News & Current Affairs

January 12, 2009

Gaza survivors’ four days without water

Gaza survivors’ four days without water

A Palestinian man carries an injured child into al-Shifa hospital 8 January 2009

The ICRC has accused the Israeli army of failing to evacuate and care for the wounded

Sameh, aged three, and Ahmad, 18 months, cry all the time.

As she sits on the bed in al-Quds hospital in Gaza City, their mother Fatima al-Shamouny, 36, tries to comfort them.

But as she tells their – and her own – story, she sobs too.

The boys were found on Wednesday, with their dead father and unconscious mother nearby, four days after the emergency services said they began trying to reach the neighbourhood.

They were among 30 people Palestinian Red Crescent workers said they evacuated from Zeitoun, a south-eastern suburb of Gaza City, on Wednesday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the paramedics found “shocking” scenes of wounded people huddled together in houses among dead bodies, weak after having had no food or water for several days.

Map

In one home, the agency said, four small children were found sitting close to their dead mothers, “too weak to stand on their own”.

It is not clear if Sameh and Ahmad were in that particular house – it may be that the unconscious Fatima was initially thought to be dead – but she says she and her toddlers were among those who had a long wait for help.

Survivors’ accounts

The ICRC has accused the Israeli military of failing to live up to its obligations under international law to facilitate the evacuation or to care for the wounded.

The agency said it had been requesting safe passage for its ambulances to access the neighbourhood since 3 January, but only received permission to do so from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) four days later.

The details of exactly what happened at the Shamouny family compound are still sketchy.

Survivors have told the News that 26 of the extended family’s 65 members died in Israeli military operations.

We spent days without food, without water – the wounded were bleeding for four days
Wael Faris al-Shamouny

Their accounts of shelling, and then ground troops surrounding their homes, cannot be independently verified.Fatima, who was wounded in the chest, says two of her sons, her husband, her aunt, her uncle and her brother-in-law were all killed.

“One of my sons crawled to our neighbour’s house – he was injured – and he called some of the local radio stations to ask for help. But the help arrived late. Everybody had died,” she said.

“On the third day, I passed out. I don’t know what happened until I found myself here in the hospital,” she said.

Wael Faris al-Shamouny, 39, another member of the extended family, smoked and sipped black coffee as he sat on the floor in the hospital corridor.

He says he lost five sons and his wife, and believes some of the dead may have survived if given medical treatment earlier.

“We tried to help them, but we didn’t have first aid things in our house. We spent days without food, without water – the wounded were bleeding for four days,” he said.

“The ambulances came and they saved who they saved. There are still pieces of my wife, my sons and my cousins’ bodies in the house.”

ICRC criticism

The ICRC said the wounded had to be transported about a kilometre on a hand-pulled donkey cart because large earth walls erected by the Israeli army had made it impossible to bring ambulances into the neighbourhood.

Katarina Ritz, the ICRC’s head of mission in Jerusalem, said experienced Palestinian emergency workers wept at the scenes they were confronted with.

She said Israeli troops were within about 100m of the houses in question, and that the ICRC believes the soldiers “must have been aware” of the presence of the wounded people, because of repeated requests from aid agencies for access.

Under international law, she said, even if there are security concerns meaning the injured cannot be evacuated, “the minimum is to treat these people, to feed these people, give them water, and keep them in a safe place”.

The Israeli military said it was investigating the case. It said it is “engaged in a battle with the Hamas terrorist organisation that has deliberately used Palestinian civilians as human shields”.

And it stressed it works in “close co-operation with international aid organisations during the fighting, so that civilians can be provided with assistance”.

‘Difficult’ co-operation

Earlier in the week, an ICRC spokeswoman told the BBC attempts to co-ordinate safe passage for ambulances were so slow that people were dying as they waited.

Not all ambulance drivers in Gaza have been waiting for co-ordination with the Israeli military, and health officials in Gaza say 10 paramedics have been killed trying to rescue the wounded since the Israeli operation began.

Israeli Defence Ministry Spokesman Peter Lerner said that co-ordinating the movements of ambulances has been “extremely difficult because of heavy gunfire”.

He said that even during the three-hour lull Israel declared to allow humanitarian operations, Hamas militants continued to shoot at Israeli forces.

Outside the hospital, as Fatima Shamouny told her story, dozens of people gathered as Thursday’s ICRC-led convoy of ambulances prepared to leave.

They came with addresses where they believed injured people were trapped.

One man’s hands shook so much with fear that he had to ask for help writing the directions down.

Finally, the convoy received clearance, and drove away.

It was headed back to Zeitoun, where the ICRC said there were reports of more injured people stranded, and another area in northern Gaza, which ICRC workers had not even reached yet.

