News & Current Affairs

December 25, 2008

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope appeals for Mid-East peace

Pope Benedict XVI has used his traditional Christmas Midnight Mass to call for an end to “hatred and violence” in the Middle East.

Addressing a huge congregation at the Vatican’s St Peter’s Basilica, he appealed for a new understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Thousands of pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, amid tight security.

The Pope will deliver his Christmas Day message from St Peter’s later.

Appealing for new efforts to end the cycle of violence in the Middle East, Pope Benedict urged people to pray that “hearts will be opened, so borders will be opened”.

The 81-year-old pontiff plans to visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories next May, although final details of his trip have yet to be worked out.

Also in his homily, Pope Benedict appealed for an end to child abuse.

“Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace,” he said.

“Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatised to the depths of their soul.

Children being blessed by Pope Benedict during Midnight Mass at St Peter's Basilica, Vatican

The Pope blessed a number of children in his congregation

As Midnight Mass began, Pope Benedict, dressed in white and gold-coloured vestments, walked up the main aisle of the flood-lit St Peter’s Basilica, smiling and stopping several times to shake outstretched hands and bless children.

For those unable to enter, giant screens were set up in St Peter’s Square.

Most of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians mark Christmas this week.

Others, chiefly from among the 200 million Orthodox Christians who use the Julian Calendar for their feast days, celebrate the Nativity on 7 January.

Across the world, believers have been attending Christmas church services and, in some countries, families gathered for a traditional festive dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve.

‘Explosion of love’

There was a heavy security presence in the West Bank town of Bethlehem as thousands of Christian pilgrims celebrated the start of Christmas.

Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe
Stefano Croce
Italian fashion photographer

Among those who attended the service in Bethlehem, which Christians believe is the birthplace of Jesus, were about 200 worshippers from the Gaza Strip whom Israel granted special permission to make the journey.

Extra Palestinian security personnel were deployed to Bethlehem from the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Jericho to safeguard visitors.

Correspondents in the town met elated pilgrims, gathering around nightfall outside the Church of the Nativity, considered the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

A dozen believers from India, Canada, Britain, the US and other countries sung impromptu renditions of Christmas carols, the Associated Press reported.

US citizen David Bogenrief, 57, played the trumpet, telling a gaggle of local children who were listening: “Jesus was the prince of peace, and he can bring that peace to you. We pray for you.”

In Manger Square, vendors sold roasted peanuts and Santa Claus hats to the crowds, among whom were some local Muslims out enjoying the annual international fuss over their town.

Correspondents say a relative lull in violence in the Middle East seems to have encouraged pilgrims to return to the “Holy Land”.

“Bethlehem is like the soul of the universe, and it’s like an explosion of love here,” said Italian fashion photographer Stefano Croce, 46.

In his traditional Christmas Day “Urbi et Orbi” speech – Latin for “to the city and to the world” – from the balcony of St Peter’s, Pope Benedict is expected to touch on current events and issues of concern to the Vatican.

He will then issue Christmas greetings to the faithful in more than 60 languages.

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December 14, 2008

Shoes thrown at Bush on Iraq trip

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A surprise visit by US President George Bush to Iraq has been overshadowed by an incident in which two shoes were thrown at him during a news conference.

An Iraqi journalist was wrestled to the floor by security guards after he called Mr Bush “a dog” and threw his footwear, just missing the president.

The soles of shoes are considered the ultimate insult in Arab culture.

During the trip, Mr Bush and Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki signed the new security agreement between their countries.

The pact calls for US troops to leave Iraq in 2011 – eight years after the 2003 invasion that has in part defined the Bush presidency.

Speaking just over five weeks before he hands over power to Barack Obama, Mr Bush also said the war in Iraq was not over and more work remained to be done.

His previously unannounced visit came a day after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates told US troops the Iraq mission was in its “endgame”.

‘Size 10’

In the middle of the news conference with Mr Maliki, a reporter stood up and shouted “this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog,” before hurtling his shoes at Mr Bush, narrowly missing him.

