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Posts tagged ‘Islands of Greenglade Prime’

Duterte in China amid expectation he’ll raise sea disputes

August 29, 2019

BEIJING (AP) — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was in Beijing on Thursday for a meeting with counterpart Xi Jinping in which the Southeast Asian leader is expected to discuss a ruling on the disputed South China Sea.

The 2016 Hague arbitration mostly invalidated China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and found that it violated the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The row over the waters — a major global shipping route thought to be rich in oil and gas reserves — has for years marred China’s relationship with the Philippines and other neighboring countries with territorial claims over the disputed area, where Beijing has transformed a string of disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases.

Duterte, however, has largely avoided the subject in favor of seeking warmer ties with Beijing. Philippine nationalists and left-wing groups have criticized the president for not immediately demanding Chinese compliance with the arbitration ruling, which came the same year Duterte took office.

The Philippine leader briefly mentioned the issue to Xi on the sidelines of an April conference for China’s Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo indicated Duterte will raise the matter in a more direct way during this visit.

It’s unlikely that Duterte’s move will have any effect on China, said Jay Batongbacal, a maritime affairs scholar at the University of the Philippines. “China’s position will not change just because Duterte changes tune,” Batongbacal said. “At best, Duterte might be seen as using the arbitration discussion as a move to leverage other concessions. At worst, it may be just for show.”

China refused to participate in the arbitration case initiated by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, and has ignored the ruling. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said last week that the country’s stance has not changed.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asked Beijing this month to explain the activities of Chinese research vessels and warships in what the Philippines claims as its waters, and accused China of “bullying.”

Lorenzana said that China did not ask for permission to send several warships through the Sibutu Strait at the southern tip of the Philippine archipelago on four occasions between February and July. He said two Chinese research ships have also been operating in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Meanwhile, Philippine military spokesman Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo accused China of “duplicity,” claiming the Chinese warships shut off their identification transponders while passing through Philippine waters to avoid radar detection.

China has said it is ready to work with the Philippines to jointly safeguard maritime security and order. In an apparent attempt to ease tensions ahead of Thursday’s meeting, a fishery association in southern Guangdong province apologized this week for colliding with a Philippine fishing boat in June.

The Philippines filed a diplomatic protest after the fisherman said a Chinese vessel rammed their anchored boat and abandoned them as it sank in the Reed Bank. “I feel deep regret that this accident had to happen and I would like to express my deep sympathy to the Filipino fishermen,” the president of the Guangdong Fishery Mutual Insurance Association said in a letter sent to the Philippine Embassy in Beijing.

Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines.


245 rescued from burning ferry in Philippine waters; 3 dead

August 28, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Fishing boats and passing ships rescued 245 people from a burning ferry overnight in southern Philippine waters, and the coast guard was still searching Wednesday though it wasn’t clear if anyone was missing. A 1-year-old girl and two other people died.

The ship’s manifest had 36 crewmembers and 136 passengers, 28 of them children, and the coast guard said investigators would ask the ferry owner and skipper to explain the discrepancy between the listed occupants and the number rescued.

Photos showed passengers wearing orange life vests waiting to be rescued at the loading bay of the ferry, which also carried some vehicles. Local news reports quoted some passengers as saying they jumped into the choppy waters in panic and were rescued by passing cargo and fishing vessels.

“We did not have any patrol ship in the area, so we alerted nearby ships and boats to render assistance because it was an emergency,” coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said by phone. “It’s good that a number of ships immediately responded. We have to recognize what they did.”

The fire apparently started in the engine room. Orange flames and smoke consumed almost the entire vessel but the M/V Lite Ferry 16 stayed afloat, about 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) off a port in Dapitan city of Zamboanga del Norte province, where it was heading after departing Santander town in central Cebu province Tuesday.

Search and rescue efforts were continuing, Balilo said around midday. It was unclear whether there were still people missing but no relatives have approached authorities to report any, and an ongoing search will continue, Balilo said.

