India, EU indispensable elements in multi-polar structure: Krishna

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna today said that India and the European Union (EU) were indispensable elements in a multi-polar structure and their strategic partnership would be important in addressing the daunting challenges faced by the world today.

"We believe that India and the EU are indispensable elements in a multi-polar structure and our strategic partnership, based on shared values and commitment to democracy, freedom, pluralism and multilateralism will be important in addressing the daunting challenges," Mr Krishna told journalists in Prague on Monday after attending the 20th India-EU Ministerial Troika Meeting there.

Mr Krishna said he had had useful and constructive discussions with Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kohout, EC Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy Benita Ferreo Waldner and Ms Helga Schmid, Representative of the EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy and the incoming Swedish Presidency.

"India and EU have a strategic partnership. We greatly value our interactions with the EU leadership, which have intensified and diversified to cover all areas of bilateral engagement and regional and international issues," he said.

The 20th Troika Ministerial Meeting in Prague was the first high level bilateral political interaction between India and EU after the formation of the new government in India.

"Today, we shared assessments of our respective regions and also exchanged perspectives on global issues including the current international financial crisis, need for reform of international institutions, including the United Nations, energy, climate change and terrorism," Mr Krishna said.

The Minister noted that since the 9th India-EU Summit held in Marseille last year, the two sides had sustained the momentum by holding regular interactions.

"We were able to take stock of the progress in the areas identified under the reviewed Joint Action Plan (JAP) signed during the last Summit. The progress made under JAP has been satisfying and also encouraging. Both sides have reaffirmed their commitment to further intensify our consultations and diversify and strengthen our economic and trade ties," he said.

Mr Krishna also announced that the next India-EU Summit would be held in New Delhi on November 6 this year.

"The holding of annual Summits between India and the EU reflects the importance both sides place on this relationship. The Troika Meeting also serves as a preparatory to the Summit," he said.

"My discussions today with my EU interlocutors have reinforced our conviction that India-EU relations will continue to grow and diversify on the basis of the many synergies and complementarities that exist between us. We are hopeful that our deliberations today and the decisions taken will play a critical role in realizing the full potential of the India-EU Partnership.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank the outgoing Czech Presidency for their valuable contribution in strengthening India –EU relations and also warmly welcome Sweden, the incoming Presidency of the EU," he added.


Ban Ki-moon to visit Myanmar July 3-4

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will pay a two-day visit to Myanmar on July 3-4, at the invitation of the Government, to highlight key issues such as the need to release all political prisoners, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, an official announcement said here Monday.

Mr. Ban, who last visited the country in the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis last May, "looks forward to returning to Myanmar to address directly with the senior leadership a broad range of issues, including longstanding concerns to the United Nations and to the international community," his spokesperson, Michele Montas, said.

The Secretary-General, she added, believes that the issues of political prisoners, the resumption of dialogue between the Government and opposition to achieve national reconciliation, and setting the stage for credible elections "cannot be left unaddressed at this juncture of the country’s political process."

Further, he considers building on the joint humanitarian effort following his visit to Myanmar last May in the aftermath of Nargis, which killed nearly 150,000 people, to be also essential.

"The Secretary-General believes that the sooner these issues are addressed, the earlier Myanmar will be able to move towards peace, democracy and prosperity," Ms. Montas said.

"He looks forward to meeting all key stakeholders to discuss what further assistance the United Nations can offer to that end," the spokesperson added.


India-born Farah Pandith is US Spl Rep to Muslim Communities

Farah Pandith
Farah Pandith
United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked India-born Farah Pandith to head the new Office of the United States Special Representative to Muslim Communities.

A State Department press release issued here Friday said Ms Pandith and her staff would be responsible for executing the Barack Obama Administration's efforts to engage with Muslims around the world on a people-to-people basis.

"I am pleased to announce the appointment of Farah Pandith to serve as Special Representative to Muslim Communities. Farah brings years of experience to the job, and she will play a leading role in our efforts to engage Muslims around the world," Ms Clinton said.

Ms Pandith was the senior adviser on Muslim engagement in the European and Eurasian region at the State Department. The position was created for the first time in the US history. Prior to the State Department, she served on the National Security Council at the White House where she worked on Muslim engagement and combating extremism. She worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the early 1990s and again in 2003. She also served in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2004.

Pandith, a Muslim herself, immigrated to the United States in 1969 with her parents from Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir. She has said that she sees her personal experience as an illustration of how Muslim immigrants to the US can successfully integrate themselves into American society. She grew up in Massachusetts with a diversity of faiths, ethnicities and perspectives, the release added.


Independent probe into Bhutto killing to begin July 1: UN

The United Nations has announced that the independent commission set up to look into the facts and circumstances surrounding the December 27, 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto will begin its work on July 1.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sent a letter to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, who is Ms. Bhutto’s widower, informing him of the start of the Commission of Inquiry, Mr. Ban’s spokesperson said in a statement here Friday.
Benazir Bhutto
Benazir Bhutto

The Commission, headed by Ambassador Heraldo Muñoz of Chile, will have a mandate of six months and will be fact-finding in nature, as stated by the Secretary-General in February, when he announced his intention to set up the probe.

"The duty of determining criminal responsibility of the perpetrators of the assassination remains with the Pakistani authorities," said today’s statement.

The other members of the Commission, set up in response to a request from the Pakistani Government, is Marzuki Darusman, former Attorney General of Indonesia, and Peter Fitzgerald, a veteran of the Irish National Police who has served the UN in a number of capacities.

The Commission will submit its report to the Secretary-General within six months of the start of its work. Mr. Ban will share the report with the Pakistan Government and submit it to the Security Council for information.

Noting that the anniversary of Ms. Bhutto’s birth is this Sunday, the statement added that the UN is committed to assisting Pakistan by determining the facts and circumstances of her death.

