Nato launches Serb strikes
Watchdog defies govt, notifies phone rate hike
Atal meet to close ranks
Cable blackout for 5 channels
Bengal faces trial by fire
Calcutta weather

Belgrade, March 24 
Nato forces tonight unleashed a long-threatened attack on Serbian targets in Yugoslavia, resorting to massive force after diplomacy failed to bring an end to fighting in Kosovo.

The Nato attack, its first against a sovereign country in the alliance?s 50-year history, used dozens of cruise missiles and one-tonne bombs in an aerial blitz involving several warplanes. Led by US forces, the first wave of the strikes also set the stage for the debut of the B-2 Stealth bomber in combat.

Mounting a diplomatic offensive in the face of stiff resistance from Russia, US President Bill Clinton described the assault a ?stand against ethnic violence and atrocity?.

?Kosovo?s crisis is full-blown. And if we do not act now, clearly it will get worse. Only firmness can now prevent greater catastrophe later,? he said at the White House.

But a ?deeply upset? President Boris Yeltsin, with whom Clinton spoke just hours before the attack, pulled Russia out of its partnership with Nato and warned of unspecified military steps to ensure the security of his country and Europe. Russia has called for an emergency session of the UN Security Council. China is also opposed to the strikes.

The Nato attack was swiftly condemned by the Yugoslav army as ?unwarranted aggression? orchestrated by the US.

Explosions resounded in Kosovo?s capital Pristina, according to residents reached by telephone, and the city of 2,80,000 was plunged into darkness when the electricity failed.

In Belgrade, witnesses reported seeing eight explosions, some near a military airport and at least one near a power plant. The state news agency said seven towns have been hit.

In neighbouring Montenegro, which with Serbia forms Yugoslavia, an army military barracks was in flames after being hit. Explosions were also heard in the area of Novisad in northern Serbia, northwest of Belgrade.

The onslaught, which officials have said could last for days, relied initially on cruise missiles launched from allied warships in the alliance?s Mediterranean fleet.

The aim would be to heavily damage Yugoslavia?s air defence network in order to increase the effectiveness of a wider air offensive expected to follow.

More than 400 warplanes were poised to attack from Nato bases in Italy, and the Mediterranean fleet, which includes eight warships from eight countries.

Eight US B-52 bombers, each armed with 20 cruise missiles, also were available to join the attack on Serbian military targets. They flew from their base in Gloucestershire, England, earlier, apparently moving towards Kosovo. Other planes took off from Italy.

Yugoslavia had declared a state of emergency on Tuesday night, its first since World War II, ordering its forces dispersed to hide from bombings and try to keep the country?s grip on Kosovo, which Serbia considers the historical cradle of its culture.

Threatened for months, the strikes are meant to punish President Slobodan Milosevic?s repeated refusal to end the war against ethnic Albanian separatists and accept a Kosovo peace plan. The conflict has killed more than 2,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

Two days of last-ditch talks between special US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, who brokered an end to the Bosnian war in 1995, and the Yugoslav leader failed to change Milosevic?s mind. Only hours before the attack, Milosevic delivered a final message of defiance, urging Yugoslavs in a nationally televised address to defend the country ?by all means?.

Fighting raged in several Kosovo villages on Wednesday despite the looming threat of air strikes. Serb tanks fired volley after volley into areas near Kosovo?s southern border with Macedonia.

An estimated 40,000 Yugoslav army and Serbian police forces are in Kosovo, pursuing the massive crackdown Milosevic launched in February 1998 to try to crush ethnic Albanian rebels in the poor southern province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia.    

New Delhi, March 24 
Pushing for resolution of the tussle with the government over its independence, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has notified the tariff revision, despite the Centre?s order holding it in abeyance.

The new telecom rates were notified by Trai in the official gazette of March 15, four days after the government asked it to keep its controversial order in abeyance.

The notification in the gazette means the new rate structure, seeking to raise telephone rentals and local call charges while cutting the cost of overseas calls, will come into effect from April 1.

Communications minister Jagmohan, who has supported the department of telecom (DoT) in its face-off with Trai, was not available for comment. However, a senior DoT official said: ?We are examining the issue and have already spoken to our legal experts. They have told us that the notification means nothing.?

Official sources tonight said DoT has called a press conference tomorrow where it will clarify the position. They maintained the notification would not come into effect, but refused to spell out how they planned to nix it.

Under the rules, the notification can be withdrawn either by the body that issues it or the President of India. Legal experts said the decision can be vetoed by a simple majority of the Trai members.

Trai chairman S.S. Sodhi said tonight he was prepared to withdraw the notification provided the government asked him to, but only after the questions he had placed before the government were answered satisfactorily.

The government had stayed the tariff order by invoking section 25 of the Trai Act, which empowers it to issue policy directives to the authority.

