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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

California in flames : Fires cause mass evacuation

At least 900,000 people have been evacuated to temporary shelters in southern California as wildfires rage out of control across the state.

More than a dozen fires blazed from north of Los Angeles to the Mexican border, 240km south, destroying more than 1,500 buildings, blotting out the sun with smoke and raining ash on the streets.

Most of the destroyed homes were in the southern end of the state near San Diego, where three major wildfires burned.

The flames, fanned by fierce desert winds, claimed their second victim as they burned for a third day.

Officials said an unidentified civilian had died of burns in Santa Clarita north of Los Angeles on Tuesday, the second reported death after the body of a 52 year-old man was found on Sunday.
California in flames

More than 500,000 people evacuated

Emergency declared in most of California

Two dead and dozens more injured, including firefighters

More than 1,250 homes lost in San Diego, 68,000 threatened statewide

About 6,000 firefighters battling flames

Dozens more have been reported injured, including 16 firefighters.
Walls of flame spread quickly from mountain passes to the coastline as dozens of new blazes threatened to engulf more buildings.
Al Jazeera's Kelly Rockwell, reporting from Rancho Bernardo in South California, said in some areas, the fires were raging out of control.
She quoted one official as saying all firefighters could do was to get out of the way of the fires in one district.

Kirk Humphries, San Diego Fire Captain, said: "If it's this big and blowing with as much wind as it's got, it'll go all the way to the ocean before it stops."

"We can save some stuff but we can't stop it."
Upper hand
Officials were hoping that winds would ease and humidity would rise allowing them to gain the upper hand.
Rockwell said that in some areas, the winds had been starting to die down as of Tuesday evening, but hotter temperatures and fierce wind were forecast.
Hotter temperatures and hot Santa Ana winds blowing in from the desert at up to 105kph were expected to last at least until Wednesday afternoon.
The fires were exploding and shooting embers in all directions, preventing crews from forming traditional fire lines and severely limiting aerial bombardment, officials said.
Thousands of evacuees, as well as horses and family pets, sought shelter at fairgrounds, schools and community centres, with the biggest gathering of up to 10,000 at the Qualcomm football stadium.
Rockwell said some evacuees were staying with church groups and strangers who had opened up their homes.
State of emergency
Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's governor, declared an emergency in most parts of the state, saying that 68,000 homes were threatened statewide with at least 18 firefighters injured among the 6,000 manning the fire lines.

A satellite image showing fire hotspots
across California [Reuters/Nasa]
"We have had three things come together – very dry areas, very hot weather and a lot of wind," he said. "This makes the perfect storm for fire."
But he said the response to the fire had been very quick unlike previous calamities.

Schwarzenegger also asked George Bush, US president, to upgrade the wildfires to a "major disaster", which would trigger federal help.

According to Ron Lane, San Diego county emergency services director, damages from the wildfires are expected to exceed $1bn.

He said: "Based on initial estimates, just the homes damaged will be over $1 billion."

State officials estimate that the fires have covered at least 1,510 sq kilometres.
Katrina lessons
Early on Tuesday, George Bush, the US president, declared an emergency in the state and authorised the Federal Emergency Management Agency to co-ordinate disaster relief in seven affected counties.

"All of us across this nation are concerned for the families who have lost their homes and the many families who have been evacuated from their homes," he said.

"We send the help of the federal government."
Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said the government was applying lessons learnt from Hurricane Katrina in responding to the crisis.
The Pentagon also sent troops, firefighting equipment and humanitarian supplies on Tuesday to help overwhelmed California authorities.
The White House said the president planned to visit the fire-stricken area on Thursday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Nato air raid kills 11 from Afghan family

At least 11 members of one Afghan family have been killed in a Nato-led air raid in Wardak province near the capital Kabul, according to local officials.

The International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said on Tuesday that it was probing the claims, while the Afghan defence ministry said it was "12 enemies" that had been killed.

"In the bombardment ... 11 people from one family, including women and children were killed," Haji Janan, provincial council leader, told Reuters news agency.

"The only survivor from the family is a man who is hospitalised and can't speak."

Janan also said that eleven of the family's neighbours were wounded in the air raid in the town of Jalrez, 30km west of the capital.

"As of this moment we don't have reports of civilian casualties," Major Charles Anthony, Isaf spokesman, said.

He said about 50 "anti-government militants" were trying to set up an ambush before fighter aircraft dropped two bombs on their position on Monday.

Anthony said soldiers had been on the ground to guide the bombs to their targets. He said Isaf had "no evidence" that the bombs hit a housing compound.

