News & Current Affairs

February 21, 2010

Portugal rushes aid to Madeira after deadly floods

Portugal rushes aid to Madeira after deadly floods

Portugal’s armed forces are sending two ships with helicopters and medical supplies to Madeira island, where floods have killed at least 32 people.

Extra search and rescue teams were expected to arrive on Sunday to help clean up after mudslides and raging floods tore through towns on Saturday.

Officials fear the death toll could rise. Water, power and phones were cut in some areas.

PM Jose Socrates, who is in Madeira, said he would “do everything to help”.

The storms were the worst there since October 1993, when eight people died.

“So far we have confirmed 32 deaths but eventually the number may increase,” regional official Francisco Ramos was quoted as saying by Portuguese newspaper Publico.

Madeira is located about 900km (560miles) from the Portuguese mainland and is popular with foreign tourists.

Debris left behind in Funchal by the flash floods

Officials say the extra emergency teams being sent include 56 military rescuers with search dogs and 36 firefighters.

Portuguese Interior Minister Rui Pereira, who has also flown to the island, said forensic experts would conduct post-mortem examinations to allow funerals to take place soon.

He added: “We are studying the possibility of declaring a state of emergency and then seeking help from the European Union.”

The regional capital, Funchal, among the worst affected areas by Saturday’s floods and mudslides.

Television pictures showed muddy torrents coursing down narrow channels and spilling over the sides, roads awash with water and streets littered with debris.

‘Ghost town’

Trees have been brought down and cars swept away, blocking roads and hampering relief teams. Some bridges and roads have been washed away.

MADEIRA FACTS
map
Autonomous region of Portugal with population of around 250,000
Lies just over 480km (300 miles) from West African coast
The European continent is more than 900km away

British holidaymaker Cathy Sayers told the news Funchal was like a ghost town. She said the infrastructure had been wrecked.

“The drains just cannot cope with the water that’s coming down from the mountains – they are just overfilled with sludge.”

There had not really been any warning that it would be quite so bad, she said.

“I think everyone is extremely shocked that this has happened at this time of year,” she said.

The president of the regional government, Joao Jardim, said outdoor markets would be encouraged to reopen.

“We don’t know how much it will affect the tourism, but there is no point in dramatising the situation too much,” he said.

Local media say the authorities’ main concern now is for residents of Nuns valley – an isolated mountainous region that rescue workers have been unable to reach.

The Weather Center says the severe weather was due a low pressure system, and that while Madeira can expect further rain with heavy downpours on Sunday, there is no danger of a repeat of the flash floods.


Do you live in the area? Have you been affected by the floods and mudslides? Are you visiting the island?

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July 19, 2009

Sunday ferry makes first sailing

Sunday ferry makes first sailing

Protestors in Stornoway

A small group of protesters gathered ahead of the sailing

The controversial first scheduled Sunday ferry sailing from Stornoway on Lewis to mainland Scotland has gone ahead as planned.

There has been strong opposition on the island, where the Sabbath day has traditionally been strictly observed.

A small group of protesters prayed and sang a psalm as cars boarded the boat, but several hundred people clapped.

Supporters said it would boost the economy of the Hebridean island and offer local people freedom to travel.

A small group of about a dozen protesters gathered in Stornoway ahead of the sailing to Ullapool, which left at 1430 BST.

Equality laws

As cars lined up in the ferry terminal car park, protesters gathered in silence behind a banner.

It read: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”.

They sang Psalm 46 – God is our refuge and our strength – and prayed for the nation to “turn its back from sin and wickedness”.

A number of women wiped away tears as they prayed for a return to the Lord’s commandments.

The crossing was undertaken by the route’s usual ferry, the MV Isle of Lewis, after a fault in the exhaust on Friday was repaired sooner than expected.

A spokesman for ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne said: “We’re pleased to get under way after the difficulties over the last couple of days.

“It’s all gone as planned.”

The MV Isle of Arran was drafted in after the Isle of Lewis broke down.

The former boat ran a number of emergency crossings to clear the backlog of passengers.

CalMac said it could be breaking equality laws if it did not run ferries seven days a week.

It said religion or beliefs were not valid reasons to refuse to run the ferry.

Supporters of the service said it would be good for tourism.

They said it would offer more flexibility to travellers.

As the ferry left Stornoway a crowd of several hundred gathered to applaud, and wave to those on board.

A leaflet handed out by a group of local churches said that the peace and tranquillity of the islands was enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

It said: “By and large we like it like this.

“We are not oppressed by a quiet Sunday.”

It wished tourists who came to Lewis by ferry a “happy and blessed trip to the islands”.

June 20, 2009

Schwarzenegger in LA plane drama

Schwarzenegger in LA plane drama

Arnold Schwarzenegger, file image

The governor seemed unfazed by the landing

A plane carrying California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has made an emergency landing in Los Angeles because of smoke in the cockpit.

