News Flash – 22 December 2017

National News

 

 

Fire in food stall at Bandra railway station; none hurt

Fire broke out at an eatery at platform no. 4 of the Bandra railway station earlier today.

 

 

MUMBAI: A fire broke out in an eatery at the Bandra railway station here in the wee hours today, an official said. No injury or casualty was reported in the mishap. At the time of the incident, there were very few passengers at the station, which is a heritage landmark. The blaze erupted around 4.25 am at the food stall on platform no. 4, a fire brigade official said. Upon getting the information, the fire brigade personnel rushed to the spot and managed to douse the flames, the official said. “The timely action (to put off the blaze) prevented further damage to the roof of the heritage building,” he said. A spokesperson of the Western Railway said, “It was a minor blaze in a stall which was immediately put off. There was no impact on passengers or train operations.” Bandra is one of the busiest railway stations in Mumbai.

 

 

Five burglars arrested from Odisha with RS 17 lakh booty

 

 

NEW DELHI: Five men who had stolen around Rs 17 lakh in cash and diamond and solitaire jewellery from east Delhi were nabbed from the jungle areas of Balasore near Cuttack in Odisha. The stolen goods have been recovered from them. The gang posed as servants to gain access to houses and burgled them. They had targeted several houses in Delhi-NCR, said joint commissioner (eastern range) Ravindra Yadav. Investigations started after a burglary was reported from Priyadarshini Vihar on the intervening night of December 4 and 5. The owner of the house, Tapan Mehndiratta, had gone to dinner at his relative’s house in Karol Bagh with his family. They had left the house in the care of their servant Subrata Malik. Mehndiratta had kept money received from sale of property in a locked room. When the family returned, they found both the money and servant missing. “CCTV footage showed Malik leaving the house around an hour after the family had left for dinner. His phone was switched off,” Yadav said.

 

Police soon recovered Malik’s phone from an auto driver near Preet Vihar who claimed that he had found it lying on the road. “The friends and relatives of the servant were questioned after which it appeared that Malik may have fled to his native village. A team soon left for Odisha. After getting on-ground information and technical inputs from Delhi, the five men were nabbed from various locations in Odisha between December 15-17 with cash and jewellery,” DCP (east) Omvir Singh said. Explaining the modus operandi, Singh said that some of the gang members would find found jobs at affluent houses as servants or guards. The others came to Delhi two months later. They would communicate with the help of cheap phones, stay at lodges and recce the area before striking. After the heist, they would destroy the SIM and handsets and leave the city.

 

 

Gold worth Rs 1.15 cr recovered from plane toilet

 

 

Chennai: Customs officials at Chennai airport seized 4kg gold worth Rs 1.15 crore from a plane toilet on Thursday morning. Specific intelligence was received that gold would be smuggled to India from Dubai. Four gold bars were recovered from Air India AI 906 which arrived from Dubai in the early hours of the day. The flight was bound for Delhi on the domestic leg. During rummaging, two black pouches concealed behind the commode in the toilet were recovered. Two rectangle-shaped heavy objects wrapped with black adhesive tape were found in each pouch. Each gold bar weighed one kilogram and was found to be of 24 carat purity. It bore the marking ‘International Precious Metal Refiners 1 kilo 995 gold’. The gold bars have been seized under Customs act. Investigators say that some carrier could have travelled on the international leg of the flight and left it for another carrier to collect it on the domestic leg. Domestic passengers don’t face the customs scanner and hence have a lesser chance of being apprehended.

 

 

International News

 

 

29 dead in fitness centre blaze in S. Korea: fire service

Smoke rises from a burning building in Jecheon, South Korea.

 

 

SEOUL: At least 29 people were killed and 26 injured Thursday in a major blaze at a fitness centre building in the South Korean city of Jecheon, officials said, in one of the country’s deadliest fire disasters. The fire broke out around 4:00pm local time (0700 GMT) and quickly engulfed the entire eight-storey building, leaving many trapped inside. Twenty victims were found at a public sauna and others elsewhere in the building that houses a fitness centre, public bath and restaurants, the National Fire Agency said. “The fire produced so much toxic smoke so quickly, leaving many people unable to evacuate,” an agency spokesman said. Many victims appeared to been unaware of the fire raging outside the bathhouse until it became impossible to flee, he added. The death toll may rise further as firefighters continue to search the building, the spokesman said. Television footage showed the building consumed by orange flames and issuing dark plumes of smoke, as several people stood waiting to be rescued from an outdoor terrace. Some were seen jumping from the building onto air mattresses laid out on the ground as dozens of fire trucks and more than 100 firefighters rushed to the scene. The blaze – believed to have started in a parking lot on the first floor — has been mostly put out, the fire agency said.

