Sunday, April 18, 2010

China's Hu reaches out to earthquake survivors

JIEGU, China (AFP) – Chinese President Hu Jintao called on rescuers Sunday to keep searching for survivors as he visited victims of a powerful quake in the country's northwest that left more than 1,700 dead.

The Chinese leader promised new homes and schools as he reached out to victims on a visit to the region hit four days ago by a 6.9-magnitude quake that killed 1,706 people and left 256 missing.

Just before his arrival, spirits were lifted by the rescue of a 68-year-old man trapped beneath rubble for more than 100 hours, the official Xinhua news agency reported, adding the man's condition was stable.

In a departure from his usually formal style, Hu stood amid the rubble in Jiegu, the largest city affected by the quake, and urged rescuers to keep going.

"We will do our best to rescue people still trapped. If there is even one chance (of finding someone), we will make an all-out effort," he said in scenes broadcast on television.

At another stop, Hu told a crowd through a megaphone the government would provide essentials such as food, drinking water, shelter, quilts and warm clothing.

"The earthquake is merciless but human beings have compassion," Hu told the crowd, adopting a warmth more usually associated with Premier Wen Jiabao.

In a makeshift hospital, Hu put an arm around a bed-ridden young woman wearing a sling. "Grandpa Hu will think of you," he said, patting her shoulder as she wept.

"There will be new schools! There will be new homes!" he wrote in chalk on a blackboard while visiting orphans in a tent turned into a classroom, Xinhua reported.

More than 100 students and 12 teachers died as schools and dormitories collapsed and dozens more people remain missing, state media reported.

The reports did not say whether Hu spoke about efforts to ensure schools can withstand earthquakes -- a sensitive issue since thousands of children died in May 2008 in the huge Sichuan quake, in which many school buildings collapsed while neighbouring structures stood firm.

More than 6,000 people have been pulled alive from the rubble of collapsed buildings, officials said. The number of personnel aiding rescue and recovery operations on the Tibetan Plateau has risen to 15,000.

On the streets of Jiegu, boxes of bottled water were dropped to help residents cope with water shortages as aid continued to pour in.

Infrastructure in Jiegu suffered major damage in the quake, with the water supply "basically paralysed", Xia Xueping, spokesman for relief efforts, said.

Officials have warned of a growing threat of disease due to sanitation risks including damage to water supplies that could leave them polluted, although no such outbreaks had yet been reported.

The Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a separatist and was born in Qinghai province, has appealed to Chinese authorities to allow him to visit the quake zone, where more than 12,000 people were injured and 100,000 left homeless.

In Jiegu, residents were talking excitedly about the possibility of the Tibetan spiritual leader visiting for the first time since he fled after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.

"Everyone would like to see the Dalai Lama come here. He should come here," said 52-year-old Dorje, who like many Tibetans goes by one name, as he circled a local temple in a daily prayer ritual.

However, it appeared unlikely Beijing would allow the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader to visit the crippled area.

Tibetan Buddhist monks wearing maroon-and-saffron robes have been a prominent part of the rescue effort, digging by hand in search of survivors.

Monks cremated hundreds of victims on Saturday as hopes dimmed of finding further survivors.

Health authorities are particularly concerned that marmots who emerged from their burrows after the quake could spread pneumonic plague, Xinhua cited Jie Xuehui, a provincial health official, as saying.

Relief efforts have been complicated by sub-zero temperatures at night and scant oxygen due to the altitude -- around 4,000 metres (13,000 feet).

However the earthquake rescue headquarters warned against unauthorised people travelling to the stricken region to help, saying the area was now over-burdened by visitors.

"At present a flood of individuals and vehicles are entering the quake zone, adding extra difficulties to the rescue and relocation efforts," the headquarters said, quoted by Xinhua.

