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Over 20,000 Sikh Pilgrims Attend Baisakhi Mela in Pakistan | Nepal’s Triumphant Maoists Stage Victory Rally | Direct Bangladesh-India Train Service Resumes after 43 Years | Triple Murder | Wider Attacks | Thousands Protest | To Save Pakistan | Bumper Crop | Food Price Protests | ‘Try Ayurveda’ | Twenty Nine Killed | Bangla Ex- PM Hospitalized

Over 20,000 Sikh Pilgrims Attend Baisakhi Mela in Pakistan

(Right): Sikh devotees hold their plates as they wait for food at Punja Sahib in Hasan Abdal, 30 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan.

More than 20,000 pilgrims from all over the world, including 3,000 from India, participated in the annual Baisakhi Mela (spring festival) in Panja Sahib Sikh shrine here, some 30 miles from Islamabad.

The pilgrims prayed for world peace after they recited verses from Sikh holy book Guru Granth Sahib.

Ahsan Iqbal, minister in-charge for minority affairs, who was the chief guest on the occasion, promised “more facilities” to the Sikh community in Pakistan.

He said the new government would make every effort to protect Sikh shrines in Pakistan.

The participants distributed traditional sweets to mark the end of the three-day religious festival.

“We are happy that all those who applied for visas were allowed to attend the mela,” chief of the Sikh delegation from India Balbir Singh said.

He said the government here had made excellent arrangements for the annual festival.

However, some of the pilgrims complained about poor arrangements at the gurudwara, saying most of them had to sleep in the open or in verandas.

The Panja Sahib Gurudwara has about 350 rooms of different sizes while the government had also arranged for the pilgrims' stay in nearby schools after declaring a holiday.

Some of the pilgrims from Western countries were also staying at hotels and as paying guests in houses near the shrine.

“There are more people than this place can hold. The administration of this gurudwara should make proper arrangements for the pilgrims,” said Amirjit Singh from Chandigarh.

Though impressed by the hospitality of the people here, he said: “I think the government needs to do more for the comfort of pilgrims.”


Nepal’s Triumphant Maoists Stage Victory Rally

(Right): Maoist supporters in Kathmandu.

Nepal's Maoists said April 19 they would lead the next government as they staged a victory rally with poll results showing them on track to emerge as the country's biggest party.

The April 10 polls were the climax of the 2006 peace deal between the Maoists and mainstream political parties, and the former rebels have confounded analysts and diplomats who forecast they would come in third at best.

“We will lead the next government after the final results of the elections. The people's mandate has clearly given us the responsibility to head the new government,” Maoist Information Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara told AFP.

Mahara's statements came as Maoist supporters feted the party's strong showing on the outskirts of the capital Kathmandu.

Cheering supporters wreathed party leader Prachanda — whose nom de guerre means the “fierce one” — with marigold garlands and smudged red powder on his forehead as musicians beat drums in celebration.

A beaming Prachanda waded into crowds of supporters in the market place where the rally was held, shaking hands and waving to people watching from building windows above the crowds.

“Namaste, namaste,” Prachanda said repeatedly to well-wishers, pressing his palms together and bowing his head slightly in the traditional form of salutation used in South Asia.

Until two and a half years ago, Prachanda, a former school teacher turned revolutionary, lived underground and was wanted by Interpol. Along the route to the rally, the road was bedecked with signs featuring the traditional communist symbol of the red hammer and sickle.

The fiercely republican Maoists fought a deadly 10-year insurgency to topple the monarchy and install a communist republic, but now say they are ready to embrace multi-party democracy.


Direct Bangladesh-India Train Service Resumes after 43 Years

(Right): Moitree Express, or Friendship Express, a train between Dhaka and Kolkata, arrives at a platform in Kolkata.

Direct train service between Bangladesh and India resumed the first day of the Bengali new year after being cut by war 43 years ago, with traditional musicians and officials sending off the festooned inaugural train.

The train was made the 215-mile journey from Dhaka to Kolkata in about 12 hours.

