News & Current Affairs

February 21, 2010

Portugal rushes aid to Madeira after deadly floods

Portugal rushes aid to Madeira after deadly floods

Portugal’s armed forces are sending two ships with helicopters and medical supplies to Madeira island, where floods have killed at least 32 people.

Extra search and rescue teams were expected to arrive on Sunday to help clean up after mudslides and raging floods tore through towns on Saturday.

Officials fear the death toll could rise. Water, power and phones were cut in some areas.

PM Jose Socrates, who is in Madeira, said he would “do everything to help”.

The storms were the worst there since October 1993, when eight people died.

“So far we have confirmed 32 deaths but eventually the number may increase,” regional official Francisco Ramos was quoted as saying by Portuguese newspaper Publico.

Madeira is located about 900km (560miles) from the Portuguese mainland and is popular with foreign tourists.

Debris left behind in Funchal by the flash floods

Officials say the extra emergency teams being sent include 56 military rescuers with search dogs and 36 firefighters.

Portuguese Interior Minister Rui Pereira, who has also flown to the island, said forensic experts would conduct post-mortem examinations to allow funerals to take place soon.

He added: “We are studying the possibility of declaring a state of emergency and then seeking help from the European Union.”

The regional capital, Funchal, among the worst affected areas by Saturday’s floods and mudslides.

Television pictures showed muddy torrents coursing down narrow channels and spilling over the sides, roads awash with water and streets littered with debris.

‘Ghost town’

Trees have been brought down and cars swept away, blocking roads and hampering relief teams. Some bridges and roads have been washed away.

MADEIRA FACTS
map
Autonomous region of Portugal with population of around 250,000
Lies just over 480km (300 miles) from West African coast
The European continent is more than 900km away

British holidaymaker Cathy Sayers told the news Funchal was like a ghost town. She said the infrastructure had been wrecked.

“The drains just cannot cope with the water that’s coming down from the mountains – they are just overfilled with sludge.”

There had not really been any warning that it would be quite so bad, she said.

“I think everyone is extremely shocked that this has happened at this time of year,” she said.

The president of the regional government, Joao Jardim, said outdoor markets would be encouraged to reopen.

“We don’t know how much it will affect the tourism, but there is no point in dramatising the situation too much,” he said.

Local media say the authorities’ main concern now is for residents of Nuns valley – an isolated mountainous region that rescue workers have been unable to reach.

The Weather Center says the severe weather was due a low pressure system, and that while Madeira can expect further rain with heavy downpours on Sunday, there is no danger of a repeat of the flash floods.


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June 20, 2009

Iran police disperse protests

Iran police disperse protests

Police at Enghelab Square, Tehran, 20 June, 2009, from Persian TV

Witnesses sent pictures of police near Enghelab Square

Iranian police have used water cannon, batons and tear gas to disperse protests over the presidential election, witnesses in Tehran say.

Police had earlier warned protesters not to gather, but many people made their way to the central rally site.

Our correspondent at Enghelab Square said there was a huge security operation, including military police, anti-riot police and Basij militia.

There were also reports of a bombing at the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Two Iranian news agencies reported that the suicide bomber died and two people were injured in the bombing near the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution.

There was no evidence to support the report, the BBC’s Jon Leyne says from Tehran.

The country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei had warned protesters a day earlier not to continue their rallies, but correspondents say the warning appears to have made some protesters more determined.

1320GMT TEHRAN
Silhouette
BBC CORRESPONDENT

I’m in the centre of Tehran close to Enghelab Square where the demonstration was supposed to have been held. But there’s a huge security presence here, thousands of men from every possible service: police, revolutionary guard, military police, the riot police in full riot gear, and the much-feared Basij – religious paramilitaries who see themselves as the shock troops of the Islamic revolution.

It’s impossible for any groups of people to get through these to Enghelab Square and hold their demonstration.

If this continues and the opposition can’t find some way around fierce security then the protests against the results of the presidential election will have been defeated.

It was unclear if political leaders had backed their supporters gathering.

People contacting the BBC from Tehran spoke of a heavy security presence in the area around Enghelab Square.

One witness told AFP news agency that he saw police beating people trying to reach the rally site.

There were also between 1,000-2,000 protesters in front of Tehran University, near Enghelab Square, AFP quoted witnesses as saying.

The reports could not be independently confirmed, and foreign news organisations – including the BBC – have been subjected to strict controls which prevent reporters from leaving their offices.

