All eyes on Kashmir after Indian PM extends olive branch

All eyes on Kashmir after Indian PM extends olive branch
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan comes a month after both countries announced a ceasefire along the disputed border in Kashmir. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 24 March 2021

All eyes on Kashmir after Indian PM extends olive branch

All eyes on Kashmir after Indian PM extends olive branch
  • Pro-freedom Hurriyat group welcomes Modi’s appeal to Pakistan leader

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday sent a letter to his Pakistani counterpart on the occasion of Pakistan’s Republic Day, calling for “cordial relations” between the two neighbors in a move that marks a major thaw between New Delhi and Islamabad.

The letter addressed to Prime Minister Imran Khan comes a month after both countries announced a ceasefire along the disputed border in Kashmir.

“As a neighboring country, India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan,” Modi wrote in the letter, adding that “an environment of trust devoid of terror and hostility is imperative.”

The two countries came close to war in early 2019 after a terror attack in South Kashmir’s Pulwama region killed more than 50 paramilitary troops.

The Feb. 14 bombing was the single deadliest attack in the divided region, and escalated tensions between India and Pakistan.

In response, India launched an airstrike against suspected militant training camps inside Pakistan, claiming to have killed “a very large number” of militants. However, Pakistan said the strike only damaged three trees in a forest.

Islamabad responded by shooting down an Indian fighter plane and capturing the pilot, who was returned to India as a peace gesture.

India has long accused Pakistan of cultivating militant groups in a proxy war against New Delhi. Pakistan denies the charge.

The relationship between the two neighbors deteriorated further after the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status.

In a dramatic move in August 2019, India scrapped the region’s constitutional autonomy and withdrew Kashmiris’ exclusive rights before placing the entire territory under a curfew for several months, denying residents their fundamental rights, and detaining hundreds of political workers and activists.

New Delhi also divided the state into two union territories: Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir.

HIGHLIGHT

‘As a neighboring country, India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan,’ Modi wrote in the letter, adding that ‘an environment of trust devoid of terror and hostility is imperative.’

A day after Modi’s letter to Khan, senior Kashmiri leaders welcomed the revival of the peace process on Wednesday, but added a caveat — bitterness between the two neighbors can be addressed only after the Kashmir issue is discussed.

“In Kashmir, we have to suffer as a consequence of a bitter relationship between the two countries,” Abdul Ghani Bhat, a leader of the pro-freedom All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) political alliance, told Arab News on Wednesday.

“If the relationship improves in terms of trade, commercial activities, political exchanges, this is going to help us a lot. When you are ought to resolve the disputes, you have to address problems which bedevil relations, you have to address the issues which led to the hostilities, bitterness; therefore you will have to address Kashmir,” he added.

Earlier on Tuesday, the APHC welcomed the “shift toward good neighborly relations between the two countries,” but warned that talks would bear fruit after an “atmosphere free of fear” was restored in the region.

“The APHC believes that unless on the ground in Kashmir an atmosphere free of fear, repression and human rights violations is not permitted, efforts at good neighborly relations will not bear fruit,” it said in a statement.

The alliance also demanded the “release of all political prisoners and youth in jails and under house detention” besides the end of the “policy of intimidation and harassment through agencies.”

India and Pakistan made sustained efforts for peace between 1998-2007, which was initiated by the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1998 when it assumed office for the first time under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Vajpayee and former Pakistani ruler Gen. Parvez Musharraf held regular peace talks, resulting in a ceasefire in 2003.

A year later, the Islamabad Joint Statement of 2004 was released, heralding the resumption of the peace process, and marking a decline in violence in Jammu and Kashmir.

The peace process continued under the leadership of former PM Manmohan Singh, who succeeded Vajpayee in 2004.

Singh and Musharraf signed the landmark Confidence Building Measures (CBM) pact allowing for trade and travel between divided Kashmir.

Both sides also signed a framework agreement that many believe could have provided a lasting solution to the Kashmiri conflict.

Despite a rupture in ties between the two countries after the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai in 2008, which claimed the lives of more than 175 people, both the neighbors kept the channel for dialogue open.

“I am happy that this government, after a long time in whatever influence and pressure, has woken up to talks with Pakistan,” former foreign minister Yashwant Sinha told Arab News on Wednesday.

Sinha was the external affairs minister during Vajpayee’s rule and one of the key figures to initiate dialogue with Pakistan in 1998.

“We should have talks, normal relations with Pakistan,” added Sinha, who dissociated himself from the BJP after Modi became prime minister and joined the regional Trinamool Congress (TMC) recently.

Sinha said that despite the change in circumstances after the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the “solution lied in dialogue.”

