Wednesday, 29 July 2015

14 bodies found in migrant ship in Mediterranean

An Irish military ship has recovered 14 bodies from a small unseaworthy fishing boat carrying more than 500 migrants.

The vessel was found around 80 kilometres north-west of the Libyan capital Tripoli.

The cause of death is as yet unknown but migrants are offen at sea for says and suffer from dehydration and sun exposure.

A ship operated by Medicines Sans Frontieres helped in the rescue and one of its members, Juan Matias Gil, described the challenge facing Europe.

“It is impossible to believe, it is very difficult to believe, that these people are coming in these conditions. We havent had another major tragedy so far because we have been very lucky and there are rescue boats are around. But for sure the operation is not enough for all the needs that we are facing.”

Later today more than 1,000 migrants are due to arrive at the Italian ports of Messina and Reggio Calabria in the latest wave of people willing to risk the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

So far this year more than 1,900 migrants have died in the attempt.

The European Union is still struggling to formulate a policy on ho to deal with those trying to get to Europe.

Earlier this month the bloc failed to agree on how to spread 40,000 asylum seekers in Greece among its members over the next two years, postponing the decision until the end of the year.

The LE Niamh naval ship, which has so far rescued more than 1,200 migrants as part of the international humanitarian mission, was sent to the scene.

An Irish Defence Forces spokesman said: "During searches of the barge the crew of the LE Niamh recovered 14 bodies from below the deck of the barge."

Wednesday 15 July 2015

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The tragedy of the USS Indianapolis

Its sinking in shark-infested waters 70 years ago is still regarded as the worst naval disaster in US history.

On November 6, 1968, a 70-year-old man was found dead on the lawn of his home in Litchfield, Connecticut.

In his hand he clutched a toy sailor. The body was that of Charles Butler McVay III, a retired rear-admiral in the US Navy.

He had shot himself with his Navy issue revolver but, in some ways, tragedy and injustice had broken Charles McVay many years earlier.

From November 1944 until July 1945, he had served as captain of the USS Indiana polis, flagship of the 5th Fleet.

Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945, the ship was hit by Japanese torpedoes and sank within 12 minutes.

Nearly 900 of the 1,197 aboard survived but they remained adrift in the Pacific for five days before being rescued.

By then only 317 were left. The rest had perished by drowning, dehydration, exposure or shark attacks.

It remains the biggest US naval disaster of the war and Captain McVay, quite wrongly, got the blame.

If they were hungry, they’d eat a little of you. If not, they’d leave you alone. The fear was constant Seventy years later, the tragedy of the USS Indianapolis is to be told in two Hollywood films.

One of them, Men of Courage is in production in Mobile, Alabama, with Oscar-winner Nicolas Cage playing Captain McVay.

Despite its scale, the disaster – and the shameful incompetence of the US Navy high command – remained little known for years.

On July 29, 1945, the Indianapolis was returning from a top-secret mission to deliver enriched uranium and other parts to the island of Tinian in the Pacific.

The materials were destined for use in Little Boy, the atomic bomb that would later be dropped on Hiroshima.

The delivery completed, the Indianapolis called at Guam for a change of crew, then set sail for Leyte, in the Phillippines.

At 12.14am on July 30, two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine struck the ship on her starboard bow.

Three hundred of her sailors never got the chance to obey the order to abandon ship.

No lifeboats or life rafts were launched.

The others jumped into the dark waters of the Pacific, many before they had time to grab a life jacket.

As the Indianopolis sank, her four propellers were still turning.

The ship had no sonar to detect submarines but the crew managed to send three SOS signals.

However, it soon became clear that the 880 drifting survivors faced other perils.

They had no food or water and nothing to cling to except each other.

By day they burned under the fierce sun. By night, they froze.

And then there were the sharks – hundreds of them.

“I saw a shark the first morning after daylight,” recalled Loel Dean Cox, then 19, who had come on duty at midnight.

“I swear some were 15 feet long but then they all looked that big swimming beneath you.”