Mr Munoz has been the Chilean Permanent Representative to the United Nations since 2003. He has served as President of the Security Council in January 2004, and is currently the Chairman of the United Nations Peace-building Commission. He was also the Deputy Foreign Minister of Chile from March 2000 to January 2002.

As part of the preparatory work for the Commission, a UN technical assessment mission had visited Pakistan in February this year.

Meanwhile, UN agencies and their partners are pressing ahead with their efforts to support the 2.5 million people forced to flee their homes by the ongoing conflict between Government forces and militants in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has welcomed the airlift Thursday of more than 35,000 kilogrammes of relief supplies, donated by the Irish and the Norwegian Governments, for its operations on behalf of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

The urgently-needed relief goods, which include tents, blankets, kitchen sets and mosquito nets, are now on their way to the agency’s operational hub in the province, where they will be used to support the camps housing many of the displaced.

The UN said that the $543 million humanitarian appeal launched about a month ago to deal with the needs of Pakistan’s displaced has so far received only 30 per cent of the necessary funding.


US-India Counter-Terrorism Joint Working Group meets

Officials from India and the United States met here on Wednesday for the 11th meeting of the US-India Counter-terrorism Joint Working Group and discussed efforts to coordinate global counter-terrorism initiatives.

The Indian side to the meeting was led by Mr Vivek Katju, Special Secretary for International Organisations in the Ministry of External Affairs while the US delegation was led by Mr Daniel Benjamin, the Secretary of State's Coordinator for Counter-terrorism.

A press release issued by the Indian Embassy here said India and the US strongly condemned terrorism in all of its forms and manifestations, recognizing it as a major threat to democracy, international peace, and security.

They reiterated that there could be no justification for any act of terrorism on any grounds. It is imperative for the international community to come together to combat terrorism in a long-term, sustained, and comprehensive manner, they felt.

The meeting also called upon all states to abide by their commitments under the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2006.

According to the release, sessions during this year’s meeting focused on assessing the global terrorist threat, fighting terrorism through technological advancements, and counter-terrorism cooperation between India and the United States.

Other issues discussed included terrorist finance and money laundering, capacity building, and expanded information sharing. Both sides agreed to identify measures to strengthen institutional linkages leading to closer interaction and cooperation.

The Next Meeting of the Joint Working Group will take place in India on a mutually convenient date, the statement added.


US welcomes Manmohan-Zardari meeting

The United States has described as "encouraging" the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on the margins of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg on Tuesday.

"The United States has always welcomed dialogue and better relations between India and Pakistan," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said at his daily briefing here Tuesday.

"But it’s also obvious that the pace, the scope, and the character of that dialogue is something for Indian and Pakistani leaders to decide. How and when to approach that dialogue is something for them to decide," he said.

"A resumption of such high-level engagement in the aftermath of the November Mumbai attacks is encouraging. We have said before that India and Pakistan need to continue their dialogue to find joint solutions against terrorism and to promote regional stability," he added.

India had suspended the Composite Dialogue after the November 26, 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai which claimed 166 lives and which it blamed on elements based in Pakistan. India has repeatedly said the peace process can resume only when Pakistan brings those responsible for the attacks to book.


UN agencies, NGOs call for end to Israel's blockade of Gaza

Nearly 40 United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) today called for an end to Israel’s two-year blockade of the Gaza Strip which they said had left the population of 1.5 million almost totally dependent on international aid.

"We call for free and uninhibited access for all humanitarian assistance in accordance with the international agreements and in accordance with universally recognised international human rights and humanitarian law standards," the organisations said in a joint statement issued in Jerusalem to mark the second anniversary of the blockade.

"We, United Nations and non-governmental humanitarian organisations, express deepening concern over Israel’s continued blockade of the Gaza Strip which has now been in force for two years.

"These indiscriminate sanctions are affecting the entire 1.5 million population of Gaza and ordinary women, children and the elderly are the first victims," the statement said.

According to it, the amount of goods allowed into Gaza under the blockade is one quarter of the pre- blockade flow. Eight out of every ten truckloads contains food but even that is restricted to a mere 18 food items. Seedlings and calves are not allowed so Gaza's farmers cannot make up the nutritional shortfall. Even clothes and shoes, toys and school books are routinely prohibited, it said.

"Furthermore the suffocation of Gaza's economy has led to unprecedented unemployment and poverty rates and almost total aid dependency. While Gazans are being kept alive through humanitarian aid, ordinary civilians have lost all quality of life as they fight to survive," it said.

The organisations said the consequences of Israel's recent military operation remain widespread as early recovery materials have been prevented from entering Gaza. Thousands of people are living with holes in their walls, broken windows and no running water.

"We call for free and uninhibited access for all humanitarian assistance in accordance with the international agreements and in accordance with universally recognised international human rights and humanitarian law standards. We also call for a return to normalized trade to enable the poverty and unemployment rates to decrease.

"The blockade of the Gaza Strip is creating an atmosphere of deprivation in Gaza that can only deepen the sense of hopelessness and despair among people. The people of Gaza need to be shown an alternative of hope and dignity. Allowing human development and prosperity to take hold is an essential first step towards the establishment of lasting peace," the statement added.

Last week the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had said that the entry of essential goods and services, including materials for reconstruction, spare parts for water and sanitation projects, as well as industrial and agricultural materials remain either restricted or banned outright.

Maxwell Gaylard, the top UN humanitarian official in the occupied Palestinian territory, reported in May that the fighting from December 2008 to January 2009 had destroyed some 4,000 homes and damaged another 40,000. While donors have pledged billions of dollars for Gaza’s reconstruction, work cannot begin because of the blockade.

Among those who added their voice to the statement are the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the NGOs Oxfam International and CARE.


