Tuesday, 21 May 2013

10 killed as canoe capsizes in Congo River

Ten people died after a canoe capsized Monday in River Congo, in the DR Congo's southwestern Bas-Congo Province, the regional administrator told the media.

The administrator, Mr Germain Kapula, said that the canoe was transporting 17 people from Madimba to Maselele, to take part in a wedding ceremony.

He said that besides the 10 bodies retrieved, there were three survivors including a baby.

Mr Kapula added that rescue efforts were underway to try and find the four missing bodies.

Canoes are the main means of transport in Bas-Congo Province, but almost all do not undergo any security checks, thus making them unreliable.

Tuesday 21 May 2013


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Arizona desert: Identifying unidentified migrants

In the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office here — repository of the nation’s largest collection of missing-person reports for immigrants who have vanished while crossing the United States-Mexico border — 774 sets of remains awaited identification in mid-May, stored in musty body bags coated in dust.

For the family of Andrés Valenzuela Cota, the remains represent a chance to turn the page on a sad chapter of family history. Mr. Cota was 45 when he disappeared on July 15, 2011, after calling a niece in Los Angeles and asking her to send $100 to a Western Union office in Cananea, Mexico, a staging point for smugglers bringing migrants through Arizona.

As Congress debates the most sweeping changes to the country’s immigration system in decades, the remains stored here are also a nagging reminder of the complicated variables of the border-security equation. The number of migrant apprehensions declined precipitously in recent years, one of the strongest indicators that fewer people have tried to cross the border illegally. But the number of migrant deaths has remained high.

“Less people are coming across,” said Bruce Anderson, the chief forensic anthropologist at the medical examiner’s office, “but a greater fraction of them are dying.”

There were 463 deaths in the past fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30 — the equivalent of about five migrants dying every four days, according to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. In the time federal statistics have been compiled, only 2005 had more deaths, and in that year, there were more than three times as many apprehensions.

As security at the border has tightened, pushing migrants to seek more remote and dangerous routes, the largest number of the deaths last year occurred along the punishing stretch of desert that spans the southernmost tip of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, the busiest along the border.

The only riskier stretch is the Rio Grande Valley sector in Texas, where, from Oct. 1 to April 30, law enforcement officers or ranchers found the bodies of 77 immigrants, or more than half the number of bodies recovered there in all of the past fiscal year: 150.

In that sector, the most deaths have occurred in Brooks County, small and struggling at 944 square miles, where the average household income is $25,000. The number of migrant remains recovered is on pace to double that of last year, a record for the county, at 129, said a county judge, Raul Ramirez. Most of the dead are believed to be from Central America, Judge Ramirez said.

In Tucson, the medical examiner’s office, which handles autopsies for the border counties in the Tucson sector — three of Arizona’s four border counties — received 49 sets of remains from Jan. 1 to May 9, Dr. Anderson said. Each was assigned a number, then photographed, cataloged, weighed and measured. Clothes, tattered by the elements and wildlife, were placed in plastic bags.

For years, identification of the remains was elusive because there were so few clues. Few immigrants from impoverished rural communities could be traced with dental records. ID cards, found in pockets and backpacks, were unreliable because many were forgeries, bought by Central Americans to elude the authorities in Mexico, which the migrants had to cross illegally before reaching the United States.

Assembling the remains, like linking a mandible that arrived in the office early this spring to a set of remains that was missing one, is like solving a grisly puzzle. It requires manually searching the color-coded paper case files lining the walls in Dr. Anderson’s office: one shelf for cases from the late 1990s, when there were few, and the rest for the more than 2,100 deaths since 2001.

“The cause and manner of death is easy: it’s either there or it’s undetermined,” said Dr. Gregory L. Hess, chief medical examiner in Pima County. “It’s what goes on in trying to identify the person that can take a long time.”

Early this month, the office unveiled a computerized mapping database bearing the records of 1,826 migrants who died in the desert, listing GPS coordinates for where they were found and, if known, their sex, age and cause of death. It gives the public the first comprehensive glimpse of the complexity of the problem. Combined, the hundreds of red dots that represent people who died of exposure to the intense desert heat and cold, by far the most common among the causes of death, look like an unshapely bruise.

The project began five years ago, through a partnership with Humane Borders, a nonprofit group that had already been plotting the deaths. An anonymous donor provided $175,000 to develop the database.

