News & Current Affairs

July 4, 2009

UK investigates Iran charge claim

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UK investigates Iran charge claim

Iranian hardline students burn US and British flags during a protest outside the British embassy in Tehran on 23 June 2009

Anti-British protests have been held outside the UK embassy in Tehran

The chief political analyst at the British Embassy in Iran has been charged with “acting against national security”, reports suggest.

The UK Foreign Office is investigating claims by his lawyer that he has been charged and will stand trial shortly.

A senior cleric has said some of the nine embassy staff arrested last month will be tried for inciting protests over Iran’s disputed election.

Britain denies fomenting discontent to undermine Iran’s Islamic regime.

Iranian news agencies have said all but one of the embassy staff have been released, although the UK government claims two remain in custody.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband says he is “deeply concerned” about the situation and has asked for talks with his Iranian counterpart.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman could not confirm reports that the adviser had been charged.

‘Confessions’

“We are still investigating. The situation remains extremely unclear and fluid,” she added.

News agencies have reported the lawyer as saying he has not yet been able to meet with his client or see the text of the indictment.

Protests gripped Tehran and other Iranian cities after June’s presidential election, amid claims the vote had been rigged in favour of the incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

On Friday, Ahmad Jannati, leader of the Iran’s supreme legislative body the Guardian Council, said: “The British Embassy had a presence and some people were arrested.

“Well inevitably they will be put on trial. They have made confessions too.”

However, he did not say how many employees would be tried or on what charges.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported this week that one of the detainees had played a “remarkable role during the recent unrest in managing it behind the scenes”.

Nine embassy staff were held last weekend. Britain says all but two have now been freed.

Mr Miliband said Britain was urgently seeking clarification from Iran about any possible trial or charges, which have reportedly been brought against one employee at Evin prison in Tehran.

Deterioration

“We are confident that our staff have not engaged in any improper or illegal behaviour,” he added.

The Foreign Office later confirmed that Iranian envoy Rasoul Movahedian had been summoned and the same message reiterated.

IRAN UNREST
12 June presidential election saw incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected with 63% of vote
Main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi called for result to be annulled for electoral fraud
Street protests saw at least 17 people killed and foreign media restricted

European Union governments have summoned Iranian ambassadors to protest against the detentions.

An EU official told us that, in addition, visas for Iranians holding Iranian diplomatic passports would be suspended.

The official said other measures, including the withdrawal of EU ambassadors from Iran, would be considered if the two staff members were not released.

Our diplomatic correspondentĀ  says Ayatollah Jannati’s speech marks a significant deterioration in the already bad relationship between London and Tehran.

Tehran has repeatedly accused foreign powers – especially Britain and the US – of stoking unrest after the election.

In the fallout from the crisis, Tehran expelled two British diplomats and the UK responded with a similar measure.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, last month described Britain, as the “most evil” of its enemies.

The issue of how to deal with Iran is set to dominate the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised nations in Italy next week.

Some EU countries have urged caution, arguing that Europe should engage with Iran, not isolate it.

But if the embassy staff are put on trial, the EU may have few other options than to tighten the diplomatic screw, correspondents say.

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September 8, 2008

White House race enters high gear

White House race enters high gear

Barack Obama and John McCain, 5 September 2008

Candidates often see a surge in popularity after the party conventions

The US presidential rivals have begun campaigning in earnest, as a new opinion poll put Republican John McCain ahead of Democrat Barack Obama.

Fresh from being nominated at their party conventions, the two men are now gearing up for the 4 November poll.

A USA Today-Gallup poll put Mr McCain ahead for the first time in months.

Candidates often see a bounce in the polls after the conventions but Mr McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as running mate is being seen as key.

Mr McCain has tried to strike a balance between distancing himself from an unpopular presidency and rallying the party’s conservative base.

Mrs Palin wowed the Republican convention crowd with her speech, helping to re-energize his campaign.

Major test

Mr McCain said that “the electricity has been incredible” at rallies ever since he invited the Alaskan governor to join his ticket.