PREVIOUS BUSH VISITS TO IRAQ
President Bush serves Thanksgiving dinner to US troops in Baghdad - 27/11/2003
Nov 2003: Serves Thanksgiving dinner to troops in Baghdad
June 2006: Meets new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki
Sept 2007: Visits Anbar province – former stronghold of Saddam Hussein

“All I can report is a size 10,” Mr Bush said according to the Associated Press news agency.

The shoe thrower was taken away by security guards and the news conference continued.

Correspondents called it a symbolic incident. Iraqis threw shoes and used them to beat Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad after his overthrow.

‘American security’

Mr Bush’s first stop upon arriving in Baghdad was the Iraqi presidential palace in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, where he held talks with President Jalal Talabani.

“The work hasn’t been easy but it’s been necessary for American security, Iraqi hope and world peace,” Mr Bush said during his talks with Mr Talabani.

The Iraqi president called Mr Bush “a great friend for the Iraqi people, who helped us liberate our country”.

The key issue at present is exactly how American troops will withdraw within the next three years and what sort of Iraq they will leave behind.

The US media has just published details of a US government report saying that post invasion reconstruction of Iraq was crippled by bureaucratic turf wars and an ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society.

The report is circulating among US officials in draft form, says the New York Times.

It reveals details of a reconstruction effort that cost more than $100bn (£67bn) and only succeeded in restoring what was destroyed in the invasion and the widespread looting that followed it, the newspaper said.

Troop promises

Mr Bush’s visit, unannounced in advance and conducted under tight security, follows the approval last month of a security pact between Washington and Baghdad that calls for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of 2011.

US troops are first to withdraw from Iraqi cities, including Baghdad, by June next year.

Defence Secretary Gates said on Saturday that “the process of the drawdown” had begun.

US troops near Mosul

The end in sight for US troops in Iraq?

“We are, I believe, in terms of the American commitment, in the endgame here in Iraq,” he told US troops at an airbase near Baghdad.

Mr Gates has been picked to stay on as defence secretary by President-elect Barack Obama.

President Bush leaves the White House in less than six weeks. He said in a recent interview with ABC News that the biggest regret of his presidency was the false intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Finding these was one of the key justifications for the invasion. None were ever found.

Mr Obama has promised to bring home US combat troops from Iraq in a little over a year from when he takes office in January.

More than 4,200 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and security personnel have been killed since the invasion in 2003.

There are currently about 149,000 US soldiers in Iraq, down from last year’s peak of 170,000 after extra troops were poured in to deal with a worsening security situation.

As Mr Bush arrived in Baghdad, Gen David Petraeus, the head of the US Central Command, which includes Iraq, said attacks in the country had dropped from 180 a day in June 2007 to 10 a day now.

In a sign of modest security gains in Iraq, Mr Bush was welcomed with a formal arrival ceremony – a flourish that was not part of his previous three visits.

He arrived in the country on Air Force One, which landed at Baghdad International Airport in the afternoon, after a secretive Saturday night departure from Washington on an 11-hour flight.

September 10, 2008

ICTY to assess Serbia assistance

ICTY to assess Serbia assistance

Serge Brammertz (30/07/2008)

Mr Brammertz will report on Serbia’s efforts at co-operation to the UN

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Serge Brammertz, is due to visit Serbia later on Wednesday.

Mr Brammertz will spend two days assessing Belgrade’s efforts to find remaining suspects wanted by the court.

His priority is the arrests of former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic and Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic.

The European Union has said Serbia’s bid for membership depends on its full co-operation with The Hague tribunal.

Belgrade received widespread international praise in July following the arrest of the wanted former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic.

Mr Brammertz will present his report on the extent of Serbia’s co-operation to the UN Security Council at the end of the year.

Efforts ‘intensified’

This is the first time that the ICTY’s chief prosecutor will visit Serbia since the arrest of Mr Karadzic.

The former Bosnian Serb leader was caught in Belgrade on 21 July, 13 years after he was indicted by the UN tribunal.

Goran Hadzic and Ratko Mladic (file)

Mr Hadzic and Gen Mladic are believed to be hiding somewhere in Serbia

Serbia is now hoping for positive signals from the prosecutor on its co-operation with the court.

