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Turkish troops head towards Iraq

SIRNAK, Oct 23: Dozens of Turkish military vehicles loaded with soldiers and heavy weapons rumbled toward the Iraqi border on Monday after an ambush by rebel Kurds that left eight soldiers missing and 12 dead.

Turkey's foreign minister said his country will pursue diplomacy before it sends troops across the rugged frontier.

The military said it had had no contact with the eight soldiers after Sunday's clash and said 34 guerrillas had been killed so far in a counteroffensive.

A pro-Kurdish news agency said the eight were captured - a claim that would make it the largest seizure since 1995, when guerrillas grabbed eight soldiers and took them to northern Iraq.

A senior rebel commander, Bahoz Erdal, said the soldiers were in rebel hands, the pro-Kurdish Firat News Agency reported.

''Right now, these soldiers are hostages in the hands of our forces,'' Firat quoted Erdal as saying. ''Their health condition is good. One of them was slightly injured but was being taken care of by our medics.''

Erdal said the families of soldiers should not worry about the fate of their sons. ''We have not harmed them and we will not,'' Erdal said.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said on Monday that Kurdish rebels will announce a cease-fire later in the day, according to his office.

Kurdish rebels last declared a cease-fire in June and the rebel group said on Monday that that cease-fire was still in place, the Firat News Agency reported. The cease-fire announcement in June did not halt fighting.

Turkey has rejected several past unilateral cease-fires declared by rebels, saying it would maintain fighting until all rebels surrender or are killed. In the past, rebels have pressed ahead with attacks despite cease-fires on grounds that they were defending themselves.

Sunday's ambush outraged an already frustrated public. Demonstrations erupted across the country and opposition leaders called for an immediate strike against rebel bases in Iraq, despite appeals for restraint from Iraq, the US and European leaders.

In Washington, the State Department said the United States had opened an all-out diplomatic push to urge Turkey not to invade northern Iraq.

''In our view, there are better ways to deal with this issue,'' spokesman Sean McCormack said, stressing that the United States regards the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he told US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a telephone conversation on Sunday night that Turkey expected ''speedy steps from the US'' in cracking down on Kurdish rebels and that Rice, who called the Turkish leader, asked ''for a few days'' from him.

McCormack did not dispute the account of the conversation but declined to comment on what Rice had meant by asking for ''a few days.''

Erdogan did not specify what he meant by ''speedy steps,'' but he has often urged the United States and Iraq to crack down on the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

Turkish leaders say it is the responsibility of those countries to do whatever is necessary to destroy the guerrilla group's bases in northern Iraq.

Bhutto condemns proposed ban on rallies

KARACHI, Oct 23: Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Monday criticised Pakistan government's move to ban rallies and processions before the general elections in the wake of last week's suicide attack on her convoy.

The government has proposed a ban on rallies in the run-up to general elections due to security concerns.

The government move to ban rallies came after the suicide attack on her motorcade which killed nearly 140 people.

"We think it is wrong for the government to make that decision... and I would advise the government not to do so," Bhutto told reporters at Bilawal House, her home in Karachi.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party said rallies are an "essential part" of any election campaign while the PML-N termed the move as a "plan" to ensure that the general election favoured President Pervez Musharraf.

Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said the government had framed a code of conduct, which included a ban on rallies and processions, to create "a conducive atmosphere to conduct the election".

Violence, protests follow Karachi blasts

KARACHI, Oct 21: At least 14 people were injured as angry workers of Pakistan People's party clashed with police, blocked roads and forced closure of shops to protest against the attack on the convoy of their leader, Benazir Bhutto, that left at least 140 people dead.

Groups of PPP supporters, some of them waving the party's red, black and green flags, pelted stones and burnt tyres at Safoora Goth, University Road, Sachal Goth, Lyari, Mauripur Road and Gadap areas, causing traffic snarls and forcibly shut shops for the three-day mourning called by the party.

In Lyari town, a stronghold of Pakistan Peoples Party, Bhutto supporters exchanged fire with police, while a group of protesters torched a private car in Patel para, tried to set fire to a petrol pump and stoned a KFC outlet in souther part of the city.

Superintendent of Police in Lyari, Fayyaz Khan, said the trouble started when some people, said to be supporters of the PPP, tried to force some shopkeepers to down shutters during the three-day mourning period announced by the party.

"The police confronted these miscreants who then fired upon them and afterwards firing all started from other quarters which left 14 of the miscreants injured," Khan said.

He said there had also been other scattered incidents of people burning tyres and forcing closuer of shops in some parts of Karachi.

Most streets and roads of this usually bustling city wore a deserted look, a sharp contrast from the jubilation witnessed on Thursday when tens of thousands of PPP workers had turned out to welcome Bhutto on her homecoming after eight years in self-exile.

Local authorities stepped up security by deploying additional police and Rangers, especially on roads leading to Bilawal House, Bhutto's home in the city.

Residents of Pakistan's largest city were hit hard by the closure of most of the 300 petrol pumps, which resulted in public transport going-off the roads. Some petrol pumps were closed as a precautionary measure by their owners after protestors tried to burn a pump.

Protests by PPP workers were also reported from cities and towns like Larkana, Thatta, Hyderabad and Saeedabad in Sindh province, which has traditionally been a stronghold of the party. Courts were also boycotted in parts of Sindh province.

Bhutto, who had Friday called for three days of mourning for victims of the suicide bombing, has put off plans to visit Larkana, nearly 250 km from Karachi, to pray at the tomb of her father, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was deposed and hanged by military ruler Zia-ul Haq.

"We are observing a three-day mourning over the tragedy. The mourning will end on Sunday and then she will decide about her plans," said PPP spokesperson, Sherry Rehman.

Rehman said Bhutto was at her Bilawal house, adding "we are concerned about her safety, but she is interested in going out to meet the people."

Dozens of people injured in Friday's attack are still being treated in Karachi's hospitals, where many people gathered Saturday to donate blood.

Officials of the Edhi Foundation, which runs the morgue where most of the bodies were taken after the attack, said about 30 bodies were yet to be claimed.

Most of the dead belonged to Karachi, and some bodies were claimed by people from Peshawar, Lahore and various places in Sindh.

45 soldiers 130 pro-Taleban militants killed in Pak clashes

ISLAMABAD, Oct 9: Around 130 militants and 45 Pakistani soldiers have died in two days of intense fighting in a troubled tribal region bordering Afghanistan after rebels bombed army convoys and the military responded with air strikes and ground operations.

Fighting broke out in North Waziristan on Sunday after the rebels bombed army convoys and the military responded with air strikes and ground operations, top military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.

TV channels said at least eight civilians, including three women and children, were killed in the clashes.

Tribesmen said the army used fighter jets and gunship helicopters to bomb the mountainous region and alleged that several civilians were killed and injured in the attacks.

The clashes started on Sunday, when militants attacked a convoy of the security forces south of Mirali, which is a major town in North Waziristan.

Locals also claimed the army had imposed an undeclared curfew in the area and the main bazaars in Mirali and Miranshah had been closed.

Myanmar junta appoints liaison official to Suu Kyi

NEW DELHI, Oct 9: Myanmar's military Junta has appointed deputy labour minister, Aug Kyi, as "manager for relations" to mediate with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the idea of liaison officer had been suggested by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari during his recent visit.

Myanmar's deputy labour minister has been appointed to serve as a liaison official for contacts with detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

State radio and television announced tonight.

The announcement said Deputy Labour Minister Aung Kyi, a retired general, had been given the job, but did not say when he might begin contacts with Suu Kyi, who is under house arrest.

The announcement described the post as "liaison minister," and indicated contacts with Suu Kyi coming from both the UN and the junta would go through Aung Kyi.

The appointment of a liaison officer was suggested by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari during his visit to Myanmar.

Musharraf signs amnesty deal for Bhutto

Benazir BhuttoISLAMABAD, Oct 5: Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf on Friday signed a "national reconciliation" ordinance, paving the way for a power-sharing deal with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf signed the ordinance giving amnesty to Bhutto and other political leaders - except exiled former premier Nawaz Sharif - in all court cases against them a day before he faces the crucial presidential poll in which he is seeking a second five-year term in uniform.

Earlier in the day, a cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz approved the draft national reconciliation deal with Bhutto, who lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai and London.

The cabinet approval came after several amendments suggested by both the opposition Pakistan People's Party of Bhutto and the ruling PML-Q were incorporated in the draft ordinance, described by the government as the "best" option in the current circumstances.

The cabinet also expressed full confidence in Musharraf with regard to the national reconciliation policy and gave him the authority to make decisions on this issue, a release issued by the prime minister's house said.

Musharraf has stated that political reconciliation and harmony alone could help the government tackle key issues like terrorism and extremism.

The national reconciliation ordinance states that all court cases and investigations against persons who have held public office till October 1999 will be terminated. This will apply to members of the National Assembly and Senate, the two house of Parliament, and also covers Bhutto.

The provisions of the ordinance, however, will not apply to Sharif, who briefly returned to Pakistan on September 10 after his seven-year exile only to be deported to Saudi Arabia. Sharif was convicted in several cases in 2000.

Under the ordinance, special committees on ethics will be set up in the national and provincial assemblies and these panels will have to clear any move by police to arrest lawmakers.

Musharraf apparently hastened the signing of the ordinance as it could not have been promulgated once the National Assembly is in session.

A joint sitting of Parliament is scheduled for Saturday in view of the presidential election in which Musharraf is expected to easily sail through.

The Supreme Court on Friday gave a go head for the presidential poll on Saturday, but said the result should not be announced till it decides on petitions filed by Musharraf's rival candidates challenging his candidature.

Musharraf had earlier given an undertaking before the Supreme Court that he would quit as Army Chief if re-elected.

Putin looks to retain power

MOSCOW, Oct 1: Vladimir Putin on Monday said he might become Russian prime minister and would head the ticket for the dominant party in parliamentary polls in December – mapping out how he may retain power after standing down as president next year.

Analysts said his comments signalled a possible shift towards a parliamentary democracy in Russia, weakening the powers of the presidency but strengthening the prime minister’s role – and providing a route for Mr Putin to remain de facto leader of the country.

His surprise announcement electrified the Russian political world, long obsessed with whether Mr Putin might change the rules to remain in office for a third term and, if not, what the supremely popular president – whose approval ratings top 70 per cent – would do next.

The Russian president re-iterated at a congress of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party that he did not plan to alter the constitution. That bars him from standing again when his second presidential term ends next March.

But, to a jubilant ovation, he said he would accept United Russia’s invitation to head its candidate list in elections to the Duma, or lower parliamentary house, on December 2.

“To head the government is an entirely realistic proposal but it’s too early to think about this,” Mr Putin said, after a series of speeches from party members imploring him to retain influence and suggesting ways that he could do so.

The Russian president said two conditions had to be fulfilled for him to become premier – that United Russia won a hefty majority in the December elections, and that a “decent, capable and contemporary figure” was elected president next March.

Possible candidates include Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, both first deputy prime ministers, and the newly-elected prime minister, Viktor Zubkov.

Analysts said Mr Putin was unlikely to take a seat in parliament which, under Russian rules, he is not required to do even if he heads a party list for the elections. The system is run entirely on the basis of proportional representation. As the rules also allow, Mr Putin said he did not plan to become a member of the United Russia party.

But Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-linked political analyst, said Mr Putin’s leadership of the list could give a huge popularity boost to United Russia, potentially propelling it from 50 per cent to a two-thirds majority in the 450-seat Duma.

“This means United Russia will have not just a parliamentary majority but a constitutional majority,” Mr Markov said, enabling the party to introduce constitutional changes without needing other parties’ support.

Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst close to the Kremlin, said the plan meant that for the first time since 1991, “in the Kremlin will sit the president, but not necessarily the national leader”.

Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre think-tank, said Mr Putin’s statement could mean a significant increase in the role of prime minister and an increase in the accessibility of Russian politics.

UN envoy arrives in Myanmar

YANGOON, Sept 30: United Nations envoy Ibrahim Gambari flew into Myanmar on Saturday carrying worldwide hopes that he can persuade its ruling generals to use negotiations instead of guns to end mass protests against 45 years of military rule.

As Gambari arrived in Yangon, troops and riot police manned barricades in the area from which the pro-democracy protests have reverberated around the world.

Gambari, who is Special adviser to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, landed in the main city of Yangon and then flew to Naypyidaw, the new administrative capital, for talks with the military leadership, UN officials said.

Gambari is expected to report to the Security Council on his return. The Security Council would then decide whether it needs to take any action agaist the military junta.

The Council had discussed the issue earlier this week but failed to issue a statement condemning the government action in the face of strong opposition from the Chinese.

Later, the Chinese officials had told reporters that it is an internal matter of the country.

At least 13 people were killed when troops opened fire and launched baton charges on Wednesday and Thursday, but the United States and Britain, as well as Burmese opposition groups, have raised fears the death toll could be far higher.

Earlier on Saturday, the UN warned that the supply of food material to half a million people in Myanmar may be affected by the restrictions imposed by its military junta due to the current unrest.

Buddhist monks have been leading civil protests in the Southeast Asian nation for the last 11 days.

While the unrest has mostly been concentrated in the main cities of Yangon and Mandalay, the demonstrators' stand-off with the government and its response are having consequences in other areas where the UN distributes food assistance.

Karzai offers to meet Taliban leader

KABUL, Sept 30: President Hamid Karzai on Saturday offered to meet with the Taliban leader and give militants a government position only hours after a suicide bomber in army disguise attacked a military bus, killing 30 people — nearly all of them Afghan soldiers.

Strengthening a call for negotiations he has made with increasing frequency in recent weeks, Karzai said he was willing to meet with the reclusive leader Mullah Omar and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former prime minister and factional warlord leader.

"If I find their address, there is no need for them to come to me, I'll personally go there and get in touch with them," Karzai said. "Esteemed Mullah, sir, and esteemed Hekmatyar, sir, why are you destroying the country?"

Karzai said he has contacts with Taliban militants through tribal elders but that there are no direct and open government communication channels with the fighters. Omar's whereabouts are not known, although Karzai has claimed he is in Quetta, Pakistan, a militant hotbed across the border from Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

"If a group of Taliban or a number of Taliban come to me and say, 'President, we want a department in this or in that ministry or we want a position as deputy minister ... and we don't want to fight anymore,' ... If there will be a demand and a request like that to me, I will accept it because I want conflicts and fighting to end in Afghanistan," Karzai said.

"I wish there would be a demand as easy as this. I wish that they would want a position in the government. I will give them a position," he said.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has said it does not support negotiations with Taliban fighters, labeling them as terrorists, although the U.N. and NATO have said an increasing number of Taliban are interested in laying down their arms. NATO's ambassador to Afghanistan, Daan Everts, said this month that the alliance would look into the possibility of talks.

President Bush met with Karzai on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Wednesday where the two discussed the battle against al-Qaida and the Taliban, but it has not been made public whether the two talked about negotiations with militants.

A State Department duty officer said he could not immediately comment on Karzai's offer to meet with Omar, noting that most policymakers were still in New York.

Saturday's explosion — the second deadliest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 — ripped off the roof of the bus and tore out its sides in Kabul, leaving a charred hull of burnt metal. It was reminiscent of the deadliest attack since the U.S.-led invasion, when a bomber boarded a police academy bus at Kabul's busiest transportation hub in June, killing 35 people.

Police and soldiers climbed trees to retrieve body parts. Nearby businesses also were damaged.

"For 10 or 15 seconds, it was like an atom bomb — fire, smoke and dust everywhere," said Mohammad Azim, a police officer who witnessed the explosion.

Karzai said 30 people were killed — 28 soldiers and two civilians. The Health Ministry said another 30 were wounded. Two women were among the dead, and 11 people whose bodies were ripped apart so badly had yet to be identified.

"It was a terrible tragedy, no doubt an act of extreme cowardice," Karzai said. "Whoever did this was against people, against humanity, definitely against Islam. A man who calls himself Muslim will not blow up innocent people in the middle of Ramadan," the Muslim holy month.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed the militant group was responsible for the blast in a text message to The Associated Press. Mujahid said the bomber was a Kabul resident named Azizullah.

New visa delivery service partner for Australia

NEW DELHI, Sept 25: The Australian High Commission in India will have a new service delivery partner, VFS Global Service, for Australian visa services.

The Australian Government’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), New Delhi, has entered into an agreement with VFS Global Service to provide new visa application and collection centres that will commence operations on October 3. Locations for these centres can be found at: www.india.highcommission.gov.au or www.vfs-au-in.com.

VFS Global Services application centres are located at New Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Cochin, in India and at Kathmandu in Nepal.

Information about visa requirements and application forms for travel to Australia will be available at any of the VFS visa application centres that can be contacted by telephone, e-mail or in person. Anyone seeking to apply for a temporary visa for study, business and tourism, or for family migration, will be able to lodge their application at a VFS application centre.

The visa application centres will provide a comfortable client waiting area and have sufficient capacity to ensure clients are not required to wait for extended periods. Clients will also be able to track the delivery and return of their passports via the VFS website at www.vfs-au-in.com.

Castro's TV appearance quashes rumours of his death

HAVANA, Sept 23: Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro appeared on television for the first in three months ending speculation that the 81-year-old had died or suffered a relapse.

The Cuban leader, who underwent complicated intestinal surgery at the end of July last year, has temporarily handed over power to his brother Raul.

He spoke slowly on a number of world affairs the cold war and the global economy. US journalist Randy Falcon asked him a question about the euro in relation to the dollar and the price of oil, to which Castro replied: "Yesterday the euro reached 1.41 US dollars and oil went up to, I think, 84 US dollars per barrel." He also commented on the tracksuit he was wearing: "They criticise me for wearing this, but this is what the Cuban National Institute for Sport gave me.

Nawaz Sharif deported to Saudi Arabia

ISLAMABAD, Sept 10: Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been reportedly deported to Saudi Arabia after he was arrested by police on returning to Islamabad Monday morning after seven years in exile.

Earlier in the day, amid high drama, a defiant former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was arrested at the airport shortly after his return from a seven-year exile, setting the stage for a confrontation and serious political challenge to President Pervez Musharraf.

Commandos surrounded the Pakistan International Airlines plane ferrying Sharif, his supporters and media personnel, as it landed at 0915 hours (IST).

Fifty-seven year old Sharif refused to hand over the passport to immigration authorities and continued his defiance on the tarmac. He was not allowed to disembark for 90 minutes.

The passengers on PK-786 were allowed to disembark while Sharif's supporters and the media team stayed in the aircraft.

Former governor Ghulam Mustafa Khar, travelling with the PML-N leader said "Sharif was offered two options.

One was to face arrest and the other deportation. The PML-N leader offered to surrender to Punjab police".

Earlier on the eve of his return home, Sharif blamed President Pervez Musharraf for "subverting" the process of improving relations with India, and regretted not having taken any action against him.

Pakistan International Airlines flight PK-786 carrying Mr Sharif landed in islamabad at 0845 hrs PST, private TV channel reported.

However, his brother and former Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif -- who had already made an abortive attempt to return home in 2004 -- decided to stay back in London at the last minute.

Ex-PM Sharif urged to scrap planned return to Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Sept 9: Saudi Arabia and an influential Lebanese politician on Saturday joined calls by Pakistan for former prime minister Nawaz Sharif to scrap plans to return to the country next week.

Saad Hariri -- son of assassinated former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri -- and Saudi intelligence chief Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz said Sharif must honour the deal that sent him into exile seven years ago.

"Nawaz Sharif must honour his commitment," Hariri told reporters after a meeting with President Pervez Musharraf.

"Such (an) agreement was made to facilitate and ensure the stability of Pakistan," Hariri said.

"For the sake of the national interest of Pakistan we hope that he will honour and adhere to the terms of the agreement," the Saudi intelligence chief added.

Hariri arrived here early Saturday following a London meeting with Sharif, who was toppled in Musharraf's 1999 military coup and plans to return to Pakistan on Monday.

Hariri said his family was involved in the Saudi-brokered 2000 exile deal which compelled Sharif to live in oil-rich Middle East country.

Sharif was sentenced to life in prison on tax evasion and treason charges but released in December 2000 on condition that he and his family live in exile in Saudi Arabia for 10 years.

"The custodian of the two Holy Mosques helped the Sharif family to get out of imprisonment under such agreement," Hariri said, referring to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah.

When asked what are the details of the agreement, the intelligence chief said: "He knows it, President Pervez Musharraf knows it and most of the people of Pakistan know it."

When asked about the agreement, he says "it is here and signed."

Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz, who left Saudi Arabia for London last year, won a Supreme Court battle in August against their banishment and said they were returning home on September 10 to challenge Musharraf.

Asked about the Supreme Court verdict, the Saudi intelligence chief replied, "which comes first, the agreement or the Supreme Court? We respect fully the Supreme Court and law of every land, but you still have an agreement."

Sharif has denied any agreement exists, and a spokesman for his party ruled out any change in his plans to return.

"He is returning under the verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan," central information secretary Ahsan Iqbal told AFP.

Iqbal criticised Musharraf's attempts to involve Saudi Arabia in the internal politics, saying it would have "serious implications" for relations between the two countries.

"He (Musharraf) is talking to Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan Peoples Party but he is afraid of our leader," he said.

Musharraf, facing his worst political crisis at home, has asked Sharif to abide by the agreement as his return would destabilise the political environment ahead of general elections expected in next five months.

"They should honour their commitment. Their commitment was with the leadership of a third country which has very close ties with Pakistan," Pakistan Information Minister Muhammad Ali Durrani said.

"If Nawaz Sharif breaks this commitment he will create a bad perception about Pakistan in the Middle East."

The planned return of the brothers, coupled with Sharif's growing popularity at home, has added to the pressure on military ruler Musharraf.

An apparently nervous government has ordered a police crackdown against Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz workers and party leaders claim hundreds have been arrested in different parts of the country.

The party alleged the crackdown was aimed at disrupting plans to celebrate the return of the Sharifs.

An anti-terrorism court Friday ordered the arrest of Shahbaz in a murder case and the government asked another court to grant an arrest warrant for Nawaz on corruption charges.

At least 35 killed in two bomb blasts in Pakistan

RAWALPINDI, Sept 4: At least 35 people were killed on Tuesday in two terrorist attacks in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, Pakistani television reports said.

According to eyewitness accounts, the first of two bombs went off in a crowded market near a military base while the second destroyed a bus, also near the base.

There has not yet been any official comment and no further information regarding casualties has yet come in. However, according to local media, the majority of those killed were military personnel.

Sharif vows to oust Musharraf from power in six weeks

LONDON: Ruling out any compromise with Pakistan's embattled President Pervez Musharraf, exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has vowed to oust the military dictator from power in the next six weeks.

"His tenure ends on October 15 and he (Musharraf) has no constitutional right to remain. I hope to force him to step down by October 15," 'The Times' reported on Tuesday, quoting Sharif -- who prepares to return to his home country from "forced" exile next week -- as saying.

The deposed premier, who was ousted in a military coup in 1999, said that after returning to the Islamic nation on September 10, he would lead his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz in a campaign to force Musharraf to quit as president by October 15 and block any attempt by the dictator to seek re-election.

Subsequently, he said, the chief of the Senate would take over as the acting President of Pakistan and hold general elections for a new Parliament which would then vote in for a new president for a five-year term.

Sharif has a second plan too. If he's arrested on arrival as "threatened" by the Pakistani government, the former Prime Minister said that his party would hold "big, massive rallies" to force the military ruler to back down. "I am not alone in this battle. The entire nation is with me".

However, the deposed premier dismissed speculation that Musharraf might try to deport him to Saudi Arabia on his arrival in Islamabad as "an outright violation of the decision by the Supreme Court" which recently allowed him and his brother Shahbaz Sharif to return to their home country.

"Musharraf has been threatening me with dire consequences. I don't know what will happen. I am not scared," he said, stating that he planned to travel by road to Lahore from Islamabad after arriving there.

Musharraf ready to doff uniform: Benazir

LONDON,Aug 30: General Musharraf has finally agreed to doff his army uniform in a deal-maker agreement with Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's former and putative prime minister has claimed.

Bhutto told 'The Daily Telegraph' that though other aspects of the deal is yet to be worked out, "the uniform issue is resolved". The completed deal is expected by the end of the month.

Bhutto's claim means the General will resign as army chief before seeking re-election as president.

In a reference to recent negotiations in London, Bhutto said "The uniform issue is key and there has been a lot of movement on it in the recent round of talks".

Bhutto, who has vowed to return to Pakistan by the end of the year, with or without a deal, is seen to be increasingly confident about coming to an agreement with Musharraf.

She also claimed, with increasing bullishness, that Pakistan's embattled president has placed a "new issue" on the negotiating table by seeking her support over his "eligibility" to be re-elected.

Bhutto claimed her response had been a blunt request Musharraf's administration make "an upfront gesture of reciprocity, a clear indication of political support for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP)" in exchange for her support.

Bhutto said she had insisted on signs that Musharraf's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, is "no longer calling the shots".

Meanwhile, Bhutto's other interlocutor, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who has also pledged to return to Pakistan soon, said late on Tuesday that any offer by Musharraf to step down as army chief was "too little, too late".

Speaking from here he said, "Musharraf does not qualify to be a presidential candidate, whether in or out of uniform. He has lost credibility and the people of Pakistan want him out."

Over 51 killed as Shiite gunmen clash at Karbala festival

BAGHDAD, Aug 29: Fighting erupted Tuesday between rival Shiite militias in Karbala during a religious festival, claiming 51 lives and forcing officials to abort the celebrations and order up to 1 million Shiite pilgrims to leave the southern city.

Security officials said Mahdi Army gunmen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fired on guards around two shrines protected by the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Residents of Karbala contacted by telephone said snipers were firing on Iraqi security forces from rooftops. Explosions and the rattle of automatic weapons fire could be heard during telephone calls to reporters in the city 50 miles south of Baghdad.

In addition to the deaths, security officials said at least 247 people were wounded, including women and children.

The clashes appeared to be part of a power struggle among Shiite groups in the sect's southern Iraqi heartland, which includes the bulk of the country's vast oil wealth.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said entrances and exits to Karbala "have been secured and more forces are on the way from other provinces." Officials said buses were sent to evacuate pilgrims from the city, which includes some of the world's most sacred Shiite shrines.

Gunfights also broke out Tuesday between Mahdi militiamen and followers of the Supreme Council in at least two Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in Kut, about 100 miles southeast of the capital, police said.

Extra police took up positions in the center of another Shiite city, Diwaniyah, after gunmen fired on a mosque associated with the Supreme Council, police said. A curfew was clamped on the Shiite city of Najaf after a mortar round exploded on a major square, causing no casualties, officials said.

The trouble started in Karbala late Monday as tens of thousands of Shiites were streaming into the city for the Shabaniyah festival marking the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th and last Shiite imam who disappeared in the 9th century. Devout Shiites believe he will return to Earth to restore peace and harmony.

Scuffles broke out between police and pilgrims as the crowd tried to push through the security checkpoints near the Imam al-Hussein mosque, the focal point of the celebrations. At least five people were killed, police said.

Early Tuesday, crowds of angry pilgrims chanting religious slogans surged through the streets, attacking police and mosque guards, witnesses said. Two ambulances were set ablaze, sending a huge column of black smoke over the city.

Gunmen appeared, firing automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at security forces and sending panicked pilgrims fleeing the area, police and witnesses said.

A member of the city council said the center of town was in chaos, with pilgrims running in all directions to escape the gunfire.

With the situation spiraling out of control, police ordered pilgrims out of the center of the city, effectively canceling the celebrations which were to reach their climax Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

"The area where they (the pilgrims) were gathering has been evacuated in order to control those (criminals)," said Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman. He said the gunmen were gathering in three areas in the old town and security forces were chasing them.

In Baghdad, a senior government security official blamed the fighting on al-Sadr's followers, saying they provoked the confrontations Monday night and were responsible for the shooting Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid enflaming the situation.

Tensions have been rising in southern Iraq as rival Shiite groups maneuver for power, especially in the oil-rich area around Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.

Concern over Basra is mounting as British forces prepare to evacuate the last of their forces from the city and redeploy to the airport 12 miles to the north.

Elsewhere, hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi forces backed by helicopters and jet fighters killed 33 Sunni insurgents who were holding back the water supply to the Shiite town of Khalis, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said.

The assault began before dawn Monday when a joint force was landed by helicopter in the village of Gubbiya, 10 miles east of Khalis. The assault force killed 13 fighters and attack aircraft killed 20 others, the military said. The area is known to be controlled by al-Qaida in Iraq.

Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb exploded in northern Khalis, killing four Iraqi soldiers, the Iraqi army said.

In Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, mourners buried 11 victims of a mosque suicide bombing Monday. Ten people were wounded in the attack, which police said targeted an anti-al-Qaida Sunni sheik.

Over 100 Taliban killed in Afghan battle

KABUL, Aug 29: US-led and Afghan troops battled suspected Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday in ground clashes and airstrikes that left over 100 militants dead, the coalition said.

In eastern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber attacked NATO troops helping to build a bridge, killing three American soldiers, a U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because not all families had been notified.

The battle in southern Kandahar province's Shah Wali Kot district started after the joint force was ambushed by a large group of insurgents who tried to overrun their position several times, before being strafed by airstrikes, the statement from the coalition said.

"Coalition aircraft destroyed the reinforced enemy emplacements and sniper positions as well as two trucks used to reinforce and re-supply the insurgent force," the statement.

More than 100 suspected insurgents and an Afghan soldier were killed, coalition said. The casualty figures could not be independently verified due to remoteness of the area.

Clash also left three coalition and three Afghan soldiers wounded, the statement said. The nationality of the coalition soldier was not disclosed, but vast majority of them are American.

Violence is soaring in Afghanistan. This year more than 3,900 people — most of them militants — have died.

Also Tuesday, U.S.-led and Afghan troops raided a house near Kandahar city, killing two suspected militants and detaining five others, a coalition statement said.

Those targeted in the raid were accused of facilitating bomb attacks against coalition and Afghan forces in Kandahar, the statement said. The people detained in the raid will be questioned at a military facility before being turned over to Afghan authorities, it said.

In the Taliban-held Musa Qala district of Helmand province, militants ambushed the joint U.S.-Afghan force Monday, another coalition statement said.

The joint force fought back, targeting militants who were using several compounds and trenches for cover, the statement said. It said about a dozen militants were killed in the clash.

Militants have been running Musa Qala since last year's controversial peace deal between local elders and Afghan government officials, supported by British troops in the province. The deal effectively turned over Musa Qala town and surrounding areas to Taliban control.

Also Monday, coalition and Afghan troops spotted a group of 20 insurgents preparing an ambush in Kandahar province's Shah Wali Kot district, coalition said.

The troops attacked the insurgents and killed seven, while the rest fled, the statement said. There were no reports of coalition or Afghan troops killed or wounded in either clash.

In the eastern province of Nangarhar, a roadside blast hit a vehicle carrying Afghan soldiers on Monday, killing four, a statement from Defense Ministry said.

Gul wins Turkish presidency

ISTANBUL, Aug 29: A devout Muslim won Turkey's presidency Tuesday after months of confrontation with the secular establishment, promising to be impartial and praising the idea that Islam and the state should be separate.

Still, in a sign that tension could lie ahead, top generals did not attend the swearing-in ceremony in parliament of Abdullah Gul, their new president and commander in chief. Local media interpreted their absence as a protest against the 56-year-old Gul, the former foreign minister in Turkey's Islamic-oriented government.

Gul, who has tried to engineer Turkey's entry into the European Union with sweeping reforms, received a majority of 339 votes in a parliamentary ballot in the capital, Ankara. The secular opposition had thwarted Gul's earlier bid for the presidency, but his triumph this time was assured by a ruling party that won a second term in general elections last month.

The burly and affable new president was careful to reach out to the many Turks who suspect he has a secret Islamic agenda.

"In democracy, which is a system of rights and liberties, secularism, one of the core principles of our republic, is as much a model that underpins freedom for different lifestyles as it is a rule of social harmony," Gul said. "I will continue my path, in a transparent and fully impartial manner, embracing all my citizens."

Gul, a former practitioner of political Islam who later cast himself as a moderate, vowed to campaign for gender equality and the rule of law, and he said "change and diversity" were not things to be feared.

