News & Current Affairs

November 12, 2008

UN appeals for DR Congo back-up

UN appeals for DR Congo back-up

Congolese government soldiers pass displaced people as they return from the front near Goma on Tuesday 11 November 2008

Congolese troops have faced fresh allegations of abuses

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made a fresh plea for 3,000 more peacekeepers to be sent to the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In New York, Mr Ban also called for a ceasefire so aid workers could urgently help “at least 100,000 refugees” cut off in rebel-held areas near Goma.

A 17,000-strong UN force in Congo has been unable to stop the fighting or halt the rebel advance.

The UN Security Council is considering the call for reinforcements.

The UN head of UN peacekeeping operations, Alain Le Roy, said there were currently only 10 UN soldiers for every 10,000 inhabitants in eastern DR Congo.

Rebel administration

He said this was not enough to protect the population from violence perpetrated by rebel groups and the Congolese army.

A displaced woman next to a UN armoured vehicle near Goma on Tuesday 11 November 2008

The UN presence in DR Congo is its largest mission in the world

Recent fighting between government and rebel troops has displaced a quarter of a million people in the strife-torn region around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Earlier, the rebel Congolese general, Laurent Nkunda, said he had formed an alternative administration in the area of eastern Congo that he controls.

In what observers say is his latest direct challenge to the central government, 12 ministers will take responsibility for a range of functions including police and security.

The move appears to be pure propaganda.

‘Looting and raping’

Our correspondent says it may annoy the government but is likely to be insignificant unless the rebels follow it up with further military action.

Displaced people tap into a supply of water aid nearby the Nyiragongo volcano in Kibati

Meanwhile government troops have faced fresh accusations that they have been ransacking villages and raping civilians.

UN spokesman Lt-Col Jean Paul Dietrich said looting began around Kanyabayonga, 100 km (60 miles) north of Goma, on Monday afternoon and continued through the night.

He said UN peacekeepers and the Congolese army had been trying to intervene.

Rebel leader Gen Nkunda claims to be fighting to protect his Tutsi community from attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels, who fled to DR Congo after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

On Monday, he threatened to take over the whole country if President Joseph Kabila’s government continued in its refusal to negotiate with him.

FORCES AROUND GOMA
CNDP: Gen Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels – 6,000 fighters
FDLR: Rwandan Hutus – 6,000-7,000
Mai Mai: pro-government militia – 3,500
Monuc: UN peacekeepers – 1,000 in Goma, 6,000 in North Kivu (17,000 nationwide)
DRC army – 90,000 (nationwide)
Source: UN, military experts

But a Congolese official said the government was still unwilling to talk to the rebel leader and accused him of war crimes.

The UN has accused both sides of war crimes during the latest violence.

Mr Kabila was elected president in 2006 in polls that were backed by the UN, and which international observers generally declared to be fair.

As in the four-year war that began in DR Congo in 1998, the recent fighting has threatened to draw in neighbouring countries.

Map of eastern DR Congo


What is your reaction to the situation in Congo? Can this region ever find peace? Tell us your thoughts

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September 13, 2008

Thousands stranded by XL collapse

Thousands stranded by XL collapse

The collapse of the UK’s third largest package holiday group has left tens of thousands of Britons stranded abroad.

The decision to place XL Leisure Group into administration has also left thousands of staff facing the axe.

Chairman Phil Wyatt said he was “totally devastated” by the failure which has grounded XL’s 21 planes. The company flies to about 50 destinations.

There are 67,000 stranded who booked directly with XL, and another 23,000 who booked via other companies.

The Civil Aviation Authority(CAA) also said the firm had 200,000 advance bookings.

‘Sad day’

CAA EMERGENCY HELPLINE
Customers abroad: +44 (0) 2891 856547
Customers in the UK with advance bookings: 0870 5900927

“We’ve made every effort, myself and my fellow directors, to find new funding for the business – and it’s a very sad day for me personally. I am totally devastated,” XL chairman Phil Wyatt said.David Clover, a spokesman for the CAA, said it was making arrangements to help customers of the four tour companies within the XL group.

