India hopes to sway US with nuclear power insurance plan

India is offering to set up an insurance pool to indemnify global nuclear suppliers against liability in the case of a nuclear accident, in a bid to unblock billions of dollars in trade held up by concerns over exposure to risk.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is hoping the plan will be enough to convince major US companies such as General Electric to enter the Indian market ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit at the end of January 2015.

Under a 2010 nuclear liability law, nuclear equipment suppliers are liable for damages from an accident, which companies say is a sharp deviation from international norms that put the onus on the operator to maintain safety.

India’s national law grew out of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, the world’s deadliest industrial accident, at a factory owned by US multinational Union Carbide Corp, which Indian families are still pursuing for compensation. The law effectively shut out Western companies from a huge market, as India seeks to ramp up nuclear power generation by 13 times.State-run reinsurer GIC Re is preparing a proposal to build a ‘nuclear insurance pool’ that would indemnify third-party suppliers against liabilities in the case of an accident. Under the plan, insurance would be bought by the companies contracted to build the nuclear reactors who would then recoup the cost by charging more for their services.

Pakistan to challenge bail for  ‘mastermind’ of Mumbai attack

Pakistani prosecutors will appeal a court decision to grant bail to a man accused of plotting a 2008 militant assault in India’s financial capital that killed 166 people and seriously strained ties between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

The decision on December 18 to grant bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi came two days after Pakistan’s worst ever militant attack, the killing by Pakistani Taliban gunmen of 132 children and nine members of staff at a school in the city of Peshawar.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the prospect of bail for the man India accused of masterminding the attack on Mumbai in which 166 people were killed.

The Pakistani government appeared to have been taken by surprise by the court decision and state prosecutor Chaudhry Azhar said it would be challenged: ‘We will go to Islamabad High Court on December 21 to file the application,’ Azhar told reporters on December 19. Lakhvi would not be able to leave the prison until then, he said.

The decision to grant bail to Lakhvi comes two months after India and Pakistan were engaged in their worst cross-border violence in more than a decade, in the disputed Kashmir region.

‘This type of attitude is a setback for all those who believe in humanitarianism,’ Modi told lawmakers in parliament in New Delhi, referring to the Pakistani court’s ruling.Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been trying to repair relations with India, which he sees as vital to kickstarting Pakistan’s sluggish economy. Modi had earlier condemned the Peshawar school attack, saying India was as pained as Pakistan over the massacre of the children.

Sri Lanka’s opposition  pledges War Crime Inquiry

Sri Lanka’s main opposition presidential candidate said on December 19 that the country cannot be charged with war crimes in the International Criminal Court but he will launch a domestic inquiry if he wins a January election.

Maithripala Sirisena said that Sri Lanka has not ratified the statute establishing the international court and therefore is not subject to it, but he would instead institute an investigation by a local independent court. He also pledged to protect everyone who contributed to the defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists in the country’s civil war from international action.

His main rival, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has asked voters to give him a third term in office in the January 8 election to stop what he calls an overseas attempt to take him and his soldiers to the International Criminal Court.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is investigating allegations of war crimes by the government and Tamil Tiger rebels during the civil war. An earlier UN inquiry said at least 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians died, most from government shelling, in the final months of the war, which ended in 2009. The Tamil Tigers are accused of recruiting child soldiers, holding civilians as human shields and killing those trying to escape.

Sirisena, a former health minister, defected from Rajapaksa’s government in November to become the main opposition candidate and is backed by the opposition United National Party. He accuses Rajapaksa of creating an autocracy, promising to trim extensive executive powers if he becomes president and make the office accountable to parliament and the courts. He also promised a balanced foreign policy, in contrast to the Rajapaksa administration’s increasing closeness to China, which has angered immediate neighbour India.

‘Equal relations will be established with India, China, Pakistan and Japan – the principal countries of Asia – while improving friendly relations with emerging Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Korea without distinction,’ he said.

Call for N Korea sanctions  grows after Sony hack attack

Suspicions that North Korea was behind a destructive hacking attack against Sony Pictures and a threat against US cinemas are intensifying calls for tougher US steps to cut that country’s access to hard currency and declare it once more as a state sponsor of terrorism.

At first glance, US options for responding to the hacking attack are limited. Bringing the shadowy hackers to justice appears a distant prospect. A US cyber-retaliation against North Korea would risk a dangerous escalation. And North Korea is already targeted by a raft of sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme.

‘We don’t sell them anything, we don’t buy anything from them and we don’t have diplomatic relations,’ said William Reinsch, a former senior Commerce Department official who was responsible for enforcing international sanctions against North Korea and other countries. But the US isn’t powerless if it concludes Pyongyang was behind the hack that has prompted Sony to cancel its Christmas Day release of the movie The Interview, a comedy about a plot to assassinate North Korea’s totalitarian leader, Kim Jong Un.

