Monthly Archives: January 2010

Ethiopian Jet Crashes, 90 Feared Dead

An Ethiopian Airlines passenger plane with 90 people on board has crashed into the Mediterranean Sea shortly after take-off from Beirut airport. Eyewitnesses say they saw a ball of fire in the sky before Addis Ababa-bound Flight ET409, which had taken off in stormy weather, fell into the sea.

The plane had been scheduled to take off at 2:10 a.m., according to the airline, but it actually left at 2:35. The flight to the capital, Addis Ababa, was scheduled to take four hours and forty minutes. The plane disappeared from radar screens some five minutes after take-off in stormy weather, near the village of Na’ameh, about 3.5 kilometers from the coast.

The plane, a Boeing 737-800, was carrying 82 passengers, including small children, and eight crew, EA said. This model can seat 189 passengers. Aridi, the transportation minister, identified the passengers as 54 Lebanese, 22 Ethiopians, one Iraqi, one Syrian, one Canadian of Lebanese origin, one Russian of Lebanese origin and two Britons of Lebanese origin. The last passenger was the wife of the French Ambassador in Beirut, Marla Peitton. The eight crew members on the flight were Ethiopian.

Helicopters and naval ships are still searching the crash site. It is still described as a search and rescue operation, although officials say it is unlikely anyone will be found. Lebanese soldiers are combing nearby beaches, where pieces of the plane and debris including passenger seats, a fire extinguisher and bottles of medicine have washed up. “We hope to find survivors, but it is unlikely,” said Health Minister Jawad Khalifeh. (Wall Street Journal)

The UN peacekeeping operation in Lebanon has sent three ships and two helicopters, and a British RAF helicopter is also involved.  A US Navy ship with advanced equipment arrived in Lebanon to aid in the night search. Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. military had deployed a guided-missile destroyer, the USS-Ramage, as well as a P-3 surveillance aircraft to help with the search and rescue efforts. In Canada, Consular officials were “providing consular assistance and support” to the Canadian passenger’s family, a Foreign Affairs spokeswoman said in an e-mail. (The Globe & Mail) A French military war plane and three other planes – two British and one Cypriot – flew from Cyprus to aid search efforts.

The airline said a 14-member team of investigators was at the scene of the accident. The team included Ethiopian Airline officials. Boeing said it was coordinating with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to assist Lebanese authorities with the inquiry.

Worried family members gathered at Beirut airport for news while the army and the UN Interim Forces in Lebanon continued to search for survivors. At the Government Hospital in Beirut, Red Cross workers brought in bodies on stretchers covered with wool blankets as relatives gathered nearby. Many people gave DNA samples to help identify the remains of their loved ones.

By nightfall, searchers had not recovered any survivors from the Mediterranean Sea, which was -18 degrees Celsius on Monday afternoon. 34 bodies have been found, including those of two toddlers.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, parliament speaker Nabih Berri and their officials arrived to comfort families. Mr. Hariri declared a day of mourning, and closed schools and government offices. A parliamentary session was canceled and a cabinet meeting was set for Monday night to follow up on the crash. Prime Minister Saad Hariri praised security forces and the Red Cross for their efforts in the aftermath of the accident.

The cause of the crash was not immediately clear, but the plane took off in a heavy rainstorm. Lebanon has been hit by heavy rain and thunder and lightning storms since Sunday night. Defense Minister Elias el-Murr said the weather “in principle” was to blame for the crash. He later told local media that there was information indicating “it was a pilot error” but did not provide further details. (Reuters) Many relatives of passengers on the plane were angry that the plane was even allowed to take off in bad weather. Poor visibility in low clouds combined with high winds may have contributed to the problem faced by the pilots trying to regain control.