Confusing signals

Early on Saturday, the wife of defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and an aide to another rival candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, said the rally would go ahead.

But later reports said first that Mr Mousavi would be making a statement – which still has not been delievered – and then an aide to Mr Karroubi said his party had cancelled the protest.

Speaking on state TV, deputy police chief Ahmad Reza Radan warned police would “certainly fight against any form of illegal gathering and protest”. He also said protest organisers would be arrested.

It seems this may be the big moment of confrontation, our correspondent says.

Tensions have mounted over the previous week, with scores of people arrested and tough restrictions imposed on foreign media, including the BBC.

Recount offer

Official results of the 12 June presidential poll gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a resounding 63% of votes, compared to 34% for his nearest rival, Mr Mousavi.

Iranian pro-government supporters burn a US flag in Tehran

The result triggered almost daily street protests – a challenge to ruling authorities unprecedented since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Mr Mousavi had been expected, along with fellow challengers Mr Karroubi and Mohsen Rezai, to discuss more than 600 objections they had filed complaining about the poll at a meeting of the Guardian Council, which certifies elections, on Saturday.

But neither Mr Mousavi nor Mr Karroubi attended the meeting – which suggests, our correspondent says, they have abandoned their legal challenge to the election results.

State TV quoted the Guardian Council as saying it was “ready” to recount a randomly selected 10% of ballot boxes.

It had previously offered a partial recount of disputed ballots from the election, rather than the full re-run of the election demanded by protesters.

The human-rights group Amnesty International says it believed about 10 people had been killed in the protests.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama warned Iran that the “world is watching” events there. He expressed concern at “some of the tenor and tone of the statements that have been made”.

Ayatollah’s address

A new rally on Saturday would directly challenge an order from Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader and highest authority.

‘The Islamic Republic would not cheat’

“Straight challenge is not acceptable after the election,” Ayatollah Khamenei told thousands of Iranians who massed to hear him on Friday.

“This is challenging democracy and election itself. I want every side to put an end to this method. If they don’t then the responsibility of its consequences, the riots should be shouldered by those who do not put an end to it.”

The ayatollah insisted the Islamic Republic would not “cheat voters” – and blamed foreign powers, in particular the UK, for fomenting the unrest.

He said “bloodshed” would result if the protests went ahead.

The rally was attended by President Ahmadinejad. But former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – a close associate of Mr Mousavi, and open critic of President Ahmadinejad – did not attend.

But correspondents say the ayatollah’s warning only appeared to incite protesters, and the nightly chants of “God is great” – which have echoed from rooftops around Tehran in a call to protest – became louder on Friday night.

Although the Supreme Leader controls many levers of power, Mr Rafsanjani heads the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to elect the leader, supervise him, and theoretically even to dismiss him, our correspondent says.

Behind the scenes, he says, there appears to be both a political battle between two veterans of the Islamic Revolution, but also a titanic dispute about the whole future of Iran, whose outcome no-one can predict.

Map

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January 12, 2009

Gaza survivors’ four days without water

Gaza survivors’ four days without water

A Palestinian man carries an injured child into al-Shifa hospital 8 January 2009

The ICRC has accused the Israeli army of failing to evacuate and care for the wounded

Sameh, aged three, and Ahmad, 18 months, cry all the time.

As she sits on the bed in al-Quds hospital in Gaza City, their mother Fatima al-Shamouny, 36, tries to comfort them.

But as she tells their – and her own – story, she sobs too.

The boys were found on Wednesday, with their dead father and unconscious mother nearby, four days after the emergency services said they began trying to reach the neighbourhood.

They were among 30 people Palestinian Red Crescent workers said they evacuated from Zeitoun, a south-eastern suburb of Gaza City, on Wednesday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said the paramedics found “shocking” scenes of wounded people huddled together in houses among dead bodies, weak after having had no food or water for several days.

Map

In one home, the agency said, four small children were found sitting close to their dead mothers, “too weak to stand on their own”.

It is not clear if Sameh and Ahmad were in that particular house – it may be that the unconscious Fatima was initially thought to be dead – but she says she and her toddlers were among those who had a long wait for help.

Survivors’ accounts

The ICRC has accused the Israeli military of failing to live up to its obligations under international law to facilitate the evacuation or to care for the wounded.

