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Govt says 39 Indians in Iraq dead

NEW DELHI, March 20: Iraqi authorities have discovered a mass grave with the bodies of 39 Indian construction workers abducted when Islamic State militants overran the northern city of Mosul in 2014, officials said Tuesday.

The bodies were found buried near the village of Badush, northwest of Mosul, in an area that Iraqi forces recaptured last July.

The killing was a “heinous crime carried out by Daesh terrorist gangs,” Iraqi official Najiha Abdul-Amir al-Shimari told reporters. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

The people killed were “citizens of the friendly Indian state. Their dignity was supposed to be protected, but the forces of evil wanted to defame the principles of Islam,” said Najiha, the head of Iraq’s Martyrs Establishment, a government body dealing with people killed in the fight against the Islamic State group.

The abducted workers had been employed by a construction company operating near Mosul when militants captured wide swaths of northern Iraq in the summer of 2014.

Relatives said they received panicked phone calls from some of the workers five days after Mosul was captured, asking for help.

Around 10,000 Indians worked and lived in Iraq at that time.

Dozens of mass graves have been discovered in territory once held by the Islamic State group, though Iraq’s government has only been able to examine a handful of them. Iraqi officials say they lack the resources and trained personnel to properly exhume so many sites.

At the height of their power, IS controlled nearly a third of the country.

After Iraq recaptured the area around Mosul, search operations led to a mound of dirt near Badush, where local residents said bodies had been buried by the IS, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj said in the Rajya Sabha.

Iraqi authorities used radar to verify that the mound was a mass grave, she said, and then exhumed the bodies. Indian authorities then sent DNA samples from relatives of the missing workers.

Forty Indians were captured by the militants, though one man managed to escape. Iraqi authorities said the mass grave held 39 bodies, but only 39 have been positively identified through DNA analysis. Analysis on the last body has not yet been completed, Swaraj said.

“It is indeed a moment of deep grief and sadness for us,” India’s ambassador to Iraq, Pradeep Singh Rajpurohit, told reporters in Baghdad. “India strongly condemns terrorism in all forms and manifestations and stands in solidarity with the government and the people of Iraq in their fight against terrorism.”

He said the bodies will be sent back to India “in a couple of weeks or so.”

Harjit Masih, the only Indian survivor, has long said that the rest of the group had been killed. He said they had all been held for a number of days, then taken outside and ordered to kneel. Then the militants opened fire.

“They were killed in front of my eyes,” he told reporters on Tuesday. He was shot in the thigh but managed to escape.

Iraq, which is in the midst of an economic crisis, is also struggling to remove rebuild after more than three years of grueling war against the militants. The fight against IS has cost Iraq more than $1 billion in destroyed infrastructure, officials say.

Xi: Ready for bloody battle, won't cede an inch of Chinese territory

BEIJING, March 20: Chinese president Xi Jinping raised his nationalistic pitch, saying on Tuesday China was ready to "fight the bloody battle" against its enemies. He was speaking at the end of the parliamentary session which confirmed his second term and laid the path for his perpetual rule.

"The Chinese people have been indomitable and persistent. We are resolved to fight the bloody battle against our enemies, and on the basis of independence we are determined to recapture the relics," he said in a nationally televised speech.

Xi did not identify enemies. But he said China would not cede a single inch of its territory.

Analysts are asking if Xi would be able to arouse nationalistic fervour with his strong rhetoric in the manner Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China, did. He is being widely compared to Mao because the Chinese parliament has removed the two-term limit on the president, allowing Xi to rule as long as he wishes.

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King's College in London, believes that Mao had penetrated the inner lives of the Chinese people which is not happening in the case of Xi.

"There is not that level of personal, emotional engagement," Brown said at a lecture in Beijing while comparing Xi's charisma with Mao recently. Today's Chinese people are largely apathetic to political changes and more interested in material goods, he pointed out.

Speaking at the National People's Congress, the Chinese parliament, Xi did not identify enemies. "The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have a shared conviction which is not a single inch of our land will be and can be ceded from China," Xi said.

There are signs he said this in the context of Taiwan. But this view may be interpreted later to include areas like Arunachal Pradesh, which does not belong to China but Beijing insists that it does.

Xi said told 3,000 legislators that "since modern times, rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation has become the biggest dream of our nation".

"We have strong capabilities of taking our due place in the world. We have fought for that big dream for about 170 years. Today more than ever the Chinese people are close to that dream, ever more confident and capable of realising the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," he said.

Besides India, China has territorial disputes in the East China Sea with Japan and South China Sea with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Vladimir Putin Wins Fourth Term

MOSCOW, March 18: Early results and an exit poll showed that Vladimir Putin handily won a fourth term as Russia's president Sunday, adding six years in the Kremlin for the man who has led the world's largest country for all of the 21st century.

The vote was tainted by widespread reports of ballot-box stuffing and forced voting, but the complaints will likely do little to undermine Putin. The Russian leader's popularity remains high despite his suppression of dissent and reproach from the West over Russia's increasingly aggressive stance in world affairs and alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Putin's main challenges in the vote were to obtain a huge margin of victory in order to claim an indisputable mandate. The Central Elections Commission said Putin had won about 72 percent of the vote, based on a count of 22 percent of the country's precincts.

Russian authorities had sought to ensure a large turnout to bolster the image that Putin's so-called "managed democracy" is robust and offers Russians true choices.

He faced seven minor candidates on the ballot. Putin's most vehement foe, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, was rejected as a candidate because he was convicted of fraud in a case widely regarded as politically motivated. Navalny and his supporters had called for an election boycott but the extent of its success could not immediately be gauged.

The election came amid escalating tensions between Russia and the West, with reports that Moscow was behind the nerve-agent poisoning of a former Russian double agent in Britain and that its internet trolls had mounted an extensive campaign to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Britain and Russia last week announced diplomat expulsions over the spy case and the United States issued new sanctions.

Russian officials denounced both cases as efforts to interfere in the Russian election. But the disputes likely worked in Putin's favor, reinforcing the official stance that the West is infected with "Russophobia" and determined to undermine both Putin and Russian cultural values.

The election took place on the fourth anniversary of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, one of the most dramatic manifestations of Putin's drive to reassert Russia's power.

Crimea and Russia's subsequent support of separatists in eastern Ukraine led to an array of U.S. and European sanctions that, along with falling oil prices, damaged the Russian economy and slashed the ruble's value by half. But Putin's popularity remained strong, apparently buttressed by nationalist pride.

In his next six years in office, Putin is likely to assert Russia's power abroad even more strongly. Just weeks before the election, he announced that Russia has developed advanced nuclear weapons capable of evading missile defenses. The Russian military campaign that bolsters the Syrian government is clearly aimed at strengthening Russia's foothold in the Middle East and Russia eagerly eyes possible reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula as a lucrative economic opportunity.

At home, Putin will be faced with how to groom a successor or devise a strategy to circumvent term limits, how to drive diversification in an economy still highly dependent on oil and gas and how to improve medical care and social services in Russian regions far removed from the cosmopolitan glitter of Moscow.

Minister Palo Inaugurates Estonian Consulate in Chennai

By Deepak Arora

MUMBAI, March 12: On the third and final leg of her tour, the visiting Estonian Minister of Entrepreneurship & IT Urve Palo addressed the Stakeholders' Seminar on Trade and Investment Opportunities in Estonia here on Monday.

The seminar was organized by Export-Import Bank of India and Estonian Embassy in New Delhi.