"It is imperative for our country that we carry out the political and economic reforms geared toward EU membership more resolutely," he told lawmakers in a nationally televised speech.

He also praised the military as a necessary deterrent and a symbol of independence, a day after the military chief, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, warned that "centers of evil" were plotting to corrode secular principles crafted nearly a century ago by Turkey's revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The military has ousted four governments since 1960, and an initial presidential bid by Gul was derailed over fears that he planned to dilute secular traditions. Some commentators said the generals' failure to show up for Gul's oath-taking was ominous.

"It shows that his presidency is a source of tension from the onset," Rusen Cakir, a leading analyst on political Islam, said on Turkey's private NTV television. "We will need to wait and see if the tension turns into a crisis or whether some kind of harmony is reached."

One of Gul's sons attended the ceremony, but his wife, Hayrunnisa, did not. She wears an Islamic-style head scarf, which is banned in government offices and schools and is viewed by secularists as a troubling symbol of religious fervor, and even militancy. Some who wear the head scarf say the state's restrictions on Islamic attire amount to a curb on freedom of expression.

Turkey's president has the power to veto legislation and official appointments, and Gul has failed to allay secularist fears that he would eagerly approve any initiatives of the government of his close ally, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan said he planned to submit his new Cabinet to Gul on Wednesday. Erdogan had presented his list earlier this month to outgoing President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, who said the new president should approve it.

"I hope (Gul's presidency) is beneficial to the country, the people and the republic," Erdogan said. "God willing, together, shoulder to shoulder, we will carry Turkey forward."

Gul took over the post from Sezer, a staunch secularist, in a low-key ceremony that was closed to the media. On his way out of the palace, Sezer stopped his car to say goodbye to guards and journalists.

Outside the palace gates, secularists waved Turkish flags, threw flowers at his vehicle and shouted: "We are proud of you!"

Police also prevented two dozen demonstrators who were protesting Gul's election from approaching the palace.

Gul failed to win the presidency in two rounds of voting last week because the ruling Justice and Development Party lacked the two-thirds majority in parliament needed for him to secure the post. But the party — which holds 341 of the 550 seats — had a far easier hurdle Tuesday, when only a simple majority was required.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the United States welcomed "this exercise in Turkish democracy. We think it continues the course of democratic development in that country."

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he hoped the government "will be able to resume work ... to give fresh, immediate and positive impetus" to EU entry talks.

In Gul's hometown of Kayseri, in Turkey's conservative heartland, hundreds gathered at a main square to celebrate his victory, private NTV television reported.

Secularist Turks had staged mass rallies and the military threatened to intervene when Erdogan nominated Gul for president in the spring. This time, Gul said his party's victory in the general elections gave him a strong mandate to run again.

Sinan Ogan, head of the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, said Gul's election reflects the rising power of a middle class with religious values and mistrust of the old secular elite. But he warned that Gul's foes will scrutinize his conduct.

"If he slides into cronyism, then Turkey will see what instability really means," Ogan said.

Abe calls for 'broader Asia' partnership

NEW DELHI, Aug 22: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for a "broader Asia" partnership of democracies that would include India, the United States and Australia.

Abe's comments came in an address to a joint session of India's parliament at the start of a visit that aims to boost trade between Asia's largest and third largest economies, and counter China's growing strength.

"This partnership is an association in which we share fundamental values such as freedom, democracy and respect for basic human rights as well as strategic interests," Abe said.

"By Japan and India coming together in this way, this 'broader Asia' will evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the United States of America and Australia."

His speech did not mention China in relation to the "broader Asia". While Abe has improved ties with Beijing, he has also stressed the need to forge closer links with democracies in what analysts have called a tacit criticism of Beijing.

Tokyo's navy is due to take part for the first time in U.S.-India exercises in the Bay of Bengal next month.

Noting that he was accompanied by about 200 executives from major Japanese companies, he said the amount of trade between the two countries will be increasing dramatically in the immediate future and in the next three years, the volume can be expected to reach 20 billion US dollars.

Favouring early conclusion of CEPA, the Japanese Prime Minister asked his country's negotiators to work in this direction which will set an example for the world.

"I likewise urge the Indian side to give their support to enable the early conclusion of this high quality agreement," he said.

Referring to the ambitious plans to connect Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata with freight corridor, he noted that Singh has demonstrated "great enthusiasm" in executing these Japan-aided projects.

Addressing a joint press conference with the visiting leader, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said "my sincere hope is that when the matter comes forth to the Nuclear Suppliers Group that we will have the support of the Japanese government."

The Japanese premier said he understood the plans of India -- armed with atomic weapons -- to use nuclear energy to cope with global warming and help meet its fast-growing economy's demand for power.

"But, at the same time, as the only nation to suffer an atomic bombing, we attach special importance to nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament," Abe said.

"From that perspective we have to carefully look at its effect on the nuclear non-proliferation framework."

Paying tribute to the Indian democracy and its march to achieve high economic growth surmounting challenges and difficulties like poverty, he said "the world has its eyes focussed on you".

Observing that the bilateral relations are blessed with the "largest potential" for development, Abe said a strong India is in the best interest of Japan and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.

Earlier, Abe who is on a three-day visit to India, was given a ceremonial welcome on the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan.

President Pratibha Patil and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were among those who formally welcomed Abe.

The Japanese prime minister arrived in India on Tuesday along with his wife Akie and a 243-strong business delegation representing top corporate houses of his country. He is scheduled to visit Kolkata on Thursday.

Abe's visit is considered very important by India, which is hoping to start negotiations on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) with Japan.

Apart from the 180 businessmen who are accompanying Abe, 12 vice-chancellors from top Japanese universities will hold an interactive session with directors of IITs - the aim being to start academic and science and technology exchanges between the two.

Abe is accompanied by almost 180 businessmen, many of them CEOs of top Japanese companies. Many of these companies, like Mitsui, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Honda and Orix, have started identifying potential areas of investment around the corridor.

Zimbabwe inflation hits 7,634 per cent

HARARE, Aug 22: Zimbabwe's inflation rate has leapt to a record high, official data showed on Wednesday, raising pressure on President Robert Mugabe to ease an economic crisis that foes hope will weaken the veteran leader.

Zimbabwe's inflation -- already the highest in the world -- hit 7,634.8 percent in July, reminding Zimbabweans there is no relief in sight from daily hardships including chronic food, fuel and foreign currency shortages.

Mugabe has accused some businesses of raising prices without justification as part of a Western plot to oust him.

He launched a blitz on inflation by ordering businesses to freeze prices in late June. But the move exacerbated shortages, leaving shop shelves empty. The government eased some restrictions on Wednesday.

Mugabe, who remains defiant despite sanctions imposed by Western powers and criticism that his policies are to blame for the crisis, is taking new steps aimed at tightening his grip before seeking another five-year term in next year's elections.

The former hero of African liberation who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980 is embarking on what critics say is his classic strategy of condemning his Western foes to focus attention away from his economic failures.

He is pushing for a bill in parliament, which is dominated by his ruling ZANU-PF, that will give him room to choose a successor if he were to retire or give parliament the power to pick a president if the current president died in office.

Mugabe, who accuses Britain and the United States of sabotaging Zimbabwe's economy, is also pressing to localize foreign-owned companies through a separate bill.

The government said on Wednesday a clerical mistake had forced it to postpone to Thursday the introduction in parliament of the bill seeking to give majority control of foreign-owned firms to Zimbabweans.

Critics say the bill is reminiscent of Mugabe's controversial policy of seizing white-owned farms to give to landless blacks, which may say triggered the current crisis.

Frustrations, meanwhile, are growing on the streets but a tough crackdown on the opposition has made it clear that dissent will not be tolerated.

Although Mugabe faces growing criticism from Western powers, neighboring African nations have failed to press him to enact political reforms, diplomats say.

Regional states hope mediation by South Africa between Mugabe and the opposition will ease political and economic troubles. But they have so far not produced any breakthroughs.

Zimbabwe's main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), too weak and divided to challenge Mugabe, on Wednesday accused the government of taking measures to prevent its supporters from registering to vote in next year's elections.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced this week that more than 80,000 new voters were registered between June 18 and August 17, when voter registration closed.

But Ian Makone, director of elections in the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the MDC, told reporters the number of new voters was "a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of prospective voters."

"The MDC is aware of the overt machinations by the regime to steal the people's vote through a biased and opaque mobile voter registration," Makone said.

Neither the ZEC nor government officials were immediately available to comment.

Gul has second run at presidency in Turkey

ISTANBUL, Aug 19: The Turkish parliament meets on Monday for the first round of a presidential election that is certain to see Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, a former Islamist, eventually become the country's 11th head of state.

The 550 newly elected lawmakers will hold a secret ballot to pick a new president for a single seven-year term between candidates Gul and Sabahattin Cakmakoglu of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

Both men are from the central province of Kayseri, a conservative stronghold.

The head of state holds largely ceremonial functions, but has the authority to name top bureaucrats, including members of the Constitutional Court, and has a one-time right to send legislation he considers flawed back to parliament for reconsideration.

Gul is unlikely to be elected in the first and second rounds of voting, his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lacking the required two-thirds majority of 367.

But the third round of voting scheduled for 28 th August, when a simple majority of 276 will suffice, should see him elected thanks to a comfortable majority of 340 seats the AKP gleaned in snap legislative elections held on 22nd July.

It was Gul's candidacy for the presidency that sparked the early vote to avert a political crisis between the Islamist-rooted AKP, which has governed Turkey since 2002, and secularists who accuse it of seeking to secretly erode the separation of state and religion.

The crisis worsened when the staunchly secularist armed forces made it clear that it did not welcome Gul's candidacy.

Dawood, Tiger Memon in ISI custody

MUMBAI: In a stunning development, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is learnt to have taken don Dawood Ibrahim into custody, along with his trusted lieutenant Chhota Shakeel and the mastermind of the 1993 Mumbai blasts Tiger Memon.

Intelligence sources said the trio was rounded up last Thursday from their hideout near the Pak-Afghan border and taken to a safe-house on the outskirts of Quetta. The sources added that the three outlaws are likely to be moved out of Quetta soon.

With the US mounting pressure on Islamabad to hand over Dawood and his accomplices who are close to Al-Qaida, the ISI is said to have acted to pre-empt possible proactive steps by Washington. Only last week, the US said that Dawood's smuggling routes converge with that used by Qaida to move arms.

As Washington was building up to some action against Dawood, the ISI is said to have cracked down on him in order to save further embarrassment to the beleaguered Pervez Musharraf regime should Dawood get caught by American forces.

The sources said it would have been tactically unwise for ISI to pick up just Dawood and not his trusted henchmen, Shakeel and Memon.

A senior intelligence officer added: "We will not be surprised if the ISI even eliminates them and confiscates their vast wealth. In any case, Dawood and the others have ceased to be of much use to the Pakistani establishment."

Dawood's brother Anees is already on the run. The first indications of the detention of Dawood and his cronies came when people working for them in Mumbai, Dubai and other places found their phones being answered by strange voices.

The men at the other end of the phones asked the callers to leave their names with the promise to pass on the message to the bhais . This has apparently never happened.

Australia set to give uranium to India

CANBERRA, Aug 1: Australia looks set to lift a ban on uranium sales to India, with senior ministers expected to decide this month to overturn a policy of selling only to signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said late on Tuesday that a uranium deal was "very much in Australia's interests" after a meeting with his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee on the sidelines of a regional summit in the Philippines.

"India's commitment to separate its civil and military nuclear facilities, enabling expansion of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, will help to bring India more fully into the non-proliferation mainstream," Downer said.

While senior Australian cabinet ministers would reach a formal decision in August, government sources said on Wednesday that a positive finding would be only the starting gun for lengthy negotiations.

Downer, who will argue the case for approving the sale of the nuclear fuel to New Delhi, said India was a "constructive and responsible partner in preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction".

In a confidential submission to the cabinet, Downer says that, under a planned safeguards deal, India would separate its civilian nuclear programme from its weapons programme. Australian uranium would go only to India's 14 nuclear energy plants.

The meeting between Downer and Mukherjee came days after New Delhi and Washington announced the completion of negotiations on a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation deal.

The deal needs clearance from the Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations that govern the global civilian nuclear trade. India must also conclude an agreement to place its civilian reactors under U.N. safeguards before the U.S. Congress can approve the deal.

But the agreement would not only give energy-hungry India access to U.S. nuclear fuel and equipment for the first time in 30 years, but also open the doors for nuclear commerce with other nations after getting key international approvals.

Downer said the U.S.-India deal had laid the platform for Australia to consider a policy shift.

"On the basis that (the United States and India) have, at least at the executive level, reached agreement, we can start talking," he said.

The foreign minister said last Friday a switch would not open the door for uranium exports to India's rival Pakistan, despite a demand from Pakistani Minister For Religious Affairs Ejaz ul-Haq. Downer said Islamabad had until now eschewed IAEA safeguards negotiations.

Australia has more than 40 percent of the world's known reserves of uranium and is a major exporter of the fuel. India has been lobbying Canberra to get access to it after the India-U.S. nuclear deal was agreed in principle two years ago.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in March that Canberra was considering a shift in its refusal to sell uranium to New Delhi as India was seen as a "very responsible country" and relations between the two were growing.

Australia and China, an NPT signatory, are finalising safeguards arrangements for uranium sales. Howard told colleagues in July that voters would not understand why it was acceptable to sell uranium to China but not to India, when China had in the past been accused of exporting nuclear technology.

Australia exports uranium to 36 countries, but only sells to countries that have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and then only when Canberra has a separate nuclear safeguards agreement over the use of the uranium.

Former Taliban joins talks for hostages

KABUL, July 28: A former Taliban member and several influential elders have joined negotiations with the hardline militia to step up pressure for the release of 22 South Korean hostages, an official said Saturday.

A South Korean presidential envoy, Baek Jong-chun, was scheduled to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday, an official from the South Korean Embassy in Kabul said. She spoke on condition of anonymity because of embassy policy.

The Taliban has demanded the release of insurgent prisoners in exchange for the South Koreans, who were captured on July 19. One of the original 23 captives was shot to death on Wednesday.

Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said the militants hoped Baek would be able to "persuade the Afghan government" to swap imprisoned militants for the captives.

"If they don't release the Taliban prisoners, then the Taliban does not have any option other than to kill the Korean hostages," he said, reiterating an earlier threat.

Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a parliament member who once belonged to the Taliban, has joined the talks, said Shirin Mangal, spokesman for the governor of Ghazni province. A second lawmaker and several respected leaders from the province's Qarabagh area, where the hostage were taken, have also joined, he said.

"Today we are hopeful to get a good result because more and more elders have gathered from Ghazni," said Qarabagh police chief Khwaja Mohammad. "I hope the Taliban will listen to these negotiations now because they are neutral people — elders from around Qarabagh district."

Afghan officials have said they are optimistic the hostages could be freed without further bloodshed despite the Taliban's threat to kill the captives.

Negotiators were struggling with conflicting demands made by the kidnappers, including the release of Taliban prisoners and ransom money.

Local tribal elders and clerics from Qarabagh have been negotiating by telephone with the captors for several days.

The South Koreans, including 18 women, were kidnapped while traveling by bus on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, Afghanistan's main thoroughfare.

Ahmadi said the hostages were being held in small groups in different locations and that some of them were in poor health.
"I don't know if the weather is not good for them, or our food," Ahmadi said. "The women hostages are crying. The men and women are worried about their future."

Pakistan test-fires nuclear missile

ISLAMABAD, July 26: Pakistan successfully tested on Thursday a cruise missile capable of carrying a variety of warheads, including nuclear, a military official said.

The Babur Hatf VII missile has a range of 700 km (435 miles). It was last tested in March.

"It was a successful test," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The Babur Hatf VII is a terrain-hugging, radar avoiding cruise missile.

The missile was first tested in 2005. Since, then its range has been enhanced to 700 km, from 500 km previously.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan and India routinely carry out missile tests despite a peace process they launched in early 2004, and both have agreed to inform each other of such tests in advance.

The two South Asian neighbours carried out tit-for-tat nuclear weapons tests in 1998.

Bush: al Qaeda safe haven in Pakistan

WASHINGTON - President George W. Bush said on Saturday he was troubled by a U.S. intelligence report that al Qaeda has become entrenched in a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal region near Afghanistan.

But Bush offered support for Pakistan's embattled president, saying he believes Pervez Musharraf is committed to fighting al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

Part of the National Intelligence Estimate made public this week found a "persistent and evolving" threat to the United States from Islamic militant groups, especially Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.

Bush, in his taped weekly radio address, said the report's assessment that al Qaeda was gaining strengthen in the tribal region of Pakistan was "one of the most troubling."

The United States, after being hit by al Qaeda's attacks on September 11, 2001, led an invasion of Afghanistan later that year to oust the Taliban religious movement that had seized power and to root out bin Laden and his followers.

Musharraf, an army general, has been an important ally to Washington but must contend with a violent campaign by Islamic militants and porous mountain borders that make it hard to halt the flow of fighters, weapons, opium and other drugs.

The White House has acknowledged that a truce Musharraf reached in September with tribal leaders had not worked.

Bush, now more than four years into a war in Iraq that has stretched the U.S. military, said Pakistan's tribal leaders had proven unwilling or unable to police the area themselves.

"President Musharraf recognizes the agreement has not been successful or well-enforced and is taking active steps to correct," Bush said.

"We will work with our partners to deny safe haven to the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan -- or anywhere else in the world."

Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who lost to Bush in the 2004 presidential election, said U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that the Iraq war was diverting attention from al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Our troops and our country need a new policy from this president, not the same old rhetoric," he said in a statement.


Musharraf faces a political crisis amid waves of violence that erupted after government forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad this month to end a siege by militants.

Further weakening Musharraf, Pakistan's Supreme Court this week reinstated the chief justice after the president sought to remove him. Pro-democracy activists had criticized Musharraf for suspending the top judge in March.

Pakistan's North Waziristan area near the Afghan border is believed to be a hotbed of al Qaeda and Taliban activity, with U.S. officials saying bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders are hiding there.

Washington has been pressing Pakistan to do more against al Qaeda in the border area and has not ruled out U.S. strikes.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry has said that only its troops can conduct counter-terrorism operations on its soil.

U.S. forces in Afghanistan have carried out strikes in Pakistan, often with missile-carrying Predator drone aircraft, without confirming them so as not to embarrass Musharraf.

In the aftermath of September 11, Bush has sought make the fight against terrorism a defining issue of his presidency.

"As time goes by, it can be tempting to think that the threat of another attack on our homeland is behind us," Bush said, adding the intelligence report made public this week "makes clear that the threat is not behind us."

Top Pakistan justice resumes his duties

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's chief justice resumed his official duties Saturday, a day after this Islamic nation's powerful military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf lost a bid to fire him, the biggest setback to the general's eight-year rule.

The reinstatement of Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on Friday has clouded the political future of a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism just as the country faces growing violence by Islamic militants.

In a landmark ruling, Supreme Court judges voted unanimously to restore Chaudhry and 10-3 to quash charges of misconduct that Musharraf had sent to a separate judicial tribunal.

The surprise verdict on an appeal from Chaudhry — many expected the court to reinstate him while letting the tribunal's investigation continue — was widely hailed as a democratic breakthrough in a country dominated by the military for most of its 60-year history.

It also triggered fresh calls for Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup and has been reluctant to restore civilian rule, to step down.

Cheers from black-suited lawyers, who have led mass protests against Musharraf since he suspended Chaudhry on March 9, reverberated through the high-roofed courtroom after presiding Judge Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday announced that the judge's suspension was "illegal" and set aside the charges against him.

Chaudhry himself has made no comment, and Musharraf has accepted the verdict, although he didn't give any indication of his next move.

"The president respects the decision of the Supreme Court," his spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, was quoted as saying by the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan. "The president has stated earlier that any judgment the Supreme Court arrives at will be honored, respected and adhered to."

Washington's response struck a similar tone.

State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the reinstatement "respects the rule of law" and praised the fact the court was "capable of making independent decisions."

Musharraf's defeat prompted jubilation among gatherings of hundreds of lawyers in major cities including Karachi, Multan, Faisalabad, Quetta, Peshawar and Rawalpindi.

On Saturday, hundreds of lawyers again rallied in Islamabad and Lahore, chanting slogans in favor of Chaudhry, and urging Musharraf to resign.

Pressure has mounted on Musharraf to quit since Friday, with opposition asking him to step down.

Exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto called the Chaudhry ruling one of the most remarkable judgments in the country's history and said it has weakened Musharraf politically.

The movement — joined by opposition parties — in support of Chaudhry had turned into a "struggle against dictatorship, (for the) restoration of the Constitution and for supremacy of the Parliament," she said in a statement.

Musharraf suspended Chaudhry for allegedly pulling rank to secure a police job for his son and enjoying unwarranted privileges such as the use of government aircraft.

The government insists the case had no political motive.

However, critics suspected Musharraf of plotting to remove an independent-minded judge to forestall legal challenges to his plan to ask lawmakers for another five-year term.

Recently, Pakistan's deteriorating security situation has overshadowed the judicial crisis. Suicide attacks, bombings and fighting between security forces and Islamic militants have killed about 290 people since clashes between the army and radicals in Islamabad's Red Mosque broke out July 3. On Tuesday, a suicide bombing killed 18 people at a planned rally for Chaudhry in the capital.

Pakistani militants kill 45 in mosque backlash attacks

New Delhi, July 15 - Suicide bombers Sunday targeted a military convoy and a police recruitment centre in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), killing 45, including 29 security officials, taking the weekend death toll in backlash attacks against military action at Lal Masjid to around 70.

"Two suicide bombers rammed their cars packed with explosives into a military convoy at a bus stand in Matta area of Swat district and a third landmine explosion occurred simultaneously," military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad said.

Eleven soldiers died on the spot, while three more succumbed to injuries at the hospital.

Four civilians, including three from the same family, also died in the incident when the blasts demolished two houses and damaged four others.

Two charred bodies of the suspected suicide bombers were also found at the scene, while 39 people were injured in the attack.

In another incident, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a police recruitment centre in another NWFP district, Dera Ismail Khan.

"At least 26 people have died in the incident, including 15 policemen," city police chief Habib ur-Rehman said, fearing that the death toll might increase as many of the 50 injured were in a critical condition.

The attacks came a day after a suicide bomber killed 24 soldiers and injured 29 in the country's tribal region of North Waziristan, where pro-Taliban militants announced Sunday they were pulling out of a peace deal with the Pakistani government.

"Our main objective for signing the agreement was safety and protection of the life and property of our people, but the government forces continued attacks on the Taliban and killed several people," the Taliban Shura, or council, said in pamphlets distributed in the area.

The peace accord was signed in September 2006 to end the two-year military operation against the militants under which tribesmen were obliged to contain the activities of foreign fighters, who launch cross-border attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan.

NWFP has experienced an upsurge in militant attacks on security forces since the last week's Islamabad Red Mosque storming operation, which, according to the government, left 102 people dead.

Supporters of the Red Mosque, including members of the banned extremist organisation Nifaze Sharaiat-I-Mohammed in the Swat district, have vowed to take revenge for the operation, which they claim took the lives of hundreds of students.

Maulana Sami ul-Haq, a pro-Taliban leader in NWFP with a strong following, warned during 10-day long siege of the Red Mosque, 'The issue, if not resolved right now, will set off an unstoppable series of suicide attacks and bombings across the country.'

Angry opposition rallies were held in several cities on Friday over President Pervez Musharraf's decision to use force to end the long confrontation with the hardline clerics that ran the complex.

In excerpts of his will that were published by the local media, the mosque's slain deputy chief cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi said, 'We have a firm belief in God that our blood will lead to a revolution in the country.'

The suicide attacks of Sunday could be linked with the security action at the Red Mosque, Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao told Geo news channel, adding that security was being beefed up in the province but that it was difficult to stop a suicide bomber.

Two Indian doctors charged over bomb attacks on UK

Two more doctors were charged on Saturday with involvement in the failed car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow, one man in Britain and one in Australia, bringing the number accused to three. British police charged Sabeel Ahmed, 26, of Liverpool, with failing to disclose information that could have prevented an act of terrorism, London's Metropolitan Police said. Indian engineer Kafeel Ahmed, 27, Sabeel's brother, is under police guard in hospital after being badly burned when a jeep was driven into an airport terminal building in Glasgow, Scotland, and set ablaze. That attack came 36 hours after the discovery of two cars packed with fuel, gas tanks and nails primed to explode in central London.

Police think the two incidents were linked. All but one of the suspects are medics from the Middle East or India. Australian Federal Police on Saturday charged a 27-year-old Indian doctor over his links with the alleged perpetrators. After being held for 12 days, Mohamed Haneef, 27, appeared in a Brisbane court charged with providing support to a terrorist organisation. He was remanded in custody until Monday when his bail application will be heard.

Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty said the police charge cited recklessness, rather than intention. "The allegation being that he was reckless about some of the support he provided to that group, in particular, the provision of his (mobile phone) SIM card for the use of the group."

Haneef's wife Arshiya said in Bangalore: "Everybody knows he is innocent. His only fault was to give his SIM card to his cousin Sabeel Ahmed." Haneef was detained at Brisbane airport on July 2 as he was about to board a flight to India.

Keelty said the charges came after 12 days of investigation, with almost 300 police and lawyers working on the case and sifting through the electronic equivalent of 36,000 filing cabinets of material. "That is the quantity of material that has been seized in electronic form, from various locations," he told reporters in Canberra.

Iraqi-trained doctor Bilal Abdulla, 27, was charged in Britain last week with conspiring to cause explosions. Three other suspects are still being held at a central London police station, a police spokeswoman confirmed. British police on Thursday released without charge the only woman among those detained in the case. Dana Asha was the wife of suspect Mohammed Asha, 26, and was arrested with him on June 30 while the pair drove on a motorway in northern England. British police can hold terrorism suspects up to 28 days without charge, but must periodically seek the permission of a judge to continue questioning them.

Children used as shields in Pakistan mosque: Govt

ISLAMABAD, July 6: Women and children were being used as human shields by militants besieged in a mosque in Islamabad, the Pakistan government said on Thursday as security forces ratcheted up pressure on hundreds inside to surrender.

Pakistan's Deputy Information Minister Tariq Azim Khan said the few students who had quit the mosque spoke of a nightmare scenario for security forces trying to keep casualties down.

"A large number of women and children are being held hostage by armed men in room," Khan told a news conference, adding that the brother of the captured cleric was hiding in the basement of an attached madrasa with 25 "women hostages".

"Yes, they're using them as human shields, because the people who have come out, they told us that they're telling women and children not to worry because as long as you're here forces will not attack us," he said.

In an interview broadcast earlier on state television, the leader of the Red Mosque's Taliban-style student movement, caught the previous evening trying to escape wearing a woman's burqa, said 850 students remained inside, including 600 women and girls.

Abdul Aziz, clad in a woman's all-enveloping garment like the one he was caught in, began the interview by dramatically lifting the black veil to reveal a face dominated by a bushy grey beard.

He said 14 men were armed with Kalashnikovs in the mosque.

"Now there are 50 to 60 hardcore militants inside the mosque who are armed with automatic weapons, grenades and petrol bombs," Interior Minister Ahmed Aftab Khan Sherpao said.

Smiling through much of a bizarre interview Aziz said he had had urged others to leave the mosque, but some women teachers had persuaded girls to stay behind.

He said that as the confrontation with the authorities in the Pakistani capital deepened, some militant groups had provided arms.

At least 16 people have been killed since clashes broke out on Tuesday between militant students at the mosque and paramilitary troops, who have now laid siege to the compound.

A series of loud blasts and bursts of gunfire were heard around the besieged Lal Masjid in Islamabad triggering speculation that Pakistani security forces were trying to storm the mosque.

Officials, however, denied any attempts to forcibly enter the facility.

At least 15 explosions stated to be mortar shells rocked the area in central Islamabad around 0440 IST.

The mortar fire apparently knocked down portions of the wall around the mosque.

The explosions were so loud that they virtually woke up people in many parts of the city.

The blasts were followed by repeated announcements through mobile loudspeakers by the troops asking militants headed by Deputy Administrator Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi to surrender.

"We have surrounded you. Surrender," the announcements said. But no one came out of the mosque as the stand off entered the third day.

India assures UK all possible help in investigations

NEW DELHI, July 5: In the backdrop of detention of two Indians in connection with the failed terror plots in the UK, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke to his British counterpart Gordon Brown and assured him all possible help in investigations

Disclosing this here, Singh cautioned against dubbing anybody or any country as a terrorist, saying if any community is targeted, it would create "new sets of grievances".

"It is wrong to label any community or country. We have to look for solutions," Singh said in the wake of two Indians being held for their suspected involvement in the failed terror plots of London and Brisbane.

"If a particular community is targeted, it will create a new set of grievances," the Prime Minister told a group of women journalists during an interaction in New Delhi.

"We should not fix labels like muslims or non-muslims. It won't help us in understanding the situation or dealing with it. It is very stereotype to classify a person," he said.

The Prime Minister suggested that even if any one Indian is suspected of terror linkages, all Indians could not be dubbed as terrorists.

"A terroist is a terrorist and he has no religion or community", he said.

Singh said there are misguided youth in any society and this was not any community specific.

"As a Sikh, I understand the trauma (of being labelled)," he said.

The comments came in the backdrop of two doctors hailing from Bangalore -- Mohd Haneef and Sabeel Ahmed -- being held in connection with the UK terror plot. While Haneef has been detained in Brisbane, Australia, Sabeel was held in Liverpool, UK.

The Prime Minister has been perturbed by the trauma expressed by Haneef's family and has virtually been sleepless after seeing his mother airing her pain.

Armed student militia clash with Pak forces; 9 killed

Clashes at Pak Lal MasjidISLAMABAD, July 4: General Musharraf convened an emergency meeting to discuss the Lal Masjid stand-off which left nine people dead and several injured in an armed clash between militant students holed up in the mosque and Pak Rangers.

After a six-month stand-off between the government and the radicals, the madrassa students holed up in the mosque exchanged fire with security forces deployed outside it.

A government spokesman alleged that the firing started after several madrassa students tried to barge into a building where the Rangers were lodged.

However, the mosque`s administrator and militant cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi alleged that violence erupted when Rangers moved close to the girls` madarassa and fired tear gas shells.

A security man was killed and another injured in the clash, Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said.

The cleric accused the government of starting the fighting and demanded the immediate withdrawal of about 1500 Rangers who surrounded the radical mosque on Friday.

The government has come under increasing pressure to act against the students and clerics who, last month, held seven Chinese captive in the mosque for 15 hours for indulging in "un-Islamic" acts.

While emergency has been declared in all hospitals, the government has called for police reinforcements from nearby Rawalpindi city.

The firing started around 1300 hrs and periodic gunfire has been heard from different sides of the mosque.

Madrassa students armed with sticks and Kalashnikov rifles rushed towards some of the pickets of the Rangers, who in turn fled. The police have not cordoned off the boys madrassa, Jamia Faridia, located about less seven km from the mosque.

The roads on the sides of the mosque in central Islamabad were open for over two hours after the firing began.

Also as firing started, Rangers were seen withdrawing into the nearby streets, while the heavily armed students took the streets.

Hundreds of students stood in front of the mosque, shouting slogans of jihad, while scores of onlookers and media persons gathered.

Later, police in fortified vehicles were seen moving in large numbers firing tear gas shells to disperse the students.

Bureau Chief of Geo TV Afsar Alam was also injured in the violence.

Heavily armed students later started attacking the government offices, while some students wearing gas masks were seen carrying rocket launchers on their shoulders to the pickets set up on the walls of the mosque.

Students were seen attacking the buildings of Ministry of Environment and National Safety Commission close to the mosque.

The rampaging students also destroyed the Rangers` picket near the mosque.

Meanwhile, repeated announcements have been made through loudspeakers in the mosque that "jihad has been declared". The chief cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was heard asking the "suicide bombers" to take their positions.

Speeches are being delivered through loud speakers installed in the mosque accusing the government of starting the violence.

More than 50 injured women, believed to be madrassa students, were admitted to hospitals, reports from hospitals said.