At first the sharks feasted on the dead bodies but soon they began picking off the living.

“We were losing three or four each night and day,” said Cox.

“Every few minutes you’d see a dozen or two dozen fins coming at you.

"They’d bump you but you never knew when they would attack.

“If they were hungry, they’d eat a little of you. If not, they’d leave you alone. The fear was constant.”

On the third day, Cox saw a shark shoot towards him “like lightning” and take down the man next to him.

“I stayed in half shock after that. All you could do was pray it wouldn’t be you.”

The men huddled together in groups in the hope of deterring the sharks.

At first they talked constantly but as the hours stretched into days, their tongues became swollen with thirst.

Some began to hallucinate. One sailor believed he was in touch by walkie-talkie with a submarine but warned that no one who wet the bed would be rescued.

One of Cox’s friends became convinced the Indianapolis was floating just below the ocean surface and announced he would dive to the second deck where the supply of drinking water was stored.

He resurfaced, raving about how good the water tasted.

Minutes later he choked to death, with brown foam at his mouth from drinking salt water.

On the fourth day, two US Navy aircraft flew over the sailors without seeing them.

Just before sundown, they were finally spotted by a seaplane flying so low that the men in the water could see a man waving.

“That was when the tears came,” said Cox.

“That was the happiest time of my life.”

As he waited for rescue, drifting in and out of consciousness, he became aware of a bright light.

“It came down out of a cloud.

"I thought it was from heaven but it was the rescue ship shining its spotlight up into the sky to give all the sailors hope and let them know someone was looking for them.”

But why had it taken so long to rescue them?

Why was there no response to the three distress signals sent from the Indianapolis?

Before the voyage, Captain McVay had requested a destroyer escort.

Despite the Indianapolis having no sonar and despite evidence of Japanese submarine activity in the area, the request was denied.

Instead, the admirals had simply instructed McVay to adopt a “zig-zag” course. Why?

Captain McVay never got an answer.

Instead he became the scapegoat that the US Navy clearly needed.

In November 1945 McVay was found guilty of “hazarding his ship by failing to zig-zag”.

Even the Japanese commander of the submarine that had fired the fatal missiles testified that zig-zagging would have made no difference.

By then the public were celebrating the Japanese surrender and had little stomach for wartime calamities.

Despite 380 US ships being sunk in the war, McVay was the only captain court-martialled for losing his.

For years the navy denied receiving any distress signal but when they were eventually declassified, papers relating to the disaster revealed that all three had been received and ignored.

One commander was drunk, another didn’t want to be disturbed and the third suspected a Japanese trap.

No one had reported the ship’s failure to arrive in Leyte because no one was tracking it.

McVay retired in 1949 as a rear-admiral but for the rest of his life he was haunted by abusive letters and phone calls from the families of the dead sailors.

Eventually he could take no more. He was finally exonerated in 2000 after an unrelenting campaign by some of the survivors, aided by a 12-year-old Florida schoolboy who interviewed 150 of them for a history project and gave evidence before the US Congress.

Until then, the only mainstream reference to the Indianapolis was in the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, in which shark-hunter Quint, played by Robert Shaw, reveals he survived the sinking.

There are now only 32 survivors of the Indianapolis, among them Richard Stephens who has given his first-hand account to Nicolas Cage.

After five days in the sea, Loel Dean Cox’s hair, fingernails and toenails fell out.

He returned to his home town in Texas and died there in January, aged 89.

The horror had never faded for him. “I dream every night and I have anxiety every day,” he said.

“But I’m living with it and sleeping with it and getting by.”

Wednesday 29 July 2015

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As peace talks advance, Colombia struggles to find its missing

"I know the grave was here," says the ex-combatant, Andres Martinez, wiping his brow as a forensic expert starts in with a shovel near the rural town of Chaguani.

Though it's only mid-morning, the motley team of forensic staff, prison guards and ex-rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have already dug one trench in heavy rain, hoping to find the bones of a victim of the 50-year conflict.

