News & Current Affairs

September 22, 2008

Pakistan to target rebel hotspots

Pakistan to target rebel hotspots

Pakistan’s government has pledged to take targeted action against militants, a day after a suicide bomb killed 53 people in the capital, Islamabad.

Interior Ministry adviser Rehman Malik said raids would be carried out in some “hotspots” near the Afghan border.

Earlier, the authorities revealed that a truck laden with 600kg of high-grade explosives had rammed the Marriott Hotel security gate before blowing up.

Rescuers have been combing the wreckage for survivors and bodies.

The blast left 266 people with injuries.

Although most of those killed were Pakistani, the Czech ambassador and two US defense department workers were among the dead.

The attackers had disguised the truck well as it was covered with a tarpaulin and loaded with bricks and gravel
Rehman Malik

A Vietnamese citizen was also killed in the blast, in which at least a dozen foreign nationals were wounded.

The Danish Foreign Ministry said one of its diplomats was missing.

No group has taken responsibility for the attack, but Mr Malik suggested responsibility lay with al-Qaeda and Taleban militants based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) on the Afghan border.

“In previous attacks, all roads led to Fata,” he said.

The attack might have been retaliation for army bombardments of suspected Taleban targets with jet fighters.

Room-by-room search

The heavily-guarded hotel was attacked at about 2000 (1500 GMT) on Saturday.

CCTV footage of the moments before the blast show a six-wheeler lorry ramming the security barrier at the hotel gate.

Rescuers in Islamabad, 21/09

Rescue teams combed the scene for bodies and survivors

Shots are fired and the vehicle starts to burn. Security guards initially scatter, but return to try to douse the flames.

The footage breaks of at the moment of the blast because the camera was destroyed. It created a crater about 8m (27ft) deep, and triggered a fire which engulfed the 290-room, five-storey building for hours.

Officials said the lorry contained explosives as well as grenades and mortars. Aluminium powder was used to accelerate the explosion and added to the ferocity of the blaze.

“I do not believe this is a breakdown in security. The attackers had disguised the truck well as it was covered with a tarpaulin and loaded with bricks and gravel,” Mr Malik said.

Witnesses described a scene of horror as blood-covered victims were pulled from the wreckage and guests and staff ran for cover from shattered glass and flames.

The fire has now burned out and rescue workers have been searching the building room-by-room, pulling bodies out of the blackened debris.

‘Confronting the threat’

Immediately after the bombing, newly-elected President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to root out the “cancer” of terrorism in Pakistan.

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He has now flown to New York to attend the UN General Assembly session, where he will meet US President George W Bush on the sidelines.

The meeting comes amid tension between the two countries over US attacks on militants in tribal areas of Pakistan, close to the Afghan border.

In the wake of the attack, President Bush pledged assistance to Pakistan in “confronting this threat and bringing the perpetrators to justice”.

The Marriott is the most prestigious hotel in the capital, and is located near government buildings and diplomatic missions. It is popular with foreigners and the Pakistani elite.

The hotel has previously been the target of militants. Last year a suicide bomber killed himself and one other in an attack at the hotel.

September 9, 2008

S Lanka ‘shoots down rebel plane’

S Lanka ‘shoots down rebel plane’

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Sri Lanka’s air force has shot down a plane belonging to the rebel Tamil Tigers, military officials have said.

If confirmed, it would be the first rebel plane downed by the military.

The aircraft was intercepted by fighter jets after it and another rebel plane bombed a military airfield in the north of the island, the air force said.

A rebel artillery strike and ground assault on the air base killed 10 soldiers, 10 rebels and one policeman, the ministry of defense said.

The Tamil Tigers said they had no information that one of their planes was shot down.

The ministry of defence said 15 soldiers, five air force personnel and eight police were also wounded in the attack on the air base at Vavuniya, near the front line in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

Government offensive

The air force said the light aircraft used by the Tamil Tigers was shot down over thick jungle near Mullaittivu, in rebel-held territory.

The Tigers’ rudimentary air force began operations last year with a surprise attack on an air base on the outskirts of the capital, Colombo.