Security 'deteriorating'

A US-funded survey meanwhile said that Afghans feel that security has deteriorated since last year and is the biggest problem facing the country.

Afghanistan is experiencing its worst bout of violence since the Taliban were removed from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

About 46 per cent of adults identified the ongoing violence, which has killed a reported 5,200 people since the start of the year, as Afghanistan's main problem, while 29 per cent said it was unemployment.

"In the 2006 survey, it was unemployment first, followed by security and corruption, and this time around it is security first followed by unemployment and poor economy," the Asia Foundation said in the survey funded by the US agency for international development.

"This further underlines the deterioration in security in the eyes of the common Afghans."

However, despite concerns about the rise in violence, many people thought Afghanistan was heading in the right direction and that life had improved since the Taliban's rule in the 1990s.

About 80 per cent of the more than 6,000 respondents also said that they had confidence in the Afghanistan's national army and the country's police force.

The survey was conducted in all of Aghanistan's 34 provinces and was the largest comprehensive opinion poll ever conducted in the country

Friday, October 19, 2007


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Philippines explosion kills 8 in a shopping mall

An explosion in a crowded shopping centre has killed at least eight people and wounded 80 more in the Philippine capital, Manila, police say.

Police initially thought the lunch-time blast at the Glorietta centre had been caused by an exploding cooking gas cylinder, but later discounted that theory.

They said bomb squad detectives were trying to ascertain what caused Friday's explosion.

Norberto Gonzales, the Philippines national security adviser, described it as "the biggest bombing" in Manila so far.

He told Al Jazeera that police and military experts were looking into what kind of bomb was used to give an indication of what group could be behind it.

"We have fielded more than 2,000 police officers in the entire national capital region to increase the security measures," he said.

Speaking from the site after the blast, Al Jazeera's correspondent Marga Ortigas said: "The shopping mall lights are completely shut. The people are not being allowed in.

"Very few rescue workers are now working as they are afraid the foundation of the bomb site might collapse.

"They are worried there are still people buried under piles of rubble."

A general alert was issued for the rest of the city and for the international airport, officials said.

Jonjon Binay, a city councillor, said four people died immediately and four more died in hospital.

Blocks of cement had fallen from an upper storey of the shopping centre, hitting cars parked below and spreading a film of dust. Scores of windows in nearby shops were shattered.

A security guard said: "I was eating lunch when the ground shook. I thought it was an earthquake. Then the electricity went off."

Manila has largely been spared a spate of bomb attacks by

Muslim separatists have been fighting in the southern Mindanao region, but few attacks have been carried out in the capital. A series of bomb blasts in 2000 killed at least 22 people.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Iraqi civilians killed in US raid

US air and ground forces have killed 19 fighters and 6 women and 9 children in raids north of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, a US military statement said.

"We regret that civilians are hurt or killed while coalition forces search to rid Iraq of terrorism," said Major Brad Leighton, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq, on Thursday.

bomb meanwhile killed a child and wounded 13 others in a playground as they celebrated Eid on Friday in the northern town of Tuz Khurmato.
Police Colonel Abbas Mohammed said a would-be suicide bomber hid the explosives in a cart he was pushing that was filled with children's toys.

US Raids

"These terrorists chose to deliberately place innocent Iraqi women and children in danger by their actions and presence."
US aircraft attacked an area in the Lake Thar Thar region, 120km north of Baghdad, after intelligence reports indicated al-Qaeda members were there, the US military said.
Four fighters were killed during the first raid and the suspects at the scene then moved to another area south of the lake.
US forces came under small arms fire from a building, the US military statement said.
"Responding in self-defence, supporting aircraft engaged the enemy threat," the statement said.
"After securing the area, the ground force assessed 15 terrorists, six women and nine children were killed. Two suspects, one woman and three children were wounded and one suspected terrorist was detained."
George Bush, the US president, ordered 30,000 additional troops to Iraq in June in an attempt to stem sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Thursday's news of the raid comes just days after another raid by US forces on Khalis, a Shia city north of Baghdad, led to the deaths of 25 people.
US troops called in air raids after meeting resistance while hunting suspected arms traffickers from Iran to Baghdad, but village leaders said those killed included civilians.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Iraqi women killed by security firm

Foreign security guards have killed two Iraqi women by opening fire on their car in the capital, Baghdad.
Witnesses said the car got
too close to the convoy
and police said warning was given
before the firing [AFP]
Unity Resources Group, an Australian-owned security firm based in Dubai, said one of its teams was involved in the shooting on Tuesday and "deeply regret" the incident.

An Iraqi government spokesman said an investigation was under way.

