India sets record in space race

India’s low-cost mission to Mars successfully entered the red planet’s orbit on September 21, crowning what prime minister Narendra Modi called a ‘near impossible’ push to become the only country to complete the trip on its maiden attempt.

The Mars Orbiter Mission was achieved on a budget of $74 million (£45 million), nearly a tenth of the amount the US space agency NASA spent on sending the Maven spacecraft to Mars.

‘History has been created today,’ said Modi, who burst into applause along with hundreds of scientists at the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) when it was announced the mission had been accomplished. ‘We have dared to reach out into the unknown and have achieved the near impossible.’

India joins the United States, Russia and Europe in successfully sending probes to orbit or land on Mars. Apart from India, none managed to succeed on their first attempt.

The mission also makes India the first country in Asia to reach Mars, after an attempt by regional rival China failed to leave Earth’s orbit in 2011.
ISRO successfully ignited the main 440 Newton liquid engine and eight small thrusters that fired for 24-minutes and trimmed the speed of the craft to allow smooth orbit. A confirmation of orbit entry was received at around 8am India time.

Afghan president sworn in after disputed poll

Ashraf Ghani has been sworn in as Afghanistan’s new president following a long and contentious election campaign that eventually resulted in a power-sharing deal.

The incoming president attended a ceremony at Kabul’s presidential palace, in what is the nation’s first democratic handover of power since the US-led invasion in 2001.

Mr Ghani, a former finance minister, faces challenges across his war-torn nation, including combating continued attacks from Taliban insurgents and other militants.

Violence continued in the run-up to the inauguration, illustrating the problems facing the new president. In Kabul, two bomb attacks took place on the road between the country’s main airport and the presidential palace.

One roadside bomb did not cause any deaths or injuries, but the second attack around a kilometre (half a mile) from the airport by a suicide bomber killed six or seven people, according to police officer Abdul Latif.

In the eastern province of Paktia, Captain Mohammed Hekhlas said a car bomb exploded near a government compound as gunmen attacked, sparking a gun battle that left seven Taliban militants dead.

Another police official said four police officers and two civilians were also killed.

Mr Ghani’s electoral challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, who is poised to fill the newly created position of chief executive, was at the ceremony. The outgoing president Hamid Karzai also attended, and he is said to be glad to be stepping down after more than a decade in the role.

‘Namaste’ (Hello) Mr Obama from India’s PM

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has met US President Barack Obama at the White House over dinner, ahead of formal talks on September 30.

The United States has been keen to expand business and security ties with India, which it sees as a key counterbalance to an increasingly assertive China in Asia. Mr Modi is on his first trip to America since being elected in May.

As well as the president, Mr Modi met Vice-President Joe Biden and other top US officials at the White House dinner reception on September 29. A foreign ministry spokesman described the conversation between the two leaders as ‘convivial and comforting’. During their talks, Obama and Modi focused on economic growth and cooperation on security, clean energy and climate change. Mr Obama has also backed Delhi’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

As part of an effort to spur foreign investment in India, Mr Modi had met more than a dozen US corporate leaders for breakfast in New York earlier the same day, and assured them that he is committed to liberalising the economy and relaxing visa restrictions.

During the official talks on September 30 the two leaders will also address the issue of Afghanistan, where the US is winding down its 13-year military involvement, plus US-led efforts to combat Islamic State extremists in Syria and Iraq.

Analysts say Mr Modi’s visit has generated huge excitement among Indian Americans, who believe that he could help portray India as a rising global power.

China must close suicide ‘loophole’ for corrupt officials

Awell-known scholar has said that China must close the ‘judicial loophole’ of suicide for corrupt officials in its ongoing battle against graft.

President Xi Jinping has vowed to target high-flying ‘tigers’ as well as lowly ‘flies’ in an anti-corruption drive that has ensnared many high-ranking officials, including the powerful former domestic security chief, Zhou Yongkang, and Jiang Jiemin, once the top regulator of state-owned enterprises.

In a commentary, Lin Zhe, a professor of anti-corruption studies at the ruling Communist Party’s Central Party School, said corrupt officials use suicide as a tool to evade punishment by the party’s anti-graft authorities. Corrupt officials who kill themselves can ‘preserve their titles and honour’ as well as their ill-gotten gains, which remain in the hands of their families, he added.

‘Considering the astonishing sums of money an official can obtain through corruption, that’s a good deal for them and their families,’ Lin said.
Just 37 per cent of officials who commit suicide actually suffer from psychological or other pressure, Lin said. Some officials may kill themselves to avoid becoming witnesses in bigger cases, Lin added, saying authorities in China must take measures to ‘close that loophole’.

