News & Current Affairs

September 14, 2008

NZ firm warned of China milk risk

NZ firm warned of China milk risk

Babies suffering kidney stones possibly related to defective baby formula in hospital in Lanzhou, Gansu province, on 9 September

Babies have been suffering kidney stones – rare in young children

A Chinese firm accused of selling milk powder that has made babies unwell was warned in August over the safety of its product, its partner and co-owner says.

New Zealand-based dairy giant Fonterra said it had urged China’s Sanlu Group to recall the tainted powder six weeks before Sanlu took adequate action.

The Fonterra farmers’ co-operative owns a 43% stake in Sanlu.

More than 400 babies in China have been taken ill after using milk contaminated with the industrial chemical, melamine.

Melamine is used to make plastics and is banned from food. Ingesting it can lead to the development of kidney stones.

At least one child has reportedly died in China as a result of using the contaminated milk, which the firm recalled from sale on Thursday.

‘Severe punishment’

In a statement released on Sunday, Fonterra said it had urged Sanlu’s board to recall the milk powder as soon as it learnt of the contamination – on 2 August.

“From the day that we were advised of the product contamination issue in August, Fonterra called for a full public recall of all affected product and we have continued to push for this all along,” the statement said.

Chinese officials have complained that they were only alerted last Monday of the dangers posed by the milk. They said Sanlu’s customers had been complaining about the milk since March.

China’s Health Minister, Gao Qiang, said on Saturday that Sanlu “should shoulder major responsibility for this”.

He said those responsible for the contamination “would be dealt with severely”. Nineteen arrests have so far been made over the scandal, Chinese authorities say.

Some of the tainted milk had been sent to Taiwan but none had been sold to other foreign markets, Mr Gao said.

Melamine has been used by Chinese suppliers of animal feed components to make them appear to have more protein.

It was linked to the formation of kidney stones and kidney failure in pets in the United States last year, leading to thousands of deaths and illnesses.

A fake milk powder scandal in 2004 killed at least 13 babies in China’s eastern province of Anhui.

Investigators found that the milk given to these babies had no nutritional value, and the resulting scandal triggered widespread investigations into food safety.

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Scores die in Russian plane crash

Scores die in Russian plane crash

A Russian airliner that crashed near a city in the Urals, killing all 88 people on board, caught fire and exploded in mid-air, reports say.

The Boeing-737-500, belonging to a branch of the national airline Aeroflot, was on a flight from Moscow to Perm, near the Ural mountains.

Twenty-one foreign passengers were on board the Aeroflot Nord flight.

Radio contact with the plane was lost as it was landing. One witness said it looked like a comet as it came down.

“It looked like a… burning comet. It hit the ground opposite the next house, there was a blaze, like fireworks, it lit the whole sky, the blaze,” the witness told Russian TV.

A still from Russian TV shows flames at the crash site early on 14 September

One witness said the blaze lit up the whole sky

The Boeing-737 had 82 passengers on board, including seven children, and six crew, Aeroflot said.

Those killed include Gen Gennady Troshev, a former commander of Russian forces in Chechnya and military adviser to former Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A spokesman for Russian federal prosecutors, Vladimir Markin, said a criminal inquiry had been launched to examine whether safety procedures had been violated.

Earlier, Mr Markin said the most likely cause of the crash was technical failure but Aeroflot says the plane had “a full technical inspection” early this year and was judged to be in a “proper condition”.

Aeroflot conducted its own investigation into the causes of the crash and, without giving details, announced it was stripping Aeroflot Nord of the right to use its name from Monday onwards.

‘Completely destroyed’

Contact with the plane was lost at 0521 Perm time on Sunday (2321 GMT Saturday) as the plane was coming in for landing at a height of 1,100 metres, Aeroflot said.

map

The minister for security in the region said the plane had caught fire in the air at an altitude of 1,000 meters.

It crashed on the outskirts of Perm, just a few hundred meters from residential buildings, but no one was hurt on the ground.