“She has excited people all over the country. I would love to say it was all because of the charisma of John McCain, but it is not,” he told CBS on Sunday.

Sarah Palin and John McCain (6 September)

Mr McCain said that “the electricity has been incredible” at rallies

Mrs Palin will face a major test this week when she gives her first nationally televised interview, following intense media scrutiny over her personal life and credentials for the ticket.

The USA Today-Gallup poll, which was released on Sunday, showed Mr McCain leading Mr Obama by four percentage points, 50 to 46.

A USA Today poll taken before the Republican convention showed Mr McCain trailing Mr Obama by seven points.

The latest poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The results of a Reuters/Zogby poll, also released over the weekend, gave Mr McCain the edge, with 50 percentage points to 46.

The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll showed John McCain with a one-point lead.

Mr McCain and Mrs Palin are scheduled to be in Missouri on Monday.

Mr Obama is campaigning in the crucial swing state of Michigan. His vice-president, Joe Biden, was appearing in Wisconsin and Iowa, while Hillary Clinton is on the campaign trail in Florida.

Despite the frenetic pace of the presidential race, the candidates will stop campaigning on Thursday to appear together in New York on the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

They said they would put aside politics to honour the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died.

September 7, 2008

US lenders ‘face state takeover’

US lenders ‘face state takeover’

Home repossessed in US

US mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are set to be put under government control in an attempt to rescue the firms, media reports say.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson will outline government plans at a news conference at 1100 (1600 BST).

The move to shore up the shareholder-owned firms, which hold or guarantee half the US mortgage debt, would be the US’s largest ever financial bail-out.

In July, Congress approved a plan aimed

at offering them more liquidity.

This followed huge losses by the two firms as result of a big increase in defaults and repossessions in the US housing market.

‘Management told’

On Saturday, a senior politician, Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had told him the government would use its powers to ensure the continued and stable functioning of the companies.

The Washington Post, quoting senior administration sources, said the firms would be put under a legal status known as “conservatorship” which would greatly reduce the value of the two companies’ common stock.

BBC Business Editor Robert Peston
This is an event of profound significance for the global economy
BBC Business Editor Robert Peston

Other securities – including company debt and preferred shares – would be guaranteed by the government, the paper added.

The New York Times reported that senior executives at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were informed about the plan on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal said it would include changes in the top management.

There would also be quarterly infusions of cash to keep both firms afloat, the papers say. The total cost to taxpayers is not known but could amount to billions of dollars, they add.

The government was being forced to step in because it was dangerous for the US economy for doubts to persist about the two firms’ viability.

Struggling homeowners

HAVE YOUR SAY

Government control over larger portions of the economy can only end badly

TB, US

The two contenders for the US presidency, Barack Obama and John McCain, have been briefed on the takeover by Mr Paulson.

“We’ve got to keep people in their homes,” said the Republican candidate, John McCain.

“There’s got to be restructuring, there’s got to be reorganisation, and there’s got to be some confidence that we’ve stopped this downward spiral,” he added, saying that the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac must not benefit executives at the two companies.

The Democratic Party candidate, Barack Obama, said any action should be focused “on whether it will strengthen our economy and help struggling homeowners”.

“We must not allow government intervention to protect investors and speculators who relied on the government to reap massive profits,” he said, adding “we must protect taxpayers, not bail out the shareholders and management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac”.

Fragile

On Friday, America’s Mortgage Bankers Association reported that at the end of June, about four million homeowners with a mortgage – representing a record 9% – either were behind in their payments or faced repossession.

In the past year, the financial crisis has taken a heavy toll on both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The country’s two largest buyers and backers of mortgages lost a combined $3.1bn between April and June.

Both companies say they have the resources to weather the losses, but their shares have fallen sharply on fears that they could go bankrupt as borrowers default.

The rescue plan passed by Congress in July gave the US government the authority to buy shares and offer liquidity to companies to keep them afloat.

Many analysts believe their collapse would be a major shock to the already fragile global financial system.

Together, the two firms own or guarantee about $5.3 trillion worth of home loans – about half the outstanding mortgages in the US.

