India’s virus surge damages Modi’s image of competence

India’s virus surge damages Modi’s image of competence

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FILE – In this Nov. 11 2020, file photo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves after a function at the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters following a state election in New Delhi, India. Despite clear signs that India was being swamped … more >

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By KRUTIKA PATHI and SHEIKH SAALIQ and RAVI NESSMAN

Associated Press

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) – India’s hospitals were packed with coronavirus patients, relatives of the sick scrambled to find supplies of oxygen, and crematoriums were running near full capacity to handle the dead.

Yet despite those clear signs of an overwhelming health crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pressed ahead with a densely packed campaign rally.

“I have never seen such a huge crowd before!” he roared to his supporters in West Bengal state on April 17, before key local elections. “Wherever I can see, I can only see people. I can see nothing else.”

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As another deadly wave of COVID-19 infections was swamping India, Modi’s government refused to cancel a giant Hindu festival. Cricket matches, attended by tens of thousands, carried on, too.

The catastrophic surge has badly dented Modi’s political image after he drew praise last year for moving quickly to lock down India’s nearly 1.4 billion people. Now, he’s been called a “super-spreader” by the vice president of the Indian Medical Association, Dr. Navjot Dahiya.

With deaths mounting and a touted vaccine rollout faltering badly, Modi has pushed much of the responsibility for fighting the virus onto poorly equipped and unprepared state governments and even onto patients themselves, critics say.

“It is a crime against humanity,” author and activist Arundhati Roy said of Modi’s handling of the virus. “Foreign governments are rushing to help. But as long as decision-making remains with Modi, who has shown himself to be incapable of working with experts or looking beyond securing narrow political gain, it will be like pouring aid into a sieve.”

The 70-year-old, whose image as a technocrat brought him deep approval from a middle class weary of corruption and bureaucratic dysfunction, has been accused of stifling dissent and choosing politics over public health.

When the official COVID-19 death toll crossed 200,000 – a number experts say is a severe undercount – Modi was silent.

His government says it is on a “war footing,” ramping up hospital capacity, supplies of oxygen and drugs.

“The present COVID pandemic is a once-in-a-century crisis,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar told The Associated Press. “All efforts are being made to overcome the situation by the central government in close coordination with the state governments and society at large.”

When Modi won national elections in 2014, he presented himself as someone who could unlock economic growth by merging business-friendly policies with a Hindu nationalist ideology.

Critics saw him as craving power over the national welfare and catering to his Hindu nationalist base. They blamed him – although courts exonerated him – in the bloody 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat state, where he was chief minister.

The economy tumbled after his government overhauled India’s cash supply and introduced a goods and services tax. Yet, he easily won reelection in 2019 on a wave of nationalism following clashes with archrival Pakistan.

Despite a second term marred by a souring economy, widening social strife, and deadly clashes with neighboring China, “Modi has proven to be incredibly politically resilient,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

When the coronavirus hit, Vaishnav said Modi took an approach different from former President Donald Trump and current Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

“He never called the virus a hoax. He took it seriously. He encouraged mask-wearing, social distancing. He encouraged the sorts of things health authorities everywhere have been calling for,” he added.

The strict lockdown, imposed on four hours’ notice, stranded tens of millions of migrant workers who were left jobless and fled to villages with many dying along the way. But experts say the decision helped contain the virus and bought time for the government.

Cases rose when the country started reopening in June 2020, and the government developed emergency infrastructure plans. When the wave receded and reported cases plummeted over the winter, many officials saw it as a triumph. States dismantled makeshift hospitals and delayed adding ICU beds and ventilators.

The government had sought to create 162 oxygen plants earlier, but has only built 38. It says 105 more will be built this month.

The fragile health care system was not upgraded enough, said Gautam Menon, a science professor at Ashoka University, “and with the current surge, we’re seeing precisely the consequences of not doing this.”

When cases ebbed in January, Modi crowed about India’s success, telling the World Economic Forum that the country “has saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively.”

His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party hailed his “visionary leadership,” making India a “proud and victorious nation in the fight against COVID.”

In mid-March, tens of thousands attended cricket matches against England at Narendra Modi stadium in Gujarat, an event that swelled national pride even amid warnings that infections were climbing.

On March 21, advertisements on the front pages of newspapers read, “Beautiful Clean Safe,” as Modi and a political ally welcomed Hindu devotees to the Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage to the Ganges River that drew millions throughout April.

By contrast, in March 2020, his government blamed a Muslim gathering of 3,000 for an initial spike in infections in a move that triggered violence and boycotts, even as courts dismissed the accusations.

Critics have blasted the BJP for holding election rallies packed with tens of thousands of unmasked supporters, particularly in West Bengal. Other parties also campaigned to large crowds. Bowing to criticism, Modi began appearing over video instead of live, but the crowds remained.

Though his party was defeated in the state, analysts say he still enjoys popularity nationwide.

Meanwhile, India’s vaccination campaign begun in January has sputtered amid perceptions the virus was defeated. Only 10% of the population has received one shot and fewer than 2% have gotten both since it began in January.

The latest effort to inoculate those between 18 and 44 has been left to states and the private sector – an approach that critics say will make it easier for the government to pass blame when problems arise. Already, several states have said they don’t have enough vaccine to even start.

The surge has sparked assistance from overseas, a reversal of India’s earlier success at “vaccine diplomacy” when it exported 64 million doses. Some say Modi’s flagship self-sufficiency campaign, known as “Make in India,” is being undermined.

India has long sought to project itself as a strong nation that need not be dependent on any other. Its immediate need for international assistance flies in the face of that image,” said Michael Kugelman of the Asia Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center.

Some Modi supporters are lashing out. When BJP lawmaker Kesar Singh Gangwar died of the virus in Uttar Pradesh state, his son said Modi’s office didn’t help.

“What kind of government is this? What kind of PM is Modi?” said Vishal Gangwar. “If he cannot provide treatment to a lawmaker of his own party, what is happening to a common man is anybody’s guess.”

To circumvent such criticism, the government ordered Twitter to remove posts criticizing his pandemic response. In BJP-run Uttar Pradesh, authorities recently charged a man over a tweet pleading for oxygen for his dying grandfather, accusing him of “circulating a rumor,” as top officials deny widespread oxygen shortages.

“To blame social media or users for either critiquing or begging for help is just – I mean, what are their priorities? To help people or silence criticism?” said digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa.

The level of urban and middle class anger at Modi is unprecedented, political analyst Vaishnav said, although it is blunted by supporters who believe he can do no wrong.

“He shouldn’t be expected to solve all problems by himself. The government machinery which existed before him, full of corruption, is to blame,” said Sunil Saini, a driver in New Delhi. “My vote will go to Modi the next time too.”

___

Nessman reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow contributed to this report.

European Union mulls move to welcome vaccinated travelers from U.S., other countries

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FILE – In this March 18, 2021 file photo, empty tables are seen on a deserted square in normally very busy old town of Cologne, Germany, Thursday. The European Union statistics agency Eurostat announces first-quarter growth figures for the 19 … more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Monday, May 3, 2021

The European Commission proposed Monday to open member countries to vaccinated tourists from the U.S. and other places by early summer, while including an “emergency brake” in case the COVID-19 picture suddenly worsens from aggressive new variants.

Many European nations rely heavily on tourism revenues in their overall economy, and the 27-nation bloc had been working on ways to improve movement within its vast territorial reach. Monday’s announcement was a way to demonstrate the EU‘s splendors will be open to countries elsewhere as vaccines reach more and more arms.

“This reflects the latest scientific advice showing that vaccination considerably helps to break the transmission chain,” the commission said.