She invited Indian businessmen to invest in Estonia and offered e-Residency to Indian entrepreneurs.

Minister Palo said Estonia is keen to expand bilateral trade with India which currently stands at around $200 million.

India exports machinery and equipment, garments, knitwear, iron and steel, leather products, coffee, tea, spices, pharma products to Estonia and imports electrical machinery, paper, paperboard and paper pulp.

On the second leg of her tour, she visited Tamil Nadu and met Chief Minister K.Palaniswami, Minister for Industries M.C. Sampath and Minister for Information Technology M. Manikandan. She also had meetings with investors and other stake holders.

The visiting Minister Palo along with Tamil Nadu Industries Minister M.C. Sampath inaugurated the Honorary Consulate of Estonia office in Chennai.

Dr. G.S.K. Velu, Chairman and Managing Director, Trivitron Group of Companies, has been appointed as the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Estonia in Chennai.

As Honorary Consul, Dr.G.S.K. Velu will work towards strengthening relations for a sustainable growth and development between the two countries. He would promote business, culture, tourism, education and developing strategic business collaborations.

Estonia Consulate office will be located at Trivitron Office in Chennai.

During meetings with Ms Palo, the Tamil Nadu Ministers invited them for Global Investors meet 2019 in Chennai to strengthen bilateral relations between Tamil Nadu Government and Estonia.

They both presented business and investment opportunities in Tamil Nadu.

Estonian Minister’s focus during the bilateral meetings in Chennai and Mumbai has been to promote bilateral cooperation in the field of ICT, digitalization, cyber security, e-governance and smart cities.

Minister had a session on “Business Opportunities in Estonia” with the members of the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Estonia, renowned the world over as the birthplace of Skype, is a country known as the leader in Information Technology besides sectors like clean technologies, renewable energy solutions and others.

Xi becomes President for life

BEIJING, March 11: China's Xi Jinping on Sunday secured a path to rule indefinitely as parliament abolished presidential term limits, handing him almost total authority to pursue a vision of transforming the nation into an economic and military superpower.

The move reverses the era of "collective" leadership and orderly succession that was promoted by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to ensure stability following the turbulent one-man rule of Communist China's founder Mao Zedong.

The historic constitutional amendment breezed through the rubber-stamp parliament with 2,958 in favour, two against and three abstentions despite an unusual bout of online criticism that censors have scrambled to extinguish.

Xi stood up first at the imposing Great Hall of the People in Beijing to cast his paper ballot in a red box, as delegates of the National People's Congress applauded after each vote on the constitutional amendment to lift the two five-year term limit for the presidency.

The first constitutional amendment in 14 years had been expected to breeze through the legislature, which has never rejected a Communist Party diktat in its half-century of existence.

"This is the urgent wish of the common people," Ju Xiuqin, a delegate from northeastern Heilongjiang province, told AFP, echoing party claims that the amendment had the unanimous support of "the masses".

Xi, 64, has consolidated power since 2012 when he was appointed to the country's top office: general secretary of the Communist Party.

While the position has no term limits, his two predecessors both gave it up after two terms as part of an orderly process established by Deng.

The country's presidency is a largely ceremonial office, but the constitutional limits meant Xi would have had to give it up in 2023.

But with the new amendments, he could now have a lifetime to push his goal of turning China into global economic powerhouse with a "world-class" military by mid-century.

His rise has been accompanied by tighter restrictions on civil society, with the detention of activists and lawyers, and stricter limits on the already heavily controlled internet.

At the same time, he gained a measure of popularity among Chinese people through a relentless crackdown on corruption that has punished more than a million party officials, and sidelined potential rivals.

"I think that during the past five years, he has been carrying out a soft coup, including making the Politburo a mere figurehead," Chinese political commentator Wu Qiang told AFP, referring to the 25-member Communist Party body one level under the ruling council.

"He wants to prevent power from falling into the hands of technocrats like Jiang (Zemin) and Hu (Jintao)," Wu said, referring to Xi's two predecessors.

While attention has focused on the term limits, the amendments also include major provisions that will engrave Xi's eponymous political mantra in the constitution and hand the Communist Party an even larger role in the country's affairs.

In a written report, the head of the parliament's Standing Committee, Zhang Dejiang, said the amendments "will ensure the constitution improves and develops in step with the times and provide a firm constitutional guarantee for upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era".

The Communist Party says the move merely aligns the presidency with the limit-free titles of party secretary and military chief, claiming "the masses" unanimously called for the removal of term limits.But the proposal was kept secret until it was revealed in a state media report on February 25, a week before the legislature's opening session.

The party later disclosed that Xi had presided over a meeting of the Politburo in September during which the leadership decided to revise the constitution.

The party then sought proposals and opinions, culminating in a decision in late January to introduce constitutional amendments at the NPC.

"Xi Jinping has presided over so many important projects such as economic reforms and the fight against corruption. There was a consensus that we supported him having more time to finish his work," said Dou Yanli, a delegate from eastern Shandong province.

The surprise move triggered a backlash online, prompting censors to block phrases and words such as "I disagree" and "emperor" and the image of Winnie the Pooh, the cartoon bear to which Xi has been compared.

Activists fear that removing term limits may lead to a further tightening of already strict controls on media, civil society and religion, as Xi tries to impose his highly ideological vision of socialism on every aspect of society.

Beijing-based activist Hu Jia, who says authorities forced him to leave the capital during the congress, called the amendment "illegal".

"Xi asked all people to obey the constitution, and then used the amendment to place himself above it. He used the constitution as the ultimate legal weapon that binds officials and all citizens."

From Security to Space, India, France sign 10 agreements

NEW DELHI, March 10: Stepping up strategic cooperation, India and France on Saturday signed a pact that will enable their defence forces to access each other’s facilities and extend logistical support on a reciprocal basis. The deal, which is similar to the logistical support pact with the US, is an indicator of the strategic depth and maturity in defence ties between the two countries.

“I consider today’s agreement of the reciprocal logistics support between our armies as a golden step in the history of our close defence cooperation,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, after bilateral talks with visiting French President Emmanuel Macron.

Signed by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly, the pact will facilitate reciprocal provision of logistics support, supplies and services between the armed forces of the two countries during authorised port visits, joint exercises, joint training, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.

The two sides also signed a new confidentiality agreement, replacing the 2008 pact, that shields government from sharing classified information on defence deals, including the Rafale fighter aircraft deal. Signed between NSA Ajit Doval and French President’s diplomatic advisor Philippe Etienne, the pact is about the exchange and reciprocal protection of classified or protected information.

Stressing that defence cooperation between the two countries now has a “new significance”, Macron said, “India had made a sovereign decision in this respect (Rafale fighter jet) and we are monitoring the progress in the field. We very much want to continue the programme. It is a long-term contract which is mutually beneficial. I personally consider it as the heart of the strategic partnership.”

The two countries also agreed to create an annual defence dialogue at the ministerial level.

“Our defence cooperation is very strong and we consider France among the most trusted defence partners,” said Modi.

On the government-to-government deal with France in 2016 to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets for about Rs 58,000 crore, the joint statement said the two leaders noted with satisfaction the “on-schedule progress” in the implementation of acquisition related agreements, including the Rafale aircraft agreement signed in 2016.

The two sides also made common cause on maritime security, as they signed a joint strategic vision on the Indian Ocean Region to counter more proactive and assertive Chinese activities in the area.

