Friday, 15 January 2016

The search for Vietnam's war dead: Largest ever DNA identification project is underway to name those who perished 40 years ago

Over forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the remains of nameless civilians and fighters are still being unearthed.

Now efforts have begun to identify the bones of half a million Vietnamese people who went missing during the conflict between 1955 and 1975.

Experts are using DNA technologies to test the remains found around the country in the largest identification effort ever attempted.

Vietnam veteran and genomics pioneer Craig Venter told Nature: 'When I was a 21-year-old in the medical corps there, I never imagined that such a project could ever become possible.

'We thought of body counts as statistics — now, decades later, it may be possible to put names to them.'

Vietnam has only been able to identify a few hundred of its war dead so far using old technologies, leaving thousands of families still desperate to give their long-lost relatives a proper funeral.

In 2014, the Vietnamese government promised to invest 500 billion dong ($25 million or £17 million) in upgrading three existing DNA testing centres so they would be up to the morbid task.

And last month it signed a training contract with Hamburg-based medical diagnostics firm Bioglobe to get Vietnamese DNA experts up to speed with the new technology.

Bioglobe's CEO, Wolfgang Höppner, has said the project still faces considerable challenges.

These include the country's humid conditions, which can degrade the DNA of bodies that were buried in shallow graves decades ago.

The sheer numbers of bones involved is also a hurdle to overcome, meaning a systematic approach is vital, as well as the production of a vast bank of DNA collected from the current population.

An outreach programme is planned to collect saliva samples from volunteers, but since the war was decades ago, samples may have to come from distant relatives whose DNA is less similar, making the task more difficult.

Experts will use kits made by another German-based company called Qiagen, which are designed to reveal as much DNA as possible from tricky sources such as old bones.

They will use these to extract DNA from powdered bone samples before comparing multiple sequences against a set of genomic markers. This will produce a unique DNA profile. The team will also use techniques developed by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).

Finished genetic profiles will be checked against the database of the modern population to try and find living relatives of the dead.

The Sarajevo-based ICMP helped to identify nearly all the people who were killed in the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 as well as others slain during the conflict.

They will now help to train Vietnamese scientists taking on the new momentous identification project.

It will rely on people to come forward with knowledge about where bodies may be buried, as well as military intelligence, unlike in Bosnia where satellite imagery could be used to find mass graves.

Truong Nam Hai, head of the Institute of Biotechnology at the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology – the site of the first upgraded lab – hopes that by next year when the labs are up and running, the remains of between 8,000 and 10,000 people will be able to be identified per year.

Friday 15 January 2015

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Monday, 11 January 2016

Dozens of migrants die in the sea off Somaliland

Dozens of Ethiopian and Somali migrants died in the waters off the breakaway Somalia region of Somaliland when their vessel failed mechanically in the course of the voyage and drifted in the sea, a regional Somaliland official said.

Ahmed Abdi Falay, the chairman or governor of Sanag region, said the boat, which had started its journey from the port of Bossaso two weeks ago and was heading to an unidentified port in the Arabian Peninsula, was discovered by the Somaliland Coast Guard.

"They climbed into the boat and were shocked to find the dead bodies of 10 people and 72 others who were in different stages of suffering, some of them in serious condition," he said from the port city of Maydh on Friday.

“The Coast Guard brought the 72 survivors and the bodies of the dead people ashore. The wounded are being treated and the dead are being buried.”

Another 96 bodies, from the same vessel, were discovered ashore by locals on Friday having been washed in with the tide, Falay added.

Some three members of the crew of the stricken vessel were arrested as they tried to flee into nearby mountains and they will be questioned by authorities, the official said.

Migrants from the Horn of Africa states have for many years made the perilous sea crossing in search of better life abroad, forced out of their countries by conflict, repression and economic hardships.

Yemen serves as a gateway to the rich Gulf countries in the Middle East.

Somalians, Eritreans and Ethiopians make up for most of the migrants who look to cross the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea trying to reach Yemen and beyond in precarious boats, often controlled by unscrupulous human traffickers.

Monday 11 January 2015

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Sunday, 10 January 2016

Sixteen people killed in Mexican bus accident

A bus carrying amateur football players and fans plunged into a river after careening off a bridge in eastern Mexico, leaving at least 16 people dead, authorities said.

