Friday, 5 June 2015

14 more bodies recovered in Perlis jungle graves

Fourteen more bodies believed to be those of human trafficking victims were found in 12 graves which were exhumed in the Mata Air forest reserve, here today.

According to Perlis Police Chief SAC Shafie Ismail the location, known as Kubur 24 in Malaysian territory, was located about 100 metres from the Malaysia-Thai border.

“Two of the 12 graves contained two bodies. All the bodies were found properly shrouded,” he said when contacted, adding that the Kubur 24 location had 91 graves.

A total of 35 bodies had previously been brought out from Bukit Wang Burma in Wang Kelian after the Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar announced on May 25 the discovery of 139 graves in 28 camps, believed to have been the transit sites of the human trafficking syndicate.

Shafie said the forensic team and the General Operations Force took more than an hour to bring down the bodies on stretchers and arrived at the Felcra Lubuk Sireh field here at 6.30 pm.

He added that all the bodies were taken by police vehicles to the Sultanah Bahiyah Hospital in Alor Setar for pathology tests.

According to Shafie, if the weather permitted, work to exhume the remaining 79 graves at Kubur 24 was expected to be completed by Tuesday.

He said the main obstacle faced in bringing down the bodies was the rocky and steep terrain which made it impossible to use the services of a helicopter.

Friday 5 June 2015

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Burials from Germanwings flight are delayed by paperwork errors

More than two months after a Germanwings co-pilot deliberately crashed his airliner into the French Alps, the families of the 150 people who perished in the disaster had, at long last, been preparing to put their loved ones to rest.

They had already endured weeks of anguish as French gendarmes recovered human remains from among the blackened wreckage scattered across a mountainside and still more as forensic experts then painstakingly isolated the DNA of all who had been aboard the doomed March 24 flight en route from Barcelona, Spain, to Düsseldorf, Germany.

Funeral announcements had been sent. Travel arrangements had been made. In Germany, home to 72 of the dead, preparations were in the final stages for a ceremony at Düsseldorf Airport as early as Tuesday to receive the coffins as they arrived on a dedicated cargo flight from Marseille, France. Police escorts had been ordered to accompany the hearses home.

So it was no small shock when relatives in 17 countries received an email from Lufthansa on Wednesday informing them that the plans had been upended by a bureaucratic mistake in France. The return of the remains, the families were told, had been “temporarily interrupted” for an indeterminate period because of unspecified “new official instructions,” a development that dumbfounded and infuriated relatives who had until now largely maintained a stoic public silence.

On Thursday, the families of 16 10th graders and two teachers from a high school in the German town of Haltern am See, in North Rhine-Westphalia, published a statement directing their “rage and despair” squarely at Lufthansa, the parent of Germanwings and the main interlocutor for the families since the crash.

“All this tore away loved ones from families,” the statement read. “Must more agony really be added to this pain?”

According to airline and government officials, the delay was linked to the discovery early this week of errors in the information entered into the victims’ death certificates, which rendered them invalid. According to one French official, certain details, including birth dates, were incorrectly transcribed or translated into French from their original language on more than a dozen documents.

Lufthansa and Germanwings on Thursday expressed their dismay over the delays and vowed to move forward with preparations for the repatriation while the families waited for new documents. But it remains unclear when the return of the remains can be rescheduled.

“When we have a fixed date, we will communicate this to the families,” said Heinz Joachim Schöttes, a spokesman for Germanwings. “We are working hard to be able to have this as soon as possible.”

The death certificates had all been signed by Bernard Bartolini, the mayor of the alpine village Prads-Haute-Bléone near the crash site, who along with the mayors of two neighboring villages had been awarded medals from King Felipe VI of Spain on Tuesday during a state visit for their “exemplary” handling of the crash’s aftermath.

Mr. Bartolini acknowledged to a German news agency on Thursday that the documents contained typographical and spelling errors, though he indicated that the number of cases was in the low single digits.

The delay set off a broader outpouring of anger by some of the families over the circumstances of the crash and questions about whether the airline could have done more to monitor the mental health of the 27-year-old co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, and to maintain safeguards against the suicidal intentions of a single crew member.

“Not only because Lufthansa allowed a depressed pilot to fly,” the families from Haltern am See said in a statement, explaining their frustration. “Not only because Lufthansa failed to monitor the depression through its medical controls. Not only because Lufthansa, unlike many other international airlines, was too proud” to adopt rules requiring two people in the cockpit at all times.

The new bureaucratic setback comes as prosecutors in Germany are continuing their investigations into Mr. Lubitz’s medical history and whether the nature and severity of his psychological troubles were understood by the doctors — including flight doctors employed by Lufthansa — who had seen him in the months before the crash.