“In respect of people who are currently abroad we’re making arrangements and working very closely with the travel industry to organize repatriation flights.

“Clearly though, with XL Airways no longer operating, we’re having to bring in substitute aircraft to bring people home.”

He said package deals are covered by the CAA’s Air Travel Organizers’ Licensing (Atol) scheme and those customers will be offered repatriation flights or their money back if they have an advance booking.

Struggling

However, those who booked directly with the airline or XL.com – who are in the minority according to the CAA – will face a fee.

Anyone yet to take their flights should check their insurance policies, and with their banks or credit card companies about refunds, he added.

XL – which carried 2.3 million passengers last year – is the latest travel business to face financial difficulties, as the industry struggles with high fuel costs and an economic downturn.

But an agreement has been reached whereby Straumur investment bank has acquired XL’s German and French subsidiaries, which Straumur considers to be financially viable and sustainable businesses.

They will continue operations as separate commercial entities.

Share prices in holiday firms TUI Travel and Thomas Cook were up 6% and 7% following the collapse of their rival.

Economic downturn

“As the travel industry matures in Europe, there was always going to be pressure on those operating in the mid-market,” said Lastminute.com chief executive Ian McCaig.

A statement on the XL group’s website said: “The companies entered into administration having suffered as a result of volatile fuel prices, the economic downturn, and were unable to obtain further funding.”

XL COMPANIES
XL Leisure Group
XL Airways UK
Excel Aviation
Explorer House
Aspire Holidays
Freedom Flights
Freedom Flights (Aviation)
The Really Great Holiday Company
Medlife Hotels
Travel City Flights
Kosmar Villa Holidays

BBC travel correspondent Tom Symonds added that the industry would be facing an “enormous challenge” as it deals with the fall out of XL’s collapse.

“XL wasn’t just an airline it was a fundamental link Britain’s package holiday industry,” he said.

“Getting these people to and from their holidays will be an enormous challenge not least because of the shortage of aircraft caused by so many airline collapses in recent weeks.

“XL can’t use its own airliners for among other reasons it has no insurance now.”

The CAA said it was working with the travel industry to bring stranded holidaymakers home, and denied it had been responsible for the grounding of XL’s planes.

Airlines BA, Easyjet, BMI, Flybe and Ryanair have offered to fly some of the stranded passengers home.

Easyjet chief executive Andy Harrison told that its fuel efficient planes had helped it cope with the high cost of aviation fuel although on Thursday it said it would cut up to 60 jobs to remain competitive.

Fuel pressures

Mr Wyatt added that spiralling oil prices had increased the firm’s costs “year-on-year by over $80m”.

“So where many people have been making hay with high oil prices, this is the repercussions of that hay – 1,700 people potentially out of work today in the UK,” he said.

Rival TUI warned that rising fuel costs meant that “airlines with less than robust business models” – such as XL and Futura – were now failing.

It added that the government should take steps to ensure all holiday companies must belong to the Atol scheme, which offers package holiday makers financial protection.

In the US, one flight from Orlando to Manchester managed to set off, while one bound for Gatwick was grounded. A source at the airport said accommodation was being found for the “distressed” passengers.

In the UK, air traffic control prevented three XL aircraft from taking off from Manchester Airport.

The XL group, which is based in Crawley, West Sussex, runs an airline and owns several travel companies, including Travel City Direct, Medlife Hotels Limited, The Really Great Holiday Company, Freedom Flights and Kosmar Holidays.

‘Going nowhere’

The company flies mainly from bases at Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow airports.

Travel writer Simon Calder warned that many thousands of XL customers hoping to fly to the Caribbean, Mediterranean, North Africa and North America, from airports across the UK in coming weeks and days “simply won’t be going anywhere”.

Jim Duwaine, from Portsmouth, said he was given the news when he arrived at Gatwick where he had been due to catch an early morning flight to Menorca.

