US-buoyed Delhi puts on tough act
Nachiketa returns with itch to fly back
Freeze. Who goes there?
India back on the brink
Bengal red light for smoke-belchers
Calcutta Weather

New Delhi, June 4 
Armed with what it claimed to be a gesture of support from the US, India today mounted a retaliatory pincer attack in the run-up to the talks with Pakistan.

Hitting back at Pakistan foreign minister Sartaj Aziz?s statement yesterday that the Line of Control (LoC) was nebulous and was on his agenda for talks in Delhi, India shut out the issue as non-negotiable.

New Delhi was buoyed by a letter from President Bill Clinton, saying that he had written to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to respect the LoC and defuse the crisis. No further details of Clinton?s letter to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee were available.

India?s refusal to discuss the LoC ? a predictable response ? was combined with what appeared to be a pre-talks shift in military strategy. There are indications that over the past couple of days, Operation Vijay has acquired a narrower focus, the strikes concentrated in areas where the army is in a position to regain control.

Defence sources claimed the army was strongly-placed on four out of 11 ridges in the Drass and Batalik sub-sectors. Further progress would depend on tomorrow?s aerial bombardment. The decision to ban journalists from Kargil this evening is being interpreted as a signal that a major offensive is about to get under way.

Defence sources in Srinagar confirmed heavy troop movement on the Srinagar-Kargil highway. They said the preparations were complete and the offensive would begin any time now.

The effort seems to be to re-establish India?s hold on as many ridges as possible before the talks begin. Pakistan wants to send Aziz on Monday, but there has been no confirmation from India yet.

The military strategy runs parallel with diplomatic muscle-flexing. A senior Indian official said: ?The LoC is well-defined and fully settled,?? making it clear Delhi would not allow Islamabad to absolve itself of the blame of pushing armed intruders into Indian territory. ?This is a futile effort to obfuscate and to divert attention from the central issue, which is Pakistan?s armed intrusion and aggression,?? he said.

?The Pakistani foreign minister?s suggestion is untenable. It represents an irresponsible and dubious doctrine which undermines established principles and can have extremely dangerous repercussions on the maintenance of peace and security,?? a statement issued by the Indian foreign ministry said.

It added that India has scrupulously respected the LoC and asked Pakistan to give up its ?foolhardy?? attempts to alter it.

The Indian official said: ?A meaningful dialogue can only take place if Pakistan begins to act accordingly.??

For the first time since Operation Vijay began, India claimed to have evidence of direct Pakistani involvement. A defence spokesman said the army had recovered the bodies of three Pakistani soldiers.    

New Delhi, June 4 
Trauma has not touched him, nor fear gnawed at his resolve. Flight Lieutenant K. Nachiketa returned home this evening, longing to be back in the cloud-kissed sky above the rugged mountains in Kargil, with the MiG-27 fighter that he flies and with his comrades in action.

?I want to immediately go back into the fighting,? he told AP moments after crossing the border at Wagah. ?I would like to go back to complete my mission,? he later said in Delhi.

A little after 6.30 this evening, dressed in a light printed T-shirt, camel trousers and regulation shoes, Nachiketa arrived at the border in a black Mercedes. After the formalities, he crossed over to the other side of the joint check post at the very spot where Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee had embraced Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif four months ago.

Nachiketa does ?not know? if he had strayed across the Line of Control; he cannot recollect where he had been imprisoned. All he knows is that he ?had given up all hope of returning?. And that he is sad for the death of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, who, he said, was shot in ?cold blood?.

From Wagah, Nachiketa was flown in on a special aircraft to Delhi. Newshounds straining at the leash were reined in. ?It is not customary that a military personnel who has returned from captivity should face the media immediately,? said external affairs spokesperson R.S. Jassal.

Officials said Nachiketa will have to be debriefed and have to undergo medical examinations before he can face the media.

Delhi airport welcomed him like a hero. The plane taxied away from the airport departure area to the airforce-controlled technical enclosure reserved for top military officials and VIPs like the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues.

There, Nachiketa met again his parents, brother and sister. Away from the harsh glare of the flashing cameras, it was a very private reunion after a week of much-publicised anxiety and heart-stopping tension.

