Quake-hit Taiwan city winds down rescue efforts, five still missing

A body of a Hong Kong Canadian is carried out from a collapsed building after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 9, 2018.

By Fabian Hamacher and Natalie Thomas

HUALIEN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Rescue operations in Taiwan started to wind down on Friday after a devastating 6.4-magnitude earthquake rocked the tourist area of Hualien this week, taking a toll of 12 dead and five missing.

More than 270 people were injured when Tuesday’s quake hit the eastern coastal city just before midnight, toppling four buildings, ripping large fissures in roads and unleashing panic among the roughly 100,000 residents.

More than 200 aftershocks followed, hampering a round-the-clock rescue effort in which emergency personnel battled rain and cold to comb rubble in a search for survivors.

Efforts on Friday narrowed to finding five Chinese nationals still missing after rescuers pulled two bodies, identified as Canadian citizens from Hong Kong, out of a 12-storey residential building that had been left tilting at a 45-degree angle.

An excavator demolishes collapsed Marshal hotel after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 9, 2018.

An excavator demolishes collapsed Marshal hotel after an earthquake hit Hualien, Taiwan February 9, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Authorities said they would focus their search on the single building where the five missing were believed to be.

“The military will continue to prioritize today rescuing the missing people in the Yun Men Tsui Ti residential building,” it said in a statement.

The building’s extreme displacement made the search tough, the government said in a statement, adding, “The space for our operations is small, so the progress of search and rescue can be slow.”

Power was restored to all affected areas in Hualien, although 8,500 homes are still without water.

The military will work with local government officials to develop a plan to demolish a hotel, a residential building and other dangerous buildings, it said in its statement.

The government vowed to redouble efforts to revise building regulations, aiming to limit damage in any future episodes.

Taiwan revised its building act on Jan. 30 to strengthen investigations of the structures of existing buildings and inspection of completed projects, the interior ministry said on Friday.

The revision, expected to be discussed by a cabinet meeting at the end of February, would also seek third-party views in building assessments, it said.

The government added that it would hasten reconstruction of old buildings to make them earthquake-resistant and work to boost the safety of other structures in affected areas.

“At every stage, the central government will fully assist local governments,” it added.

 

(Additional reporting by Tyrone Siu; Writing by Jess Macy Yu; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Clarence Fernandez)

Mad Max violence stalks Venezuela’s lawless roads

A child looks at a basket filled with mandarins while workers load merchandise into Humberto Aguilar's truck at the wholesale market in Barquisimeto, Venezuela January 30,

By Andrew Cawthorne

LA GRITA, Venezuela (Reuters) – It’s midnight on one of the most dangerous roads in Latin America and Venezuelan trucker Humberto Aguilar hurtles through the darkness with 20 tons of vegetables freshly harvested from the Andes for sale in the capital Caracas.

When he set off at sunset from the town of La Grita in western Venezuela on his 900-km (560-mile) journey, Aguilar knew he was taking his life in his hands.

With hunger widespread amid a fifth year of painful economic implosion under President Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has seen a frightening surge in attacks on increasingly lawless roads.

Just a few days earlier, Aguilar said he sat terrified when hundreds of looters swarmed a stationary convoy, overwhelming drivers by sheer numbers. They carted off milk, rice and sugar from other trucks but left his less-prized vegetables alone.

“Every time I say goodbye to my family, I entrust myself to God and the Virgin,” said the 36-year-old trucker.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018.

Workers pose for a picture while they load vegetables into a truck to sell them in the town of Guatire outside Caracas, in La Grita, Venezuela January 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

While truck heists have long been common in Latin America’s major economies from Mexico to Brazil, looting of cargoes on roads has soared in Venezuela in recent times and appears to be not just a result of common crime but directly linked to growing hunger and desperation among the population of 30 million.

Across Venezuela, there were some 162 lootings in January, including 42 robberies of trucks, according to the consultancy Oswaldo Ramirez Consultores (ORC), which tracks road safety for companies. That compared to eight lootings, including one truck robbery, in the same month of last year.

“The hunger and despair are far worse than people realize, what we are seeing on the roads is just another manifestation of that. We’ve also been seeing people stealing and butchering animals in fields, attacking shops and blocking roads to protest their lack of food. It’s become extremely serious,” said ORC director Oswaldo Ramirez.