 

Jecheon is in central South Korea, about 120 kilometres (75 miles) southeast of the capital Seoul. The disaster forced organisers of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics to cancel a planned torch relay event at the city on Friday, Yonhap news agency said, citing the organisers. “We decided to cancel the event to mourn the victims,” an unnamed official at the organising committee was quoted as saying. The fire is South Korea‘s worst since 2008 when a blaze at a warehouse in the city of Icheon killed 40 workers. President Moon Jae-In expressed regret over the accident and urged officials to make “utmost efforts” for rescue and search operations, his office said. The worst fire ever to hit modern South Korea was an arson attack on a subway station in the southeastern city of Daegu that left 192 people dead and nearly 150 injured in 2003.

 

 

19 hurt as car ploughs into crowd in Melbourne: Police

Australian police stand near a crashed vehicle.

 

 

MELBOURNE: A car ploughed into a crowd in Australia‘s second-largest city on Thursday injuring 19 people in what police said was a “deliberate act” but one they did not believe was terror related. Witnesses said people were thrown through the air after being hit by the vehicle, which did not appear to be trying to stop as it “mowed everybody down” at a busy intersection in downtown Melbourne. Victoria state police said the 32-year-old driver, an Australian of Afghan descent, was known to authorities for traffic and “minor assault” offences and had mental health issues. The car was driven “intentionally” through the intersection and collided with a “large number” of pedestrians, Acting Chief Commissioner Shane Patton told reporters in Melbourne. The driver “has a history of drug use and mental health issues… At this time we do not have any evidence or intelligence to indicate a connection with terrorism” or extremism, he said. The man was arrested after a tussle with an off-duty police officer. Investigators were waiting to interview the driver, who was in hospital under police guard. Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews, called the incident an “evil, deliberate, cowardly act” that left 19 people hurt — four of them critically. In a tweet, police appealed to members of the public to upload any images they might have of the incident to help assist with their investigation. A witness, named only as Sue, told Melbourne radio station 3AW that she heard screams and saw “people flying everywhere”.

 

“We could hear this noise, as we looked left, we saw this white car, it just mowed everybody down,” she said. “People are flying everywhere. We heard thump, thump. People are running everywhere”. Another witness, John, told ABC Radio Melbourne that he saw an “SUV coming at high speed”. “(I) really just heard the collision with people with bags and what must be shopping trolleys — and I hope not prams,” he said. “I’ve really never seen anything like this before and I haven’t stopped shaking”. The intersection is one of Melbourne’s busiest, a local shop owner told national broadcaster ABC, and is particularly crowded at this time of the year ahead of the Christmas break, with school holidays under way. The incident came after a car mowed down pedestrians in Melbourne’s busiest mall in January, killing six people. The driver, whose case is still being heard in court, had been pursued by police prior to the rampage after he had allegedly stabbed his brother. Canberra has become increasingly worried about homegrown extremism and officials say they have prevented 13 terror attacks on home soil in the past few years. The Australian government in August unveiled a strategy aimed at preventing vehicle attacks in crowded public places.

 

Suggested steps include deterrent options like fencing and closed circuit cameras, and delaying approaches such as trees and bollards to slow down vehicles. Melbourne has also been installing a public siren system and more security cameras to warn people of a possible terrorist attack or other serious threats. Andrews said there would an inquiry into the incident, and whether any further changes to Melbourne’s security measures needed to be made. Over the next few days, hundreds more police would patrol the city, he added. While the circumstances surrounding Thursday’s incident were still unclear, there have been several cases of vehicles being used to deliberately maim and kill. The most deadly such case was in the southern French city of Nice on July 14, 2016, when 31-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ploughed a 19-tonne truck down a beachside promenade, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds more. Other deadly attacks using vehicles have taken place in Berlin, New York, London, Stockholm and Barcelona.

 

 

Mosul is a graveyard: Final ISIS battle kills 9,000 civilians

 

