Thursday, 31 December 2009

Great Tokyo earthquakes

Today is traditionally a day for looking back, so that’s what I’m going to do – 306 years in fact, to December 31, 1703. On that day, Tokyo, then known as Edo, was hit by an earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people.

Worse, though, was the tsunami that followed it. This hit the Boso Pensinsula and Sagami Bay, and some put the total death toll as high as 150,000. If this is accurate, it would make it the most deadly tsunami in history after the Boxing Day disaster of 2004.

220 years later, Tokyo would be hit by another fearsome earthquake on September 1, 1923. As devastating as the quake itself were the fires that swept through the city’s packed wooden houses as kitchen cooking braziers were knocked over.

The fires raged for days, and Tokyo lost more than 300,000 buildings. Its port Yokohama, 18 miles away, also suffered dreadfully, with the loss of 60,000 buildings. Altogether, 150,000 people were killed and nearly 2 million made homeless.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Two more Philippine shipwrecks

The year has ended with another ferry being shipwrecked in the Philippines. At least 25 people are believed to have drowned when the MV Baleno-9 drive-on vessel went down in rough seas near Batangas city off the south coast of the country's main island of Luzon.

It was listed as having 88 people on board, of whom 72 have been rescued , but it is common practice in the islands not to record the names of all passengers in the ship’s manifest. The shipwreck came just three days after another ferry, the Catalyn B sank following a collision with a fishing boat. At least 27 are believed to have perished.

The Philippines was the scene of the world’s worst peacetime maritime disaster when the ferry Dona Paz went down after colliding with a tanker just before Christmas 1987 (see my blog of Aug 7).

In June 2008, the Princess of the Stars sank on its way from Manila to Cebu City when it encountered heavy seas off Sibuyan island. Once again there was uncertainty about the number of people aboard, but the death toll is put at up to 800. (See also my blogs of Sept 6 and 26)

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Bus crashes

A bus carrying farmers and traders home for Christmas has plunged 250 feet into a ravine in the Peruvian Andes, killing at least 42 people. They were travelling between Arequipa, Peru's elegant second largest city, and the town of Santo Tomas.

The accident happened in an area that was so remote that the nearest village did not have a doctor. A local schoolteacher said the road was potholed and in poor condition, but investigators will also be looking at whether a mechanical fault or recent rains might be a factor.

Back in 1995, 110 people are said to have been killed when a tanker carrying liquid benzene collided with a bus on the outskirts of Sriperumbudur in India’s Tamil Nadu state. If this figure is correct, this would probably be the worst bus crash in history.

Better documented is the accident in 2003 in which a coach drove into a reservoir near the town of Bethlehem in South Africa, killing 80. This too happened in a remote area, and it seems that the driver lost his way in the dark and found himself driving along a jetty towards the water. By the time he realised his mistake he was going too fast to stop.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Indian bridge collapses

Up to 49 building workers are feared dead after the collapse of a section of a new 100 yard bridge across the Chambai River in Rajasthan, northern India. Some of the victims were flung into the river and others buried under rubble.

The bridge was a joint enterprise between an Indian and a South Korean company. Police have arrested two project managers, and have filed charges against another dozen company officials.

India has suffered a number of bridge collapses in recent years. One of the deadliest happened near the town of Veligonda in Andhra Pradesh in October 2005, when a flash flood swept away a small bridge, and an express train was derailed killing at least 114.

In December 2006, a dozen railway passengers were killed when a bridge collapsed onto a train passing beneath at Bhagalpur in Bihar, while nine months later, in September 2007, up to 30 people died when a flyover being built in Hyderabad gave way.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Guinea - "crimes against humanity"

Following the shooting of more than 150 protestors in September, Guinea’s military leader, Capt Moussa Dadis Camara, should be charged with crimes against humanity, according to a leaked United Nations report.

Critics of the military junta had gathered at a sports stadium in the country’s capital, Conarky, to demonstrate their opposition after reports that Capt Camara was planning to stand for president. Troops opened fire on them in what human rights groups claim was a premeditated massacre.

The UN’s investigators say soldiers also raped or sexually abused more than 100 girls and women, and that hundreds of other people were tortured or ill-treated. Capt Camara had claimed the atrocities were committed by unruly elements in the army.

Three weeks ago, he was shot in the head by one of his aides, then flown to Morocco for treatment. He has not returned, fuelling suspicion that he may have been seriously injured, though Guinea’s ambassador in Morocco claimed today that he plans to come back “as quickly as possible.”

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Snowstorms

More than 80 people have died in Europe because of the snowstorms of the last few days. More than 40 – mainly homeless – have frozen to death in Poland, and 27 in the Ukraine.

A restaurant owner in Krakow provided free hot meals for homeless people in the town’s beautiful main square as temperatures dropped to -20 in some places. Across the Atlantic at least five people have died as Washington’s Reagan National Airport was buried under a record 16 inches (40cm) of snow.

Two of America’s worst ever blizzards struck in 1888. In January, more than 230 people perished across the Great Plains (see my blog of Jan 12). Two months later, New York City was hit in the middle of what had been its mildest winter for 17 years.

What became known as the “Great White Hurricane” paralysed the east coast of the United States from Chesapeake Bay to Maine. Up to 60 inches (150 cm) of snow fell in some places, and winds of 50 mph (80 kph) created drifts up to 50 feet (125 cm) deep. An estimated 400 people died, including 100 in New York City. For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Another Nigerian road disaster

Nigeria has further underpinned its unenviable reputation for having some of the most dangerous roads in the world. (See also my blogs of Feb 1, Oct 12 and Nov 5.) Up to 100 people were killed when a runaway lorry ploughed into a crowded market in Kogi state.

Police say the driver appeared to lose control and the vehicle hurtled down a hill smashing cars before it crashed into the market. According to government officials, the lorry’s brakes failed. The state governor has declared three days of mourning.

Defective brakes were also a factor in what was probably Nigeria (and one of the world)’s worst road accidents when a tanker ploughed into stationary vehicles on a motorway in November 2000, killing up to 200.

Last week, 23 people were burned to death when a bus collided with a lorry in Oyo state.

Friday, 18 December 2009

The Bologna station bomb

Just back from the lovely ancient Italian city of Bologna. In the Piazza Maggiore, there’s a simple but moving monument to the 85 people killed in a neo-Fascist terrorist bombing at the railway station on Saturday, August 2, 1980.

It was a hot morning, and the air-conditioned waiting room was packed when an unattended suitcase exploded at 1025. The blast destroyed most of the station’s main building and severely damaged a train at the platform by the waiting room. So many people were injured that a large number had to be taken to hospital in buses and taxis.

In 1988, four neo-fascists were gaoled for life for their part in the bombing, though two were later freed on appeal. A third person was gaoled for 30 years in 2004, but he continues to maintain his innocence.

The attack came on the same day that a Bologna court sent 8 men for trial following a neo-fascist terrorist bomb on the Rome-Brenner express in 1974 that killed 12 people.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Rwanda genocide - a journalist gaoled

A Rwandan journalist has been gaoled for life for encouraging Hutus to slaughter Tutsis during the 1994 genocide in the country which saw 800,000 people massacred in just 100 days.

Valerie Bemeriki was a leading broadcaster on Radio Mille Collines which played a key role in inciting and orchestrating the slaughter. Two senior executives from the station had already been imprisoned.

Ms Bemeriki is alleged to have urged Hutu extremists not to shoot “these cockroaches” but instead hack them to pieces with a machete. And it is said that some victims actually had to pay their murderers to kill them by the bullet.

Meanwhile Rwanda has accused other African states of harbouring genocide suspects. It claims “hundreds” are sheltering in Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. See also my blogs of March 1, 4, April 9, July 16, Sept 23, Oct 8, 30.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Blair official: "I lied over Iraq"

Of course, Mr Blair is not going to come out and say “OK, l lied so I could bomb, invade and occupy Iraq, killing tens of thousands of innocent people who never did us any harm.” He’s a lawyer, for Heaven’s sake, but he has admitted as much in the unlikely environment of an interview with Fern Britton.

He told her that he didn’t care whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or not. Even if he hadn’t, “I would still have thought it right to remove him.” It would simply have meant that other pretexts would have needed to be found: “I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments.”

So when Mr Blair told the House of Commons in February 2003 that if Saddam was prepared to get rid of his weapons of mass destruction, he would not attack his country, he was lying. I’m old enough to remember a time when a minister who lied to the House of Commons about a love affair had to resign – at once, no arguments.

In many ways, the most interesting thing about the whole Iraq fiasco is not Mr Blair – who has plainly never been burdened by any sliver of respect for the truth – but the Labour party. They have managed to persuade themselves that it’s no problem if you tell a pack of lies so you can have a war. Until they unpersuade themselves, there will be no escape from the political wilderness.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Swine flu - a cause for cautious optimism?

In the UK, the swine flu pandemic is turning out to be less threatening than had originally been feared. Last week, there were 11,000 new cases – a reduction of half on the previous week. Back in July, there were predictions that we might be seeing 100,000 new cases every day.

There have been 283 deaths – just one for every four thousand people who catch the illness. The chief medical officer warned against complacency, though, and history would suggest rightly. The great flu pandemic of 1918 first appeared as a relatively mild illness, but then returned as the devastating killer of perhaps 70 million people.

Across the world, more than 7,800 people are known to have died of H1N1 after the figure leapt by 1,000 in a week. Most of the deaths have been in the American continents – more than 5,300.

Mutated strains have killed people in Norway and France, and these have been seen in four other countries, but overall most victims still suffer fairly mild symptoms. (See also my blogs of 30 April, 13 May, 6, 11 July, 24 Oct)

Monday, 30 November 2009

The final trial?

What may turn out to be the last war crimes trial of World War Two is due to open today in Munich. 89 year old retired US car worker John Demjanjuk is accused of helping to murder more than 27,000 Jews at the Nazi death camp of Sobibor in what is now Poland.