Even in this grim situation, Ghazi insisted that girl students should be treated only by women doctors in the hospital.

Lal Masjid is located near Abpara Market and as the fighting started all shops in the area downed their shutters fearing that a major operation may begin later in the day.

Though the fighting was confined to the area around the mosque, the Pakistani capital remained tense.

President Pervez Musharraf recently said students of the banned Jaish-e-Muhammad were holed up in the mosque and expressed apprehension that any raid would cause lot of bloodshed.

The clash was being covered live by most TV channels including the state-run PTV.

2 Indian doctors held in UK terror investigation

LONDON, July 4: There were at least two Indians among the eight people arrested till Tuesday evening in connection with the recent failed terror strikes in London and Glasgow, British police said.

One of them, Mohammed Hanif, was taken into custody at Brisbane airport, Australia, on Tuesday morning at the request of Scotland Yard as he was about to board a flight. The other Indian, as yet unidentified, was arrested from Liverpool. No charges have been filed yet.

All the eight picked up so far — some of whom hail from Iraq and Jordan — have links with Britain’s National Health Service. Seven of them are doctors while the eighth, a woman, is a former medical laboratory technician.

Both the Indians are doctors, of the same age — 26. Both hail from Bangalore. Both worked together earlier at Halton Hospital in Cheshire, a spokesman of the hospital confirmed.

Hanif had been working as registrar at Gold Coast Hospital in Southport, Queensland, since September 2006. He shifted to Australia from Liverpool where he earlier worked.

Hanif is the son of a school teacher from Mudigere, Kanataka, who died in a road accident years ago. The family shifted to Bangalore, where Hanif graduated from BR Ambedkar Medical College, before leaving for the UK.

The other, unidentified Indian was picked up from his residence. He was surrounded by the police and subdued with a stun gun, police sources said.

Yet another doctor, also believed to be Indian, who had also worked in Liverpool, was being questioned by Australian police.

Union Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta said: "It is a British investigation. We will extend our full cooperation."

India rejects Rice remarks, says NAM still relevant

By Deepak Arora

Navtej SarnaNEW DELHI, June 29: Rejecting the US contention that Non-Aligned Movement NAM ) has "lost its meaning", India has asserted that its relevance continues in promoting democratisation of the international system and South-South cooperation.

Reacting to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice`s remarks on Wednesday that NAM has "lost its meaning", a spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs, Navtej Sarna, underlined that that its relevance continues and reiterated that that India was committed to its ideals.

Mr Sarna said India's "firm and abiding commitment" to non-alignment could not be questioned.

"The Non-Aligned Movement played a significant role in ending apartheid and colonialism. Today, its relevance continues in promoting South- South cooperation and the democratization of the international system," said the spokesman.

Ms Rice had suggested that India "move past old ways of thinking and old ways of acting" to create a partnership for the future of relations between the two countries.

The CPI(M), an ally of the government, also hit out at Rice for her comments and said that India should not be lectured on how foreign policy should be conducted.

"The message is being conveyed along with the assurance that the nuclear cooperation agreement can be finalised provided India understands the parameters of the `strategic alliance` with the United States," the party said in a statement here.

US, Iraq forces kill 90 al Qaeda in offensive

BAQUBA, Iraq: U.S. and Iraqi forces say they have killed 90 al Qaeda fighters around Baghdad during one of the biggest combined offensives against the Sunni Islamist group since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Seven U.S. soldiers were killed in roadside bomb attacks in and around the capital on Saturday, underscoring a warning from military commanders that U.S. casualties are likely to mount as more troops are put in harm's way.

U.S. air strikes on Saturday killed seven suspected al Qaeda fighters in Tikrit in Salahuddin province and near the city of Falluja, west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement.

Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are taking part in simultaneous offensives in provinces around Baghdad to deny al Qaeda militants sanctuary in farmlands and towns from where they launch car bomb attacks and other violence.

In the capital, Iraq's parliament voted to cut its summer vacation by a month to focus on passing laws Washington views as crucial to healing Iraq's deep sectarian divide. Lawmakers said the current session would be extended until the end of July.

The move is likely to be welcomed by U.S. President George W. Bush, although the bills have yet to be presented to parliament for debate.

The laws include those on sharing revenues from Iraq's huge oil reserves more equitably, holding provincial elections and allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to return to the government and military.

The U.S. military said on Saturday that 55 al Qaeda militants had been killed in Operation Arrowhead Ripper, a key plank of the combined offensives, which began in and around the city of Baquba in Diyala province on Tuesday.

Another 28 militants have been killed in separate operations in the past several days in Diyala, north of Baghdad, the U.S. military has said. U.S. officials say al Qaeda is trying to spark all-out sectarian civil war in Iraq.

In the worst attack against U.S. soldiers on Saturday, four were killed when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle northwest of Baghdad. The military did not say whether they had been taking part in the offensive. Three others were killed in roadside bomb attacks in Baghdad and Tikrit.

Pak radicals set $11 m bounty on Rushdie's head

ISLAMABAD, June 23: A group of Islamic scholars in northwest Pakistan placed a $11.5 million bounty on author Salman Rushdie's head, whose knighthood in Britain sparked an angry response across the Muslim world recently, a report said Saturday.

The bounty was announced during a meeting of 50 Islamic scholars in the Kanigram region of semi-autonomous North Waziristan, Nawa-i-Waqt newspaper reported.

'Blasphemer Rushdie is liable to death and anyone who murders him will get a reward of 700 million rupees (about $11.5 million),' the head of the meeting, Maulana Muhammad Zaman, was quoted as saying.

'The British government has challenged the honour of one billion and four hundred million Muslims around the world,' he added.

The dispute over the knighthood, proposed by Britain's Labour government and to be awarded by Queen Elizabeth II, escalated Friday as the Pakistani parliament hardened its stance on the issue and demanded an apology from Britain.

'This house renews its demand from the British government and Tony Blair for immediate withdrawal of the title and tender an apology to the Muslim world,' it said in a new resolution.

Thousands of Pakistanis demonstrated across the country chanting slogans 'Death to blasphemer Rushdie' and 'Death to Britain'.

Some speakers urged the government in Islamabad to review its diplomatic and trade relations with London.

Another grouping of Islamic scholars, The Pakistan Ulema Council, Thursday conferred the honour title of 'Saifullah' (Sword of God) on Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden apparently in retaliation for Rushdie's knighting.

Many Muslims consider Rushdie's 1988 book 'The Satanic Verses' blasphemous.

Britain insists that the title was awarded to the author for his literary services and not to offend Muslims.

Bomb kills 78 in Baghdad, US in big offensive

BAGHDAD, June 20: A suicide truck bomber killed 78 people when he rammed his vehicle into a Shi'ite mosque in Baghdad, just hours after the US military deployed 10,000 soldiers in a major offensive against al Qaeda.

The offensive around the city of Baquba in Diyala province, involving attack helicopters and armored fighting vehicles, is partly aimed at taking down al Qaeda car bomb networks that cause carnage in Baghdad. It is one of the biggest military operations since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In the bombing, one witness said the bomber drove his truck into the Shi'ite Khilani mosque in Baghdad, destroying one of its walls and wrecking part of the building's interior. The mosque's signature turquoise dome appeared to have suffered little damage.

Police said 78 people had been killed and 130 people wounded. Rescuers dragged bodies from the mosque while the charred remains of others could be seen in burned out minibuses around a nearby traffic circle.

It was the second worst bombing in Baghdad since U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a crackdown in February in the capital aimed at halting Iraq's spiral into all-out sectarian civil war. A car bomb on April 18 killed 140 near a Baghdad market.

The explosion followed a relatively quiet period in Baghdad after a four-day curfew was imposed last week in the wake of an attack on a revered Shi'ite shrine in the city of Samarra that was blamed on al Qaeda.

The U.S. military said 22 militants were killed in the early hours of the offensive against al Qaeda around Baquba. Diyala province is a stronghold of the Sunni Islamist group.

"The end state is to destroy the al Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people," Brigadier-General Mick Bednarek, deputy commanding general, operations, 25th Infantry Division, said in a statement.

Abbas dismisses Govt., declares emergency

WEST BANK, June 15: President Mahmoud Abbas has signed decrees dissolving the Palestinian government and declaring a state of emergency across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, an Abbas spokesman has said on Thursday.

''We have decided to do the following, to dismiss Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh,'' said Tayeb Abdel-Rahim, secretary general of the presidency, reading a statement from Abbas.

''We are declaring a state of emergency in all the lands of the Palestinian Authority ... and establishing a government authorised with implementing the regulations and instructions of the state of emergency,'' Abdel-Rahim said.

Abbas's secular Fatah movement had formed a unity government with Haniyeh of the Islamist Hamas in March.

Abbas's statement also indicated that he could call for early elections if the situation in the Palestinian territories stabilises.

''The president is determined to go back to the people as soon as the situation on the ground allows him to do so,'' Abdel-Rahim said.

The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2010 and presidential elections are set for 2009.

Palestinian lawmakers have argued whether Abbas can legally call early elections.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official rejected Abbas's decrees, calling them ''worthless''.

''Prime Minister Haniyeh remains the head of the government even if it was dissolved by the president. According to the law the government remains a caretaker government,'' Abu Zuhri told.

Hamas seizing control of Gaza Strip

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip, June 14: Hamas fighters launched a fierce offensive on Gaza City Wednesday, firing mortars and rockets at Fatah's main security bases and the president's compound as the Islamic group appeared close to taking control of the entire Gaza Strip.

Fatah's forces were crumbling fast, with some fighters seen fleeing their security posts and hundreds of others surrendering, hands raised, to masked Hamas gunmen.

A Hamas military victory in Gaza could split Palestinians into a Hamas-controlled Gaza and a Fatah-run West Bank, and push the prospect of statehood even further away. It could also set the stage for a bloody confrontation with Israel, which might intervene to prevent attacks from Gaza.

In the southern town of Khan Younis, Hamas militants surrounded a security headquarters and warned everyone inside to leave or they would blow it up, witnesses said. The building was then destroyed by a bomb planted in a tunnel underneath it, said Ali Qaisi, a presidential guard spokesman.

Security forces later said they had lost control of the town.

"Khan Younis is finished," said Ziad Sarafandi, a senior security official.

At least 20 people were killed in fighting Wednesday. A Hamas militant was killed in a clash early Thursday in the southern town of Rafah, hospital officials said, bringing the total in four days of infighting to over 60. Among those killed Wednesday was a man shot when Hamas gunmen fired on a peaceful protest against the violence, witnesses said.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah called the fighting "madness" and pleaded with the exiled leader of Hamas to halt the violence.

Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas issued a joint statement after nightfall, calling on all sides "to halt fighting, and to return to language of dialogue and respect of agreements," according to a statement from Abbas' office. The call was broadcast on Palestinian TV.

Hamas radio denied the two had agreed to a truce, and clashes intensified in the hour after their statement was broadcast.

Hamas and Fatah nominally share power in a coalition government, while Fatah runs most of Gaza's security forces. But no one was listening to the elected leaders' pleas for calm as the focus of power passed to street militias.

Hamas gunmen neutralized the main strongholds of the Fatah-linked security forces, ruling the streets and taking control of large parts of Gaza in the process.

Hamas and Fatah have waged a sporadic power struggle since Hamas won parliament elections last year, ending four decades of Fatah dominance of Palestinian affairs. But the battle is now verging on civil war, as Hamas wages a systematic assault on security forces.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he discussed the possible deployment of a multinational force in Gaza with the Security Council on Wednesday after the Israeli and Palestinian leaders raised the idea.

India-Brazil sign 7 agreements

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, June 4: India and Brazil have signed seven agreements for co-operation in several areas including customs and space after a meeting between the Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the Prime minister here on Monday.

Earlier in the day, the Brazilian President, who arrived here on a three-day visit on Sunday, was given a ceremonial reception at Rashtrapati Bhawan.

He also visited Raj Ghat to pay tributes to the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi.

Silva's visit is aimed at strengthening trade and political ties between the two countries.

In the afternoon, the Brazilian president addressed top business leaders of India at an interactive functiom where he pitched Brazil as the land of opportunity for Indian business and sought more Indian participation in the burgeoning IT sector in his country.

The launch of a CEOs forum on Monday, comprising 15 top corporate honchos from each side, with the Indian side led by steel tycoon Ratan Tata and Brazilian side led by Petrobras boss Jose Sergio Gabrielli, is the key highlight of Lula's visit to India.

Quadrupling bilateral trade to US $ 10 billion by 2010 and promoting Brazilian investment in India's expanding infrastructure are focus areas of Lula's economic diplomacy in India - his second visit to the country in three years.

Lula's visit is also a useful prelude to the G8 summit later in Germany in so far as it provided Manmohan Singh and Lula an opportunity to discuss leading themes of the G8 summit like climate change, global warming and multi-lateral Doha round of trade negotiations.

Lula, will head to the German resort town of Heiligendamm on Tuesday to take part in the G8 summit, scheduled from June 6 to 8, where Brazil, along with India, China, Mexico and South Africa have been invited as outreach partners.

During Manmohan Singh's visit to Brasilia in September last year, Lula had indicated that his country appreciated India's growing need for energy, but indicated that his country will take a stand in the NSG only after India and the US finalise a bilateral civil nuclear agreement.

Brazil's emergence as an agricultural superpower and its status as a world leader in ethanol - a byproduct of sugarcane - are added attractions for India to deepen its multi-faceted ties with this Latin American powerhouse.

With India and Brazil making it to the exclusive club of trillion dollar economies, the accent of Lula's visit is on promoting more business and investment between the two countries

Report: U.S. hits militants' Somali base

MOGADISHU (Somalia), June 2: At least one U.S. warship bombarded a remote, mountainous village in Somalia where Islamic militants had set up a base, officials in the northern region of Puntland said Saturday.

The attack from a US destroyer took place late Friday, said Muse Gelle, the regional governor. The extremists had arrived Wednesday by speedboat at the port town of Bargal.

Gelle said the area is a dense thicket, making it difficult for security forces from the semiautonomous republic of Puntland to intervene on their own.

A local radio station quoted Puntland's leader, Ade Muse, as saying that his forces had battled with the extremists for hours before US ships arrived and used their cannons. Muse said five of his troops were wounded, but that he had no information about casualties among the extremists.

A task force of coalition ships, called CTF-150, is permanently based in the northern Indian Ocean and patrols the Somali coast in hopes of intercepting international terrorists. U.S. destroyers are normally assigned to the task force and patrol in pairs.

CNN International, quoting a Pentagon official, also reported the U.S. warship's involvement.

"This is a global war on terror and the U.S. remains committed to reducing terrorist capabilities when and where we find them," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

"We recognize the importance of working closely with allies to seek out, identify, locate, capture, and if necessary, kill terrorists and those who would provide them safe haven," Whitman said. "The very nature of some of our operations, as well as the success of those operations is often predicated on our ability to work quietly with our partners and allies."

Puntland's minister of information, Mohamed Abdulrahman Banga, said that the extremists arrived heavily armed in two fishing boats from southern Somalia, which they controlled for six months last year before being routed by Ethiopian troops sent to prop up a faltering Somali government.

The United States has repeatedly accused Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts of harboring international terrorists linked to al-Qaida and allegedly responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The U.S. sent a small number of special operations troops with the Ethiopian forces that drove the Islamic forces into hiding. U.S. warplanes have carried out at least two airstrikes in an attempt to kill suspected al-Qaida members, Pentagon officials have said.

Thousands flee battered Palestinian camp

TRIPOLI, Lebanon, May 23: People flooded out of a besieged Palestinian refugee camp Tuesday night, waving white flags and telling of bodies lying in the streets and inside wrecked houses after three days of fighting between Lebanese troops and Islamic militants.

Earlier in the day, a relief convoy came under fire when a cease-fire abruptly shattered as U.N. workers tried to deliver food and water to residents. A U.N. official said some who approached the convoy seeking supplies were wounded or killed, but he did not have exact figures.

The nighttime lull that allowed the escape did not appear to be part of an organized truce — and there was no sign the battle was over. The government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora said it was determined to uproot Fatah Islam, which took up residence in the camp late last year.

There was no immediate indication of whether the flight of civilians would give the government a freer hand in bombarding militants holed up in the camp. The army has said its troops were trying to target only militant positions.

Twenty-nine soldiers and at least 20 militants had been killed since the battle began Sunday in the heaviest internal fighting in Lebanon since the 1975-90 civil war. But the number of civilian casualties remained unknown because relief workers were not able to get inside the camp.

When fighting quieted after sunset, thousands of people took the chance to escape. They streamed out of Nahr el-Bared's western gate on foot and in cars, pickups and minivans jammed with men, women and children. Many waved white towels or white plastic bags from the windows as they passed Lebanese soldiers encircling the camp.

At least 71 killed in Lebanon

NEAR NAHR AL-BARED PALESTINIAN REFUGEE CAMP (Lebanon), May 22: The Lebanese Army continued to shell this refugee camp just north of Tripoli on Monday in the second day of its fight against a shadowy Islamic faction known as Fatah al-Islam.

The violence, the worst internal strife since the 1975-90 civil war, began early Sunday when Palestinian militants stormed the entrance of the seaside camp, home to 40,000 refugees, and overran Army positions. At least 71 people have been killed.

Lebanon may be confronting a prolonged siege with the group, which some say is linked to Al Qaeda. But it is also facing a larger battle as its fragile government struggles to maintain power in the wake of last summer's war and battles an opposition movement led by Syrian-backed Hizbullah.

In divided Lebanon, many have contradictory views of the true identity of Fatah al-Islam, which declared its existence late last year when it split from Fatah al-Intifada, a pro-Damascus Palestinian faction, and seized two of its bases in the seaside Nahr al-Bared camp. Is it an affiliate of Al Qaeda or a tool of Syrian military intelligence – or both?

The Lebanese government has vowed to crush the group once and for all, but says it will continue to abide by a longstanding agreement that prevents the state from entering Lebanon's 12 established Palestinian refugee camps.

"We have hermetically sealed them inside Nahr al-Bared, and we will use political and popular means and the Army to get rid of Fatah al-Islam," says Marwan Hamade, minister of telecommunications and leading anti-Syrian politician.

Trains cross border dividing Koreas

MUNSAN (South Korea), May 17: The divided Koreas sent trains lumbering through their heavily armed border for the first time in more than half a century Thursday, reaching another symbolic milestone in a reconciliation process often hindered by the North's nuclear weapons ambitions.

Firecrackers and white balloons filled the skies near the border as a five-car train started rolling north on a restored track on the west side of the peninsula. On the eastern side, a North Korean train crossed into the South on another reconnected rail line where it was greeted by children bearing flowers.

It was the first train crossing of the 2.5-mile-wide no man's land dividing the two sides since inter-Korean rail links were cut off early in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The trial run was the latest symbol of a historic reconciliation that the longtime foes began pursuing with the first-ever summit of their leaders in 2000. That summit has led to a series of exchange projects, including the opening of cross-border roads that thousands of South Koreans cross each year as tourists, or to work in special enclaves in the North.

The detente has often stalled, mainly because of tensions over North Korea's nuclear programs.

Thursday's one-time test run came after repeated delays since the rail lines were linked in 2003.

"It is not simply a test run. It means reconnecting the severed bloodline of our people. It means that the heart of the Korean peninsula is beating again," Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung said at a ceremony at Munsan station, about 8 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, before boarding the train.

The two Koreas "should not be derailed from the track or hesitate" in their moves toward unification, North Korean Senior Cabinet Councilor Kwon Ho Ung said.

However, Kwon also repeated the North's claims that outside powers — usually a reference to the United States — were the main obstacle to reconciliation between the Koreas.

"Even at this point, challenges are continuing from divisive forces at home and abroad who don't like reconciliation and unification of our people," Kwon said.

South Korean soldiers in camouflage uniforms opened the barbed wire-topped gates to the DMZ on the western track to allow the South Korean train to pass through the zone that stretches across the entire 156-mile width of the peninsula.

Not long after, the North Korean train arrived in the South with one railcar bearing a sign that read, "The car that great leader and comrade Kim Il Sung boarded in person on August 9, 1968" — referring to the North's late founder and father of current leader Kim Jong Il.

The trains, each carrying 150 people from both sides, were to return to their origin later Thursday.

While the rail crossing symbolized reconciliation for some, it was a reminder of loss for others. A dozen South Koreans whose relatives allegedly have been abducted by North Korea staged a protest outside the Munsan station, demanding Seoul do more to bring their loved ones home.

"I wish the train would come back with my son if he is still alive," said Lee Kan-shim, 72, bursting into tears as police kept her from the site.

One of the passengers on the South Korean train, Yang Hyun-wook, head of the Seoul office of the Korea Railway Corporation, said the journey would be emotional.

"I think it should have happened earlier, but I hope this will be an opportunity for South and North Korea to become one," Yang, 55, said before boarding.

Yang Seok-hwan, 75, who was born just south of the border in an area where no civilians are now allowed, thought he would be able to take the train when some community officials asked him to attend the ceremony.

"I'm disappointed. I thought I could take the train if I came here," he said. "My hometown is just over there, but I haven't seen it for 50 years. I want to see my hometown again before I die."

It remains unclear when regular train service between the two Koreas could start. North Korea's communist government is extremely reluctant to allow many foreign influences into the country as it seeks to maintain its grasp on power.

The Korean War ended in a cease-fire that has never been replaced with a peace treaty — leaving the two Koreas technically at war.

The two Koreas resumed their rapprochement after North Korea agreed in February to take initial steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.

Pyongyang failed to shut down its sole bomb-making reactor by a mid-April deadline under that agreement with the U.S. and other regional powers. The North has said it will not move to disarm until a separate dispute over frozen funds is resolved, but that has been held up by technical issues involved in transferring $25 million in its accounts.

Outside the Munsan station, about 40 people set pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il aflame.

"They are all Reds," said a 78-year-old protester who would only gave his family name, Kim, while holding a sign that read, "Down With Kim Jong Il."

"We're lavishing aid to the North so that they can invade us more easily," he said.

Pak cities virtually shut down by strike

KARACHI, May 14: A Pak opp strike virtually shut down Karachi and other major cities after nearly 40 people have been killed, including a top official of Pak SC and about 150 wounded in Pak's worst political street violence in two decades.

A top official of the Pakistan Supreme Court was killed in the wee hours in Islamabad on Monday by dacoits.

Additional Registrar of the Supreme Court Hamad Raza was killed when he tried to resist the dacoits who raided his house, police said.

Authorities banned demonstrations in Karachi and declared a public holiday across Sindh province after the weekend violence in the city, which began when Pakistan's suspended top judge tried to meet supporters.

The government on Sunday authorised paramilitary troops to shoot anyone involved in serious violence in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, which has a history of bloody feuding between ethnic-based political factions.

City police chief Azhar Farooqi said security forces had stepped up patrols and the situation was under control. There had been no violence today though the city was tense.

''The city is totally paralysed. Shops are closed and very little public transport is on the roads. People are scared,'' Farooqi told the news agency.

Government attempts to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry over unspecified accusations of misconduct levelled on 9th March have outraged the judiciary and the opposition.

The judicial crisis has snowballed into a campaign against President Pervez Musharraf and is the most serious challenge to the authority of the president, who is also army chief, since he seized power in 1999.

The opposition strike, called to protest against the weekend violence, saw shops and markets closed in all major cities including Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Quetta.
It was the first time since Musharraf took power that a strike call had been so widely observed.

While stirring opposition to Musharraf, the violence in Karachi has also raised the spectre of bloody feuding that plagued the city in the 1980s and 1990s.

The opposition blames the government and the pro-government Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which runs Karachi, for the violence.

The government says Chaudhry, who returned to Islamabad on Saturday without meeting his Karachi supporters, ignored appeals for him not to travel to the volatile city.

In Islamabad, a hearing into a petition by Chaudhry against an inquiry into the misconduct accusations against him was halted after one of 14 judges on the bench refused to hear the case, citing a possible conflict of interest.

A court official said it would reconvene on Tuesday.

Musharraf has repeatedly called for the courts to settle the case and has criticised lawyers for politicising it. He has also ruled out a state of emergency and said elections due late in the year would go ahead.

Chaudhry is due to address lawyers in Islamabad on 24th May. Plans for other trips were on hold, one of his lawyers said.

The commander of paramilitary forces in Karachi, Major-General Javed Zia, said he had deployed nearly 13,000 Rangers who would enforce their shoot-on-sight order judiciously.

''Our first target is to avoid ethnic violence,'' Zia told the news agency.

Most of those killed on the weekend in Karachi, when rival gunmen took over the city's deserted streets, were opposition supporters, including ethnic Pashtuns. Their MQM rivals are mostly the descendants of migrants from India.

Gunmen shot dead a senior Supreme Court official at his home in Islamabad today. Police said they did not know the motive though relatives said they believed it was a targeted killing.

Blair announces resignation

LONDON, May 10: British Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced that he will step down on 27th June fter being at the helm of affairs for a decade, leading his country's economic boom but drawing flak for his foreign policy, especially the Iraq war.

Making public his decision at a gathering of supporters of his Labour Party here, 54-year-old Blair said he would tender his resignation on 27th June.

He also chronicled his achievements since he assumed power in 1997.

Blair recollected that 1997 was a "moment for a new beginning, the sweeping away of all the detritus of the past, and expectations were so high, too high probably..."

"Britain is no more a follower, it is a leader today," said Blair, who saw his approval ratings decline dramatically after he sent British troops to back the US-led military campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Blair said his government was the only one since 1947 that could claim achievements like providing more jobs, cutting unemployment, improving healthcare and education, lowering crime and boosting the economy.

"Now in 2007 you an easily point to challenges and grievances that fester, but go back to 1997. Think back about your own living standards, then in May 1997 and now," he told Labour Party workers.

Britain, he said, now plays a major role in the global arena and has a voice in all key areas, whether it is global warming, the fight against terror or Africa's battle against poverty.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is expected to succeed Blair.

68 killed or found dead in Iraq

BAGHDAD, May 8: Suicide bombers killed 13 people in a pair of attacks Monday around the Sunni Arab city of Ramadi in what local officials said was part of a power struggle between al-Qaida and tribes that have broken with the terror network.

In all, at least 68 people were killed or found dead nationwide Monday, police said. They included the bullet-riddled bodies of 30 men found in Baghdad — the apparent victims of sectarian death squads.

All but two were found in west Baghdad, including 17 in the Amil neighborhood where Sunni politicians have complained of renewed attacks by Shiite militiamen, said a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to release those details.

Blair suffers in elections, risks losing Scotland

LONDON, May 4: British Prime Minister Tony Blair's party risked losing control of the Scottish parliament to a pro-independence rival on Friday and his government also suffered losses in local elections.

Thursday's elections to councils in England, the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly were the last chance for 39 million voters to give their verdict on Blair's decade in power.

Blair's popularity has slumped due to the Iraq war and a series of political scandals, and he is expected to announce next week he will leave office by July. Finance minister Gordon Brown, a 56-year-old Scot, is almost certain to succeed him.

With results likely to dribble in throughout Friday it was too early to call the Scottish parliament vote but there were clear signs of a swing to the Scottish National Party (SNP).

With 74 of the 129 seats decided the SNP gained 12 and Labour lost seven. Opinion polls had suggested the SNP, which wants independence from Britain, could oust Labour as the biggest party in the parliament.

Labour had braced itself for a drubbing in the council elections in England and its share of the vote was projected at 27 percent.

Local polls are not always a reliable indicator for parliamentary elections, however. Blair's government slumped to a record low of 26 percent in 2004 but still won a parliamentary election the following year.

The opposition Conservatives took comfort from a BBC projection that showed its share of the national vote had risen to 41 percent, above a 40-percent threshold deemed necessary to win a parliamentary election.

Agreement on climate change reached

International delegates reached an agreement early on the best ways to combat climate change, despite efforts from China to water down language on cutting destructive greenhouse gas emissions.

The closed-door debate over everything from nuclear power to the cost of cleaner energy ran into the early morning hours - with quibbling over single words or phrases at times.

Consensus was eventually reached on a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN network of 2,000 scientists and delegates from more than 120 nations.

"It's all done," said Peter Lukey, a member of the South African delegation.

"Everything we wanted to see was there and more. The message is: We have to do something now."

China, the world's second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after the United States, took a strong stance during the four-day meeting in Thailand.

It, along with India and other rapidly developing countries, pushed to raise the lowest target level of carbon dioxide in the world's atmosphere over fears it would hinder their roaring economies, delegates said.

"The Chinese are resisting a lot, and a lot of countries are hiding behind the Chinese position," Michael Muller, Germany's vice-minister for the environment, told reporters before the agreement was reached.

The report is the IPCC's third segment of an overall blueprint that will shape the way the world tackles global warming.

The final version was not made available when the meeting broke around 4:30 a.m. on Friday, but delegates said it largely resembled a draft version that said emissions can be cut below current levels if the world shifts away from carbon-heavy fuels like coal, embraces energy efficiency and significantly reduces deforestation.

Pak Interior Minister hurt, 30 killed in suicide attack

ISLAMABAD, April 29: Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao and his son were injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up at his public rally, killing 30 people and wounding 50 in North West Frontier Province in Pakistan.

Interior Secretary Kamal Shah said that Sherpao and his son, Sikander, also a member of parliament, were slightly wounded in the suicide attack, that took place at Charsadda, the hometown of the Minister about 40 minutes drive from NWFP capital Peshawar. They were out of danger and had been shifted to their residence in Peshawar, he said.

State-run PTV showed that Sherpao, with injuries on his face and blood-soaked clothes, looked stable and walked towards the car accompanied by his supporters.

Shah said the death toll was already 20 from the suicide attack while NWFP province police chief Sharif Virk said five of the wounded brought to a hospital in Peshawar also succumbed to their wounds.

Ethiopia rebels kill 74 at Chinese-run oil field

ADDIS ABABA, April 25: Scores of gunmen have attacked a Chinese-run oil field in a remote area of Ethiopia killing 74 people including nine Chinese after a gun battle that lasted for almost one hour.

Seven Chinese workers were also kidnapped in the attack which the government blamed on a separatist group, said Ethiopian prime minister's spokesman, Berekat Simon.

'It is a massacre. It is a terrorist act, ordered by a terrorist alliance that includes ONLF,' said Simon, referring to the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

The attack echoed a spate of killings and kidnappings in recent months that have plagued Chinese workers in Nigeria, where Beijing is also aggressively seeking to develop the nation's oil reserves.

Bangla court issues arrest warrant against Hasina

DHAKA, April 23: A Bangladesh court has issued arrest warrants against former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and two of her party leaders in connection with the killing of five activists of a rival group, a day after she vowed to return home defying a ban.

The Dhaka Metropolitan Magistrate Court issued the warrants against Awami League chief Hasina, who is currently in London, as well as Mohd Nasim, a former minister in her Cabinet, and Abdul Malik, a low-profile leader of the party.

The warrants were issued in line with a case filed by fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami party in which it charged Hasina and her party leaders with the murder of their five activists during a political clash on October 28 last year, the day when former Premier Khaleda Zia's BNP-led four-party alliance government relinquished power.

Canada, India to enhance trade ties

By Deepak Arora

David EmersonNEW DELHI, April 16: Canada’s International Trade Minister, David Emerson, arrives here on a two-day visit beginning Wednesday to discuss a wide range of trade and investment issues with the Indian leaders and seek new opportunities for partnership.

During his stay here, Emerson will meet Commerce Minister Kamal Nath and Finance Minister P Chidambaram.

He will be the guest of honour at a lunch co-organized by the Indo-Canadian Business Chamber (ICBC) and the Canadian High Commission. On that occasion, the Minister will announce a partnership between Canada and the Delhi chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) under which Canada will be TiE's country of focus throughout 2007. TiE's innovative approach to entrepreneurship will help strengthen business relations between Canada and India.

Minister Emerson, who was to visit New Delhi last month as a leader of a 30-member Canada trade mission to India, could not come as he fell sick at the last moment. However, Ted Menzies, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister, represented him.

In a telephonic conversation with Kamal Nath last month, Emerson had expressed his commitment to moving the Canada-India FIPA (Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement) forward.

He said that Ottawa and New Delhi have made significant progress toward finalizing a Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPA) between the two countries.

