Friday, 1 November 2013

Experts: More must be done to trace missing people

Experts say the ranks of missing people are swelling around the world, including Muslim men murdered and dumped into mass graves in Bosnia, victims of Asia's 2004 tsunami, people killed in Mexico's drug wars, and asylum seekers who drown as they flee conflicts in rickety boats.

Academics and others meeting in The Hague to discuss the plight of missing people called on Friday for more to be done to tackle the problem, saying that would contribute to more stable societies around the world.

Professor Jeremy Sarkin, a member of the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, told a three-day conference that peace will be threatened in nations emerging from armed conflict "if issues relating to the missing continue to exist."

The conference was organized by the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), which was formed in 1996 to help trace and identify thousands of people who went missing during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It has grown into a repository for expertise on using DNA to identify missing people.

The organization is currently working in the Balkans, Iraq, Libya, Cyprus, Chile and El Salvador as well as helping Interpol identify victims of the recent Westgate Mall terror attack in Kenya.

In the former Yugoslavia, it has built up a database of blood samples from more than 90,000 relatives of 29,500 missing people and 54,000 bone samples exhumed from mass graves. Using DNA analysis, the group has identified some 17,000 people killed in the wars, bringing a measure of closure to their relatives.

ICMP Chairman Thomas Miller said exact numbers of the missing worldwide are almost impossible to gauge, but he said thousands of people disappear each year.

"The world needs a global mechanism that has the strength and backing of the international community to successfully address this painful issue," he said.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans appealed for the ICMP to be given a formal status under international law.

"I call upon national governments to support our efforts to make it easier for this organization to operate around the world," he told delegates.

People disappear daily around the world for a variety of reasons, experts say.

In Mexico, the government's war on drugs has triggered a surge in disappearances, said Consuelo Morales, one of the founders of Citizens for Human Rights Support.

She recalled the case of a 3-year-old boy left screaming in a street after his father was abducted by a street gang because he had witnessed a robbery.

"This child lost his father, security," Morales said. "In 15 years, can you imagine what will be in the heart and mind of this child?"

Efforts to track down and identify such victims will help heal the family's wounds, she said. "Without truth, without justice, there can be no peace," Morales told The Associated Press.

In Syria, thousands of people have disappeared in the country's civil war and opposition groups already are planning how best to identify remains after the conflict.

Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a prominent opposition figure, said his group wants to enlist the help of the ICMP in visiting refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan to collect samples from relatives of people who have disappeared during the civil war so their DNA can be used later for identification tests.

"The ICMP has done great work on building a central database, we want to take lessons from them," he said.

Friday 01 November 2013

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Explosion in China firework factory kills seven, injures dozens

Seven people have been killed and 19 others were injured in a fireworks factory explosion on Friday afternoon in south China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, local authorities said.

The explosion occurred at about 4 p.m. in Sanbao County of Cenxi City and a preliminary investigation showed 26 people were injured and sent to hospital, according to the city government.

Seven people died after emergency treatment failed while 19 others remain in hospital for further observation, said the government.

In June, explosion had occurred in a fireworks factory at east China's Jiangxi Province which had taken three lives and injured 45 others.

Friday 01 November 2013

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Explosion at Kumbakonam fireworks factory kills nine, injures 12

A blast at a fireworks factory in Olugucherry in Thanjavur district on Friday killed nine people and seriously injured 12, casting a grim shadow over Diwali celebrations.

Police said Shanalakshmi Fire Works, 30km from Kumbakonam, the site of the worst fire tragedy in Tamil Nadu, manufactured high-decibel 'chanalvedi' (bangers) and rockets.

Around 30 people had gone to the factory to buy fireworks around 2.30pm, and 15 workers were making them when the blast took place. Police said there were 10 two-wheelers parked outside the factory, and the fire could have been set off by a lit cigarette butt.

While such explosions have occurred in fireworks units scattered across Tamil Nadu, it is Sivakasi in Virudhunagar district, the country's fireworks hub where the maximum accidents have taken place. The state government woke up to the dangers of blatant violations by units in Sivakasi after a blast killed 40 people on September 5, 2012, in Muthalipatti village. Central and state officials conducted a series of raids bringing the industry here, the biggest in the country, to a standstill.

Licenses of more than 70 units were cancelled and the vigil was tightened on all the units to ensure they did not deviate from the rules.

The Thanjavur factory's license was renewed in September this year. Inspector-general of police (central zone) M Ramasubramani visited the burnt-down factory in the evening and ordered the arrest of the owner, Krishnamurthy. A thorough investigation will be conducted and maximum punishment would be meted out to the accused," Ramasubramani said. But for a marginal drop, the number of accidents has not come down in proportionate with the drastic action. While there were six fatal accidents in 2012, this year five accidents have been reported so far despite the vigil, claiming 14 lives.