Demnjanjuk, who was born in the Ukraine, was captured by the Nazis while fighting against them in the Soviet army. He denies even being at Sobibor. In the 1980’s he was accused of being “Ivan the Terrible” – a notorious guard at the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, and sentenced to death in Israel, but the conviction was overturned as unsafe by the Israeli supreme court.

The first World War Two war crimes trials started as early as 1943 when the tide of war in the east turned, and the Soviets began to drive back the German army. The Allies set up a War Crimes Commission in October of that year hoping that it might cause the Nazis to hesitate over their mass murder project, but it did not.

The most famous of the war crimes trials began at Nuremberg in November 1945. Goering managed to cheat the hangman by swallowing poison in his cell, but another ten defendants were executed.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Train bombings

The authorities in Russia are investigating whether last night’s derailment of the Moscow-St Petersburg express was caused by a bomb on the track. At least 25 people were killed, and another 19 are reported missing.

In 2007, an explosion on the same route derailed a train and injured 27 people. Two suspects were arrested. While in 2003 a suicide bomb on a commuter train in Stavropol Krai in southern Russia killed more than 40 people.

Russia’s worst rail disaster, though, came when the trans-Siberian gas pipeline ruptured near the city of Ufa in 1989. As two trains passed close to the leak, they set off a terrible explosion which produced a wasteland three miles long, and killed up to 800 passengers.

The worst terrorist attacks on trains were the Madrid bombings of 2004, in which 191 people died, and the Mumbai blasts of 2006 which cost 209 lives. (see my blog of Nov 26)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Mumbai bombings anniversary

Mumbai has been marking the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed 174 people. The targets included luxury hotels and a railway station. The only surviving attacker is currently on trial in India while seven other people have just been charged in Pakistan with being involved. (see my blog of July 23)

The 2008 attacks were just the latest in a series that have targeted India’s financial capital. In 1993, a number of bombs hit targets such as the Stock Exchange, a shopping complex, and banks. A total of 257 people were killed, including 90 on a crowded double-decker bus.

During the winter before the bombings, about 900 people, mainly Muslims, had been killed in inter-communal rioting in the city – a sad blot on Mumbai's reputation for diversity and tolerance.

Another bombing campaign in 2003 cost the lives of more than 50 people. Then in July 2006, terrorists planted explosives on seven rush hour trains taking commuters home from the city. This time the death toll was 209. For more details, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Global warming and wars + deadly cyclone anniversary

Researchers at the University of California believe they have shown that global warming directly increases the chance of wars in Africa. Looking back over the period 1981-2002, they have calculated that conflicts are 50% more likely in hotter years. The war in Darfur is often cited as the first major conflict directly caused by climate change. (see my blog of Sept 21)

Meanwhile in the UK, the Royal Society, the Met Office, and the Natural Environment Research Council have issued an alarming warning about the environmental effects of global warming. And all this as expectations for next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen grow more and more depressed.

On this day…170 years ago, a cyclone is said to have killed 300,000 people as it whipped up 40 foot waves that devastated the area around Coringa at the mouth of the Ganges on India’s east coast. The storm also destroyed 20,000 boats.

Fifty years earlier in December 1789, a cyclone produced three tidal waves in the area that are supposed to have drowned 20,000.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Another Chinese mining disaster

The death toll in China’s latest mining disaster has now reached at least 104. Another four men are still missing after Saturday’s huge gas explosion at the Xinxing mine in Hegang close to the Russian border.

Apparently, attempts were being made to evacuate around 500 miners from the pit when the gas ignited. About a dozen women who went to the mine early today to complain about the lack of information, clashed with police and security guards, and some were driven away in a van. Reporters who tried to speak to the women were harassed.

Despite an 18% reduction in fatal accidents in the first half of this year, China’s coal mines remain among the most dangerous in the world. In the first six months of 2009, 1,175 miners have already been killed. Another 11 died yesterday in an explosion at another mine in Hunan province.

China was the scene of the world’s worst mining accident at Honkeiko in 1942, when 1,549 miners were killed. See also my blogs of Feb 22 and Nov 19.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Disaster history in Cambodia

The Khmer Rouge genocide is back on the curriculum of Cambodian schools. The subject dropped off the agenda in the mid-90’s when the remaining Maoist leaders made peace. The presence of former Khmer Rouge members in the government made it a particularly sensitive subject.

Now a new text book will tell the story of the murder of up to 1.75 million people – a quarter of the country’s population – in the five years during which Pol Pot’s fanatics ruled. The victims died from exhaustion, starvation, disease, torture or execution.

Meanwhile, in a Phnom Penh courtroom, final arguments will be heard this week in the case of Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng “special interrogation centre” in the Cambodian capital, which was reserved for suspected “traitors” within the party. Now a genocide museum, of 15,000 people held there, only seven are thought to have survived.

Duch, who has become a born-again Christian, has asked for forgiveness for his crimes. See also my blogs of Jan 7, March 4 and June 29.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

More deadly landslides - China and El Salvador

More than 20 people have been killed in Shanxi province in northern China by a landslide that engulfed six makeshift homes where migrant coalminers were living close to a mine.

Shanxi is the centre of China’s mining industry which is one of the most dangerous in the world. More than 3,000 workers died in accidents last year. The cause of the latest disaster is being investigated.

Heavy rain is being blamed for the landslide that buried the farming town of Verapaz in El Salvador last week, killing at least 130 people. Boulders – some weighing more than a ton – littered the streets, dead cows were found on rooftops, and half-buried cars stuck out of the mud.

The town, which is about 30 miles from the capital San Salvador, lies on the slopes of a volcano. See also my blogs of April 17 and November 12.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Another ferry disaster

At least 50 people have drowned after a wooden ferry collided with a barge and then sank in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta. There were about 180 people on board the Naywintun, or rising sun.

The delta is the area that was devastated last year by Cyclone Nargis. Most of the population of the low-lying region depend on river ferries which are often poorly maintained. At least 38 people were killed when a boat sank in the delta in July 2008, while the worst shipwreck in the area came in 1902 when the British steamship, SS Camorta, was caught in a cyclone and sank with the loss of 737 lives.

For other ferry disasters, see my blogs of April 15, Aug 7, Sept 6 and 26.

This day 22 years ago saw one of London’s worst fires of modern times as a carelessly discarded match caused a terrible disaster at King’s Cross underground station. The match set fire to rubbish that had accumulated through years of neglect beneath an escalator. Smoking was supposed to be banned on the escalators but the rule was poorly enforced. The story of how 31 people were killed can be seen in The Disastrous History of London.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Landslides - Africa, India, South America

Heavy rain has brought deadly landslides in Africa and India. At least 38 people have been killed in the Nilgiri Hills in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Continuing monsoon rains are hampering the rescue effort, and it’s feared the death toll may rise.

While in Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro province, four days of rain brought part of a mountain crashing down on the village of Goha, killing at least 20. Ironically, the area has been suffering from severe drought for the past two years.

The deadliest landslide in history was probably the one that devastated Venezuela’s coastal region in December 1999. Thirty-six inches of rain fell in just a few days, and flash floods and mudslides engulfed high rise buildings and effortlessly ripped away shanty towns perched precariously on ridges around the capital Caracas.

More than 20,000 homes were destroyed, and an estimated 140,000 people made homeless. The death toll has been estimated at anything up to 30,000. For more, see A Disastrous History of the World. (see also my blog of April 17)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Native Americans

President Obama is holding the first ever conference for all of America’s native Indians. Delegates from all 564 tribes have been invited to the White House as the president promised them a better deal.

Estimates of the number of native Americans before the appearance of the white man range as high as 18 million. Then they were killed in wars or by being driven from their lands, but most of all by disease.

With no immunity to the infections brought from Europe, they died in their thousands, from chicken pox, smallpox, measles. In 1618, smallpox wiped out 90% of the Massachusetts Bay native Americans.

A century and a half later, the disease reached the northwest coast, and killed off 30% of the Indians there. In the Puget Sound area, a population of 37,000 was reduced to just 9,000, and epidemics continued on into the nineteenth century. Today, there are about 2 million Indians left in the United States and about 1 million in Canada.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Gunpowder, treason and plot + Nigeria road carnage

Today in the UK, we celebrate the failure of what nowadays would no doubt be called a terrorist attack – the attempt of Guy Fawkes and his fellow Roman Catholic conspirators to blow up the House of Commons in 1605. It will be interesting to see whether the recent disastrous decline in the reputation of MPs will lead to guys being burned or fireworks set off with any less enthusiasm.

It is not just that so many of our representatives seem to have been quite happy to rip off the people who elected them, it is also that so few seem to have been interested in doing their job. They have stood by as the Labour government has stripped us of our civil liberties, and they evidently do not bother to read most of the poorly drafted, ill thought out laws they pass under the instruction of the party whips.

For Nigeria, though, today is the anniversary of a disaster that DID happen. On November 5, 2000, one of the country’s perennial jams had brought traffic to a standstill on the Ife to Ibadan motorway. Then along came a rather decrepit petrol tanker which could not stop, and ploughed into the stationary vehicles.

Within seconds it blew up, and a huge fireball devastated the area. No one knows exactly how many people were killed, but it could be up to 200. Police were later accused of causing the original jam by setting up a roadblock so they could extort money from motorists, though major traffic accidents are nothing unusual in Nigeria. (see my blog of Oct 12)

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Vietnam storms

Tropical storm Mirinae has caused the deaths of at least 40 people in Vietnam as it dumped 13 inches of rain on the country, bringing widespread floods. Soldiers have been sent in to rescue people trapped by the rising waters.

Just a month ago, Vietnam was hit by typhoon Ketsana, which killed more than 160 people, as well as 300 more in the Philippines, Laos and Cambodia. (see my blog of Oct 2). It was Vietnam’s deadliest storm in years, but typhoons are a constant danger.