No-one was hurt after a “quick, steep, but safe” landing, his office said.

The former film star was so calm about the incident that he immediately logged on to social networking website Twitter to share his experience.

“A little adventure just now when my plane made an emergency landing. All’s ok, though,” his message said.

The pilot diverted the jet to the Van Nuys airport 10 minutes before it was due to land at Santa Monica, spokesman Aaron McLear said in a statement.

Fire crews met the jet on the runway.

“Upon landing the governor exited the jet and travelled to his house,” Mr McLear said.

He added that the crew had done an “outstanding job” and that “everyone aboard landed safely and unharmed”.

October 3, 2008

Remains found in Fossett’s plane

Remains found in Fossett’s plane

US investigators say they have found what they believe may be human remains amid the wreckage of adventurer Steve Fossett’s plane in eastern California.

The remains, although minimal, are said to be enough to provide a DNA sample for identification testing.

The 63-year-old millionaire disappeared a year ago while on a solo flight from a ranch in neighboring Nevada.

His plane was finally located on Wednesday after a hiker handed items belonging to Mr Fossett to police.

‘Bone fragment’

The wreckage was found during a subsequent aerial search of a remote stretch of the Sierra Nevada mountains west of the town of Mammoth Lakes, at an altitude of around 10,000ft (3,048m).

A ground team flown into the area by helicopter later confirmed the identity of the plane, a single-engine Bellanca Super Decathlon, which officials said seemed to have struck the mountainside head-on.

“It was a hard-impact crash, and he would’ve died instantly,” said Jeff Page, emergency management co-ordinator for Lyon County, Nevada, who assisted in the search.

Most of the fuselage had disintegrated, with engine parts scattered over a debris field stretching about 150ft (46m) by 400ft (122m).

Search teams combing the site found more personal effects and what they described as a bone fragment, measuring 2 inches (5cm) by 1.5 inches (2.5cm).

SOME OF FOSSETT’S RECORDS
Steve Fossett climbs out of his cockpit after his record-breaking flight around the world in 2005
1998/2002: Long-distance for solo ballooning
2001/2002: Duration for solo ballooning
2002: First solo round-the-world balloon flight
First balloon crossings of Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, South Atlantic, South Pacific, Indian Oceans
Seven fastest speed sailing titles
13 World Sailing Speed Record Council titles
2001: Fastest transatlantic sailing
2004: Fastest round-the-world sailing
Round-the-world titles for medium airplanes
US transcontinental titles for non-military aircraft

“We found human remains, but there’s very little,” said Mark Rosenker, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. “Given the length of time the wreckage has been out there, it’s not surprising there’s not very much.”

DNA tests would be performed on the material on a lab in California, he said.

Earlier, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson confirmed the find but injected a note of caution. “We don’t know if it’s human. It certainly could be,” he said.

Officials now plan to remove the wreckage of the plane for reassembly and examination, and search for further human remains. But snow is expected over the weekend, which could potentially hamper the investigation.

Steve Fossett became the first person to circle the globe solo in a balloon in 2002 and had about 100 other world records to his name.

He vanished in September 2007 after taking off from a Nevada ranch for a solo flight.

For more than a year there was no trace of him, despite an intensive search.

But on Monday the hiker found identification documents belonging to him in undergrowth about 0.25 miles (0.4km) from the crash site, triggering an aerial search of a new area.

“The uncertainty surrounding my husband’s death over this past year has created a very difficult situation for me,” Mr Fossett’s widow, Peggy, said in a statement. “I hope now to be able to bring to closure a very painful chapter in my life.

“I prefer to think about Steve’s life rather than his death and celebrate his many extraordinary accomplishments.”

British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson also paid tribute to his friend and fellow adventurer.

“He led an extraordinary, absolutely remarkable life, and now we can remember him for what he was and move on,” he said.

Map

September 16, 2008

Leaders debate Bolivia turmoil


Leaders debate Bolivia turmoil

President Evo Morales speaks on arrival at Santiago airport on 15 September 2008

Mr Morales wants to give more rights to Bolivia’s indigenous community

An emergency summit of South American leaders has opened in Chile to address deepening tensions in Bolivia.

In the last week, at least 30 people have been killed in violence between government supporters and opponents.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has likened the unrest in opposition-controlled regions of his country to an attempted coup.

He said the meeting was important as democracy had to be defended not only in Bolivia but all of South America.

The unrest represents the most serious challenge to Mr Morales since he took office almost three years ago.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called the emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) on Sunday, to help resolve the crisis.

Energy fears

Arriving in Santiago, Evo Morales said he had come “to explain to the presidents of South America the civic coup d’etat by governors in some Bolivian states in recent days”.

