Rwanda seals Congo border after third Ebola case in Goma

Congolese customs agents gather at the gate barriers at the border crossing point with Rwanda following its closure over ebola threat in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, August 1, 2019. REUTERS/Djaffer Sabiti

By Djaffar Al Katanty and Fiston Mahamba

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – Rwandan authorities closed the border with the Ebola-hit Congolese city of Goma on Thursday for everyone other than Congolese citizens leaving Rwanda, as a third case was confirmed in Goma.

The daughter of an Ebola patient in the east Congo city has contracted the virus, Congolese officials confirmed, the third case in a metropolis of at least 1 million people that neighbors Rwanda.

Rwandan state minister for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Olivier Nduhungirehe, told Reuters by phone that the border had been shut but declined to give further details. Congo deplored the decision.

Confirmation of the third case in Goma increased fears the virus could take root in the densely populated city, which lies more than 350 km (220 miles) south of where the outbreak was first detected.

The second patient died after he sought treatment too late and was already bleeding, authorities said on Wednesday.

The outbreak in Congo has killed more than 1,800 people over the past year and become the second-worst on record.

“The tests on a suspected case at the Goma Ebola treatment center came out positive for the Ebola virus. Investigations are still under way around this … case,” Dr Aaron Aruna Abedi, who coordinates the Ebola response for Congo’s health ministry, told Reuters on the phone.

MSF spokeswoman Jinane Saad said contacts of a patient in Goma were currently being tested.

“DEPLORE THIS DECISION”

Nestled in hilly country at the foot of an active volcano, Goma lies just 7 km (4.5 miles) from Rwanda’s main border town of Gisenyi.

Some 45,000 people go through the main border post between Goma and Gisenyi, according to an immigration official, and many worried of the closure’s impact on their businesses.

After the first Ebola case in Goma was confirmed in mid-July, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak an international health emergency. It was earlier reluctant to do so, partly out of fear countries bordering Congo might shut their frontiers.

“By closing the border like this, they deprive a lot of people of their earnings today. Most of the women here cross into Rwanda to find food for us in Goma,” Lucien Kalusha, a Congolese hairdresser who crosses every day to work in Rwanda, told Reuters.

Another, smaller border post near Goma was unusually quiet, as traders and vehicles had left after the closure was announced.

When declaring the emergency, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said explicitly that no country should close borders or impose any travel or trade restrictions.

“On a unilateral decision by the Rwandan authorities, Rwandan citizens cannot leave for Goma,” the Congolese presidency statement said.

“The Congolese authorities deplore this decision, which runs counter to the advice of the WHO (World Health Organization).”

WHO spokeswoman Nyka Alexander said the agency was “following up with Rwandan officials for clarification”.

The first Ebola case to hit Goma is not linked to the second or third, authorities say.

(Additional reporting by Stanys Bujakera in Kinshasa, Clement Uwiringiyimana in Kigali and Anna Pujol Mazzini in Dakar; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alison Williams)

Syria investigator del Ponte signs off with a sting

Carla del Ponte, member of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic attends a news conference into events in Aleppo at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, March 1, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Veteran prosecutor Carla del Ponte signed off from the United Nations Syria investigation on Monday by criticizing the U.N. Security Council and telling Syria’s ambassador his government had used chemical weapons.

The former Swiss attorney general, who went on to prosecute war crimes in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia, said in August she was resigning from the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria because of a lack of political backing.

Bidding farewell to the U.N. Human Rights Council, which set up the Commission of Inquiry six years ago, Del Ponte said she had quit out of frustration.

“We could not obtain from the international community and the Security Council a resolution putting in place a tribunal, an ad hoc tribunal for all the crimes that are committed in Syria,” she said.

“Seven years of crime in Syria and total impunity. That is not acceptable.”

Del Ponte told a Swiss newspaper last month enough evidence existed to convict President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes.

Her departure leaves only two remaining commissioners of the inquiry, Karen Koning AbuZayd and the chairman, Paulo Pinheiro, who said that eventually, a great many people would have to answer “as to why they did not act sooner to stop the carnage”.

“The deadlock at the Security Council on Syria is reprehensible and, at times, bewildering,” he told the Human Rights Council.

Leaving the council, del Ponte told Syria’s ambassador that she had been right to quickly reach the conclusion that Assad’s government had used chemical weapons during an attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in April.

“It was me, mister ambassador,” she said.