In 2006, the assailants were typhoons Xangsane and Durian. Xangsane killed 71 people and destroyed or damaged more than 300,000 homes, while from Durian, the death toll was 98, and nearly 900 fishing boats were sunk.

Two years earlier, typhoon Muifa brought torrential rains that destroyed crops over 500 square kilometres, and floods and landslides caused about 80 deaths.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Rwanda - the long arm of justice

The latest war criminal to be gaoled for his role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was imprisoned in faraway Canada. Desire Munyaneza, who will spend at least 25 years behind bars, was convicted in the first case brought under Canada’s War Crimes Act, which allows people to be tried for crimes they committed abroad.

Munyaneza, whose lawyer says he will appeal, was accused of leading a militia whose members raped and killed dozens of Tutsis, and of orchestrating a massacre of 300-400 in a church. Astonishingly during the 100 day genocide, in which 800,000 people died, more victims were said to have been murdered in churches than in any other kind of building. Earlier this year, a former priest was convicted for his part in the genocide (see my blog of March 1).

The Rwandan had sought asylum in Canada, but was arrested in 2005. The United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has so far completed 47 cases (six defendants were acquitted). There are 26 cases in progress and another three people are awaiting trial.

See also my blogs of January 23, March 4, March 23 April 9, July 16, Sept 23, and Oct 8.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Sombre October

The bloodbaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan go on. More than 90 people – most of them women and children - were killed today by a huge car bomb at a busy market in Peshawar. The Taliban have denied responsibility but many believe it is part of their campaign of retaliation against the Pakistan government’s assault on their strongholds in South Waziristan.

This is the third major bombing in Peshawar this month, and brings to more than 150 the number killed there. Across the country in October, a series of attacks has caused nearly 300 deaths.

Iraq too has been having a dreadful time. A militant group linked to al-Qaeda says it planted the two car bombs that killed more than 150 people in Baghdad on Sunday. It was the deadliest attack in the country for more than three years.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, at least five UN workers have died in an attack on a guesthouse in Kabul. The Taliban said it was part of a campaign to disrupt next week’s second-round presidential election. Earlier this month, a suicide bombing at the Indian embassy killed 17.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Child soldiers

Just been to see Johnny Mad Dog – the story of a group of boy soldiers in an unnamed African country. It’s an odd thing to say about such an enveloping, gut-wrenching film but in some ways the story seemed to me a little sanitised.

There was almost no examination of the way their kidnappers turned terrified children into terrifying killers. The boys also seemed to have something of a charmed life. We did not see them being wounded, maimed and killed in the numbers that surely would have been inevitable, nor, therefore, the effect this would have on their comrades. Nor did we see the fate of those who are captured. Nonetheless it is an extremely powerful film on an important subject.

The Brookings Institute have estimated that child soldiers fight in about three quarters of all the world’s wars, while in 2007, Human Rights Watch put their number at up to 300,000.

Among those currently on trial who are alleged to have used child soldiers are former Liberian president Charles Taylor (see my blog of July 15) and Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga (see my blogs of Jan 29 and March 23). While in February, three rebel commanders in Sierra Leone were convicted of forcing children to become soldiers. (see my blog of March 4)

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Egyptian train crashes

A collision between two passenger trains in Egypt has killed at least twenty people. The accident happened when one train stopped after hitting a water buffalo about 30 miles south of Cairo, and a second ploughed into the back of it.

Egyptian railways have suffered a number of serious accidents over the last few years. Last year, more than 35 people died when a train collided with a number of vehicles on a level crossing about 270 miles north-west of Cairo. A truck had failed to stop and pushed the other vehicles onto the crossing, while in 2006, the death toll was at least 58, when a commuter train collided with another that had stopped just outside a station at Qalyoub, 12 miles from the capital.

Egypt’s worst rail accident ever, though, happened in February 2002, when fire broke out aboard a service from Cairo to Luxor about 40 miles into its journey. Unaware of what had happened, the driver sped on, fanning the flames as he went.

Witnesses saw people throwing themselves from the carriages, and soon the tracks were lined with dead and injured. An opposition newspaper, complaining of poor safety standards, said the government should find out who was responsible and “hang them in public squares”. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Swine flu emergency

The US government has declared swine flu a national emergency. This is essentially an administrative move designed to give the authorities a freer hand in dealing with the disease, but it also reflects the widespread worry that the virus could become a more formidable foe as winter approaches.

More than 1,000 deaths have been linked to the illness in America, while in Britain the figure is 122, with nearly 100 others currently critically ill. Over the last week, the number of cases in the UK almost doubled to 53,000, but earlier estimates that we might start seeing 100,000 new cases a day (see my blog of July 6) have been scaled back dramatically, and the UK authorities are predicting a total of perhaps 1,000 deaths.

The World Health Organisation says that nearly 5,000 people have died from swine flu across the globe, and that there have been more than 400,000 confirmed cases, though it says this is a very considerable underestimate as countries are no longer required to report individual cases.

See also my blogs of Feb 5, May 13, and July 11.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Bosnian war crimes + Parliament burned down!

A former Bosnian Serb army commander has been sentenced to 30 years in gaol for his role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in just a week. Milorad Trbic was found to have taken part in the planning of the mass murder, which happened in what was supposed to be an enclave protected by the UN.

The former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is due to go on trial at The Hague in ten days time, while the former Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army, Ratko Mladic, remains at large.

On this day…..
175 years ago, the Houses of Parliament burned down! The blaze had begun in a heating furnace and spread with alarming speed. In the name of Parliamentary privilege, the building was exempt from most safety legislation, and ministers, peers and MP’s had to race through a baffling rabbit warren, breaking down doors to try and rescue priceless relics.

Sightseers flocked to the scene, including the great painter J M W Turner, who sketched away furiously. London’s new fire chief, James Braidwood, decided to concentrate on saving Westminster Hall, the only remaining part of the original 11th Century Palace of Westminster. He achieved his objective, but most of the rest of the complex was destroyed, and replaced by the Gothic masterpiece we see today. For more, see The Disastrous History of London.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Stop Blair! Prevent a disaster!

This week the families of British people killed in Iraq have been trying to stiffen the backbone of Sir John Chilcot's inquiry, and ensure that it finds out exactly what lies we were told, why, and by whom. And what of the man who brought you the UK's greatest foreign policy disaster in at least half a century? Well, he is being touted for further aggrandisement.

Those who want Tony Blair as the lavishly rewarded President of Europe have been joined by……. the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. By their friends ye shall know them. Mind you, Mr Berlusconi may find himself rather too busy to campaign very actively. Now that his claim that he should be above the law has been dismissed, he could face three court cases, including one in which he is alleged to have handed over a huge bribe to get the estranged husband of one of Mr Blair’s henchpeople to give false evidence.

It is, of course, a scandal that Europe’s “President” should be chosen secretly in some stitch-up by national political leaders. But we don’t just have to stand by and accept it. Sign the “Stop Blair” petition now! http://stopblair.eu/

See also my blogs of Feb 25, 28, March 1, 11, 22, May 1, June 16, 22, July 30, August 3.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Nigerian road disasters

A reminder over the weekend of how deadly the roads can be in Nigeria. At least 70people were killed when a fuel tanker overturned and exploded in the southern state of Anambra. The vehicle was reported to be trying to negotiate deep potholes on the Enugu-Onitsha highway when it toppled over, spilling its load across the road.

The fuel caught fire and set half a dozen packed minibuses blazing. A car is said to have crashed into the debris. A transport official warned that if major improvements were not made to the country’s road network, Nigeria could expect further tragedies.

Nearly nine years ago, in November 2000, a poorly maintained tanker careered into a traffic jam on the motorway from Ife to Ibadan. It exploded, sending a huge fireball up into the sky. More than 100 vehicles were destroyed, and up to 200 people were killed. It was the fourth deadly road accident in the country in just three months.

For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Philippines - more floods

Less than two weeks after at least 300 people were killed in floods caused by the heavy rain from Typhoon Ketsana (see my blogs of Sept 28 and Oct 2), the Philippines have now been struck by the fall-out from Typhoon Parma.

Heavy rains triggered by the storm have caused landslides in Benguet province, where a number of towns have been hit and houses buried. At least 120 people are said to have been killed there. In Pangasinan province, the authorities have had to open dams to relieve the pressure from the rising waters, and about 30 towns have been flooded, leaving thousands stranded on rooftops.

The floodwater, landslides and continuing heavy rain are hampering the rescue effort, and the province’s deputy governor said the east of the state had “become one big river.” Across the country, the death toll is at least 160.

Three years ago, in February 2006, ten days of heavy rain and a minor earthquake brought a huge mudslide in the province of Southern Leyte. It caused widespread damage and the deaths of more than 1,120 people.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Rwanda genocide - another arrest

According to the old saying, the wheels of justice grind slow, but they grind exceeding small. Fifteen years after the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days, another suspect has been arrested.

This follows the detention last month of a former mayor, and the conviction of the former governor of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, in July. This time the indicted man is a former intelligence chief and senior figure at Rwanda’s elite military training school, Idelphonse Nizeyimana, who was apprehended in Uganda.

He is accused of organising the killing of thousands of people, setting up roadblocks and organising special military units to carry out the slaughter. Troops said to have been under his command rampaged through the University of Butare killing Tutsi lecturers and students.

A spokesman for the prosecutor at the UN-backed tribunal at which he will be tried said: “there is no time limit for justice.” The court is still searching for another 11 fugitives. (See also my blogs of March 1, 25, April 9, July 16, Sept 23.)

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Sumatra search called off + Great Fire of Newcastle

Officials in the Sumatran city of Padang have called off the search for survivors from last week’s earthquake, as hopes have run out of finding anyone else alive. At least 1,000 people have died, and 1,000 more are still missing.

The urgent task now is to feed the survivors, provide clean water and clear away decomposing bodies. Already children are returning to makeshift schools, and businesses are re-opening, but the island’s infrastructure has taken a terrible blow, with more than 180,000 buildings destroyed or badly damaged.

