government hitting back at the Union home ministry, which has pulled up the Bihar police for their laxity in keeping an eye on ISI-sponsored operations in the districts bordering Nepal.

The face-off comes in the wake of the arrest of international terrorist Osama bin Laden’s henchmen, who were conspiring to blow up the US embassies in New Delhi and Dhaka in August. Of the four arrested, two were from Bihar.

Even as Intelligence Bureau was tracking down the conspirators, the Union home ministry is learnt to have sent an alert note to Bihar, saying that the police were ignoring the issue of ISI-sponsored operations in the districts bordering Nepal.

Expressing surprise over the low priority accorded by the police to the problem of fundamentalists infiltrating into the state and using it as a safe haven, the Centre stressed the need for stricter surveillance of the border and gangsters, their operations and links with anti-nationals.

The Rabri Devi regime has shot back, saying that the warning remained a mere rhetoric as the Centre failed to sanction projects for strengthening surveillance along the border. L.K. Advani’s department allegedly went back on its promise to sanction police stations at 10-km intervals on the border.

Besides, the state government had drafted a project to set up 43 outposts along the border and install special branch units in them. The Centre agreed to the proposal, but is yet to give its stamp of formal approval.

State home ministry sources said Patna had drawn up the schemes after Delhi sought proposals for strengthening border surveillance at a meeting between Rabri Devi and Advani in Delhi in August last year.

The latest row on Bihar being used by Islamic fundamentalists as a safe haven was sparked as two of bin Laden’s alleged associates were arrested from Bihar. Arshad, son of Mohammad Shah, was arrested from Patna’s Phulwarisharif after a midnight swoop on his den.

Originally a resident of Nalanda, Arshad used to drive an autorickshaw as a camouflage for his disruptive activities.

Shamim Sarwar, a post graduate in Persian from Patna University, was the other person who hailed from Bihar. He was part of the plot to blow up the US embassy in Delhi, intelligence officials said. Confirming the arrests from the state, Bihar I-G (Intelligence) Ashis Ranjan Sinha said they had been taken to Delhi for interrogation.

The intelligence sources said Hawash, the arrested key accused in the conspiracy, had squealed on Arshad, who was hiding in Bihar. They said they were also looking for a Yemeni national, A.L. Safani, who was allegedly involved in the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.


Patna, June 23: 
Tension gripped Muzaffarpur after RJD district vice-president Parmeswar Yadav was gunned down this morning at his residence by unidentified assailants.

Police said about 12 armed men barged into his house at Kedarkalyan colony and demanded an audience to discuss some problems.

As Yadav stepped out of his room to meet them, the men opened fire on him from a close range. The 45-year-old leader fell down bleeding and died soon after.

The incident sparked sporadic incidents of violence as Yadav’s followers went on rampage, blaming the police for not acting fast in apprehending the culprits. A bandh was observed in most parts of the town.

RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is believed to be close to the leader, rushed to Muzaffarpur immediately after he came to know about the incident.

His arrival helped control the irate RJD supporters to some extent.

Police said the motive behind the killing is not known. Police have launched a search for the assailants.


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