News & Current Affairs

November 18, 2008

Hijacked oil tanker nears Somalia

Hijacked oil tanker nears Somalia

The Sirius Star oil tanker (undated image)

The Sirius Star’s cargo has an estimated value of $100m

A giant Saudi oil tanker seized by pirates in the Indian Ocean is nearing the coast of Somalia, the US Navy says.

The Sirius Star is the biggest tanker ever to be hijacked, with a cargo of 2m barrels – a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output – worth more than $100m.

The vessel was captured in what the navy called an “unprecedented” attack 450 nautical miles (830km) off the Kenyan coast on Saturday.

Its international crew of 25, including two Britons, is said to be safe.

The ship’s operator, Vela International, said a response team had been mobilized to work towards ensuring the safe release of vessel and crew.

Map showing areas of pirate attacks

The hijacking was highly unusual both in terms of the size of the ship and the fact it was attacked so far from the African coast.

The seizure points to the inability of a multi-national naval task force sent to the region earlier this year to stop Somali piracy, he says.

The US Fifth Fleet said the supertanker was “nearing an anchorage point” at Eyl, a port often used by pirates based in Somalia’s Puntland region.

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the pirates involved were well trained.

“Once they get to a point where they can board, it becomes very difficult to get them off, because, clearly, now they hold hostages,” he told a Pentagon briefing in Washington.

Oil price rises

Hijackings off the coast of East Africa and the Gulf of Aden – an area of more than 1m square miles – make up one-third of all global piracy incidents this year, according the International Maritime Bureau.

THE SIRIUS STAR
The Sirius Star oil tanker (image from Aramco website)
Length of a US aircraft carrier
Can carry 2m barrels of oil
Biggest vessel to be hijacked

They are usually resolved peacefully through negotiations for ransom but, given the value of the cargo in this instance, a military response has not been ruled out, our correspondent says.

At least 12 vessels – including the Ukrainian freighter MV Faina, which was seized in September – remain captive and under negotiation with around 250 crew being held hostage.

This month alone, pirates have seized a Japanese cargo ship off Somalia, a Chinese fishing boat off Kenya and a Turkish ship transporting chemicals off Yemen.

War-torn Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991.

The South Korean-built Sirius Star was seized as it headed for the US via the southern tip of Africa, prompting a rise in crude oil prices on global markets.

The route around the Cape of Good Hope is a main thoroughfare for fully-laden supertankers from the Gulf.

With a capacity of 318,000 dead weight tonnes, the ship is 330m (1,080ft) long – about the length of a US aircraft carrier.

Owned by the Saudi company Aramco, it made its maiden voyage in March.

As well as the two Britons, the ship’s crew members are said to be from Croatia, the Philippines, Poland and Saudi Arabia.


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September 29, 2008

Warships surround Somali pirates

Warships surround Somali pirates

Pirates in small boats sail close to the MV Faina (Photo: US Navy)

Somali pirates aboard a ship carrying tanks and weapons that they have seized say they are surrounded by at least three foreign warships.

One is the American US destroyer USS Howard, another is from Russia but the nationality of the third is not clear.

But one of the pirates said they were not afraid and had enough food to withstand a siege.

A maritime expert said the ship was carrying “dangerous chemicals” and warned against using force.

Andrew Mwangura, of the Kenya-based Seafarers’ Programme, also told Reuters news agency that a military helicopter had flown over pirate speedboats heading to reinforce the Ukrainian-operated ship, the Faina, moored near the town of Hobyo.

“With the helicopter and the Howard watching them, the tactic is clearly to scare the pirates.”

We are not afraid of their presence, that will not make us to abandon the ship or to refrain from asking for money
Sugule Ali
Spokesman for the pirates

Pirate Sugule Ali told the AFP news agency by satellite phone that his group wanted a ransom of $20m (£11m) and were not interested in the weapons.

Earlier, the pirates had demanded $35m.

“It is true we are surrounded by three foreign military vessels and there are some others we can see in the distance,” Mr Ali said.

“We are not afraid of their presence, that will not make us to abandon the ship or to refrain from asking for money.

“There is no shortage of food supply and all the crew members are healthy and well, including ours.”

He admitted that one of the kidnapped sailors had died, but said this was from natural causes.

Meanwhile, Kenya has insisted that the shipment of 33 72-T tanks on board were destined for its military.

Various sources have suggested that they were really bound for the autonomous government of South Sudan, in possible contravention of a UN arms embargo.

‘Propaganda’

Mr Mwangura said two previous shipment of Ukrainian weapons had already passed through Kenya.