Part of the Trans-Siberian railway was shut down as a result of damage to the main east-west train track and the blaze took two hours to extinguish.

The 21 foreigners killed were listed as nine people from Azerbaijan, five from Ukraine and one person each from France, Switzerland, Latvia, the United States, Germany, Turkey and Italy, Aeroflot said.

Investigators have recovered two black box recorders from the crash site. There was no immediate suggestion of an attack or sabotage.

Aeroflot’s managing director, Valery Okulov, told reporters in Moscow that his company had already conducted its own, private investigation into the crash and decided to sever ties with Aeroflot Nord.

“We have paid too high a price for lending out our flag,” he added.

Scorched earth

Correspondents say the tragedy will be a setback for Russian aviation, which has been trying to shake off a chequered safety record.

A woman in Perm told Vesti-24 TV how she was thrown out of bed by the force of the blast when the plane crashed.

She said: “My daughter ran in from the next room crying: ‘What happened? Has a war begun or what?’

“My neighbors, other witnesses, told me that it was burning in the air.”

Sunday’s accident was the deadliest involving a Russian airliner since 170 people died in August 2006 when a Tupolev-154 bound for St Petersburg crashed in Ukraine.

September 13, 2008

Arrests’ after China landslide

Arrests’ after China landslide

Family members grieve for one of the victims on 12 September 2008

Devastated relatives are now burying their dead

More than a dozen mine officials have been arrested, Chinese state media have reported, after a landslide engulfed a village, killing at least 178 people.

The local Communist Party head has been sacked over Monday’s incident in Shanxi province, news agency Xinhua said.

Thousands of rescue workers are combing through the debris in Taoshi, in which hundreds more victims may be buried.

Frequent mining accidents in China are blamed on lax safety standards and ageing infrastructure.

More than 3,000 rescue workers are at the site, near the city of Linfen, recovering bodies from the debris with the help of 160 diggers, Xinhua reported.

But hopes of finding any more survivors are fading four days on from the accident. It is not known how many people are still missing.

Rescuers have already covered about 90% of the area, Xinhua said.

‘Grave accident’

Earlier in the week, government officials were quoted as saying hundreds of people could be dead, but they later denied such statements.

Thirteen officials from the Tashan Mining Co, which ran the illegal iron ore operation, have now been arrested, Xinhua reported.

Map

In addition, the head of the local Communist Party and other senior local officials were dismissed, the agency said.

“It is the most grave accident that involves the largest death toll so far this year,” said Wang Jun, director of the State Administration of Work Safety.

“The rising accidents disclose local governments’ poor supervision on work safety. Those responsible must be dealt with seriously.”

The torrent of sludge buried the village of 1,000 people, including a market that was packed with people attending a fair, the China Daily newspaper reported.

Witnesses said that the mud appeared to be more than 20ft (6m) deep in some places.

State media said that the mining reservoir was decommissioned in the 1980s, but had recently been put back into use after a new owner took over the mine.

The mine’s safety certificate was revoked in 2006, it said.

Analysts say the disaster highlights China’s failure to enforce safety standards at its notoriously dangerous mines, and also the unsound state of many of its bridges, dams and other ageing infrastructure.

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
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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

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 8, 2008

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

American deaths in Afghanistan war reach 500

KABUL, Afghanistan – The deadliest three months for American forces in Afghanistan have pushed the U.S. death toll to at least 500, forcing a war long overshadowed by Iraq back into the headlines.

Larger, more sophisticated militant attacks have also caused a sharp rise in Afghan civilian deaths — at least 472 in the first seven months of the year, most in suicide bombings, according to an Associated Press count.

In all, at least 600 Afghan civilians were killed from January through July, a 30 percent increase from the same period last year, according to AP figures compiled from coalition and Afghan officials. That includes at least 128 killed by U.S. or NATO forces.