Another 10 people were injured in the crash in the municipality of Atoyac in the eastern state of Veracruz.

A preliminary investigation found that the bus was speeding, causing the driver to "lose control" of the vehicle over a speed bump and break through a safety barrier, the state government said in a statement.

The bus "fell into the bottom of the Atoyac river," the statement said, adding that "16 bodies and 10 injured people were recovered".

Local civil protection officials reported an earlier toll of eight dead and 30 injured.

The bus was taking the players to an amateur football game and children were among the passengers.

Sunday 10 January 2015

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Saturday, 9 January 2016

14 dead in two deadly migrant bus crashes in Turkey

Fourteen people, most of them Syrian refugees, were killed and dozens more injured in two deadly bus accidents in Turkey in the past 24 hours, reports said Saturday.

Early on Saturday, a bus carrying migrants hoping to catch a boat to the Greek island of Lesbos overturned and rolled into a gorge in the western Balikesir province, killing seven Syrians and the driver, state-run Anatolia news agency said.

Forty-two others were injured, it said.

In a separate incident a day earlier, a bus carrying migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar slammed into a car in the northwestern Canakkale province, killing six Syrians and injuring 30 others, the private Dogan news agency said.

They were also being driven to a beach from where they would have tried to cross to Lesbos, it said.

Turkey, which is home to some 2.2 million refugees from Syria's civil war, has become a hub for migrants seeking to reach Europe, many of whom pay people smugglers thousands of dollars for the risky crossing.

This week, the bodies of 36 migrants, including several children, were found washed up along the Turkish coast after their boats sank while crossing the Aegean Sea to EU member Greece.

The European Union has pledged to give Ankara three billion euros ($3.2 billion) as well as political concessions in return for its cooperation in tackling Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.

But earlier this week, the EU said it was far from satisfied with Turkey's cooperation in stemming the flow of migrants trying to reach the bloc.

Saturday 09 January 2015

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46 migrants already have perished in the Mediterranean in 2016

It's already looking like 2016 could be another grim, record-breaking year when it comes to the number of migrants and refugees who die or go missing in the Mediterranean Sea.

Just eight days into the new year, 46 migrants and refugees have been reported dead or missing in the Mediterranean Sea, according to new figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That’s the same number of refugees and migrants who went missing or died in the first three months of 2014, and more than half the number who died or went missing in all of January 2015 (82).

Meanwhile, the number of people who have arrived in Greece by sea was 9,930 between January 1 and January 6, an enormous increase when compared to the 5,550 people who arrived by sea in the entire month of January last year.

This year’s fatality and missing numbers are mainly due to two shipwrecks off the Turkish coast earlier this week. Turkish authorities retrieved dozens of bodies, including three children, at two separate locations along the coast of the Aegean Sea (which, for the purposes of its report, the IOM counts as the Mediterranean) after an overcrowded, inflatable boat attempting to reach Greece capsized on Tuesday. The deaths came several days after a 2-year-old refugee became 2016’s first casualty at sea.

Last year was the deadliest year on record for migrants and refugees at sea, according to the IOM. The Mediterranean Sea was by far the deadliest migration route in the world, with 3,771 people perishing in its waters. More than a million asylum seekers arrived in Europe last year, the majority of them from the war-torn nations of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite a deal reached between the European Union and Turkey late last year that saw Brussels agree to provide 3 billion euros ($3.27 billion) in aid in exchange for a crackdown on the flow of people, the number of arrivals to Europe from Turkey has not fallen sufficiently, EU officials said. European countries are still figuring out how to deal with the influx of migrants, as ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq mean the number of arrivals likely won’t slow down.

Germany, one of the most popular destinations for migrants and refugees coming to Europe, is grappling with rising tensions after hundreds of men described as being Arab or North African sexually assaulted and robbed women outside Cologne’s train station on New Year’s Eve, prompting the resignation of the city's police chief on Friday. There are fears that some of the men were part of the refugee influx to Germany in 2015, and German officials are now considering deporting migrants who commit crimes.

Saturday 09 January 2015

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