On this day…..155 years ago a fierce fire devastated Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead. The first flames were seen in a mill on the Gateshead side of the river, and they spread rapidly and overwhelmed the efforts of firemen.

With lots of highly inflammable goods in warehouses along the Tyne, the blaze had plenty to feed on, and by the time it had been put out, 53 people had been killed. For the story, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Monday, 5 October 2009

India - forgotten terrorism

We are used to hearing about Islamic terrorism in India, but another bloody insurgency has attracted relatively little attention. Over the last 20 years, Maoist rebels have fought a campaign in which more than 6,000 people have been killed.

The Maoists want to establish their own state and are active across large parts of central and eastern India. In their latest attack, they killed 16 people at a village in Bihar. A survivor, whose son died, said the assailants tied up the victims – labourers and poor farmers - then shot them. India’s Prime Minister has said the Maoists are now the most serious security problem facing the country.

Last month, one of their leaders, Kobad Ghandy, was arrested in Delhi. From a prosperous background, he was educated at one of India’s most exclusive schools and then trained as an accountant in London. According to friends, it was there that he became radicalised, denouncing India as "semi-feudal, semi-colonial".

Saturday, 3 October 2009

India - storms, rains, floods

Following the torrential rains that brought havoc to the Philippines (see my blog of Sept 28), it is now the turn of the Indian states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. At least 125 people have been killed there in a three-day downpour.

Hundreds of people are still stranded, including many pilgrims in the holy town of Mantralaya, which is under water. The Indian air force and specialist military boats have been taking part in the rescue.

Once again, the underlying problem is a tropical storm – this time a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal. More than 22,000 houses are said to have been damaged, and crops have been broken down.

India often falls a victim to flooding. See also my blog of July 20.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Pacific death tolls rise

As predicted (see yesterday’s blog), the death toll from the Sumatra earthquake has increased to more than 1,000, and as rescue teams struggle to dig survivors from the rubble, it is expected to rise even further. Indonesia’s Health Minister has appealed for help from abroad.

The quake registered 7.6 on the Richter scale, compared with the 9.3 clocked up by the one that triggered the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, nearly 300 people are now known to have been killed by the floods unleashed by Typhoon Ketsana (see my blog of Sept 28). In addition, 99 have died in Vietnam, along with 16 in Laos and 14 in Cambodia. Tens of thousands are homeless.

And the death toll from the tsunami that hit Samoa and Tonga (see my blog of Sept 30) has risen to at least 119. A disastrous week in the Pacific.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Coincidental quake

The earthquake that has just devastated the Indonesian island of Sumatra was a separate event from the earlier Pacific tsunami that hit Samoa (see yesterday’s blog) though some experts believe the Samoan event may have brought the Sumatran quake forward by a few days.

At least 464 people have been killed on Sumatra, though an official at Indonesia’s disaster centre predicted the death toll could eventually run into thousands. The initial shock came beneath the sea, 50 miles north-west of the city of Padang. An eye-witness said many concrete buildings had collapsed and that fires were burning in the ruins.

Indonesia is in the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”, the most seismically active region on earth, which suffers up to 7,000 earthquakes a year. Five thousand people were killed by a quake in Yogyakarta in 2006, while 170,000 Indonesians perished in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

The country has also suffered some of the world’s most notorious volcanic eruptions such as Tambora in 1815, and Krakatoa in 1883. The most powerful of all, though, struck Sumatra about 74,000 years ago, when the Toba eruption and the volcanic winter that followed wiped out 99 per cent of the human race. See A Disastrous History of the World.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Samoan tsunami

At least 90 people have been killed by a tsunami in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga. Thousands have been made homeless.

Large parts of the islands are only just above sea level, and a senior official in American Samoa reported that the waves had devastated all the low-lying areas. Samoa's Deputy Prime Minister said the trademark of a tsunami – the sudden rushing out of the ocean – had come just five minutes after houses were shaken by the underwater earthquake.

Young men had tried to raise the alarm by banging gas canisters, but many of those killed were people who had gone to pick up fish stranded by the antics of the sea.

About four in five of the world’s tsunamis happen in the Pacific, and this is the worst since the one in July 2006 that killed up to 800 people on Java.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Afghanistan and Iraq - continuing carnage

As the sabre-rattling directed at Iran grows louder and louder, reminders arrive from both Iraq and Afghanistan about how big a mess we still have to clear up in those places.

A series of bombs across Iraq in the last two days have killed at least 13 people, including seven near a police station in the northern city of Ramadi. Last month saw 393 civilian deaths in the country – the highest total for more than a year.

Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan, at least 30 people lost their lives when a bus hit a landmine as it travelled from Nimroz to Kandahar City. A UN report said that last month was the worst of the year for civilian deaths in Afghanistan too. Up to the end of August, 1,500 had been killed so far this year – an increase of more than 350 on the same period in 2008.

See also my blog of Sept 2.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Philippines - now a typhoon

Following the sinking of SuperFerry 9 (see my blogs of Sept 6 and 26), the Philippines has suffered more misfortune, with a visit from Typhoon Ketsana. At least 140 people are believed killed after torrential rain struck the capital Manila and 25 provinces.

A record 16 inches of rain fell in just 12 hours on Saturday, exceeding the usual average for the whole month of September. About four fifths of Manila was submerged, driving 450,000 people from their homes. The head of the National Disaster Co-ordinating Council said the emergency services were overwhelmed.

An 18 year old building worker is reported to have tied a rope around his waist and saved his brothers and sisters before going back to rescue his parents. Then he helped neighbours who were stranded on rooftops to get away, before leaping into the water to grab a mother and her baby. Tragically, he was then swept away himself.

Ketsana is the most devastating tropical storm to have hit the Philippines since Typhoon Ike in 1984 which brought fierce winds and floods that killed nearly 1,500 people.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Ferry disasters - an anniversary

In the Philippines, hearings are being held into the sinking of SuperFerry 9 off the Zamboanga Peninsula three weeks ago with the loss of ten lives (see my blog of Sept 6), but today also marks the seventh anniversary of one of the world’s worst ferry disasters – the wreck of the Joola off the coast of West Africa.

The ship was en route from Ziguinchor in Senegal to the capital Dakar on September 26, 2002. Because it was low season for tourism, there were few vehicles on the car deck, but many more passengers than the 536 the Joola was supposed to carry, making the vessel dangerously top heavy.

As it was hit by a fierce rainstorm on the starboard side, people rushed to port to take shelter, and the ferry capsized almost immediately. Just 64 people survived, mainly picked from the sea by fishermen. It took the official rescue services eight hours to respond, and Senegal’s ministers for transport and the armed forces both resigned, while the commander of the navy was sacked.

It is estimated that up to 1,940 people lost their lives. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Battling malaria

Fourteen African countries have joined forces to fight malaria, which still kills nearly 900,000 people a year – most of them young children in sub-Saharan Afirca – that’s more than AIDS and tuberculosis combined in those areas. No less than 86% of all the world’s malaria cases, and 91% of the deaths happen in the Dark Continent.

The African Leaders Malaria Alliance has raised nearly £2 billion to buy 240 million mosquito nets treated with insecticide. The aim, which cannot be faulted for ambition, is to stop nearly all malaria-related deaths within six years.

The announcement came just as the World Health Organisation was reiterating the concern that the malaria parasite was growing increasingly resistant to artemisinin, regarded as the most effective drug for combatting the disease.

Malaria is one of the oldest illnesses known to man, and has been infecting human beings for at least 50,000 years. (See also my blogs of April 11th and May 30th)

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Rwanda genocide - fresh arrest

Another suspect has been handed over to the UN tribunal investigating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Gregoire Ndahimana, a former mayor, was one of a dozen indicted people still at large.

He was arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo last month, and is accused of responsibility for the massacre of 2,000 Tutsis sheltering in a church. During the mass murder, more victims are said to have perished in churches than in any other kind of building.

Last week, Michel Bagaragaza, who had headed Rwanda’s tea industry, admitted complicity in the massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, bringing to 47 the number of cases that the court has dealt with.

The Rwanda genocide was the fastest campaign of mass murder in history, with 800,000 people slaughtered in just 100 days. (see also my blogs of January 23, March 1, 4, 23, 25, April 9 and July 16)

Monday, 21 September 2009

Darfur - the first war over global warming?

Reports of the death of Darfur’s civil war appear premature. That hopeful diagnosis had been made last month by the outgoing head of the joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force, General Martin Agwai.

The lastest clashes came in the north of the region and are said to have cost the lives of about 20 civilians. The UN says that altogether 300,000 have died in the conflict since 2003 with 2.7 million driven from their homes. Peace talks are due to resume next month in Qatar.

The war is seen by some as the world’s first global warming conflict, as drought stirred up tensions between African farmers and Arab animal herders who used to happily coexist on the same land. (See also my blog of March 5th)

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Harrying of the North

On this day….940 years ago, the army of Svein Estrithson, King of Denmark, with the support of English rebels against William the Conqueror, took the city of York. William had won his famous victory at Hastings just three years before, and his hold on the crown was less than secure.

Now he also faced rebellions in Dorset, Somerset, Staffordshire and Cheshire. Having crushed the rising in the West Country, he turned north. At Nottingham, he learned about the occupation of York, and began his advance on the city, devastating the countryside as he went, leaving no house standing and sparing no man his cavalry could outrun.

Just before Christmas, he reached York and burned it to the ground. Then he paid the Danes to go home and embarked on what became known as the Harrying of the North –the systematic destruction of a huge part of his new realm. The damage was still apparent when the Domesday Book was compiled 17 years later, with scores of villages left uninhabited.

Even some Normans were disturbed, with one monk complaining it amounted to “wholesale massacre” with William destroying “both the bad and the good in one common ruin.” For more details, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Lockerbie - fight for the truth

The fight to get to the bottom of what really happened 31,000 feet over Lockerbie on December 21st, 1988(see my blogs of July 27, Aug 16 and 22) has taken a fresh turn. Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter was killed in Britain's worst ever terrorist outrage, has joined forces with the UN observer at Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi's trial, Hans Koechler, and Professor Robert Black, one of the architects of the trial, to urge the UN General Assembly to hold an inquiry into the bombing.

