Running out of time: East Africa faces new locust threat

By Omar Mohammed and Dawit Endeshaw

NAIROBI/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Countries in East Africa are racing against time to prevent new swarms of locusts wreaking havoc with crops and livelihoods after the worst infestation in generations.

A lack of expertise in controlling the pests is not their only problem: Kenya temporarily ran out of pesticides, Ethiopia needs more planes and Somalia and Yemen, torn by civil war, can’t guarantee exterminators’ safety.

Locust swarms have been recorded in the region since biblical times, but unusual weather patterns exacerbated by climate change have created ideal conditions for insect numbers to surge, scientists say.

Warmer seas are creating more rain, wakening dormant eggs, and cyclones that disperse the swarms are getting stronger and more frequent.

In Ethiopia the locusts have reached the fertile Rift Valley farmland and stripped grazing grounds in Kenya and Somalia. Swarms can travel up to 150 km (93 miles) a day and contain between 40-80 million locusts per square kilometer.

If left unchecked, the number of locusts in East Africa could explode 400-fold by June. That would devastate harvests in a region with more than 19 million hungry people, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned.

Uganda has deployed the military. Kenya has trained hundreds of youth cadets to spray. Lacking pesticides, some security forces in Somalia have shot anti-aircraft guns at swarms darkening the skies.

Everyone is racing the rains expected in March: the next generation of larvae is already wriggling from the ground, just as farmers plant their seeds.

“The second wave is coming,” said Cyril Ferrand, FAO’s head of resilience for Eastern Africa. “As crops are planted, locusts will eat everything.”

The impact so far on agriculture, which generates about a third of East Africa’s economic output, is unknown, but FAO is using satellite images to assess the damage, he said.

FILE PHOTO: A swarm of desert locusts flies over a ranch near the town on Nanyuki in Laikipia county, Kenya, February 21, 2020. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

PESTICIDE SHORTAGES

In Kenya, the region’s wealthiest and most stable country, the locusts are mostly in the semi-arid north, although some crops have been affected, said Stanley Kipkoech, a senior official at the Ministry of Agriculture.

This month, Kenya ran out of pesticide for about a week and a half, he said. Farmers watched helplessly as their families’ crops were devoured.

In Ethiopia, the government can only afford to rent four planes for aerial spraying, but it needs at least twice that number to contain the outbreak before harvesting begins in March, Zebdewos Salato, director of plant protection at the Ministry of Agriculture, told Reuters.

“We are running out of time,” he said.

Ethiopia’s single pesticide factory is working flat out.

The country needs 500,000 liters for the upcoming harvest and planting season but is struggling to produce its maximum 200,000 liters after foreign exchange shortages delayed the purchase of chemicals, the factory’s chief executive Simeneh Altaye said.

FAO is helping the government to procure planes, vehicles and sprayers, said Fatouma Seid, the agency’s representative in Ethiopia. It is also urgently trying to buy pesticides from Europe.

MONEY AND GUNS

Pest controllers in Somalia can’t enter areas controlled by the Islamist al Shabaab insurgency, said Aidid Suleiman Hashi, environment minister for the southern region of Jubbaland.

When the locusts invaded, residents blew horns, beat drums and rang bells to scare away the insects. Al Shabaab fired anti-craft and machine guns at the swarms, Hashi said. Jubbaland forces, not to be outdone, did so too.

Under such circumstances, contractors are reluctant to do aerial spraying, FAO said.

Meanwhile, locusts – which have a life cycle of three months – are breeding. FAO says each generation is an average of 20 times more numerous.

When eggs hatch, as they are doing now in northern Kenya, the hungry young locusts are earthbound for two weeks and more vulnerable to spraying than when they grow wings.

After that, they take to the air in swarms so dense they have forced aircraft to divert. A single square kilometer swarm can eat as much food in a day as 35,000 people.

FAO said containing the plague will cost at least $138 million. So far, donors have pledged $52 million. Failure means more hunger in a region already battered by conflict and climate shocks.

Since 2016, there have been droughts in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, then floods, Ferrand said. In South Sudan, more than half the population already faces food shortages.

CLIMATE CHANGE

The rains that blessed the region with a bumper crop last year after a prolonged drought also brought a curse.

A cyclical weather pattern in the Indian Ocean, intensified by rising sea temperatures, contributed to one of the wettest October-December rainy seasons in five decades, said Nathanial Matthews of the Stockholm-based Global Resilience Partnership, a public-private partnership focused on climate change.

Locusts hatched in Yemen, largely ignored in the chaos of the civil war. They migrated across the Red Sea to the Horn of Africa, then spread to Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. Now they have been spotted in Uganda, South Sudan and Tanzania.

The rains awoke the dormant eggs then stronger and more numerous cyclones scattered the insects. Eight cyclones tore across the Indian Ocean in 2019, the highest number in a single year since records began, said Matthews.

(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh in Mogadishu, Abdiqani Hassan in Garowe, Somalia, Denis Dumo in Juba; Writing by Omar Mohammed; Editing by Katharine Houreld, Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White)

African locust invasion deepens hunger crisis for Horn of Africa

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Climate change may be powering the swarms of desert locusts that have invaded eastern Africa, ravaging crops, decimating pasture and deepening a hunger crisis, locust and climate experts said.

