Monthly Archives: February 2010

8.8 Earthquake Hits Chile

A massive magnitude 8.8 earthquake rocked Chile early Saturday, killing at least 122 people and triggering tsunami warnings for the entire Pacific basin.

The quake’s epicenter was located off the coast of Maule, 325 kilometres southwest of the capital of Santiago, at a depth of 35 kilometres, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. It struck at 3:34 a.m. (1:34 a.m. ET), when most people were sleeping. The earthquake lasted a total of 90 seconds.

“This is a major event. This happened near some very populated areas,” said Randy Baldwin, a geophysicist with USGS. “With an 8.8 you expect damage to the population in the area.” (CNN)

The earth’s rumbling was felt by millions in Chile and in parts of Argentina as well. Some buildings in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, were evacuated. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a tsunami warning, the highest level of a tsunami alert, for the entire Pacific region, including Hawaii and places as far away as Russia and Japan. California and Alaska are under a tsunami advisory. The earliest estimated arrival for a wave that could affect Hawaii was 12:46 a.m. local (6.46 ET). But evacuations of coastal areas were to begin at 6 a.m. (12 p.m. ET).   The quake struck at the end of the Chilean summer vacation, with hundreds of thousands of people expected to be traveling home this weekend.

The full extent of the damage was not yet known, although there were reports of collapsed buildings and hundreds of people in the streets. The ceiling of a parking lot in the fashionable Las Condes neighborhood of Santiago came crashing down, crushing at least 50 cars. Television images showed smashed windows, partially collapsed ceilings and pedestrian walkways destroyed. Chilean television also showed images of destroyed buildings and damage cars, with rubble-strewn streets. In Santiago, modern buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, but many older ones were heavily damaged, including the Nuestra Senora de la Providencia church, whose bell tower collapsed. An apartment building’s two-level parking lot also flattened onto the ground floor, smashing about 40 cars whose alarms and horns rang incessantly.

The capital lost electricity and basic services including water and telephones. Regional hospitals had suffered damage; some were evacuated. Communications were still spotty around the centre of the quake, some 112 km from Concepción, Chile’s second-largest city, where more than 200,000 people live along the Bio Bio River, and 100 kilometres from the ski town of Chillan, a gateway to Andean ski resorts that was destroyed in a 1939 earthquake. Phone lines were down in the city as of 7:30 a.m. and no reports were coming out of that area. Several hospitals have been evacuated due to earthquake damage.

The Santiago airport was shut down and a major bridge connecting northern and southern Chile was rendered inoperable. At least one car flipped upside-down. Eduardo de Canto, the head of airport operations in Santiago, told Chile’s TVN that the terminal in the airport is severely damaged, although he said runways were operational.

Santiago resident Leo Perioto jumped out of bed in his apartment at the top of a six-story building. “The whole building was shaking,” he said. “The windows were wobbling a lot. We could feel the walls moving from side to side.” (CNN)

Glass shattered at the Santiago Marriott Hotel, but there appeared to be no structural damage, said Alessandro Perez. Anita Herrea at the Hotel Kennedy in Santiago said electricity was out and guests were nervous. “Our hotel is built for this,” she said. In Chile this happens many times.” (CNN)

In the coastal city of Vina del Mar, the earthquake struck just as people were leaving a disco, Julio Alvarez told Radio Cooperativa in Santiago. “It was very bad, people were screaming, some people were running, others appeared paralyzed. I was one of them.” (CBC)

“An earthquake of this size has the potential to generate a destructive tsunami that can strike coastlines near the epicentre within minutes and more distant coastlines within hours,” the National Weather Service said in a statement. (CNN)

Numerous aftershocks were felt within hours of the initial quake, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Eyewitnesses reported more than two dozen aftershocks, including two measuring magnitude 6.2 and 6.9. In the hours after the tremor, the U.S. Geological Survey reported 11 aftershocks.

Already, some boat owners were moving their boats away from the coast, to avoid damage when the waves arrive. Beaches will be closed and pre-determined evacuation zones in certain coastal areas will be cleared.

“Get off the shore line. We are closing all the beaches and telling people to drive out the area,” John Cummings, Oahu Civil Defence spokesman, told Reuters. Buses will patrol beaches and take people to parks in a voluntary process expected to last five hours, Reuters reported, adding that more than an hour before sirens were due to sound lines of cars snaked for blocks from gas stations in Honolulu.

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said she expected the death toll to rise. Bachelet declared areas of catastrophe, similar to a state of emergency that will allow her to rush in aid. She said the town of Chillan – which was destroyed by a killer quake in 1939 – was one of the worst affected. “I urge people in coastal zones to move to higher ground,” Bachelet said at a morning news conference. (CNN)  The Associated Press quoted Mrs. Bachelet as saying that a huge wave had swept into a populated area in the Robinson Crusoe Islands, 410 miles off the Chilean coast, but there were no immediate reports of major damage there. Those reports bore out early fears that a major tsunami was on its way across the Pacific. “We’re doing everything we can with all the resources we have,” she told the New York Times.

