Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises

Iraqi cleric warns against meddling as protest death toll rises
By John Davison

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric said that a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence as gunmen killed at least eight people near a Baghdad protest site on Friday.

More than 20 others were wounded near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said, a week after Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s comments followed reports that a senior Iranian commander had been in Baghdad this week to rally support for a new government that would continue to serve Shi’ite Iran’s interests.

Sistani has repeatedly condemned the killing of unarmed protesters and has also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful and stop saboteurs turning their opposition violent.

The departure of Abdul Mahdi, whom Tehran had fought to keep at the helm, is a potential blow to Iran after protests that have increasingly focused anger against what many Iraqis view as Iranian meddling in their politics and institutions.

Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric, has long opposed any foreign interference as well as the Iranian model of senior clergy being closely involved in running state institutions.

He only weighs in on politics in times of crisis and holds enormous sway over public opinion.

“We hope a new head of government and its members will be chosen within the constitutional deadline” of 15 days since the resignation was formalized in parliament on Sunday, a representative of Sistani said in his Friday sermon in the holy city of Kerbala.

“It must also take place without any foreign interference,” he said, adding that Sistani would not get involved in the process of choosing a new government.

The burning of Iran’s consulate in the holy city of Najaf, the seat of Iraq’s Shi’ite clergy, and subsequent killings of protesters by security forces in southern cities paved the way for Sistani to withdraw his support for Abdul Mahdi.

Abdul Mahdi pledged to step down last week after Sistani urged lawmakers to reconsider their support for the government following two months of anti-establishment protests where security forces have killed more than 400 demonstrators.

More than a dozen members of the security forces have been killed in the clashes.

Washington on Friday imposed sanctions on three Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitary leaders who it accused of directing the killing of Iraqi protesters. A senior U.S. Treasury official suggested the sanctions were timed to distance those figures from any role in forming a new government.

Iraq’s two main allies, the United States and Iran, have acted as power brokers in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, although Tehran’s allies have mostly dominated state institutions since then.

Iranian officials including the powerful commander of its Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, stepped in to prevent Abdul Mahdi’s resignation in October, Reuters reported.

Soleimani was reported to be in Baghdad this week.

Abdul Mahdi’s government, including himself, will stay on in a caretaker capacity until a new government can be chosen, the prime minister said last week.

President Barham Salih officially has 15 days – until Dec. 16 – to name a new premier tasked with forming a government that would be approved by parliament up to a month later.

Iraqi lawmakers say they will then move to hold a general election next year but protesters say that without a new, fully representative electoral law and unbiased electoral commission, a snap vote will keep corrupt politicians in power.

(Reporting by John Davison, Editing by William Maclean, Angus MacSwan, Giles Elgood and Alexander Smith)

Search ends for survivors of Albanian quake as death toll reaches 51

By Benet Koleka

DURRES, Albania (Reuters) – Albania ended its search on Saturday for survivors of a powerful earthquake that killed 51 people, and buried more victims of the disaster including toddler twins and their mother.

The 6.4-magnitude quake, the country’s worst ever, struck on Tuesday, centered 30 km west of the capital Tirana. It was felt across the Balkans and in the southern Italian region of Puglia, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea from Albania.

There have been hundreds of aftershocks, some with a magnitude of more than 5.0, rocking already damaged buildings and terrifying residents.

On Saturday, rescuers called a halt to efforts to find survivors in the rubble. At the Mira Mare hotel, on the Adriatic seafront in the city of Durres, a mechanized digger had ground to a halt near the ruins of concrete slabs, water boilers, mattresses and curtains from the six-storey building.

“No other bodies were found at the Mira Mare,” a government spokesman said.

The 51th victim was a 20-year-old woman who died on Saturday. She had been struck on the head by falling bricks in a western district of Tirana, making her the only victim in the capital.

Most of the others were in Durres, Albania’s second-biggest city and main port, and the nearby town of Thumane.

Located along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas between Greece and Montenegro, Albania is prone to seismic activity. This earthquake was Albania’s deadliest; the previous highest toll was in 1979 when a quake killed 40 people.

Poorly-equipped Albanian troops rescued survivors from the rubble of buildings sometimes digging them out with their bare hands, until 250 troops from European countries and the United States came to their aid.

Durres authorities fanned out across the city to distribute food but some residents complained they had not received supplies.

In one case, a car trying to distribute food was surrounded by a large crowd and drove away. “The poor get nothing,” a white-haired lady of 65 said in despair.

