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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September 8, 2008

Cuba hammered by Hurricane Ike

Cuba hammered by Hurricane Ike

Hurricane Ike has been battering eastern Cuba with giant waves and torrential rain but it weakened slightly as it made landfall.

The Category Two storm’s maximum sustained winds are still more than 165km/h (105mph).

Some homes along the coast, where some 800,000 people have been evacuated, have been damaged beyond repair.

Earlier, Ike killed 61 people in Haiti and reportedly damaged 80% of homes on the main Turks and Caicos islands.

The Cuban Meteorology Institute said the eye of the hurricane came ashore near Punta Lucrecia in the state of Holguin about 510 miles (823km) south-east of the capital Havana.

Hurricane Ike’s predicted path

With Hurricane Gustav striking just a week ago, Cuba’s internationally acclaimed emergency services are being stretched to the limit.

Gustav caused serious damage to the western side of the island, damaging almost 100,000 homes.

“In all of Cuba’s history, we have never had two hurricanes this close together,” Jose Rubiera, head of Cuba’s meteorological service, told state TV.

Windows shatter

Ike is forecast to reach Havana early on Tuesday morning.

Rubble blocks a street in Camaguey, Cuba, after the hurricane on 8 September

The storm left rubble strewn in the streets of Camaguey

A direct hit on the densely populated city of two million people with its precarious colonial buildings could be devastating, our correspondent says.

In the city of Holguin, a hotel worker named Carmela told Reuters news agency: “There is lot of worry, windows are beginning to break. There’s a lot of water, it’s raining very heavily.”

Among those evacuated before the arrival of Ike were 15,000 tourists.

RED CROSS APPEAL
The charity is accepting donations to help people in the Caribbean
Donations can be made on 0845 053 53 53 or via its

In the Camaguey region, in the path of the hurricane, resident Ramon Olivera was preparing to leave by motorcycle as municipal workers boarded up banks and restaurants.

“There’s no fear here but one has to be prepared – it could hit us pretty hard,” he told The Associated Press.

Haitian appeal

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, endured the onslaught of four tropical storms in a three week period.

RECENT MAJOR STORMS
Hurricane Ike: September
Tropical Storm Hanna: September
Hurricane Gustav: August, September
Tropical Storm Fay: August

Heavy rains and flooding sparked by the outer bands of the storm killed at least 61 people in Cabaret, to the north of the capital Port-au-Prince.

“The whole village is flooded,” said local civil protection official Moise Jean-Pierre. “The death toll could go higher.”

The destruction in Haiti has been described as catastrophic.

Police said 500 people were confirmed dead from recent Tropical Storm Hanna while others were still missing and the number could rise.

The newly installed Prime Minister, Michele Pierre Louis, has launched a fresh appeal for international aid.

He called in particular for helicopters to bring those left stranded by the floods to safety. Many lived for days on their rooftops to escape the flood waters.

Florida threat

Ike has been moving westwards at 20km/h (13mph) and is expected to make a 30-hour track along the centre of Cuba, although weakening on the way, the US National Hurricane Center says.

It has been downgraded to a Category Two storm, but the NHC said it was still potentially very dangerous.

On its current track the storm could threaten the islands of the Florida Keys by Tuesday. Some residents have received evacuation orders.

Emergency management director Craig Fugate urged them to move soon, or they “may find the escape route blocked by a hurricane”.


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 6, 2008

‘Hundreds’ killed by Haiti storm

‘Hundreds’ killed by Haiti storm

Floods in Gonaives

Floods in Gonaives left people stranded and in desperate need of help

Almost 500 bodies have been found in the port city of Gonaives, Haiti, after floodwaters caused by recent storms receded, according to reports.

Polie commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille said 495 bodies had been found and the toll could get higher.

A ship carrying 33 tons of UN aid arrived in Haiti on Friday to help an estimated 600,000 people struggling in the wake of tropical storm Hanna.

The storm is heading for the US, while Hurricane Ike threatens the Bahamas.

See Ike’s predicted path

The US National Hurricane Center says Ike is a Category Three hurricane, with winds of up to 185 km/h (115mph).

The smell of the dead is very unpleasant in Gonaives
Commissioner Ernst Dorfeuille

It is expected to pass near or over the Turks and Caicos Islands and south-eastern Bahamas late on Saturday or early Sunday.

By then it could be a major hurricane, forecasters say.

Tropical storm Hanna is causing heavy squalls off the coasts of North and South Carolina and tropical storm warnings are in force along the Atlantic coast from Georgia to New Jersey.

In Haiti, the devastation from the storm in Gonaives has been described as catastrophic.

Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis said her newly-installed government would take the necessary measures to help victims.

Stench of death

Commissioner Dorfeuille told Reuters new agency: “The weather is calm now and we are discovering more bodies. We have found 495 bodies so far and there are 13 people missing.

“The smell of the dead is very unpleasant in Gonaives. The death toll could be even higher.”

Haiti floods

Hanna dumped massive amounts of rain on the country over four days, blowing down fruit trees and swamping tin-roofed houses.

The port city of Gonaives bore the brunt of the storm, forcing thousands of people to seek shelter on rooftops and balconies as flood waters rose.

The UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator in Haiti, Joel Boutrioue, told the it was still difficult to get aid to thousands of people. Roads are cut off and access to some areas is only possible by air – which is limited by the available number of helicopters.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has also launched an appeal, asking for $3.4m in aid.