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The picture was not all bright: In Germany, the state of Bavaria confirmed Monday it will cancel Oktoberfest, known locally as “Wiesn,” for a second year instead of welcoming revelers from Sept. 18 to Oct. 3 as planned. Other major tourist draws, including the famed running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, have already been scrubbed because of COVID-19 concerns

“The risk is simply too great that people could be infected with the coronavirus here,” Munich’s Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter told reporters. “I know how hard this is not only for the visitors, but also how much it affects all those who work at the Wiesn and now have to do without income once again — from the waiters and waitresses to the stall operators, showmen and innkeepers. But the Wiesn can only exist completely or not at all.”

The festival involves vast crowds of beer drinkers gathered around tables in a party atmosphere.

More broadly, however, EU officials sent out a message Monday that the bloc wants to welcome tourists back onto its streets, cathedrals and picturesque beaches.

A person would be considered fully vaccinated 14 days after receiving the last recommended dose of a vaccine that has received market authorization in the EU. Children of vaccinated people would be admitted with a negative test.

The plan, which will be debated this week, also envisions making it easier for unvaccinated people to visit by raising the threshold for what’s considered unacceptable transmission in their home countries. For instance, Chinese tourists might not be immunized with an EU-approved vaccine but they could still enter if their country continues to maintain a tight lid on domestic transmission rates.

Individual EU members can still require a negative test from travelers, though the Monday’s proposals were designed to encourage nonessential trips instead of banning tourists and other travelers outright.

“Time to revive Flag of European Union tourism industry & for cross-border friendships to rekindle — safely,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted. “We propose to welcome again vaccinated visitors & those from countries with a good health situation.”

Like other places, the EU issued lockdowns, canceled big events and limited travel throughout the year-plus pandemic. Parts of Southern Europe such as Italy and Greece are particularly dependent on travelers to keep their struggling economies afloat.

Europe is working on a vaccine passport, or Digital Green Certificate, to facilitate the proposal.

“Until the Digital Green Certificate is operational, [EU states] should be able to accept certificates from non-EU countries based on national law, taking into account the ability to verify the authenticity, validity and integrity of the certificate and whether it contains all relevant data,” the commission said.

The commission said it remains concerned bout dangerous mutations in the virus and has prepared a fallback plan to tighten things again as necessary.

“The emergence of coronavirus variants of concern calls for continued vigilance,” it said. “Therefore as counter-balance, the commission proposes a new ‘emergency brake’ mechanism, to be coordinated at EU level and which would limit the risk of such variants entering the EU.”

The threat of variants from elsewhere is the main threat to countries seeing progress due to vaccination. That’s why the U.S. and other places banned travel from India as New Delhi sees an unprecedented surge that may be fueled by variants.

Australia recently took things to an extreme, saying as of Monday even its citizens could not enter from India. The decision outraged Indian Australians and others who said it was without precedent.

Hospital fire kills 18 coronavirus patients as India steps up jabs

Hospital fire kills 18 coronavirus patients as India steps up jabs

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A relative of a person who died of COVID-19 mourns at a crematorium in Jammu, in Jammu, India, Friday, April 30, 2021. Indian scientists appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to publicly release virus data that would allow them to … more >

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By Ashok Sharma

Associated Press

Friday, April 30, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) — A fire in a COVID-19 hospital ward in western India killed 18 patients early Saturday, as the country grappling with the worst outbreak yet steps up a vaccination drive for all its adults even though some states say they don’t have enough jabs.

India on Saturday set yet another daily global record with 401,993 new cases, taking its tally to more than 19.1 million. Another 3,523 people died in the past 24 hours, raising the overall fatalities to 211,853, according to the Health Ministry. Experts believe both figures are an undercount.

The fire broke out in a COVID-19 ward on the ground floor of the Welfare Hospital in Bharuch, a town in Gujarat state, and was extinguished within an hour, police said. The cause is being investigated.

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Thirty-one other patients were rescued by hospital workers and firefighters and their condition was stable, said police officer B.M Parmar. The eighteen patients died in the blaze and smoke before rescuers could reach them, Parmar said.

On April 23, a fire in an intensive care unit killed 13 COVID-19 patients in the Virar area on the outskirts of Mumbai.

India’s government on Saturday shifted its faltering vaccination campaign into high gear by saying all adults 18 and over would get shots. Since January, nearly 10% of Indians have received one dose, but only around 1.5% have received both, although India is one of the world’s biggest producers of vaccines.

Some states already said they don’t have enough doses for everyone. Even the ongoing effort to inoculate people above 45 is stuttering.

The state of Maharashtra has said it won’t be able to start on Saturday, and Satyender Jain, the health minister in New Delhi, said earlier this week that the city doesn’t have enough doses to vaccinate people between 18 and 44.

Separately, eight COVID-19 patients, including a doctor, died Saturday at a hospital in the capital of New Delhi after it ran short of oxygen supplies, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. There was no confirmation by hospital officials.

The New Delhi television news channel also said an attorney for the Batra hospital told a New Delhi court that the hospital ran out of oxygen supply for 80 minutes before the tank was replenished.

Hospitals in the Indian capital have been complaining of emergencies caused by irregular oxygen supplies by manufacturers due to the sudden rise in demand caused by the massive spike in virus infections.

Faced with an unprecedented surge in cases that has filled hospitals and crematoriums, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government described the pandemic as a “once-in-a-century crisis.” Modi held a Cabinet meeting Friday that discussed steps to save the country’s crumbling health system by adding hospital beds, resolving issues in production, storage and transport of oxygen and tackling the shortage of essential medicines.

Television images showed a woman gasping for breath in her car while her family looked for a hospital bed on the outskirts of New Delhi.

The 33-year-old woman couldn’t find room at three hospitals and died in the car on Friday, The Times of India newspaper reported.

The U.S. meanwhile joined a growing list of countries restricting travel from India, the White House said, citing the devastating rise in COVID-19 cases and the emergence of potentially dangerous variants of the coronavirus.

President Joe Biden spoke Monday with Modi about the growing health crisis and pledged to immediately send assistance. This week, the U.S. began delivering therapeutics, rapid virus tests and oxygen to India, along with some materials needed for India to boost its domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines.

Additionally, a CDC team of public health experts was expected to be on the ground soon to help Indian health officials move to slow the spread of the virus.

Other nations have also sent assistance, and the Indian air force airlifted oxygen containers from Singapore, Dubai and Bangkok.

A German military aircraft with 120 ventilators for India departed Saturday morning from Cologne, and plans were being made for other flights with more supplies. Also on board was a team of 13 that will help prepare to set up a mobile oxygen production unit that will be flown to India next week, German news agency dpa said.

Virus ‘swallowing’ people in India; crematoriums overwhelmed

Virus ‘swallowing’ people in India; crematoriums overwhelmed

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Multiple funeral pyres of victims of COVID-19 burn at a ground that has been converted into a crematorium for mass cremation in New Delhi, India, Saturday, April 24, 2021. Indian authorities are scrambling to get medical oxygen to hospitals where … more >

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By Sheikh Saaliq and Aijaz Hussain

Associated Press

Sunday, April 25, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) – With life-saving oxygen in short supply, family members in India are left on their own to ferry coronavirus patients from hospital to hospital in search of treatment as the country is engulfed in a devastating new surge of infections. Too often their efforts end in mourning.

The stories are told on social media and in television footage, showing desperate relatives pleading for oxygen outside hospitals or weeping in the street for loved ones who died waiting for treatment.