A 1-year-old girl, a 60-year-old male passenger and a third person died, Balilo said. He did not have more details on the identity of the third person and the causes of their deaths. Meanwhile, in the northern Philippines, ferries were warned not to go to sea after a fast-moving storm blew across the main island of Luzon overnight. Heavy rains fell in northern provinces, but no casualties or major damage was reported, and the storm has weakened into a tropical depression.

Sea accidents are common in the Philippine archipelago because of frequent storms, badly maintained boats, overcrowding and weak enforcement of safety regulations. In December 1987, the ferry Dona Paz sank after colliding with a fuel tanker in the Philippines, killing more than 4,341 people in the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.

Sri Lanka attacks boost feared ex-official’s bid for power

August 23, 2019

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — He is a feared former defense official accused of condoning rape, torture and shadowy disappearances of critics, but to many Sri Lankans, the opposition’s presidential candidate is the best choice to protect the South Asian island nation after attacks that killed over 250 people this year.

The younger brother and powerful right hand of a former strongman, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa is seen as a hero by supporters for bringing a bloody end to a decadeslong civil war in 2009 and has cast himself as Sri Lanka’s protector.

“I will accept responsibility for your safety, and the safety of your children and your loved ones,” Gotabaya said as he launched his campaign this month. “I will never allow extremist terrorism in this country.”

His message, met with thundering applause from supporters, resonates as the government faces blistering criticism for a high-level intelligence lapse that President Maithripala Sirisena has acknowledged allowed a group of radicalized Sri Lankans to carry out suicide bombings on Easter Sunday.

Gotabaya “is the most ideal leader the country needs at this time of crisis, and with this attack, his leadership has become more important,” said Sujeewa Manage, a government employee. Despite allegations of bloodshed and war crimes that still haunt the country, Gotabaya’s hardened reputation and vow to ensure national security became a selling point after the attacks on three luxury hotels and three churches that left 263 dead and 500 wounded.

Having enjoyed 10 years of peace, the brazenness of the April 21 attacks jolted Sri Lanka, conjuring the days of bombs going off in the capital of Colombo when rebels fought for an independent state for the country’s ethnic Tamil minority.

The Sri Lankan government came under fire for not acting on near-specific intelligence information from Indian security forces on plans to attack churches. Officials have acknowledged that some Sri Lankan intelligence units were aware of possible attacks weeks before the bombings.

Gotabaya, who has been plotting a return to power since his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost reelection in 2015, is seizing a key moment as voters grasp for a return to safety and a bitter divide roils the ruling coalition government.

Incumbent President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last October and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as his constitutional No. 2. The Supreme Court ruled against the move and reinstated Wickremesinghe.

Sirisena’s party is now divided, with the Rajapaksa brothers absorbing a big chunk of its supporters in a new party. Wickremesinghe and Sirisena are both expected to seek the presidency, but the political upheaval and the attacks will hurt the incumbent’s chances in an election to be held between Nov. 8 and Dec. 8.

Meanwhile, Gotabaya says the ruling government has made national security weaker and he can fill the void. “After the attacks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name came high on this list of possible strong leaders,” political analyst Jehan Perera said.

The former defense secretary is a hero to many of the nation’s majority Sinhalese Buddhists, but his candidacy is a fearsome prospect to others. Gotabaya was suspected of ordering kidnappings through so-called white van squads that whisked away rebel suspects, journalists and other government critics. Some victims were tortured and then released, while others disappeared.

Victims who say the military and police forces under Gotabaya’s watch repeatedly tortured and raped political opponents have sued the former defense official, who’s also a U.S. citizen, in federal court in Los Angeles. They brought their case under a statute that allows U.S. lawsuits over acts of torture and killings committed in foreign countries.

