News & Current Affairs

November 12, 2008

UN appeals for DR Congo back-up

UN appeals for DR Congo back-up

Congolese government soldiers pass displaced people as they return from the front near Goma on Tuesday 11 November 2008

Congolese troops have faced fresh allegations of abuses

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made a fresh plea for 3,000 more peacekeepers to be sent to the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In New York, Mr Ban also called for a ceasefire so aid workers could urgently help “at least 100,000 refugees” cut off in rebel-held areas near Goma.

A 17,000-strong UN force in Congo has been unable to stop the fighting or halt the rebel advance.

The UN Security Council is considering the call for reinforcements.

The UN head of UN peacekeeping operations, Alain Le Roy, said there were currently only 10 UN soldiers for every 10,000 inhabitants in eastern DR Congo.

Rebel administration

He said this was not enough to protect the population from violence perpetrated by rebel groups and the Congolese army.

A displaced woman next to a UN armoured vehicle near Goma on Tuesday 11 November 2008

The UN presence in DR Congo is its largest mission in the world

Recent fighting between government and rebel troops has displaced a quarter of a million people in the strife-torn region around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.

Earlier, the rebel Congolese general, Laurent Nkunda, said he had formed an alternative administration in the area of eastern Congo that he controls.

In what observers say is his latest direct challenge to the central government, 12 ministers will take responsibility for a range of functions including police and security.

The move appears to be pure propaganda.

‘Looting and raping’

Our correspondent says it may annoy the government but is likely to be insignificant unless the rebels follow it up with further military action.

Displaced people tap into a supply of water aid nearby the Nyiragongo volcano in Kibati

Meanwhile government troops have faced fresh accusations that they have been ransacking villages and raping civilians.

UN spokesman Lt-Col Jean Paul Dietrich said looting began around Kanyabayonga, 100 km (60 miles) north of Goma, on Monday afternoon and continued through the night.

He said UN peacekeepers and the Congolese army had been trying to intervene.

Rebel leader Gen Nkunda claims to be fighting to protect his Tutsi community from attacks by Rwandan Hutu rebels, who fled to DR Congo after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

On Monday, he threatened to take over the whole country if President Joseph Kabila’s government continued in its refusal to negotiate with him.

FORCES AROUND GOMA
CNDP: Gen Nkunda’s Tutsi rebels – 6,000 fighters
FDLR: Rwandan Hutus – 6,000-7,000
Mai Mai: pro-government militia – 3,500
Monuc: UN peacekeepers – 1,000 in Goma, 6,000 in North Kivu (17,000 nationwide)
DRC army – 90,000 (nationwide)
Source: UN, military experts

But a Congolese official said the government was still unwilling to talk to the rebel leader and accused him of war crimes.

The UN has accused both sides of war crimes during the latest violence.

Mr Kabila was elected president in 2006 in polls that were backed by the UN, and which international observers generally declared to be fair.

As in the four-year war that began in DR Congo in 1998, the recent fighting has threatened to draw in neighbouring countries.

Map of eastern DR Congo


What is your reaction to the situation in Congo? Can this region ever find peace? Tell us your thoughts

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September 16, 2008

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas has begun what is being described as the biggest search and rescue effort in its history following Hurricane Ike.

At least 2,000 people have been rescued but many thousands more are believed to have ignored the mandatory order to evacuate before Saturday’s storm.

The death toll rose to 30 as Ike swept on from Texas into the mid-US, with heavy rain causing flooding.

Millions of people are without power and Houston is under a week-long curfew as work continues to restore services.

While many schools remained shut, there were signs of a return to normality on Monday, as the city’s two airports resumed limited services and some shops and restaurants opened for business.

Five people died in Galveston Bay, an island city south-east of Houston which bore the brunt of the storm as Ike swept ashore on Saturday, bringing 13ft (4m) waves and 110mph (175km/h) winds.

‘Stay away’

Rescuers feared the toll could rise as they searched areas awash with sewage for those who did not leave before the hurricane hit.

As many as 140,000 people – some 10,000 in Galveston alone – failed to heed the order to evacuate.

Across Texas, 50 helicopters, 1,500 federal, state and local search teams were looking for stranded survivors, and a US navy ship carrying engineers was heading to Galveston to help with rebuilding operations.

We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal
US President George W Bush

Nearly 40,000 evacuees were being housed in 250 shelters across Texas – some with little money and no idea how long they would have to stay.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas urged residents to stay away until it was safe to return to their homes.

“There’s nothing to come here for,” she said. “Please leave.”

Warning that residents of Texas and Louisiana were in for “tough times”, David Paulison, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), said some people would “be out of their homes for not only weeks, but months”.

Fema has said it will deliver 7.5m meals as well as 5m gallons (20m litres) of water over the next few days.

President George W Bush, who is due to survey the damage on Tuesday, told those affected by the storm: “We’ll work as hard and fast as we can to help you get your lives back up to normal”.

Although Ike weakened to a tropical depression as it headed beyond Texas, the storm’s US death-toll rose to 30 as torrential rain caused severe flooding and power outages in parts of Louisiana, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois.

Ike killed more than 80 people when it tore through the Caribbean late last week.


Have you been affected by Hurricane Ike? Send us your comments and experiences

September 12, 2008

Surrender by ‘uranium theft’ man

Surrender by ‘uranium theft’ man

Photo by Anirban Roy

Local objections have stopped mining from officially starting

A tribal man wanted in connection with the smuggling of uranium ore has surrendered to the police in India’s north-eastern state of Meghalaya.

Earlier this week, police arrested five people and recovered a packet of about 1kg of unprocessed uranium from them.

It is not clear how much ore the group had, or what it planned to do with it.

The arrests are at an embarrassing time for India, just days after the Nuclear Suppliers Group ended a ban on civilian nuclear trade with the country.

Indian officials had worked hard to persuade members of the group, which governs global trade in nuclear components, that its nuclear industry was in safe hands.

Uranium is the basic fuel for nuclear weapons, but it has to go through complex processes before it is sufficiently enriched for use.

‘Stolen’

John Khongmin gave himself up to the police in the West Khasi Hills district late on Wednesday after police circulated a look-out notice for him.

Mr Khongmin’s father is an employee of the government-run Atomic Minerals Division.

The Domiosiat mining site. Picture by Anirban Roy

Children play at Domiosiat – prized by experts for the quality of its ore

“We are trying to find out whether the group has stolen more and where were they trying to sell it,” district police official M Khakrang said.

Police say they are not sure whether the men are part of an organized global enterprise, or simply some amateurs, trying to make some quick money.

The seizure was made in the village of Mairang on Monday when police detained four people, including a village headman, for stealing a quantity of uranium.

A fifth man surrendered on Tuesday after the police carried out a search of the area.

Earlier in May too, police arrested five people for stealing uranium ore.

Others have been arrested in the past for trying to smuggle uranium out of the state.

“But we don’t know yet whether this is an organized racket. It could well be and we may have not yet found the kingpins,” Mr Khakrang said.

Proposed mines

Early in the 1990s, India’s Atomic Minerals Division discovered huge deposits of uranium at Domiosiat and Wakkhaji in the West Khasi Hills.

The Indian government announced in January it wanted to open cast mine 375,000 tonnes of uranium ore annually in the area.

But mining has been unable to start so far because of objections from local tribespeople who fear radiation contamination.

Officials say the proposed mines contain 16% of India’s known uranium deposits.

India is desperate for enriched uranium to boost its nuclear power generation.

It recently signed a controversial accord with the US under which it will receive civilian nuclear fuel and technology. The deal now awaits approval from the US Congress.

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.

September 8, 2008

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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