Sunday, 31 May 2015

Texas floods: death toll rises as body is recovered and 11 people are still missing

Dallas police said on Saturday a man’s body had been recovered from standing water, after storms flooded parts of the metro. The find brought the death toll in Texas and Oklahoma from storms and floods since Memorial Day weekend to 29 – 25 of them in Texas. Eleven were still missing on Saturday.

In Oklahoma, state troopers said their officers shot dead a man during an argument arising from an attempted flood rescue.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area saw another round of heavy rain on Saturday, a day after President Obama signed a disaster declaration. The White House said the president ordered federal aid on Friday, to supplement other recovery efforts in the area that has been affected by severe weather since 4 May. Texas governor Greg Abbott had earlier requested a presidential disaster declaration.

Discussing the discovery of the body in the metro system, a Dallas police spokesman, Juan Fernandez, said officers found the man, who was not immediately identified, floating in the water. Fernandez said the body was sent to the county medical examiner’s office.

Storms dumped as much as 7in of rain across the area on Thursday night. The other Dallas-area death discovered on Friday was a man who drowned in his truck after it was swept into a culvert in the suburb of Mesquite.

Rivers around the Dallas area have all swelled in the last week. Before Saturday’s rain, the National Weather Service (NWS) said 16.07in of rain fell across the Dallas area in May, easily eclipsing a 1982 record of 13.66in.

Sunday 31 May 2015

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Saturday, 30 May 2015

Perlis migrant mass grave: Post-mortem on human remains in Wang Kelian begins June 7

Come June 7, the health ministry will begin conducting post-mortem on human skeletal remains found at grave sites in Wang Kelian, Perlis.

Minister, Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said the post-mortem was aimed at determining whether the skeletal remains and those found at human trafficking camps at the Malaysia-Thai border were those of murder victims.

He said for this purpose, the ministry had formed the CSI-DVI (Criminal Scene Investigation-Disaster Victim Identification) and the PM-DVI (Post Mortem-DVI) teams.

"The CSI-DVI has been stationed at the recovery site to help in the process of collecting samples, while the PM-DVI team is at the Sultanah Bahiyah Hospital, Alor Setar to perform the post-mortem on the remains," he said in a media conference here today.

On Monday, Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar announced the discovery of 139 graves and 28 transit camps abandoned by a human trafficking syndicate in Wang Kelian, close to the Malaysia-Thai border.

Dr Subramaniam said three post-mortem procedures would be conducted simultaneously to speed up the process of identifying the bodies before samples were sent to the Malaysian Chemistry Department for DNA tests.

He added the post-mortem procedures involved several small teams comprising forensic medical, forensic science, forensic dentistry, radiology and DNA teams.

On the DNA database, Dr Subramaniam said it would be conducted on all bodies found and the data would be kept by the ministry and the police.

"We cannot take the easy way out in the process of identifying the victims. As such, we will be isolating the DNA of each body for reference purposes to facilitate further action towards determining the DNA of the person found in each grave," he said.

The minister said as of last night, 15 body bags had been sent to the Sultanah Bahiyah Hospital morgue.

He said the police had also provided a cold storage container which would enable the hospital to hold more bodies for the post-mortem.

Saturday 30 May 2015

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India's deadly heat wave drags on, death toll tops 1,800

Temperatures dipped marginally in southern India Friday where a deadly heatwave has killed at least 1,800 people, officials said.

The bulk of casualties were reported from the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which saw their highest sustained summer temperatures in 12 years over the past week.

At least 300 more deaths had been counted in Andhra Pradesh since noon Thursday and more than 100 in Telangana, taking the total toll in these two adjacent states to 1,774, disaster management unit officials of the two states said.

"Most of those who died are poor people who are forced to work in the open because of their livelihoods or the elderly," said Andhra Pradesh disaster management commissioner P Thulasi Rani.

Many of the deaths were reported from Andhra Pradesh's coastal districts where the mercury hovered above 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) for a week but showed a dip Friday to the high 30s (up to 102 Fahrenheit).

Another 43 deaths were reported from the eastern Indian state of Orissa, seven from Gujarat state in the west and two in the national capital, NDTV news channel reported.

The meteorological office predicted the heatwave would continue into the weekend but may ease by Monday when the seasonal monsoon rains are expected to hit the Kerala coast.

Government agencies were advising citizens to drink plenty of water, keep their heads and bodies covered to avoid sunstroke and keep indoors as much as they could.

Saturday 30 May 2015

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Italy rescues 4,200 boat migrants in Mediterranean on Friday, 17 die

More than 4,200 migrants and refugees have been rescued in the past 24 hours in the Mediterranean during 22 separate operations carried out by naval vessels and merchant ships.

The operations were coordinated by the Italian Coast Guard from its national rescue centre in Rome and involved 4,243 people being rescued from nine boats and 13 large rubber dinghies.

Seventeen dead bodies were found on one of the dinghies – migrants who had reportedly died of exhaustion, thirst, exposure, or a mixture of all three.

All the rescues were carried out in the southern Mediterranean, off the coast of Libya, as the refugees tried to reach Italian shores.

The multiple rescues represented “a complex scenario which required the involvement of numerous naval units from the Coast Guard, the Italian navy, the Guardia di Finanza (a frontier police force) and the Irish and German navies, as well as several merchant ships which were diverted by the national rescue centre,” the Coast Guard said in a statement on Saturday.

Around 250 of the migrants were rescued by a Belgian ship, which went to the aid of a smuggling boat after its engine stopped working and it started drifting.

The Belgian, German and Irish ships have been deployed to the Mediterranean as part of an expanded search and rescue operation which was ordered by the EU a few weeks ago after the Mediterranean’s worst tragedy for decades, when a fishing vessel packed with an estimated 800 migrants capsized. Only 28 people survived the disaster.

An Irish ship was heading to the port of Palermo in Sicily with 410 rescued refugees on board.

More than 40,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached Italy so far this year. An estimated 1,800, including women and children, lost their lives during the journey.

Many of them are fleeing war, civil conflict and persecution in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Mali and Nigeria.

The EU is planning to take military action against people smugglers operating along the coast of Libya, in a campaign that could begin in June.

Saturday 30 May 2015

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Friday, 29 May 2015

The Heysel disaster - 30 years on

May 29, 1985 will forever remain in the memories of football fans affiliated with Juventus and Liverpool. As the clubs prepared for the European Cup final in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, fights broke out in the stands and the ensuing violence claimed the lives of 39 fans, as well as leaving over 600 injured.

Liverpool and Juventus were today marking the 30th anniversary of the Heysel disaster which claimed the lives of 39 fans.

The tragedy occurred before the 1985 European Cup final when trouble broke out between supporters before kick-off at the run-down stadium in Brussels.

Thirty-nine people were killed, and more than 600 injured, after Reds fans charged their Italian counterparts by breaking through a thin wire fence separating them.

The Juventus fans fled, but their way was blocked by a concrete wall at the side of the terrace. The wall collapsed, crushing scores of innocent fans.

Incomprehensibly, UEFA demanded the game go ahead while the bodies of the dead were still being counted. Michel Platini’s penalty won the cup for Juventus – though the Frenchman later told how “something inside me died” that night.

“I don’t play football to see 39 people dead in the stadium – this is not my philosophy of football,” he said.

The late sports journalist Arthur Hopcraft described the way fans assembled within football stadia in The Football Man, which gives some sense to the conditions at Heysel.

“They are more evocative of the wonder of childhood than even old comic strips are. They are hideously uncomfortable. The steps are as greasy as a school playground lavatory in the rain. The air is rancid with beer, onions, belching and worse. The language is a gross purple of obscenity. In this incomparable entanglement of bodies lies the heart of the fan’s commitment to football.”

Hopcraft’s words came at a time when hooliganism was on the increase in England. Leeds United fans attacked Bayern Munich supporters in the 1975 European Cup final, while there was violence between Roma and Liverpool fans before and after the European Cup final nine years later; former Reds player Kenny Dalglish recollects that “Liverpool fans suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of Italian fans”. There were further incidents in 1985 involving Millwall, Luton Town, Leeds and Birmingham City.

The problems within English football were well known in the build-up to the final, but blame has also been laid at UEFA’s door for the Heysel disaster as the stadium was archaic and far from fit to host the final. Liverpool asked UEFA to use another stadium on grounds of safety, but the request was rejected. Instead, a portion of the ground was cordoned off as a ‘neutral’ section – Section Z. Few police were posted near the temporary dividing fence between Section Z and Liverpool fans in Section Y as the authorities believed that the neutral fans would act as a buffer.

he scenario could not have been further from reality. The Times reported “the Belgian football union had taken the decision to sell the tickets, rather than allocate them to the two finalist clubs to increase its profits from the game.” These fell into the hands of ticket touts, who sold the majority of the ‘neutral’ tickets to Italian expatriates.