Information Minister Tareq Mitri said there was no reason not to give the plane the permission to take off. “Other planes landed and took off after and before it. There was no reason why the airport authorities should not have allowed it to take off.” (Reuters) Airline CEO Girma Wake said he did not think the crew would have taken off in dangerous weather conditions. “There was bad weather. How bad it is, I will not be able to say. But, from what I see, probably it was manageable weather otherwise the crew would not have taken off,” he said. (Reuters)

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said foul play was not suspected. “As of now, a sabatoge act is unlikely,” he said at a news conference with Defense Minister Elias Murr in the city of Yarze, in east-central Lebanon. (New York Times)

Ethiopian Airline’s CEO Girma Wake told journalists in Addis Ababa that the aircraft had been serviced on Dec. 25 and passed inspection. He also said the plane had been leased in September from CIT Aerospace. The plane had been built in 2002.

Ethiopian Airlines operates a regular flight between Addis Ababa and Beirut. Along with South African and Kenya Airways, Ethiopian Airlines is widely considered to be among sub-Saharan Africa’s best operators. Ethiopian Airlines is one of the largest airlines in Africa. It serves Europe, as well as three other continents, for a total of 56 destinations. The airline has had such a commendable safety record that some expanding airlines in Asia have lured away its pilots at a high pay.

The airline has experienced two fatal crashes since 1980. Ethiopian Airline’s last crash was in 1996, when a hijacked Nairobi-Addis Ababa plane was ditched into the sea off the Comoros Islands after running out of fuel. 123 of the 175 passengers on board that plane had died. Flight safety records indicate that there has not been a crash involving a Beirut airport since 1987.


120 al Qaeda Suspects Arrested in Turkey

Turkish police have arrested 120 al Qaeda suspects in a major nationwide anti-terror operation. The arrests were made in coordinated pre-dawn raids in 16 provinces. It was not clear if Friday’s detentions would amount to a major blow to homegrown Islamic militants allegedly affiliated with al Qaeda.

The raids came after police seized documents disclosing details of extremist militant activity in Turkey. Friday’s raids netted weapons, fake identity cards, camouflage clothing and computer hard drives. Police would not comment on the arrests Friday.

Those detained included local leaders, university students and people believed to be spreading al Qaeda propaganda. A faculty member of Yuzunci Yil University in the eastern city of Van was among those detained. He was identified only by his initials, M.E.Y. He is suspected of recruiting students at the campus and other people through the Internet and sending them to Afghanistan for training.

Suspected leaders of al Qaeda cells in Turkey – including the local group’s leader, Serdar Elbasi, were reported among the detained.

Al Qaeda has been responsible for sporadic attacks in Turkey, such as multiple suicide bombings against the British Consulate, a branch of HSBC and two synagogues in Istanbul in 2003.

There are pockets of sympathy for jihadist Islam in parts of Turkey, but those pockets are small – numbering around 5,000 Salafi Muslims in total. (BBC) Al Qaeda’s austere and violent interpretation of Islam receives little public backing in Turkey.

“Each operation against al Qaeda leads to new information and widens the net,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, a terrorism expert at the Economic Policy Research Institute of Ankara. The operations were likely to continue.

Although Turkey is governed by a nationally Islamist party, the AKP, it takes a tough stand against all forms of terrorism. Several other radical Islamic groups are active in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim but officially secular country.

Turkey is a member of NATO and a long-standing US ally, despite more recent diplomatic overtures to Iran and Syria. The country’s security forces co-operate closely with the U.S., and are efficient in monitoring the activities of Islamic militants.


Jewish Prayer Ritual Prompts Flight Diversion

An Orthodox Jewish teen apparently preparing to pray prompted authorities to divert a Louisville, Kentucky-bound US Airways Express plane on Thursday.

The flight had taken off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the FBI said, at around 8:30 a.m. The 17-year-old was wearing something on his head that included leather pieces. “Someone on the plane construed it as some kind of device,” said officer Christine O’Brien. (Reuters) The teen explained the purpose of the tefillin, a set of small black boxes attached to leather straps and containing biblical passages. One box is strapped to the arm, the other is placed on the head. Orthodox Jewish men do this ritual while they do their morning prayers each weekday.

