Friday, 26 December 2014

Candles, prayers and tears as Asia mourns tsunami dead 10 years on

Tearful mourners lit candles on Friday to remember the 220,000 people who died a decade ago when tsunami waves devastated coastal areas along the Indian Ocean, in one of the worst natural disasters in human history.

On December 26, 2004 a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off Indonesia's western tip generated a series of massive waves that pummelled the coastline of 14 countries as far apart as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Somalia.

Among the victims were thousands of foreign tourists enjoying Christmas on the region's sun-kissed beaches, carrying the tragedy of an unprecedented natural disaster into homes around the globe.

In southern Thailand, where half of the 5,400 dead were holidaymakers, people recounted stories of horror and miraculous survival as the churning waters, laden with the debris of eviscerated bungalows, cars and boats, swept in without warning, obliterating resorts and villages.

A minute's silence in the resort of Khao Lak, much of which was washed away by the towering waves, was broken by a lone trumpeter, as mourners each lit a single white candle, some sobbing as they illuminated the darkness.

Hundreds of people also lit candles on Patong beach on Phuket island after observing a minute's silence. Afterwards, many placed the candles into a sand sculpture created by students as part of the memorial service.

Among the international commemorations, in Sweden, which lost 543 citizens, the royal family and relatives of the victims attended a memorial service in Uppsala Cathedral.

"Sweden is still traumatised," said Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, who paid tribute to all who died, saying their "lives were extinguished but the memory of their love shines in the night"

There was no warning of the impending tsunami, giving little time for evacuation, despite the hours-long gaps between the waves striking different continents.

In 2011 a pan-ocean tsunami warning system was established, made up of a network of sea gauges, buoys and seismic monitors, while individual countries have invested heavily in disaster preparedness.

But experts have cautioned against "disaster amnesia" creeping into communities vulnerable to natural disasters.

The scale of the devastation in 2004 saw nations initially struggle to mobilise a relief effort, leaving bloated bodies to pile up under the tropical sun or in makeshift morgues.

The world poured money and expertise into the relief and reconstruction, with more than $13.5 billion collected in the months after the disaster.

Almost $7 billion in aid went into rebuilding more than 140,000 houses across Indonesia's Aceh province, where most of the nation's 170,000 victims were claimed.

In the main city, Banda Aceh, several thousand mourners gathered in a park for the nation's official remembrance.

It was near the epicentre of the undersea quake and bore the brunt of waves towering up to 35-metres (115 feet) high.

"Thousands of corpses were sprawled in this field," Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla told the crowd, many among them weeping.

"There were feelings of confusion, shock, sorrow, fear and suffering. We prayed.

"And then we rose and received help in an extraordinary way," he said, hailing the outpouring of aid from local and foreign donors.

The disaster also ended a decades-long separatist conflict in Aceh, with a peace deal between rebels and Jakarta struck less than a year later.

Mosques held prayers across the province, while people visited mass graves -- the resting place of many of Indonesia's tsunami dead.

But a Red Cross display of hundreds of salvaged ID documents and bank cards served as a grim reminder that many victims simply vanished.

In Sri Lanka, where 31,000 people perished, survivors and relatives gathered to remember around 1,000 victims who died when waves derailed a passenger train.

The mourners boarded the restored Ocean Queen Express and headed to Peraliya -- the exact spot where it was ripped from the tracks, around 90 kilometres (56 miles) south of Colombo.

"We had about 15 minutes to move the passengers to safety. I could have done it. We had the time, but not the knowledge," the train's head guard Wanigaratne Karunatilleke, 58, told AFP.

Friday 26 December 2014

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9 killed, 10 missing in Sri Lanka mudslides

At least nine people were killed and 10 others were missing in mudslides triggered by heavy rains Friday in the central hills of Sri Lanka, officials said.

More than 60,000 people have been evacuated and 3,000 homes destroyed as floods and mudslides have covered many parts of the Indian Ocean island in the last four days, disaster officials said.

Nine people were killed and two injured in mudslides Friday in the tea-growing Badulla district when their houses were buried in landslides, said Udaya Kumara, an official at the state disaster management center. Ten others were missing and rescue operations were temporarily halted due to risk of further landslides, he said.

The inclement weather has so far affected more than 500,000 people across the country.

The meteorology department has warned that thundershowers and heavy rains will occur in many parts of the island nation and asked people in coastal areas to be vigilant.

It is monsoon season in some parts of Sri Lanka, but many other areas not normally affected are also experiencing nonseasonal rains.

Dozens of people were killed in October when mudslides buried homes of tea plantation workers in the country's central hills.

Friday 26 December 2014

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At least 30 dead in DRCongo river-boat accident

At least 30 people died when an overcrowded boat hit a rock and sank on the Congo river, sparking riots in which angry youths on the rampage set fire to public buildings, officials said Friday.

"There are 105 survivors and we have pulled up 30 bodies. The search is continuing," provincial government spokesman Monulphe Bosso told AFP.

The accident occurred when an overcrowded boat hit a rock and sank Monday near the village of Yakusu II some 35 kilometres (20 miles) north of the eastern provincial capital of Kisangani.

"At its departure, in Kisangani, the boat embarked 39 people according to the register handed over to the authorities. Perhaps they were trying to cheat river surveillance services... as they took more passengers on board along the way," Bosso said.

"They embarked many more people... the boat was carrying a lot of goods and was also crowded with people. They hit a rock" and it sank, he added.

A government delegation was heading Friday for the town of Isangi, the vessel's scheduled destination, where rioting youngsters on Thursday went on the rampage.

"They set fire to the offices of the river police and the naval force. They're youngsters angered by the loss of their relatives, they say people (the authorities) are not rigorous enough" about making sure safety conditions are complied with, Bosso added.

Shipping disasters occur frequently, leaving many dead on the lakes and rivers of the Democratic Republic of Congo due to overcrowding on old and poorly maintained vessels, a lack of life-jackets and the fact that many people do not know how to swim.

At least 129 people died in December when an overcrowded boat went down on Lake Tanganyika, and in March a shipwreck on Lake Albert left 210 dead and missing.

Friday 26 December 2014

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