HELP OFFERED TO XL CUSTOMERS
Flybe – offering flights for 90 euros (£71.50)
BA– offering a one-way discount
Easyjet– flights offered for £75
BMI – provided aircraft to CAA for transport people home
Ryanair – has offered spare plane to CAA for transport

He said: “Absolutely devastated. Got up at midnight planning on going on holiday, but got let down, unfortunately. We’re here, just trying to get some other flights, but it’s not looking good. I think everyone else has got the same idea.”

Other holidaymakers have said they have been quoted vastly inflated prices for replacement flights.

Robert Spurgeon, of Norwich – an XL customer who had been due to fly to Tenerife from Gatwick – said: “We’ve not been told anything but my wife’s been quoted £2,000 for alternative flights.”

Also among those affected are a 130-strong choir on tour to Canada from Wales who were booked on Zoom and lost £50,000 when it folded last month, and then re-booked with XL.

XL is the current kit sponsor of West Ham United but football club said it would end the sponsorship deal and play on Saturday in an unbranded kit.


Are you struggling to make your way home from your holiday destination? Have you paid for a holiday that you may not be able to take? If you were an employee of XL what are your views? Send us your comments

Arrests’ after China landslide

Arrests’ after China landslide

Family members grieve for one of the victims on 12 September 2008

Devastated relatives are now burying their dead

More than a dozen mine officials have been arrested, Chinese state media have reported, after a landslide engulfed a village, killing at least 178 people.

The local Communist Party head has been sacked over Monday’s incident in Shanxi province, news agency Xinhua said.

Thousands of rescue workers are combing through the debris in Taoshi, in which hundreds more victims may be buried.

Frequent mining accidents in China are blamed on lax safety standards and ageing infrastructure.

More than 3,000 rescue workers are at the site, near the city of Linfen, recovering bodies from the debris with the help of 160 diggers, Xinhua reported.

But hopes of finding any more survivors are fading four days on from the accident. It is not known how many people are still missing.

Rescuers have already covered about 90% of the area, Xinhua said.

‘Grave accident’

Earlier in the week, government officials were quoted as saying hundreds of people could be dead, but they later denied such statements.

Thirteen officials from the Tashan Mining Co, which ran the illegal iron ore operation, have now been arrested, Xinhua reported.

Map

In addition, the head of the local Communist Party and other senior local officials were dismissed, the agency said.

“It is the most grave accident that involves the largest death toll so far this year,” said Wang Jun, director of the State Administration of Work Safety.

“The rising accidents disclose local governments’ poor supervision on work safety. Those responsible must be dealt with seriously.”

The torrent of sludge buried the village of 1,000 people, including a market that was packed with people attending a fair, the China Daily newspaper reported.

Witnesses said that the mud appeared to be more than 20ft (6m) deep in some places.

State media said that the mining reservoir was decommissioned in the 1980s, but had recently been put back into use after a new owner took over the mine.

The mine’s safety certificate was revoked in 2006, it said.

Analysts say the disaster highlights China’s failure to enforce safety standards at its notoriously dangerous mines, and also the unsound state of many of its bridges, dams and other ageing infrastructure.

Greenland seeks whaling breakaway

Greenland seeks whaling breakaway

Whalemeat hung out to dry in Uummannaq, Greenland

Whales and other marine mammals are traditional foods in Greenland

Greenland is attempting to remove its whale hunt from the jurisdiction of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

Its whalers are angry that the IWC has twice declined to permit the addition of humpback whales to its annual quota.

The move could eventually make Greenland the only state outside the commission to hunt the “great whales”.

The news comes on the eve of a Florida meeting aimed at finding compromise within the fractured IWC.

The meeting is the latest stage in a “peace process” which began more than a year ago.

But documents sent in by governments’ delegations – seen by BBC News – suggest fundamental divisions remain.

Divided rule

Greenland’s Inuit communities catch minke, fin and bowhead whales under regulations permitting hunting where there is a “nutritional and cultural need”.

At the 2007 and 2008 IWC meetings, Greenland – represented by Denmark, its former colonial ruler – requested adding an annual quota of 10 humpback whales.

The requests were turned down owing to concerns that Greenland had not demonstrated a real need for the meat, and that its existing hunting was too commercial in character.

