Little hope for future as east Ukraine ends nightmare year

europe1MARINIVKA, Ukraine: Larissa Pogorelka began the year looking forward to seeing her son graduate college and planning for the future with cautious optimism. Now she will end 2014 homeless, after her house was destroyed in the fighting that swept through this region of east Ukraine, and counts herself lucky just to be alive. “Nobody ever expected any of this to happen,” the shopkeeper, 42, told AFP. “My home has burnt down and I am living with my parents. What have I lived for? In one day you can just lose everything.”

Just a few kilometres from the Russian border, Marinivka in Ukraine’s restive Donetsk region, used to be a pleasant, if poor and totally unremarkable, hamlet of 600 inhabitants. Life was sometimes tough but it was at least predictable and people here had a sense of sleepy stability. That, though, has been turned upside down as a conflict that no one saw coming between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed rebels turned the village into a front line.

Over the past eight months, the strategic location has swapped hands several times between government forces and the insurgents. Since the end of the summer it has been under separatist control. As a handful of local residents trudge through the snow and brave the icy wind along the main Seleverstova street, no house they pass seems to have escaped undamaged. Here a roof is missing, there a family home is little more than charred remains.

The two-storey school, once the pride of the community, is an empty shell pockmarked by gaping holes caused by tank shells. “You can see what a nightmarish year it has been for us,” said Valentina Fyodorova, pointing to the shrapnel scars in the wall of her modest grocery store. “We were peaceful people. Things were good, but now they are bad.”

‘It is Just Madness’
Although the situation has been more or less calm here for several months, people are still struggling to work out how the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych in February could have ended up with war coming to their doorsteps. “They are in shock. People cannot digest what horrors have happened here,” says Valentina’s husband Alexander Fyodorov. “We were not prepared for this.” Ukraine and the West blame Russia for artificially stirring the rebellion and even sending its own troops over the border, while Moscow paints the uprising in the east as a legitimate reaction to an illegal coup in Kiev.

But for those caught up in the violence, there is little reasonable explanation for what has happened. “The only thing you can put it down to is human insanity,” Fyodorov said. “To use howitzer cannons to shoot at peaceful houses – it is just madness.” In the neighbouring village of Stepanivka, former tractor driver Vladimir Samolenko glances at the burned-out wreckage of a Ukrainian tank as he opens his front gate.

Inside his cramped living room, his wife Zinaida is boiling some water for potatoes as their granddaughter Katya builds a house out of Lego bricks. “Before the war, we at least received pensions and wages,” says Samolenko, 76. “It was possible to live.” Now electricity is a constant problem and money is running short after the central authorities in Kiev stopped making welfare payments to the rebel-held areas. “We hope that the war won’t return but we feel that it is not over yet,” he said. “As for the future, it is impossible to say,” he sighed, tracing a large question mark in the air with his finger. – AFP

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First bodies from AirAsia plane arrive in Surabaya – Bad weather hampers recovery

asia1SURABAYA, Indonesia: Soldiers acting as pall bearers yesterday carried coffins containing the first two bodies from AirAsia Flight QZ8501 into Surabaya airport from where the ill-fated plane departed, as sombre relatives gave their DNA to help identify loved ones. The bodies were taken from an air force plane to a military ambulance to be transported to a hospital for examination and identification – but many exhausted families were left waiting for news as bad weather hampered search efforts.

Officials had hoped to recover most of the bodies but rough conditions made it difficult for helicopters to fly over the area in the Java Sea where several corpses and debris from the ill-fated Airbus A320-200 were found a day earlier. In Indonesia’s second-biggest city Surabaya, where the plane had departed for Singapore early on Sunday, drained and emotional relatives of the 162 people on board gathered at a crisis centre to hand over documents and medical records.

Among them was Hadi Widjaja, 60, who was preparing a Muslim funeral for his son Andreas and daughter-in-law Enny Wahyuni. “I am anxious to know if the rescuers have found their bodies. The president has said that they will do the best they can to find them,” Widjaja told AFP. “But if they really cannot find them, I will scatter flowers in the sea here as a way to say goodbye.”

Police in Surabaya said they had taken DNA from 30 immediate family members to assist with the identification of bodies, which is set to take place at a hospital in Surabaya. Two of the recovered bodies were being flown there on Wednesday afternoon. Storms delayed the start of operations yesterday and helicopters were later forced to return to the base in Pangkalan Bun, the town with the nearest airstrip to the crash site.