“Both of us believe that in future, the Indian Ocean Region will play a very important role in the happiness, progress and prosperity of the world. Whether it is the environment, or maritime security, or marine resources, or the freedom of navigation and overflight, we are committed to strengthening our cooperation in all these areas. And therefore today we are releasing a joint strategic vision for our cooperation in the Indian Ocean area,” said Modi.

The two leaders carefully avoided mentioning Indo-Pacific in their statements.

On maritime security, the French President said both the countries will have “unprecedented” level of cooperation to ensure peace and stability in the Indian Ocean and Pacific. He said space agencies of both countries will have joint monitoring mechanism for developments in the maritime sphere, while the two Navies will share intelligence and call their respective military bases for any requirement.

The joint statement said they welcomed the “Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region”, as a “guiding beacon” for such partnership. “The leaders reiterated that this cooperation will be crucial in order to maintain the safety of international sea lanes for unimpeded commerce and communications in accordance with the international law, for countering maritime terrorism and piracy, for building maritime domain awareness, for capacity building and for greater coordination in regional/ international fora in the region,” said the statement, using the internationally-accepted language for China’s presence in South China Sea.

On the much-delayed Jaitapur nuclear power project, the two leaders reiterated the goal of commencing work at the Jaitapur site “around the end of 2018”, and encouraged NPCIL and EDF to accelerate the contractual discussions in that respect. They signed an agreement which prescribes a way forward for implementation of the project.

Once installed, the Jaitapur project will be the largest nuclear power plant in the world, with a total capacity of 9.6 GW. It will contribute to achieving India’s goal of 40 per cent non-fossil energy by 2030.

In this context, the joint statement emphasised the need for the project to generate “cost-effective electricity; economical and competitive financing package from the French side; reliable, uninterrupted and continued access to guaranteed fuel supply for the lifetime of the Jaitapur nuclear power plants; and collaboration on transfer of technology and cost-effective localisation efforts of manufacturing in India. The latter includes transfer of rights on technology to be mutually agreed”.

They welcomed the understanding shared by the two parties on the enforcement of India’s rules and regulations on civil liability for nuclear damages applicable to the Jaitapur project.

India and France also called upon all countries to work towards rooting out terrorist safe havens and infrastructure, disrupting terrorist networks and their financing channels, and halting “cross-border movement of terrorists” like Al Qaeda, Daesh/ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and their affiliates as well as terrorist groups threatening peace and security in South Asia and the Sahel region.

As France had played an active role in grey-listing Pakistan at the FATF last month, the two leaders agreed to strengthen counter-terrorism in multilateral fora such as the UN, GCTF, FATF and G20. They called upon all UN member countries to implement the UNSC Resolution 1267 and other relevant resolutions designating terrorist entities, said the joint statement, in a reference to the global listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar.

Macron said that effectively containing threats of terrorism and radicalisation are going to be key elements in the strategic cooperation between the two countries. Mentioning the threat of “Islamist terrorism” in particular, he said, “the trust that we share is protecting us as our interests are aligned.

The joint statement also had a reference to China’s One Belt One Road project. The two sides underlined that “connectivity initiatives must be based on key principles of international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency; follow social and environmental standards, principles of financial responsibility, accountable debt-financing practices; and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity,” it said. The references to “sovereignty and territorial integrity” is clearly aimed at the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” which is being opposed by India.

In all, India and France inked 14 pacts in key areas of defence, security, nuclear energy and protection of classified information, as well as cooperation in other areas including railways, environment, solar energy, maritime awareness and checking trafficking of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances.

Minister Urve Palo Invites Modi To Visit Estonia

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, March 9: The visiting Estonia's Entrepreneurship and IT Minister Urve Palo has invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to visit the European country.

Minister Urve Palo, who is in India on a seven-day three-city official tour, informed that an Indian Prime Minister had last visited Estonia 36 years ago. And it was Indira Gandhi and people in Estonia still remember that.

"I gave invitation to Indian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister to visit Estonia,” she said and added “it was time again to have a high level visit from India to Estonia.”

During her stay in New Delhi, visiting Minister Palo met Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad; Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar and Commerce and Industries Minister Suresh Prabhu.

She said she had fruitful bilateral meetings with the Indian Ministers. “We discuss wide ranging issues of mutual interest.”

During her meetings with the Ministers, she informed that Indian government was keen on cooperation in cyber security and the e-government development issues.

She is accompanied by high-level 25-member business delegation representing eight companies.

The visiting Minister said that both India and Estonia have shown high interest in the area of information and communication technology, cyber security and smart cities.

Two years ago India and Estonia had already signed memorandum of understandings in the field of ICT.

She informed that Minister Akbar and Estonian delegation discussed recognition of Estonian education diplomas by the Indian Government.

She said the Indian Government assured a decision on this would be taken up soon. “It’s a question of time,” she was assured.

Minister Palo invited Indian entrepreneurs and startups to sign up for a unique e-residency programme that allows them to start a company in Estonia, become a virtual resident and thus gain access to European Union market.

Estonia is the first country to launch e-Residency; enabling anyone to run a global EU company remotely from anywhere in the world.

Under the programme, the benefits to entrepreneurs include an Estonian government-issued digital ID, ability to register an EU company, access to business banking and payments services, and tools with which to digitally sign documents.

"E-residency does not give citizenship but e-residency holders can access to e-governance services of Estonia and conduct their business without even visiting Estonia. It gives entrepreneurs access to European market," said Palo.

“e-Residency can help leverage common points between the two countries by offering Indian entrepreneurs the opportunity to open and run a global EU company fully online from India or anywhere in the world and provide their access to the European market of 500 million people. India’s potential is huge and we are more than happy to contribute to unlock it.”

Ms Urve Palo also addressed the friends of Estonia at the reception hosted by Ambassador Riho Kruuv in New Delhi on the occasion of the Estonian Centenary Celebrations.

The Minister also invited Indian students to study in Estonia. At present, 300 Indian students study in Estonia, informed Ambassaador Riho Kruuv.

Urve Palo informed that as many as 150 Indian officials have visited Estonia in the past five years to study e-governance.

The visiting Minister also spoke at IIIT Delhi about Estonia’s experience in the field of cyber security.

She also had a meeting with a delegation of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI).

Estonia, a country with a population of 1.3 million, is the first country in the world to have e-voting and digital signatures.

Minister Palo Offers Indian Startups e-Residency Card To Run Global EU Company From Estonia

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, March 9: At a time when US President Donald Trump is tightening immigration rules and Brexit is making business difficult, the visiting Estonian Entrepreneurship and IT Minister Urve Palo has invited Indian entrepreneurs and startups to sign up for a unique e-residency programme that allows them to start a company in Estonia, become a virtual resident and thus gain access to European Union market.

The Minister said Estonia is offering a perfect solution for budding Indian entrepreneurs looking to ride the next digital wave and start up their ventures in a seamless, hassle free and technology-driven environment.

Estonia is the world’s first country to introduce an e-Residency programme that offers startups access to a government-issued digital ID, thus enabling the opening of a global EU company fully online while working from India or from anywhere in the world.

Viljar Lubi, Vice Minister, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications, said “Indian entrepreneurs, through e-residency, can now ‘Make in India and Sell in Europe’. The program aims to enroll over 200 Indian startups this year.”

Firms set up through e-Residency are “trusted location-independent EU companies”, which allows them to be run remotely from anywhere on Earth with low costs and minimal hassles. They have access to an advanced and secured digital infrastructure along with all the tools required to grow globally. Indian entrepreneurs now can run their micro-businesses not only in India but grow them with access to the entire EU market.

