News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Afghan helicopter crash kills 16

Russian-built Mi-8. File photo

Russian media say the aircraft was an Mi-8 similar to this

A civilian helicopter has crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing at least 16 civilians and injuring five, Nato officials have confirmed.

The helicopter crashed at Kandahar airfield apparently as it was trying to take off, though Nato has ruled out the involvement of insurgents.

Reports from Moscow say the helicopter was a Russian-built Mi-8.

The crash is the second in a week. Six passengers died when a helicopter came down in Helmand province on Tuesday.

‘Not shot down’

Russia’s Interfax agency quoted a spokesman for Russia’s Federal Air Transportation Agency (Fata) as saying the aircraft was a Russian-built Mi-8 transport helicopter.

Map

Fata said it was owned by the Russian air company Vertical-T.

The nationalities of the dead are not yet known.

A statement from Nato’s International Security Assistance Force said: “A civilian contracted helicopter crashed during take-off from Kandahar airfield.

“Emergency personnel are on the scene. There was no indication of the cause of the accident but insurgent action has been ruled out.”

Kandahar airfield is Nato’s largest air base in southern Afghanistan but the BBC’s Martin Patience in Kabul says a lot of civilian aircraft fly in and out so there is no surprise this was a civilian crash.

A Nato spokeswoman, Lt Cmdr Sam Truelove, told the AFP news agency it had been confirmed that all the dead were civilians and no military personnel were involved.

RECENT HELICOPTER CRASHES
14 Jul 2008: Six Ukrainian civilians and Afghan girl die in crash in Helmand. Suspected enemy fire
6 Jul 2008: One UK and two Canadian soldiers die in crash in Zabul province. Enemy fire not suspected
15 Jan 2008: Afghan general and 12 other soldiers die in crash in Herat province. Bad weather blamed
30 May 2007: Seven killed as Nato Chinook crashes in Helmand. Cause unclear

The condition of the injured was not known, she said.

Vertical-T was founded in 1992 and started to work abroad in 1998 in Italy. It has worked in countries including Germany, East Timor, Cyprus, Yemen and Greece, according to the company’s website.

The company’s helicopters are currently carrying out operations in the interests of the UN in Afghanistan and a number of other countries including Congo, Sudan and Pakistan.

The dead in Tuesday’s crash in Helmand were all civilians.

That helicopter crashed near the Sangin military base, with local people saying it had been shot down by insurgents.

Six Ukrainian crew members of the Mi-26 helicopter died, along with an Afghan girl on the ground.

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January 15, 2009

Gaza pounded amid push for truce

Gaza pounded amid push for truce

Israeli tanks have pushed deep into Gaza City, prompting fierce exchanges of gunfire with fighters of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The UN’s relief agency, Unrwa, says part of its HQ in Gaza caught fire after being hit by Israeli shells.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon expressed outrage. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert apologised but said troops returned fire after coming under attack from the UN’s compound.

The Hamas interior minister, Said Siyam was reported killed in an air strike.

Both Hamas and Israeli officials said Siyam was killed at his brother’s home in Gaza City.

Meanwhile, Hamas and Israeli negotiators were said to be making progress towards a ceasefire agreement as they held separate meetings with Egyptian mediators in Cairo.

Olmert apology

Speaking to reporters on the Israel-Gaza border, Unrwa spokesman Christopher Gunness said three of the agency’s employees were hurt in the attack on its compound in Gaza City.

About 700 people were still sheltering in the compound, he said, and the fire had been burning close to five full fuel tanks.

Mr Gunness added that Unrwa would not be able to distribute food or medical supplies on Thursday as its trucks were unable to leave the compound.

Mr Olmert met Mr Ban and apologised for the attack, but blamed it on Palestinian fighters firing from the UN site.

“It is absolutely true that we were attacked from that place, but the consequences are very sad and we apologise for it,” he said.

“I don’t think it should have happened and I’m very sorry.”

Escalation

The coastal enclave came under heavy fire from the east in the early morning as soldiers and tanks pushed into Gaza City.

Witnesses said they saw soldiers on foot marching behind bulldozers and tanks.

The advancing troops came under fire from fighters from Hamas and other Palestinian factions positioned on rooftops and balconies.

The building where he lives in the Gaza City suburb of Tel al-Hawa was surrounded by Israeli tanks at one point, he said, and several shells hit the lower floors.

Columns of thick smoke rose into the sky over Gaza from fires touched off by the fighting.