‘We Turned Back’
“For the safety reasons, we turned back,” helicopter pilot Tatang Onne Setiawan told AFP. “Besides the evacuation of the bodies, we also planned to search for bigger parts of the plane.” Boat-based teams were still trying to make progress around the crash site. A search and rescue official at Pangkalan Bun, Sunarbowo Sandi, told reporters they had recovered a total of seven bodies. According to search and rescue officials AFP spoke with, none of the victims found so far was wearing a lifejacket.

Debris found so far from the aircraft, which crashed into the Java Sea southwest of the island of Borneo during a storm, included an exit door and several suitcases. “There were snacks, instant porridge, and three umbrellas,” commander of the Bung Tomo warship, Colonel Yayan, told a local news channel, referring to the 28 items that had been retrieved. National Search and Rescue Agency chief Bambang Soelistyo told reporters the fuselage had not been found, denying reports that sonar imagery showed the aircraft on the seabed.

During Tuesday’s searches, an air force plane had seen a “shadow” on the seabed believed to be the missing plane, where all search efforts were now being concentrated, he said earlier. The hunt is now on for the plane’s black boxes, which are key to determining the cause of the crash. “We have concerns to secure the flight recorders, believed to be with parts of the plane we haven’t found,” said Soelistyo.

Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch has sent an investigator carrying “specialist technical equipment” that can help to locate flight recorders. Accompanying Singaporean experts, the investigator is travelling to the site on an Indonesian naval vessel, according to the British embassy in Jakarta. Before take-off the pilot of QZ8501 had asked for permission to fly at a higher altitude to avoid the storm, but his request was not approved due to other planes above him on the popular route, according to AirNav, Indonesia’s air traffic control. In his last communication, the pilot said he wanted to change course to avoid the menacing storm system. Then all contact was lost, about 40 minutes after the plane had taken off.

‘Unique Weather Conditions’
“There were some very unique weather conditions and let’s wait for the investigation to be concluded,” AirAsia’s boss Tony Fernandes told reporters on Tuesday in Surabaya, after meeting with relatives. “This is a scar with me for the rest of my life,” he said.

The missing plane was operated by AirAsia Indonesia, a unit of Malaysia-based AirAsia, which had previously earned a solid safety record. Of the 162 passengers and crew on board Flight QZ8501, 155 were Indonesian. President Joko Widodo also met the victims’ families in Surabaya on Tuesday and promised “a massive search” effort, with priority given to recovering bodies of the passengers and crew.

The United States, Australia, Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia are among the countries helping in the search effort, which comes at the end of an awful year for Malaysian air travel. After the disappearance of Flight MH370 in March, en route from from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 passengers and crew, another Malaysia Airlines flight – MH17 – was shot down over Ukraine in July, killing all 298 on board. – AFP

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8 killed in Canada ‘senseless mass murder’ – Depressed man goes on shooting spree, kills himself

america3MONTREAL: A man with a lengthy criminal record killed six adults and two young children before taking his own life in Edmonton in what the police chief on Tuesday called the western Canadian city’s worst mass murder. Edmonton Police Chief Rod Knecht told a news conference late Tuesday night that there was no suggestion of gang involvement and said the motive for the “senseless mass murder” appears to have been “planned and deliberate” domestic violence.

“It’s terrible for the city,” Knecht said. “The scene … has been described as chaotic, horrific. Particularly when there’s children involved, it has a tremendous impact on our folks.”

Knecht did not release the name of the suspect, but said the man was well-known to police and had a criminal record dating back to September 1987. Cindy Duong, 37, was fatally shot in a home in south Edmonton on Monday, while two men and three women between the ages of 25 and 50, and a girl and a boy – both under the age of 10 – were found dead a few hours later at a home in the northeast.

The suspect was found dead by his own hand in a restaurant in the Edmonton bedroom community of Fort Saskatchewan on Tuesday morning. A police tactical team had surrounded the area and reportedly smashed through the front of the restaurant with a vehicle before finding the suspect dead. Duong’s body was found around 7 p.m. Monday when police responded to a report of a man entering the south-side home, opening fire and fleeing, Knecht said.

An hour and a half later, officers responded to reports of a suicidal man at a northeast residence in a quiet cul de sac, the same home where the suspect had been arrested in November 2012 and charged with domestic and sexual assault. Family members reported in the call that the man was “depressed and over-emotional.”

When officers arrived, no one answered the door, Knecht said. They searched the exterior of the home but found nothing overtly suspicious and did not go inside. “We can’t just arbitrarily go into that residence,” explained the chief. Hours later police were contacted by a second person and returned to the residence. When they went inside, they found a scene of carnage with seven bodies.