A Department of Homeland Security official said early Saturday that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was monitoring the situation and was in contact with state emergency personnel in Hawaii, which is under a tsunami warning. But the decision to evacuate coastal areas and handling this evacuation is the responsibility of state and local officials in Hawaii, the Homeland Security official said. Evacuation alarms sounded at 6 a.m. Saturday in vulnerable coastal areas in Hawaii, as the region prepares for what federal officials say could be a dangerous, but most likely not catastrophic tsunami to hit the islands in the aftermath of the earthquake in Chile. The tsunami was expected to arrive in Hawaii at 11:20 a.m., or 4:20 p.m. Eastern time.

The Hilo International Airport on the big island of Hawaii, which is near the southern coast where the tsunami is expected to hit first, has been closed, she said. All crews aboard vessels and on the ground in state ports have been ordered to evacuate, she said. A warning siren sounded at 6 a.m. local time, alerting residents to tune into their local television and radio stations for instructions.

“The evacuation zones are predesignated in telephone books. We have maps and predesignated tsunami zones,” said Shelly Ichishita, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Defence Civil Defence Division. “It’s based on historical data showing they are susceptible to tsunamis.” (The Washington Post)

“Six feet is a lot. Tsunamis have a lot of force behind them,” said Jenifer Rhoades, Tsunami Program Manager for the National Weather Service. (The Washington Post)

Statewide television news was reporting that the southeast areas of all the islands would likely be the most impacted, which include the heavy tourist zones of Waikiki, and Poipu on Kauai. News reports said that a corridor to the airport on Oahu was being established, and that visitors should go to at least the third floor of their hotels.

Brian R. Shiro, a geophysicist at NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, said that computer models show that the impact will be greatest in spots such as Hilo Bay on Hawaii, the waves will likely be only about two to three feet.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre issued a warning for Chile and Peru, and a less-urgent tsunami watch for Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica and Antarctica. “Sea-level readings indicate a tsunami was generated. It may have been destructive along coasts near the earthquake epicentre and could also be a threat to more distant coasts,” the tsunami warning centre said. It did not expect a tsunami along the west coasts of the U.S. or Canada but was continuing to monitor the situation. (CBC) The White House said Saturday morning that it was closely monitoring the situation, “including the potential for a tsunami,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. (CNN)

A tsunami is essentially a wave. But it will look like a rise in sea level, or more like a food, he said, and takes place very quickly. An initial wave will come in and then follow up waves will arrive, most likely 20 or so minutes later, in a pattern that could continue for several hours. “The waves are so big that to the observer it looks like a very big tide,” Mr. Shiro said. (The New York Times)

The last time there was a Pacific wide tsunami warning – as has now taken place – was in 164, Mr. Shiro said. There has been past regional warnings in Hawaii, such as in 1964, that passed with no tsunami impact at all. But tsunamis historically have caused major damage and loss of life in Hawaii, most recently in 1975, when two people were killed in one event, Mr. Shiro said.

“So far, the models and based on the information we have, in Hawaii, most shores will experience two to three feet, which is not that big,” he said. “But you should still avoid swimming or surfing.” (The New York Times)

A lower-grade tsunami advisory was in effect for the coast of California and an Alaskan coastal area from Kodiak to Attu islands. That same advisory includes British Columbia. It says people in low-lying coastal areas should move out of the water, away from the beaches and out of the harbours and marinas. Experts predict the first wave to arrive at 15:11 PT (18:11 ET) along the southern B.C. coastline.

Australia’s southeast coast is under a tsunami watch and authorities are telling people to stay away from beaches. An emergency services official said the potential impact of the waves for Australia will become clearer once the tsunami reaches Hawaii.

The Joint Australian Tsunami Warning Center said reported a “potential tsunami threat” to New South Wales state, Queensland state, Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island. (CBC)

Lying in the mountainous Andean coast, Chile has a history of deadly earthquakes, according to the USGS. Since 1973, there have been 13 quakes of magnitude 7.0 or higher. Saturday’s epicentre was just a few kilometres north of the largest earthquake recorded in the world: a magnitude 9.5 quake in May 1960 that killed 1,655 and unleashed a tsunami that crossed the Pacific.


Militants Strike Central Kabul, Attack Hotels

Taliban militants attacked a luxury hotel and two guest houses favoured by foreigners in the center of Kabul early Friday, killing at least 18 people, including French, Italian, Afghan and many Indian nationals. At least 32 were injured.

In a telephone interview, a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility and said five Taliban suicide bombers took part in the operation. Mujahid said the suicide bombers focused on two sites in the Shari Now district “where the foreign people are staying.” “The actual targets are foreign people,” he added in a telephone interview. (The New York Times)

The attack began with a car bombing that left a swimming pool-sized crater outside a small hotel, where most guests were Indian, said Abdul Ghafar Sayed Zada, head of criminal investigations for the city police. Three suicide bombers than entered another nearby guesthouse, the Park Residence, which is often used by Americans.

