Sunday, 2 August 2015

Italy coast guard rescues 1,800 sea migrants, five found dead

Italy's coast guard said about 1,800 migrants were rescued from seven overcrowded vessels on Saturday, while five corpses were found on a large rubber boat carrying 212 others.

The dead bodies were found on board at the time of the rescue, a coast guard spokeswoman said on Sunday. The cause of death was not yet known, she said.

The Mediterranean has become the world's most deadly barrier for migrants and refugees, with 3,500 thought to have died at sea last year and almost 2,000 so far this year. Many are fleeing poverty and violence in the Middle East and Africa.

While there was no breakdown by nationality of those rescued on Saturday, about a quarter of arrivals this year have come from Eritrea, followed by Nigerians, Somalis, Sudanese and Syrians, according to the UN refugee agency.

Italy has had about 90,000 sea migrant arrivals so far this year, after receiving 170,000 in 2014, the agency says. Many of the newcomers look to move swiftly to wealthier northern Europe, including to England from Calais, France.

Nightly attempts by large groups of the estimated 5,000 migrants in Calais to force their way through the rail tunnel linking France and Britain have provoked public anger and severely disrupted the flow of goods between the two countries.

Sunday 2 August 2015

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Where are the bodies buried in Colombia?

When members of Colombia’s Crime Scene Investigators (CTI) removed a section of topsoil indicated to them by a demobilized paramilitary member as being the site of a mass grave, they were expecting to unearth skulls, bones and fragments of clothing. Instead what they came face to face with were multiple round holes of medium depths.

“What happened here? Did you bury them standing up?” asked one CTI officer.

Far from it. The bodies of the deceased had been hacked into pieces and placed in tall milk urns and doused in acid. Once the human contents had dissolved and become liquid, the urns were then disinterred and their contents poured into the nearby Magdalena River. No trace no foul and another reminder of how far Colombia has yet to go to reconcile an uncompromising and bloody past. In this particular case, the number of people to have been killed in this fashion near to the colonial town of Guaduas, barely 77 miles northwest from the capital city of Bogota, is based on hazy recollections gathered from former combatants in Colombia’s conflict looking to reduce their sentences through an admission of guilt in participation in such heinous events. Sadly, these tales are the norm rather than unique.

That was in 2010 and as the Colombian government’s negotiating team grapples with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC guerrillas) in on-going peace dialogues in Havana, Cuba in an attempt to bring stability to much of the country, there is still the issue of thousands of missing people, many forcibly disappeared, resulting from more than 50 years of conflict. So, exactly how many people have disappeared in Colombia’s long-running conflict and where have they been disposed of? While the answer to this question in unknown, human rights groups estimate there to be 4,649 common graves across the country.

Through tearful eyes Margarita Restrepo shares with reporters that not a day passes when she doesn’t think of her daughter Carol who disappeared in Medellin in October 2002. 13 years is a long time and Margarita is just one of a group of family members here on the location of a former landfill known as La Escombrera at the westernmost edge of the city and above the infamous Comuna 13 barrio. There has been a ceremony of remembrance and on Monday July 27 authorities began an excavation which will reportedly take five months, in the hope of finding and identifying as many as 100 bodies expected to have been buried here between 1999 and 2004 when paramilitary groups took control of this strategically located district.

Unmarked graves, mass graves and common graves abound in Colombia. The puzzle is finding those who know their whereabouts and who they contain. There’s a discrepancy in numbers as victims’ groups such as Asfaddes Medellín, Movice, Familiares Colombia and las Madres de la Candelaria which all believe there to be as many as 45,000 forcibly disappeared people across Colombia in contrast to the government’s figures of 15,000. Families seeking the whereabouts of loved ones also consider la Escombrera to be of significance in that it could hold the answers to an estimated 300 missing individuals and therefore garland Medellin with the unwelcome fame of being home to the world’s largest urban mass grave.

“They will find some things, but not the quantities that they are suggesting,” said a criminologist knowledgeable in the city and who preferred to remain anonymous in an exclusive interview. “This search is a sophism to create a distraction as the Comuna 13 has become something of a myth,” he continued.