Minister Palo said “I am very glad to be in India to strengthen bilateral cooperation and talk about the digital society of Estonia. A unique example of this is the e-Residency programme, which enables anyone in the world to start a European company.
Thanks to this programme, the people of India can use the Estonian e-services and become virtual residents of Estonia.”

“Our digital development has happened thanks to the government’s efforts in e-governance and cyber security, and of course also our technology companies who have been our partner for developing governmental e-services,” said Urve Palo.

Already more than 1,200 Indian citizens are e-residents and the Baltic nation expects this figure to grow exponentially in the coming years, as the economic ties between Estonia, India and the European Union deepen further. Estonia aims to reach out to the booming Indian startup community through a series of road shows and industry tie-ups in the next 12 months. The program aims to enroll over 200 startups during 2018, said Varun Sharma, Head of Partnerships, e-residency.

Kaspar Korjus, Managing Director of Republic of Estonia’s e-Residency programme, explains, “The size of our countries might be very different, but Estonia and India actually have many things in common. Like Estonia, India has always been a very entrepreneurial country. India has the world’s largest freelance workforce with the highest percentage working in software development and technology, while Estonia is a global leader in ICT technologies, especially in e-Government.”

He said “e-Residency can help leverage these common points by offering Indian entrepreneurs the opportunity to open and run a global EU company fully online from India or anywhere in the world and provide their access to the European market of 500 million people. India’s potential is huge and we are more than happy to contribute to unlock it.”

Estonia launched its e-Residency programme in December 2014 and as on date has over 30,000 e-residents from 154 countries. India will have the largest young workforce by 2020 with the average age being 29. As a consequence, the e-Residency programme is the perfect solution especially for young Indians who want an independent and self owned startup venture.

French President Macron arrives for four-day India visit

NEW DELHI, March 9: French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in the national capital on Friday night for a four-day visit and was received at the airport by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a special gesture.

Macron was accompanied by his wife Brigitte Marie-Claude Macron, besides senior ministers from his Cabinet.

“Welcome to India, President @EmmanuelMacron! Your visit will add great strength to the strategic partnership between India and France. I look forward to our talks tomorrow,” Modi tweeted after receiving Macron at the airport.

During the visit, the two countries would look to boost ties, especially in the areas of maritime security and counter-terrorism.

An agreement on the Jaitapur nuclear power plant, which is being built with French assistance, is expected to be signed during the visit, sources here said.

Stepping up cooperation in the Indian Ocean region will be one of the top issues that will be discussed by Macron and Prime Minister Modi during delegation-level talks on?Saturday.

“France has particularly supported India’s perspective on terror in South Asia. We are seeing convergence in new areas, particularly maritime security, counter-terrorism and renewable energy,” K Nagraj Naidu, joint secretary (Europe-west), told reporters.

Besides defence, cooperation in the areas of nuclear energy and space are the other pillars of the strategic partnership between India and France.

“In the area of space, India and France have a matured engagement and we would like to take it to a new level,” Naidu said.

The Indo-French cooperation in the area of space is more than five-decades-old.

Besides conventional areas, thrust would also be on renewable energy, high-speed train and stepping cooperation in trade.

The bilateral trade between India and France for the period from April 2016 to March 2017 was USD 10.95 billion. France is the 9th largest foreign investor in India with a cumulative investment of USD 6.09 billion from April 2000 to October 2017.

After holding delegation-level talks with Modi on Saturday, Macron will take part in a Town Hall and have an interactive session, in which nearly 300 students from different institutions are expected to participate.

On the same day, he will also take part in a Knowledge Summit which will be attended by more than 200 academicians from both sides.

On March 11, President Macron will attend the International Solar Alliance (ISA) Summit, an initiative mooted by France and India.

The ISA Summit, expected to be attended by several heads of the states and governments, is likely to focus on concrete projects. On the same day, he will also visit Taj Mahal in Agra.

President Macron will also visit Varanasi, the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Modi, on March 12.

He, along with Modi, will inaugurate a solar plant in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur.

We will present a new Congress party, says Rahul Gandhi in Singapore

SINGAPORE, March 8: Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who is on a three-day foreign trip that will also take him to Malaysia, said on Thursday in Singapore that India was facing “very serious dangers of polarising society” and accused the ruling BJP of being “less concerned about peace and tranquillity”.

Gandhi met Indian-origin CEOs of companies in Singapore to discuss the situation of jobs, investments and economy in India.

He said Congress saw the society as a system that has to be kept in balance, asserting that he would work for ushering in a “new Congress” after taking over the reigns of the party from his mother Sonia in December.

“We see society as a system that has to be kept in balance. The BJP on the other hand is less concerned about peace and tranquillity. We see very serious dangers of polarising society and risks arising from them,” he said.

Apparently referring to the alleged 2G spectrum scam in which the BJP had consistently targeted the previous UPA government, Gandhi said the system was destabilised between 2012 and 2014.

A Delhi court in December last year acquitted all those accused of corruption and money laundering charges in the 2G spectrum allocation cases. The allegations were partly blamed for the Congress losing the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Gandhi, on a March 8-10 visit to Singapore and Malaysia as part of his outreach to the Indian diaspora, said the Congress had a clean slate and a new opportunity now.

“We faced a storm in 2012. Between 2012 and 2014 the system was destabilised and we saw the consequences. We have a clean slate now, and a new opportunity. We will present you with a new Congress party that envisions the values you were born with,” he said.

The Congress leader said India was seeing the biggest migration of rural people. “We have challenges. Broadly our view is we want a peaceful transition, a transition that carries everybody together.”

Gandhi discussed a range of issues including jobs, investments and the prevalent economic conditions with the Indian-origin CEOs of companies in Singapore.

He also met the CEO of Teamsek Ho Ching and its board, and discussed a plethora of issues including quantum computing, robotics, Chinese manufacturing and big data.

Gandhi paid homage to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and interacted with the people at the Singapore Indian Association.

Established in 1923, the foundation stone of the association’s clubhouse was laid by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1950.

Gandhi met members of the Kamala Club at the Singapore Indian Association. Created as an amalgamation of Lotus Club and Ladies Union on the suggestion of Nehru, Kamala Club works on issues of women’s rights and empowerment.

“Over the next three days, I look forward to meeting the Indian community, business leaders and members of the Indian Overseas Congress in Singapore and Malaysia. Also on my schedule are meetings with the Singapore PM, Lee Hsien Loong and the Malaysian PM, Najib Razak,” Gandhi said in a tweet.

Estonian Minister Urve Palo Focus On e-Governance; Celebrates International Women’s Day In India

By Deepak Arora

NEW DELHI, March 7: On the first day of her visit, the Estonian Minister of Entrepreneurship and IT, Ms Urve Palo, addressed the inaugural session of Digital Conference India 2018 here on Wednesday.

Ms Urve Palo highlighted about the transformative role in developing e-governance solutions not only for Estonia but also to many developed and developing nations in the world.

It may be mentioned that Estonia is the leader in IT and e-governance solutions.

The minister is accompanied by a large business delegation. She sought bilateral cooperations with Estonain companies that have helped in developing e-governance solutions .

She also introduced to the audience the Estonian e-residency -- a government issued digital ID available to anyone in the world and offering the freedom to easily start and run a global business in a trusted EU environment.

RS Sharma, Chairman, TRAI chaired the inagural session that was titled "Digital Convergence India".