There, two bombers detonated their explosives while a third holed up as green-uniformed Afghan security forces descended and a firefight ensued for more than 90 minutes. Police said it was unclear which building was the initial target of the attacks near the hotel. One of the bombs, packed inside a car, blew out windows all along the street near the leafy Shahr-e-Now park in the center of the city. Militants managed to get inside the Park Residence Guesthouse near the hotel,l and an Indian-owned guesthouse.

The final bomber was killed by police about four hours after the attack began, authorities said. After the standoff ended, police carried out bodies swathed in floral blankets from the Park Residence, their boots crunching layers of shattered window glass that lay underfoot.

Several workers and residents were seen fleeing the Park Residence, and it remains unclear how many others were left inside. Afghan police and snipers were seen taking up positions around the guesthouse, and others were trying to scale a wall surrounding the building with ladders.

At least three police officers were killed, Zada said. Among the dead civilians were Italians and several Indians.

“I heard two big blasts in the beginning, and now you can hear some sporadic gunfire outside,” said Tanel Sepp, the charge d’affairs of Estonia, which maintains diplomatic offices inside the Safi Landmark. He said guests had been told nothing about what has transpired, and are remaining in their rooms. (Wall Street Journal)

A spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Health said that nine bodies and at least 25 injured people have been brought to local hospitals. Foreigners were among the dead and wounded, he said.

Though India doesn’t participate in the U.S.-led coalition, it’s seen as an enemy by the Taliban; the Indian embassy and other Indian interests in Afghanistan have been repeatedly targeted by the insurgents. In New Delhi, India’s Ministry of External Affairs, citing preliminary information from the Afghan authorities, said “up to nine Indians,” including government officials, had been killed. The ministry called the assault a “heinous terrorist attack” following two other attacks on Indians in Kabul in the past 20 months. “These are the handiwork of those who are desperate to undermine the friendship between India and Afghanistan and do not wish to see a strong, democratic and pluralistic Afghanistan,” the ministry said in a statement. (New York Times) Some of the Indian casualties worked at the Indira Gandhi Child Health Institute.

Italian authorities in Rome said Pietro Antonio Colazzo, a diplomatic adviser on temporary assignment at the Italian Embassy in Kabul, was killed by gunfire after the suicide attack on one of the guesthouses, the Park Residence. Italian news reports said he had been a member of Italy’s overseas intelligence service assigned to Kabul, but there was no official confirmation of that claim. Gen. Abdul Rahman, Kabul’s city police chief, told AFP news agency that the Italian man had been staying in the Park Residence and had been helping police by telephone when militants shot him dead. “He was a brave man,” Gen. Rahman said. “He gave us precious information that allowed police to evacuate safely four other Italians.” (BBC) The man worked at the Italian embassy and was a diplomatic adviser to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said.

In Paris, the authorities said a French documentary maker, Séverin Blanchet, 66, was also killed at the Park Residence.

Afghan security officials appear to have been on the alert for some kind of attack on Kabul during the past few days. Neighbours say that the Safi Landmark had seen heightened security, with police prohibiting cars from stopping near the building.

Friday’s attack further eroded the sense of security in the capital, challenging the government of President Hamid Karzai. The coordinated attack was the second large insurgent strike on central Kabul this year. In January, a handful of gunmen set off bombs and attacked buildings near the presidential palace in downtown Kabul, firing rockets at another hotel favored by westerners and diplomats. In October 2009, militants wearing suicide belts attacked a United Nations guesthouse in Kabul and killed eight people, including five of the organization’s workers. In December, a suicide car bomber struck the Heetal Hotel, killing eight people and wounding 48.

In a statement quoted by the Associated Press, President Karzai said he “strongly condemns” the violence on Friday. “Attacks on Indian citizens will not affect relations between India and Afghanistan,” he added. (The New York Times)

“I looked out at the gate, but there was no gate,” said Manuwar Shah, 20, who was standing at the reception desk of the hotel when the attack started. “It had been blown off.” Then, he said, he ran into a room before taking shelter in the hotel basement and was trapped there during the fight. (The New York Times)

“If we have security, why do we have this kind of drama?” asked Ahmad Haji Zada, 22, who came to survey the damage to his mangled building-parts store, about a block from the hotels. “How is it possible for them to get into the city?” (The Washington Post)

In the surrounding area, the bombs had laid waste to signs of peaceful pursuits in the long-embattled city. A micro-finance bank was partially crumbled. Layered wedding cakes were jumbled inside a glass case in a bakery, their vibrant flowers smashed and blurred.

As Zada spoke, a sporadic firefight was still in progress inside the Park Residence, and occasional booms shook the ground. Police helicopters hovered overhead, surveying what was, even at the height of the gun battles, a fairly calm scene. It was Friday morning, the beginning of the Afghan weekend, and the streets were mostly empty.

