Sunday, February 28, 2010

Journalists in danger

With record numbers of journalists dying in war zones, reporters need training, equipment – and the protection of the law
"Never travel without a wire coathanger." For some reason that's the one instruction that stayed in my head after a week's training in how to survive as a reporter in a war zone. You fold the hanger so it fits in a shirt pocket and if ever you stray into a Balkan minefield, you have what it takes to scrape away topsoil and expose landmines so that you can slide out on your stomach.
Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this 1990s piece of advice seems to belong to the era of Scoop. Now not even an MRAP – mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle – is a guarantee of protection for reporters in Afghanistan. Two western journalists embedded with US forces there have been killed in separate roadside bombings in the past month.
The deaths cap a horrendous year for the media. Seventy journalists were killed around the world in 2009, the highest toll ever recorded by the Committee to Protect Journalists in its nearly 30-year history. That fact alone must send a chill through newsrooms. It was not that long ago that foreign editors and bureau chiefs, including me, would send reporters off to war zones with little more than a press pass and their own wits for protection.
Now, no western news executive would dare dispatch a reporter or TV crew to cover conflict unless they had received "hostile environment" training and been fitted out with high-tech personal protection gear and communications. In the past decade or so, Britain has become a leader in training journalists and humanitarian workers for deployment in conflict zones. Private security companies, many employing former SAS members and Royal Marine commandos, train reporters in the UK and their home countries. The recipients of this lifesaving knowledge tend to be those working for news outlets with deep pockets. A one-week residential course such as the one I took with the coathanger sapper can cost thousands of pounds.
As we saw in Iraq, when western journalists begin to die, news media rely on local journalists. Those who are contracted as fixers (guides, interpreters, field producers etc) by foreign journalists are increasingly receiving safety training. But reporters working for small local outlets are often left to their own devices. For example, Somalia witnessed nine journalists' deaths last year, among them many from a small band of courageous radio journalists who tried to keep news on the airwaves despite the general mayhem of a civil war and targeted threats from the al-Shabaab Islamist fighters who wanted independent FM stations silenced.
International journalist associations and NGOs also provide free or low-cost training to journalists in developing countries but demand still outstrips supply. Despite all the safety training and heightened awareness, journalists' deaths are on the rise. Some of the reporters who were among the 57 people mown down in a jungle ambush in the southern Philippines in November had received security training. At least 29 journalists and two media workers were killed that day accompanying a convoy of supporters bound for the provincial capital of Maguindanao to file candidacy papers for a local political leader contesting the provincial governorship. The journalists deliberately travelled in a large group believing it would improve their security. They had also telephoned a senior local military commander ahead of time to request security, which was not provided.
These reporters knew they were working in a dangerous place and tried to mitigate the risk. But the danger for reporters in the Philippines is compounded by the ongoing failure of the state to protect the press by prosecuting those who kill journalists. CPJ ranks the Philippines as the worst peace-time democracy in the world because of its abysmal record of solving journalists' murders.
When law enforcement turns a blind eye it encourages those who are the subject of investigative reporting to hire an assassin rather than a libel lawyer. It's often cheaper and more effective. Murder is the surest form of censorship. For all the unfortunate deaths of prominent journalists in war zones, most reporters are not killed covering combat. Some 75% of journalist deaths are targeted murder.
In countries like Mexico, Russia or the Philippines not only are journalists assassinated, their killers are rarely brought to justice. Journalists are intimidated into avoiding certain stories. The public, deprived of vital information, is the loser. In the towns along the US-Mexican border, for example, many media outlets have given up trying to cover organised crime in any depth. Too many reporters have been abducted, tortured and killed, and their bodies dumped in the public square as a warning to others not to write about drug cartels.
So how do we avoid another year in which 70 journalists die? More and better security training is certainly part of the answer. Reporters are not going to stop going to Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa. That's just what they do. If it gets too dangerous to move among the local population, foreign journalists will embed with the military. Or, as in the case of Iraq at the height of the fighting between 2004 and 2008, they will work from guarded compounds and rely on local reporters as their eyes and ears on the street. It's essential that the media companies who engage those local journalists provide them with all the training and equipment that they would give to western employees. Body armour is no guarantee of safety and some local journalists may not want to wear it because it identifies them as working for foreigners. But they should have the choice.
It's also vital that individual freelancers, who may not have the requisite awareness of the local security and political landscape, don't expose local fixers to danger. Foreign reporters who are detained by militias or security forces for covering conflict are usually released and go home. Their journalist guides, interpreters and drivers sometimes don't have that luxury.
The other key component in reducing media deaths is the battle to end the culture of impunity. It's daunting when you look at cynicism that lies behind the assassinations of journalists in Russia or Mexico. But CPJ's campaign against impunity has begun to notch up a few small successes. Since we took the campaign to the Philippines two years ago, we have helped win changes of venue in the trials of several suspects accused of involvement in journalists' murders, allowing witnesses to testify without fear of intimidation. We also secured a commitment last September from Russian authorities to see investigations into all 17 journalists murders documented in a special report by CPJ, brought to a successful conclusion. We will be back in Moscow in nine months to hold them to their word.