As soon as the news of his release came in, Nachiketa?s parents drove down from Adampur to Delhi. A few days ago, they had spent his 26th birthday without him, sifting through his photographs.

He was driven to the Prime Minister?s residence, where Vajpayee was waiting to honour him.    

Point Zero in Batalik is as forward as men without uniforms can get on the battleground. This is supposed to be the hottest sector in this undeclared war for unmanned territory. But it is actually freezing.

We are in midsummer but Batalik is wrapped in cold blinding sleet. On the slopes, just a few hundred feet above where the army unit holding Batalik is bunkered, fresh snow is piling up.

A helicopter has been hovering in the vicinity to evacuate jawans critically injured in this morning?s gun battle. But the weather won?t give way. Field phones whirr and rattle as officers try to locate an alternate landing site for the chopper; one of the jawans needs surgery urgently if he is to survive.

?Tell me of another site quickly so that I can ask the chopper to be ready,? the officer tells his jawan on the phone as the hills resound again with artillery fire. Two shells thud into the rocks a little distance away and above the encampment, automatic weapons begin a high-pitched protest against the boom of artillery. About half-a-dozen short and shrill bursts and then there is silence.

The Indus, gurgling a sheer 1,000-feet-fall below Batalik, recaptures its aural eminence. Other than the guns and the grim croak of high mountain ravens, the only sound you hear here is the river running.

Sixty tortuous kilometres northeast of Kargil, Batalik is an unlikely site for a frontier village; it hangs precariously on a mountainface, its dwellings verily carved out of the rock and utterly exposed to peaks on the Pakistani side. No wonder they have been shelled to skeletons. The people of Batalik have all gone, run away to safer hamlets Silmoo and Lalung which lie a few hillfolds behind the battlefront. A few have padlocked their doors before leaving, perhaps not realising that shells have the bad habit of never knocking, just blowing through.

The army unit used to be headquartered in pucca barracks a little above the village but they, too, have been pounded out. ?Veer Punjabi?, the unit?s motto, lies emblazoned on an arch across the gate of the barracks. But there is little now for the gates to protect save rubber and mangled metal.

The unit has had to scatter itself in the mountain?s nooks and crannies. Tin and tarpaulin quarters have been erected where the cold is a brazen and constant infiltrator. ?We have to make do with what we have,? says the officer. ?Batalik is not exactly a normal kind of place and these are not exactly normal times.?

He has prohibited our movement further up to the front ? ?How did you get so far? You shouldn?t have? ? but is marshalling his troops closer and closer to the LoC. ?The going is tough,? he says. It is not a one-way battle. ?We have found the enemy to be heavily armed and heavily entrenched.?

The area map on the wall of his shed is dotted with blue and red markers for Indian and infiltrator/Pakistani positions. ?In some places it is eyeball to eyeball. We are barely 10 metres apart and firing at each other.?

The battlefield from here is a bare 2.5 km away and the echo of gun and mortar fire is teasing proof of its proximity. But the Batalik commander would have none of our requests to go on. Troops, weapons in hand and backpacks strapped, are moving up the mountains single file. They march silently and their faces are drawn. Alongside them are transport convoys carting supplies and ammunition.

The sleet has passed and the helicopter ? a Cheetah from the base in Kargil ? has been able to land and evacuate the injured, we are told. But if the sleet and snow persist, Batalik?s grey face could get grimmer. The subtext of the gunfire in the mountains is casualties and air evacuation will not always be as manageable as it was on Friday afternoon. But then, neither is the battle of Batalik.    

London, June 4 
Two pigeons suffered hits at The Oval this afternoon, but the biggest casualty was Indian cricket.

The 77-run defeat at Australia?s hands, in the first Super Six game of the World Cup, has once more pushed India to the brink. Hoping to make the semi-finals may not now even be worth dreaming of.

With both India and Australia making the cut without a single point, full points today were imperative. For Australia, then, it was a fantastic day.

The toss didn?t go Steve Waugh?s way, but Australia got the basics right: Exploding in the overs of death after a sound start. The explosion would have carried to Calcutta and Canberra.

Then in the afternoon, Glenn McGrath, who relishes bowling to the Sachin Tendulkars, produced a spell of such devastation that the Indians were scurrying to save face. It came in the form of a 141-run partnership between Ajay Jadeja and Robin Singh.