There are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the highest since the war began, meaning more troops than ever are patrolling this country’s mountainous terrain and exposed to ambushes and roadside bombs.

The U.S. military suffered 65 deaths in May, June and July, by far the deadliest three-month period in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The previous deadliest three-month period was in the spring of 2005, with 45 U.S. deaths.

In July, more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq for the month, for the first time since the Iraq war started in 2003. In all, 92 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan this year, a pace that would surpass last year’s death toll of 111.

The spike in violence is forcing U.S. leaders, including the presidential candidates, to call for still more troops here.

More than ever, the U.S. government recognizes the situation Afghanistan “is serious and needs to be dealt with,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the RAND Corp., a Washington-based think tank that often does studies for the Pentagon.

“I think it is an important step that … the gravity of the situation has been recognized and that there are some steps in place to turn the tide in Afghanistan,” he said. “Whether that is successful or not is of course an open question.”

Overall, at least 500 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Qatar and United Arab Emirates in support of the Afghan mission, according to an AP analysis based on Defense Department press releases.

“In terms of milestones, it’s important to point out that no casualty is more significant than any other,” said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright. “Each service member is equally precious, and each loss of life is equally tragic.”

The AP count is based on information from U.S., NATO or Afghan officials, often impossible to independently verify because of the remote or dangerous locations of the incidents.

The Defense Department count often lags by several days. The most recent Defense Department count, issued Saturday, showed 496 U.S. troop deaths in and around Afghanistan.

Counting coalition troops, Taliban militants and Afghan civilians, more than 3,000 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count.

In the past, the Taliban appeared to try to minimize civilian casualties by launching its large-scale attacks primarily against U.S., NATO or Afghan troops.

But this year a February bombing at a dog fighting competition in Kandahar killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians. An attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul last month killed more than 60.

Steven Simon, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the recent attacks with high civilian death tolls reflect a migration of both tactics and fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan.

“The reported presence in Afghanistan of the head of al-Qaida in Iraq underscores the extent to which blowback from Iraq is being felt in Afghanistan,” Simon said in an e-mail. “At this point, al-Qaida’s leadership seems to be looking at the Afghan theater as the next big thing.”

Afghan and U.S. officials say a big reason for the spike in violence is because militaries use sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan where they can arm and train fighters who launch attacks across the border on U.S. and Afghan forces. More al-Qaida fighters have been using the region to launch attacks than in previous years, U.S. officials say.

Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, blamed the rise on violence principally on two factors: a peace agreement earlier this year between the Pakistan government and some militants in its tribal areas near the Afghan border, and support given by Pakistan’s intelligence agency to Taliban fighters.

Pakistan denies it is helping Taliban fighters or that it has entered into peace agreements with militants who launch attacks in Afghanistan.

Insurgent attacks have jumped by 50 percent in the first half of 2008, according to data from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, a Kabul-based group paid for by Western donors that advises relief groups on security.

In a report last week, ANSO said it logged 2,056 insurgent attacks in the first half of the year, a 52 percent increase from the same period last year.

The group said violence was up sharply in relatively peaceful northern and western Afghanistan and the region surrounding Kabul.

Both major presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have called for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. President Bush has said more troops will be dedicated to the Afghan fight in 2009 but has not said how many.

U.S. military officials have said the Afghan effort needs three more brigades of troops, or about 10,500 forces.

Any new forces sent here can expect to face vicious attacks from an increasingly brazen Taliban force. Last month more than 200 militant fighters attacked a remote U.S. outpost in a dangerous and mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan. Nine U.S. troops were killed and 15 wounded.

Even local Afghan civilians joined in on the attack, a sign the U.S. and NATO face steep challenges in their bid to win the population over to the side of the Afghan government.

“The size of the operation and the ability of the group to get support within the town was somewhat alarming, and it shows that there is clearly some concern with local Afghans, and that’s a concern because civilians are the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency,” said Jones. “The dangerous message is that there was involvement by the civilians.”

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