News & Current Affairs

July 15, 2009

Russian activist ‘found murdered’

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:55 pm

Russian activist ‘found murdered’

A prominent Russian human rights activist, Natalia Estemirova, has been found dead in the North Caucasus.

She was bundled into a van and abducted as she left her home in Chechnya on Wednesday morning, a colleague said. Her body was found in Ingushetia.

The Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed “outrage” at the murder, and ordered a top-level investigation.

Ms Estemirova had been investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya for the independent Memorial group.

Memorial is one of Russia’s best known rights groups, working to document Soviet-era abuses and those taking place more recently, especially in Chechnya.

In recent months, she had been gathering evidence of a campaign of house-burnings by government-backed militias.

Forcefully taken

Ms Estemirova, who was 50 according to Russian prosecutors, had worked in the past with the activists Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in 2006, and Stanislav Markelov, who was killed in January this year.

In 2007 she was awarded the inaugural Anna Politkovskaya Prize, and had also received awards from the Swedish and European parliaments, Memorial said.

In a statement the group said she “was forcefully taken from her house into a car and shouted that she was being kidnapped” at about 0830 local time (0430 GMT).

Her body was found in woodland near Nazran, the main city in neighbouring Ingushetia, about nine hours later. She had bullet wounds to the head and chest.

Dangerous work

The New-York based human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Ms Estemirova had been working on “extremely sensitive” cases of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

“There is no shred of doubt that she was targeted due to her professional activity,” said Tanya Lokshina, HRW’s Russian researcher in Moscow.

Ms Estemirova was engaged in very important and dangerous work, says the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Moscow, investigating hundreds of cases of alleged kidnapping, torture and extra-judicial killings by Russian government troops or militias in Chechnya.

Memorial says it believes that government security services of some nature must be involved in her killing.

Our correspondent says no evidence of that has emerged so far, but that it was the government sponsored militias that had most to fear from her work.

She is the most recent in a long line of human rights activists and lawyers to have been killed or attacked in Russia. The history of these sorts of cases over many years is that very rarely are their killers ever brought to justice, our correspondent says.

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September 12, 2008

Deadly strike in Pakistan hotspot

Deadly strike in Pakistan hotspot

Map

At least 10 people have been killed in north-west Pakistan in a suspected missile strike, officials say.

The missile struck a home before dawn near Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, intelligence officials said.

Some reports, quoting local officials and eyewitnesses, said the missile was fired by a US drone.

The attack comes amid growing concern in Pakistan over unilateral military action by the US.

American and international troops are fighting Taleban and al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan.

Cross-border

“The pre-dawn strike destroyed the house,” news agency AFP quoted an unnamed official as saying.

Another 10 people were wounded, he said.

The missile landed in a house in the Tol Khel area on the outskirts of Miranshah, the agency reported.

It would be the fifth cross-border attack since the beginning of this month allegedly carried out by US forces, who have not officially confirmed their involvement.

On Monday, at least 14 people were killed and 15 injured in a suspected US missile strike in North Waziristan, witnesses and officials said.

The attacks follow persistent US accusations that Pakistan is not doing enough to eliminate Taleban and al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the border region.

The upsurge in strikes has alarmed Pakistani military and government officials, who say it seriously undermines their counter-insurgency operations.

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 9, 2008

N Korea to mark 60th anniversary

N Korea to mark 60th anniversary

A Korean Central News Agency photo showing high-ranking North Korean officials and foreign guests at a meeting on the eve of the anniversary

A special meeting was held on the eve of the anniversary

North Korea is planning to celebrate its 60th anniversary with a military parade in the capital, Pyongyang.

Reports say the parade will be the largest the North has ever staged, with lots of military hardware on display.

Reclusive leader Kim Jong-il is expected to attend, and the parade will be watched closely because of speculation about his health.

The anniversary comes amid an impasse in international efforts to urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

Health concerns

On Monday, North Korea’s state-run television channel KRT showed footage of the North’s cabinet holding a large indoor gathering to mark the anniversary.

The cabinet released a statement, picked up by monitors in Seoul, saying that North Korea had a powerful army that would “mercilessly punish invaders”.

According to South Korean media, the main parade on Tuesday will be the largest ever staged by its northern neighbor.

“The North probably wants to boost the image of its military might in order to cement unity within the country and secure a better position in the denuclearize negotiations,” a South Korean government source told JoongAng Ilbo newspaper.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with soldiers, August 2006

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is notoriously reclusive

Military experts usually watch these parades to see if North Korea will unveil any new weapons systems.

But this time foreign observers will be particularly keen to note whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-il makes an appearance.

The future direction of North Korea is tightly linked to the personality of the country’s reclusive leader.

Mr Kim has not been seen in public since early last month, giving rise to speculation he could be seriously unwell.