‘Only when corrupt officials realise that committing suicide will no longer protect their illegal income will they give up the idea.’

Jihadists claim beheading of Frenchman captured in Algeria

Jihadists linked to the Islamic State group are claiming to have beheaded a Frenchman abducted in Algeria in a video posted online, after Paris rejected their demand to halt strikes in Iraq.

Herve Gourdel, 55, was kidnapped on September 21 by Jund al-Khilifa, or ‘Soldiers of the Caliphate’, while hiking in a national park that was once a major draw for tourists but became a sanctuary for Islamists. It follows a call by IS for Muslims to kill Westerners whose nations have joined a campaign to battle the jihadist group in Iraq and Syria.

The video, entitled ‘A Message with Blood to the French Government’, was posted on jihadist websites. It begins with a clip of French President Francois Hollande before showing Gourdel on his knees with his hands behind his back, surrounded by four armed militants whose faces were covered. One of the jihadists reads a speech in which he denounces the intervention of the ‘French criminal crusaders’ against Muslims in Algeria, Mali and Iraq.

It came a day after Hollande vowed not to give in to the jihadists’ 24-hour deadline to end air raids in Iraq.

‘As grave as this situation is, we will not give in to any blackmail, any pressure, any ultimatum, no matter how odious, how despicable,’ he said on the sidelines of an official trip to New York.

France has ruled out joining military operations in Syria, where a US-led coalition began strikes against IS on September 23.

‘Nothing token’ about Britain’s Iraq mission

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has rejected claims Britain’s role in the fight against Islamic State (IS) is a ‘token’ gesture, as he confirmed RAF Tornados are now flying daily over northern Iraq.

He told Sky’s Murnaghan programme the United States welcomes the contribution of six aircraft to the mission.
Mr Fallon said: ‘There’s nothing token about this. On the contrary, I spoke to the American Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel immediately after the vote and he welcomed the contribution that we’re now able to make.

‘They need our help, not simply with the Tornados, which are now flying daily from Cyprus, but also from the surveyance aircraft that we have overhead and very sophisticated surveyance and intelligence to add to the operations of Iraqi and Kurdish forces.’

His comments come after Richard Williams, a former commanding officer of the SAS who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote in the Independent on Sunday the deployment of RAF bombers was a ‘military sugar rush’ that ‘risks looking fearful and half-cocked’.

Lieutenant Colonel Williams said the sending in of RAF bombers had ‘taken on a military and political significance out of all proportion to their real military value’.

Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, a former head of the UK military who stepped down as chief of the defence staff last year, also told The Sunday Times that a campaign involving ground troops would be needed to crush IS.

The RAF carried out two sorties over Iraq on September 27, followed by a third mission the following day, after Parliament cleared the way for airstrikes on IS militants in a vote on September 26.

Israel accuses Iran of secret tests at Parchin base

Israel has said that Iran has used its Parchin military base as the site for secret tests of technology that could be used only for detonating a nuclear weapon.

The Jewish state has been a severe critic of the six big powers’ negotiations with Iran on restraining its nuclear programme, suspecting that Tehran is only trying to buy time to master sensitive nuclear know-how, and would evade the terms of any final deal.

The Islamic Republic says allegations that it is seeking a nuclear weapons capability are false and baseless. Tehran says it is Israel’s assumed atomic arsenal that is a destabilising threat to the Middle East.

A statement from Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, issued a day before Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — the architect of Tehran’s diplomacy with the big powers — was to address the UN General Assembly, said internal neutron sources such as uranium were used in nuclear implosion tests at Parchin.

Israel, his statement said, based its information on ‘highly reliable information’, without elaborating.

It gave no specific dates for such testing, saying only that it occurred during what it called the 2000-2001 construction of a nuclear weaponisation test site in Parchin.

An annex to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report in 2011, which included information received from member states, indicated that Iran may have conducted such alleged experiments but did not specify where they had taken place.

Nigeria’s ex-VP declares bid for presidency

Former Nigerian vice president Atiku Abubakar has declared a bid to run for president as the main opposition coalition’s candidate, ramping up a contest for the only ticket that stands a chance of unseating President Goodluck Jonathan.

Addressing supporters of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) in the capital Abuja, Abubakar said Nigeria was more divided than at any time since the 1960s civil war, and pledged to end the insecurity and graft plaguing Africa’s top oil producer for decades. The APC holds a primary in December.

Abubakar, who defected to the APC from the ruling party in February, faces a potentially divisive struggle with other leading party officials, especially former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, who ran against Jonathan in 2011 elections. The board of Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has settled on him as sole party candidate for the vote scheduled for February 2015, which more or less guarantees he will be accepted by the PDP.