About 450 passengers, including government officials, boarded the maiden journey of the “Moitree Express,” or “Friendship Express.”

“This train service will not only facilitate travel, but also enhance ties between our two countries,” said Golam Quader, transport adviser to Bangladesh's interim government.

Another train left Kolkata for Dhaka and was flagged off by Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

“It's a historic moment. This train link will strengthen bilateral relations,” he said.

More than 200 policemen, some with bomb-sniffing dogs, guarded the Indian train, and passengers were required to pass through a metal detector.

In February 2007, suspected Islamic militants set off several bombs on a similar friendship train running between India and Pakistan, killing 68 people.

Passenger trains stopped running between India and Pakistan in 1965 following a war between the two countries. Bangladesh was the eastern part of Pakistan at the time, but train service did not resume even after Dhaka gained independence in 1971.

In 2001, Bangladesh and India agreed to restore train links. Last year, two trains made trial runs between Dhaka and Kolkata.

Passengers said they were looking forward to the ride.

“I'm feeling extremely nostalgic about this journey and just waiting to reach Dhaka,” said Satosh Basak, 62, who came to Kolkata from Dhaka when he was 18. He was returning to Bangladesh for a visit with his wife.


Triple Murder

There's little room for doubt that Delhi is fast becoming the nation’s crime capital, says CNN-IBN, reporting that on April 18 Friday evening three people were murdered in Palam Vihar.

Vinod Verma, 55-year-old, his wife Puspa and their daughter-in-law were reportedly stabbed to death at their residence.

The murder came to light when their son Nitin tried to call them up.

The police are still investigating the motive. Initial reports rule out forcible entry or robbery ransacking. The reports also say that the same weapon was used to kill all three people.

According to the reports, the culprit was well known to the family and their son is also under suspicion. He is at present admitted at Deen Dayal Upadhyay hospital.

It was when his calls went unanswered that he called up the neighbors who found the three dead.

Police are suspecting that a property dispute may be the cause of the murder.


Wider Attacks

(Right): U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher speaks at the U.S embassy in Kabul.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan have recently urged expanding the war effort, possibly including U.S. attacks on indigenous Pakistani militants inside Pakistan's tribal areas, The New York Times reported.

Citing U.S. officials, the Times reported the requests had been rebuffed for now following internal Bush administration deliberations in which U.S. officials expressed fears that attacks on Pakistani radicals could foment anger within Pakistan's new government, which has been negotiating with the militants, and destabilize security there.

One Bush administration official said the Washington discussions involved President George W. Bush's top national security aides and took place earlier this year. White House and State Department spokesmen declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, Anne Patterson, the Times said.

Officials said the U.S. proposals included possible limited cross-border artillery strikes into Pakistan, missile attacks by Predator aircraft or raids by small teams of CIA paramilitary forces or Special Operations forces, according to the Times.

The newspaper reported that U.S. commanders preferred that Pakistani forces conduct such attacks, but that Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas had declined as negotiations with the militants played out.


Thousands Protest

(Right): Tibetan monks in a candlelit vigil in Bangalore.

Tens of thousands of pro-Tibetan demonstrators gathered across India to protest the Olympic torch relay, facing off with a massive show of security mobilized to ensure the flame's “harmonious journey” to Beijing could proceed.

A 70-person relay team of Indian athletes and celebrities carried the torch on a truncated, 3.2-kilometre run through the city's colonial-era government centre — a part of town that had been closed to traffic and emptied of people to protect the flame's symbolic journey toward the start of the Olympic Games in August.

Hundreds, including at least 150 Tibetans, were arrested or detained in at least four different cities, including a group held by police in New Delhi after storming the hotel where the torch was housed. Another 30 were hustled away by police from in front of the Chinese consulate in Mumbai. Also, an estimated 30,000 had gathered in Bangalore and thousands more in the Hindu spiritual capital of Varanasi to protest China's human rights record and its treatment of Tibet.