Fidel Castro holds 'emotional' meeting with Brazilian president

Talks between 83-year-old former Cuban leader and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva 'an expression of friendship' between countries
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva with Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana
The Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (right) with the former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Havana. Photograph: Ricardo Stuckert/AFP/Getty Images
The former Cuban leader Fidel Castro hosted an "emotional" meeting with the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, yesterday, reaffirming the close relationship between the countries, Cuban media reported.
Lula is on his last official trip to the island before his term as president expires. He told reporters that Castro, who ruled Cuba for 49 years before health problems forced him to hand power to his younger brother Raúl, looked "exceptionally good".
Photographs showed the two long-time friends chatting and smiling while sitting around a table in the backyard of a two-storey house.
A report on Cuban television said the two had a long and friendly dialogue, discussing topics including the global climate change conference in Copenhagen in December and the recently ended Rio Group summit in Cancun.
Castro, 83, thanked Lula for his "gestures of solidarity and co-operation" with Cuba, the report said.
"The emotional meeting was an expression of the existing friendship between the two leaders and the brotherhood that unites the two countries," it added.
The trip, which is Lula's third to Cuba in two years, was intended to signal the island's importance to his successor, who will take power after Brazil goes to the polls in October, a Brazilian diplomat said.
Under Lula, a former union leader, Brazil has provided money and corporate muscle to Cuba at a time when the Cuban economy has suffered in the global recession.
The state-controlled Brazilian oil giant Petrobras is studying whether to drill for oil off Cuban shores, while the Odebrecht construction firm is heading a huge revamp of the port of Mariel, west of Havana, into the island's main commercial port.
Brazil's state-run National Development Bank has given $300m (£196m) to Odebrecht to build new roads, rail lines, wharves and warehouses at Mariel, best known as the site of a 1980 exodus in which thousands of Cubans fled to the US in boats.
Lula's visit was overshadowed by the death of the Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo on Tuesday after an 85-day hunger strike.
While touring the Mariel project yesterday, Raúl expressed regret at the death of Zapata, who had been in prison since 2003 and was serving a 36-year sentence, but blamed it on "relations with the United States".
He said Zapata had not been murdered or tortured.

Zapata Lives!

Saturday, February 27, 2010
The burial of Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the courage of his mother via Reuters:

Amid shouts of "Zapata lives," about 100 people mourned Cuban political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo as he was buried Thursday in his hometown of Banes following his death by hunger strike this week.

According to Zapata's family and dissidents in Havana, the funeral, held under a rainy sky, took place with dozens of state security agents looking on as the Cuban government clamped down to prevent the event from becoming a rallying point for dissent.

Reina Tamayo, Zapata's mother, refused to cry when her son's wooden coffin was lowered into the ground in the humble local cemetery.

"I'll have my moment to cry for Orlando Zapata, but not in front of them," she said, referring to the government agents.

"We showed them that my son will continue living inside of us. We did not fear them," Tamayo said in a phone interview from Banes, a sleepy city of 80,000 people 500 miles east of Havana.

