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India jubilant as all trapped workers rescued from Himalayan tunnel

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(Last Updated On: November 29, 2023)

Rescuers on Tuesday pulled out all 41 workers trapped for 17 days inside a collapsed tunnel in the Himalayas after drilling through the debris of rock, concrete and earth to reach them, triggering jubilation across India.

The evacuation of the men – low-wage workers from some of India’s poorest states – began more than six hours after rescuers broke through the debris in the tunnel in Uttarakhand state, which caved in on Nov. 12, Reuters reported.

They were pulled out on wheeled stretchers through a 90 cm wide steel pipe, with the entire process being completed in about an hour.

“Their condition is first-class and absolutely fine … just like yours or mine. There is no tension about their health,” said Wakil Hassan, a rescue team leader.

The first to be evacuated, a short man wearing a dark grey winter jacket and a yellow hard-hat, was garlanded with marigold flowers and welcomed in traditional Indian style inside the tunnel by state chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami and federal deputy highways minister V.K. Singh.

Some walked out smiling and were hugged by Dhami, while others made gestures of thanks with clasped hands or sought blessings by touching his feet. All were garlanded and also presented with a white fabric stole by Dhami and Singh.

“I want to say to the friends who were trapped in the tunnel that your courage and patience is inspiring everyone,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted on social media platform X.

“It is a matter of great satisfaction that after a long wait these friends of ours will now meet their loved ones. The patience and courage that all these families have shown in this challenging time cannot be appreciated enough.”

Modi later spoke to the rescued men by phone and enquired about their condition, TV channels reported.

Federal road transport and highways minister Nitin Gadkari thanked rescue workers and said a safety audit of the tunnel would now be done.

Ambulances that had lined up with lights flashing at the mouth of the tunnel transported the workers to a hospital about 30 km away. They are expected to travel to their home states after doctors clear them.

“We are happy and feel relieved. I have told everyone in the family that he has come out,” said Rajni Tudu, whose husband Surendra was among the trapped men.

Local residents gathered outside the tunnel set off firecrackers, distributed sweets and shouted slogans hailing Mother India.

The cave-in and the ordeal of the men did not grab much attention in its first week as it happened on the day of the Hindu festival of Diwali and in the run-up to the cricket World Cup semi-finals and finals, which India was expected to win.

It however made national headlines since and there was jubilation around the country on Tuesday, with politicians, retired cricket players, business leaders, diplomats and spiritual leaders hailing the effort.

“The safety of our labourer brothers who are building India is of paramount importance. I salute all the brave men who made this difficult campaign successful,” opposition leader Rahul Gandhi posted on X.

Billionaire Anand Mahindra, chairman of conglomerate Mahindra Group, said “after all the sophisticated drilling equipment, it’s the humble ‘rat-hole miners’ who make the vital breakthrough!”

“It’s a heartwarming reminder that at the end of the day, heroism is most often a case of individual effort & sacrifice,” he posted on X.

The 41 men have been getting food, water, light, oxygen and medicines through a pipe, but efforts to dig a tunnel to rescue them with high-powered drilling machines were frustrated by a series of snags.

Rescue clinched by ‘rat-miners’

Government agencies managing the crisis had on Monday turned to “rat miners” to drill through the rocks and gravel by hand from inside the evacuation pipe pushed through the debris after machinery failed.

The miners are experts at a primitive, hazardous and controversial method used mostly to get at coal deposits through narrow passages, and get their name because they resemble burrowing rats.

The miners, brought from central India, worked through Monday night and finally broke through the estimated 60-metres of rocks, earth and metal on Tuesday afternoon.

“There was probably no government department that was not involved, there was practically an all-of-government approach … unlike any in the past,” said Syed Ata Hasnain, a member of the National Disaster Management Authority which oversaw the rescue.

The tunnel did not have an emergency exit and was built through a geological fault, a member of a panel of experts investigating the disaster has told Reuters.