While the extradition of Mr Karadzic has been praised by both the ICTY and the EU, it is still not enough.

Serbia has to arrest the two main remaining fugitives, Gen Mladic and Mr Hadzic, if it is to move closer to Europe. It is widely speculated that the men are hiding somewhere in the country.

Gen Mladic, who commanded the Bosnian Serb army, was indicted by the ICTY in 1995 on 15 counts of of genocide and other crimes against humanity in Bosnia-Hercegovina – including the massacre of at least 7,500 Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica in 1995.

Mr Hadzic was a central figure in the self-proclaimed Serb republic of Krajina from 1992 to 1993.

In 2004, he was indicted by the ICTY on 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his involvement in atrocities committed by Serb troops in Croatia during the 1991-95 civil war.

Belgrade has been criticized for years for its failure to capture some of the most wanted war crimes suspects.

But Serbian officials have said that since a pro-western government came to power in July, the hunt for Mr Mladic has intensified.

DR Congo frees goats from prison

DR Congo frees goats from prison

Goats (file image)

It is not known what the goats’ punishment might have been

A minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo has ordered a Kinshasa jail to release a dozen goats, which he said were being held there illegally.

Deputy Justice Minister Claude Nyamugabo said he found the goats just in time during a routine jail visit.

The beasts were due to appear in court, charged with being sold illegally by the roadside.

The minister said many police had serious gaps in their knowledge and they would be sent for retraining.

Mr Nyamugabo was conducting a routine visit to the prison when, he said, he was astonished to discover not only humans, but a herd of goats crammed into a prison cell in the capital.

He has blamed the police for the incident.

It is not clear what will happen to the owners of the goats, who have also been imprisoned.

BBC Africa analyst Mary Harper says that given the grim state of prisons in Congo, the goats will doubtless be relieved about being spared a trial.

There was no word on what their punishment would have been, had they been found guilty.

September 7, 2008

Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

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Protests greet Turkish president’s ‘football diplomacy’

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Thousands of Armenians lined the streets of the capital Yerevan Saturday, protesting the Turkish president who drove past in the first ever visit by a Turkish leader. Many held placards demanding justice for massacres that took place nearly 100 years ago.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul boards a plane at Ankara before departing on an historic visit to Armenia.

Abdullah Gul arrived in Armenia to watch a Turkey vs. Armenia football World Cup qualifier game with President Serge Sarkisian that many hope will help the two countries overcome decades of antagonism rooted in Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians.

Gul is the first Turkish leader to set foot in Armenia since the ex-Soviet nation declared independence in 1991. The two neighbors have no diplomatic ties and their border has been closed since 1993.

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey, however, denies the deaths constituted genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

Ties have also suffered from Turkey’s opposition to Armenia‘s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

As Gul left the airport, the presidential motorcade drove along streets lined with thousands of people holding up placards, mostly in English and Armenian, that read: “We want justice,” “Turk admit your guilt,” and “1915 never again.”

Others held up names of places in Turkey from which their ancestors were forced to leave as the Ottoman Empire uprooted Armenian communities between 1915 and 1922.

Little progress is expected on the genocide issue or on Nagorno-Karabakh when Gul meets Sarkisian for talks just before the game — which Turkey is favored to win.

Still, the visit is a sign of a diplomatic thaw.

“I hope that (the visit) will help lift the obstacles that stand in the way of rapprochement between the two peoples and contribute to regional friendship and peace,” Gul said before his departure.

Gul’s decision to accept Armenia’s invitation to the match is linked to Turkey’s desire to carve out a regional peacemaker role amid tensions sparked by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia.

Turkey, a NATO member, has cause for alarm about how Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia might inspire its own separatist Kurds, or provoke Armenia to boost support for separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the wake of the Georgia conflict, Turkey proposed a regional grouping for stability in the Caucasus that would include Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

“About a month ago, we all saw how conflicts that have remained unresolved threatened regional stability and peace in the Caucasus,” Gul said in reference to the Georgia crisis.

