Sunday, 3 May 2015

Songkhla Death camp 'held 800 refugees' , bodies exhumed

Two teenagers found in remote jungle near the site of a mass grave in Songkhla province yesterday revealed that at least 800 refugees were being held in the camp prior to its discovery by authorities.

The two youths, aged 14 and 17, said they had been held at the camp for eight months, and that the prisoners had been dispersed shortly before officers moved in on Friday.

It came as early reports began to emerge of the horrific conditions endured by prisoners being held at the remote border camp, where 26 bodies have now been recovered mostly from shallow graves.

“We were the people who could not pay the ransom so they kept us and did not really care whether we lived or died,” 28-year-old survivor Anuzar, who was found at the grave site on Friday, told news website Phuketwan.

“Most of us have been beaten or abused … In the camp, we were never able to get enough food or water. Showering seldom happened.”

Anuzar said he believed 10 Bangladeshis were among the dead scattered near the camp, along with at least 30 Rohingya.

“Eight brokers controlled the camp,” Anuzar said. “I knew three well — Ahmed Ali, Anwar and Sorim-Ida. Some are Rohingya, some are Malaysian.”

Sirichai Leewannapasai, chief of Songkhla’s Public Health Office, said yesterday that Anuzar’s condition is not serious. He suffered from fatigue and a lack of food, and also has a slight fever, but is making a steady recovery.

The camp itself is located in about two rai of thick jungle at the top of a mountain close to the Malaysian border, and commands sweeping views of all possible approaches. Of the 39 structures built at the site, 26 are sleeping quarters, and the rest are kitchens, bathrooms and an observation tower, police said.

The mass grave site was found in a clearing about 50 metres from the main camp, which police believe had been in operation for a “long time”.

“From the evidence given by witnesses who were in the camp, we believe there was violence here and people died from the violence,” Pol Gen Jarumporn Suramanee told Reuters.

It took a team of 100 forensic experts and rescue workers more than four hours yesterday to exhume another 21 bodies from shallow graves in the remote jungle camp.

The rugged terrain meant rescue workers are being forced to carry the bodies down the hill in teams of eight — a steep hike of about an hour — to Songklanagarind Hospital to be identified.

Of the 26 bodies that have now been recovered, 25 have been identified as male and one female, said Pol Gen Jaramporn Suramanee, a forensic science adviser to the Royal Thai Police.

Several of the bodies showed signs of decay indicating they had been dead for at least one month, Pol Gen Jaramporn said.

But one victim, whose body had not been buried, had died as recently as a few days ago.

Pol Gen Jaramporn said forensic experts have collected DNA samples from the bodies, but at this stage they are still unable to confirm their identities or ethnicity.

After autopsies and DNA tests are conducted, the bodies will be buried at Ban Phru in Songkhla’s Hat Yai district, he said.

Police are now expanding their probe to cover a human trafficking network in Nakhon Si Thammarat suspected of being linked to the camp.

Deputy national police chief Ake Angsananont said yesterday police are piecing together information from all concerned agencies.

Search and rescue missions are also being conducted in areas surrounding the camp looking for other potential survivors, Pol Gen Ake said.

Any human traffickers found to have been involved will be “severely punished”, he said, adding that proper funeral rites and burials will be arranged for the bodies.

Government spokesman Maj Gen Sansern Kaewkamnerd said Thailand is determined “to eliminate every type of human trafficking and block Thailand from being a transit point”.

He said those behind the camp will be “severely punished”, regardless of whether they are common criminals or corrupt officials.

His comments came amid strong pressure from international activists. Chris Lewa, director of the Arakan Project, which has monitored the movements of Rohingya for more than a decade, said traffickers are beginning to shift their tactics for holding prisoners.

Instead of jungle camps, she said Rohingya and Bangladeshis have in recent months been taken to large ships while they wait for ransoms to be paid.

Ms Lewa estimates that 7,000-8,000 migrants are currently parked off the coast or in nearby international waters.

Human Rights Watch has called for an independent investigation with UN involvement to find out what took place at the site.

“The discovery of these mass graves should shock the Thai government into shutting down the trafficking networks that enrich officials but prey on extremely vulnerable people,” HRW’s Brad Adams said.

Sunday 3 May 2015

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Lusitania 100th anniversary service

A memorial service on Thursday will mark the 100th anniversary of an event shocking even by First World War standards - the sinking of the Cunard British liner Lusitania with the loss of 1,200 lives.

Attended by passengers from the present-day Cunard liner Queen Victoria, the service will take place at the Irish port of Cobh (formerly Queenstown) in County Cork.

At 2.10pm on Thursday, Queen Victoria's whistle will blow. It was at that moment on May 7 1915 that the 31,000-tonne Cunard liner Lusitania was torpedoed by German U-Boat, U-20, about 14 miles off the southern Irish coast.