By seven o’clock, the two sets of fans were almost side by side. There was no ‘buffer’ between them. The majority of the Liverpool fans in the stadium had been drinking for much of the day. Eye witnesses recall Bianconeri fans began to launch missiles into the Liverpool sections – stones from the dilapidated terracing and pieces of crumbling steps were launched into the mass of supporters.

As kick-off approached, Liverpool supporters charged towards the Italians and broke through the thin chicken-wire fence that divided the two sets of fans, and in the midst of the fighting many of those in the neutral section were forced back towards the other Juventini. They were crushed against a concrete wall at the opposite end of the enclosure; some tried to scale the wall and jump over to escape the violence. The poorly constructed and antiquated wall collapsed onto the fans on the opposite side under the pressure.

Thirty-two Italians, four Belgians, two French people and one Northern Irish man were killed, crushed by the collapsing wall or trampled by other supporters attempting to escape.

Andrea Lorentini says of his father, who went to the match. “My father Roberto was a medic and at a certain point of the fight he noticed a young man who was wounded.

“He went over to carry out CPR on him and while doing that he was caught up in the fighting of the English fans who were fuelled by alcohol. My grandfather, Otello, meanwhile, managed to save himself and was reunited with his two nephews. Not long afterwards, they tragically found Roberto, who was dead.”

Over 600 more were injured. In the chaos, more Italians attempted to reach the Liverpool fans to enact retribution, unaware of the tragedy that was unfolding. One Italian was reported to have fired a gun, though it was later revealed to be a starting pistol. Phil Neal made a plea for calm over the PA system and the game eventually went ahead, with the authorities desperate not to antagonise the situation by postponing the fixture. “I have absolutely no recollection of the match," Neal reflected. "As soon as we heard people had died we lost all interest in the match.”

Kenny Dalglish added: “We saw the Italian fans crying, and they were banging on the side of our bus when we left the hotel.”

“If this is what football has become, let it die,” read L’Equipe after the match. Het Nieuwsblad headlined with “Police powerless against British alcoholics”, but the Corriere della Sera deplored, “The culpable impotence of the police.” UEFA’s official observer Gunter Schneider remarked, “Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt.”

Twenty-seven people were arrested for manslaughter by the British police in the aftermath, 14 of whom were convicted. A blanket ban fell on English clubs’ participation in European competitions for five years, while Liverpool had to serve an extra year’s ban. Liverpool would suffer their own local tragedy in 1989 with the Hillsborough Disaster, which cost the lives of 96 fans.

Heysel was never used for a football match again until it was demolished and rebuilt a decade later. “That day we were all victims,” Ian Rush mused. “That day changed football forever.”

No official inquiry was ever undertaken. UEFA were not questioned about their decision to stage the European Cup final at the ageing venue, nor were the Belgian authorities queried on their policing or the ticketing allocation.

Efforts were made to repair relations between the two clubs when they met in the Champions League in 2005, with a number of gestures commemorating the event performed prior to the match at Anfield. Ian Rush and Michel Platini carried a banner that bore the message, 'In Memory and Friendship': In Memoria e Amicizia.

In addition, home fans held up placards that formed the word ‘Amicizia’. Some of the travelling fans applauded the gesture, though others turned their backs on it. A plaque was unveiled outside Anfield’s Centenary Stand to commemorate the deaths of the 39 fans at Heysel.

Thirty years after the tragedy, both Juventus and Liverpool have commerorated the anniversary on social media, while Sepp Blatter led a minute's silence at Friday's FIFA Congress prior to the election of the next president.

Friday 29 May 2015

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Bodies of six school children located in Laos' ferry disaster, 4 missing

Search parties in Laos have located the remains of six of the 10 school children that had gone missing and been presumed drowned after a vessel ferrying students and teachers across a major Mekong tributary capsized Tuesday morning, local police have confirmed.

Speaking to Xinhua, a police spokesman said the bodies of five girls and one boy were located by search parties operating some 2- 3 kilometers downstream from where the incident took place at Pak- Ngum district 60 kilometers from Vientiane's central business district.

Little hope has been held for the children lost due to the strength of the waters close to where the 354-kilometer tributary meets the longer and more powerful Mekong River.

It is believed the 5th grade elementary school group was on its way to take examinations in preparation for graduation and in preparation to enter lower secondary school.

The incident has renewed calls for construction of a cross- river bridge in the area to alleviate the need for risky passenger crossings.

Friday 29 May 2015

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Five more bodies found at Nepal crash site of US helicopter

Authorities have found DNA evidence that five more people may have been on board a US military helicopter that crashed during a humanitarian relief mission after the Nepal earthquake.

Investigators are exploring the possibility that the five new suspected victims of the crash were villagers picked up by the helicopter during its relief mission, a Nepali army spokesman said.

The helicopter and its crew were part of the large international aid effort after a massive earthquake and major aftershock struck Nepal on April 25 and May 12, killing more than 8,600 people and making hundreds of thousands homeless.

Six US Marines and two Nepali soldiers are known to have died in the crash, the cause of which has yet to be determined.

"While no positive identification has yet been made, there is DNA evidence of five individuals in addition to the six US Marines and two Nepalese soldiers who have already been identified," said Lt. Col. Rob James, a public affairs officer for the US Marines, in a statement to Reuters.

The Nepal Army said the new remains were found on May 25, 10 days after the bodies of the soldiers were found among the wreckage of a US Marine Corps UH-1Y helicopter that went down in the mountains northeast of the capital Kathmandu.

Earlier this week, Nepalese media reported that five people from devastated villages in Dolakha district had gone missing after boarding an unidentified aid helicopter.

A team of US and Nepalese medical and forensic experts are performing DNA tests on the remains to identify all of the victims in tandem with the joint investigation by both militaries into the crash.

Brigadier General Jagadish Chandra Pokharel, spokesman for the Nepal Army, said DNA from the five would be sent to the United States for testing along with DNA samples from relatives of the missing villagers to see it there is a match.

The US military did not comment on whether it had any prior indication that there may have been additional passengers on board the aircraft. "We are all committed to ensuring all remains - whether U.S. or Nepalese - are positively identified," an official said.

Friday 29 May 2015

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Thursday, 28 May 2015

Iraq 'exhumed 470 bodies from Tikrit mass graves'

Iraq has exhumed the remains of 470 people believed to have been executed by jihadists near Tikrit last year in what is known as the Speicher massacre, the health minister said Thursday.

"We have exhumed the bodies of 470 Speicher martyrs from burial sites in Tikrit," Adila Hammoud said at a press conference in Baghdad. In June 2014, armed men belonging or allied to the Islamic State group abducted hundreds of young, mostly Shiite recruits from Speicher military base, just outside the city of Tikrit.

They were then lined up in several locations and executed one by one, as shown in pictures and footage later released by the Islamic State group. Some were pushed into the Tigris river, others hastily buried in locations that were discovered when government and allied forces retook Tikrit from the jihadists about two months ago.

The highest estimate for the number of people killed in one of the worst atrocities committed by IS stands at 1,700.

First list of names

"These bodies come from four burial sites... One of them was bigger than the others and contained 400," said Ziad Ali Abbas, the chief doctor at Baghdad's main morgue.

He said forensic examination of the exhumed remains was conducted with foreign assistance, including from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Hundreds of families whose sons, fathers and brothers went missing at the time of the IS-led offensive in Iraq have been waiting for confirmation that their loved ones were among the Speicher victims.

Officials at Thursday's press conference said the first list of names would be released next week, after weeks of DNA testing.

Identification documents the victims were carrying at the time of their capture were also found near burial sites.

Officials had said in mid-April that up to 10 different suspected burial sites were identified in the Tikrit area as a result of its recapture by government forces in late March and the first days of April.

Combined with a call by the country's top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for Iraqis to take up arms against them, the Speicher massacre played a key role in the mass recruitment of Shiite volunteers to fight the jihadists.

One of the spots where the Speicher cadets were executed is a police building in the sprawling Tikrit palace complex former president Saddam Hussein built in his hometown.