One woman mourned the death of her younger brother, aged 50. He was turned away by two hospitals and died waiting to be seen at a third, gasping after his oxygen tank ran out and no replacements were to be had.

SEE ALSO: China deploys unlikely weapon to muscle out U.S. on global stage: COVID-19 vaccine

She blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for the crisis.

“He has lit funeral pyres in every house,’’ she cried in a video shot by India’s weekly magazine The Caravan.

For the fourth straight day, India on Sunday set a global daily record of new coronavirus infections, spurred by an insidious new variant that emerged here. The surge has undermined the government’s premature claims of victory over the pandemic.

The 349,691 confirmed infections over the past day brought India’s total to more than 16.9 million cases, behind only the United States. The Health Ministry reported another 2,767 deaths in the past 24 hours, pushing India’s fatalities to 192,311.

Experts say this toll could be a huge undercount, as suspected cases are not included, and many COVID-19 deaths are being attributed to underlying conditions.

The unfolding crisis is most visceral in India‘s overwhelmed graveyards and crematoriums, and in heartbreaking images of gasping patients dying on their way to hospitals due to lack of oxygen.

Burial grounds in the capital New Delhi are running out of space. Bright, glowing funeral pyres light up the night sky in other badly hit cities.

In the central city of Bhopal, some crematoriums have increased their capacity from dozens of pyres to more than 50. Yet officials say there are still hours-long waits.

At the city’s Bhadbhada Vishram Ghat crematorium, workers said they cremated more than 110 people on Saturday, even as government figures in the entire city of 1.8 million put the total number of virus deaths at just 10.

“The virus is swallowing our city’s people like a monster,” said Mamtesh Sharma, an official at the site.

The unprecedented rush of bodies has forced the crematorium to skip individual ceremonies and exhaustive rituals that Hindus believe release the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

“We are just burning bodies as they arrive,” said Sharma. “It is as if we are in the middle of a war.”

The head gravedigger at New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery, where 1,000 people have been buried during the pandemic, said more bodies are arriving now than last year. “I fear we will run out of space very soon,” said Mohammad Shameem.

The situation is equally grim at unbearably full hospitals, where desperate people are dying in line, sometimes on the roads outside, waiting to see doctors.

Health officials are scrambling to expand critical care units and stock up on dwindling supplies of oxygen. Hospitals and patients alike are struggling to procure scarce medical equipment that’s being sold on the black market at an exponential markup.

The drama is in direct contrast with government claims that “nobody in the country was left without oxygen,” in a statement made Saturday by India’s Solicitor General Tushar Mehta before Delhi High Court.

The breakdown is a stark failure for a country whose prime minister only in January had declared victory over COVID-19, and which boasted of being the “world’s pharmacy,” a global producer of vaccines and a model for other developing nations.

Caught off-guard by the latest deadly spike, the federal government has asked industrialists to increase the production of oxygen and other life-saving drugs in short supply. But health experts say India had an entire year to prepare for the inevitable – and it didn’t.

Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the government should have used the last year, when the virus was more under control, to stockpile medicines and develop systems to confront the likelihood of a new surge.

“Most importantly, they should have looked at what was going on in other parts of the world and understood that it was a matter of time before they would be in a similar situation,’’ Kuppalli said.

Instead, the government’s premature declarations of victory over the pandemic created a “false narrative,” which encouraged people to relax health measures when they should have continued strict adherence to physical distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds.

Modi is facing mounting criticism for allowing Hindu festivals and attending mammoth election rallies that experts suspect accelerated the spread of infections. At one such rally on April 17, Modi expressed his delight at the huge crowd, even as experts warned that a deadly surge was inevitable with India already counting 250,000 new daily cases.

Now, with the death toll mounting, his Hindu nationalist government is trying to quell critical voices.

On Saturday, Twitter complied with the government’s request and prevented people in India from viewing more than 50 tweets that appeared to criticize the administration’s handling of the pandemic. The targeted posts include tweets from opposition ministers critical of Modi, journalists and ordinary Indians.

A Twitter spokesperson said it had powers to “withhold access to the content in India only” if the company determined the content to be “illegal in a particular jurisdiction.” The company said it had responded to an order by the government and notified people whose tweets were withheld.

India’s Information Technology Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Even with the targeted blocks, horrific scenes of overwhelmed hospitals and cremation grounds spread on Twitter and drew appeals for help.

The U.S. is actively looking at ways to boost aid to India, including sending oxygen supplies, virus tests, drug treatments and personal protective equipment.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s top medical adviser on the pandemic, told ABC’s “This Week” that the U.S. would review how to increase India’s vaccine supply, such as by sending doses or helping India “to essentially make vaccines themselves.”

Help and support were also offered from archrival Pakistan, with politicians, journalists and citizens in the neighboring country expressing solidarity. Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said it offered to provide relief including ventilators, oxygen supply kits, digital X-ray machines, PPE and related items.

“Humanitarian issues require responses beyond political consideration,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said.

The Indian government did not immediately respond to Qureshi’s statement.

____

Hussain reported from Srinagar, India.

Low on beds, oxygen, India adds global high 314K coronavirus cases

Low on beds, oxygen, India adds global high 314K coronavirus cases

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Workers unload empty oxygen cylinders returning from hospitals at a gas supplier facility in Bengaluru, India, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. India has been overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of new coronavirus cases daily, bringing pain, fear and agony to many … more >

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By Ashok Sharma

Associated Press

Thursday, April 22, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) — India reported a global record of more than 314,000 new infections Thursday as a grim coronavirus surge in the world’s second-most populous country sends more and more sick people into a fragile health care system critically short of hospital beds and oxygen.

The 314,835 infections added in the past 24 hours raise India‘s total past 15.9 million cases since the pandemic began. It’s the second-highest total in the world next to the United States. India has nearly 1.4 billion people.

Fatalities rose by 2,104 in the past 24 hours, raising India‘s overall death toll to 184,657, the Health Ministry said.

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A large number of hospitals are reporting acute shortages of beds and medicine and are running on dangerously low levels of oxygen.

The New Delhi High Court on Wednesday ordered the government to divert oxygen from industrial use to hospitals to save people’s lives. “You can’t have people die because there is no oxygen. Beg, borrow or steal, it is a national emergency,” the judges said, responding to a petition by a New Delhi hospital seeking the court’s intervention.

The government is rushing oxygen tankers to replenish supplies to hospitals.

Indian Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Thursday that “demand and supply is being monitored round the clock.” He said in a tweet that to address the exponential spike in demand, the government has increased the quota of oxygen for the seven worst-hit states.

Lockdowns and strict curbs have brought pain, fear and agony to many people in New Delhi and other cities.

In scenes familiar across the country, ambulances are rush from one hospital to another, trying to find an empty bed. Grieving relatives line up outside crematoriums where the number of dead bodies has jumped several times.

“I get numerous calls every day from patients desperate for a bed. The demand is far too much than the supply,” said Dr. Sanjay Gururaj, a doctor at Bengaluru-based Shanti Hospital and Research Center.

“I try to find beds for patients every day, and it’s been incredibly frustrating to not be able to help them. In the last week, three patients of mine have died at home because they were unable to get beds. As a doctor, it’s an awful feeling,” Gururaj said.

Yogesh Dixit, a resident of northern Uttar Pradesh state, said earlier this week that he had to buy two oxygen cylinders at 12,000 rupees ($160) each, more than twice the normal cost, for his ailing father because the state-run hospital in Lucknow had run out of supplies.

He bought two “because the doctors can ask for another oxygen cylinder at any time,” he said, adding that he had to sell his wife’s jewelry to meet the cost.

