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Pakistan pledges to release captive Indian fighter pilot

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ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s prime minister pledged on Thursday his country would release a captured Indian fighter pilot, a move that could help defuse the most serious confrontation in two decades between the nuclear-armed neighbours over the disputed region of Kashmir.

Prime Minister Imran Khan made the announcement in an address to both houses of Parliament, saying he tried to reach his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on Wednesday with a message that he wants to de-escalate tensions.

“We are releasing the Indian pilot as a goodwill gesture tomorrow,” Khan told lawmakers. He did not say whether the release was conditional.

An Indian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly, warned that even if the pilot is returned home, New Delhi would not hesitate to strike its neighbour first if it feared a similar militant attack was looming. Modi earlier in the day warned that “India’s enemies are conspiring to create instability in the country through terror attacks.”

Khan also said that he had feared Wednesday night that India might launch a missile attack, but the situation was later defused. He did not elaborate.

“Pakistan wants peace, but it should not be treated as our weakness,” Khan said “The region will prosper if there is peace and stability. It is good for both sides.”

Meanwhile, fresh skirmishes erupted Thursday between Indian and Pakistani soldiers along the so-called Line of Control that divides disputed Kashmir between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

India’s army said Pakistani soldiers were targeting nearly two dozen Indian forward points with mortar and gunfire. Lt. Col. Devender Anand, an Indian army spokesman, called it an “unprovoked” violation of the 2003 cease-fire accord between the two countries. He said Indian soldiers were responding to ongoing Pakistani attacks along the highly militarized de-facto frontier.

World powers have called on the nations to de-escalate the tensions gripping the contested region since a Feb. 14 suicide bombing killed over 40 Indian paramilitary troops in Indian-controlled Kashmir. India responded with a pre-dawn airstrike on Tuesday inside Pakistan, the first such raid since the two nations’ 1971 war over territory that later became Bangladesh.

The situation then escalated further with Wednesday’s aerial skirmish, which saw Pakistan say it shot down two Indian aircraft, one of which crashed in Pakistan-held part of Kashmir and the other in India-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan later aired a video of a man it identified as the Indian pilot.

India acknowledged one of its MiG-21s, a Soviet-era fighter jet, was “lost” in skirmishes with Pakistan. India’s Ministry of External Affairs said late Wednesday that it “strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force,” and that it expects his immediate and safe return.

India also said it shot down a Pakistani warplane, something Islamabad denied.

Kashmir has been divided but claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan since almost immediately after the two countries’ creation in 1947. They have fought three wars against each other, two directly dealing with the disputed region.

Both Indian and Pakistani officials reported small-arms fire and shelling along the Kashmir region into Thursday morning. There were no reported casualties.

Authorities in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir closed all schools and educational institutions in the region and are urged parents to keep their children at home amid mounting tension with neighbouring India. Pakistan’s airspace remained closed for a second day Thursday, snarling air traffic.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal acknowledged his country received a “dossier” from India about the Feb. 14 attack. He refused to provide details about the information that New Delhi has shared.

World leaders weighing in on the tension included President Donald Trump, who began remarks at a news conference Thursday in Vietnam after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by focusing on India and Pakistan.

“I think hopefully that’s going to be coming to an end,” Trump said, without elaborating. “It’s been going on for a long time — decades and decades. There’s a lot of dislike, unfortunately, so we’ve been in the middle trying to help them both out, see if we can get some organization and some peace, and I think probably that’s going to be happening.”

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also said Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, planned to come to Islamabad with an urgent message from the kingdom’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Modi, in his first remarks since the pilot’s capture, gave a rallying speech ahead of elections in the coming months.

“Our defence forces are serving gallantly at the border,” he told tens of thousands gathered across the country to listen to him in a videoconference from New Delhi. “The country is facing challenging times and it will fight, live, work and win unitedly.”

Just weeks before general elections are due in India, the head of Modi’s party in India’s Karnataka state, B.S. Yeddyurappa, said India’s pre-dawn airstrikes in Pakistan on Tuesday would help the party at the polls.

The violence Wednesday marked the most serious escalation of the long-simmering conflict since 1999, when Pakistan’s military sent a ground force into Indian-controlled Kashmir at Kargil. That year also saw an Indian fighter jet shoot down a Pakistani naval aircraft, killing all 16 on board.

This latest wave of tension between the two rivals first began after the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for a Feb. 14 suicide bombing on Indian paramilitary forces on the Indian side of Kashmir that killed more than 40 troops.

India long has accused Pakistan of cultivating such militant groups to attack it. Pakistan has said it was not involved in that attack and was ready to help New Delhi in the investigation.

___

Associated Press writers Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, Ashok Sharma and Emily Schmall in New Delhi, Roshan Mughal in Muzafarabad, Pakistan, Adam Schreck in Hanoi, Vietnam, and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

Munir Ahmed And Kathy Gannon, The Associated Press








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Amid threats to members, House to vote on new security

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Colorado Rep. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, says it took time for him to stop constantly scanning his environment for threats when he returned from war 15 years ago. But after the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, he says he’s picked the habit up again.

Crow was trapped with several other members of Congress in the upper gallery of the U.S. House that day while a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters tried to beat down the doors to the chamber and stop the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory.

