China in talks with Baloch militants to secure CPEC projects, says FT

ICMD, Feb 20, 2018 China has been quietly holding talks with Baloch militants for more than five years in an effort to protect the $60 billion worth of infrastructure projects it is financing as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Financial Times claimed on Monday. Three people with knowledge of the talks told the paper that Beijing had been in direct contact with militants in Balochistan, where many of the CPEC-related schemes are located. “The Chinese have quietly made a lot of progress,” one Pakistani official told Financial Times. “Even though separatists occasionally try to carry out the odd attack, they are not making a forceful push.” For more than half a century, Beijing has maintained a policy of non-interference in the domestic politics of other countries. But that has been tested by its desire to protect the billions of dollars it is investing around the world under its Belt and Road Initiative to create a “new Silk Road” of trade routes in Europe, Asia and Africa. As it seeks to boost the Chinese economy, China’s plans for the new Silk Road has pitched it into some of the world’s most complex conflict zones. Chinese peacekeepers are already in South Sudan, where Beijing has invested in oilfields and is planning to build a rail line. China has also contributed troops to a UN peacekeeping operation in Mali and even talked about launching attacks against the militant Islamic State group in Iraq, where it has been the largest foreign investor in the country’s oil sector. In Pakistan, Beijing appears keen to fill the void left by Washington, which has drifted from its former ally after becoming frustrated at Islamabad’s failure to tackle extremism. Some have warned that China’s investment could lead to Pakistan being treated like a client state by Beijing, despite promises that Chinese troops would not be stationed there. The paper claimed that the Pakistani officials welcomed the talks between Baloch rebels and Chinese envoys, even if they do not know the details of what has been discussed. “Ultimately, if there’s peace in Balochistan, that will benefit both of us,” said one official in Islamabad. Another said that the recent decision by the US to suspend security assistance to Pakistan had convinced many in Islamabad that China was a more genuine partner. “[The Chinese] are here to stay and help Pakistan, unlike the Americans, who cannot be trusted,” the official said. Chinese officials did not comment on the talks, though the Chinese ambassador to Islamabad said in a recent interview with the BBC that militants in Balochistan were no longer a threat to the economic corridor. One provincial tribal leader said many young men had been persuaded to lay down their weapons by the promise of financial benefits. “Today, young men are not getting attracted to join the insurgents as they did some 10 years ago,” he said. “Many people see prosperity” as a result of the CPEC, he added. -- BE

Singapore: Bonus to all citizens after surplus budget

ICMD, Feb 20, 2018 All Singapore citizens aged 21 and above will get a one-off “SG Bonus” of up to S$300 each as the 2017 budget came in with a surplus of almost S$10 billion (US $7.6 billion), the city-state’s finance minister announced on Monday. Finance minister Heng Swee Keat made the announcement during his budget speech in Parliament, describing the bonus as a “hongbao”, the Mandarin word for a monetary gift given on special occasions. He said this “reflects the government’s long-standing commitment to share of the fruits of Singapore’s development with Singaporeans”, according to Channel News Asia. The “SG Bonus” will cost the government S$700 million (US $533 million). The bonus will be paid according to people’s assessable income. About 2.7 million people will get the payouts, which are due by the end of 2018. Those with an income of S$28,000 or below will be eligible to receive S$300, those whose incomes ranging from S$28,001 to S$100,000 will receive S$200, and those with incomes in excess of S$100,000 will receive S$100. Singapore’s revised budget for fiscal 2017 showed a surplus of S$9.61 billion, thanks to contributions from statutory boards and higher-than-expected stamp duty. The surplus will also be used in other ways. Heng said S$5 billion will be set aside for the Rail Infrastructure Fund to save up for new railway lines that Singapore is building. Another S$2 billion will be set aside for premium subsidies and other forms of support for Eldershield, an insurance scheme that helps senior citizens with severe disabilities to cope with the financial demands of their daily care. -- HT

Khalistan movement revives

ICMD, Feb 19, 2018 The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has expanded its investigation into the revival of the pro-Khalistan movement in Punjab to countries such as the U.K., Australia, the UAE, Italy and Pakistan. A Home Ministry official said that though the involvement of pro-Khalistan activists based in Canada had not surfaced in the particular case being investigated by the NIA, there were intelligence inputs that established so. On November 30 last year, on the Punjab government’s request, the Home Ministry handed over the probe into the murder of RSS member Ravinder Gosain in Ludhiana to the NIA. The agency said Gosain’s murder and targeted killings of eight others from January 2016 were “part of a conspiracy to destabilise Punjab hatched by Sikh extremist elements and others located in various parts of the world.” The Punjab police had arrested Ramandeep Singh and Hardeep Singh for their alleged role in Gosain’s murder. The accused were handed over to the NIA. The agency said the accused were asked to target members of the RSS and Hindu organisations. “Besides, in July 2017, they also murdered a pastor named Sultan Masih in Ludhiana,” the agency had said. Foreign funds The NIA said funds were channelled from foreign countries for execution of these incidents. The official said the accused were brainwashed and were incited on religious grounds by their mentors settled abroad. On February 14, the NIA arrested an accused identified as Parvez, alias Farru, from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh. Eleven arrested It said Parvez provided the weapons in several of the eight incidents committed as part of an “international conspiracy whose objective was to destabilise the law and order situation in Punjab and to revive militancy in the State”. So far, 11 persons have been arrested. The Home Ministry informed Parliament on December 27 that Pakistan’s ISI was making efforts to provide “moral and financial support” to pro-Khalistan elements for anti-India activities as well as to revive militancy in Punjab. Intelligence agencies were in a fix last year when Canadian Defence Minister Harjeet Sajjan visited India. Officials said there were inputs regarding Mr. Sajjan’s soft approach to pro-Khalistan activists in Canada. -- TH