She and others, who did not want to share their names, said they were not allowed back into their houses for safety reasons, and had to rely on donated food supplies.

Conscious of the difficulties, the government said it had set up national operational centers, and a phone line for people in need of food and clothing to call for help.

In a wave of solidarity, Albanians have been donating food and clothing in city centers. The GoFundMe crowdfunding platform said that, as of Friday, $3.2 million had been raised worldwide to help survivors of the disaster.

(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Pravin Char)

Rescuers use drones and dogs to search for Albanian quake victims

By Fatos Bytyci and Benet Koleka

THUMANE/DURRES, Albania (Reuters) – Emergency crews found five more bodies on Wednesday as they used drones, dogs and heavy machinery to search through the wreckage after Albania’s worst earthquake in decades, bringing the death toll to at least 30.

In the town of Thumane, close to the center of Tuesday’s quake, a woman stood in front of a collapsed building calling out for rescuers to find her niece.

Soon after crews brought out two bodies. Police said they had found another victim earlier, before dawn. Another two were recovered hours later.

In one of the busiest streets in the resort of Durres, two people were feared trapped in the rubble of a collapsed hotel.

“We don’t know whether they are alive or not,” Mert Eryuksel, a rescue worker from Turkey said.

Countrywide, the Defence Ministry said around 650 had been injured, with another 20 reported missing.

If the death toll continues to rise, the earthquake could be more deadly than one in 1979 in which 40 were killed.

The 6.4 magnitude quake, centered 30 km (19 miles) west of Tirana, was felt across the Balkans and in the southern Italian region of Puglia, across the Adriatic Sea from Albania.

At least 250 aftershocks – two of them magnitude 5 – then shook the Balkan country, continuing into Wednesday. Hundreds of people spent the night sleeping in tents pitched by the emergency services.

Italy, France, Romania, Turkey, Greece, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia have sent 200 specialized troops, tools and teams of tracker dogs to help the relief effort.

Adrian Muci said six of his relatives had died in two separate buildings, and his own house was on the point of collapse.

“I have other cousins and relatives but I don’t know where they are and if they are dead or not,” he told Reuters. “I will never be able to live in my house any more.”

The government proclaimed Wednesday a day of mourning and Prime Minister Edi Rama said the authorities would rehome people who had lost their houses in hotels during the winter.

“I believe we shall put them in new houses within 2020, in better housing that they had,” Rama said in a televised comment.

He said a donor conference with Turkey and regional countries would be organized and he would discuss potential help with NATO allies during next week’s summit in London.

Albania is the poorest country in Europe, with per capita income a quarter of the European Union average, according to the International Monetary

(Reporting by Fatos Byticy; Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

 

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and Israel declared a halt to hostilities across the Gaza Strip border on Thursday but a lasting ceasefire appeared tenuous as they differed on terms.

Islamic Jihad said an Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect at 0330 GMT, about 48 hours after Israel triggered the exchange of fire by killing the Iranian-backed faction’s top Gaza commander in an air strike, deeming him an imminent threat.

Occasional rocket fire from Gaza broke the calm that ensued, but the ceasefire largely held as night fell.

Gaza medical officials have put the total death toll from the two days of fighting at 34 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians and including eight children and three women.

Hundreds of rocket launches by militants had paralyzed much of southern Israel and reached as far north as Tel Aviv, sending entire communities to shelters. Dozens of Israelis were hurt.

Hamas, Gaza’s dominant faction, appeared to have stayed out of this round of fighting. That may have helped stem escalation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military operation was drawing to a conclusion with its goals met. “Our enemies got the message – we can reach anyone,” Netanyahu said, as he visited soldiers at a missile interception battery.

Islamic Jihad said Israel had accepted its demand to stop both the targeted killing of militants and sometimes lethal army gunfire at weekly Palestinian protests on the Gaza border.

“The ceasefire began under Egyptian sponsorship after the Occupation (Israel) submitted to the conditions set by Islamic Jihad on behalf of Palestinian resistance factions,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab Al-Braim said.

But Israel said it would observe only a limited quid pro quo. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio.

MISSILE STRIKE

In the deadliest incident of the two-day hostilities, eight members of a Gaza family were killed by an Israeli missile strike shortly before the truce took hold, said medical officials and residents.

They said all were civilians. But Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Avichay Adraee said the head of the family, Rasmi Abu Malhous, who was among the dead, was the commander of Islamic Jihad rocket crews in the central Gaza Strip.

