Saturday 29 May 2010

Train terrorist attack?

More than 100 people have now died following the train crash in West Bengal which the Indian authorities are blaming on Maoist rebels (see also my blogs of Oct 5, 2009 and May 19, 2010). The Maoists have denied involvement, but the crash happened in an area where they are strong and police say they found pro-Maoist posters close to the scene.

An 18 inch section of track was missing. This derailed the Gyaneshwar Express passenger train in the Jhargram area about 90 miles west of Calcutta, causing five coaches to fall onto another track where they were rammed by a goods train.

The railways have often been selected as targets by terrorists in India. The most deadly attack came in Mumbai on July 11, 2006 when seven bombs exploded on trains during the evening rush hour. Islamic terrorists were blamed for the resulting deaths of 209 people.

Maoist terrorists were blamed for the derailment of the Rajdhani Express as it crossed a bridge near the town of Rafiganj in Bihar on September 10, 2002. At least 130 people were killed. An inquiry found the track had been sabotaged, but the rebels themselves denied being involved and some experts have cast doubt on the official explanation.

*Thanks for mentions on the following sites:-

Friday 28 May 2010

The war on drugs - Jamaica

Seldom has the “war on drugs” been seen in more graphic action than on the streets of Kingston, Jamaica, as security forces try to arrest, at the United States’ request, the alleged narcotics baron Christopher “Dudus” Coke. 73 people have now been killed, and, as in so many wars, most of them appear to have been civilians.

The toll is mounting towards that recorded in the island’s worst disaster of the last 100 years – Hurricane Charlie in 1951, which claimed 152 lives.

It is not clear whether Coke is still in his Tivoli Gardens stronghold, but he appears to have support from many in the area who regard him as a benefactor to the dispossessed ignored by the government. Some local people have been shouting “murderers” at Jamaican soldiers.

The battle has revived the question of whether criminalisation is the best way to combat the drugs trade, or whether, however well-meaning, the policy is as disastrous as was the prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920’s.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Darfur war crimes + warship explosion

Further evidence of a growing determination to hold suspected war criminals to account. For the first time ever the International Criminal Court has called on the UN Security Council to take action against a country for failing to arrest suspects.

The country in question is Sudan, and the suspects former Humanitarian Affairs (!) Minister Ahmed Haroun - who allegedly recruited and armed the Janjaweed militia - and Ali Muhammad Abd-Al-Rahman, one of the militia leaders – both accused of war crimes in Darfur. Today Omar al-Bashir, himself an alleged war criminal, begins a new term as Sudan’s president. More than 300,000 people are believed to have been killed in Darfur. (See my blogs of March 4 and Aug 6, 2009).

On this day…..95 years ago, a huge explosion ripped through HMS Princess Irene, a British navy minelayer berthed at Sheerness in Kent. Aboard were 300 Royal Navy personnel plus 76 dockyard workers. Just one of them survived.

As the First World War was raging at the time, there were all sort of rumours that the blast had been caused by dastardly and ingenious enemy action, but an official inquiry came to the conclusion that it was actually a faulty mine primer. For more details, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Sri Lanka fights against inquiry

Sri Lanka is trying to block efforts by the United Nations to investigate possible human rights abuses by the government in its war with the Tamil Tigers which ended last year. UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, however, says he will press on, and the International Crisis Group NGO is demanding an inquiry into suspected war crimes by both sides.

The ICG believes the Sri Lankan government may have killed tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. Ministers say it killed none at all, but in northern Tamil areas, people have been demonstrating to demand information about 12,000 who have disappeared. Some may be being held by the army.

The ICG’s head, Louise Arbour, says Sri Lanka’s tactics were based on allowing the army complete freedom to pursue scorched earth policies in rebel territories, making no distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and ignoring any international criticism.

Whatever the IGC’s qualms, some applaud, like Myanmar’s military dictator, Than Shwe. General Than rarely strays from the shores of the country he represses so relentlessly. But he did make a visit to Sri Lanka to see if there were any tips he might pick up. (See also my blogs of Feb 24 and May 11, 18 and 24, 2009.)