Hundreds of millions of the insects have swept over the Horn of Africa in the worst outbreak in a quarter of a century, says the United Nations.

By June, the fast-breeding locusts – already devouring huge swathes of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – could grow by 500 times and move into Uganda and South Sudan.

The hungry swarms threaten to exacerbate food insecurity in a region where up to 25 million people are reeling from three consecutive years of droughts and floods, say aid agencies.

Keith Cressman, senior locust forecasting officer at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), said the swarms formed after cyclones dumped vast amounts of rain in the deserts of Oman – creating perfect breeding conditions.

“We know that cyclones are the originators of swarms – and in the past 10 years, there’s been an increase in the frequency of cyclones in the Indian Ocean,” said Cressman, adding that there were two cyclones in 2018 and eight in 2019.

“Normally there’s none, or maybe one. So this is very unusual. It’s difficult to attribute to climate change directly, but if this trend of increased frequency of cyclones in Indian Ocean continues, then certainly that’s going to translate to an increase in locust swarms in the Horn of Africa.”

The infestation from the Arabian peninsula has also hit countries such as India and Pakistan, with concern growing about new swarms forming in Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

Climate scientist Roxy Koll Mathew from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune said increased cyclones were caused by warmer seas, partly attributable to climate change.

“The West Indian Ocean, including the Arabian Sea, was warmer than usual during the last two seasons,” said Mathew.

“This is largely due to a phenomenon called Indian Ocean Dipole, and also due to the rising ocean temperatures associated with global warming.”

The swarms – one reportedly measuring 40 km by 60 km – have already devoured tens of thousands of hectares of crops, such as maize, sorghum and teff, and ravaged pasture for livestock.

If not contained, the potential for destruction is enormous – a locust swarm of a square kilometre is able to eat the same amount of food in one day as 35,000 people, says the FAO.

Authorities are responding with aerial spraying of pesticides, but experts say the scale of the infestation is beyond local capacity as desert locusts can travel up to 150 km in a day and multiply at terrifying speeds.

The U.N. has appealed to international donors for $70 million in emergency aid to tackle the infestation and help communities to recover after losing crops and cattle.

Aid workers said increasingly erratic weather in east Africa – which saw a prolonged drought followed by heavy rains in late 2019 – was aggravating the infestation.

“This outbreak was clearly worsened by unusually heavy rains in the region and there is an interaction with the unusual cyclonic activity,” said Francesco Rigamonti, Oxfam’s regional humanitarian coordinator.

“It’s difficult to say that it is due to climate change – but there is an interaction between the two. What we do know is that we are having a lot of extreme events like droughts, floods and now locusts in the region, so we need to be prepared.”

(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Former inmate tours Ethiopian torture center after it opens to the public

Visitors use their phone torches inside Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Blogger Befekadu Hailu’s eyes filled with tears as he stood on the spot where he had watched a guard attack a friend in Maekelawi detention center, a name long synonymous in Ethiopia with torture and fear.

Befekadu returned to visit the former police station on Friday as a tourist, not an inmate, after the government opened the building to the public for three days as part of its push towards new democratic freedoms.

“We have to take a lesson from this,” Attorney General Berhanu Tsegaye said at a ceremony at the site. “Human rights violations which took place here should not be repeated.”

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closed the notorious detention and interrogation center in Addis Ababa last year after he took office pledging an end to “state terrorism”.

Befekadu, 39, was imprisoned there for 84 days without charge in 2014. On Friday morning, he took Reuters to see the damp, dark interrogation rooms.

Prisoners called the frigid underground cells where he was detained “Siberia”.

The center was used by successive rulers, including military dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which wrested power from him in 1991.

BEATINGS

Befekadu and other detainees had poked holes in the plaster that filled the metal bars on their cell door. It was meant to stop them from seeing outside.

He said that one day, a policeman noticed him peering out and demanded to know who made the holes. The officer began kicking Befekadu’s fellow prisoner Atnaf.

Befekadu Hailu, 39, an ex-inmate of the Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners is seen as he stands in the room where he was detained after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Befekadu Hailu, 39, an ex-inmate of the Maekelawi detention center for political prisoners is seen as he stands in the room where he was detained after it was opened to the public in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

“My friend was beaten here and I couldn’t defend him,” he said, his voice cracking. He searched on Friday for graffiti that prisoners had scrawled, but the wall under his fingers was slick with fresh yellow paint.

In a 2013 report, New York-based Human Rights Watch documented torture at Maekelawi, often used to extract confessions from suspected political opponents.

Guards beat prisoners with gun butts and electric wires and handcuffed victims’ wrists to the ceiling.

That is forbidden now, said Supreme Court president Meaza Ashenafi, a lawyer and women’s rights activist appointed by Abiy last year. The country was changing “from a condition where human rights were violated to a condition where they are now respected”, she said during her visit to the cells on Friday.