Sodhi has put the government in a Catch-22 situation. He has asked the government to clarify whether its directive was issued under sub-section (1) or (2) of Section 25.

If the government says it was under sub-section (1), then it must admit that the Trai order presents a direct threat to the security of the country. Under sub-section (2), Trai should have been consulted before the directive was issued to keep the tariff order in abeyance. Since that did not happen, the directive is infructous anyway.

More than the tariffs, the central issue is the independence of the regulator. The controversy has put to test the effectiveness of the regulatory system being put in place by the government in areas such as insurance.

Trai?s latest move will clearly escalate the war of words between DoT, the policy-setting body, and the telecom regulator over the controversial order of March 9, through which Trai announced the new rates. The government directed Trai to back off after Trinamul Congress, an ally of the BJP-led coalition, protested against the pro-poor slant in Trai?s order.

Trai?s action did not square with tonight?s doublespeak by some of its officials, who were trying to play down the seriousness of the development. ?There is nothing new in the order (notification) and the tariff will be kept in abeyance till further orders from the government. It is a technicality that we have to follow,? Sodhi said.

?Our experts advised us that the tariff formulated by us has to be signed and notified before it can be made public. We are not on a confrontation course with the government,? said a Trai member.    

New Delhi, March 24 
The Vajpayee government has convened a coordination committee meet of the BJP and its allies on Saturday. The meeting assumes significance as ADMK chief Jayalalitha has promised to attend. Efforts are on to ensure the participation of Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee too.

This is the first meeting of the coordination committee after the allies reposed their faith in the government during the Lok Sabha vote on imposition of President?s rule in Bihar. The government had won handsomely because even before the House went for a division, the Congress realised that it had been outnumbered and there was no rift in the ranks of the allies.

But this meeting comes at a time when the Congress is becoming more belligerent. It had raised the Vishnu Bhagwat and Mohan Guruswamy controversies in Parliament and persisted with its demand for a joint parliamentary probe into both. Even after the House was adjourned for recess, there is no letup in Congress pressure on the issues. Therefore, the government felt the allies should convene immediately to decide on a political strategy.

The meeting will also try to woo back rebellious allies like Mamata, who said yesterday she was willing to join hands with the Congress in the upcoming municipal polls in Bengal. The Congress responded positively to the offer today.

Additional effort is, therefore, being made both by the Prime Minister?s Office and coordination committee convener and defence minister George Fernandes to see that Mamata turns up at the meeting. Even if she does not change her mind on rejoining the committee, she will be requested to send over a senior representative like Ajit Panja.

The last coordination panel meet had been stormy, with allies criticising the Sangh parivar and urging the BJP to ensure its ?ideological fraternity? does not create problems for the alliance.

Mamata was not party to the deliberations as she had walked out of the committee before that. She had not even sent any delegate to the meet.

The last meeting in early February also decided that none of the allies would speak out of turn. The ADMK representative, Union law and surface transport minister M. Thambi Durai, had carried back the draft statement to Chennai, which Jayalalitha refused to sign.

This time, it is in Jayalalitha?s interest to attend as the government had bailed her out by transferring her cases from the special court to the ordinary sessions court. Subsequently, Jayalalitha has been making friendly noises and has kept her tantrums to a minimum. Even the budget has not invited any criticism from her.

The committee may take up for discussion the Centre?s recent policies and a joint strategy to combat the Opposition once the budget session reconvenes on April 12.    

Calcutta, March 24 
Cable operators in Bengal today decided to black out five television channels for a month from April 1 in protest against their decision to charge a fee for viewing.

The five channels are STAR Plus, AXN, Discovery, TNT and Animal Planet. Of these, STAR Plus has already turned a pay channel and has been taken off the air in areas served by RPG Netcom ? one of the two main distributors in the state. The other is Siticable.

The decision to pull out these channels was taken at a meeting today of the four associations of cable operators in the state, said Tarak Saha, convener of the Forum of Cable Operators, the largest such association, after a stormy four-hour meeting. He said that ?these channels don?t deserve to become pay channels because of the content they carry?.

The operators also resolved to meet all such moves in the future with the same tactic ? blackout. They said they were open to negotiations with the networks but struck a hardline posture over the impending boycott, which, they insisted, would be enforced irrespective of the outcome of the talks.

A message flashing across TV screens late tonight called all cable operators in the city to a meeting this morning, possibly to coordinate what amounts to a strike action from All Fools? Day.

The immediate provocation for the stinging backlash is Rupert Murdoch-owned STAR TV?s decision to turn the popular STAR Plus channel into pay from free to air.

But the more important factor is that many other channels have decided to follow suit. RPG Netcom?s chief executive D.K. Sen said STAR News, Discovery and soon-to-be-introduced Home Box Office and Hallmark (distributed by Modi Entertainment) are slated to become pay channels from next month.

