By Abhaya SRIVASTAVA
New Delhi (AFP) Jan 26, 2016
Thousands gathered in New Delhi amid tight security Tuesday for India's annual Republic Day parade, a pomp-filled spectacle of military might featuring camels and daredevil stunt riders, with French President Francois Hollande the chief guest.
A contingent of French infantry in India for joint military exercises led the march down the capital's central Rajpath avenue, the first time foreign troops have ever taken part in the parade.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Hollande in a show of solidarity with France after Islamist attacks in Paris last November killed 130 -- recalling a 2008 assault on Mumbai that killed 166.
The two leaders agreed in talks Monday to deepen cooperation on counter-terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks and a deadly siege this month on an Indian air force base near the Pakistan border.
The mood on Tuesday was more celebratory, with Modi -- sporting a gold turban that rivalled the spectacular military headgear on display -- and Hollande chatting as they sat side by side in a bulletproof glass enclosure.
An estimated 10,000 spectators braved thick smog and air quality levels classified as hazardous on the US embassy website to watch the display, the highlight of annual celebrations of the birth of modern India.
Delhi is the world's most polluted capital and levels of PM2.5 -- the tiny particles that can enter the bloodstream -- frequently reach 10 times the World Health Organization's safe limit.
But the skies remained dry, unlike last year when chief guest US President Barack Obama was forced to shelter under an umbrella throughout.
- Human pyramid -
The two-hour showcase of military might and cultural diversity included everything from tanks and state-of-the-art weaponry to camels and traditional dancers.
The mounted camels of the Border Security Force -- an annual highlight -- put in an early showing, decorated in brightly coloured caparisons.
Traditional dancers representing some of India's diverse regional cultures performed on colourfully decorated floats showcasing selected states.
A dog squad drawn from the Army's Remount Veterinary Corps returned to the parade after a gap of 26 years to perform a march past wearing striped coats in their unit's colours.
They were followed by motorbike stunt riders performing a human pyramid, another annual tradition, before the grand finale of the event, a fly-past by Indian fighter jets.
India launched a nationwide security crackdown in the lead-up to the celebrations, which mark the adoption of the country's constitution on January 26, 1950 following independence from Britain in 1947.
Counter-terror police arrested a group of suspected Islamist radicals and seized bomb-making material in a series of nationwide raids last week, and some 50,000 police, army and paramilitary forces were deployed across the capital on Tuesday.
It was the fifth time a French president has been chief guest, the greatest honour India can bestow on a foreign leader.
Hollande was due to leave Delhi later Tuesday at the end of a three-day official visit that began in the northern city of Chandigarh.
His visit had raised hopes of a conclusion to a long-delayed, multi-billion-dollar deal for New Delhi to buy 36 French Rafale jet fighters.
The two sides said they had not yet arrived at an agreement on the price, which experts say could reach around five billion euros ($5.6 billion).
Rafale manufacturer Dassault said after the announcement it was hopeful the price negotiations could be completed within the next four weeks.
India entered exclusive negotiations on buying 126 Rafale fighters in 2012, but the number of planes was scaled back in tortuous negotiations over cost and assembly of the planes in India.
On Monday the two men laid a foundation stone at the new headquarters of the International Solar Alliance, a 121-nation group launched by Modi at the Paris COP21 conference in November to expand affordable solar power.
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