The lone mandible had been plucked from deep inside the desert near Three Points, west of Tucson. Angela Soler, a forensic anthropologist at the office, searched the database for bodies found in the same area. There were 52 in a six-mile radius.

Dr. Soler started by focusing on those that were closest. One was the complete body of a man found and identified in 2008. Another was found in 2012, an unidentified Hispanic man between 20 and 35, the most common demographic among dead migrants. She pulled the file and found that the body was missing a mandible. (DNA tests are under way to determine whether they are a match.)

“It took hours to do what might have taken months,” she said.

In March, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office asked the family of Mr. Cota, the migrant who disappeared in 2011, for his dental records to see if he was among the unidentified dead stored there. There were seven possible matches among the bodies found in Cochise County, for which the office handles autopsies and where Mr. Cota is believed to have entered the country, based on what he told his relatives on his last phone call.

A brother-in-law, who asked not to be identified because he feared the drug cartels that control the human-smuggling business, said the family had filed missing-person reports on both sides of the border; visited local hospitals, police stations and prisons in Arizona; and retraced Mr. Cota’s route, posting fliers bearing his name and photograph in communities along the way.

“Every door we’re knocking is closed,” the brother-in-law said. “Nothing opens.”

Mr. Cota lived for 20 years in California, most of it illegally, overstaying a visa. When his mother became deathly ill, he left for Los Mochis, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa, to say goodbye.

In September 2010, he tried to cross back through San Diego using a fake passport, but he was caught and imprisoned for 45 days. After his release, he tried twice to sneak across the border, without success. A relative eventually told him to go to a Mexican border city, Nogales, where a smuggler could bring him into Arizona “for a discounted rate,” his brother-in-law said.

On his last call, Mr. Cota said he was about to start his journey, but had to leave his cellphone behind. He promised to call again in six days.

On May 9, Robin C. Reineke, a cultural anthropologist at the medical examiner’s office, searched the database for a match, going through the cases from Cochise County one by one. Mr. Cota was not among them. The search goes on.

Tuesday 21 May 2013


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Tsunami: Naming the Dead (video)

In Thailand around 5,000 people are thought to have been killed when the giant wave struck on Boxing Day 2004. The number of foreigners reported missing in the disaster prompted the Thai government to enlist the help of forensic experts from across the globe. They set up a specialist disaster victim identification centre, where identification work is still continuing months after the disaster hit.

For those who lost relatives in the disaster the identification and repatriation of a body is essential in allowing them to start rebuilding their lives.

The tsunami swept through an area of Thailand hundreds of miles across, scattering debris and the dead alike. Simply recovering all the bodies was a mammoth task for a police force already stretched to the limit rescuing injured survivors. With so many bodies being recovered, temples were being used as temporary mortuaries. With no electricity or running water they were hardly ideal. But there was simply nowhere else to take them.

Photographs of the bodies had been posted outside these temples. Friends and relatives desperately trawled them for any signs. But for the forensic experts, the idea that relatives could be relying on visual identification was worrying. Mistakes can always be made when distressed relatives try to confirm the identity of their loved ones by sight. In Thailand the conditions made identification even more difficult.

The heat of the Thai sun accelerated the decomposition process, leading to discolouration of the skin and causing the outer layers of skin to begin peeling off. The heat also meant bacteria grew at an extreme rate. Bacteria give off gases which can cause bodies to swell, further hampering visual identification.

The situation was eventually brought under control. A new mortuary was constructed with refrigerated containers for storage of the bodies and purpose-built examination rooms. Only now could the full forensic procedures begin.

Tuesday 21 May 2013


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At least five illegal migrants drown off the coast of northern Morocco

At least five illegal migrants drowned off the coast of northern Morocco as they were attempting to reach Spain, the Moroccan authorities said late on Monday.

The rescue services were alerted to the presence of a "polyester boat with a group of illegal immigrants on board that was in difficulty off the Marchica lagoon, in Nador province," local authorities were quoted as saying by the official MAP news agency.

They arrived at the scene and recovered five bodies, all male, while managing to save seven of the passengers, including four women, who were taken to hospital in Nador for treatment.

Nador lies next to Melilla, a Spanish enclave bordering Morocco on the Mediterranean coast, one of the European Union's only two land borders with Africa, along with the other Spanish territory of Ceuta to the west.