Separately, prosecutors in France are moving toward a criminal investigation. They are expected in the coming days to formally appoint an investigative magistrate, who will be charged with determining whether there are grounds to pursue Lufthansa or any of its employees for criminal negligence. Legal experts said that investigation, which is similar to a grand jury proceeding in the United States, could take years.

Since the crash, Lufthansa has begun a thorough review of its pilot selection and monitoring procedures. Meanwhile, a German task force involving airlines, regulators, aircraft manufacturers, pilots, psychologists and other experts has been studying the circumstances that enabled Mr. Lubitz to deliberately crash his plane and how to minimize the risk of such disasters in the future.

Similar working groups have been established over the past month by European Union regulators and by the United States Federal Aviation Administration.

The German task force is expected to publish an initial report this summer, which could include some initial recommendations for changes to cockpit door-locking mechanisms or enhanced psychological monitoring of pilots.

Carsten Spohr, the chief executive of Lufthansa, recently proposed that regulators consider introducing random blood tests of pilots to screen for the presence of medications that can be prescribed for certain psychological conditions.

But many airline and pilot groups remain wary of any rush to introduce new rules which might have unforeseen consequences for air safety.

“All pilots are aware that at least you must take a look into all the details to find a way to reduce the likelihood of this happening again,” said Markus Wahl, a spokesman for Germany’s largest pilots’ union, Vereinigung Cockpit. He stopped short of rejecting the idea of testing for antidepressants or other drugs, but he cautioned that “whatever measures are considered must be checked against the chance that this drives sick pilots underground.”

Even if national authorities do manage to eventually agree on new measures, regulators said it could still be years before such steps could be adopted by the international aviation bodies charged with setting global safety standards.

For the families of the Germanwings victims, however, the answers to these larger questions can wait.

At the cemetery in Haltern am See, the city is planting a memorial garden with 18 trees, arranged in a classroom formation, to honor the dead from the town’s Joseph-König-Gymnasium high school. As spring turns to summer, bereaved friends and relatives hold out hope that their loved ones can soon be laid to rest in their shade.

“They want to have their children back,” said Ulrich Wessel, the school’s principal. “And to bury them in their home soil.”

Friday 5 June 2015

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China controls info, isolates boat victims' relatives

Two men with earpieces stand outside the Colorful Days Hotel in downtown Jianli, the city closest to China's worst boat disaster in recent history. At the approach of a journalist, one steps forward, arm extended in an unmistakable sign to come no further.

The hotel is one of dozens in Jianli where relatives of the victims of Monday's cruise ship tragedy are being held, part of the ruling Communist Party's standard response to major disasters.

Closing off the disaster scene, isolating victims' families and restricting or barring media access are all common in such cases. The actions appear rooted in the party's fear that grief and anger could morph into broader criticisms. They worry that other people with similar grievances or political causes might coalesce around such tragedies to form an even bigger challenge.

The government has tightly controlled information about the disaster, which is feared to have killed more than 400 people, though only 75 bodies have been recovered so far. It has focused on the heroism of rescuers, including navy diver Guan Dong, who pulled two people to safety. A day after the disaster, state television began running highlight reels of rescued victims and valiant divers, with a stirring musical soundtrack.

Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at University of Nottingham, said that since smartphones and social media allow virtually anyone to broadly transmit images, the party must keep strict control over disaster sites to "maintain its monopoly on the truth and the narrative."

"Once you have an alternative narrative of any sort that departs from the narrative that all Chinese media are required to follow, then questions will be asked as to what actually happened, who were to blame, did the government handle it properly," Tsang said. "All this could potentially raise questions about the legitimacy of the party to govern."

Since taking power in 1949, the Communist Party has sought to monopolize the news and control the narrative, no less so than in the case of disasters — both man-made and natural. News of the cataclysmic famine of the Great Leap Forward, in which around 30 million died — was kept from the public for decades. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed a quarter-million went unreported as the slow and vastly inadequate response rumbled into action. Even an event as recent as the bloody military suppression of the 1989 student-led, pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square remains a taboo subject.

On Thursday afternoon, official cars carried small groups of relatives to the Colorful Days Hotel, a few kilometers (miles) from where rescuers were cutting into the Eastern Star, which capsized in the Yangtze River in stormy weather. Most carried small amounts of luggage and were accompanied by escorts.

Authorities booked out many hotels in Jianli to keep family members isolated from journalists or other visitors — and to ensure a sufficient supply of rooms in the relatively underdeveloped community. As of Thursday afternoon, about 1,200 relatives of 279 of the passengers — just over half — had arrived in Jianli.

Plainclothes officers stood guard outside designated hotels and notices were issued ordering all government departments and hotels in Jianli to post duty officers on watch around the clock.