He has been known to disappear from public view for extended periods before, and has always returned eventually, but this time the rumours of ill health have been given added impetus by news that a team of Chinese doctors was recently summoned to examine him.

Food shortages

The celebrations are taking place amid rising tensions between Pyongyang and the international community.

North Korea agreed in February 2007 to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for aid and diplomatic concessions, but the progress of the deal has been far from smooth.

After a long delay, Pyongyang handed over details of its nuclear facilities in June 2008.

In return, it expected the US to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which the US has yet to do, so the North now appears to be starting to reassemble its main nuclear plant.

Meanwhile the World Food Program estimates that North Korea is suffering from a serious food shortage.

The North has relied on foreign assistance to help feed its 23 million people since its state-controlled economy collapsed in the mid-1990s.


Are you marking this anniversary? Are you in Pyongyang? What is happening in your area? Tell us your experience

S Lanka ‘shoots down rebel plane’

S Lanka ‘shoots down rebel plane’

Map

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.

September 8, 2008

Sri Lanka bars foreign aid staff

Sri Lanka bars foreign aid staff

Tamils displaced by recent fighting

Tamils have been fleeing the fighting in the north and east of the island

Sri Lanka’s government has announced a ban on foreign aid workers and many of their local colleagues from working in Tamil-rebel held areas in the north.

Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said Colombo could no longer guarantee the safety of aid workers in the area.

Colombo has intensified its war against the Tamil Tigers in a drive to crush their decades-old separatist struggle.

Aid agencies have been helping some of an estimated 160,000 people displaced by the fighting in the north.

They have in the past voiced concern for tens of thousands of people who have fled the frontline and sought refuge from the violence deep inside rebel-held territory.

The agencies have yet to respond to the government’s announcement.

An estimated 85,000 people have fled their homes in the area since June, according to the United Nations.

‘Dangerous environment’

The government said the ban would apply to all foreign aid workers in rebel-held territory and to their local colleagues who were not permanently resident in the area.

“We can’t assure the security of these people,” Defense Secretary Rajapaksa told The Associated Press news agency. “We are taking precautions.”

Mr Rajapaksa said any people affected by the ban who were currently in the area should leave immediately.

He said his government wished to avoid a repeat of the murder in 2006 of 17 local employees of French aid agency, Action Against Hunger.

Sri Lanka’s government said Tamil rebels carried out the attack but international truce monitors said the killings were the work of the military.

A United Nations official last year described Sri Lanka as one of the world’s most dangerous environments for humanitarian workers, prompting an angry rebuttal from the government.

The Tamil Tigers have been fighting for a separate homeland in the north and east for 25 years.

More than 70,000 people have died in the conflict.

Do you work for an NGO in northern Sri Lanka? Are you affected by this announcement? Send us your experiences.

September 7, 2008

New hurricane menaces Caribbean

New hurricane menaces Caribbean

Caribbean nations are bracing for another major storm, Hurricane Ike, coming just days after Tropical Storm Hanna passed through the region.

Ike has regained strength after weakening, with winds of up to 135mph (215km/h) as it nears the Turks and Caicos islands and the Bahamas.

Cuba has issued a hurricane watch for its eastern provinces.

Haitian officials have said that at least 500 people have been found dead as floodwater’s caused by Hanna recede.

That storm has hit the US south-east coast and is dropping torrential rain on North and South Carolina.

Storm warnings are in force along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to New Jersey.

‘Major hurricane’

Hurricane Ike gained strength to Category Four on the Saffir Simpson scale – an “extremely dangerous hurricane” – after weakening slightly earlier on Saturday, said the Florida-based National Hurricane Center (NHC).

As of 2100 GMT, Ike was tracking west south-west, moving at 15mph about 90 miles (145km) east of Grand Turk Island.

SAFFIR-SIMPSON SCALE
Cat 1: Winds 74-95mph (119-153km/h). No real damage to buildings
Cat 2: Winds 96-110mph (154-177km/h). Storm surge 6-8 feet (1.8-2.8 metres) above normal
Cat 3: Winds 111-130mph (178-209km/h). Major hurricane. Coastal flooding destroys smaller structures
Cat 4: Winds 131-155mph (210-249km/h). Large storm surge and widespread damage to smaller buildings
Cat 5: Winds greater than 155mph (249km/h). Small buildings blown away, roofs on large buildings destroyed. All trees and signs knocked down. Widespread coastal flooding.
Source: US National Hurricane Center

The NHC said the storm was expected to pass near or over the Turks and Caicos islands and the south-eastern Bahamas late on Saturday or early Sunday.

After Hanna pummeled the low-lying Turks and Caicos, a British territory to the north of Haiti, earlier in the week, many residents and visitors decided to leave.