Saturday 22 May 2010

Indian air crashes

There appear to be just 7 survivors from the Air India Express air crash at Mangalore in the south of the country, meaning that 159 passengers and crew have been killed. The Boeing 737 arriving from Dubai overshot the runway and burst into flames in a wooded area beyond.

It is not clear what caused the accident. Light rain was falling, but the authorities say visibility was satisfactory, and there was no distress call from the pilot. However, some survivors said they thought they heard a sound like a tyre bursting before the crash. The airport is on a hilltop and can present problems for pilots.

India’s worst ever air crash, and the deadliest mid-air collision in history, happened on November 12, 1996 over the town of Charkhi Dadri, near Delhi. A Saudi Arabian Airlines Boeing 747 and a Kazakhstan Airlines Ilyushin Il-76 collided killing all 312 passengers and crew on the jumbo and the 38 people on the Ilyushin.

The official inquiry blamed the Kazakh pilot saying that he had failed to follow air traffic instructions, and suggesting that the crew’s poor command of English might be a factor. The Saudi pilot was praised by villagers who said he had managed to steer his stricken aircraft away from their homes so that it crashed in an empty field.

Thursday 20 May 2010

The sack of Magdeburg

This day…..379 years ago saw the most notorious atrocity of the dreadfully destructive 30 Years War – the sack of Magdeburg. Most of its people were Protestants, and on May 20, 1631, the city fell to the army of the Catholic League.

It had been under siege for six months, and once they entered, the conquering army - and particularly its Walloon and Croat soldiers - embarked on an orgy of murder, rape, looting and destruction. The great German writer Friedrich Schiller said it was “a scene of horrors for which history has no language – poetry no pencil.”

After they had reduced the city to rubble, the Catholic soldiers carried off thousands of women, and the atrocity caused such revulsion throughout Europe that the leader of the Catholic cause, the Holy Roman Emperor, had to call off the victory celebrations.

Altogether it’s estimated that 30,000 people may have been killed. For more details, see A Disastrous History of the World. (For more on the 30 Years War, see my blog of May 23, 2009.)

Wednesday 19 May 2010

India - Maoist rebels strike again

India’s Maoist rebels (see my blog of Oct 5) have carried out three bloody attacks this week. On Monday, they detonated a mine under a bus in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, killing more than 30, including some police officers. (76 people died in another attack in the same area last month.) On the same day, six villagers in Chhattisgarh were found with their throats cut, after the rebels had branded them government spies.

Then today, the rebels killed four paramilitary troops with a mine in West Bengal. Last October, the government deployed 50,000 troops in what it described as a “massive offensive” against them.

The Maoists are also known as "Naxalites" because they launched their uprising in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari in 1967. Today they have up to 20,000 fighters, and are active in eight states.

They claim to be fighting for the rights of indigenous tribespeople and the rural poor, and the length of time for which they have been able to maintain their rebellion is seen as proof that they enjoy a good deal of local support. It’s estimated that more than 6,000 people have been killed in the rebellion so far.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Blood on the coal - Turkey

A reminder this morning of what a dangerous occupation coal-mining remains. Up to 32 miners are missing after an explosion in the state-run Karadon mine near Zonguldak on the Black Sea in Turkey.

Turkey’s safety standards are generally regarded as lagging behind those of most industrialised nations. In February a methane explosion killed 13 workers in another mine, while a further 19 miners died in an explosion in western Turkey last December. Turkey’s worst ever mining disaster happened in 1992 when 270 miners perished in another pit in the Zongalduk region.

Zongalduk was a small village until the 1850’s, but the exploitation of the rich coal seams in the Zonguldak mountains have turned it into the second biggest city on the Black Sea coast.

The world’s most dangerous coal mines are reckoned to be those in China, where thousands of miners are killed every year. (See also my blogs of Feb 22, March 10, Nov 19, 23, 2009 and Jan 16 and April 14, 2010.)

*For a review of my book Disaster! see Natural Hazards Observer P17 And for a review (in German) of my A Disastrous History of Britain see

Monday 17 May 2010


On this day…..261 years ago, Edward Jenner, the man who discovered the smallpox vaccine, was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire. Jenner discovered that by infecting someone with the much milder cowpox virus, you could protect them against smallpox, which had been killing an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year.