“I said that in my opinion and based on the elements we already had, the Syrian government was responsible. Today we have the confirmation after an official commission’s inquiry. So now, we ask for justice, we ask justice for those victims.”

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles and Cecile Mantovani; editing by Andrew Roche)

 

War forces two million South Sudanese children to flee homes

FILE PHOTO: A child displaced due to fighting in South Sudan arrives in Lamwo after fleeing fighting in Pajok town across the border in northern Uganda

NAIROBI (Reuters) – War and famine have forced more than 2 million children in South Sudan to flee their homes, the United Nations said on Monday, as 21 people died in the latest attack on civilians by unknown gunmen.

The civil war in the oil-producing country began when President Salva Kiir fired his deputy in 2013, two years after the country won independence from neighboring Sudan.

The fighting that followed split the country along ethnic lines, spurred hyperinflation and plunged parts of the nation into famine, creating Africa’s biggest refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

“No refugee crisis today worries me more than South Sudan,” Valentin Tapsoba, the Africa chief for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, said in a statement.

In a country of 12 million people, nearly three in every four children do not go to school, UNHCR and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said. More than 1 million children have fled outside South Sudan while another 1 million are internally displaced.

The agencies said more than a thousand children have been killed in the fighting. The true figure may be much higher since there are no accurate death tolls available for South Sudan, one of the world’s least developed nations.

A displaced boy from South Sudan stands next to family belongings in Lamwo after fleeing fighting in Pajok town across the border in northern Uganda

FILE PHOTO: A displaced boy from South Sudan stands next to family belongings in Lamwo after fleeing fighting in Pajok town across the border in northern Uganda April 5, 2017. REUTERS/James Akena/File Photo

Separately, an official told Reuters that two commercial vehicles carrying passengers were attacked at two checkpoints along the Juba-Bor road on Friday.

“One commercial vehicle coming from Juba was attacked at a checkpoint in Jamaza and the other at Sudan Safari,” said Jacob Akech Deng, the Jonglei province’s state minister of information.

“We have received, and saw 21 people killed and 25 injured at Bor Hospital,” he told Reuters, referring to areas along the highway.

Reports in South Sudan said the death toll could reach to 51. Deng said authorities were still collecting evidence.

Many South Sudanese refugees have fled into neighboring Uganda, Kenya, Sudan or Ethiopia, nations which are already struggling to provide enough food and resources for their own populations.

(Writing by Clement Uwiringiyimana and Aaron Maasho; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Troops and court needed fast to avert South Sudan genocide: U.N.

Council-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan Yasmin Sooka addresses the Human Rights Council 26th Special Session on the human rights situation in South Sudan, Geneva, Switzerland,

y Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – World powers can stop a “Rwanda-like” genocide in South Sudan if they immediately deploy a 4,000-strong protection force across the country and set up a court to prosecute atrocities, the head of a U.N. human rights commission said on Wednesday.

Africa’s newest nation plunged into civil war in December 2013 after a long-running feud between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, exploded into violence, often along ethnic lines.

“South Sudan stands on the brink of an all-out ethnic civil war, which could destabilize the entire region,” commission chief Yasmin Sooka told an emergency session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Fighting was expected to escalate again now that the dry season had started, she said. Gang rape was happening on an “epic” scale, she added, citing cases of women being raped at a U.N. site in the capital Juba within sight of U.N. peacekeepers.

Washington and other powers called the one-day meeting after Sooka’s commission reported this month that ethnic cleansing was already taking place in South Sudan, which only seceded from Sudan in 2011.

Sooka’s comparison with Rwanda referred to the killing of some 800,000 people in three months of ethnic violence there in 1994.

Kiir has denied there is any ethnic cleansing and South Sudan’s ambassador at the council, Kuol Alor Kuol Arop, said his country saw no need for the special session.

International pressure, including the threat of sanctions, has so far failed to halt the fighting in an oil-producing country at the heart of a fragile region that includes Sudan, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo.

The warring sides agreed to set up a court backed by the African Union in 2015, but one has not appeared.

General view of the Human Rights Council 26th Special Session on the human rights situation in South Sudan, Geneva, Switzerland,

General view of the Human Rights Council 26th Special Session on the human rights situation in South Sudan, Geneva, Switzerland, December 14, 2016. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

South Sudan’s government has said it will allow a 4,000-strong regional protection force to bolster the U.N.’s existing peacekeeping mission. But it has also not arrived and Sooka said there were fears it would not operate beyond Juba.