The agency said it had been requesting safe passage for its ambulances to access the neighbourhood since 3 January, but only received permission to do so from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) four days later.

The details of exactly what happened at the Shamouny family compound are still sketchy.

Survivors have told the News that 26 of the extended family’s 65 members died in Israeli military operations.

We spent days without food, without water – the wounded were bleeding for four days
Wael Faris al-Shamouny

Their accounts of shelling, and then ground troops surrounding their homes, cannot be independently verified.Fatima, who was wounded in the chest, says two of her sons, her husband, her aunt, her uncle and her brother-in-law were all killed.

“One of my sons crawled to our neighbour’s house – he was injured – and he called some of the local radio stations to ask for help. But the help arrived late. Everybody had died,” she said.

“On the third day, I passed out. I don’t know what happened until I found myself here in the hospital,” she said.

Wael Faris al-Shamouny, 39, another member of the extended family, smoked and sipped black coffee as he sat on the floor in the hospital corridor.

He says he lost five sons and his wife, and believes some of the dead may have survived if given medical treatment earlier.

“We tried to help them, but we didn’t have first aid things in our house. We spent days without food, without water – the wounded were bleeding for four days,” he said.

“The ambulances came and they saved who they saved. There are still pieces of my wife, my sons and my cousins’ bodies in the house.”

ICRC criticism

The ICRC said the wounded had to be transported about a kilometre on a hand-pulled donkey cart because large earth walls erected by the Israeli army had made it impossible to bring ambulances into the neighbourhood.

Katarina Ritz, the ICRC’s head of mission in Jerusalem, said experienced Palestinian emergency workers wept at the scenes they were confronted with.

She said Israeli troops were within about 100m of the houses in question, and that the ICRC believes the soldiers “must have been aware” of the presence of the wounded people, because of repeated requests from aid agencies for access.

Under international law, she said, even if there are security concerns meaning the injured cannot be evacuated, “the minimum is to treat these people, to feed these people, give them water, and keep them in a safe place”.

The Israeli military said it was investigating the case. It said it is “engaged in a battle with the Hamas terrorist organisation that has deliberately used Palestinian civilians as human shields”.

And it stressed it works in “close co-operation with international aid organisations during the fighting, so that civilians can be provided with assistance”.

‘Difficult’ co-operation

Earlier in the week, an ICRC spokeswoman told the BBC attempts to co-ordinate safe passage for ambulances were so slow that people were dying as they waited.

Not all ambulance drivers in Gaza have been waiting for co-ordination with the Israeli military, and health officials in Gaza say 10 paramedics have been killed trying to rescue the wounded since the Israeli operation began.

Israeli Defence Ministry Spokesman Peter Lerner said that co-ordinating the movements of ambulances has been “extremely difficult because of heavy gunfire”.

He said that even during the three-hour lull Israel declared to allow humanitarian operations, Hamas militants continued to shoot at Israeli forces.

Outside the hospital, as Fatima Shamouny told her story, dozens of people gathered as Thursday’s ICRC-led convoy of ambulances prepared to leave.

They came with addresses where they believed injured people were trapped.

One man’s hands shook so much with fear that he had to ask for help writing the directions down.

Finally, the convoy received clearance, and drove away.

It was headed back to Zeitoun, where the ICRC said there were reports of more injured people stranded, and another area in northern Gaza, which ICRC workers had not even reached yet.

The minimum is to treat these [injured] people, to feed these people, give them water, and keep them in a safe place
Katarina Ritz
ICRC’s head of mission in Jerusalem

December 30, 2008

Private firms to haul ISS cargo

Private firms to haul ISS cargo

Dragon capsule (SpaceX)

The Dragon capsule is designed to carry cargo or crew

Cut off in the seclusion of space, crew members living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) depend on regular deliveries of air, water, food and fuel for their survival.

But when the ageing space shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, the US space agency (Nasa) will lose a principal means of ferrying crew and cargo to the ISS.

The shuttle’s replacement – Ares-Orion – will not enter service until 2015 at the earliest.

And in April, Nasa told legislators it would stop asking for Congressional permission to buy cargo space on Russian Progress re-supply vehicles after 2011.

I don’t think the market can support more than two companies. And it’s going to be hard for it even to support two
Antonio Elias, executive VP, Orbital

That leaves the US dependent on European and Japanese spacecraft for delivering supplies to the space station.

But Nasa has also been pursuing a commercial approach.