The disease had done its cataclysmic worst, though, in the New World, where native populations were completely lacking in immunity. The Spanish conquistadores terrified the Indians with their fire-spitting guns, but actually the smallpox virus was the deadliest weapon they brought.

It began in the early sixteenth century by cutting a swath through the populations of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba. Then Hernan Cortes took it with him to Mexico, and when the Aztecs tried to resist him, they were cut down by the virus, and “died in heaps, like bedbugs.”

The Incas met a similar fate, with their great king, Huayna Capac, among those who died. Smallpox, helped by other imported illnesses, like mumps and measles, would reduce their numbers from seven to just one million. (See also my blog of Nov 6.)

Sunday 16 May 2010

Another child survivor

Back in July (see my blog of July 4) I blogged about how the only survivor of an air crash off the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean was a 12 year old girl, and mentioned other air accidents where children seem to have survived better than adults.

Now a nine year old Dutch boy has emerged as the sole survivor of Wednesday’s plane crash at Tripoli in which the other 103 people aboard died. Ruben van Assouw’s parents and brother had all been killed. The boy suffered multiple fractures to his legs.

The Afriqiyah Airways Airbus 330 crashed just short of the runway at Tripoli airport on its arrival from Johannesburg. The cause of the crash isn’t yet known, and the head Libyan investigator said the pilot had reported no problems on his approach.

Before Ruben, there had been just 15 cases in the last 40 years of one person surviving a commercial air crash, and in 6 of them the survivor was a child; in two others it was a 17 year old. My earlier blog explores potential reasons.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Kosovo war crimes

A mass grave thought to contain the bodies of about 250 Kosovo Albanians has been found just over the border in Serbia. Officials said a building appeared to have been erected over the bodies to try to hide them.

In 2001, the bodies of more than 800 Kosovo Albanians were found at a number of sites in Serbia, some of them inside police compounds. Altogether, more than 11,000 people died in the fighting in Kosovo – mostly Albanians, though 2,300 were ethnic Serbs. Another 1,800 people are still missing.

A former top Serbian police official Vlastimir Djordjevic is on trial before the UN’s war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, accused of being involved in the murders of hundreds of ethnic Albanians. He was a close associate of Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 while still on trial for war crimes.

The former Serb military commander, Ratko Mladic, remains at large. (See also my blog of October 16.)

Monday 3 May 2010

Fatal crushes and stampedes

At least five people have been crushed to death after the sound of gunfire caused a stampede at a concert in Monterrey, northern Mexico. The city has recently been the scene of violent clashes between rival drugs gangs.

One of the worst ever fatal crushes came at Chungking in China during World War Two. The authorities had built one of the biggest air raid shelters in the world, capable of holding about 30,000.

On June 6, 1941, the Japanese bombed the city for about three hours, and during the raid the shelter’s ventilation system broke down. So while there was an apparent lull in the attack, hundreds of shelterers decided to nip outside for a breath of fresh air.

But almost immediately, the alarm sounded, so people outside tried to force their way down, causing a deadly chaotic crush in which up to 4,000 people perished. For more fatal crushes, see A Disastrous History of the World. (See also my blogs of Jan 18 and March 30, 2009)

Saturday 1 May 2010

Oil spills

A week ago (April 24), I blogged on the 11 people who lost their lives when BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank off Louisiana. Now this is also turning into an environmental disaster, with up to 5,000 barrels of oil a day gushing into the sea.

The slick is 130 miles long, and efforts to contain it are being hampered by choppy seas. Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida have all declared states of emergency, and the US government has launched a fierce attack on the British oil company. It is only a month since President Obama eased restrictions on offshore drilling.

The worst oil spill in history came in 1991 when the Iraqis opened valves at the Sea Island terminal and dumped oil from several tankers into the Persian Gulf to try to foil any landing by US marines during the first Gulf War.

Estimates of the volume spilled range as high as 1.5 million tons (that compares with about 35,000 from the Exxon Valdez in 1989 – up to now America’s worst oil spill). Though wildlife was harmed in the Gulf, a study sponsored by UNESCO, the USA and countries in the region suggested that it did little long-term damage.