The main cremation ground at Lucknow, the state capital, received nearly 200 bodies on Sunday. “The bodies were everywhere, they were being cremated on sidewalks meant for walking. I have never such a flow of dead bodies in my life,” said Shekhar Chakraborty, 68.

In Kanpur, also in Uttar Pradesh, 35 temporary platforms have been set up on Bithoor-Sidhnath Ghat along the Ganges River to cremate bodies.

The Health Ministry said that of the country’s total production of 7,500 metric tons (8,300 U.S. tons) of oxygen per day, 6,600 metric tons (7,275 U.S. tons) was being allocated for medical use.

It also said that 75 railroad coaches in the Indian capital have been turned into hospitals providing an additional 1,200 beds for COVID-19 patients.

The Times of India newspaper said that the previous highest daily case count of 307,581 was reported in the U.S. on Jan. 8.

—-

Associated Press writers Krutika Pathi in Bengaluru, India, and Biswajeet Banerjee in Lucknow, India, contributed to this report.

Biden, Modi pledge cooperation as both deal with China

Biden, Modi pledge cooperation as both deal with China

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President Joe Biden arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By AAMER MADHANI

Associated Press

Monday, February 8, 2021

President Joe Biden spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, with the leaders of the world’s two biggest democracies agreeing to strengthen their nations’ partnership at a moment when both countries face strained relations with China.

India is in the midst of a 9-monthslong military standoff with China along their disputed border in eastern Ladakh. Tens of thousands of soldiers are facing each other at friction points in the region in sub-zero temperatures. At the same time, Biden is determined to depart from former President Donald Trump’s hot-and-cold relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump alternately courted and cajoled Beijing, pressing for a major trade agreement while downplaying China’s efforts to squelch pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Trump also initially assured Americans that China had the coronavirus “very well under control” before later blaming the Chinese government – often using xenophobic language – for being responsible for the worst public health crisis in the U.S. in more than a century.

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The White House said in a statement that Biden and Modi “agreed to continuing close cooperation to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific” and added that the leaders “resolved that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld” in Myanmar, days after a military coup in the southeast Asian nation.

Biden and Modi are no strangers. As a senator, Biden was an important advocate of the 2008 civil nuclear deal between the countries.

The 2008 nuclear accord paved the way for the supply of U.S. high-tech equipment that India wanted along with the technology. The accord ended India’s isolation after it conducted nuclear tests in 1998 and refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States is also supporting India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a move that has been blocked by China.

Modi wrote on Twitter that he wished Biden success as he launches his administration.

“President @JoeBiden and I are committed to a rules-based international order. We look forward to consolidating our strategic partnership to further peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond,” Modi tweeted.

Modi also had a warm relationship with Trump.

Trump last year, weeks before the pandemic locked down much of the globe, made a two-day visit to India that included a raucous rally at a 110,000-seat cricket stadium. The Republican president hosted Modi in 2019 in the U.S., a visit that included a side trip to Houston that drew about 50,000 people, many from the large Indian diaspora in the U.S.

___

Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Small explosion near Israeli Embassy in New Delhi

Small explosion near Israeli Embassy in New Delhi

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Policemen stand guard near the Israeli Embassy after a blast in the area in New Delhi, India, Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. A “very low intensity” device exploded Friday near the Israeli Embassy in the Indian capital, but there were no … more >

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Associated Press

Friday, January 29, 2021

NEW DELHI (AP) – A “very low intensity” device exploded Friday near the Israeli Embassy in the Indian capital, but there were no injuries and little damage, police said.

New Delhi police said the only damage was to the windows of three cars parked nearby, which were shattered by the blast.

A preliminary investigation “suggests a mischievous attempt to create a sensation,” police said in a statement.

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Police cordoned off the area and were investigating.

Israel’s foreign ministry said in a statement that “there are no casualties and no harm was done to the building. All Israeli diplomats and embassy staff are safe and sound.”

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar tweeted that he “Spoke just now to Israeli FM @Gabi_Ashkenazi about the explosion outside the Israeli Embassy. We take this very seriously. Assured him of the fullest protection for the Embassy and Israeli diplomats. Matter is under investigation and no effort will be spared to find the culprits.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying he has “full confidence” that Indian authorities will investigate the bombing and work to ensure the safety of Israelis.

India is a popular destination for Israelis, many of whom travel here for tourism after finishing their military service. Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have developed close ties in recent years.

The New Delhi Television news channel said the explosive device had ball bearings wrapped in a plastic bag and was left on the pavement outside the embassy. There was no immediate police confirmation.

The blast in the high-security zone occurred while India’s president and prime minister were attending a ceremony marking the end of Republic Day celebrations. The venue is about 1.4 kilometers (1 mile) from the Israeli Embassy.

In 2012, an explosion under an Israeli Embassy car in New Delhi injured four people, including the wife of a diplomat. Police said two men riding on a motorbike planted the explosive device under the car when it stopped at a traffic signal. The device exploded soon afterward.

Israel accused Iran of involvement in that blast.

___

Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

UK foreign secretary holds talks with Indian counterpart

UK foreign secretary holds talks with Indian counterpart

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British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, left and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar arrive to make joint press statements after their meeting in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Dec.15, 2020. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup) more >

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Associated Press

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) – Britain’s foreign secretary and his Indian counterpart met on Tuesday in New Delhi in an effort to deepen ties between their countries.

Dominic Raab and Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar held talks for about four hours and discussed a wide range of issues, including the post-pandemic world, defense, trade and the environment, the diplomats told reports after their meeting.

“The focus has been on how to take our ties to a higher level,” Jaishankar said. He said he and Raab focused on five broad themes – connecting people, trade and prosperity, defense and security, climate change and health.

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The two sides also discussed the situation in Afghanistan, the evolution of the Indo-Pacific region and developments in the Middle East, Jaishankar said. “As democratic polities, market economies and pluralistic societies, we can, we should and we will make a difference to the realization of a rules-based global order,” he said.

Raab, who arrived in India on Monday, said Britain wants to deepen its economic partnership with India. “We are committed to building a stronger defense and security partnership with India that will help us tackle shared issues related to terrorism and maritime security,” he said.

He also said that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had accepted India’s Republic Day celebrations invitation on Jan. 26.

“As a key player in the Indo-Pacific region, India is an increasingly indispensable partner for the United Kingdom as we work to boost jobs and growth, confront shared threats to our security and protect our planet,” Johnson said in a statement released by his office.

India and Britain have enjoyed a strategic partnership since 2004, marked by regular high-level exchanges and cooperation in diverse areas. According to official statistics, India’s trade with Britain in 2017 and 2018 was worth $14.5 billion.

Raab’s three-day visit to India comes at a time when Britain is ramping up trade with leading economies and also holding complex negotiations with the European Union on reaching a post-Brexit trade deal.

“The foreign secretary comes at a very important time because we are looking at a post-COVID world and also looking at a post-Brexit world from the perspective of the U.K.,” Jaishankar said.

Raab will also meet with Indian Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar and Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal.

Pakistan asks UN to probe fake pro-India NGOs, media

Pakistan asks UN to probe fake pro-India NGOs, media

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FILE – In this Nov. 14, 2020 file photo, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi briefs to media during a press conference, in Islamabad, Pakistan. Qureshi on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020 demanded the United Nations and the European Union investigate … more >

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By MUNIR AHMED

Associated Press

Friday, December 11, 2020

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistan‘s foreign minister on Friday called for the United Nations and the European Union to investigate a recent report exposing a 15-year disinformation campaign that Islamabad alleges was designed to serve India‘s interests and discredit Pakistan. New Delhi denied the claims.