The minimum is to treat these [injured] people, to feed these people, give them water, and keep them in a safe place
Katarina Ritz
ICRC’s head of mission in Jerusalem
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January 6, 2009

Strike on Gaza school ‘kills 40’

Strike on Gaza school ‘kills 40’

An injured boy is carried away from the school (6 January 2009)

The ICRC said much more needed to be done to protect civilians in Gaza

At least 40 people have been killed in an Israeli air strike on a United Nations-run school in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian medical sources have said.

A number of children were among those who died when the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp took a direct hit, doctors at nearby hospitals said.

People inside had been taking refuge from the Israeli ground offensive.

Earlier, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned of a “full-blown humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.

Speaking on the 11th day of the Israeli assault, a senior ICRC official, Pierre Kraehenbuhl, said life in Gaza had become intolerable.

Palestinian medical sources say up to 600 people have been killed since the attacks began, and Mr Kraehenbuhl said much more needed to be done to protect civilians.

At least 70 Palestinians were killed on Tuesday, while five Israeli soldiers were killed.

One soldier was killed in an exchange of fire with militants in Gaza City, while four others were killed by shellfire from their own tanks earlier in the day, Israeli military officials said.

‘Horrific’

Witnesses said at least one Israeli missile had struck the al-Fakhura school on Tuesday afternoon, causing a large explosion and spraying shrapnel on people both inside and outside the building.

GAZA CRISIS BACKGROUND
Smoke rises over the Gaza Strip (6 January 2009)

Hundreds of people had sought refuge inside the UN-run school in effort to escape the fighting between Israeli soldiers and militants on the outskirts of the refugee camp, to the east of Gaza City.

Television footage showed bodies scattered on the ground amid pools of blood.

Casualties were taken to two hospitals. Doctors at the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya said 30 people had died there. A further 10 people died at the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, doctors said.

The number of casualties is expected to rise.

The Israeli military has not yet commented on the incident, but it has in the past accused militants of using schools, mosques and residential areas for cover.

This is the second Israeli air strike on a UN-run school in a day. Earlier, at least three Palestinians were killed when a school was hit in the Bureij camp, UN officials said.

After the first attack, the director of the UN aid agency Unrwa, John Ging, said the conditions in Gaza were “horrific”.

“Nowhere is safe for civilians here in Gaza at the moment. They are fleeing their homes and they are right to do it when you look at the casualty numbers.”

“It’s very, very dangerous, and even the 14,000 who have sought refuge in our schools and shelters, they are not safe either.”

Mr Ging said international leaders had a responsibility to act to protect civilians.

“You cannot conduct huge military operations in such densely-populated places without killing hundreds and injuring thousands of civilians,” he added.

Information about what is happening inside Gaza is limited as Israel has barred foreign reporters from entering.

September 10, 2008

Sri Lanka jets bomb ‘rebel base’

Sri Lanka jets bomb ‘rebel base’

Sri Lanka Air Force MiG 27s (Photo from air force website)

Jets are said to have carried out raids deep inside rebel-held territory

Sri Lanka’s military says its jets have bombed a Tamil Tiger intelligence center in the north, a day after a rebel air raid on a military base.

Fighter aircraft pounded the rebel center in the northern region of Kilinochchi, the defense ministry said.

Reports from the area confirm an air raid, injuring at least two people. The rebels said civilian homes were hit.

The attack came as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed deep concern over the increased hostilities in Sri Lanka.

On Monday, the government issued a notice to foreign aid workers to leave the rebel-held areas in the north saying it could not guarantee their safety. On Tuesday, UN officials said they would relocate staff.

The government says that it is on track to defeat the rebels.

Displaced

Officials said the area where the latest military operation was carried out is deep inside rebel-held territory.

map

“Taking on offensive raids into the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] backyard, Sri Lanka air force fighter jets made precision air sorties at the LTTE’s main intelligence command and control centre located in Kilinochchi,” the defense ministry said.

The region also houses several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and aid agencies. The UN said one of its vehicles was slightly damaged.

The Tamil Tigers said the air force had bombed a civilian settlement near Kilinochchi town centre, destroying 12 homes.

“No one was hurt because people sought safety in the bunkers,” a statement said.

Photographs on their website showed buildings they said were civilian houses damaged or destroyed by the bombing.

Hospital officials told a pregnant woman had been injured in the bombing. She lost her baby after a stone hit her abdomen during the raid. A child also fainted.

Rubble of civilian homes the Tigers say were hit in the raid

Rubble of civilian homes the Tigers say were hit in the raid

There is growing concern for the fate of civilians in the north after the government ordered aid agencies to leave Tamil Tiger controlled territory.

The UN secretary general said the fighting had “grave humanitarian consequences for civilians”.