The quay where the victims were shot in the head and pushed into the Tigris has, since Tikrit was retaken, been turned into an improvised shrine. Relatives, many of whom will never have a body to bury, have streamed to the site over the past two months along with fighters, delegations of officials, students and others.

Thursday 28 May 2015

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Nepal recovers more human remains from U.S. chopper crash site

Nepal has found more human remains at the site where a U.S. military helicopter crashed during a mission to aid victims of the country's earthquake, the army said on Wednesday.

The recovery was made on May 25, 10 days after the bodies of six U.S. Marines and two Nepali soldiers were found among the wreckage of the aircraft in mountains northeast of the capital Kathmandu.

Nepali media said five people from earthquake-devastated villages in Dolakha district had gone missing after being taken aboard an aid helicopter. It was not known which aircraft they had boarded.

“We have started investigations into whether these human remains belonged to the eight people (two Nepalis and six U.S. Marine corps) killed in the crash or to other people,” the Nepali Army said in a statement.

“The army is trying to find out if the U.S. Marine Corps helicopter had any persons other than the military personnel from the two countries," it added.

“The facts will be known only after joint investigations and DNA tests the reports of which will be made public without delay."

The Marines' UH-1Y Huey helicopter disappeared while distributing aid in a remote area of Nepal. The quakes on April 25 and May 12 killed at least 8,676 people.

The cause of the crash is so far unknown.

Thursday 28 May 2015

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Lufthansa begins repatriation of victims of Germanwings disaster

The bodies of victims of the Germanwings flight that crashed into the Alps in March of this year are now being repatriated to their home towns. Lufthansa, the parent company of the Cologne airline, has been contacting relatives over the last week, and asking relatives where they wish the remains to be sent.

It took a commission until May 15 to identify the 150 victims and authorities have warned that, unfortunately, there is very little biological material to give families, as the plane and all its occupants were destroyed beyond recognition.

The morning of March 24 saw around 50 Spaniards board the Barcelona-Düsseldorf flight. Spanish relatives of 45 passengers are believed to be reaching an out of court settlement on compensation with the company.

Thursday 28 May 2015

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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Oceanline SC2018: Four bodies recovered from sunken barge

Four bodies have been recovered so far from a barge that sunk off the coast of Singapore last week.

The search for the 14 sailors missing from the Oceanline SC2018, a Bolivian-registered sand barge has been ongoing since the vessel capsized May 20. The bodies of one Malaysian man and two Chinese men were discovered Friday and over the weekend. A fourth body, that of another Chinese crewman, was recovered at around 11:00 am today.

The search operation has been greatly hindered by rough sea conditions over the weekend and into Monday.The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) stated that diving operations were called off around 3:30pm today due to strong currents. According to Malaysian news sources, today’s rescue operation consisted of a ship, four boats and a total of 28 rescue divers.

The bodies have been brought to the Marina Jetty at Tanjung Pengelih for additional investigation.

The Oceanline SC2018 was carrying a cargo of sand between two Malaysian cities on May 20 when it reportedly capsized due to rough waves. One crewman was rescued immediately following the incident, but ten crewmembers still remain unaccounted for.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

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Last bodies recovered after Colombia mine tragedy that killed 15

Emergency workers have recovered the final bodies of people killed in a collapsed, unlicensed gold mine on an indigenous reservation in central Colombia, bringing the official toll to 15 dead, authorities said Monday.

"After 12 days of working around the clock... the bodies of the 15 miners who were trapped in the El Tunel gold mine when it was suddenly flooded... have now been recovered," said a statement from government disaster relief agency UNGRD, after the final two were brought out Monday.

The May 13 accident -- inside a reservation for indigenous Colombians in Caldas department -- rocked the central-western town of Riosucio. Investigators say a power cut in the area likely shut off the mine's water pumps, flooding the shafts and leading to the collapse.

The workers at the mine had no formal contract with the company for their high-risk work, according to the National Mining Agency.

Colombia is a major gold producer and business has boomed over the past decade as the price of gold has risen from less than $400 per ounce to almost $1,200.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

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Monday, 25 May 2015

Malaysia mass grave: Forensic team carrying out test to identify bodies

The police forensic team is carrying out identification process on the bodies following the discovery of mass graves believed to have been used to accommodate refugees in Padang Besar.

Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in a press conference at the Parliament said the team was responsible to carry out forensics tests on the exhumed bodies in determining whether they were Rohingya or Bangladeshis.

"This is the same team that was dispatched to Ukraine to identify remains of the flight MH17 victims. I would like to also thank the Inspector-General of Police (Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Abu Bakar) and his deputy (Datuk Seri Noor Rashid Ibrahim) who visited the locations identified by the VAT 69 Commando Unit and the General Operations Force (GOF) there.

"We are also cooperating with the Thai government if any individuals (suspected to be involved in human trafficking) have escaped over to Thailand. The cooperation is not only on legal matters but also extended to humanitarian efforts," he said.

Zahid added that the Penang state government should extend assistance in preparing facilities to house the Rohingya. "We should focus on extending any form of assistance on humanitarian grounds rather than politicising the matter."

Zahid was responding to news reports that the state government wanted Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants to be placed on federal government-owned lands citing space constraints. Zahid had earlier told the house all the police personnel were trained to carry out policing duties including the monitoring of the social media that was being used as platform of recruitment by the militant groups.

He was responding to a question by Dr Ko Chung Sen (DAP, Kampar) who asked for the allocated number of police personnel and funds to address the Islamic State (IS) and terrorism; and whether the 126,000 policemen are being assigned to monitor the social media to track potential terrorists.

Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng in a separate Press conference reiterated the lack of land to house the refugees. "We are not saying that we refuse to help the Rohingya, but we are facing land constraints to build the facilities," said Lim.

Malaysia confirms discovery of 23 trafficking camps, 139 grave sites believed to contain migrants

Malaysia's police chief has confirmed the discovery of 139 grave sites and 28 human-trafficking camps in the country's remote northern border region.

National police chief Khalid Abu Bakar revealed the findings at a press conference a day after the government announced on Sunday the discovery of camps and graves, the first such sites found in Malaysia since a regional human-trafficking crisis erupted earlier this month.

"[Authorities] found 139 suspected graves. They are not sure how many bodies are inside each grave," General Khalid said.

He added that the number and size of the 28 camps found suggested they might have housed a combined hundreds of people.

The largest could hold up to 300 people, another had a capacity of 100, while the rest could hold about 20 each, he said.

The first decomposed body was brought down to a police camp set up at the foot of the mountains where the graves were discovered on Monday evening.

The operation took nearly five hours due to the rough terrain.

"The body was only bones and little bit of clothing on it," Padang Besar police officer-in-charge Rizani Che Ismail said.

He said the cause of death was not immediately apparent.

The discovery was the latest evidence of the lethal nature of the region's human-trafficking trade and has been condemned by Malaysia's prime minister Najib Razak.

"I am deeply concerned with graves found on Malaysian soil purportedly connected to people smuggling," Mr Najib said on his Facebook page.

"We will find those responsible."

However, a politician from the Malaysian opposition has accused authorities of colluding with human traffickers.

"Large numbers, you're talking people in the hundreds are being brought across the border," Rasiah Sivarasa said.

"Extensive ransoms are being collected from their families back in Bangladesh or wherever they come from.

"Some of them who can't pay these ransoms are sold as slaves to plantations, to fishing boats.

"I cannot believe, therefore, that the authorities do not know about this."

Monday 25 May 2015

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Dover DNA lab to help ID Pearl Harbor remains

A gram of bone. If well-preserved and accompanied by the right genetic reference samples, it's enough to put a name and a face on an unknown soul thought lost to the ages.

In the coming months and years, experts in Dover and Hawaii will analyze nearly 400 such fragments, and the remains from which they're taken, as they launch a project with particular resonance this Memorial Day: identifying the sailors and Marines killed on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese attackers sank the USS Oklahoma. For the past 65 years, those remains have been buried as unknowns in graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

The experts' work at two agencies with a long history of teaming up: the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at Dover Air Force Base and the newly reorganized Defense POW/MIA Accountability Agency in Hawaii.

Preservation was an unlikely byproduct of the two years the fallen sailors and Marines spent in their watery grave before the ship was righted during a massive salvage operation. No one knew it at the time, but the skeletonized bodies that were recovered were exposed to leaking fuel oil that would protect the bones from micro-organisms, preserving the DNA.

"That has actually inhibited bacterial growth in the remains," said Debra Prince Zinni, a forensic anthropologist with the Defense POW/MIA Accountability Agency, or DPAA. "And the success rate in getting the DNA from the remains is extremely high."