India is home to the world's largest community of exiled Tibetans, and the arrival of the torch here — after chaotic tours through London, Paris and San Francisco — was expected to draw large crowds. Some 15,000 police were mobilized in New Delhi, lining the capital boulevard and clearing thousands in advance of the relay. The members of a special Chinese torch protection squad were also along to secure the route.

At India Gate, where the torch relay ended, about 25 Chinese nationals welcomed the last runner by waving China's flag.

“Everybody should support the Olympics,” said Travis Ren, 25, a Chinese national as he held aloft a banner supporting the torch run. “We'd like to thank India for providing security for our torch.”


To Save Pakistan

(Right): A woman supporter holds a portrait of Pakistan's nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan demanding his release in Karachi.

Detained Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan said he took the blame four years ago for passing atomic secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya in order to “save his country.”

Khan, who has been under effective house arrest since confessing on television in 2004 to running a proliferation network, added that the country's new government had not yet contacted him about his possible release.

Khan was pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf after his confession but has remained in detention. Musharraf denied any state involvement in Khan's activities but has rejected international requests to quiz the scientist.

“I saved the country for the first time when I made Pakistan a nuclear nation and saved it again when I confessed and took the whole blame on myself,” Khan said in a telephone interview from his Islamabad villa.

Khan is hailed as a hero by many Pakistanis for transforming the country into the Islamic world's first nuclear power. Pakistan carried out nuclear tests in 1998 in response to detonations by neighboring India.

“Even Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain (former prime minister) and Mushahid Hussain (a senator from the party that backs Musharraf) said I saved Pakistan by accepting the whole blame myself,” he added.

Members of the new government have indicated that they may consider freeing Khan as they review Musharraf's policies over the past nine years and seek to roll back his powers.

But Khan said he had had no contact with the new administration.

“No government official has so far contacted me about my release nor would I contact any of them to do so,” Khan said. “You had better ask this question of the government.”

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he favored lifting restrictions on Khan.

“Yes, I don't want to see his movement restricted,” Qureshi said in an interview with local Dawn television.


Bumper Crop

(Right): Bangladeshi farmer Fayer Paromanik (r) cleans paddy along with his assistant on the outskirts of Dhaka.

Bangladesh started its rice harvest with hopes of a bumper crop, but a farmland crunch in China and the Philippines underlines trouble ahead in dealing with the global food crisis.

Rice prices in Bangladesh, which have doubled in the past 12 months, have started falling as hoarders sell stocks before new supplies come on the market, officials said.

“With the bumper Boro harvest that's expected and the sufficiency in strategic stocks, there's unlikely to be a food crisis in this country,” said Bangladesh Foreign Minister Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury.

But Chowdhury renewed an appeal for a global strategy to tackle spiraling worldwide commodity prices, saying that the United Nations was perhaps best suited to handle it.

The upbeat news from Bangladesh came as Chinese state press said the amount of farmland in China shrank closer to critical levels last year and the Philippines banned the conversion of farmland to other uses.

With a sharp rise in the price of basic foodstuffs, protests have erupted in countries across the world including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Madagascar and Mauritania.

Anger over high prices and low wages erupted into violence in Bangladesh when 10,000 garment workers rioted near the capital Dhaka, smashing cars and buses and vandalizing factories.

Last weekend, Haiti's premier was ousted in a no-confidence vote after more than a week of violent demonstrations over rocketing food and fuel prices that left at least five people dead, according to an unofficial count.

Bangladesh Food Secretary Mollah Wahiduzzaman noted that prices had already fallen by 60-70 taka (one dollar) per 40 kilograms (88 pounds) in the expectation of the new crop from the Boro, or cool-dry, harvest.

“We hope a bumper harvest will cool down the market for months,” he added.


Food Price Protests

(Above): An Indian porter takes a nap in a truck loaded with wheat at a local market in Kolkata.

Indian opposition lawmakers protested against rising prices in parliament, halting proceedings in the lower house, as the finance minister said more measures to ease price pressures were planned.

Indian inflation jumped to its highest in more than three years in late March, reaching 7.41 percent and raising political tensions.