Three years ago, the space agency took the unprecedented step of fostering the development of private spacecraft designed to carry crew and cargo to the ISS.

It offered $500m (£340m) in “seed money” to help stimulate a competitive market for supply flights to the space station.

This month, Nasa awarded two companies – SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation – with lucrative contracts to provide cargo delivery flights to the ISS up to 2016.

Nasa’s administrator Michael Griffin said he hoped the commercial ventures would succeed. But he told BBC News recently: “It’s not commercial if Nasa is sitting around telling them what to do and how to do it. I don’t think they need that.”

Elon Musk, the South Africa-born entrepreneur who co-founded SpaceX, says: “Even when [Ares-Orion] does come online, it’s sort of overkill to use it for servicing the space station. It would be incredibly expensive. So Nasa looked to the private sector to solve its problem.”

Mr Musk made a fortune from the sale of his internet payment service PayPal to eBay and has invested at least $100m (£68m) of his own money in SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California.

The company’s cargo re-supply plans are based around a rocket called Falcon 9. The standard version of the Falcon 9 is arguably a medium-lift launcher, says Mr Musk, designed to place 9,900kg into low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Assembly of the first Falcon 9 at SpaceX’s new launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, should be complete by 31 December 2008.

“To external appearances, it looks like something from the Apollo programme, or Gemini, or Soyuz. But the materials are much more advanced, it’s designed to be reusable – which is an important characteristic,” Mr Musk told BBC News.

Inflatable hotel

Falcon 9 is the intended launch vehicle for a capsule, called Dragon, measuring some three and a half metres (12ft) in diameter. Dragon is designed to carry more than 2,500kg of cargo, or a crew of up to seven, into LEO.

DRAGON CAPSULE
Infographic (BBC/SpaceX)
Pressurised capacity of 2,500kg or 14 cubic metres
Crewed version will carry up to seven astronauts
Highly heat resistant material protects craft on re-entry
Designed for water landing with parachute

It is capable of carrying both pressurised items – those that need to be kept at Earth pressure and are to be used inside the space station – and unpressurised cargo – to be used outside the ISS, such as control moment gyros.

“The Falcon 9-Dragon system is intended to replace the function of the space shuttle when that retires in 2010,” says Elon Musk.

Falcon 9 will place Dragon in an initial parking orbit. From there it will manoeuvre towards the ISS. Dragon will make a slow approach and, once in range, will be grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm and berthed.

During the high speed return to Earth, Dragon will be protected by a heat shield made of phenolic impregnated carbon ablator (PICA). This highly heat-resistant material is barely scathed at heat fluxes that would vapourise steel.

The capsule will parachute down to the sea for recovery.

Safety is of paramount consideration: the manned version will have an escape tower to rescue the crew if something goes wrong – a feature absent from the space shuttle.”

“Hopefully we’ll do the first demonstration flight next year of the Falcon 9-Dragon system, then particular demonstrations in 2010 and start doing operation missions possibly by the end of 2010,” Mr Musk told BBC News.

PICA heatshield (SpaceX)

A heatshield made of PICA protects Dragon during re-entry

First of all, Dragon will carry astronauts from Nasa and from other space agencies to the ISS. But Mr Musk hopes also to transport space tourists to private orbiting stations.

One company, Bigelow Aerospace, is planning to assemble an orbiting “space hotel” based on a series of inflatable modules.

“We have also thought of perhaps carrying private space adventurers on a loop around the Moon,” says Mr Musk, adding that this would probably cost on the order of $40m-$50m per person.

“I think there is a wide range of applications. Perhaps the Falcon 9-Dragon system will ultimately evolve into something that will take people to Mars.”

‘Big empty can’

The other winning bid in Nasa’s cargo re-supply contract was made by Orbital Sciences Corporation, based in Dulles, Virginia.

Orbital’s vehicle consists of a medium-lift rocket called Taurus 2 which will be used to launch the Cygnus capsule. Unlike Dragon, Cygnus will only carry cargo – not astronauts.

CYGNUS CAPSULE
Cygnus (Orbital Sciences Corporation)
Pressurised capacity of 2,000kg, or 18.7 cubic metres
Service module contains propulsion, power and avionics
Accommodates pressurised, unpressurised and cargo return modules
Space station robotic arm used to berth capsule

Launching from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, the medium-lift rocket will be able to ferry 5,500kg into LEO. Orbital is due to carry out a demonstration flight in the fourth quarter of 2010.”We took a bunch of existing parts but combined them in a way that is very, very efficient,” says Dr Antonio Elias, Orbital’s executive vide-president, who is overseeing the development of the new system.