WSPA

Now, a letter has gone from the fisheries ministry of the territory’s home-rule administration, based in Nuuk, to Denmark’s foreign ministry, asking that Greenland withdraw from the IWC.

It is not clear whether Greenland is asking for Denmark to leave the organization, or to stop representing it, or to re-draw the areas of responsibility of the Copenhagen and Nuuk administrations to make whaling a completely home-rule issue.

Danish officials declined to elaborate, and Greenlandic fisheries officials did not respond to requests for clarification.

The issue is expected to take several months to resolve.

Separate lives

A withdrawal by Greenland would have serious implications, because outside the IWC, its hunts would be able to expand without international oversight.

But there is resentment in several Arctic countries over what is seen as the imposition of “western cultural values” on communities that take most of their food from the sea.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s government represents Greenlanders in the IWC

Some ask the question, too, of why whaling is regulated globally when fisheries are managed through regional bodies.

The establishment of the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (Nammco) in 1992 by Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands is an indication that some northern countries are looking for a different way to manage what they regard as their marine resources.

In its annual meeting earlier this month, Nammco concluded that Greenlanders should have an annual quota of no more than 10 humpbacks.

For the moment, Greenland is adhering to the IWC ruling rather than Nammco’s recommendation; but given its latest move, that cannot be guaranteed to endure.

The establishment of a similar body to Nammco for the North Pacific is one of the options mooted by Japanese officials if the IWC becomes, in their view, beyond redemption.

Bridging the gap

With a view to healing the fissures within the IWC, chairman William Hogarth embarked more than a year ago on talks to explore whether some meeting of minds was possible.

Some anti-whaling activists decry the process because it could open the door to a limited lifting of the 1986 moratorium on commercial hunting.

But others believe it is the only viable way to reduce the annual global kill, which – if quotas are fulfilled – stands at more than 2,000.

A working group of 28 countries – not including the UK – will now meet in Florida, Dr Hogarth’s home patch, to debate the issues that divide the organisation.

Thirteen countries have sent in statements of position, or comments, on the 33 issues that were agreed at the IWC plenary as needing attention.

Japan, as it has done regularly, says its traditional whaling communities should be permitted annual quotas.

THE LEGALITIES OF WHALING
Under the global moratorium on commercial whaling, hunting is conducted in three ways:
Objection – A country formally objects to the IWC moratorium, declaring itself exempt. Example: Norway
Scientific – A nation issues unilateral ‘scientific permits’; any IWC member can do this. Example: Japan
Aboriginal – IWC grants permits to indigenous groups for subsistence food. Example: Alaskan Inupiat

It envisages that such whaling would have a large element of international oversight, and that the number of whales caught would be deducted from the annual scientific hunt in coastal waters.

But it makes no mention of its annual Antarctic catch, the major bone of contention for anti-whaling nations.

Some anti-whaling countries indicate a willingness to compromise on fundamental issues.

Argentina, for example, says that “issues such as scientific whaling and (Japanese) small-scale coastal whaling should be re-examined in the light of a spirit of commitment and within the framework of a dialogue which will allow us to leave aside the winner/loser rationale which has lately prevailed at IWC”.

But other anti-whaling countries, such as the Netherlands, are adamant that the commercial whaling moratorium should stay; that scientific hunting, which is presently in the gift of individual governments. must be brought under IWC control; and that no countries beyond Iceland, Japan and Norway should be permitted to start whaling.

South Korea, meanwhile, appears to suggest that it might ask for a quota if the moratorium were to be lifted, saying that some of its communities have a whaling culture dating back thousands of years, and that “the ever-lasting whaling moratorium is destined to give rise to continuing socio-economic hardships to the communities concerned.”

And Norway has weighed in to the Greenlandic humpback issue, saying that the IWC’s refusal of a quota showed “an appallingly patronizing attitude vis-a-vis the needs of indigenous communities”.

Dr Hogarth’s aim is to have a package of measures agreed before the next IWC plenary in mid-2009. The indications are that much hard bargaining lies ahead if his wish is to be fulfilled.