Some senior officials implicated in rights abuses have been arrested. The former head of national intelligence has been charged with murder and torture in absentia. Former political prisoners now head the election board and the government-run national human rights commission.

But Laetitia Bader, a senior Human Rights Watch Africa researcher, said more needs to be done to heal past wounds. Most trials have not begun and a reconciliation commission set up in December has an unclear mandate, Bader said.

“The government hasn’t presented a clear roadmap for how it plans to deal with the country’s abusive past,” she said.

Activists continue to be detained, said prominent journalist Eskinder Nega, who was jailed repeatedly on terrorism charges prior to Abiy’s appointment.

Five of his colleagues have been held without charge since June under the anti-terrorism law, he said. The prime minister is new, but the government is still the same ruling coalition, he said.

“This is a classic pretext to crackdown on dissent,” he said. “None of the authoritarian structures have been overhauled.”

(Additional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Frances Kerry)

Confusion, grief as hunt for remains from Ethiopia crash halted

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopians search for remains at the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash before a commemoration ceremony at the scene of the crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Maggie Fick

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – A child’s foot. Fingers. A passport.

Body parts and personal effects were still strewn across the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 15, a witness told Reuters, five days after the disaster and the day before recovery efforts were halted.

With the site now fenced off, bereaved families are worried the remains of their loved ones may be left at the scene, compounding their anguish.

Citizens of 35 nations were aboard when the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet nosedived into a field on March 10 six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people onboard.

Families of those who perished complain of a lack of information about recovery efforts, which saw Ethiopian workers using metal parts of the aircraft to dig in the soil.

Religions such as Islam and Judaism require quick burials, but authorities said last week that identifying remains – many burned or in small pieces – might take six months.

“At the beginning, (the Ethiopian authorities) should have blocked off that place and sent an organized team to search, instead of just leaving it open. I’m unhappy about that. It’s supposed to be easier if it’s in the government’s hands,” said Milka Yimam, a dual Ethiopia-Israeli citizen whose 26-year-old son Sidrak died.

Relatives of the victims who visited the site on Monday said it had been cordoned off and the ground leveled, apart from the impact crater. The dead included a grand-niece of consumer advocate and former U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

Excavation was halted last Saturday, ministry of transport spokesman Musie Yehyies told Reuters.

“Excavation has ended for the moment since we have got everything we think we need at the moment. The site has been enclosed and can be revisited,” he said on Friday.

Global attention has mostly shifted to an investigation into the cause of the disaster, and similarities with the crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX plane in Indonesia last October that killed 189 people. Pilots of both aircraft reported control problems and crashed minutes after take-off.

The world’s entire 737 MAX fleet was grounded after the Ethiopia crash, with Boeing losing about 12 percent – or $28 billion – of its market value since the disaster.

But as headlines focus on the investigation and its financial fallout, families fear the spotlight has shifted from recovery efforts.

DIPLOMATIC PRESSURE

Israelis whose bodies are not recovered are officially listed at home as “disappeared” rather than “dead” – a status that can cause complications for relatives in matters ranging from inheritance to remarrying.

Some Jewish traditions also require a piece of the body be buried before mourning can begin, with the soul not able to rest until then, giving the families’ quest an agonizing urgency.

So the Israeli embassy has been working hard to retrieve the remains of its two citizens who died in the crash, families told Reuters.

But it hasn’t been easy. After being bounced between various government ministries, the ambassador eventually wrote to the airline to get access to the crash site, a source familiar with matter said. He got no reply – until the Israeli prime minister intervened by phoning his Ethiopian counterpart.

The ambassador and representatives of Israeli volunteer rescue and recovery organization ZAKA were finally able to access the site last Friday. They have not been allowed back.

The embassy said on Thursday ZAKA had been told it could not return to retrieve remains due to a “procedural matter” and that Ethiopia did not want to grant access for other nations.

The Ethiopian ministries of transport and foreign affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

CONFUSION OVER PASSENGERS

An Interpol-led group of nations including Germany and Canada are supporting the DNA testing, three Addis Ababa-based diplomatic sources said. Ethiopia has also contracted British firm Blake Emergency Services to recover and return the remains. The firm did not respond to requests for comment.

Remains recovered so far have been bagged and stored in an out-of-the-way area of Addis Ababa’s Bole airport, in refrigeration units usually used to store roses destined for export, before being moved to the capital’s St. Paul’s Hospital, two sources told Reuters.

Halting excavations could complicate matters for many countries, some of which are still unsure how many of their citizens were lost.

Although 18 of the victims have been identified as Canadian, others had connections to Canada, meaning its embassy has been supporting more families, said Canada’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Antoine Chevrier. Some were also dual nationals.

Ethiopian Airlines has not published the full passenger list with names and dates of birth. It did not respond to questions over when the list might be published.

Until that is done, confusion remains over dual nationals, and the citizenship of seven people onboard the flight is still not public, diplomats told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Jason Neely in Addis Ababa and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Mark Potter)

Ethiopia crash black boxes probed in France, families mourn

A relative puts soil on her face as she mourns at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town Bishoftu, near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

By Richard Lough and Aaron Maasho

PARIS/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Investigators in France took possession of the crashed Ethiopian Airlines jet’s black boxes on Thursday, seeking clues into a disaster that has grounded Boeing’s global 737 MAX fleet and left scores of families mourning and angry.