While US officials have said privately that they believe North Korea was connected to the attack, the White House has not said so publicly. On December 18, presidential spokesman Josh Earnest declined to blame North Korea, which has denied responsibility. He said he did not want to pre-empt investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI. While North Korea has denied it was involved, its government issued a statement earlier in December describing the hack as a ‘righteous deed’.

Pakistan to execute 500 terror  convicts

Pakistan plans to execute around 500 militants after the government lifted a moratorium on the death penalty in terror cases.

It comes after Taliban gunmen killed 149 people, including 133 children, in a school massacre in the northwestern city of Peshawar on December 16.

Six militants have been hanged since December 19 amid rising public anger over the slaughter.

Around nine gunmen stormed the army-run school on 16 December taking teachers and students hostage and killing them in classrooms.

After the deadliest terror attack in Pakistani history, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ended the six-year moratorium on the death penalty, reinstating it for terrorism-related cases.

‘The Interior Ministry has finalised the cases of 500 convicts who have exhausted all the appeals, their mercy petitions have been turned down by the president and their executions will take place in coming weeks,’ a senior government official said, on condition of anonymity.

Of the six hanged so far, five were involved in a failed attempt to assassinate the then-military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2003, while one was involved in a 2009 attack on army headquarters.

Police, troops and paramilitary Rangers have been deployed across the country and airports and prisons put on red alert as the executions take place and troops intensify operations against Taliban militants in northwestern tribal areas.

Mr Sharif has ordered the attorney general’s office to ‘actively pursue’ capital cases currently in the courts, a government spokesman said.

Umbrellas banned as  China’s Xi arrives in Macau

President Xi Jinping visited a rainy Macau on December 19 for the 15th anniversary of the gambling hub’s return to Chinese rule, with onlookers barred from using umbrellas – the emblem of democracy protests in nearby Hong Kong.

His two-day trip to the former Portuguese enclave came just days after Hong Kong police cleared the last of three camps where protesters had spent nearly three months demanding free leadership elections for the city.

Xi’s visit is an opportunity to drive home the message that the semi-autonomous territory needs to diversify away from casinos, which have seen revenues dive owing to a national anti-corruption drive and a stuttering economy.

But in the spirit of Hong Kong’s Occupy movement, which gripped the city from late September, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters planned a march on December 20 from Macau’s historic city centre.

Authorities were on guard on December 19 for signs of dissent, with reporters on the airport tarmac waiting for Xi not allowed to hold umbrellas, and handed raincoats instead. However, a handful of protesters holding umbrellas were stopped by police when they attempted to walk to where Xi was staying. ‘Why does such a powerful authority have to be afraid of a simple symbol of the yellow umbrella?’ pro-democracy activist Jason Chao questioned.

Accused plead not guilty at  Myanmar ‘Buddha insult’ trial

A New Zealander and two Burmese men pleaded not guilty on December 18 to charges of insulting Buddhism in Myanmar.

The trio, who ran the VGastro bar in Yangon, are accused over a flyer promoting a drinks event depicting Buddha with headphones and surrounded by lurid colours. The image triggered an angry response online shortly after it appeared on the bar’s Facebook page. Burmese law makes it illegal to insult or damage any religion. Police acting on a complaint by an official from the country’s religious department shut down the bar and detained New Zealander Philip Blackwood, the general manager, owner Tun Thurein, and manager Htut Ko Ko Lwin. The trial, which began on December 18, could take up to six months and the three men could face up to two years in jail on two charges relating to insulting a religion and a third charge of causing public offence. The offences were considered so serious under Burmese law that there was no point in the trio applying for bail.

The offending flyer was removed and replaced with an apology, stating that the management’s intention ‘was never to cause offence to anyone or toward any religious group’. Buddhist nationalism has been on the rise in Myanmar in recent years, with extremist monks such as Wirathu growing in popularity and increasing clashes with Muslim minorities, particularly in Rakhine state.

Putin defiant that Russia will emerge from crisis

President Vladimir Putin assured Russians on December 18 that the economy would rebound after the rouble’s dramatic slide this year but offered no remedy for a deepening financial crisis.

Defiant and confident at a three-hour news conference, Putin blamed the economic problems on external factors and said the crisis over Ukraine was caused by the West, which he accused of building a ‘virtual’ Berlin Wall to contain Russia.

He ignored pressure to say how he will fix an economy facing what his economy minister calls a ‘perfect storm’ of low oil prices, Western sanctions over Ukraine and global financial problems. The rouble has fallen about 45 percent against the dollar this year, but Putin refused to call it a crisis and said it would eventually rise again.