“We’ve seen looting, the ransacking of institutions, attempts to assault the police and the armed forces,” he said

The unrest centers on his decision to hold a referendum on a new constitution in December.

Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia (right) opposition leader Mario Cossio (left) hold talks in La Paz

The Bolivian vice president has held talks with an opposition representative

Mr Morales says he wants to re-distribute Bolivia’s wealth and give a greater voice to the large indigenous community.

But opposition leaders oppose the plan and demand greater autonomy as well as more control over natural gas revenues in their areas.

Trouble has flared in several eastern provinces and cities, with opposition supporters occupying government buildings. On Friday, Mr Morales declared martial law in the Pando region, which has seen deadly clashes between rival factions.

Most of the leaders of Unasur’s 12 member-nations are attending the summit in a bid to solve the crisis.

The correspondent in the region says that no one in South America wants the situation in Bolivia to escalate.

Neighboring Brazil and Argentina are particularly worried about their supplies of natural gas, which come from the east of the country where the dispute is at its most severe.

But, our correspondent adds, it is not clear what the meeting in Chile can achieve. Representatives of Bolivia’s opposition are not attending the summit.

map

There have been some talks between the two sides, however.

On Sunday night Bolivian Vice-President Alvaro Garcia met opposition representative Mario Cossio, the governor of Tarija province. They agreed to hold more talks when Mr Morales returns from Chile.

The unrest in Bolivia has triggered a downturn in relations with the US.

Last week Bolivia accused the US of supporting the opposition and expelled its ambassador. Venezuela followed suit to show solidarity and Honduras has refused to accept the credentials of a new US envoy.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the unrest in Bolivia was “a conspiracy directed by the US empire”, likening it to the 1973 CIA-backed coup which ousted Chile’s President Salvador Allende.

The US says it regrets the recent diplomatic expulsions and has rejected Bolivia’s allegations against its ambassador.

September 14, 2008

Alitalia crisis meetings restart

Alitalia crisis meetings restart

Alitalia plane

Time is running out to save Alitalia

Emergency talks to prevent the collapse of Alitalia have restarted in Rome after the airline warned it may have to start canceling flights from Monday.

With the airline saying it is running out of money to buy aviation fuel, the government needs to persuade unions to back a deal that involves job cuts.

The only offer on the table is from Italian consortium CAI, which only wants Alitalia’s profitable operations.

Unions have so far rejected this deal as it would mean major job losses.

Yet with the only alternative now increasingly looking like Alitalia’s total collapse and the loss of all 20,000 jobs, the unions now appear more willing to back down.

‘Cautiously optimistic’

We are trying to get a solution to this saga and there are still many obstacles, but the climate is different and there is the awareness that there is no alternative to the deal,” said Giuseppe Caronia, head of the UILT union.

“I am moderately and cautiously optimistic.”

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged to do all he can to save Alitalia.

Securing the airline’s future was one of his main election pledges before he returned to power in May.

Failed French takeover

Back in April, plans for Alitalia to be bought by Air France-KLM collapsed due to union opposition to planned job cuts.

Italy’s civil aviation authority said on Saturday that Alitalia’s operating licence was at risk due to the airline’s admission that it was running out of funds to buy fuel.

Alitalia is currently being run by administrators after seeking bankruptcy protection on 29 August.

The Italian government owns a 49.9% stake in Alitalia, but it cannot simply pump public funds into the airline as there are strict European Union rules preventing state support for airlines.

September 13, 2008

Alitalia ‘running out of fuel’

Alitalia ‘running out of fuel’

Alitalia plane

Negotiations with unions will be critical to saving the airline

Italy’s troubled national airline, Alitalia, cannot guarantee flights beyond Sunday because of a lack of funds to buy fuel, a top official says.

“Until the end of tomorrow, flights are guaranteed. From Monday, they are not,” Augusto Fantozzi, Alitalia’s bankruptcy administrator, told unions.

Mr Fantozzi was speaking as he called the unions to emergency talks a day after the latest session broke down.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi blamed “political” motives for the failure.

He said he would do all he could to save Alitalia from collapse.

“The executive is always ready… to give all the possible support to get to the only solution possible to avoid the airline going bust,” he told the Italian news agency Ansa.

Italian investment consortium CAI, which was poised to take over the company’s profit-making parts, walked away from talks with the unions on Friday, accusing them of intransigence.

CIA chief executive Rocco Sabelli said on Saturday it was not ready to make any further concessions.

September 9, 2008

Mexico kidnap suspects detained

Mexico kidnap suspects detained

Hector Slim (left) and Alejandro Marti

Fernando Marti’s father, Alejandro (right), had reportedly paid a ransom

Mexican police say they have detained five people suspected of involvement in the kidnap and killing of a teenager whose murder sparked national protests.

Prosecutors in Mexico City said those arrested included a former policeman.