Prof Black says the normal approach would be to ask the Security Council to instigate such a move, but that the UK and the US would block it. However, they have no power of veto over the General Assembly.

Meanwhile al-Megrahi has posted a huge dossier on the internet as part of his own campaign to establish his innocence. It casts serious doubts on the evidence of the Maltese shopkeeper who was the only witness to link al-Megrahi to the bombing.

Scotland's top prosecutor has protested about the release of the documents, but the Libyan's lawyers may be about to make further revelations. Lockerbie is proving a bigger and bigger test for the Obama regime. Are we really going to get a new US politics based on honesty and openness or the same old deception and cover-up?

Friday, 18 September 2009

Dubrovnik

Just back from Dubrovnik. My first visit, and it was just about possible to discern through the fog of a million visitors what a delightful jewel it is. It might be even more delightful if it had been spared a devastating earthquake in 1667 that destroyed most of the city and killed 5,000 people.

The famous city walls and some notable buildings survived, like the Sponza Palace, the Rector's Palace and St Saviour's Church. I was disappointed to see how many of the churches were locked, without any apparent information as to when they would open.

The earthquake hit Dubrovnik when it was a prosperous independent republic, but it never really recovered, and in 1802 it was conquered by Napoleon, and then handed over to the Austrian Empire after the French Emperor's defeat.

In more recent times, Dubrovnik got caught up in Yugoslavia's civil war, and was struck by 2,000 shells during 1991-2. The Sponza and Rector's Palaces were seriously damaged as were two in three of the city's characteristic red-roofed houses. Outside the old city, many walls still bear the marks of bullets and shrapnel.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Philippine ferry disasters

A remarkable 931 people are now said to have been rescued from the Philippine SuperFerry 9 which sank off the Zamboanga peninsula about 500 miles south of Manila. Of the ship’s 851 passengers and 117 crew, nine are known to have died.

The vessel had begun listing during the night, but the captain seems to have managed an orderly evacuation using life rafts before she went down, and, fortunately, there were a number of other naval and merchant vessels in the area to pick up the survivors.

It was an altogether happier outcome than the sinking of another Philippines ferry, the Dona Paz, in 1987 in which up to 4,375 people were drowned (see my blog of August 7th), making it the world’s worst peacetime shipwreck.

The islands have suffered a number of other major maritime disasters, such as the loss of the Dona Paz's sister ship, the Dona Marilyn, in 1988, which cost up to 300 lives, and the wreck of the Princess of the Stars ferry which capsized during a typhoon in 2008 at the cost of 800 lives.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The real Tudors - the Pilgrimage of Grace

How heartening to see the BBC devoting so much reasonably prime time television in The Tudors to the story of the Pilgrimage of Grace – the great rebellion against Henry VIII in the north of England that began in 1536 in protest at the king’s dissolution of the monasteries. Henry is best remembered for the judicial murder of two of his wives, but his treatment of his northern subjects is a tale of far greater infamy.

Of course, the programme does play a bit of ducks and drakes with history. It was actually the Duke of Norfolk and not the Duke of Suffolk who played the leading role in the suppression of the uprising, but they have got the basics of the story pretty well right – an unremitting catalogue of betrayal, deception and cruelty by the authorities. Today’s politicians think they are awfully modern, but, in fact, lying has long been a favoured tactic of those in power.

I don't want to spoil the rest of the series for anyone who doesn't know the ending, but it is rather satisfying that Thomas Cromwell went to the scaffold himself. Norfolk had been due to follow him on January 28, 1547, but was saved when the king died. Henry VIII, who has the unusual distinction of having happily executed both Protestants and Catholics for their religious views, died in his bed, though tormented by leg ulcers and probably syphilis.

For the story, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Friday, 4 September 2009

AIDS - some (kind of) good news

On April 11, I wrote about a new drug that may offer us hope against malaria, now there are grounds for some optimism in the global battle with AIDS. Researchers have discovered two powerful new antibodies against the virus.

They are found in only a minority of those infected and are the first of their type to be identified in more than a decade. It is hoped that the discovery may speed up the search for an effective vaccine, though Keith Alcorn, of the HIV information service NAM, warned that that prospect was still a long way off.

He said this was an extremely complex project and that “we certainly shouldn't expect these findings to lead to a vaccine in a few years.”

Across the world last year, the World Health Organisation said that there were 33 million people living with the AIDS virus, and that 2 million had died from the disease during 2007. About 1.6 million of those deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa - the region that is worst affected with two thirds of the world’s cases. Countries such as Botswana, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe all have infection rates of over 15 per cent. (see my blog of Feb 18th)

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Mass murder - how justice works

Police in Chile have arrested 25 former officials for alleged involvement in President Pinochet’s campaign of torture and murder during the 1970’s and 80’s. Warrants are out for another 100. More than 3,000 people were murdered, more than 30,000 tortured, and more than 80,000 imprisoned without trial during Pinochet’s reign of terror.

His former chief of secret police, Manuel Contreras, is already serving a life sentence for murder, kidnap and torture.

Pinochet himself never stood trial. After he fell from power, he was arrested in London in 1998 at the request of the Spanish authorities who wanted to try him over torture of its citizens in Chile. In 2000, though, the UK authorities declared he was unfit to stand trial, and allowed him to go back to Chile.

There he was stripped of his immunity from prosecution, and a number of attempts were made to bring him to justice, but none had succeeded when he died in 2006. I am not sure how vociferously the United States protested at the UK’s decision to release this mass murderer on compassionate grounds. Perhaps readers of this blog can help.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Afghanistan v Iraq + Great Fire

In the grim competition to establish which is the greater disaster area, Afghanistan today forged briefly ahead of Iraq, as at least 23 people were killed by a suicide bomb at a mosque in Mehtar Lam, east of Kabul. Just a week ago, a massive truck bomb in Kandahar killed more than 40 in the biggest attack in a year.

Last year, Afghanistan looked for a time as though it might grab the title, ending with 436 people killed in suicide bombs – just 27 fewer than the total for Iraq (see my blog of March 28th). Now, though, Iraq is once again establishing its unenviable lead, with 393 civilians killed during last month alone.

Whoever wins the grim contest, our experience of both countries is likely to reinforce the old saying – “invade in haste, repent at leisure.”

In the early hours of this day…343 years ago, the Great Fire of London broke out in Pudding Lane, just north of London Bridge. Roused from his bed, the Lord Mayor took a quick look at the blaze, declared: “a woman might piss it out,” and went back to sleep. Five days later it had devastated 436 acres of the City – more than the Blitz managed. (For the full story, see The Disastrous History of London.) How wise Sam Goldwyn was when he advised: “never make forecasts, especially about the future.”

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Mass murder - a tale of two sentences

So Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, got his release, to cries of outrage from the United States government. It was “absolutely wrong”, said Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

Then in a bizarre coincidence, up popped former US army officer Lt William Calley – not much heard of since the 1970’s when he was convicted of the mass murder of 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Yesterday Lt Calley offered his first public apology for the crime.

Back in 1971, he was sent to gaol for life. And what was the reaction of the US government? The unbending determination that it would be “absolutely wrong” to release a mass murderer before he had served his full sentence? No, actually President Nixon quickly cut his punishment to three years’ house arrest.

And there were no doubts about Calley’s guilt unlike that of Megrahi (see my blogs of July 27 and Aug 16), nor was he dying of cancer. Double standards, anyone?

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Lockerbie - no cover-up!

So we may never know the truth about Lockerbie. Last month, it was revealed that the only man ever convicted for Britain’s worst ever terrorist outrage, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, might be freed on compassionate grounds.

Now, what do you know? He has applied to withdraw his appeal against conviction. You can hardly blame al-Megrahi for doing whatever it takes to get home to Libya when he has terminal prostate cancer, but there are serious doubts about whether he really committed the crime (see my blog of July 27). His conviction looked to many like a sordid political stitch-up, and his release seems to be heading the same way.

The Scottish Conservatives’ justice spokesman Bill Aitken says there’s been too much in the way of "secret briefings, hints of special deals and international cloak and dagger." Hear! Hear! All of us have a right to know who really bombed Flight 103. It would be intolerable if al-Megrahi’s release were to be used to silence any further investigation.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Ferry disasters

More than 60 people are now feared to have drowned after the ferry Princess Ashika capsized off Tonga. There were 117 people aboard, and most of the victims are thought to be among those sleeping in cabins below deck – mainly women and children.

The vessel had been on its way from the capital Nuku'alofa to some of the country’s outlying northern islands. The cause of the shipwreck is not yet known, but the Tongan government said the ferry had passed safety inspections.

The world’s worst ferry disaster – indeed, its worst peacetime maritime disaster – was the sinking of the Do┼ła Paz in the Philippines just before Christmas 1987, after a collision with a tanker. Both vessels caught fire, and just two of the crew and 24 passengers were picked up by another ferry in the area.

No one knows exactly how many people drowned. According to the ship’s manifest, it was carrying 1,568 passengers, but often only the head of a family was counted, nor did the crew appear to have collected the names of people who bought tickets after boarding. So most estimates put the number drowned at between 3,000 and 4,375. For the story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

It's not just Darfur + Hiroshima

Another conflict in southern Sudan has now claimed more lives this year than the violence in Darfur over which President Omar Hassan al-Bashir faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. (See my blog of March 5th)

At least 185 Lou Nuer people were killed on Sunday when they were attacked by men from the Murle ethnic group. According to the United Nations, most of the dead were women and children. The conflict, which is being exacerbated by food shortages, has claimed more than 700 lives this year.

