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Archive for January, 2013

Nuclear vote turnout appears too low in Bulgaria

January 27, 2013

SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) — Unofficial results show that more than 60 percent of Bulgarians voted Sunday in favor of building a new nuclear power plant, but the voter turnout was far below the threshold needed to make the referendum binding.

The issue, which has been seen as a barometer of the relationship between the European Union’s poorest member and Russia, appears likely to head to parliament, where the center-right ruling party plans to block the project.

The pro-Western government last March canceled a deal with Russia’s Atomstroyexport for a 2,000-megawatt nuclear plant at the northern town of Belene, arguing that estimated costs of up to €10 billion ($13 billion) were too high.

The vote was called by the opposition Socialist party in an effort to force the government to reverse its decision. It was Bulgaria’s first referendum since the fall of communism in 1989. An unofficial vote count by the Alfa Research Agency showed that 21.8 percent of the 6.9 million eligible voters cast a ballot in the referendum, and 61 percent supported having a new nuclear plant. Official results were expected later this week.

The turnout appears well below the 60 percent needed to validate the vote, but if final results show it was above 20 percent and more than half of the votes were in favor, Parliament will have to review the issue within three months.

Prime Minister Boiko Borisov said Sunday that his ruling party, Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria, will again block the project. Analysts have linked the stance to the government’s declared strategy of reducing the country’s near-total dependence on Russian energy sources.

The Russian firm has filed a 1 billion-euro compensation claim at the Paris-based International Court of Arbitration. The referendum has polarized Bulgarian public opinion along party lines and could affect general elections in July. Analysts anticipated that most voters Sunday would be hard-core supporters of each camp, producing the low turnout.

Inmates moved after bloody Venezuela prison clash

January 28, 2013

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan authorities finished evacuating more than 2,000 inmates on Sunday from a prison where the government said 58 people were killed in one of the deadliest prison clashes in the nation’s history.

More than two days after the bloodshed, Penitentiary Service Minister Iris Varela released an official death toll and said 46 wounded victims remained hospitalized. She said the evacuation of Uribana prison in the city of Barquisimeto was completed on Sunday morning. Inmates were loaded aboard buses and driven to other prisons.

She and other officials appeared on television inside the empty prison compound, among wandering dogs and sheep that the inmates had kept. They pointed out makeshift shacks constructed with wood scraps and sheets of zinc where some inmates had taken shelter in the overcrowded prison.

Varela said that the violence erupted on Friday when groups of armed inmates began firing shots at National Guard troops who were attempting to carry out an inspection. “There was resistance to what was imminent … a peaceful inspection,” Varela said, adding that groups of prisoners had opened fire “on a large scale.”

Those killed included inmates as well as two Protestant pastors and one soldier, she said. One victim’s body was burned, Varela said. The death toll provided by the government differed from that given a day earlier by Dr. Ruy Medina, director of Central Hospital in the city, who had said 61 were reported killed and about 120 were wounded. Medina said that nearly all of the injuries were from gunshots.

Relatives of the victims mourned in funerals, while survivors’ families waited anxiously to hear where inmates were taken. “I still don’t know where my son is,” said Nayibe Mendez, the mother of a 22-year-old inmate who was unhurt. She spoke by telephone from outside the prison, where she and others gathered waiting for lists showing where their relatives were transported.

The riot was the latest in a series of deadly clashes in Venezuela’s overcrowded and often anarchical prisons, where inmates typically obtain weapons and drugs with the help of corrupt guards. Critics called it proof that the government is failing to get a grip on a worsening national crisis in its penitentiaries.

The gunbattles seized attention amid uncertainty about President Hugo Chavez’s future, while he remained in Cuba recovering and undergoing treatment more than six weeks after his latest cancer surgery.

Government officials pledged a thorough investigation, while critics said there should have been ways for the authorities to prevent such bloodshed. The riot was the deadliest in nearly two decades. In January 1994, more than 100 inmates died in the country’s bloodiest prison violence on record when a riot and fire set by inmates tore through a prison in the western city of Maracaibo. In 1992, about 60 inmates were killed in a riot in a Caracas prison.