“The sound was a very, very terrible sound,” said an employee of a nearby cellphone company, pointing up at the empty window panes of his office. He said he and two Pakistani guests, who had spent the night at the office, were spared from injury from flying glass because they were sleeping under heavy blankets. (The Washington Post)

“I was inside my room when I heard a loud explosion and then I could not see if people were killed or wounded because I locked my door,” said an Indian who gave his name as Kashif, who was staying in the guesthouse. (Reuters)

Despite the Taliban claim of responsibility, the timing of the attack – when few passerby were present – sparked speculation among witnesses and authorities at the bomb site. One Afghan intelligence officer at the scene, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said one of the bombers entered the first guesthouse after the car bomb exploded outside and shot two Indian guests. The intelligence officer blamed today’s attack on Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which U.S. officials have accused of collaborating with Afghan militants in a 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. India is Pakistan’s archenemy, and Pakistan strongly opposes its rising influence in Afghanistan.

Many witnesses, however, simply seemed bewildered. Men in turbans rummaged through blackened wreckage, laying the boots and jackets of the dead security guards in a muddy pile. “I have spent all my 22 years in fighting and this kind of explosions,” said Zada, the shopkeeper. “It will be like this forever.” (The Washington Post)

After the first embassy bombing in July 2008, New Delhi said Pakistan’s military spy agency, the ISI, was behind most attacks on Indians in Afghanistan to undermine Indian influence. Pakistan fears being squeezed between India on its eastern border and a hostile Afghanistan, backed by India, on a western boundary Kabul does not recognize.

On Thursday, India and Pakistan resumed high-level talks to reduce tensions, their first since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. The meeting ended with only an agreement to keep talking. U.S. and other NATO-led foreign forces have pushed back against the Taliban after violence across Afghanistan last year hit its worst levels since the militants were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

Operation Moshtarak continues in Helmand in the south, aiming to drive the Taliban from their strongholds around Nad Ali and Marjah although troops continue to target militants in the area. On Thursday, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, told the BBC there has been “a great deal of progress” in establishing security.

Friday’s attack also represents the first major Taliban response to the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Karachi in Pakistan. He was said to be the second in command and to have run the Taliban’s leadership council and controlled their finances. At least four Taliban “shadow governors” of provinces in Afghanistan have also reportedly been arrested in Pakistan.


Afghan Control Claimed as Marjah Reaches Turningpoint

Afghan officials unfurled the country’s green, red and black flag over the new government offices in Marjah, where the U.S. and other troops have been fighting the Taliban in Operation Moshtarak – the biggest offensive of the war. The flag-raising gives further evidence that U.S. and Afghan troops have reached a turning point in the offensive to reclaim this town from the Taliban.

Some 700 residents gathered to see Abdul Zahir Aryan formerly appointed as the top government official in Marjah. Mr. Ayan and a team of advisers held their first meeting in the town Monday and have been staying overnight in a building there since Tuesday, said Marlin Harbinger, the senior government representative for Helmand province, which contains Marjah. “Today’s event was the civilian Afghan government re-establishing itself officially in front of the local residents,” Mr. Harbinger said. The Afghan army had previously raised the country’s green-and-red flag nearby, but that was only a claim of military control over that neighbourhood, he said.

The ceremony opened with a reading from the Koran, and then Mr. Aryan and the Helmand governor pledged to those gathered that they were ready to listen to their needs and eager to provide them with basic services that they didn’t have under the Taliban.

Ghulab Mangal, governor of restive Helmand province, and Brig. Gen. Shir Mohammed Zarzai, commander of the Afghan army’s 205th Corps, described Thursday’s flag raising as symbolizing the Kabul government’s return to the southern town of Marjah – and its promise to rule more honestly than it did before the Taliban took control two years ago. Other provincial and local officials, and military officials were at the event as well. With Afghan soldiers, tribal elders and residents of Marjah looking on, Gov. Mangal promised at the ceremonial flag-raising to restore security and stability to the city, and transform it from a bastion of the Taliban into a “symbol of peace.” (New York Times) “What did they do for you people?” Mr. Mangal said at the ceremony. “Are there any schools, clinics being built by the Taliban? Are they helping you?” (NYT)

Afghan officials also expressed their condolences to civilians who were killed and wounded in battle. But Mr. Mangal said it was a “great achievement” that so few civilians had been killed. (NYT)

“The point at which you have enough security to do something symbolic like this is the point at which the hard work of delivering governance starts,” British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, commander of allied troops in southern Afghanistan, said of the flag-raising. (Wall Street Journal) Gen. Carter shed his body armor and helmet to walk from a nearby Marine outpost to the new government offices in a concrete house the government seized for the purpose. The old district center was razed long ago. Marine officers are unsure who owns the building, though it is rumoured to have belonged to an opium dealer or Taliban commander.