Once finalized, it is hoped that the agreement will encourage even greater flows of investment.

Negotiations are nearing completion and the Canadian and Indian governments have agreed to increase efforts to finalize the agreement in the coming months, he said.

"The Indian market offers tremendous opportunities for Canadian investors," said Mr Emerson. "Increasing two-way investment with India is a priority for this government in its global business strategy and we are stepping up efforts to encourage more investment and further stimulate trade flows between our two countries."

In 2005, Canadian direct investment in India was valued at $204 million, while India's foreign direct investment in Canada reached $145 million (up 58 percent from the previous year). Two-way merchandise trade between the two countries reached a record $3.6 billion in 2006.

"We believe we can increase Indian investment in Canada five-fold from the 450 million dollars we had in 2006 by 2010 and a FIPA is critical to that," said Ted Menzies in a speech that he delivered in New Delhi last month on behalf of Minister Emerson.

President of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC) Ajit Khanna said the proposed agreement would boost trade and investment between the two countries.

FIPAs are bilateral agreements that protect and promote foreign investment through legally binding rights and obligations. They encourage two-way investment by providing investors with the protection and predictability they need when investing in foreign markets.

Beyond the FIPA, depending on the outcome of the Doha round, Canada would assess the next steps for meaningful trade liberalisation between the two countries.

A high-quality free trade agreement should be the long-term objective for both the countries.

The Export Development Canada is setting up an office in Mumbai. Its mission is to gather market intelligence, develop relationships with Indian customers and put companies in touch with EDC's extensive suite of trade finance and risk management services.

Canada is also giving finishing touches on what it calls a global commerce strategy and completing an assessment of markets and opportunities among its many trading partners.

"India is at top of our list. We will have within the global commerce strategy an ambitious and targeted approach for India," said Menzies.

Indians are also set to become Canada's largest immigrant group by 2009. Over 700,000 people of Indian origin have made Canada their home and that their contribution to their country of adoption has been profound and direct, with greater potential in store.

"If projections hold, India, currently Canada's number two source of immigrants; will be number one by 2009. The Indian contribution to our spectacular Canadian mosaic will grow stronger and the ties between our countries can grow stronger," said Menzies.

Baghdad bombings kill 45 in Shiite areas

BAGHDAD, April 16: Six bombs exploded in predominantly Shiite sections of the capital Sunday, killing at least 45 people in a renewal of sectarian carnage that set back the U.S. push to pacify Baghdad.

North of Baghdad, two British helicopters crashed after an apparent mid-air collision, killing two service members, U.K. officials said.

The U.S. military announced three U.S. troop deaths — two soldiers and a Marine killed in separate incidents.

And in the holy Shiite city of Karbala, health officials raised the toll from a bombing Saturday close to one of the sect's most sacred shrines, saying 47 people were killed and 224 wounded.

Twin car bombs exploded minutes apart in the busy market of Baghdad's Shurta Rabia neighborhood, a mostly Shiite area in the city's west. The first blast went off at midmorning in front of a kebab restaurant. Five minutes later, another car exploded nearby as rescuers were evacuating victims. Many women and children were among the casualties, police said.

Shortly after noon, a suicide bomber blew himself up on a minibus near a courthouse in the mainly Shiite northwest Baghdad neighborhood of al-Utafiyah, killing at least eight people and wounding 11, officials said.

Many of the victims were severely burned, an official at the Khazimiyah Hospital said.

About three hours later, a minibus rigged with explosives detonated on a busy street of electronics shops in the predominantly Shiite central Karradah district, killing 11 people and wounding 15, authorities said.

The owner of a glass shop said he saw a suspect park the bus at the roadside and leave.

"It was an ordinary thing because usually bus drivers stop there waiting for passengers, so we didn't suspect anything," said the witness, who gave only his nickname, Abu Jassim.

"Five minutes later, the bus blew up — damaging the surrounded area and burning more than eight civilian cars that were passing by," he said.

In the same district after nightfall, two roadside bombs exploded within five minutes of each other, killing at least eight civilians and wounding 23, police said.

Six shops and several cars parked nearby were damaged by the blasts, which occurred about 20 yards apart, police said.

The two British helicopters crashed after an apparent collision 12 miles north of Baghdad, killing two British personnel. Four other personnel were injured in the crash, one very seriously.

U.K. Defense Secretary Des Browne said that initial reports suggested the crash was an accident.

Australia invests $4 m in research projects with India

By Deepak Arora

Julie BishopNEW DELHI, April 12: Australian Minister for Education, Science and Training Julie Bishop, MP, has announced 17 new projects that support increased collaboration in science and technology research between Australia and India.

The Australian Government has invested more than $4 million this year for these important projects under Round One of the Australia India Strategic Research Fund (AISRF).

The Fund, announced by the Prime Minister during his visit to India in March 2006, provides a $20 million investment over five years to support a range of high quality joint projects and workshops.

Minister Bishop said large domestic and international investment allows India to boast one of the world's fastest growing economies and rapidly expanding research sectors.

"Stronger collaborative links will provide a basis for a close and productive economic relationship with India and the AISRF is specifically designed to further develop our existing strategic scientific links with India for the mutual benefit of both countries," she said in Canberra.

The successful proposals include research into nanotechnology, cancer therapeutics and diagnostics and agricultural projects.

One project receiving support investigates vaccine and therapeutic strategies against Group A streptococcus (GAS). This pathogen is recognised as being responsible for the widest range of human disease, including some forms of heart and kidney disease prevalent amongst both Australian indigenous populations and certain Indian populations. Supporting this key research has clear benefits to both countries.

"I warmly congratulate all the successful Round One project
applicants. Collaboration between our scientists and leaders from the international scientific community underpins Australia's place in the world of international research," Minister Bishop said.

A call for applications for Round Two is scheduled for August this year, according to Mr Shekhar Nambiar, Senior Adviser, Public Affairs & Cultural Relations, Australian High Commission, New Delhi.

IAEA inspectors arrive in Iran

TEHRAN, April 11: Two inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have arrived in Iran to inspect the nuclear enrichment facility at the country's Natanz site.

Quoting an unnamed diplomat, IRNA reported that the inspectors arrived in Tehran on Tuesday evening.

The diplomat told IRNA that the visit was normal and the team was scheduled to stay in Iran for a week.

However, the visit came a day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that Iran has started uranium enrichment at an industrial level.

Head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation Gholamreza Aghazadeh had said Tuesday that Iran is planning to install 50,000 centrifuges.

Iranian parliament last month demanded the government should limit its cooperation with IAEA after UN Security Council slapped a ban on Iran, demanding a halt in Iranian nuclear activities.

The IAEA inspectors continue to pay regular visits to Iranian nuclear sites.

30 dead as military, Tigers clash in Lanka

COLOMBO, April 11: Sri Lanka's military and Tamil rebels clashed near the border between government and rebel-held areas in the north and both sides claimed to have killed several enemy combatants, officials from two sides said on Wednesday.

Lt Col Upali Rajapakse, a senior officer at the Defence Ministry's information center said the military's mortar and artillery fire killed at least 20 rebels around the Omanthai checkpoint on Tuesday.

"The figure may be more, but this is what we have from our intelligence sources," Rajapakse said.

Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan denied the military claim, and said that the militants ambushed army soldiers in nearby jungles, killing eight to 10 of them. "We have the bodies," he said of the military fatalities.

There was no independent confirmation of either report.

Iran plans to launch 50,000 centrifuges in Natanz

TEHRAN, April 10: A total of 50,000 centrifuges are to be installed at an uranium enrichment plant in central Iran, the country's vice president said Tuesday.

Following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's statement Monday that the Islamic Republic had started producing nuclear fuel on an industrial scale, reports have circulated that as many as 3,000 centrifuges had been launched. However, Iranian information agencies denied the figure later that day citing Iranian energy and security officials as saying it was early to announce their number.

"Iran's plans regarding the uranium enrichment center in Natanz are not only confined to fixing 3,000 centrifuges, but they suggest that 50,000 such devices will be put into operation," Iranian information agency IRNA quoted Gholamreza Aghazadeh, who is also the head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization, as saying.

Tensions continue to grow over the Iranian nuclear program as some Western countries, particularly the U.S., suspect Tehran is pursuing a covert weapons program since it resumed uranium enrichment in January 2006. But Tehran has consistently claimed it needs nuclear power for civilian power generation and is fully entitled to its own nuclear program.

The vice president explained that he had deliberately refrained from specifying the number of centrifuges while speaking during celebrations to honor the national day of nuclear technology in Iran Monday.

"I was anxious that speculations could appear, particularly in Western media, that the Iranian nuclear program will be completed with the installation of only 3,000 centrifuges," the official said adding that equipment at the center was meant precisely for 50,000.

The UN Security Council voted unanimously March 24 to impose new sanctions against the Islamic Republic for its refusal to halt uranium enrichment.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki reiterated Tuesday that Iran did not intend to succumb to international pressure and resume a moratorium on uranium enrichment, but that it was open to talks on its nuclear program.

"Talks on Iran's nuclear program must be serious and must have specific goals. We have already passed the stage when suspending uranium enrichment was claimed as a condition for the beginning or success of talks," the minister said.

"We think the opposite side must accept the reality [of Iran's nuclear development], and if it makes new proposals for negotiations, we are ready for clear and comprehensive talks as we have repeatedly stated," Mottaki added.

The new UN Security Council resolution was passed following Tehran's refusal to comply with the previous resolution adopted December 23, 2006.

The new resolution freezes the foreign accounts of 13 companies and 15 individuals involved in uranium enrichment and missile development projects, imposes visa restrictions and bans arms exports from Iran. It also threatens new sanctions if Iran does not comply with the resolution within 60 days, and urges the Islamic Republic to return to negotiations.

Iran frees British soldiers

ROYAL MARINES BASE CHIVENOR (England), April 5: The 15 British detainees held in Iran were greeted with hugs and handshakes as they arrived at a base in southwest England to be reunited with their families.

Relieved relatives, some of whom had described the past two weeks as a living “nightmare”, gathered at the Royal Marines Base Chivenor in Devon to welcome the navy personnel back after from their ordeal in Iran.

The seven marines and eight sailors arrived here in two Sea King military helicopters after switching from the British Airways flight that took them from Tehran to London’s Heathrow airport.

Footage from television helicopters showed them being embraced by fellow servicemen immediately after landing, before heading for medical checks and a full de-briefing.

“They will be given an opportunity tonight in a suitable location to enjoy their first night of freedom with their families,” said Royal Marines Lieutenant Colonel Andy Price.

Diane Andrews, the grandmother of Royal Marine Joe Tindall, 21, said her family had gone through turmoil.

She felt “just relief that it’s all over and we can stop waking up with empty feelings in our stomachs and think today is a good day and it’s all all right.

“I’m afraid I thought the worst and thought something dreadful was going to happen,” she told BBC radio from the family home in southeast London.

“As the days went by we got a little bit more hopeful. But then we still had bad days when we kept hearing they weren’t coming out for weeks.

“It has been very hard, particularly for Andrew’s mum Diane as he is an only child,” said “We are going to party now, there will be a big celebration for Andrew when he gets back home,” said his aunt Barbara Pye. “His grandmother is also planning to cook him his favourite Sunday roast dinner as he looked very hungry on the television.

“It is just brilliant, brilliant news for all the families.” Henderson’s grandfather Roy Ashfield, from Wrexham in northeast Wales, said: “We are a very large family and we had everyone over last night for a big barbecue to celebrate.

The 14 men and one woman looked relaxed and were seen smiling and hugging each other in the sunshine outside the officers’ mess at Royal Marines Base Chivenor, before being reunited with their families.

At one point, television pictures showed the only woman in the group — Acting Leading Seaman Faye Turney, who initially became the human face of the standoff — appear to wipe a tear from her eye.

Praise for their conduct came from the British military’s most senior brass, Air Vice Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who said he was “extremely proud” of the group, who were seized by Iranian forces in the northern Gulf on March 23.

The 15 were shown again before their departure, celebrating and again apologising.

“I was so happy that I was not able to sleep all night,” Lieutenant Felix Carman told Iranian state television.

“To Iranian people, I can understand why you were insulted by our apparent intrusion into your waters,” he said.

Two of the sailors — including Turney — waved to the camera and said “Teshakkor” or thank you in Persian.

The new footage showed the 15 opening colourful bags containing traditional gifts before their departure for London.

Britain calls for direct talks with Iran

LONDON, April 4: Britain called for direct talks with Iran to resolve a dispute over 15 captive Britons Tuesday after its first contact with the chief Iranian negotiator. The announcement followed the sudden release of an Iranian diplomat in Iraq that raised new hope for resolving the standoff

In a statement late Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said there had been "further contacts" between the two countries, including with chief international negotiator Ali Larijani.

"The UK has proposed direct bilateral discussions and awaits an Iranian response on when these can begin," Blair's office said. "Both sides share a desire for an early resolution to this issue through direct talks."

British officials say there has been intense diplomatic activity, including meetings in London with Iran's ambassador. But reports of contacts with officials in Tehran have been sketchy. The Downing Street statement did not say whether the contact with Larijani came in person or by phone.

Blair said earlier in the day that the next 48 hours would be "fairly critical" to resolving the standoff over the British personnel, who have been held by Iran since March 23.

The call for talks came hours after Iranian diplomat Jalal Sharafi was freed by his captors in Iraq. He had been seized Feb. 4 by uniformed gunmen in Karradah, a Shiite-controlled district of Baghdad.

His release raised hope for an end to the standoff and suggested the possibility of a de facto prisoner swap — something both Tehran and London have publicly discounted.

Iran alleged the diplomat had been abducted by an Iraqi military unit commanded by U.S. forces — a charge repeated by several Iraqi Shiite lawmakers. U.S. authorities denied any role in his disappearance.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said the Iraqi government had exerted pressure on those holding Sharafi to release him — but he would not identify who had held Sharafi.

But another senior government official said Iraqi intelligence had been holding him. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.

Sharafi was a second secretary at the Iranian Embassy involved in plans to open a branch of the Iranian national bank. U.S. officials allege that Iran provides money and weapons to Iraqi Shiite militias.

Sharafi was abducted a month after the U.S. military arrested five other Iranians in northern Iraq. The U.S. described one of those captives as a senior officer of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said his government also was working "intensively" for the release of the five other Iranians to "help in the release of the British sailors and marines."

Neither Iran nor Iraq nor Britain has said explicitly that a prisoner swap was in the works. Iran has denied it seized the Britons to force the release of Iranians held in Iraq, and Britain has steadfastly insisted it would not negotiate for the sailors' freedom.

In Washington, President Bush signaled the same. "I also strongly support the prime minister's declaration that there should be no quid pro quos when it comes to the hostages," Bush said.

It was unclear whether the Iraqis had won Sharafi's freedom on their own initiative to encourage a settlement, which would ease tension without endangering their own claim to the waters where it occurred.

Nevertheless, the release of Sharafi and efforts to free the five other Iranians suggested that the parameters of a deal might be taking shape.

Iran maintains the British sailors had encroached on Iranian territory when they were seized by naval units of the Revolutionary Guards on March 23. Britain insists its sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters and has demanded their unconditional release.

Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted First Vice President Parviz Davoodi as saying that "Britain should accept that it has invaded Iranian waters and guarantee that it will not be repeated."

"The violation was clear and obvious and all evidences and documents were suggesting occurrence of the violation," Davoodi added. "Britain has recently changed its approach and shifted toward legal and diplomatic negotiations."

With the standoff at a sensitive stage, Britain reacted with caution to the release Tuesday of new pictures of the British captives on the Web site of Iran's Fars News Agency. The images showed six sailors sitting on a carpet in a room, wearing blue, black and red tracksuits. Two sailors were shown playing chess.

Faye Turney, the only woman among the captured, was shown without a head scarf. She had worn one in initial images released of the Royal Navy crew.

Britain has expressed outrage over the airing of earlier videos in which Turney and others "confessed" to violating Iranian territorial waters.

The latest pictures did not show any further confessions. And as tensions have escalated, the Iranians have appeared to back off somewhat.

Larijani's suggestion Monday of talks over territorial disputes in the Persian Gulf had offered the hope of an end to the crisis, the British premier acknowledged. But if negotiations to win the quick release of the 15 sailors and marines stalled, Britain would "take an increasingly tougher position," Blair said.

Larijani said Monday that Iran sought "to solve the problem through proper diplomatic channels" and proposed having a delegation determine whether British forces had strayed into Iranian territory in the Gulf. He did not say what sort of delegation he had in mind.

Larijani told Britain's Channel 4 news Monday through an interpreter that Iranian officials believed there was no need for any trial of the navy crew.

Shiite market bombings kill at least 122

BAGHDAD, March 30: Five suicide bombers struck Shiite marketplaces in northeast Baghdad and a town north of the capital at nightfall Thursday, killing at least 122 people and wounding more than 150 in one of Iraq's deadliest days in years.

The savage attacks came as a new American ambassador began his first day on the job, and Senate Democrats ignored a veto threat and approved a bill to require President Bush to start withdrawing troops.

At least 178 people were killed or found dead Thursday, which marked the end of the seventh week of the latest U.S.-Iraqi military drive to curtail violence in Baghdad and surrounding regions.

The suicide bombers hit markets in the Shiite town of Khalis and the Shaab neighborhood in Baghdad during the busiest time of the day, timing that has become a trademark of what are believed to be Sunni insurgent or al-Qaida suicide attackers.

Three suicide vehicle bombs, including an explosives-packed ambulance, detonated in a market in Khalis, 50 miles north of the capital, which was especially crowded because government flour rations had just arrived for the first time in six months, local television stations reported.

At least 43 people were killed and 86 wounded, police said.

In the north Baghdad bombings, two suicide attackers wearing explosives vests blew themselves up in the Shalal market in the predominantly Shiite Shaab neighborhood. At least 79 people were killed and 81 wounded as they jammed the market to buy provisions on the eve of the Muslim day of rest and prayer.

The carnage in Iraq cast a shadow over Ryan Crocker's first day as ambassador. He takes over in the midst of the U.S.-Iraqi security sweep, for which Bush committed nearly 30,000 additional troops to dampen what had become uncontrollable violence in the capital.

The Senate's rare rebuke to a wartime commander in chief came in a 51-47 vote to provide $123 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senators also ordered Bush to begin withdrawing troops within 120 days of the bill's passage, and set a nonbinding goal of ending combat operations by March 31, 2008.

"President Bush's policy is the right one. There has been progress; there is also much more to be done," the 57-year-old Crocker said at his swearing in at the American Embassy in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace which is now in the heart of the heavily guarded Green Zone.

Violence has increasingly erupted in towns and cities outside the capital in recent weeks, as insurgent fighters take their fight to regions where U.S. and Iraqi forces are thinly deployed. The U.S. military and its diplomats have voiced cautious optimism about the sweep and emphasized that the full American surge force would not be in place until June. Crocker brought the same message.

Pak test-fires nuclear-capable cruise missile

ISLAMABAD, March 22: Pakistan on Thursday successfully test-fired a nuclear-capable cruise missile for the third time.

The Hatf VII Babur missile has a range of 700 kilometres and can carry all kinds of warheads, the Pakistan military said in a statement.

"The Babur is a terrain hugging, radar avoiding cruise missile, whose range has now been enhanced to 700 kilometres," it said.

The test was witnessed by the chairman of Pakistan's Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Ehsan-ul-Haq, along with senior military officials and scientists.

Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz have congratulated the scientists and engineers on this "very important success".

The first test was conducted in 2005 and a second in March last year.

Bahrain Crown Prince stress on dialogue, diplomacy to solve world’s ills

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, March 21: The Crown Prince, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, inaugurated this morning his country’s embassy at Vasant Kunj, a upscale South Delhi area, and thus opened a new chapter in Bahrain-India relations.

The Crown Prince, who stressed on dialogue and diplomacy on the third day of his visit, said that he was proud to be part of opening of Bahrain embassy here.

“It is a truly valuable opportunity, one that allows us to reach out and engage with individuals and businesses in India. It will provide greater opportunity for economic growth and development – both for India and for our own Kingdom.”

Soon after the arrival of the Crown Prince at the embassy, Baharini flag was hoisted for the first time. As the flag was slowly hoisted by a uniform guard, two other members of the National Guards, who looked impressive in their uniform, saluted. The Crown Prince kept his eyes on the flag as it went up. Thereafter, the Baharini National Anthem was played.
Several Ambassadors, diplomats, the members of the official delegation and other important people were present at the impressive ceremony. One by one they introduced themselves to the Crown Prince, who also took a round of the embassy.

Later, addressing the intelligentsia at the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA), India's premier think tank, Shaikh Salman said that Bahrain provides a solid and dependable base for companies looking to expand worldwide.

As Indian businesses expand across the globe, he said the Gulf was becoming even more important as a trading hub between Asian and European markets.

“Bahrain’s strengths and experience as a business nation, which enjoys a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, easy connectivity with Saudi and a heritage that dates back more than 400,000 years, provides a solid and dependable base for companies looking to expand worldwide.”

As a part of a strategy of diversification away from oil and to secure long-term prosperity, he said Bahrain was now focused on a number of key trade areas that capitalize on both human and natural resources – sectors as diverse as education, downstream, leisure and tourism and technology.

The Crown Prince said each of these offers tangible opportunities for Indian companies and individual investors looking to expand into the Middle East markets and beyond.

Shaikh Salman said that he believed that technology sector in particular offers significant opportunity and would allow both the nations to maximise the benefit through effective exchange of complementary skills and collateral.

“As we move towards knowledge-based global economies, we look to India’s example of responding to gaps in the market and finding new solutions for future businesses. I believe that we can learn a great deal from you when it comes to technology transfer.”

The Crown Prince once again assured the Indian businessmen that Bahrain was committed to rolling out the red carpet and cutting the red tape.

He said “it is not a statement I make lightly. We have worked hard to create an environment that is globally acknowledged as the freest in the Arab world – with no corporate, income or personal wealth taxes. And with the freedom for non-Bahrainis to own and establish businesses and buy commercial or residential property.”

Tracing ancient ties between India and Bahrain, Shaikh Salman said the two countries have exchanged goods and services for generations. He lauded the 260,000-strong Indian diaspora for its "substantial and much recognised contribution" to the growth and development of Bahrain.

Enunciating his country's perspective on major regional issues and the Middle East peace process, Shaikh Salman called for "an equitable solution" to the Palestinian issue, which he described as the most "emotive issue" in the region.

"The way forward is through dialogue and discussions," he said as he called for the development of a "more integrated, productive and prosperous Middle East".

He also spoke of the "intense change" his country is undergoing and ongoing efforts to implement democratic reforms as he conjured the picture of a vibrant nation confident of playing its due role in the region.

"You must be the change you wish to see in the world," he quoted Mahatma Gandhi to illustrate Bahrain's approach to domestic and regional issues.

In the afternoon, the Crown Prince and his delegation, visited Taj Mahal, a monument of love and one of the world’s seven wonders.

Shaikh Salman, who spent 50 minutes at the Taj, was impressed by the monument and the inlay work done on it. While at the marble bench, which is the most popular spot for clicking pictures, he recalled that his grandfather had also sat here to view the beauty of the Taj.

Later in the evening, the Crown Prince reached Mumbai, the financial capital of India, where he met captains of the industry at a dinner hosted by the Hindujas at Hinduja House.

Soon after talks between the Indian Vice President, Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and the Crown Prince last night, the two countries signed agreement on cultural exchange and cooperation in Radio and Television. The two leaders also stressed on the need for more people to people contacts.

The MoUs signed in the presence of two leaders were Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP) 2007-10 and an agreement on cooperation in radio and television between Prasar Bharati and Bahraini Radio and Television.
The Vice President also hosted a Banquet in honour of the visiting dignitary at the Hyderabad House which was attended by top Indian Ministers, Members of Parliament and bureaucrats. These included the Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Tourism Minister Ambika Soni, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Suresh Pachauri, and Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed.

Crown Prince Charms, Bahrain rolls red carpet for Indian businessmen

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, March 20: Bahrain Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa won the hearts of Indian businessmen and leadership with his informal style and business-like approach.

Soon after his arrival at the Kamal Mahal hall at the deluxe Maurya Sheraton hotel to address the captains of the Indian industry, the Crown Prince, in an impromptu gesture, went up the podium and urged the businessmen of both countries to explore and achieve the full potential of trade and investment of both countries.

“It's a relationship that is important to both countries. Let's work to achieve the potential this relationship deserves,” he said to laud applause from the audience.

The Crown Prince touched the hearts of all with his gesture of addressing the gathering. It may be mentioned that he was to sit among the audience and let the business leaders from both sides do the talking. He eventually did that after his three minutes of opening remarks and showed the informal style of doing business in his country.

His business-like approach and action went well with the motto of Bahrain “No red tape and plenty of red carpets”.

Soon after the meeting, the young Crown Prince also threw protocol at bay and refused to have lunch at the special table laid for him, away from the gaze of the people. He ate with others in buffet style and just mingled with the businessmen and other prominent people present at the lunch.

He keenly answered to queries by businessmen and even gave them tips on how to successfully do business in Bahrain. Everyone had a smile on his face after talking to him.

'It's a relationship that is important to both countries. Let's work to achieve the potential this relationship deserves,' said the youthful Shaikh Salman.

To enhance business synergy between the two countries, a memorandum of understanding between the ASSOCHAM (Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry was also signed.

During his hectic schedule during the day, the Crown Prince had meetings with the President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, the External Affairs Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, Mr Vayalar Ravi, the Minister of State for External Afffairs, Mr E Ahamed, and National Security Advisor, Mr Narayanan, where the discussion concentrated around bilateral, political and economic relations between the two countries. They also discussed matters of regional and international importance like terrorism and Middle East peace process.

In his discussions with President Kalam, the two leaders shared their vision of India and Bahrain in the year 2020.

Shaikh Salman’s meeting with Pranab Mukherjee lasted about half an hour. They discussed matters of regional importance as well as bilateral issues, in particular, India-Bahrain economic cooperation and technological cooperation in high technology areas.

In his meeting with Vayalar Ravi, the Crown Prince briefed him on the special reforms being undertaken by Bahrain in the labour sector to increase productivity and improved conditions for workers from other countries.

It may be mentioned that 260,000 Indians are working in Bahrain. The Crown Prince lauded the role of Indian expatriates in development of Bahrain.

“No businessman wants to get bogged down in red tape. Bahrain is the freest economy in the region. We have no red tape and plenty of red carpets for Indian businessmen who want to invest in our country,” Bahrain's Industry and Commerce Minister Hassan Fakhro told the business leaders at the luncheon meeting.

Enumerating manifold advantages of doing business in Bahrain, Fakhro spoke about a reforms-friendly industrial policy, duty free access Bahrain's goods enjoy in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and its location at the very heart of the Gulf that provides easy access to markets of the entire region.

“I urge businessman of both India and Bahrain to start a new chapter and develop Middle East business together,” he said.

Saying that geo-economics is becoming an increasingly dominant feature of India's foreign policy, Minister of State for Extrernal Affairs E Ahamed spoke about “close and multi-faceted ties” with the Gulf and Bahrain, in particular, at the business meeting.

“Bahrain is offering oil and gas exploration blocs to India. Our industry will be happy to participate in exploration and upstream and downstream projects there,” Ahamed said. He also identified key areas of bilateral economic cooperation including construction, pharmaceuticals, telecom, IT, health and education.

At the business meeting, Minister Ahamed said "Indo-Bahrain relations have always been closed friendly and rooted in history. Archaeological evidence points towards interaction between the Dilmun and Indus valley civilizations."

"There is growing realisation on both sides that the need of the hour in the rapidly globalising world of today is to leverage each other's strength in order to maximise the shared benefits for our economies and our peoples. We have to continue our efforts towards creating institutional linkage in areas of trade and investment, energy cooperation, culture and education and to create enhanced awareness through the projector of India in Bahrain and vice-versa,” said the Indian Minister.

Co-Chairman, ASSOCHAM Banking Committee, Mr. Gautam Kanjilal, and CII representative and its Gulf Council Chairman, Mr. M A Mathan, also stressed the need for closer cooperation between India and Bahrain in view of their growing bilateral ties to realise the potential which is so large and such a huge.

FICCI National Executive Committee Member, Mr. Rakesh Bakshi, emphasised the need for intensive cooperation between India and Bahrain in many areas of economic activities particularly in energy and power and non-conventional sources.

Gulf countries had emerged as major trading partner for India with annual two-way non-oil trade exceeding US$ 20 billion, he said. India-Bahrain bilateral trade was estimated to be around $575 million in 2005, with Indian exports being $157 million and imports $418 million.

Two MoUs on cultural exchange and cooperation in Radio and Television were also signed late Tuesday evening after Shaikh Salman held talks with Vice-President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat at Hyderabad House.

The two leaders also stressed on the need for more people to people contacts.

The MoUs signed in the presence of two leaders were Cultural Exchange Programme (CEP) 2007-10 and an agreement on cooperation in radio and television between Prasar Bharati and Bahraini Radio and Television.

The Vice President also hosted a Banquet in honour of the visiting dignitary at the Hyderabad House which was attended by top Indian Ministers, Members of Parliament and bureaucrats.

These included the Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Tourism Minister Ambika Soni, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Suresh Pachauri, and Minister of State for External Affairs E. Ahamed.

In a conversation with this correspondent during lunch, the Crown Prince said that his country has been holding a dialogue with Indian on security issues. “Security and terrorism is a world-wide phenomena and we maintain a dialogue with India on these issues too,” he said.

When asked what role India can play in the Middle East peace process, the Crown Prince said “India has good relations with the Gulf countries as well as Israel and it can use this good office to contribute towards bringing peace in the region.”

Bahrain Crown Prince in India on 4-day visit

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, March 19: Bahrain's Crown Prince Shaikh Salman Bin Hamad al Khalifa was given a warm welcome when he arrived here on a four-day visit to India.

The two countries are expected to sign two Memorandums of Understandings (MoUs) in the areas of media and cultural cooperation after talks between Shaikh Salman and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday. The media agreement will be between All India Radio (AIR) and Bahrain Radio and Television Corporation.

The Crown Prince was received at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) by India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, Mr E Ahamed. The Secretary (East) Mr N Ravi, India’s Ambassador to Bahrain, Mr Bal Krishna Shetty, the Chief of Protocol, Mr Sunil Lal, and the Joint Secretary (Gulf), Mr Sanjay Singh, were also at the airport to receive the Crown Prince.

The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, had specially nominated Mr E Ahamed, who looks after the Gulf region, keeping in mind the stature of the Crown Prince and also the importance India attaches to Bahrain.

The Crown Prince’s plane Boeing 747-200 touched down the airport at 5.36 pm, 9 minutes before the expected arrival time. Shaikh Salman and Mr E Ahamed shook hands. Thereafter, he was escorted to the Silver room at the ceremonial lounge where the Crown Prince was served tea and cold drinks.

Both the Crown Prince and Indian Minister recalled the close and cordial traditional and cultural ties between the two countries.

While seeking closer ties with India, the Crown Prince emphasized on frequent political visits between the two nations to further strengthen these bonds. He also brought with him the greeting from His Majesty the King of Bahrain to the people and government of India.

While welcoming greater degree of engagement with Bahrain and other countries of the region, Mr Ahamed said “India will be happy to be partner in development of Bahrain.” He said India would welcome investment from Bahrain in the area of infrastructure. He said India needs US $ 350 billion to build infrastructure in the country.

The Crown Prince, who is accompanied by Commander, National Guards, Maj Gen Shaikh Mohammed Bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed al Khalifa, and Industry and Commerce Minister Dr Hassan Fakhro and a high-profile business delegation, headed straight to Hotel Maurya Sheraton, an upscale 5-Star hotel, where the delegation is staying.

Shaikh Salman has a hectic schedule on Tuesday. He begins his day with talks with the External Affairs Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, followed by meetings with Minister for Overseas Affairs Vayalar Ravi, Minister of State E Ahamed and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan.

The crown prince will call on President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat will host a banquet for the visiting dignitary at Hyderabad House in the evening.

The Crown Prince, who is heading a strong 17-member business delegation, will have an interaction with the top business leaders of India at an interactive meeting at Hotel Maurya Sheraton over lunch. The meeting has been organized by the three top Indian business chambers – FICCI, ASSOCHAM and CII.