Sunday’s crash after take-off from Addis Ababa killed 157 people from 35 nations in the second such calamity involving Boeing’s flagship new model in six months.

Candle flames burn during a commemoration ceremony for the victims at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town Bishoftu, near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Candle flames burn during a commemoration ceremony for the victims at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town Bishoftu, near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Possible links between the accidents have rocked the aviation industry, scared passengers worldwide, and left the world’s biggest planemaker scrambling to prove the safety of a money-spinning model intended to be the standard for decades.

Relatives of the dead stormed out of a meeting with Ethiopian Airlines on Thursday, decrying a lack of transparency, while others made the painful trip to the crash scene.

“I can’t find you! Where are you?” said one Ethiopian woman, draped in traditional white mourning shawl, as she held a framed portrait of her brother in the charred and debris-strewn field.

Nations around the world, including an initially reluctant United States, have suspended the 371 MAX models in operation, though airlines are largely coping by switching planes.

Another nearly 5,000 MAXs are on order, meaning the financial implications are huge for the industry.

PARIS INVESTIGATION

After an apparent tussle over where the investigation should be held, the flight data and cockpit voice recorders arrived in Paris and were handed over to France’s Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety (BEA) agency.

A BEA spokesman said he did not know what condition the black boxes were in. “First we will try to read the data,” he said, adding that the first analyses could take between half a day and several days.

Ethiopian Federal policemen stand at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopian Federal policemen stand at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The investigation has added urgency since the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Wednesday grounded the 737 MAX aircraft citing satellite data and evidence from the scene indicating some similarities and “the possibility of a shared cause” with October’s crash in Indonesia that killed 189 people.

Though it maintains the planes are safe, Boeing has supported the FAA move. Its stock has fallen about 11 percent since the crash, wiping nearly $26 billion off its market value.

It is unclear how long the Boeing aircraft will be grounded.

A software fix for the 737 MAX that Boeing has been working on since the Lion Air crash in October in Indonesia will take months to complete, the FAA said on Wednesday.

Deliveries of Boeing’s best-selling jets have been effectively frozen, though production continues.

And in what may presage a raft of claims, Norwegian Air has said it will seek compensation from Boeing for costs and lost revenue after grounding its fleet of 737 MAX. Japan became the latest nation to suspend the 737 MAX planes on Thursday. And airline Garuda Indonesia said there was a possibility it would cancel its 20-strong order of 737 MAXs, depending on what the FAA does.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Under international rules, the Ethiopians are leading the investigation but France’s BEA will conduct black box analysis as an advisor. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will also have an influential role as representatives of the country where the Boeing plane was made.

The choice of the BEA followed what experts say appears to have been a tug-of-war between national agencies, with Germany initially invited to do the analysis.

Ethiopian Airlines criticized a French-backed investigation into a crash in Lebanon in 2010, when an Ethiopian plane crashed into the sea after take-off. It said the investigation was biased against the pilots, who were blamed for the crash.

There is a small pool of countries including Britain, France, the United States, Canada and Australia that are seen as leading investigators. But only France and the United States have the experience gleaned from being present at almost every crash involving an Airbus or Boeing respectively.

Since the Indonesia crash, there has been attention on an automated anti-stall system in the MAX model that dips the plane’s nose down.

The pilot of Flight 302 had reported internal control problems and received permission to return, before the plane came down and burst into a fireball on arid farmland.

Relatives are desperate to know what happened and to receive fragments if not corpses, given the fire and destruction at the site. They were at least able to vent their grief.

“We saw where he died and touched the earth,” said Sultan Al-Mutairi, who came from Riyadh to say goodbye to his brother Saad, who ran a recruitment agency in Kenya.

(Reporting by Richard Lough, Tim Hepher and John Irish in Paris, Duncan Miriri and Aaron Masho in Addis Ababa, David Shepardson in Washington, Omar Mohammed and Maggie Fick in Nairobi; Josephine Mason in London; Junko Fujita in Tokyo; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Ethiopia black boxes bound for Europe, crash pilot had in-plane issues

American civil aviation and Boeing investigators search through the debris at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Duncan Miriri

ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – The Ethiopian Airlines pilot whose jet crashed killing 157 people had reported flight-control problems, the company said on Wednesday, as it prepared to send the black boxes to Europe from a disaster that has rocked the global aviation industry.

The still unexplained crash, which happened just after take-off from Addis Ababa, followed another disaster involving a Boeing 737 MAX in Indonesia five months ago that killed 189 people.

Though there is no proof of links, the twin disasters have spooked passengers, led to the grounding of most of Boeing’s 737 MAX fleet and hammered shares in the world’s biggest planemaker.

Since the Indonesia crash, there has been attention on an automated anti-stall system that dips the aircraft’s nose down.