Authorities decided to close the airport in Providenciales at mid-day on Saturday.

Ike should hit the northern coast of eastern Cuba by late Sunday or early Monday, according to the NHC forecast.

If it stays on its projected course, Ike will cut across the island from east to west, putting the crumbling colonial buildings of the capital, Havana, at risk.

A storm surge of up to 12ft (3.6m) is expected along with “large and dangerous battering waves” and heavy rainfall, the NHC said.

The center of the hurricane is forecast to pass to the north of Haiti, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.

But Haiti, already reeling from three major storms in as many weeks, will not be spared, with up to 12in (30cm) of rain due to fall.

As floodwaters caused by Tropical Storm Hanna receded, Haitian officials said more than 500 people had been killed.

Hurricane Gustav last week and Tropical Storm Fay two weeks ago killed about 120 people.

Hardest hit by Hanna was the city of Gonaives, which was flooded with up to 16ft of water that has only now begun to recede.

The devastation there has been described as catastrophic.

Police said 500 people were confirmed dead but that others are still missing and the number could rise higher.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) said hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced by the flooding.

The WFP has begun distributing food aid but a spokesperson said the scale of the disaster was putting their resources to the test.

Other aid workers say people’s spirits are running low after the successive storms.

“Food supplies and water are scarce and the price of the food that’s left is rising,” said Parnell Denis from Oxfam in Gonaives.

“The morale of people staying in the shelters is so very low; I am afraid to tell them that another storm is on its way.”

More bad weather will hamper the aid effort even further.

In the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, there have been no reports of major damage.

However, preparations are under way for the arrival of Hurricane Ike.

“The ground is saturated and some of the dams in the south-east region are fairly close to their maximum capacity,” said meteorological official Gloria Ceballos.

Civil defense director Colonel Juan Manuel Mendez said Dominican troops had been put on alert.

Map of Hurricane Ike's predicted route


Are you in the Caribbean? Have you been affected by the storms? What preparations have you made to deal with the adverse weather? Send us your comments and experiences

September 3, 2008

Profile: John McCain

Profile: John McCain

McCain is a divisive figure within his own Republican
party [GALLO/GETTY]

A decorated Vietnam war hero who spent more than five years as a war prisoner, McCain’s successful bid for the Republican nomination had marked his second attempt to run for the White House.

But his success is a remarkable turnaround for the Arizona senator, who until recently was not viewed as a serious contender.

A self-proclaimed straight talker whose bluntness and at times unconventional style have both frustrated and appealed to would be voters, McCain is a divisive figure within his own party, to the extent that some have claimed they will not vote for him.

And some have pointed to both this rocky relationship and his age – at 71 he will be America’s oldest ever president –  as major obstacles on the road to the Oval Office.

Vietnam ordeal

McCain [here with Richard Nixon] spent years
in Vietnam POW camps
[Getty Images]

McCain comes from a family with a long military history – both his father and grandfather served as US navy admirals.

McCain himself joined the navy in 1958, beginning a 22-year long naval career marked most notably by his decision to volunteer for service in the Vietnam war.

It was a momentous decision. In October 1967 during a bombing mission, McCain’s plane was shot down by a missile.

He ejected but was injured in the process, breaking both his arms and his leg.

Captured by north Vietnamese soldiers, he was taken prisoner and held at several prisons for five and a half years, often enduring torture by his captors. He still bears physical scars from his ordeal.

Most notably, though he was offered an early release by the North Vietnamese, McCain declined because he did not want to be seen as receiving preferential treatment.

On his return, McCain decided to enter politics, becoming first a naval liaison for the US senate, then a congressman for Arizona before entering the senate in 1987.

Hawkish policies

“Tehran must understand that it cannot win a showdown with the world”

John McCain

On foreign policy, many prospective voters were unnerved by a comment McCain made while campaigning in which he said he believed US forces should stay in Iraq for 100 years if necessary.

“I oppose a pre-emptive withdrawal strategy that has no Plan B for the aftermath of its inevitable failure and the greater problems that would ensue,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine.

However, McCain has criticised US military strategy in Iraq, saying that by failing to adopt a counterinsurgency strategy the US and the Iraqi people had paid a “dear price”.He is also a firm opponent of the use of torture. However, he recently voted against a senate bill which would have banned the controversial interrogation method of waterboarding widely viewed as torture.

McCain also advocates building up Israel militarily and isolating Hamas, while using every resource available “to aid moderate Muslims … who are resisting the well-financed campaign of extremism that is tearing Muslim societies apart”, he added.

On Iran, McCain is hawkish, describing the nation as the world’s “chief state sponsor of terrorism” and advocating all options, including possible military action, against the Islamic Republic should it continue with its nuclear program.