“There have been alarming propaganda by the pirates to media that the weapons are not for the Kenyan military. This is a tactic by the terrorists to try and fend off reprisals against them,” Kenya’s government spokesman Alfred Mutua said.

The former rebel SPLA which governs South Sudan has denied any links to the tanks, reports the UN-sponsored Radio Miraya FM.

Map

However, it also quoted the SPLA’s Major General Byor Ajang as saying that the army had the right to import weapons from anywhere in the world without co-ordination with the government in the north.

Earlier, a spokesman for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, Lt Nathan Christensen, said the USS Howard was within 8km (5 miles) of the Ukrainian vessel, but refused to say whether they were preparing to attack the pirates.

He said the ship’s cargo of battle tanks made it a particularly worrying situation.

“We’re concerned that this might end up in the wrong hands, such as terrorists or violent extremists,” he said.

Islamist insurgents, not known to have links to the pirate gangs, are battling government troops, their Ethiopian allies and African Union peacekeepers in the capital, Mogadishu.

Somalia has been without a functioning central government for 17 years and has suffered continual civil strife, with rival armed groups fighting for control.

The waters off the coast of Somalia are considered some of the world’s most dangerous.

Even ships carrying food aid are often targeted, hampering the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the estimated three million Somalis in need of aid.

France, which has troops in nearby Djibouti and also participates in a multi-national naval force patrol in the area, has intervened twice to release French sailors kidnapped by pirates.

Authorities in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland say they are powerless to confront the pirates, who regularly hold ships for ransom at the port of Eyl.

September 16, 2008

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

Texas begins mass post-Ike rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Stay away’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

September 8, 2008

Silent movie star Page dies at 98

Silent movie star Page dies at 98

Anita Page

Anita Page was a key figure as the silent movie era ended

Veteran actress Anita Page, whose career dated back to the silent movie era, has died aged 98 in Los Angeles.

Page counted Buster Keaton, Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford among her co-stars during an 84-year career which saw her start out as an extra in 1924.

Her big break came in 1928 when she starred alongside Crawford in Our Dancing Daughters.

More recently, she had completed a cameo role in forthcoming horror movie Frankenstein Rising.

Page died in her sleep at home on Saturday morning, friend Randal Malone told the Associated Press news agency.

Her daughter, Linda Sterne, said her mother had been good friends with Marion Davies and Jean Harlow, and for a period in the 1930s had lived as a guest in a California castle owned by newspaper magnate William Hearst.

“She was the best mother I could have,” Sterne said. “She was wonderful.”

Page starred alongside Chaney in 1928’s While The City Sleeps, while the following years she co-starred in musical The Broadway Melody, the first talkie to win a best picture Oscar.

Her other work included two of Keaton’s sound films: Free and Easy in 1930, and the following year’s Sidewalks of New York.

She also starred alongside Walter Huston in 1932’s Night Court, and The Easiest Way, in which Clark Gable had a small role.

But Page stopped acting when she fell in love with US Navy aviator Herschel House. The couple married in 1936, six weeks after they met, and she settled down to life as an officer’s wife, hosting many parties at their home in San Diego Bay.

After House died in 1991, Page returned to acting, starring in suspense thriller Sunset After Dark in 1994.

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 15, 2008

US jail guards in Iraq abuse case

US jail guards in Iraq abuse case

Camp Bucca

Camp Bucca in southern Iraq holds 18,000 prisoners

Six US sailors working as prison camp guards in Iraq face courts martial for abusing detainees, the US Navy said.

Eight detainees were allegedly sealed in a pepper spray-filled cell at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq.

And it is claimed that two detainees were beaten, although suffered no broken bones, the US Navy said.

The assaults occurred on 14 May after some guards had been spat at and had human waste thrown at them by detainees, a naval spokeswoman said.

“Two detainees suffered minor abrasions as a result of the alleged assaults, eight others were confined overnight in a detainee housing unit which was sprayed with riot control agent and then the ventilation secured,” the US Navy said in a statement.

The six sailors are charged with assault and will face courts martial at Camp Bucca within the next 30 days, Navy 5th Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr Jane Campbell said.

Camp Bucca
Largest US-run prison camp in Iraq
18,000 detainees
Average length of stay: 330 days
80 detainees held since 2003

Seven other sailors received non-judicial punishments for failing to report the abuse at the sprawling desert camp, she said.

Two had their charges dismissed and others were given reductions in rank, with some also docked pay or confined to base for 45 days.

The latest abuse claims come after the US military said it had carried out reforms to its prison system.

In 2004 there was an international outcry after the release of pictures showing US soldiers humiliating detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad.

Abu Ghraib jail has since been closed and 11 US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws.

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