India arrests 78 in ongoing manhunt for Sikh separatist

Chief of a social organisation, Amritpal Singh (C) along with devotees takes part in a Sikh initiation rite ceremony also known as ‘Amrit Sanskar’ at Akal Takht Sahib in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, on October 30, 2022. (AFP/File)
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Updated 19 March 2023

India arrests 78 in ongoing manhunt for Sikh separatist

  • Amritpal Singh rose to prominence in recent months demanding the creation of a separate Sikh homeland
  • Last month, Singh and his armed supporters raided a police station after one of his aides was arrested

New Delhi: A manhunt for a radical Sikh preacher in India entered its second day on Sunday, after authorities shut mobile internet in the whole of Punjab state and arrested 78 of his supporters. 

Amritpal Singh rose to prominence in recent months demanding the creation of Khalistan, a separate Sikh homeland, and with his hardline interpretation of Sikhism at rallies in rural pockets of the northern state of some 30 million people. 

Last month Singh, 30, and his supporters armed with swords, knives and guns raided a police station after one of his aides was arrested for alleged assault and attempted kidnapping. 

The brazen daytime raid in the outskirts of Amritsar -- home to the holiest Sikh shrine, the Golden Temple -- left several police injured and heaped pressure on authorities to act against Singh. 

After the operation began on Saturday, Punjab police tweeted late in the day that 78 had been arrested in the "mega crackdown". 

But Singh himself was not thought to be among them. 

On Sunday, there was a major police presence across Punjab, especially in rural pockets and around Singh's village of Jallupur Khera, local media reported. 

The police said that its "manhunt" was ongoing and the overall "situation is under control, citizens (are) requested to not believe in rumours". 

Local media reports said that the Punjab government ordered the mobile internet shutdown to be in place until noon (0630 GMT) on Monday. 

It was worried that social media could be used to spread rumours and misinformation which could spark street violence. 

Indian authorities frequently shut down mobile internet services, particularly in the restive northern region of Kashmir. 

Punjab -- with about 58 percent Sikhs and 39 percent Hindus -- was rocked by a violent separatist movement for Khalistan in the 1980s and early 1990s when thousands of people died. 

The violence peaked in 1984 after a botched raid against a few hundred radical separatists, some of them armed, inside the Golden Temple headed by the hardline Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. 

This led to the assassination of India's prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh security guards a few months later, which in turn sparked anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and elsewhere that left several thousand more people dead. 

The separatist movement later lost a lot of support, with its most vocal advocates today primarily among the Punjabi diaspora in Canada, Australia, Britain and elsewhere. 

India has often complained to respective governments over the activities of Sikh separatists who, it says, have been trying to revive the insurgency with a massive financial push. 


Shooter kills 6 at Nashville school in targeted attack

Updated 28 March 2023

Shooter kills 6 at Nashville school in targeted attack

  • Deadly mass shootings have become commonplace in the United States, but a female attacker is highly unusual
  • There have been 89 school shootings — defined as anytime a gun is discharged on school property — in the US so far in 2023

WASHINGTON: A heavily-armed former student killed three young children and three staff in what appeared to be a carefully planned attack at a private elementary school in Nashville on Monday, before being shot dead by police.
Chief of Police John Drake named the suspect as Audrey Hale — a 28-year-old female, who the officer later said identified as transgender.
Hale had maps of the school, left behind a manifesto, and was “prepared for a confrontation with law enforcement,” the police chief told reporters following the latest outburst of gun violence to stun the United States.
Armed with at least two assault rifles and a handgun, Hale entered the Christian Covenant School from a side entrance, allegedly shooting through a door — firing multiple shots while advancing through the building, according to police.
They said officers were on the scene within about 15 minutes of receiving the first emergency call around 10:00 am (1500 GMT), engaging the shooter who returned fire before being shot dead.
Police identified the six victims, saying one of the three children was eight years old and two were age nine, while the adults killed were age 60 to 61.
Television images showed young children holding hands as they filed out of the school, and one searing photograph showed a child sobbing through the window of her yellow school bus as it pulled away from the crime scene.
Avery Myrick said her mother, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Covenant, hid as shots rang out through the school.
“She said she was hiding in the closet, and that there was shooting all over and that they had potentially tried to get into her room, and just that she loved us,” Myrick told WSMV4 television, an NBC local affiliate.
When she heard her mother was safe it brought “a ton of relief.”
“But you know, you’re still hurting for the people out there who might not get that call,” she said.
School shootings are alarmingly common in the United States, where the proliferation of firearms has soared in recent years.
President Joe Biden described the latest shooting as “sick” and said gun violence was tearing the nation’s “soul,” as he urged Congress to pass a ban on the assault weapons commonly used in mass shootings.
“It’s ripping our communities apart, ripping the soul of this nation, ripping at the very soul of the nation,” he said.
A Nashville fire department spokesperson, Kendra Loney, said all unharmed students were escorted out of the building with faculty and staff.
“But we are sure that they heard the chaos that was surrounding this, so we do have mental health specialists and professionals that are at that reunification site for both the students and the families.”
The Covenant School is a private Presbyterian institution with just over 200 students in preschool to roughly age 12.
Local newspaper The Tennessean quoted a police spokesperson as saying the suspect Hale, a former student at the school, was now an illustrator and graphic designer who used he/him pronouns. Police had initially identified him by his birth gender.
Drake said investigators were working on a possible motive but said it was “not confirmed.”
Asked whether Hale’s gender identity may have been a factor, Drake said: “There is some theory to that, we’re investigating all the leads.”
There have been 129 mass shootings — defined as incidents in which four or more people were shot or killed — so far this year, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive.
Biden’s calls for Congress to reinstate the national ban on assault rifles, which existed from 1994 to 2004, has run up against opposition from Republicans, who are staunch defenders of the constitutional right to bear arms and have had a narrow majority in the House of Representatives since January.
Just hours after the shooting, pro-firearm organization Gun Owners of America assailed Biden as “the man responsible for making schools soft targets,” and repeated their call to allow teachers to arm themselves in classrooms.
“When will we start to have conversations about real solutions for hardening schools & protecting kids? Armed teachers are a 100 percent effective deterrent!” the group tweeted.
The deadlock in Washington has come despite public uproar over high-profile massacres such as the one at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in 2012, when 26 people, including 20 children, were killed.
Last year a shooter in Uvalde, Texas, killed 19 students and two teachers.
Between those two tragedies, the murder of 14 students and three staff members in Parkland, Florida in 2018 fueled a nationwide movement, led by young people, to demand stricter gun controls — but failed to spur significant action in Congress.