The exhumations will begin in June, according to Navy Capt. Edward Reedy, a forensic pathologist and as DPAA's medical examiner, the Defense Department's top identification official for past conflicts.

Initially, officials will try to match remains with dental records. Anthropological comparisons will follow. A DNA technician will cut the bone samples to be sent to Dover, where scientists and technicians working in sealed, sterile labs at the Armed Forces DNA lab will examine them.

The DNA results will be returned to Hawaii, where all the research will be combined to provide positive identifications, and subsequent release of remains to surviving family members.

"This is a project that I've been working on for many, many years now," said Zinni, who grew up in Wilmington and attended Ursuline Academy, where she was a standout athlete. "And to see that there's finally going to be some movement toward the identification is really remarkable. It's very rewarding work. But more than that, it's actually very humbling to be able to help these families get answers."

Many should. Between family reference DNA samples and dental records, officials have identifying information for about 88 percent of those unaccounted for, according to Tim McMahon, the Armed Forces DNA lab's deputy director for forensic services. Combined with advances in DNA science, he said they expect a high number of identifications.

"We expect that at least 80 percent ... will be individually identified," Zinni said.

In 2003, independent research convinced officials to unearth one casket of Oklahoma unknowns. Through the work of Zinni and others, five crewmen were identified, bringing the total recovered from the ship and unaccounted for to 388 (another Oklahoma sailor who'd been recovered from outside the ship and not buried with the ship's unidentified crewmen was identified in 2007).

Additional anthropological, dental and DNA analysis of the casket determined that it contained the sparse remains of more than 100 individuals. This prompted the Navy and Marine Corps to begin collecting reference samples from surviving family members.

In 2009, Congress, unhappy with the pace of positive identifications, mandated an increase to 200 missing service members annually by 2015. A year ago, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an overhaul of the process, merging the two organizations responsible for finding missing personnel from past conflicts into the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

The Navy didn't want the Oklahoma exhumation to happen. In a May 2014 letter to family members of the Oklahoma crew, obtained and published by Stars and Stripes, a senior Navy official argued that "the sailors and Marines of USS Oklahoma would be outside the sanctity of the grave for a third time following their heroic sacrifice at Pearl Harbor." It would also be a drawn-out process, the official wrote, and "many" would likely remain unaccounted for.

Last month, the Pentagon overruled. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, citing advances in forensic science and extensive family member participation in the collection of reference samples, ordered the project to begin and be completed within five years. He also ordered the disinterment of the remains of all unknowns in all permanent U.S. military cemeteries, given certain criteria.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 73 years ago was timed to catch the U.S. Navy on a sleepy Sunday morning. Shortly before 8 a.m., Japanese aircrews attacked, zeroing in on the eight battleships in port, seven of them parked in a row alongside Ford Island. Three air-launched torpedoes struck the Oklahoma, which was moored outboard of the USS Maryland. Multiple torpedo hits followed, ripping open Oklahoma's port side.

According to the Maryland's deck log, the 583-foot battleship began capsizing at 8:10 a.m. It was one of eight battleships – and 21 vessels, all told – sunk or badly damaged. Another 188 aircraft were destroyed and 2,403 Americans were killed.

Thirty-two crewmen were rescued from the overturned Oklahoma by civilian shipyard crews who struggled to cut through the bottom of the ship with pneumatic hammers and torches. A total of 429 crew members were killed – none from Delaware – and most were recovered from the ship during salvage operations, from July 1942 to May 1944.

Of those, 36 were positively identified and buried, leaving 393 buried in two Navy cemeteries until September 1947, when all were disinterred and moved to the Army's Central Identification Laboratory.

The bones had been "generally commingled." At the time, the only accepted way to identify skeletonized remains was through dental records, and 27 exhumed crewmen were identified in this way. Official arguments over whether or not to present a skull to a family without other associated remains, however, ended the effort. By 1950, all were buried in 61 caskets, interred in 45 locations, at the national cemetery in Honolulu, known as "The Punchbowl."

Beginning next month, the remains will again be exhumed. Four to six stainless steel caskets will arrive at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency at any one time. Each will have a technician and scientist removing the remains, wrapped in green wool Army blankets, and cleaning them for examination.

Forensic dentists will examine the skulls and most likely make the first identifications, Zinni said. Positive matches to dental records will be considered as positive IDs, and families will be notified and given the choice to either accept the fragments or wait for further post-cranial identification that could associate other portions of the skeleton with that sailor or Marine.

Meanwhile, a DNA technician will cut the bone samples to be sent to Dover. The minimum required size is 0.8 grams, but Reedy said the agency usually sends about twice that amount. Ninety percent of a body's bones will yield testable amounts of DNA; the best samples are taken from the densest bones, such as femurs, according to Reedy.

Human cells with a nucleus contain two forms of DNA: nuclear and mitochondrial. Every nucleated cell has a single nucleus, and people get half of the nuclear DNA from their mother and half from their father, making newer samples typically easy to identify.

There's far more mitochondrial DNA in a single cell, increasing the chances of successful identification in older remains – if analysts have reference samples from the maternal line.

At Dover, the samples are completely cleaned by analysts wearing lab coats, gloves and masks, then taken under clear hoods, where the outer layers of the bones are sanded off, washed and ground into a fine powder. A "demineralization buffer" the lab developed and introduced in 2006 reduces the amount of bone powder needed to get results to 0.1 grams, and dissolves the bone completely, allowing analysts to track any trace of either nuclear or mitochondrial DNA, McMahon said.

What's left is a liquid composed of the DNA and any cellular waste generated during this extraction process. This is then purified, then "amplified" to allow analysts to generate the large amounts of DNA required for testing, he said.

The demineralization process, a further advance in DNA testing technology, has now been adopted by labs worldwide, Reedy said.

"With the advances ... we have a very high success rate," McMahon said.

To confirm the findings, the entire process is duplicated; two separate samples are initially extracted, and assigned to two different teams. "The answers have to match for us to report it out to the DPAA lab," McMahon said. "We're dealing with highly degraded samples. So the chance of having a modern contaminant is increased."

Back in Hawaii, the anthropologists attempt to piece together the skeletal remains in an effort to find matches. Anthropologists measure the bones and generate statistical probabilities that some belong to the same person; determine how well bones fit with one another at the joints; and develop biological profiles of the remains to determine age, ancestry and so forth.

This task – trying to retrofit the commingled skeletal remains of nearly 400 individuals – is less onerous than it sounds, because there's less similarity between like bones than one might think.

"It is amazing how different bones can be," Zinni said. "The shapes, the densities, the robustness, the length." Proper fits will preclude the need to test each bone for DNA, Zinni said. It's both a cost-saving effort and a way to further substantiate the other findings.

Once a positive identification has been made, DPAA in Hawaii will notify the casualty assistance officer assigned to a fallen service member's survivors. The next step – whether they want to wait for further remains identification, for instance – is up to them.

"It's the right thing to do," Reedy said. "Everyone deserves a name, everyone deserves to go home. And that's what really drives me, personally – is this moral and ethical obligation I have to return service members who gave their lives in defense of our country, to their loved ones."

"It's a very sacred mission," McMahon said.

Officials would like to identify every bone. But, said Zinni, "The reality is there probably will be group remains identified at the end of the process." Those will be buried together, she said.

A memorial to the 429 crew members who were killed stands on Ford Island, just outside the entrance to the Battleship Missouri Memorial. The Missouri was the last battleship ever commissioned; the Japanese surrendered on its decks on Sept. 2, 1945. It is moored on the spot where the Oklahoma was sunk.

The battleship Oklahoma is gone forever. Two years after being raised, the Navy sold the patched-up ship for scrap to a California salvage company, which began towing the battleship to Oakland in the spring of 1947. On May 17, about a fifth of the trip complete, the ship began listing to port – the same side that had been so heavily damaged. The tow lines were cut, and the Oklahoma sank to the ocean floor.

Monday 25 May 2015

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Sunday, 24 May 2015

Mass graves discovered in Malaysian migrant trafficking camps

Malaysian authorities said on Sunday that they have discovered "mass graves" in more than a dozen abandoned camps used by human traffickers on the border with Thailand, where Rohingya Muslims fleeing Myanmar have been held. They did not say how many bodies were found.

"These graves are believed to be a part of human trafficking activities involving migrants," Home Minister Zahid Hamidi told reporters.