The daughter of a top journalist killed in 2009 also has sued Gotabaya in Los Angeles and is seeking damages. Gotabaya has denied the allegations and says he’s started the process of renouncing his American citizenship because Sri Lankan law doesn’t permit dual citizens to hold office.

Gotabaya also has been implicated in the killing of rebels and civilians who tried to surrender with white flags under a prearranged deal in the final days of the 26-year civil war. Some 45,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the last months of the war alone, according to a U.N. report.

In the final years of his brother’s regime, Gotabaya has been accused of promoting hard-line Buddhist groups that carried out anti-Muslim hate campaigns and attacks on their businesses. He has denied the allegations.

He also faces a corruption case accusing him of misappropriating $191,000 in state funds for the construction of a memorial for his parents. There are other police investigations into allegations of corruption and other misdeeds involving his close relatives.

Dharmasiri Lankapeli, a trade union and media rights activist, said national security is just a political slogan used by Gotabaya and his team to capture power. “People knew and understood what happened in the country when he was the defense ministry secretary and how hard it was for the people,” Lankapeli said. “If he comes to power, the democratic space for dissent and for alternative opinion that the people enjoyed during the past four years will be threatened.”

Under the ruling government, more than a dozen soldiers, including intelligence officials, have been arrested on suspicion of several killings and attacks of political opponents and journalists during the Rajapaksa era. Some have been indicted.

“If he (Gotabaya) comes to power, the investigations on alleged misdeeds that occurred during Rajapaksa period will be swept under the carpet,” Lankapeli said. But Ajith Kumara, a rickshaw driver in Colombo, said Sri Lanka needs a strong leader like Gotabaya.

“He will be tough, but the country needs such a person to discipline and develop the country,” Kumara said. “If he was there, the attack would not have happened.” To win, Gotabaya needs to convince more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s 15.9 million voters.

“If Gotabaya is to generate votes he must know that people vote for a candidate out of the love for him, not because they fear him,” columnist Ravi Nagahawatte wrote in the Daily Mirror newspaper.

8 dead, 60 hurt as quakes shake northern Philippine isles

July 27, 2019

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Two strong earthquakes hours apart struck a group of sparsely populated islands in the Luzon Strait in the northern Philippines early Saturday, killing at least eight people, injuring about 60 and causing substantial damage.

The quakes collapsed houses built of stone and wood, arousing residents from sleep, said Roldan Esdicul, who heads the Batanes provincial disaster-response office. “Our bed and everything were swaying from side to side like a hammock,” Esdicul told The Associated Press by cellphone from Basco town, the provincial capital. “We all ran out to safety.”

More than 1,000 residents of hard-hit Itbayat island — nearly half of the island’s population of mostly fishermen — were advised not to return to their homes and stay in the town plaza as successive aftershocks shook the region, he said.

“The wounded are still being brought in,” Itbayat Mayor Raul de Sagon told a local radio station. He said more doctors may be needed if the number of injured from interior villages rises. The Philippine seismology agency said the quakes measured 5.4 and 5.9. A third quake magnitude 5.7 struck later Saturday.

Esdicul said he was already in his office with the provincial governor when the second and more powerful quake struck about three hours after the first shock. “We have to hold on because you can’t stand or walk. It was that strong,” he said.

The initial quake severely cracked the bell tower of the island’s old limestone church, the 19th-century Santa Maria de Mayan, a popular tourist attraction. The tower collapsed when the second temblor hit the island, he said.

An Itbayat hospital was damaged but remained open. An air force helicopter and a plane were en route to Batanes to help ferry and provide aid to victims. Itbayat, part of the Batanes Islands, has a population of about 2,800 people and lies in the Luzon Strait that separates the Philippines and Taiwan. The islands are famous for their stone-built houses, coral walls and cogon grass roofs.

US Planning Five Hypersonic Test Programs in Marshall Islands

Washington (Sputnik)

Apr 04, 2019

The US armed forces are planning five test programs on hypersonic weapons systems in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean, Army Space and Missile Command chief Lieutenant General James Dickinson said in congressional testimony on Wednesday.