42 million refugees worldwide in 2008: UNHCR

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) today said the number of people who were forced to flee their homes because of deadly violence and persecution had touched 42 million worldwide in 2008.
Thousands of displaced people wait in line to receive food rations just outside the IDP site in Kibati.<br />© UNHCR/P.Taggart, November 2008
Thousands of displaced people wait in line to receive food rations just outside the IDP site in Kibati.
© UNHCR/P.Taggart, November 2008

Though this number represented a decrease of 700,000 from the previous year, new displacement in 2009 had already more than offset the decline, the agency said in a press release.

"In 2009, we have already seen substantial new displacements, namely in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia," High Commissioner António Guterres said.

Some 80 per cent of the 16 million refugees who have escaped to other countries and the vast majority of the 26 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are in developing countries, the release said, quoting the UNHCR "Global Trends" annual report.

"While some displacements may be short-lived, others can take years and even decades to resolve," said Mr. Guterres. "We continue to face several longer-term internal displacement situations in places like Colombia, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] and Somalia."

The report highlighted some 5.7 million refugees "living in limbo," with no immediate solutions in sight, including 29 separate groups of 25,000 or more refugees in 22 States exiled for five or more years.

In 2008, some 2 million refugees and IDPs were repatriated, which was the second lowest level of returnees for 15 years and a reflection of deteriorating security in Afghanistan and the Sudan, the report said.

"Today, we are seeing a relentless series of internal conflicts that are generating millions of uprooted people," said Mr. Guterres, adding that UNHCR "is committed to working within the UN team and the broader humanitarian community to provide the internally displaced with the help they need, just as we do for refugees."

The agency provides support for 25 million of the total number of uprooted people, including a record 14.4 million IDPs – up from 13.7 million in 2007 – and 10.5 million refugees. The other 4.7 million refugees are aided by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Meanwhile, Hollywood star and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has released a new video ahead of World Refugee Day (June 20), calling on the public to "remember them on this day."

The 30-second public service announcement, co-produced by Ms. Jolie and UNHCR, includes images of refugees and other victims of conflict around the world.

The first night the video was uploaded to YouTube, it received more than 25,000 views. The video can be viewed at


UN official urges Afghans to ensure credible polls

The top United Nations official in Afghanistan has called upon Afghans to ensure that the presidential and provincial council elections slated for August are credible and that their results are accepted by all.

In a statement issued in Kabul, Mr Kai Eide, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative in Afghanistan, said the candidates could also contribute to this by campaigning with "dignity and fairness."

The appeal came today on the eve of the start of campaigning for the presidential and provincial council elections.

"It is the shared responsibility of all candidates to ensure that these elections strengthen Afghanistan’s democratic institutions and people’s confidence in the democratic process," he said.

He also stressed that "intimidation, inflammatory language and violence of any sort have no place in this election campaign."

The country’s Independent Electoral Commission has set August 20 as the date for the presidential elections.

Mr Eide also encouraged all Afghans to take part in the polls, stating that "the strength and legitimacy of a future government and provincial authorities depends on the active participation of the people in these elections."

"I therefore appeal to all voters to follow the election campaign closely and to cast their votes on Election Day," he stated.

Noting that the elections will be administered by Afghan authorities, Mr. Eide said the UN and the international community at large will follow the election process closely and give its full support to an election process that is fair and credible.

Mr. Eide, who also heads the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), met yesterday in separate meetings with presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to discuss the election process.

He presented them with a set of "Essential Guidelines for Conduct during the Election Process," which have been issued by the Special Representative and endorsed by the international community. They have also been presented to President Hamid Karzai.

The guidelines aim "to ensure a fair and credible election campaign in which there is a level playing field.

"The aim should be to avoid illegal interference into the election process and the impartiality of government institutions, election officials as well as representatives of the international community. The guidelines are also intended to ensure fairness in the media coverage of the campaign," according to a statement issued by UNAMA.


UNESCO chooses Buenos Aires as World Book Capital for 2011

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has chosen Buenos Aires as the 2011 World Book Capital as part of the agency’s ongoing efforts to promote literature and reading.

The Argentinean capital was picked "for the quality and variety of its proposed programme as well as for the consolidated strategy on which it is based," the selection committee said after meeting on Friday at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, a press release from the organisation said.

Every year, the committee designates a city for the title for the 12 months between World Book and Copyright Days on 23 April.

Buenos Aires becomes the eleventh city honoured over the years for the World Book Capital by a selection committee, composed of the three main professional associations in the book industry – the International Publishers Association, the International Booksellers Federation and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions – along with representatives from UNESCO.

For 2009 Beirut has the honour, followed by Ljubljana in 2010. Madrid was the first city to receive the tribute, and was succeeded by Alexandria, New Delhi, Antwerp, Montreal, Turin, Bogotá and Amsterdam.

UNESCO said that the jury welcomed the candidacies of two Sub-Saharan cities – Lagos in Nigeria and Porto Novo in Benin – among the seven applicants and "looks forward to finding ways of strengthening literature and book culture in this region."


UN condemns Peshawar hotel bombing, two staffers among victims

The United Nations today condemned the bombing of a hotel in northwest Pakistan that killed at least 16 people, including two of its own staff members.

"The United Nations in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan strongly condemns the terrorist attack on the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, last night, which claimed a number of human lives and left many injured," said a statement issued in Islamabad by the UN Country Team.

Aleksandar Vorkapic, who worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Perseveranda So of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) died in the attack, while four other UN staff members were injured.

Mr. Vorkapic was part of an emergency team recently sent to Pakistan to assist with the current displacement crisis in the north-west of the country, and Ms. So – known as Persy to her colleagues – was UNICEF's Chief of Education in Pakistan.

"The whole UN community feels shock and dismay on the tragic deaths and injuries," the statement said.

Last night, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack as "a heinous terrorist attack which no cause can justify."

"We are determined to continue our humanitarian support to over two millions Pakistani citizens who have been affected by the ongoing displacement crises," said Fikret Akcura, the UN Resident Coordinator in Pakistan.