A Tamil Tiger picture of bombs loaded beneath a plane
The Tamil Tiger aircraft have improvised bomb racks

The last successful rebel attack took place on the strategic eastern port of Trincomalee in August, when 10 sailors were wounded.

The Tamil Tigers have a number of small Czech-built, two-seater, propeller-driven Zlin-143 aircraft, which are operated from jungle airstrips.

They are thought to have been smuggled into the island in pieces, then reassembled and modified to carry bombs, our correspondent says.

The aerial battle comes as the government forces continue a major offensive against the rebels in northern areas of the island.

On Monday, the government ordered all aid workers out of the battle zone, saying it could not guarantee their safety.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate state for the Tamil minority in the north and east of Sri Lanka for 25 years. More than 70,000 people have died.

August 21, 2008

Capello defends England tactics

Capello defends England tactics

Fabio Capello

Capello said he played Gerrard in a supporting role behind the striker

Coach Fabio Capello gave England’s performance in the 2-2 draw with the Czech Republic a mixed review and defended his use of Steven Gerrard.

The Italian was criticized for playing the midfielder on the left wing.

Capello explained he was using Gerrard in a 4-3-2-1 system, with the Liverpool captain and Wayne Rooney supporting Jermain Defoe as a main striker.

“The position he had to play was in the line of the full-backs and midfield,” he said. “He never played on the left.”

Capello sought to get the best out of Liverpool’s influential captain and Chelsea’s Frank Lampard in the same line-up, a conundrum that has dogged his predecessors in the England job.

On this occasion he opted to partner Lampard with Gareth Barry in the middle with David Beckham to the right of the trio.

Capello added: “We played 4-3-2-1. We played Defoe, Gerrard and Rooney and three midfielders behind them. He [Gerrard] went to the left and to the middle.”

Gerrard was replaced by Joe Cole after an hour and the Chelsea midfielder admitted he was played out of position.

“I’m a winger, but the manager wanted me to play off the front man,” said the 26-year-old. “New manager, new ideas. We’ve got to try things.”

Only a last-minute goal from Cole saved England from defeat at Wembley, but Capello drew some positives from the salvaged draw, saying the performance was another step forward for his side ahead of World Cup qualifying campaign which begins in Andorra on 6 September.

He was also concerned by the ease in which England were exposed by a fast counter-attacking Czech side and admitted it is something they will need to work on.

“I think in the first half we played well, we had a lot of chances.

“After the second goal from the Czechs, the direction was not so strong.”

The problem is not with the style we played, but the difficulty we have when the other team play the counter-attack
England manager Fabio Capello

“The problem is not with the style we played, but the difficulty we have when the other team play the counter-attack,” added the 62-year-old.

“It is always dangerous and we have to study this problem.

“At this moment the players are not 100% physically, and important players like Rooney and Gerrard have played just one game.

“I think this result is important. We played against a very strong team and we’ll have more confidence for the next game.”

England’s uncomfortable night was compounded by the announcement that the Football Association’s chief executive Brian Barwick would leave his post by the end of the year.

Barwick was instrumental in the appointment of Capello, but differences with chairman Lord Triesman have led to their relationship becoming unworkable.

When asked about his departure the Italian said: “I am a friend of Brian, but it’s not my job [to comment] – it’s a board decision.”

Meanwhile, captain John Terry conceded that there had been “some plusses, but also some negatives” from their final warm-up game before the World Cup qualification campaign begins.

“Maybe we should have won the game with the players we had out,” the re-appointed skipper said

Of the crowd booing the players off, he said: “The crowd were frustrated as they’d paid a lot of money for their tickets, and we’ve got to put on a better show than that.

“It’s going to be a slow process, but hopefully we can get off to a good start against Andorra and go from there.

“We’ve got players playing in the biggest competition in the world [the Champions League], but sometimes we don’t click on the international stage.

“But I don’t think we should be worried. We have to stand up and be counted, raise our game, match teams with the commitment they show and hopefully our quality can overcome them.”

August 14, 2008

Around the Olympics in 800 minutes

Courtesy BBC

Beijing

If they ever do get around to trimming tennis from the Olympics, I would like to suggest a thoroughly amateur activity to take its place: competitive spectating.

The game is simple: you watch as much live, in-the-flesh sport as possible within an allotted time.

