Monday, 25 June 2012

Uganda landslides destroy three villages

Massive landslides induced by torrential rains destroyed three villages in the mountainous district of Bududa in eastern Uganda, killing scores of people but possibly hundreds, officials said today.

Disaster Preparedness Minister Stephen Mallinga said it was still too early to say how many had been killed in today's landslides, but officials from Bududa said the final death toll would likely be in the hundreds. "We are sending a rescue team down there," Mallinga said. "It's very difficult to estimate how many have been killed, but two villages are affected, and maybe more."

Witnesses said the landslides were unexpected, happening several hours after a torrential overnight downpour that at first seemed to have done little damage.

David Wakikona, a lawmaker from the region, said most people were likely indoors when huge blocks of mud and rocks started to roll down hills, toppling homes, killing livestock and burying people alive. "We don't yet understand how this all happened, but it's terrible," Wakikona said. "Three villages have been buried."

According to Wakikona, at least 300 people lived in the affected villages.

Officials said rescue teams from the Ugandan army would play a lead role in moving the soil as the search for possible survivors begins.

The Uganda Red Cross said two villages had been destroyed and that at least 15 houses had been buried in the landslides.

It may take time before the full death toll from such disasters is known, as often it requires rescuers working with hoes and shovels to dig through the mud and find bodies trapped underneath.

Landslides are a common occurrence in the hilly parts of eastern Uganda, and they have been especially lethal over the years in those villages where the land is denuded of vegetation cover.

In 2010 massive landslides in Bududa killed about 100 people, destroying everything from the village market to a church.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who visited the scene, said at the time that the landslides were divine retribution for the people's failure to give to the land what they take from it. T

The villages are usually heavily populated, and often they live on land bare of trees.

There has been fierce resistance to a government effort to relocate the most vulnerable people in Bududa and neighboring districts, with some activists there saying it would be even more disastrous to abandon their ancestral homes.

Even those who were relocated to a camp for refugees after the 2010 landslides secretly returned to Bududa, said Mallinga, the disaster preparedness minister. "There's a degree of unwillingness to leave," Mallinga said.

Monday 25 June 2012

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Iraq faces painful legacy of mass graves

Iraq wants to put the legacy of murderous dictator Saddam Hussein behind it, but faces a huge need for specialists to excavate mass graves thought to contain at least half a million unidentified victims.

The stakes are high for Iraq, a country seeking reconciliation with itself, where countless families lost all trace of their relatives during the dictator's 1979-2003 rule or the terrible internecine violence in the years after his overthrow.

Families have not been able to come to terms with the loss, as they have never found the bodies of their loved ones or learned the circumstances of their deaths.

But the process of excavating the mass graves and identifying the victims, which could take decades because of its scope and difficult terrain that includes landmines and unexploded ordinance, requires a highly skilled workforce that does not exist in Iraq.

The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), created on the initiative of former US president Bill Clinton and financed by Western states, has since 2008 held courses for employees of the Forensic Institute and the ministry of human rights aimed at addressing the shortfall.

Plastic skeletons The courses, offered in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in north Iraq, include plastic skeletons buried in the garden of the hospital where they are held. "We try to make the scenario as realistic as possible," said James Fenn, the coordinator of the programme, pointing to 20 participants who were carefully digging in the soil.

Gradually, the outlines of a dozen "bodies" emerge, some with their hands and feet bound, or showing signs of trauma.

The team makes a thorough record of the "grave", making drawings on graph paper and lists of bones and evidence discovered. The approach is very scientific and rigorous. "We have learned to use a trowel and to dig without using machines like bulldozers, as they cause damage and may erase lots of evidence," said Salah Hussein, one of the trainees.

One of his colleagues, Thamer Hassan, has a brother who has been missing since 1987. "Maybe he is in one of the graves," Hassan said, adding that despite this, his motivation was his "duty" as an employee of the ministry of human rights.

Once they have been exhumed, the bones are given to another team from the Forensic Institute in Baghdad, who are charged with examining them.

The trainees examine the bones on a table, trying to determine how many people they might have belonged to, their age and their sex -- and listing the details with care. "It's important for the families," said Dr Dunia Abboud, a 26-year-old dentist. "A lot of families lost a member and don't know what happened to them." "We try to help them," Abboud said. "This helps to do justice."