Eight people have died in the lootings in January of this year, according to a Reuters tally.

The dystopian attacks in a country with one of the world’s highest murder rates are pushing up transport and food costs in an already hyperinflationary environment, as well as stifling movement of goods in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

They have complicated the perilous life of truckers who already face harassment from bribe-seeking soldiers, spiraling prices for parts and hours-long lines for fuel.

Government officials and representatives of the security forces did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Barred by law from carrying guns, the Andean truckers form convoys to protect themselves, text each other about trouble spots – and keep moving as fast as possible.

Aguilar said that on one trip a man appeared on his truck’s sideboard and put a pistol to his head – but his co-driver swerved hard to shake the assailant off.

On this journey, however, he was lucky. Just before reaching Caracas, assailants hurled a stone at his windscreen but it bounced off.

Even once Andean truckers reach cities, there is no respite.

Armed gangs often charge them for safe passage and permission to set up markets.

“The government gives us no security. It’s madness. People have got used to the easy life of robbing,” said Javier Escalante, who owns two trucks that take vegetables from La Grita to the town of Guatire outside Caracas every week.

“But if we stop, how do we earn a living for our families? How do Venezuelans eat? And how do the peasant farmers sell their produce? We have no choice but to keep going.”

GUNMEN ON BIKES

The looters use a variety of techniques, depending on the terrain and the target, according to truckers, inhabitants of towns on highways, and videos of incidents.

Sometimes gunmen on motorbikes surround a truck, slowing it down before pouncing like lions stalking prey. In other instances, attackers wait for a vehicle to slow down – at a pothole for example – before jumping on, cutting through the tarpaulin and hurling goods onto the ground for waiting companions.

In one video apparently showing a looting and uploaded to social media, people are seen gleefully dragging live chickens from a stranded truck.

The looters use tree trunks and rocks to stop vehicles, and are particularly fond of “miguelitos” – pieces of metal with long spikes – to burst tires and halt vehicles.

A ring-road round the central town of Barquisimeto, with shanty-towns next to it, is notorious among truckers, who nickname it “The Guillotine” due to the regular attacks.

In some cases, crowds simply swarm at trucks when they stop for a break or repairs. Soldiers or policemen seldom help, according to interviews with two dozen drivers.

Yone Escalante, 43, who also takes vegetables from the Andes on a 2,800-km (1,700-mile) round-trip to eastern Venezuela, shudders when he recalls how a vehicle of his was ransacked in the remote plains of Guarico state last year.

The trouble began when one of his two trucks broke down and about 60 people appeared from the shadows and surrounded it.

Escalante, about half an hour behind in his truck, rushed to help. By the time he arrived, the crowd had swelled to 300 and Escalante – a well-spoken businessman who owns trucks and sells produce – said he jumped on the vehicle to reason with them.

“Suddenly two military men arrived on the scene, and I thought ‘Thank God, help has arrived’,” Escalante recounted during a break between trips in La Grita.

But as the crowd chanted menacingly “Food for the people!”, the soldiers muttered something about the goods being insured – which they were not – and drove off, he said.

“That was the trigger. They came at us like ants and stripped us of everything: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots. It took me all day to load that truck, and 30 minutes for them to empty it. I could cry with rage.”

MAD MAX OR ROBIN HOOD?

Though events on Venezuela’s roads may seem like something out of the Mad Max movie, truckers say they are often more akin to Robin Hood as assailants are careful not to harm the drivers or their vehicles provided they do not resist.

“The best protection is to be submissive, hand things over,” said Roberto Maldonado, who handles paperwork for truckers in La Grita. “When people are hungry, they are dangerous.”

However, all the truckers interviewed by Reuters said they knew of someone murdered on the roads – mainly during targeted robberies rather than spontaneous lootings.

With new tires now going for about 70 million bolivars – about $300 on the black market or more than two decades of work at the official minimum wage – looters often swipe them along with food.

The journey from the Andes to Caracas passes about 25 checkpoints, where the truckers have to alight and seek a stamp from National Guard soldiers.

At some, a bribe is required, with a bag of potatoes now more effective than increasingly worthless cash.

Yone Escalante said that on one occasion when he was looted after a tire burst, policemen joined in the fray, taking bananas and cheese with the crowd.

In the latest attack, just days ago, he was traveling slowly over potholes in a convoy with four other trucks after dark, when assailants jumped on and started grabbing produce.