The presence of large business in Shaikh Salman’s entourage shows his intent to accelerate business and investment between the two countries.

Shaikh Salman is also accompanied by President, Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Chairman, Aluminium Bahrain B.S.C. (Alba), Dr Esam bin Abdulla Fakhro, the CEO Economic Board, Shaikh Mohammed bin Ess Al-Khalifa, Director, Bilateral Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Dr Dhafer Ahmed Al-Umran and Director, International Organisations, Ambassador Mohamed Ghassan Shaikho.

The business delegation includes Abdulnabi Al-Shoala, Chairman, Al-Shoala Group; Khalid Mohammed Kanoo, Managing Director, YBA Kanoo; Khalid Alshareef; Jameel Almateook; Jihad Hasan Bukamal, Chairman, Bukamal; Mohamed Dababhai, Chairman, Dadabhai Group; Iqbal Gulamushesein Mamdani, CEO and Vice Chairman, TAIB Bank; Samir Abdullah Nass, Managing Director, Nass Corporation and Nass the Group; Ahmed Saleh Al-Noaimi, CEO, Aluminium Bahrain BSC (Alba); Atif Abdulmalik, CEO, Acrapita Bank; Saqer Shaheen Saqer, Chairman, Bahrain Industrial Group; Abdulhakim Al Khayat, CEO, Kuwait Finance House; Manhal Al-Qaisi, Gateway Gulf, Senior Project Advisor; Zayed Rashed Al-Zayani, Managing Director, Al-Zayani Investments WLL; Ayad Saad Algosabi, Managing Director, Al Gosaibi Information Systems, Tareq Husain, Gateway Gulf; and Ahmed Al-Baharna, Assistant General Manager, IT-INTERCOL.

The next day, Shaikh Salman will open Bahrain's embassy at Vasant Vihar, an upscale South Delhi area. Thereafter, he will address a select gathering at the Indian Council for World Affairs - a premier Indian think tank. The Crown Prince, in his keynote address, will speak on “Economic and security challenges facing the West Asia region and close ties between India and Bahrain”.

Soon thereafter, the Crown Prince and his delegation will leave for Agra to see the Taj Mahal. From there, he will go to Mumbai, India’s financial capital, where he will also hold talks with India’s top business leadership.

On Thursday morning, Shaikh Salman will visit aircraft carrier INS Virat at the Naval Dockyard. He will also visit the Bombay Stock Exchange and the Tata Consultancy Services before returning to Bahrain Thursday evening.

Russia blast kills 75 miners

ULYANOVSKAYA MINE, Russia, March 19: A methane explosion killed 75 people in a Siberian coal mine on Monday in the deadliest accident in Russia's mining industry in at least a decade, rescuers said.

The death toll could climb with more than 40 miners still underground about 10 hours after the blast. Rescue work was hampered by thick smoke and roof collapses in horizontal shafts that stretched for up to 5 km (3 miles).

"Seventy-five people have died," said a spokeswoman for the Emergencies Ministry in the Kemerovo region — the heartland of the coal industry where the pit is located.

President Vladimir Putin ordered his emergencies minister to fly to the Ulyanovskaya mine to oversee the rescue effort.

Red carpet awaits Bahrain Crown Prince

By Deepak Arora

Crown Prince Shaikh SalmanNEW DELHI, March 18: A red carpet awaits Bahrain’s Crown Prince Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa when he arrives here on Monday on a four-day visit. The first-ever visit of the Crown Prince would substantially strengthen bilateral ties and enhance the multifaceted cooperation between the two countries.

Shaikh Salman, who is coming here at the invitation of the Vice President, Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, will hold talks with the top leadership of the country on Tuesday.

The Crown Prince, who is also Kingdom’s Commander-in-Chief, will hold talks with the President, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, the Foreign Minister, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, the Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, Mr Vyalar Ravi, and Minister of State for External Affairs, Mr E Ahamed.

He is being accompanied by Bahraini Ministers of Foreign Affairs and of Industry and Commerce, senior officials as well as by a high-powered business delegation, according to Mr Navtej Sarna, spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs.

During his talks with Indian leaders, the Crown Prince will discuss bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest. The recent Mecca agreement, the Baghdad talks on security situation in Iraq, non-aligned movement and issues relating to working conditions of 260,000 Indian workers living in Bahrain are some of the issue that are expected to dominate the deliberations.

Shaikh Salman would meet captains of Indian industry during a luncheon meeting organized by the Indian chambers – The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI) and Chambers of Indian Industries (CII). The meeting would help in boosting trade and commerce between India and Bahrain.

The Vice President, Mr Bhairon Singh Shekhwat, would be hosting a banquet in honour of visiting dignitary at the Hyderabad House in the evening.

The Crown Prince’s “historic and a landmark event” visit will see the opening of the Bahrain embassy here on Wednesday. Bahrain currently maintains a consulate general in Mumbai. The same morning he will address a select gathering at the Indian Council for World Affairs.

“The opening of a full-fledged mission of Bahrain in New Delhi is a welcome step as it will contribute towards facilitating bilateral exchanges, visits, trade and movement of businessmen and professionals,” according to E Ahmad, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs.

On Wednesday afternoon, he would fly to Agra and visit Taj Mahal, a monument of love and one of the seven wonders.

The same evening he would reach Mumbai, India's commercial capital, where he would visit the Naval Dockyard, the Mumbai Stock Exchange and office of Tata Consultancy, an IT major. He would also address a luncheon meeting organized by the Economic Development Board.

A number of agreements are expected to be signed during the visit that would strengthen trade and economic ties between the two countries.

It may be recalled that Bahrain Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa had visited India in January 2004 during which several significant agreements were signed. Earlier, the Amir of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, visited India in April, 1981 and again in March, 1983 to attend the 7th Non-Aligned Movement Summit. The Indian President Giani Zail Singh visited Bahrain in December 1983.

India and Bahrain have close, friendly, deep-rooted and multi-faceted ties. India-Bahrain bilateral trade was around US $ 575 million in 2005, with Indian exports being $157 million and imports $418 million. There are several Indian public and private sector companies working in Bahrain. Around 260,000 Indians live and work in Bahrain.

Indian nationals form the largest expatriate community in Bahrain. In addition to the blue-collar workers, India has a sizeable number of doctors, engineers, chartered accountants, bankers, managers and other professionals who play a vital role in the country's socio-¬economic development.

Between 65 to 70 per cent of the community is from Kerala. Sizeable communities from other states include Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and increasingly Punjab.

Keeping in mind the presence of large Indian Diaspora, Air India Express, a low cost subsidiary of India’s national carrier, Air India, will start a new flight to Bahrain from March 25, which will increase the number of Air India flights to Bahrain from seven to 11 a week.

A bilateral Air Services Agreement between the two countries was signed in April, 2000 during the visit of the Bahraini Minister of Transportation, Shaikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa, to New Delhi.

US cold shoulders Pak as protests continue against sacking of Chief Justice

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, March 14: With the widespread protests continuing against Gen Musharraf for sacking the Chief Justice, the US has put off the second round of its broad-based strategic dialogue with Pakistan, slated to be held in Islamabad this month.

The Pak President is unhappy with the postponing of the strategic dialogue as it has come at a time when the General is gripped with the biggest crisis of his life. The postponement of the dialogue has further increased strain in the US-Pak relationship.

Musharraf's move to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry has snowballed into a movement against the military dictator with wide spread protests across the country. General's move seems to have given a new lease of life to the divided Opposition.

The Chief Justice has also refused to step down, calling his sack illegal, further adding to the agony of Musharraf.

The Pak President has also imposed ban on the media houses for reporting the widespread protests in the country.

The postponement of the strategic dialouge comes amidst reports that Washington is pressurizing Islamabad to step up the crackdown on Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.

The talks between Under-Secretary Nicholas Burns and Pakistan Foreign Secretary Riaz Muhammad Khan aimed at building a long-term and sustainable partnership between the two countries has been deferred for the second time at the request of the US.

The postponement was sought by the US side stating that Burns was preoccupied.

The strategic dialogue initiated during the last year's visit of President George Bush to Islamabad included economic growth and prosperity, energy cooperation, peace and security, social sector development, science and technology, democracy and non-proliferation. The first meeting of the dialogue was held in Washington last year.

The second postponement came as a US Congress legislation attempted to link aid to Pakistan with its cooperation to crackdown on the Taliban and the al-Qaeda forces.

The legislation is yet to be approved by the Senate, although the Bush administration expressed its opposition to linking aid to Pakistan with cooperation against terrorism. Washington has been pressuring Islamabad to destroy bases of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan and prevent their incursions into Afghanistan.

The strategic dialogue was launched after Musharraf-Bush summit talks in 2006.

The postponement of the dialogue comes at a time when Pakistan is increasingly becoming a huge concern for Washington.

It is said that Musharraf sacked the Chief Justice as he had raised very awkward questions about human rights abuses, disappearances, and illegal detentions in Pakistan. Musharraf also saw the Chief Justice’s move as challenge to his second term as the civilian President.

Musharraf has also begun to feel the heat as protests have led to mounting demands that he step down. What remains to be seen is whether the opposition parties can come together to take on the General.

“The government has put the Chief Justice under house arrest, they have threatened him, he's has been roughed up by the police. What has happened as a result is that all the civil associations, the Bar associations, all the political parties are standing behind him,” says Imran Khan, leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf.

“This is going to be one of the most interesting phases of Pakistan. The question is will we always be under military rule or will we finally be able to have a democratic system.”

With Musharraf facing the biggest crisis of his political career, it is to be seen how far will the opposition be able to cash in on this outrage.

In London, Musharraf's greatest foes — the PPP's Benazir Bhutto and the man he overthrew Nawaz Sharif — have been meeting to discuss a come-back to Pakistani politics. Time is, however, running out for them and analysts say they have to act fast before Musharraf uses this unrest to declare a state of emergency, postpone the coming elections and gain complete control.

A fractured opposition and a benevolent US has kept Musharraf in power and even though the protests are an embarrassment to President Bush who has justified the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan on the grounds that democracy should be upheld, there is silence from that front.

This seems to be a crucial stage for Musharraf with pressure mounting both within the country and outside it, what the world will be watching is whether the General will be able to survive it.

Canada to finalise FIPA with India soon

By Deepak Arora

David EmersonNEW DELHI, March 13: Canada's International Trade Minister David Emerson has said that Montreal and New Delhi have made significant progress toward finalizing a Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPA) between the two countries.

Once finalized, the agreement would help it increase Indian investment in Canada five-fold.

Negotiations are nearing completion and the Canadian and Indian governments have agreed to increase efforts to finalize the agreement in the coming months, he said.

Mr Emerson stressed his commitment to moving the Canada-India FIPA forward in a telephone conversation with Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath.

"The Indian market offers tremendous opportunities for Canadian investors," said Mr Emerson. "Increasing two-way investment with India is a priority for this government in its global business strategy and we are stepping up efforts to encourage more investment and further stimulate trade flows between our two countries."

Ted MenziesTed Menzies, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Trade, is currently leading a 30-member Canadian trade mission to India on behalf of Minister Emerson, who fell sick at the last moment. Besides Delhi, the mission visits Hyderabad and Mumbai.

In 2005, Canadian direct investment in India was valued at $204 million, while India's foreign direct investment in Canada reached $145 million (up 58 percent from the previous year). Two-way merchandise trade between the two countries reached a record $3.6 billion in 2006.

"We believe we can increase Indian investment in Canada five-fold from the 450 million dollars we had in 2006 by 2010 and a FIPA is critical to that," said Menzies.

Welcoming the proposed agreement, Ajit Khanna, President of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC) said that it would boost trade and investment between the two countries.

FIPAs are bilateral agreements that protect and promote foreign investment through legally binding rights and obligations. They encourage two-way investment by providing investors with the protection and predictability they need when investing in foreign markets.

Beyond the FIPA, depending on the outcome of the Doha round, Canada would assess the next steps for meaningful trade liberalisation between the two countries.

A high-quality free trade agreement should be the long-term objective for both the countries, he said.

"The export development Canada has step up an office in Mumbai and would gather market intelligence, develop relationships with Indian customers and put companies in touch with EDC's extensive suite of trade finance and risk management services," Menzies added.

He said "we are putting finishing touches on what we call a global commerce strategy and completing an assessment of markets and opportunities among our many trading partners."

He said "India is at top of our list. We will have within the global commerce strategy an ambitious and targeted approach for India."

He said Indians were set to become Canada's largest immigrant group by 2009. He said over 700,000 people of Indian origin have made Canada their home and that their contribution to their country of adoption has been profound and direct, with greater potential in store.

"If projections hold, India, currently Canada's number two source of immigrants; will be number one by 2009. The Indian contribution to our spectacular Canadian mosaic will grow stronger and the ties between our countries can grow stronger."

US and Iran hold rare direct talks

BAGHDAD, Mar 10: U.S. and Iranian envoys spoke directly about Iraq's perilous security situation on Saturday in rare one-on-one talks that could help ease their nearly 28-year diplomatic freeze.

Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, opened the one-day meeting of Iraq's neighbors, the United States and others with an appeal for international help to sever networks aiding extremists, warning that Iraq's growing sectarian bloodshed could spill across the Middle East.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he exchanged views with Iranian delegation "directly and in the presence of others" at the meeting, which included the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Khalilzad declined to give details of the contacts — calling them only "constructive and businesslike and problem-solving" — but noted that he raised U.S. assertions that Shiite militias receive weapons and assistance across the border from Iran.

"The discussions were limited and focused on Iraq and I don't want to speculate after that," he said. The United States broke off ties with Iran after militants occupied the American Embassy in Tehran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Khalilzad also urged nations bordering Iraq — which include Syria and Iran — to expand assistance to al-Maliki's government, saying "the future of Iraq and the Middle East is the defining issue of our time."

For Iran, opening more direct contacts with the United States could help promote their shared interests in Iraq, including trying to stamp out Sunni-led insurgents. U.S. officials, meanwhile, need the support of Iranian-allied political groups in Iraq to contain Shiite militias.

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the participants at the meeting agreed to take part in future groups to study ways to bolster Iraq's security, assist displaced people and improve fuel distribution and sales in one of OPEC's former heavyweights.

The delegates proposed an "expanded" follow-up meeting, which could include the G-8 nations and others, in Istanbul, Turkey, next month. Iraqi officials, however, say they want the next meeting to take place again in Baghdad.

The meeting also gives a forum to air a wide range of views and concerns including U.S. accusations of weapons smuggling from Iran and Syria, and Arab demands for greater political power for Iraq's Sunnis.

Security was extremely tight as envoys gathered in Iraq's Foreign Ministry, which is outside the heavily protected Green Zone. Shortly after the meeting began, at least two mortar shells hit near the Foreign Ministry. There were no casualties.

Top Pak N-scientists in Taliban Custody

NEW DELHI, March 7: Two top nuclear scientists of Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) are currently in Taliban custody. The two were working at PAEC’s facility in North West Frontier Province.

The two scientists were kidnapped about six months ago. To avoid international embarrassment Pakistan Government has kept this information under wraps, according to Zee news investigations.

According to information available, nuclear scientists have been kidnapped by Taliban at the behest of Al-Qaeda. Further investigations reveal that Al-Qaeda may be using the expertise of the scientists to produce nuclear bombs. The two scientists are reportedly being held somewhere in Waziristan, near Afghanistan border.

In January this year Pakistan security agencies had foiled another attempt by Taliban militia to kidnap nuclear scientists. Earlier, incidents of Taliban militia stealing uranium in NWFP have already been reported. PAEC also has a uranium mining facility in NWFP.

With repeated Al Qaeda threats to the US, news of kidnapping of nuclear scientists will increase pressure on Pakistan to attack terrorist camps.

India, Pakistan together to fight terror

ISLAMABAD, March 7: India and Pakistan on Wednesday agreed to exchange "specific information" through the new joint anti- terrorism mechanism (ATM) to help investigations into terror- related acts.

At the end of the first meeting of the ATM, the two sides agreed to share information for "prevention of violence and terror acts in the two countries."

It was also agreed that while the anti-terrorism mechanism would meet on quarterly basis, any information which is required to be provided on priority basis would be immediately conveyed to the respective heads of the mechanism, a joint statement issued at the end of the two-day talks here said.

The mechanism is headed by the Additional Joint Secretaries of both the countries.

The meeting began here on Tuesday with the Indian delegation being led by K C Singh, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, while his Pakistani counterpart Tariq Osman Hyder heading the host`s side.

The Indian team handed over the photograph of a suspected Pakistani national who is believed to be behind the Feb 18 Samjhauta Express blasts that killed 68 of the travelers from Delhi to Lahore.

Pakistan, however, said that the suspect went missing since 2006 and his whereabouts were not known.

Car bomb kills 28 at Baghdad market

BAGHDAD, March 6: A suicide car bomber shattered a relative lull in Baghdad's violence Monday, killing at least 28 people in a blast that touched off raging fires and a blizzard of bloodstained paper from a popular book market.

It was the largest bombing in the capital in three days, and came on the heels of a major push by nearly 1,200 U.S. and Iraqi troops into Sadr City, a Shiite militia stronghold and base for fighters loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqi troops in Sadr City set up checkpoints and took a far more visible presence than Americans, who led the push into the area Sunday. The move was an apparent attempt to avoid Shiite anger in a place of past street battles with U.S. forces.

But pressure on al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia continued on other fronts.

In the southern city of Karbala, the home of a Mahdi Army leader was raided in a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation, the U.S. military said.

Al-Sadr's followers also warned the Iraqi government they would not relinquish Cabinet posts unless other members of the ruling coalition do the same — setting the stage for a major political battle as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prepares to reshuffle his administration.

Quattrocchi extradition papers cleared for trial

BUENOS AIRES, March 5: Attempts to seek the extradition of Bofors accused Ottavio Quattrocchi moved a step forward on Monday when the Argentina government cleared the papers submitted by the Indian government for proceedings before a federal court in a province.

“The Argentinian Foreign Office has informed us that the extradition papers (of the Indian government) have been to the judge,” Indian ambassador Pramathesh Rath said.

Asked when the trial would begin, he said the matter was now before the judge and it was up to him.

According to a communication sent to the CBI through diplomatic channels, the Argentinian Foreign Office, after going through 250 pages of documents related to India's request for the extradition of Quattrocchi, found them intact and decided to send them to the Federal Court in El Dorado in Misiones province.

The two-member CBI team — director of prosecution SK Sharma and superintendent of police Keshav Mishra — had submitted the extradition papers to the Argentinian government last week after their arrival in Buenos Aires.

The clearing of papers paves the way for the beginning of the extradition trial against Quattrocchi in the court. The clearance comes almost a month after the Italian businessman was detained at Iguazo airport in Misiones province on February 6, when he was on his way to Brazil.

Revised Indo-Bhutan Treaty comes into effect

NEW DELHI, March 5: The revised Indo-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, under which Thimpu will have more powers to conduct its foreign and defence policies, has come into effect.

The treaty, which updates an accord of 1949, has come into effect with the exchange of Instruments of Ratification by the two countries in Thimpu on March 2, the External Affairs Ministry said here today.

The updated treaty was signed here by Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and the External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on February 8.

The revision of the accord involves amendment to several clauses, including Article 2 and 4 which will enable Bhutan to conduct its foreign policy more independently but while keeping India's security interests in mind.

The original treaty, signed in Darjeeling on August 8, 1949, contained nine clauses while the new one has 10, including a provision that neither country will allow its territories to be used for activities inimical to the other.

Article 2, which says that Bhutan will be guided by India's advice while conducting its foreign policy, has been replaced by a language that speaks of cooperation. A close consultative mechanism will be set up in this regard.

Prodi wins support in Italian Senate

Romano ProdiROME, March 2: The Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, last night won a vote of confidence in the Senate allowing him to stay in office.

One week after resigning over a defeat on foreign policy, Mr Prodi's 162 to 157 victory provided a boost for his fragile nine-party coalition, which has been in office for just over nine months.

A second vote of confidence will be taken tomorrow in the lower house, where Mr Prodi has a much larger majority.

To keep together the coalition, which stretches from hard line communists and Greens to centrist Catholics, Mr Prodi had them sign on to a 12-point 'non-negotiable' agreement.

The agreement includes support for Italy's international commitments, notably the 1,800-strong peacekeeping contingent in Afghanistan.

Two communist Senators in the Prodi coalition sparked the recent crisis by voting against the government on the issue.

Iraq's neighbors agree to Baghdad summit

BAGHDAD, March 1: Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, have agreed to join US and British representatives at a regional conference here on the Iraqi security crisis, government officials said Wednesday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi said that Russia and France were studying the invitation, but "I don't see any sign they will refuse."

"Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, even the U.S and Britain have informed us they will participate," he said, although Tehran has said publicly it has made no decision. Abawi also said China had agreed to attend.

Abawi said the date would be set within two days. Iraqi state TV said the tentative date was March 10.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's adviser, Sami al-Askari, also said neighboring countries had agreed to come. Iran has publicly said it is studying the invitation.

"The conference will be important. It will prove that Iraq is politically capable of holding such a conference. It will send a message to the world," Abawi said.

Al-Askari said it would allow countries such as the U.S., Iran and Syria "to sit down together without paying a political price."

Washington's willingness to attend the conference marked a diplomatic turnabout after months of refusing dialogue with Tehran over calming the situation in Iraq.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the United States would join the meeting and that Washington supported the Iraqi government's invitation to Iran and Syria.

The Bush administration waited to embrace the idea until Iraq had made progress on a law governing national distribution of oil revenue.

"We did work with them on the precise timing of the announcement," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

The failure of Iraq's parliament to pass the oil law has been an irritant in U.S.-Iraqi relations. The difficulty is symbolic of Iraq's regional, factional and political divisions, and passage is seen by the United States as a key marker of the government's will and ability to work across those divides.

"We work with them to encourage them to meet those benchmarks that they themselves have set," McCormack said. "This is something that they have been talking about for quite some time, and they thought the timing was right for them to hold the conference and so we encouraged them to move forward with it."

Ali Larijani, the head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, said earlier that Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari contacted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to discuss the conference. "We are reviewing the proposal," Larijani said, quoted by the state TV Web site.

"We support solving problems of Iraq by all means and we will attend the conference if it is expedient," Larijani said. "We believe Iraq's security is related to all its neighboring countries, and they have to help settle the situation."

Larijani suggested the U.S. presence was not a problem for Iran. Asked by reporters if Iran was running a risk by attending the conference alongside the Americans, he replied, "One should not commit suicide because one is afraid of death" — meaning Iran should not hurt itself just to avoid possible negative results.

Iranian hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on a visit to Sudan that supporting the "legal government of Iraq, its sovereignty and national unity ... are important elements for solving problems" in that country.

The Iranian state IRNA news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying that "Americans should amend their policy" in Iraq because the current one is "wrong." A Tehran state radio commentary also said the U.S. should change its Iraq policy if Washington expects the conference to produce a "rational conclusion."

Many Iranians feel resentful about the last major diplomatic dialogue with the United States — when officials from both sides met before the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, whom Tehran also opposed. Iran backed the invasion — only to see President Bush name the country part of the "axis of evil" later.

The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 when Iranian militants occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its staff hostage. Washington continues to have diplomatic relations with Syria, including a charge d'affaires at its embassy in Damascus.

The last time the U.S. and Iran had diplomatic contact was in late 2004 at a meeting of 20 nations in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik to discuss Iraq's future. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, did not hold formal talks, but Egypt sat the two officials next to one another at a dinner. Powell said the two mostly had "polite dinner conversation."

Larijani did not say what level delegate Iran would send if it chose to attend the conference. Rice said Tuesday the gathering would be at a sub-ministerial level, which would be followed by a full ministerial meeting, possibly in early April.

Syria will be represented by Ahmed Arnous, an aide to the foreign minister, a Syrian Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans had not yet been formally announced.

Syria believes the U.S. participation in the conference was "a partial step ... in the right direction for comprehensive dialogue with Syria on all issues of the Middle East," the state SANA news agency quoted the Foreign Ministry official as saying.

Iraq's Ahmad Chalabi, an influential Shiite, said the conference was "long overdue" and expressed hope it would help "in building international support" for the Iraqi government.

"The Iraqi people have been waiting for such an international show of support for our struggle against terrorism and to rebuild our country," Chalabi said. "We will never accept Iraq becoming a battleground for other countries, nor will we accept Iraq becoming as base for destabilizing our neighbors."

Iran has said in past months it is willing to meet with the United States to discuss how to calm the violence in Iraq. But tensions have increased dramatically between the two countries recently.

Bush has stepped up accusations that Iran is backing anti-U.S. Shiite militants in Iraq, a number of Iranians in Iraq have been seized by U.S. forces, and the American military presence in the Gulf has been heightened.

At the same time, Washington has led a push for stronger sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program. The United States accuses Iran of seeking to build nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. The United Nations has demanded Iran suspend uranium enrichment before any negotiations over its nuclear program can be held, a condition Tehran has rejected.

Harper urges Pakistan to do more to control insurgents

OTTAWA, March 1: Prime Minister Stephen Harper levelled his strongest criticism to date at Pakistan Monday saying it simply has to do more to stop insurgents from crossing into Afghanistan to attack Canada and its allies.

"We will concede that the Pakistan situation remains a long-term problem and we do need better efforts from Pakistan on that problem, not just for the security of Afghanistan, but for the security of the region," Harper said as he topped up Canada's development spending in Afghanistan by $200 million to $1.2 billion.

Harper found himself squarely onside with U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney who paid a surprise visit Monday to Islamabad to press Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to do more to prevent al-Qaida and Taliban militants from using its lawless western tribal belt as a staging ground for attacks across a porous Afghanistan border.

In the past, Harper and his ministers have shied away from a hard line toward Pakistan, even when Musharraf made dismissive comments last year about the number of Canadian troops killed in Afghanistan. Instead, Canada has offered assistance on border management and security.

But, with rhetoric flying about a possible spring surge in Taliban activity, Canada and its NATO allies are growing impatient with Musharraf.

As Cheney travelled to Pakistan, the White House levelled some sharp criticism as spokesman Tony Snow said: "The Pakistanis remain committed to doing everything possible to fight al-Qaida. But having said that, we also know there's a lot more that needs to be done."

A statement from Musharraf's office said Cheney "expressed U.S. apprehensions of regrouping of al-Qaida in the tribal areas" in light of the growing intelligence that the insurgency is preparing to strike back at western forces.

Thirty-six Canadian soldiers and one diplomat were killed last year in an unprecedented wave of violence in southern Afghanistan.

Harper's tone toward Pakistan changed after he met with Chris Alexander, a leading UN official in Kabul and Canada's former ambassador there, who has had tough words for Pakistan in the past.

Alexander is due to appear before a parliamentary committee today and at a public forum on the challenges that face Afghanistan.

"We know that there are people inside Pakistan and outside of government that support the Taliban, and we are very concerned by this, because these voices are supporting terrorist organizations that are causing insecurity and violence on a significant scale in Afghanistan," Alexander told a UN briefing in Kabul last month.

Harper invited Alexander to share the stage with him on Parliament Hill as he announced the extra development funding for Afghanistan.

The prime minister said: "I urge all Canadians to listen closely" to Alexander as he makes public comments on Afghanistan in the coming days in Canada.

Harper announced the increased aid funds after facing criticism that Canada's contribution to Afghanistan is weighted too heavily toward military engagement.

The extra $200 million is on top of the $1 billion Canada has committed to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011. All the money is given to international bodies, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and three UN agencies, and is spent on projects throughout Afghanistan, not just the southern sector where Canada is engaged militarily. The money is earmarked for improving government, fighting opium production, de-mining and the construction of a highway between the Pakistan border and Kandahar.

But, not all the extra money is guaranteed unless the Taliban insurgency is quelled in southern Afghanistan making greater reconstruction efforts possible.

"It's all dependent on the security situation," said a senior government official.

The press release from Harper's office noted the new funding was for "up to $200 million."

Despite the increase, military spending is still ahead of development by a 4:1 ratio, said Gerry Barr, president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, an umbrella group for aid agencies.

Barr said Canada still is not close to meeting the UN target on aid spending of 0.7 per cent of gross national income, even though Afghanistan is the single largest recipient of Canadian aid. "We are delinquent on the global stage with respect to our aid levels. The budget is coming up; it's time to meet our commitments," said Barr.

But Barr gave credit to Harper for channelling Canadian funding through credible international institutions because he said the Afghan government remains too corrupt to be trusted with the money directly.

The new funding came as Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay tabled on Monday in Parliament a slim 19-page progress report on Afghanistan.

In a recent speech, Harper billed it as a major progress report for Canadians, but it was mainly a reiteration of past government talking points on the need to increase security, improve governance and social services to Afghans.

The report was shorter and not as critical of the challenges outlined in a similar update recently given to Germany's parliament, which labelled the pace of reconstruction efforts as "painfully slow."

Canada's report did allow that it was an "ambitious objective" to train 70,000 Afghan Army soldiers and 62,000 Afghan police by 2010, but it omitted the number actually trained to this point.

MacKay defended the lack of specifics in the report.

"Much of what you're looking for will be calculated over time. But as far as the specific dollar amounts, the number of roads, hospitals, schools, children who are now eligible for school, micro credit that has been accessed, drug eradication, uniforms for police, all of that is being calculated and all of that information will be made available," MacKay said. "This is a report that gives you, in general brush strokes, where Canada has made a contribution."

NDP critic Dawn Black said the report was an admission of a failed military strategy in Afghanistan that "is not working to improve the lives of the Afghan people or to win the hearts and minds there."

India and Pak vow to tackle terror: Kasuri

NEW DELHI, Feb 20: Unfazed by the terror attack on Samjhauta Express, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mohd Kasuri has said he has come to India for improving relations and carry forward the peace process.

The Pak Foreign Minister has arrived in New Delhi saying the Samjhauta express blasts underscores the urgent need for meaningful cooperation against terror between the two countries.

Kasuri, who drove straight from airport to Safdarjung Hospital to see Pakistanis injured in the train blast, said he had come in New Delhi on a "mission to improve relations" between the two countries and "carry forward" the peace process.

"Incidents like these which are heart-rending and which affect both countries and people can only add to the urgency for the need for cooperation," he told reporters.

Two countries need to cooperate with each other "meaningfully", said the Pakistani Foreign Minister who will hold talks with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee under the joint commission in the national capital on Wednesday.

The issue of terrorism and security for travelers between the two countries is expected to dominate the agenda of the meeting primarily convened for discussing ways to enhance cooperation in trade, economy and social sectors.

The two sides will sign some agreements, including one on reducing risks from nuclear accidents.

Pointing out that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf had decided in September to set up a joint anti-terror mechanism, Kasuri said, "I am sure they were aware that it was a very serious exercise."

The first meeting of the mechanism will be held in Islamabad on March 6.

63 killed in Baghdad blasts

BAGHDAD, Feb 18: Militants struck back Sunday in their first major blow against a US-led security clampdown in Baghdad with car bombings that killed at least 63 people, left scores injured and sent a grim message to officials boasting that extremist factions were on the run.

The attacks in mostly Shiite areas — twin explosions in an open-air market that claimed 62 lives and a third blast that killed one — were a sobering reminder of the challenges confronting any effort to rattle the well-armed and well-hidden insurgents.

Instead, it was the Iraqi commanders of the security sweep feeling the sting.

Just a few hours before the blasts, Lt. Gen. Abboud Qanbar led reporters on a tour of the neighborhood near the marketplace that was attacked and promised to "chase the terrorists out of Baghdad." On Saturday, the Iraqi spokesman for the plan, Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, said violence had plummeted by 80 percent in the capital.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned the bombings as a desperate act by "terrorists" and "criminals" who sense they are being squeezed.

"These crimes confirm the defeat of these perpetrators and their failure in confronting our armed forces, which are determined to cleanse the dens of terrorism," al-Maliki said in a statement.

U.S. military chiefs have been much more cautious. They have insisted the security drive, begun last week, may take months to make clear gains and that counter-punches from militants were likely every step of the way.

The ones dealt Sunday came from the militants' favored weapon of the moment: parked cars rigged with explosives.

