News & Current Affairs

December 30, 2008

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Gaza air campaign ‘a first stage’

Israel’s air assault on Gaza is “the first in several stages” of operations aimed at ending militant rocket fire, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said.

As bombing continued for a fourth day, another top official said Israel was ready for “long weeks of action”.

Palestinian officials say more than 360 people have been killed since Saturday. Four Israelis have died in rocket fire.

As EU officials prepared to discuss the crisis, some reports from Israel said it was considering a temporary truce.

Mr Olmert was set to discuss the idea of a 48-hour suspension, suggested by France, with his officials later in the day, the French news agency AFP said.

But Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer warned a truce would allow militant group Hamas – which controls Gaza – “to regain strength… and prepare an even stronger attack against Israel”.

US President Bush agreed in a telephone conversation with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that for any ceasefire to be effective it had to respected by Hamas, the White House said.

A BBC reporter says Israeli tanks and troops are massed along Gaza’s border.

Correspondents say this could be a prelude to ground operations, but could also be intended to build pressure on Hamas.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana called for an immediate ceasefire and the opening of crossings to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, as EU foreign ministers prepared to discuss the crisis in Paris.

‘Defenseless population’

On Tuesday, Israeli jets attacked more targets linked to Hamas, hitting a number of government buildings and security installations.

At least 10 people were killed and 40 said to have been wounded in the raids.

One air strike killed two sisters, the eldest aged 11, riding in a donkey cart in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, Palestinian medical sources said.

Palestinian children search the ruins of a destroyed house following an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip, 29 December 2008

The UN has called for an investigation into the attacks, which are causing heavy civilian casualties. It says at least 62 of the Palestinians killed so far were women and children.

Richard Falk – the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Palestinian territories – said the international community must put more pressure on Israel to end its assault.

“Israel is committing a shocking series of atrocities by using modern weaponry against a defenceless population – attacking a population that has been enduring a severe blockade for many months,” Mr Falk said in a BBC interview.

But Israeli officials said there was more to come.

The Israeli military “has made preparations for long weeks of action”, deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai said.

Mr Olmert’s statement that the bombardment was “the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet” was quoted from a briefing he gave to President Shimon Peres on Tuesday.

Separately, Israeli naval vessels confronted pro-Palestinian activists seeking to break the Gaza blockade by boat. The activists said one vessel rammed them; their boat made port in Lebanon with heavy damage on one side.

Rocket fire

The Egyptian-Gaza border was due to be opened to permit more trucks carrying aid to enter the territory, and for wounded Palestinians to be transported to Egyptian hospitals.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, under popular pressure to open the crossing fully, said that could not happen while Hamas, rather than the Palestinian Authority, led by its rival Fatah, controlled the border.

Demonstrators in Yemen, angered by Egypt’s co-operation with the blockade on Gaza, briefly stormed the country’s consulate in Aden, where they burned an Egyptian flag and hoisted a Palestinian one.

There have been angry protests against the Israeli offensive in many other cities across the Arab world and in several European capitals.

Hamas has pressed on with rocket and mortar assaults, killing three Israeli civilians and a soldier in areas that have not previously suffered such fatalities.

Israeli military officials said rocket attacks landing more than 25 miles (40km) from Gaza put nearly 10% of Israel’s population of seven million within range.

Israeli political leaders have been under pressure to act against rocket fire with a general election looming in early February.

Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu has backed the offensive, telling the BBC that “Israel is using a fraction of its power to try to target surgically the terrorists”.

The strikes began less than a week after the expiry of a six-month-long ceasefire deal with Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Correspondents say short of a full-scale invasion of Gaza, it is unlikely Israel will be able to prevent rocket fire permanently.

Israel dismantled its strategic settlements and military bases in Gaza in 2005 but has kept tight control over access in and out of the narrow coastal strip and its airspace.