“We urge the immediate deployment of the 4,000-strong regional protection force for South Sudan … People all across the country asked that it not be restricted to the capital if it is to protect civilians across South Sudan,” she said.

The 47-member forum adopted a resolution without a vote reminding the government of its responsibility for protecting the population against genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing and condemning the widespread violence and rape.

But it watered down the original wording, which would have extended the mandate of the U.N. human rights commission in South Sudan for a year. The commission will report back to the council in the first quarter of 2017.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Andrew Heavens)

Rwanda harnesses lake ‘demons’ to power the economy

Fishermen set out for their expedition from the shores of Lake Kivu in Goma.

By Clement Uwiringiyimana

LAKE KIVU, Rwanda (Reuters) – Some Rwandans tell stories of “demons” in Lake Kivu causing the deaths of fishermen and swimmers who have occasionally disappeared on one of Africa’s great expanses of water in the heart of the continent.

Now Rwanda is turning the methane gas which can bubble up from the lake bed, sometimes with fatal consequences, into a lifeline by generating electricity to help businesses expand and light up a nation with a chronic power shortage.

Across Africa, governments are struggling to increase power capacity and expand grids to meet the demands of growing populations with rising aspirations. Poor electricity supplies are often cited as one of the biggest hurdles to investment.

Rwanda’s KivuWatt plant, which started in May, is part of a network of projects aimed at providing 70 percent of the 11 million population with power from the grid or off-grid by 2018, up from 25 percent now. Much will come from renewable resources.

“The country cannot grow if you don’t have power,” Jarmo Gummerus, country manager for the plant developed by U.S. company ContourGlobal, told Reuters on the lush shores of Lake Kivu, where a hi-tech barge gathers methane from the depths.

Rwanda, one of Africa’s poorest nations but also among its fastest growing, is harnessing its limited solar, peat and hydro resources to curb the landlocked country’s fuel import bill while keeping power flowing to spur on industry and create jobs.

Lake Kivu’s methane has now been added to the list of its emerging resources, formed from biogas created by decomposing matter on the bed of the lake that is trapped by a layer of mineral-rich water flowing off nearby volcanic soil.

Left untapped, it could one day explode or, as in the case of another lake in Cameroon, poison inhabitants on shore if it bubbles up in large quantities, experts say. Some locals say it has already claimed unsuspecting victims on the lake.

“There are stories based on superstition that swimmers are taken away by demons,” said Eric Manywa, 20, who sometimes takes a dip. “I don’t believe that. It might be due to methane gas.”

KivuWatt’s Gummerus said the gas in the lake, which can bubble up, contains combustible methane – extracted for the power plant – mixed with other gas that is highly toxic. “It just kills almost immediately so it’s very dangerous.”

His company is now carefully extracting the methane to power a 26 megawatt (MW) plant, with plans to increase that to 100 MW by 2020 at a cost of about $500 million to $600 million.

Despite that hefty investment, using domestic resources is a boon for a nation which has to truck all imports into the country about 1,400 km (870 miles) through Kenya or Tanzania, often along traffic-clogged roads that are poorly maintained.

POWERING BUSINESS

“Our power is much cheaper than the alternative which would be putting in diesel or heavy fuel,” Gummerus said, adding the methane could also be processed for to sell as cooking gas.

Eventually, Rwanda could generate about 350 MW from methane, with a similar potential in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which shares the lake. Congo yet to tap the gas supplies.

The start-up of the KivuWatt plant is already benefiting local businesses in the region of rolling green hills and volcanic peaks, which the government wants to promote as a tourist destination.

“When I built this hotel in 2013, we could have power cuts every three hours, at least, but nowadays we have electricity 24/7,” said Jerome Musomandera, owner of the Kivu Plaza Hotel, one of a number next to the lake.

Some other hotels said they had yet to feel the benefit, but were hopeful that they would soon be able to unplug private stand-by generators and enjoy lower bills from grid power.

As it adds more supply, state-run Rwanda Energy Group (REG) is in talks with the regulator on lowering tariffs to help the poor and support industry, its chief executive Jean Bosco Mugiraneza said.

Rwanda now charges 17 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour (kwh) for industry and 21 cents for others. Mugiraneza did not say how much costs could fall by.

Rwanda’s installed power capacity is now 190 MW and set to rise by the end of July to 205 MW, once a new peat-burning plant being tested is linked up. The aim is 583 MW by 2018, a goal Mugiraneza admits Rwanda would have to “work hard” to achieve.