Ethiopia Airlines spokesman Asrat Begashaw told Reuters it was still unclear what happened on Sunday, but its pilot had reported control issues – as opposed to external factors such as birds.

“The pilot reported flight control problems and requested to turn back. In fact he was allowed to turn back,” he said.

A decision where in Europe to send the black boxes would be taken by Thursday, the airline said.

Multiple nations, including the European Union, have suspended the 737 MAX, grounding about two-thirds of the 371 jets of that make in operation around the world, according to Reuters calculations.

Many airlines were managing to keep to schedule by using other jets while economic woes meant some may be grateful for a pause. The biggest impact could be on future deliveries given Boeing has nearly 5,000 more 737 MAXs on order.

India said it would not take any deliveries until safety concerns were cleared and Ethiopian Airlines said it would decide whether to cancel orders after a preliminary probe.

Passengers were fretting too, with many seeking reassurances they would not be flying on a 737 MAX. Kayak.com was the first big site to say it would modify filters to allow customers to exclude particular types of planes from queries.

 

U.S. OUTLIER

Nevertheless, the United States held out against suspension and Boeing affirmed its “full confidence” in the model.

U.S. President Donald Trump, an aviation enthusiast whose ties with Boeing run deep, received safety assurances personally from its chief executive Dennis Muilenburg.

Still, Boeing shares have fallen some 11 percent since the crash, losing $26.65 billion of market value.

Possibly presaging a raft of claims, Norwegian Air said it would seek recompense for lost revenue and extra costs after grounding its 737 MAX aircraft.

“We expect Boeing to take this bill,” it said.

More than a dozen relatives of those who perished paid their respects on Wednesday at the rural site where Flight ET 302 came down in a fireball. Workers set up tents decorated with white roses.

Given problems of identification of charred remains, it will take days to start returning them to families, probably weeks for some which will require dental or DNA testing.

The victims came from more than 30 nations.

Of the top 10 nations by air passenger travel, all but the United States and Japan halted the 737 MAX. Egypt, Thailand, Lebanon, Serbia, Kosovo and Uzbekistan joined them on Wednesday.

Resisting pressure, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) acting administrator Dan Elwel said its review had shown “no systemic performance issues.”

The three U.S. airlines using the 737 MAX – Southwest Airlines Co, American Airlines Group Inc and United Airlines – stood by the aircraft.

PILOTS’ CONCERNS

The new variant of the world’s most-sold modern passenger aircraft was viewed as the likely workhorse for airlines for decades. But October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia sparked a debate on automation, particularly over a software system designed to push the plane down to stop a stall during flight.

Boeing says it plans to update the software in coming weeks.

Though there are no proven links between the two recent 737 MAX crashes, the United Arab Emirates’ aviation regulator said on Tuesday there were “marked similarities” and China’s regulator noted both occurred shortly after take-off.

In November, two incidents were reported to the NASA-run Aviation Safety Reporting Database that involved problems in controlling the 737 MAX at low altitude just after take-off with autopilot engaged, according to documents first published by the Dallas Morning News and verified by Reuters.

“We discussed the departure at length and I reviewed in my mind our automation setup and flight profile but can’t think of any reason the aircraft would pitch nose down so aggressively,” one pilot said.

In another case, the pilot said: “With the concerns with the MAX 8 nose down stuff, we thought it appropriate to bring it to your attention.”

Boeing did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but it has previously said it provided appropriate information to pilots to use an existing procedure to handle the issue of erroneous data affecting the anti-stall system.

(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Kumerra Gemechu in Gora-Bokka, Ethiopia; Omar Mohammed and Maggie Fick in Nairobi; Tim Hepher in Paris; David Shepardson in Washington; Jamie Freed in Singapore; Terje Solsvik in Oslo; Aditi Shah in Mumbai; Sanjana Shivdas in Bengaluru; Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Britain joins Boeing suspensions, investigators probe Ethiopia crash

Passengers' personal belongings are seen at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 12, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

By Duncan Miriri and Tim Hepher

ADDIS ABABA/PARIS (Reuters) – Britain joined a growing wave of suspensions of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft around the world on Tuesday, escalating the global alarm after a crash in Ethiopia that killed 157 people in the second such disaster for the model in the past few months.

The decision by one of the industry’s most established regulators was the most serious setback yet for Boeing in the wake of Sunday’s crash and put pressure on regulators in the rest of Europe and the United States to follow suit.

At the same time as London’s announcement, Norwegian Air said it too would temporarily ground its MAX 8 passenger jets on the advice of European regulators.

Earlier, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Oman had also temporarily suspended the aircraft, following China, Indonesia and others the day before.

“The UK, Singapore and Australia are independent professionals,” said Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia. “I am sure the (U.S.) Federal Aviation Administration will take their judgment into account.”

Sunday’s disaster – after the fatal crash of a 737 MAX jet in Indonesia in October – has wiped billions of dollars off the market value of the world’s biggest planemaker.

But experts say it is too early to speculate on the reason for the crash or whether the two are linked. Most crashes are caused by a unique chain of human and technical factors.