Varela said the government decided to send troops to search the prison after reports of clashes between groups of inmates during the past two days. She said the government is battling against “mafias” that slip weapons into prisons, and that the authorities next plan to thoroughly search Uribana prison for hidden weapons.

She said that during one initial swing through the prison, officials came upon a grenade. “No one doubts that inspections are necessary procedures to guarantee prison conditions in line with international standards, but they can’t be carried out with the warlike attitude as (authorities) have done it,” said Humberto Prado, an activist who leads the Venezuelan Prisons Observatory, a watchdog group. “It’s clear that the inspection wasn’t coordinated or put into practice as it should have been. It was evidently a disproportionate use of force.”

In 2011, when Chavez had been in office for 12 years, he created a cabinet-level ministry to focus on prisons and appointed Varela to lead it. The president made that decision following a deadly, weekslong armed uprising at the prisons El Rodeo I and El Rodeo II outside Caracas.

Chavez at the time acknowledged that his government’s previous initiatives to improve the prisons hadn’t worked, and he pledged changes including building new prisons, improving conditions and speeding trials. Since then, Chavez has approved funds to repair and renovate prisons.

But opponents and activists say the government hasn’t made real progress at penitentiaries where hundreds continue to die each year. Violence has flared repeatedly at other prisons in the past year. In August, 25 people were killed and 43 wounded when two groups of inmates fought a gunbattle inside Yare I prison south of Caracas.

Venezuela has 33 prisons built to hold about 12,000 inmates. Officials have said the prisons’ population is currently about 47,000. Uribana prison was built to hold about 850 inmates. Varela said that when the violence erupted the prison held about 2,400.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles called government officials’ response “incredible” and inadequate. Without mentioning Vice President Nicolas Maduro by name, Capriles criticized government officials who ordered an investigation and then traveled off to a summit in Chile.

He noted that in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff reacted differently after a nightclub fire that killed more than 230 people, when she cut short her summit trip and returning to visit the injured. “Here, they go away to a summit. They dispose of it as if it were one more matter, one more little problem,” Capriles said at a televised event. “If we have a state that’s not capable of providing security within a penitentiary, what’s left for common citizens?”

“The problem that we’re seeing can’t be solved closing a prison,” Capriles said. “The way to solve it is resolving the problem of overcrowding.”

Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.

Brazil nightclub fire kills more than 230 people

January 28, 2013

SANTA MARIA, Brazil (AP) — The bodies of the young college students were found piled up just inside the entrance of the Kiss nightclub, among more than 230 people who died in a cloud of toxic smoke after a blaze enveloped the crowded locale within seconds and set off a panic.

Hours later, the horrific chaos had transformed into a scene of tragic order, with row upon row of polished caskets of the dead lined up in the community gymnasium in the university city of Santa Maria. Many of the victims were under 20 years old, including some minors.

As the city in southern Brazil prepared to bury the 233 people killed in the conflagration caused by a band’s pyrotechnic display, an early investigation into the tragedy revealed that security guards briefly prevented partygoers from leaving through the sole exit. And the bodies later heaped inside that doorway slowed firefighters trying to get in.

“It was terrible inside — it was like one of those films of the Holocaust, bodies piled atop one another,” said police inspector Sandro Meinerz. “We had to use trucks to remove them. It took about six hours to take the bodies away.”

Survivors and another police inspector, Marcelo Arigony, said security guards briefly tried to block people from exiting the club. Brazilian bars routinely make patrons pay their entire tab at the end of the night before they are allowed to leave.

“It was chaotic and it doesn’t seem to have been done in bad faith because several security guards also died,” he told The Associated Press. Later, firefighters responding to the blaze initially had trouble entering the club because “there was a barrier of bodies blocking the entrance,” Guido Pedroso Melo, commander of the city’s fire department, told the O Globo newspaper.