The Queen Victoria whistle will be sounded again at 2.28pm - the time the Lusitania sank.

Among the 1,266 passengers on board were 129 children of whom 94 perished as the ship, sailing from New York to Liverpool, sank in just 18 minutes.

Built at the John Brown shipyard on the River Clyde in Scotland, the Lusitania was also carrying 159 Americans, of whom 128 were killed.

The ship's captain William Turner, who survived after the ship went down, had received messages on the morning of the disaster that there were German submarines in the area and he altered course.

But a German sub, U-20, captained by Walther Schwieger, spotted the Lusitania 14 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland and fired a torpedo that hit the vessel which quickly sank.

There had been time to send out an SOS and the Courtmacsherry lifeboat launched at 3pm.

By the time they arrived, other rescue craft were on the scene and they were only able to pick up dead bodies.

The Wanderer, a fishing boat from the Isle of Wight, managed to pick up about 200 survivors.

A formal investigation, headed by Wreck Commissioner Lord Mersey, started in Westminster in June 1915.

The Germans were blamed, and Captain Turner cleared, with the action described as having been undertaken "not merely with the intention of sinking the ship, but also with the intention of destroying the lives of the people on board".

The outrage sparked international fury, with demands that America should immediately come into the war, although it was not until 1917 that the US finally entered the conflict.

One hundred years on, controversy still surrounds the sinking.

"It seems likely that the arguments will rage on for another 100 years," Cunard historian Michael Gallagher said.

"There was controversy over the messages sent to Captain Turner on the morning of the sinking and there were determined attempts to blame him at the inquiry.

"Lord Mersey was so outraged that he refused to accept any fee for his work and asked to be excused from any similar inquiries in the future.

"The Lusitania was carrying arms and it could be argued that it was a legitimate target.

"The British government seized on the sinking for war propaganda purposes with posters appearing saying 'Avenge the Lusitania'."

Sunday 3 May 2015

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Death toll from Nepal's devastating quake passes 7,000

The death toll from the disaster has hit 7,040, according to the Emergency Operations Centre, with more than 14,000 injured. More than 100 were also killed in India and China.

A Nepali police team in an avalanche hit area in the northern district of Rasuwa pulled out bodies of about 50 people, including some foreign trekkers.

Uddav Prasad Bhattarai, chief officer of Rasuwa district that forms part of Langtang, said the bodies had been found in different places, including buried under debris, in recent days in the region hit by a quake-triggered avalanche.

"We have pulled out 51 bodies from the Langtang area so far, six of them are tourists. We estimate that about 100 foreigners might still be missing in the area," Bhattarai said.

"Our priority was to get the survivors out. We rescued over 350 people, about a half of them were tourists or guides," he told AFP in Rasuwa north of Kathmandu

"We believe we have rescued most of the survivors now. We will now bring down the dead bodies."

Tourism department chief Tulsi Gautam said Sunday that so far the bodies of 54 foreigners have been recovered nationwide.

EU diplomats said on Friday that around 1,000 European citizens were still unaccounted for in Nepal, although many of those were thought to be safe but out of contact.

The Europeans had mostly been climbing in the Everest region or trekking in the remote Langtang range in the Himalayas near the quake epicenter.

One Israeli, Or Asraf, also remains unaccounted for, with his family urging rescuers to increase their efforts.

Although multiple teams of rescuers from more than 20 countries have been using sniffer dogs and heat-seeking equipment to find survivors in the rubble, noone has been pulled out alive since Thursday evening.

"Rescue operations are still under way, but focus has shifted to providing relief," home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal told AFP on Sunday.

"Many far flung villages have been affected," he said, adding that there was still an "acute shortage" of tents for the hundreds of thousands left homeless.

The manager of Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport said very heavy planes were being barred from landing because of concerns about the condition of the single runway after the quake and a series of strong aftershocks.

"We have issued a notice saying that aircraft with a total weight exceeding 196 tonnes will not be allowed to land at Kathmandu airport," Birendra Prasad Shrestha told AFP.

"There are no visible cracks in the runway but there have been so many tremors recently that we have to take precautions - we don't know what's happening below the surface.

"This runway is the only lifeline for Kathmandu -- if it goes, everything goes."

The exact scale of the disaster was still to emerge, with the mountainous terrain in the vast Himalayan nation complicating the relief effort.

With relief workers still to reach many areas, the Red Cross has warned of "total devastation" in far-flung areas, including in the hardest-hit Sindhupalchowk region, northeast of Kathmandu, where whole villages have been destroyed.

The latest UN's situation report says teams that have arrived in another devastated district, Gorkha, have discovered a "dire need for shelter, particularly tents and blankets".

"Access to some remote villages remains a key challenge as many landing zones are unsafe due to debris, altitude and current weather conditions," the report also says.

"Road access is limited. Some remote villages can only be accessed by helicopters."

Sunday 3 May 2015

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