Given problems of identification at the charred disaster site, Ethiopian Airlines said it would take at least five days to start handing remains to families.

The victims came from more than 30 different nations, and included nearly two dozen U.N. staff.

“We are Muslim and have to bury our deceased immediately,” Noordin Mohamed, a 27-year-old Kenyan businessman whose brother and mother died, told Reuters.

“Losing a brother and mother in the same day and not having their bodies to bury is very painful,” he said in the Kenyan capital Nairobi where the plane had been due.

 

Wreckage is seen at the site of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Wreckage is seen at the site of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

FIREBALL

Flight ET 302 came down in a field soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa on Sunday, creating a fireball in a crater. It may take weeks or months to identify all the victims, who include a prize-winning author, a soccer official and a team of humanitarian workers.

The United States has said it remained safe to fly the planes, and Boeing has said there is no need to issue new guidance to operators based on the information it has so far.

Ethiopian Airlines has grounded its four other 737 MAX 8 jets as a precaution.

Anxiety was also evident among some travelers, who rushed to find out from social media and travel agents whether they were booked to fly on 737 MAX planes – the same model in the Lion Air crash off Indonesia that killed 189 people in October.

If the black box recordings found at the Ethiopian crash site are undamaged, the cause of the crash could be identified quickly, although it typically takes a year for a full probe.

Nearly 40 percent of the in-service fleet of 371 Boeing 737 MAX jets globally is grounded, according to industry publication Flightglobal. That includes 97 jets in biggest market China.

Boeing shares fell another 4.8 percent on Tuesday after having lost 5 percent on Monday.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a “continued airworthiness notification” for the 737 MAX on Monday to assure operators, and detailed a series of design changes mandated by Boeing after the Indonesia crash.

FILE PHOTO - SilkAir's new aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max 8, sits on the tarmac at Changi Airport in Singapore October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

FILE PHOTO – SilkAir’s new aircraft, the Boeing 737 Max 8, sits on the tarmac at Changi Airport in Singapore October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

BETTER SOFTWARE

Boeing said it had been working with the FAA following the Lion Air crash to enhance flight control software that would be deployed across the 737 MAX fleet in the coming weeks.

The MAX 8 has new software that automatically pushes the plane’s nose down if a stall is detected. There is no evidence so far whether the system was involved in the Ethiopia crash, though experts said this would be a focus of the investigation.

The new variant of the 737, the world’s best-selling modern passenger aircraft, could become the workhorse for airlines around the globe for decades and another 4,661 are on order.

In Latin America, Gol in Brazil temporarily suspended MAX 8 flights, as did Argentina’s state airline Aerolineas Argentinas and Mexico’s Aeromexico.

In Asia, South Korean budget carrier Eastar Jet said it would temporarily ground its two 737 MAX 8s from Wednesday, while India ordered additional checks.

Vietnam state media reported the aviation regulator would not issue licenses to local airlines to operate the 737 MAX until the cause of the Ethiopian crash was known.

Still, major airlines from North America to the Middle East kept flying the 737 MAX. Southwest Airlines Co, which operates the largest fleet of 737 MAX 8s, said it remained confident in the safety of all its Boeing planes.

Former FAA accident investigator Mike Daniel said the decision by regulators to ground the planes was premature. “To me it’s almost surreal how quickly some of the regulators are just grounding the aircraft without any factual information yet as a result of the investigation,” he told Reuters.

In Nairobi, the U.N. Environment Program set up a small memorial for Victor Tsang, a staff member who lost his life.

“Travel well my friend, see you on the other side,” said one entry in a condolence book beside a framed photograph, bouquet of flowers and candle. By mid-afternoon, 23 pages of the condolence book had been filled with over 250 names.

(Additional reporting by Jamie Freed and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Katharine Houreld and Hereward Holland in Nairobi; Eric Johnson in Seattle; James Pearson in Hanoi; Alexander Cornwell in Dubai; Heekyong Yang in Seoul; Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Georgina Prodhan, Jon Boyle and Keith Weir)

Ethiopian Airlines flight crashes, killing 157

Members of the search and rescue mission carry dead bodies at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

By Duncan Miriri, Maggie Fick and Aaron Maasho

NAIROBI/ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – An Ethiopian Airlines passenger jet bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board and raising questions about the safety of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, a new model that also crashed in Indonesia in October.

Sunday’s flight left Bole airport in Addis Ababa at 8:38 a.m. (0538 GMT), before losing contact with the control tower just a few minutes later at 8:44 a.m.

A relative reacts as he leaves the information centre following the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, Kenya March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

A relative reacts as he leaves the information centre following the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in Nairobi, Kenya March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

“There are no survivors,” the airline tweeted alongside a picture of Chief Executive Tewolde GebreMariam holding up a piece of debris inside a large crater at the crash site.

“The pilot mentioned that he had difficulties and that he wanted to return,” Tewolde told a news conference.

Passengers from 33 countries were aboard, said Tewolde.

The dead included Kenyan, Ethiopian, American, Canadian, French, Chinese, Egyptian, Swedish, British, Dutch, Indian, Slovakian, Austrian, Swedish, Russian, Moroccan, Spanish, Polish, and Israeli citizens.