Thousands of African immigrants attempt to reach Spain every year from northern Morocco, either via Melilla or by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, often in overcrowded and makeshift boats.

In the early hours of Monday, more than 30 sub-Saharan migrants stormed the six-metre (20-foot) border fence at Melilla, five of whom managed to penetrate the territory, according to the Spanish authorities.

Last month, 11 African migrants, including three women and two children, died when their boat carrying 34 people capsized in Moroccan waters as it was heading for Spain.

Tuesday 21 May 2013


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Three years on, Mangalore air crash victims a faded memory

It was one of India's worst aviation disasters. But on its third anniversary, not even the memorial to the 158 persons killed in the Mangalore plane crash of May 22, 2010, remains. The IX 812 Dubai—Mangalore flight overshot the runway and crashed into a valley at Bajpe.

The Ground Zero has been overrun by dense foliage. The steel frame of the memorial, which was vandalized five months after it was erected, is gone. The Tannir Bavi burial site, where 12 unidentified victims were laid to rest, is unmarked and can't be easily located. The Air India Express disaster and its victims seem to have been forgotten.

But the tragedy remains etched in the memory of the victims' relatives and those who were closely associated with the victims. One such person is Robert Pinto of Valencia. Yuganthar Rana and Mohammed Ali, Air India crew killed in the crash, were his tenants. His communication with various authorities regarding a memorial at the burial site has been stonewalled.

The last communication regarding a memorial at the mass burial site was by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) to the Dakshina Kannada administration in September 2011, asking for information on the ownership of the site.

"If the allotted site belongs to AAI, the office will take up the matter with the corporate headquarters,'' stated then airport director MR Vasudeva.

Air India sources said: "We cannot go and build a memorial either at Kenjaru Ground Zero as it's private land or at Tannir Bavi because it belongs to the port. The district administration and port authorities have to take a call on this. The port had given the land on the explicit understanding that graves had to be left unmarked and no memorial could be built. There was tremendous time pressure on us at that time to bury the bodies, and the civil administration helped us with that site."

Pinto said the main objection of Air India officials to building a memorial at Tannir Bavi is that a high-tension power line runs over the site. "Weren't they aware of this earlier? Why did they have to chose such a site where the victims' memory cannot be perpetuated," he asks.

Families of the victims are still waiting for the ‘right compensation’ in at least two courts.

“We had questioned the disparity in awarding the compensation of women and children who died in the crash as some of them were given lower than the recommendation of the Montreal convention. The recommendation of the convention does not discriminate women and children when awarding compensation. We had challenged it in the Kerala High Court, but Air India got it set aside through the divisional bench, which forced the Mangalore Air crash Victim’s Families Association (MACVFA) to file a revision petition in the Supreme Court,” said Mohammad Beary, president of the Association.

In the second set of compensation cases, a few families thought that they were entitled for a higher compensation but they did not get what they expected. “18 families questioned the lower compensation in the Mangalore court. The Kerala HC, in its order, had observed that those who were dissatisfied with the compensation, can approach the court. Air India had closed the issue after awarding compensation. In some cases, Air India had given compensations up to Rs8 crore, while in some other cases, the compensation was lower than the recommended sum in the Montreal convention. Hence, the case has been reopened as per the observation of Kerala HC,” Beary added.

However, some of the families of the victims have been quietly leading their lives without bothering much about the legal issues over the compensation. The association membership and attendance of members in the meetings has been dwindling and this time (on May 22) the association may not even hold a meeting of the families as many of them are totally out of contact. “We will have a quiet meeting at the homes of one of the victims in Mangalore and another in Kasargod,” he said.

Rana and Ali were Pinto's tenants for more than two years. Ali, who had got a job in Saudi Arabia, was serving the last 15 days of his contract with Air India.

The 51-year-old Mayankutty K.P. is one of the seven lucky survivors from the Air India Express plane crash in Mangalore three years ago, on May 23, 2010.

Like many of the next-of-kin of the dead victims of the Mangalore plane crash, he has had to engage in a protracted legal battle to claim due compensation for the crash.

Mayankutty, who now works for a real estate company in Umm al Quwain, at half the salary that he used to earn before the tragedy, said he has filed a case in the Kochi High Court with another plane crash survivor, Krishnan Koolikunnu, for claiming due compensation in tune with international civil aviation rules.