On this day…..64 years ago, an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Those close to ground zero were vaporised immediately, and over the days that followed, many more died from injuries, burns and the effects of radiation – taking the death toll to 92,000 in the first two weeks. Illnesses caused by radiation would continue to claim lives for years after, taking the total number of victims to at least 140,000.

The area around the epicentre is now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, and one of its main features is the so-called A-bomb dome – the remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the closest building to the epicentre to survive in any recognisable form. I remember visiting the area in 1993, and the thing that sticks in my mind is how the traffic lights by the dome cheerily pealed out Coming through the Rye when it was time to cross.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Iraq - in my beginning.....+ redaction

As it began, so it is ending. The famous secret Downing Street memo of 23rd July, 2002 made it clear that by then the Americans had already cooked up their conspiracy to attack Iraq and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”, and that at least Messrs Blair, Straw and Hoon knew it.

Then the imperative was to get into Iraq, now it’s the opposite – to get the hell out. (Note for all political leaders – history shows it is much easier to start a war than to end one.) But the tactics are the same.

Yesterday a car bomb killed at least six people in the market place at Haditha, on Friday the death toll was at least 29 from a series of explosions outside mosques in Baghdad, on Thursday seven were killed by a blast in Baquba, north-east of the capital. The spin machine is still on track, though. The line is unshaken - the security situation has improved “amazingly” and US troops may be able to leave earlier than expected.

Redacted….I had never heard the word until a few months ago. Now we get it all the time – it’s what Labour did with documents providing evidence of the security services' complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed. MP’s did lots of it when they published “details” of their expenses.

Let’s get rid of this word. There are perfectly decent alternatives – censored, concealed, suppressed, hidden from the prying eyes of the lower orders, for example. As Orwell saw – an attack on language is a vital element in the destruction of liberty.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Bhopal, America and extradition + 1,000th anniversary

Almost 25 years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, a new arrest warrant has been issued for the former boss of the company responsible. When the Union Carbide pesticide plant at Bhopal in India leaked poison gas in the early hours of December 3, 1984, 2,000 people were killed in the next few hours, followed by at least 15,000 over the next few weeks. How many more have died from its effects in the years that followed is not known, but it is thought that more than half a million have been damaged in some way.

Warren Anderson was arrested soon after the disaster, but got bail, left India and has never returned. Now a court at Bhopal has asked the Indian government to seek his extradition from the United States. In view of the Obama regime’s intransigence in demanding the extradition of the British computer hacker Gary McKinnon, it will be interesting to see how it reacts if a request comes from another government to surrender a US citizen for alleged wrongdoing abroad.

On this day…..1,000 years ago, a fearsome Danish army landed in England. Over the next two and a half years, the Danes harried the land mercilessly – ravaging fifteen counties and burning down towns such as Oxford and Northampton.

Eventually in April 1012, they accepted £48,000 – an enormous sum in those days – to leave the country in peace, but not before they had murdered the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Danes had demanded a separate ransom for him, but he bravely insisted that nothing more should be paid, so they pelted him, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, with the “bones and heads of cattle” then split his skull open with an axe.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Iraq - Labour's last chance

Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry opens today. It ought not to be the thing uppermost in his mind, but he probably represents the last chance for Labour to re-establish itself as a fundamentally decent and honest party that foolishly allowed some bad apples to dominate it. That can happen if the inquiry is searching, open, independent and fearless, and if those responsible for the Iraq disaster are held to account. If Sir John serves up another bucket of whitewash, the conclusion of the British people is likely to be that the whole party is irredeemably corrupted.

There are some hopeful signs – Labour’s attempt to hush the whole thing up by conducting the inquiry in secret has been thwarted, but overall the indications are not good. Sir John Chilcot is an establishment man to his fingertips, and has a track record of letting Tony Blair and his cronies off the hook as an underling on the Butler inquiry. The inquiry panel has been packed with Blair apologists, and Labour has specifically told Sir John that he is not supposed to “establish civil or criminal liability”.

All a bit odd isn’t it? When Baby P was killed, Labour was only too happy to apportion blame and sack those responsible. Why should it be different when we are dealing with the much greater disaster of Iraq?

So far the only people to lose their jobs over Iraq have been the chairman and director-general of the BBC, and the BBC reporter who dared to tell the truth. And Labour wrings its hands, claiming not to understand why people are so cynical about it.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Nigerian Taliban

Just as Foreign Secretary David Miliband urges the Afghan government to start talking to the Taliban, the so-called “Nigerian Taliban” has started to wreak havoc in West Africa.

The Muslim fundamentalist Boko Haram sect (its name means "Western education is a sin") is alleged to have shot and stabbed civilians at random in the north of the country, as well as attacking police stations and government buildings. The military has retaliated by shelling the compound of the sect’s leader.

The government has tried to evacuate civilians, but many are still in harm’s way, and up to 150 people are said to have been killed in the last four days. The group wants to see Sharia law imposed right across Nigeria, instead of just in the Muslim north as it is at present, even though half the population is Christian.

Boko Haram is not thought to have any direct links with the Afghan Taliban, and some say the nickname was invented by its opponents to try to ridicule the group.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Tanshan + 33

On this day….33 years ago, the Chinese industrial city of Tangshan was devastated by the country’s worth earthquake in four centuries. In just 20 seconds, 20 square miles was shaken into rubble.

Survivors said the ground moved around like the sea. Tangshan was the site of one of China’s biggest coalmining complexes, and about 15,000 miners were working underground when the quake struck.

Bizarrely, only 13 of them were killed, whereas above ground the total was at least 242,000. That was the number that the Communist authorities officially admitted to three years later, though by then there were already claims that secret documents had put the death toll at more than 655,000.

There is a belief in China that earthquakes go hand in hand with political upheaval. Six weeks after Tangshan, Chairman Mao died. For the full story see A Disastrous History of the World.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Lockerbie - bomber or victim?

The only man convicted of Britain’s worst ever terrorist outrage has asked to be released from prison on compassionate grounds. Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a Libyan intelligence officer, was jailed for 27 years for the Lockerbie bombing in 2001. His co-defendant was acquitted.

Al-Megrahi, who is suffering from terminal cancer, was alleged to have got the bomb onto PanAm Flight 103 in December 1988 via a connecting flight from Malta, though many people, including families of some of the 270 victims of the attack, are not convinced of his guilt, and believe he was the fall guy in a sordid stitch-up designed to end Libya’s diplomatic isolation.

In particular, sceptics have pointed to the fact that it was never mentioned at his trial that there had been a break-in at a Heathrow baggage store just 18 hours before flight 103 departed, and that someone could have smuggled a bag on board by getting it into this area.

Al-Megrahi is appealing against the verdict, and in June 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission said it feared he may have been the victim of a miscarriage of justice. If his conviction were to be overturned it would, of course, raise some very inconvenient questions.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The dust bowl drought

As the hot weather sends devastating wildfires across southern Europe, a reminder that 74 years ago this week, America’s dust bowl heatwave reached its height, with temperatures soaring to 104°F (40°C) in Milwaukee and 109°F (44°C) in Chicago.

The prairies had a terrible time in the thirties as the longest drought of the century coupled with decades of over-intensive farming killed off the grasses that normally kept the top soil in place. And it literally blew away, producing great dark clouds which sometimes blackened the sky as far as Washington DC.

Altogether, America’s heatwave killed perhaps 15,000 people from 1934 to 1936. Record temperatures were seen in many states, and one observer said that the “wide Missouri” at Kansas City had been reduced to “a languid thread of water in a great bed of baked mud.”

For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Iran air crashes - a long arm

Another Iranian passenger aircraft has crashed – this time at Mashhad airport, where it skidded off the runway and burst into flames, killing 17 passengers. It comes just ten days after another Iranian flight came down in the north of the country, killing all 168 people on board.

The aircraft involved in today’s crash is reported to be a Russian-built Ilyushin, while the one that came to disaster last week was a Russian Tupolev. The causes of the two accidents are not yet known, but Iran has a poor air safety record, partly because of the trade sanctions imposed by the US which have left the country reliant on ageing fleets, and often unable to buy spare parts.

Bad blood between Iran and the USA and UK goes back a long way. In 1951, the highly popular Dr Mohammed Mossadegh was elected prime minister, but when he nationalised the country’s oil reserves, the US and the UK engineered his removal, and the installation of the Shah’s despotic regime.

After the Shah was deposed in the Iranian revolution of 1979, a group of radical students took 52 people hostage at the American embassy claiming that it was a “nest of spies” and the US was up to its old tricks again, plotting to overthrow the new regime. In response America imposed sanctions, and they have remained in place with varying degrees of severity ever since.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The trial goes on

The trial of the main surviving suspect for last November’s terror attacks in Mumbai, that killed more than 160 people, will continue in spite of his confession. 21 year old Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab's defence team had called for proceedings to end and judgment to be given.

The accused had originally denied all the 86 charges he faces, then this week he suddenly changed his plea, dismissing suggestions that it was an attempt to secure more lenient treatment. Qasab’s nine accomplices, who had arrived with him by boat from Pakistan, were all shot dead by Indian police during the attack.

In his confession, Qasab said he had been disappointed by the small amounts of money he was earning as a decorator and had been planning to turn to armed robbery. Instead he decided to become a "Mujahideen". He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Mumbai, noted for its racial and religious diversity, has faced a number of attacks from Muslim extremists, like those of March 1993 that killed 257, and the train bombings of 2006 that accounted for 209. Hundreds of Muslims had been killed in riots in the city during the winter of 1992-3.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Monsoon floods

Monsoon floods have killed at least 36 people in the Indian state of Orissa, while over the border in Pakistan, at least 26 have been killed in Karachi – mainly from collapsing walls or being electrocuted.

The city’s ageing drainage system means that every year the monsoon tends to cause havoc. In August 2006, 35 people died as a result of the rains, while in India in 2005, hundreds were killed in the area around Mumbai, as a record 26 inches fell in one day.

Perhaps the deadliest monsoon flood of all time struck India in September 1978. The Ganges and Yamuna rivers burst their banks, flooding hundreds of towns and villages, and cholera broke out as drinking water was contaminated.