GAZA VIOLENCE 27-30 DECEMBER
Map of attacks in and around Gaza

1. Ashdod: First attack so far north, Sunday. Woman killed in second rocket attack, Tuesday
2. Ashkelon: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Monday
3. Sderot: rocket attacks
4. Nevitot: One man killed, several injured in rocket attack, Saturday
5. Civilian family reported killed in attack on Yabna refugee camp, Sunday
6.
Israeli warplanes strike tunnels under Gaza/Egypt border, Sunday
7. Three brothers reported killed in attack on Rafah, Sunday
8. Khan Younis: Four members of Islamic Jihad and a child reported killed, Sunday. Security officer killed in air strike on Hamas police station, Tuesday
9. Deir al-Balah: Palestinians injured, houses and buildings destroyed, Sunday
10. Tel al-Hawa – Interior ministry and Islamic University badly damaged, Monday. At least three buildings in ministry compound hit, Tuesday
11. Gaza City port: naval vessels targeted, Sunday
12. Shati refugee camp: Home of Hamas leader Ismail Haniya targeted, Monday
13. Intelligence building attacked, Sunday
14. Jebaliya refugee camp: several people killed in attack on mosque, Sunday 15. Beit Hanoun – two girls killed in air strike, Tuesday
16. Israeli soldier killed at unspecified military base near Nahal Oz border crossing – five other soldiers wounded in same rocket attack, Monday night.

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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

September 1, 2008

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Uncertainty in India flood camp

Courtesy BBC

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Purnea


Asha Devi

Asha Devi is among those who fled the floods – she paid $5 for a lift on a tractor

Outside the Bageecha relief camp in Purnea, Bihar, there is confusion.

A line of small trucks and vans carrying relief material have parked on the highway – scores of volunteers, dressed in white, are milling around.

They have just brought several tonnes of aid – but are not quite sure how to distribute it.

There is apparently no camp co-ordinator, no-one from the government.

It is symptomatic of what is happening across Bihar’s flood-affected areas.

God knows if my house is still standing
Janardhan Rishidev

“We have driven several hours to get here,” says Anil Chowdhury, whose cap identifies him as belonging to the Lions’ Club of Khagaria.

“We’ve made up bundles of supplies with rice, sugar, matches and candles.

“Since the government has unable to provide for these people, we’ve decided to step in.”

The lucky ones

Inside camp Bageecha there is more confusion.

Several hundred families have arrived here over the past five days.

The shelter they have been provided is modest – bamboo staves hammered into the ground with a plastic sheet roof to keep out the rain.

Water pump

Conditions in the camp are far from ideal

There is one hand pump for all of them to use to wash themselves.

On one corner, several men are stirring large cauldrons of lentils and rice. It may not seem much, but for many here it is their first cooked meal in days.

So despite the abysmal conditions, everyone here knows they are the lucky ones who got away.

“This is how high the water reached,” says Janardhan Rishidev, holding his hands waist high.

“When it started rising further, I knew it was time to leave. We packed a few things quickly, and placed the rest of our belongings on high shelves in our home.

“Then we fled. God knows if my house is still standing.”

Playing in dirt

Like most people here, Janardhan waded several hours through the flood waters, holding a small bundle of his valued possessions on his head.

Asha Devi and her husband Ram were slightly luckier. Along with their children they climbed on to the back of a tractor and drove out.

map

At a price – they paid the driver 200 rupees ($5) for the ride.

“We hadn’t eaten a proper meal in four days. My children were crying every day. At least here we’ve had some hot food.”

There appears to be a disproportionately high number of children at this camp – most of them unclothed, playing in the dirt.

There are no medical supplies here, or any doctors. But still everyone is grateful to have got out alive.

Sitaram is 85, and managed to come here only because his sons carried him on their back.

He squats outside his tent, smoking.

“Many people were left behind,” he says in a hoarse whisper, leaning forward.

“Old people whose children left them behind. I was lucky, my sons love me.”

Plenty of goodwill

But there is an air of restlessness as well.

Many of the villagers are concerned that eventually somebody will ask them to leave, or the supplies will run out.

“We need to go back,” says Asha Devi.

“We’ve lived off our land and that’s the only way we’ll survive. But how do we go back? When everything is under water, what will we do – swim?”

No-one has the answer to these questions, quite simply because there is no-one from the authorities here.

No government representative has been here to visit. Some international aid workers came by, but they have now left.

Outside camp Bageecha, it is complete gridlock.

Several aid trucks have blocked the road unsure of whether to pull the side or move on ahead.

There are no policemen, so a couple of volunteers decide to sort out the chaos.

“Where’s the government?” asks one volunteer angrily. “They should be here taking charge, instead they’ve left it to us.”

There is plenty of goodwill here and quite a bit of misplaced enthusiasm.

It is just not clear whether they are all aiding the relief effort or hindering it.

August 16, 2008

Potter film release date delayed

Potter film release date delayed

Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in Harry Potter

Order of the Phoenix was the top-grossing UK film in 2007

The release date for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has been pushed back by eight months, to July 2009.

