Russia: Focus is on faults, not terror, in plane crash probe

Mon, 2016-12-26

SOCHI, Russia: A pilot error or a technical fault — not terrorism — is likely to be the cause of the plane crash into the Black Sea, Russia’s transport minister said Monday as the nation held a day of mourning for the victims.
All 84 passengers and eight crew members on the Russian military’s Tu-154 plane are believed to have died Sunday morning when it crashed two minutes after taking off from the southern Russian city of Sochi. The passengers included dozens of singers in Russia’s world-famous military choir, nine Russian journalists and Russian doctor known for her charity work in war zones.
More than 3,000 rescue workers on 32 ships — including over 100 divers flown in from across Russia — have been searching the crash site at sea and along the shore, the Defense Ministry said. Helicopters, drones and submersibles were being used to help spot bodies and debris. Powerful spotlights allowed the operation to go on all through the night.
Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said in televised remarks on Monday that terrorism was not among the main theories, and that authorities were looking into a possible technical fault or a pilot error.
Still, several aviation experts noted factors that could suggest a terror attack, such as the crew’s failure to report any malfunction and the fact that plane debris was scattered over a wide area.
“Possible malfunctions … certainly wouldn’t have prevented the crew from reporting them,” Vitaly Andreyev, a former senior Russian air traffic controller, told RIA Novosti.
The plane was taking the Defense Ministry’s choir, the Alexandrov Ensemble, to perform at a New Year’s concert at Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.
The plane originated from Moscow’s military airport of Chkalovsky and stopped in Sochi for refueling before heading to Syria. Despite the Syrian connection, Sokolov said the government sees no need to heighten security measures at Russian airports.
Emergency crews on Sunday found fragments of the plane about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from the shore but a deputy defense minister told Russian news agencies that experts estimated the Tu-154 crash site at 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the shore.
By Monday morning, rescue teams had recovered 11 bodies as well as fragments of bodies. Those were flown to Moscow, where the remains will be identified.
Russian President Vladimir Putin went on television to declare Monday a nationwide day of mourning.
Some choir members did not go to Syria for personal reasons. Soloist Vadim Ananyev stayed behind to help his wife with the kids as they just had a new baby.
“I have lost my friends and colleagues, all killed, all five soloists — I feel in complete disarray,” Ananyev told The Associated Press. “It is such a shame. I have known these people for 30 years. I know their wives and children. I feel terrible for the children and for all that I have lost.”
Ananyev said he had received condolences from all over Russia and from abroad.
“We were loved all over the world, never mind the political situation,” he said.
Mourners stopped by the Sochi Adler airport on Monday to light candles at the airport’s chapel and lay flowers at an improvised shrine that featured photos of the plane and of some victims.
The Tu-154 is a Soviet-built three-engine airliner designed in the late 1960s. More than 1,000 have been built, and they have been used extensively in Russia and worldwide. The plane that crashed Sunday was built in 1983, and underwent factory check-ups and maintenance in 2014, the Defense Ministry said.
The Black Sea search area — which covers over 10 square kilometers (about 4 square miles) — is plagued by underwater currents that can carry debris and body fragments into the open sea. Sokolov said the plane’s flight recorders did not have radio beacons, so locating them on the seabed was going to be challenging.
Russia asked the authorities of Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia, which borders Russia just 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) east of the Sochi airport, to help monitor the Black Sea area for possible plane fragments or bodies.
Despite the transport minister’s comments downplaying the possibility of a terror attack, Russian planes have been hit before by attacks, including one just last year.
In October 2015, a plane carrying mostly Russian tourists back from vacation in Egypt was brought down by a bomb over the Sinai Peninsula, killing all 224 people aboard. The local affiliate of the Daesh group claimed responsibility.

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Massive WWII bomb is defused in German town of Augsburg

Associated Press
Sun, 2016-12-25

FRANKFURT, Germany: Explosives experts have defused a large World War II aerial bomb in the southern German city of Augsburg — clearing the way for thousands of evacuated residents to return and hold their Christmas celebrations at home.
City police tweeted that they had “good news at Christmas” just before 7 p.m. local time.
Prior to that, they had been unable to say how long residents would have to stay away due to the sensitive explosives work being done.
Some 32,000 households with 54,000 residents in the city’s historic central district were forced to leave by 10 a.m. Christmas morning so experts could handle the bomb.