"I extend my deepest condolences to the families of the deceased and pray for the speedy recovery of all those who have been injured," Mr. Akcura added.


Rudd says violence against Indians unacceptable, so are reprisal attacks

Kevin RuddAustralian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd today spoke out against so-called "reprisal attacks" and "vigilante action" against those who had targeted Indian students in the country in recent weeks even as he said that the attacks against Indian students were unacceptable.

"I think what we need to see is a bit of balance in this debate. It’s unacceptable for anyone to commit an act of violence against any student of any ethnicity anywhere in Australia. Chinese, Indian, Callithumpian, Queenslanders, anybody," Mr Rudd said in an interview with Neil Mitchel on Radio 3AW.

"Any act of violence. And the truth is, in our cities right across the country, not just Melbourne there are acts of violence every day, that’s just a regrettable part of urban life. That’s one thing. But it’s equally unacceptable for so called ‘reprisal attacks’ and for so called ‘vigilante’ action as well. It’s equally unacceptable for there to be retribution attacks and for there to be vigilante action," he said.

Mr Rudd's remarks came two days after reports of a retaliatory attack in which a man was stabbed after he called out to a group of Indians and asked them to leave the country.

There were also reports that Indian students had taken to patrolling some of the areas where attacks had taken place.

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna said in New Delhi yesterday that Indian students should show restraint and concentrate on their studies instead of going in for retaliatory action.

Speaking in the Indian Parliament yesterday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had expressed concern about the attacks on Indian students in Australia. "I have been appalled by the senseless violence and crime, some of it racially motivated against our students in Australia. I propose to engage the authorities in Australia in a high level dialogue with a view to taking stock of the situation and to providing adequate security for Indian students," he said.

Dr Singh said he had already spoken to Mr Rudd on this subject and the latter had assured him that any racist attacks on Indian students would be strongly dealt with.

"I think everyone needs just to draw some breath on this and I think we need to see a greater atmosphere of general calm. Australia, I’m advised is one of the safest countries in the world for international students, one of the safest countries in the world for international students

He said violence in cities was a fact of life around the world. He pointed out that there were as many as 20 Australians who had been victims of assault in India during the past decade. "Now, that’s not the result of Australians being targeted in India, it’s just a fact of violence in cities around the world. As you know, as you’re walking down the streets of Paris or London there’s always a risk that something’s going to happen. So I do think we need some balance in this debate," he said.

Mr Rudd said he fully supported hardline measures against those responsible for the attacks on students, whether Indians or of any other nationality. "And furthermore, we also need to render it completely unacceptable people taking the law into their own hands and believing that retribution attacks or so called vigilante action is the right way to go. As I said, all cities from time to time are going to have acts of violence. Let’s put this into perspective. And Australia I’m advised on the statistics is one of the safest countries in the world for international students," he said.

"It’s unacceptable for any acts of violence to be committed against Indian students. It’s unacceptable for any student group to believe they can take the law into their own hands and engage in so called retribution attacks or vigilante action, as I said. We need some balance in this and you know what the balancing statistic is, this is one of the safest countries in the world for international students. Let’s put all of this into perspective. And let’s also put it into perspective in terms of politicians elsewhere perhaps seeking to inflame this debate as well," he said.

Mr Rudd also took a few calls from Indians who rang up the radio station during the interview. He told one of them, identified as Mickey, that law abiding citizens from any part of the world were welcome in Australia.

"We pride ourselves on that. We have an open door. And for the more than 200,000 Australians of Indian origin, they are fantastic first class citizens of Australia. I’ve known them for decades and decades in my own community in Queensland. I’ve known them right across Australia. Secondly, for the 70,000 or 80,000 Indian students in this country, they are equally welcome. If any act of violence is committed against any student in your community, your first and immediate action has to be to get straight on to the police," he said.

The remark came in the context of reports from Sydney that the police were sometimes not getting direct and immediate reports about some incidents.

"Any act, any threatening act any physical act of violence should be reported immediately. If there is any concern about lack of follow up, immediately then contact your local member of parliament and demand an answer, okay. So first and foremost go to the right channels, which is the police, who I think in difficult circumstances are doing a good job. Secondly, if you believe that no action has occurred within an immediately reasonable period of time, straight on to your local member of parliament," he said.

Mr Rudd told the interviewer that the great defining character of Australia was its inherent tolerance. "It’s inherent culture of allowing other people to be themselves. Remember with each new wave of immigrants in this country there’s been debates and concerns and they’ve all faded and they’ve all been resolved," he said.

According to him, Australia was enormously richer for all the arrivals over the decades from different parts of the world, including Indians.

"Look at the contribution of the Indian business community to Australia. So my sense is, right across this vast country of ours we celebrate the diversity and I think occasionally you’re going to have a flare up through a bit of misunderstanding. But let’ just stand back and put it into historical context. This is an enormously tolerant society and I am proud of it," he said.


US says will support more dialogue between India, Pakistan

The United States has said that it would support more dialogue between India and Pakistan but made it clear that it had no plans to appoint a special envoy to deal specifically with the Kashmir issue.

"We would support more dialogue between the two countries," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said at his daily briefing here on Tuesday.

He was responding to a question about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's speech in Parliament yesterday, in which he had said that India was willing to meet Pakistan more than half-way if that country took concrete steps to dismantle terrorist infrastructure in its territory aimed at India.

Mr Kelly was also sure that US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, who begins a four-day visit to India today, would talk with Indian officials about this issue, along with many other issues that he has on his agenda.

Asked if there was any prospect about a special envoy being appointed to deal specifically with the Kashmir issue, Mr Kelly said, "No, there's---there are no plans to that effect."

Dr Singh had said yesterday that he sincerely believed that it was in India's vital interest to try again to make peace with Pakistan and hoped that the leaders of the neighbouring country would create an atmosphere in which this vision could be realised.