Zapata, a 42-year-old plumber, died Tuesday in a Havana hospital after an 85-day hunger strike to protest conditions in prison, where he had been since 2003 on charges of disrespect, public disorder and resistance.

Cuba struggles to preserve past in hard times

Every winter, tourists from frozen homelands in the north fill the sunny streets of Old Havana admiring its picturesque colonial buildings and centuries-old squares.

Tourists eat a meal as musicians play in Old Havana's Bodeguita del Medio bar.
Tourists eat a meal as musicians play in Old Havana's Bodeguita del Medio bar. Photo: Reuters/DESMOND BOYLAN
They sip mojitos in the Bodeguita del Medio where Ernest Hemingway supposedly hung out, eat in atmospheric restaurants along Calle Obispo and stay in lovely old hotels restored to their former glory as part of a massive remake of Havana's historic centre by the Cuban government.
But if they walk a few blocks on, they leave the manicured surroundings and emerge into a different Old Havana, where broken, unpainted buildings line pothole-filled streets and history is not recreated, but lived in a continuum of decay.
There, people live in rundown apartments, get their monthly food ration at spartan government stores and buy their drink at state-run shops where wine and rum are served in old water bottles.
With its two very different faces, Old Havana is both the centrepiece of Cuban tourism and a symbol of the city's larger problems.
Cuba's capital, founded beside Havana bay by the Spaniards in 1519, is a place where the past is remarkably intact, but thousands of its historic buildings are threatened by neglect and the government's inability to preserve them.
In a race against time, time is winning, except in part of Old Havana where more than 350 buildings have been restored in a widely praised operation led by Eusebio Leal, city historian.
He and a group of colleagues began the effort in 1967 but it took wings in 1994 when Fidel Castro, who was president at the time, put Leal in charge of a state-owned company to restore the old quarter using profits from the money spent there by tourists.
"We define our battle in Old Havana as a defence of utopia," said Leal.
He said tourist spending allowed him to invest $20 million in the project last year as half a million visitors traipsed through Old Havana.
The amount of money is small compared to the need, he said. A pre-restoration study found 4,000 buildings in Old Havana's 1.3 square mile (3.4 square km) area, virtually all historically valuable and in bad shape.
Leal would like to expand preservation to historic neighborhoods like Central Havana and Vedado, and has done a few renovations outside of Old Havana as "sources of inspiration".
"But economic resources are decisive, and we cannot stray too far from the source, nor the idea of the core," he said.
Havana is a treasure trove of architectural history with block after block of historic buildings in styles ranging from colonial to modernism. Most need repair and many have already fallen.
When Hurricane Ike brushed the city in 2008, 67 buildings collapsed, raising fears about what will happen when a big storm hits Havana head on.
The most basic problem is a lack of maintenance for many years following the 1959 revolution that transformed Cuba into a Communist state. The new government focused on building infrastructure in the impoverished countryside and basically ignored Havana.
Leal said Cuba does not have the money to do more, due in part to the longstanding US trade embargo against the island. "We have lived for more than 50 years in an economic and commercial war," he said.
Government opponents blame the Communist system that Fidel Castro put in place and the economic woes that followed.
Leal argues that the revolution saved historic Havana from Cuban capitalists, who he said had plans to replace old buildings with new, even in Old Havana.
"Without Socialism, Old Havana would not be preserved," he said.
About 6 per cent of Old Havana's restoration funds come from organisations including the United Nations, but more could be done if the government allowed greater private investment from abroad, said Bernd Herrmann, the head of the Havana-based Swiss travel agency Cuba Real Tours.
Cuba has a problem in that many visitors come - 2.42 million in 2009 - but, due to insufficient tourist infrastructure and poor service, do not return, Herrmann said.
"If they would let in investors, the satisfaction of the clients would be greater. We'd have more repeaters," he said.
Other ideas have been floated about how best to save Havana's history, including at least two proposed city plans, one by the architecture school at Florida International University in Miami, the other by Julio Cesar Perez Hernandez, a Cuban architect.
Perez Hernandez said he drew up a plan because the government does not have one and the city desperately needs it. "It's overwhelming. When I see how much should and could be done to give Havana back its glorious image, I suffer."
It is probably a moot point for now because Cuba has been hit hard by the global recession, so the government is more concerned with putting food on Cuban tables than preserving the past.
There is a social side to the project in Old Havana, where Leal said schools and health clinics have been restored or constructed, and the program's 16 hotels create employment.
But many locals say they have to illegally sell cigars to tourists or serve them meals in their homes or just try to befriend them in hopes of getting money because while Old Havana flourishes, they do not.
"The people in Old Havana benefit from tourism from the things they do on the side," said Diogenes, who is trying to make his rustic home presentable so he can rent rooms to tourists. "I only want what I need to live. I don't want to be rich."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