He said top police officials were trying to identify and verify "the mass graves that were found," but did not say how many bodies had been recovered. Similar camps and dozens of remains were recovered in jungle camps across the border in Thailand earlier this month, where Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar had been held by traffickers and held until their families could pay for their freedom.

The Star Online reported earlier that police and forensic teams arrived Friday in Padang Besar, a town bordering Thailand, where a grave was believed to contain the bodies of almost 100 Rohingya migrants. It cited an unidentified source.

The discovery comes amid an exodus of tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims from majority-Buddhist Myanmar, where they are denied citizenship and have had their homes and businesses attacked. Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, has said it’s making “serious efforts” to prevent illegal migration from its Rakhine state.

While asylum seekers are trying to reach Malaysia and Indonesia, a crackdown on overland smuggling rings by Thai authorities has forced them to travel by sea. Malaysia and Indonesia said last week that they will provide temporary shelter to thousands stranded on overcrowded boats.

Malaysia previously sent boats carrying Rohingya and Bangladeshis out of its waters after more than 1,000 undocumented migrants arrived on its shores this month. The government in Myanmar has denied any conflict in Rakhine state, saying the issue is one of human trafficking.

Sunday 24 May 2015

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Chinese rescuers return from Rasuwa as deadline expires

The Chinese rescue teams deployed in the district 12 days ago returned to Kerung on Saturday as the Nepal government’s deadline has expired before they could complete their task.

Sources said that the rescuers, who managed to recover four bodies as well as four containers buried in landslides and installed a Bailey bridge at the border, wanted to return home only after completing their task.

A Chinese team that reached Rasuwa via Tatopani border had opened 16 kilometre Syaphrubesi- Rasuwa gadhi road while another team had entered Nepal from Rasuwa gadhi for assistance.

The Chinese rescuers had worked in collaboration with Nepal Army, Armed Police Force and police personnel to open the landslides-hit road and search for the missing people.

The security personnel, however, are yet to make the road fully operational and find 16 people still missing in Rasuwa gadhi landslide.

The landslide has buried the Immigration Office, Customs Office and China Kerung Business Association office and many eateries, among other buildings.

Sunday 24 May 2015

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16 confirmed dead after 9-storey building collapses in SW China

16 people have now been confirmed to have died in Wednesday's building collapse in Guiyang, South West China.

114 people were in the 9-storey building when it came down. 98 managed to escape soon after the collapse. It took more than 100 firefighters and soldiers several days to find the bodies of the 16 other missing people.

The victims are still being identified. An early investigation has branded the incident as a "geological disaster" caused by a rain-triggered landslide.

Sunday 24 May 2015

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Two more bodies found in sunken barge off Johor

Two bodies of crew members of barge which capsized off Tanjung Punggai last Wednesday were discovered Sunday.

The bodies were found by divers, near the door of the sunken vessel at about 8am.

The bodies are still trapped inside the vessel at the moment.

So far, four bodies have been found by the Search and Rescue team.

The first body was found floating some 10 nautical miles north from where the vessel capsized.

The second body was found by fishermen some 9.3 nautical miles northeast of Tanjung Penawar from where the vessel, Ocean Line 208, had sunk.

Fourteen crewmen, comprising 13 Chinese nationals and a Malaysian, were reported missing in the incident.

The Bolivian-registered vessel, carrying sand from Teluk Ramunia, off Pengerang, capsized some 8.6 nautical miles east off Tanjung Punggai around 4.20am last Wednesday.

Sunday 24 May 2015

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Saturday, 23 May 2015

SAR ops for capsized barge victims to proceed, 12 still missing

The search and rescue (SAR) operation for the missing crew members of a barge which sank four days ago will continue today by extending the search into areas 15 nautical miles north and east and eight nautical miles south and west of Tanjung Punggai, Kota Tinggi.

Tanjung Sedili Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) operation director maritime commander Mustafa Kamal Abas said the search was still in underway despite the rough seas with waves as high as three metres accompanied by torrential rain.

"A total of 18 SAR operation personnel from MMEA, navy and police will be proceeding with the operation until tonight," he said when contacted by Bernama here today.

So far, two bodies have been found and efforts to find 12 more victims were being carried out.

In the 4.20 am incident, a barge carrying sand was believed to be hit by a giant wave before sinking at about 8.6 nautical miles from Tanjung Punggai, Kota Tinggi causing 14 crew members to go missing in the incident.

Saturday 23 May 2015

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240 Nepalis, 89 foreigners still missing

The Nepal Police has said 240 Nepalis and 89 foreigners were still missing since the April 25 earthquake in the country.

Spokesperson of Nepal Police Kamal Singh Bam said the search for the missing ones was underway, and they might have been buried in the debris. According to the Nepal Police's record, the number of earthquake casualties has reached 8,675 while those injured climbed to 21,845.

Among the dead, bodies of 8,598 have been handed over to the concerned relatives. Similarly, 5,613 quake survivors have been receiving treatment in different hospital across the country.

Saturday 23 May 2015

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Heavy rains kill 60 in China

At least 60 people were killed in rain-related incidents in China, where large swathes in the south have been hammered by rainstorms this week, with 10 more deaths reported on Saturday.

Thirteen others remain missing following the heavy downpour in the country that has triggered rainstorms, mudslides and collapse of buildings.

Seven persons were killed and 40 others injured when a bus carrying over 50 passengers collided with a road barrier in Xinning County in central Hunan Province on Saturday.

A nine-storey building in Guiyang, home to 114 residents, collapsed due to landslides on Wednesday following heavy rains killing 16 people. Over 100 firefighters and soldiers combed the rubble to find the missing people. Three bodies were retrieved from the debris of the building on Saturday.

Also two children were killed and 21 others injured when a kindergarten bus fell into a pond in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region on Friday.

Rain had made driving conditions unsafe and the driver lost control over the vehicle, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

The two incidents pushed the death toll in the rains in the last few days.

At least 35 people were killed 13 others missing in rainstorms that hammered large swathes of southern China this week, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said on Saturday.

The southwestern province of Guizhou reported 11 deaths, the highest toll so far, whereas in Fujian province, five people were killed by rain-triggered mudslides and four others drowned.

In Jiangxi province, one person was kill by lightening strikes, two by mudslides and five by collapsed buildings.

The rest of the deaths were reported in Hunan and Guangdong provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Heavy rain and occasional thunderstorms have battered China's southern regions in the last few days.

Saturday 23 May 2015

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Work on memorial for Bajpe air crash victims soon

The victims of 2010 Bajpe air crash were remembered on the occasion of fifth anniversary of the disaster with public representatives, officials and public paying homage at the international airport here on Friday.

In one of the worst aviation disasters of the country, Air India Express Boeing 737-800 aircraft which arrived from Dubai overshot the runway and crashed while landing at the airport on May 22, 2010 at 6 am, killing 158 passengers. Eight passengers were survived miraculously.

Two minutes of silence was observed in respect of the victims. In the meet organised by the district administration, District-in-Charge Minister B Ramanath Rai, MP Nalin Kumar Kateel and others offered tribute at the venue.

Rai said that he can still remember the charred bodies which were found in the place. He extended his sympathies to the families of the victims and said that one can only pray for the eternal peace of the souls. Deputy Commissioner A B Ibrahim said that the district administration and New Mangalore Port Trust (NMPT) will jointly develop a memorial park at 90 cents (0.75 acres) of land identified near Tannir Bavi, where 18 unidentified bodies were buried. The project is in work order stage, the works of first phase worth Rs 30 lakh would begin within a week with planning and fencing. Meanwhile, the DC said that compensation for the victims has been distributed, except few disputed cases.

The court will take decision about those cases, he said.

Saturday 23 May 2015

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Ukraine says search operation at MH17 crash site ends

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Zubko said Friday that the team of international experts has finished its search and recovery operation at the site in eastern Ukraine where Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 crashed last July.

"The International Commission to investigate the disaster had completed the search operation," Zubko was quoted by the government's press service as saying.

The investigation team has found remains of 297 bodies of victims and 295 of them were identified and transported to the Netherlands, Zubko said.

Although the search and recovery operation at the site finished, the aviation and criminal investigations into the crash are still underway, he added.

The Boeing 777-200, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, went down on July 17, 2014 near Grabove village over the conflict zone in Donetsk region.

The search operation, which started immediately after the crash, was suspended in November last year because of harsh winter conditions and hostilities between government troops and pro-independence insurgents near the crash site.

The operation resumed on April 16, as a fragile truce was established in eastern Ukraine, allowing international experts to safely access the area.