Others who addressed the session included BVR Mohan Reddy, Executive Chairman, Cyient, India; Pankaj Mahindroo, Chairman FTTF and National President, ICA; Rajan S. Mathew, Director General, COAI; Sanjay Kaul, Managing Director, Cisco India; Aloknath De, CTO, Samsung; and Sunil Bajpai, Principal Advisor, TRAI

The points those were discussed at the session were: The government’s Digital India vision is one of the most exciting initiatives the country has embraced to leapfrog us to the 21st century.

What was once a visionary notion is now the new normal: technology is really as essential utilities.

Indian government leaders have made it clear that broadband highways are as important as national highways.


Through the government’s Digital India program, infrastructure will be offered as a utility to every citizen, governance and services will be on demand, and citizens will be digitally empowered.

The implementation of the Digital India program will help the country in overcoming our challenges, seizing our opportunities and providing citizens with access to better infrastructure and quality of life.

Ms. Urve Palo also participated in the CII Indian Women Network conference and talked about entrepreneurial women of Estonia.

Estonian Minister Urve Palo Visit To Strengthen e-Ties With India

By Deepak Arora

Urve PaloNEW DELHI, March 6: Estonian Minister of Entrepreneurship and IT Ms Urve Palo's seven-day visit is expected to strengthen e-Ties with India. The Minister, who is accompanied by a high-level business delegation, arrives in Delhi on Wednesday (March 7). The focus of the visit is on bilateral cooperation in the field of ICT, digitalisation, cyber security, e-governance and smart cities.

During her three-day stay in Delhi, the Minister will meet her Indian counterparts to discuss bilateral relations and topics of mutual interest.

On the first day also, she will participate in the opening ceremony of the convergence India 2018. She will speak about the success stories of Estonian women entrepreneurs at the inaugural session scheduled at the Confederation of Indian Industry's Indian Women Network Conference.

On March 8, Ms Urve Palo would address the friends of Estonia at the reception hosted by Ambassador Riho Kruuv on the occasion of the Estonian Centenary Celebrations.

On March 9, Minister Palo will deliver a public speech "Estonia's Path to Digital Society, Role of Technology and Education" at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi followed by an introduction of the Study Estonia programme.

The visit continues on March 10 in Chennai where the Minister will inaugurate the Honorary Consulate of Estonia and hold bilateral meetings with here counterparts of the State of Tamil Nadu, investors and other stake holders.

The visit ends in Mumbai where the Minister will deliver a keynote speech at the Gateway of India "Geoeconomic Dialogue" on March 12.

The Minister will also have bilateral discussions with her Counterparts of the State of Maharashtra and will participate in several business events.

The Estonian companies visiting India represent sectors such as fintech, cyber security, blockchain technology and smart city solutions (loT, e-vehicles, high-speed data) and defence.

Some of these companies have played transformative role in developing e-governance solutions not only for Estonia but also to many developed and developing nations in the world.

During the visit, the business delegation will have bilateral business-to-business meetings and hold seminars and will look into the business opportunities in India in Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai.

The team of the Estonian e-residency -- a government issued digital ID available to anyone in the world and offering the freedom to easily start and run a global business in a trusted EU environment -- will introduce the unique solution offered by the Estonian Government.

The e-residency will be introduced at several events in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai.

Former Sikh militant apologises for causing embarrassment to Trudeau in India

March 9: A former Sikh militant apologised on Friday for causing embarrassment to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his trip to India.

Jaspal Atwal, who was part of a movement that supported an independent Sikh nation in the 1980s and went to prison for the attempted murder of a visiting Indian minister in 1986, was invited to a dinner with Trudeau in New Delhi causing consternation among his hosts.

Trudeau’s visit to India had already been dogged by suspicions that Canada was soft on Sikh separatists.

“I am sorry for any embarrassment this matter has caused to Canada, India, my community and my family,” the 62-year-old told a news conference.

“I renounce any form of terrorism,” he said. “I do not advocate for an independent Sikh nation. I, like the vast majority of Sikhs who once advocated for this cause, have reconciled with the nation of India.”

Since his parole, Atwal said he has engaged broadly in politics on behalf of the Indo-Canadian community, and visited India numerous times including three visits over the past year, each time “with the full permission of the Indian government.”

“There were also no restrictions placed on me by Canada so that I could not travel,” he added.

Before his latest trip, Atwal said he reached out to his local member of Parliament, Randeep Sarai, to ask if he could attend a reception with Trudeau in India.

“I had assumed there would be no problems. No one had at any point indicated there would be any issues,” he said.

The controversy has continued to hound Trudeau since his return to Canada, with opposition parties and editorialists heaping scorn on the prime minister over the misstep.

Sarai, meanwhile, has been stripped of his responsibilities within the Liberal caucus.

North Korea willing to hold talks with US and halt nuclear tests: South Korea

SEOUL, March 6: North Korea is willing to hold talks with the United States on denuclearisation and will suspend nuclear tests while those talks are under way, the South said on Tuesday after a delegation returned from the North where it met leader Kim Jong-un.

North and South Korea, still technically at war but enjoying a sharp easing in tension since the Winter Olympics in the South last month, will also hold their first summit in more than a decade next month at the border village of Panmunjom, the head of the delegation, Chung Eui-yong, told a media briefing.

“North Korea made clear its willingness to denuclearise the Korean peninsula and the fact there is no reason for it to have a nuclear programme if military threats against the North are resolved and its regime is secure,” Chung said. Reacting to the news, US president Donald Trump tweeted: “We will see what happens!”

Chung cited the North as saying it would not carry out nuclear or missile tests while talks with the international community were under way. North Korea has not carried out any such tests since November last year. “The North also said it can have frank talks with the United States on denuclearisation and the normalisation of ties between North Korea and the United States,” Chung said.

The prospect of talks between the isolated North and the United States helped boost global stock markets, with the broadest gauge of global shares, MSCI’s All Country World Index, rising 0.6 percent and US stock futures pointing to a higher opening on Wall Street.

Washington and Pyongyang have been at loggerheads for months over the North’s nuclear and missile programmes, with Trump and Kim Jong-un trading insults and threatening war. North Korea has regularly vowed never to give up its nuclear programme, which it sees as an essential deterrent and “treasured sword” against US plans for invasion.

The United States, which stations 28,500 troops in the South, a legacy of the Korean War, denies any such plans. To ensure close communication, the two Koreas, whose 1950-53 conflict ended in a mere truce, not a peace treaty, will set up a hotline between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un, Chung said. The last inter-Korean summit was in 2007 when late former president Roh Moo-hyun was in office. The agreement came on the heels of a visit made by a 10-member South Korean delegation led by Chung to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, on Monday in hopes of encouraging North Korea and the United States to talk to one another.

Kim Jong-un met senior South Korean government officials for the first time and said it was his “firm will to vigorously advance” inter-Korean ties and pursue reunification, the North’s official news agency said. “Through this delegation visit, the South Korean government created a very important opportunity to manage North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, prevent war on the Korean peninsula and create military trust going forward,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute.

Tensions between the two Koreas eased during the Olympics in South Korea, where Moon hosted a high-level North Korean delegation and the two sides presented a joint women’s ice hockey team. Kim Jong-un had invited Moon to North Korea for a summit, which was the first such request from a North Korean leader to a South Korean president. Some US lawmakers reacted with cautious optimism to signs of an opening for dialogue. “This is encouraging,” Democratic Senator Chris Coons said in an interview with MSNBC on Tuesday. “This suggests that diplomacy can be the follow on to confrontation.” Republican Senator Jeff Flake said: “This is encouraging news. It’s not definitive. I mean, I’m not sure that this will hold, but it is encouraging to see that they’re ready to talk.”