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Major quake jolts Chile resort region; 21,000 homes lose power

Sun, 2016-12-25

SANTIAGO, Chile: A 7.6 magnitude earthquake jolted southern Chile on Sunday, prompting thousands to evacuate coastal areas, but no fatalities or major damage were reported in the tourism and salmon farming region.
Chile’s National Emergency Office (ONEMI) lifted both the evacuation order and a tsunami watch three hours after the Christmas Day quake struck, telling nearly 5,000 people who had evacuated they could return to their homes.
Onemi said one bridge in the area was impassible as crews worked to restore electricity to 21,000 homes without power.
Officials had issued a tsunami warning earlier for areas within 1,000 km (621 miles) of the epicenter, just 39 km (24.5 miles) southwest of Puerto Quellon, off the coast. But the warning was downgraded to a tsunami watch. Eight mostly small ports in the area were closed, Chile’s Navy said.
The quake was felt on the other side of the Andes mountains in Argentina, in the southwestern city of Bariloche, but structural damage in areas close to the epicenter was limited, witnesses said.
The quake’s depth was about 34.6 km (21.5 miles), the US Geological Survey (USGS) said.
“There was a lot, a lot of movement here, but besides that nothing of note, there weren’t houses falling,” said Alamiro Vera, owner of the Cabanas Hotel in the southern Chile fishing town of Quellon. “It was just scary, and some things inside fell.”
A Reuters witness said some roads and at least one bridge were damaged in Quellon, located on Chiloe Island, a tourist destination in Chile’s Los Lagos region.

‘Biggest scare of our lives’
The quake disrupted Christmas plans for thousands of people who fled their homes on foot, in cars and on horseback, seeking higher ground amid torrential rains as sirens warned about the potential tsunami.
Quellon resident Denisse Alvarado was preparing to travel to the countryside to celebrate Christmas with friends when she felt the quake and ran out of her home.
“All of a sudden it shook and shook and shook,” Alvarado, 46, told Reuters. “I thought the house would fall and the ground would open because it was very strong and very loud.”
“It was the biggest scare of our lives,” she added.
Though there were dozens of weaker aftershocks, damage was concentrated along a highway that runs across Chiloe Island, where traffic was shut down in one section and on smaller roads and bridges.
Local television showed damage to some homes, especially in Quellon and surrounding areas.

Salmon zone
The area hit by Sunday’s quake was south of Valdivia, Chile, where 1,655 people died in a 1960 quake ranked by the USGS as the most powerful recorded in Chile.
The region is home to several industrial salmon farms. An official with Chile’s National Fish and Aquaculture Service said several companies had evacuated employees and were evaluating their facilities for possible damage.
Fishing and agriculture company Empresas AquaChile SA said its employees in the watch zone had been evacuated and were safe, adding that there was no damage to its facilities.
Several other companies have industrial salmon farming operations in the region, including Blumar SA, Cia Pesquera Camanchaca SA, Australis Seafoods SA, Multiexport Foods SA, Invermar SA, and the local unit of Norway’s Marine Harvest ASA.
Chile is the world’s leading copper producer, but there are no major mines located near the zone affected by the earthquake.
Chile’s state-run oil company ENAP said its Bio Bio refinery in southern Chile was operating normally. The Puerto Montt airport was operating normally, a spokesman said.
Latam Airlines Group SA and Sky Airlines said their southern Chile routes were operating without major delays.
Chile has a long history of deadly quakes, including a 8.8 magnitude quake in 2010 off the south-central coast, which also triggered a tsunami that devastated coastal towns.