Like cricket, there are shorter and longer versions of the game, but unlike cricket there is no time for lunch or tea. I believe the one-day format would work best at an Olympics.

It requires speed, planning and a change of shirt. I know this because I have tried it and I think I’ve set a new world record.

Beijing tour map

Between 10am and 11pm on Wednesday, I rode my mate’s mountain bike (cheers Paul) to 19 different Olympic venues and saw world-class sport in 15 of them, world-class press conferences in three more and 20 Chinese volunteers pretend to be modern pentathletes in another.

I covered about 50km, drank 20 bottles of water, went through three maps and met the entire judging panel from the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles.

Perhaps the best way to tell that story, in fact, the whole story, is to start at the beginning. So I will.

Like all elite athletes I think breakfast is the most important meal, so I decided to skip the fare on offer in the media village and have a slap-up feed in a decent hotel downtown – they may now be reconsidering that all-you-can-eat deal.

Adequately fuelled and aboard my mode of transport, I set off from the Financial District and headed southwest for the softball. The thinking here was to start at my southernmost point and move around the city in a clockwise fashion.

Having meandered my way to Fengtai, I found myself at the top of the seventh inning with China pounding Venezuela 7-1.

I can’t remember much about the game mainly because I was worrying about Paul’s bike being destroyed in a controlled explosion.

Because while Katie Melua may be right about there being nine million bikes in Beijing, none of them are welcome at an Olympic venue. Not if you ask for permission first, that is. I would learn that as the day progressed.

From softball I rode north to Wukesong to taste two more slices of Americana, baseball and basketball.

Here my arrival was not particularly well received and my gestures to say, “Can I chain my bike to this please, officer?” were met by stern shakes of the head. Perhaps they didn’t understand my gesture. Strange, I thought that one was universal.

In the end I left it behind some portaloos. I’m not proud.

I got into the baseball in time to see Canada’s Stubby Clapp (honestly, look him up) pop up to right field and was looking at my map when one of his team-mates blasted a three-run homer minutes later. That made it Canada 3-0 China.

Canada's Stubby Clapp

I then went to the basketball and watched Spain’s Anna Montanana drain a jumper for two of her 20 points in the win over the Czech Republic.

From there it was northeast towards the Capital Gymnasium and a dose of clothed women’s volleyball. To be honest, even regular volleyballers don’t wear much and there was a lot of leg on display in this clash between Russia and Kazakhstan.

The Russians were winning but the highlight for me was seeing Kazakh volleyball’s answer to Peter Crouch. I didn’t catch her name but she was wearing number five and you’d know her if you saw her.

Four hours in and I was at the Institute of Technology to see some gymnastics – the hundreds of people heading the opposite direction should have told me I was too late.

I went in anyway, though, and listened to two minutes of a Chinese press conference. As I left I heard a group of volunteers singing little ditties to each other through their megaphones. One of them might have been the girl who actually sang at the Opening Ceremony.

Table tennis was next and the hardest thing here was getting in. You see the staff are only trained to deal with very specific tasks. A journalist coming in through the main entrance (and not arriving by media bus) causes the system to grind to a halt. The fact he was sweating profusely probably didn’t help either.

This would become a recurring theme but competitive spectators have got to deal with these kinds of problems so I was able to overcome all this and catch eight different games of ping-pong at once.

Too much of a good thing? Yes, probably. I tried to concentrate on Ma Lin’s tussle with Panagiotis Gionis of Greece and not the cute Spaniard playing on the other side of the room.

China's Ma Lin in action against Panagiotis Gionis of Greece

It was judo next. Not much to say here except I filled my pockets with Oreo cookies in the media lounge and saw a Colombian beat an Italian in the women’s 70kg category.

Six hours in and it was time to wrestle. To be honest, it was all starting to blur a bit now and the only real difference I can remember between the judo and the wrestling is the costume. And it’s a big difference.

I also got lost in the bowels of the venue (I’d come in the “wrong” entrance again) and ended up in a room with 20 muscular blokes in blue blazers. They were the judges.

I eventually saw Steeve (usual spelling) Guenot beat Konstantin Schneider, apparently, and he would later win gold. Good lad.