Police inspectors said they think the source of the blaze was a band’s small pyrotechnics show. The fire broke out sometime before 3 a.m. Sunday and the fast-moving fire and toxic smoke created by burning foam sound insulation material on the ceiling engulfed the club within seconds.

Authorities said band members who were on the stage when the fire broke out later talked with police and confirmed they used pyrotechnics during their show. Meinerz, who coordinated the investigation at the nightclub, said one band member died after escaping because he returned inside the burning building to save his accordion. The other band members escaped alive because they were the first to notice the fire.

The fire spread so fast inside the packed club that firefighters and ambulances could do little to stop it, survivor Luana Santos Silva told the Globo TV network. “There was so much smoke and fire, it was complete panic, and it took a long time for people to get out, there were so many dead,” she said.

Most victims died from smoke inhalation rather than burns. Many of the dead, about equally split between young men and women, were also found in the club’s two bathrooms, where they fled apparently because the blinding smoke caused them to believe the doors were exits.

There were questions about the club’s operating license. Police said it was in the process of being renewed, but it was not clear if it was illegal for the business to be open. A single entrance area about the size of five door spaces was used both as an entrance and an exit.

Family members of those killed walked around the gym in a daze Sunday evening, shuffling between caskets or holding one another and weeping as they identified loved ones and tried to make sense of what had happened.

Elaine Marques Goncalves lost her son Deivis in the fire. Another son who attended the college party at the nightclub, Gustavo, was barely alive after suffering two cardiac arrests caused by smoke inhalation.

She learned of the blaze after the mother of her sons’ friends called her early Sunday. “My boys were not home and I had no news. I turned on the TV — the tragedy was all over the television,” she said at the makeshift morgue. “All I knew was they had gone to a club, I didn’t know which one. I kept saying: ‘Where do I start? Where do I go?'”

Television images from the city of about 260,000 people showed black smoke billowing out of the nightclub as shirtless young men who attended a university party there joined firefighters using axes and sledgehammers to pound at the hot-pink exterior walls, trying to reach those trapped inside.

Bodies of the dead and injured were strewn in the street and panicked screams filled the air as medics tried to help. There was little to be done; officials said most of those who died were suffocated by smoke within minutes.

Within hours the community gym was a horror scene, with body after body lined up on the floor, partially covered with black plastic as family members identified kin. Outside the gym police held up personal objects — a black purse, a blue high-heeled shoe — as people seeking information on loved ones crowded around, hoping not to recognize anything being shown them.

The gathering was a party organized by students from several academic departments from the Federal University of Santa Maria. Such organized university parties are common throughout Brazil. Survivor Michele Pereira told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that she was near the stage when members of the band lit some sort of flare.

“The band that was onstage began to use flares and, suddenly, they stopped the show and pointed them upward,” she said. “At that point, the ceiling caught fire. It was really weak, but in a matter of seconds it spread.”

Guitarist Rodrigo Martins told Radio Gaucha that the band, Gurizada Fandangueira, started playing at 2:15 a.m. “and we had played around five songs when I looked up and noticed the roof was burning.” “It might have happened because of the Sputnik, the machine we use to create a luminous effect with sparks. It’s harmless, we never had any trouble with it,” he said. “When the fire started, a guard passed us a fire extinguisher, the singer tried to use it but it wasn’t working.”

He confirmed that accordion player Danilo Jacques, 28, died, while the five other members made it out safely. Police Maj. Cleberson Braida Bastianello said by telephone that the toll had risen to 233 with the death of a hospitalized victim. He said earlier that the death toll was likely made worse because the nightclub appeared to have just one exit through which patrons could exit.

Federal Health Minister Alexandre Padhilha told a news conference that most of the 117 people treated in hospitals had been poisoned by gases they breathed during the fire. Only a few suffered serious burns, he said.

Most of the dead apparently were asphyxiated, according to Dr. Paulo Afonso Beltrame, a professor at the medical school of the Federal University of Santa Maria who went to the city’s Caridade Hospital to help victims.