The extensive report was published earlier this week by EU DisinfoLab, a Brussels-based nongovernmental organization. The findings detail how 10 defunct but U.N.-accredited NGOs were “revived” in order to influence the EU and the U.N. Human Rights Council. It also uncovered over 750 fake local media outlets used to spread disinformation.

At a news conference, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi urged the U.N. and the EU to “immediately begin an investigation and delisting of the 10 fake NGOs created by India to malign Pakistan.”

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“We also call on the United Nations to create processes that ensure that the international system is not manipulated through such influence operations,” he said.

The EU DisinfoLab report, entitled “Indian Chronicles,” did not explicitly attribute the campaign to the Indian government or its intelligence agencies.

The report said the operation was led by the Srivastava Group, a business conglomerate that came into the spotlight in India after organizing a visit to the disputed Kashmir region for far-right members of the European Parliament in late 2019.

Qureshi, however, directly accused New Delhi of running the campaign.

“The scope and extent of India’s operations against Pakistan under their hybrid war is now apparent for the world to see. Pakistan will take all necessary actions to protect its interests,” he said.

In New Delhi, India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava dismissed the report and Pakistan‘s allegation, saying “as a responsible democracy, India does not practice disinformation campaigns”.

The two nuclear armed rivals have a history of bitter relations, and have fought three wars since gaining independence from Britain in 1947.

The EU DisinfoLab report comes less than a month after Pakistan accused India of sponsoring “terrorism” aimed at destabilizing the country and targeting its economic partnership with China.

India has likewise accused Pakistan of sponsoring militant groups that have carried out attacks inside its borders in recent years.

___

Associated Press writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Biden, Modi discuss US-India ties in phone conversation

Biden, Modi discuss US-India ties in phone conversation

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FILE – In this Sept.14, 2020, file photo released by India Government Press Information Bureau, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the media as he arrives at the Parliament in New Delhi, India. Modi held his first phone conversation with … more >

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held his first phone conversation with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, and they agreed to work closely to further advance the Indo-U.S. comprehensive global strategic partnership, India’s External Affairs Ministry said Wednesday.

Modi congratulated Biden during their conversation on Tuesday and they discussed their priorities, including containing the coronavirus pandemic, promoting access to affordable vaccines, tackling climate change and cooperating in the Indo-Pacific Region, the ministry said in a statement.

Modi had earlier tweeted his congratulations to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on Nov. 8.

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Modi recalled his earlier interactions with Biden, including during his official visits to the United States in 2014 and 2016. Biden had chaired the Joint Session of the U.S. Congress that was addressed by Modi during his 2016 visit to Washington.

Modi is known for his public displays of bonhomie with President Donald Trump, who visited India last February.

Stepping up the Trump administration’s anti-China message in India, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Defense chief Mark Esper visited India a week ahead of America’s Nov. 3 presidential election.

Pompeo and Esper signed an agreement expanding military satellite information sharing and highlighted strategic cooperation between Washington and New Delhi.

In India, top US diplomat calls China ‘elephant in the room’

In India, top US diplomat calls China ‘elephant in the room’

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FILE – In this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun talks with the press, after meeting with Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius in Vilnius, Lithuania. Biegun said the U.S. was exploring ways to empower … more >

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By SHEIKH SAALIQ and AIJAZ HUSSAIN

Associated Press

Monday, October 12, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) – A top U.S. envoy speaking in New Delhi has called China “an elephant in the room” and said Washington is keen to advance India’s interests across the Indo-Pacific region.

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said the U.S. was exploring ways to empower India without altering what he called New Delhi’s “strong and proud tradition of strategic autonomy.”

Biegun spoke Monday in New Delhi at the opening session of the India-U.S. Forum as his three-day visit to India kicked off.

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India has a strong and proud tradition of strategic autonomy, and we respect that. We do not seek to change India’s traditions,” he said. “Rather we want to explore how to empower them and India’s ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy and to advance Indian interests, across the Indo-Pacific region.”

Biegun’s visit follows a meeting last week between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his counterparts from India, Japan and Australia in Tokyo, who together make up the four Indo-Pacific nations known as the Quad. The Quad is seen as a counterweight to China, who critics say is flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea, East China Sea, Taiwan Strait and along its northern border with India. Beijing also faces criticism over its handling of the initial outbreak of the coronavirus as well as its human rights.

Pompeo, whose nation is locked in a trade war with Beijing, had said China’s increasingly assertive actions across the region make it more critical than ever for the Quad to cooperate and protect their partners and people from Chinese “exploitation, corruption and coercion.”

Biegun’s New Delhi visit follows a recent flareup in military tensions between China and India over their disputed mountainous border in the Ladakh region.

China routinely denies criticism of its human rights record as well as its handling of the virus. It says concern over its military is unfounded and counters by saying the U.S. is the biggest impediment to peace in places like the South China Sea.

Biegun noted Monday that Washington has increased military equipment sales and intelligence sharing with India.

“But there is more that we can do, including strengthening India’s ability to defend itself and by promoting interoperability among our militaries,” he said.

Biegun cautioned about the rise of China in the region.

“Of course, as we advance in this direction, there is an elephant in the room: China,” he said.

Biegun said that the partnership between the four Quad countries is driven by “shared interests, not binding obligations, and is not intended to be an exclusive grouping.”

“Any country that seeks a free and open Indo-Pacific and is willing to take steps to ensure that, should be welcome to work with us,” he said.

Biegun is expected to lay the groundwork for the “2+2” dialogue during his visit to India between Pompeo and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and their Indian counterparts External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Defense Minister Rajnath Singh later this month.

___

Hussain reported from Srinagar, India.

AP Interview: Top Afghan negotiator lauds India’s support

AP Interview: Top Afghan negotiator lauds India’s support

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Afghanistan’s chief peace envoy Abdullah Abdullah speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in New Delhi, India, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020. Abdullah on Saturday said India’s civil and military leadership were supportive of an inclusive, peaceful settlement of the … more >

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By SHEIKH SAALIQ

Associated Press

Saturday, October 10, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) – Afghanistan’s chief peace envoy said Saturday that India’s civil and military leadership are supportive of an inclusive, peaceful settlement of the Afghan peace process and that Kabul’s interactions with New Delhi are expected to further deepen in the coming weeks and months.

In an interview with The Associated Press in the Indian capital, Abdullah Abdullah said that while the issue of Afghanistan involves the international community at large, he hopes that India will play an important role in the peace process by “encouraging the voices of tolerance and coexistence.”

India also espouses for a peaceful Afghanistan which is in peace within the country and a democratic Afghanistan which does not harbor terrorist groups,” Abdullah said. “This is in line with the aspirations of the people of Afghanistan and the sacrifices our people have made for it.”

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Abdullah’s New Delhi visit comes at a crucial time for India, which is looking to cement its efforts to protect its strategic interests in Afghanistan amid Pakistan’s growing influence in the region and an expected U.S. troops withdrawal from Afghanistan. It also signals a gradual shift in India’s approach in dealing with the ongoing Afghan peace process that began two years ago, for which it has been invited to take part in for the first time.

As chief of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah oversees the government side in negotiations. This is his first visit to India after the formation of the new government in Kabul following last year’s election.

Abdullah’s India trip, which is taking place a week after his visit to Pakistan, comes as Kabul’s government negotiators are meeting with Taliban representatives in Qatar to plot a future course for a post-war Afghanistan.

Speaking at a luxury hotel in New Delhi, Abdullah said he was encouraged by the talks he had with the Indian leadership that centered around “peace and stability in the region.”

He said Indian leadership assured him that India will back any settlement acceptable to the Afghan people.