Cygnus is based around a common service module, containing the vehicle’s propulsion, power systems and avionics. To this common module is added one of three types of specialised cargo modules – each designed for different mission scenarios.

One of these specialised modules will carry pressurised cargo, another will transfer unpressurised cargo, and a third type of module will return cargo items from the space station to Earth.

“The one that will be used the most, I believe, is the pressurised cargo module,” Orbital’s executive vice president told BBC News.

Dr Elias describes this module as a “big empty can”. It is “volumetrically efficient and light” because, says Dr Elias, “all it has to do is bring cargo up”.

The task is significantly bigger than anything either company has ever done
John Pike, GlobalSecurity.org

“It gets attached to the station, the hatch opens and crew empty the pressurised ‘can’ of its contents. They fill it up with trash, close the hatch. The service module backs it out of position and de-orbits it over the Pacific Ocean. Both can and service module then perish in a fiery ball of plasma,” Dr Elias told BBC News.

The unpressurised module is less efficient because some complex, heavy mechanisms are required to attach cargo: “The boxes you carry have to be very far apart because the (ISS robotic arm) has to come around and handle them. You have to give it lots of clearance,” says Dr Elias.

The efficiency of the cargo return module, he says, is relatively low because of the shielding, parachutes and other paraphernalia required. He expected only a fraction of re-supply flights would require the use of this module.

Orbital says this approach of using specialised modules keeps development costs low.

Rocket origin

Dr Elias was chief designer of Orbital’s Pegasus rocket, the first privately developed launch vehicle, which made its maiden flight in 1990.

A few years ago, he says, Orbital came up with an idea to re-supply the space station using Pegasus. But, at the time, the benefits were not clear to either Orbital or Nasa.

In fact, the origins of Orbital’s Taurus 2-Cygnus system can be traced to the demise of the Delta 2 rocket.

For two decades, the Delta 2 had been the US fleet’s most reliable medium-lift launcher for military, scientific and commercial payloads. It is still a perfectly good rocket, but Nasa plans to make its final Delta 2 launch at the end of the decade, shifting more of its medium-lift launch traffic to the Atlas 5 or Delta 4 heavy launch vehicles.

SpaceX HQ (SpaceX)

The SpaceX HQ occupies 50,000 sq m in Hawthorne, California

The US Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs), though significantly bigger, are expected to be comparable in cost in the long run – if not cheaper – than the Delta 2.

“We became concerned that the US government satellites we were bidding for, winning and building in this class would disappear for lack of a launch vehicle,” Dr Elias explains.

“We were concerned this would favour the larger spacecraft launches on [EELVs] and that the market would go to the big companies, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman.”

Orbital began designing a successor to the Delta 2 with its own money. Although the company was on solid financial ground, finding a market to justify the expense was not easy. But a new opportunity was about to present itself.

Market forces

In August 2006, Nasa selected two companies – SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler – to develop and demonstrate orbital re-supply vehicles under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) programme, setting the firms aggressive timelines.

The space agency dropped Rocketplane Kistler a year into the programme; the company reportedly failed to meet a development milestone to Nasa’s satisfaction.

“We decided to make an offering whereby Orbital would provide out of its own funds not only the additional money to develop Taurus 2, but also a space vehicle that would be suitable to provide those services,” said Dr Elias.

Cygnus (Orbital Sciences Corporation)

Cygnus will be grabbed by the space station’s robotic arm

Orbital filled the void left by the departure of Rocketplane Kistler, winning a Nasa contract under Phase II of COTS.

Each of the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts awarded to SpaceX and Orbital in December is worth a potential $3.1bn (£2.1bn). But the market itself remains very small.

“I don’t think the market can support more than two companies. And it’s going to be hard for it even to support two,” Dr Elias told.

“However, as prudent businessmen, we did not embark on this venture believing we would grab 100% of the demand. So we are willing to be profitable in a situation where we only have half of it.”

Artist's impression of Taurus 2 rocket (Orbital)

Orbital’s Taurus 2 rocket uses tried and tested technology

Observers point out that Nasa is betting on vehicles which do not yet exist, an approach which presents a major risk for the space agency.Not only is it relying on two companies to keep supplies coming to the ISS, Nasa hopes the rocket and cargo vehicles can be developed in months – not the years it has usually taken other agency programmes.