Even with the explanation, the pilot decided to land the plane in Philadelphia. The Transportation Security Administration said it was notified of what it called a disruptive passenger, and the plane landed without incident at Philadelphia International Airport twenty minutes later. Passengers and crew were escorted off the plane.

TSA said law enforcement officials met the flight, interviewed the passenger and did a security sweep of the plane without finding anything of concern. The teen was very co-operative with law enforcement.

Since the attempted bombing on Christmas Day in Detroit, US airplanes have been on high security and alert. Flights have experienced many false alarms such as Thursday’s, all of which have turned out to be harmless.


Strong Aftershock Rocks Haiti

A strong aftershock has rocked Haiti, sending screaming people running into the street, eight days after its biggest earthquake in two centuries devastated the country. The extent of the damage is not yet known. The magnitude 6.1 tremor struck west of Port-au-Prince at 0603 local time.

Wednesday’s tremer was centered 35 miles (56 km) north-west of the capital. It struck at a depth of 6.2 miles (9.9 km), but was too far inland to generate any tsunamis in the Caribbean. Some buildings, already weakened by the last week’s quake collapsed and wails of terror filled the air as frightened survivors poured out of unstable buildings.

The country had been hit by a series of aftershocks since last week’s earthquake, most ranging in magnitude from 4.0 to 5.0, but Wednesday’s aftershock has been the strongest. The US Geological Survey initially reported that the magnitude of the aftershock was 6.1, but they revised that figure to 5.9. Most people had been staying away from buildings, fearing aftershocks could topple them. The aftershock lasted about 10 seconds.

The aftershock was centred on Gressier, a village west of the capital. In Gressier, amen worked on the rubble piles of their destroyed homes. They said there was little new damage, but weakened walls had finally given way.

There is still no widely accepted death toll, though an estimated 200,000 died in the quake last Tuesday and another 1.5 million were made homeless. Hundreds of thousands are still without food or water. However, international teams are still rescuing people from the rubble.  The UN said early on Wednesday that 121 people had been rescued by international teams since the January 12 earthquake – an extra 31 people on Tuesday. So far, feared infectious diseases have not shown up, although many injured faced the immediate threats of tetanus and gangrene, and hospitals are overwhelmed. Experts have said that without water, buried quake victims were unlikely to survive.

Traffic congestion was worse than ever on Wednesday – perhaps a small sign of recovery – as aid trucks and locals drove to gasoline stations to fill their tanks. Fuel prices have doubled and there were long lines of cars, motorbikes and people with jerrycans outside gas stations. Banks would reopen shortly and money transfer agencies were beginning to process remittances from Haitians living abroad.

The city’s water system was only partially functional but tankers of trucks began to deliver water to the larger makeshift, where vendors did brisk business selling charcoal to families who were using small tin barbecues to cook. Landline telephones in the capital were still down, but two wireless networks had spotty service.

Despite international aid operation, supplies are slow to reach survivors. Doctors without Borders said its cargo planes with 12 tonnes of medical supplies had been turned away from the congested airport in the capital three times since Sunday. It said five patients died from the lack of supplies that it carried.

Relief workers have said the damaged port has prevented large ships from docking and stymied the delivery of food and emergency supplies to victims of last week’s earthquakes. Foreign doctors were providing medical care and carrying out scores of life-saving amputations.

“The overall security situation in Port-au-Prince remains stable, with limited, localized violence and looting occurring,” the UN office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. (BBC) The US military has defended its handling of the rescue operation, as aid groups complained of long delays in getting vital supplies of food, water and medicine. “We are doing everything in our power to speed aid to Haiti as fast as humanly possible,” said Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of US Southern Command. He said they plan to start using two other airports, at Jacmel in Haiti and San Isidiro in the neighbouring Dominican Republic,  in the coming days.