It gave the full house something to cheer for, but so heavy was the loss ?- and deep the ramifications ?- that the fifth-wicket stand and Jadeja?s own superb unbeaten 100 (138 deliveries, 7x4, 2x6) will be remembered as footnotes only.

It?s a tragedy, no less.

An even bigger tragedy was the Indian riposte: Sachin and Rahul Dravid were back within three overs ? both victims of McGrath?s late away-movement and bounce. Sourav Ganguly and Mohammed Azharuddin joined them soon enough, the Indian captain becoming McGrath?s third victim.

Azhar, of course, again failed to lead from the front, and didn?t win any friends when, among other things, he told the media: ?A captain is only as good as his team.... We didn?t play to potential.?

As for the much-hyped McGrath vs the Indian batsmen battle, it wasn?t even a skirmish. It was that one-sided on a turf that has seen one of Indian cricket?s most memorable moments ? the sensational win in 1971.

Nostalgia, though, doesn?t conjure up victories.

A total of 282 for six ?- Australia?s highest in this edition ? had seemed unlikely when Steve and Darren Lehmann got out in succession, but Tom Moody and Michael Bevan really turned on the heat in the last three overs: 39 runs accrued.

So, what could have been a competitive total became intimidating. Worse, India will meet Pakistan in Manchester on Tuesday with the hangover of defeat not quite a thing of the past. That Pakistan could themselves lose to South Africa tomorrow will alter little.    

Calcutta, June 4 
Taking a cue from Delhi, the West Bengal government today announced that only those cars which conform to Euro-I emission norms will be allowed to register in the Calcutta Metropolitan Area from July 1, 1999. Euro-II norms will come into effect from April 1, 2000.

Under Euro-I, the permissible carbon monoxide level is 2.72 gm/km, while it is 2.2 for Euro-II. In addition, no suspended particulate matter (SPM) is allowed under Euro-II while Euro-I permits SPM of 0.14 gm/km.

Determined to clean up Calcutta?s air, state environment minister Manab Mukherjee and his colleague in the transport department, Subhas Chakraborty, swung into action by announcing a series of steps to reduce air pollution.

For starters, taxis 15 years old or more will not be allowed to ply from January 1, 2001. The transport department will henceforth renew the permits of such taxis for two more years after verifying their condition. An announcement on the retirement age of buses, mini-buses, trucks, vans and auto-rickshaws will be made on August 15.

The government is sending a list of these steps to the Central Pollution Control Board. The environment department will issue a notification invoking the provisions of the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981. Once this is put in place, it will be mandatory for all regulatory authorities to follow them throughout the state.

The ministers said stringent checks will be conducted on cars by the police and Public Vehicles Directorate. Repeated violation of pollution control norms will result in the suspension of registration certificates.

To ensure smoother movement of traffic, the transport department will ban rickshaws and handcarts on main thoroughfares. Auto-rickshaws will not be allowed into the central business district. Detailed announcements will be made on August 15. Every vehicle-owner will be required to obtain fresh pollution-under-control certificates conforming to new standards set for non-Euro automobiles.

The government has lowered the carbon monoxide emission for petrol vehicles from 5 to 4.5 per cent. For diesel engines, the smoke standard limit has been lowered from 4.8 Bosch to 4.5 Bosch.

The Pollution Control Board will keep a close watch on the auto-emission testing centres. Even state buses and government vehicles will not be exempt from the rules. ?We will do this from tomorrow,?? Mukherjee claimed.

Asked if the government anticipated opposition from transport operators, he said it was up to them to clean up the air. ?We have conducted a study which proves that the lungs of people in Calcutta suffer 10 times more than those who stay in an emission-free zone like the Sunderbans,?? the environment minister said.

Transport operators, however, have decided to answer the call to perform a social responsibility with a strike threat.    

Today?s forecast: Partly cloudy sky with light rain in some areas.
Temperature: Maximum 33.9?C (1?C below normal)
Minimum 26.5?C (1?C below normal)
Relative humidity: Maximum 94% Minimum 63%
Rainfall: Nil
Sunset: 6.15 pm Sunrise: 4.55 am    

Maintained by Web Development Company