India welcomes Pakistan’s return of captured pilot, as powers urge de-escalation

Demonstrators hold placards and shout slogans during a protest demanding the release of an Indian Air Force pilot after he was captured by Pakistan, in Kolkata, India, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

By Alasdair Pal and James Mackenzie

NEW DELHI/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Indian military officials said on Thursday they welcomed Pakistan’s planned return of a captured pilot, but refused to confirm they would de-escalate a conflict between the two nuclear powers.

The pilot, identified as Wing Commander Abhinandan, became the human face of the flare-up over the contested region of Kashmir following the release of videos showing him being captured and later held in custody.

“We are happy our pilot is being released,” said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor, at a joint news conference of India’s three armed forces on Thursday evening.

He did not say when asked by reporters if India considered the return a de-escalation in the conflict.

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhi Nandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

Indian pilot Wing Commander Abhi Nandan captured by Pakistan is seen in this handout photo released February 27, 2019. Inter Service Public Relation (ISPR) Handout via REUTERS

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said the pilot would be released on Friday, to the relief of many Indians, even as his military reported that four Pakistani civilians had been killed by India firing across the disputed border in Kashmir.

“As a peace gesture we will be releasing him tomorrow,” Khan told Pakistan’s parliament on Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers thumped their desks in response.

“We will celebrate his release tomorrow,” said Vinay Bhardwaj, 34, a plumber in Nawshera, a border town in Indian-controlled Kashmir. “People are very happy about that here.”

The United States, China, European Union and other powers have urged restraint from the two nations, as tensions escalated following a suicide car bombing that killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police in Indian-controlled Kashmir on Feb. 14.

The Muslim-majority Himalayan region has been at the heart of more than 70 years of animosity, since the partition of the British colony of India into the separate countries of Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India.

It is divided between India, which rules the Kashmir Valley and the Hindu-dominated region around Jammu city, Pakistan, which controls a wedge of territory in the west, and China, which holds a thinly populated high-altitude area in the north.

On Tuesday, India said it hit a training camp for a Pakistan-based group who claimed responsibility for the suicide attack, and a senior government source told reporters that 300 militants had been killed.

Pakistan denies this, saying the attack was a failure and no one died, with bombs dropped on a largely empty hillside. It denies any militant camp was in the area. Local people said they had seen no sign of major casualties or significant damage, with only one man known to have been slightly hurt by the bombs.

Asked about the damage caused by Indian warplanes in Tuesday’s air strike, Kapoor said it was premature to provide details about casualties. But they said they had “credible” evidence of the damage inflicted on the camp by the air strikes.

“Whatever we intended to destroy, we did,” he said.

A train loaded with Indian army trucks and artillery guns is parked at a railway station on the outskirts of Jammu February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

A train loaded with Indian army trucks and artillery guns is parked at a railway station on the outskirts of Jammu February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

Tuesday’s escalation marked the latest deterioration in relations between the two countries. As recently as November, Khan had spoken of “mending ties” with India.

Khan’s decision to release the pilot came after several countries offered diplomatic assistance to mediate between two countries, that have gone to war three times since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said after Khan’s announcement that he had spoken to the leaders of both countries and urged them to avoid “any action that would escalate and greatly increase risk”.

Earlier, U.S. President Trump said he expected “reasonably decent news” regarding the conflict between India and Pakistan, adding that the United States was trying to mediate.

“They have been going at it and we have been involved in trying to have them stop,” Trump said in Hanoi, where he was attending a summit with North Korea’s leader.

“We have been in the middle trying to help them both out.”

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also offered to facilitate talks between the two sides.

Khan’s office said the prime minister had spoken to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and the United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and that both had appreciated his willingness to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Khan has already called for talks with India to prevent the risk of a “miscalculation” between their militaries.

Earlier on Thursday, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who faces a general election in a matter of months, told a rally of supporters that India would unite against its enemies.

“The world is observing our collective will. It is necessary that we shouldn’t do anything that allows our enemy to raise a finger at us,” he said, in his first remarks since the downing of planes on Wednesday.

The Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, spoke by telephone with Pakistan’s foreign minister and expressed “deep concern”.

The United States, Britain and France proposed the United Nations Security Council blacklist Masood Azhar, the head of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group that claimed responsibility for the Feb. 14 attack. China is likely to be oppose the move.

As a precaution amid the increased military activity, Pakistan has shut its airspace, forcing commercial airlines to reroute. Thai Airways International announced on Thursday that it had canceled flights to Pakistan and Europe, which left thousands of passengers stranded in Bangkok.

FIRING CONTINUES

Both countries said they downed enemy jets on Wednesday, though each disputed the claims of the other side, and each accused the other of breaching cease fire agreements.

Indian and Pakistani troops traded fire along the contested border in Kashmir on at least three occasions on Thursday, with the firing instigated by Pakistan every time, according to New Delhi. Pakistan said the ceasefire violations were by India.

Pakistan’s military said four civilians had been killed and two wounded in what it called a “deliberate” attack by India during the past 48 hours. A civilian on the Indian side of the border was killed in the firing on Thursday, an Indian official said.

Troops from India and Pakistan first exchanged fire on Thursday in the Poonch district for over an hour at 6 a.m., according to a statement from the Indian army. Pakistan said the firing began overnight.

Aijaz Ahmad, a resident in the Indian-controlled portion of the district, said he could hear heavy firing on Thursday afternoon.

“Loud sounds of mortar shells are being heard from a distance. Shops … are open but there is a lot of tension,” he said.

India is building more than 14,000 bunkers for families in Jammu and Kashmir state living close to the border, hoping to keep them safe near their homes rather than evacuate them.

With a general election due in India by May, a surge in nationalism from any conflict with Pakistan could become a key factor, potentially favoring Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“This has brought a pro-Modi wave all through the country,” B.S. Yeddyurappa, a BJP leader in the southern state of Karnataka, told reporters. “The effect of this will be seen in the elections.”

(This story has been refiled to fix typo in headline, no change to text)

(Reporting by Alasdair Pal, James Mackenzie, Fayaz Bukhari, Drazen Jorgic, Aditya Kalra, Krishna Das, Asif Shahzad, Saad Sayeed, Sanjeev Miglani, Neha Dasgupta and Abu Arqam Naqash; additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Michelle Nicholls; Editing by Michael Perry, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alison Williams)

Venezuela captures rogue officers after uprising at military outpost

Demonstrators stand close to the remains of a burning car used as barricade during a protest near to a National Guard outpost in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Mayela Armas and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela has captured a group of military officers who stole weapons and kidnapped four officials on Monday, the government said, hours after a social media video showed a sergeant demanding the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.

An unspecified number of officers early on Monday attacked a National Guard outpost in the Caracas neighborhood of Cotiza, a kilometer (0.6 mile) from the presidential Miraflores palace, where they met “firm resistance,” the government said in a statement. Witnesses reported hearing gunshots at about 3 a.m. (0700 GMT) in the area.

An armored vehicle is seen outside an outpost of the Venezuelan National Guards during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

An armored vehicle is seen outside an outpost of the Venezuelan National Guards during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Protesters later burned trash and a car outside the outpost, where the officers were arrested, in a sign of growing tensions following Maduro’s inauguration to a second term that governments around the world have called illegitimate.

Though the incident signals discontent within the armed forces, it appeared to involve only low-ranking officers with little capacity to force change in the hyperinflationary economy as many people suffer from shortages of food and medicine.

“The armed forces categorically reject this type of action, which is most certainly motivated by the dark interests of the extreme right,” the government said in a statement read out on state television.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 under an avalanche of criticism that his leadership was illegitimate following a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent, with countries around the world disavowing his government.

Opposition leaders and exiled dissidents have called on the armed forces to turn against Maduro, which the president has denounced as efforts to encourage a coup against him.

The opposition-controlled congress’s head, Juan Guaido, said the uprising was a sign of the armed forces’ depressed state of mind. Congress was committed to offering guarantees to officers who helped with “the constitution’s reconstitution,” he said, though he did not want the military to fall into internal conflict.