Opposition parties disrupt India’s parliament after ouster of Rahul Gandhi, fierce Modi critic

Updated 27 March 2023

Opposition parties disrupt India’s parliament after ouster of Rahul Gandhi, fierce Modi critic

  • Hundreds of supporters of Gandhi demonstrated in New Delhi and dozens were detained by police, lawmakers from 18 opposition parties also protested outside Parliament
  • Gandhi’s expulsion from legislature on Friday came a day after a local court convicted him of defamation and sentenced him to two years in prison for mocking Modi’s surname

NEW DELHI: Members of opposition parties dressed in black disrupted India’s Parliament on Monday and protested in the capital, New Delhi, after Rahul Gandhi, a key opposition leader and fierce critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was expelled from the legislature last week.

Hundreds of supporters of Gandhi’s Congress party demonstrated in the heart of New Delhi and dozens were detained by police. Lawmakers from 18 opposition parties also protested together outside Parliament, donning black clothes to symbolize mourning and waving posters that warned India’s democracy is in danger.

Gandhi’s expulsion on Friday came a day after a local court convicted him of defamation and sentenced him to two years in prison for mocking Modi’s surname in an election speech in 2019. The actions against Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, were widely denounced by opponents of Modi as assaults against democracy and free speech by a government seeking to quash dissent. His removal from Parliament also delivered a major blow to the Congress party ahead of national elections next year.

“The government wants to suppress the opposition and their voice,” said Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the Congress party.

Over the weekend, Gandhi said he is being targeted for raising questions about Modi’s relationship to Gautam Adani, a coal tycoon who until recently was Asia’s richest man.

Hindenburg Research, a U.S. financial research firm, accused the Adani Group in January of stock price manipulation and fraud running into billions of dollars. Since then, Gandhi has pushed for an investigation into Adani’s sprawling businesses, whose market value has since plummeted by tens of billions of dollars. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party says he has no links to Adani.

The protesting opposition lawmakers backed Gandhi on Monday by renewing calls for a parliamentary probe into the Adani Group.

Gandhi said he was not bothered about losing his seat in Parliament. “My job is to defend the institutions of the country and the voice of people,” he said over the weekend.

A court in Modi’s home state of Gujarat convicted Gandhi last week over a 2019 speech in which he asked, “Why do all thieves have Modi as their surname?” Gandhi then referred to three well-known and unrelated Modis: a fugitive Indian diamond tycoon, a cricket executive banned from the Indian Premier League tournament and the prime minister.

Under Indian law, a criminal conviction and prison sentence of two years or more are grounds for expulsion from Parliament. Gandhi was granted bail for 30 days to allow him to appeal the decision, which Gandhi says he will do.


Kabul hospital receives patients after blast heard near Afghan foreign ministry

Updated 27 March 2023

Kabul hospital receives patients after blast heard near Afghan foreign ministry

  • Two witnesses said they heard the explosion near the heavily fortified area
  • The vicinity is home to several government buildings and foreign embassies

KABUL: A hospital in downtown Kabul received several wounded patients after an explosion was heard near the Afghan ministry of foreign affairs, the country director of an Italian NGO said on Wednesday. 

