Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Relatives seek news of Hazaras missing at sea

Hazara communities across the world are desperately seeking news about relatives who may have been aboard an asylum boat that sank in the Sunda Strait last week following the failure of Indonesian authorities to carry out a search.

More than a week after the sinking, Basarnas, the Indonesian search and rescue agency, has still not carried out a sea or air search for about 60 people still missing.

The accident is now believed to have happened in the southeast reaches of the Sunda Strait in the early hours of Wednesday last week; a report of a suspected sinking in the same area on Friday morning is now thought to have arisen out of confusion surrounding the first incident.

There were about 72 passengers on the Wednesday boat, all believed to be ethnic Hazaras from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Fourteen are now known to have survived the sinking and to have been picked up by local fishermen off the West Java coast.

Immigration officials at Pelabuhan Ratu have confirmed that late on Thursday police handed them the 14 survivors but the men escaped before they could be questioned.

Hazaras from at least five countries are searching for news about missing relatives. Refugee advocates say that in the absence of any help from officials, a Facebook page is serving as a sort of "clearing house" for families.

Yesterday, the page displayed 14 names, purportedly of those rescued after the small fishing boat they were in rapidly took on water. Some clung to pieces of wreckage for 24 hours before being picked up by the local fisherman. There are also photographs identifying those who have not been found yet.

Among them is Rahmatullah Mohammad Jan, a 17-year-old boy who is believed to have boarded the boat hoping his family would follow to escape the Taliban.

According to family friend Mehdi Sabir, who lives in Padua, Italy, the teenager had left Pakistan, where his parents, two sisters and brother now live, only two weeks ago.

The family were refugees who originally came from the Afghan city of Ghazni.

"They said on Wednesday Rahmatullah called them that they are on the way to Australia in an hour. That was the last time Rahmatullah contacted his family. After that his family did not get nothing, no good news. He is missing like this," Mr Sabir told The Australian.

Another photo shows Mohammad Dawood, aged in his 40s, and Mohammad Asif, 15.

Habib Akbari, from Brisbane, said he knew them from Pakistan and their families had asked him to help find them.

"Their family says they were on that boat," Mr Akbari said.

Perth man Daniel Rezaie said he was receiving lots of calls from fellow Hazaras worried that people they knew may have been on the boat.

"They are really distressed about those people," Mr Rezaie said. "Some are calling, saying, 'I'm not sure if my friend was on that boat or not'."

The Australian understands the national police have contacted at least one of the survivors since, but he was unable to give any information useful to searchers.

Basarnas officials say they have located no other survivors or bodies.

Basarnas did not respond to telephone calls from The Australian yesterday.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

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Mistaken identity adds to family's grief over Boston victim

Patty Campbell worried her daughter Krystle might face amputation after a bomb blast at the Boston Marathon wounded her.

The family said doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital told them Campbell had survived -- but that they had to work hard to save her leg.

But when her parents were allowed to see her, they made a heart-wrenching discovery.

The wounded woman wasn't their daughter at all, but her close friend, Karen Rand, who had gone to see the race with her.

Rand had been carrying something with Campbell's name on it. Doctors saw it and assumed it belonged to the patient they were working on.

Rand survived, but Campbell, 29, did not.

She is one of three people who perished when the two bombs blew shrapnel through crowds of thousands at the iconic road race.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

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Rescuers head to site of earthquake near Iran-Pakistan border

Rescue teams were on their way to remote border regions between Iran and Pakistan on Tuesday night, after a powerful earthquake struck.

Though tremors were felt across the Gulf region, Pakistan and well into north-west India after the quake happened at 3.14pm (11.44am UK time), local authorities said there were only limited casualties. However, it was the biggest earthquake in Iran for 40 years and there were fears of massive casualties yet to be reported.

A Pakistani military official said his initial information was that 34 people had been killed and 80 injured in the country, saying all of the dead and injured so far were in the town of Mashkal.

The US Geological Survey said it had measured the earthquake at magnitude 7.8 and gave its location at 50 miles east-south-east of the town of Khash, in Iran. Though the area is largely desert and mountains, there are several major cities, including Zahedan, 125 miles away, which has more than half a million inhabitants.

One Iranian told the Guardian that the small town of Hiduj, which had a population of around 1,000 according to a 2006 census, had been badly damaged.