Armenia is the last of Turkey‘s neighbors with whom Ankara has failed to mend ties since the end of the Cold War. Turkey has gradually improved relations with old foes such as Greece, Bulgaria and Syria.

Improved ties with Armenia are likely to help lift strains on Turkey’s relations with other countries that have or plan to formally recognize the massacres as genocide.

In October, a measure that would have declared the Armenian deaths as genocide in the U.S. Congress was stopped after President George W. Bush’s administration warned relations with strategic ally Turkey would be damaged.

On the plane, Gul paid tribute to the Armenian president.

“President Sarkisian was brave in taking the opportunity of inviting me to this game,” he said.

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara, in order to pressure Yerevan into ending the conflict. he move has hurt the economy of tiny, landlocked Armenia.

Armenia’s bitter ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey have resulted in the tiny country being excluded from strategic energy pipelines that connect Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia.

Armenians, supported by numerous scholars, claim an organized genocide was carried out in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and are pushing for the killings to be recognized as among history’s worst atrocities.

Turkey contends the 1.5 million death toll is wildly inflated. It also says the Armenians were killed or displaced in civil unrest during the chaos that surrounded the empire’s collapse.

Turkey has called for the establishment of a committee of scholars to study the WWI events in a bid to improve ties, but Armenia has declined to consider this until relations are forged.

September 5, 2008

Rice making historic Libya visit

Rice making historic Libya visit

Condoleezza Rice in Lisbon before going to Libya - 5/9/2008

The US state department described the visit as a “new chapter” in relations

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed as “historic” her visit to Libya to meet its leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But she pointed out the “suffering” caused by the North African country’s long stand-off with the West.

Libya was on the US state department list of sponsors of terrorism until 2003, when it abandoned weapons of mass destruction and renounced terrorism.

Ms Rice will be the first US secretary of state to visit Libya since 1953.

“It is a historic moment and it is one that has come after a lot of difficulty, the suffering of many people that will never be forgotten or assuaged,” Ms Rice told a news conference in Lisbon, Portugal, before leaving for Libya.

Her trip will also include visits to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

But the visit could be overshadowed by Libya’s failure so far to honour a deal offering compensation to families of victims of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Six years ago, such a visit would have seemed far-fetched, but diplomacy and political will have overcome the obstacles.

The US State Department have described it as a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries, following on from the restoration of diplomatic ties in 2006.

‘Way forward’

Earlier this month, Libya agreed to pay compensation to families of the victims of the Lockerbie aircraft bombing, for which it formally accepted responsibility in 2003.

The deal includes compensation for Libyan victims of the United States’ retaliatory bombing raid over Libya in 1986.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi  (file image)

Ms Rice’s visit was partly intended to be a reward for successful completion of the deal, but Libya has not yet transferred the promised hundreds of millions of dollars into a humanitarian account.

The US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David Welch, told Reuters that he was optimistic the transfer would happen soon but that Ms Rice would press Libya on this issue.

Col Gaddafi has stopped short of referring to America as a friend, but in a televised speech this week he said improved relations were a way for both countries to leave each other alone.

Assistant Secretary of State Paula DeSutter told a briefing in Washington on Thursday that the visit would show other countries they have “a way forward” if they change their behaviour and co-operate with the US.

Our correspondent says that although the visit is largely symbolic diplomacy, many in Libya hope that US-Libyan relations will only improve in the long-run.


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September 3, 2008

Ukraine in snap election warning

Ukraine in snap election warning

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko

Mr Yushchenko said he would call a poll unless a new coalition was formed

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has threatened to dissolve parliament and call elections after the collapse of the country’s ruling coalition.

Mr Yushchenko’s supporters walked out in protest following new laws trimming the president’s powers.

The laws were introduced by the pro-Russian opposition and backed by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party.

Former allies, the prime minister and president are now at odds despite sharing pro-Western political goals.

All but one of 12 ministers from Mr Yushchenko’s party boycotted Wednesday’s cabinet meeting.

“A political and constitutional coup d’etat has started in the parliament,” Mr Yushchenko said in a televised speech.