At least four worked for the United Nations, the airline said, and the U.N.’s World Food Program director confirmed his organization had lost staff in the accident.

Weeping relatives begged for information at airports in Nairobi and Addis Ababa.

“We’re just waiting for my mum. We’re just hoping she took a different flight or was delayed. She’s not picking up her phone,” said Wendy Otieno, clutching her phone and weeping.

The aircraft, a 737 MAX 8, is the same model that crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta on Oct 29, killing all 189 people on board the Lion Air flight.

The cause of that crash is still under investigation.

People walk at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

People walk at the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash, near the town of Bishoftu, southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia March 10, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

A senior U.S. government official said it was too early to tell if there was any direct connection between the two accidents, but that reviewing the issue would be among the top priorities for investigators.

The 737 is the world’s best selling modern passenger aircraft and is seen as one of the industry’s most reliable.

A preliminary report into the October crash focused on airline maintenance and training and technical questions about the response of a Boeing anti-stall system to a recently replaced sensor.

Boeing is working on a software patch on the system, while insisting cockpit procedures were already in place to deal safely with problems the Lion Air crew experienced.

Ethiopian’s new aircraft had no recorded technical problems and the pilot had an “excellent” flying record, Tewolde said.

“We received the airplane on November 15, 2018. It has flown more than 1,200 hours. It had flown from Johannesburg earlier this morning,” he said.

“UNSTABLE SPEED”

Flight ET 302, registration number ET-AVJ, crashed near the town of Bishoftu, 62 km (38 miles) southeast of the capital Addis Ababa, with 149 passengers and eight crew aboard, the airline said.

The flight had unstable vertical speed after take off, the flight tracking website Flightradar24 tweeted.

Data released by the Sweden-based service suggested the aircraft had climbed almost 1,000 feet after taking off from Addis Ababa, a hot and high-altitude airport whose thinner air requires extra effort from an aircraft’s engines.

It dipped about 450 feet before rapidly climbing another 900 feet until the point where satellite tracking data was lost.

The aircraft had shattered into many pieces and was severely burnt, a Reuters reporter at the scene of the crash said. Clothing and personal effects were scattered widely over the field where the plane came down.

There was no immediate indication of what caused the crash and safety experts said it was too early to speculate, adding most accidents are caused by a cocktail of factors.

They said investigators would examine the wreckage and bodies for any signs of burns or unusual forces and study the shape and size of the wreckage field. An urgent priority will be to find the two crash-protected cockpit recorders – one for data and the other for pilots’ voice recordings.

Boeing said it was sending a technical team to help with the Ethiopian-led investigation.

ANGUISHED RELATIVES

At Nairobi airport, many relatives were left waiting at the gate for hours, with no information from airport authorities. Some learned of the crash from journalists.

Robert Mutanda, 46, was waiting for his brother-in-law, a Canadian citizen.

“No, we haven’t seen anyone from the airline or the airport,” he told Reuters at 1pm, more than three hours after the flight was lost. “Nobody has told us anything, we are just standing here hoping for the best.”

Kenyan officials did not arrive at the airport until 1:30 p.m.

James Macharia, the cabinet secretary for transport, said he heard about the crash via Twitter.

Nineteen staff from at least five U.N. and affiliated organizations died, including the World Food Program, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, the International Telecommunications Union, the U.N. Environment Program, the World Bank and the International Organisation on Migration, the IOM said.

ETHIOPIAN AIRLINES

Under international rules, responsibility for leading the crash investigation lies with Ethiopia but the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will also participate because the plane was designed and built in the United States.

Representatives of Boeing and Cincinnati-based engine-maker CFM International, a joint venture between General Electric and General Electric Co and France’s Safran SA, were expected to advise the NTSB.

Ethiopian is one of the biggest carriers on the continent by fleet size. The plane was among six of 30 Boeing 737 MAX 8 jets the rapidly expanding carrier has ordered.

The fleet will continue flying since the cause of the crash is not clear, the CEO said.

Its last major crash was in January 2010, when a flight from Beirut went down shortly after take-off, killing all 90 people onboard. The Lebanese blamed pilot error, which was disputed by the airline.

North American airlines that operate the 737 MAX 8 said they were monitoring the investigation. Southwest Airlines flies 31 MAX 8 jets while American Airlines and Air Canada each have 24 in their fleet. Southwest said it remained confident in the safety of its more than 750 Boeing jets.

(Additional reporting by Hereward Holland, Omar Mohammed and Katharine Houreld in Nairobi; Tiksa Negeri in Bishoftu; Tim Hepher in Paris, Jamie Freed in Singapore, Allison Lampert in Montreal and David Shephardson in Washington; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle and Jane Merriman)

Kenyan rose-farm dam bursts, ‘sea of water’ kills 47

An aerial view of rescue efforts near destroyed houses by flooding water after a dam burst, in Solio town near Nakuru, Kenya May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

By Thomas Mukoya

SOLAI, Kenya (Reuters) – A dam on a commercial flower farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley burst after weeks of torrential rain, unleashing a “sea of water” that careered down a hillside and smashed into two villages, killing at least 47 people.

