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Mass exodus as volcano erupts in Indonesia – Asia-Pacific – Al Jazeera English

Mass exodus as volcano erupts in Indonesia – Asia-Pacific – Al Jazeera English.

Booms from Java’s Mount Kelud heard 130km away, while about 200,000 people flee as ash, sand and rocks rain down.

Last updated: 14 Feb 2014 09:11

A major volcanic eruption in Indonesia has shrouded a large swathe of the country’s most heavily populated island in ash, triggering the evacuation of about 200,000 people and closing three international airports.

Indonesia’s disaster agency said two people died on Friday in the overnight eruption of Java’s Mount Kelud, considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the island.

“A rain of ash, sand and rocks” reached up to 15km from the volcano’s crater, national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told the Agence France-Presse news agency. “Sparks of light can be continuously seen at the peak.”

The smell of sulfur and ash hung so thickly in the air that breathing was painful.Insaf Wibowo, Kediri resident

Nugroho said about 200,000 people from 36 villages in eastern Java were being asked to evacuate.

Television pictures showed ash and rocks raining down as terrified locals fled in cars and on motorbikes towards evacuation centres.

Booms could be heard at least 130km away in Surabaya, the country’s second-largest city, and even further afield in Jogyakarta.

Kediri, a normally bustling town about 30km from the mountain, was largely deserted as residents stayed indoors to avoid the choking ash.

“The smell of sulfur and ash hung so thickly in the air that breathing was painful,” Kediri resident Insaf Wibowo told the Associated Press news agency.

Two people were killed when the roofs of their homes collapsed under the weight of the ash and volcanic debris, the disaster agency said.

Tremors on Friday continued to wrack the volcano, which had been rumbling for weeks, but scientists did not expect another major eruption.

Ring of Fire

The 1,731-metre Mount Kelud has claimed more than 15,000 lives since 1500, including around 10,000 deaths in a massive 1568 eruption.

The last major eruption was in 1990, when the volcano kicked out searing fumes and lava that killed more than 30 people and injured hundreds.

It is one of some 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a belt of seismic activity running around the basin of the Pacific Ocean.

Earlier this month another volcano, Mount Sinabung on western Sumatra island, unleashed an enormous eruption , leaving at least 16 people dead.

Sinabung has been erupting on an almost daily basis since September, coating villages and crops with volcanic ash and forcing tens of thousands from their homes.

Japan hit by heaviest snow in decades – Asia-Pacific – Al Jazeera English

Japan hit by heaviest snow in decades – Asia-Pacific – Al Jazeera English.

Severe weather kills seven people, injures 1,000 and leaves tens of thousands without electricity.

Last updated: 09 Feb 2014 07:00

Further snowfall is expected on Sunday in the northern part of the country [AP]
At least seven people have been killed and 1,000 injured as parts of Japan suffered their worst snowfall in decades.Many of the deaths and injuries were caused by snow-linked accidents and car crashes, according to state televiasion channel NFK and the AFP news agency.

As much as 27cm of snow was recorded in Tokyo by late Saturday, the heaviest fall in the capital for 45 years, according to meteorologists.

The northeastern city of Sendai recorded 35cm of snow, the heaviest in 78 years.

Further snowfall is expected on Sunday in the northern part of the country, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

More than 20,000 households are without electricity on Sunday, while airlines have cancelled nearly 300 domestic flights a day, AFP reported.

Nearly 5,000 people were stranded at Narita airport on Saturday as traffic linking the airport to the capital was disrupted, NHK said.

In central Aichi prefecture, a 50-year-old man died after his car slipped on the icy road and rammed into an advertisement steel pole, a local rescuer said.

Mexico energy reform sparks mass protest – Americas – Al Jazeera English

Mexico energy reform sparks mass protest – Americas – Al Jazeera English.

At least 2,500 police officers were deployed but there were no incidents of violence [AFP]
Tens of thousands of people have marched in Mexico City to protest against constitutional reforms pushed through by President Enrique Pena Nieto to open the oil and gas industry to foreign investment.

An estimated 65,000 people gathered for the protest on Friday in the Zocalo – a main square in the capital city – an official at the Secretariat of Public Safety told the AFP news agency.

At least 2,500 police officers were deployed but there were no incidents of violence, the official said.

The march was organised by the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), the leftist opposition to the president’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

One of PRD’s founders, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, claimed that the foreign investors “will be interested in extracting the largest amount of petroleum possible in the shortest amount of time”.