U.S. doubles anti-Taliban special forces

The Pentagon has increased its use of the military's most elite special operations teams in Afghanistan, more than doubling the number of the highly trained teams assigned to hunt down Taliban leaders, according to senior officials.The secretive buildup reflects the view of the Obama administration and senior military leaders that the U.S. has only a limited amount of time to degrade the capabilities of the Taliban. U.S. forces are in the midst of an overall increase that will add 30,000 troops this year and plan to begin reducing the force in mid-2011.Operations aimed at Taliban leaders have intensified as the military also gears up for an expected offensive this summer in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that is the Taliban's spiritual heartland. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants to negotiate with the Taliban, and U.S. and allied forces are trying to lure rank-and-file fighters away from extremist leaders. By hunting Taliban leaders, the specialized units hope to increase pressure on foot soldiers to switch sides.With such an abbreviated timeline, the elite manhunt teams are the most effective weapon for disrupting the insurgent leadership, senior officials said. The officials contend that stepped-up operations by teams inserted in recent months already have eroded the Taliban leadership. Defense officials specifically single out the work of special operations forces in eliminating mid-level Taliban leaders before the February offensive in the Helmand province town of Marja. They say the forces have begun similar operations in nearby Kandahar province."You can't kill your way out of these things, but you can remove a lot of the negative influences," said a senior Defense official. "A significant portion of the leadership has fled over the border, been captured or removed from the equation."But the buildup carries risks. Special operations forces have been involved in some botched strikes that ended up killing civilians, mistakes that Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has said could undermine the overall mission. For years, Karzai and other officials have complained bitterly about civilian deaths in military actions by the U.S. and its allies.A raid Feb. 10 in the Gardez district in southeastern Afghanistan, led by a unit assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command, left two Afghan officials and three women dead.The Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, encompasses special mission units such as the Army's Delta Force and the Navy's SEAL Team Six, as well as troops temporarily assigned to the command, such as Army Ranger units.Neither Delta Force nor SEAL Team Six were involved in the Gardez raid, according to one government official, suggesting that Army Rangers or another unit temporarily assigned to the command was responsible.Some Afghan investigators have accused U.S. forces of covering up evidence of the attack, a charge the military disputes.The size of the military's Joint Special Operations Command is a highly classified secret. Officials would not discuss the number of covert teams or troops sent to Afghanistan.Villagers fear special operations forces, who often strike in the dead of night, and speak of them in whispers. But special operations forces pride themselves on knowing and respecting local customs. And some units have developed close ties with Afghans.The special SEAL and Delta Force units and others work in teams of as few as three. They operate in secret, often out of uniform and without regard to the military's strict regulations regarding hair length and beards.
Army Ranger units, working in larger numbers, often provide security for the special mission units, but also conduct their own capture-or-kill operations.
In the past, critics have charged that special operations forces were responsible for a preponderance of the civilian deaths caused by Western forces. Although officials concede that the number of civilian deaths caused by the teams has been damaging, the military command in Afghanistan does not believe that the elite forces are "running amok," said a Defense official.
Some of the incidents, according to officials, are a result of the high operational tempo. Special operations forces, including the JSOC teams, account for half or more of the missions being carried out by military forces in Afghanistan.The secretive Joint Special Operations Command task force is a classified subgroup of the military's overall United States Special Operations Command. The overall command has 5,800 troops in Afghanistan on a mission to train Afghan security forces and conduct joint missions with Afghan commandos.It is not clear whether that number includes the more highly specialized teams, which by some estimates number only in the dozens and were described last month by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, as a handful of troops compared with the overall U.S. and allied force, which is increasing to more than 140,000.McChrystal, a former head of JSOC, has supported the secret buildup, even while imposing restrictions on the use of air power as well as new rules on night raids. He was not given direct control of the teams, but as their former commander, he retains a large amount of influence over them.Pentagon officials recently have realigned the command structure to give McChrystal control of the U.S. Marines and special operations forces that are mainly involved in training.The Defense official said that with the new buildup, there will be more of the special operations forces in Afghanistan than there were in Iraq at the height of the U.S. troop buildup there in 2007.
Although we will have less general purpose forces than we had in Iraq, we will have more special forces," the official said.
Within the military, some consider the work of the Joint Special Operations Command units in Iraq to have been key to calming the violence at the time.
Some of the additional JSOC teams sent to Afghanistan have been shifted from Iraq, where they worked to root out extremist cells aligned with Al Qaeda. Despite the recent flare-up in violence, officials say the number of extremists being sought in the Mideast nation has declined precipitously. Describing the change in the idiom of the secret units, a senior official said: "Hunting season is over in Iraq."
In Afghanistan, the special units have been following a playbook similar to the one they used in Iraq, and Defense officials hope the elite teams will have a similar effect on the overall level of security.
Defense officials emphasize that even the teams not under McChrystal's direct control are bound by his tactical directives.
"Rules are rules for everybody," said the Defense official.
"McChrystal holds them to a higher standard than conventional forces. When things go wrong, he is extremely aware of what the costs are."