Neighbors left their homes to help rescue workers pull out the bodies of the family, some of which were completely buried in sandy earth. Civilians tried to test the pulse of one body before pulling it out.

Israel’s allegation about Rasmi Abu Malhous could not immediately be confirmed by Reuters. Islamic Jihad did not claim him as a member.

Neither the hostilities nor efforts to halt them shifted the dynamics of the underlying core conflict.

While Hamas has been open to long-term truces, like Islamic Jihad it refuses to accept permanent co-existence with Israel.

Gazans are seeking to end years of an Israeli-led blockade. Refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and their descendents make up most of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza and want the right to return to their families’ former lands.

Israel rejects this as demographic suicide and sees no means of making peace as long as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are armed.

Katz said there would be no change to Israeli military policy in Gaza, contradicting the assertion of Islamic Jihad.

Targeted killings “will not cease”, he said, and “the open-fire policy for which the Israel Defence Forces is responsible (at the Gaza border) will not change”.

Markets in Gaza reopened as life returned to normal, though people expressed mixed feelings about the truce.

“We responded and made clear our blood was not shed in vain. Also a truce is good because we don’t want our people to suffer more under the blockade,” said one resident, Mohammad Al-Smairi.

U.N. mediator Nickolay Mladenov said the Gaza situation remained fragile, tweeting: “All must show maximum restraint and do their part to prevent bloodshed. The Middle East does not need more wars.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept

Pompeo ‘deplored’ the death toll at protests in phone call with Iraqi PM: State Dept
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a phone call with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi “deplored the death toll” among protesters due to the crackdown of the Iraqi government and urged him to take immediate steps to address demonstrators’ demands, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Tuesday.

Iraqi security forces on Monday shot dead two protesters in the city of Nassiriya, bringing to 300 the number of people killed since protests against political corruption, unemployment and poor public services erupted in Baghdad on Oct. 1 and spread to the southern Shi’ite heartlands.

“The Secretary deplored the death toll among the protesters as a result of the Government of Iraq’s crackdown and use of lethal force, as well as the reports of kidnapped protesters,” Ortagus said in a statement.

The government has failed to find an answer to the unrest among mostly unemployed young people who see no improvement in their lives even in peacetime after decades of war and sanctions.

“Secretary Pompeo emphasized that peaceful public demonstrations are a fundamental element of all democracies,” Ortagus said and added that Pompeo urged Mahdi to address the protesters’ grievances by enacting reforms and tackling corruption.

The unrest is the biggest and most complex challenge to the Iraqi political order since the government declared victory over Islamic State two years ago.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Chris Reese and Lisa Shumaker)

Death toll in southern Philippines earthquake rises to seven

A damaged local town hall is seen in Mabini, Davao Del Sur, Philippines after a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck Octiber 29, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Jaypee Catalan via REUTERS

Death toll in southern Philippines earthquake rises to seven
By Karen Lema

(Reuters) – The death toll from a strong earthquake in the southern Philippines has risen to seven, disaster and police officials said on Tuesday, as aftershocks continued to jolt many parts of Mindanao.

The 6.6 magnitude quake hit early on Tuesday, damaging buildings, toppling power lines and triggering landslides in the central area of the Philippines’ southern island.

A seven-year-old child and his 44-year old father were among those who were killed in the North Cotabato province after they were struck by a boulder, disaster officials said.

Authorities said the death toll could rise further because many injured were not immediately brought to hospitals.

“It was depressing to see the damage left by the earthquake,” Abril Espadera, a disaster official in North Cotabato, told Reuters, as he recalled seeing collapsed homes and demolished buildings in the province, including schools.

Smaller tremors rattled nervous residents throughout the day and those who were afraid to return to their homes set up tents to shelter near school yards, Espadera said.

In Magsaysay town in Davao del Sur province, rescuers were trying to recover three bodies after landslides in two separate towns swallowed parts of agricultural areas, police said.

The quake, whose magnitude was initially put at 6.7 by the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre, was the second powerful quake to strike Mindanao in two weeks.

Authorities had flagged the risk of landslides after the 6.3 quake on Oct. 16 in central Mindanao that killed seven and injured more than 200.

Earthquakes are common in the Philippines, which is on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire.

Power cables swayed in Davao city, the home town of President Rodrigo Duterte, where people rushed to open spaces, and some fainted out of fear. The quake also triggered power cuts in nearby General Santos city, media said.

Some schools in the area have suspended classes.