“Large amounts of toxic smoke quickly filled the room, and I would say that at least 90 percent of the victims died of asphyxiation,” Beltrame told the AP. Sunday’s fire appeared to be the worst at a nightclub since December 2000, when a welding accident reportedly set off a fire at a club in Luoyang, China, killing 309.

Similar circumstances led to a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people in the United States. Pyrotechnics used as a stage prop by the 1980s rock band Great White set ablaze cheap soundproofing foam on the walls and ceiling of a Rhode Island music venue.

Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and Stan Lehman and Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.

Egypt declares state of emergency in 3 provinces

January 27, 2013

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s president declared a state of emergency and curfew in three Suez Canal provinces hit hardest by a weekend wave of unrest that left more than 50 dead, using tactics of the ousted regime to get a grip on discontent over his Islamist policies and the slow pace of change.

Angry and almost screaming, Mohammed Morsi vowed in a televised address on Sunday night that he would not hesitate to take even more action to stem the latest eruption of violence across much of the country. But at the same time, he sought to reassure Egyptians that his latest moves would not plunge the country back into authoritarianism.

“There is no going back on freedom, democracy and the supremacy of the law,” he said. The worst violence this weekend was in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said, where seven people were killed on Sunday, pushing the toll for two days of clashes to at least 44. The unrest was sparked on Saturday by a court conviction and death sentence for 21 defendants involved in a mass soccer riot in the city’s main stadium on Feb. 1, 2012 that left 74 dead.

Most of those sentenced to death were local soccer fans from Port Said, deepening a sense of persecution that Port Said’s residents have felt since the stadium disaster, the worst soccer violence ever in Egypt.

At least another 11 died on Friday elsewhere in the country during rallies marking the second anniversary of the anti-Mubarak uprising. Protesters used the occasion to renounce Morsi and his Islamic fundamentalist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged as the country’s most dominant political force after Mubarak’s ouster.

The curfew and state of emergency, both in force for 30 days, affect the provinces of Port Said, Ismailiya and Suez. The curfew takes effect Monday from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. every day. Morsi, in office since June, also invited the nation’s political forces to a dialogue starting Monday to resolve the country’s latest crisis. A statement issued later by his office said that among those invited were the country’s top reform leader, Nobel peace Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist politician who finished third in last year’s presidential race.

The three are leaders of the National Salvation Front, an umbrella for the main opposition parties. Khaled Dawoud, the Front’s spokesman, said Morsi’s invitation was meaningless unless he clearly states what is on the agenda. That, he added, must include amending a disputed constitution hurriedly drafted by the president’s Islamist allies and rejected by the opposition.

He also faulted the president for not acknowledging his political responsibility for the latest bout of political violence. “It is all too little too late,” he told The Associated Press. In many ways, Morsi’s decree and his call for a dialogue betrayed his despair in the face of wave after wave of political unrest, violence and man-made disasters that, at times, made the country look like it was about to come unglued.

A relative unknown until his Muslim Brotherhood nominated him to run for president last year, Morsi is widely criticized for having offered no vision for the country’s future after nearly 30 years of dictatorship under Mubarak and no coherent policy to tackle seemingly endless problems, from a free falling economy and deeply entrenched social injustices to surging crime and chaos on the streets.

Reform of the judiciary and the police, hated under the old regime for brutality, are also key demands of Morsi’s critics. Morsi did not say what he plans to do to stem the violence in other parts of the country outside those three provinces, but he did say he had instructed the police to deal “firmly and forcefully” with individuals attacking state institutions, using firearms to “terrorize” citizens or blocking roads and railway lines.

There were also clashes Sunday in Cairo and several cities in the Nile Delta region, including the industrial city of Mahallah. Egypt’s current crisis is the second to hit the country since November, when Morsi issued decrees, since rescinded, that gave him nearly unlimited powers and placed him above any oversight, including by the judiciary.

The latest eruption of political violence has deepened the malaise as Morsi struggles to get a grip on enormous social and economic problems and the increasingly dangerous fault lines that divide this nation of 85 million.