“The task is significantly bigger than anything either company has ever done,” John Pike, a space policy analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, told the LA Times.

“All of these things strike me as significant challenges for even the biggest aerospace companies.”

But Nasa is not putting all its eggs in one basket. It can still barter for cargo space aboard the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle, or HTV, which is due to enter service in 2009.

Europe also plans to modify the ATV so that it can bring cargo back from the space station, a capability Nasa is eager to have.

Announcing the award of the CRS contract, Bill Gerstenmaier, Nasa’s chief of space operations, said: “This is a pretty monumental thing for us, this is a contract that we really need to keep space station flying and to service space station.”

He added: “I think it’s exciting we’re doing this from the commercial side. We’ve got some good proposals and we’ve chosen the two winners.”

Elon Musk (Getty)

November 1, 2008

Regional DR Congo talks planned

Internally displaced Congolese people leave Goma, 31 October 2008

Fears are growing for thousands of people who have fled into the bush

The Rwandan and Congolese presidents have agreed to try to end fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and his Congolese counterpart Joseph Kabila agreed to attend a regional summit after talks with a senior EU official on Friday.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband are due to meet the two men and visit Goma on Saturday.

The UN refugee agency has described the situation as “a total disaster”.

Aid groups say they are struggling to reach 250,000 people fleeing fighting between government and rebel forces.

European Union Development and Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said the only way to resolve the crisis was through a summit involving all regional leaders.

He said agreement had been reached on the prospect of a regional summit after two days of talks in the Congolese capital Kinshasa and the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

“They are both fully agreed on the idea of having this summit,” Mr Michel told.

But renegade rebel general Laurent Nkunda had not yet been asked to join the talks, Mr Michel added.

A ceasefire is holding in and around Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, but aid agencies say the situation there remains highly volatile.

Gen Nkunda’s forces are positioned some 15km (nine miles) from the city, which they have threatened to take unless UN peacekeepers guarantee the ceasefire and security there.

Refugee stampede

As diplomatic efforts to end the crisis gathered pace on Friday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday called leaders in Africa, Europe and the US to urge them to “do all they can to bring the parties to a neutral venue for negotiations”.

Congolese soldier with refugee women in Goma - 30/10/2008

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, the current African Union chairman, and AU Commission chief Jean Ping said the summit could be held in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam or the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

Food, water and medicine in the city are scarce, and many international relief workers have pulled out after reports widespread rape and looting by retreating Congolese troops.

The BBC’s Orla Guerin witnessed scenes of chaos at a refugee camp in Kibati outside Goma, as desperately hungry people surged towards aid distribution points.

Children were trampled underfoot and panicked aid staff were forced to beat back the heaving crowd.

Some who reached Kibati told the BBC they had more chance of getting food in the forests than inside Goma.

Trading accusations

The UN refugee agency said camps sheltering 50,000 refugees in Rutshuru, 90km north of Goma, had been forcibly emptied, looted and then burnt to the ground.

“There are some 50,000 people who were in those camps,” said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond. “We don’t know where they would be, we’re afraid that they may have just dispersed off into the bush.”

The UN has more than 17,000 peacekeeping troops in DR Congo – the largest UN force in the world – but correspondents say it is struggling to cope with the scale of the current crisis.

The origin of the ongoing conflict in eastern DR Congo is the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

Gen Nkunda says he is fighting to protect his Tutsi community from attack by Rwandan Hutu rebels, some of whom are accused of taking part in the genocide.

The Congolese government has often promised to stop Hutu forces from using its territory, but has not done so.

There have also been accusations of collusion between DR Congo’s army and Hutu guerrillas.

The Congolese government, for its part, has accused Rwanda of backing Gen Nkunda.

Rwanda denies this, but it has twice invaded its much larger neighbour in recent years.

Map


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September 17, 2008

Tea ‘healthier’ drink than water

Tea ‘healthier’ drink than water

Image of a mug of tea

The researchers recommend people consume three to four cups a day

Drinking three or more cups of tea a day is as good for you as drinking plenty of water and may even have extra health benefits, say researchers.

The work in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition dispels the common belief that tea dehydrates.