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China’s Suzhou city to halt live poultry trade on bird flu concerns

Sun, 2016-12-25

BEIJING: A Chinese city said on Sunday it will suspend trade of live poultry in the interests of public health after neighboring provinces reported cases of human bird flu infections.
Suzhou, the second-biggest city in the eastern province of Jiangsu, will halt trading of live poultry as of midnight, the official People’s Daily reported on its website.
Two people have died of the H7N9 strain of bid flu in China this winter, the first fatalities among at least seven infections.
In the past week, Hong Kong and Macau have also reported their first human bird flu infections for this season.
H7N9 had not been detected in either humans or animals in China until March 2013.
The city of Shanghai, about 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Suzhou, reported last week that a man had been diagnosed with the H7N9 strain after traveling from Jiangsu.
The two deaths were in Anhui province, west of both Shanghai and Suzhou. Anhui has reported five human infections since Dec. 8.
Authorities in Anhui, which has a population of almost 60 million, have shut some livestock markets and stepped up sterilization to prevent the virus spreading. “A few” chickens had been culled.
In Xiamen, a city in Fujian province also in the east, authorities halted poultry sales on Thursday in one district, after a 44-year-old man was diagnosed with H7N9, state news agency Xinhua reported.
The H7N9 strain does not seem to transmit easily from person to person, and sustained human-to-human infection has not been reported, according to the World Health Organization.
The danger with any such virus is that it mutates and acquires genetic changes that might increase its pandemic potential.
The last major bird flu outbreak in mainland China — from late 2013 to early 2014 — killed 36 people and led to more than $6 billion in losses for the agricultural sector.

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Pakistan releases Indian fishermen in bid to ease tensions with Delhi

Sun, 2016-12-25

KARACHI, PAKISTAN: Pakistan released 220 Indian fishermen on Sunday as a goodwill gesture aimed at easing tensions with its neighbor, officials said.
The men were arrested more than a year ago, accused of entering Pakistani waters in an area of the Arabian Sea where the border is unclear.
India is also holding Pakistani fishermen for the same reason and Pakistan hopes its gesture — on the birthday of the nation’s father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, which coincides with Christmas Day — will be reciprocated.
“We have total of 518 Indian fishermen out of which 220 are being released today as a goodwill gesture of the Pakistan government. In the next phase, 219 fishermen will be released on Jan. 5,” Shunail Husain Shah, a police assistant superintendent, told Reuters.
Relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors have been more fraught than usual since a crackdown by Indian forces on dissent in Indian-controlled Kashmir began in July. In September militants killed 18 soldiers at an Indian army base, an attack New Delhi blamed on Pakistan.
“We appreciate Pakistan’s goodwill gesture of releasing Indian fishermen, but we expect a similar reciprocal move by India, 156 Pakistani fishermen including 13 children are languishing in Indian jails,” Muhammad Ali Shah, president of Pakistan Fisher Folk, a fishermen’s rights body. told Reuters.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea states that fishermen who cross territorial waters can be warned and fined but not arrested, and Shah called on both countries to respect that.
One of the fishermen being released, who goes by the single name Naresh, told Reuters: “I am very happy, looking forward to meet my family back in Gujarat. We were treated nicely here, I will request the Indian government release the detained Pakistani fishermen as well.”

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Anger in Afghanistan at female pilot’s US asylum bid

Sun, 2016-12-25

KABUL: There was an angry reaction in Afghanistan to news that the first female fixed-wing pilot in the country’s air force was requesting asylum in the United States after completing an 18-month training course.
The Afghan defense ministry confirmed on Sunday that Captain Niloofar Rahmani, 25, had sought asylum after the Wall Street Journal quoted her as saying that she feared her life would be in danger if she returned home.
A recipient of the US State Department’s “Women of Courage” award in 2015, Capt. Rahmani had been a symbol of efforts to improve the situation of women in her country, more than a decade after the fall of the Taliban regime.
Mohammad Radmanish, a defense ministry spokesman, said the government hoped that her request would be denied by US authorities who have spent billions trying to build up Afghan security forces.
“When an officer complains of insecurity and is afraid of security threats, then what should ordinary people do?” he said. “She has made an excuse for herself, but we have hundreds of educated women and female civil right activists who work and it is safe for them.”
Capt. Rahmani, who graduated from flight school in 2012 and qualified to fly C-208 military cargo aircraft, had been in the United States on a training course and had been due to return home on Saturday.
In a conservative country notorious for the restrictions placed on women, Rahmani’s story stood out as a rare example of a woman breaking through in areas normally reserved for men.
Her success came at a price, however. The citation for the “Women of Courage” award said she and her family had received direct threats not just from the Taliban but also from some relatives, forcing her family to move house several times.
However, there was little sympathy on Afghanistan’s active social media networks, which were replete with comments criticizing Rahmani, accusing her of wasting government money spent on expensive training and avoiding her responsibilities.
“Niloofar Rahmani took a million dollars from the pockets of the people of Afghanistan to pay human traffickers to get to America to seek asylum,” one Facebook user wrote in comments typical of others.
Dozens of Afghan troops receiving training in the United States have gone missing over the past two years, and at least one has been detained while trying to cross the border to Canada.