The Iranian semi-official news agency Fars quoted Tehran University's geophysics centre as saying the quake had hit the south-eastern city of Saravan in Sistan and Baluchistan province at 3.14pm and initially reported that it had killed at least 40 people. However, TV stations later downgraded their estimate to "several feared dead".

Speaking to the Iranian Students News Agency (Isna), Hatam Naroee, the governor of Sistan and Baluchistan province, reported no fatalities.

"Except for a limited number of villages, telecommunication services and electricity wires and water pipelines of other villages close to the epicentre are safe," he said, explaining that the region was sparsely populated.

An official from Iran's Red Crescent Society told Isna that 22 search and rescue teams, including 17 rescue dogs, had been dispatched to the region.

On the Pakistan side, the situation also seemed confused.

"We have reports of three deaths near the Pakistan-Iran border in Mash Khel area of Panjgore district," said a local government official, requesting anonymity.

The official said about 40 people had been injured when wooden roofs and mud walls collapsed. The thinly populated district is one of Pakistan's most underdeveloped, with minimal telecommunication and infrastructure.

Close to magnitude 8 means a powerful quake on a level with the one that killed an estimated 68,000 people in Sichuan province, China, in 2008.

Experts said the depth of the earthquake may have saved many lives.

"The earthquake in Iran was strong but fortunately its source was quite deep, about 80km [50 miles] ... the intensity of the shaking was less than it would have been for a shallower earthquake of the same magnitude," said Dr David Rothery, chair of the Open University's volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis course.

Saleh Mangi, from the NGO Plan International, said he was in a meeting with staff in an office in Thatta, around 65 miles from the Pakistani port city of Karachi, when the ground shook.

"People are afraid to go back to their homes and the government is telling fishing communities not to go into the sea as that would be very dangerous," he said.

There was concern that facilities associated with Iran's nuclear programme might have been affected. But the Bushehr nuclear power plant was not damaged, said an official at Atomstroyexport, the Russian firm that built the plant.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

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45 districts of Pakistan at high risk of being hit by disasters

Forty-five districts in Pakistan are at high risk of being hit by disasters, said Naunehal Shah, the head of Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund’s (PPAF) team on disaster management.

“An integrated approach, which includes measures to prevent disaster and to mitigate its impact, needs to be developed,” he added. He was speaking at the concluding session of a seven-day-long workshop on disaster management organised by PPAF in Hyderabad.

The National Rural Support Programme and three other Sindh-based NGOs, Thardeep Rural Development Programme (TRDP), Badin Rural Development Society (BDRS) and Sindh Agriculture and Forestry Workers Coordinating Organisation (SAFWCO), also assisted in the workshop. Twenty-eight representatives from 24 NGOs attended the closing session on developing systematic rescue, relief and rehabilitation operations to be able to deal with natural disasters.

Rescuing disaster victims

The six-member team of TRDP, whose research centred on rescue measures, felt that designating responsibilities to smaller teams made the rescue process more efficient. They had conducted a simulation project in which they had rescued two people from an imaginary flood in a village of Sanghar.

“The operation begins with obtaining the profile of a particular disaster-hit area,” said Nisar Khaskheli, the team’s leader. “This includes finding out details about its location, the number of households situated in the area and the primary means of income of its residents.” He advised that disaster management teams should establish a camp in the affected area and should mark out its territory. “They should then gather all the facts about the magnitude of the disaster and the people trapped in the area.”

He also stressed that rescue teams must be equipped with a variety of tools and machines so that they could help victims “trapped under debris or surrounded by water”.

Providing relief

Dr Veeram Kumar from BRDS’s team spoke about the process of setting temporary camps for people rescued from disasters and providing them basic goods and services. “Tents, food, water, first aid kits, lavatories and schools are indispensable features of any relief camp,” he said.

He felt that it would take at least 36 hours after any disaster had struck to provide these services to about 1,000 victims.

He also felt that assigning tasks to separate committees of stakeholders increased efficiency.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

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Indonesia’s natural disaster risks, costs rise

When the Ciliwung River breached its banks in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, in January, Abdul Majid rushed to move his family and belongings upstairs.

“When I knew the flood was going to be large, I moved all of my merchandise to the roof of the building to avoid losing it all again,” said the 50-year-old Majid, who runs a small kiosk on the ground flood of his home.

In 2007, the last time the capital of some 10 million residents experienced massive flooding, he lost all his merchandise. “I had to use all of my savings and borrow money to buy new goods,” he said.

His prospects for moving to less vulnerable sections of the city are limited. So, like many residents of the city, he makes do, finding ways to limit his liability and hoping the river will be merciful.