Neighbor Moe Assiff said he saw officers come out and talk to a woman sitting with a man in a white car outside the house. “She just let out a hysterical scream. It was eerie,” Assiff said. “She was screaming about her kids: ‘My kids! The kids!,’ grabbing her hair and trying to pull her hair out. The cops then ushered her down the road into a police cruiser.” Outside the restaurant where the suspect’s body was found, police found a parked black SUV that they say was seen near the location of the first shooting. Knecht said the suspect had a business interest in the restaurant, but would not say if he was the owner.

Investigators have determined the 9 mm handgun used in the killings was a registered weapon that had been stolen in Surrey, British Columbia, in 2006. In Edmonton, a city of 878,000 people, mass murders are extremely rare. Knecht said the case was the worst mass killing in the city since at least 1956, when six people were murdered. John Etter Clark, a provincial politician who served as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta for four years, killed his wife, son, three daughters and an employee of their family farm before taking his own life in 1956. Clark had been suffering from frequent nervous breakdowns in the years before the killings. – AP

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US transfers five Gitmo detainees to Kazakhstan

america2WASHINGTON: Two Tunisian and three Yemeni detainees have been transferred from the US-run prison at Guantanamo Bay to Kazakhstan, the Pentagon said. The former Guantanamo inmates, who were flown on a US military aircraft, arrived in Kazakhstan on Tuesday at 11:15 pm Washington time (0415 GMT), US officials said. Their transfer is part of President Barack Obama’s push to close the controversial military prison, which was set up to detain terror suspects after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

“We are determined to responsibly reduce the detainee population and you can expect additional transfers over the coming weeks,” an administration official told AFP. The Pentagon said in a statement that the five men “were unanimously approved for transfer” after a thorough review by a task force of several US government agencies. The transfer of the five detainees leaves 127 inmates at the prison, located at a US naval base in southeast Cuba.

The number of detainees transferred out of Guantanamo in 2014 is now at 28. Details of what Kazakhstan had agreed to and what security steps the government might take related to the former detainees remained unclear. The five inmates, who have never been tried in court and who were cleared for transfer by authorities in 2010 or even earlier, have spent more than 11 years at the Guantanamo prison, which human rights groups have condemned as a “legal black hole”.

The facility is approaching its 13th anniversary, as the first detainees arrived on Jan 11, 2002. Of the 127 inmates still held there, 59 are cleared to be transferred to their home countries or third countries. With the release of the two Tunisian detainees, there is only one Tunisian national still held at the prison. At one point, there were 12 Tunisian inmates at the jail. Yemeni detainees are the largest group at Guantanamo, with 80 inmates identified as Yemeni nationals, of which 50 are considered ready to be transferred. But US authorities have concerns over security given the volatile situation in Yemen.

The Pentagon identified the Tunisian nationals transferred Tuesday as Adel Al-Hakeemy, and Abdullah bin Ali Al-Lufti, also known as Lofti bin Ali. Authorities had approved the repatriation of Ali in 2006. But a US federal judge in 2007 blocked his transfer, saying he would likely face torture and “irreparable harm” at the hands of Tunisian authorities. Ali, 49, has a pacemaker, suffers heart rhythm problems and takes blood thinning medication. He has strongly denied having any links to Al-Qaeda and insisted he had travelled to Pakistan to buy medicine when he was arrested by authorities there after the 9/11 attacks.

His compatriot, Hakeemy, also known as Hkiml, 49, had been described by US authorities as a “veteran terrorist” who had allegedly taken part in fighting in Bosnia and was accused of links with an Algerian Islamist group. But he has maintained he was working as a cook in Italy and had gone to Pakistan to find a wife. He was arrested by Pakistani authorities near the Afghan border and held at Guantanamo for more than 12 years. Both he and his fellow Tunisian detainee had lived in Italy as immigrants.

The three Yemenis who were transferred were identified as Asim Thabit Abdullah Al-Khalaqi, Muhammad Ali Husayn Khanayna and Sabri Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Qurashi. Khalaqi, 46, born in Saudi Arabia, had been suspected of serving in Osama bin Laden’s Arab brigade. Arrested in Dec 2001in the company of a senior Al-Qaeda figure, he has been behind bars at Guantanamo since Jan 17, 2002, among the first inmates to be sent to the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

The second Yemeni to be transferred out is Muhammad Ali Husayn Khanayna, 46, also known as Muhammed Ali Hussein Khnenah, who has been held at the prison since June 2002. He was arrested at the Pakistan-Afghanistan boder in December 2001. US authorities alleged he was present at Bin Laden’s hideout in the Tora Bora mountains and that he had stayed at guesthouses known to serve Al-Qaeda extremists.