Viewing the ceremony with hope, curiosity and skepticism, one local in the crowd said he doesn’t trust the Afghan government or its security forces. Asked if he thought change will come, Abdul Qader accused the Afghan government of corruption. “If the foreigners do it, things will change. If the Afghans are in charge, there is no way.” (CNN) Another citizen, Mohammad Sardar, said the Taliban brought the people security, but not proper services such as schools and roads. He said that while he still fears foreign forces, he hopes they can bring about change. Qader said the foreigners won’t be able to get rid of the Taliban completely, but the militants “will put their heads down and fade away on the condition that help is brought, roads are built and security is achieved.” (CNN)

One shopkeeper, Baz Muhammad, 25, said he returned to Marjah after fleeing for 10 days during the fighting. He said he welcomed the arrival of Afghan forces, but he was leery of foreign troops, and said he would support the return of the Taliban if NATO troops overstepped their bounds. “People are saying they will raid our houses at night and they will kill us or detain us,” Mr. Muhammad said. (NYT) Juma Gul, 20, said his family remained in the city even after his grandfather was shot and killed in front of his home. “The operation was painful and full of miseries for our family,” Mr. Gul said, adding that he wanted to see the militaries leave as soon as possible. “For us, they are not useful. We don’t want them to stay in Marjah. We want them to leave. For us, both the Taliban and Marines are the same. They are fighting and killing us. We don’t want either.” (NYT)

After the ceremony, the generals and high-level officials departed in helicopters, but Mr. Aryan remained.

Even as the government re-staked its claim on the center of Marjah, there were reports of scattered fighting in the fields to the north of the city as American and Afghan troops continued to pursue Taliban militants.

The Marjah offensive, the biggest in the country since 2001, is seen as a test of the effectiveness of U.S. President Barack Obama’s troop escalation, and of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s pledge to crack down on corruption. About 15,000 NATO-led and Afghan forces hope to oust the Taliban and restore Afghan government control to the region in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. They are working to persuade citizens to turn their allegiance away from the militants and toward the Afghan government. Coalition and Afghan officials acknowledge that to win over Marjah residents, they’ll have to match the Taliban’s respect for tribal tradition and efficient justice system, while outdoing their rivals in delivering honest government services with a more human touch than the insurgents’. Kabul’s relations with locals were soured by the corrupt and brutal practices of the provincial police, opening the door to the Taliban.

The coalition has tens of millions of dollars at the ready to repair battle damage, provide education, supply health care and launch economic-development projects.

More than 50 Marjah residents each earned $5 and a wind-up radio for a day’s work cleaning up the area around the Loy Chareh bazaar on Wednesday, with further cash-for-work projects slated for the weekend and beyond.

At least 10 U.S. and Afghan troops have died and more than 20 wounded in the offensive, which began on Feb. 13. Marine officers estimate some 150 Taliban were killed in fighting that raged for more than a week after the initial incursion.

At least 28 civilians have been killed, including 13 children, according to the Afghan human rights commission. The civilian toll has raised fears that NATO may lose the support of the population even as it drives out the Taliban. The deaths come even though NATO has said its priority is protecting the civilian population and has adopted strict rules to prevent casualties. A spokesman for the Afghan Defence Ministry said both the Afghan government and NATO troops realized they had to be realistic and accept that there would be civilian deaths. “Preventing civilian casualties is our biggest challenge,” Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi told reporters in Kabul. “You should not expect zero casualties, either from our side or from the international forces. That will only happen when the fighting is over. And we are all trying to make that happen.” (The Globe & Mail) NATO spokesman Brig. Eric Tremblay, speaking alongside Gen. Azimi urged Afghans to recognize that international troops are putting themselves in greater danger in order to protect civilians. “We are going beyond the laws of armed conflict by increasing our risk,” Brig. Gen. Tremblay said. (The Globe & Mail)

In the north Thursday, the Marines’ progress was slowed by difficult terrain with no roads, few tracks and many hidden mines, but there was no gunfire by midmorning. Several armoured vehicles fell into irrigation canals while others were damaged by roadside bombs. About 100 fighters are believed to have regrouped into the 45-square-kilometre area known as Kareze, according to commanders with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment. The Marines and their Afghan partners are working to secure the area, believed to be the last significant pocket of Taliban insurgents in town.

“We haven’t had a gunfight in three days,” Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, commander of Marine forces in Marjah, said Thursday. “Enemy resistance has subsided more quickly than we expected.” (WSJ) The offensive is expected to continue for at least another two to three weeks. Nicholson said there is still “some fighting to do – potentially in some areas that we haven’t gotten into.” (CNN)

Commanders remained wary, however, particularly of hidden bombs and suicide attacks. Marine vehicles hit three buried explosives on Thursday, causing relatively minor injuries.

Afghan officials asked locals to show their support by reporting Taliban fighters who remained in Marjah. “We promise we won’t abandon you,” Gen. Zarzai assured the residence. (WSJ)

Residents who had fled the fighting were gradually returning on Thursday, repoening their shops and assessing any damage or losses. Some shop owners complained that their goods had been stolen and said they wanted compensation.