North Korea has boasted of developing nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions, but Pyongyang and Washington both say they want a diplomatic solution to the stand-off. The first inter-Korean talks in more than two years were held early this year to bring North Korea to the Winter Olympics, when South Korea and the United States also postponed an annual joint large-scale military exercise that North Korea views as a preparation for invasion.

During this week’s visit, a senior Blue House official said North Korea was informed it was not feasible to postpone the joint military drills between South Korea and the United States again and that Kim Jong-un acknowledged the situation. Kim Jong-un said he understood the drills, expected in April, would be of a similar scale seen in previous years, the official said. The North Korean leader also had a request for the world: that he be seriously acknowledged as a dialogue counterpart, said the official. The South’s delegation leader, Chung, said he would travel to the United States to explain the outcome of the visit to North Korea and that he had a message from North Korea he would deliver to Trump.

Chung will later visit China and Russia, while Suh Hoon, the head of South Korea’s spy agency and another member of the delegation, will head to Japan. The United States has said before it is open to talks but its position has been that dialogue must be aimed at North Korea’s denuclearisation, something Pyongyang has rejected.

Moon has also remained vigilant against North Korea’s weapons ambitions, saying on Tuesday South Korea should bolster its defences in tandem with talks with Pyongyang. The Pentagon has nevertheless said it was “cautiously optimistic” about the North-South talks, which resumed in January for the first time in two years.

Sri Lanka President declares a state of emergency after communal clashes erupt in central hills

COLOMBO, March 6: Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena on Tuesday declared an island wide state of emergency for a period of week after communal clashes between majority Buddhists and members of the minority Muslim community in the central hills escalated.

This afternoon, acting in terms of section 2 of the Public Security Ordinance, President Maithripala Sirisena promulgated a state of emergency for a limited period of one week by bringing into force section 2 of the Public Security Ordinance.

This state of emergency has been declared due to the following reasons:

1. Violent and criminal activities, which have taken place in certain parts of the country during the past two weeks
2. Loss of lives and damage to property owing to those activities
3. Tensions and discord among ethnic and religious groups arising from those criminal activities
4. Attacks on religious places, property, transport facilities and damages caused by them
5. Continuity of such criminal activities affecting the law and order. In some instances, these incidents have taken place in violent circumstances, and some of these criminal activities have been unleashed by organized groups.

In such circumstances, it has been necessary to bring into force the Section II of the Public Security Ordinance as a measure to contain the situation, and restore normalcy.

As such, the President has promulgated a state of emergency to restore normalcy and for the protection of the lives of people, maintenance of essential public services without interruption, and to restore peace, law and order.

Regulations enacted by the promulgation of the state of emergency provides the Police and Tri-Forces with powers to bring the prevailing situation under control.

The President has instructed the Police to impartially, comprehensively and promptly deal with those engaged in criminal activities and those causing or attempting to cause ethnic and religious tensions, irrespective of their ethnic or religious identities and political affiliations.

The President has given special instructions the Police and the tri-forces to take action in terms of these regulations, in a lawful manner in good faith while ensuring minimum disturbance to the life and well-being of people, in conformity with Fundamental Human Rights of people.

Kim Jong Un Wants to 'Write a New History' With South Korea After Talks

SEOUL, March 6: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had an “open-hearted talk” in Pyongyang with envoys for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the North said Tuesday.

It’s the first time South Korean officials have met with the young North Korean leader in person since he took power after his dictator father’s death in late 2011 — and the latest sign that the Koreas are trying to mend ties after a year of repeated North Korean weapons tests and threats of nuclear war.

North Korea’s state media said Kim expressed his desire to “write a new history of national reunification” during a dinner Monday night that Seoul said lasted about four hours.

Given the robust history of bloodshed, threats and animosity on the Korean Peninsula, there is considerable skepticism over whether the Koreas’ apparent warming relations will lead to lasting peace.

North Korea, some believe, is trying to use improved ties with the South to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions and pressure, and to provide domestic propaganda fodder for Kim Jong Un.

But each new development also raises the possibility that the rivals can use the momentum from the good feelings created during North Korea’s participation in the South’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics last month to ease a standoff over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and restart talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

The North Korean report sought to make Kim look statesmanlike as he welcomed the visiting South Koreans, with Kim offering views on “activating the versatile dialogue, contact, cooperation and exchange.”

He was also said to have given “important instruction to the relevant field to rapidly take practical steps for” a summit with Moon, which the North proposed last month.

Moon, a liberal who is keen to engage the North, likely wants to visit Pyongyang. But he must first broker better ties between the North and Washington, which is Seoul’s top ally and its military protector.

The role of a confident leader welcoming visiting, and lower-ranking, officials from the rival South is one Kim clearly relishes. Smiling for cameras, he posed with the South Koreans and presided over what was described as a “co-patriotic and sincere atmosphere.”

Many in Seoul and Washington will want to know if, the rhetoric and smiling images notwithstanding, there’s any possibility Kim will negotiate over the North’s breakneck pursuit of an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can viably target the U.S. mainland.

The North has repeatedly and bluntly declared it will not give up its nuclear bombs. It also hates the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises that were postponed because of the Olympics but will likely happen later this spring. And achieving its nuclear aims rests on the North resuming tests of missiles and bombs that set the region on edge.

Photos distributed by the North showed a beaming Kim dressed in a dark Mao-style suit and holding hands with Moon’s national security director, Chung Eui-yong, the leader of the 10-member South Korean delegation. Chung’s trip is the first known high-level visit by South Korean officials to the North in about a decade.

The South Korean delegates have another meeting with North Korean officials on Tuesday before returning home, but it’s unclear if Kim Jong Un will be there.

Kim was said to have expressed at the dinner his “firm will to vigorously advance the north-south relations and write a new history of national reunification by the concerted efforts of our nation to be proud of in the world.”

There is speculation that better inter-Korean ties could pave the way for Washington and Pyongyang to talk about the North’s nuclear weapons. The United States, however, has made clear that it doesn’t want empty talks and that all options, including military measures, are on the table.

Previous warming ties between the Koreas have come to nothing amid North Korea’s repeated weapons tests and the North’s claims that the annual U.S.-South Korean war games are a rehearsal for an invasion.

Before leaving for Pyongyang, Chung said he would relay Moon’s hopes for North Korean nuclear disarmament and a permanent peace on the peninsula.

Chung’s delegation includes intelligence chief Suh Hoon and Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung. The South Korean presidential Blue House said the high-profile delegation is meant to reciprocate the Olympic trip by Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who became the first member of the North’s ruling family to come to South Korea since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Kim Yo Jong, who also attended Monday’s dinner, and other senior North Korean officials met with Moon during the Olympics, conveyed Kim Jong Un’s invitation to visit Pyongyang and expressed their willingness to hold talks with the United States.

After the Pyongyang trip, Chung’s delegation is scheduled to fly to the United States to brief officials about the outcome of the talks with North Korean officials.

President Donald Trump has said talks with North Korea will happen only “under the right conditions.”

If Moon accepts Kim’s invitation to visit Pyongyang it would be the third inter-Korean summit talk. The past two summits, one in 2000 and the other in 2007, were held between Kim’s late father, Kim Jong Il, and two liberal South Korean presidents. They resulted in a series of cooperative projects between the Koreas that were scuttled during subsequent conservative administrations in the South.