About 70 people have been killed in the fighting on Thursday, Gaza’s Ministry of Health said.

Reports said at least 15 rockets had been fired from Gaza into Israel since the early morning, injuring eight people in Beersheba.

Nearly 1,100 Gazans and 13 Israelis have reportedly died so far in the conflict.

Speaking to the press after meeting Israeli leaders in Tel Aviv, Mr Ban repeated previous calls for an immediate ceasefire, and said the suffering in Gaza was a “dire humanitarian crisis” that had reached an “unbearable point”.

In other developments:

  • The UK Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown says the British government “utterly” condemns the attack on the UN headquarters in Gaza. Fierce criticism also came from the French foreign ministry
  • Two hospitals in Gaza City are hit by shellfire: the al-Quds hospital in Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood, scene of heavy fighting, and a Red Crescent hospital, the UK Red Cross says
  • The Shurouq tower block in Gaza City, which houses the offices of the Reuters news agency and several other media organisations, is hit by an explosion, injuring a journalist for the Abu Dhabi television channel
  • Leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council are to meet in Saudi Arabia to discuss the crisis. The Saudi monarch, King Abdullah, said the meeting was convened because of what he called Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people
  • A boat carrying medical supplies to Gaza is surrounded by Israeli warships in international waters off Lebanon’s southern coast and forced to return to Cyprus, according to charity Free Gaza
  • Palestinian deaths in the Gaza Strip reach 1,083 according to Gaza medical sources. Nearly a third of the dead are said to be children

‘Detailed vision’

Israeli and Hamas envoys have been in Cairo, holding separate meetings with Egyptian negotiators.

Egypt has been leading efforts to broker a ceasefire that could include a peacekeeping force being deployed along its border with Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons.

GAZA CRISIS BACKGROUND
Destroyed building in Gaza City

On Wednesday, Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil said his movement had presented Egyptian negotiators with a “detailed vision” of how to bring about a ceasefire.

Hamas, which controls Gaza, has said any ceasefire agreement would have to include a halt to Israeli attacks, the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces and the opening of border crossings to end the blockade of Gaza.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said there was “momentum” to the talks.

“Ultimately we want to see a long-term sustainable quiet in the south, a quiet that’s going to be based on the total absence of all hostile fire from Gaza into Israel, and an internationally supported mechanism that will prevent Hamas from rearming,” Mr Regev said.

Israel launched its offensive on the Gaza Strip on 27 December and has refused to allow international journalists to enter Gaza without supervision, making it to independently confirm casualty figures.

The offensive has provoked widespread international condemnation at the cost in civilian casualties and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the coastal enclave.

Map

September 7, 2008

Laying to rest Cyprus’s ghosts

Laying to rest Cyprus’s ghosts

A Greek-Cypriot woman holds a picture of relatives missing since the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

The issue of the “missing” is still a contentious topic in divided Cyprus

Talks this week on the reunification of Cyprus look more hopeful than many would have dared to think possible. But the discovery of remains from some of those killed during the 1974 Turkish invasion is refreshing old grievances, as Tabitha Morgan reports.

The Cyprus police museum is perhaps not high on the list of must-see attractions for the tourist but it does draw a steady stream of visitors, mostly Greek Cypriot children on school trips.

One of the main exhibits is a dark blue prison wagon, one of a pair used during the final years of the British occupation for transporting captured guerrilla fighters between the central court and Nicosia prison.

Nine of them were hanged there by the colonial authorities during the 1950s, some no more than teenagers.

In transit the prisoners were locked behind a heavy sliding door, while their guards enjoyed marginally greater comfort sitting on a pair of blue padded seats.

Greek Cypriot pupils are shown the bars on the floor of the vehicle to which prisoner’s feet were chained. They are urged to reflect on the courage of those young men who struggled to overthrow colonial rule, and taught to take a pride in the story of their national heritage.

Ethnic identity

What is less well chronicled is how, just three years after Cypriot independence, when inter-communal killings began in 1963 the van was used to transport a Turkish Cypriot prison officer to his death at the hands of right-wing paramilitaries.

Air strike by Turkish Air Force during their invasion of Cyprus, 1974.

An air strike by the Turkish Air Force during the 1974 Turkish invasion

On 21 December 1963 Mustafa Arif, a senior officer at Nicosia prison, was admitted to hospital in what is today the Greek Cypriot side of the city to be treated for a heart condition.