"If the leaders of Pakistan have the courage, the determination and the statesmanship to take this road to peace, I wish to assure them that we will meet them more than half way," he said.

He said he expected the Government of Pakistan to take strong, effective and sustained action to prevent the use of their territory for the commission of acts of terrorism in India, or against Indian interests, and use every means at their disposal to bring to justice those who have committed these crimes in the past, including the November 26, 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai. "I believe that such actions will be welcomed by the people of both countries," he said.

"What is at stake is the future of one-and-a-half billion people living in South Asia. I sincerely believe it is in our vital interest therefore to try again to make peace with Pakistan. I recognise, it takes two hands to clap. There are some disturbing trends, but I do hope that the Government of Pakistan will create an atmosphere in which we can realize this vision," he said.

The Prime Minister's remarks assume great significance because India has refused to resume the composite dialogue with Pakistan unless it acts decisively against those responsible for the Mumbai attacks, which claimed more than 160 lives. India also wants Pakistan to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure it says exists on Pakistani soil and which is targeted against India. In recent days, there have been media reports suggesting that India thinks it should find a way of resuming the dialogue with Pakistan.


Peter Varghese to be new Australian envoy to India

Peter VargheseMr Peter Varghese, an Indian-Australian and the Director-General of Australia's Office of National Assessments (ONA), has been appointed as the country's new High Commissioner to India.

He will be concurrently accredited to Bhutan. He will succeed Mr John McCarthy, who has been High Commissioner in Delhi since 2004. Mr Varghese is expected to take up his new assignment in August.

The appointment was announced at a press conference here today by Australain Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith, who said Mr Varghese, an ethnic Malayali, would be "a very good High Commissioner for what is a very important relationship."

"The Government wants to take our relationship with India to the front rank of our bilateral relationships, and we look forward to High Commissioner Varghese pursuing good work in India on Australia's behalf," Mr Smith said.

The Minister also said, in response to a question, that the Australian government was taking the recent attacks on Indian students in Melbourne and other cities "very, very seriously."

"The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister as Minister for Education, and I have all condemned them absolutely. We are working very closely with the relevant state governments and also very closely with the Indian community, both in Australia and working very closely with the Indian Government through our High Commissioner, High Commissioner McCarthy, in India," he said.

Mr Smith said the high level task force which he had announced last week had met for the second time on Friday, chaired by the National Security Adviser, with participants from all of the states.

"I've spoken to Victorian Premier Brumby. And on Thursday-Friday of last week, my office had close contact with New South Wales Premier Rees's office. So we're working very closely. We're taking it very, very seriously and we condemn all of the terrible incidents which have occurred," he said.

"I note that there are reports over the weekend or overnight of further attacks. Can I say that the advice I have is that some of these suggested attacks have not been reported to police, and it is very important, where people have information or evidence or are the victims of attacks, that these are reported to the police. That's a very, very important part of the process.

I've spoken to my new Indian counterpart a week or so ago, External Affairs Minister Krishna. We are taking this very seriously and I think the Indian Government understands this. We'll continue to work closely with them," he added.

Mr Varghese's appointment comes at a time when, on the one hand, Australia's engagement with India is expanding rapidly. On the other, it is a sensitive time in the relations between the two countries because of the attacks on Indian students. More than 80,000 Indian students are estimated to be studying in Australia and the student market for Australia is said to be a billion dollar one.

Mr Smith said India is Australia's fastest growing export market, with energy and minerals resources the main drivers behind this growth. In 2007-08, India was Australia's eleventh-largest trading partner, with total trade standing at almost $14 billion. In 2008, India was its fourth-biggest merchandise export market.

The current Joint Australia-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Study is exploring the scope for building an even stronger bilateral trade and economic relationship through an FTA. Traditional strengths in the trade relationship are being complemented by new areas, most notably services such as education, he said.

Mr Smith also said that Australia and India engage closely on strategic and defence matters. "Our defence forces engage in joint exercises, particularly, but not only, maritime exercises. Military engagement occurs across the full range of activities, including ship visits, service-to-service level talks, professional exchanges, and research and development collaboration.

In 2008 Australia and India decided to step up strategic cooperation by holding annual talks between the chiefs of our defence forces, and by strengthening intelligence and counter-terrorism cooperation," he said.

In other areas, the two countries have set up an Economic Policy Dialogue and have good bilateral engagement on climate change issues. There has been a series of high-level visits between the two countries.

Before taking up his assignment as Director General of the ONA, Mr Varghese was the Senior Adviser (International) to the Prime Minister. From 2002 until July 2003, Mr Varghese was a Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In 2000-02, he was Australia's High Commissioner to Malaysia. He has also served in Australian missions in Vienna (1980-83), Washington (1986-88) and Tokyo (1994).

Mr Varghese is a graduate in history from the University of Queensland and is married with one adult son.

The ONA is an independent body directly accountable to the Prime Minister. It provides all-source assessments on international political, strategic and economic developments to the Prime Minister and senior ministers in the National Security Committee of Cabinet. It is also responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of Australia’s foreign intelligence effort and the adequacy of its resourcing.


Obama to do "truth-telling" in Cairo speech to Muslim world

President Barack Obama has said that he would tell Arabs and Israelis to stop saying one thing behind closed doors and something else publicly in his much-awaited speech to the Arab and Muslim world in Cairo tomorrow.

"We have a joke around the White House. We’re just going to keep on telling the truth until it stops working — and nowhere is truth-telling more important than the Middle East," Mr Obama said in a telephone interview about his speech with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, which was carried on the newspaper's website today.

"There are a lot of Arab countries more concerned about Iran developing a nuclear weapon than the ‘threat’ from Israel, but won’t admit it," Mr Obama said.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, left, welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama, right, on his arrival at the Royal Terminal of the King Khalid International Airport, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, left, welcomes U.S. President Barack Obama, right, on his arrival at the Royal Terminal of the King Khalid International Airport, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, he said, there were a lot of Israelis "who recognize that their current path is unsustainable, and they need to make some tough choices on settlements to achieve a two-state solution — that is in their long-term interest — but not enough folks are willing to recognize that publicly."