I then pedalled hard past the Olympic Village and pushed on to my northernmost point, the Olympic Green Sports Cluster – archery, hockey and tennis.

This is where my ride started to become a cyclo-cross event. Bikes really aren’t allowed this close to the heart of the “Green Olympics” so I was forced to park and proceed by foot.

The next 30 minutes saw me show my face (very briefly) at the tennis (Nadal was winning), narrowly miss Alan Wills’ last-dart victory in the archery (I saw a Korea-Qatar match-up instead) and try to gain entrance to the Great Britain changing room at the hockey (it was locked).

That was 11 venues and 10 sports in just over seven hours. I was knackered. But then I remembered Emma Pooley’s words after her silver-medal performance: “there’s no secret, you just have to make it hurt”.

So I headed south to the Water Cube for swimming, wandered around the corridors under the pool for about 15 minutes and eventually sat down to watch Malta’s Madeleine Scerri win a three-woman, 100m freestyle heat. Now that’s what the Olympics are really about, Michael.

From there it was a short trip to the National Indoor Stadium and an even shorter stay. It was locked. But the fencing venue was just across the road for me to bring up my dozen.

Fencing, by the way, is a great sport to watch. I wish I could have stayed for longer than three minutes. That was long enough, however, to see Yuki Ota of Japan win his semi-final and go absolutely bongo.

Japan's Yuki Ota on his way to a semi-final victory over Italy

I probably should have stopped now. It was dark and I was tired, hungry and smelly. But I wanted more and I really, really wanted to see some handball.

So it was south again to the Olympic Sports Center cluster for five minutes of Norway’s demolition of Kazakhstan (I think I was bad luck for the Kazakhs all day) in the women’s event.

I will definitely return if only to hear more from the American announcer who ticked off a Norwegian player for “roughhousing”.

The next 30 minutes saw me just miss the last water polo game of the day and follow my ears to the modern pentathlon stadium, where Olympic volunteers were pretending to be show-jumping ponies and the stadium announcer was practising his medal ceremony script (he thinks Cuba is going to win).

What happened next was an Olympic event of its own – the 20-minute time-trial to the Workers’ Stadium for the last 10 minutes of the Argentina v Serbia football match.

And my lung-busting, salt-staining effort was rewarded when I flopped into a commentary position to see Diego Buonanotte curl a free-kick home from 25 yards out. Good night, indeed, Diego.

This was my 18th venue, 14th sport and 12th hour. It was time for the coup de grace. Step forward, you beauty, David Price.

Now is not the time to relay all that happened in the Workers’ Gymnasium at around 2200 local time but suffice it to say Team GB’s boxing captain hit the world number one from Russia harder than he had ever been hit before and he didn’t like it.

Cue huge celebrations from Price and his loyal band of Scouse supporters. It was also great to see his team-mates James DeGale and Joe Murray jumping in the aisles too.

So that’s the challenge. Can any of you top 15 different sports in a day?

Until I hear otherwise I’m going to assume it’s a world record. I reckon it will be safe for four years at least.

August 8, 2008

Several dead in Czech train crash

Several dead in Czech train crash

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At least 10 people are reported to have died and some 100 have been injured after a train ran into a collapsed bridge in the Czech Republic.

A railway spokesperson said the accident, near the eastern town of Studenka was “a serious disaster”.

Firefighters are at the scene, helping remove the victims from the train, witnesses said.

The high-speed express train was travelling from the Polish city of Krakow to the Czech capital, Prague.

“An international train from Krakow to Prague ran into a collapsed bridge which fell on the rails in the area of the town Studenka,” Radek Joklik, a spokesperson for Czech Railways, told local media.

Czech Railways said the train probably hit part of a motorway bridge under construction which fell on to the track, derailing three passenger carriages and the locomotive.

Initial reports suggest the train was travelling at speeds of 140km/h (87 mph) when it hit the bridge at 1030 local time (0830GMT).

An officer from the Czech fire service told Reuters that many people were injured in the crash.

“There are some dead, but we do not have precise numbers, because our people are rather devoting time to rescue those still alive,” David Pridal said.

Czech Television said approximately 400 people were on board the train at the time of the accident.


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