“Even though there were holes in the road, we sped up and swerved to shake them off,” he said. “It’s either us or them.”

(See http://reut.rs/2GVaX0s for a related photo essay and http://tmsnrt.rs/2sgqfJP for a map of one trucking route)

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld in Caracas and Anggy Polanco in La Grita; Editing by Girish Gupta, Daniel Flynn and Frances Kerry)

Without rain, South Africa’s Cape Town may run out of water by April

By Wendell Roelf

CAPE TOWN (Reuters) – South Africa’s Cape Town, one of the world’s iconic tourist destinations, could run out of water by April as the city’s worst drought in a century risks forcing residents to join queues for emergency rations.

“Day Zero” – the date taps are due to run dry – has crept forward to April 22 as city authorities race to build desalination plants and drill underground boreholes.

Almost 2 million tourists flock to Cape Town every year to bathe on sandy white beaches, explore natural features like Table Mountain or to sip wine in dozens of nearby vineyards.

Travel and tourism accounted for an estimated 9 percent or 412 billion rand ($33 billion) of South Africa’s economic output last year, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

“At the current rate the city is likely to reach Day Zero on 22 April,” said councilor Xanthea Limberg, Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for water.

“There is a real risk that residents will have to line up.”

At a trial water collection site, similar to an estimated 200 the city may introduce, people line up between metal fences waiting to fill up containers from standpipes.

A maximum 25 litres of water will be provided per person, per day, officials said.

Limberg said the dire situation was being worsened by some people ignoring a push for residents and visitors to use no more than 87 litres of water per person per day.

Cape Town is home to many wealthy residents who have swimming pools and sprinkler systems, although the city does not want to play a “blame game” as lots of affluent residents are saving water, she said.

Businesses in the hospitality industry also say they are trying to help, limiting showers to two minutes and using water used for washing dishes and clothes to water gardens.

Authorities want to reduce the city’s consumption to 500 million litres a day – half the amount used two years ago.

“Everyone is taking as many steps and measures that they possibly can to try and make sure we don’t reach Day Zero,” said Gabrielle Bolton, spokeswoman for the five-star Belmond Mount Nelson hotel.

In a possible sign of things to come, security guards have been monitoring a steady flow of cars and people lining up at AB-Inbev’s Newlands brewery to get up to 25 litres of free water from a mountain stream on its property.

The popular Newlands public swimming pool across the road from the brewery has been closed due to water restrictions with still two months of the South African summer left to run.

City officials say dam levels dipped below 30 percent in the first week of the new year, with only about 19.7 percent of that water considered usable. Residents will have to line up for water when dams reach 13.5 percent.

“I am concerned we will run out of water and it is difficult,” said Susan Jones, a grandmother who regularly visits the Newlands spring taps.

“We are making do. We have to.”

($1 = 12.3427 rand)

(Reporting by Wendell Roelf; Editing by Joe Brock)

Suspected Russian jets bomb residential area near Damascus; kill 30

A boy walks on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 30 civilians were killed early on Thursday when jets dropped bombs on a residential area in a besieged rebel enclave east of Syria’s capital, a war monitor said, identifying the planes as Russian.

At least four bombs flattened two buildings in the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, in an attack that killed around 20 and wounded more than 40 people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and civil defense sources said.

Elsewhere in Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel enclave near Damascus, at least ten people were killed in aerial strikes in other nearby towns, the Observatory, rescuers and residents said.

The Observatory, a war monitor based in Britain, said 11 women and a child were among the dead in the strikes in Misraba, which it said were carried out by Russian planes.

Backed by Russian strikes, government forces have escalated military operations against Eastern Ghouta in recent months, seeking to tighten a siege that residents and aid workers say is a deliberate use of starvation as a weapon of war, a charge the government denies.

Russia rejects Syrian opposition and rights groups’ accusations that its jets have been responsible for deaths of thousands of civilians since its major intervention two years ago that turned the tide in the country’s nearly seven-year-old war in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow says it only attacks hardline Islamists.

Video footage posted on Thursday by activists on social media in Eastern Ghouta showed rescue workers pulling women and children from rubble. The footage could not be independently confirmed.

Jets also pounded Harasta, on the western edge of the enclave, where rebels this week besieged and overran a major military base which residents say the army uses to pound residential areas.