“Tehran must understand that it cannot win a showdown with the world,” he wrote.

However, an embarrassing gaffe during a visit to Jordan in March, in which he wrongly accused Iran, a predominantly Shia nation, of aiding Sunni al-Qaeda fighters, led to questions about whether his foreign affairs experience was as solid as he claimed.

Polarising figure

McCain was left embittered after his 2000
nomination battle with Bush[EPA]

McCain remains a polarising figure within the Republican party.

On domestic issues McCain is known for being willing to “cross the floor” and work with Democrats, particularly on the matters of campaign finance and on immigration – co-sponsoring a bi-partisan bill which would have offered an amnesty to illegal immigrants.

This has caused suspicion amongst some of the more traditionalist members of the Republican party, who consider him too moderate on social issues such as immigration.

McCain’s response has been to aggressively tout his conservative credentials while out on the road campaigning for the nomination, attempting to strike a delicate balance by reaching out to centrists who may be wooed to vote for him while at the same time striving not to upset evangelicals or more right-wing members of the Republican party.

Past controversies

Two decades ago, McCain and four other senators were accused of trying to influence banking regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a savings financier later convicted of securities fraud.

The Senate Ethics Committee decided that McCain had used “poor judgment” but that his actions ‘were not improper” and did not deserve punishment.

In 2000 McCain ran against George Bush, losing after a controversial nomination race in which scurrilous accusations against him implied erroneously he had fathered an illegitimate African-American child.

The experience, he later acknowledged, left him angry – although his relationship with Bush has since thawed.

Nonetheless, sensitised by the slurs against him in the 2000 nomination campaign, McCain set up a “South Carolina truth squad’ to rebut allegations that he had “sold out” prisoners of war.

In February, he also denied a New York Times report that suggested he had a romantic relationship with a Washington lobbyist.

However, with the potential slings and arrows of a major presidential campaign, McCain may face more of the same in the future.

August 9, 2008

Texas bus crash kills 15 pilgrims

Texas bus crash kills 15 pilgrims

Bus wreckage in Sherman, TX

The crash sent the bus off a bridge

Fifteen people have been killed in the US state of Texas after a bus carrying a Vietnamese church group crashed off a bridge into a ravine.

The bus, carrying 55 people, slid off a bridge in Sherman, about 60 miles (100 km) north of Dallas, at 0045 local time (0545 GMT) on Friday.

Police said the bus was chartered by Vietnamese Catholics from Houston who were on a pilgrimage to Missouri.

The operators of the bus did not have a valid licence, officials say.

Initial reports said the bus lost control and smashed into the rail guard of the bridge. It apparently then skidded along the rail before sliding off the bridge.

At the site of the crash, the crumpled wreckage of the bus lay on its right side, littered with luggage, shopping bags and scattered clothing.

Expired certificate

Twelve people died at the screen of the crash and another three later in local hospitals.

Bus crash survivor Leha Nguyen

Leha Nguyen: “I’m the luckiest one”

A large section of the highway was closed as ambulances and at least 13 helicopters rushed to the scene to ferry the wounded to several hospitals in the Dallas area.

One passenger, Leha Nguyen, 45, said people were dozing off when passengers started screaming.

“Somebody was laying on my legs. A lady next to me, she had her arm crushed up,” she said.

“I think I’m the luckiest one out of most people,” she added, stating that none of the passengers were wearing seat belts.

Accident investigators say that a tyre on the bus blew out, and that it had been refitted with a new tread, in violation of safety regulations.

The National Transportation Safety Board said that the 52-year-old driver, who survived the crash, had a commercial licence, but had an expired medical certificate.

According to Houston’s KHOU-TV, the passengers were from the Vietnamese Martyrs Church of Houston who were on their way to Carthage, Missouri, for the Marian Days festival, an annual celebration to honour the Virgin Mary.

August 7, 2008

Bomb kills two on Russian beach

Bomb kills two on Russian beach

Map showing Sochi

A bomb explosion has killed two people on a beach in Russia’s  Black Sea resort of Sochi, police say.

Witnesses said a woman picked up a package which then blew up, killing her and a man with her. Four injured people were rushed to hospital.

The blast happened in Loo, in Sochi’s Lazarevskoye district. The exact nature of the device is not yet clear.

Sochi is one of Russia’s most popular beach resorts. It will also host the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

The blast happened shortly after 1000 local time (0600 GMT). A police spokeswoman was quoted as saying there would have been more casualties if it had happened later, when the beach is more crowded.

One victim’s leg was blown off.

Local officials evacuated people from the beach after the blast and investigators are now at the scene, trying to identify the device.

Sochi lies near Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia where tensions have flared up recently. The volatile North Caucasus, where separatist rebels are active, also lies just east of Sochi.

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