US troops have stepped up their presence in the quake-ravaged country. US Black Hawk helicopters swooped down on the grounds of Haiti’s wrecked presidential palace on Tuesday, dropping scores of US troops who moved to secure a nearby hospital and set up distribution points. US Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, the deputy commander for relief operations in Haiti, said the military had delivered 400,000 bottles of water and 300,000 food rations since last Tuesday. He said the number of US troops would grow to 10,000 in the coming weeks.

The UN Security Council voted to temporarily boost its peacekeeping forces by 3,500 personnel. UN officials said they would accompany US troops as they delivered supplies. On Wednesday, the United States ordered another 2,000 Marines and 2,000 sailors to Haiti. US Marines in landing craft brought ashore bulldozers, mechanical diggers and trucks on a beach at Neply village west of the capital from warships anchored offshore.

Haitian President Rene Préval said aid delivery was the main problem now. Help came “very fast,” Mr. Préval told a French radio station. “When it arrives, the question is: Where are the trucks to transport it, where are the depots?” (BBC)

Mr. Préval, an aloof leader even in the best of times, has been huddling with advisers at a compact police station that has become the government’s defacto headquarters. (New York Times) Aids described him as being traumatized by the recent events as every other Haitian but still fully engaged in the nation’s recovery. Aids said the president would soon address the nation for the first time since the quake hit on Jan. 12.

First Lady Mrs. Elisabeth Delatour Préval said that she and the president were about to enter their private residence when the earthquake struck last week. They stepped back from their home, she said, and it collapsed before them. For hours, rumours circulated around the capital that she had been killed. (NYT) She said that Mr. Préval quickly jumped onto the back of a motorcycle taxi to tour hospitals and damaged areas with top aids, and that he had been in nonstop emergency meetings ever since. Government ministries, she added, initially held meetings in the yard of the president’s home.


Religious Violence Persists in Nigeria

Authorities have slapped a curfew on a city that has seen repeated violence between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria, but it has failed to stop the latest outbreak of killings. The violence broke out Sunday and flared up again Tuesday, prompting the imposition of a 24-hour curfew through Wednesday. But the curfew has already been broken and violence still rages.

The clashes broke out Sunday and have continued since, with reports of gunfire and burning buildings. The current violence has forced at least 3,000 people from their homes. The violence spread beyond the city boundaries on Tuesday to neighbouring areas.

Reuters quoted residents as saying the violence started after an argument over the rebuilding of homes destroyed in 2008 clashes. It is not certain what exactly sparked the latest round of violence, but hundreds have died in clashes between Christians and Muslims in the central Plateau state in the past decade.

The most populous country in Africa, with a population of more than 150 million, Nigeria is almost evenly divided by Muslims and Christians. With more than 78 million Muslims, it has the sixth largest Islamic population in the world. The divisions between Christianity and Islam are more than symbolic in Nigeria. There is a geographical boundary: Nigerian Muslims tend to live in the north, while Christians live in the south. The city of Jos, the location of the latest violence, sits in what is known as the “Middle Belt”, sitting between the north and the south.

The death toll has not been verified independently in Tuesday’s clashes and it is unknown how many Christians have died. Reports have offered totals from 70 to 190 people killed. Balarabe Dawud, head of the Central Mosque in Jos, told AFP news agency that he had counted 192 bodies since Sunday.

Nigeria’s vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, has asked for troops to help police restore order and has also dispatched top security officials. It is the first time that the vice-president has used executive powers since President Umaru Yar’Adua left Nigeria for hospital treatment in Saudi Arabia in November. The vice president has been presiding over cabinet meetings and representing the president at official functions, but the president has not formally transferred power over to him.

Correspondents say such clashes like Tuesday’s in Nigeria are often blamed on sectarianism. However, poverty and access to resources such as land often lie at the root of the violence.


Taliban Boldly Attacks Afghan Capital

Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers have attacked buildings in the heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Fighting erupted near the Serena Hotel and the presidential palace, although Afghan President Hamid Karzai says security has now been restored.