The rebel assault aimed partly to relieve the pressure of the tightening siege.

The United Nations says about 400,000 civilians besieged in the area face “complete catastrophe” because aid deliveries by the government are blocked and hundreds of people who need urgent medical evacuation have not been allowed outside the enclave.

Scores of hospitals and civil defense centers in Ghouta and across Syria have been bombed during the conflict in what the opposition said is a “scorched earth policy” to paralyze life in rebel-held areas.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Thursday rebel shelling of the government-held capital Damascus killed one and injured 22 in the Amara district of the city.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

IDLIB PUSH

Supported by Iran-backed militias and intensive Russian bombing, the Syrian army has since last month waged a new campaign to push into the heart of another rebel-held part of Syria, Idlib province in the country’s northwest.

Idlib is a heavily populated area where over two million people live.

Rescue workers said there had been a spike in civilian casualties there in the last twenty days from stepped-up aerial strikes on residential areas, documenting 50 dead at least in that period.

“There have been at least six major massacres perpetrated by Russia in indiscriminate bombing of cities and towns with thousands fleeing their homes in the last two weeks,” said Mustafa al Haj Yousef, the head of Idlib’s Civil Defence, rescuers who work in opposition-held areas.

On Wednesday air strikes hit a maternity hospital in Idlib’s Ma’arat al-Nu’man city, killing five people, the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) charity, which supports the hospital, said.

The hospital, which SAMS said delivers around 30 babies a day, had been struck three times in four days and the last strikes temporarily put the hospital out of service.

Overnight, a family of seven was buried under rubble in Tel Dukan village, rescuers said.

The army has been gaining ground in Idlib and the adjoining eastern Hama countryside, with scores of villages seized from rebels mainly belonging to Tahrir al Sham, a coalition of jihadist groups with mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions also engaged in the battles.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Nick Macfie and John Stonestreet)

Papua New Guinea threatens to forcibly remove asylum seekers

Workers dismantle structures in Lombrum detention camp on Manus island, Papua New Guinea, November 13, 2017. Behrouz

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Papua New Guinea Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas said authorities would take steps on Monday to forcibly remove around 450 men who remain in an abandoned Australian detention center without food or running water.

Hundreds of men have barricaded themselves into the Manus Island center for more than 13 days without regular food or water supplies, defying attempts by Australia and Papua New Guinea to close the facility, saying they fear for their safety if removed to transit centers.

“We will be taking steps with relevant authorities to move the residents based on serious exposure to health risk for the food of everyone that is remaining,” Thomas said in a statement issued late on Sunday.

As of 5.00 p.m. (0700 GMT) Monday, no moves had been made by the government to remove the men, several asylum seekers inside the center told Reuters via email.

One of the asylum seekers barricaded inside the center said on Monday that water supplies have been destroyed after Papua New Guinea workers entered the site and drained rainwater collected in tanks and garbage bins.

“Immigration came and bored holes in the water tanks where we had been collecting rain water,” he said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from Papua New Guinea authorities. “They also demolished the well we built.”

Running water and electricity to the center were disconnected two weeks ago after Australian security withdrew and the camp closed on Oct. 31. The center had been declared illegal by a Papua New Guinea Court.

The United Nations has warned of a “looming humanitarian crisis” among the asylum seekers, who are drawn largely from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.

Australia has used the center, and a camp on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, to detain asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat. It says boat arrivals will never enter Australia, even if found to be refugees, as that would encourage people smugglers in Asia.

Under a refugee swap deal, the United States has agreed to accept potentially up to 1,250 asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru, in return for Australia taking refugees from Central America. The United States has so far only accepted 54 refugees.

New Zealand has offered to resettle 150 asylum seekers, but Australia has rejected the offer.

 

 

 

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell, Peter Cooney and Michael Perry)

 

Puerto Rico governor: ‘hell to pay’ over water, food deliveries

The contents of a damaged home can be seen near the town of Comerio.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Monday he ordered an investigation of water distribution on the hurricane-battered island and warned that there would be “hell to pay” for mishandling of the supplies.

In an interview with CNN, Rossello said drinking water supplies have been restored to roughly 60 percent of the island but some areas in the north remained at only 20 percent nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory.

“We’re delivering food to all of the municipalities, and water,” he said. “There were complaints that that water in some places was not getting to the people so I ordered a full investigation.”