The third Yemeni detainee transferred was Sabri Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Qurashi, 44, who had been suspected of membership in Al-Qaeda and undergoing instruction at one of the group’s training camps. He was arrested by Pakistani authorities at a known Qaeda safe house in February 2002 and was sent to Guantanamo in May of that year.

The transfers came just days after Obama’s envoy overseeing the release of Guantanamo inmates, Cliff Sloan, resigned from his post. Sloan had reportedly become frustrated at the slow pace of transfers, which have to be approved by the Pentagon. Outgoing Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, who resigned in November, had reportedly come under pressure from the White House to move more swiftly to approve proposed transfers of detainees. – AFP

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For US soldiers, Iraq mission brings unexpected return

middleast1TAJI BASE, Iraq: As Sergeant Michael Lair went from base to base in 2011, moving American gear to Kuwait ahead of the US withdrawal from Iraq, it seemed unlikely he would be returning. The United States’ nearly nine-year war in the country was winding down, and the devastating violence that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American troops was at its lowest level in years. But three years later, Lair is on his third Iraq deployment, this time as part of a mission to ready Iraqi soldiers for combat against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, which has overrun large parts of the country.

“I didn’t think we were coming back,” Lair says, standing on a muddy road lined with sections of concrete blast wall in the massive Taji base complex north of Baghdad, an M4 assault rifle held across his chest. “We would go up through Iraq to all the FOBs (forward operating bases). We would load up all the equipment and take it to the port in Kuwait… by road,” he says of the runup to the withdrawal.

“It was kind of a big stepping stone,” he says. “We’re taking our stuff with us-it’s a pretty good sign.” But when he deployed to Kuwait in June this year as IS drove south toward Baghdad, sweeping Iraqi forces aside, it became clear another mission was likely. “I was just telling myself, hey, get ready to go, ’cause I guarantee that we’re not just gonna sit by and watch it happen,” he says.

‘A habit’
Lair also served in Afghanistan, and arriving back in Iraq was ultimately a return to the life he has known for years. “It was comfortable, as weird as I guess that sounds,” he says. “This is my fourth deployment, so this is what I’m used to. I don’t know anything different. “This has become a habit.” Lair is one of about 180 US military personnel now living at Taji, a number that is set to rise, says Captain Tyler Hitter.

The base is one of five sites where the US and its allies aim to train 5,000 military personnel every six to eight weeks in “the bare minimum basics that are needed for counter-attacking,” says Major General Dana Pittard. The US spent billions training and equipping Iraqi forces, but that relationship was scaled back after the 2011 withdrawal.

American soldiers say Iraq’s troops did not carry out the subsequent training needed to maintain their skills and that, combined with flawed leadership, helped lead to the IS debacle. Much of Taji has been in use by the Iraqi army since US troops departed, but it is still full of signs of the past American presence, from basketball goals to an empty can of Copenhagen dip tobacco-a favorite of US soldiers still sitting in an empty hanger.

Murals accompanied by unit nicknames cover a wall near rows of empty white housing units, and the 1st Cavalry Division’s unit patch is painted on a water tower overlooking the base.

‘Like starting over’
Staff Sergeant Marlon Daley, another soldier at Taji, who has been sent to Iraq three times, including during the initial 2003 invasion, did not expect to return after leaving in 2011. He describes the IS takeover of Iraq’s second city Mosul, an area where he was twice deployed, as “pretty shocking”.

But “I wanted to come here,” he says. “Most soldiers, that’s what they want to do, is deploy and make a difference.” Command Sergeant Major Robert Keith is now on his fifth mission to Iraq-a series that has spanned from 2003 to 2011, and now 2014. “I didn’t think I was gonna come back. Everything was shutting down, everybody was pushing back down into Kuwait,” Keith says of 2011.

Over the years, “I’ve seen a lot of progress and… a lot of changes,” and having that rolled back by IS is “frustrating,” he adds. It’s like “trying to reinvent the wheel, when you establish so much and we come back, it’s like starting over again,” he says. But he is glad to be back nonetheless. “I enjoy coming to Iraq, the people are awesome here, the hospitality,” Keith says. “People call me crazy when I say that.” – AFP

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Iraq’s Qayyarah almost liberated

Iraq’s army, backed by local tribesmen and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, has launched a major offensive in the northern province of Nineveh, taking full control of large areas in the city of Qayyarah.