President Zardari to sign 18th Amendment tomorrow

ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari is set to sign the eighteenth constitutional amendment bill on Monday.President Zardari has invited PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif at the presidency to attend the bill-signing ceremony..Sharif is expected to be present at the ceremony after having accepted the president’s invitation, sources said.
Meanwhile, chief ministers of all four provinces will also be present in the ceremony.
The eighteenth amendment will become the part of the constitution after Zardari signs it on Monday.Babar said arrangements are being finalised for “a ceremony befitting the historical occasion of reforming the constitution, and ridding it of all undemocratic clauses inserted in it by successive dictatorships.”

Iran Expels Dozens of Afghans Daily

More than four to eight hundred Afghans are expelled from Iran daily, and they say that Iran’s police treat them in an inhuman and humiliating way.Iranian police have hit the Afghan refugees and, in some cases, have opened fire against them. Some Afghans get killed and injured, and the police carry the dead up to the Afghan border.The Iranian government has imposed restriction on Afghan refugees for years in order to make them return to their country, but lack of security and occupational opportunities in Afghanistan has caused them to not return to their country.
“We track these cases in Iran, but we cannot secure the political relationship of the two countries because it is up to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” said provincial governor Ghulam Dastagir.
Eviction and annoyance on the side of the Afghan refugees from Iran come as senior Iranian officials have called Afghans their brother and friend during trips to Kabul. During these trips, the Afghan government also emphasized the need to improve the relationship between Iran and Afghanistan.

Volcanic ash spreads more travel misery across Europe

Millions of stranded travellers face further air chaos as the volcanic ash from Iceland that has closed most of Europe's airspace continues to spread.An estimated three-quarters of flights were cancelled on Saturday. About 20 countries closed their airspace - some have extended flight bans into Monday.Disruption is now said to be greater than that after 9/11 and the volcanic activity shows no sign of abating.Two airlines say they have successfully carried out test flights.The Netherlands' KLM said one of its planes, a Boeing 737, had reached its maximum operating altitude of about 13km in the skies over the Netherlands, and there had been no problems during the flight.The aircraft and its engines were being inspected for possible damage. After the results of that technical inspection the airline hopes to get permission from the aviation authorities to start up operations again.
Germany's Lufthansa said it had flown several planes to Frankfurt from Munich.
"All airplanes have been inspected on arrival in Frankfurt but there was no damage to the cockpit windows or fuselage and no impact on the engines," a spokesman said.
However, both Dutch and German air space remain closed until at least 1200 and 1800 GMT respectively.And weather experts say wind patterns mean the cloud is not likely to move far until later in the week.The impact is likely to exceed the airspace shutdown after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the International Civil Aviation Organisation said. Association (Iata) predicted little or no improvement on Sunday.
Eurocontrol, which co-ordinates air traffic control in 38 nations, said some 17,000 flights were cancelled across Europe on Saturday, from a total of 22,000 on a normal day.All but 55 of 337 scheduled flights by US carriers to and from Europe were also cancelled.Airlines are estimated to be losing some £130m ($200m) a day in an unprecedented shutdown of commercial air travel.BBC business editor Robert Peston said the disruption risked becoming a "major business and economic disaster" with several European airlines already facing financial difficulties."If [the disruption] goes on many days longer, a number of European airlines will run into financial difficulties and may need bailing out by governments - or so I am told by senior airline figures," our correspondent said.

Long way home
Since Thursday, countries across northern and central Europe have either closed airspace or shut key airports as the ash - a mixture of glass, sand and rock particles - can seriously damage aircraft engines.Britain has extended a ban on most flights in its airspace until at least 1800 GMT Sunday, air authorities have said.
In northern France and northern Italy, airports are to remain shut until at least Monday.Unable to catch flights, commuters across northern Europe have sought other means of transport, packing out trains, buses and ferries.The Eurostar cross-channel rail service said it had never seen so many passengers on one day and the trains were fully booked until Monday.The large no-fly zone also means that some world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, will not be attending the funeral of the Polish president on Sunday. British health officials said any effects of the ash on people with existing respiratory conditions were "likely to be short term".Southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano began erupting for the second time in a month on Wednesday, sending a plume of ash 8.5km (5.3 miles) high into the air.Icelandic geologist Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson told the Associated Press news agency: "It's the magma mixing with the water that creates the explosivity. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight."Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the highly volatile boundary between the Eurasian and North American continental plates.