The first blast tore through a produce market in the mostly Shiite area of New Baghdad, toppling the wooden stalls and leaving pools of blood and vegetables trampled in the chaos. Minutes later, another car bomb exploded near a row of stores.

More than 129 people were injured, including many women who were shopping, said police and rescue officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media.

Victims were carried to hospitals on makeshift stretchers or in the arms of rescuers.

Another car bomb in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City left at least one dead and 10 wounded, police said.

It was by far the deadliest day since the security sweeps began. On Thursday, a string of car bombs killed seven civilians on the first full day of the house-to-house searches for weapons and suspected militants.

The U.S.-led teams have faced limited direct defiance as they set up checkpoints and comb neighborhoods. But that could change as they move into more volatile sections of the city. The next could be Sadr City, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. soldiers pressed closer to Sadr City on Sunday and the reception changed noticeably. In previous days, Shiite families opened their doors to welcome the troops — feeling that the American presence would be a buffer against feared attacks from Sunni militia.

On Sunday, in areas closer to Sadr City, parents slapped away the candy and lollipops given to children by soldiers.

"The Baghdad security plan is very important to push Iraq ahead," said Haider al-Obeidi, a parliament member from the Dawa party of al-Maliki.

The Baghdad crackdown has sent ripples through all corners of the country. The borders with Iran and Syria — shut for three days as the plan got under way — reopened Sunday. But new and strict rules will apply.

Moussawi, the plan's spokesman, was quoted in the Azzaman newspaper as saying the crossing points to the two nations would be open for only several hours a day and under "intense observation."

The United States and allies claim Iraqi militants receive aid and supplies from Iran, including parts for lethal roadside bombs targeting U.S. forces. Iran denies any role in trafficking weapons.

In Tehran, Syrian President Bashar Assad held talks with Iranian leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahamedinejad. The two leaders are generally on opposing sides of Iraq's sectarian divide: Iran backs the majority Shiites, and Syria is seen as a key supporter of Sunnis.

But Iran denied U.S. and Iraqi government reports that the cleric al-Sadr has crossed over from Iraq. Conflicting reports about his whereabouts have surfaced for nearly a week.

"No, he is not in Iran," Mohammad Ali Hoseini, spokesman for the ministry, told journalists during a regular press briefing in Iran's first comment on the issue. "The report is baseless and a kind of psychological warfare against Iran by the U.S. to put more pressure on Iran."

Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is widely believed to receive Iranian money and weapons — as do other Shiite groups here — but his political wing is part of Iraq's U.S.-backed government.

Two more U.S. soldiers have been killed in action, the U.S. military said. Both were killed Saturday: one by a grenade in a northern neighborhood of Baghdad; the other from gunfire north of the city, the military said.

As of Sunday, at least 3,137 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians. At least 2,514 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military's numbers.

Wave of bomb attacks hits Thailand

BANGKOK, Feb 18: A series of bomb explosions rocked insurgency-plagued southern Thailand on Sunday, killing three people and wounding 53 others.

In what were apparently co-ordinated attacks, suspected Muslim separatists struck in four provinces of the deep south, setting off at least 23 bombs, said Colonel Wichai Thongdaeng, a military spokesman.

Two people were killed and 33 injured, four of them seriously, in Yala province, while one person died and 20 were wounded in the popular tourist town of Narathiwat province, he said.

Two explosions tore through electricity transmitters in Pattani, causing blackouts in several areas of the province while two bombings were reported in Songkhla province.

More than 2,000 people have died in the four provinces since the insurgency erupted in 2004, fuelled by decades of misrule by the central government in this predominantly Buddhist nation.

Police Major General Kokiat Wongworachart said areas of Pattani province, including its capital, suffered electricity blackouts and telephones at the city's police station could not be used.

Five bombs exploded in the frontier town of Sungai Kolok, a popular destination for Malaysian and Singaporean tourists, and at least two public schools in the province were torched.

Yala police chief Major General Phaitoon Chuchaiya said there were at least five explosions, including some at a karaoke bar and a wholesale fruit market.

Television station iTV reported at least eight bombs had gone off in Yala and at least 20 people had been hurt. The explosions occurred at three karaoke bars and two hotels, it said.

Violence in the south has been escalating in recent months despite a major policy shift by the government, which is trying to replace an earlier, iron-fisted approach in dealing with the rebels with a "hearts and minds" campaign.

Although they have announced neither their goals nor leadership, the insurgents are believed to be fighting for a separate muslim state.

Their victims have included a large number of moderate Muslims and co-religionists believed to be sympathetic to the central government.

North Korea Agrees to Nuclear Disarmament

Hong Kong, Feb 13: North Korea has agreed to nuclear disarmament in exchange for $300 million in aid that U.S. President George Bush said "represents the best opportunity to address North Korea's nuclear programs."

White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters, "The President is pleased with the agreements reached today at the six-party talks in Beijing. They reflect the common commitment of the participants to a Korean Peninsula that is free of nuclear weapons."

The landmark agreement comes after more than a year of six-party diplomatic talks between China, Russia, the United States, South Korea, Japan and Pyongyang that at times looked like North Korea would never agree to nuclear disarmament. That was most evident four months ago after North Korea successfully conducted missile tests of its long-range weapons that threatened both Japan and the United States.

The agreement calls for North Korea to shut down its nuclear reactor, which is at the heart of its nuclear weapons program and to allow international inspections of those facilities.

Snow outlined the steps under the nuclear disarmament agreement saying, "North Korea has agreed to shut down and seal all operations at the primary nuclear facilities it has used to produce weapons-grade plutonium and has agreed to allow international inspectors to verify and monitor this process. In addition to those immediate actions, North Korea has also committed to disclose all its nuclear programs and disable its existing nuclear facilities -- as an initial step toward abandoning all of those programs and facilities under international supervision."

In exchange, the other nations under the agreement, which included China, Japan and the United States, have agreed to provide economic, humanitarian, and energy assistance as the North carries out its commitments to disable its nuclear facilities.

Still, Standard & Poor's said Wall Street would have to wait to see if Pyongyang follows through on its commitment before the Won would stabilize against the dollar and other major currencies. "Such an agreement may reduce the geopolitical risk that constrains the ratings on South Korea's currency, but clear evidence of North Korea's commitment to nuclear disarmament is a prerequisite to any future positive ratings action," S&P wrote in a news release.

If there is concrete evidence for such progress, Korea's sovereign credit ratings could be upgraded, depending on the degree to which geopolitical risks are reduced. If the process stalls or fails to get underway, Standard & Poor's current ratings would be maintained.

Uncertainty remains as to the level of commitment of North Korea to fulfill its side of the agreement. Unpredictable North Korea signed a similar agreement to stop its nuclear program in 1994, only to continue to develop nuclear weapons, the rating agency noted.

At a State Department press briefing Tuesday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters, "The six-party agreement reached in Beijing is an important initial step toward the goals of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and a more stable and secure Northeast Asia."

Rice said that the IAEA will return to North Korea to conduct all necessary monitoring and verification. That when the nuclear reactor is shut down and the Yongbyon nuclear facility sealed for the purpose of abandonment that the Parties will provide emergency assistance to Pyongyang of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil (HFO) during that first 60-day phase. Second, during the disablement phase, an additional 950,000 tons of HFO would be delivered.

Rice pointed out that the outcome needed to be looked at in a proper context of not only disarming the North Korean Peninsula but also to advance a future of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia. "Our approach has always recognized that we must address these two goals together and that is what we are doing," said Rice.

The Secretary of State also pointed out that this agreement was merely an implementation to a larger agreement, whose details Rice did not outline. But she did emphasize that the agreement itself was multilateral and involved all of the parties in the North Korean nuclear talks - not just the United States.

But despite Rice's emphasis on the nuclear disarmament agreement being multilateral by all parties Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quoted in the Asahi newspaper as saying "We cannot participate in the agreed energy aid to North Korea."

Abe's refusal to provide heavy fuel oil to Pyongyang relates to the issue of unaccounted-for Japanese believed to have been abducted to North Korea.

Earlier Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki repeated Japan's stance, but said Tokyo was ready to offer indirect cooperation to other members of the six-party framework that provide aid to North Korea.

Abe finds himself in a tight position. He gained the spotlight in politics by taking a tough stance toward Pyongyang after North Korean leader Kim Jong Il acknowledged in September 2002 that North Korean agents were behind the abductions of Japanese citizens.

But Japan could also find itself isolated within the six-party framework if it refuses to budge on the abduction issue. North Korea has blasted Japan for even raising the subject.

Although Abe said that other member nations "understand that Japan cannot offer aid unless there is progress in the abduction issue," South Korean delegate Chun Yung Woo criticized Japan's stand. Chun said Tokyo should not take advantage of denuclearization efforts without paying for them.

Russia says that as part of the nuclear disarmament deal it is willing to write off some of the $8 billion in debt owed to it by Pyongyang.

Ria Novosti reported that according to the Russian Economic Development and Trade Ministry, Russia and North Korea agreed to hold a meeting of an intergovernmental commission on the issue in March.

The parties agreed to hold the sixth round of six-party talks on March 19 to hear reports of the working groups and discuss actions for the next phase.

Top Chinese envoy to the six-party talks Wu Dawei said at the closing that the denuclearization process has stridden an "important and solid step".

NATO may have killed 'senior' Taliban leader

KANDAHAR, Feb 14: Coalition forces may have killed a "known senior Taliban leader" in a "precision air strike" in southern Afghanistan early Wednesday, a NATO statement said.

"The senior Taliban leader that is believed to have been killed in the strike was linked to the Musa Qala uprising and disturbances across Northern Helmand," the statement said.

Helmand province has been a hotbed of Taliban activity in recent months.

In early February, the Musa Qala district was overrun by about 300 Taliban militants who pushed out a locally raised force of auxiliary police loyal to the Afghan government, stormed the district's center and took down the Afghan national flag.

A few days later, NATO's International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) killed Abdul Ghafour, who was described as a "key" Taliban commander.

On Wednesday, a military spokeswoman said NATO forces had not retaken the town and were letting tribal elders and the Afghan government handle the situation.

In touting Wednesday's attack, ISAF's Lt. Col. Angela Billings said, "We have removed yet another Taliban enemy leader who will no longer threaten the peace and security of the Afghan people and their future."

N. Korea talks resume on positive note

BEIJING, Feb 9: South Korea's nuclear envoy said Friday that a Chinese draft agreement — with North Korea accepting in principle the initial steps for its disarmament — offered a good start for discussion. But the main U.S. envoy said there was still much work to do.

Envoys from six nations are trying to agree on steps to implement a September 2005 deal in which North Korea pledged to disarm in exchange for aid and security guarantees. The 2005 deal — the only one to emerge since negotiations began in 2003 — was a broad statement of principles that did not outline any concrete steps for dismantling North Korea's nuclear program.

"It's good as a basis for negotiations, but I don't want to predict whether there will be smooth negotiations," South Korea's Chun Yung-woo told reporters Friday ahead of the second day of talks in Beijing. He declined to give any details of what the draft contained.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill gave no details on the draft, but said Friday he was anxious for progress in the slow-moving negotiations.

"We haven't discussed it yet but that is what we will be doing first thing this morning ... In these processes you often start discussing things and you move to the written form and that is always a challenge," he told reporters.

The Chinese presented the draft after the first day of meetings Thursday, during which the North agreed in principle to take initial steps toward its eventual nuclear disarmament.

A South Korean official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing diplomacy, said China circulated a draft proposal. The official gave no details, but other delegates said earlier that the agreement would outline initial steps for implementing the 2005 accord.

Such an agreement would set the stage for the first tangible steps in more than three years of negotiations.

In his comments Thursday, Hill said that the new proposal would be "a set of actions that would have to be taken in a finite amount of time." He declined to give specifics, but said moves would occur in a matter of weeks.

"The delegations are coalescing around some of the themes that we believe should be the basis for a first step in implementing" the 2005 agreement, he added.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington she was "cautiously optimistic" that the implementation of the agreement could begin.

At the last round of talks in December, in the wake of North Korea's October 9 underground nuclear test, the communist nation refused even to talk about its nuclear programs. Instead, Pyongyang demanded the U.S. lift financial restrictions targeting alleged North Korean counterfeiting and money laundering.

Since then, the U.S. and North Korean nuclear envoys held an unusual one-on-one meeting in Germany last month where differences between the sides were apparently discussed, although no details of any concessions have been made public. Pyongyang and Washington held separate talks in Beijing late January on the financial issue, although it has yet to be resolved.

Unlike in the December talks, negotiators Thursday "were able to make progress in discussing denuclearization," Hill said.

The North's chief negotiator had said before the talks began that his country was "prepared to discuss first-stage measures" toward nuclear disarmament.

"We are going to make a judgment based on whether the United States will give up its hostile policy and come out toward peaceful coexistence," Kim Kye Gwan said on arriving in Beijing for the meeting at a Chinese state guesthouse.

American experts who visited Kim in Pyongyang last week said North Korea would propose a freeze of its main nuclear reactor and a resumption of international inspections in exchange for energy aid and a normalization of relations with Washington.

The North, which suffers from chronic power shortages, is also seeking electricity supply or an annual import of at least half a million tons of heavy fuel oil — the amount it had been promised under a Clinton-era denuclearization deal with the U.S.

North Korea and the U.S. agreed in 1994 for Pyongyang to freeze its plutonium-based nuclear reactor in exchange for energy aid. The North promised to eventually dismantle the facility following construction there of two light-water nuclear reactors for electricity — a type more difficult to divert for weapons use.

However, that deal fell apart in late 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of a secret uranium enrichment program. The North expelled international inspectors and restarted its reactor, and is believed to have amassed enough radioactive material for at least a half-dozen bombs.

The six-nation talks — involving China, Japan, Russia, the U.S. and the two Koreas — began in August 2003, but the North has twice boycotted them for more than a year. The latest was over a U.S. decision to blacklist a Macau bank where the North held accounts, saying it was complicit in the regime's alleged counterfeiting and money laundering.

India, Russia, China trilateral talks on Feb 14

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Feb 3: The Foreign Ministers of India, Russia and China will hold their first structured ministerial dialogue here next week to give a major boost to their trilateral forum, an initiative they feel is useful for coordinating their efforts in the international arena, according to Mr Sun Yuxi, Chinese Ambassador to India.

The foreign ministers of the three countries will hold talks on February 14 to discuss various global issues and how they could work together on these besides boosting relations among themselves. The foreign ministers will also discuss the Iran nuclear issue, the six-nation talks on North Korea and developments in Nepal.

Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, who undertakes a four-day visit to India from February 11, will work out a roadmap for implementation of the 10-point action plan to enhance strategic cooperation.

Li will hold talks with External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee on entire gamut of bilateral relations in the follow-up to President Hu Jintao's successful visit to India in November.

A hotline between the two foreign ministers is also expected to be announced during the visit. The two sides are also expected to agree on enlarging the basket of items for trade through Nathula border and identify ways and means to step up bilateral commerce to achieve the target of $40 billion by 2010.

The bilateral trade between India and China reached $24 billion last year from a paltry $2.7 billion in 2000.

Discussions will also be held on the proposed Regional Trade Agreement and draw a time-table for exchanges between the two ministries.

The Chinese Foreign Minister will begin his tour from Patna where he will visit Nalanda.

The visiting dignitary and Tourism and Culture Minister, Ms Ambika Soni, will also launch Year of Friendship between the two countries.

Foreign ministers of the three countries have so far met three times over the last two years on the sidelines of some international events — twice on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York and once in the Russian port city of Vladivostok.

The meeting significantly comes soon after Summit-level talks between India and Russia here after which both the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and the President, Mr Vladimir Putin, expressed interest in pushing cooperation under the trilateral forum.

Mr Putin said the forum was significant as it brings the three influential countries together to address regional and international issues.

Underlining the need for greater cooperation between India, Russia and China, he said in the years to come, the three countries as well as Brazil will have significant influence on the world, particularly in the economic field.

Dr Singh, Mr Putin and the Chinese President, Mr Hu Jintao met on the margins of the G-8 summit in St Petersburg in July and decided to give it a push.

After the meeting, Dr Singh said the three countries were focusing on challenges like terrorism, drug trafficking and crime. He made it clear that their coming together was in no way directed against any third country.

Mr Putin had said the three neighbouring nuclear powers have practically identical views on major global problems and our approaches on key world problems are very close.

Mr Putin said trilateral summit was the natural outcome of the work started by the foreign ministers of the three nations.

Hamas-Fatah violence continues; 25 dead

GAZA CITY, Jan 29: Hamas and Fatah gunmen battled each other in the streets Sunday, having sent civilians fleeing from their homes in an increasingly bloody power struggle that left more than two dozen Palestinians dead over the weekend.

An explosion early in the morning rocked the Gaza City home of a bodyguard to Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, but the guard was not in the building and no casualties were reported. At least eight people were wounded in exchanges of fire between the sides overnight, Palestinian security officials said.

The latest round of fighting began late Thursday after a Hamas activist was killed in a bombing. By Saturday night, 25 Palestinians — including a 2-year-old and a 12-year-old — had been killed and at least 76 were wounded, bringing to a standstill fitful efforts to unite the two rival factions in a coalition government.

A threat by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah to call early elections fueled the tensions that provoked the violence.

Residents of areas where the fighting was fiercest left to take refuge with relatives, and bullet holes pocked many of the buildings there.

Major roads in Gaza City were blocked by concrete barriers put up by security personnel loyal to both factions, causing traffic jams as drivers were forced on to alternate roads.

Large security details loyal to both groups deployed at major street corners and outside potential targets, like the homes of Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of the Islamic militant Hamas. Security also was reinforced around Palestinian media outlets, and two Gaza City universities were shuttered.

Hamas and an Abbas spokesman appealed for calm on Saturday.

Russia to deepen strategic partnership with India

MOSCOW, Jan 21: Russia will continue with its strategic partnership with India for joint development of cutting-edge defence technologies and new weapon platforms, even as they are close to inking several key pacts next week.

India is the only country with which we are transcending buyer-seller relationship and are entering into an active phase of joint development of new defence technologies and next generation weapon systems and platforms, the Chief of the International Cooperation Department of the Russian Defence Ministry, Colonel-General Anatoly Mazurkevich said in Moscow.

India has powerful industry with a vast research and development potential and poses no threat to Russia, General Mazurkevich elaborated why New Delhi is the sole foreign partner of Moscow in the development of weapon systems capable of radically changing the regional balance of force.

Briefing the media ahead of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov's India visit from January 22 to 26, General Mazurkevich said that several important defence contracts, including licensed production of RD-33 engines for MiG-29 jets are to be signed in New Delhi next week on the sidelines of President Vladimir Putin's state visit.

General Mazurkevich said that although decks have been cleared for interaction in the joint development and production of fifth generation fighter jet and multi-role transport aircraft (MTA), the actual signing of the agreements could take few more months.

The joint Indo-Russian document on defence cooperation to be signed during Putin's visit will include the development of fifth generation fighter and MTA, Mazurkevich said.

China plays down fears of space arms race

BEIJING, Jan 21: China has insisted it was opposed to an arms race in space after Japan and Britain joined a chorus of concern over a satellite-destroying missile test by Beijing - the first known experiment of its type in more than 20 years.

The United States says China used a ground-based ballistic missile to shoot apart an ageing weather satellite on January 11, scattering debris that could damage other satellites and raising the risk of escalating military rivalry in space.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman refused to confirm or deny the incident, but said Beijing wanted no arms race in space. "I can't say anything about the reports. I really don't know; I've only seen the foreign reports," said Liu Jianchao.

"What I can say is that, as a matter of principle, China advocates the peaceful use of space and opposes the weaponisation of space, and also opposes any form of arms race," he said.

US concerns have been echoed by Australia and Canada, and on Friday by Japan, which has become increasingly concerned about its giant neighbour's rising military strength.

"We are concerned about it firstly from the point of view of peaceful use of space and secondly from the safety perspective," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, told a news conference.

Tokyo is trying to mend fences broken by disputes with China over their wartime history, competition for resources and regional influence.

But it has also called for more transparency from Beijing on its defence spending, which China announced last March would rise by 14.7 per cent to $ 44.8 billion.

Britain added its voice to the chorus of alarm over China's reported move, with Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman telling reporters: "We have concerns about the impact of debris in space and we've expressed that concern."

The last US anti-satellite test took place in 1985. Washington then halted such Cold War-era testing, worried debris could harm civilian and military satellite operations.

Mr Blair's spokesman said Britain did not believe China's test had contravened international law, but it was concerned by the lack of consultation.

The test was "inconsistent with the spirit of China's statement to the United Nations and other bodies on the military use of space", he said.

Tokyo has asked the Chinese Government for confirmation the satellite-destroying missile test took place and for an explanation of what China's intentions were, Mr Shiozaki said.

"When we passed on the message, the Chinese side said they would take Japan's concerns into account and that they want to maintain the peaceful use of space," a Japanese foreign ministry official said.

David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said the satellite pulverised by China could have broken into nearly 40,000 fragments from one to 10 centimetres wide - about half of which would stay in orbit for more than a decade.

The US has been researching satellite destroyers of its own, experimenting with lasers on the ground that could disable, disrupt and destroy spacecraft.

Marco Caceres, a space expert at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Virginia, said China's test could bolster a host of costly military space programs, almost all of which are over budget and behind schedule.

Bomb blasts in Baghdad leave 109 dead

BAGHDAD, Jan 17: An explosion outside a Baghdad university as students were heading home for the day killed at least 65 people on Tuesday, in the deadliest of several attacks on predominantly Shiite areas. The attack came on a day the United Nations said more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians died last year in sectarian violence.

Attacks in Baghdad — the university explosion, blasts at a marketplace for used motorcycles and a drive-by shooting — came as at least 109 people were killed or found dead nationwide in what appeared to be a final spasm of violence ahead of an imminent security operation by the Iraqi government and U.S. forces to secure the capital.

The violence also came a day after the Iraqi government hanged two of Saddam Hussein's henchmen in an execution that left many of the ousted leader's fellow Sunni Muslims seething after one of the accused, the ousted leader's half brother, was decapitated on the gallows.

Cabinet ministers and legislators loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were instructed to end their six-week boycott of the political process, a parliamentarian in the political bloc said Tuesday, indicating that the decision was linked to the new security drive.

"We might be subjected to an attack and we should try solve the problem politically. We should not give a chance for a military strike against us," said the legislator, speaking on condition of anonymity because the information was not yet public.

The lawmaker said the group's return was conditional, including demands that the government set up a committee to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and a second that would set a date by which Iraqi forces were to take control of security nationwide.

Until the walkout, the al-Sadr faction was an integral part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's governing coalition. Six Cabinet ministers and 30 legislators who belong to the movement called the boycott after al-Maliki met with President Bush in Jordan in late November.

Much of the violence has been blamed on Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army militia loyal al-Sadr. Dozens of bodies turn up on the streets of Baghdad daily, many showing signs of torture.

Tuesday's deadliest attacks took place in primarily Shiite neighborhoods and appeared to be the work of Sunnis, who largely make up the insurgency targeting the Iraqi government and U.S. forces.

Raad Abbas, a 26-year-old who received shrapnel wounds in the attack at the motorcycle market that killed 13, said he went to the market because the city had been quieter over the past two weeks.

"Shortly after midday, I heard an explosion. Motorcycles were flying in the air, people were falling dead and wounded," he said from his hospital bed.

As the curious gathered to look at the aftermath of the first explosion — a bomb attached to a motorcycle — a suicide car bomber drove into the crowd and blew up his vehicle. The attack appeared to target the mainly Shiite neighborhood near the market but also was near the Sheik al-Gailani shrine, one of the holiest Sunni locations in the capital

The bombing near Al-Mustansiriya University took place as students were boarding minivans waiting outside the building to take them home, police said. Some police saying the explosion was caused by a suicide car bomber and others saying two of the minivans blew up as students were boarding.

About 45 minutes later, gunmen in a minivan and on two motorcycles opened fire on an outdoor market in a mainly Shiite neighborhood in nearby section of eastern Baghdad, police said. At least 11 people were killed.

While most of those killed were in Baghdad, two Christian brothers and a Sunni Arab mechanic were shot to death in two separate attacks in Mosul, police said. They also found the bullet-riddled body of a man in the northern city.

Gianni Magazzeni, the chief of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq in Baghdad, said 34,452 civilians were killed — an average of 94 per day — and 36,685 were wounded last year in sectarian violence.

The Iraqi Health Ministry did not comment on the U.N. report, which was based on information released by the Iraqi government and hospitals. The government has disputed previous figures released by the U.N. as "inaccurate and exaggerated."

Iraqi government figures announced in early January put last year's civilian death toll at 12,357. Magazzeni said the U.N. figures were compiled from information obtained through the Iraqi Health Ministry, hospitals across the country and the Medico-Legal Institute in Baghdad.

The U.N. report also said that 30,842 people were detained in the country as of Dec. 31, including 14,534 in detention facilities run by U.S.-led multinational forces.

It pointed to killings targeting police, who are seen by insurgents as collaborating with the U.S. effort in Iraq. The report said the Interior Ministry had reported on Dec. 24 that 12,000 police officers had been killed since the war started in 2003.

The report also painted a grim picture for other sectors of Iraqi society, saying the violence has disrupted education by forcing schools and universities to close as well as sending professionals fleeing from the country. At least 470,094 people throughout Iraq have been forced to leave their homes since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.

In Monday's execution, a thickset Barzan Ibrahim plunged through the trap door and was beheaded by the jerk of the thick rope at the end of his fall, in the same execution chamber where Saddam was hanged a little over two weeks earlier.

Dozens of people, mostly schoolchildren, read Quranic verses at the graves in Tikrit as mourning continued for Ibrahim, Saddam's half brother and former intelligence chief, and Awad Hamed al-Bandar, head of Iraq's Revolutionary Court under Saddam.

Some 150 youths also staged a demonstration in Saddam's hometown, 80 miles north of Baghdad, chanting "down with the pro-Iranian government" and "glory to Barzan," but it was calmer than the day before when at least 3,000 angry Sunnis assembled for the burials.

A government video of the hanging, played for reporters, showed Ibrahim's body passing the camera in a blur. The body came to rest on its chest while the severed head lay a few yards away, still wearing the black hood pulled on moments before by one of the five masked executioners.

ASEAN: Talks on open skies policy soon

CEBU (Philippines), Jan 15: Bolstering its "Look East" policy, India has offered to ASEAN countries on an open skies policy as the two sides achieved a significant breakthrough on the negative list and tariff concessions in parleys on a free trade agreement

Both sides have decided to address other nagging differences by July to pave the way for its early implementation.

Addressing the Indo-ASEAN Summit in Cebu (Philippines), Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said India had examined Singapore's proposal for an open skies policy, which was aimed at greater connectivity to promote regional economic integration.

Dr. Singh also said that India would launch special tourism campaigns in ASEAN countries this year and facilitate similar campaigns from countries in the region.

Inviting the youth of ASEAN countries to explore India, he announced that the country will host 10 students from each of the 10 members of the grouping for a "trip of sights and sounds of modern and ancient India".

Dr. Singh also proposed to take early steps for the expeditious operationalisation of the Indo-ASEAN Science and Technology Fund, which was set up last year, to support the development of strategic alliances among researchers and research activities.

"This leaves us in little doubt about our ability to achieve, and even surpass, the target of USD 30 billion by 2007. I believe that the India-ASEAN FTA will impart even further momentum to this growth in trade," he said.

The Prime Minister said India was strongly committed to the early conclusion of the FTA agreement and implementation.

He noted that at the ASEAN Economic Ministers (AEM)-India Consultation Meeting in Cebu on 11th January, at which India was represented by Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath, progress was made on resolving outstanding issues relating to exclusion lists and tariff concessions.

"We should direct our Trade Ministers to expedite the negotiations so that the FTA can be finalised, as agreed, by July 2007," he said.

Briefing reporters after the summit, Kamal Nath said items such as crude palm oil, refined palm oil, pepper and tea would remain on the "highly sensitive list".

India has offered to bring down tariffs on these items to 50 percent over the next 15 years.

The base year for calculating tariffs would now be 2007, when the agreement will be signed, instead of 2005 as had been originally agreed.

He said negotiations on the normal track would commence immediately after the conclusion of the FTA agreement and be completed by 2011.

Dr Singh told the summit that greater connectivity was also central to the idea of regional economic integration.

"The initiative taken in 2003 to liberalise air services has led to a significant increase in flight connections between India and ASEAN, with concomitant benefits in trade and people-to-people contact. I recall, at our last summit, the Prime Minister of Singapore had proposed that we now look at an open skies policy. We have examined this proposal and I am happy to announce that we would be willing to engage ASEAN authorities in a discussion on such a policy," he said.

Varsity for overseas Indians in two months: Vayalar Ravi

NEW DELHI, Jan 15: A university to serve the long-felt needs of people of Indian origin around the world will be established within a couple of months, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi has said.

'The university should come up within two months,' Ravi said.

Stating that the proposed university would be set up in a special economic zone, Ravi said: 'It will have the status of a deemed university within the framework of Indian laws.'

He said that fees for various courses in the proposed university would be affordable.

'It is a wrong notion that all overseas Indians are rich,' he said. 'They want quality and affordable education and we will provide this to them through the PIO university. The fees (for various courses) will not be high.'

The minister said that all groundwork have been done and now all that was needed was for parliament to pass the Foreign University Bill that had been tabled in this regard.

Asked if any place has been identified for the university, he replied in the negative but added: 'I want the university to come up at a place which has a good environment. I know for sure which places the university will not be set up... I don't want those flags and slogan-shouting...

'We don't want only foreigners. The university will have students from India too. We want the Indians to mix with the overseas students,' he said.

The minister said that PIOs are also demanding reservation of seats for them in various medical colleges. 'I have taken this up with the authorities concerned.'

He added that a number of NRIs have shown interest in investing in educational institutes in India.

'They are interested in setting up medical colleges. The only thing is that they want minimum returns and I have assured them that.'

US launches new attacks in Somalia

MOGADISHU, Jan 9: US helicopter gunships launched new attacks Tuesday against suspected al-Qaida members, a Somali official said, a day after American forces launched airstrikes in the first offensive in the African country since 18 U.S. troops were killed there in 1993.

The latest attacks killed at least 27 civilians in the town of Afmadow in southern Somalia, lawmaker Abdiqadir Daqane said.

At least one AC-130 gunship carried out an airstrike Monday evening against targets in the town about 220 miles southwest of the capital of Mogadishu, Somali officials said. It was not immediately clear how many people died in those attacks, but Somali officials said there were reports that many were killed.

The U.S. attacks were targeting Islamic extremists, said a Somali Defense Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak. Earlier, Somalia's president had said the U.S. was hunting suspects in the 1998 bombings of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa, and had his support.

The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower arrived off Somalia's coast and launched intelligence-gathering missions over Somalia, the military said. Three other U.S. warships are conducting anti-terror operations off the Somali coast.

U.S. warships have been seeking to capture al-Qaida members thought to be fleeing Somalia after Ethiopia invaded Dec. 24 in support of the government and drove the Islamic militia out of the capital and toward the Kenyan border.

The Islamic extremists are believed to be sheltering suspects in the embassy bombings, and the raids are designed to keep the militants from posing a new threat to the government.

It was the first U.S. offensive in the Horn of Africa country since the Americans led a U.N. force in the 1990s that intervened in Somalia in an effort to fight famine. The mission led to clashes between U.N. forces and Somali warlords, including the "Black Hawk Down" battle that left 18 U.S. servicemen dead.

Somalia has not had an effective central government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million people into chaos.

A U.N. peacekeeping force, including U.S. troops, arrived in 1992, but the experiment in nation-building ended the next year when fighters loyal to clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed shot down a U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter and battled American troops, killing 18 servicemen.

At least 13 attempts at government have failed since then. The current government was established in 2004 with U.N. backing.

50 militants reported killed in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Jan 9: US and Iraqi soldiers, backed by American warplanes, battled suspected insurgents for hours Tuesday in central Baghdad, and 50 militant fighters were killed, the Defense Ministry said.

Elsewhere, a cargo plane carrying Turkish construction workers crashed during landing at an airport near Baghdad, killing 30 people and injuring two, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. Initial reports indicated the plane crashed due to bad weather and heavy fog, a Foreign Ministry official said on condition of anonymity because an official announcement had not yet been authorized.