So what is the myth surrounding Medellin’s Comuna 13, a district once routinely believed to be amongst the worst in Colombia’s second city due to gang warfare and drugs? Perhaps the answer is precisely that it has gained its notoriety for being the principal Comuna—of Medellin’s 16 Comunas—which was targeted by former President Alvaro Uribe as the one which required military intervention to pacify it. Thus, the infamous Operation Orion in 2002 was carried out and it is known that the military sent in right wing paramilitary groups first and then followed them up with an all-out assault to wrest this district from the control of leftwing guerrillas such as the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN rebels).

Certainly, this scarred hillside which for so long was a dumping ground for construction materials, household waste and even chemicals, will hold its fair share of secrets, as after Operation Orion, Comuna 13 was run by a ruthlessly savage paramilitary group known as the Bloque Cacique Nutibara under the leadership of alias “Don Berna” or Diego Murillo who was later extradited to the US in 2008 for drug trafficking and money laundering.

The excavations are not without their challenges, requiring digs to 8m in depth and which will focus on three points based on testimonies. To begin with, teams will have to move 24,000m3 of rubble and earth with heavy machinery for a period of two months before even studying the debris.

“No one can really know what they will find and what the state of preservation of the remains will be unless they attempt to excavate and recover the remains. Paleontology and Archaeology teach us that human remains (in particular bones) can survive at great depths, for hundreds of thousands of years, and that sometimes even soft tissue and clothing survive, and DNA can also be extracted. I would like to reiterate that the preservation will depend on the type of soil and whatever was dumped on the remains,” said Dr Karina Gerdau Radonic, Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at the UK’s Bournemouth University.

This situation is hardly unique to Medellin. La Escombrera itself has been visited on no less than four occasions by experts from the Attorney General’s Office since 2004 and as yet nothing of use has been uncovered. Then there are the environmental and geographical elements to consider. Colombia is home to various mountain ranges, is tectonically unstable and at the mercy of landslides, floods and heavy rainfalls across much of the country. There’s the very real fear that many remains will have shifted position from their original burial sites or have been lost altogether.

But, it’s a start down the road which hopefully can lead to closure for families and perhaps reconciliation in Colombia. While members of the leftist FARC guerrillas, involved in the peace dialogues since November 2012, have expressed their solidarity with the victims of the paramilitary killings believed to be in la Escombrera, the rebel group will be forced to recognize those disappearances carried out by members of their own.

It’s a grim reality in today’s Colombia. Killings by illegal groups in the Pacific city of Buenaventura in so-called “casas de pique” or “chop houses”, where the dismemberments of opponents occur, continue as the struggle for control of this strategic port heightens. Body parts are then bagged up weighed down with rocks and tossed out to sea. Where will forensic investigators need to look next? Grave sites attributed to the rise in gangs born from the shells of former paramilitary outfits, have been found in neighboring Venezuela as well. Nowhere, it appears, is exempt from this scourge.

The Attorney General’s website warns that some contents of their pages could be sensitive and may not be apt for minors. Here one can conduct a search through a macabre database showing items of clothing retrieved from common graves and posted online in the hope that a family comes forward to identify the missing person last seen dressed in these items. Another page offers up facial reconstruction renders, there are 64 images from the southern coca-growing department of Putumayo alone.

So, will this excavation at La Escombrera encourage further investigations around Colombia or will it lead up a blind alley and discourage the authorities from pursuing further cases? It’s hard to say. And are demobilized guerrillas or paramilitaries providing the authorities with accurate locations or leading investigators on a ruse? Unsubstantiated rumors abound that a stretch of land near to Medellin known as the Curva de Rodas was another infamous place used by gangs as a disposal area. What is not covered by new-build apartment blocks is a delicately landscaped park. In Bogota, after the military stormed the Palacio de Justicia in November 1985 in response to the siege by M19 guerrillas; those killed in the attack were supposedly unceremoniously dumped in an unused lot near to the Central Cemetery and in a more humble district of the south known as Matatigres.

Unmarked graves, mass graves and common graves abound in Colombia. The puzzle is finding those who know their whereabouts and who they contain. This is clearly easier said than done.