The sixth installment of the teenage wizard’s adventures was supposed to have its Royal premiere on 17 November.

Alan Horn, president of studio Warner Bros, said the decision was taken to guarantee the studio a major summer blockbuster in 2009.

He also blamed the Hollywood writers’ strike, which hit the film industry hard earlier this year.

Mr Horn said the strike, which ended in February, had “impacted the readiness of scripts for other films.”

Fantasy books

He said: “The picture is completely, absolutely, 100% on schedule, on time. There were no delays.

“I’ve seen the movie. It is fabulous. We would have been perfectly able to have it out in November.”

The move will mean a two-year delay between the film adaptations of books five and six in JK Rowling’s fantasy series.

But it will shorten fans’ wait between Half-Blood Prince and the final two installments of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which are being shot simultaneously next year.

It is thought actors Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson – who is celebrating getting straight As in her A Levels in English literature, geography and art – will reprise their roles.

The release date for part one is tentatively set for November 2010.

Royal performance

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince had been chosen for this year’s Royal Film Performance, on 17 November.

Last year’s performance was canceled amid controversy about the chosen movie, Brick Lane.

It was the first time the annual gala – held in aid of the Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund (CTBF) – had been scrapped since 1958.

CTBF chief executive Peter Hore told the News he was “very disappointed” with the decision to shelve the Potter premiere.

But he was hopeful a Royal premiere would still go ahead this year.

He said: “The Royal Film Performance has been around for a long time and has a tradition of showcasing the best films. We are confident we will be able to do that again this year.”

Mr Hore added that he expected to make an announcement shortly.

August 7, 2008

Red Cross probes emblem ‘misuse’

Red Cross probes emblem ‘misuse’

Red cross symbol

Misuse of the symbol undermines Red Cross neutrality

The International Committee of the Red Cross has voiced graveĀ  concern over what it says is Colombia’s apparent “deliberate misuse” of its symbol.

The ICRC said it had seen video footage that suggested the emblem was used deliberately in July’s military mission to free 15 hostages from rebel hands.

The government has apologised to the ICRC but also condemned the leak of the military video to Colombian TV.

Intentional misuse of the symbol would be a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

The Geneva-based ICRC says the footage shown on Colombian TV on Monday indicates that the emblem was being used before the operation to free the hostages from Farc guerrillas had even begun, indicating intentional misuse.

“If authenticated, these images would clearly establish an improper use of the Red Cross emblem, which we deplore,” said ICRC deputy director of operations Dominik Stillhart.

Mr Stillhart said they were seeking further clarification from the Colombian government.

‘Nervous soldier’

Rescuers tricked rebels into releasing French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages by posing as international aid workers.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe subsequently acknowledged that a Red Cross symbol was worn by a member of the military taking part in the 2 July rescue mission.

Colombian Defence Minsier Juan Manuel Santos (left) and armed forces chief Gen Freddy padilla (right) on 5 August

The leak of the video could amount to treason, the defence minister says

Mr Uribe said he had apologised to the Red Cross for the error, which he said had been made by a nervous soldier acting against orders.

Speaking on Tuesday, after the video was shown on Colombian TV, Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos apologised again to the ICRC.

“The emblem…was used from the beginning of the operation. We are very sorry that this has happened. But the government, the president and (armed forces chief) General Padilla said the truth that we knew at the time,” Mr Santos said.

But Mr Santos also condemned the leak of the video, saying those responsible had been identified and would be punished.

“This video contains material that was leaked by members of the security forces, from our army. This leak was a product of disloyalty, possibly corruption or even treason because it puts at risk the lives of people who are dedicated to defending the fatherland,” he said.

Neutrality

The Colombian government has said the rescue was the result of long preparation, eavesdropping on rebel communications and deception of guerrillas on the ground, allowing the hostages to be liberated without loss of life.

Officials also stressed how the mission had been carried out without loss of life.

Falsely portraying military personnel as Red Cross workers is against the Geneva Conventions because it could put humanitarian workers at risk when carrying out missions in war zones.

It also undermines the neutrality of the Red Cross.

At the end of July, Farc guerrillas handed eight people they had kidnapped the week before to ICRC representatives, suggesting the rebels have not lost faith in the humanitarian organisation, correspondents say.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) have been fighting the Colombian state for more than four decades and are believed to still hold several hundred hostages.

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