“I will use my right to dissolve parliament and decree early elections if a new coalition is not formed within 30 days,” he said.

‘Irresponsible behaviour’

But Ms Tymoshenko blamed her rival for the chaos, vowing that the Ukrainian cabinet would continue its work despite the break-up of the coalition.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko (l) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

“I am sorry that the president behaves irresponsibly,” she said at a cabinet meeting. “The coalition was destroyed under his instruction.”

Mr Yushchenko’s popularity is at rock bottom at the moment with opinion polls giving him single-digit levels of support.

The prime minister and president are believed to be jockeying for position before next year’s presidential election, though our correspondent says Mr Yushchenko’s chances of winning with current popularity levels would be slim.

The crisis follows mounting tension between the president and prime minister with Mr Yushchenko accusing Ms Tymoshenko of treason for allegedly siding with Moscow over the conflict in Georgia.

Mr Yushchenko has been a vociferous supporter of Georgia during the conflict but the prime minister’s party on Tuesday blocked a parliamentary resolution condemning Moscow.

The flare-up comes a day before a planned visit to the country by US Vice-President Dick Cheney.

The trip is part of a tour of former Soviet states which the US sees as key allies.


Are you in Ukraine? Are you concerned by developments? Send us your comments and experiences

India’s belated flood relief operation

India’s belated flood relief operation

Flood victims in Saharsa in Bihar

Hundreds of thousands are still stranded in the floods

Aid is beginning to reach the flood-affected in the Indian state of Bihar, but some say it is too late.

A long convoy of Indian army trucks is driving on the highway between the towns of Purnea and Madhepura in north Bihar.

They are carrying soldiers as well as rescue equipment, including boats.

Further ahead, they will be joined by Indian navy divers who will assist them in evacuating those villagers still stranded in flood waters.

Officials say they expect to bring out everyone in 72 hours.

At the Purnea air force base, two helicopters are being loaded up with emergency supplies – mostly food and medicines in packets.

These will be dropped from the air to the flood victims who are still cut off.

After facing a barrage of criticism for not doing enough, the Indian government has begun responding.

But for some, it is too late.

Sanjay is a migrant worker employed in the northern Indian state of Punjab hundreds of miles to the west.

He has rushed back to Murliganj in Madhepura, to try and save his grandfather who is marooned and very ill.

An army rescue team takes him to his village but by the time he gets there, his grandfather has died.

Overflowing camps

“He needed medicines – but they were unable to get any in the past 10 days because of the floods.”

Wrapped in a white shroud, his body is lifted on to the rescue boat to be taken away.

With the rescue operation in full swing, attention is now shifting to the relief camps which are all overflowing.

C Sridhar, the district magistrate in Purnea who is overseeing the relief effort there, says the government is doing all it can.

Villagers in Bihar gather relief material dropped by an air force helicopter in Madhubani district on 2 September 2008

Many people are still waiting for aid

“The government is prepared to provide assistance to all these people who have nowhere to go,” he tells me in his large colonial-era office where his phone is constantly ringing.

“We are in the process of building a mega-relief camp in Purnea district headquarters which will eventually have semi-permanent tents with roofs made of corrugated iron,” he adds even as he sends out instructions over the phone.

At the moment though, the focus is on just getting people into camps and getting them some immediate assistance.

Aid agencies and government medical teams have begun visiting some camps, where there are already reports of some people suffering from diarrhoea.

They are distributing oral rehydration salts and other medicines.

‘Fairly organised’

But sanitation levels at the camps are poor and there is concern that preventive measures may be too late.

Bjorn Nissen of Medicins Sans Frontieres has visited several camps to assess the situation.

“Aid is getting through and seems fairly organised.

“But yes, there is always a potential for water-borne diseases to affect large numbers of people. We are still trying to see what is needed and what we can do.”

Flood victims scramble for food packets in Saharsa in Bihar

The scale of the floods has overwhelmed relief efforts

India has not asked for international assistance. There is a strong sense here that it is not needed, that the government has enough resources to provide for those affected.

But it is not refusing all offers of help.

“We will certainly welcome international aid particularly those who can offer certain expertise,” says Mr Sridhar.