U.S. helicopters circled above the Haifa Street area where the battle took place, and witnesses said they had seen the aircraft firing into the combat zone. Explosions rang out across the area, just north of the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Maj. Gen. Ibrahim Shaker, a ministry spokesman, said 21 militants were captured, including seven foreign Arabs — including three Syrians — and one Sudanese.

Police said the clashes began when gunmen attacked Iraqi army checkpoints, and that Iraqi soldiers called for U.S. military help.

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraqi forces had decided to wipe out "terrorist hide-outs" in the area once and for all. "God willing, Haifa Street will never threaten the Iraqi people again," he said.

Al-Dabbagh also said followers of Saddam Hussein were to blame for the violence.

"This would never have happened were it not for some groups who provided safe havens for these terrorists. And as everyone knows, the former Baathists provided safe haven and logistics for them to destabilize Iraq," he said.

Haifa Street has long been Sunni insurgent territory and housed many senior Baath Party members and officials during Saddam's rule.

The Defense Ministry issued a statement saying 11 people were arrested in the Haifa Street battle, including seven Syrians. But the U.S. military said only three people had been arrested.

A U.S. military spokesman said American and Iraqi forces launched raids to capture multiple targets, disrupt insurgent activity and restore Iraqi Security Forces control of North Haifa Street.

"This area has been subject to insurgent activity, which has repeatedly disrupted Iraqi Security Force operations in central Baghdad," Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl said in a statement.

Troops were receiving small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenade and indirect fire attacks during the operation, the statement said.

"Anyone who conducts activities outside the rule of law will be subject to the consequences," Rear Adm. Mark Fox, another U.S. military spokesman, said at a news conference with al-Dabbagh.

The battle came less than 48 hours before President Bush was due to deliver a major policy speech outlining changes in U.S. strategy in Iraq. He was expected to announce an increase of up to 20,000 additional U.S. troops.

Al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi government supported such a troop surge.

"The goal is to protect Baghdad and other areas. If this is going to be achieved by an increase in friendly coalition forces, we have no objection and we support this," al-Dabbagh told reporters.

Bush has also shuffled his teams of military and diplomatic advisers ahead of announcing his new Iraq strategy.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander overseeing the military theater that includes Iraq, will be succeeded by Adm. William Fallon, now Abizaid's counterpart in the Pacific. Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus is the president's choice to be the new chief commander in Iraq, replacing Gen. George Casey.

Casey in turn will replace the retiring Gen. Peter Schoomaker as Army chief of staff.

"There may be a lot of changes in leadership and there may be a lot of changes in tactics, but the relationship with our Iraqi counterparts is unchanging," Fox told reporters.

Join mission to make India developed nation, Kalam tells diaspora

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Jan 9: President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has called upon overseas Indians to join in the mission of taking India into the league of developed nations by 2020.

Speaking at the valedictory session of the 5th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), Dr Kalam said a great opportunity awaited overseas Indians in contributing to India's transformation.

"I request all of you to participate in this mission of 'developed India 2020' and to make it a reality by your attitude of give, give and give of the knowledge and experience you have gained over the years," said the President.

"I am convinced it is possible for the country to be developed by 2020," Kalam told a packed audience here, which included over 1,500 members of the diaspora from 50 countries.

Unveiling his ideas for close networking and connectivity, Dr. Kalam mooted ‘World Technology Platform – A Mission’ which would integrate the core competences of partner countries to develop knowledge products and also enable joint design, development and cost effective production and marketing of knowledge products of various domains.

Detailing his vision for India to become a developed nation by 2020, the President envisaged the creation of two global human resources cadre – one constituting youth with high quality education and research while the other with world class skill-set for gainfully employed in the manufacturing and services sector.

Congratulating the Overseas Indians, Dr. Kalam said that the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas integrates the 25 million overseas Indians who are constantly maintaining their umbilical connectivity with their motherland.

Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi announced the setting up of a single window Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre for investment advisory services.

Promising to have this Centre in place before PBD-2008, the Minister also announced the launching of Central Council of Overseas Employment in the context of overseas Indian workers.

Welcoming the new ideas that would constitute initiatives in the field of health, education, agriculture, as well as approaches to address the issues pertaining to the youth and women, Mr Ravi said that the Ministry would soon finalise the policy framework for establishing a PIO University in a Special Economic Zone under the UGC Act.

Observing PBD-2007 as an effective institutional platform for constructive engagement of overseas Indians with India, Mr Ravi underlined the need for exploring partnership opportunities for overseas Indian communities for effectively pooling in their knowledge, experiences and resources in India’s development effort.

Earlier, the president conferred the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman on 15 distinguished overseas Indians.

These including noted New York publisher and founder of the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) and the Indian-American Center for Political Awareness (IACPA), Gopal Raju; anti-apartheid activist Billy Nair from South Africa and noted community leader from Germany, Sibabrata Roy.

Others who received the award from the president were: Dave Sukhdip Singh Hayer of Canada, Sir Moti Tikaram of Fiji, Kenneth S. Benjamin of Jamaica, Pheroze Nowrojee of Kenya, Tan Sri Dato Dr K.R. Somasundaram of Malaysia, Abdool Magid Abdool Karim Vakil of Portugal, Syed M. Salahuddin and B.R. Shetty, both from the UAE, Lord Diljit Rana of UK, and Dr. M. Anirudhan, P. Jayaraman and Nirmal K. Sinha, all from the US.

PM asks Diaspora to invest in new India

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Jan 7: Reaching out to the Indian diaspora, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited them to invest financially and intellectually in "new India" which offers "enormous opportunities" for cross-border flows of trade, capital and technology.

Inaugurating a three-day Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD), Dr Singh said efforts were underway to set up an overseas facilitation centre to serve as a source of investment advisory for Indian investors settled abroad.

Proposals to constitute a Council for Promotion of Overseas Employment and set up a university for Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) here are under consideration of the government, he told the gathering of about 1200 PIOs and NRIs from 50 countries.

"We in India wish to see you engaged in India`s great adventure of building an India free from the fear of war, want and exploitation...I invite you to be active participants in this saga of great adventure and enterprise," he said.

Noting that India has now emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, the Prime Minister said the country’s growth process creates "enormous opportunities for the cross-border flows of trade, capital and technology".

The Prime Minister said he would like overseas Indian communities to take full advantage of these opportunities.

"I would like you to reach out and invest in a new India. Invest not just financially, but intellectually, socially, culturally and, above all, emotionally...Come engage with India," he told the diaspora.

While inviting investments from the diaspora, many of whom have contributed immensely to the development of their host countries, Dr Singh hoped that "we in India can work together to create an environment in which the best of every Indian can find its fullest expression".

He said he wanted every Indian living and working in India to aspire for the global recognition that compatriots like music maestro Zubin Mehta, NRI industrialist Lakshmi Mittal, Pepsico chief Indra Nooyi and nobel laureate Amartya Sen get when they go overseas.

Referring to the 5th conclave`s theme `Rooting for the Roots`, he said that their being here is "not just about `roots`. It is also about `branches`. Even as you discover and nurture your roots, I urge you to extend your branches."

Citing the example of Mahatma Gandhi, he said "greatest pravasi` (Indian settled abroad) returned home from South Africa on January 9 a century ago and "inspired us to wage a non-violent peaceful struggle for freedom from foreign rule."

Describing India as an "ancient civilisation but a young nation", he said the country`s efforts for social and economic transformation in the framework of an open society and an open economy, committed to rule of law and respect for fundamental human freedoms is of great historic significance.

"Our success will have a profound influence on the course of human civilisation in the 21st century," he said.

Dr Singh said he was conscious of the importance of enhancing educational opportunities in India for PIOs and wanted Indian universities to be more open to the children of overseas Indians.

Recalling that he had spoken of a proposal at the PBD last year to establish a university for PIOs, the Prime Minister expressed confidence that it would fructify in the coming months.

The government is considering a proposal to constitute a Central Council for Promotion of Overseas Employment, a professional body which should devise an appropriate strategy to give shape to the idea of making India a hub of skilled manpower provider, Singh said.

"It is time for the overseas Indian worker to move up the wage chain and India to be perceived increasingly as a provider of skilled manpower," the Prime Minister underlined at the conclave organised by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs along with Delhi government and CII.

He said strategic medium to long-term view of the overseas employment opportunities was needed to reap India`s demographic dividend and benefit from the significant labour supply gaps emerging in countries with ageing populations.

He thanked NRIs in West Asia and other parts of the world for the handsome contribution their remittances make to the strengthening of Indian economy.

While talking about educational opportunities for Indian diaspora in their native country, Singh referred to ancient centres of learning like Nalanda, Takshashila and Nagarjuna where students came from far off places.

He appreciated the support of Singapore, China, Japan, South Korea and other countries in the region in the project of reinvigorating Nalanda to make it emerge as an "icon of Asian renaissance".

US law on N-deal important step in ties: PM

By Sushma Arora

NEW DELHI: Terming the enactment of law by the US on civil nuclear cooperation as an "important step" forward in bilateral ties, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said it was vital for enlarging India’s developmental options and thanked the Indian-American community for playing a role in this endeavour.

"We are happy that the United States has adopted a legislation that will enable the US to engage in cooperation with India in the field of civil nuclear energy," Dr Singh said while referring to the month-old development.

The Henry J Hyde US-India peaceful atomic energy cooperation act became law last month, ending the over 30-year nuclear isolation of India.

"This is an important step forward not just in India-US bilateral relations and also as an essential first step that will enable India to engage in cooperation in the civil nuclear field with other countries that are members of the NSG," he said while inaugurating the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.

‘Inspire people to make a Mauritius out of Bihar’

Go to Bihar and inspire people there to make a Mauritius out of Bihar." This is the message of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) in Mauritius having roots in Bihar.

Dr Singh said that during his visit to Mauritius he had conveyed this message to Mauritian people whose ancestors hailed from Bihar. "I could say the same thing about other parts of the country," he said.

He hoped that "we in India can work together to create an environment in which the best of every Indian can find its fullest expression".

More benefits for OCI card holders

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI: The Government has extended more benefits to overseas Indians holding the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi said on Sunday.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, Mr Ravi said: "We have decided to extend a wider range of benefits to OCI cardholders. I am happy to announce three new benefits: first, parity with non-resident Indians on inter-country adoption; second, parity with resident Indian nationals in domestic airfares; and third, parity with Indian nationals in entry fees for national parks and wildlife sanctuaries."

The OCI card scheme was launched at the last PBD in Hyderabad and offers overseas Indians staying in countries allowing dual citizenship equal rights with Indian citizens in India except for some constitutional rights like election to constitutional posts and appointment as judges in Supreme Court or high courts.

The minister said that since the launch of the scheme, over 90,000 OCI cards have been issued till now.

He also added that the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) was working on a host of other benefits including allowing overseas Indian doctors to practice in the medical field in India.

PBD is the flagship event of the MOIA. For this fifth edition of the annual conclave of the Indian diaspora, the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) is the institutional partner while the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi is the partner state.

Last year, India and Belgium had inked a social security agreement, under which Indians working on a short-term contract of up to sixty months are exempted from social contributions in the host country, provided they continue to make social security payments in their home country.

The minister also reiterated that the ministry was looking at replicating the Belgium model with other EU nations like the Netherlands, Norway, France and Sweden where there are a lot of Indian professionals.

"In a globalised world, this agreement would make Indian companies more competitive as exemption from social security contribution cuts down operational costs," he added.

Expressing concerns of exploitation of one million workers who go to the Gulf annually, he further stated that labour protection laws have to be beefed up. A MoU also needs to be pursed with GCC states to create a government to government fast track.

"Last year, we signed a MOU with UAE ion labour and employment which provides specific steps for the protection and welfare of overseas Indian workers. We are looking at singing more MoUs with Kuwait, Bahrain and Malaysia which has a significant number of Indians.

Iraqis fight for Baghdad; 2 US GIs die

BAGHDAD, Jan 7: Bombings and shootings killed at least 14 people across Iraq on Sunday, as Iraqi troops waged a fresh battle to oust militias and pacify the capital.

The sectarian attacks continued despite the major drive to tame Baghdad. The Iraqi army reported killing 30 militants late Saturday in a Sunni insurgent stronghold in the center of the city, just to the north of the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, speaking only hours earlier at a ceremony marking the 85th anniversary of the Iraqi army, announced his intention for the relentless and open-ended bid to crush militant fighters bedeviling Baghdad.

Hassan al-Suneid, a key aid and member of al-Maliki's Dawa Party, said the Iraqi leader had committed 20,000 soldiers to the operation that would call upon American troops and airpower only when needed.

The U.S. military announced the deaths of two American soldiers killed in Baghdad and western Iraq. One soldier died Saturday after coming under fire in a southwestern section of Baghdad, the military said in a statement. Another soldier died Friday from combat wounds sustained in Iraq's volatile western Anbar province.

With the deaths, at least 3,008 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003.

Pravasi Divas summit to discuss new paradigms of development

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Jan 6: With an aim of encouraging Indian diaspora to be part of socio-economic development in India, the government will have three-day face-to-face with overseas countrymen from Sunday to discuss opportunities available.

Prime Minister Manmohan SinghPrime Minister Manmohan Singh will inaugurate the fifth Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) that will also discuss new paradigms of development in the global context and concerns of overseas Indians.

It will seek to sustain and nurture the symbiotic relationship between India and its Diaspora to address the development challenges that the country faces.

The key objective of the three-day meet is to nurture and sustain a symbiotic relationship between India and its Diaspora to address the development challenges that India faces while giving the overseas Indians the opportunity to become partners in India’s Progress.

Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi addressing the press on the 5th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas-2007 in New Delhi on Jan 5, 2007. The state and sector-wise initiatives taken by India to attract investment and for faster development will be highlighted.

Besides the Prime Minister, several of his Cabinet colleagues and state Chief Ministers will outline the initiatives taken by the government to enthuse the Indians spread across the globe to invest here.

The fifth PBD will also have for the first time a session exclusively devoted to enabling the Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) to trace their roots. The focus will be on establishing an institutional framework for sustainable engagement with overseas Indians to lead the knowledge, expertise and skills of the vast and diverse overseas Indian community into India's development efforts.

About 2000 PIOs and NRIs are expected to participate in the conference, sharing their ideas while learning about the opportunities.

Notable among the delegates is Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar, who will be the Chief Guest. The PBD will conclude with presentation of awards by President A P J Abdul Kalam.

There will be 30 sessions on variety of topics where a large number of Speakers from India as well as Diaspora Countries are going to participate. The topics include ‘Challenges of development in the global context’ chaired by Union Commerce Minister Kamal Nath and special address by noted Indian Management Expert C.K. Prahlad; ‘GOPIO: Engaging PIOs in India’s development’, to be presided over by Vayalar Ravi, Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs and addressed by Union Minister Oscar Fernandes and Dr. Karan Singh.

The session on ‘Education: Challenges and opportunities in India’s development’, to be addressed by the Union Minister for Urban Development S. Jaipal Reddy and Dr. Abid Hussain, former Indian Ambassador to the USA; and session on ‘Youth : Driving India’s development’, to be addressed by Union Minister Shri Prithviraj Chavan.

There will also be working session on Media, which will focus on the importance of electronic media and the new information and communication technology for regular reporting. The potential for partnership between the Indian media and the Diaspora will be examined in the context of the advancement in the field of science and technology and the Internet revolution, which has altered the concepts of time and space.

There will be Regional Sessions on Gulf, USA, Canada, South, South East and East Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia, Pacific and Caribbean. Apart from this about fourteen States of India will be participating in the Exhibitions.

The focus is on establishing an institutional framework for sustainable engagement with overseas Indians to lead the knowledge, expertise and skills of the vast and diverse overseas Indian community into India’s development efforts. Such a framework will pull in overseas Indians as ‘knowledge’ partners the states as ‘stake holder’ partners and the Ministry as a ‘facilitator’.

Indians today constitute the single largest expatriate community in many countries and their role in the development has been recognized very well. Their presence in large numbers gives added importance to our bilateral relations. There is, therefore, a need to bring a strategic dimension to the process of India‘s engagement with its Diaspora. The meet will focus on the issue.

Abbas declares Hamas force in Gaza illegal

RAMALLAH, Jan 6: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday declared a Hamas security force in Gaza illegal after a surge in internal violence, a move that quickly stoked political tensions.

Throwing down the gauntlet to Abbas, the governing Hamas militant movement's "Executive Force" said it would double its size to 12,000 personnel.

Hamas created the force after forming a government last March and had defied a previous order by Abbas to integrate personnel into other more well-established security services.

Many recent gun battles on the streets of the Gaza Strip have been between the Hamas force and security men loyal to Abbas and his once dominant Fatah faction.

"The President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas ... considers the executive force, both officers and individuals, illegal and outlawed," Abbas's office said in a statement.

The statement said the Hamas force would remain illegal until it complied with Abbas's previous decision.

Speaking hours after the announcement, a spokesman for the Hamas force said its numbers would double from nearly 6,000. "A decision was taken to increase the number of the executive force to 12,000. We call upon all sincere citizens to prepare themselves to join the force," Islam Shahwan said.

Shahwan gave no timeframe and did not say where the money to expand the force would come from, but Hamas receives funding from Iran and other Islamist allies.

Abbas's presidential guard by comparison has about 3,700 members. With aid from the United States and its allies, Abbas hopes to expand it to 4,700 members in 12 to 18 months. Palestinian sources said it could grow to 10,000 members.

Some Palestinians fear civil war in the wake of Abbas's call last month for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections to break a political deadlock with Hamas after the two sides failed to form a unity government.

Hamas trounced Fatah in elections in January 2006 but the two sides have been locked in bitter conflict ever since.

The Interior Ministry said Abbas's order would stir unrest.

"This is a green light to those who have decided to target the executive force and shed the blood of its members," ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal told a news conference in Gaza.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, said the force was part of the security apparatus because it came under Interior Ministry control.

He said Abbas's order "contradicted the positive atmosphere" at meetings between the two men late this week, where they agreed to keep gunmen off Gaza's streets.

One Abbas aide, Nabil Amr, said the Hamas force was "carrying out armed operations and acted as a militia, and therefore is considered illegal".

Fatah has accused the Hamas force of killing Colonel Mohammed Ghareeb of the Preventive Security Service and a member of Fatah, and six of his men, after besieging his home in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya on Thursday.

Hamas gunmen blamed the shooting on Ghareeb's bodyguards.

In northern Gaza on Saturday, unknown gunmen stormed the empty house of Hamas lawmaker Youssef al-Shrafi and set it ablaze.

Western governments want Abbas to triumph over Hamas, which the United States and Israel regard as a terrorist group.

The Bush administration will provide $86 million to strengthen security forces loyal to Abbas, according to documents.

NRIs to get voting rights

By Deepak Arora

Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi addressing the press on the 5th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas-2007 in New Delhi on Jan 5, 2007. NEW DELHI, Jan 5: A bill granting voting rights to the NRIs would be introduced in Parliament during the next session, according to Mr Vayalar Ravi, Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs. He, however, ruled out a similar facility to the People of Indian Origins (PIOs).

Speaking to newsmen on the eve of three-day “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas” to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday, Ravi said the Bill to amend the Representation of People's Act was earlier introduced but was referred to the Standing Committee.

The Minister said the Committee had suggested a few amendments which would now be incorporated in the new Bill.

Amendments to the RP Act would be made to enable enrolment as voters of the Indian passport holders.

But under the Indian Constitution anyone holding a passport of any other country cannot be granted voting rights and there is no proposal to amend it either, he said.

Referring to the misuse of marriages by some NRIs, the minister said India was likely to join The Hague Convention on Private International Law. This would enable protection of the interests of Indian girls who are trapped by the unscrupulous expatriates through marriages.

The government has already launched a campaign to create awareness among the vulnerable sections so that they do not get exploited. The campaign would be carried up to village level.

Over 1500 NRIs are expected to attend the annual Pravasi Divas where Singapore Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar would be the Chief Guest.

Mr Ravi said that the valedictory session would be addressed by the President, Dr.A.P.J.Abdul Kalam, along with conferment of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award by the President on January 9.

Dato S Samy Vellu, Malaysian Minister of Works and President, Malaysian Indian Congress, will be leading large Malaysian delegation for the PBD 2007. Many Overseas Ministers are attending the PBD and will speak in different sessions. These include Mr. Balaji Sadasivan (Singapore), Mr. Madan Murli Dulloo (Mauritius), Mr. Dato G Palanivel (Malaysia) and Mr. Harinder Takhar (Canada).

Mr Ravi also informed that at present delegates from 47 countries have already registered. He said that the PBD is being organized to connect more than 25 million overseas Indians and to bring the expertise and knowledge of the Indian overseas community to India and integrating it into India’s development process.

The Minister said 14 States are participating in the exhibition (Haryana, Delhi, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Bihar, MP, Kerala, Gujarat, UP, Uttaranchal, Tamil Nadu, and A.P). More States are expected to confirm their participation in the exhibition.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is the annual flagship event of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. The forthcoming PBD is being organized with the institutional partnership of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi is the Partner State.

Theme of the Fifth PBD is ‘Rooting for the roots – Meeting India’s Social development Challenges’ with the objective to encourage Overseas Indians to be part of the socio-economic development of India. The focus will be on social areas and issues.

The Union governments and State governments will be fully involved in the sessions so that participants can directly interact with government representatives and address their concerns and have exposure to the government programmes for the common man and how they could be involved in these.

The focus areas are Education, Healthcare, Women, Youth, and Investment. There will be 30 sessions on variety of topics where a large number of Speakers from India as well as Diaspora Countries are going to participate. There will be Regional Sessions on Gulf, USA, Canada, South, South East and East Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia Pacific and Caribbean.

I haven't seen Osama in years: Omar

Osma bin LadenPESHAWAR, Jan 5: Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar has added to the mystery over Osama bin Laden, saying he had not seen his ally and fellow fugitive since US-backed forces ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan in late2001.

"No, I have neither seen him, nor have I made any effort to do so, but I pray for his health and safety," Omar said in an e-mail questionnaire.

The questions were relayed to Omar through his spokesman Mohammad Hanif, and a reply was received late on Wednesday.

Around half-dozen audio tapes of bin Laden were circulated during the first half of 2006, but the al Qaeda leader last appeared on video tape in late 2004, while tapes of his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have been issued regularly.

A video tape of bin Laden was released late last year, but it was identified as old footage, and the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States passed without any word from the Al-Qaida leader.

Speculation over the whereabouts and health of bin Laden boiled over in September when a French provincial newspaper reported that he had died of typhoid in late August.

Though several governments and intelligence agencies rebutted that report, saying they had no evidence to suggest bin Laden had died, nor did they have any clue to where he was.

The wealthy Saudi-born bin Laden helped bankroll the Taliban after moving to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, and he reportedly married one of Omar's daughters to cement their alliance.

Romania and Bulgaria celebrate EU membership

SOFIA, Jan 2: Former communist states Bulgaria and Romania have celebrated joining the European Union, a historic moment that drew thousands to midnight concerts but leaders warned reforms were still needed.

As midnight struck in Alexander Battenberg square in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, hundreds of balloons with "Welcome Europe" written on them rose to the sky from a 30,000-strong crowd.

The addition of the two former Soviet bloc states brought the number of EU nations to 27 and gave the bloc a total population of almost half a billion people.

In a video message to both capitals, EU Commission President Jose Manuel Durao Barroso said: "In welcoming two new members in the family, we know our culture, our heritage, will be richer, our mutual ties and our economy will be boosted."

Hours before the actual moment of accession, the blue- and-yellow EU flag was raised in Bucharest and Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu spoke of "a reason to rejoice, a moment expected for 17 years" since the fall of communism in 1989.

"The EU flag is now also the flag of Romania," Tariceanu said.

But with enlargement fatigue gripping large parts of the bloc, the EU's latest and poorest members are likely to be greeted more with a shrug than open arms.

And in Brussels, EU headquarters will be keeping a close eye on whether the two nations abide by their pledges to crack down on corruption and organised crime.

India and Pakistan swap nuclear site lists

NEW DELHI, Jan 1: Pakistan and India exchanged lists of their nuclear sites under an agreement to swap such information annually on New Year`s Day to prevent attacks against each others nuclear facilities.

The agreement signed in 1988 between the South Asian arch rivals came into force in 1991 and the first such exchange of information was on January 1, 1992.

Under the agreement both Pakistan and India are to refrain from attacking each other`s nuclear facilities in the event of a war.

"Lists of nuclear sites were exchanged between Pakistan and India today," according to Ministry of External Affairs.

Saddam Hussein buried in his hometown

BAGHDAD, Dec 31: Executed Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been buried early in the day at his home village of Awjah in northern Iraq.

Saddam was hanged to death on Saturday, three years after he was deposed from power by the US and convicted for killing Shiites in 1982.

"Saddam Hussein has been buried today at 4:00 am (0630 IST) in a place that was constructed during his regime in the centre of Awjah," said Musa Faraj, one of Saddam's relatives from the area.

Faraj said the building where Saddam was buried was a hall usually used for condolence meetings in Awjah, 180 kilometres north of Baghdad.

Earlier this morning, Faraj said that a delegation from Salaheddin province including the governor Hamed al-Shakti and chief of Saddam's tribe of Albu Nasir, Ali al-Nida, had gone to Baghdad to claim Saddam's body.

Saddam Hussein executed

A frame grab from Iraqi state televison shows a noose being placed around Saddam Hussein's neckBAGHDAD, Dec 30: Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq with an iron fist for about 23 years, hanged to death three years after he was deposed from power by the US and convicted for killing Shiites in 1982.

The 69-year-old former President was taken to the gallows and executed at 6 am local time (08.30 IST), Iraqi state-run television reported.

The dictator, who had plunged his country into a long fratricidal war with neighbouring Iran in 1980s and later invaded Kuwait in 1990 inviting US wrath, was hanged 56 days after a court convicted and sentenced him to death for his role in the killings of 148 Shiite Muslims from a town where some people allegedly planned to assassinate him in 1982.

The execution became imminent on Thursday after Iraq's highest court rejected Saddam's appeal and ordered carrying out the sentence within 30 days.

A last-minute challenge from Saddam was rejected by a US judge on Friday.

Last evening, his personal effects were removed and he was handed over by US officials to Iraqi Government authorities in preparation for the execution.

India disappointed over Saddam execution

NEW DELHI, Dec 30: Describing the execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussain as "unfortunate", India has said it was "disappointed" over the execution of Saddam Hussein, former President of Iraq for the past two decades.

New Delhi, which had earlier opposed Hussain's execution, hoped that the event will not affect the process of reconciliation and restoration of peace in the trouble-torn country.

"We had already expressed the hope that the execution would not be carried out. We are disappointed that it has been (carried out)," External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a statement.

"We hope that the unfortunate event will not affect the process of reconciliation, restoration of peace and normalcy in Iraq," he said.

The government had earlier expressed opposition to Hussein's execution and cautioned that no steps should be taken which could delay restoration of peace in the troubled country.

Meanwhile security has been stepped up at all American and British establishments in New Delhi soon after the execution of ousted Saddam this morning.

A senior police official said additional security personnel has been deployed at prominent American and British establishments situated in the high-security Chanakyapuri area.

Police were keeping a special watch on the Embassies of United States and Britain, the officer said.

Iraq bombs kill more than 72 as Saddam executed

BAGHDAD, Dec 30: More than 72 Iraqis have been killed and dozens more wounded in a series of bloody car bombings that caused chaos after the government's pre-dawn execution of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein today.

Just hours after Saddam swung from the scaffold in Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in a fish market in the Shiite city of Kufa, killing at least 31 people as the country continued to plunge into the abyss of civil strife.

Doctor Monther al-Ithari, the health director in Najaf province, said another 58 people were wounded in the attack, most of them women and children shopping ahead of the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday.

Colonel Ali Jrawi of the Kufa police said that the car, a Korean-made Kia, had been parked in a popular fish market when it exploded, ripping through the weekend crowd.

It was not clear, however, whether the attack amounted to a reprisal from Saddam supporters who denounced the US-backed Iraqi government for the late dictator's death amid celebrations among the Shiite majority over his demise.

Kufa is a small town south of Baghdad near the Shiite pilgrimage centre of Najaf and a stronghold of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has an office there and whose father was killed during the Saddam regime.

A triple car later bombing ripped through a mixed area of northern Baghdad, adding at least another 20 corpses to the grim daily toll. In the coordinated attack, three vehicles exploded in rapid succession in a the district of Hurriyah, security and military sources said.

US signals support for Ethiopia in Somalia

WASHINGTON, Dec 27: The United States on Wednesday signaled support for Ethiopia's military offensive in Somalia, saying Addis Ababa had reasons for concern about the country's internal warfare.

The White House urged restraint by Ethiopia but also said the intervention should not be used as an excuse by Somalia's warring factions to avoid peace negotiations.

"Ethiopia has genuine security concerns with regard to developments within Somalia," said Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

Johndroe added that Ethiopian forces were there "at the request" of Somalia's interim government, which wants to break the stronghold of the Islamic Courts Council on southern Somalia and Mogadishu.

"We have urged, and continue to urge, the Ethiopian government to exercise maximum restraint in intervening or responding to developments in Somalia and to assure the protection of civilians," Johndroe said. "However, no Somali party should use external actors as an excuse to avoid further dialogue."

Highlighting U.S. concern about the conflict, President George W. Bush spoke on Tuesday to Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni about Somalia.

The United States has accused the Islamic movement of harboring al Qaeda operatives and has warned that Ethiopia as well as Kenya could be targets of extremist elements from Somalia.

500 feared killed in Lagos pipeline blast

LAGOS: Around 500 people were feared dead on Tuesday when fuel from a vandalised pipeline exploded in Nigeria's largest city, Lagos.

Hundreds of residents of the Abule Agba district went to scoop fuel using plastic containers after thieves punctured the pipeline overnight, emergency workers said.

"We are talking hundreds (dead). We are yet to confirm the death toll," Red Cross secretary-general Abiodun Orebiyi said, adding that 60 people had been evacuated to hospital with serious burns.

Hundreds of bodies, most burned beyond recognition, were lying at the scene of the explosion as emergency workers tried to put out the fire.

A Red Cross volunteer at the scene said: "A lot of people have been roasted. They are littered on the ground."

India opposes death sentence against Saddam Hussein

NEW DELHI: India, which enjoyed cosy ties with Iraq, on Tuesday appealed for leniency after ousted President Saddam Hussein's death sentence was confirmed, reports said.

"India hopes the death sentence against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will not be carried out," a foreign
ministry spokesman said.

India's reaction came after Iraq's appeals court judge Arif Shaheen confirmed the maximum sentence on Saddam and his two co-defendants in his trial for crimes against humanity, and said they must be executed within 30 days.

Singapore Dy PM to be chief guest at Pravasi Divas

By Deepak Arora

Vayalar RaviNEW DELHI: The Overseas Indian Affairs Minister, Mr Vayalar Ravi, has announced that Prof. S. Jayakumar, Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, will be the Chief Guest of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2007.

Dato S Samy Vellu, Cabinet Minister of Works, Government of Malaysia and President, Malaysian Indian Congress, will be leading large Malaysian delegation for PBD.

Mr Ravi also informed that some notable names, who have since confirmed for PBD are; Mr Sam Pitroda, Chairman Knowledge Commission, Mr Apurv Bagri, Chairman Tie, UK, Dr. Denison Jaisurya, Executive Director Social Strategic and Dato G Palanivel, Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Government of Malaysia.

He said that the Prime Minister of India will inaugurate Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on January 7 and it will culminate with valedictory address and conferment of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award by President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam on January 9. Both these sessions will also be held at Vigyan Bhawan.

The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has negotiated highly reasonable rates for hotel accommodation in Delhi. For example, single room is available in Hotel Taj Palace at 120 US dollar. Delhi Government has also waived of the luxury tax for the delegates who are registering on-line, he added.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is the annual flagship event of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. The event aims to connect more than 25 million overseas Indians and to bring the expertise and knowledge of the Indian overseas community to India and integrating it into India’s development process.

The forthcoming PBD is being organized with the institutional partnership of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Delhi Government is the state partner.