“He reminds all concerned of their responsibility to take active steps to ensure the safety and freedom of movement of civilians, allowing humanitarian organizations to do their work in safety, as well as to reach persons affected by the fighting who need humanitarian assistance,” a statement said.

Human rights group Amnesty International called for international monitors to be allowed into the north to oversee convoys of aid and other essential supplies.

There are about 70 UN national and international workers in areas of the north controlled by the Tamil Tigers, the UN says. Most are based in the town of Kilinochchi.

Aid agencies say there are nearly 160,000 people in the Tiger-controlled north who have been displaced by the fighting.

The International Red Cross (ICRC) – one of the most prominent international agencies in the north – said that its teams were committed to remain in both rebel and government-held areas.

Offensive

But an ICRC spokesman said that situation was being monitored and negotiations were currently underway with the government in Colombo.

UN camp for displaced people in Sri Lanka

The UN says the plight of civilians in the north is worsening

Correspondents say that part of the problem for some aid agencies in the north is that their staff cannot leave because they are Tamil locals and the rebels will not issue them with passes.

The military meanwhile says that its offensive – aimed at crushing the rebels and ending their fight for a separate state for the Tamil minority – is on course.

The ministry of defence said that it shot down a rebel plane on Tuesday in a major incident in which 12 soldiers and a policemen were killed during a Tamil Tiger attack on a base in the northern area of Vavuniya.

The Tigers said 10 of their suicide fighters were killed in the raid.

They said that the raid was backed by artillery and light aircraft dropping bombs and that a radar station was destroyed in extensive damage to the base.

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

Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

Courtesy BBC NEWS

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

As accusations of indiscriminate violence, murder and genocide are hurled between Russia and Georgia over the South Ossetia conflict, human rights investigators are painstakingly trying to establish the facts on the ground.

A Georgian woman stands near a damaged apartment block in Gori, Georgia

Residential buildings were hit during the conflict

Researchers suggest both sides may have violated the codes of war – using violence that was either disproportionate or indiscriminate, or both – claims that the International Criminal Court is currently investigating.

Russian prosecutors have announced they are opening criminal cases into the deaths of 133 civilians who they say were killed by Georgian forces.

Initially, however, Russia suggested more than 1,500 people had died in the conflict.

Last week, Georgia filed a lawsuit against Russia at the International Court of Justice, based at The Hague, alleging the country had attempted to ethnically cleanse Georgians from the breakaway regions.

Uncovering the facts – even of very recent history – becomes a battle in itself when people are displaced and desperate.

“Gathering comprehensive data about the dead from civilians is a time-consuming task,” Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, told BBC News.

“We have to cross-check data and check that people are not misidentified or miscounted.”

Shifting status

Neighbors who take up arms during a conflict, for example, shift status, becoming combatants rather than civilians, which can confuse calculations of civilian death tolls.

Russian tanks in South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali.

Russian forces have been accused of using cluster bombs

“We have to make sure there is no double-counting – if a body is moved, we have to be careful not to count it twice – maybe it is counted once in the village itself and then it could be counted again in the city morgue,” Ms Denber said.

“To get really accurate figures you would really have to go to every single village.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – which has just gained access to South Ossetia – says it hopes to uncover the truth by remaining neutral and only revealing what its told – by survivors, eyewitnesses and relatives – to relevant authorities.

“The work of the ICRC is totally confidential,” spokeswoman Jessica Barry explained from the Georgian capital, Tblisi.

“We do take allegations of arrests, of people missing or reported dead. We can also offer our services to the authorities for the transfer of mortal remains.

“All the work we do is gathering confidential information which we share with the authorities with the aim of finding out the location of loved ones for the civilian population.”

War of words

The ferocity of the conflict on the ground was echoed in the way both Russian and Georgian officials conducted a media war, making ever graver accusations against each other, competing for television airtime and giving spiralling civilian death tolls.

A woman walks past propaganda poster depicting Russian aggression

The war has been played out both in the media and on the ground

All of which muddies the waters when trying to establish if human rights and international laws have been violated.

“There has been a lot of controversy about the Russian figures,” says HRW’s Rachel Denber.

“When that figure came out – of 1,500 dead – it wasn’t very helpful, it didn’t provide any sourcing or methodology, there were no details about how the figure was calculated. We certainly can’t confirm it.”

“The problem here is that when Russia puts out a figure like that it does two things – it distracts attention from where there are violations and from the real scale of what is happening.”

The organization puts the civilian death toll in the dozens, rather than the hundreds.

Responsibility to protect

As well as multiple rocket launchers mounted on four-wheel drives, known as Grads, campaigners say cluster munitions – which can contain hundreds of smaller bomblets – were used during the conflict. Both these weapons are intrinsically indiscriminate, they say.