The attacks began about 0950 when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in front of the Central Bank, next to the presidential palace. Minutes later, two or three suicide bombers plus armed militants took over a multi-storey shopping centre overlooking the presidential palace, and attacked other government buildings and the five-star Serena Hotel. Afghan troops were prompt to arrive on the scene, engaging the insurgents and preventing wider bloodshed.

While security forces lay siege to the shopping centre, a suicide bomber driving a van painted as a military ambulance, stopped outside the Ministry of Education two blocks away, setting the adjoining Gul Bahar shopping centre on fire.

Militants next took over Bamiyan Hotel adjoining the Ariana Cinema where insurgents had taken children hostage, although the children were later released.

The battle unfolded in the middle of Pashtunistan Square, at rush hour in the busy traffic circle that holds the palace of President Hamid Karzai, the Ministry of Justice and the Central Bank. The Faroshga market, one of the city’s most popular shopping malls, lay in ruins, shattered and burning. As the Ferushgah market erupted in flames, the insurgents holed up inside and began firing bullets and rocket-propelled grenades at security personnel on the Serena’s roof and in nearby government buildings. Some of the hotel’s windows were shattered by bullets as its guests, including diplomats and journalists, took cover in the basement.

U.S. military helicopters hovered overhead as explosions and gun battles then broke out at various locations in the area.

Canadian diplomatic staff retreated to a secure part of the embassy compound, said Ambassador William Crosbie. Crosbie said no Canadians were known to have been hurt in the attack, although it was not possible to be completely sure. It was not known how many Canadian citizens are currently in Kabul, where many of them work for the international military coalition or on the diplomatic front.

Security forces declared the situation under control at about 1500 local time. Afghan forces were searching the city for more attackers.

Two civilians – including one child – and three security personnel were killed, plus 71 others wounded, 35 of them civilians, officials say. All seven attackers had also been killed; five were gunned down and two killed themselves. The Defence Ministry said in a statement that 10 attackers had been killed. It was not immediately clear how bad the damage was as security forces cordoned off the entire area.

The city is now calm, but there is concern that some of the attackers are at large.

Monday’s attack comes amid continuing political uncertainty in Afghanistan. Mr. Karzai was swearing in new members of his cabinet at the time of the attack. Also meanwhile, the United States are in the process of sending 30,000 additional troops to aid in fighting the mounting Taliban-led insurgency.

The Taliban has taken responsibility for the attack. It said that 20 of its fighters had taken part in the attack. A statement on their website said the raid had targeted the presidential palace, justice ministry, ministry of mines and a presidential administrative building, all clustered in the city centre. The effect of the attack seemed primarily psychological, designed to strike fear into the usually quiet precincts of downtown Kabul – and to drive home the ease with which insurgents could strike the American-backed government in Afghanistan. In that way, the assault succeeded without question: The streets of Kabul emptied, merchants shuttered their shops and Afghans ran from their offices. Even guards assigned to Mr. Karzai himself came to join the fighting; it was that close.

Kabul, which is home to about four or five million people, is a bustling city. Security is everywhere, and government buildings in particular are heavily fortified. Still, Taliban insurgents have shown on several occasions that they are capable of striking high-profile targets.

Security in central Kabul was restored by nightfall. About four hours after the siege began, Karzai, in a statement, said, “The security situation is under control and order has once again been restored.” (The Washington Post) The capital resembled an armed camp Monday night, with most of the center of the city closed off, Afghan police, soldiers and NATO forces positioned at intersections and on rooftops, and businesses in the heart of the city shuttered.


Kenya Police Shoot Hate Cleric al-Faisal Supporters

At least five people have died after Kenyan police opened fire at supporters of a Jamaican-born Muslim cleric notorious for preaching racial hatred. Police also fired tear gas at hundreds of stone-throwing protesters calling for Abdullah al-Faisal to be freed.

Muslim youths began the protest match after Friday prayers at the Jamia Mosque in the centre of Kenya’s capital Nairobi. They wanted to present a petition to Immigration Minister Raila Odinga’s office, but police had banned the march and intervened. Some reporters suggest that protesters were waving flags of Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab. Some people joined the security forces in attacking the protesters.

Chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest), the demonstrators were blocked by police with dogs as they tried to march through the heart of Nairobi. Some Kenyans, furious the banned protest had taken place, joined forces with the police and began hurling stones at the marchers, most of whom were squeezed back toward the mosque after prolonged street skirmishes. One protester in fatigues and a black balaclava waved the flag of al Shabaab – the Somali rebel group that Washington accuses of being al Qaeda’s proxy – and taunted the crowds by drawing his finger across his throat in a slitting motion.

After nightfall, Somalis in Nairobi ran the gauntlet of mob justice. A Reuters witness saw a Somali man being dragged from his car, not far from the mosque, and beaten by an angry mob. While the leaders of the protest were Kenyan Muslims, many of the demonstrators from the mosque were Somali and this perception was fuelling the attacks.

During the clashes, small ambulances shuttled to and fro with sirens blaring. A helicopter clattered overhead and police used water cannons to try to clear the streets. Security forces fired AK-47 assault rifles at pockets of stone-throwing protestors. Demonstrators Friday shouted Al Faisal’s innocence and decried his detention without charges, unfurling banners that called for the stop of the “persecution of Islam and Muslims.” (The Star)

Local media gave widely differing reports of casualties, ranging from two to seven dead. Sources at the Kenyatta Hospital have confirmed that one person has died, while seven others sustained bullet wounds. Doctors say that their lives are not in danger. At least four police officers have been hospitalized.

Faisal is in detention in Nairobi after Kenya failed to deport him. Kenya wants to expel him citing his “terrorist history”. He was jailed for four years in the UK for soliciting the murder of Jews and HIndus. Faisal was arrested on December 31, 2009, a week after he is believed to have arrived in Tanzania. The Gambia has agreed to take him in but Kenya was unable to send him there because airlines in Nigeria refused to carry him. Tanzania has also refused to let him re-enter its territory.

Faisal was born Trever William Forrest in St. James, Jamaica – though he left the island 26 years ago, initially living in the UK. His parents were Salvation Army officers and he was raised as a Christian. But at the age of 16 he went to Saudi Arabia – where he is believed to have spent eight years – and became a Muslim. He took a degree in Islamic studies in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, before coming back to the UK. Faisal spent years travelling the UK preaching racial hatred urging his audience to kill Jews, Hindus and Westerners. A year being deported from the UK in 2007, he was preaching in South Africa.

The Kenyan authorities said Faisal had arrived in Kenya on December 24, 2009 after travelling through Nigeria, Angolia, Mozambique, Swaziland, Malawi and Tanzania.

Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed said it was unfortunate Kenyan security had been disrupted in the name of religion. “I am calling for Somalis to support peace, and respect their host. Kenya, like any other sovereign state, has the right to deport whoever it considers to be a national security threat,” he told Reuters in Nairobi.

“Mr. al Faisal is a threat to this country because of his alleged tendencies to recruit suicide bombers,” government spokesman Alfred Mutua told reporters after the riots. (Reuters)

“We don’t want our country to be like Somalia, this is Kenya. If people are protesting about someone, they are not behaving like people demanding their rights,” said engineer Aggrey Kaisha, as he watched the protest from a nearby street corner. (The Star)

Kenya hosts some 300,000 Somali refugees in camps and there is a large community in the capital. Some Somalis who fled the war say they fear Islamists are luring their children away from their new life in Kenya.

Al Shabaab is battling to overthrow the Somali government and impose its own harsh version of sharia, Islamic law. While there are frequent reports of Al Shabaab sympathizers being seen in Eastleigh, the appearance of their flags on the capital’s streets is new. Although the border with Somalia is officially closed, there is little security and in some places no distinction between the countries. Authorities say the Shabaab has already penetrated refugee camps, attaching young recruits and fettering them across the border.