He said Krishnan, his co-passenger on that fateful flight, is now unemployed and is searching for a job in Qatar, where he is on a visit visa.

“I am thankful to God that I could escape from the blazing plane and was saved by a fraction of a minute. I was sitting on seat 22F by the window,” he reminisces.

Mayankutty hails from Kannur, Kerala. Most of the air crash victims hailed from Mangalore, Malabar region of Kerala. He travelled to the Mangalore airport, which is almost the same distance as Calicut Airport from his home town.

“All of a sudden there were sudden violent jolts to the plane, and it felt as if the aircraft had hit something. I could see from the window that the front of the plane was on fire, and all I could hear was screaming and crying of my co-passengers, especially children seeking help,” Mayankutty recalls the dreaded event.

“They were shouting in different languages,” he says. “Their cries for help still wake me up at night and I think this will haunt me till my death,” he says.

“I was shocked and did not know what to do because the lights had gone off inside the aircraft. Suddenly, I could see light from a small crack in the middle of the aircraft. After unfastening my seat belt, I rushed to the area and with full force jumped through the small gap,” he says.

“There were many families on the aircraft because it was summer vacation time, and what I could hear clearly were the cries of children calling their parents for help. I thought my death was near.”

Of the 166 people on board the Air India Express Flight IX-812 (Dubai to Mangalore) that crashed in Mangalore on the morning of May 23, 2010, the only survivors were Ummer Farooq Mohammed (26), Joel Pratap D’Souza (24), Mayankutty, Krishnan Koolikkunnu, Pradeep G.K., Mohammed Usman of Hampanakatta and Puttur Ismail Abdulla (35).

After jumping from the aircraft, Mayankutty, then 48 years old, landed in a forest and sustained head injuries, but he ran for life through the thick forest and reached a railway track.

“After I jumped from the plane, the entire plane was on fire and all the people still inside died. I still don’t know how I escaped. As the third anniversary of the tragedy approaches, I keep praying for those who died in the plane crash.”

Mayankutty was rushed to a nearby hospital, and he had only his passport and mobile phone with him. The checked-in luggage, handbag and everything in the plane went up in flames. “It was a very special journey for me because we were planning to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I had bought a special gold ring and necklace as gift for my wife Fathu. I kept the necklace and ring in the suitcase because I wanted to show her immediately after reaching home,” he said. “Even though I lost the gold ornaments, I have presented myself alive as her wedding silver jubilee gift.”

He claims that while some relatives of the crash victims got compensation of up to Rs7,500,000 (approximately Dh515,000), others are still fighting for due compensation. Mayankutty says he received Rs500,000 (approximately Dh34,000).

“I was discharged after undergoing treatment at the Mangalore hospital for four days. I spent five months in India, and lost my job as the Public Relations Officer of Emirates Shipping Company. After six months, I came back in search of a new job and joined a real estate company in Umm al Quwain at half the salary I used to get earlier,” he says.

Krishnan, another passenger who survived the crash, was working as a foreman in a construction company here. “He too lost his job and has been jobless for some time now. He is still searching for a decent job in Doha (Qatar), where he is on visit visa. Many people, ministers, Indian businessmen and companies promised jobs for plane crash survivors and the relatives of the victims. As far as I know, nobody got any job. These were all false promises,” Mayankutty says.

A case has been filed in the Kochi High Court jointly by Mayankutty and Krishnan. After working for a decade in the UAE and earlier in Saudi Arabia, Mayankutty feels that he has to continue working till his elder son, Munavar Mayankutty, currently an MBA student in India, get a decent job.

“I did not want to come back to the Gulf. I did not get a decent compensation from the insurance company. We are still fighting the case in the court,” he said, adding that he is in touch with Krishnan.

Mayankutty, like other survivors, is optimistic that he will get due compensation “On the occasion of the third anniversary of the Mangalore plane crash, I pray for all the victims, including 19 children. I am fortunate to have survived the tragedy,” he says.

“It is unfortunate that we have to fight a case in the court to get compensation. Of course, Rs500,000 is not the right amount of compensation. Some people got Rs7.5 million,” he said. Tuesday 21 May 2013




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Death toll rises to 21 in Indonesian mine collapse

The death toll from a mine tunnel collapse in eastern Indonesia has risen to 21, the US operator said Tuesday, as rescuers searched for another seven workers now also presumed dead.