Tea not only rehydrates as well as water does, but it can also protect against heart disease and some cancers, UK nutritionists found.

Experts believe flavonoids are the key ingredient in tea that promote health.

Healthy cuppa

These polyphenol antioxidants are found in many foods and plants, including tea leaves, and have been shown to help prevent cell damage.

Tea replaces fluids and contains antioxidants so its got two things going for it
Lead author Dr Ruxton

Public health nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton, and colleagues at Kings College London, looked at published studies on the health effects of tea consumption.

They found clear evidence that drinking three to four cups of tea a day can cut the chances of having a heart attack.

Some studies suggested tea consumption protected against cancer, although this effect was less clear-cut.

Other health benefits seen included protection against tooth plaque and potentially tooth decay, plus bone strengthening.

Dr Ruxton said: “Drinking tea is actually better for you than drinking water. Water is essentially replacing fluid. Tea replaces fluids and contains antioxidants so it’s got two things going for it.”

Rehydrating

She said it was an urban myth that tea is dehydrating.

“Studies on caffeine have found very high doses dehydrate and everyone assumes that caffeine-containing beverages dehydrate. But even if you had a really, really strong cup of tea or coffee, which is quite hard to make, you would still have a net gain of fluid.

“Also, a cup of tea contains fluoride, which is good for the teeth,” she added.

There was no evidence that tea consumption was harmful to health. However, research suggests that tea can impair the body’s ability to absorb iron from food, meaning people at risk of anaemia should avoid drinking tea around mealtimes.

Tea is not dehydrating. It is a healthy drink
Claire Williamson of the British Nutrition Foundation

Dr Ruxton’s team found average tea consumption was just under three cups per day.

She said the increasing popularity of soft drinks meant many people were not drinking as much tea as before.

“Tea drinking is most common in older people, the 40 plus age range. In older people, tea sometimes made up about 70% of fluid intake so it is a really important contributor,” she said.

Claire Williamson of the British Nutrition Foundation said: “Studies in the laboratory have shown potential health benefits.

“The evidence in humans is not as strong and more studies need to be done. But there are definite potential health benefits from the polyphenols in terms of reducing the risk of diseases such as heart disease and cancers.

“In terms of fluid intake, we recommend 1.5-2 litres per day and that can include tea. Tea is not dehydrating. It is a healthy drink.”

The Tea Council provided funding for the work. Dr Ruxton stressed that the work was independent.

September 14, 2008

Bush warns on hurricane recovery

Bush warns on hurricane recovery

US President George W Bush has warned Texas will take a long time to recover from Hurricane Ike, as a huge search and relief operation gathers pace.

Mr Bush will travel to the state on Tuesday to inspect the relief effort.

Rescuers are trying to get to thousands of people who ignored orders to flee the storm, which cut power to millions and mauled America’s oil hub.

“This is a tough storm and it’s one that is going to require time for people to recover,” Mr Bush said.

Ike has been blamed for four deaths so far, two in Texas and two in Louisiana.

What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to them
Tommie Mafrei
Galveston police chief

Rescuers are using boats, lorries and helicopters to tackle roads waist-deep in water and blocked by felled trees.The storm made landfall in Galveston early on Saturday with 110mph (175km/h) winds.

It cut a 500-mile (800-km) swathe of destruction across a span of the Gulf of Mexico coast before weakening to a tropical depression on Sunday morning over Arkansas.

Ike severely hit oil and gas production in the region and wreaked at least $8bn (£4.5bn) in onshore damage.

Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison warned that oil refineries disabled by the hurricane could remain idled for a further eight or nine days – and that Americans should brace for possible fuel shortages.

Some coastal residents waded through chest-deep water with their belongings and children in their arms to get to safety on Saturday, but thousands of others ignored evacuation orders.

Mr Bush said the federal government would be delivering 1.5m liters of water and 1m meals daily for the displaced.

Distress calls

Police, paramedics, rescue dogs and structural engineers fanned out at daybreak on Sunday across the coastal city of Galveston, which took the brunt of the storm, hampered by floodwater’s and widespread wreckage.

Galveston police officer Tommie Mafrei said: “What’s really frustrating is that we can’t get to [the stranded]… They are naive about it, thinking it’s not going to be that bad.”

State Governor Rick Perry’s office said 940 people had been rescued by nightfall on Saturday, but that thousands had made distress calls the night before.