Theme of the Fifth PBD is ‘Rooting for the roots – Meeting India’s Social development Challenges’ with the objective to encourage Overseas Indians to be part of the socio-economic development of India. The focus will be on social areas and issues.

The Union governments and State governments will be fully involved in the sessions so that participants can directly interact with government representatives and address their concerns and have exposure to the government’ programmes for the common man and how they could be involved in these.

The focus areas are Education, Healthcare, Women, Youth, Investment. There will be 30 sessions on variety of topics where a large number of Speakers from India as well as Diaspora Countries are going to participate. There will be Regional Sessions on Gulf, USA, Canada, South, South East and East Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia Pacific and Caribbean.

India favors settling Iran's nuke issues through dialogue

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Dec 24: India has called for efforts to address Iran's nuclear issues through dialogue with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) playing a key role.

Responding to the UN Security Council sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment, Navtej Sarna, spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry said “we continue to feel that all possible efforts should be made to address Iran's nuclear issues by peaceful means through dialogue and negotiations and that IAEA should play a central role in resolving the outstanding issues.”

Mr Sarna emphasized that Iran has a right to pursue its nuclear program for peaceful civilian use. “It has undertaken certain obligations that its nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes,” he added.

The spokesman said “we have noted the passage of the UN Security Council resolution and are studying its implications.''

The United Nations Security Council had on Saturday unanimously voted to impose non-military sanctions on Iran for its failure to end its nuclear enrichment programme.

Earlier, Iran's Foreign Ministry rejected as "invalid" and "illegal" a UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment.

Teheran also vowed to continue its nuclear program. It announced its defiant stance just over an hour after the United Nations' move on Saturday.

The resolution followed months of tough negotiations and it was not clear until the final moments before the vote whether all 15 Security Council members would support the resolution.

Just days before the vote, Iran's hardline president reiterated that sanctions would not stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme - the position it has taken since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) turned over Iran's dossier to the council in February.

Tehran ignored an August 31 deadline set by the council to halt the process as a precondition to negotiations.

Permanent members of the council Russia and China, which both have strong commercial ties to Iran, had earlier resisted the drive for sanctions led by the United States and its European allies.

Qatar, one of Iran's Persian Gulf neighbours, has supported Iran's peaceful use of nuclear power.

"Iran considers the new UN Security Council resolution ... an extralegal act outside the frame of its responsibilities and against the U.N. charter," a Foreign Ministry statement said on Saturday.

The statement read on state-run television said Iran won't heed the decision by the United Nations Security Council and will continue pursue its enrichment activities.

"The Iranian nation has not delegated its destiny to the invalid decisions of the U.N. Security Council and won't do so (in the future)," it said.

The resolution, adopted unanimously on Saturday, orders all countries to ban the supply of specified materials and technology that could contribute to Iran's nuclear and missile programmes.

It also imposes an asset freeze on key companies and individuals in the country's nuclear and missile programmes named on a U.N. list.

If Iran refuses to comply, the resolution warns Iran that the council will adopt further non-military sanctions.

"The new resolution won't be an obstacle in the way of Iran's nuclear progress," the statement said.

"The Iranian nation, relying on its national capabilities and within the framework of its rights stipulated in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, will continue its peaceful nuclear activities."

The Foreign Ministry said Iran will continue to install more centrifuges at its uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, central Iran.

US strike kills Afghan Taliban leader

KABUL, Dec 23: A top Taliban military commander described as a close associate of Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar was killed in an airstrike this week close to the border with Pakistan, the US military said Saturday. A Taliban spokesman denied the claim.

Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani was killed Tuesday by a U.S. airstrike while traveling by vehicle in a deserted area in the southern province of Helmand, the U.S. military said. Two associates also were killed, it said.

There was no immediate confirmation from Afghan officials or visual proof offered to support the claim. A U.S. spokesman said "various sources" were used to confirm Osmani's identity.

Osmani, regarded as one of three top associates of Omar, is the highest-ranking Taliban leader the coalition has claimed to have killed or captured since U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime in late 2001 for hosting bin Laden.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Tom Collins described Osmani's death as a "big loss" for the ultraconservative militia.

"There's no doubt that it will have an immediate impact on their ability to conduct attacks," Collins said. "But the Taliban is fairly adaptive. They'll put somebody else in that position and we'll go after that person, too."

He was regarded as highly ideological and was instrumental in some of the excesses of the Taliban rule such as the destruction of the ancient Buddha statues in Bamiyan and the trial of Christian aid workers in 2001, Rashid said.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, denied that Osmani had been killed, saying the airstrike instead killed Mullah Abdul Zahir, a group commander, and three other Taliban fighters.

"I confirm that Osmani is alive and is in Afghanistan," Ahmadi told The Associated Press by phone from an undisclosed location.

Collins said officials waited four days to announce the news in part so that they could be sure it was Osmani who was killed.

"The vehicle was completely destroyed, there was nothing to recognize," Collins said. "But we have various intelligence assets that we monitor, that we look at very closely, and of course we work with the intelligence agencies of the Afghan government and through those sources we are sure that he is dead."

Osmani, the Taliban's chief military commander in southern Afghanistan, played a "central role in facilitating terrorist operations" including roadside bombs, suicide attacks and kidnappings, the U.S. said.

Ahmed Rashid, a leading author on Islamic militancy, said the death was a "major blow" to the Taliban.

"It's the first casualty among the top Taliban leadership in the past five years, which makes the strike very significant," he said.

It also comes ahead of what is expected to be a major Taliban offensive in the south in February or March, and Osmani may have been preparing for that when he was killed in Helmand, Rashid said.

The Taliban militia has stepped up attacks this year, particularly in southern Afghanistan, and waged fierce battles with Western and Afghan forces. About 4,000 people have died in the violence, raising fears for the country's future and experiment with democracy after a quarter century of war.

The whereabouts of Omar, the Taliban's reclusive leader who has a $10 million reward on his head, remain a mystery.

Collins said Osmani was part of a group of "co-equals" at the top of the Taliban leadership chain just under Omar and was also in charge of the Taliban's finances.

Collins said Osmani had been "utilizing both sides" of the Afghan-Pakistan border, and that the U.S. military had been tracking him "for a while."

"When the time was right, and we thought we had a good chance of hitting him without causing any harm to civilians, we struck," he said.

Although the U.S. said Osmani was an associate of bin Laden, Omar and Afghan insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Collins said he did not know the last time Osmani had contact with any of the three.

During the Taliban regime, Osmani was the corps commander of Kandahar, the militia's seat of power.

More recently, he was regarded as one of the top three Taliban leaders under Omar, along with another senior military commander in the south and southeastern regions, Mullah Dadullah, and influential policy-maker Mullah Obaidullah.

In June, a man claiming to be Osmani — his face was concealed by a black turban — gave an interview to a Pakistani television network in which he said Omar and bin Laden were alive and well. He claimed to be receiving instructions from Omar.

Pakistan, India agree to survey Sir Creek

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELH, Dec 23: In a positive step forward towards resolving their maritime boundary dispute, India and Pakistan have agreed to conduct a joint survey of the Sir Creek area, a marshy strip off the Gujarat coast, from January 15.

Officials from both sides worked out "technical details of the survey in an amicable manner.”

"It was agreed to commence the joint survey from January 15, 2007," said a joint statement issued at the end of the two-day talks at Pakistan's military headquarters in Rawalpindi. It was expected to be completed in 20 days.

The talks were held to "decide the coordinates for a joint survey of the Sir Creek and adjoining areas without prejudice to the positions of the two countries as well as to simultaneously hold discussions on the Maritime Boundary," the statement said.

The Sir Creek flows into the Arabian sea between the Pakistani province of Sindh and the Indian state of Gujarat.

The dispute over the 100-km long estuary has hampered exploration for oil and gas and led to the detention of hundreds of fishermen from the two countries.

The official said the two sides also made "some progress" on the issue of determining the maritime zones off Gujarat and Karachi coasts, which was held up due to the dispute over Sir Creek.

"The two sides also held useful discussions on various options to delimit the maritime boundary. It was agreed to verify the outermost points of coastlines of both countries during the joint survey with regards to the equidistance method," the statement said.

The Indian delegation at the talks was headed by Chief Hydroprapher of the Navy Rear Admiral B R Rao and the Pakistani team was led by Maj. Gen Jamil-ur-Rehman Afridi.

Singapore Dy PM to be chief guest at Pravasi Divas

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Dec 22: The Overseas Indian Affairs Minister, Mr Vayalar Ravi, has announced that Prof. S. Jayakumar, Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, will be the Chief Guest of Pravasi Bharatiya Divas 2007.

Dato S Samy Vellu, Cabinet Minister of Works, Government of Malaysia and President, Malaysian Indian Congress, will be leading large Malaysian delegation for PBD.

Mr Ravi also informed that some notable names, who have since confirmed for PBD are; Mr Sam Pitroda, Chairman Knowledge Commission, Mr Apurv Bagri, Chairman Tie, UK, Dr. Denison Jaisurya, Executive Director Social Strategic and Dato G Palanivel, Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development, Government of Malaysia.

He said that the Prime Minister of India will inaugurate Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on January 7 and it will culminate with valedictory address and conferment of Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award by President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam on January 9. Both these sessions will also be held at Vigyan Bhawan.

The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has negotiated highly reasonable rates for hotel accommodation in Delhi. For example, single room is available in Hotel Taj Palace at 120 US dollar. Delhi Government has also waived of the luxury tax for the delegates who are registering on-line, he added.

The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is the annual flagship event of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs. The event aims to connect more than 25 million overseas Indians and to bring the expertise and knowledge of the Indian overseas community to India and integrating it into India’s development process.

The forthcoming PBD is being organized with the institutional partnership of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Delhi Government is the state partner.

Theme of the Fifth PBD is ‘Rooting for the roots – Meeting India’s Social development Challenges’ with the objective to encourage Overseas Indians to be part of the socio-economic development of India. The focus will be on social areas and issues.

The Union governments and State governments will be fully involved in the sessions so that participants can directly interact with government representatives and address their concerns and have exposure to the government’ programmes for the common man and how they could be involved in these.

The focus areas are Education, Healthcare, Women, Youth, Investment. There will be 30 sessions on variety of topics where a large number of Speakers from India as well as Diaspora Countries are going to participate. There will be Regional Sessions on Gulf, USA, Canada, South, South East and East Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia Pacific and Caribbean.

Nothing can dilute India's strategic programme: PM

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Dec 18: Making it clear that "nuclear swaraj" will be maintained, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday assured Parliament yet again that "nothing will be done" that can "dilute or compromise" the autonomy of the country's strategic programme and its foreign policy as India negotiates a bilateral civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States.

In a spirited intervention, Singh dismissed opposition's charge that India would become a "client" State of the US if the new American legislation on the deal was accepted.

Nothing will be done that will "dilute, compromise or cast any shadow" on the independence of the country's foreign policy, he said, asking Leader of the Opposition L K Advani not to "worry about India losing its nuclear swaraj (independence)."

The prime minister, however, said that there were "areas of concern," in the enabling legislation passed by the Congress recently and he will seek clarifications on some issues with the US administration as the two sides finalise a 123 bilateral agreement -- the sole document that will guide civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries.

The Prime Minister said "I would like to emphasise that this is a programme of civilian nuclear cooperation. We have never discussed with the US or any other country the content and scope of our strategic programme."

He, however, noted that outcomes of international negotiations were "not entirely predictable nor always under our control but compromises, if any, cannot violate basic principles." Dr Singh said "clearly, difficult negotiations lie ahead." However, he emphasised that while going ahead with the process, vital national interests will not be compromised.

India and the US have to work out a bilateral agreement known as 123 Agreement to implement the understanding reached on July 18, 2005 and in the March 2, 2006 Separation Plan.

Both Singh and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who later replied to the debate, hit back at Advani for alleging that the country's interests had been "mortgaged" by the Indo-US civil nuclear deal.

They reminded him that it was the NDA government which had announced unilateral moratorium on nuclear tests and had offered to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Rejecting Advani's contention, a combative Singh said the BJP leader had tried to paint a "scary picture" with "no relation to facts".

"India will not accept any new conditions," he told a near-packed House after Advani charged that the US was "virtually dictating" what India's nuclear policy should be.

Singh referred to then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's protracted talks with US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott and contended that nothing was known about these parleys.

He said some details about the talks could be known only when Talbott wrote a book, in which he mentioned that the NDA government had offered to sign CTBT. "We will not do anything behind the country`s back", Singh said adding he had at every stage of the negotiations taken Parliament and the nation into confidence.

Underlining that the deal was aimed at enabling India meet its growing energy needs, the Prime Minister said New Delhi wants "long term, stable and predictable cooperation in civil nuclear cooperation with the US and other members of the international community."

"We will seek to ensure that (the 45-nation) Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) takes action to permit full civil nuclear cooperation with India in terms acceptable to us," he said.

"I have assured the House before that in going ahead with this programme of civilian nuclear cooperation, we will do nothing which will hurt the ability of our department of atomic energy to pursue research and development, to pursue the development of fast breeder reactors and to pursue the complete three-stage fuel cycle from uranium to plutonium to uranium," the prime minister said. "I can assure the House that I can stand by this commitment," he stressed.

The Prime Minister asserted that the objectives of 1970s of the Atomic Energy Commission, of which he was a member, had not materalised. He said since 1970, only 3600 mw of power from nuclear energy had been generated. "I am not saying that nuclear power is the panacea for our energy....", Singh said adding the deal will help in augmenting the nuclear power capacity.

The Prime Minister, who last week returned from a visit to Japan, said there was enormous enthusiasm in that country about India`s development. He said till yesterday, India was looked as a pariah in the nuclear order. Today, the country has a place in it and there was a tremendous transformation in the world view of this country. Many countries, he contended, were willing to readily recognise India as a nuclear weapon state.

Singh assured the house that government was committed to its promise of not allowing any extraneous or intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities. Stating that the international legislation on the issue was a complex process, he said India cannot agree with anything that was not appropriate with wider national interests, strategic programme, nuclear power programme for peaceful purposes, safeguarding indigenous R&D or the fast breeder programme.

Earlier, opposition leader LK Advani said India should not accept the U.S. legislation. "I want this law to go," Advani said, adding that the deal would prevent India from conducting nuclear tests in the future. "The primary objective is to cap, roll back and ultimately eliminate its (India's) nuclear weapons capability," Advani warned.

Al Qaeda training jehadists from West in Pak: Report

NEW DELHI, Dec 19: A recent media report has revealed that terrorist outfit Al Qaeda is training a 12-member team of Westerners in Pakistan for a special mission including plotting attacks on return to their home countries.

The team includes nine British citizens, two Norwegian Muslims and an Australian, the report said quoting Taliban's Chief Qaeda liaison for Ghazni province in Afghanistan Omar Farooqi. The magazine in its upcoming issue says some Taliban commanders told it of seeing the "English brothers," as foreign recruits are called, in person during the training.

Farooqi, said he spent roughly five weeks last year helping indoctrinate and train a class foreign recruits near Afghanistan border in tribal Waziristan. Their mission, Farooqi said, will be to act as, underground organizers and operatives for al Qaeda in their home countries -- and their yearlong training course is just about finished.

He said the Westerners were not meant to be suicide bombers themselves as they are far too valuable to waste. The magazine quotes US and British security agencies as saying they have known this threat would come sooner or later.

While saying he could not confirm the English brothers' case specifically, a spokesman for Britan's Foreign Office called it "common knowledge" that jihadist recruits have been traveling from Britain to Pakistan for indoctrination and training.

US intelligence officials told the magazine that their people were definitely concerned about terror suspects and operatives shuttling back and forth between Britain and Pakistan. "For the most effective background checks on passengers, the United States needs information and assistance from the country where the traveler resides," says Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke, adding that such help should be "routine."

The magazine said Farooqi confidently described those plans to its correspondent at a mud-brick house in Afghanistan's Paktia province, not far from the Pakistan border. The specifics of his story could not be independently corroborated, the report said.

The magazine says an open notebook lay on the carpet where Farooqi was seated, and the correspondent caught a fleeting glimpse of scrawled names and telephone numbers, including several that were preceded by the UK's country code: 44. Farooqi, told the magazine that he first met the brothers, all of them in their 20s, soon after they reached Waziristan in October 2005.

A few, he couldn't say how many, had arrived in Pakistan by air, but most had taken a clandestine overland route, across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. According to Farooqi, the brothers' travel arrangements were made by Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, one of Al Qaeda's top operations men and a liaison with insurgents in Iraq.

The transcontinental journey took a month to complete, but Farooqi claims the brothers left no official traces of their passage, slipping past every border-control post without showing any travel documents. Still, Al Qaeda, the magazine says, wasn't taking any chances with the English brothers' safety.

They received much of their training behind the mud-brick walls of the sprawling compounds that are typical of Pakistan's tribal areas. The idea was to keep the men hidden from US and Pakistani reconnaissance planes.

India, Japan take major strides in business ties

TOKYO, Dec 16: Japan on Friday stopped short of openly supporting the India-US civilian nuclear deal.After a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said international civilian nuclear energy cooperation should be enhanced but insisted it should be done under "appropriate" International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. He, however, refused to take a position on the deal, saying Japan would engage in discussions with India first.

A joint statement issued after the meeting said: "The two leaders share the view that nuclear energy can play an important role as a safe, sustainable and non-polluting source of energy."

Japan's reluctance to openly take a stand on the India-US deal is because 'nuclear' is a sensitive word here. Japan is the only country to have had a nuclear bomb dropped on it. It is a key member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group with which India will have to reach an agreement to take its nuclear deal with the US forward.

Recognising Japan and India's strengths in high technology and knowledge economy, and noting the importance of non-proliferation, Singh and Abe decided to launch a consultation mechanism to facilitate bilateral trade in high technology and address matters relating to mutual export control regimes. Singh, while releasing the joint statement, said he was "deeply satisfied" with the outcome of his visit.

The two countries also decided to take bilateral economic ties to a new level by announcing a Special Economic Partnership Initiative (SEPI) that will focus exclusively and extensively on developing infrastructure and manufacturing capacity in India. The SEPI is ambitious in scope, as it covers development activity in the power, transport and manufacturing sectors.

Under the SEPI, Japan will help India set up dedicated multi-modal freight corridors between Mumbai-Delhi and Delhi-Howrah, assist in creating a Mumbai-Delhi industrial corridor, and set up multi-product Special Economic Zones to source Japanese investment. A task force on the Indian power sector will also be set up.

The two sides also decided to start negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA). Besides, India will continue to remain the recipient of the largest amount of Japanese Official Development Assistance.

Japan decided to align itself with India's aim of equitable growth by agreeing to promote rural business and industrialization. A pilot project of the scheme will be launched under the 'One Village One Product' programme.

For energy security, a Japan-India Energy Dialogue will be established, while science and technology initiatives - especially in the fields of nano-technology, life science and deep sea drilling - are on the anvil. Both sides also plan to create an Open Access Database to share scientific information between academic, public and industrial institutions.

Bhutan King hands over power to son

THIMPU, Dec 16: The king of Himalayan country of Bhutan has abdicated in favour of his son, the state-run newspaper Kuensel said in a statement on its website on Saturday.

"The fourth Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, has handed over his responsibilities as the monarch and head of state of Bhutan to the Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck who now assumes the full responsibilities of head of state as the fifth Druk Gyalpo," the newspaper said.

"The time has now come for me to hand over my responsibilities to Trongsa Penlop Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck," the king was quoted as saying by the newspaper.

The king announced in 2005 that he would abdicate in 2008, when the country is scheduled to hold its first elections. The report gave no explanation why the abdication had come earlier than expected.

Indo-Bhutan border sealed after Bhutan blast

GUWAHATI, Dec 3: The Indo-Bhutan border in the Assam sector has been sealed following a bomb blast in neighbouring Bhutan. "The Indo-Bhutan border has been sealed and there is additional deployment of the para-military force, Shastra Seema Bal (SSB), following the incident of blast", additional DGP of Assam BP Rao said.

He added that security has been tightened along the Indo-Bhutan border, including at Samdrup Jhongkar in Nalbari district, which is the entry point to the Himalayan kingdom. When asked about any insurgent outfit behind the blast, Rao said preliminary reports point out the involvement of ULFA.

"But involvement of other outfits other than ULFA cannot be ruled out at this moment", he said. The Assam police, he said, has taken all precautionary measures and are in touch with the BSF and SSB in this regard, Rao said.

Red Cross: Philippines storm toll 1,000

DARAGA (Philippines), Dec 3: The top Red Cross official in the Philippines said Sunday that he thinks 1,000 people or more have been killed by Typhoon Durian. "We're estimating the casualties could reach 1,000, perhaps more," said Sen. Richard Gordon, who heads the local Red Cross. His figure of 1,000 was based on reports from Red Cross officials on the ground in the devastated areas.

Gordon said at present his group has recorded a death toll of at least 406, with 398 others missing, based on figures provided by mayors of devastated towns in the eastern Philippines, where Durian hit with 139 mph winds and torrential rains on Thursday.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of national calamity Sunday, allowing the government to more rapidly release funds needed to bolster search and rescue efforts.

Typhoon Durian was the fourth major storm to hit the Philippines in four months. It buffeted the Mayon volcano with so much wind and rain that ash and boulders cascaded down in walls of black mud that swamped entire villages on Thursday.

The Philippines' location in the northwestern Pacific often makes it the region's welcome mat for typhoons. "We are often the first to experience typhoons before they go to China, Taiwan and Japan," said Thelma Cinco, senior weather specialist of the Philippine weather bureau.

Durian, named after a thorny fruit with a powerful odor that many find offensive, blew away roofs, toppled trees and power lines and sent tons of rocks and volcanic ash down Mayon, the region's most famous landmark about 210 miles southeast of Manila.

Rescuers scouring mountain villages buried under mud and boulders discovered more bodies Saturday. The first funerals were held Saturday evening as bodies rapidly decomposed in the tropical heat.

Nationwide, at least 2,892 people have been killed and 909 have gone missing in storms between 2001-05, according to the National Disaster Coordinating Council. Damage has totaled $521 million. The calamities came despite preparations and measures to mitigate the damage.

Anthony Golez, the council's deputy chief said the people of the Philippines need to be better informed about disaster preparedness. He said Filipinos should be "bombarded" with disaster information, including stories of the Indian Ocean tsunami two years ago and the February 2006 landslide in the central Philippine village of Guinsaugon that killed more than 1,000. "They have to get scared, or else," he said. "We have to give them the reality, and it's a sad reality. We have to tell them the truth."

But beyond preparedness, Golez said too many people live close to danger zones like mountainsides or riverbanks. "They are pushed there because they do not have any choice. If you develop their economy, then they would have more options," he said.

Gordon, the local Red Cross head, said better planning is needed. "We have to break the cycle of disaster and poverty by being smarter, by being sure we can plan our community smarter," he said. "The big problem here in our country is we don't plan our communities. It's every man for himself."

He said the government has money for disaster mitigation but that politicians look to building projects that last only long enough for people to remember them during election campaigns.

Mayor Jessie Robredo of Naga city in Camarines Sur, a province in the Bicol region often hit by typhoons, said his people are used to the yearly storms and began bracing for Durian a week before it arrived. The result was "zero casualty" this time, he said.

But he laments that emergency funds, used to help his constituents get back on their feet after typhoons, could be used for economic projects. "We would have been more progressive, more productive," he said. "The worst part of a typhoon is that instead of using our funds for livelihood, we use them for relief to help people rebuild their lives. Instead of building infrastructures, we repair buildings."

The cycle seems unlikely to break soon. "The people of Naga are very resilient," Robredo said. "Typhoons are like a way of life, a part of life. We do not like them, but our attitude is that there is still another day and we will rise again."

India, Egypt sign MoU in IT sector

CHENNAI, Nov 28: India and Egypt have signed a Memorandum of Understanding in the field of Information Technology and Communication sectors. Indian IT Minister Dayanidhi Maran and his Egyptian counterpart Tarel Kamel signed the MoU.

Later addressing a joint press meet, Maran described the pact as an example of the age-old relationship between the two countries, who are the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Kamel said, both nations have a strong political relationship for over 50 years and the MoU was yet another proof of this.

"India and Egypt have more common things to share as both are considered the cradle of civilizations in their respective areas," he said. Maran requested Kamel to allow BSNL and MTNL use Egypt as the gateway for the submarine cable being laid by Indian telecom majors to have access to the Arab world.

He said a NASSCOM delegation would be visiting Egypt next month to explore the possibilities of Indian investment in the IT sector in that country. Kamel said the IT sector in Egypt, which is in the nascent stage, valued Indian talent and investment. He promised incentives for Indian companies who set up units or Joint Ventures in his country.

He said Egypt was also interested in exchange of educational material, particularly in the IT sector. The Information Technology Industry Development agency of his country and NIIT of India had agreed to co-operate on this, he said.

UK, France support Indo-US N-deal

NEW DELHI, Nov 30: Britain, France and Russia have expressed support for civil nuclear cooperation between India and the US while other Nuclear Supplier Group members are yet to formalise their position, Rajya Sabha was informed on Thursday.

While the US is working with NSG members to adjust its guidelines to enable full civil nuclear energy cooperation with India, New Delhi has taken up the issue bilaterally with a number of NSG member countries, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said in a written reply.

He said it was an ongoing process.

Mukherjee described the position of different members of the European Union and the Nuclear Suppliers Group with regard to civil nuclear cooperation as "evolving".

He said an Indian delegation made a presentation to the NSG Consultative Group meeting in Vienna in October, 2006.

"As a result of our efforts, several important countries of the NSG have expressed their understanding for the initiative", Mukherjee said.

China's willingness on N-coop step in right direction: India

NEW DELHI, Nov 24: China's willingness to cooperate with India in civil nuclear field is a step in the "right direction" in the "difficult and complex" relations, officials here said today while expressing satisfaction over the outcome of President Hu Jintao's visit.

Even as the two countries decided to forge closer all-round ties, China is understood to have not responded positively to India's suggestion for opening two more border points -- Bumla and Damchok -- for trade and interactions.

China has agreed to promote cooperation with India in the civil nuclear field, which is a movement in the "right direction", officials said. Chinese willingess to promote civil nuclear cooperation was conveyed by Hu during his talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi on Tuesday. New Delhi feels that there is substantial scope for cooperation in this field and Bejing can "give a lot to us".

Department of Atomic Energy Secertary Anil Kakodkar has already visited China once and held discussions in this regard. On Chinese position in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) vis-a-vis India's quest for civil nuclear cooperation with the international community, the officials said it was too early to conclude anything on that as New Delhi is yet to formally seek support. However, discussions are being held at official level on the matter.

India, China to double trade, cooperate in nuclear field

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, Nov 21: Scripting a new chapter of friendship, India and China have decided to "promote" civil nuclear cooperation and sought "innovative and forward-looking approaches" to pursue such an endeavour at international level.

After the wide-ranging talks here between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Chinese President Hu Jintao, the two sides agreed to speed up efforts to resolve the boundary dispute and not allow such differences to affect the positive development of bilateral relations.

The two neighbours decided to venture on a 10-pronged strategy to boost their comprehensive ties in commercial, political and strategic areas and signed 13 pacts, including the Bilateral Investment Protection Agreement (BIPA).

After 100 minutes talks between the two leaders, the world's two fastest growing economies agreed to enhance two-way investments to achieve the bilateral trade target of US $ 40 billion in four years, double than the present level.

The two sides agreed to hold regular summit-level meetings, establish a hotline between their foreign ministers, set up additional consulate in Kolkata and Guangzhou and open new border points for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra and trade.

Declaring that they are "not rivals" but "partners for mutual benefit", the two neighbours decided not to allow boundary question to hamper overall development of ties and agreed to expand cooperation at regional and international stage for which they will have regular consultations.

"Cooperation in the field of civilian nuclear energy will be promoted," Dr Singh told newspersons with Hu sitting next to him after their significant talks covering bilateral, regional and international issues. No questions were allowed.

Both countries are "committed to non-proliferation objectives and agree to expand their dialogue on the related issues, in bilateral and international fora," said a joint declaration issued after their fifth meeting in one-and-a-half years.

It said global energy systems should take into account and meet the energy needs of both the countries, as part and parcel of a stable, predictable, secure and clean energy future.

"In this context, international civilian nuclear cooperation should be advanced through innovative and forward-looking approaches, while safeguarding the effectiveness of international non-proliferation principles," the declaration said.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu said China was "willing to conduct cooperation on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy with all countries, including India, on the pre-condition that all parties should honour their international obligations."

Describing the talks on the nuclear issue as positive, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, however, noted that India did not ask China to take a stand with regard to the Indo-US civil nuclear deal as a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as such a stage has not arrived so far.

Both sides understand the need for energy security and food security for them, he told reporters later. The two sides said energy security was a "vital and strategic issue" for producing and consuming countries alike. "It is consistent with the common interest of the two sides to establish an international energy order, which is fair, equitable, secure and stable and to the benefit of the entire international community," the declaration said.

Both countries shall also make joint efforts, bilaterally as well as in the multilateral fora, to diversify the global energy mix and to increase the share of renewable energy sources, it said.

Keen to upgrade their ties to qualitatively new level, they affirmed to resolve outstanding differences, including on the boundary question through "peaceful means and in a fair, reasonable, mutually-acceptable and pro-active manner".

The Prime Minister said the two Special Representatives - National Security Adviser M K Narayanan and his Chinese counterpart Dai Bingguo -- were being asked to "accelerate their efforts" to arrive at a boundary settlement on the basis of the agreement on political parameters and guiding principles signed in May last year.

While the effort to resolve the issue is underway, it would be ensured that "such differences are not allowed to affect the positive development of bilateral relations", the two sides said.

Both leaders said an early settlement to the boundary issue should be pursued as a "strategic objective" as it will "advance the basic interests of the two countries." The two sides will continue to intensify work to find a solution to the problem, said Hu, the first Chinese President to visit India in a decade. Outstanding issues will be addressed in a "focussed, sincere and problem-solving manner", Singh said.

Describing the talks as "open, positive and constructive," the Foreign Secretary said both Dr Singh and Mr Hu enjoyed "good rapport". Observing that both sides were "very satisfied" with the progress in all respects of the strategic partnership, he said "we have to bring to a new level and add depth to it".

Mr Menon said the issue of terrorism and UN reforms came up during the talks. The Chinese side has assured that it will not be an "obstacle" in India 's bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Next year has also been designated the China-India Friendship Year for Tourism.

The 13 agreements the two countries signed covered diverse areas including protection of bilateral investment, trading of iron ore and export of rice, agriculture, education, forestry and the conservation of cultural heritage.

In his remarks earlier Tuesday after he inspected a military guard of honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential palace, Hu sounded upbeat as he spoke about further developing "strategic cooperation" between New Delhi and Beijing.

President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Manmohan Singh were on hand to greet Hu, who lasted came to India 22 years ago.

India inks historic pact on setting up ITER

PARIS, Nov 21: India and six other members of a global consortium have signed a historic agreement in Paris on establishing an experimental fusion reactor that seeks to emulate the power of the sun.

India, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, the US and the European Union signed the agreement of the International Fusion Energy Organisation to build the USD 12.8 billion reactor after a decade of negotiations, officials of the department of atomic energy said.

Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Anil Kakodkar headed the Indian delegation to the ceremony held at Elysee Palace in Paris and hosted by French President Jacques Chirac and European Union President M Jose Manuel Durao Barroso.

Originally called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor but now known by its initials ITER, or the way in Latin, the facility will be built at Cadarache in Southern France over a decade from 2008.

The project will research a clean and limitless alternative to dwindling fossil fuel reserves by testing nuclear fusion.

Instead of splitting the atom, the principle behind existing nuclear plants, it seeks to harness nuclear fusion, which is the power of the sun achieved by fusing atomic nuclei.

Speaking on the occasion, Kakodkar expressed happiness that all issues related to cooperation had been resolved and key officials like the Director General and Principal Deputy Director-General had joined the ITER team inin Cadarache.

The next step will be to strengthen the technical team at Cadarache with an appropriate balance of experienced and young engineers and scientists and to provide them an environment which rapidly promotes the task of implementing the project, he said.

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