In the first week of October, the flooding was made worse by a cyclone. Altogether, 15,000 people are estimated to have died, and no fewer than 43 million had to flee their homes.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Great Fire of Rome

On this day….1,945 years ago, one of the worst fires in history devastated Rome. Flames first appeared in a row of shops at the Circus Maximus, the main stadium for chariot races. Fanned by the wind, they quickly swept through the closely packed wooden buildings that made up most of the city. Some people managed to escape into the countryside, but many were overtaken by the flames.

When I was at school, I was told the famous story that the emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. It could not have been true, because the violin was not invented until the sixteenth century, but stories swept Rome that he had sung or played the lyre while his capital burned.

The story gained credence from two things. First, it was known that Nero hated the slums and haphazard layout of the city and would have loved the chance to rebuild it. The second was that mysterious gangs of thugs roamed the streets preventing fire fighters from tackling the blaze, and using torches to keep it going, though, of course they may just have been looters who wanted to profit from the disorder.

It was nine days before the flames were extinguished. Of Rome’s 14 districts, three were levelled to the ground, and another seven were, in the words of the great historian Tacitus “reduced to a few scorched and mangled ruins.” Thousands of people had lost their lives.

Nero had actually played an energetic part in fighting the fire, and provided generously for the tens of thousands made homeless, but suspicion still clung to him. His excesses grew more and more extreme, and four years after the Great Fire, he slit his own throat. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Unpronounceable killer

Twenty-nine people have now died from swine flu in the UK. Bilharzia kills 280,000 every year in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease, which also has the less pronounceable name schistosomiasis, infects 200 million people every year, and across the world 20 million have to live with the anaemia, chronic diarrhoea, internal bleeding and organ damage it brings.

The illness is caused by tiny flatworms that live in water, and use forked tails to burrow into the skin of humans. For more than 20 years, we have had a cheap drug that can combat bliharzia, but the problem is that it does not prevent people from being infected again.

Now scientists have decoded the worm’s genetic blueprint. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is complex - made up of nearly 12,000 genes, about ten times as many as the genome of the malaria parasite.

However, the researchers are confident that it reveals new ways in which the worm can be fought, and they also say it has helped them to identify more than 60 drugs that we already have that could disrupt its deadly activities.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Katyn

Just seen Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn, telling the story of the notorious massacre of up to 22,000 Polish officers and others seen as part of the country’s elite, during World War Two. It happened after those two champion mass murderers, Hitler and Stalin, teamed up to partition Poland. The film is a gripping but dignified portrayal of the ordeal of those who were killed, and of their loved ones left ignorant of their fate.

The crime began to come to light after the tyrants fell out, and the Soviet Union found itself conscripted to the allied side by Hitler’s invasion. The Polish government in exile in London agreed to co-operate with Stalin, but when a Polish general asked for 15,000 p.o.w.’s to be transferred to his command, the Russians replied that most of them had escaped to Manchuria, and could not be found.

In 1943, the Germans announced that they had found the mass graves of nearly 4,500 Polish officers in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk in the USSR. The victims had apparently all been shot from behind. In a dramatic change of story, the Russians now said the Poles had been working in the area, and had been killed by the invading Germans in August 1941. A Red Cross investigation, though, produced evidence that the massacre had happened early in 1940 when the area was under Soviet control.

Still, the Soviet lie remained the official version of the story in Poland throughout the time the Communists held power. After they fell, the fiction was no longer maintained, and in 1990, President Gorbachev admitted that the Soviet secret police had been responsible. Wajda’s own father was killed in the massacre.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Also called to account

While the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor on war crimes charges continues at the Hague (see yesterday’s blog), the former governor of the Rwandan capital Kigali has been gaoled for life for his role in that country’s genocide in 1994.

The court decided that Lt Col Tharcisse Renzaho, aged 65, had incited soldiers and Hutu extremists to build roadblocks where they could intercept and kill fleeing Tutsis. He was also convicted of being involved in the killing of more than 100 Tutsis at a church. Many victims of the genocide were killed in churches, including 5,000 at Ntarama. Altogether 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days – most of them hacked to death with machetes.

Lt Col Renzaho’s lawyer said he would appeal. So far the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has convicted 33 defendants and acquitted six. (see also my blogs of January 23, March 1, 4, 23, 25, and April 9)

**Spanish-speaking readers of this blog, please note that A Disastrous History of the World has just been published in Spain as Historia mundial de los desastres (Turner ISBN 978-84-7506-879-4)

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Called to account

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been in the witness box at the Hague, defending himself against 11 charges of war crimes. Taylor, a Baptist lay preacher, is accused by the UN-backed tribunal of directing and arming rebel groups in Sierra Leone in return for diamonds, as they committed murder, rape and torture, and terrorised the civilian population.

An estimated half million people suffered in these atrocities, many of which were committed by child soldiers who had often been drugged. Taylor, the first African leader to be tried by an international court, has dismissed the charges as “lies”. He said he only wanted to bring peace to Liberia’s neighbour.

Back in 1985, Taylor made an astonishing escape from an American prison by sawing through the bars of a laundry room, climbing 12 feet to the ground on knotted sheets, and then climbing a fence. He had been detained there pending extradition to Liberia for allegedly embezzling nearly $1 million from its government and then fleeing the country.

Four others who escaped with Taylor were caught, and only he got away from the USA, leading to claims that there was some collusion from American interests who wanted to see him overthrow the existing Liberian government, which he did in 1990. In the present trial, the prosecution has called 91 witnesses, and the defence says it may call 249. (see also my blog of May 6)

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Terrorism

After the death of 15 British soldiers in 10 days in Afghanistan, Gordon Brown and his Labour colleagues have again been banging the “War on Terror” drum. How instructive last night, then, to watch the thought-provoking Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution on BBC-2.

It was the Reign of Terror of Robespierre and his henchmen that gave us the word “terrorism” – “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica).

However, governments of all colours have managed to obscure an important fact. The most dreadful acts of “terrorism” are almost invariably perpetrated by them, rather than the rebel groups to whom the term is normally applied. Hardly surprising as governments usually command far more powerful weapons.

So we are constantly told that 9/11 was the world’s worst terrorist outrage – killing nearly 3,000 people, but, of course, it does not compare with, say, the USAF’s bombing of Tokyo in 1945 that killed perhaps 140,000, nor with Hitler’s mass murder campaign that accounted for perhaps 20 million, or Stalin’s cruelties that killed up to 30m, or Mao’s – maybe 70 million. Robespierre’s terror, incidentally, saw off about 55,000.

As a few of those around him raised the odd timorous voice to express half-hearted misgivings about the ever-more intrusive and paranoid regime he had created, Robespierre retorted: “innocence never fears public scrutiny.” Or as Labour tends to put it when critics object to its National Identity Register or its project to snoop on all our emails etc, etc – “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.”

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Swine flu worsens + the real "Great Fire"

Since my last blog on Monday, swine flu has taken quite a turn for the worse in the UK. Then there were 4 deaths, now there have been 15 – meaning the death rate may be around one in 500 rather than the 1 in 1,875 we were talking about five days ago. We have also had the first death of someone without any other underlying medical problems.

The government is still stressing that for the vast majority of people, it will be a mild infection from which they soon make a complete recovery, but if they are right that the number of new cases may reach 100,000 a day by the end of next month, plainly many more people will die.

One of the disturbing things about the 1918 pandemic was how it appeared in the spring as a relatively mild illness, but by the autumn it had become much more lethal. Of course, today we have weapons that doctors lacked 90 years ago, like anti-viral drugs and perhaps soon a vaccine, but the ending of the swine flu story is one that we do not yet know.

On this day….797 years ago (or perhaps 796 – historians cannot agree), London suffered what may have been its deadliest ever peacetime fire. This “Great Fire” broke out to the south of the Thames in Southwark, and spread quickly. Crowds had poured onto London Bridge – some to try to rescue people from its buildings, others just to watch – when the flames leapfrogged them, and set buildings on the north bank ablaze, trapping them.

Some estimates put the number of people killed at an astonishing 3,000. That is hard to accept, but this fire certainly killed many more than the “Great Fire” of 1666, though that devastated a much bigger area. To learn more, see The Disastrous History of London.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Swine flu v bird flu

Swine flu has now overtaken bird flu. We have had 262 deaths from bird flu (H5N1) against 382 from swine flu (H1N1). Bird flu remains far more virulent, with its 262 deaths coming from just 436 confirmed cases, while there have been nearly 90,000 cases of bird flu.

The World Health Organisation says that most people who catch swine flu can expect a mild infection from which they make a full recovery within a week, and that the main risk is to pregnant women or people with other health problems.

The virus has now spread to 100 countries, and there are some peculiarities in the figures. Argentina has had 26 deaths at a rate of about 1 for every 60 cases – the highest in the world. Mexico, where the disease first appeared, has suffered 119 deaths at about 1 in every 85 cases. The United States has the highest number of deaths – 170 – but the rate is only about 1 in 200 of those infected.

Europe has suffered much less so far. The UK has been worst hit with nearly 7,500 cases, but only four deaths – a rate of 1 in 1,875. However, the government is warning that by the end of next month, Britain could be seeing 100,000 new cases every day. Could that produce the same kind of devastating effect on public services that we saw in the great flu pandemic of 1918, when schools closed, fire stations had no firemen, buses stopped?

That epidemic was dubbed “Spanish flu”, because it was there that the world first became aware of the virus. This time around, Spain has had 760 cases and just one death. Even so, yesterday, the Spanish newspaper El Pais decided to publish the section on flu from my book A Disastrous History of the World. This is the link to the story:- http://www.elpais.com/articulo/sociedad/Fue/gripe/espanola/elpepusoc/20090704elpepusoc_2/Tes

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Child survivors

It has now been revealed that the sole survivor of Tuesday’s air crash off the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean was only 12 years old. Baya Bakari had been travelling with her mother who was among the 152 people killed.