“The government alone cannot afford to finance those 563 MW; that is why private investments are needed,” he said.

KivuWatt was a pioneer by negotiating the first private power purchase agreement, helping pave the way for others.

Other deals that have been signed include one with U.S. firm Symbion Power, which plans a methane plant too. Another firm, Ignite Power, is helping the government to provide off-grid rooftop solar power panels to 250,000 households by 2018.

As well as helping meet Rwanda’s national generation ambitions, Gummerus said the KivuWatt plant was boosting the local economy in the Kibuye region around the lake.

“If you came here eight years back when I came, there was nothing,” he said. “It gives confidence for people to come and invest in Kibuye.”

(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

UPS backed Rwandan blood deliveries show drones’ promise

A Zipline delivery drone releases its payload midair during a flight demonstration at an undisclosed location in the San Francisco Bay

By Nick Carey

(Reuters) – International delivery company UPS is backing a start-up using drones in Rwanda to transport life-saving blood supplies and vaccines, underlining the wide potential for the unmanned aircraft and helping bring package delivery by drone to U.S. consumers a step closer.

U.S. companies are keen to use drones to cut delivery times and costs but hurdles range from smoothing communication between the autonomous robots and airplanes in America’s crowded airspace to ensuring battery safety and longevity.

As far back as 2013, online retailer Amazon said it was testing delivery using drones and Alphabet Inc’s Google has promised such a service by 2017. Leading retailer Walmart is also testing drones.

But UPS, Walmart, legal experts and consultants say overcoming U.S. regulatory hurdles and concerns over drone safety will require vast amounts of data from real-time use — with testing in the near-term limited to remote areas of the United States or in other countries.

UPS will provide a grant of $800,000 plus logistical support through the UPS Foundation to a partnership including Gavi, a group providing vaccines to poor countries, and robotics company Zipline International Inc for drone flights in Rwanda starting in August. The drones will deliver blood and vaccines to half the transfusion centers in the country of 11 million people, making deliveries 20 times faster than by land.

“Tens of thousands of hours of flight logged in an environment where it’s much easier” to operate will help make package delivery a reality in the United States, Zipline chief executive Keller Rinaudo told reporters at a presentation late last week.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has adopted a step-by-step approach to drones, will soon release finalized rules for small drone use that will most likely limit their use to within the “visual line-of-sight” of an operator or observer.

“If you’re looking for an economically-efficient way to deliver packages, you’d be better off using a bicycle,” said Ryan Calo, an assistant law professor at the University of Washington specializing in robotics.

“NIGHTMARE SCENARIO”

The hurdles to using drones to deliver packages to consumers include technology, communication, insurance and privacy.

Questions remain about battery life and safety, especially after lithium-ion battery problems resulted in a fire on board a parked Boeing 787 in Boston in 2013.

Safe communication between drones and with airplanes in America’s busy airspace is years away. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been working on a drone traffic management system and will pass its research to the FAA in 2019 for further testing.

In the push for autonomous cars and trucks, companies like Google and Daimler have turned to individual states such as Nevada, which has issued licenses for testing on its roads. But the FAA controls all U.S. airspace, so permits on a state-by-state basis will not suffice for drone testing.

“You really do have to make sure the FAA is in the boat and we are really focused on that piece of it more than anything,” said Mark Wallace, UPS’ senior vice president for global engineering. As part of its strategy, UPS has invested in Boston-based drone manufacturer CyPhy Works Inc.

UPS will focus on projects like Rwanda and testing drones in remote U.S. areas in the near-term, he added.

Walmart said last year it plans to test drones for package delivery.

The retailer is “more likely to start with short hops” in rural areas, spokesman Dan Toporek said. “It has to happen a step at a time, which will teach us, and will provide insights to the FAA and the public on ‘this is how it could work.'”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment. Google referred Reuters to previous statements that the company hopes to operate a delivery service by 2017.

Data from companies like No. 2 U.S. railroad BNSF, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc, could also prove valuable, said Logan Campbell, chief executive of drone consulting firm Aerotas. BNSF has an exemption from the FAA to operate drones out of the line of sight along its rail network.

Campbell said while drone manufacturers would like to see the FAA move faster, the “nightmare scenario” would be if a drone crashed into a manned aircraft.

“We have to get this right,” he said. “If we move too fast and there’s an accident, it could ruin the entire industry.”

(Additional reporting by Deborah Todd in San Francisco; editing by Stuart Grudgings.)