As the Criminologist said: “These groups are organized, the idea is to leave no evidence and no witnesses.”

It is clear that La Escombrera is just a start as thousands of Colombian families yearn for closure in a process which could easily take decades.

Sunday 2 August 2015

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Italian authorities confirm the deaths of 14 people on board a boat carrying hundreds of refugees

Italian authorities have confirmed the deaths of 14 people on board a boat carrying hundreds of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean on Tuesday, July 28th.

According to officials, 456 people are known to have survived and were rescued during an operation conducted by an Irish naval patrol. Among the survivors are several dozen children. The deceased and most of the survivors have been brought to shore to the Italian port of Messina.

The nationalities of those who died have not yet been confirmed. Autopsies will now be carried out on the island of Sicily to determine the exact cause of death.

However, several of the survivors from the vessel have told UNHCR they believe those who died may have suffocated after being forced to travel inside the hull of the boat.

The sea rescue took place in the Mediterranean on the afternoon of July 28, after the Irish naval vessel L.E. Niamh responded to a distress call. The Irish navy has reported that the survivors were discovered on a boat roughly 80 km north of the Libyan coast.

To date in 2015, more than 2,000 refugees and migrants are estimated to have died or gone missing at sea while attempting the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean. More than 1,300 people died in the month of April alone, prompting a number of European leaders to agree on a plan to triple the amount of money devoted to sea rescues.

Many states also committed significant resources and naval rescue ships. In addition, these efforts have been greatly enhanced by the involvement of private and other non-governmental initiatives, including one launched by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a private philanthropic enterprise. All these measures have had a positive impact in reducing loss of life.

According to the Irish Navy, L.E. Niamh has now been involved in the rescue of more than 1,200 people as part of Ireland's contribution to the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

Sunday 2 August 2015

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Landslide kills 20 in Manipur

Around 20 villagers were reported killed in a landslide in Manipur’s Chandel district while a 60-year-old man drowned in Thoubal district in the flash flood triggered by incessant rains and subsequent heavy rain since the last three days inundating many villages and agricutlural fields and washing away five bridges in the districts.

As the heavy rains continued non-stop from Wednesday to Friday, landslide occurred burying around 20 villagers besides sweeping away 12 houses at Joumol village, about 168 km south of here under Khengjoi Sub-division around 6.30 in the morning,sources said. Rescue operations have been undertaken by Assam Rifles and nearby villagers.But the state disaster management team could not reach the spot due to landslides at several locations along the stretch of Imphal-Moreh Highway. Thus, the bodies of the dead could not be retrieved till filing of this report.

"Rescue teams are being sent to Juomol at the earliest and will reach by tomorrow morning because of heavy rains and landslides. The government is trying to mount relief operations as effectively as possible," Chandel lawmaker Victor Nunghlung told NDTV.

What is also hampering rescue operations in the area is the damage to crucial bridges in Chandel, including one that connects Chandel town to the Juomol village. The Manipur govt says the only other route to the village is through Myanmar. This morning, choppers were spotted by local residents in the area, suggesting that the government is trying to mount air rescue and relief operations.

The flash flood inundated some portion of Indo-Myanmar route in Thoubal district and several villages under Heirok,Yairipok, Wangjing, Salungpham, Keirenbikhok, Khangabok, Wabagai, Keirak, Kakching, Hiyanglam-Hiranmei, Langmeidong, Lamjao, Pallel areas besides washing away some houses at Pallel area and one bridge built over a canal at Yairipok area in Thoubal district.

Reports from Thoubal and Chandel districts said authorities have surveyed the damage and the affected people to provide government assistance, sources added.

Two more houses of Chakpikarong Khupi village and four suspension bridges have also been washed away by flood water and Chakpi river, sources added. There were about a dozen worst affected houses around the Chandesl district headquarters and Chakpikarong area. The district authority has opened a relief camp at Maha Union higher secondary school by setting up a control room.

Reports from other districts said major rivers including Imphal, Iril,Kongba,Nambul have started to flow at an alarming level on Saturday. Some of the people residing on the riverbanks have started shifting to safer places.

Sunday 2 August 2015

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