"We received some patients," said Stefano Sozza of Italian NGO Emergency, which runs the hospital specializing in treating victims of war in downtown Kabul. 

He said the incident took place near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is in the area. 

Two witnesses told Reuters they had heard the sound of a large explosion near the heavily fortified area that is home to several government buildings and foreign embassies. 

Spokespeople for police, the information ministry and the ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 


Kremlin denies Turkish media reports of planned Putin visit to Ankara

Updated 27 March 2023

Kremlin denies Turkish media reports of planned Putin visit to Ankara

MOSCOW: The Kremlin on Monday denied Turkish reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin was planning to visit the Turksih capital, Ankara.

Russian state-owned news agency RIA reported on Monday that the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria may hold consultations in Moscow in early April.

Kyiv on Sunday said it was seeking an emergency meeting of the UN’s Security Council to counter Russia’s “nuclear blackmail” after President Vladimir Putin announced his country would station tactical nuclear arms in Belarus.

Putin said the deployment was similar to moves from the US, which stores such weapons in bases across Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey, an analogy western allies called “misleading.”


Police fire tear gas as fresh protests erupt in Kenya despite ban

Updated 27 March 2023

Police fire tear gas as fresh protests erupt in Kenya despite ban

NAIROBI: Police fired tear gas to disperse anti-government protests on Monday over the high cost of living, after the opposition vowed demonstrations would go ahead despite a police ban.
Security was tight, with riot police stationed at strategic points in Nairobi and patrolling the streets, while many shops were shut and train services from the capital’s outskirts into the central business district were suspended.
Veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga has urged people to take to the streets every Monday and Thursday, even after protests a week ago turned violent and paralyzed parts of Nairobi.
Police clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators in Nairobi’s largest slum Kibera, where protesters set tires on fire, defying a warning by the Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome who said Sunday that the rallies were “illegal” and would be banned.
The situation was calmer elsewhere in the city, with a heavy police presence in neighborhoods where protests had taken place last week.
During last Monday’s clashes in Nairobi and opposition strongholds in western Kenya, a university student was killed by police fire while 31 officers were injured as running battles erupted between riot police and demonstrators.
More than 200 people were arrested, including several senior opposition politicians, while protesters — as well as Odinga’s own motorcade — were hit with tear gas and water cannon.


It was the first major outbreak of political unrest since President William Ruto took office more than six months ago after defeating Odinga in an election his rival claims was “stolen.”
Despite the police ban, Odinga called Sunday on Kenyans to join what he has described as “the mother of all demonstrations.”
“I want to tell Mr.Ruto and the IG Koome that we are not going to be intimidated,” he said. “We are not going to fear tear gas and police.”
Odinga also accused Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua of orchestrating an operation to cause “mayhem” at Monday’s rallies.
Nairobi residents were wary after the previous violence.
“I may have to close too because I have seen most of my neighbors are closed,” said Mercy Wangare, an Mpesa (mobile money) kiosk attendant at an electronics shop.
“I am just weighing the situation before I decide because the sight of these policemen patrolling around is a sign that it may not end up well.”
The Communications Authority of Kenya has sought to prevent television stations from broadcasting the demonstrations live, but the move was blocked by the High Court.


Ruto, who is currently on a four-day trip to Germany and Belgium, has urged his rival to halt the action.
“I am telling Raila Odinga that if he has a problem with me, he should face me and stop terrorizing the country,” he said Thursday.
“Stop paralysing the businesses of mama mboga, matatu and other Kenyans,” he said, referring to women stallholders and private minibus operators.
Many Kenyans are struggling to put food on the table, battling high prices for basic goods as well as a plunging local currency and a record drought that has left millions hungry.
“If the leaders don’t talk, it is us who are affected. They are rich people, it is who will sleep hungry,” motorcycle taxi driver Collins Kibe told AFP.
During the election campaign, Ruto portrayed himself as champion of the downtrodden and vowed to improve the lot of ordinary Kenyans.
But critics say he has broken several campaign promises and has removed subsidies for fuel and maize flour — a dietary staple.
Demonstrators in Kibera, an Odinga stronghold, on Monday banged empty pots and pans as they faced off against police, chanting “we don’t have maize flour.”
Kenya’s energy regulatory body has also announced a hike in electricity prices from April, despite Ruto insisting in January there would be no such increase.
Last week’s protests proved costly, with Gachagua saying the country had lost at least $15 million.
Police said Friday they had launched a manhunt for suspects involved in last week’s riots, and published photographs showing people throwing rocks at police, burning tires and vandalising property.
But an AFP Fact Check investigation found that a number of the photographs were old and unrelated to Monday’s events.
And on Saturday, a red-faced Directorate of Criminal Investigations issued an apology on Twitter for what it said was a “mix-up of images.”