In an ominous sign, a one-time jihadist group on Sunday blamed the secular opposition for the violence and threatened to set up vigilante militias to defend the government it supports. Addressing a news conference, Tareq el-Zomr of the once-jihadist Gamaa Islamiya, said:

“If security forces don’t achieve security, it will be the right of the Egyptian people and we at the forefront to set up popular committees to protect private and public property and counter the aggression on innocent citizens.”

His threat was accompanied by his charge that the opposition was responsible for the deadly violence of the past few days, setting the stage for possible bloody clashes between protesters and Islamist militiamen. The opposition denies the charge.

In Port Said on Sunday, tens of thousands of mourners poured into the streets for a mass funeral for most of the 37 people who died on Saturday. They chanted slogans against Morsi. “We are now dead against Morsi,” said Port Said activist Amira Alfy. “We will not rest now until he goes and we will not take part in the next parliamentary elections. Port Said has risen and will not allow even a semblance of normalcy to come back,” she said.

The violence flared only a month after a prolonged crisis — punctuated by deadly violence — over the new constitution. Ten died in that round of unrest and hundreds were injured. In Port Said, mourners chanted “There is no God but Allah,” and “Morsi is God’s enemy” as the funeral procession made its way through the city after prayers for the dead at the city’s Mariam Mosque. Women clad in black led the chants, which were quickly picked up by the rest of the mourners.

There were no police or army troops in sight. But the funeral procession briefly halted after gunfire rang out. Security officials said the gunfire came from several mourners who opened fire at the Police Club next to the cemetery. Activists, however, said the gunfire first came from inside the army club, which is also close to the cemetery. Some of the mourners returned fire, which drew more shots as well as tear gas, according to witnesses. They, together with the officials, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation in the city on the Mediterranean at the northern tip of the Suez Canal.

A total of 630 people were injured, some of them with gunshot wounds, said Abdel-Rahman Farag, director of the city’s hospitals. Also Sunday, army troops backed by armored vehicles staked out positions at key government facilities to protect state interests and try to restore order.

There was also a funeral in Cairo for two policemen killed in the Port Said violence a day earlier. Several policemen grieving for their colleagues heckled Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the force, when he arrived for their funeral, according to witnesses.

The angry officers screamed at the minister that he was only at the funeral for the TV cameras — a highly unusual show of dissent in Egypt, where the police force maintains military-like discipline. Ibrahim hurriedly left and the funeral proceeded without him, a sign that the prestige of the state and its top executives were diminishing.

In Cairo, clashes broke out for the fourth straight day on Sunday, with protesters and police outside two landmark, Nile-side hotels near central Tahrir Square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising. Police fired tear gas while protesters pelted them with rocks.

Honduras solar energy plans get a boost

Oct. 5, 2011

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, Oct. 5 (UPI) — Financially troubled and diplomatically isolated since a controversial 2009 coup, Honduras has taken a tentative step toward shedding some of its energy burden and opting for a switch from diesel to solar energy.

An $84 million project, surprisingly large for a country struggling with debt, devastating effects of political turmoil and international isolation, is intended to be a win-win situation for Honduras and Onyx Contract and Solutions, Inc., the company contracted to deliver the project within nine months.

Funding for the project comes from Villela and Villela law and lobby firm, which has its office in Roatan, Onyx said. News of the contract on the Onyx Web site makes clear the project is part of a wider plan to build support for countries seen as friends of the United States or seen to be under pressure from left-wing populist forces in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Onyx pulls no punches. Those three states appear in deep red in a sea of blue in an online graphic bearing the caption, “The high stakes struggle for power effecting (sic) neighboring U.S. allies.”

Onyx reasons a better electrified and energy self-sufficient populace is less likely to revolt against the government in power or align itself with forces challenging U.S. interests in the area. It cited Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Panama as “current allies” that deserved help with energy independence.

Onyx Service and Solutions will build the solar power project at Roatan, Honduras.

The project will assist Honduras in becoming more self-reliant for electrical power as opposed to using imported diesel for power generation, “which comes at a very high cost,” including dependence on Venezuela.