Haiti was first drenched by Tropical Storm Fay, before Hurricane Gustav wreaked havoc last week, with torrential rainfall over heavily deforested and hilly terrain causing floods and mudslides.

Earlier, Hanna was also blamed for two deaths in Puerto Rico.

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

August 21, 2008

Search for clues in Madrid crash

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Search for clues in Madrid crash

EFE]

Examination of the wreckage began the morning after the crash

Accident investigators have begun examining the wreckage of a plane that crashed at Madrid’s Barajas airport, leaving 153 passengers dead.

They will also start to analyze the flight data and voice recorders, which have both been recovered.

Three days of official mourning have been declared in Madrid, as relatives arrive at a makeshift mortuary in the capital to identify bodies.

Nineteen people survived the crash and several are critically hurt.

Of the 19 survivors of Spanair flight JK 5022, four are listed as being in a “very serious” condition, with another six only slightly better, Spain’s El Pais newspaper reported on Thursday. Eight remain under observation with one only slightly injured, the newspaper said.

Relatives wait in Las Palmas airport, on Gran Canaria (20/08/2008)
The worst is the identification of the bodies. It is the end of all hope
Jesus Lopez Santana
Spanish Red Cross

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is expected to visit the injured in Madrid’s hospitals, while King Juan Carlos will visit Barajas airport.

The king is also likely to visit anxious families waiting for the grim confirmation that their loved-ones are among the dead.

Experts at a temporary mortuary near the airport say work to identify the dead is likely to be slow and painstaking, as many of the bodies were badly burned in Wednesday’s inferno.

“The worst is the identification of the bodies,” Red Cross spokesman Jesus Lopes Santana told the El Mundo newspaper.

“It is the end of all hope and when we see the worst scenes, because the majority of the relatives break down when they hear the news.”

The Spanair flight, bound for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, took off on Wednesday lunchtime with 172 people on board, among them 10 crew.

Initial reports suggested that a fire had broken out in one of the MD82 plane’s engines during or shortly after take-off, and the plane ended up in a field.

Spanish Transport Minister Magdalena Alvarez said the plane had earlier begun taxiing to the runway, before turning back because of a technical problem, which had caused an hour’s delay in the take-off.

Spanish media said the pilot had reported a fault with a temperature gauge, but it was thought to have been fixed.

Speaking on Thursday, Ms Alvarez said a thorough investigation would be carried out, with a full examination of the flight recorders and available pictures, but that it was very early to draw conclusions about the crash.

A special independent commission has been established to probe the cause of the crash, Spanish media reported.

Anger

Spanair has released the official passenger manifest, confirming reports that 20 children and two babies were on board the plane.

Among those who survived were three children, aged six, eight and 11, reports said. At least one of the 19 survivors has yet to be identified.

Map

Overnight a long convoy of black hearses rolled out of the airport grounds to carry bodies to the makeshift mortuary, where the victims’ relatives had gathered, some of whom had traveled from the Canary Islands.

The convention center on the outskirts of the capital was also used as a mortuary after the Madrid train bombings four years ago.

Many of the relatives have expressed anger and disgust at Spanair, blaming it for the accident.

He says the injured include a young brother and sister, who immediately asked rescue workers about their parents.

Spanish ministers said foul play had been ruled out and the crash was considered to be an accident.

The 15-year-old plane had passed a safety inspection in January, said Sergio Allard, a spokesman for Spanair, which is owned by Scandinavian firm SAS.

Spanish media said some German, Swedish, Chilean and Colombian nationals had been among the passengers.

‘All destruction’

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero cut short his holiday in the south of the country to visit the scene of the crash.

Hearses carrying the bodies of victims of the crash (20/08/2008)

A convoy of hearses removed bodies from the scene of the crash

Speaking at the airport, he said that “the government is overwhelmed, very affected, as are all Spanish citizens, by this tragedy”.

Television images on Wednesday showed plumes of smoke rising over the field in which the remains of the plane were resting.

Emergency services chief Ervigio Corral said that rescue workers had been faced with “a desolate scene”.

“You couldn’t distinguish that there was an aircraft there apart from the remains of the tail,” he said. “There was nothing of fuselage.”

Another rescue worker, Pablo Albella, told AP news agency: “The fuselage is destroyed. The plane burned. I have seen a kilometer of charred land and few whole pieces of the fuselage. It is all destruction.”

Messages of sympathy have been sent to Spain by leaders around the world.

The presidents of Russia, France and Italy, Germany’s chancellor and Britain’s queen joined with Latin American leaders in sending their condolences.

It was the deadliest air accident in Spain since a Colombian airline’s Boeing 747 crashed in Madrid in 1983 killing 181 people.

People concerned for relatives or friends who might have been on board the plane can call Spanair’s helpline on +34 800 400 200 (calls possible from inside Spain only).

Map and satellite image of Madrid airport, plus MD82 graphic
MD82 AIRCRAFT

Passengers 150-170
Cruise speed 504mph (811km/h)
Length 45.1m (148ft)
Height 9m (29.5ft)
Wing-span 32.8m (107.6ft)
Maximum range 2,052 nautical miles (3,798km)


Are you in Spain? Have you been affected by the crash? Send us your comments

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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