The reforms, which open Mexico’s oil industry to foreign investment for the first time in 75 years, were approved in Congress and ratified by a majority of Mexican states in late 2013.

The rule changes are supported by two of the country’s leading parties, the PRI and the conservative National Action Party (PAN).

In 1938, foreign oil companies were expelled by then president Lazaro Cardenas, who is Cuauhtemoc Cardenas’ father.

“All types of protest are valid” in opposing the reforms, Cardenas told the crowd in the Zocalo, “including civil disobedience.”

The PRD is hoping to hold a referendum in 2015 to overturn the measures.

China on high alert over new bird flu cases – Asia-Pacific – Al Jazeera English

China on high alert over new bird flu cases – Asia-Pacific – Al Jazeera English.

Local authorities set to close live poultry markets in major cities [EPA]
Chinese officials are taking measures to prevent the spread of H7N9, a deadly strain of bird flu that has already killed 22 people this year.Three members of the same Chinese family contracted H7N9 in Hangzhou, the capital of the eastern province of Zhejiang, the worst-affected by the current spike in cases.

Local authorities are set to close live poultry markets in major cities, according to reports in official media.

Live poultry trading will be halted in cities in coastal Zhejiang province from February 15, and neighbouring Shanghai will stop trading for three months beginning on Friday.

So far this year, China has confirmed 110 human H7N9 cases, including 22 deaths, according to an AFP news agency’s tally of reports by local authorities.

By comparison there were 144 infections and 46 deaths in all of 2013, according to official figures.

Zhejiang alone has seen 53 cases this year, almost half the national total, and 12 deaths.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s only wholesale poultry market began culling 20,000 chickens and suspended imports of fresh poultry from mainland China for three weeks after the discovery of the H7N9 bird flu virus in a batch of live chickens from the southern province of Guangdong.

The government order took effect on Tuesday, two days before the start of the Chinese New Year, when poultry sellers generally anticipate a surge in sales.

Easily transmitted

China’s human H7N9 outbreak began in February 2013 and sparked fears the virus could mutate to become easily transmissible between people, potentially triggering a pandemic.

Both Chinese authorities and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have said there has been no evidence so far of sustained human-to-human transmission.

But limited spread, such as between relatives in close contact, is possible, and there have been previous such family clusters.

The WHO said on Wednesday that the spike in cases this year was not surprising due to seasonal factors, rather than a virus mutation.

“Today there is no evidence that the characteristics of the virus have changed in a way that would explain an increase in cases and change in case fatality,” WHO Representative in China Bernhard Schwartländer told the AFP news agency.

Ukraine police dismantle protest camps – Europe – Al Jazeera English

Ukraine police dismantle protest camps – Europe – Al Jazeera English.

At least three protesters have been killed in clashes as Ukraine’s prime minister takes a hard line against demonstrators flouting anti-protest laws.

Mykola Azarov said on Wednesday that anti-government protests had brought “terrorists” onto the streets of Kiev and pledged to punish all “criminal action”, even as protesters confronted police near government headquarters.

“I am officially stating that these are criminals who must answer for their action,” Azarov said.

Wednesday’s violence came after Ukrainian security forces started dismantling barricades at the protest camp in downtown Kiev, where demonstrators and police have been facing off for the past two nights.

It is reported that two of the victims died from gunshot wounds and were found less than three hours apart in a national library close to the clashes.

The third died in a fall from the top of Dynamo football stadium.

Azarov said opposition leaders should be held responsible for the deaths and said that police at the site of the clashes did not have live ammunition.

The wounds resembled those caused by live ammunition, Oleh Musiy, coordinator of the protesters’ medical corps, told the AP news agency.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton on Wednesday urged “an immediate end” to the escalating violence, while the Polish Foreign Ministry has summoned the Ukrainian ambassador.

Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba, reporting from Kiev, said some protesters had become more determined as a consequence of Wednesday’s events.

“It’s not clear how news of the deaths will change the nature of these protests, but for now people are continuing to arrive here at the scene of the clashes,” our correspondent said.

New laws

The violence began when protesters braved heavy snow to remain in Kiev’s central square on Wednesday morning, despite warnings from Azarov that security personnel could use force to disperse demonstrations.

Azarov told Russian television that if “provocateurs” did not stop, the authorities could act under controversial new laws that essentially ban large protests in Ukraine.