Fewer deaths, more costs

Indonesia is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to natural disasters, but its risks are shifting: Here, as elsewhere in the world, fewer people are dying from floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, even as the economic toll from these disasters is growing.

Preparedness and emergency response to natural disasters have improved worldwide, but equivalent measures to protect economies have lagged, according to Maplecroft, a UK-based consulting firm that publishes an annual Natural Hazards Risk Atlas that assesses countries’ exposure and resilience to natural disasters.

According to Maplecroft, 2012 was the least deadly year for natural disasters in the past decade. Yet estimated damages from natural disasters rose from an average of US$20 billion per year in the 1990s to around $100 billion per year between 2000 and 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“This upward trend is expected to continue as a result of the rising concentration of people living in areas more exposed to natural disasters and climate change,” noted IMF.

Asia will be the hardest hit, with nine of the 10 cities expected to be most prone to coastal flooding by 2070 located there, according to a 2010 World Bank report.

The region has already experienced a steep economic toll from natural disasters in recent years. In 2011, losses in Asia and the Pacific amounted to $294 billion - 80 percent of the global total of $366 billion - according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction’s Asia-Pacific Disaster Report for 2012.

The cost of disaster-related damages in Asia and the Pacific increased 16 times since 1980, while the GDP per capita only grew 13 times over the same period.

In 2012, Samoa, Haiti, Fiji, Pakistan, Madagascar and the Philippines topped the list of countries with the greatest natural hazards-related losses as a percentage of their GDP, according to the Brussels-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. Risk compounded

Although communities in Jakarta have adapted to these risks through painful but practical measures - like habitually sacrificing their ground floors to flood waters - the city’s increasing exposure to natural disasters will likely overwhelm residents in flood-prone areas.

With 13 rivers flowing into the city, Jakarta is naturally prone to flooding. Additionally, as sea levels are rising, Jakarta is actually sinking 3.5cm per year, according to Sutopo Nugroho, a spokesman for National Agency for Disaster Management (BNBP). Some 40 percent of Jakarta now lies below sea level, according to BNPB, making it easier for rainwater to pool rather than drain into rivers or the sea.

Officials estimated that the January floods caused at least $700 million in damage and lost economic activity.

Obstacles to change

Despite their long-term economic benefits, structural changes to the overcrowded megacity have been difficult to implement.

One of the main methods to ease Jakarta’s exposure to property damage is widening the rivers that pass through the city. However, this has only been attempted on a limited basis, said Nugroho.

Some 34,000 families live on the sections of the Ciliwung riverbank that should be dredged, he said. The government has proposed resettling them in government-provided apartment complexes, but a plan has yet to be executed.

The project will involve large costs to the city and is likely to meet resistance from riverside communities, said Nugroho. “There are many instances of people not agreeing to relocate, and I think we will have the same problem with people living along the Ciliwung. Their lives and work are based around where they are currently.”

The government’s growing investment in mitigation - efforts to lessen the risk of devastation from natural disaster - is a step forward, said Aris Marfai from the Faculty of Geography at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, some 550km east of Jakarta.

Disasters in the past decade - including multiple earthquakes, with death tolls in the thousands, and the 2004 tsunami, which killed some 170,000 people in the country - have taught the government to re-conceptualize disaster management, he said.

“Before, the focus was on relief. [It was] mostly reactive,” he said. “But now the government and aid groups are paying more attention to mitigation and preparedness measures.”

The government’s disaster risk reduction (DRR) investments have doubled from less than 0.6 percent of the total budget in 2006 to more than one percent by 2012, according to the UN.

Risks outpace investment

But even this increased investment is outpaced by growing risks, say observers.

Surface water runoff has rapidly increased because of deforestation and construction, which is removing organic materials that naturally absorb rainfall, thus increasing flood risks.

The increasing speed with which runoff from the nearby upland city of Bogor reaches Jakarta - a measure of how much less water is absorbed by the soil - shows that the city is growing more vulnerable, said Marco Kusamawijaya, founder of the Jakarta-based Rujak Centre for Urban Studies.

“Runoff from Bogor used to be discussed in terms of days. Now it’s discussed in terms of hours,” he said. “For over a hundred years, the focus has only been on increasing [Jakarta’s] drainage capacity and not on trying to reduce surface runoff.”

Reducing surface runoff, in part caused by over-construction, is difficult because solutions require regulating growth, which is often seen as constraining growth, said Kusamawijaya.