Abdullah, who landed in India on Tuesday, has so far met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and other high-ranking Indian officials, including the army chief, Bipin Rawat.

A statement released by India’s foreign ministry on Thursday said that in his meeting with Abdullah, Modi called for “India’s commitment towards sustainable peace and prosperity in Afghanistan and welcomed efforts towards a comprehensive and permanent” cease-fire in Afghanistan.

Over the years, India has provided Afghan security forces with operational training and military equipment, even though it has had no troops on the ground. It is the region’s largest provider of development aid to Afghanistan and has often expressed concerns over violence by the Taliban.

Still, India has long been reluctant in its direct engagement in Afghanistan peace talks. But earlier visits to India by the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and senior Afghan politician Abdul Rashid Dostum have signified New Delhi’s new willingness to play a larger role in the peace process.

In May, Khalilzad called for an increased role for India in the Afghan peace process and asked New Delhi to engage directly with the Taliban.

On Sept. 12, an Indian delegation attended the inaugural ceremony of the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha. The ceremony was also virtually attended by Jaishankar. His participation was seen by many observers as India shedding its reluctance in engaging directly with the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Reacting to the claims made by President Donald Trump on Thursday when he asserted that all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, Abdullah said even though he did not know the details of the announcement, an early withdrawal could have “consequences.”

“We are not oblivious to realities on the ground, but it will not lead to one side prevailing over the other,” said Abdullah, adding that the rise in violence in the region was hindering a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Abdullah acknowledged Saturday that the Taliban is expected to have a significant influence on what the future state of Afghanistan would look like, but said it was in the interest of his country that the state establishes and strengthens its relations in the region and beyond.

“We are talking about a situation where Taliban have a role to play together with the rest of the people of Afghanistan while having a lot of different points of views, but at the same time accepting the basic fact that there is no solution or a winner through war,” Abdullah said.

He also called for a “humanitarian cease-fire” so that Afghanistan and its international partners could address some key issues like rampant corruption and an underfunded education system that observers say have been plaguing the country for long.

“The sooner we get to a settlement, the better it will be for the people of Afghanistan to put an end not only to the violence and the suffering but also to issues related to the concerns of the people,” Abdullah said.

Pakistan: Exchange of fire with India kills boy in Kashmir

Pakistan: Exchange of fire with India kills boy in Kashmir

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Pakistani and Indian troops have traded fire in Kashmir in an exchange that killed a boy in the Pakistan-controlled section of the disputed Himalayan region, officials said Wednesday.

In a statement, Pakistan’s military said India targeted civilian residents with artillery, mortars and other weapons the previous night in the border village of Lipa.

India, however, blamed Pakistani troops for initiating the fire. Rajesh Kalia, an Indian army spokesperson, said Pakistani troops in an unprovoked cease-fire violation targeted the villages of Naugam and Baramulla. He said the Indian side responded adequately.

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The two nuclear-armed countries often trade fire in Kashmir, which is split between them but claimed by both in its entirety. Since gaining independence from British rule in 1947, the the two sides have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan of aiding separatists in its part of Kashmir, a charge Pakistan denies.

The latest deadly exchange happened hours after dozens of Indian and Pakistani diplomats and embassy staff returned home to India and Pakistan.

India had earlier ordered Pakistan to reduce its embassy staff in New Delhi by half and recalled half of its own embassy staff in Islamabad, following the arrest of two of its embassy employees over a hit-and-run road accident.

Despite the uproar, Pakistan and India stuck to an agreement to share – as they do every July 1 – the updated lists of one another’s prisoners. Islamabad on Wednesday handed over the names of 324 Indian prisoners it holds while New Delhi handed over a list with the names of 362 Pakistani prisoners held in India.

Pakistan’s foreign minister warns India against attacks

Pakistan’s foreign minister warns India against attacks

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By ASIM TANVEER

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

MULTAN, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan’s foreign minister warned neighboring India on Wednesday to refrain from launching any attacks on his country, saying that Islamabad would respond with full force if New Delhi embarks on “any misadventure.”

Shah Mahmood Qureshi claimed that India was plotting an attack on Pakistan, allegedly to divert attention from a recent deadly clash between India and China in a disputed area of the Himalayas that killed at least 20 Indian soldiers. Chinese and Indian military commanders agreed on Monday to disengage their forces in the disputed area.

Qureshi, in his comments broadcast by Geo TV, offered no evidence for his allegations and there was no immediate comment from India or China.

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The remarks were Qureshi’s latest verbal attack on India. On Tuesday he condemned India’s move ordering Pakistan’s diplomatic mission in New Delhi to reduce its staff by half within a week.

The Indian foreign ministry said it will do the same in Islamabad after two Indian Embassy employees were seized at gunpoint in Pakistan.

Earlier, Pakistani authorities had said that two people, identified as drivers for the Indian High Commission, were arrested when they hit a pedestrian and tried to flee. They said police searched the vehicle and found counterfeit currency inside.

The two were released to the high commission and were transported to the border, where they crossed into India, authorities said.

Qureshi alleged that India, “after being beaten and embarrassed” by China in the Himalayan incident was trying to find an excuse for an operation against Pakistan.

“If 50% of our embassy staff comes back, then the Indian Embassy staff will also go back,” he said.

Pakistani and Indian forces have been on maximum alert since last year, when Pakistan claimed it shot down two Indian warplanes in the disputed region of Kashmir and captured a pilot in response to an airstrike by Indian aircraft targeting militants inside Pakistan.

Since gaining independence from British rule in 1947, the the two nuclear-armed neighbors have fought two wars over Kashmir, which is divided between them and claimed by both in its entirety.

India orders Pakistan to reduce embassy staff by half

India orders Pakistan to reduce embassy staff by half

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In this Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, file photo, an Indian municipal worker sweeps the road outside the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, India. India has ordered Pakistan to halve its embassy staff in New Delhi and said it would … more >

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By

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) – India has ordered Pakistan to reduce its embassy staff in New Delhi by half and said it will do the same in Islamabad after two Indian officials were seized at gunpoint in Pakistan, the Indian foreign ministry said Tuesday.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs said the officials returned to India on Monday and described “graphic details of the barbaric treatment that they experienced at the hands of Pakistani agencies.”

It also accused officials at Pakistan’s High Commission in New Delhi of having been “engaged with acts of espionage and maintained dealings with terrorist organizations.”

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The Pakistani charge d’affaires was told that the decision is to be implemented within a week, the ministry said in a statement.

In a statement, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it “categorically rejects and strongly condemns the baseless allegations made by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs,” and called them a pretext to seek a 50% reduction in the Pakistan embassy’s staff strength.

Pakistan authorities said two people identified as drivers for the Indian High Commission were arrested when they hit a pedestrian and tried to flee. They said police searched the vehicle and found counterfeit currency inside.

The two were released to the high commission and were transported to the border, where they crossed into India, the authorities said.

India’s action is likely to raise tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors, as Indian commanders continue to negotiate a de-escalation agreement with their Chinese counterparts after a deadly clash on India’s eastern border.

India has long accused Pakistan of funding and sheltering the perpetrators of attacks in India, particularly in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan region that is claimed by both countries in its entirety but is divided between them. Pakistan has rejected the allegations.

Indian capital’s crematoriums overwhelmed with virus dead

Indian capital’s crematoriums overwhelmed with virus dead

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People wait by the burning pyre of a relative who died of COVID-19, at a crematorium in New Delhi, India, Friday, June 5, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is leaving India’s morgues piling up with the dead and graveyards and crematoriums … more >

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By Sheikh Saaliq

Associated Press

Friday, June 12, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) — When Raj Singh’s 70-year-old mother died from the coronavirus in India’s capital, he took comfort in the prospect of a proper cremation, the funeral rite that Hindus believe releases the soul from the cycle of rebirth.