The ruling communist-backed government has been rattled by the surge in prices and has cut duty and restricted exports on a number of food items and other commodities — most recently cement — to try and calm inflation in Asia's third-largest economy.

The Congress Party and its allies face a handful of state elections this year and a national vote by May next year, and, in a country where a large part of a family's income is spent on food, a jump in prices is bad news.

Many Indian consumers say they are feeling the pinch even more than the statistics suggest.

“This government is useless. It has not been able to check prices,” lawmakers belonging to the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party shouted in parliament.

Earlier, the government's communist allies marched to parliament, waving placards and shouting slogans against the administration's failure to contain prices.

The communists demanded action against anyone found hoarding food and called for a ban on futures trading in commodities, which they say has helped fuel the current spike in prices.

Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters a cabinet panel that tracks prices of essential commodities would take more measures to calm inflation.

“I do not know when the cabinet committee on prices will meet, but when it meets I expect some measures,” Chidambaram told reporters without elaborating.


'Try Ayurveda'

(Right): India's President Pratibha Devi Singh Patil (front) speaks in Brasilia, with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the background.

India's Ayurveda medicinal system could act as a panacea for Brazil's health woes, India’s 73-year-old President Pratibha Patil told her Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, 10 years her junior, during their one-to-one meeting in Brasilia.

Patil, who wrapped up her three-day state visit to this Latin American country, presented a DVD on ayurveda to the Brazilian president.

Brazil is looking towards India to improve its health care system at a low cost and some of the Indian pharmaceutical companies have already set up their bases for production in this Latin American country.

Officials said that Brazil, with huge forest reserves, had a large number of herbs in the country which needed to be exploited for providing health care to its population.

Greens Ayurvedics, a centre for Ayurvedic treatment and Kerala special rejuvenation packages, has already trained 13 students from Brazil last year.

The two Presidents also expressed their concern over the absence of connectivity between the two countries and hoped that this issue would be sorted out soon.

Patil concluded the first leg of her 13-day tour Latin American tour and proceeded to Mexico City, where she addressed a joint session of parliament.

She will met her Mexican counterpart Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa.


Twenty Nine Killed

(Right): A Sri Lankan soldier stands guard outside Colombo.

At least 28 Tamil Tiger rebels and one soldier have been killed in artillery duels across Sri Lanka's war-ravaged north, the Defense Ministry said April 19.

Security forces killed 25 members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Mannar district while three others were killed in nearby Weli Oya district April 18, the ministry said.

It said one soldier was killed in clashes in Weli Oya.

There was no immediate word from the LTTE who have been locked in combat since 1972 to carve out an independent state for minority Tamils in the island's north and east.

Security forces have killed at least 2,903 rebels since the start of January while 175 government soldiers have died in action during the same period, according to Defense Ministry figures.

Casualty figures cannot be verified independently as Colombo bars journalists and aid workers from travelling to embattled areas. Both sides are known to offer sharply varying casualty figures.

Tens of thousands of people have died in more than three decades of fighting.


Bangla Ex- PM Hospitalized

(Right): Sheikh Hasina

Detained former Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina Wajed was hospitalized for “unstable” blood pressure, an official said.

Sheikh Hasina, 60, was taken to hospital for a routine check-up, but doctors found her blood pressure was unstable, said John Gomes, general manager of the Square Hospital where she was admitted.

“They checked her several times and each time her pressure was found to be low and unstable. She has been given medicines but she will be observed at the hospital for a while,” Gomes said.

Sheikh Hasina has been detained on corruption charges since last July by the country's military-backed government and was hospitalized for several days last month complaining of ear trouble, high blood pressure and other ailments.

Her hearing in her left ear was severely damaged in a 2004 grenade assassination attempt and she also has failing eye sight.

In February, Sheikh Hasina, who was prime minister from 1996 to 2001, went on trial for allegedly extorting $435,000 from a power company owner. The trial was adjourned after her lawyers challenged the legality of the case.

Bangladesh's caretaker government took power in January 2007 after months of turmoil and violence sparked by Awami League allegations of vote-rigging against the outgoing Bangladesh Nationalist Party.



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