“Politically, the solutions aren’t easy.”

Wednesday 17 April 2013

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Work stops in recovery of bodies buried in Ghana mine collapse

Recovery of miners buried in the collapse of an open-pit mine in Ghana was halted Tuesday, a day residents of the area do not traditionally work, officials say.

The bodies of 17 people had been recovered before work stopped, Joy News reported.

Local authorities say more of the illegal miners could still be trapped in the abandoned mine.

Municipal Chief Executive Peter Kofi said, "if there is anything to be done, it will be done on Wednesday."

Among the dead is a 19-year-old high school student who had accompanied his mother to the mine, the Ghana News Agency reported. His mother also died.

Five other people were being treated at a hospital in Dunkwa.

The accident occurred Monday when a group of people from the community of Kyekyewere invaded the abandoned God First Mining Enterprise and forced a machine operator to stop filling in the mine, which had been closed after six months of operation, said police commander Chief Superintendent Otu Larbi.

The walls of the mine then collapsed on those people who entered the pit.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

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Iran-Pakistan quake casualty reports vary

The Pakistani army says it has evacuated 16 seriously injured people by helicopter from the site of a deadly earthquake near the Iranian border.

There were conflicting reports about the death toll from Tuesday's magnitude 7.8 earthquake, which was centred in southeastern Iran but also hit Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province.

Initially, a Pakistani military official said 34 had died in Pakistan, but the head of the paramilitary Frontier Corps in Baluchistan, Maj.-Gen. Obaidullah Khattak, later told reporters in the hard-hit Mashkel area that 10-12 people were killed and about 30 injured.

Iran's state-run Press TV initially said 40 people were killed in Iran but later backed away from that figure.

Iran's main state TV channel said Wednesday that only one person was killed — a woman who was struck by falling rocks while she was collecting herbs — and that 12 people were injured.

The discrepancies and apparent backtracking in the reports could not be immediately reconciled. It was the second earthquake to hit Iran in less than week and the area struck Tuesday is remote and difficult to reach.

Quake felt over vast area

The quake toppled homes and shops on both sides of the Iran-Pakistan border and caused skyscrapers to sway in Dubai. It also forced Iranian officials — for the second time in less than a week — to issue assurances that its main nuclear reactor wasn't damaged.

Over 300 Pakistani soldiers, including doctors and engineers, were helping with the rescue and relief effort, the army said. The soldiers have set up a field hospital in the Mashkel area and have distributed food, medicine and blankets. Five army helicopters were participating in the relief operation, and some of them flew the more seriously injured to Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, the army said.

The population of the affected area in Pakistan is up to 15,000 people, and most houses are built of mud, the army said. Estimates of the numbers of homes destroyed in the Mashkel area have varied, with some officials saying the number is over 1,000.

A Pakistani policeman, Azmatullah Regi, said Tuesday that nearly three dozen homes and shops collapsed in just one village in the Mashkel area. Rescue workers pulled the bodies of a couple and their three children, ages five to 15, from the rubble of one house, he said.

One of the region's strongest quakes in 50 years

The U.S. Geological Survey put the magnitude of the earthquake at 7.8 and said it occurred at a depth of 82 kilometres. Press TV said the quake was centred near Saravan, about 50 kilometres from the Pakistani border. The website of Tehran Geophysics Center said the quake lasted 40 seconds and called it the strongest in more than 50 years in one of the world's most seismically active areas.

The quake was felt over a vast area from New Delhi — about 1,500 kilometres from the epicentre — to Gulf cities that have some of the world's tallest skyscrapers, including the record 828-metre Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Officials ordered temporary evacuations from the Burj Khalifa and some other highrises as a precaution.

Pakistani news channels showed buildings shaking in the southern city of Karachi, where people in panic came out from offices and homes.

In 2003, some 26,000 people were killed by a magnitude 6.6 quake that flattened the historic southeastern Iranian city of Bam. Two years later, a magnitude 7.6 quake killed about 80,000 people in northwestern Pakistan and Kashmir and left more than three million homeless.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

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Forensics investigators decode the Boston bombings

Authorities in Boston are looking for those who are behind the bombings. And people from around the world are monitoring their progress.

Do not walk too closely to SUVs parked near Copley Square Hotel on Huntington Avenue. If you do, a dog will lunge, at least from inside a vehicle marked "CAUTION POLICE DOG".

He is held back by thick mesh that covers a window, but his snarl is loud - and menacing.

