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Manhunt for Indian diamond billionaire accused of role in £1.3bn bank fraud

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A billionaire Indian diamond jeweller who has made pieces for Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts is being sought by police over his role in an alleged scam that has cost one of India’s largest banks nearly £1.3bn.

A global manhunt has been launched by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for Nirav Modi, who was estimated to be worth almost £1.3bn in 2017 and has appeared on the World’s Billionaires and Forbes’ 100 Richest Indians lists for several years.

More than half a dozen luxury cars including a Rolls Royce Ghost and a Porsche Panamera have been seized from the billionaire and his companies by investigators, along with around £625,000 worth of jewellery, gold, diamonds, precious metals and stones.

Lisa Haydon
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Actress and Top Model India judge Lisa Haydon wearing a Modi necklace

India’s Enforcement Directorate, which investigates foreign exchange and money laundering offences, confirmed on Twitter that along with the cars and valuables, it had frozen shares and mutual funds worth 78m rupees (£862,000) held by Mr Modi and 867.2m rupees (£9.6m) held by his uncle, Mehul Choksi.

The suspected fraud saw the jeweller’s companies and others with links to Mr Choksi allegedly target India’s second-largest state-run lender, the Punjab National Bank (PNB).

The bank claims Mr Modi’s firms illegally obtained letters of undertaking from it and used them to secure loans from overseas branches of other, mostly Indian, banks.

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Kate Winslet attends the EE British Academy Film Awards at The Royal Opera House on February 14, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images)
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Modi has made jewellery pieces for Kate Winslet. File pic

A dozen people have been arrested so far – six high-level employees from the PNB and six more from Mr Modi and Mr Choksi’s companies.

Mr Modi’s lawyer and Mr Choksi’s firm, Gitanjali Gems, have both denied any involvement in what is being called the biggest banking scam India has ever seen.

The whereabouts of the jeweller, who has not been charged yet, is not known, but he was last pictured publicly at the World Economic Forum in Davos with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

His lawyer says Mr Modi, who calls himself a “haute diamantaire”, has not absconded but is abroad on business.

Congress Party supporters protest about Nirav Modi and India's Finance Minister Arun Jaitley
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Congress Party supporters protest after the alleged scam became public

Authorities have moved to revoke his passport.

The investigation began earlier this month when the PNB filed a criminal complaint against Modi and his associates, claiming the “wrongful loss” of an estimated $40m (£28.6m), but that rapidly mushroomed to £1.3bn, allegedly due to hundreds of fraudulent transactions carried out since 2011.

The group is also facing claims of financial impropriety and the thousands of employees of Mr Modi’s and Mr Choksi’s brand Gitanjali were recently told via email that they should look for new jobs and that they would not be paid.

The news has prompted protests against Mr Modi and the government in parts of India.

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Myanmar junta releases over 23,000 prisoners but fate of detained protesters unknown | World News

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Myanmar’s junta has claimed to have pardoned and released more than 23,000 prisoners – but it is not known if the figure includes pro-democracy activists detained in the wake of February’s coup.

The release was announced to mark the new year holiday.

State broadcaster MRTV said Myanmar‘s military leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing pardoned the 23,047 prisoners, including 137 foreigners who will be deported.

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The strongest weapon in Myanmar is a phone

He also reduced sentences for others.

Early prisoner releases are customary during major holidays, but this is the second time the ruling junta has done so since it ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi, triggering daily protests, arrests and deaths by security forces.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which monitors casualties and arrests, government forces have killed at least 726 protesters and bystanders since the takeover.

The group says 2,728 people, including Ms Suu Kyi, are in detention.

Following the release of more than 23,000 convicts to mark Union Day on 12 February, there were reports on social media that some were recruited by the authorities to carry out violence at night in residential areas to spread panic.

Heavy clashes erupted during demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday 28 March
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Heavy clashes erupted during demonstrations in Yangon on Sunday 28 March

Some areas responded by setting up their own neighbourhood watch groups.