Jonathan, a Christian southerner, has yet to officially declare his intention to run, but is widely assumed to be going for another term and campaign posters touting his achievements have gone up all over Abuja. ‘We cannot continue down this path,’ said Abubakar, a Muslim northerner. ‘Our country is more divided today than at any time since the end of the civil war,’ he told hundreds of supporters.

Thai assembly votes itself the power to impeach politicians, sideline critics

Thailand’s military-dominated legislature has given itself the power to impeach political office holders, edging a step closer to rooting out the influence of controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The army seized power on May 22 in a bid to restore order and kick-start Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy after months of political infighting that killed nearly 30 people.

The junta, formally known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has reshuffled the civil service and the police force, once seen as an institution loyal to Thaksin, a former police officer, to try and neutralise his allies.

This latest move, which took place on September 25, is the latest effort by the military leadership to curb the powers of those loyal to Thaksin and ensure political parties linked to him cannot regain power.

‘The meeting unanimously voted in favour of introducing this rule,’ Pornpetch Wichitcholachai, leader of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), told reporters.

Thailand has suffered years of political turmoil centred on Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon whose policies helped galvanise support in rural areas but made him unpopular with the Bangkok-based royalist establishment.

Ousted by the army in 2006, he has lived in self-imposed exile since 2008 to avoid a two-year corruption sentence.

The September 25 vote was a bid by the military leadership to consolidate its grip on power, said Paul Chambers, a Southeast Asian expert affiliated with Chiang Mai University.

‘This appears to be an attempt by the arch-royalist military leadership and its allies to completely remove from the political scene those politicians who either supported Thaksin over the years or those who may be viewed as not sufficiently acquiescent to the junta.’

Pope removes divisive bishop in Paraguay

Pope Francis has forcibly removed a conservative Paraguayan bishop who had promoted a priest accused of inappropriate sexual behaviour and clashed with his fellow bishops on ideological grounds.

The removal of Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, a member of the conservative Opus Dei movement, marks the second time Francis has kicked out a conservative bishop for the sake of keeping peace among the faithful and unity among bishops. In March, he ousted Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the ‘bling bishop’ of Limburg, Germany, whose 31-million-euro new residence complex caused an uproar among Catholics.

Livieres was named bishop of Ciudad del Este in 2004 and immediately disturbed other more progressive bishops in Paraguay by opening his own seminary, following a more orthodox line than the main seminary in the capital, Asuncion. Paraguay’s bishops are known for their progressive bent in a poor country where liberation theology found fertile ground.

News in Brief

Former Bangladeshi PM on trial
The trial of former Bangladeshi prime minister and head of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, Begum Khaleda Zia, began on September 22. The charges against Zia are that she embezzled a total of $650,000 in two separate instances, and she could face life in prison if found guilty. The trial has been delayed 40 times since Zia’s original indictment.

Separatists & government to ensure ceasefire in the east
Pro-Russian separatists and representatives from Moscow and Kiev have agreed during talks in Minsk to guarantee the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine by establishing a 30-km (18-mile) buffer zone. Each side will reportedly move heavy artillery 15 km back from the front line. Foreign mercenaries will also reportedly pull out, and there will be a ban on military flights over parts of eastern Ukraine. Since the ceasefire went into effect on September 5, there have been reports of continued fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk, though the parties in Minsk allegedly did not discuss the two regions.

Scottish voters reject independence
Following a hard-fought two-year campaign, Scotland has voted to stay in the UK. While Glasgow, Scotland’s largest council area and the third largest city in Britain, voted in favour of independence, it was not enough to secure an overall victory for Edinburgh. After 30 out of the country’s 32 council areas declared their results, the ‘No’ side had an indisputable lead of 1,877,252 votes. The total required to win was 1,852,828. Nationally, the margin of victory was about 55 per cent to 45 per cent. Talks have now begun between Westminster and Scotland on devolving more powers to Scotland.

Israel, Palestinian territories: rival factions make progress in talks
Rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah have made a breakthrough in negotiations on re-establishing their unity government, negotiators from both sides have said. According to an anonymous source, the groups plan to release an official announcement on September 25. The relationship between Hamas and Fatah soured during the most recent round of conflict with Israel, and further negotiations between the two groups are set to be held in Israel this October.

Iran points finger re rise of extremism
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has blamed the rise of violent extremism on ‘certain states’ and on unidentified ‘intelligence agencies’ and said it was up to the region to find a solution to the problem. ‘Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hand of madmen, who now spare no one,’ Rouhani told the United Nations General Assembly. ‘The right solution to this quandary comes from within the region and regionally provided solutions with international support, and not from the outside the region,’ he said.