By the next day relations between the two communities had collapsed. Riots broke out in Nicosia, shops were looted and burned and the Turkish Cypriot community retreated behind barricades in the north of the city.

Shortly after, Mustafa received a visit from his Greek Cypriot colleagues who urged him leave the hospital and to go with them in the prison van, to a safer place. He agreed to be driven away.

No-one knows for sure what happened next. Was the sick man allowed to sit on one of the comfortable blue padded seats? How long was it before he realised that something was dreadfully wrong?

On the other side of the city, in the Turkish Cypriot enclave, Mustafa’s 10-year-old son Kutlay had just learned to ride a bicycle. He was eager to show his father what he could do, so every day Kutlay brought his bike to meet the bus that he confidently expected would bring his father home.

But Mustafa Arif was listed as “missing” and for the next 44 years he has been considered “missing”: one of those Cypriots killed because they had the wrong ethnic identity.

Burial sites

Greek Cypriots have their own missing, mostly men killed at the time of the Turkish invasion in 1974. The stories of their grieving children, and of families pulled out of joint, are just as raw.

A man shovels dirt into the grave of relatives in southern Cyprus

Scientists have identified the remains of many missing people

These ghostly figures whose killers have never been punished have a symbolic and political potency. There has been little reconciliation, no attempt to reach across the divide and listen to the stories told by Cypriots from the other side of the island.

But recent work by United Nations forensic pathologists may soon force that to change. Over the last 12 months the scientists have located and identified the remains of many missing people and returned them to their families.

Burial sites that were isolated in the 1960s and 1970s are today in the center of urban development. One excavation took place in the car park of Nicosia’s new multi-screen cinema.

Kutlay is now a middle aged man with a family of his own. Until recently he was the mayor of Northern Nicosia. Earlier this summer he received a phone call from the technicians at the UN lab explaining that most, but not all of his father’s skeleton had been recovered from a well in a Nicosia suburb.

Kutlay and his family were invited to view the remains, spread out on a plastic table draped in a white sheet.

Kutlay has spent much of his career campaigning for the island to be re-united. His views on his father’s killers are clear.

“They were fascist thugs,” he says, “they happened to be Greek Cypriots, but that is not what is important about them.”

While the remains of the missing lay lost underground, issues to do with culpability, justice and retribution could be set aside. Now they are being unearthed, Cypriots will have to decide how deeply they want to search for answers to these more difficult questions.

Mustafa Arif was buried earlier this summer next to his wife. It is a mark of how much times are changing here that one of those present was an official Greek Cypriot representative of the President, Dimitris Christofias.

There is no doubt that among the current Greek and Turkish Cypriot leadership there is a strong desire to overcome the past. What is not so clear is whether Cypriots at large are ready to follow their lead.

August 25, 2008

Russian MPs back Georgia’s rebels

Russian MPs back Georgia’s rebels

An Abkhaz separatist tank crewman relaxes in the Kodori Gorge on 14 August

Abkhazia used the Ossetia conflict to drive out remaining Georgian troops

Both houses of Russia’s parliament have urged the president to recognise the independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The unanimous votes in the Federation Council and State Duma are not binding on President Dmitry Medvedev.

But they could provide Mr Medvedev with bargaining chips in talks with the West, analysts say.

Russia fought a brief war with Georgia this month after Tbilisi tried to retake South Ossetia by military force.

Most of Russian ground forces pulled out of Georgia last Friday, following a French-brokered ceasefire agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi.

It’s a historic day for Abkhazia… and South Ossetia
Sergei Bagapsh, Abkhazian leader

But some Russian troops continue to operate near the Black Sea port of Poti, south of Abkhazia, and have established checkpoints around South Ossetia.

On Monday, a senior Russian commander said Russian troops would be carrying out regular inspections of cargo in Poti.

Moscow has defended plans to keep its forces near the port, saying it does not break the terms of the truce.

Russia has also said it will not allow aerial reconnaissance in the buffer zones it had set up.

The US, France and UK say Russia has already failed to comply with the ceasefire terms by creating buffer zones around South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Both regions have had de facto independence since breaking away in the early 1990s.

While they have enjoyed Russian economic and diplomatic support, and military protection, no foreign state has recognised them as independent states.

Since the fighting over South Ossetia ended nearly two weeks ago with the ejection of Georgian forces from both provinces, the Russian military has established controversial buffer zones along their administrative borders with Georgia proper.

‘Hitler’ comparison

The upper house, Federation Council, voted 130-0 to call on President Medvedev to support the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The lower house, the State Duma, approved the same resolution in a 447-0 vote shortly afterwards.