Hurricane Ike caused widespread destruction in Galveston, Texas

Officials said another 600 people were rescued in neighboring Louisiana, where flooding ruined tens of thousands of homes and left nearly 200,000 householders without electricity.

More than three million people had no power in Texas at the height of the storm, and the authorities said it could be weeks before supplies were fully restored.

Ike sent fuel prices higher at the pumps and, analysts say, has triggered the biggest disruption to US energy supplies in at least three years.

Production was shut down at 14 oil refineries and 28 natural gas processing plants in the storm’s path.

The hurricane also battered Houston, the fourth-largest city in the US and the nation’s oil hub. Police there had used bullhorns to order people back into their homes.

The BBC’s Rajesh Mirchandani weathered the storm in Houston and described how ferocious winds ripped the glass from many of the city’s skyscrapers.

But officials were encouraged by the fact flooding brought by the storm surge turned out to be much less serious than forecast.

Among those killed by Ike were a woman in Pinehurst, Texas, and a teenage boy in Louisiana’s Bayou Dularge, AP news agency reported.

Last week, Ike caused devastation in Cuba and Haiti, where hundreds of people have died in several tropical storms over the last month.


Are you in the areas affected? Are preparing to evacuate or are you staying in your home? Send us your comments and experiences

September 7, 2008

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

August 30, 2008

Capsize in India floods kills 20

Capsize in India floods kills 20

Villagers sit on a makeshift raft in India's Poornia district (29/08/2008)

Many people say they have lost everything in the flooding

At least 20 people have been killed after a boat capsized while carrying dozens of refugees from flooding in the Indian state of Bihar, say police.

More than 70 people have now died in the floods and hundreds of thousands are stranded without food or water.

Indian soldiers are using boats and helicopters to reach several hundred remote villages.

The flooding occurred as water flowing from Nepal caused the Kosi river to breach its banks and change course.

More rain is expected in the next two days so authorities are moving as swiftly as they can to evacuate villages before the waters rise again.

The continuing bad weather is hampering efforts to get aid to about 2.5 million people who have been displaced.

‘National calamity’

Our correspondent says many of those stranded in remote villages are sitting on the roofs of their submerged homes.

map

There is an acute shortage of food and some people are eating uncooked rice and drinking stagnant water to stay alive.

Tens of thousands of people have crowded into temporary relief camps.

The boat incident took place on Friday in the worst-affected district, Madhepura, 150km (95 miles) north-east of Bihar’s capital, Patna.

Police said 40 people were saved.

ON Bhaskar, superintendent of police, told the Associated Press news agency: “The boat was overcrowded because people panicked to be rescued and clambered on board.”

Angry villagers in Madhepura said they had no idea where to take shelter and complained they had received no food or aid.

“We have lost everything,” said Bimlesh Yadav, escaping with his family to a nearby town.

August 17, 2008

Florida emergency for storm Fay

Florida emergency for storm Fay

map

The US state of Florida has declared a state of emergency ahead of the arrival of tropical storm Fay, which has swept through the island of Hispaniola.

At least four people were killed in flooding in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share Hispaniola, officials said.

Some 2,000 people had to leave their homes in the Dominican Republic and hundreds of properties were damaged.

Fay could become a hurricane as it moves towards Cuba then on to Florida.

At 0300 GMT on Sunday, Fay had maximum sustained winds of 74mph (118km/h), and was located some 280km (175 miles) south-east of Camaguey, Cuba, the Florida-based National Hurricane Center said.

It said the storm was moving west at 14mph (22km/h).

Cuban officials have ordered evacuations from low-lying areas in several provinces, where Fay is expected to come ashore on Sunday or Monday.

A tropical storm watch remains in effect for the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Fay is expected to reach Florida after it crosses Cuba.

HOW HURRICANES FORM
Graphic. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Sea surface temperatures above 26.5C (79.7F)
A pre-existing weather disturbance
Moisture in the atmosphere
Favourable conditions, such as light winds or weak wind shear

US weather forecasters said Fay was not expected to strengthen, but that torrential rainfall of 30.5cm could be expected.

Florida’s Governor Charlie Crist declared a state of emergency, saying Fay threatened a “major disaster”.

Residents of Miami have been stocking up on bottled water, fuel and emergency items.

Fay is the sixth tropical storm of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season.

Two of the tropical storms so far, Bertha and Dolly, have reached hurricane strength – with winds of at least 119km/h.

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