At least 270 mass graves Some 170 people have been trained since 2008, but the need is huge, said Johnathan McCaskill, the head of Iraq programmes for ICMP.

 The Iraqi government is working under the assumption that there are 500,000 missing people, but some estimates put the number of missing from repression under Saddam's rule, especially against the Kurds and Shiites in the 1980s and 1990s, at more than one million. "The information we started up with was that there are at least 270 different mass graves in the country," McCaskill said.

 Most of Iraq's mass graves date from the time of Saddam's rule, he said, but it is possible that there are some from the bloody sectarian fighting that came in the years after his overthrow, in which tens of thousands of people were killed.

McCaskill said that after Saddam's fall in 2003, some people began to dig on their own, looking for relatives, though this has since been prohibited by law.

The ICMP is also working with the Iraqi government on a DNA identification programme with much more reliable technology. But it is complex and expensive.

Samples are currently analysed at the ICMP headquarters in Sarajevo.

 Meanwhile, the training will continue for at least two years.

But is a course enough to prepare someone for something so disturbing? Thamer Hassan thinks so, saying: "I am ready to work in real graves."

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Monday 25 June 2012

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Heavy Rains Kill at Least 16 in China

BEIJING (AP) — Chinese state media say torrential rains have killed at least 16 people and affected 1 1/2 million people in southern and northern parts of the country.

 The official Xinhua News Agency said Monday that the heavy rains over the past three days had affected 450,000 people and wiped out crops in the southern Guangxi region.

Another more than 730,000 people were affected in the southern province of Jiangxi, and 312,000 were affected in the adjacent manufacturing powerhouse province of Guangdong.

Xinhua quoted a local government official as saying the direct economic losses so far were $20.3 million, and that water levels in 10 reservoirs and several major rivers had risen above warning levels.

Xinhua said rainstorm-triggered floods have also hit areas of Inner Mongolia in the north of China.

Monday 25 June 2012

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Identification of boat victims 'long and complex'

Police say the grim task of identifying victims of the Christmas Island boat tragedy will be long and complex. Twenty officers have been sent from Perth to assist with the coronial investigation.

Seventeen bodies have been recovered and are being stored in a makeshift morgue on the island while about 70 people remain unaccounted for.

WA Police are identifying the dead on behalf of the coroner and Deputy Commissioner Chris Dawson says it is likely to take at least two weeks. "Dealing with tragedy and a major loss of life is not easy for any individual to deal with," he said. "What I can say is that the agencies are working very closely together and West Australian police are just part of a national effort that's taking place."

 A total of 110 asylum seekers were rescued and transferred to a high security detention facility on the island.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority says all of the survivors were rescued on the night of the disaster and the majority were already wearing life jackets when the merchant vessels and navy ships arrived.

AMSA has since been revealed there were unused life jackets seen floating in the water, meaning more asylum seekers could have survived the tragedy.

Mr Dawson says police are interviewing the survivors. "Part of the investigation requires the use of interpreters and interviewing those 110 survivors," he said. "That again is a very long but necessary process to make sure that the state coroner is fully informed as to the circumstances as to how people lost their lives."

Monday 25 June 2012

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Mexico ravine bus crash kills 26

At least 26 people were killed in Mexico on Sunday after the bus they were traveling in turned over on a wet road in the southwestern state of Guerrero, a Red Cross official said.

At least seven people were injured and believed to be in a serious condition, the official said. "In the area where it happened it's raining very hard," he added.

The official said most of the people inside the passenger bus were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the logo of Mexico's Labor Party (PT), a small grouping in Congress supporting leftist presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

A state government press release said the vehicle was headed to the town of Buenavisa de Cuellar, 83 miles (134 kilometers) from the capital of Chilpancingo del Bravo.

The statement said the bus’ brakes gave out, causing it to skid off the road shortly after noon on Sunday. The bus was carrying people to a political rally.

Other emergency crews were dispatched to where the accident took place about 2-1/2 hours drive southwest of Mexico City.

Guerrero state police department had no immediate comment. Mexico holds a presidential election on July 1. Bus crashes and other road accidents are common on Mexico's main roads, causing hundreds of deaths a year.

In April, at least 43 people were killed when a cargo truck crashed into a bus on a highway in the Gulf state of Veracruz, in one of the worst accidents the country has suffered in recent times.

Monday 25 June 2012

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