But instead of chanting sacred Vedic hymns and sprinkling holy water from the Ganges River, all Singh could do was place his mother’s wrapped corpse on a wooden pyre and along with a handful of relatives watch it burn.

“I never thought I would watch my mother go like this,” he said.

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Like elsewhere in the world, the novel coronavirus has made honoring the dead in New Delhi a hurried affair, largely devoid of the rituals that give it meaning for mourners. Cemeteries and crematoriums are overwhelmed, so there isn’t much time for ceremony, and even if there were, the government limits the number of people allowed at funerals and those in attendance must maintain distance and wear masks.

“The whole grieving process has been interrupted,” said Pappu, who goes by only one name and lights the funeral pyres at Nigambodh Ghat, New Delhi’s biggest crematorium.

New Delhi has officially reported close to 1,100 deaths from the coronavirus, but cemeteries and crematoriums in the city say the actual number is several hundred higher. Hospital morgues are beyond capacity, and with summer temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Farenheit) some bodies are being kept on thick ice slabs.

“In the beginning, I used to carry only one body. Now, helpers at the morgue will stack as many bodies as they can fit in my van,” said Bhijendra Dhigya, who drives a hearse from one New Delhi hospital to the crematorium.

The spike in deaths in New Delhi comes amid a broader virus surge throughout India, where authorities are reporting some 10,000 new infections each day and more than 300 deaths. Nevertheless, India lifted most of the remaining restrictions from its 10-week lockdown on June 8, the same day it recorded what at the time was its highest single-day death toll from the virus.

On Friday, India’s nationwide caseload overtook Britain to became the fourth highest in the world with 297,535 confirmed cases and 8,498 deaths, according to the Health Ministry. But that is just the known cases. Like elsewhere in the world, the actual number of infections is thought to be far higher for a number of reasons including limited testing.

New Delhi’s health centers are under immense strain and the state government’s deputy chief minister, Manish Sisodia, said this week that a state health department model has projected a worst case scenario in which the number of infections in the capital – already at nearly 35,000 – could reach 550,000 by the end of July.

In the worst case scenario, Sisodia said New Delhi would need 80,000 hospital beds, far more than the roughly 9,000 hospital beds currently available for virus patients. The state government is considering taking hotels and sports stadiums to use as field hospitals.

The capital’s Nigambodh Ghat crematorium has handled more than 500 coronavirus cremations since the beginning of the outbreak. When some of its gas-fueled incinerators broke down, there was no one willing to repair them, so the staff reverted to traditional wooden pyres.

Even with working hours extended, there has been no time for individual cremation ceremonies and exhaustive rituals with incense, garlands of marigold and chanting.

The crematorium is now largely quiet except for the distinct snap and crackle of the burning wood and the din of sirens from ambulances bringing more bodies.

The virus has upended Muslim burial rituals in the city as well.

Islamic burials normally involve a simple ceremony. Before the body is laid to rest, it is washed. Those attending the funeral are allowed to have a look at the face of the dead and a prayer is performed, followed by a sermon from a cleric. Then close family members help place the body in a grave.

Now bodies arrive at New Delhi’s largest Muslim cemetery in hearses manned by crews in hazmat suits. Bodies aren’t washed and mourners can’t view them. There are no sermons.

The cemetery has already seen more than 200 burials of COVID-19 victims and with bodies steadily arriving, the grounds are filling fast.

On a recent day at the burial of a 22-year-old man who died of the virus, a backhoe dug a grave as four relatives said a speedy prayer. The body was then lowered into the grave by ropes.

Mohammad Shameem, a gravedigger who now oversees the burials, shook his head in disapproval as the backhoe quickly carved out another grave.

“That’s not how burials should happen,” he said.

U.S. seeks role as China, India face off at border

U.S. seeks role as China, India face off at border

Flaring dispute leaves both sides seeking off-ramp

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In this Oct. 10, 2019 file photo, an Indian schoolgirl wears a face mask of Chinese President Xi Jinping to welcome him on the eve of his visit in Chennai, India. Tensions along the China-India border high in the Himalayas … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Saturday, June 6, 2020

As if the world didn’t have enough problems, the two most populous and nuclear armed countries — India and China — are now at each other’s throats in a long-running border cold war that has suddenly become very hot.

The high-altitude row over a long-disputed Himalayan border territory has literally featured fist fights between Indian and Chinese troops in recent weeks. It’s also prompted growing unease in Washington, where President Trump’s offers to mediate have been brushed aside by New Delhi and Beijing.

Analysts say major escalation between the nuclear-armed rivals appears unlikely at the moment, although the prospect of a widening or slow-burning clash between China’s communist leaders and the world’s most populous democracy in India is very real.

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While relations between the two have been generally stable in recent years, they’ve also been increasingly complex as China challenges America’s status as India’s top trading partner — and as India’s Hindu nationalist government bristles at Chinese flexing its military and financial clout around the region. Once roughly economic equals, India has also chafed at China’s fast-growing economy, which has produced a GDP nearly five times larger that India‘s.

The latest crisis centers on Chinese troop movements along an areas of the Himalayan border that was the site of a bloody war between the two in the early 1960s. The total length of the border is 2,100 miles. But the hot zone is just off India’s northern tip, not far from the disputed territory of Kashmir and the tense border with Pakistan, another nuclear-armed nation in the region.

Mr. Trump’s surprise offers to mediate — at a time when U.S.-Chinese relations are at a low point — has some Chinese strategists fearful Washington is trying to exploit the rivalry for its own ends, drawing India into an alliance of China’s neighbors designed to contain China’s rise.

Washington looks forward to the ChinaIndia dispute in order to gain from it,” the Chinese state-controlled Global Times said in an editorial last week. “The U.S. supports India every time China and India have conflicts to encourage New Delhi’s confrontation against Beijing and to hype new border disputes.”

Chinese and Indian diplomats appeared to make progress on lowering the temperature Friday, a day ahead of a planned meeting of top military officials from both sides in the disputed region.

The Indian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that the two sides had agreed to resolve the border tension through negotiations, and that additional troops and equipment that had been rushed to the region recently would be withdrawn.

But the situation remains volatile and both governments must deal with nationalistic domestic constituencies and angry voices on social media demanding escalation.

Seizing the moment

Border tensions last soared between Delhi and Beijing in 2017. While the standoff simmered after a series of troop movements at the time, analysts say China has been eager recently to press its claims amid the current global geopolitical uncertainty and a coronavirus pandemic that many in India blame on China.

Officials say hundreds of Chinese soldiers were suddenly seen moving deep inside Indian-controlled territory of the Ladakh region’s Galwan Valley, erecting guard posts and tents in early May. India responded quickly by massing troop and equipment in the area.

Indian officials claim the Chinese ignored repeated verbal warnings, triggering a yelling match, stone-throwing and even fist fights in at least one place along Pangong Lake, a body of water situated at above the 14,000-foot elevation mark in valley.

Thousands of Chinese and Indian soldiers are now reported to be camped there just a few hundred yards from each other, in a development analysts say began with China’s desire to show military dominance and prove it can engage in an aggressive foreign policy on multiple fronts at the same time.

“This is China on offense,” said Joseph DeTrani, a longtime former U.S. intelligence official focused on China, who contends Beijing’s moves are reminiscent of a 1962 Chinese military invasion of Ladakh that Mao Zedong used to show “he wasn’t happy with India and could use force to prevail if necessary.”