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Pakistan ex-PM Imran Khan urges IMF to call election audit, his lawyer says

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(Last Updated On: February 23, 2024)

Pakistan’s jailed former prime minister Imran Khan will write to the IMF urging it to call for an independent audit of the country’s controversial Feb. 8 national elections before it continues talks with Islamabad, his lawyer said on Thursday.

Pakistan averted default last summer thanks to a short term International Monetary Fund bailout, but the programme expires next month and a new government will have to negotiate a long-term arrangement to keep the $350 billion economy stable, Reuters reported.

Khan and his party alleged that the polls, which did not return a majority for any party, were rigged. Candidates backed by Khan won the most seats, but an alliance of his rival parties has more seats and is in a position to form the next government.

“The letter from Imran Khan we will say clearly that if the IMF wants to talk to Pakistan, they should place conditions of an independent audit (of the polls),” Khan’s lawyer, Ali Zafar, told reporters outside the jail where the former premier and cricket hero is imprisoned.

Pakistan’s election commission denies widespread rigging and is hearing complaints by various applicants who allege irregularities, read the report.

Zafar said that multilateral agencies such as the IMF and international blocs such as the European Union can only give financial assistance on the condition that there is good governance and democracy, including free and fair elections.

The IMF met with political parties last year to seek assurances of their support of key objectives and policies under the bailout programme.

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Iran sends Russia hundreds of ballistic missiles

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(Last Updated On: February 22, 2024)

Iran has provided Russia with a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, six sources told Reuters, deepening the military cooperation between the two U.S.-sanctioned countries, Reuters reported.

Iran’s provision of around 400 missiles includes many from the Fateh-110 family of short-range ballistic weapons, such as the Zolfaghar, three Iranian sources said. This road-mobile missile is capable of striking targets at a distance of between 300 and 700 km (186 and 435 miles), experts say.

Iran’s defence ministry and the Revolutionary Guards – an elite force that oversees Iran’s ballistic missile programme – declined to comment. Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The shipments began in early January after a deal was finalised in meetings late last year between Iranian and Russian military and security officials that took place in Tehran and Moscow, one of the Iranian sources said.

An Iranian military official – who, like the other sources, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information – said there had been at least four shipments of missiles and there would be more in the coming weeks. He declined to provide further details.

Another senior Iranian official said some of the missiles were sent to Russia by ship via the Caspian Sea, while others were transported by plane, read the report.

“There will be more shipments,” the second Iranian official said. “There is no reason to hide it. We are allowed to export weapons to any country that we wish to.”

U.N. Security Council restrictions on Iran’s export of some missiles, drones and other technologies expired in October. However, the United States and European Union retained sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile programme amid concerns over exports of weapons to its proxies in the Middle East and to Russia.

A fourth source, familiar with the matter, confirmed that Russia had received a large number of missiles from Iran recently, without providing further details.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said in early January the United States was concerned that Russia was close to acquiring short-range ballistic weapons from Iran, in addition to missiles already sourced from North Korea.

A U.S. official told Reuters that Washington had seen evidence of talks actively advancing but no indication yet of deliveries having taken place.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the missile deliveries.

Ukraine’s top prosecutor said on Friday the ballistic missiles supplied by North Korea to Russia had proven unreliable on the battlefield, with only two of 24 hitting their targets. Moscow and Pyongyang have both denied that North Korea has provided Russia with munitions used in Ukraine.

By contrast, Jeffrey Lewis, an expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said the Fateh-110 family of missiles and the Zolfaghar were precision weapons.

“They are used to point at things that are high value and need precise damage,” said Lewis, adding that 400 munitions could inflict considerable harm if used in Ukraine. He noted, however, that Russian bombardments were already “pretty brutal”.

A Ukrainian military source told Reuters that Kyiv had not registered any use of Iranian ballistic missiles by Russian forces in the conflict. The Ukrainian defence ministry did not immediately reply to Reuters’ request for comment.

Following the publication of this story, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Air Force told national television that it had no official information on Russia obtaining such missiles. He said that ballistic missiles would pose a serious threat to Ukraine.

Former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said that Russia wanted to supplement its missile arsenal at a time when delays in approving a major package of U.S. military aid in Congress has left Ukraine short of ammunition and other material.