“The solutions have to be found through dialogue, not through war, and the current Pakistani leadership, particularly military leadership, is talking sense about peace talks, and we should take advantage of it,” he told Arab News.

New Delhi-based academic and writer Radha Kumar, who has been a former interlocutor in Kashmir, described the latest development as the “opening of a new window of opportunity” and a “course corrective” by India in Kashmir.

“It seems the government has started on course correctives and so I imagine that if not the withdrawal of the abrogation of the special status, certainly, maximum self-rule to Kashmir will have to come back to the dialogue table between India and Pakistan,” Kumar, former director of the think tank Delhi Policy Group, told Arab News.

She added that a peace process is essential to contain violent anger in Kashmir.

“The government, I am sure, must have understood that the situation in Kashmir is not sustainable. To avert violent anger in the region, you need a peace process,” Kumar said.

The conflict in Kashmir dates back to the late 1940s when India and Pakistan won independence from Britain and fought two wars over the Himalayan region.


Emotional Australian leader announces end to Afghan deployment

Emotional Australian leader announces end to Afghan deployment
Updated 1 min 12 sec ago

Emotional Australian leader announces end to Afghan deployment

Emotional Australian leader announces end to Afghan deployment
  • PM Scott Morrison said Australia would remove its remaining troops from Afghanistan in line with the US decision to end its military operations there
  • Australia deployed 39,000 troops over the past 20 years as part of US and NATO-led operations against the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan

SYDNEY: Prime Minister Scott Morrison choked back tears as he read the names Thursday of 41 Australians killed in Afghanistan to mark the end of his country’s involvement in the 20-year war.
Speaking at a televised news conference, Morrison said Australia would remove its remaining troops from Afghanistan in September in line with the US decision to end its military operations there.
Australia deployed 39,000 troops over the past 20 years as part of US and NATO-led operations against the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan, but has only 80 support personnel there today.
Morrison called the decision to leave Afghanistan “a significant milestone in Australia’s military history” that marked the end of a costly chapter for the country’s defense force.
He then read out the names of the 41 Australian soldiers killed in the conflict, halting several times as he choked back sobs, especially when mentioning Brett Till, a 31-year-old sergeant from his own Sydney constituency.
“The loss is great. The sacrifice immense,” he said.
“These brave Australians are among our greatest ever, who have served in the name of freedom.”
While Australia has not had a significant troop presence in Afghanistan in recent years after withdrawing its combat troops in late 2013, the war continues to take a toll and fuel controversy at home.
Veterans groups have pressured the government into launching a formal inquiry into a high number of suicides among Afghan veterans and other ex-servicemen and women.
The military and police are both actively investigating numerous war crimes alleged to have been committed by members of elite Special Air Services soldiers in Afghanistan.


US imposes sanctions on Moscow, expels 10 Russian diplomats

US imposes sanctions on Moscow, expels 10 Russian diplomats
Updated 15 April 2021

US imposes sanctions on Moscow, expels 10 Russian diplomats

US imposes sanctions on Moscow, expels 10 Russian diplomats
  • The White House said the sanctions also respond to "malicious cyber activities against the United States and its allies and partners"
  • In Brussels, the NATO military alliance said US allies "support and stand in solidarity with the United States”

WASHINGTON: The United States announced economic sanctions against Russia on Thursday and the expulsion of 10 diplomats in retaliation for what Washington says is the Kremlin's US election interference, a massive cyber attack and other hostile activity.
President Joe Biden ordered a widening of restrictions on US banks trading in Russian government debt, expelled 10 diplomats who include alleged spies, and sanctioned 32 individuals alleged to have tried to meddle in the 2020 presidential election, the White House said.
Biden's executive order "sends a signal that the United States will impose costs in a strategic and economically impactful manner on Russia if it continues or escalates its destabilizing international action," the White House said in a statement.
The statement listed in first place Moscow's "efforts to undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections and democratic institutions in the United States and its allies and partners."
This referred to allegations that Russian intelligence agencies mounted persistent disinformation and dirty tricks campaigns during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, in part to help Donald Trump's candidacy.
The White House said the sanctions also respond to "malicious cyber activities against the United States and its allies and partners," referring to the massive so-called SolarWinds hack of US government computer systems last year.
The statement also called out Russia's extraterritorial "targeting" of dissidents and journalists and undermining of security in countries important to US national security.
In addition, the Department of Treasury, together with the European Union, Australia, Britain and Canada, sanctioned eight individuals and entities associated with Russia's occupation of Crimea in Ukraine.
In Brussels, the NATO military alliance said US allies "support and stand in solidarity with the United States, following its 15 April announcement of actions to respond to Russia's destabilizing activities."