Duterte’s office has called for calm as it mobilized all government agencies to undertake damage assessment and to coordinate rescue and relief operations.

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Bernadette Baum)

Death toll in east Indonesia quake rises to 30, many still in shelters

JAKARTA (Reuters) – The death toll from a strong earthquake in Indonesia’s eastern province of Maluku has risen to 30 people, the national disaster mitigation agency (BNBP) said on Sunday, and hundreds of thousands of people remain in evacuation shelters.

The 6.5 magnitude quake hit early on Thursday, damaging hundreds of houses and dozens of public facilities and infrastructure, including the main bridge in the city of Ambon.

Officials on Thursday had put the death toll at 20 people. Many were killed by falling rubble.

More than 150 people were injured, BNBP spokesman Agus Wibowo said in a statement on Sunday, and over 200,000 remain in shelters.

Those whose houses were destroyed have set up tents as shelters in near hospitals or schoolyards.

People living near the ocean have evacuated to higher ground following the quake, fearing a tsunami, despite authorities have ruled out the possibility of a giant wave.

Indonesia, which sits on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, is often hit by deadly earthquakes and tsunamis.

The city of Palu, on the island of Sulawesi west of Maluku, was devastated by a 7.5-magnitude earthquake and a powerful tsunami it triggered last September, killing more than 4,000 people.

(Reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Fransiska Nangoy; Editing by Kim Coghill)

Bahamas says 2,500 missing after Dorian; prime minister warns death toll to rise ‘significantly’

By Zachary Fagenson

NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) – Some 2,500 people are still listed as missing in the Bahamas more than a week after Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Caribbean island chain, although that number may include evacuees who fled to shelters, authorities said on Wednesday.

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told the nation in a televised address that the death toll from Dorian remained at 50, but conceded that the large number of people missing meant that number would rise.

“The number of deaths is expected to significantly increase,” Minnis said, adding the government was being transparent and would provide “timely information on the loss of life as it is available.”

Emergency management officials told a separate news conference that the list of missing had not yet been checked against records of evacuees or the thousands of people staying in shelters.

“My friends are missing, a few of my cousins are missing over there, five in total, they lived in Marsh Harbour,” said Clara Bain, a 38-year-old tour guide, referring to the Abaco town where officials estimate that 90% of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed.

“Everyone on the islands are missing someone, it’s really devastating,” she said.

Dorian slammed into the Bahamas on Sept. 1 as a Category 5 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record to make a direct hit on land and packing top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (298 kph).

“Our sympathies go out to the families of each person who died,” Minnis said. “Let us pray for them during this time of grief. We offer you our shoulders to cry on. You will never be forgotten.”

More than 5,000 people evacuated to New Providence, the island where the capital, Nassau, is located, in the face of the worst hurricane in the country’s history. But there has since been a significant reduction in the number now asking to be relocated, according to emergency management officials.

Some 15,000 people are still in need of shelter or food, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.

Officials have already put up large tents in Nassau to house those made homeless by the storm and plan to erect tent cities on Abaco capable of sheltering up to 4,000 people.

Minnis thanked U.S. President Donald Trump and the American people for mobilizing support and urged Bahamians to pitch in with relief efforts by volunteering or donating money to legitimate charities.

The White House said on Wednesday the United States would not give temporary protected immigration status to people fleeing the Bahamas after the hurricane.

The status would have allowed Bahamians to live and work in the United States while their country recovers.

Private forecasters estimated that Dorian destroyed or damaged some $3 billion in insured property in the Bahamas or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Commercial flights to Abaco, one of the hardest-hit areas, resumed on a limited basis on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Nassau, Maria Caspani in New York, Scott Malone in Boston and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angele; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

At least 31 die during stampede at Ashura rituals in Iraq’s Kerbala

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least 31 people died and another 102 were wounded on Tuesday during the Shi’ite Muslim religious rituals of Ashura in Iraq’s southern holy city of Kerbala, in what officials at its Imam Hussein shrine described as a stampede.

The death toll released by the Iraqi Health Ministry was expected to rise, with at least nine people still in critical condition. Thirty people died on site and one more died in hospital, the Health Ministry spokesman said.

The ministry did not disclose how they had been killed but shrine officials told Reuters the stampede took place towards the end of the procession, when thousands of pilgrims rushed towards the shrine during what is known as the Tuwairij run.

“The pilgrims fell one on top of the other and we were unable to pull them out,” pilgrim Abdel Mahdi told Reuters.