September 10, 2008

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai deputy PM and finance minister Surapong Suebwonglee (C) sits next to deputy PM Somchai Wongsawat (L) and justice minister Sompong Amornwiwat (R) during a meeting in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

The mood in Thailand was reportedly tense as the coalition met

Thailand’s political parties are meeting to discuss who should replace Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a day after he was stripped of office.

Mr Samak has not been seen since the Constitutional Court ruled he broke the law by appearing on a TV cookery show.

Parliament is due to elect 73-year-old Mr Samak’s successor on Friday.

His People Power Party (PPP), the biggest in the six-member coalition, appeared to back away from an earlier pledge to re-nominate him as PM.

“What the party spokesman said yesterday was not the party’s resolution. Our resolution is the next prime minister must come from the People Power Party,” Reuters news agency quoted finance minister and PPP secretary general Surapong Suebwonglee as saying.

‘Fuel the fire’

Now that the dust has settled after the Constitutional Court’s astonishing decision on Tuesday, the bargaining has begun, according to the correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head.

Party factions have been holding meetings throughout the day; some have been in contact with the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is still influential because of his continued financial support.

POLITICAL CRISIS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
30 Aug: Samak rules out resignation, after meeting with Thailand’s king
1 Sept: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one dead. Samak declares a state of emergency
4 Sept: Samak proposes a national referendum
9 Sept: Court orders Samak to resign for violating constitution

The PPP insists any replacement for Mr Samak must come from within its ranks, but its coalition partners are angling to get one of their own into the seat.

The second-largest of the partners, the Chart Thai Party, said the PPP should not re-nominate Mr Samak.

But Chart Thai’s leader, Banharn Silpa-Archa – who as prime minister a decade ago presided over a currency collapse that triggered an Asian economic crisis – told Reuters he had ruled himself out.

The opposition Democrats are proposing a new government of national unity as the best way out of the crisis – with the clear hint that their party leader should get the job.

Bangkok dangerous?

For the past two weeks, the Thai government has been paralysed by thousands of protesters who have occupied its headquarters, demanding Mr Samak quit.

Anti-government protesters at Government House in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

Protesters are still laying siege to Government House

They accuse him of being a proxy for Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

The demonstrators said they would continue to besiege Government House while waiting to see who parliament selects as the new prime minister.

They have already warned that they will continue their protests if Mr Samak or anyone else closely associated with Mr Thaksin is chosen.

The caretaker administration has anticipated the continued protests by proposing that ministers move their offices to the old international airport.

Deputy PPP leader Somchai Wongsawat is acting as a caretaker prime minister until the new premier is named.

Correspondents say his new role could fan Thailand’s political flames as he is the brother-in-law of Mr Thaksin.

September 3, 2008

Bush backs McCain for president

Bush backs McCain for president

President George W Bush has praised John McCain’s service and leadership in a speech to the Republican convention.

Speaking via video-link from the White House, he told delegates in St Paul, Minnesota, that Mr McCain was “a great American and the next president”.

Mr McCain is due to be nominated on Thursday as the party’s presidential candidate for November’s election.

The main talking point so far has been the news that the teenage daughter of Mr McCain’s running mate is pregnant.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, chosen as the vice-presidential nominee last week, announced on Monday that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, would have the baby and marry her boyfriend.

In his eight-minute address, Mr Bush described Mr McCain as a president ready to make the tough decisions needed “in a dangerous world”.

John McCain’s life is a story of service above self
President George W Bush

“John McCain’s life has prepared him to make those choices. He is ready to lead this nation,” Mr Bush said.

He also spoke of Mr McCain’s life as “a story of service above self” and emphasized the “independence and character” he showed in backing the administration’s “surge” strategy of pouring more forces into Iraq.

Former Senator Fred Thompson, who ran against Mr McCain in the party’s primaries, opened a lively speech with criticism of the Democrats and the media for their scrutiny of Mrs Palin and her family.

He also spoke of Mr McCain’s military service, his courage while a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his commitment to reform in Washington.