The death of Fernando Marti, 14, whose decomposing body was found in the boot of a car in August, led to calls for tougher punishment for serious crimes.

In response, Mexican President Felipe Calderon drew up an emergency program to tackle violent crime.

At least 2,700 people have been killed and 300 kidnapped so far this year, mostly in drugs-related violence.

Ransom

Mexico City prosecutor Miguel Marcera said Fernando Marti’s alleged kidnappers disguised themselves as police officers and set up a bogus checkpoint on a busy street in the capital to capture their victim.

Last month his decomposing body was found in the boot of a car, even though his father, a wealthy businessman, had reportedly paid a ransom.

Investigators believe Fernando may have been killed because the kidnappers were not satisfied with the money they received.

What is certain is that in a country with abduction and murder rates among the highest in the world, his treatment sparked off a mass protest movement by Mexicans demanding tougher punishment for serious crimes.

After more than 100,000 people held a march in Mexico City calling for an end to such brutal acts, the government was pressured to draw up an programme to tackle violent crime, including a purge of corrupt police officers, and the building of prisons for kidnappers.

Mexicans have grown weary of politicians’ promises to do something about the violence, but they hope that for the sake of children like Fernando, the government’s pledge to redouble its efforts may start to bear results.

September 8, 2008

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Sarkozy leads EU trio to Moscow

Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev in August 2008

President Sarkozy (L) brokered a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due to arrive in Moscow for talks with the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev about the crisis in Georgia.

He is joined by the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the European Commission head, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Sarkozy is expected to press Russia to fully implement a peace plan he brokered to end the fighting.

Meanwhile, Georgia has gone to the UN’s highest court over what it claims are Russian human rights abuses.

Judges at the International Court of Justice in the Hague are being asked to impose emergency measures to halt what Georgia says is a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Russia in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russian forces remain in South Ossetia and large parts of Georgian territory after it responded heavily to Georgian attempts last month to recapture the separatist region.

Difficult goals

After talks in Moscow, the three senior European figures are due to go on to the Georgian capital, Tblisi, to meet President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia says it is honoring the terms of a six-point plan agreed to end the conflict.

However, European nations do not agree.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions but Russian peacekeepers may take unspecified “additional security measures”
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

President Sarkozy wants Russian troops to pull back from their current positions in Georgia – well beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The European trio is also expected to press the Russians on arrangements for a strengthened international effort to monitor developments on the ground.

Some European leaders have already warned that there can be “no business as usual” with Russia until the peace plan is fully implemented, and the European Union has suspended talks on a new partnership agreement with Moscow.

However, with winter approaching, individual European countries continue to consume Russian oil and gas as usual.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and its continuing failure to implement the agreement to the letter, will have profound consequences for Russian relations with the EU.

It will also make it difficult for President Sarkozy to achieve his goals in Moscow, he says.

Thai leader in court over TV show

Thai leader in court over TV show

Thai PM Samak Sundaravej. File photo

Mr Samak was a TV chef before becoming prime minister

Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej has defended himself in court for appearing on a TV cooking program.

In the latest of a series of problems to beset Mr Samak, he is accused of violating the constitution by working for a private company.

Protesters have now spent nearly two weeks occupying Mr Samak’s office complex, demanding his resignation.

Mr Samak will have to quit if found guilty in this case, which might indirectly end the impasse.

Possible way forward?

Before taking office seven months ago, Mr Samak hosted a popular TV cooking show called Tasting, Grumbling.

He continued to make a few appearances on the show after becoming prime minister.

BANGKOK PROTESTS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
29 Aug: Police try to evict protesters but pull back; crowds blockade two regional airports
30 Aug: Samak rules out resignation, following a meeting with Thailand’s king
1 Sep: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one dead. Samak declares a state of emergency
3 Sept: Thai FM Tej Bunnag resigns
4 Sept: Samak proposes a national referendum

A group of senators filed a petition against Mr Samak, saying that a prime minister is barred by the constitution from working for private companies.

Mr Samak told the Constitutional Court on Monday that he had been paid for his appearances on the TV show, but was not actually employed by the television company.

The court is due to give its verdict on Tuesday.

Local newspapers have speculated about the case being a possible short-term solution to the current political stalemate in Thailand – although some analysts point out that even if Mr Samak stepped down, his party could always vote him back in again.

For the past two weeks, protesters have been camping outside Government House, refusing to leave until Mr Samak quits, but despite pressure from several military leaders the prime minister has refused to go.

Late last week, Mr Samak proposed to hold a referendum on his rule, but the opposition has rejected the offer.

The demonstrators, from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), say Mr Samak is merely a proxy for former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006.

One man was killed in clashes between pro- and anti-government groups in Bangkok last week, prompting the government to impose emergency rule in the capital.

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