Saturday 23 May 2015

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Friday, 22 May 2015

Relatives of Uruguay’s disappeared seek truth

Uruguayan Deputy Macarena Gelman, granddaughter of the late Argentine poet Juan Gelman, said yesterday that “there is much work to be done” in the search for truth and justice for crimes committed during the 1973-1985 dictatorship as she joined new body set up on Tuesday by President Tabaré Vázquez.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of Uruguayans held a silent march in the capital of Montevideo to mark 20 years since the fall of the dictatorship.

Human rights defence organizations marched yesterday calling for “truth and justice” in the cases of “disappeared” persons during the Uruguayan military dictatorship. The 20th “March of Silence” organized by Familiares, a group consisting of relatives of the disappeared that works to solve the open cases and seek justice for the atrocities committed during the dictatorship.

“Some families have spent 40 years searching, Uruguay has had 30 years of democracy, there have been 20 marches of silence and the Broad Front has been governing for 10 years. However, still notably absent are truth and justice. So today we will march,” said Ignacio Errandonea, a member of Familiares.

Traditionally, the march moves down Montevideo’s main avenue in silence and without banners. The demonstrators carry signs with faces of the missing relatives while their names are announced one-by-one. Official sources indicate that 37 detainees disappeared during the dictatorship in Uruguay, while according to relatives, there are about 200 unsolved cases of missing persons.

Working group

Vazquez originally ratified a workgroup agreed back in February to gather information about the political crimes committed during the de facto regime,amid claims that he is keen to grant amnesties to perpetrators of the crimes.

Last Monday Defence Minister Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro, renewed his criticism of the ruling Broad Front, of which he is a member, and human rights organizations, accusing them of “stigmatizing” the military for its recent past and for the crimes committed during the dictatorship. Yesterday the minister upped the ante by insisting that the 1973 coup was both a civilian and military action.

“Here the coup was civil and military. In reality it was civil while being directed by a foreign embassy with people in expensive suits and French aftershave. All of them civilians. And it was orchestrated by civilian politicians and the main civilian media. The commercial chambers requested the coup,” said the defence minister, in statements to reporters after attending a ceremony in Montevideo.

“We have positive expectations, as the president has said that the offically-named “workgroup for Truth and Justice” will have access to all files in the State archives from the dictatorship, many of which still have not been accessed,” remarked a human rights representative.

The group also investigates human rights violations committed by the state since 1968, when the country was a fledgling democracy and the Tupamaros guerrillas attempted a coup to establish a socialist regime. Former president José Mujica, from the Broad Front like Vázquez, was a member of Tupamaros.

When Vázquez began his first term in 2005, he allowed excavations in military barracks to search for remains of missing persons. So far only four bodies have been located.

Fernández Huidobro, a former guerrilla fighter and victim of harsh captivity in military prisons for nearly a decade during the dictatorship, proposed the state “collect testimonies from victims and families who are willing to provide them. We believe this will be a breakthrough... it has become an excuse saying that those responsible will not speak. There is more work to do,” he said in relation to the tasks that will carried out by the workgroup for Truth and Justice, announced by Vázquez.

“They have information, they are the ones who gave the orders. We will not grab those who did the dirty work, it will be with the ones who gave the orders instead” Fernández Huidobro stated. Concerning this team, composed of seven people, the minister said he would provide them with whatever they ask, “as usual”, and said he will continue “working at it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Without a fuss.” The controversial minister, who has been in office since 2011, also rejected criticism from some of the associations of the families of missing persons, whom say that they have not received any new information in recent years.

“They are poisonous and liars. They blatantly lie. For us, all the information they ask of us we have been sending them, and much more that they don’t ask. I have already repeated myself ad nauseum.” he snapped.

Thus, Fernández Huidobro stated his position on the new workgroup for Truth and Justice, which includes the now deputy Macarena Gelman, the daughter of Marcelo Gelman and María Claudia Irureta, both missing, who was born during the captivity of her mother and only recovered her true identity in 2000.

The Government announced yesterday a new agreement with the State University of the Republic (Udelar) for the continuation of the work of teams of historians and anthropologists exploring possible locations of clandestine burials, whose tasks had been halted.

Thursday 21 May 2015

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

Eight confirmed dead and eight still missing following tragic collapse of a nine-storey residential block in China

Eight people have been confirmed dead and another eight are still missing following the collapse of nine-storey apartment block in south west China yesterday.

14 people, including a four-month-old baby, were rescued soon after the accident, which took place in Guizhou province on Wednesday morning.

More than 100 rescuers are using sniffer dogs to search for survivors after mobile phone signals indicated that residents were still trapped under the rubble, reported People's Daily Online.

The rescue team have said that there is still a chance of finding survivors over the next 48 hours, although the rain is making the operation more difficult.

The first body was discovered at 2.30am on Thursday morning and identified as a 41-year-old man who lived on the seventh floor.

98 of the 114 residents living in the block were confirmed to be safe on Wednesday evening.

The accident happened at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, when the nine-story building in central Guiyang with 114 residents living in it fell down. A total of 98 were confirmed safe as of Wednesday evening. Another 16 couldn't be reached, but mobile phone signals of 15 of them were detected at the scene. Chen lived on the seventh floor.

Rescuers are combing the debris with sniffer dogs and life detectors to find the missing. Residents of nearby buildings were evacuated after the accident. Guiyang has been soaked by rain in the past several days. A rain-triggered landslide is believed to have caused the tragedy, said the Guiyang city government.

Local authorities believe that a landslide on a hill next to the building may have caused the collapse, following a week of heavy rainfall in the region.

Residents in nearby apartments were evacuated soon after the accident.

A resident from the neighbouring apartment block, who has not been named, said: 'The whole building just went down.'

'I was in the bathroom and I heard a loud bang. I thought it was an earthquake.'

A local real estate agent, named only as Mr Zhang, said: 'The collapse is likely to have been caused by a landslide.

'It's been raining heavily recently and a lot of places were flooded.'

It is not yet clear whether there have been any casualties.

Thursday 21 May 2015

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Forensic experts lead families to remains of missing migrants

Brooks County, Texas — 70 miles north of the U.S.- Mexico border — has seen at least 365 migrant deaths since 2011.

Forensic anthropologists in Texas and Arizona are working to identify these migrants and repatriate their remains.

Behind an electronic gate accessed by a key card on a bucolic farm in central Texas, 100 cadavers donated for research by U.S. citizens lie on the ground in different stages of decomposition.

Forensic anthropologist Kate Spradley heads a relatively new project called Operation ID at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center in San Marcos, Texas.

“When someone dies on U.S. soil, it is our responsibility to identify that person,” she said while walking in the shade where cadavers lay on the ground, protected by metal screens.

Specifically, Spradley collects data on the rate of decay on these cadavers. It’s part of her research in determining a migrant’s time of death.

“Most of the bodies disposed of in a clandestine manner in this part of Texas, it’s usually on the surface," she noted. "It’s very hard to dig a burial there. So knowing how bodies decompose on the surface is very important.”

Brooks County is not on the border. But it does have a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint at Falfurrias, Texas.

Human smugglers typically drive migrants to just south of the checkpoint, then the migrants walk miles around it. The journey takes several days.

Many die in merciless heat. It’s Spradley’s mission to identify them after their bodies are brought here.

“Sometimes when I talk to people about what I do, they will tell me, 'Well why don’t you just send them back home.’ But we don’t know where home is. That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” she said.

Spradley collaborates frequently with Hailey Duecker. She’s the forensic investigator at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office.

“One of the first things we ask people who report their loved one missing is when was the last time they had contact with them. When was the last time they knew the individual was alive,” she said.

Duecker added that studying the rate of human decay on donated cadavers in different environments here — shade, sun, under trees or nestled in the grass — can help answer that question.

“Knowing how fast a body can decompose in a specific environment is going to tell us a lot. Like if we find a set of remains... who we can match them to based on the date of last contact?”

Duecker said the cadaver research is an asset in both solving cold cases in ongoing criminal investigations and in identifying migrants.

Plants and vultures and decomposition

She explained how plant growth around cadavers provides clues for investigators. While standing in front of a group of cadavers lying under protective metal screens, she said: “If you notice (where the cadavers are placed) the vegetation is taller than the surrounding vegetation," she pointed out.

"So the volatile fatty acids initially when they decompose on the surface, they will oftentimes kill the vegetation. But over time it will enrich (the soil) and you will get vegetation that’s even taller," she said.

"So those are some the things that you look for if you’re out looking for clandestine remains.”