“Floods are a traumatic experience. Those who have suffered will need help in coping with their situation and eventually rebuilding their lives. This is an area where international groups can offer immense help.”

So why has it taken so long for the relief effort to hit speed?

There was one clue on Monday.

Minutes after the army convoy drove down the Purnea-Madhepura highway, it was followed by a long line of cars with flashing lights.

A senior Indian cabinet minister, Laloo Prasad Yadav, who is also a former chief minister of Bihar, had come visiting.

Bihar is currently governed by his political opponents – and so the state and federal governments have spent a lot of the past week blaming each other for the mess.

In between, the flood survivors wait for someone to take note of them.

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 20, 2008

Russia rejects UN Georgia draft

Russia rejects UN Georgia draft

Captive Georgians atop of a Russian tank in Poti, Georgia, on 19 August 2008

Russia paraded captive Georgians on armoured vehicles

Russia has rejected a draft UN Security Council resolution on Georgia, saying it contradicted the terms of last week’s ceasefire deal.

The draft text called on Russia to pull back its forces to the positions held before the current conflict.

But Russia says the truce allows its troops to stay in a buffer zone on the Georgia side of South Ossetia’s border.

Moscow earlier dismissed a NATO warning that normal relations were impossible while its troops remained in Georgia.

The conflict broke out on 7 August when Georgia launched an assault to wrest back control of the Moscow-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia, triggering a counter-offensive by Russian troops who advanced beyond South Ossetia into Georgia’s heartland.

Georgia says its action was in response to continuous provocation.

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who is visiting the region, is to visit a camp for displaced people in Georgia on Wednesday. Tens of thousand of people have been made homeless by the recent conflict.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about security in South Ossetia and Abkhazia

On Tuesday, Mr Miliband held talks with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, to update him on Nato’s reaction at an emergency meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels which demanded that Russia pull its troops out of Georgia.

The foreign secretary criticised Russia’s failure to keep to a promise to withdraw troops from Georgia.

Meanwhile, a Russia’s main security service, the FSB, says a Russian officer has been detained accused of spying for Georgia.

An ethnic Georgian, Mikhail Khachidze was arrested in the southern Russian region of Stavropol near Georgia, an FSB spokesman said.

“[He] was involved in collecting secret information on Russian armed forces, its combat readiness as well as data on other servicemen,” he said.

Russian veto

At the UN, Russia’s ambassador said the French-drafted UN resolution went against the terms of the ceasefire brokered by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Vitaly Churkin said the resolution should incorporate all elements of the six-point peace plan agreed last week.

He also objected to language in the draft reaffirming Georgia’s territorial integrity, saying South Ossetia and Abkhazia did not want to be part of Georgia.

Russia can veto UN resolutions and the ambassador told the BBC that putting the text to a vote would be pointless.

He said: “It’s a waste of time because the process of the withdrawal of Russian forces will continue.”

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As an American, I find Bush’s and Rice’s comments regarding the attacks on a sovereign nation in the 21st Century just too embarrassing to bear

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Following a rebuke from Nato’s 26 foreign ministers in Brussels, Moscow accused NATO of bias in favor of the “criminal regime” in Tbilisi.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Russia risked becoming the “outlaw” of the conflict, in an interview with CBS news on the sidelines of the NATO emergency meeting.

Russia says President Dmitry Medvedev told President Sarkozy that by Friday, Russian troops would either be sent home, be pulled back to South Ossetia or to a buffer zone along the border.

Russia said it had begun a pullback on Tuesday as it withdrew 11 military vehicles from the Georgian town of Gori.

A Russian officer told reporters invited to watch that the column was heading for South Ossetia and then home to Russia, but Georgia dismissed it all as a show.

Correspondents there say there are still several artillery positions and checkpoints in Gori.

And the operators of the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti told the BBC that Russian forces had seized the commercial harbour.

In an apparent goodwill gesture on Tuesday, the two sides exchanged prisoners at a checkpoint near Tbilisi, but on the same day Russia paraded captive Georgians on armored vehicles.

Map of region

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