There's something in the!


Wanting to scream

By Yoani Sanchez
Life never returns to normal, it does not go back to that time before the tragedy that now – illusorily – we evoke as a period of calm. I open my datebook, try to resume my life, the blog, the Twitter messages… but nothing comes out. These last days have been too intense. The face of Reina Tamayo, in the shadows in front of the morgue where she prepared and dressed her son for his longest journey, is the only thing in my mind. Then the images of Wednesday piled on: arrests, beatings, violence, a jail cell with the stink of urine that adjoined another where Eugenio Leal and Ricardo Santiago demanded their rights. The rest of the time I continue on like a mannequin, looking without seeing, furiously typing.
And so, there is no one who writes a coherent and restrained line. I so want to scream, but February 24 left me hoarse.
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Digg
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon

S : babalú

Odds and ends

  • La Jornada: Following the death of prisoner Orlando Zapata, Cuba’s Catholic Church calls for dialogue and calls upon the government to “take adequate measures” so such a death cannot be repeated.
  • Cuban Colada translates some of the church statement cited above, and also has more extensive quotes from Raul Castro yesterday, and a Cuban government statement on medical attention given to Orlando Zapata before his death.
  • CNN: an exchange between Senator Menendez and Secretary Clinton regarding the USAID Cuba program.
  • Remember this case of a Briton who showed up at Washington’s Folger Shakespeare Library with a 17th century book, claiming he obtained it in Cuba? He goes on trial in June in Britain and just entered a not guilty plea. AP story here.

A call for solidarity

Dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe has distributed this call (pdf) for fasting and Bible readings next month as a way of “demanding that human rights, which are inalienable for all human beings, be respected for the people of Cuba.” It is signed by Oscar Elias Biscet, Julio Cesar Galvez, Regis Iglesias, and Angel Moya, and includes names but not signatures of Normando Hernandez and Ricardo Gonzalez. All are among the 75 opposition and human rights activists arrested and sentenced in the spring of 2003, and all are in the Combinado del Este prison now. Espinosa Chepe is also among the group of 75 but was released provisionally in November 2004 for health reasons.


FEBRuary 2010
Protesters force police to return sack of rice

HAVANA, Cuba, Feb. 22 (Moisés Leonardo Rodríguez / - More than 60 passengers on a bus protested the seizure of a 20-pound sack of rice and forced the police to return it to the owner.
“That rice is for consumption by my family,” said the passenger to whom the rice belonged.
The incident occurred Feb. 16 at the Mariel-Cabañas junction in the state of Havana.

When the police put the sack in the trunk of their cruiser, the passengers started shouting and kept it up for half an hour before the rice was returned. “Given the hunger in this country,” one man shouted at the police, “You’re abusing that woman.”

Cuba cancels development baseball league

HAVANA, Cuba, Feb. 22 (Leafar Pérez, -Cuban authorities have suspended the baseball season of the Development League because of the state of the economy.

The decision means that some 300 players will no longer be available for call-up to play for any of the teams involved in the 49th National Baseball Series.

The development league has 16 teams and operated as a farm system for the top teams.

Wife of dissident threatened with jail
HAVANA, Cuba, Feb. 18 (Odelín Alfonso Torna, – Carlos Hernández Ojeda of the November 30 Frank País Democratic Party says two political policemen threatened to jail his wife if he continued his dissident activity.
 Hernández Ojeda said the pair showed up at his residence in the Arroyo Naranjo district of Havana on February 11 when he was not at home.
 Hernández Ojeda and Boris Rodríguez Jiménez, a party colleague, were detained February 6 and taken in handcuffs to a police station for questioning. He said they were held for 10 hours without water or food.
He said state security agents accused them of planning a demonstration February 7 at the Havana Psychiatric Hospital where 26 patients were said to have died in January for lack of care.