RPG Netcom yanked STAR Plus out of its system on March 1, accusing STAR TV of discriminatory treatment. ?We have information that Siticable does not pay for STAR TV channels. There should be a level playing field,? Sen said.

?STAR TV suddenly asked us to pay for beaming STAR Plus, while Siti continues to beam it free of cost,? Sen added.

Feroz Sayeed, regional chief of STAR TV, refused comment. In Siticable, STAR holds 49 per cent shares while the rest is owned by Subhas Chandra?s Zee. ?There is an all-India understanding between the two companies,? said a Siticable executive.

A dispute ? similar to the row between RPG Netcom and STAR TV ? is raging between Siticable and TNT, already a pay channel.

Cable operators accuse networks of not consulting them before either raising fees or turning free-to-air channels into pay. But they are battling against an inevitability.

No service can be free and, after taking losses for years, networks are bound to start charging as well raising subscription.    

Popra (Malda), March 24 
Thousands of tribals are converging on this village in Red Bengal?s outbacks for a mela organised jointly by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Akhil Bharatiya Sanatan Santhal Dal that will culminate in a paravartan yagna (?reconversion? ceremony) tomorrow.

The district administration today swung into action and deployed a large contingent of armed police following reports of the conversion mela slated to coincide with Ram Navami. By evening, the venue was also teeming with plainclothesmen.

Even as the men in mufti swarmed around them, VHP activists exulted at the ?success? of their programme.

Executive committee member of the state VHP Partha Kar said: ?It is a true jagaran. Who can dare stop it??

Senior VHP leaders, however, were more restrained and tactful in explaining tomorrow?s crucial programme.

?Paravartan yagna is just a small part of the entire religious ceremony tomorrow,? said Asit Bhattacharya, chief organiser of the Dharmaprasar Vibhag of the state VHP. The organisers are projecting the yagna as a ?mass ceremony?.

Announcements were made over the public address system about the ?agnipariksha? (trial by fire) tomorrow and people were repeatedly exhorted to participate in large numbers. A VHP organiser said that the ?agnipariksha? is a ?suddhikaran? (purification) process, ?reinitiating into the Hindu religion those who had gone astray?. The ?agnipariksha? will be followed by various tribal games and finally, the ?bhojan? (feasting).

?Eating together is the ultimate sign of social acceptance for the tribals joining the Hindu faith,? said a VHP activist.

If the police were present in large numbers today, so were volunteers of the Bajrang Dal, the VHP?s youth front. Tribal youth wearing Bajrang Dal headbands and carrying bows and arrows stood guard around the venue.

Yet another strategic move by the VHP appeared to be the recruitment of old tribal converts from the local areas as well as from adjoining districts like South and North Dinajpur. The entire ceremony tomorrow will be conducted in Santhali.

Elaborate arrangements have been made in Popra village with camps being set up for visitors. The VHP has formed medical units, kitchens, transport and hospitality units to deal with the nitty-gritty of the ceremony. Two massive trenches have been dug to store potable water ? scarce in these parts. The BSF unit at Narayanpur is said to have arranged supply of water.

The yagna site has been decorated by tribal artisans. Facing it is a thatched hut housing a temple. Inside the temple are idols of Hanuman, Ram, Sita, and Marang Buru (holy spirit worshipped by tribals). Tribal women crowd around the temple for evening arati.

Said Burki Soren, one of the women: ?Earlier we never worshipped any god. But now we worship Ram.??

For the most part, Christian missionaries in the district watch the VHP?s campaign mutely. But to some ?it is an insulting development.??

Said Father Verghese of the Roman Catholic church in Malda: ?Surely it is insulting to us. But we would rather ignore than confront it. The VHP is mighty. It is nothing but ?magic? that they will perform on the tribals. After all, adivasis have never been accepted by the Hindus. Because the adivasis are used to eating beef. Which part of the heaven is the VHP offering the tribals? This is a question that is lurking in many a tribal heart,?? Father Verghese said.

The VHP barely disguises its feelings for the Christian missionaries. ?By converting the tribals, the Christian missionaries are splitting tribal houses. How can you allow this to go on??? asks Asit Bhattacharya, the chief organiser.

It is evident even in Malda railway station that there is an effort to drive a wedge between the two communities. Bajrang Dal posters scream: ?How could 500 Christians in Dangs district of Gujarat swell to 40,000? Sonia Gandhi must reply.??    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky. Mainly clear night. Not much change in day and night temperature.

Temperature: Maximum 35.7? (1?C above normal)
Minimum 25.1?C (3?C above normal)

Relative humidity: Maximum 95%
Minimum 26%

Rainfall: Nil

Sunset:5.45 pm
Sunrise: 5.41 am

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