The shooting came the same day as Iraq's government demanded that a US security company, Blackwater, pay $8m each to families of 17 people killed in a shooting in September. An Iraqi investigation into that incident found that the guards were unprovoked when they opened "deliberate" fire.

Tuesday's shooting occurred near Unity offices in central Baghdad's Karradah district.

Michael Priddin, Unity's chief operating officer, issued a statement saying: "We deeply regret this incident and will continue to pass on further information when the facts have been verified and the necessary people and authorities notified."

The company further said: "The first information that we have is that our security team was approached at speed by a vehicle which failed to stop despite an escalation of warnings which included hand signals and a signal flare.

"Finally shots were fired at the vehicle and it stopped."

Iraqi police said guards threw a smoke bomb in an apparent bid to warn the car against coming forward.

Several witnesses said the car had moved too close to the convoy.

Ammar Fallah, a shopkeeper and witness to the shooting, said that the guards, who were escorting a civilian convoy through the streets, signalled for a woman driving a white Oldsmobile car to pull over as they passed.

"When she failed to do so they opened fire, killing her and the woman next to her," he said. "There were two children in the back seat but they were not harmed. The women were both shot in the head."

Another witness, Sattar Jabar, said the car had "tried to avoid the convoy of four white SUVs of the foreigners, but it came close to the last vehicle, which then opened fire immediately".

Jabar confirmed that two women were killed, but said a third woman in the back seat had been wounded in the shoulder and one of the children had been struck by flying glass.

Reining in 'gangsters'
A policeman who heard the shots and came running to the scene said that after the shooting the security guards "rode away like gangsters".

The Iraqi government said on Monday it was determined to rein in private security contractors following the Blackwater shooting.

"We have set strict mechanisms to control the behaviour of the security companies and their conduct in the streets," Abdul Karim Khalaf, an interior ministry spokesman, said.

The role of private security companies operating in Iraq has been under investigation since September 16, when Blackwater guards escorting a convoy of US diplomats opened fire in Baghdad's Nisoor Square.

An Iraqi government probe of the incident, which it said killed 17 civilians, found that the guards were not provoked and accused them of a "deliberate" crime.

"Employees of the company violated the rules governing use of force by security companies. They have committed a deliberate crime and should be punished under the law."

The Iraqi government would now take "judicial measures to punish the company", the statement added.

Blackwater, one of the biggest security firms working in Iraq with around 1,000 employees, is employed to protect US government personnel in the country.

It maintains its men were legitimately responding to an ambush while escorting a US state department convoy.

Iraqi and US officials have set up a joint commission

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Israel admits air attack on Syria

Until now, Israel had refused to confirm or deny that any air attack had taken place [GALLO/GETTY]

Israel has confirmed that its air force carried out an air raid inside Syrian territory in September - after remaining silent on the issue for nearly a month.

Israel said on Tuesday that its warplanes had conducted the attack deep inside Syrian territory on September 6, saying it attacked a "military target".

Israeli radio reported: "The military censor has authorised for the first time the publication of the fact that Israeli combat planes attacked a military target deep inside Syrian territory on September 6."

David Chater, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Jerusalem, said: "The [Israeli] military censors had no other option but to admit the attack took place because the Syrian president yesterday went on record to say the Israelis had indeed attacked a target in northern Syria - what he described as an unused military base."

Chater reported: "No other details about the scale of the mission, the intent or what intelligence it was based on have been released."

Israeli military censors continue to withhold details, but Damascus says

at least four Israeli warplanes crossed into Syria in the incident.

Syria says its air defence systems confronted Israeli aircraft, which subsequently bombed an area inside the country.

Media speculation

With the Israeli blackout on information in place, most of the speculation on the raid has come from foreign media.

Some US officials have linked the raid to suspicions of secret nuclear co-operation between Damascus and North Korea.

Chater said: "Press speculation - in the foreign press, not in the Israeli press - has said perhaps there was nuclear technology imported from North Korea."

A North Korean ship was reported as docking in Syria a few days before the attack happened.

"This kind of speculation is bound to increase now," said Chater.

Both Damascus and North Korea have denied any nuclear ties, with Syria accusing Israel of spreading what it describes as false reports as an excuse for war.

Faruq al-Shara, the Syrian vice-president, said on Saturday that the raid was meant to provide justification for future aggression against his country.

"Those who continue to talk about this raid and to invent inaccurate details are aiming to justify a future aggression [against Syria]," he said at a press conference.

Some earlier reports had suggested that the raid may have targeted Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Syria has filed a formal complaint with the UN over the air raid, which has raised tensions between the two countries which are still formally at war.

Peace talks between the two powers collapsed in 2000 over the scope of an Israeli pull-out from the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967.