Saudi to host first Arab Fashion Week

ICMD, Feb 19, 2018 Saudi Arabia is set to host in March its first ever Arab Fashion Week, the Arab Fashion Council announced Monday, overturning decades of draconian policies on arts and entertainment. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful heir to the Saudi throne, has been leading a drive to reform the country’s dependence on oil, including expanding the private sector and empowering women. The Dubai based Arab Fashion Council said on its website that fashion week would be held in Riyadh from March 26 to March 31, with a second edition already scheduled for October. Arab Fashion Week will take place at Riyadh’s eco friendly Apex Centre, a white honeycomb like venue designed by the late celebrated Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. In December, the Arab Fashion Council announced the opening of a regional office in Riyadh and named Saudi Princess Noura Bint Faisal Al Saud as its honorary president. “The first Arab Fashion Week in Riyadh will be more than a world-class event, it is a catalyst through which we believe the fashion sector will lead other economic sectors such as tourism, hospitality, travel, and trade,” Princess Noura said in a statement on the council’s website. Listed as an international fashion week alongside Paris and Milan, the twice yearly Arab Fashion Week offers exclusively see-now-buy-now collections and pre collections. The line up for the Riyadh event has not been revealed yet and it remains unclear whether it will limited to modest designs in accordance with the strict dress code observed in Saudi Arabia. The Gulf kingdom, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, requires them to wear, by law, a loose fitting abaya robe to shroud their bodies in public. Earlier this month, a senior Saudi cleric said Saudi women should not be “forced to wear abayas”. The comment was made by Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlak, a member of the Council of Scholars the kingdom’s highest religious body. The government has not said whether it will change the law. But Prince Mohammed has introduced over the past months a series of reforms in favour of women. In January, Saudi women were allowed for the first time ever to enter a football stadium to watch a game and the kingdom is also opening several sectors of the workplace to women. Saudi Arabia has also announced an end to a longstanding ban on women driving, which is to take effect in June. In the past, Arab Fashion Week has been hosted so far exclusively by Gulf fashion capital Dubai and have included runway darlings Marchesa and Tony Ward. Dubai will continue to host its own parallel Arab Fashion Week, with the sixth edition slotted for May 9 to May 12.-- Courtesy AFP

India to get operational control of Chabahar port

ICMD, Feb 18, 2018 India and Iran on Saturday signed agreements, including Tehran leasing to New Delhi operational control of part of the Iranian east coast port of Chabahar for 18 months. The $85 million project, just 90km from Gwadar port, creates a transit route between India, Iran and Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. India is trying to develop Chabahar as a way to gain access to the markets of Central Asia countries as well as Afghanistan. But progress is slow because of concern that President Donald Trump’s administration in Washington may eventually scrap the Iran nuclear deal. A leasing agreement giving operational control to India of Shahid Beheshti port — phase one of the Chabahar port — was signed in the presence of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Later, addressing a joint press conference with the Iranian president, Mr Modi said both countries wanted to expand bilateral ties and cooperation in economic development. “We will support the construction of the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link so that Chabahar gateway’s potential could be fully utilised,” he said. “We want to expand connectivity, cooperation in the energy sector and the centuries-old bilateral relationship.” Other agreements included a double taxation avoidance treaty, extradition, and cooperation in the farm sector. Mr Rouhani, who arrived in the southern city of Hyderabad on Thurs­day, will later address industrialists. Peace in Afghanistan The Indian prime minister and the Iranian president agreed to step up efforts to bring stability to war-ravaged Afghanistan. Mr Modi reiterated India’s commitment to help Afghanistan become “a peaceful, secure, permanent, prosperous and pluralistic country” after holding talks with Mr Rouhani in New Delhi on the last day of his three-day visit. “Looking at our common interests, we are committed to stopping the expansion of such forces that promote international organised crime in terrorism, extremism, illegal drug trafficking, cyber crime and various forms,” Mr Modi said. “We want to see our region and the world free from terrorism,” he added. There was no mention of financial assistance or providing weapons to help Afghanistan fight militants by either leader. They did not name Pakistan. India has been a key supporter of Kabul’s government and has poured more than $2 billion into the country since the Taliban were toppled in 2001. India has been a key purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and maintained trade ties even as international sanctions were imposed on Tehran over its nuclear programme between 2012 and 2016. However, local Indian media have reported frustrations over delays in awarding a contract to develop a major gas field known as Farzad B in the Gulf. India’s foreign ministry said on Saturday that “discussions continue” on Farzad B. --