The accident happened on May 14 at Freeport-McMoRan's Grasberg, one of the world's biggest gold and copper mines in mountainous, remote Papua province, and 10 workers were rescued alive soon afterwards.

Search teams pulled another four bodies out of the rubble overnight, taking the confirmed toll to 21, according to a statement from Freeport's Indonesian subsidiary.

Rescue efforts have been slow due to the unstable situation at the tunnel, with rocks continuing to fall from the roof.

Freeport-McMoRan president and chief executive Richard Adkerson arrived on site at the weekend to visit the injured workers and the families of those still buried, and hundreds have held prayer ceremonies in Papua and Jakarta.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said on Monday that the government would "carry out a thorough investigation into the cause of the disaster, the technological factors, and whether there was any negligence".

Operations have been halted at the mine since last week as a mark of respect for those affected by the accident.

Workers demanding safer conditions were blocking a road leading to the facility for a seventh day, using heavy machinery, such as dump trucks, and planks of wood.

The tunnel was part of an underground training facility, not one of the mining areas. The 38 people inside at the time of the accident were direct employees and contract workers undergoing safety training.

Tuesday 21 May 2013


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Oklahoma tornado: Children trapped in wreckage and at least 91 dead after massive storm rips through suburbs

A tornado that may be remembered as among the largest and most destructive in American history roared through a heavily populated suburb of Oklahoma City, cutting a swathe as much as two miles wide and flattening homes, shops, hospitals and, perhaps most devastatingly, schools that had no time to evacuate.

Officials say the death toll could top 91 with 20 children among those killed - many from a single elementary school that had been ripped apart by the twister, which was said to have sustained circulating winds of 200mph or more. Debris from the twister dropped like rain in Tulsa, a hundred miles away.

Officials made clear that the numbers wounded and killed was likely to rise quickly. At least 120 patients had been rushed to area hospitals of whom 10 had critical injuries, officials said. Also among those admitted for treatment were more than 50 children, they added.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster and ordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts.

The tornado, which for now is measured as an EF4 but might yet be upgraded to a top-level EF5, ploughed through the community of Moore just to the south of Oklahoma City in the early hours of the afternoon. That in itself was unusual. It is more usual for twisters to strike in the evening hours, when schools, at least, have emptied out. The first warnings were issued at about 3.40 pm local time. The twister began its deadly march about eight minutes later.

News network choppers watched as the giant funnel cloud marched with unbearable slowness as commentators speculated where it was landing, block by block. Suddenly, as the nation watched, the funnel ‘roped out’, the moment when the twister dies. It was then only a few minutes before same helicopters turned into the area to see what kind of damage had been done. Very quickly, the terrifying of the carnage became clear.

As ever with tornadoes, the distance between destroyed and untouched could have been measured in feet. But structures that fell on the wrong side of the dividing line were often shredded. As emergency crews rushed in a first, desperate focus of activity was the Plaza Towers Elementary School, where 75 young students and staff were taking shelter when the twister hit. Almost nothing of the school building was left standing when it had passed.

Last night, rescue crews were swarming across the heaps of rubbish that the school had been reduced to, moving gingerly, listening for signs of life below and trying not to dislodge debris that might hurt anyone buried beneath. There was concern that as many as 25 pupils were still not accounted for as darkness fell. But in those few hours of daylight that rescuers had left several of the children were successfully pulled from the rubble alive.

“About two minutes after I got there, the school started coming apart,” said James Rushing, who had rushed to the school moments before the tornado hit. His 5-year-old foster son was enrolled in class there. Children who survived spoke of how teachers had lied down on top of them to offer some modicum of protection.

In May of 1999, the same Oklahoma City suburb was hit by a tornado so powerful it produced the fastest winds ever recorded on the surface of the Earth – just over 300 MPH. It is meanwhile exactly two years since a single tornado killed 158 people in Joplin, Missouri, just the other side of the Oklahoma state line.

Governor Mary Fallin said: “We need lots of prayers tonight”.

“The storm developed very, very rapidly, and we believe there were children in the (Plaza Towers) school. We don't know if any of them were taken out, but we do know there were some children in the school itself.”

Tuesday 21 May 2013


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