In 2011, there were six accidents in which 21 people were killed. While there are 750 licensed cracker manufacturing units spread across Sivakasi, Aruppukottai and Sattur in Virudhunagar district, there is a thriving cottage industry in the villages.

The checks and the attendant fear among manufacturers have contributed to a 20% to 25% decline in production from last year, with operators looking to play safe. Owners of fireworks manufacturing companies however said there was no short supply as the overall market trend was sluggish and the demand has dropped by half from last year.

Police suspect that most of the people killed in Friday's Thanjavur explosion hailed from Thirupananthal and Anaikarai and had gone to buy fireworks directly from the factory. Pandhanallur inspector Palanichamy said only a thorough investigation would reveal how many of the deceased were visitors, and how many were employees in the factory. The 12 people, who were injured, suffered more than 60% burns and are being treated at Kumbakonam and Thanjavur government hospitals, police said. Thanjavur district collector N Subbaiyan visited the injured in Kumbakonam government hospital.

Friday 01 November 2013

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Mali: Big Step for Justice in ‘Disappearance’ Case

The decision by a judge in Mali to charge and detain three security force members and summon for questioning 17 others for their alleged role in enforced disappearances is an important step for justice in Mali and for the victims’ families. Malian authorities should urgently ensure security for the judge and other judicial personnel investigating the case, and witnesses, and protect the rights of the accused.

The three suspects, a gendarme captain and two soldiers, were taken into custody on October 23 and 30, 2013. They were charged with complicity to commit abduction in the 2012 enforced disappearance of at least 20 soldiers. On October 31, the judge issued mandatory summonses for 17 other soldiers for their role in the same crime, including General Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led a coup in March 2012, when he held the rank of captain.

“The courageous work of Malian authorities investigating this prominent case is a significant and encouraging advance for justice in Mali,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The families of the ‘disappeared’ soldiers have endured terrible suffering and deserve to know the fate of their loved ones.”

In the early morning hours of May 2, 2012, soldiers who had taken part in the March 2012 coup against then-president President Amadou Toumani Touré forcibly disappeared at least 20 soldiers they had detained for their alleged involvement in an April 30, 2012 counter-coup. Most of the disappeared formed part of an elite unit of paratroopers known as the Red Berets. The then-authorities did not acknowledge detaining the men or provide information on their whereabouts, and they are feared dead. Numerous other soldiers who had been apprehended were subjected to torture and inhuman treatment in detention.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 32 people, including 10 victims and 13 relatives of victims, about the enforced disappearances and torture. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that members of the security services loyal to Sanogo carried out the torture and other abuses. The 20 “disappeared” soldiers were last seen alive on May 2, inside Kati Military Camp, 15 kilometers north of the Malian capital, Bamako, which was then the headquarters of Sanogo and his loyalists.

The torture documented by Human Rights Watch and other national and international organizations took place over several weeks in May 2012. The victims described being handcuffed and hogtied, beaten with batons, sticks, and gun butts, and kicked in the back, head, ribs, genitals, and elsewhere. Others said they were stabbed in their extremities and burned with cigarettes and lighters on their backs, hands, arms, and ears.

Several witnesses saw the disappeared men at Kati camp, including one who described seeing military personnel transfer the detainees to a military truck. “They bound their hands and legs, ordered them onto a truck, covered their eyes, and took them away,” the witness said. Another witness provided Human Rights Watch a hand-written list of the soldiers seen in the camp and now disappeared. The mother of one disappeared soldier said that her son had gotten access to a cell phone and told her that military personnel were arguing among themselves about whether to kill him.

There are unconfirmed reports that the men were executed and buried near the town of Diago, 12 kilometers from Kati. In 2012, Human Rights Watch spoke with Diago residents who said rounds were fired on the night of May 2, 2012, but they were too terrified to provide further details. Mali’s donors, including the United Nations, should assist the government with forensic expertise should possible graves of the men be located.

Under international law, an enforced disappearance occurs when the government or its agents take a person into custody but refuse to acknowledge doing so or do not provide information about the person’s whereabouts or fate. Among the rights an enforced disappearance may violate are those to life, liberty, and security of the person, including protection from torture and other ill-treatment. Family members whose loss of their loved ones goes without explanation or redress are also victims of enforced disappearance.

The Malian authorities should broaden their investigation into the other alleged military abuses during this period, Human Rights Watch said. For instance, in July 2012, two journalists writing about abuses following the failed counter-coup were abducted. Abrahamane Kéïta, editor of L’Aurore newspaper, and Saouti Labass Haidara, publisher of L’Independent were taken away by armed, masked gunmen driving pickup trucks with no license plates. The journalists were severely beaten and dumped on the outskirts of Bamako after being warned to stop criticizing the military. Haidara suffered a fractured arm and multiple contusions.