Azarov added that he hoped there would be no need for the use of force to disperse the protests.

“We are hoping for common sense,” he said. “People need to understand that they are being offered chaos and destruction.”

On Tuesday, President Viktor Yanukovych refused to meet with an opposition leader, dimming hopes of a peaceful solution to the political crisis.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the situation in Ukraine was spiralling out of control after two months of protests over Yanukovych’s failure to sign a deal with the European Union.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called the situation in Ukraine “very worrying” and said the government should suspend the controversial anti-protest laws.

Violence mars controversial Bangladesh polls – Central & South Asia – Al Jazeera English

Violence mars controversial Bangladesh polls – Central & South Asia – Al Jazeera English.

Violence has marred controversial general elections in Bangladesh, leaving at least 18 people dead in clashes between opposition supporters and police.

Thousands of protesters firebombed polling stations and stole ballot papers as deadly violence flared across the South Asian nation during Sunday’s elections, which was boycotted by the BNP, the main opposition party, and its allies.

Polls closed at 4pm (1000 GMT) after eight hours of voting and final results were expected in the early hours of Monday morning.

Police said more than 200 polling stations were set on fire or trashed by mobs in a bid by the opposition activists to wreck the contest.

AFP correspondents said there were no queues to vote, while local television reported that only a single person voted in the first three hours at one station.

The BNP is protesting against the decision by Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s government to scrap the practice of having a neutral caretaker government oversee elections.

Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Dhaka, said: “The government did everything it could to bring the opposition on board, and blames the opposition entirely for the violence. The opposition, on the other hand, says it will accept nothing less than a neutral caretaker body and this government to step aside.”

Low turnout

With the opposition trying to enforce a general strike as part of a strategy to wreck the polls, government officials acknowledged the turnout was significantly lower than usual.

“The turnout was low, partly due to the boycott by many parties,” Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmad, the election commission head, said without immediately giving a figure.

Two of those killed on Sunday were beaten to death while guarding polling stations in northern districts which bore the brunt of the violence.

“We’ve seen thousands of protesters attack polling booths and our personnel at a number of locations with Molotov cocktails and petrol bombs,” Syed Abu Sayem, police chief of the northern Bogra district, told AFP news agency.

“The situation is extremely volatile.”
He described how thousands of ballot papers had been ceremoniously set on fire.

Most of the other victims were opposition activists who were shot by police, while a driver died of his injuries from a Molotov cocktail attack on his lorry.

“We were forced to open fire after thousands of them attacked us with guns and small bombs,” Mokbul Hossain, police chief in the northern Parbatipur town, said

“It was a coordinated attack. They managed to seize some ballot papers and they tried to steal our weapons.”

In Dhaka, police confirmed at least two petrol bomb attacks on polling stations.

Tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country after around 150 people had been killed in the build-up, but they failed to halt the bloodshed.

The Awami League-led government has accused the BNP of orchestrating the violence and kept its leader, Khaleda Zia, confined to her home for a week.

Outcome not in doubt

The outcome of the contest is not in doubt as voting is taking place in only 147 of the 300 parliamentary constituencies.

Awami League candidates or allies have a clear run in the remaining 153.

The government said it had to hold the vote after parliament’s five-year term expired, but the BNP said it was a joke.

“Yes, the festive mood is missing but this election is essential to ensure constitutional continuity,” Quamrul Islam, deputy law minister, said.

Hasina’s government amended the constitution in 2010 and decided to hold elections under an all-party government.

However, Zia argued that such a government would in effect be headed by the governing party which would undermine the fairness of the process.

More violence feared

Many fear that the election is likely to stoke violence after the bloodiest year of unrest since Bangladesh broke free from Pakistan in 1971.

The former East Pakistan is the world’s eighth most populous nation but also one of the poorest in Asia, and more turmoil will undermine efforts to improve the lot of its population of 154 million – a third of whom live below the poverty line.

A local rights group says more than 500 people have been killed since January 2013, including victims of clashes that erupted after the conviction of Islamists for crimes dating back to the 1971 liberation war.

The main Islamist party was banned by judges from taking part in the election, and its leaders are either in detention or in hiding.

Alarmed by the violence, the US, EU and Commonwealth all declined to send observers.

Speaking to Al Jazeera on Sunday, Amena Mohsin, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, said: “The election has not been democratic. It was an in-house election. The government could have held a more inclusive election and the election commission could have delayed the vote further.”

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