The distribution of supplies including food, water and fuel has been a major challenge for the struggling government after Maria wiped out its power grid, flooded roads and crippled the communications system.

Luis Menendez, a mail man for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, October 7, 2017

Luis Menendez, a mail man for the U.S. Postal Service, delivers mail at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, October 7, 2017. Picture Taken October 7, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

“If there is a place, a locality that is not delivering food to the people of Puerto Rico that need it, there’s going to be some hell to pay,” Rossello said.

He said the government was trying to identify problems in the distribution pipeline, looking to ensure that local leaders deliver resources to the Puerto Rican people as soon as they arrives in the municipality.

“I think that there are places where water is being withheld and food is being withheld,” Rossello said. “We need to showcase it, we need to push it forward to the people.”

Three weeks after the storm hit, Puerto Rico still has a long road to recovery, having only 15 percent of electrical power restored and struggling to regain communication services. The White House has asked Congress for $29 billion in hurricane relief for Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida.

 

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott)

 

In Puerto Rico, acute shortages plunge the masses into survival struggle

Local residents wait in line during a water distribution in Bayamon following damages caused by Hurricane Maria in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, October 1, 2017

By Robin Respaut and Nick Brown

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Brian Jimenez had burned through dwindling supplies of scarce gasoline on a 45-minute drive in search of somewhere to fill his grandmother’s blood thinner prescription. He ended up in Fajardo, a scruffy town of strip malls on Puerto Rico’s northeastern tip, where a line of 400 waited outside a Walmart.

The store had drawn desperate crowds of storm victims who had heard it took credit or debit cards and offered customers $20 cash back – a lifeline in an increasingly cashless society. Store employees allowed customers in, one by one, for rationed shopping trips of 15 minutes each.

Then, at noon, the store closed after its generator croaked and before Jimenez could get inside to buy his grandmother’s medicine.

“Every day we say, ‘What’s the thing that we need the most today?’ and then we wait in a line for that,” said Jimenez, a 24-year-old medical student from Ponce, on the island’s southern coast.

By Saturday, 11 days after Hurricane Maria crippled this impoverished U.S. territory, residents scrambled for all the staples of modern society – food, water, fuel, medicine, currency – in a grinding survival struggle that has gripped Puerto Ricans across social classes.

For days now, residents have awoken each morning to decide which lifeline they should pursue: gasoline at the few open stations, food and bottled water at the few grocery stores with fuel for generators, or scarce cash at the few operating banks or ATMs. The pursuit of just one of these essentials can consume an entire day – if the mission succeeds at all – as hordes of increasingly desperate residents wait in 12-hour lines.

As criticism mounts about a slow disaster response by President Donald Trump’s administration, residents here in Fajardo said that had seen little if any presence from the federal government. Across the island, the sporadic presence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the U.S. military stood in sharp contrast to their comparatively ubiquitous presence after hurricanes Harvey and Irma recently hit Texas and Florida.

The severe shortages have thrown even relatively affluent Puerto Ricans into the same plight as the hundreds of thousands of poor residents here. The broad humanitarian crisis highlights the extreme difficulty of getting local or federal disaster relief to a remote U.S. island territory with an already fragile infrastructure and deeply indebted government.

Even those here with money to spend now cannot often access it or find places open and supplied to spend it as stores are shuttered for lack of electric power, diesel for generators, supplies or employees.

Jimenez’s failed trip to Walmart came after chasing groceries at a store near Yabucoa, near where his grandmother lived. He planned to spend the next day in one of the miles-long gas lines that snake from stations onto highways and up exit ramps.

At the beginning of many lines were stations already out of gas – but motorists still waited, hoping a fuel supply truck would eventually arrive.

“We wasted gas getting here and going back,” Jimenez said as he watched police usher dejected customers away from Walmart’s entrance. “The gas lines are ridiculous. Fifty cars is wonderful. Most are 100-plus cars.”

Another customer turned away from the Walmart, Daniel Santiago, 51, said he had waited in a gas line for 12 hours one day and 14 hours the next. Neither attempt had been successful, so he, his wife and three daughters had walked three miles to the Fajardo shopping complex, where they waited in line for the Econo grocery.

“We have to do this every day,” Santiago said. “Yesterday, we came down walking. The day before that, we walked up a really big hill to try to get a signal to contact our family.”