Photographs circulated on social media showed dozens of people bloodied and lying across a walkway, while other pilgrims attempted to help.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi expressed his condolences to those killed in the stampede, while the Health Minister visited the wounded in hospital.

The annual pilgrimage marking the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein in battle in 680 draws hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims to Kerbala from around the world.

Hussein’s death in a battle at Kerbala over the leadership of the Islamic community is one of the defining events in the schism between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

The rituals commemorating the death of Hussein involve self-flagellation, with crowds of mourners striking themselves and some lacerating their heads with blades. Stampedes have occurred in the past.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; writing by Raya Jalabi,; Editing by Peter Graff and Ed Osmond)

‘What death smells like’: Dorian’s toll expected to soar in Bahamas

A truck sits on its side following landfall by Hurricane Dorian at an undisclosed location in the Bahamas in this International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies photo released on September 6, 2019. Courtesy International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies/Handout via REUTERS

By Nick Brown

MARSH HARBOUR, Bahamas (Reuters) – The smell of death hangs over parts of Great Abaco Island in the northern Bahamas, where relief workers on Friday sifted through the debris of shattered homes and buildings in a search expected to dramatically drive up the death toll from Hurricane Dorian.

Dorian, the most powerful hurricane to ever hit the Bahamas, swept through the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island earlier this week, leveling entire neighborhoods and knocking out key infrastructure, including airport landing strips and a hospital.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are still missing, and officials say the death toll, which currently stands at 30, is likely to shoot up as more bodies are discovered in the ruins and floodwaters left behind by the storm.

“You smell the decomposing bodies as you walk through Marsh Harbour,” said Sandra Sweeting, 37, in an interview amid the wreckage on Great Abaco. “It’s everywhere. There are a lot of people who aren’t going to make it off this island.”

Some locals called the government’s initial official death toll a tragic underestimate.

“I work part-time in a funeral home, I know what death smells like,” said Anthony Thompson, 27. “There must be hundreds. Hundreds.”

Asked if any of his friends or family had perished, Thompson looked at the ground.

“I don’t want to ask, because there are people I still haven’t heard from,” he said.

Chaotic conditions around the islands were interfering with flights and boats, hampering relief efforts.

“Obviously, we have to take care of the sick and the injured first, but we’re also making preparations for the dead,” Dr. Caroline Burnett-Garraway, medical chief of staff at Princess Margaret Hospital in Nassau, told CNN by phone.

Many of those injured by the storm, which had been a Category 5 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, were being airlifted to the hospital with fractures and head injuries and suffering from trauma and dehydration, said Burnett-Garraway, who expects a “second wave” of patients in the coming days.

With many clinics in the northern Bahamas flooded and unable to receive the injured, relief groups are focusing on getting doctors, nurses and medical supplies into the hardest-hit areas and helping survivors get food and safe drinking water.

The risk of outbreaks of diarrhea and waterborne diseases is high because drinking water may be contaminated with sewage, according to the Pan American Health Organization, which described the situation for some people on Abaco as “desperate.”

The United Nations estimated 70,000 people were in immediate need of food, water and shelter on the islands, where looting of liquor stores and supermarkets has been reported.

The relief effort faces formidable logistical challenges because of the widespread destruction of Dorian, which hovered over the Bahamas for nearly two days with torrential rains and fierce winds that whipped up 12- to 18-foot (3.7- to 5.5-meter) storm surges.

The storm made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina on Friday with winds of 90 miles per hour (150 km/h).

EMERGENCY OPERATION

The U.N. World Food Programme said on Thursday it was organizing an airlift from Panama of storage units, generators and prefab offices for two logistics hubs, as well as satellite equipment for emergency responders, and has bought 8 metric tonnes of ready-to-eat meals.

The U.N. agency has allocated $5.4 million to a three-month emergency operation to support 39,000 people, a spokesman said.

A flight from the U.S. Agency for International Development landed early on Thursday with enough relief supplies to help 31,500 people, bringing hygiene kits, water containers and buckets, plastic sheeting and chain saws.

Total insured and uninsured losses in the Bahamas amounted to $7 billion, including buildings and business interruptions, according to a preliminary estimate by Karen Clark & Co, a consultancy that provides catastrophic modeling and risk management services.

(Reporting by Nick Brown in Sandy Point, Bahamas, additional reporting by Dante Carrer in Marsh Harbour, Bahamas and Peter Szekely and Matthew Lavietes in New York; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)