That is about 25 times as big as the obligations of Northern Rock – which was nationalised by the UK government earlier this year, and twice the size of the UK economy.

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 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 25, 2008

Americans die in Guatemala crash

Americans die in Guatemala crash

Five US aid workers are among 10 people who died in a plane crash in Guatemala on Sunday, police in the Central American state say.

The Guatemalan pilot and co-pilot were also killed when the small aircraft crashed about 90km (55 miles) east of the capital, Guatemala City.

Four other Americans injured on the plane were airlifted to hospital.

Initial reports suggest engine failure was to blame for the crash of the single-engine Cessna Caravan 208.

Victims’ bodies were reportedly badly burnt, making it difficult to identify them and establish their nationalities.

‘The engine just stopped’

The pilot reported engine trouble about 45 minutes after take-off and tried to make an emergency landing, Civil Aviation director Jose Carlos said.

Guatemalan emergency services ferry an injured person to safety

The survivors were evacuated by helicopter from the site

The plane, which had been en route to El Estor close to the Caribbean coast, came down in a field of crops.

The survivors were ferried to Guatemala City by helicopter.

US citizen Sarah Jensen, 19, said her father and brother had been killed and her mother badly burned on her arms and legs.

“Ten minutes before [the crash] the engine just stopped and then we coasted,” she told Reuters news agency, as she limped across the tarmac.

“We tried to land in a field but we overshot. The people on the left side of the plane were okay because there was a big door.”

Ms Jensen and her family had been on a mission to build houses in a village near El Estor.

August 20, 2008

Many dead in Madrid plane crash

Many dead in Madrid plane crash

Medical personnel tend to an injured passenger in Madrid's Barajas airport after a Spanair airliner bound for the Canary Islands swerved off the runway.

At least 45 people have been killed after a passenger plane swerved off the runway at Madrid’s Barajas airport, Spanish officials say.

Many others were hurt when the Spanair plane bound for Gran Canaria left the runway with 166 passengers and six crew members on board.

There were reports of a fire in the left engine during take-off. TV footage showed smoke billowing from the craft.

Helicopters and fire trucks were called out to dump water on to the plane.

Dozens of ambulances went to the scene, and TV footage later showed several people being carried away on stretchers.

BBC journalist Stephanie McGovern, who is at the airport, said several planes had been seen taking off since the crash, which happened at about 1430 local time (1230 GMT).

But she added that the airport was now closed and only emergency crews and staff were being allowed into the building.

“Helicopters are continually heading to the scene, dropping lots of water… The smoke has really died down now, things seem to be more under control,” she said.

map

“I’ve seen around 50 ambulances. They’re still coming and going, so there may still be more casualties.”

Spanish journalist Manuel Moleno, who was near the area when the accident happened, told the BBC the plane had “crashed into pieces”.

“We heard a big crash. So we stopped and we saw a lot of smoke,” he said.

There are conflicting accounts about the number of deaths, with some reports suggesting most of the passengers on the plane may be dead.

Mr Moleno said he had seen as many as 20 people walking away from the wreckage.

The plane, which was destined for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, came down during or shortly after take-off from Terminal Four at Barajas.

TV footage showed that the plane had come to rest in fields near the airport.

Spanair issued a statement saying that flight number JK 5022 had been involved in an accident at 1445 local time. The airline’s parent company, Scandinavian firm SAS, later said the accident happened at 1423.

According to Spain’s airport authority, Aena, the plane had been due to take off at 1300 local time.

No details of the nationalities of the passengers on board has yet been released.

But the plane was a codeshare flight with German airline Lufthansa, which said it was investigating whether German passengers were on the flight.

The aircraft was a MD82, a plane commonly used on short trips around Europe, aviation expert Chris Yates told the BBC.

He said Spanair, a subsidiary of Scandinavian carrier SAS, had a very good safety record. Reports say it was the first crash at Barajas airport, some 13km (8 miles) from central Madrid, since 1983.

People concerned for relatives or friends who may have been on board the plane should call Spanair’s helpline on: +34 800 400 200.


Are you in the area? Did you witness what happened? Send us your comments

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