ISAF said in a news release Thursday that security is improving and signs of stability have been emerging despite “occasional” clashes between militants and soldiers. Haji Zahir, deputy district governor of Nad Ali, told 200 people in Marjah at a shura, or community council, that security conditions have improved and that more Afghan National Police were to be posted there, ISAF said. He “promised to ensure the opening of shops and clinics, and personally oversaw the distribution of rice, beans, cooking oil and sugar to the gathering.” (CNN)

The NATO-led command said new shops have opened at Marjah bazaars, with telephones, computers and other electronics available. It said there has been a “significant increase in the number of local residents returning to the area” and “a decrease in the number of residents registering as internally displaced persons.” (CNN)


NATO Airstrike Kills Afghan Civilians

U.S. Special Operations Forces ordered an airstrike that killed at least 27 civilians in southern Afghanistan. The soldiers may not have satisfied rules of engagement designed to avoid the killing of innocents. The airstrike Sunday hit a convoy of two Toyota Land Cruisers and a truck in a remote part of the south near the border between Uruzgan and Daykundi provinces. The area is hundreds of miles from Marjah, where the largest allied offensive since 2001 is now in its second week.

The area is under Dutch military control, and if Dutch forces were involved in the incident it could have serious political repercussions in the Netherlands, where the government collapsed Saturday over an effort to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan. But the Dutch defence ministry spokesman in The Hague said Dutch forces were not involved in calling the airstrike.

NATO’s Afghanistan task force said its forces believed the convoy was carrying insurgents who were on their way to Kandahar province to attack Afghan and NATO troops. It engaged the vehicles with “airborne weapons,” NATO said in a statement, without elaborating. (Wall Street Journal) Troops then went to the scene “and found women and children,” the statement said. The wounded were taken to a NATO facility for treatment.

How the soldiers came to the conclusion that insurgents were onboard was unclear. According to a senior U.S. military official, “Air assets picked up the movement of the vehicles after an extensive overhead monitoring, the ground force commander ordered the strike.” (CNN) However, according to Gen. Abdul Hameed, an Afghan National army commander in Dehrawood, part of the Oruzgan Province, there had been no request from any ground forces to carry out the attack.

Afghan officials originally claimed that 33 civilians were killed, but then later adjusted that number to 27. The governor of Uruzgan province told the BBC that all of the dead were civilians. One of his spokesmen said that more than 40 people had been traveling in the three vehicles that were attacked. The Afghan Interior Ministry said investigators had collected 21 bodies and that two people were missing. The ministers say that 12 others were injured and on their way to Kandahar.

The airstrike underscored the risks of expanding use of Special Operations Forces, whose core mission is hunting down hard-core Taliban, as the leading edge of the fight against the insurgents. Many SOF missions by their nature have led to a string of recent successes against valuable targets. A NATO spokesman said he couldn’t confirm that U.S. SOF called in the strike.

Under the rules, airpower is meant to be a last resort for soldiers who can’t pull back from an imminent threat or sit it out. Airstrikes are also allowed on targets engaged in clearly predatory action, such as planting a hidden roadside bomb, one of the deadliest threats faced by coalition forces.

The countless airstrikes killing civilians have reportedly handed the Taliban propaganda victories. The errant strikes now pose a direct challenge to counter-insurgency strategy laid out by U.S. Army Gen. McChrystal, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, and endorsed by President Barack Obama. Sunday’s airstrike appears to be precisely the kind of incident that Gen. McChrystal and his team were trying to avoid.

Afghanistan’s Cabinet called the latest airstrike “unjustifiable”. (WSJ) “Afghanistan’s council of ministers strongly urges the NATO forces to closely coordinate and exercise maximum care before conducting any military operations so that any possible mistakes that may result in harming civilians – considered to be a major obstacle for an effective counterterrorism effort – can be avoided.” (The Globe & Mail)

“Nobody has an idea what they were doing there because they don’t share anything with the Afghans,” said an official at the presidential palace. He added that U.S. Special Operations Forces “arrest people and they raid houses without keeping the Afghans in the loop.” (WSJ)

McChrystal expressed regret on Monday over the incident. “We are extremely saddened by the tragic loss of innocent lives,” said McChrystal, who spoke to President Hamid Karzai Sunday evening. “I have made it clear to our forces that we are here to protect the Afghan, and inadvertently killing or injuring civilians undermines their trust and confidence in our mission. We will double our efforts to regain that trust.” (CNN)

Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials ordered an immediate investigation into the incident, and both sides dispatched investigative teams to the site. The NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has begun an investigation on the incident.


Canadian Students Rescued from Capsizing Ship off the Coast of Brazil

In September of 2009, 48 students and 16 teachers and crew members sailed out from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in search of education and inspiration on the water. The West Island College Class Afloat school ship carried mostly Canadians, with others from the U.S., Mexico, Japan and elsewhere. The students were from grades 11 and 12, as well as first-year university. No one could possibly have imagined their 10-month accredited program to have ended so suddenly off the coast of Brazil.

The SV Concordia, built in 1992 in Poland and meeting “all of the international requirements for safety” as well as passing inspections by the U.S. and Canadian coast guards (CBC), sailed from Recife, Brazil on February 8 and was scheduled to dock in Montevideo next week.