Because Brooks County is not on the border, it gets no federal funding to identify dead migrants. The county foots the bill, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

Bodies are found, personal effects and identifying features are catalogued, and then the bodies are buried.

When funding allows, bodies are exhumed for possible identification. Right now investigators are waiting to analyze the remains of 123 unidentified migrants.

Among Spradley’s tools to solve the mystery of who these people were: vultures.

“Texas has a huge vulture population because of the cattle industry,” she said.

And so some of the donated cadavers are deliberately exposed outside—unprotected—the way migrants are found.

“What we’ve learned is that vultures, once they start to consume a body, it takes about four to five hours to render them to a skeleton.”

And Spradley said understanding how vultures devour a body has changed the way a newly discovered skeleton is analyzed.

“We’ve noticed kind of what we call taphonomic signatures, broken ribs, the pecking out of some of the small, delicate bones in the eye orbit," she said.

"And those tell us that a vulture has been at the scene. And that’s going impact our time-of-death estimate. We’ll know that it happened much faster.”

For help in identifications, Spradley collaborates with colleagues in Arizona.

“If a family in Mexico or Honduras is missing someone that entered the United States, they can’t call law enforcement and file a missing persons report because they are not a U.S. citizen. So the Colibri Center for Human Rights will take the missing persons report.”

The Colibri Center is in Tucson, which is in Pima County, Arizona. Its investigators are embedded in the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

“To contrast Arizona and Texas, in Arizona, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner serves the entire (Arizona) border. So if a body is found, it’s brought to a medical examiner’s office. And it gets a full chance at identification," Spradley explained.

"In Texas, there are so many counties along the border and so few medical examiners that not everybody makes it to a medical examiner’s office. Right now we’re trying to figure out how many people die along the Texas border.

"We have no idea because there’s no centralized reporting system,” Spradely said.

And that means, in Texas, a full accounting of the number of people who die each year attempting to enter the U.S. from Mexico and beyond is next to impossible to compile.

Oscar's story: A rare success

In 2012, in her lab in San Marcos, Texas, Spradley received a phone call from Arizona about a case in Brooks County.

“I was contacted by a colleague at the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tucson,” she said.

The center’s investigators work in the office of the Pima County Medical Examiner in Tucson, Arizona. Colibri accepts missing persons reports on lost migrants that U.S. law enforcement routinely won’t.

The Colibri Center was calling Spradley about a 20-year-old El Salvadoran named Oscar.

“Oscar was traveling with a friend,” Spradley said as she recalled the scenario that ultimately led to a rare success.

His family knew that because the friend called Oscar’s relatives in Houston. He told the family Oscar had succumbed to the elements.

“Just exhaustion, probably heat exhaustion and he also hurt his leg," Spradley said. "So he had to stay behind. And I can only think of what it’s like to leave somebody behind on a journey like this.”

Before he was abandoned, the companion noticed Oscar was limping.

“And so the companion; he was wearing a brown plaid shirt and took it off and wrapped it around Oscar’s leg to help him walk," Spradley continued.

"He contacted Oscar’s family and told them where they left Oscar and what he was wearing and about the brown plaid shirt around his knee.”

After that, Oscar was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. The family wanted to find him, but couldn’t even start the search.

“Nobody remembered where Oscar was buried," recalled Spradley. "So there’s nothing more to do at this point if you don’t know where the body is located.”

A break came Spradley's way in May 2013, the year after Oscar died, when university anthropologists joined with forensic investigators and launched a project to identify long-buried migrants.

“They went into the cemetery to exhume a lot of these unidentified remains, so they could have a proper attempt at identification, mainly skeletal analysis, DNA sampling, proper inventorying of photographs of their personal effects," said Hailey Duecker, the Brooks County Sheriff’s forensic investigator.

Investigators recovered the bodies of 100 migrants. They didn’t know it but one was Oscar’s. His body was brought to Kate Spradley’s lab.

There it had been cleaned down to the skeleton so a DNA analysis could be made. Then, Spradley said, the story turned again.

“I was looking at missing persons reports one day and I came across Oscar’s missing person report," Spradley recalled. "And it was the first time I had seen the description of the brown plaid shirt.”

That jogged her memory. Her students had just cleaned a brown plaid shirt wrapped around the knee of an unknown man.

The shirt’s discovery kicked off a chain of events that led to a DNA match. His family’s DNA was taken by an Argentine forensic team in El Salvador, then brought to the U.S. And a DNA sample from the skeleton matched DNA from Oscar’s family.

“And he is now waiting to go home. His family has been notified. And he should be repatriated within the month,” Spradley said.

Oscar’s story is a rarity,

“There’s multiple obstacles because right now, family references samples must be collected by U.S. law enforcement," she said.

"So that’s not going to happen for people in Latin America. People always think, ‘Oh you’ve got DNA technology.’ That's great. But unless you have something to compare it to, you’ll never get an identification.”

And even if a migrant has family in the U.S., there’s often another challenge.

“People who are here, unauthorized, they may not want to go to law enforcement to provide a family reference sample. So the obstacles are many.”

Spradley is undeterred though.

“We have human rights in life and in death. And everybody has the right to be identified and returned to their family. And the family has the right to know what happened to their loved ones.”

Oscar’s relatives told investigators they’re grateful for the bittersweet knowledge of knowing with certainty what happened to him.

It is knowledge that many families never receive.

Thursday 21 May 2015

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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Valenzuela fire: Relatives identify victims' belongings

The burnt necklaces, watches, and fragments of clothes: these were all that were left behind by the 72 workers killed in the fire that hit Kentex Manufacturing Corporation in Valenzuela City on May 13.

A week since the tragedy, forensics officials are still working to identify 69 of the bodies retrieved from the gutted factory, which left most of the victims burnt beyond recognition.

Aside from DNA testing, the Philippine National Police (PNP) is also asking families to help identify the personal belongings of their loved ones.

During a public assistance event set up by the Valenzuela city government on Wednesday, May 20, investigators also showed photos of the victims' personal belongings found at the accident site.

One by one, tearful relatives stood up to say the burnt watches, rings, and necklaces in the photos belonged to their friends and family members.

Some of the items were difficult to identify, mostly burnt pieces of cloth and shoes that belonged to the victims.

Others were easier to identify: a portion of a courier delivery ticket; an ID with the name still partly legible; one charred photograph of a smiling child.

Looking for a loved one

Irenea Pohanes, 44, was one of the first to stand up when the photos were shown. She had seen, and quickly recognized, the necklace and watch that belonged to her niece, Jerylyn Calago.

Pohanes started to sob when she saw the photos, prompting city social welfare workers to calm her down.

"Nasaktan ako pagkakita ko ng mga alahas niya. Nakita ko na talaga ngang nasunog ang pamangkin ko," she told reporters. "Hindi ko matanggap."

(I was hurt when I saw the photos of her jewelry. I realized that my niece really did burn to death. I can't accept it.)

The 22-year-old Calago had been working in the footwear factory for two years. Her parents both live in Mindanao, leaving Pohanes as her guardian in Manila.

Pohanes said it was the first time that her niece's death had sunk in. She was not able to identify Calago when her body bag was brought in last week.

Together with other families, Pohanes received P83,300 in monetary aid from the Valenzuela city government and other private groups during the public assistance caravan held at the city hall.

But she said the money does little to ease her family's suffering.

"Kahit may pera, wala nang buhay ang pamangkin namin (Even with the money, nothing brings back the life of my niece)," she said.

Helping the families

On Wednesday, the Valenzuela city government set up a one-stop public assistance event to make it easier for families to process the documents they need to claim compensation from the accident.

"We have decided to set up these help desks so that the families would have an easier time in accessing the concerned government offices, because we understand that many of them do not know when and where to start, especially since they are still mourning the loss of their loved ones," Valenzuela City Mayor Rex Gatchalian said.

Among the participants in the event are the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Labor and Employment, Department of Education, Social Security System, PAGIBIG Fund, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Public Attorney's Office, and the offices of Valenzuela Representative Sherwin Gatchalian and Alay Buhay party-list Representative Wes Gatchalian.

The city government said it would also provide livelihood and employment assistance to the workers who lost their jobs at the factory.

20 May 2015

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One-stop aid center for Kentex fire victims’ kin

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) has set up a “one-stop-assistance-center that will facilitate interagency government assistance” to the relatives of the victims of a fire that killed 72 people in Valenzuela City last May 13.

The center, which will be staffed by representatives from the Valenzuela city local government, congressional offices, nongovernment organizations, and government offices, will be “operational within the week,” DILG Secretary Manuel A. Roxas II said in a statement.