The Malian authorities are also investigating a spate of killings and abductions allegedly carried out between September 30 and October 3, 2013, in and around Bamako by members of the security services who remain loyal to General Sanogo. Sources investigating the case told Human Rights Watch that the bodies of at least four soldiers have been found and at least seven others have been reported missing.

Justice Ministry officials told Human Rights Watch in Bamako on October 30 that the 2013 abuses were under investigation and that they would ensure that justice is done irrespective of the rank of the alleged abusers.

“Respect for rule of law in Mali was grossly undermined by the often outrageous and violent behavior of soldiers loyal to General Sanogo,” Dufka said. “As a matter of urgency, the judge and other judicial personnel working to investigate the abuses must be ensured adequate protection.”

Friday 01 November 2013

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Six die in Kwazulu-Natal tunnel disaster

An eight-ton platform on wheels broke loose from its bearings four kilometres into a hydro-electric tunnel near Ladysmith and killed six construction workers in a freak accident on Thursday.

Seven more were injured, three o f them critically.

The accident happened at 9.15am in one of four of Eskom’s Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme tunnels which link the Braamhoek Dam to the Bedford Dam in the new power generation project.

The platform, on which 13 men were welding and grouting the tunnel’s sides, was set on a steep incline when it broke loose and rolled.

Eskom spokesman Andrew Etzinger said the dead were employed by a contractor and were not Eskom employees. He said psychologists had been sent to counsel the 3 387 workers who had been on the site when the accident happened. “Eskom decided to shut down the site. The workers are all shocked and traumatised.

“We take safety very seriously and this construction was not rushed. When things like this happen it is a tragedy.” Rescuers worked until late on Thursday to recover the bodies.

The power station is one of the government’s infrastructure projects and one of three new facilities being constructed to boost the country’s energy supply.

Emergency worker Marinus Nabal, who spoke to The Mercury during the rescue, said the operation was “a major task”. Nabal, from IPSS Medical Response, said paramedics raced 4km down the tunnel to the trapped men.

“Four bodies were at the bottom section of the rubble and one underneath all the rubble,” he said. Mlungisi Shongwe, a spokesman for the Ingula project, said there was “a lot of construction” happening underground where the accident happened.

The excavation and tunnelling involved a work force of about 900 working different shifts in a 24-hour cycle. In a separate incident earlier this year, one person died after he was crushed by an excavating machine, Shongwe said.

Provincial labour department spokesman Nhlanhla Khumalo said inspectors were on site and investigations under way on Thursday. The R28-billion Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme consists of the upper and lower dam, each capable of holding about 22 million cubic metres of water. The project started in 2005 and is scheduled to be finished next year.

The dams are 4.6km apart and will be connected by the underground waterways passing through a powerhouse with four generators. To generate electricity during peak demand water will be released from the top dam and pass through the turbines into the bottom dam.

During times of low energy demand, the turbines will be used to pump the water back again. President Jacob Zuma sent his condolences to the families of the dead.

“We mourn with the families of all the workers who have lost their lives in this tragedy, while constructing a better life not just for themselves and their families, but also for the entire country. We share their loss and their pain,” he said. Etzinger said the site would remain closed until investigations had been complete.

Eskom chief executive Brian Dames was expected to visit the site on Thursday night and would hold a press conference on Friday. Premier Senzo Mchunu also expressed his shock at the accident.

“Although the circumstance surrounding the accident, which resulted in their demise, is yet to be established, we commend Eskom for moving swiftly to assure the people of this province and the country that an investigation will be instituted,” Mchunu said. Cosatu said it was “bitter” and “pained” at the deaths. “We extend our sincere condolences to the bereaved families at this dark hour.”

Friday 01 November 2013

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Mahbubnagar bus fire: Three bodies identified

Bodies of three out of the 45 people charred to death in the Volvo bus accident near Mahbubnagar near Hyderabad early on Wednesday have been identified, Transport Minister Ramalinga Reddy has said.

Mr. Reddy is in Hyderabad along with senior officials of the Transport Department, including Transport Commissioner K. Amarnarayan, and officials from Raichur, to coordinate efforts to identify victims from Karnataka.

He said relatives of 16 victims from Karnataka had come to Osmania hospital to identify and claim the bodies. “But, the bodies can be handed over only after carrying out a DNA test, which needs at least five to six days,” he told The Hindu over phone from Hyderabad.

The three bodies that were identified were of those passengers who were partially burnt, he added.

The body of Venkatesh Babu (50) who was killed in the accident along with his cousin Anita — they had gone to distribute wedding invitations to actor Chiranjeevi — was among those identified on Thursday. A relative said they identified Venkatesh through a gold ring on his finger and a silver band. A DNA test has to be done before they claim the body.

A team from the Andhra Pradesh Forensic Science Lab will do the DNA tests. Relatives of victims have been told to file a missing person complaint with the Kothakota police station and submit a DNA sample for verification.

Friday 01 November 2013

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