The military said it staged the coup because a November election won by Ms Suu Kyi’s party was rigged – an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

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COVID-19: Pandemic has now killed three million across the world – as countries see surge in cases | World News

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The global death toll from coronavirus has topped three million people amid repeated setbacks in the worldwide vaccination campaign and a deepening crisis in places such as Brazil, India and France.

The number of lives lost, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University in the US, is about equal to the population of Kyiv, Ukraine; Caracas, Venezuela; or metropolitan Lisbon, Portugal.

It is bigger than Chicago (2.7 million) and equivalent to Philadelphia and Dallas combined.

However, the true number is believed to be significantly higher because of possible government concealment and the many cases overlooked in the early stages of the outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019.

Worldwide, COVID-19 deaths are on the rise again, running at around 12,000 per day on average, and new cases are climbing too, eclipsing 700,000 a day.

“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, where we have proven control measures,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, one of the World Health Organisation’s leaders on COVID-19.

In Brazil, where deaths are running at about 3,000 per day, accounting for one-quarter of the lives lost worldwide in recent weeks, the crisis has been likened to a “raging inferno” by one WHO official.

A more contagious variant of the virus has been rampaging across the country.

Meanwhile, problems that India had overcome last year are coming back to haunt health officials.

Recent religious event in India could be behind the surge in cases, experts suggest
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Recent religious event in India could be behind the surge in cases, experts suggest

Only 178 ventilators were free on Wednesday afternoon in New Delhi, a city of 29 million, where 13,000 new infections were reported the previous day.

The challenges facing India reverberate beyond its borders since the country is the biggest supplier of shots to Covax, the UN-sponsored program to distribute vaccines to poorer parts of the world.

Last month, India said it would suspend vaccine exports until the virus’s spread inside the country slows.

The WHO recently described the supply situation as precarious.

Up to 60 countries might not receive any more jabs until June, by one estimate.

To date, Covax has delivered about 40 million doses to more than 100 countries, enough to cover barely 0.25% of the world’s population.

Globally, about 87% of the 700 million doses dispensed have been given out in rich countries.

While one in four people in wealthy nations have received a vaccine, in poor countries the figure is one in more than 500.

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX wins $2.9bn NASA contract to send humans to the moon | Science & Tech News

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Elon Musk’s private space company SpaceX has won a $2.9bn (£2.1bn) NASA contract to build a spacecraft to put humans on the moon.

The tech billionaire’s firm was chosen ahead of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and defence contractor Dynetics Inc.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said at a video conference: “We should accomplish the next landing as soon as possible. This is an incredible time to be involved in human exploration, for all humanity.”

SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk
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SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk wants to take humans to Mars

SpaceX will need to complete a test flight “to fully check out all systems with a landing on the lunar surface prior to our formal demonstration mission”, NASA official Lisa Watson-Morgan told reporters.

Mr Musk is one of the world’s richest people thanks to his 22% stake in electric car maker Tesla, now the world’s most valuable vehicle manufacturer.

His publicly stated aim is to put humans on Mars – but so far, SpaceX has mainly been used to launch satellites for his Starlink internet venture, and other satellites and space cargo.

The SpaceX programme has suffered considerable teething problems, with another failed landing for its prototype Starship spacecraft last month.

The previous three exploded at touchdown or shortly afterwards.

Those setbacks do not appear to have affected investors’ confidence in his schemes, however, as SpaceX said on Wednesday it had raised about $1.16bn (£838m) in equity financing.

SpaceX lost another Starship, here seen launching in thick fog, in a botched landing on Tuesday
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SpaceX lost another Starship, here seen launching in thick fog, in a botched landing

NASA’s plan is get back to the moon and using that as a platform to send astronauts to Mars and it is looking to team up with private companies that share its vision for space exploration.

In December, NASA announced 18 astronauts who could be involved in plans to get back to the moon by 2024.

Jeff Bezos. Pic: AP
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NASA’s decision is a setback for Jeff Bezos. Pic: AP

It’s a setback for Mr Bezos, a lifelong space enthusiast and one of the world’s richest people, who is more focused on his space venture after deciding to step down as Amazon CEO.

The NASA deal was seen as a way for Blue Origin to establish itself as a desired partner for NASA, and also putting the venture on the road to turning a profit.

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