MOSUL: The price Mosul‘s residents paid in blood to see their city freed was 9,000 to 11,000 dead, a civilian casualty rate nearly 10 times higher than what has been previously reported. The number killed in the nine-month battle to liberate the city from the Islamic State group marauders has not been acknowledged by the U.S.-led coalition, the Iraqi government or the self-styled caliphate. But Mosul’s gravediggers, its morgue workers and the volunteers who retrieve bodies from the city’s rubble are keeping count. Iraqi or coalition forces are responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths from airstrikes, artillery fire or mortar rounds between October 2016 and the fall of the Islamic State group in July 2017, according to an Associated Press investigation that cross-referenced independent databases from non-governmental organizations. Most of those victims are simply described as “crushed” in health ministry reports. The coalition, which says it lacks the resources to send investigators into Mosul, acknowledges responsibility for only 326 of the deaths. “It was the biggest assault on a city in a couple of generations, all told. And thousands died,” said Chris Woods, head of Airwars , an independent organization that documents air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria and shared its database with the AP. “There doesn’t seem to be any disagreement about that, except from the federal government and the coalition. And understanding how those civilians died, and obviously ISIS played a big part in that as well, could help save a lot of lives the next time something like this has to happen. And the disinterest in any sort of investigation is very disheartening,” Woods said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group. In addition to the Airwars database, the AP analyzed information from Amnesty International , Iraq Body Count and a United Nations report. The AP also obtained a list of 9,606 people killed during the operation from Mosul’s morgue.

 

Hundreds of dead civilians are believed to still be buried in the rubble. Of the nearly 10,000 deaths the AP found, around a third of the casualties died in bombardments by the U.S.-led coalition or Iraqi forces, the AP analysis found. Another third of the dead were killed in the Islamic State group’s final frenzy of violence. And it could not be determined which side was responsible for the deaths of the remainder, who were cowering in neighborhoods battered by airstrikes, IS explosives and mortar rounds from all sides. But the morgue total would be many times higher than official tolls. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told the AP that 1,260 civilians were killed in the fighting. The U.S.-led coalition has not offered an overall figure. The coalition relies on drone footage, video from cameras mounted on weapons systems and pilot observations. Its investigators have neither visited the morgue nor requested its data. What is clear from the tallies is that as coalition and Iraqi government forces increased their pace, civilians were dying in ever higher numbers at the hands of their liberators: from 20 the week the operation began in mid-October 2016 to 303 in a single week at the end of June 2017, according to the AP tally. Abdel-Hafiz Mohammed, who kept his job as undertaker throughout the militants’ rule, has carved approximately 2,000 headstones for the al-Jadidah graveyard since October 2016. After the city fell to IS in 2014, undertakers like him handled the victims of beheadings and stoning’s; there were men accused of homosexuality who had been flung from rooftops. But once the operation to free the city started, the scope of Mohammed’s work changed yet again. “Now I carve stones for entire families,” Mohammed said, gesturing to a stack of four headstones, all bearing the same name. “It’s a single family, all killed in an airstrike”.

 

DYING AT HOME, ON THE FRONT: Mosul was home to more than a million civilians before the fight to retake it from IS. Fearing a massive humanitarian crisis, the Iraqi government dropped leaflets or had soldiers tell families to stay put as the final battle loomed in late 2016. Thousands were trapped when the front line enveloped densely populated neighborhoods. Blast injuries, gunshot and shrapnel killed thousands as the Mosul operation ground westward, according to morgue documents. When Iraqi forces became bogged down in late December, the Pentagon adjusted the rules regarding the use of airpower, allowing airstrikes to be called in by more ground commanders with less chain-of-command oversight. At the same time, Islamic State group fighters took thousands of civilians with them in their retreat west. They packed hundreds of families into schools and government buildings, sometimes shunting civilians through tunnels from one fighting position to another. They expected the tactic would dissuade airstrikes and artillery. They were wrong. As the fight punched into western Mosul, the morgue logs filled with civilians increasingly killed by being “blown to pieces”. By early March, Iraqi officials and the U.S.-led coalition could see that civilian deaths were spiking, but held the course. The result, in Mosul and later in the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, was a city left in ruins by the battle to save it. Most of the civilians killed in west Mosul died under the weight of collapsed buildings, hit by airstrikes, mortars, artillery shells or IS-laid explosives. The morgue provided lists of names of civilians and place of death. Names often included entire families.

 

The coalition has defended its operational choices, saying it was the Islamic State group that put civilians in danger as it clung to power. “It is simply irresponsible to focus criticism on inadvertent casualties caused by the Coalition’s war to defeat ISIS,” Col. Thomas Veale, a coalition spokesman, told the AP in response to questions about civilian deaths. “Without the Coalition’s air and ground campaign against ISIS, there would have inevitably been additional years, if not decades of suffering and needless death and mutilation in Syria and Iraq at the hands of terrorists who lack any ethical or moral standards,” he added. Civilian deaths in the second half of the battle reflected the looser rules of engagement for airstrikes and the sheer numbers of trapped residents. From Oct. 17 to Feb. 19, the AP tally found at least 576 deaths by coalition or Iraqi munitions. From Feb. 19 — when the fight crossed the Tigris River _ to mid-July, there were nearly 2,400 civilian deaths. That total is in addition to the 326 confirmed by the coalition in the city. The U.S. and Australia are the only two coalition countries to acknowledge civilian deaths, though France had fighter jets and artillery and the UK also carried out airstrikes. Of the nearly 10,000 names listed by the morgue, around 4,200 were confirmed as civilian dead in the battle. The AP discarded names that were obviously those of Islamic State group fighters and casualties brought in from outside Mosul. Among the remaining 6,000 are likely some number of Islamic State group extremists, but the morgue civilian toll tracks closely with numbers gathered during the battle itself by Airwars and others.