He said there were a lot of Palestinians who recognised that the constant incitement and negative rhetoric with respect to Israel had not delivered any benefits to their people and that they might have been better off today if they had taken a more constructive approach and sought the moral high ground.

The US President also felt there were a lot of Arab states that had not been particularly helpful to the Palestinian cause beyond a bunch of demagoguery and were not very forthcoming with money to actually help the Palestinian people.

"...there is a Kabuki dance going on constantly. That is what I would like to see broken down. I am going to be holding up a mirror and saying: ‘Here is the situation, and the U.S. is prepared to work with all of you to deal with these problems. But we can’t impose a solution. You are all going to have to make some tough decisions.’ Leaders have to lead, and, hopefully, they will get supported by their people," he told the columnist in the 20-minute interview.

"As somebody who ordered an additional 17,000 troops into Afghanistan, you would be hard pressed to suggest that what we are doing is not backed up by hard power. I discount a lot of that criticism. What I do believe is that if we are engaged in speaking directly to the Arab street, and they are persuaded that we are operating in a straightforward manner, then, at the margins, both they and their leadership are more inclined and able to work with us," he explained.

Mr Obama said that part of America's battle against extremists involved changing the hearts and minds of the people they recruited from.

"And if there are a bunch of 22- and 25-year-old men and women in Cairo or in Lahore who listen to a speech by me or other Americans and say: ‘I don’t agree with everything they are saying, but they seem to know who I am or they seem to want to promote economic development or tolerance or inclusiveness,’ then they are maybe a little less likely to be tempted by a terrorist recruiter," he said.

President Obama arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia today, on the first leg of a trip that will also take him to Egypt, Germany and France. In Riyadh, he had talks with King Abdullah today.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had said over the weekend that President Obama's speech in Cairo would be an important part of his engagement with the Muslim world, which began in his inaugural address and has continued since through various speeches, interviews and messages.

"The speech will outline his personal commitment to engagement, based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. He will discuss how the United States and Muslim communities around the world can bridge some of the differences that have divided them. He will review particular issues of concern, such as violent extremism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he will discuss new areas for partnership going forward that serve the mutual interests of our people," Mr Gibbs said.

Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough pointed out that Egypt was a long-time strategic ally of the US.

"It is a young -- like much of the Muslim world, itself is a young country with a burgeoning younger population that the President looked very much forward to engaging directly in this speech and in the meetings while he's there," he said.

The speech in Cairo will be held at the University of Cairo and will be co-hosted by the Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest universities in the region. Mr Obama will also pay a visit to a mosque.

"So the message the President wants to send is not different, frankly, than the one he's been sending since he was inaugurated, namely that we believe that this is an opportunity for us in the United States, who, frankly, have arrived at a place here based on many of the advances that come out of the Muslim world, be it science out of Baghdad, be it math and technology out of Al-Andalus or otherwise. The fact is that we've had a great partnership over the course of many decades. We want to get back on a shared partnership, back in a conversation that focuses on the shared values, and that's what the President will talk about in Cairo," Mr Gibbs said.

Asked if political dissidents in Egypt had been invited for the speech, Mr McDonough said invitations had gone out to "the full range of actors in Egyptian political society."

"The President looks very much forward to that audience hearing the speech. But there will be additional opportunity to engage key actors in civil society in Egypt, in addition to obviously engaging our friends in the Egyptian government," he added.


US Spl Rep Holbrooke to Visit Pakistan

United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard C Holbrooke will visit Pakistan from June 3-5, the State Department announced here on Monday.

Mr Holbrooke will be leading a delegation of US officials from the Department of State, USAID and the Department of Defense, Mr Robert Wood, Deputy Spokesman for the State Department said.

Mr Wood said Mr Holbrooke was making the trip at the request of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to assess the welfare of the people displaced by the security operations being carried out by Pakistani authorities against insurgent extremists.

While in Pakistan, Mr Holbrooke will meet with internally displaced persons and relief organisations, as well as with local and national Pakistani officials, he added.


Burns to visit India June 10-13

William J. BurnsUnited States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J Burns will visit India from June 10-13, an official announcement said today.

Mr Burns will visit New Delhi and Mumbai during the trip, State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood said.

During his visit, he would meet senior government officials and private sector leaders to discuss a broad agenda to further strengthen partnership between the US and India, Mr Wood added.

Mr Burns will be the first high-ranking US official to travel to India after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government began a second term in office late last month.

There have been reports that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit India in July, but there has been no official word on this from either side.


Timothy J Roemer nominated as US Ambassador to India

Timothy RoemerUnited States President Barack Obama has announced his intent to nominate Mr Timothy J Roemer as the country's new Ambassador to India.

Announcing nominations to several key administration posts on Wednesday, the President said, "I am grateful that these distinguished Americans have agreed to help represent the United States and strengthen our partnerships abroad at this critical time for our nation and the world. I am confident they will advance American diplomacy as we work to meet the challenges of the 21st century. I look forward to working with them in the years and months ahead."

Mr. Roemer is President of the Center for National Policy (CNP) in Washington, D.C. Before joining the CNP, he represented the 3rd District of Indiana for six terms as a U.S. Congressman, from 1991 to 2003.

Mr Roemer served as a member of the 9/11 Commission, a bipartisan Joint Inquiry which issued a report on the terrorst attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York. He also served on the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism. He currently serves on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Presidential Task Force on Combating the Ideology of Radical Extremism, and the National Parks Second Century Commission.

As a Distinguished Scholar at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Mr Roemer works with Members of Congress and staff to improve public policy outcomes by teaching on the legislative branch and policy analysis.

Mr Roemer holds a B.A. from the University of California, San Diego and a M.A. and PhD. from the University of Notre Dame.