Plane crashes in Iran, killing all 65 aboard

ICMD, Feb 18, 2018 An Iranian commercial air plane, brought back into service only months ago after being grounded for seven years, crashed on Sunday in a foggy, mountainous region of southern Iran, and officials said they feared all 65 people on board were killed. The crash of the Aseman Airlines ATR-72 marks yet another fatal aviation disaster for Iran, which for years was barred from buying airplane parts for needed maintenance due to Western sanctions over its contested nuclear programme. Its nuclear accord with world powers allows it to get those parts and the country has made deals worth tens of billions of dollars for new aircraft. However, United States President Donald Trump's refusal to recertify the deal has injected uncertainty into those sales while Iranians still fly in ageing aircraft. The ATR-72, a twin-engine turboprop used for short-distance regional flying, went down near its destination of the southern Iranian city of Yasuj, some 780 kilometres (485 miles) south of the Iranian capital, Tehran, where it took off. It wasn't immediately clear what caused the crash, although weather was severe in the area. Dense fog, high winds and heavy snow in the Zagros Mountains made it impossible for rescue crews in helicopters to reach the site on Sunday, the Iranian state television reported. Aseman Airlines spokesman Mohammad Taghi Tabatabai told the state TV that all on board Flight No EP3704 were killed. Those on board included 59 passengers and six crew members, the state-run IRNA news agency reported Sunday night, lowering the death to 65 from an initially reported 66. “After searching the area, we learned that unfortunately ... our dear passengers had lost their lives,” Tabatabai said. Both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani offered their condolences. Tabatabai said the plane crashed into Mount Dena, which is about 4,400 metres (14,435 feet) tall. The plane's last signal, at 0555 GMT, showed it at 16,975 feet and descending, according to airplane-tracking website FlightRadar24. The pilot was in contact with the tower 14 miles from the airport, the state TV said. One previous passenger on the route posted a video Sunday showing that the flight typically comes in just over the mountain peaks. Aeronautical charts for the airport warn pilots to keep an altitude of 15,000 feet in the area. The airport itself is at nearly 6,000 feet. Locals described hearing the crash, although no one had found the crash site yet, according to state TV. Aseman Airlines, owned by Iran's civil service pension foundation, is a semi-private air carrier headquartered in Tehran that specialises in flights to remote airfields across the country. It also operates internationally. It is Iran's third-largest airline by fleet size, behind state carrier Iran Air and Mahan Air. However, it is banned from flying in the European Union over safety concerns. The carrier has a fleet of 29 aircraft, including six ATR aircraft, according to FlightRadar24. The ATR-72 that crashed Sunday, with the tail number EP-ATS, had been built in 1993, Aseman Airlines CEO Ali Abedzadeh told state TV. On Instagram, Aseman Airlines highlighted the doomed aircraft in October, saying it had been “grounded” for seven years but would be “repaired and will be operational after checking and testing.” It wasn't clear what led to the grounding, though Iran only recently regained access to the airplane parts market after the nuclear deal. European airplane manufacturer ATR, a Toulouse, France-based partnership of Airbus and Italy's Leonardo SpA, said it had no immediate information about the crash. Aseman Airlines has suffered other major crashes with fatalities. In October 1994, a twin-propeller Fokker F-28 1000 commuter plane operated by the airline crashed near Natanz, 290 kilometres (180 miles) south of Tehran, also killing 66 people on board. An Aseman Airlines chartered flight in August 2008, flown by an Itek Air Boeing 737, crashed in Kyrgyzstan, killing 74 people. Under decades of international sanctions, Iran's commercial passenger aircraft fleet has aged, with air accidents occurring regularly in recent years. Following the 2015 landmark nuclear deal with world powers, Iran signed deals with both Airbus and Boeing to buy scores of passenger planes worth tens of billions of dollars. In April 2017, ATR sealed a $536 million sale with Iran Air for at least 20 aircraft. Chicago-based Boeing also signed a $3 billion deal that month to sell 30 737 MAX aircraft to Aseman Airlines. Home to 80 million people, Iran represents one of the world's last untapped aviation markets. However, Western analysts are skeptical that there is demand for so many jets or available financing for deals worth billions of dollars. Iran has suffered a series of major aviation disasters in recent decades. The last major crash in Iran happened in January 2011, when an Iran Air Boeing 727 broke to pieces on impact while trying an emergency landing in a snowstorm in northwestern Iran, killing at least 77 people. In July 2009, a Russian-made jetliner crashed in northwestern Iran shortly after taking off from Tehran, killing all 168 on board. A Russian-made Ilyushin 76 carrying members of the Revolutionary Guard crashed in the mountains of southeastern Iran in February 2003, killing 302 people. In February 1993, an Iranian airliner with 132 people aboard collided with an air force jet after takeoff from Tehran's main airport, killing everyone on the two aircraft. And in July 1988, the USS Vincennes in the Strait of Hormuz mistook an Iran Air flight heading to Dubai for an attacking fighter jet, shooting down the plane and killing all 290 people aboard. -- Courtesy AP