In the midst of high winds on Thursday, however, the three-masted Concordia sent out a distress signal at around 1700 local time, 1400 Eastern Standard Time. When Brazilian authorities received the distress call, they contacted the rescue co-ordination centre in Halifax, which alerted the school. Trained well in abandon-ships drills, the students, teachers and crew were able to sail away in well-equipped life-rafts which held blankets, medical supplies, food and water.

A Brazilian Air Force plane spotted the life-rafts around 8 p.m. AT on Thursday, about 483 km off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Two merchant vessels picked up the students, teachers and crew members and transferred them to a Brazilian navy ship and taken back to the coast of Rio de Janeiro to a navy frigate where they were met by school officials and worried parents who had caught flights out to Brazil during the night.

According to Rear Admiral Leonardo Puntel, “there were two injuries, but they were minor.” (CBC) Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon thanked Brazilian authorities for leading the search and rescue operation. “It’s a tragedy to lose a ship, but a victory that they were rescued,” said Maj. Denise McGuire of the Canadian Joint Rescue and Coordination Centre. (CNN) It is still unknown the actual cause of the ship’s demise.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanked Brazilian navy and merchant ships for their “swift and heroic response.” (CBC)

“The skill and compassion demonstrated by Brazilian rescuers is a tribute to their training, spirit and seamanship. Their efforts are deeply appreciated by Canada and will undoubtedly serve as an inspiration to the young Canadians who were aboard the SV Concordia,” Harper said in a statement. (CBC)

A former student on the vessel, who was later a crew member, said he was shocked at the loss of the Concordia. “As with many Class Afloat alumni, I consider the experience to be a defining moment in my life and the loss of the Concordia is heartbreaking – like the loss of a friend,” Sam Carson from the London area told the BBC.


Small Plane Crashes into Houses in California Neighbourhood

Loss of Altitude in the Midst of Fog

At 0755 hours, a Cessna 310 registered to Unique Air Inc. of Santa Clara, California and owned by a man named Doug Bourn, took off from Palo Alto Airport in California. The plane was headed for Hawthorne Municipal Airport when it hit a power line or electrical tower about one mile northeast of the airport. The plane clipped power lines connected to an 80- to 100-foot-tall tower in thick fog, shearing off the top half of the structure. On impact the plane sheared a wing, raining debris down over the middle-class residential area, and then lost altitude. The wing fell onto one house, where a child’s daycare centre operated, and the reset of the plane struck the refront retaining wall of another house down the street before landing on two vehicles in the street. Other cars that were on the street also caught fire. The initial fire created a loud boom followed by a second boom that shook the nearby houses. Firefighters extinguished the fires within 30 minutes. According to Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman, “The plane landed in the centre of the street. If not, many more individuals would have been impacted, perhaps killed. It is either very fortunate or intentional that he was able to do that.” (Wired.com) What is left of the twin-engine Cessna is merely pieces of metal, scattered around the crash site.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said taking off in bad weather is left up to the discretion of the pilot, whether it be commercial or private. He added that most commercial airlines have policies to follow before a pilot decides to fly.

The Pilot and Passengers

Company CEO Elon Musk confirmed that those on the plane were all employees of Tesla Motors. He offered no other details, however, about the identification of the individuals. “Tesla is a small, tightly-knit company, and this is a tragic day for all of us.” (Wired.com)

Daniel Morales said he had flown with the pilot and that was at the airport Wednesday said the man was a “high-ranking official” at Tesla and that two of the electric car company’s other employees were onboard. The San Francisco Chronicle reports the plane is owned by Doug Bourn, a senior electric engineer at Tesla, though it is not clear whether he was onboard.

In its online database, the California Secretary of State lists Doug Bourn as the business’ owner. A biography for Bourn posted by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2007 says he shares the responsibility for the testing and design of the power electronics module for the Tesla Roadster. Before coming to the company, he spent 10 years at IDEO, a product design and development company in Palo Alto. Bourn holds commercial pilot and flight instructor licenses and enjoys skydiving, flying and teaching others how to fly, the engineers society said. He is also a ham radio operator.

No one was home today at Bourn’s residence in Santa Clara, where Bourn lives alone in the single-story house. A neighbour said he last saw Bourn Tuesday morning. Two motorcycles and a Lexus sat in Bourn’s driveway Wednesday. John Clingsmith described Bourn as a “nice guy and a workaholic.” He last saw Bourn when he pulled up at about 2200 hours on Tuesday riding one of his Kawasaki motorcycles.

Tesla Motors

Space-X, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s aerospace venture, is based in Hawthorne, likely the prime destination for those onboard the flight. Much of the design and engineering work for the Model S Sedan is being done there. Tesla recently closed a $465 million loan from the Department of Energy to get the car built, and the company is planning to go public with an Initial Public Offering.

Miraculous Protection on the Ground

Miraculously, there have been no injuries on the ground due to the crash. The occupants of the other homes have been accounted for, although authorities can’t be sure of the fatality count until crews begin clearing the wreckage.