Crow says he never would have thought “in a million years” he’d be in that situation in the Capitol, but some of his old training has since kicked in, like looking in his rear-view mirror and assessing if people around him might be carrying a gun. Like almost every other member of Congress, his office has received threats against his life.

“There’s no doubt that members are on edge right now,” Crow says, and the threats from outside “are unfortunately the reality of congressional life.”

Those threats have more than doubled this year, according to the U.S. Capitol Police, and many members of Congress say they fear for their personal safety more than they did before the siege. Several say they have boosted security measures to protect themselves and their families, money for which will be part of a broad $1.9 billion spending bill that the House will vote on this week, along with a separate measure that would create a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack. Democrats, in particular, say both bills are crucial to try to reconcile the trauma that many still feel.

“This was an armed assault on our democracy, and I’m a witness — I’m a victim and a witness to it,” says New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster. She received treatment for post-traumatic stress after she was also trapped in the House gallery that day and heard rioters trying to break through the doors close to where she was hiding.

Kuster says she thought she was going to die before officers cleared the hallways and hustled her and others out. “I think we need a full investigation with a Jan. 6th commission, and I believe that the Capitol Police who saved our lives that day deserve more support,” she says.

Democrats say a bipartisan commission investigating the attack, including what led to it, is more important than ever after some Republicans have recently started to downplay the severity of the insurrection, portraying the rioters who brutally beat officers with flagpoles and other weapons and broke into the Capitol through windows and doors as peaceful patriots.

Many Republicans who initially condemned Trump for telling his supporters to “fight like hell” that day have increasingly stayed quiet on his repeated false claims that the election was stolen, even though that was rebuked by numerous courts, bipartisan election officials across the country and Trump’s own attorney general. It’s unclear how many in the GOP will vote for either bill.

Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., said at a hearing last week that a video feed of the rioters looked like they were on a “normal tourist visit.” Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., said a woman who was shot and killed by police as she tried to break through a window adjacent to the House chamber was “executed,” and he argued that the Justice Department is harassing those who have been arrested.

Michigan Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who also says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the attack, said those comments were “really hard to take” after witnessing the insurrection. He says he’s received an increased number of threats since January, especially when he has spoken on TV about treatment he received in the aftermath. Some of the calls and messages are specific and credible threats, he says, while many others are “abusive, threatening type language.”

The security spending bill would provide congressional offices with more money to combat those threats, including enhanced travel security, upgrades to home-district offices and better intelligence to track people down. The bill would also “harden” the complex by reinforcing doors and windows, adding security vestibules and cameras and providing dollars for removable fencing that could quickly be erected during a threatening situation while leaving the Capitol open to visitors.

Like many members, Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois says he feels as if the threats are more acute in his home district, where there is less security. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are currently protected by a tall fence and National Guard troops who have been there since Jan. 6. Members are “as safe as ever” there, he says, but “it’s those times when you’re not in the Capitol, I think that’s where the threats seem to emanate from the most.”

Davis knows that well, as one of several Republican members who was at a baseball practice four years ago in Alexandria, Virginia, when a gunman wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., and four other people. And in 2019, an Illinois man was arrested for “threatening to blow my head off,” as Davis puts it. Randall Tarr pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to probation.

As the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Capitol Police, Davis has pushed for the force to be more aggressive in arresting those who threaten members and to reform the arcane command structure in Congress that forces the chief to ask for permission before making major decisions. The security spending bill would not do that, but it would boost Capitol Police training and pay for new equipment after the force was badly overrun on Jan. 6.

In the meantime, members are upgrading their personal security. Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., says he’s started using his house alarm more often and has been more cautious in recent months. “I’ve definitely felt less secure since Jan. 6 than I did before,” says Himes, who sits on the House intelligence committee.

Some say it’s easier not to know what’s going on. Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat, said he’s generally adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with his staff on security matters since the insurrection, and he doesn’t ask why when a police car sometimes shows up in front of his house to guard it.

“I don’t necessarily want to know the full story,” says Krishnamoorthi, who has young children. “I just trust that law enforcement is doing their job.”

Kuster says she is feeling better these days after taking advantage of employee assistance resources in the Capitol. Still, she says her experience was “really, really difficult,” especially because she received a death threat as soon as she arrived home to New Hampshire after the insurrection. Home was the one place “I can usually feel safe,” she says.

She said she regularly talks to and texts with her colleagues who have also had post-traumatic stress, and she says some of them are still hurting.

“We need a security plan so that everyone can feel safe here,” Kuster says. “I want the ‘people’s house’ to be able to reopen.”

Mary Clare Jalonick, The Associated Press

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Tories demand more info on investigation into general overseeing vaccine campaign

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OTTAWA — Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is blasting the Liberal government for not providing Canadians with more information about why the general overseeing Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign has been forced to step aside.

The Department of National Defence issued a terse three-line statement on Friday evening announcing that Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin was leaving his role because of an unspecified “military investigation.”

Some experts have since criticized the lack of details around the nature of that investigation given the importance of his position and recent concerns about a lack of transparency and accountability from the military.

O’Toole is now echoing those criticisms, calling on the Liberal government to be transparent with Canadians, suggesting its failure to do so represents a threat to the public’s confidence in the military and the vaccine campaign.

O’Toole is also demanding the government announce who will be taking over from Fortin, who has declined to comment, and managing the vaccination campaign.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is scheduled to take questions from reporters today for the first time since news of Fortin’s reassignment on Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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