That had not worked either.

 

UNFORTUNATE REALITY

Even before the storm hit and knocked out the island’s dilapidated electric grid – an outage expected to persist for months – Puerto Rico was suffering through a growing economic crisis that dates back to 2006. The island has an unemployment rate more than twice the U.S. national average and a 45 percent poverty rate.

The island had earlier this year filed the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. municipal history in the face of a $72 billion debt load and near-insolvent public health and pension systems.

In an interview with Reuters on Saturday, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said relief efforts were still focused almost solely on saving lives; restoring basic necessities to the masses would come later.

“We’re not at the phase where we are focusing on comfort,” Rossello said. “Unfortunately, that’s the current reality that we’re dealing with.”

His team was still scrambling to open roads to communities blocked by landslides, and to deliver food, water, medicines and generators to remote homes and hospitals.

The island’s battered infrastructure left Manny De La Rosa, 31, to crisscross the island with his pregnant wife, Mayra Melendez, also 31. They were trying to find places to spend the $40 in coins they had extracted from the family piggybank.

“All of our money is held up in the bank,” De La Rosa said.

They live in Luquillo in the northeast, but found an ATM in Humacao on the southeastern coast. Their cell phones vibrated to life for the first time alongside a stretch of highway in Isla Verde, nearly an hour west of their home.

Now, they were in line in Fajardo, hoping to buy supplies with a credit card to conserve their cash.

“We see these lines, and we think, ‘We’re not even going to make it before the money runs out,’” Melendez said, standing in front of the Walmart.

A military helicopter flight over a residential area following damages caused by Hurricane Maria near Caguas, Puerto Rico, October 1, 2017

A military helicopter flight over a residential area following damages caused by Hurricane Maria near Caguas, Puerto Rico, October 1, 2017 REUTERS/Carlos Barria

DOWN TO $14

In the economically depressed agricultural town of Salinas, an hour-and-a-half drive from Fajardo on the island’s southern coast, 93-year-old Lucia Santiago sat outside in a lawn chair and rested her swollen legs.

Her son, Jose Melero, 67, brought her food that had been delivered by the town’s mayor on a golf cart.

“We have to be out here, because we’d die from the heat in there,” he said, gesturing toward the house.

The two had started eating less every day to conserve provisions. That day, they had split a can of ravioli and a piece of bread.

Melero was down to $14 of cash without the means to withdraw more.

“I have no idea how I’m going to get through the next few days,” he said. “We have money, but we just can’t get to it.”

Others in isolated areas struggled to find medicine. U.S. Army veteran Sandalio DeJesus Maldonado, 87, took a 7 a.m. ferry from his home on Culebra, an island off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, to Fajardo, to refill blood pressure and prostate medications.

The hurricane had shuttered Culebra’s only pharmacy, DeJesus said.

In Fajardo, DeJesus waited at an overcrowded Walgreens because he did not have enough gas to drive to the Veterans Affairs hospital where he normally filled his prescriptions.

As he waited in line late Saturday morning, DeJesus fretted that he would not be able to return to Culebra until after 5 p.m., when the only scheduled ferry was slated to depart.

“All I need is a few pills,” he said.

 

 

(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Writing by Brian Thevenot; Editing by Mary Milliken)

 

With fuel and water scarce, Puerto Rico presses for shipping waiver

FILE PHOTO: People queue to fill container with gasoline in a gas station after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico September 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Robin Respaut and Scott DiSavino

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico/NEW YORK (Reuters) – As Puerto Rico struggles with a lack of fuel, water and medical supplies following the devastation of Hurricane Maria, it is pressing the Trump administration to lift a prohibition on foreign ships delivering supplies from the U.S. mainland.

The island’s governor is pushing for the federal government to temporarily waive the Jones Act, a law requiring that all goods shipped between U.S. ports be carried by U.S. owned-and-operated ships. President Donald Trump’s administration has so far not granted his request.

“We’re thinking about that,” Trump told reporters when asked about lifting the Jones Act restrictions on Wednesday. “But we have a lot of shippers and …. a lot of people that work in the shipping industry that don’t want the Jones Act lifted, and we have a lot of ships out there right now.”

Many of the U.S. territory’s 3.4 million inhabitants are queuing for scarce supplies of gas and diesel to run generators as the island’s electrical grid remains crippled a week after Maria hit. Government-supplied water trucks have been mobbed.