The missing man, who the FARC says was a member of a rival group shot in battle, is one of at least 52,000 Colombians who have disappeared during a long war between Marxist rebels, government troops and right-wing paramilitaries.

Most were killed and buried in unmarked graves across the country.

As the government wades through complex peace talks with the FARC, rights advocates and families of the disappeared hope the rebels will reveal grave locations as part of a deal for them to avoid long prison terms and be allowed to enter politics.

Victims' groups warn that unless more bodies are exhumed, identified and returned to their families, Colombia risks handicapping its post-conflict development.

"The past is going to haunt them," said Christoph Harnisch, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross's (ICRC) office in Colombia.

An estimated 220,000 people have been killed in the war.

The violence, and the unknown fate of so many missing people, has stalled Colombia's development. The government is hoping for a peace deal this year and says its could add 2 percentage points to annual growth, but that would be at risk if implementation goes badly.

Even with an easing of the conflict over the last decade, work inside Congress is often stalled as lawmakers dissect each others' links to different armed groups.

Experts say the challenge facing Colombia could be even greater than in Argentina, Chile and Guatemala - where the disappeared of late-20th century conflicts were largely victims of the government - because so many armed groups are involved, complicating efforts to collect information.

Handcuffed to a prison officer, the ex-FARC fighter Martinez, who will serve just eight years in prison in exchange for information about bodies, points to where he thinks the grave is.

"Length-wise, this way."

"Is the body dismembered or whole?" excavation official Hugo Villalobos asks.


Apart from locating graves, usually in remote jungle or mountain terrain, the biggest obstacles to identification are investigators' lack of training, funding and equipment.

The workload will balloon if a peace deal is signed.

"Obviously it would mean an increase - an exponential increase," says Alvaro Polo, head of excavations for the attorney general's office in Bogota, where forensic staff pore over skeletons in their morgue. He says his team would need to double in size from roughly 70 now.

The ICRC calculates that nearly 70,000 people remain unaccounted for, more than the government's estimate, though some disappearances may be unrelated to the war.

The numbers are high even by the standards of Latin American conflicts. In Guatemala's brutal civil war, up to 45,000 people went missing. About 30,000 "disappeared" under military rule in Argentina, while 3,000 went missing during Chile's dictatorship.


"Until we have bones, something we can say goodbye to, he's still alive," said Marcela Granados, 28, cradling a photo of her father Jose, who was taken by paramilitaries from their ranch in northeast Colombia in 2003.

Despite testimony from a neighbor, who saw him beaten, and the capture of one perpetrator, his remains were never found.

Polo's unit has excavated 6,000 bodies since 2007, more than 10 percent of the government's missing count.

Nearly half of the remains have been returned to families, but another 3,000 bodies lie unidentified in morgues.

Some have preliminary identifications, based on witness testimony or other evidence, but the majority are "pure unidentifieds" - meaning investigators have zero leads.

Victims mostly come from poor, isolated rural families who lack decent communication, hobbling efforts to get DNA samples to match with bodies that have been found.

Rights groups say investigators rely too much on testimony from ex-fighters and fail to use other techniques: interviews with communities, records of armed groups' movements or satellites and radar.

Stefan Schmitt, a German forensic expert who has met with Colombian officials, said Colombia should compile a definitive database of the disappeared because once "flashy exhumations" finish the unidentified stop being prioritized.

"You end up with warehouses full of remains," he said.

Finding the disappeared is easier said than done.

Staff often carry equipment for hours through inhospitable terrain to reach sites and few are certified to use technologies like ground-penetrating radar, said Polo.

Excavations in dangerous areas require army protection or helicopter transport. Captured insurgents sometimes withdraw testimony following threats, canceling exhumations.

Even when digs do occur, they fail to turn up remains at least half the time.

"Peace will bring something big," said forensic anthropologist Maria Alejandra Marino, packing up her equipment after eight hours work at the Chaguani excavation, where no remains were found.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

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