Despite the close supervision, one pair of relatives, a brother and sister, went Thursday to Jianli's Rongcheng Crematorium, where they were directed to a reception tent.

Wailing and shouting could be heard from inside as they talked with police officers and government officials, although they were relatively calm when they emerged. They were able to speak briefly to reporters before being bundled into a minivan and driven off.

"Mom was a wonderful person. She didn't deserve to die like this," said the daughter, who gave only her surname, Zhang, and said she was from the northern city of Tianjin.

She said her 60-year-old mother was retired and had been aboard the cruise with six work friends. "We came here because we just wanted to see her face for the last time."

Zhang, who was sobbing, said the authorities had brought them to Jianli and would arrange a visit to the disaster scene later. Civil Affairs Ministry officials said visits now to the accident site could hamper rescue work.

If victims' families do not comply with government demands, it can affect the compensation and treatment they receive. Dissenters can face harassment or worse. In one of the most egregious cases, parents of children killed in poorly built schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake were detained after demanding a thorough investigation into why the buildings collapsed while government offices survived.

In Shanghai, where many of the passengers had booked the cruise, relatives have scuffled with police as they demanded help from authorities. At least two relatives have expressed fears that their phone conversations were being monitored.

Another relative, Qin Meiping, whose 73-year-old father and 49-year-old brother were on the boat, said sadly that they had asked authorities to take them to the site, but that she still didn't know when this would happen.

AP writer Louise Watt in Beijing and news assistant Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report.

Friday 5 June 2015

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Death toll in twin fire, flood disaster hits 200

The death toll in the twin fire, flood disaster has hit 200 with some relatives still desperately searching for their loved ones.

Torrential rains Wednesday night left Accra in crisis as dozens drowned in a sea of flood that washed away humans, properties, pulled down houses and left tunnels, drains choked with debris.

In the midst of the storm, tens of passengers, drivers, petrol station attendants were also burnt to death in a horrifying fire incident at the Goil Filling Station close to the Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra.

Most of the deceased persons were seeking refuge at the filling station and houses and shops nearby but were burnt to death when an explosion occurred at the station.

Charred bodies were retrieved from the scene of the fire but the devastation left behind by the fire will take days or even weeks if not months to repair.

Hospitals have been flooded, not by rainwater but by human bodies driven in several vehicles and dumped at the various morgues.

The 37 Military Hospital has taken 65 dead bodies with 35 survivors on admission at the Intensive Care Unit of the hospital.

Hospital officials say they are sad about the incident but not overwhelmed.

Joy News' Matilda Wemegah who was at the 37 Military Hospital said lots of people who have besieged the hospital are still in a confused state.

They have looked at the surviving victims at the intensive care units, the morgue but still cannot locate their lost relatives.

According to them, the lost relatives cannot be contacted. All their phones are off.

They can't tell if they are alive or dead but they fear the worse.

Meanwhile, rescue efforts are over. Security officers are busy cleaning the debris left behind by the flood and fire.

So far, five cars swept by the floods from unknown destinations and which were trapped in a drain behind the Paloma Restaurant have been pulled out by the Military.

Quite a number of vehicles are yet to be salvaged, the military officials told Joy News Latiff Iddrisu.

Meanwhile, officials are said to be planning a national response strategy to ameliorate the impact of the disaster.

President John Mahama has described the incident as "catastrophic, almost unprecedented."

After touring some of the worst-hit areas, the president said, "we shouldn't continue to behave like the vultures," who would promise to cover its roof but fail to do so once the rain season is over.

He called for a change in attitude by all Ghanaians.

The flagbearer of the opposition New Patriotic Party, Nana Akufo-Addo, described the disaster as the "dark moment" in the history of the capital.

In the wake of the visitation by political players, the Bureau of Public Safety says in memory of the lost souls practical steps must be taken to solve this perennial problem once and for all.

He said officials must with urgency desilt all drains in Accra and demolish all structures in watercourses.

Friday 5 June 2015

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Capsized Chinese ship righted as rescuers find 97 bodies so far; hundreds still missing

A search for survivors on the Yangtze River has turned into a recovery operation, as Chinese officials acknowledged that hundreds of cruise passengers had died in what is likely the country’s worst maritime disaster in 65 years.

Authorities on Friday morning said they had righted the capsized cruise ship, the Eastern Star, signaling that they had given up on finding any more survivors.

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Transport had hinted Wednesday that hope was fading fast, saying rescuers were holding out for a miracle.

Attempts to find survivors by cutting through the capsized hull were fruitless. The Transport Ministry spokesman, Xu Chengguang, was somber at a news conference Thursday night: “What makes us deeply, deeply regretful is that our search of the areas where there was possible presence of survivors didn’t yield any discovery, didn’t create a miracle,” he said. “With no likelihood of survivors, we can start the work of righting and lifting the ship.”