The dog is part of a K9 unit that is helping with the investigation into the explosions - "the most complex crime scene that we've dealt with in the history of our department," said Ed Davis, a police commissioner for the city of Boston.

He was speaking to a group of journalists who had gathered on Tuesday morning at the Westin hotel. All of them had questions, but there were few answers.

Clues from chaos

Outside, the crime scene looks huge. It is roughly 12 city blocks, according to Mr Davis. Still, it is smaller than before. A day earlier, it was 15 blocks.

The investigators are narrowing their search for evidence.

At first, the authorities were looking for bombs. Now they say there were only two - and they are no longer concerned that there are more.

They have released images that appear to show the remains of a dark coloured backpack and a pressure cooker, as well as a triggering mechanism.

A source close to the investigation said the bombs consisted of explosives placed in 1.6-gallon pressure cookers, one with shards of metal and ball bearings, the other with nails. The bombs were put into black bags and left on the ground, the source told AP news agency.

The authorities are now looking for anything that might have been part of the explosive devices - bits of metal or sharp objects that they might be able to trace back to its owner or owners.

Luckily for them, the site, which is near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, is well documented. "This was probably the most well-photographed areas in the country," Mr Davis said at the press conference.

People took pictures and videotaped their friends and family members as they completed the race. Such a highly-photographed, media-friendly area could make the site a popular pick for a terrorist looking to make a public impact. But the myriad of photos can also provide crucial clues to investigators.

During the Vancouver Riots, for instance, forensic scientists were able to tag criminal activity in crowd-sourced videos and then track those suspects on tape, all while documenting identifying features and clothing.

Doctors say they have found ball bearings and carpenter nails in the bodies of those who were hurt, according to media accounts. These details, however disturbing, are helpful for the investigators.

Investigators can use the material - and even information about them - to put together a more complete picture of the explosive devises and how they were made. At that point, the investigators might be able to find out where the material was purchased - and who bought it. Rebuilding the attack

They are trying to navigate unfamiliar territory.

"We know 9/11, but what do we know since 9/11 that we would define as a terrorist attack?" says Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham Law School's Center on National Security. "This is a different thing."

Since 9/11, there have been close calls, but nothing like what happened in Boston. In New York in 2010, for example, a man named Faisal Shahzad tried to set off explosives in Times Square but failed.

Bombing expert

Nevertheless, some aspects of the investigation are familiar. The authorities are examining the explosive devise. "You try to look for fingerprints," says Marc Sageman, author of Understanding Terror Networks.

The investigators will also "reverse-engineer" everything, says a former military officer who once specialized in bombings in combat zones.

In this way, the investigators will try to understand the mechanics of the attack.

The former officer, who asks not to be identified, says he has been under-whelmed by the tradecraft of the terrorists. They bungled the job, he says - and had only minimal impact.

"It's tragic and horrible, but from a strategic point of view it just shows that they're idiots," he says.

"It was just crappy planning from the get go," he says.

The fact that the terrorist or terrorists killed three people in a crowded area of Boston offers some information about their planning, experience and ability.

If the bombers had been more sophisticated in their approach, they could have killed many more. In this way, the culprits inflicted a smaller amount of damage than they might have if they had been more efficient in their bomb making and delivery.

Luck needed

Despite all the high-tech advances since 9/11 and earlier bombings, like the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Olympic Village bombing in 1996, the biggest breaks may come from good old-fashioned human error.

Mr Sageman says many terrorists do not have the sharpest of intellects, which only helps the investigators.

"People are not always that careful," he says, referring to the perpetrators of these crimes.

After the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, for example, investigators found a car registration number on the axel of a vehicle. That lead law enforcement to a car rental shop in New Jersey, where the bomber later returned.

"The guy who rented the car went back and wanted his money back," says Mr Sageman. "A moron."

In this way, investigations get lucky. "Most of the time they make mistakes," says Mr Sageman, referring again to the terrorists. "Or people brag."

The key to an investigation, he says, is not to have set ideas about what will be found.

"You have to allow the investigation to unfold and to go in there without a prejudiced view," he says.

Meanwhile, the police and their dogs are trying to keep the crime scene clear. At the Marriott hotel on Huntington Avenue, two members of a SWAT team walk through a Starbucks.

Wearing helmets and desert boots, they are heavily armed - and seem better suited for Helmand Province than downtown Boston.

Until there are more answers, this is part of the new normal.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

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