South Ossetians demonstrate for independence in Tskhinvali on 21 August

South Ossetians rallied for independence last week

The Federation Council speaker, Sergei Mironov, said both Abkhazia and South Ossetia had all the necessary attributes of independent states.

During the debate in the two chambers, several speakers compared Georgia’s military action in South Ossetia with Hitler’s Second World War invasion of the Soviet Union.

Both Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh and his South Ossetian counterpart, Eduard Kokoity, addressed the Russian lawmakers before the votes, urging them to recognise the independence of the two regions.

“It’s a historic day for Abkhazia… and South Ossetia,” UK said, adding that Abkhazia would never again be part of Georgia.

Mr Kokoity thanked Russia for supporting South Ossetia during the conflict with Georgia, describing President Medvedev’s move to deploy troops as “a courageous, timely and correct” decision.

He said that South Ossetia and Abkhazia had more rights to become recognised nations than Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia earlier this year with support from the US and much of the European Union.

Both houses of the Russian parliament are dominated by allies of President Medvedev and his Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.

The lawmakers interrupted their summer holidays for extraordinary sittings, formally called at the request of separatist leaders in the two Georgian provinces.

Thousands of people attended pro-independence rallies in the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi and war-ravaged South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali on Thursday.

Kosovo or Northern Cyprus?

While both provinces have been pushing for formal independence since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia’s official line at least until now has been similar to that of the West, the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley reports from Moscow.

BBC map

But in March the State Duma passed a resolution supporting independence should Georgia invade or rush to join Nato.

After Monday’s votes, the bill will be sent to the Kremlin for approval.

Analysts say the Kremlin might delay its decision while it carries out wider negotiations with the West on the crisis, says our correspondent.

If it backs the move, the two regions could apply to the United Nations for recognition, which would almost certainly be vetoed in the Security Council.

They could also ask for support from Russia’s allies from as far afield as Venezuela and Cuba, our correspondent notes.

Analysts say the two new aspirant nations could end up like Kosovo and be accepted by a substantial number of governments.

Alternatively, they could become largely isolated and recognised only by Russia, in the same way that Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey.

Much of it would depend on the measure of Russia’s international influence, our correspondent adds.


Should Abkhazia and South Ossetia be independent? Can normal life ever be resumed in Georgia?

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August 23, 2008

Protest boats sail for Gaza Strip

Protest boats sail for Gaza Strip

Gaza protest boat

The boats are carrying 40 activists, 200 hearing aids and 5,000 balloons

Two boats carrying members of a US-based pro-Palestinian group have left Cyprus in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

The boats left the Cypriot port of Larnaca on Friday morning. The journey is expected to take about 30 hours.

The Free Gaza protest group said about 40 activists from 14 countries were on board the boats.

Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in June 2007 when the militant group Hamas took control of the territory by force.

Since then, Israel has allowed in little more than basic humanitarian aid as a means of isolating Hamas and persuading militant groups to stop firing rockets into Israel.

The closure of Gaza’s borders by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities has also meant that very few Gazans have been able to leave.

‘Supporting Hamas’

Before Free Gaza’s boats set sail on Friday, the Israeli foreign ministry warned them to steer clear of the Gazan coastline, which it said was “the subject of an [Israeli Navy] advisory notice” that warns off foreign vessels from the “designated maritime zone”.

Gaza/Cyprus map

“We assume that your intentions are good but, in fact, the result of your action is that you are supporting the regime of a terrorist organization in Gaza,” the ministry wrote in an open letter.

The two vessels – named Liberty and Free Gaza – are carrying 200 hearing aids for children and 5,000 balloons.

“No matter what happens we have already achieved our goal by proving that ordinary citizens with ordinary means can mobilize a defense of human rights for Palestinians,” organizer Paul Larudee told the AFP news agency.

“We want people to see the Palestinian problem as one of human rights, not feeding them rice,” he added.

The activists include Lauren Booth, sister-in-law of former British PM Tony Blair, who is now an international Middle East peace envoy. Also on board is left-wing Greek MP Tasos Kourakis.

Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza in 2005, but it still controls its coast, airspace and borders, and, until a ceasefire with Hamas was agreed in June, carried out regular military operations in the territory.

However, correspondents say the truce has not improved the situation for Gaza’s population, except to reduce the number of Israeli incursions and the number of rockets fired by Palestinian militants.

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