Righting the vessel “will enable an audit of all the cabins to be carried out as quickly as possible and will be good for searching for the missing in the shortest period of time,” the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the emergency-response command center. The salvaging would be done “to preserve the dignity of the dead to the utmost extent,” the command center told Xinhua.

“We have to face this,” said Jin Weifu, 40, whose father-in-law was on board the Eastern Star. “I believe most of us were already prepared for the worst.”

The Eastern Star was carrying 456 people, many of them elderly tourists, when it sank after running into what authorities said was a small tornado. Fourteen survivors have been found, including the captain and the chief engineer. The official death toll rose to 97 on Friday, leaving 345 still missing.

If they are all confirmed dead, the Eastern Star’s sinking would mark China’s worst nautical disaster since the waning moments of its civil war in the late 1940s, when two steamships packed with people fleeing the fighting sank. In 1999, a fire on a ferryboat, the Dashun, traversing the Bohai Bay left 280 people dead. Preparations for salvage work began Wednesday when two 500-ton barges with cranes were maneuvered into place around the capsized vessel, footage on state broadcaster China Central Television showed. Overnight emergency crews cut three holes along different sections of the hull in what CCTV said was a last check for signs of life. Afterward, divers girded the hull in eight places with steel cables to be used in righting the ship.

Built in 1994, the Eastern Star had a maximum capacity of 584 people. A retrofit in 1997 extended the ship’s length by 11 meters, the Transport Ministry’s Mr. Xu said. It underwent another retrofit in 2008 that cut its capacity to 534 people. In both cases, the ship conformed with technical regulations, Mr. Xu said.

Earlier on Thursday, authorities had ordered Chongqing Eastern Shipping Corp., the owner of the Eastern Star, to suspend operations of its sister ship, the Eastern Pearl. The company was also ordered to conduct a comprehensive inspection of the rest of its fleet, according to Xinhua. The Eastern Pearl has the same design as the Eastern Star, it said.

An executive at Chongqing Eastern, Qin Yuping, declined to comment, referring questions to local authorities in Chongqing.

Relatives of those aboard the ship were streaming into Jianli, the county seat nearest the site of the accident. The county government had received more than 1,200 people hoping to see the remains of their loved ones, CCTV said.

Some gathered at the sole funeral parlor in Jianli as hearses carrying bodies drove past lines of paramilitary police.

Officials told relatives they would have to wait to enter the funeral parlor, sparking at least one outburst from a couple that had traveled to Jianli from the northern city of Tianjin.

“She’s my mother! I just want to see the body, see her one last time!” Zhang Hongyi shouted, referring to her 63-year-old mother, Cao Xia, who was traveling on the Eastern Star with five friends. Ms. Zhang’s husband, Hao Guanli, asked whether his mother-in-law’s body would be cremated before they could see it.

Chinese authorities have attributed the accident to sudden high winds just before 9:30 p.m., but also have placed the surviving captain and first engineer under police custody. Passengers’ relatives have raised questions about whether the boat should have continued on after the storm started and despite a weather warning earlier in the evening.

In a sign of potential unrest among the hundreds of relatives who have descended on the small Hubei province county of Jianli, one distraught family member burst into a gathering of journalists to complain about their treatment and demand an investigation into possible human error.

“All the emphasis is on a natural disaster … but we think that this is unjust,” said Xia Yunchen, a 70-year-old university lecturer. “Apart from natural disaster were there other causes? Is this not rational to ask?”

Xia, whose older brother Xia Qinchen, from the eastern coastal city of Qingdao, was a passenger, demanded that relatives be allowed to view their loved ones’ bodies before they are cremated. In past disasters, authorities have instead cremated bodies and delivered ashes to the victims’ families, in keeping with the tight management of the aftermath of disasters and fears of spiraling unrest.

“Why do you view the common people as your enemies?” Xia cried out. “There’s no human feeling, can’t we change this habit?”

Many of the more than 450 people on board the cruise ship were reported to be retirees taking in the Yangtze’s scenic vistas. With 97 confirmed dead and more than 340 missing, the capsizing is likely to become the country’s deadliest boat disaster in seven decades. The 14 survivors of the capsizing including three pulled by divers from air pockets in the overturned boat on Tuesday after rescuers tapped the hull and heard responding yells from inside.

Most of the passengers on the Eastern Star were from Shanghai and cities in nearby Jiangsu province. Family members in Shanghai were told on Wednesday that district governments where they lived would arrange transportation to Hubei.

Among those preparing to travel from Shanghai to Jianli was Mr. Jin, who planned to go there with his wife. “The next step is to focus on appropriate funeral arrangements,” he said.

Friday 5 June 2015

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