The project aims to generate 18.5 megawatts of power from 65,000 280-watt solar panels. Onyx is also in talks to increase the size of the solar power capacity up to 58 total megawatts, once the original 18.5 megawatt facility comes online.

Onyx said it has “identified a lucrative market for solar power projects in areas that use diesel produced electricity” throughout Central and Latin America and the Caribbean. The company is hopeful of new projects in Colombia, Mexico and Panama.

“Beyond the company’s excitement over supplying and installing their newest products, this project also represents a move to assist a strong U.S. ally to become more self-reliant for electrical power,” Onyx said.

“Currently, many nations of Central America, South America and the Caribbean find themselves being squeezed by the need for power coupled with the temptation to use Venezuelan diesel for electrical generation,” Onyx said.

Honduras has struggled to restore international links after a 2009 coup against President Jose Manuel Zelaya triggered a political crisis that only eased after Porfirio Lobo was elected president under the military’s supervision. Despite U.S. and EU recognition, many Latin American states still don’t acknowledge Lobo’s presidency.

Source: United Press International (UPI).


U.N. resolution on Syria vetoed

Oct. 4, 2011

DAMASCUS, Syria, Oct. 4 (UPI) — Russia and China Tuesday vetoed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned Syria’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

The proposed resolution included a call for an immediate end to alleged human rights abuses by the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, the United Nations said in a release.

In Syria, activists said four people were killed Tuesday in clashes between government security forces and military defectors in Talbiseh, near Homs, Voice of America reported. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, said at least one those killed was a civilian.

The fighting Tuesday followed days of security operations in Rastan, during which activists say government forces arrested as many as 3,000 people to track down dissident soldiers.

It’s estimated 2,700 people have died in anti-government protests in Syria since mid-March.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, France, Gabon, Germany, Nigeria, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States voted in favor of the draft Security Council resolution. Brazil, India, Lebanon and South Africa abstained.

A veto by any one of the council’s five permanent members — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — is enough to block any resolution.

The proposed wording condemned “the continued grave and systematic human rights violations and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities.” It called for all sides to reject violence and extremism and for the creation of “an inclusive Syrian-led political process conducted in an environment free from violence, fear, intimidation and extremism, and aimed at effectively addressing the legitimate aspirations and concerns of Syria’s population.”

After the veto, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said his country does not support Assad’s regime but that the draft resolution was not the way to achieve a peaceful resolution of the crisis. He said most Syrians desire a gradual political change, not an abrupt overthrow of the current government, and the resolution failed to adequately factor in the impact of extremists organizations in the country.

Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said his country was greatly concerned about the violence in Syria but the resolution would only complicate matters. He said the threat of sanctions would not resolve the conflict in Syria.

French Ambassador Gerard Araud said he was disappointed in the vote, which he said came after repeated attempts by the co-sponsors to work out acceptable wording.

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said the countries that did not back the resolution would have to answer to the Syrian people. She said it was a “ruse” to suggest passing the resolution would lead to military intervention in Syria.

Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari of Syria said the resolution revealed some Western countries’ desire to undermine his country’s authorities.

Source: United Press International (UPI).


IOC inspection team in London before 2012 Games

Wed, Oct 5, 2011

LONDON (AP) — Less than 10 months before the opening ceremony, IOC inspectors are back in London to check on preparations for the Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee’s coordination commission began a three-day visit Wednesday — its next to last trip to London before the games start on July 27, 2012.

“This is really about the ascent to the summit,” London organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe told The Associated Press.

It’s the first time the commission has been to London since the capital was rocked by riots in August, violence that was trigged by a fatal police shooting in the Tottenham area.

With most of London’s venue construction complete, policing, security and transportation are likely to be top issues in the talks.

The IOC team will receive updates from organizers and tour some of the venues, including the Olympic Park in east London and the archery site at Lord’s cricket ground, where a test event is taking place this week.

This is the IOC’s ninth visit to London since the city was awarded the games in 2005.

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