“There are currently five active hypersonic test programs in various stages of planning at RTS [the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defence Test Site],” Dickinson told the House Armed Services Strategic Subcommittee.

The RTS is located at the US Army garrison on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

“Because of the geographic remoteness and available complex sensor suite, RTS has seen a significant upswing in hypersonic systems test planning,” he said.

RTS also provides critical testing support to both offensive and defensive missile testing requirements for programs such as Ground-Based Mid-course Defence GMD and US Air Force strategic ballistic missile systems, Dickinson said.

Source: Space Daily.


U.S. kicks off Balikatan exercise in Philippines

By Allen Cone

APRIL 1, 2019

April 1 (UPI) — Balikatan 2019, an annual military exercise involving thousands of troops — and, for the first time, the F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter — began Monday in the Philippines.

The opening ceremony took place at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City with 4,000 Filipino, 3,500 American and 50 Australian troops, according to the U.S. Navy, and it will run through April 12.

This is the 35th Balikatan, which is a Tagalog language phrase in the Philippines for “shoulder-to-shoulder.”

On Saturday, the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, with embarked Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 4, led by the 4th Marine Regiment, arrived in Subic Bay. The USS Wasp is part of the 7th Fleet.

Aboard the ship are F-35Bs, the short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant of the 5th generation fighter jet, in air support of Marines on the ground.

“We are excited to visit the Philippines for the first time since Wasp was forward deployed to 7th Fleet,” Capt. Colby Howard, Wasp’s commanding officer, said in the news release. “Balikatan is a great opportunity for the Navy, Marine Corps team and our allies from the Republic of the Philippines to learn from one another, and further improve our ability operate together.”

Balikatan helps train troops to support an ally should a crisis or natural disaster occur, according to the news release.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations members will participate as part of the International Observers Program.

U.S. and Philippine forces will conduct amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban operations, aviation operations and counterterrorism response on the islands of Luzon and Palawan, according to the Defense Department.

The focus this year is on maritime security and amphibious capabilities, as well as multinational interoperability through military exchanges.

Australia has sent special forces, medical, engineering and chaplaincy personnel.

“The exercise allows us to build our relationship with the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the United States Indo-Pacific Command,” the Australian chief of joint operations, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, said in a statement.

“Through this partnership, we aim to increase our ability to coordinate a multilateral response to a disaster or humanitarian crisis in a complex and ever-evolving regional security environment.”

Source: United Press International (UPI).


No Mass for Sri Lanka’s Catholics; no veils for Muslim women

April 28, 2019

AMPARA, Sri Lanka (AP) — The effects of Sri Lanka’s Easter suicide bombings reverberated across two faiths Sunday, with Catholics shut out of their churches for fear of new attacks, left with only a televised Mass, and Muslim women ordered to stop wearing veils in public.

Many across the nation knelt before their televisions as Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, delivered a homily before members of the clergy and the country’s leaders in a small chapel at his residence in the capital.

The closing of all of Sri Lanka’s Catholic churches — an extraordinary measure unheard of in the church’s centuries on this island off the southern tip of India — came after local officials and the U.S. Embassy in Colombo warned that more militants remained on the loose with explosives a week after bombings claimed by the Islamic State group and aimed at churches and hotels killed more than 250 people.

Before services began, the Islamic State group claimed three militants who blew themselves up Friday night after exchanging fire with police in the country’s east. Investigators sifting through that site and others uncovered a bomb-making operation capable of spreading far more destruction.

“This is a time our hearts are tested by the great destruction that took place last Sunday,” Ranjith told those watching across the nation. “This is a time questions such as, does God truly love us, does he have compassion toward us, can arise in human hearts.”

Later on Sunday, President Maithripala Sirisena banned all kinds of face coverings that may conceal people’s identities. The emergency law, which takes effect Monday, prevents Muslim women from veiling their faces.