While he was in the Congress, Mr Roemer was recognised for his successful leadership on bipartisan legislation to balance the budget, reform welfare, improve the affordability of higher education and reform elementary and secondary education for schoolchildren.

He was appointed to the Intelligence Committee's Task Force on Homeland Security and Terrorism. He was the key author of the legislation in the House of Representatives to establish the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.


Obama, Manmohan agree on fighting terrorism, economic crisis

United States President Barack Obama called Prime Minister Manmohan Sngh Saturday to congratulate him on being sworn in for a second term in office and the two leaders agreed to work together to address common global challenges such as terrorism and the economic downturn.

They also agreed on the need to work together on issues such as climate change, a White House press release said.

Mr Obama also congratulated India on successfully completing the largest democratic exercise the world has ever and called it a testament to the strength of India's democracy.

The statement said the two leaders recalled their warm meeting in London on April 2, on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit, and discussed their mutual desire to strengthen India-US relations and work together to face common challenges.

President Obama also invited Dr Singh to visit Washington, the release added.

Dr Singh also reiterated his invitation to Mr Obama and his family to visit India, sources added.


Sri Lanka assurance on devolution of powers

Three days after winning a decisive victory against the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and decimating its entire leadership, Sri Lanka today assured India that it would speed up action on devolution of powers to Tamil-majority areas of the island nation, including implementation of the 13th Amendment.

The assurance was given by Sri Lankan leaders and officials who met National Security Adviser M K Narayanan and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon, who arrived here yesterday on a two-day visit to convey India's concerns on the evolving situation in the country.

Mr Narayanan and Mr Menon called on Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and met with other senior officials, including Mr Basil Rajapakse, MP, Mr Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to President and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse. They also interacted with a number of political parties in Sri Lanka.

A statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs at the end of the visit said both sides agreed that, with the end of military operations in Sri Lanka, the time was opportune to focus attention on issues of relief, rehabilitation, resettlement and re-conciliation, including a permanent political solution in Sri Lanka.

It said that, following their agreement of October 26, 2008, both sides have been co-operating in providing humanitarian relief and assistance to IDPs in Sri Lanka. This includes medical assistance in the form of a field hospital, urgently needed medicines and medical supplies as well as food, clothing and shelter material.

According to the statement, both sides emphasized the urgent need to resettle the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in their villages and towns of habitation and to provide to them necessary basic and civic infrastructure as well means of livelihood to resume their normal lives at the earliest possible.

To this end, the Government of Sri Lanka indicated that it was their intention to dismantle the relief camps at the earliest and outlined a 180-day plan to resettle the bulk of IDPs to their original places of habitation. India committed to provide all possible assistance in the implementation of such a plan in areas such as de-mining, provision of civil infrastructure and re-construction of houses.

Both sides also emphasized the urgent necessity of arriving at a lasting political settlement in Sri Lanka. Towards this end, the Sri Lankan government indicated that it will proceed with implementation of the 13th Amendment.

"Further, the Government of Sri Lanka also intends to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties, in the new circumstances, for further enhancement of political arrangements to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka," the statement added.


US announces $ 100 million aid for Pakistan

The United States has announced a $ 100 million humanitarian support package for Pakistan in response to a request from the government of that country for help to provide relief to people affected by the ongoing military operations against the Taliban in the Swat Valley and elsewhere.

The latest amount comes on top of almost $ 60 million that the US has provided since last August to help Pakistanis who have been affected by the conflicts, and in addition to the othe funding for Pakistan that the Obama Administration is already seeking from the Congress.

"Providing this assistance is not only the right thing to do, but we believe it is essential to global security and the security of the United States, and we are prepared to do more as the situation demands," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a press conference called at the White House Tuesday to announce the package.

Ms Clinton reiterated the US commitment ot stand by Pakistan's people and the democratically elected government there as they work to restore security in their country.

"And President Obama is determined to match our words with our actions, because Pakistan's government is leading the fight against extremists that threaten the future of their country and our collective security," she said.

Ms Clinton said that, at the same time, Pakistan is facing a major humanitarian crisis. She said about two million people had fled their homes and the Pakistani government, the militry and relief organisations were working to meet the needs of these displaced persons.

"So many are finding refuge with family members, or in schools or mosques; they are relying on the generosity of relatives and friends. And I'm confident that Pakistan's institutions and citizens will succeed in confronting this humanitarian challenge if the international community steps up and provides the support that is needed," she said.

Ms Clinton recalled the US had a history of working with the Pakistani authorities to alleviate suffering and mentioned the earthquake that struck the country in 2005 as an example. She said the US had, altogether, provided more than $ 3.4 billion since 2002 to alleviate suffering and promote economic growth, education, health and good governance in Pakistan.

She said a U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) and personnel from the US embassy in Islamabad are on the ground working with and supporting Pakistani authorities in evaluating needs for shelter, food, health, water and sanitation services. She said supplies from the US were already flowing to Pakistan. She also said that one of the guiding principles of this assistance package was that it should be more than just the delivery of supplies.

Ms Clinton said that Americans could, using their cell phones, text the word SWAT to the number 20222 and make a $ 5 contribution that would help the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provide tents, clothing, food and medicine to hundreds of thousands of affected people.

Ms Clinton said President Obama and she oped that individuals who had fled the conflict would be able to return home quickly, safely, and on a voluntary basis. "...the United States stands ready to help Pakistan's government support displaced persons as they rebuild their lives," she said.


US tells Sri Lanka time to engage Tamils, others

The United States has welcomed the end of the fighting in Sri Lanka and said it was an opportunity for the island nation to turn the page on its past and build a country rooted in democracy, tolerance and respect for human rights.

"Now is the time for the government to engage the Tamils, Sinhalese, and other Sri Lankans to create a political arrangement that promotes and protects the rights of all Sri Lankans," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said at his daily briefing on Monday after the Sri Lanka government had announced it had won the long-drawn war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and decimated its leadership.