Twenty-four years ago, in the world’s worst disaster involving a single aircraft, two children were among just four people who survived out of 524 on board. When rescuers reached the JAL jumbo which had hit a mountain ridge in Japan, they found two girls aged eight and 12, along with two women aged 25 and 34.

Children have been the only people left alive in a number of other air disasters. A three year old boy was the sole survivor of an air crash in Sudan in 2003 that killed 116. A nine year old girl alone escaped from a flight that blew up over Colombia in 1995, while two years later a one year old Thai boy was the lone survivor from an airliner that came down near Phnom Penh airport in Cambodia. According to one analyst, there have been 13 air accidents since 1970 where only one person survived, and in six cases that sole survivor was a child.

So is it just coincidence, or do children have a better chance of coming out alive? There are a number of theories. One is that aircraft seats offer better protection to smaller bodies – adults are more likely to be hit on the head or legs, and killed or injured, by flying debris. In addition, bones grow more brittle as we get older, and some believe that the human body reaches its maximum vigour at about the age of 11. There is also a suggestion that children may be better able to survive in water – a factor that may have helped Baya Bakari.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Amazing escape + air crashes over the ocean

A 14 year old Marseille girl plucked from the water appears to be the only survivor of yesterday’s air crash eight miles off the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean. Rescuers spotted her swimming in rough waters among bodies and wreckage. They threw her a life buoy, but she could not grab it, then a man leapt into the water to save her. Altogether, there were about 153 people on board.

In the five deadliest aviation disasters over the world’s oceans, there were no survivors. The worst three were no accidents either. The worst of all involved the Air India 747 brought down by a terrorist bomb over the Atlantic in 1985, killing all 329 people on board.

Three years later, an American warship shot down an Iran Air Airbus over the Straits of Hormuz killing all 290 passengers and crew. The death toll was 269 – again everyone on board – when Soviet jets shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 just west of Sakhalin island in 1983.

The worst ever accident involving a commercial airliner over the ocean came on July 17, 1996 when a TWA flight to Rome blew up in mid-air about 12 minutes after taking off from New York’s JFK airport. All 230 people on board were killed. At first, there was speculation that there might have been a bomb on the jumbo, but investigators concluded the most likely cause of the explosion was faulty wiring.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Ocean air disaster + ocean liners fire anniversary

An Airbus operated by the Yemeni state carrier, Yemenia Air, with 153 people on board has crashed into the Indian Ocean near the Comoros islands. A desperate search for survivors is now under way, with France taking a leading role. There are a thought to be a large number of French passengers on the flight.

It was en route from the Yemeni capital Sanaa to Moroni, capital of the Comoros. There are reports that the aircraft had made a failed attempt to land before it disappeared. If there are no survivors, this would be the second worst air crash this year after the loss of the Air France Airbus off Brazil. (see my blog of June 20)

On this day…..109 years ago, fire engulfed the ocean liner terminal at Hoboken, New Jersey, destroying one ship and severely damaging two others, and killing up to 400 people.

The blaze appears to have started on one of the piers which was piled high with cotton bales and barrels of oil and turpentine. It happened at a time when local people were allowed to come and look around the liners, and many of them were among the dead. The cause remains a mystery.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Days of reckoning

One of the organisers of the Khmer Rouge’s mass murder campaign in Cambodia has come face to face in a Phnom Penh courtroom with one of its survivors. Kaing Guek Eav, alias Comrade Duch, ran the notorious Tuol Sleng “special interrogation centre” in the Cambodian capital, which was reserved for suspected “traitors” within the party.

Of 15,000 people held there, only seven are thought to have survived. One of them was Van Nath, who was spared because of his skill in painting portraits of Khmer Rouge bigwigs. He has now become one of Cambodia’s best known artists, and has used his skills to perpetuate the memory of the crimes committed by Pol Pot’s fanatical regime.

So far he has told the court about how prisoners were shackled and how a “meal” consisted of three teaspoonfulls of gruel. The 66 year old Duch has already admitted to his crimes, and begged forgiveness. Now a born-again Christian, he claims he was forced to run the interrogation centre.

Tuol Sleng – a high school until the Khmer Rouge turned it into a torture and murder factory – is now a genocide museum as Cambodia tries to come to terms with the terrible four years in the 1970’s when the Khmer Rouge killed up to 1.75 million people – a quarter of Cambodia’s entire population. (see also my blog of March 4th and A Disastrous History of the World)

Sunday, 28 June 2009

A sombre anniversary

On this day…..95 years ago, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. The killing set off a chain of events that resulted in Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, Germany declaring war on Russia on August 1, then France on August 3, and Britain entering the war on August 4.

Princip, a 19 year old Bosnian Serb, wanted to liberate the whole of the Balkans from Austro-Hungarian rule. While Franz Ferdinand was on a visit to the Bosnian capital, then part of Austria's empire, one of Princip’s comrades threw a bomb at his car. It bounced off and exploded beneath the next vehicle, injuring two of the occupants and about a dozen people in the crowd. While the Archduke and his wife were on their way to a hospital to visit the injured, Princip shot them.

While the First World War was raging, Princip was tried and sentenced to 20 years in gaol – the maximum allowed for someone under 20 – on October 28, 1914. He was kept in harsh conditions and died of tuberculosis in April 1918.

The Treaty of Versailles was signed exactly five years after the assassination on June 28, 1919. The war is estimated to have cost the lives of about 8.5 million military personnel, and perhaps 13 million civilians from starvation, disease, being caught up in military action or massacre. It also put paid to the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Indian heatwave

A heatwave in India is now thought to have killed hundreds of people. With the monsoon rains arriving late, up to 200 have died in Orissa, and temperatures in many parts of the country have reached over 40 degrees.

Seventeen people are said to have perished in Jharkand and seven in Bihar. As so often happens, it is the poor who have suffered worst. Orissa’s minister for disaster management has been asking the federal government to declare the heatwave a “national calamity” so that the families of those killed get better compensation.

Hospitals have opened special wards for victims of heatstroke and mobile ice vans are patrolling the cities, while the government is organising special prayers for rain.

The worst Indian heatwave of recent years came in 1998 when more than 2,000 people died in Orissa alone. The deadliest heatwave of all was probably the one that swept Europe in 2003, and claimed up to 50,000 lives.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Carry on covering up + a great fire of London

As Labour continues to try to hide the truth about Iraq (see my blog of June 16), in that unhappy country itself, the bombs go on exploding. The death toll from the latest – a huge truck bomb in Kirkuk – has now risen to at least 72. It went off as worshippers were leaving a Shia mosque, and there is speculation that it could be the work of al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile it’s been revealed that Tony Blair has been lobbying Gordon Brown to keep the Iraq inquiry secret. Apparently, he wasn’t very keen on being questioned in public and under oath about the decision to bomb, invade and occupy. I’ll bet he wasn’t. Not sure how much persuading was required, though. Do you think Mr Brown himself, not to mention Messrs Straw and Hoon would have been queuing up to tell us all?

On this day….148 years ago, what was then London’s worst fire since the Great Fire of 1666 broke out in the great line of warehouses that stretched between Tooley Street and the south bank of the Thames. The buildings were packed with inflammable goods – cotton, sugar, oil, tallow – and once they had got going, the flames spread mercilessly. The river itself caught fire as burning rum floated on its surface.

The Tooley Street inferno claimed the life of London’s first ever fire chief, James Braidwood – killed when a wall collapsed on him. The flames raged out of control for two days, and it was a whole month before they were put out completely. For more details, see The Disastrous History of London.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Air disaster mystery

As the French government starts to pay out compensation to the families of those killed in the Air France flight lost off Brazil on June 1st, we are no nearer discovering the causes of the disaster – the worst in Air France’s history.

The “black box” flight recorders have not yet been found, and the sonar signal that they give out to help those searching run for only 30 days at most, so investigators are now in a race against time. We do know that there was bad weather at the time of the crash, that the Airbus A330’s monitoring systems had sent out 24 automated error messages, and that the auto-pilot had been switched off.

Last year, Air France began to notice problems with speed monitors icing over on this aircraft, and started to replace them in April. This was recommended by Airbus, though it is not a requirement of the European Aviation Safety Agency. Air France has now said it is accelerating the replacement programme.

If the aircraft’s systems are receiving conflicting information on speed, it can cause the autopilot to shut down, and in extreme cases, the aeroplane may stall or go dangerously fast, so that there is a danger of it breaking up. Without the flight recorders, though, all of this remains conjecture, and there is a possibility that we may never know what caused the deaths of the 228 passengers and crew.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

She did nothing wrong either

The all-pervasive saintliness of Labour MP’s has claimed yet another victim. “Treasury Minister” Kitty Ussher (of whom it was once said…”who?”) is the latest to resign because she was only obeying orders, er sorry, because she has done nothing wrong. (see also my blog of May 28).

Of course if you really HAD done nothing wrong, it would not be difficult to imagine how sickened you might feel to find yourself surrounded by the people who brought us Iraq, a police state, a bankrupt country etc etc (see my blogs passim). Ms Ussher is accused of temporarily flipping the designation of her main home just before she sold one of her abodes in order to avoid paying tax of at least £9,750. Her resignation letter does not deny this charge. If it is true, surely even Labour can see that it is completely unacceptable behaviour for a senior figure in the ministry responsible for making the rest of us pay tax. If Gordon Brown had any sense, he would make this abundantly clear in his reply.

How typical of Labour to get the worst of both worlds. The minister goes, but her refusal to offer even the most grudging apology to the British people means the resignation does nothing to begin the lengthy process of rehabilitating the party’s reputation.

Note to any further MP’s/ministers considering standing down. Please spare us any more of the sanctimonious, self-pitying, “I have done nothing wrong” drivel. If you have think you have done nothing wrong, but the dreadfully unreasonable British people seem to think otherwise, call a by-election and let your electors give their verdict.