Disproportionate attacks are prohibited […] if there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don’t fire
Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch

“If you have a military objective then the Grad rocket is not a targeted weapon, civilians are going to get hit and that is exactly what happened, and happened on a significant scale. The proximity was such that it was indiscriminate,” Ms Denber said.

She cited a reported case in which Russian forces dropped bombs on a convoy of passenger cars fleeing Georgia’s Gori district, and another in which Georgian soldiers pursued armed South Ossetian militias using tanks, driving and firing through a residential neighborhood.

“The rule is that disproportionate attacks are prohibited. In other words, if you have your eye on a military target, and there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don’t fire,” Ms Denber said.

Although the fighting has now stopped, violations continue, she says, with Russian forces failing to protect civilians in areas of Georgia and South Ossetia that they control – a key part of the international law governing behavior during war.

“We have numerous stories of Ossetian forces roving around ethnic Georgian villages – running around, looting homes, torching them,” she said.

“We are looking into other accounts of violence, of people being robbed at gunpoint. These are areas that Russian forces have control over – it is their responsibility to protect them.”

August 8, 2008

Georgia offers rebels ceasefire

Georgia offers rebels ceasefire

Georgian troops are expected to observe a three-hour ceasefire to let civilians leave the besieged capital of separatist South Ossetia, say reports.

Georgia has launched a major offensive against rebel strongholds and claims to have surrounded the capital Tskhinvali.

Russia, who Georgia accuses of arming the rebels, has warned aggression would lead to retaliation from Moscow.

At least 15 civilians are said to have died as well as several Russian peacekeepers based in Tskhinvali.

Nato, the US and the European Union have all called for an immediate end to the hostilities.

This is very sad and very disturbing and, of course, this will provoke actions in response
Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister

Georgian President Mikhail Saakasvili called on reservists to sign up for duty and accused Russia of sending fighter jets to bomb Georgian towns – claims denied by Moscow.

Residents of Tskhinvali were reported to be sheltering in basements as massive explosions rocked the city. Both sides blamed each other for breaking a ceasefire on Thursday.

Georgia says the three-hour ceasefire would come into force from 1100GMT to allow civilians to leave Tskhinvali.

The international Red Cross had earlier said it wanted to see “humanitarian corridor” to the area to take in ambulances to retrieve wounded civilians.

ICRC spokeswoman Anna Nelson said they had received reports that hospitals in Tskhinvali were having trouble coping with the influx of casualties and ambulances were having trouble reaching the injured.

Sheltering

Irina Gagloyeva, a South Ossetian official in Tskhinvali, described the scene in the beseiged city overnight after the Georgian military action started.

SOUTH OSSETIA TIMELINE
1991-92 S Ossetia fights war to break away from newly independent Georgia; Russia enforces truce
2004 Mikhail Saakashvili elected Georgian president, promising to recover lost territories
2006 S Ossetians vote for independence in unofficial referendum
April 2008 Russia steps up ties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia
July 2008 Russia admits flying jets over S Ossetia; Russia and Georgia accuse each other of military build-up
7 August 2008 After escalating Georgian-Ossetian clashes, sides agree to ceasefire
8 August 2008 Heavy fighting erupts overnight, Georgian forces close on Tskhinvali

“Virtually all the people of the city are in shelters, myself included. It started at midnight, and has barely stopped for a minute,” she told the BBC. “Can you hear? That’s rockets. All my windows have blown out. Thirty-five thousand residents of our capital have become the hostages of Georgian fascism.”

A spokesman for the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia told Interfax news agency that Georgian shells directly hit barracks in Tskhinvali, killing several peacekeepers.

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said Georgia had simply run out of patience with attacks by separatist militias in recent days and had had to move in to restore peace in South Ossetia.

“As soon as a durable peace takes hold we need to move forward with dialogue and peaceful negotiations,” he told reporters.

Georgia accuses Russia of arming the separatists who have been trying to break away since the civil war in the 1990s. Moscow denies the claim.

Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to respond to the crisis, but members failed to agree on a Russian statement calling on both sides to renounce the use of force.

Russian passports

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev later convened his national security council and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised a response to what he called Georgian aggression.

The defence ministry issued a statement saying: “We will not allow the peacekeepers and citizens of the Russian Federation to be hurt.”

The BBC’s James Rodgers in Moscow says Russia has always said it supports the territorial integrity of Georgia but has also said it would defend its citizens. Many South Ossetians hold Russian passports.

Hundreds of fighters from Russia and Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia are reportedly heading to aid the separatist troops.

Mr Saakashvili’s claims of Russian jets bombarding Georgian targets have been rejected by Russia and have not been independently confirmed.

China, where the Olympic Games opens on Friday, called for worldwide truce during the sporting event.

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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