Human rights advocates arrested and fined in Banes
HAVANA, Cuba, Feb. 18 (Doralis Álvarez Soto,  - Two human rights activists were arrested in Banes in Holguín state last week and fined for carrying anti-government posters.
 Diagzán Saavedra Prat and Arnaldo Expósito Zaldívar were threatened Feb. 10 with jail but ended up paying a 30 peso fine.
Saavedra Prat said he was protesting because state security agents had his shoemakers license rescinded. He was freed from jail last year after serving a year-long-sentence for being a danger to the public.
He’s a member of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights and the Municipal Democratic Circle in Banes.

Government seeks to identify firearms

HAVANA, Cuba, Feb. 15 (Carlos Ríos Otero, -The Ministry of the Interior has advised all gun owners that they must go to a police station before the end of the month and certify that the arms they possess are theirs.

According to the Ministry, there are 60,000 legally-owned guns in private hands. Most of them are hunting or target practice long guns.

The order follows a series of robberies by persons carrying handguns.

Russians returning to Havana

HAVANA, Cuba, Feb. 11 (Lucas Garve, – Some 200 Russians have been invited to the ninth International Book Fair, dedicated to Russia, which opens here today.
The government’s publishing house announced that it would bring out new editions of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, among others, but no mention was made of the works of Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, both Nobel Prize winners for literature who opposed Communism.
Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet will perform Saturday night at the Karl Marx Theater.
The first International Book Fair was held in Havana in 1937.

Police raid jewelry shops in Matanzas

HABANA, Cuba, Feb. 11 (Carlos Ríos / – Police raided a group of jewelry shops last week in Cárdenas in Matanzas province, seizing work tools and money.
Police told the jewelers that their permits only applied to the repair of jewels and did not allow them to melt gold and silver and make jewels.
Most affected was the Otero family, makers of jewelry since the nineteenth century, whose three shops were raided.
Independent journalist arrested and  charged

HOLGUÍN, Cuba, February 1 (José Ramón Pupo Nieves,  - Independent journalist Juan Carlos Reyes Ocaña was arrested in his home in Holguín last week and taken to a police station where he was charged with insult, disobedience and illicit economic activity.

Members of the dissident went to the police station last Friday in a sign of support for Reyes Ocaña, who was released pending trial.

Reyes Ocaña is affiliated with Holguín Press, an independent new agency.

Dissidents arrested after wreath laying

SANTA CLARA, Cuba, February 1 (Yesmy Elena Mena Zurbano, – A group of dissidents was arrested last week after laying a wreath at a monument to independence hero José Martí.
Five of the dissidents, members of the Frank País November 30 Democratic Party, were detained in the morning and released in the evening, while a sixth was held overnight, according to one of them, Amado Ruiz Moreno.

Ruiz Moreno, who said he was beaten about the legs, said he and his colleagues had planned to go to the police station to demand the release of political prisoners.