Mr Kelly also expressed relief that the immense loss of life and killing of innocent civilians appeared to be over.

"It is also vital for the government to provide for the needs of the 280,000 civilians now living in relief camps. Providing food, water, shelter, basic health care, and sanitation, as well as expediting their return to their homes should be a top priority for the government," he said.

He said the the focus needed to be on the very urgent short-term problem of providing for the needs of the internall displaced persons (IDPs), and then to begin the process of reconciliation of a political process that includes all of the people of Sri Lanka.

In reply to another question, Mr Kelly said it appeared that the long suffering of the Sri Lankan people is now over.

Mr Kelly also said US policy on the LTTE had been very clear. "We see them as a terrorist organization."


Sri Lanka army says Prabhakaran's body found

Sri Lanka's army chief Gen Sarath Fonseka today said his troops had found and identified the body of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) chief Velupillai Prabhakaran from the scene of the battle between the army and the rebels.
The Sri Lanka Army today said that it had found the body of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and put these pictures on its website to substantiate its claim.
The Sri Lanka Army today said that it had found the body of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and put these pictures on its website to substantiate its claim.

Gen Fonseka said the body was discovered this morning. Later, Sri Lankan television telecast pictures of what it said was Prabhakaran's body and the army website also carried photographs.

The announcement came after the LTTE had earlier insisted in a statement, carried on a pro-rebel website, that its supremo was still alive.

Earlier, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed Parliament and said that the island nation had been finally been "liberated" from terrorism after 26 years of civil war.

The army had said yesterday that it had recovered the bodies of Prabhakaran's son Charles Anthony and other LTTE leaders.

Media reports quoted army officials as saying that Prabhakaran's body was found near a lagoon in the No Fire Zone this morning.

They said Prabhakaran was wearing his military uniform at the time of his death and had died of a bullet injury in his head.

"A few hours ago on Tuesday morning (19), our ground troops confirmed that they have recovered the dead body of the world’s most ruthless terrorist leader. I make this disclosure with responsibility and pleasure as millions of Sri Lankans as well as the Army would be the most delighted at this news," General Fonseka was quoted as saying on the army's website.

Prabhakaran founded the LTTE in May 1975 and was believed to be responsible for the assassination of several Sri Lankan leaders, including President Premadasa, and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

He was reputed to be one of the most feared terrorist leaders in the world and was wanted by the Interpol and the Indian police.


Obama congratulates India on elections

United States President Barack Obama today congratulated India on its "historic national elections" which drew to a close with the declaration of results that saw the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance staging a spectacular win for a second term in office.

"By successfully completing the largest exercise of popular voting in the world, the elections have strengthened India’s vibrant democracy and upheld the values of freedom and pluralism that make India an example for us all," a White House statement said.

"While the world awaits the formation of a new government in India based on the elections result, the United States recognizes the significance of the election for the people of India, who remain the strength and foundation for India's prosperity and democracy.

"President Obama looks forward to continuing to work with the Indian government to enhance the warm partnership between our two countries," the statement added.


US denies 2-week deadline to Pakistan for eliminating Taliban

The US State Department has denied media reports which suggested that Washington had given Islamabad two weeks to eliminate the Taliban operating out of its territory, saying it was not something that could be put into a timeline in terms of taking action.

"I’m not aware of any two-week timeline. This is not something you can put into a timeline in terms of taking action. As I said, it has to be consistent, decisive. And we just need to understand that this is not something we’re going to be able to deal with in two days, two weeks, two months," acting Department Spokesman Robert Wood said at his daily briefing here Friday.

"This is going to take time. But what’s important is, as I said the other day, a hundred and ten percent effort. And Pakistan seems willing to go in that direction, and we’ll continue to try to help them, as they move in that direction," he said.

Mr Wood said he did not know where the two-week timeframe came from but pointed out that the US had said very clearly that it believed the Pakistanis needed to take action against the extremist elements.

"And clearly, the Pakistanis are, you know, trying to do that. We’re going to be working with them, providing assistance where we can, as well as other countries around the world who believe that it’s critical to international security that we deal with the Taliban, and those extremists that are operating not only in Pakistan, but in Afghanistan as well," he said.

Mr Wood said Pakistan was doing this out of its own national security interests and the US would be there to help them.

"But it is important that they not let extremists – let me put it this way, it’s important that these extremists be dealt with. And we’re going to continue, as I said, to work with them and others. And this has been, I think, a positive last couple of days in terms of Pakistan taking action against these militants. And so – but we’re under no illusions. It’s going to take more than two days worth of actions. It’s going to take consistent, determined, and forceful action. And Pakistan seems committed to that, and we’re willing to be as helpful as we can in terms of dealing with the militants," he said.

In reply to another question, Mr Wood said he was not suprised to hear reports about minority communities being asked to pay jaziya (taxes) by the Taliban.

"I’ve heard reports about that. It doesn’t surprise me. I mean, these are ruthless killers, the Taliban. And they’ll do anything they can to upset Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s fragile democracies. And so as I said, I’ve heard these reports. They’re not surprising. This is why it’s important that we, the international community, cooperate in trying to rid this region of these extremists. And the sooner we can accomplish that mission, the better," he said.

As has already been reported, India has taken up with Pakistan the question of treatment of minorities in that country following the media reports that the Taliban had driven out Sikhs from their homes and had demanded jaziya from them in the Orakzai Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

"On seeing reports about Sikh families in Pakistan being driven out of their homes and being subject to Jaziya and other such impositions, the Government of India has taken up the question of treatment of minorities in Pakistan with the Government of Pakistan," External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vishnu Prakash said yesterday in New Delhi when asked about the reports.

The reports said the Taliban had forcibly captured three houses and ten shops belonging to Sikhs in the area after they failed to meet demands for huge amounts of protection money.


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