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Al-Shabab militants shoot prosecutor dead in Somalia’s Puntland

Sun, 2016-12-25

BOSASSO, SOMALIA: Al-Shabab militants shot dead a military prosecutor in Somalia’s semi-autonomous Puntland region on Sunday, witnesses and officials said, the type of targetted killing that Al Qaeda-allied gunmen frequently commit throughout Somalia.
Al-Shabab’s insurgency aims to drive out African Union peacekeepers, topple Somalia’s Western-backed government and impose its strict version of Islam on the Horn of Africa state.
On Sunday, Abdikarim Hassan Firdiye was shot dead as he got out of his car outside a restaurant in Puntland’s largest city, Bosasso.
Just a few days ago, a regional official’s aide was killed in a similar and targetted attack and, days before that, Al-Shabab gunmen killed the region’s deputy police commander outside a hotel.
“Two teenagers armed with pistols shot him in the head after he got off his car,” Hassan Ahmed, a waiter at the restaurant, told Reuters.
“His bodyguards fired back but the killers had already disappeared by then,” he said.
Abdifatah Haji Aden, Chairman of Puntland’s military court, said: “We believe it was the same militants who killed the other two officials last week that also killed him. We shall pursue them.”
Al Shabab claimed responsibility for the killing.
“Today, we killed a prosecutor who had sentenced many teenagers — many boys and girls — to their deaths for alleged links to Al-Shabab,” said Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, the group’s military operations spokesman.
The Al-Shabab insurgency persists in Somalia as the country struggles to restore order and rebuild infrastructure after more than two decades of conflict and chaos that have left the nation in tatters.
Somalis have been voting for weeks for a new parliament and will vote for a new president on Dec. 28.

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Pope urges peace, comforts terror victims in Christmas message

Agence France Presse
Sun, 2016-12-25

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis urged peace around the world in his traditional Christmas address on Sunday, calling for weapons in Syria to fall silent and offering comfort to victims of terrorism.
As Europe ramped up security for the holiday just days after the truck attack that left 12 dead at a Berlin Christmas market, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics said he hoped for “peace to those who have lost a person dear to them as a result of brutal acts of terrorism.”
Addressing tens of thousands of worshippers gathered at the Vatican to hear the pontiff give his fourth “Urbi et Orbi” (To the City and The World) message, Francis said “far too much blood has been spilled” in Syria’s nearly six-year war.
“It is time for weapons to be still forever, and the international community to actively seek a negotiated solution,” the pontiff told the crowds from the balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
He also urged Israelis and Palestinians to “have the courage and the determination to write a new page of history, where hate and revenge give way to the will to build together a future of mutual understanding and harmony.”
The pope also urged peace in Iraq, Libya and Yemen — “where their peoples suffer war and the brutality of terrorism” — and expressed hope for an end to conflicts in Africa, including in Nigeria and South Sudan.

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French aid worker kidnapped in Mali: France

Agence France Presse
Sun, 2016-12-25

PARIS: A Frenchwoman who runs an aid group has been kidnapped in Mali’s restive north, the French foreign ministry confirmed on Sunday.
Sophie Petronin was abducted in the city of Gao on Saturday, the ministry said, adding that French and Malian authorities were working together “to find and free our compatriot as quickly as possible.”
Petronin was the director of a non-governmental organization that helps children suffering from malnutrition, the ministry said, adding that officials were in contact with her family.
Malian officials had on Saturday reported the kidnapping of a woman with dual French and Swiss nationality in Gao, but the Swiss foreign ministry said Sunday there was no indication that Petronin held Swiss citizenship.
Northern Mali fell to jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda from March 2012. These forces were driven out of key towns by a French-led military intervention the following year.
Barely a week goes by without attacks on security forces despite a peace pact signed last year following lengthy negotiations between the government, groups backing it and ethnic Tuareg rebels. Kidnappings, however, are rare.

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