Cuba says dead hunger striker was common criminal

  • 1 vote
HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba fired back against international criticism on Saturday, saying in state-run press a prisoner who died of a hunger strike this week was a common criminal used by Cuba's enemies for political purposes. Communist Party newspaper Granma said dissidents and foreign countries encouraged Orlando Zapata Tamayo to fight against the Cuban system and to undertake the 85-day hunger strike that ended in his death on Tuesday. The case prompted international condemnation and calls from the United States, the European Union and Spain for Cuba to release all its estimated 200 political prisoners. But Granma, in an article by Cuban essayist Enrique Ubieta Gomez, said "Despite all the make up, this has to do with a common prisoner who began his criminal activity in 1988." It said Zapata, a 42-year-old plumber from eastern Cuba, had served time in prison for crimes ranging from unlawful entry of a house to fraud before he went into jail for good in 2003 for crimes "not connected to politics." Behind bars, he was recruited by dissidents to join their cause and did so in part because of "material advantages" bestowed upon Cuba's political opponents by "foreign embassies," Granma said. "This case is a direct consequence of the murderous policy against Cuba that encourages illegal immigration, disobedience and violation of laws and established order," it said. The Granma article echoed some of President Raul Castro's comments, who on Wednesday regretted Zapata's death but blamed the United States for what Cuba views as subversive policies. Cuban leaders consider dissidents to be U.S. mercenaries working to overthrow the government. Political analysts have said the death has likely stalled any near-term hopes for improved U.S.-Cuba relations and made it more difficult for Spain to change the European Union's common position on Cuba during its current six-month term at the head of the 27-nation bloc. Spain has said it wanted to remove obstacles to better relations with Cuba by eliminating a clause in the common position urging democracy and improved human rights on the communist-led island. Cuban dissidents have said Zapata was a martyr to their cause and vowed to step up pressure for democratic change in Cuba. (Reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Jeff Franks)

Chile earthquake

Rescuers struggle to save lives after Chile quake

Firemen work on a destroyed building in Concepcion, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010, after AP – Firemen work on a destroyed building in Concepcion, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010, after a devastating earthquake …
CONCEPCION, Chile – Rescuers edged their way toward quake victims trapped in a toppled apartment block early Sunday even as looters stole food and robbed banks after one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded struck Chile. Authorities put the death toll from Saturday's magnitude-8.8 quake at 214, but believed the number would grow. They said 1.5 million Chileans were affected and 500,000 homes severely damaged by the mammoth temblor. A tsunami caused by the quake that swept across the Pacific killed several people on a Chilean island but caused little damage in other countries, after precautionary evacuations of hundreds of thousands of people. The tsunami warning was lifted a day after the earthquake. President Michelle Bachelet, who leaves office March 11, declared a "state of catastrophe" in central Chile. "It was a catastrophe of devastating consequences," she said. Police said more than 100 people died in Concepcion, the largest city near the epicenter with more than 200,000 people. The university was among the buildings that caught fire around the city as gas and power lines snapped. Many streets were littered with rubble from edifices and inmates escaped from a nearby prison. Police used water cannon and tear gas to scatter people who forced open the doors of the Lider supermarket in Concepcion, hauling away everything from diapers to dehydrated milk to a kitchen stove. Across the Bio Bio River in San Pedro, others cleared out a shopping mall. A video store was set ablaze, two automatic teller machines were broken open, a bank was robbed and a supermarket emptied, its floor littered with mashed plums, scattered dog food and smashed liquor bottles. The largest building damaged in Concepion was a newly opened 11-story apartment that toppled backward, trapping an estimated 60 people inside apartments where the floors suddenly became vertical and the contents of every room slammed down onto rear walls. "It fell at the moment the earthquake began," said 4th Lt. Juan Schulmeyer of Concepcion's 7th Firefighter Company, pointing to where the foundation collapsed. A full 24 hours later, only 16 people had been pulled out alive, and six bodies had been recovered. Rescuers heard a woman call out at 11 p.m. Saturday from what seemed like the 6th floor, but hours later they were making slow progress in reaching her. Rescuers were working with two power saws and an electric hammer on a generator, but their supply of gas was running out and it was taking them a frustrating hour and a half to cut each hole through the concrete. "It's very difficult working in the dark with aftershocks, and inside it's complicated. The apartments are totally destroyed. You have to work with great caution," said Paulo Klein, who was leading a group of rescue specialists from Puerto Montt. They flew in on an air force plane with just the equipment they could carry. Heavy equipment was coming later along with 12 other rescuers. The quake tore apart houses, bridges and highways, and Chileans near the epicenter were thrown from their beds by the force of the mega-quake, which was felt as far away as Sao Paulo in Brazil — 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) to the east. The full extent of damage remained unclear. Ninety aftershocks of magnitude 5 or greater shuddered across the disaster prone Andean nation within 24 hours of the initial quake. One was nearly as powerful as Haiti's devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. In the village of Reumen, a tractor trailer slammed into a dangling pedestrian overpass and 40 tons of concrete and steel crunched the truck, covering Chile's main highway with smashed grapes, tomatoes and cucumbers — one of several overpasses toppled along the highway. Truck driver Jaime Musso, 53, thought his truck was being buffeted by strong winds and by the time he saw the overpass hanging down over Highway 5 there was no chance of stopping, so he aimed for the spot where he thought he would cause the least damage and brought down the overpass onto his truck. He said he survived "by millimeters." As night fell Saturday, about a dozen men and children sat around a bonfire in the remains of their homes in Curico, a town 122 miles (196 kilometers) south of the capital, Santiago. "We were sleeping when we felt the quake, very strongly. I got up and went out the door. When I looked back my bed was covered in rubble," said survivor Claudio Palma. In the capital Santiago, 200 miles (325 kilometers) to the northeast of the epicenter, the national Fine Arts Museum was badly damaged and an apartment building's two-story parking lot pancaked, smashing about 50 cars. Santiago's airport was closed and its subway shut down. Chile's main seaport, in Valparaiso, was ordered closed while damage was assessed. Two oil refineries shut down. The state-run Codelco, the world's largest copper producer, halted work at two of its mines, but said it expected them to resume operations quickly. The jolt set off a tsunami that swamped San Juan Bautista village on Robinson Crusoe Island off Chile, killing at least five people and leaving 11 missing, said Guillermo de la Masa, head of the government emergency bureau for the Valparaiso region. On the mainland, several huge waves inundated part of the major port city of Talcahuano, near hard-hit Concepcion. A large boat was swept more than a block inland. The surge of water raced across the Pacific, setting off alarm sirens in Hawaii, Polynesia and Tonga, but the tsunami waves proved small and did little damage as they reached as far as Japan. Robert Williams, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the Chilean quake was hundreds of times more powerful than Haiti's magnitude-7 quake, though it was deeper and cost far fewer lives. The largest earthquake ever recorded struck the same area of Chile on May 22, 1960. The magnitude-9.5 quake killed 1,655 people and made 2 million homeless. Saturday's quake matched a 1906 temblor off the Ecuadorean coast as the seventh-strongest ever recorded in the world. ___ Associated Press writers Roberto Candia in Talca, Chile, Eva Vergara in Curico, Chile, and Eduardo Gallardo in Santiago, Chile, contributed to this report.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