Pamela Houston, 33, who works at the daycare centre on which the plane’s wing fell, was in the house at the time of the crash. “When we heard the initial explosion I thought it was an earthquake,” she told KPIX-TV. “Then I looked out the window and saw fire.” Seven people were inside the centre when the plane crashed. With Pamela Houston were an assistant teacher, her husband, their three children, and an infant. “I grabbed the baby and we ran into the street. We were all crying. We were screaming. There is not any word to describe the feeling. Some neighbours ran to the house to help. We are very thankful, we give thanks to God. It was no one but God that allowed us to get out safely.” (Mercury News)

The Aftermath

Widespread power cuts have been reported in the wake of the crash. Some neighbours are trapped inside their homes because there are live power wires surrounding the houses. The city of Palo Alto, which provides power through a municipal utility agency, said most of the city and surrounding area had lost power due to the crash.

Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and Stanford Hospital both were operating on backup generators and cancelled elective surgeries for the day, according to hospitals spokesman Robert Dicks. Residents are being asked to consume water, which is pumped to customers with the help of electricity. While schools are without power, they will remain in session, according to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

The National Transportation Safety Board has joined the FAA in the investigation of the crash.


Marxist Protests Transpire in Greece

Thousands of Greeks have rallied against deficit-cutting measures during a national public strike.  Flights have been grounded, many schools are closed and hospitals are operating on emergency-only services. Government offices and courts were closed, though public transportation largely continued to operate.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister George Papandreou’s socialist government announced that it intends to raise the average retirement rate in a bid to save the cash-strapped pension system. The age of retirement varies for different public services, but in general women can retire at 60 and men at 65; the government wants both men and women to retire at 65 by the year 2015.

The news comes on top of other planned austerity measures, including a public sector salary freeze and a raise in petrol prices, announced last week. Further government measures include the non-replacement of departing civil servants and a tax collectors recovering billions of euros lost to tax evasion. The government has announced $2.75 billion in public spending cuts. It also aims to raise another $6.87 billion from new taxes and measures aimed at fighting tax evasion, which analysts said deprived the federal budget of $44.2 billion last year. The government also announced that the price of unleaded gasoline will rise 0.14 euro cents a litre. Mr. Papandreou, who wants to free pay, gather more taxes and reform pensions, insisted that the proposals would be fully implemented.

Despite heavy rain, there have been rallies across Greece throughout the day, with thousands of striking workers and pensioners gathering in the capital, Athens. The protestors began the 24-hour walkout at 9 a.m. (2 a.m. ET), though local media said workers at Athen’s main international airport began their strikes at midnight, grounding all flights. Several thousand people were also reported to have protested in Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. The rallies have been mainly peaceful, but in one incident police fired tear gas at garbage collectors who tried to drive through a police cordon. Some demonstrators threw stones at the police but the trouble was quickly defused. A protest in Athens’ Syntagma Square, while loud, petered out in the late morning, when rain dispersed the crowd of about 1,000.

Even many of those protesting said they realized they needed to make sacrifices. Others expressed hope that the European Union would rescue their proud democracy from becoming the next Iceland. Dimitris Vitalis, 21, a university student, said he feared the government would make higher education unaffordable. “The education is free now, but they will want us to pay tuition fees,” he said. (Globe & Mail) A diplomat, who did not want to be named, said today’s protests seemed fairly tamed in a city where protests are common. “The unions protest because that’s what unions do here,” he said. “There is tourist season and protest season.” (G & M)

The umbrella civil servants trade union ADEDY, which called the strike, said most of its 500,000 workers were on strike, though that number could not be confirmed. ADEDY Vice President Ilias Vrettakos said he recognizes the government’s problem, but that it is not the worker who should suffer. He said the bankers created the problem for Greece, so the bankers should pay. Vrettakos said the union is willing to compromise only if the government first attacks what the union sees as widespread corruption among top levels of society.

The unions regard the austerity program as a declaration of war against the working and middle classes. Their resolve is strengthened by their belief that this crisis has been engineered by external forces, such as international speculators and European central bankers. Others in the capital either see the cuts as necessary or argue that the strike is politically motivated.

Greece’s deficit is, at 12.7%, more than four times higher than eurozone rules allow. The markets remain skeptical that Greece will be able to pay its debts and many investors believe the country will have to be bailed out. The uncertainty has recently buffeted the euro and the problems have extended to Spain and Portugal, which are also struggling with their deficits. The possibility of Greece or one of the other stricken countries being unable to pay its debts – and either needing an EU bailout or having to abandon the euro – has been called the biggest threat yet to the single currency.

Greece has been under intense pressure from other members of the EU to cut its budget deficit and is in danger of failing to refinance some $28 billion in debt coming due in April and May. In Greece, commentators said the economic problems had exposed a general ignorance about the harsh realities of the global economy, while laying bare the strong sense of entitlement in a country where one out of three Greeks is employed in a civil service that guarantees jobs for life.

EU leaders will discuss Greece’s difficulties on Thursday amid concern that the crisis could threaten the euro. European finance ministers are also due to hold a teleconference on Wednesday to talk about the issue. Some business media reported that Germany is preparing to lead a possible bailout, supported by France and other eurozone members.