“The lack of U.S. support means shortages of ground-based air defence in Ukraine. So they want to accumulate a mass of rockets and break through Ukrainian air defence,” said Zagorodnyuk, who chairs the Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Strategies, a security think tank, and advises the government.

Kyiv has repeatedly asked Tehran to stop supplying Shahed drones to Russia, which have become a staple of Moscow’s long-range assaults on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, alongside an array of missiles.

Ukraine’s air force said in December that Russia had launched 3,700 Shahed drones during the war, which can fly hundreds of kilometres and explode on impact. Ukrainians call them “mopeds” because of the distinctive sound of their engines; air defences down dozens of them each week.

Iran initially denied supplying drones to Russia but months later said it had provided a small number before Moscow launched the war on Ukraine in 2022.

“Those who accuse Iran of providing weapons to one of the sides in the Ukraine war are doing so for political purposes,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, when asked about Tehran’s delivery of drones to Russia. “We have not given any drones to take part in that war.”

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said a supply of Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar missiles from Iran would hand Russia an even greater advantage on the battlefield.

“They could be used to strike military targets at operational depths, and ballistic missiles are more difficult for Ukrainian air defences to intercept,” Lee said.

Iran’s hardline clerical rulers have steadily sought to deepen ties with Russia and China, betting that would help Tehran to resist U.S. sanctions and to end its political isolation.

Defence cooperation between Iran and Russia has intensified since Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022.

Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force, Amirali Hajizadeh, in Tehran in September, when Iran’s drones, missiles and air defence systems were displayed for him, Iranian state media reported.

And last month, Russia’s foreign ministry said it expected President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi to sign a broad new cooperation treaty soon, following talks in Moscow in December.

“This military partnership with Russia has shown the world Iran’s defence capabilities,” said the military official. “It does not mean we are taking sides with Russia in the Ukraine conflict.”

The stakes are high for Iran’s clerical rulers amid the war between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas that erupted after Oct. 7. They also face growing dissent at home over economic woes and social restrictions.

While Tehran tries to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel that could draw in the United States, its Axis of Resistance allies – including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen – have attacked Israeli and U.S. targets.

A Western diplomat briefed on the matter confirmed the delivery of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia in the recent weeks, without providing more details, Reuters reported.

He said Western nations were concerned that Russia’s reciprocal transfer of weapons to Iran could strengthen its position in any possible conflict with the United States and Israel.

Iran said in November it had finalised arrangements for Russia to provide it with Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters and Yak-130 pilot training aircraft.

Analyst Gregory Brew at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said Russia is an ally of convenience for Iran.

“The relationship is transactional: in exchange for drones, Iran expects more security cooperation and advanced weaponry, particularly modern aircraft,” he said.

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Pakistan’s largest parties strike deal on coalition government

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(Last Updated On: February 21, 2024)

Two major Pakistan political parties said on Tuesday that they had reached a formal agreement to form a coalition government, ending ten days of intense negotiations after an inconclusive national election did not return a clear majority, Reuters reported.

The agreement between Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif ends days of uncertainty and negotiations after the Feb. 8 elections produced a hung national assembly.

Bhutto Zardari confirmed at a late night press conference in Islamabad that former premier Shehbaz Sharif, who was seated beside him, would be the coalition’s candidate for prime minister.

He added that his father Asif Ali Zardari will be the alliance’s candidate for the country’s president.

Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz, said the two parties had the numbers to form government, and also had the support of other smaller parties.

PML-N is the largest party with 79 seats and PPP is second with 54. They, along with four other smaller parties, have a comfortable majority in the legislature of 264 seats.

The delay in forming a government in the nuclear-armed nation of 241 million has caused concern as Pakistan is grappling with an economic crisis amid slow growth and record inflation, rising militant violence, and needs a stable administration with the authority to take tough decisions.

Bhutto Zardari said the parties would push to form government as soon as possible.

According to the country’s constitution, a session of parliament has to be called by Feb. 29 after which a vote for a new prime minister will take place, read the report.

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