“This incursion appears to be a similar message for India — and others — that China is capable and willing to address a number of national security issues of concern to its leadership,” Mr. DeTrani said in an interview. “This comes at a time when China established two new administrative districts in contested areas in the South China Sea, announced plans to impose a national security law in Hong Kong and disseminated disinformation that Covid-19 originated in the U.S.”

Michael Kugelman at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars said Beijing acted in part “to telegraph strength at a moment when global criticism of China’s pandemic response has put it on the defensive.”

“We’ve seen Beijing take on an increasingly assertive foreign policy in recent months, and, not coincidentally, as its relationship with the U.S. has worsened,” Mr. Kugelman said. “We’ve seen it using bellicose rhetoric and taking provocative actions in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and so its provocations on the border with India fit right in with a broader Chinese foreign policy trend.”

Rising tensions between Beijing and Washington may also factor into China’s calculus. “There’s something to be said forChina trying to throw its weight around in India’s backyard, given how quickly the U.S.-India partnership has grown in recent years thanks in great part to shared opposition to China’s rise,” Mr. Kugelman said. “Beijing understands this connection, and it clearly wants to make a strong statement addressed to both Indian and U.S. audiences.”

But President Trump has equally clearly said Washington would be happy to help.

“We have informed both India and China that the United States is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute,” Mr. Trump tweeted late last month.

Neither side has embraced the idea, although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the issue in a phone call with Mr. Trump on Tuesday even as Indian media reports claimed officials in Delhi want Washington to stay on the sidelines.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday “there is no need for any third party to intervene.”

Mr. Zhao claimed the situation remains “stable and controllable,” stressing that there are “sound mechanisms and channels of communication between China and India” and that “the two sides are capable of properly resolving relevant issues through dialogue and consultation.”

But it remains to be seen when that will occur. CNN reported Thursday that Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh had told its affiliate News18 station in Delhi that the two sides will hold high level talks on Saturday.

Mr. Singh suggested it could be tense. “We don’t want any country to bow before us, and we will not bow before any country,” he said.

Upsetting the status quo

Both sides accuse the other provocations in disputed border lands that have upset the tentative status quo.

India is reported to be building its own strategic road through the Galwan Valley, with the goal of connecting the area to an airstrip. The Associated Press has noted that Delhi also unilaterally declared Ladakh a federal territory while separating it from disputed Kashmir in August 2019 — and that China was among a handful of nations who strongly condemned the move, raising it the U.N. Security Council.

Most analysts agree, however, that the likelihood of a shooting war or major nuclear standoff remains low. “New Delhi has repeatedly emphasized in its public messaging that it favors diplomacy to end the crisis,” said Mr. Kugelman, adding that “China has already made a strong statement, and there’s little reason to believe things will escalate.”

Still, some warn the situation is volatile and warrants close monitoring.

“[The] rising tensions…are occurring against the backdrop of continued cross-border shelling along the IndiaPakistan border and intensified militant action in the erstwhile Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir,” said Tamanna Salikuddin, a former high-level U.S. advisor in the region now heading South Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

“From the Indian perspective, China’s aggression is seen as supportive of Pakistan’s efforts to contest the borders with India in this highly inflammable region,” Ms. Salikuddin said in comments circulated this week.

India and China are trying to reduce current tensions both through public rhetoric and private high commander level meetings and they have a robust conflict management arrangement,” she said. “However, there is a risk of escalation or miscalculation given the high number of troops and heavy weaponry that both India and China have positioned in eastern Ladakh.”

India denies new road breaches territory disputed with Nepal

India denies new road breaches territory disputed with Nepal

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By EMILY SCHMALL and ROSHAN SEDHAI

Associated Press

Sunday, May 10, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) – India says a newly inaugurated road does not illegally cross into neighboring Nepal, denying the tiny Himalayan country’s claim that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government is ignoring a long-standing dispute over a border with China and Tibet.

Inaugurated by Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on Friday, the 80-kilometer (50-mile) Lipu Lekh road is the shortest route from New Delhi to Kailash-Mansarovar, a revered Hindu pilgrimage site in the Tibetan plateau.

The road cuts through the Lipu Lekh Himalayan pass, which is considered one of the shortest and most feasible trade routes between India and China. Nepal has fiercely contested India’s claim on the territory, which it includes in contemporary boundary maps as part of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, since the early 19th century, because of its potential as an economic corridor.

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Nepal views the alleged incursions as a stark example of bullying by its much larger neighbor.

“The Government of Nepal has learnt with regret about the ‘inauguration’ yesterday by India of ‘Link Road’ connecting to Lipu Lekh (Nepal), which passes through Nepali territory,” Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Saturday.

Nepal asked India “to refrain from carrying out any activity” on the road that has triggered a fresh dispute over the strategically important territory.

India quickly rejected Nepal’s claims on Saturday, saying the road falls exclusively within India.

India is committed to resolving outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue and in the spirit of our close and friendly bilateral relations with Nepal,” Indian foreign affairs spokesman Anurag Srivastava said in a statement.

Nepal, which was never under colonial rule, has long claimed the areas of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh in accordance with the 1816 Sugauli treaty with the British Raj, although these areas have remained in control of Indian troops since India fought a war with China in 1962.

In 2015, Nepal opposed an agreement between India and China to promote Lipu Lekh as a bilateral trade route without its consent. Kathmandu also registered its opposition when New Delhi unveiled a new political map in 2019 that shows some disputed territories, including Lipu Lekh, as part of India.

___

Sedhai reported from Kathmandu, Nepal.

China denies Indian claim that Chinese test kits are faulty

China denies Indian claim that Chinese test kits are faulty

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A health worker takes a swab test at a COVID-19 testing center in New Delhi, India, Monday, April 27, 2020. India’s main medical research organization has cancelled orders to procure rapid antibody test kits from two Chinese companies after quality … more >

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By ANIRUDDHA GHOSAL

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

NEW DELHI (AP) – China’s embassy in New Delhi has denied allegations by the Indian government that coronavirus testing kits it ordered from China are faulty, calling the claim unfair and irresponsible.

On Monday, the national Indian Council of Medical Research canceled an order for nearly 1 million rapid antibody testing kits from two Chinese companies, Guangzhou Wondfo Biotech and Zhuhai Livzon Diagnostics, over concerns about their quality and pricing. It said the kits had “wide variation” in their sensitivity and asked for them to be returned.

Chinese Embassy spokeswoman Ji Rong rejected the claim on Tuesday, saying, “The quality of medical products exported from China is prioritized. It is unfair and irresponsible for certain individuals to label Chinese products as ‘faulty’ and look at issues with preemptive prejudice.”

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She said both companies insist that their kits meet quality standards in China and that India’s National Institute of Virology had found them to be “satisfactory products.”

She also stressed that there were strict requirements for storage, transportation and use of the kits. “Any operation which isn’t carried out by professionals in accordance with product specification will lead to the testing accuracy variations,” she said.

The ICMR canceled the order after testimony in the Delhi High Court revealed that the Indian government had agreed to pay $3.9 million for kits that had been imported from China at a cost of $1.6 million, with the difference going to Indian intermediaries. India’s government says it has not yet paid for the kits.

Chinese exporters of medical goods are required to show that they are approved for sale in their destination market under rules that were imposed on March 30 after complaints from several countries about faulty and sub-standard goods.

On April 10, China said it would inspect every shipment of medical supplies to confirm that they met quality standards. But after concerns that this would delay exports, regulators in China said on Saturday that producers that meet the official standards of their destination market can apply for approval through an industry association.

___

Associated Press writer Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.