India’s biggest cities shut down as new virus cases hit 200,000

India’s biggest cities shut down as new virus cases hit 200,000
Updated 15 April 2021

India’s biggest cities shut down as new virus cases hit 200,000

India’s biggest cities shut down as new virus cases hit 200,000
  • New Delhi announced stay-at-home orders for the weekend, though essential workers will be able to move about if they have a pass from local authorities
  • The surge in cases was weighing on hospitals in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and several other states, where many reported a shortage of oxygen tanks

NEW DELHI: India’s two largest cities imposed stringent restrictions on movement and one planned to use hotels and banquet halls to treat coronavirus patients as new infections in the country shot past 200,000 Thursday amid a devastating surge that is straining a fragile health system.
The soaring cases and deaths come just months after India thought it had seen the worst of the pandemic — and have forced the country to delay exports of vaccines abroad. India is a major producer of COVID-19 shots, and its pivot to focus on domestic demand has weighed heavily on global efforts to end the pandemic.
New Delhi announced stay-at-home orders for the weekend, though essential workers will be able to move about if they have a pass from local authorities. Restaurants, malls, gyms and spas will be shut down. Movie theaters will close on weekends, but can operate on weekdays at a third of their capacity.
Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s top elected official, said that despite rise in infections, 5,000 hospital beds are still available in the capital and more capacity is being added. But still, more than a dozen hotels and wedding banquet halls were ordered to be converted into COVID-19 centers where doctors from nearby hospitals will treat the moderately ill.
“The surge is alarming,” said S.K. Sarin, a government health expert in New Delhi.
The moves in the capital came after similar measures were imposed in the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital, Mumbai. The bustle of India’s biggest city ebbed after authorities closed most industries, businesses and public places Wednesday night and put limits on the movement of people for 15 days. Train and plane travel was still allowed, however.
In recent days, the city has seen an exodus of panic-stricken day laborers, hauling backpacks and flocking to overcrowded trains.
Dozens of other towns and cities have also imposed nighttime curfews.
The surge in cases was weighing on hospitals in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and several other states, where many reported a shortage of oxygen tanks. Imran Sheikh, a resident of the city of Pune in Maharashtra, said he was asked to supply his own oxygen tank for a relative undergoing COVID-19 treatment.
Cremation and burial grounds in the worst-hit areas were finding it difficult to cope with the increasing number of bodies arriving for last rites, according to Indian media reports.
Shahid Jamil, a virologist, said the recent local and state elections with massive political rallies and a major Hindu festival during which hundreds of thousands of devotees bathed in the Ganges river were super-spreader events.
The 200,739 new infections recorded Thursday are about twice the number of daily cases that were recorded during the last peak, in September. The Health Ministry also reported 1,038 deaths from COVID-19 in the past 24 hours, pushing the toll over 173,000.
India’s toll of 14 million cases puts it second behind the United States. It ranks fourth in deaths after the US, Brazil and Mexico — though, with nearly 1.4 billion people, it has a much larger population than any of those countries. Experts say even these figures are likely an undercount.
As it struggles with the caseload, India is ramping up its vaccination drive. The Health Ministry said the total vaccinations crossed 114 million with more than 3 million doses administered on Wednesday.
When infections began plummeting in India in September, many concluded the worst had passed. Masks and social distancing were abandoned. When cases began rising again in February, authorities were left scrambling.


Blinken in unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell US troop withdrawal

Blinken in unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell US troop withdrawal
Updated 15 April 2021

Blinken in unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell US troop withdrawal

Blinken in unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell US troop withdrawal
  • NATO says its roughly 7,000 non-American forces in Afghanistan are also departing within a few months