Puerto Rico gets most of its fuel by ship from the United States, but one of its two main ports is closed and the other is operating only during the daytime.

“We expect them to waive it (the Jones Act),” Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN on Wednesday, noting there was a brief waiver issued after Hurricane Irma, which was much less devastating as it grazed past the island en route for Florida earlier this month.

Members of Congress from both parties have supported an emergency waiver, he said.

The U.S. government has issued periodic Jones Act waivers following severe storms in the past, to allow the use of cheaper or more readily available foreign-flagged ships.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which waived the law after Irma and after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, said on Wednesday it was considering a request by members of Congress for a waiver, but had not received any formal requests from shippers or other branches of the federal government.

Gregory Moore, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, an office of Homeland Security, said in a statement on Tuesday that an agency assessment showed there was “sufficient capacity” of U.S.-flagged vessels to move commodities to Puerto Rico.

“The limitation is going to be port capacity to offload and transit, not vessel availability,” he said.

LACK OF WATER, FUEL

Maria, the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, caused widespread flooding and damage to homes and infrastructure.

Residents are scrambling to find clean water, with experts concerned about a looming public health crisis posed by the damaged water system.

On Tuesday, hundreds of people crowded around a government water tanker in the northeastern municipality of Canovanas with containers of every size and shape after a wait that for many had lasted days.

Some residents also waited hours for gasoline and diesel to fuel their automobile tanks and power generators to light their homes.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Michael Valle, on hand for relief efforts in San Juan, said he was most concerned about “the level of desperation” that could arise if fuel distribution did not return to normal within a couple of weeks.

In Washington, Republican leaders who control both chambers of Congress have said they are prepared to boost disaster funding, but are waiting for a detailed request from the Trump administration.

In the meantime, the administration still has $5 billion in aid in a disaster relief fund, and Congress has also approved about $7 billion more that will become available on Oct. 1.

(Reporting by Robin Respaut in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Scott DiSavino in New York; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Richard Cowan, Timothy Gardner and Jeff Mason in Washington; Writing by Bill Rigby; Editing by Frances Kerry and Lisa Shumaker)

Exclusive: ‘We will kill you all’ – Rohingya villagers in Myanmar beg for safe passage

A Rohingya refugee girl collects rain water at a makeshift camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

By Wa Lone and Andrew R.C. Marshall

SITTWE, Myanmar (Reuters) – Thousands of Rohingya Muslims in violence-racked northwest Myanmar are pleading with authorities for safe passage from two remote villages that are cut off by hostile Buddhists and running short of food.

“We’re terrified,” Maung Maung, a Rohingya official at Ah Nauk Pyin village, told Reuters by telephone. “We’ll starve soon and they’re threatening to burn down our houses.”

Another Rohingya contacted by Reuters, who asked not to be named, said ethnic Rakhine Buddhists came to the same village and shouted, “Leave, or we will kill you all.”

Fragile relations between Ah Nauk Pyin and its Rakhine neighbors were shattered on Aug. 25, when deadly attacks by Rohingya militants in Rakhine State prompted a ferocious response from Myanmar’s security forces.

At least 430,000 Rohingya have since fled into neighboring Bangladesh to evade what the United Nations has called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.

About a million Rohingya lived in Rakhine State until the recent violence. Most face draconian travel restrictions and are denied citizenship in a country where many Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Tin Maung Swe, secretary of the Rakhine State government, told Reuters he was working closely with the Rathedaung authorities, and had received no information about the Rohingya villagers’ plea for safe passage.

“There is nothing to be concerned about,” he said when asked about local tensions. “Southern Rathedaung is completely safe.”

National police spokesman Myo Thu Soe said he also had no information about the Rohingya villages but that he would look into the matter.

Asked to comment, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department’s East Asia Bureau made no reference to the situation in the villages, but said the United States was calling “urgently” for Myanmar’s security forces “to act in accordance with the rule of law and to stop the violence and displacement suffered by individuals from all communities.”

“Tens of thousands of people reportedly lack adequate food, water, and shelter in northern Rakhine State,” spokeswoman Katina Adams said. “The government should act immediately to assist them.”

Adams said Patrick Murphy, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, would reiterate grave U.S. concern about the situation in Rakhine when he meets senior officials in Myanmar this week.