Mr Thompson went on to attack the Democrats and their record since taking control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections.

Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, spoke of Mr McCain as “the best choice to bring our country together and lead our country forward”.

Gustav appeal

Most of the first day’s political events were suspended out of respect for communities affected by Hurricane Gustav.

Instead, Mr McCain’s wife, Cindy, and First Lady Laura Bush made calls to support those under threat.

Mrs Bush told delegates that such events transcended party politics and reminded people that they were Americans first.

Gustav was downgraded to a tropical storm after making landfall on Monday west of New Orleans, where hundreds of thousands of people had been evacuated.

The storm came three years after Hurricane Katrina struck, killing more than 1,800 people and resulting in huge damage to the city and its surrounding area. President Bush was strongly criticised over his handling of the crisis.

Palin talking point

The Republican Party convention is now getting down to work after the uncertainty brought on by Hurricane Gustav.

Tuesday’s events are focusing on Mr McCain, a concentrated piece of political image building with a keynote speech from Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent senator, who has decided to support the party’s candidate, our correspondent says.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (31 August 2008)
Sarah Palin’s announcement has so far overshadowed the convention

President Bush cancelled his planned opening night speech amid concerns that overt political campaigning would play badly with voters at a time of potential crisis.

But many Republicans will be glad he is not here in St Paul in person, our correspondent says, and much of this week will be about defining Mr McCain as very different to his unpopular predecessor.

Meanwhile, media attention has continued to focus on Mrs Palin, who is facing an ethics investigation in her home state and whose daughter’s pregnancy made headlines on Monday.

The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Bristol’s boyfriend, named as 18-year-old Levi Johnston, would be joining the Palin family at the convention in Minnesota.

The AP quotes Mr Johnston’s mother, Sherry, as saying he had been put under no pressure to marry and that the pair had been planning to wed before they knew she was pregnant.

Our correspondent says Mrs Palin’s selection as vice-presidential candidate has caused great excitement among social conservatives and evangelical Christians here.

But across the broader Republican Party there seems to be some unease – she is an unknown quantity, and when she is finally brought out on to the convention stage on Wednesday, many McCain supporters will be crossing their fingers and hoping she performs, he adds.

The 72-year-old Arizona senator is expected to formally accept his candidacy in a prime-time speech on Thursday evening.


What is your reaction to the Republican convention? Tell us your thoughts on the event so far

August 28, 2008

Zoom heads towards administration

Zoom heads towards administration

The grounded plane at Glasgow Airport

The grounded plane was due to leave Glasgow Airport on Thursday morning

Transatlantic budget carrier Zoom Airlines has admitted it is applying to go into administration.

The announcement came after one of its planes was detained at Glasgow Airport on Thursday for non-payment of air traffic control charges.

UK-Canadian Zoom blamed its problems on the “horrendous” price of aviation fuel and the wider economic slowdown.

People due to travel on Zoom have been told to check their flight’s status.

‘Support and advice’

Zoom’s admission of financial difficulties came after BAA, the owner of Gatwick Airport, said it had been instructed by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority to detain a Zoom plane that was due to fly to the Canadian cities of Halifax and Ottawa.

BAA said another Zoom flight from Glasgow to Vancouver had also been delayed.

“BAA is working with Zoom Airlines to provide support and advice for passengers,” said the airport company.

Meanwhile, a Zoom plane was grounded overnight in Calgary, Canada, a move also said to be in connection to overdue charges.

“Zoom Airlines Ltd based at Gatwick and Zoom Airlines Inc based in Ottawa, Canada, have sought creditor protection by filing legal notices of intention to appoint an administrator in both the UK and Canada,” said Zoom executive chairman Hugh Boyle.

He added that while Zoom sincerely apologised for those passengers affected by the grounded aircraft, its “flights will continue to operate”.

Zoom operates services from Glasgow, Gatwick, Manchester, Cardiff and Belfast International airports a well as from European airports to a number of North American destinations.


Are you due to travel on Zoom? Have you been affected by any issues raised in this story?

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