The walls of the reservoir, on top of a hill in Nakuru county, 190 km (120 miles) northwest of Nairobi, gave way late on Wednesday as nearby residents were sitting down to evening meals.

Kenya is one of the largest suppliers of cut flowers to Europe, and roses from the 3,500-acre Solai farm are exported to the Netherlands and Germany, according to Optimal Connection, its Netherlands-based handling agent.

The floodwaters carved out a dark brown chasm in the hillside and swept away everything in their path – powerlines, homes and buildings, including a primary school.

The bodies of two women were found several kilometers away as excavators and rescue workers armed with shovels picked through rubble and mud searching for survivors and victims.

Local police chief Japheth Kioko said the death toll could climb. “So far it is 47 dead. We are still on the ground,” he told Reuters.

After a severe drought last year, East Africa has been hit by two months of heavy rain, affecting nearly a million people in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda. Bridges have been swept away and roads turned into rivers of mud.

In Solai, Veronica Wanjiku Ngigi, 67, said she was at home brewing tea with her son at around 8 pm (1700 GMT) when his wife rushed in to say the dam had burst and they needed to get to higher ground immediately.

“It was a sea of water. My neighbor was killed when the water smashed through the wall of his house. He was blind so he could not run. They found his body in the morning,” she said. “My other neighbors also died. All our houses have been ruined.”

BOULDERS, ROOTS

Nakuru lies in the heart of Kenya’s fertile Rift Valley, home to thousands of commercial farms that grow everything from French beans to macadamia nuts to cut flowers, nearly all of which are exported to Europe.

The region is dotted with irrigation reservoirs built in the last two decades to meet the demands of the rapidly expanding agricultural sector, the biggest foreign exchange earner for East Africa’s largest economy and a major source of jobs.

Vinoj Kumar, general manager of the Solai farm, blamed the disaster on massive rainfall in a forest above the dam.

“In the past two days the intensity of the rain was high and the water started coming down carrying boulders and roots which damaged the wall,” he told Reuters. “The dam wall cracked and the water escaped.”

Nakuru governor Lee Kinyanjui said 450 homes had been hit by the floodwaters and safety engineers had been sent to inspect three other dams to check for cracks or breaches.

Wanjiku, the survivor, said at least one looked like it was ready to burst. “There is another dam which is also overflowing which is looking risky,” she said. “We are scared.”

One primary school had been closed as a precaution, education officials said. Arriving at the scene, Interior Minister Fred Matiangi pledged central government assistance to those affected.

To date, heavy rains have caused havoc in Kenya, killing 158 people and displacing 299,859, according to the government and Kenya Red Cross. Roads and bridges have been destroyed, causing millions of dollars of damage.

The United Nations UNOCHA disaster agency said 580,000 people had been affected by torrential rain and flooding in neighboring Somalia, while the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia had also taken a hammering, with 160,000 people affected.

The flooding could yet get worse, with heavy rains forecast to continue in the Rift Valley and the Lake Victoria basin over the next few weeks.

(Reporting by Thomas Mukoya, George Obulutsa, Duncan Miriri, Humphrey Malalo and Maggie Fick; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Egypt says it does not want war as tension grows with Sudan

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi gives a televised statement on the attack in North Sinai, in Cairo, Egypt November 24, 2017 in this still taken from video.

CAIRO (Reuters) – President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Monday Egypt is not conspiring against its neighbors and has no intention to fight, a reference to growing tension with Sudan.

Relations have deteriorated in recent weeks, including over a Sudan-Turkey naval agreement that angered Cairo and an ongoing dispute over a dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile river that runs through all three countries.

In the latest move, Sudan recalled its ambassador to Egypt without saying when he might be back.

“Let’s always look for peace and development, our people need that. They don’t need us arguing and entering conflict,” Sisi said at an inauguration of new projects in the province of Monofeya.

He said Egypt would not interfere in other countries’ affairs. Khartoum has in the past accused Cairo of political meddling while Egypt has accused Sudan of harboring Egyptian Islamists.

“Egypt will not fight its brothers … I’m saying this as a message to our brothers in Sudan,” Sisi said.

Khartoum and Ankara agreed last month that Turkey would rebuild a ruined Ottoman port city on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and construct a dock to maintain civilian and military vessels.

Egyptian officials reacted with suspicion about what they see as Turkey’s plans to expand its influence in the region.

Separately, Ethiopia is building a hydroelectric dam on the Nile which Cairo fears will restrict the waters flowing down from Ethiopia’s highlands and through Sudan to Egypt.

Ethiopia, which wants to become Africa’s biggest power exporter, says it will have no such impact.

Egypt believes Sudan is leaning toward the Ethiopian position in the dispute.

The Ethiopian foreign minister, who held talks with his Sudanese counterpart on Sunday, is expected to visit Cairo later this week for negotiations after multiple delays.

(Reporting by Mohamed El Sherif; Writing by Arwa Gaballa; Editing by Peter Graff)