 

Neither toll includes thousands of people killed by the Islamic State group who are believed to be in mass graves in and around Mosul, including as many as 4,000 in the natural crevasse known as Khasfa. Imad Ibrahim, a civil defense rescuer from west Mosul, survived the battle to retake the city and is now tasked with excavating the dead. He mostly works in the Old City, where on a recent day the streets still reeked of rotting flesh. “Sometimes you can see the bodies. They’re visible under the rubble. Other times we dig for hours, and suddenly find 15 to 30 all in one place. That’s when you know they were sheltering, hiding from the airstrikes,” Ibrahim said. Behind him an excavator dug through jagged cement blocks, searching for the body of a woman who was hiding in her home when it was hit by an airstrike. Ibrahim said he spent years waiting for liberation, but the victory itself was hollow. “Honestly, none of this was worth it”.

 

DIGGING INTO DEATH: By dawn, dozens of Mosul families begin to line up outside the civil defense office each day. One by one they flatly describe their personal tragedies: “We buried my cousin’s body in the garden under the tree.” “My mother was hiding in the back of the house, near the kitchen when the airstrike hit her home.” “We buried my father in the street in front of our home after he was shot”. Radwan Majid said he lost both his children to an airstrike in May. “There were three Daesh in front of my house, so when the airstrike hit, it also killed my children,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for the group. “We can see their bodies under the rubble, but we can’t reach them by ourselves,” he said. “All I want is to give them a proper burial”. Reports of civilian deaths began to dominate military planning meetings in Baghdad in February and early March, according to a senior Western diplomat who was present but not authorized to speak on the record. After a single coalition strike killed more than 100 civilians in Mosul’s al-Jadidah neighborhood on March 17, the entire fight was put on hold for three weeks. Under intense international pressure , the coalition sent a team into the city to investigate. Iraq’s special forces units were instructed that they were no longer allowed to call in strikes on buildings. Instead, the forces were told to call in airstrikes on gardens and roads adjacent to IS group targets.

 

A WhatsApp group shared by coalition advisers and Iraqi forces coordinating airstrikes previously named “killing daesh 24/7” was wryly renamed “scaring daesh 24/7”. “It was clear that the whole strategy in western Mosul had to be reconfigured,” said the Western diplomat. But on the ground, Iraqi special forces officers said after the operational pause, they returned to the fight just as before. The WhatsApp group’s name was changed back to “killing daesh”. The Pentagon investigation into the March strike concluded that a U.S. bomb resulted in the deaths of 105 civilians but ultimately blamed secondary explosions from IS-laid bombs. The 500-pound (227-kilogram) bomb, the investigation concluded, “appropriately balanced the military necessity of neutralizing (two IS) snipers.” Witnesses and survivors told the AP that IS had not set any explosives in the house that was hit. The house was packed with families sheltering from the fighting. At the time, just two American officers were fielding all allegations of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria from a base in Kuwait. The team now has seven members, though none sets foot inside Mosul or routinely collects physical evidence. The Americans say they do not have the resources to send a team into Mosul; an AP reporter visited the morgue six times in six weeks and spoke to morgue officials and staffers dozens of times in person and over the phone. Because of what the coalition considers insufficient information, the majority of civilian casualty allegations are deemed “not credible” before an investigation ever begins.

 

Col. Joseph Scrocca, a coalition spokesman, defended the coalition figures in an interview in May, saying they may seem low because of a meticulous process designed to “get to the truth” and help protect civilians in the future. “I do believe the victims of these strikes deserve to know what happened to their families, Scrocca said. “We owe them that”. Daoud Salem Mahmoud survived the fight for the Old City by hiding with his family in a windowless room deep inside their home. With the fight over, Mahmoud now returns to his neighborhood daily to retrieve the dead. He’s recovered hundreds of bodies of extended family members and neighbors. A large, imposing figure, Mahmoud breaks down in tears when asked to describe specific events at the height of the violence. But without a moment of hesitation, he said he believes the fight to retake the city was worthwhile. Despite the death and destruction, he said he now feels like his family has a chance at a future brighter than his own. “Everything can be rebuilt. It’s the lives lost that cannot be replaced,” he said. Then, shaking his head, he added, “This war, it turned Mosul into a graveyard”.


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