After govt’s red card, Tibetans shift Dalai Lama event from Delhi to Dharamshala

Dalai LamaNEW DELHI, March 6: Three days after a note by Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha directing senior political leaders and government functionaries not to participate in Tibet-related activities became public, the Tibetan government-in-exile has shifted a high-profile event planned to commemorate Dalai Lama’s 60th year in exile. The event will now happen in Dharamshala, not Delhi.

While Tibetan leaders have officially said they ‘understand’ India’s ‘compulsions’, the government has picked sentiments of ‘outrage, hurt and anger’ following the cabinet secretary’s note.

On Friday, it was reported that Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale first wrote to the cabinet secretary pointing to the sensitivity of relations with China.

He specifically mentioned a ‘Thank You India’ Event being organised in Delhi’s Thyagaraja Stadium on April 1 by the Tibetan government in exile. “The Dalai Lama set-up also intends to invite a number of Indian dignitaries...Participation by senior leaders, or government functionaries..is not desirable and should be discouraged.”

China sees Tibet as an integral part of itself and does not recognize the Tibetan government in exile.

Ngodup Dhongchung, representative of the Dalai Lama in Delhi, confirmed that the event has been rescheduled.

“We will now have the event in Dharamshala instead of Delhi. We will also have it on March 31 instead of April 1.” For the Delhi event, the Tibetan government in exile is understood to have invited former PM Dr Manmohan Singh and BJP’s senior leader L K Advani.

While Dr Singh’s office said that he had declined the invitation, sources close to Advani said he had received a letter but had not expressed his consent. Tibetan officials familiar with the development say that the rescheduled event will be a ‘low-key affair’.

Asked if there was disappointment in the community, Dhongchung said, “Some people may be disappointed. But we are guests of India. Indian people have been very generous to us. We understand the compulsions.” But privately, three senior Tibetan figures said that there is a sense of hurt in the community.

The government has picked this sentiment. Tibetan activists have conveyed to authorities that this was a sign of ‘personal humiliation’ for the Dalai Lama. Officials familiar with the issue believe that the message could have been privately conveyed to the Dalai Lama’s office and the government in exile.

“If we did it as a signal to China, it symbolises weakness. It also sends out a message to Tibetans we are abandoning them. The Dalai Lama represents the moderate strand within the movement. If Tibetans begin feeling his approach is futile, it will lead to radicalisation,” said a person familiar with the development.

The government, this view holds, has in any case been very restrained in its engagement with the Dalai Lama. PM Narendra Modi is reported to have had only one meeting with Tibetan leader, on the eve of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit in 2014, which did not go well. From the government, the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the former Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar are understood to have had a few meetings each with the Dalai Lama in close to four years. At the political level, only junior ministers, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju and Minister of State for Culture (Independent Charge) Mahesh Sharma, have met the Dalai Lama.

There is, however, another view – that India has actually supported the cause of Tibet. Proponents of the second theory point to the Dalai Lama being allowed to visit Arunachal Pradesh, parts of which China considers part of its territory, in 2017. The head of the Tibetan government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, was also present at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony in 2014.

Kim Jong-un meets South Korean envoys

PYONGYANG, March 5: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is hosting a dinner for two South Korean delegates, the first time officials from Seoul have met the young leader since he took office in 2011.

The South Korean president's office confirmed the meeting shortly after the delegates' arrival on Monday.

The delegation is in Pyongyang for rare talks partly aimed at restarting dialogue between the North and the US.

Relations between the Koreas have warmed following the Olympics.

In an unprecedented move the delegation includes two ministerial-level envoys - intelligence chief Suh Hoon and National Security adviser Chung Eui-yong.

North Korean state radio said the delegation was met by Ri Son-gwon, North Korea's reunification chief, who led talks in the weeks before the Winter Olympics.

During the two-day visit, the South Korean group will focus on establishing conditions for talks aimed at getting rid of the North's nuclear weapons as well as dialogue between the US and Pyongyang.

Mr Chung had earlier told a press briefing he would deliver President Moon Jae-in's "resolution to maintain the dialogue and improvement in relations between the South and the North... [and] to denuclearize the Korean peninsula".

"I plan to hold in-depth discussions on various ways to continue talks between not only the South and the North, but also the North and the United States," he added.

'US is not interested in talks'
US President Donald Trump said on Saturday that the US would be prepared to meet North Korea, but reiterated that Pyongyang would first have to "denuke".

However, North Korea - which has said it wants to talk to the US - said it was "preposterous" for the US to insist on preconditions.

"The US attitude shown after we clarified our intention for dialogue compels us to only think that the US is not interested in resuming... dialogue," said the foreign ministry in a statement reported by state media.

It remains unclear who would represent the US in any such meeting.

Maritime security, nuclear deal to top agenda of Macron's India talks

NEW DELHI, March 5: Maritime security and nuclear cooperation will be the staple items on the table when French President Emmanuel Macron holds discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to India this weekend.

While the "Quad" comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US is pitched as the new political counterpoint to China in the India-Pacific space, India and France have found much to be close about in the Indian Ocean. The two countries have realised that the way forward is closer bilateral cooperation, rather than "rushing" into a multilateral format, significant at a time when pluri-laterals or mini-laterals find favour.

India and France are also hoping to get an agreement between NPCIL (Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited) and EDF (of France) on six nuclear reactors that could lead to greater indigenisation of components and services for the reactors.

"We have shared concerns in the Indian Ocean. We are more ambitious, more pragmatic and more coherent," a source said. This is a new element in the France-India bilateral relationship, which will require much closer work.

During Macron's visit, both countries are expected to sign agreements that will allow India logistics access to French military bases in the Indian Ocean. By itself, this could become a force multiplier for India, especially since New Delhi, despite clear interests in the Indian Ocean, has been a laggard in securing its interests.

France remains the largest resident power in the Indian Ocean with the largest amount of real estate, including about 11 million sq km of exclusive economic zone particularly in the Mozambique channel with over 10 islands as part of French overseas territories. For France's military bases in Djibouti, Abu Dhabi and Reunion Islands, India regards it as an attractive strategic partner here.

Speaking to journalists, French ambassador Alexander Ziegler had said, "We are looking for structured and operational cooperation in defence and security in the Indian Ocean region." He attributed the bilateral nature of the relationship to the high level of trust between France and India.

At some point, the two countries might open this cooperation in a broader format, inviting perhaps Australia, with whom France enjoys a similar relationship, given French assets in the South Pacific. With India and UAE deepening their own defence and security relationship, Abu Dhabi could also become a future partner.

Carnegie India, in a recent report on India-France cooperation in the Indian Ocean, said India should support France's full membership of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) while France could help India enter the Indian Ocean Commission.

But the report, by Darshana Baruah and C Raja Mohan also sounds a cautionary note. "For France, the concern is not only about New Delhi's foreign policy and partnership with Western powers and its grand strategy and ideology, but also the nature of daily decision-making in New Delhi, which France, like so many of India's interlocutors on defence policy, finds frustrating. The well-known complexity of civil-military relations in India, where the dominance of the civilian bureaucracy is total, has been a major obstacle to the reform and rejuvenation of India's defence engagement," it said.

French President to visit Mirzapur, Varanasi: Focus on India-France strategic engagement, solar ties

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will jointly inaugurate a 75-megawatt solar power plant in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur district with French President Emmanuel Macron, who will be in India on a four-day visit, beginning March 9. The centrepiece of the visit will be the International Solar Alliance (ISA) and bilateral engagement on economic, political and strategic dimensions. About 25 leaders, at the level of heads of states and heads of governments, will attend the ISA Summit on March 11, which will see delegates from over 125 countries. Macron will visit the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi and take a boat ride in Ganga, where Modi is likely to accompany him.