Britain is to host a ministerial meeting on Monday on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York to discuss the situation in Rakhine.

 

NO BOATS

Ah Nauk Pyin sits on a mangrove-fringed peninsula in Rathedaung, one of three townships in northern Rakhine State. The villagers say they have no boats.

Until three weeks ago, there were 21 Muslim villages in Rathedaung, along with three camps for Muslims displaced by previous bouts of religious violence. Sixteen of those villages and all three camps have since been emptied and in many cases burnt, forcing an estimated 28,000 Rohingya to flee.

Rathedaung’s five surviving Rohingya villages and their 8,000 or so inhabitants are encircled by Rakhine Buddhists and acutely vulnerable, say human rights monitors.

The situation is particularly dire in Ah Nauk Pyin and nearby Naung Pin Gyi, where any escape route to Bangladesh is long, arduous, and sometimes blocked by hostile Rakhine neighbors.

Maung Maung, the Rohingya official, said the villagers were resigned to leaving but the authorities had not responded to their requests for security. At night, he said, villagers had heard distant gunfire.

“It’s better they go somewhere else,” said Thein Aung, a Rathedaung official, who dismissed Rohingya allegations that Rakhines were threatening them.

Only two of the Aug. 25 attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) took place in Rathedaung. But the township was already a tinderbox of religious tension, with ARSA citing the mistreatment of Rohingya there as one justification for its offensive.

In late July, Rakhine residents of a large, mixed village in northern Rathedaung corraled hundreds of Rohingya inside their neighborhood, blocking access to food and water.

A similar pattern is repeating itself in southern Rathedaung, with local Rakhine citing possible ARSA infiltration as a reason for ejecting the last remaining Rohingya.

 

‘ANOTHER PLACE’

Maung Maung said he had called the police at least 30 times to report threats against his village.

On Sept. 13, he said, he got a call from a Rakhine villager he knew. “Leave tomorrow or we’ll come and burn down all your houses,” said the man, according to a recording Maung Maung gave to Reuters.

When Maung Maung protested that they had no means to escape, the man replied: “That’s not our problem.”

On Aug. 31, the police convened a roadside meeting between two villages, attended by seven Rohingya from Ah Nauk Pyin and 14 Rakhine officials from the surrounding villages.

Instead of addressing the Rohingya complaints, said Maung Maung and two other Rohingya who attended the meeting, the Rakhine officials delivered an ultimatum.

“They said they didn’t want any Muslims in the region and we should leave immediately,” said the Rohingya resident of Ah Nauk Pyin who requested anonymity.

The Rohingya agreed, said Maung Maung, but only if the authorities provided security.

He showed Reuters a letter that the village elders had sent to the Rathedaung authorities on Sept. 7, asking to be moved to “another place”. They had yet to receive a response, he said.

People reach out during the distribution of bananas in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017.

People reach out during the distribution of bananas in a Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

VIOLENT HISTORY

Relations between the two communities deteriorated in 2012, when religious unrest in Rakhine State killed nearly 200 people and made 140,000 homeless, most of them Rohingya. Scores of houses in Ah Nauk Pyin were torched.

Since then, said villagers, Rohingya have been too scared to leave the village or till their land, surviving mainly on monthly deliveries from the World Food Programme (WFP). The recent violence halted those deliveries.

The WFP pulled out most staff and suspended operations in the region after Aug. 25.

Residents in the area’s two Rohingya villages said they could no longer venture out to fish or buy food from Rakhine traders, and were running low on food and medicines.

Maung Maung said the local police told the Rohingya to stay in their villages and not to worry because “nothing would happen,” he said.

But the nearest police station had only half a dozen or so officers, he said, and could not do much if Ah Nauk Pyin was attacked.

A few minutes’ walk away, at the Rakhine village of Shwe Long Tin, residents were also on edge, said its leader, Khin Tun Aye.

They had also heard gunfire at night, he said, and were guarding the village around the clock with machetes and slingshots in case the Rohingya attacked with ARSA’s help.

“We’re also terrified,” he said.

He said he told his fellow Rakhine to stay calm, but the situation remained so tense that he feared for the safety of his Rohingya neighbors.

“If there is violence, all of them will be killed,” he said.

 

(Reporting by Wa Lone and Andrew R.C. Marshall; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Ian Geoghegan and Peter Cooney)