‘If the situation develops unfavourably, we will have to amend our plans. But a positive turn and emergence from the current situation are inevitable,’ Putin said in comments to a packed conference centre that were broadcast live to the nation.

Although he said the recovery might take two years, much will depend on how long the West maintains sanctions on Russia over its role in the Ukraine crisis.

Insurgents ambushed

At least 67 militants have been killed in a tribal area of Pakistan – days after Taliban fighters orchestrated a terror attack which left 149 people dead, most of them children.

The insurgents were ambushed by security forces in a region bordering Peshawar, where the school massacre took place. It is thought they were travelling to Afghanistan. Airstrikes and ground operations were used to target the fighters, Pakistan’s military said in a statement. It added: ‘Fleeing terrorists left behind bodies of their accomplices.’

Following on from the December 16 terror attack – the deadliest in the country’s history – the army has been under renewed pressure to root out militants from their hideouts and training camps in the mountainous regions of Khyber and North Waziristan.

The massacre was quickly followed by threats reportedly targeting school buses with magnetic bombs, with drivers urged to check underneath their vehicles before setting off.

Early on the morning of December 19, it was confirmed that a student critically wounded in the Taliban attack had died from his injuries, taking the death toll to 149. Pakistan has been battling Islamist groups since 2004, when al-Qaeda fighters fled from Afghanistan following a US-led invasion. The army estimates that 1,700 militants have been killed so far.

Cameroon army dismantles Boko Haram  training camp

Cameroon’s army has dismantled a training camp for the Boko Haram Islamist group, arresting or killing dozens of militants and seizing 84 children who were being trained there, the army has said.

Local people in northwest Cameroon alerted the military on December 20 to the camp in Guirvidig locality, near the border with northeastern Nigeria, said Lieutenant Colonel Didier Badjeck, spokesman for Cameroon’s Ministry of Defence.

‘The Rapid Intervention Battalion of our army immediately launched an attack, seized 84 children between seven and 15 who were undergoing training in the camp, arrested 45 of the trainers and killed many more,’ he said. There was no independent confirmation.

It is the first time the army has dismantled a camp and appears to represent a further success for the military after it said it killed 116 militants on December 17.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds of people in northeastern Nigeria this year as it campaigns for an Islamist state. The group has also attacked other cities and stepped up cross-border incursions into Cameroon, prompting Cameroon to deploy troops to its northern region.

News in Brief

India sends largest rocket 78 miles up
India has launched its largest rocket into space. The 630-tonne Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (MK III) blasted off from Sriharikota in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh on the morning of December 18 and went up 78 miles above the earth before splashing down later in the Bay of Bengal. The new rocket, carrying an unmanned capsule big enough for two or three astronauts, will be able to take heavier satellites into space. However, India is still a few years away sending men into space.

Akshay Kumar offers condolences to Peshawar Families
In the wake of the tragedy in Pakistan, actor and producer Akshay Kumar expressed his hopes that the tension between India and Pakistan cools soon and offered his sympathy and support to the grieving families of the children that lost their lives at the school in Peshawar. He is not the first celebrity to condemn the attack, with Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Farhan Akhtar all having made comments. Akshay has also been quoted by media in the past as saying: ‘Terrorists must not be equated with civilians… Let’s all condemn terrorism but please, let’s not look at all Pakistanis with hostility, suspicion.’

CERN nuclear physics lab admits Pakistan
The world’s top particle physics lab has admitted Pakistan as an associate member. Rolf Heuer, director general of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, signed a document on December 19 in Islamabad in the presence of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that admits Pakistan if the government ratifies it. Heuer said that Pakistan has been ‘a strong participant’ in CERN research since the 1990s and bringing nations together in ‘a peaceful quest for knowledge and education’ is an important part of the lab’s mission.

Israeli police arrest anti-Arab extremists
Israeli police arrested eight members of the anti-Arab extremist group Lehava in a series of raids on December 20. The group seeks to end fraternization between Jews and non-Jews in the hope of stopping inter-racial marriages. The group has been linked to an attack on a Jewish-Arab school last month. Police had previously arrested ten Lehava members on December 16, including the group’s leader, Bentzi Gopstein.

Tunisia: riots break out over election results
Riots broke out in the southern Tunisian city of El Hamma du Jerid following the announcement that Beji Caid Essebsi had won the country’s presidential run-off election. Hundreds of protesters burned tyres and blocked streets as police fired tear gas and arrested demonstrators. The presidential election represents the final stage in the country’s transition to democracy after the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Protesters say that choosing Essebsi, who was an official in Ben Ali’s one-party administration, is a setback for the country. Essebsi says he is an experienced politician who can put the country on the right course after three years of rule by an Islamist coalition.