The decision came after the Cabinet had proposed laws on face veils at a recent meeting. It had deferred the matter until talks with Islamic clerics could be held, on the advice of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

In a rare show of unity, Sirisena, Wickremesinghe and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa had attended the Mass in person. Their political rivalry and government dysfunction are blamed for a failure to act upon near-specific information received from foreign intelligence agencies that preceded the bombings, which targeted three churches and three luxury hotels.

Police said they had arrested 48 suspects over the last 24 hours as checkpoints mounted by all of Sri Lanka’s security forces sprung up across this country of 21 million people. Those arrested include two men whom authorities recently appealed to the public to locate.

The government also warned that it would crack down on those spreading false information and making inflammatory remarks. Police, meanwhile, entered the main mosque of National Towheed Jamaat on Sunday afternoon, just a day after authorities declared it and another organization terror groups over the bombings.

Police entered the mosque, located in Kattankudy in eastern Sri Lanka, and stopped an interview among foreign journalists and mosque officials. Later, a senior police officer dispersed journalists waiting outside, saying authorities were conducting a “cordon and search operation.”

Police then left, locking up the mosque just before afternoon prayers were to start. Authorities banned National Towheed Jamaat over its ties to Mohammed Zahran, the alleged mastermind of the Easter Sunday bombings. Zahran and masked others had pledged their loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before carrying out the attacks, showing the danger the extremist group poses even after losing all its territory in Iraq and Syria.

On Friday night, a confrontation with police sparked a firefight with the militants in Kalmunai, some 225 kilometers (140 miles) northeast of Colombo. Sri Lanka’s military said the gunfire and later suicide blasts killed 15 people, including six children.

On Sunday, the Islamic State group claimed three of the militants who blew themselves up there. In a statement carried by the extremists’ Aamaq news agency, IS identified the bombers by their noms du guerre as Abu Hammad, Abu Sufyan and Abu al-Qa’qa. It said they opened fire with automatic weapons and “after exhausting their ammunition, detonated … their explosive belts.”

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said a woman and a 4-year-old child found wounded after the gunbattle have been identified as Zahran’s wife and daughter. At the main police station in Ampara, an outdoor stage now holds what police recovered after the firefight. The IS-aligned militants had created a bomb-making factory at the home, complete with laboratory-style beakers and thick rubber gloves.

Bags of fertilizer, gunpowder and small ball bearings filled boxes. Police found tens of liters (gallons) of acids, used to make the fire of the blast more lethal. A police investigator, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to publicly comment, said the mix of acids worsened the wounds suffered by those who didn’t immediately die in the blast.

“At the hospital a lot more people died. That’s why,” he said, nodding toward the acids. “It made the wounds incurable.” The bombers likely carried two rectangular detonators in their pockets similar to the ones recovered, the investigator said. A red switch armed the explosives, while a light teal button detonated the bombs hidden inside of their large backpacks.

Along with the acids, the bombs contained a mixture of fertilizer, gunpowder, ball bearings and explosives typically used by quarries to blast loose rocks, the investigator said. Those explosives made the bombs powerful enough to blow the roof off of St. Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, he said, referring to one of the churches near Colombo targeted in the Easter attacks.

The Sri Lankan navy controls the sale of the mining explosives and investigators already have begun tracing the serial numbers off of the plastic sticks, he said. A notebook contained bomb-making instructions that had apparently been explained to the writer.

Police also recovered religious tracts in Tamil glorifying suicide bombings, saying they granted the attacker direct entrance to heaven. The investigator contrasted that to the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group the government defeated in 2009 after a 26-year civil war.

“Their only intention is to kill as many as possible,” the investigator said. “That is different than the Tamil Tigers. They wanted to control land. These people want to kill as many as possible.”

Francis reported from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Associated Press journalists Gemunu Amarasinghe and Rishabh Jain contributed to this report.

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