KABUL: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thursday to sell Afghan leaders and a wary public on President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from the country and end America’s longest-running war.
Blinken was meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, and civic figures, a day after Biden announced that the remaining 2,500 US soldiers in Afghanistan would be coming home by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that led to the US invasion.
His trip also came after NATO immediately followed suit, saying its roughly 7,000 non-American forces in Afghanistan would be departing within a few months, ending the foreign military presence that had been a fact of life for a generation of Afghans already reeling from more than 40 years of conflict.
Blinken sought to reassure the Afghan leadership that the withdrawal did not mean an end to the US-Afghan relationship.
“I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing to commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan,” Blinken told Ghani as they met at the presidential palace in Kabul. “The partnership is changing, but the partnership itself is enduring.”
“We respect the decision and are adjusting our priorities,” Ghani told Blinken, expressing gratitude for the sacrifices of US troops.
Blinken arrived in the Afghan capital from Brussels where he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin briefed NATO officials on the move and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced the alliance would also be leaving.
Biden, Blinken, Austin and Stoltenberg have all sought to put a brave face on the pullout, maintaining that the US- and NATO-led missions to Afghanistan had achieved their goal of decimating Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network that launched the 9/11 attacks and clearing the country of terrorist elements that could use Afghan soil to plot similar strikes.
However, that argument has faced pushback from some U.S, lawmakers and human rights advocates who say the withdrawal will result in the loss of freedoms that Afghans enjoyed after the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001.
Later, in a meeting with Abdullah, Blinken repeated his message, saying that “we have a new chapter, but it is a new chapter that we’re writing together.”
“We are grateful to your people, your country, your administration,” Abdullah said.
Despite billions of US dollars in aid, Afghanistan 20 years on has a poverty rate of 52 percent according to World Bank figures. That means more than half of Afghanistan’s 36 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. Afghanistan is also considered one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman according to the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security.
For many Afghans the past two decades have been disappointing, as corruption has overtaken successive governments and powerful warlords have amassed wealth and loyal militias who are well armed. Many Afghans fear worsening chaos even more once America leaves.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are at a stalemate but are supposed to resume later this month in Istanbul.
Under an agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban last year, the US was to have completed its military withdrawal by May 1. Although Biden is blowing through that deadline, angering the Taliban leadership, his plan calls for the pull-out to begin on May 1. The NATO withdrawal will commence the same day.
“It is time to end America’s longest war,” Biden said in his announcement in Washington on Tuesday, but he added that the US will “not conduct a hasty rush to the exit.”
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” said Biden, who delivered his address from the White House Treaty Room, the same location where President George W. Bush announced the start of the war. “I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
Biden, along with Blinken and Austin in Brussels, vowed that the US would remain committed to Afghanistan’s people and development.
“Bringing our troops home does not mean ending our relationship with Afghanistan or our support for the country,” Blinken said. “Our support, our engagement and our determination remain.”
Austin also said that the US military, after withdrawing from Afghanistan, will keep counterterrorism “capabilities” in the region to keep pressure on extremist groups operating within Afghanistan. Asked for details, he declined to elaborate on where those US forces would be positioned or in what numbers.


China gives green light to nuclear units to cut carbon, sources say

China gives green light to nuclear units to cut carbon, sources say
Updated 15 April 2021

China gives green light to nuclear units to cut carbon, sources say

China gives green light to nuclear units to cut carbon, sources say
  • China aims to become "carbon neutral" by 2060
  • China’s state council approved five nuclear projects, which will be developed by China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC)

BEIJING/SINGAPORE: China approved the construction of five nuclear power units, with total installed capacity of 4.9 GW, roughly 10% of the country’s total, two sources said, as Beijing strives for alternatives to fossil fuel to meet its climate goals.

China needs to speed up its nuclear development to achieve its pledge to bring greenhouse gas emissions to a peak before 2030 and become “carbon neutral” by 2060.

The world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter has lagged behind its previous target of operating 58 gigawatts of nuclear power capacity by 2020, partly as the Fukushima nuclear accident slowed down approvals of new projects.

China’s state council approved five nuclear projects, which will be developed by China National Nuclear Corp. (CNNC), at a meeting on Wednesday, one of the two sources familiar with the matter said.

Officials, including those from the National Energy Administration and National Nuclear Safety Bureau, attended the meeting at which the development of the nuclear industry in the country was discussed, four sources said. They asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

“Nuclear power is a ‘have to do’ choice if China aims to achieve the targets of bringing carbon emission by 2030 and reaching carbon neutrality by 2060,” an official from the Nuclear Safety Bureau said.

The five reactors approved include four regular nuclear units — number 7 and number 8 at Tianwan nuclear power plant in eastern Jiangsu province, and number 3 and number 4 in Xudapu in northeastern Liaoning province.

All four will use Russian-made VVER-1200 technology and have individual capacity of 1.2 gigawatts (GW), two of the sources said.

The government also approved a small, 125-MW module reactor (SMR) demonstration project at Changjiang nuclear power plant in Hainan province.

In one of the country’s first experiments of small reactors aimed at better economics, CNNC will use its home-grown ACP100 technology.

Construction of three of the five units, the SMR and one each from Tianwan and Xudapu, is expected to start later this year and is scheduled for completion in 2026, one official said.

“They are moving ahead as earlier scheduled,” the official said, adding that means China has re-established its normal pace in advancing new projects.

The State Council and CNNC did not immediately respond to Reuters requests seeking comment.

China is also accelerating the development of an upgraded model of its home-grown third generation nuclear technology, Hualong Two.

China’s Nuclear Energy Association expects the country to have installed or have under construction a total of 200 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity by 2035.