“We want it to stand as one man on the side of the people, the constitution, and against the usurpation,” he said on Twitter.

In the videos that circulated on Twitter, a group of armed soldiers stood in darkness apparently at the Cotiza outpost while their leader addressed the camera and called for Venezuelans to support their revolt.

“You all asked that we take to the streets to defend the constitution. Here we are. Here we have the troops. It’s today when the people come out to support us,” said the man in the video, who identified himself as Luis Bandres.

The government said the men took two vehicles from a police station in the Macarao district in the west of Caracas before driving to a barracks in the eastern Petare slum, where they stole an arms cache and kidnapped four officials.

After they attacked the Cotiza outpost in the early hours of the morning, security forces surrounded them. In response, several dozen residents barricaded streets and set fire to rubbish as they chanted “Don’t hand yourself in,” according to Reuters witnesses. Troops fired tear gas to disperse them.

“These soldiers are right to rise up. We need a political change, because we don’t have any water or electricity,” said Angel Rivas, a 49-year-old laborer at the protest.

The United States and many Latin American nations say Maduro has become a dictator whose failed state-led policies have plunged Venezuela into its worst ever economic crisis, with inflation approaching 2 million percent.

Maduro says a U.S.-directed “economic war” is trying to force him from power.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Corina Pons; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Angus Berwick; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

A decade into drug gang fight, Mexican army pushes to return to base

Mexican General Alejandro Ramos Flores, head of the defense ministry's legal department, speak during an interview with Reuters at the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA), in Mexico City, Mexico May 11, 2017. Picture taken May 11, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero

By Lizbeth Diaz

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – After more than a decade on the streets of Mexico battling ruthless drug cartels, the nation’s battered armed forces have thrown their weight behind a law that would force them to return to barracks and put the fight back in the hands of the police.

Since former President Felipe Calderon sent out the army to bring the gangs to heel at the end of 2006, about 150,000 people have died in the violence, including hundreds of soldiers as well as scores of police and members of other security forces.

The bloody struggle has also taken a heavy toll on the reputation of the armed forces, exposing one of Mexico’s most respected institutions to the corrupting influence of organized crime and the risk of extrajudicial killings.

General Alejandro Ramos Flores, head of the defense ministry’s legal department, told Reuters in an interview that a bill currently in congress known as the Law of Internal Security would oblige civilian authorities to retake control of fighting organized crime.

“We’re not going to resolve the problem. It’s a problem with more social and economic aspects. Everything has to converge to resolve the problem and return it to the authorities responsible for taking charge of this situation,” Ramos said.

President Enrique Pena Nieto replaced Calderon in December 2012, vowing to return the military to base, but it has remained stuck in the struggle without any strict legal formalization of the division of responsibilities between the various forces.

This has often proven a recipe for trouble.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an army source said on occasion the armed forces would arrest suspects only to have civilian authorities such as local police or prosecutors fail to appear or release them.

More damaging have been accusations that Mexican soldiers have acted outside the law, often with impunity, to kill suspects, eroding public support for the army.

This week Pena Nieto and the defense ministry called for an investigation into a video apparently showing a soldier shooting dead a prone man at point blank range following a clash with suspected criminals in the state of Puebla.

Two shootouts between federal security forces and suspected gang members in 2014 and 2015 that took more than 60 lives prompted accusations by human rights groups that federal forces had carried out extrajudicial killings.

And questions continue to dog the army over its failure to prevent the abduction and apparent massacre of 43 trainee teachers by corrupt police and local gangsters in the southwestern city of Iguala in September 2014.

The government strongly disputed a report this week that said Mexico had the second-highest number of murders last year among countries considered in “armed conflicts.”

Mexico said its drug fight was not an armed conflict, that the 2016 violence numbers were not final and challenged the report’s methodology, saying that per capita other countries in Latin America had far higher murder rates.

In December, General Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico’s minister of defense, declared that fighting the drug war had pulled the Mexican military away from its core functions.

“We don’t want them to give us more responsibilities, or for them to give us the police’s responsibilities. We don’t want this law to foresee anything that would violate human rights,” Ramos said.

(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)