The government agencies involved are the “Department of Labor and Employment, Social Security System, Pag-IBIG Fund, Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Education, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office, Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Inter-Agency Anti-Arson Task Force of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP).

On May 13, 72 workers were killed when fire gutted footwear factory Kentex Manufacturing Corp. in Barangay Ugong, Valenzuela City. Reports said that welding sparks caused flammable chemicals to explode.

According to the release, a representative from the PNP Special Investigation Task Group (SITG) “Kentex” will be “available to entertain inquiries regarding the ongoing investigation, including progress of the tedious process of identification of the remains recovered at the razed factory.”

In a case conference on Monday, Senior Supt. Edgar C. Danao, the commander of SITG Kentex, said that the PNP Crime Laboratory “has already made initial identification of some personal belongings and personal effects” recovered at the scene of the fire. Representatives from the BFP, Valenzuela City government, PNP Crime Laboratory, Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) and other PNP units are involved in the investigation, the release said.

Mr. Danao said that “the PNP Crime Laboratory will also attempt to identify some of the recovered human remains through forensic odontology by comparing the victims’ remains with available dental records.”

DNA specimens from the victims’ living family members have been collected “for possible matching with DNA extracted from the bodies,” Mr. Danao said.

Temporarily, the recovered remains of the fire victims are “kept in individual coffins inside niches at the public cemetery and properly labeled for organized recording.”

Mr. Danao was said to have tasked the CIDG to collect “the sworn statements of the first responders to assist probers in establishing the events before, during and after the incident.”

Kentex already has a copy of the After Fire Operation Report of the fire, dated May 15 and submitted by the fire district marshal of Valenzuela.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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Italy to recover bodies from shipwrecked boat as EU falters on migrant plan

Italy will recover hundreds of bodies from a boat which capsized in April in a bid to prevent the collapse of an EU plan to tackle the migrant crisis, the prime minister said yesterday.

“We will go to the bottom of the sea and recover that boat,” Matteo Renzi said in a television interview, as opposition mushroomed to controversial plans for quotas to spread Mediterranean refugees around Europe.

“There are 500 to 600 bodies down there. The world has to see what happened. I want those who are being cunning and pretending not to see, to stop,” he said in a reference to EU partners refusing to help Italy deal with the waves of migrants washing up on its shores.

“Europe cannot just say ‘out of sight, out of mind’”.

Renzi said it would cost “between €15 to €20 million” (RM60.4 million and RM80.6 million) to bring up the boat, which sank off Libya last month in the Mediterranean’s worst disaster since World War II.

“I hope the European Union will pay, otherwise we will,” he added.

There were over 700 people on board at the time, many of whom—including children—were packed in below deck, according to images filmed by a navy submersible.

The tragedy sparked calls for more to be done to tackle human trafficking by sea and to ease the pressure on frontline states like Italy, Greece and Malta by having other countries take in asylum seekers.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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Germanwings plane crash: All victims identified

All the human remains found at the scene of the Germanwings air crash have been identified and will be returned to their families, a French prosecutor says. The plane crashed in the French Alps on March 24 with 150 people on board.

Investigators say co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed the plane after locking the pilot out of the cockpit.

Recovery workers tasked with gathering the human remains and fragments of plane debris scattered across a steep mountainside faced a challenging task in treacherous conditions. Forensics workers used DNA testing to aid the identification process.

Experts have spent six weeks conducting DNA tests on the remains.

"The 150 death certificates can now be signed, as well as the 150 burial permits," said Brice Robin, Marseille's city prosecutor.

Mr Robin had previously said it was Mr Lubitz's "intention to destroy [the] plane", which was flying from Barcelona to Duesseldorf.

Among the victims was a group of 16 students, 14 girls and two boys, and two of their teachers, from Joseph-Koenig school in Haltern, western Germany. They were travelling back from a Spanish exchange programme on the Germanwings flight.

The victims were from 18 countries, including Australia, Argentina and Japan, but most of those on board were either Spanish or German.

The plane took off from Barcelona just after 09:00 GMT on 24 March. It made its last contact with air traffic control half an hour later, before descending over the following ten minutes.

The Airbus plane crashed in a remote region at 09:41GMT.

On 26 March, French investigators said information from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) found at the crash zone revealed that Mr Lubitz had taken over the controls of the plane and sent it into a dive intentionally.

A full investigation report is expected to be completed in a year.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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Living with earthquakes

There is one thing all of us in Nepal have struggled to do since 25th April: live with uncertainty.

The hundreds of aftershocks that followed the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on that Saturday had been slowly decreasing in their intensity. I had come to keep calm at the new jolts that would punctuate our days and nights, even not noticing the “mild” ones when I was concentrated on the tasks at hand.

Then, I was in front of my computer in the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Kathmandu last Tuesday when the ground started shaking again. I ran to the nearest door frame, previously identified as a safe area. A colleague joined me. We waited there for what seemed like a terrifyingly long time, as the building swayed, the floor creaked and, worse than anything, the movement got increasingly violent.

When we could finally get outside, thoughts started rushing in: is everyone here? Are my husband and son safe? What happened to our teams in the field, to our staff in the south of the country?

Around me, colleagues were frantically trying to reach loved ones, battling jammed networks. One staff member was hugging someone who was desperately sobbing. As details on the epicenter of the quake trickled in, the tension became even more palpable on the faces of the colleagues who had their families there. Their houses had already been destroyed in the first quake. What news would they learn now?

Flocks of birds rose in the sky, and someone shouted: “Earthquake!” We regrouped at the center of the open space, as a second powerful tremor shook the ground.

Birds know.

When everyone had been accounted for, I finally felt relief. One of our staff was blocked in Chautara by a huge landslide that had cut the main road, but he was safe.

Driving home at night, the streets that had come back to life over the past days were again deserted, the shops that had reopened were again shuttered. It was a bad night. There were three more powerful tremors. People were screaming, others were blowing whistles. My colleagues and I all have whistles, meant to attract the attention of rescuers if you are trapped under debris.

I lay awake, thinking of those living under tents, of colleagues taking their elderly parents to the relative safety of open spaces. Of those brave Nepalis who had already started rebuilding their destroyed houses, of the children who so badly needed to go back to school, to engage in any activity that would take their minds off the disaster.

The next day, all were back to work at the ICRC delegation, but many faces showed exhaustion. Everyone was affected by the stories of grief coming from newly hit areas. More deaths, more injuries, more houses crumbling like a pack of cards. What could we answer to anxious survivors who asked “what next”, when not even geologists could predict when the aftershocks would be over?

Yet as I was poring over reports from the field and listening to colleagues, hope started creeping back. Nepal Red Cross Society (NRCS) teams were providing first aid services to the injured and continuing relief distributions. One hospital, in Dhulikhel, with which we had developed a partnership on the Emergency Room Trauma Course, was operating on patients airlifted from remote areas. Our Nepali psycho-social professionals and community based psychosocial workers, together with their NRCS colleagues, continued helping survivors cope with their uncertainty, fear and sadness. Others were striving to restore links between separated family members. The two physical rehabilitation facilities we have supported for years, in Kathmandu and Pokhara, were already treating patients from the earthquake.

Helping hands were at work everywhere.

Continuity. This was it, I thought. The ICRC has been in Nepal since 1998, responding to the needs arising from the internal conflict between the Maoists and the Government. For the last 16 years, we have contributed to strengthen the emergency preparedness capacity of the NRCS and of state institutions, give hope to separated families through Red Cross messages, provide comprehensive psycho-social support to family members of those missing in the conflict, train forensic specialists to identify dead bodies. Now, this longstanding collaboration was being put to work for the earthquake victims.

I deeply hope continuity will prevail. The famed Nepali resilience does not need be put to the test yet again.

Dragana Kojic is head of the International Committee of the Red Cross Nepal delegation.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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6 bodies found after Guyana mining accident; 4 still missing

Rescue crews in Guyana have recovered the bodies of six miners who had been missing since an open-pit gold mine collapsed in the South American country.

Police said Tuesday that authorities are still searching for four other miners. They said crews are digging despite heavy rains and mud to recover bodies buried up to 20 feet (6 meters) in the pit.

The collapse occurred Sunday in the remote southern Potaro-Siparuni Region near the border with Brazil. Seven other miners were injured and taken to the hospital.

Miners Association President Patrick Harding said the group will meet to talk about safety issues and the role of officials charged with supervising mining operations.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

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