Schools Threatened With Closure In Camps In Northwestern Pakistan

The United Nations Children's Fund warns it may be forced to shut down schools for more than 19,000 children in camps for internally displaced people in Northwestern Pakistan by the end of the month because it has run out of cash. UNICEF is appealing to donors to come up with the money to keep these children in school.

Fighting between the Pakistan government and Taliban militia in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North West Frontier Province has displaced more than 1.3 million people. Most are living with impoverished host families. But, about 125,000 displaced people are living in camps.

The United Nations Children's Fund estimates 60 percent of the displaced are children. UNICEF spokeswoman, Christiane Berthiaume, tells VOA these children need urgent health and nutrition, protection services and a hygienic environment. She says they also need education.

"These children are coming from a region where there was already very little education. Only 17 percent of girls were going to school and 93 percent of women were illiterate. So, those schools are very, very important for these kids in displaced camps," she said.

UNICEF has appealed for $1.4 million to enable 24,000 children to continue their primary school education. But, Berthiaume notes, only six percent of that amount has been received. She says this is only enough to provide schooling for 5,000 children.

She warns children who do not go to school are subject to violence and delinquency. She says they will lose the structure that can give them a sense of security and stability. "Children that are in displaced camps are living in conditions that are not normal conditions. A child should not live in a camp. He should be in a house, in his village, in his town and go to school there. So, not only is it important that a child get an education, but it also is important to give him, as well, a certain sense of normality and give him more confidence," she said.

UNICEF says its request for assistance last year was met with a generous response from donors. That was when the conflict between the Pakistan Government and Taliban militia was at its height. That was when television screens were inundated by dramatic images of millions of people fleeing their homes.

But, the UN Children's Fund notes the situation now has calmed down and this apparently has resulted in a loss of interest in the plight of the displaced. It says the biggest losers are the children. It says they continue to suffer from insecurity and displacement, but are not receiving the support they need.


A suicide bomber rammed a truck loaded with explosives into a police station in Pakistan on Sunday, killing a child and six other civilians, police said.The attack at Saddar police station in the Kohat region wounded 26 people, said Abdullah Khan, the deputy inspector general in Kohat.Twin suicide attacks in the same region Saturday targeted refugees who were fleeing the Orakzai tribal area where Pakistan’s army is fighting militants. That attack killed 41 people as they lined up to register for food and relief supplies.The victims of the police station bombing were mostly civilians, said Dilawar Khan, the Kohat police chief. Six of the wounded were police.The truck was loaded with up to 250 kilograms of explosives, he said. It struck a concrete barrier in front of the building, which was heavily damaged as was an adjoining school.The victims were among around 200,000 people who have left the Orakzai region along the Afghan border since the end of last year, when the Pakistan army began offensive ground and air operations against militants based in the remote, tribally administered region.The attacks in Kohat were a reaction to the army offensive in Orakzai, Diliwar Khan said.The registration point in Kohat was managed by the local administration, but sometimes used by foreign humanitarian groups to deliver aid. There was no claim of responsibility for Saturday's bombings, which is not unusual when ordinary Pakistanis are killed.The United Nations temporarily suspended work helping displaced people in Kohat and neighboring Hangu as a result of Saturday's attack.
The registration point - essentially a small building in a dusty field - may have been hit to persuade people not to have any contact with the local administration or foreign relief groups.
The bombers were men disguised in burqas, the all-encompassing veil worn by conservative Muslim women, allowing them to get close to the building without arousing suspicion, said Abdullah Khan.Government official Dilawar Khan Bangash said 41 people were killed and 62 were wounded in the attack.The tempo of the operations in Orakzai has picked up since March, with frequent aerial bombardment. Nearly 50,000 people have left in the last month.
In the tribal region Sunday, one soldier and 13 militants were killed in a clash in Sangra area, said Jahanzeb Khan, a government official in Orakzai.Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants based in the northwest have carried out near-daily attacks over the last 18 months in Pakistan, seeking to overthrow its Western-allied government and stop it from fighting them. The blasts have killed several thousand people, but not deterred the army.Most of the attacks are directed at security or government installations, but civilian targets have also been hit. – AP