The Enviro Solitaire Pvt Ltd solar plant at the district’s Dadar Kala village will be inaugurated by the two leaders on March 12. Macron, accompanied by his wife Brigitte on the trip, may visit the Taj Mahal. An official statement by the Ministry of External Affairs said, India-France strategic partnership, established in 1998, is one of the “most important and comprehensive bilateral engagements and is marked by intense and frequent high level exchanges and deep political understanding.”

“We have enhanced and ongoing cooperation in the defence, maritime, space, security, and energy-related sectors, and are increasingly working together on all issues of concern including terrorism, climate change, sustainable growth and development, infrastructure, smart urbanization, S&T cooperation, and youth exchanges. Macron’s visit is aimed at strengthening the bilateral economic, political and strategic dimension of our engagement,” the statement read.

François Hollande was the last French President to visit India in 2016 as the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations. Modi visited France in June 2017, after Macron was elected as President. The bilateral trade between India and France for the period April 2016 to March 2017 reached US$ 10.95 billion. France is the 9th largest foreign investor in India with a cumulative investment of US$ 6.09 billion from April 2000 to October 2017. Close to 1,000 French companies are present in India. About 120 Indian companies have invested in excess of Euro 1 billion in France and employ close to 7,000 people.

“The India-France CEO’s Forum will take place during the visit. The visit is also aimed at forging not only strong manufacturing and technology partnerships, but also greater people to people contacts especially through greater exchanges of students and researchers,” the statement said.

India, Vietnam deepen ties on N-energy, trade, agriculture

NEW DELHI, March 3: India and Vietnam agreed to cooperate on nuclear energy, trade and agriculture as Prime Minister Narendra Modi held talks with the President of Vietnam, Tran Dai Quang here on Saturday. Vietnam is one of India’s closest strategic partners in the Asean region.

The two sides decided to explore co-development projects in defence sector and boost ties in oil and gas exploration, including with third countries. “We will jointly work for an open, independent and prosperous Indo Pacific region where sovereignty and international laws are respected and where differences are resolved through talks,” Modi said in remarks to the media.

In response, the Vietnam President said it supports India’s multi-faceted connectivity with Asean, adding there should be freedom of navigation and over flights in the region.
While India, the US and several other world powers have been pressing for resolution of the dispute on the basis of international law under UNCLOS, China has favoured a bilateral framework with different countries. Modi said India and Vietnam will also look for a trilateral partnership in the oil and gas sector. India already has two blocks for oil exploration in the South China Sea (SCS), despite criticism from China.

China has been opposing India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) exploration activities in areas claimed by Vietnam in the SCS. India has been asserting that the ONGC’s exploration is a commercial operation and not connected with the dispute. Oil exploration in the SCS is a sensitive issue in the Vietnam-China relations.

On his part, the Vietnamese President said, “We highly value projects, including the cooperation in joint oil and gas exploration in the continental shelf of Vietnam.”

The Vietnamese President said it was important to respect the diplomatic and legal process in resolution of maritime dispute. “We reaffirm our close collaboration to support India to further its relations and multi-faceted connectivity with Asean attaching high importance to the maintenance of security, maritime safety and freedom of navigation and over flight, settlement of disputes by peaceful means on the basis of international law including UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea),” Quang said.

The three pacts signed after the talks between the two leaders will provide for cooperation in areas of nuclear energy, trade and agriculture. The visit of the Vietnamese President is the second high-level visit from that country in little more than a month. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was in India as one of the chief guests for the Republic Day Parade this year.

Deadly blizzards lash Europe; thousands stranded

PARIS, March 1: Heavy snowfall and deadly blizzards lashed Europe Thursday, forcing airports to cancel or delay flights around the continent, as a deep freeze gripped countries from the far north to the Mediterranean beaches in the south.

The snowstorms, unusual for much of Europe at this time of year, left roads blocked, thousands of drivers stranded and schools shut, with weather agencies predicting the biting cold would continue in parts of the region at least through Thursday evening.

The death toll Europe-wide continued to climb to more than 50, as another three people perished in Poland, taking the number of victims there to 21, most of them rough sleepers.

There have also been six deaths in the Czech Republic in recent days, five in Lithuania, four each in France and Slovakia, three in Spain, two each in Italy, Serbia, Romania and Slovenia, and one each in Britain and the Netherlands.

One of the Spanish victims was a 39-year-old homeless man who had been sleeping in an abandoned truck.

“Those most at risk of cold-related illness include elderly people, children, and people who have chronic diseases or physical or mental limitations,” the World Health Organization said in a statement, adding that the poor, the homeless and migrants were often hardest hit.

The Siberian cold front -- dubbed the “Beast from the East” in Britain, “Siberian bear” by the Dutch and the “snow cannon” by Swedes -- on Thursday forced Geneva airport to close for several hours in the morning, with temperatures plunging in Switzerland to nearly minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 38 Fahrenheit) at higher altitudes.

Scotland’s Glasgow airport remains closed until at least 1500 GMT, and Edinburgh airport said several airlines have decided not to fly because “they do not have the critical mass of staff needed to run operations securely”.

Snow also forced the cancellation of all flight operations at Dublin airport with services not expected to resume until Saturday at the earliest.

Several flights to Malaga in southern Spain were diverted because of strong winds.

Some people enjoyed the cold, with families taking children and pets out to play.

But many who took out their ice skates discovered the waters were not frozen enough.

A 74-year-old man who fell through the ice on a pond near Bruges remained in hospital in critical condition Thursday, a Belgian TV channel reported.

The mercury also dropped below freezing across southern Europe.

Snowfall in northern Italy forced the cancellation of 50% of regional trains, while in the city of Naples, schools were shut.

In normally balmy southern France, beaches in Nice were blanketed in a thick layer of snow.

Near the city of Montpellier, around 2,000 drivers were stranded on a motorway, causing anger from those sitting behind the wheel for hours on end.

“The motorway looks like a cemetery of trucks and cars,” tweeted Anthony Jammot, describing an “apocalyptic” 24 hours in his car with two young children and no information or help from local authorities.

In Paris, which awoke Thursday under a blanket of snow, authorities continued operating emergency shelters for the city’s roughly 3,000 homeless.

Demanding more efforts to keep people off the streets, around 30 local officials spent the night near the city’s Gare d’Austerlitz train station as temperatures dipped below zero.

“We can’t keep considering the homeless just another part of the scenery,” Greens lawmaker Ali Id Elouali said.

In Germany, the national homeless association urged shelters to open during the day and not just at night.

“You can die of cold during the day too,” its chief Werena Rosenke warned.

Authorities are also urging people to look out for elderly relatives and neighbours after a French woman in her nineties was found frozen to death outside her retirement home.

Europe’s cold snap comes as the Arctic experiences record-high temperatures, prompting scientists to ask if global warming may be playing a role in turning things upside down.

The unusually cold weather has also impacted local customs, as the first spring month began.

In Romania, people were marking the day without the amulets they traditionally exchange.

In the capital Bucharest, where it has been snowing since Monday with temperatures hovering around minus 10 degrees Celsius, sales of the “martisor” good luck charms have plummeted along with the temperature.

Florists have also suffered, as the amulet is often given with a bunch of flowers.

“The 1st of March is the most important day of the year for us, where we sell the most flowers,” said florists’ association president Adrian Dinca.

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