US, Afghan forces clear last parts of Taliban area

U.S. soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade, 2nd AP – U.S. soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, conduct …
MARJAH, Afghanistan – Marines and Afghan troops who fought through the center of Marjah linked up Saturday with American soldiers on the northern edge of the former Taliban stronghold, clearing the town's last major pocket of resistance. The joint force encountered almost no hostile fire, indicating that the militants have either fled or blended in with the local population — perhaps to stage attacks later if the Afghan government fails to hold the town. Some Taliban operatives are believed to remain west of Marjah. Establishing a credible local government is a key component of NATO's strategy for the 2-week-old offensive on the Taliban's longtime logistical hub and heroin-smuggling center. Earlier in the week, the government installed a new town administrator, and several hundred Afghan police have begun to patrol the newly cleared areas of the town in the southern province of Helmand. After a grueling four-day march, Marines and Afghan troops succeeded Saturday in linking up with a U.S. Army Stryker battalion on Marjah's northern outskirts. "Basically, you can say that Marjah has been cleared," said Capt. Joshua Winfrey, commander of Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines Regiment. As helicopters and unmanned drones circled overhead, NATO troops saw little resistance except from homemade explosives buried in the ground. Lima Company's more than more than 100 heavily armed Marines, along with nearly as many Afghan army soldiers, had spent days carefully advancing to the north in tactical columns, searching every compound for possible Taliban ambushes. But there was no enemy in sight. The Marines didn't fire a shot — except at a couple of Afghan guard dogs who attacked the unit. Some of the allied force said the Taliban probably just went underground, waiting for better days. "They're not stupid. I'd do the same if I saw a company of U.S. Marines coming my way," said Capt. Abdelhai Hujum, commander of the Afghan unit. The Marjah milestone came a day after Taliban suicide attackers killed at least 16 people — half of them foreigners — in bomb and gun assaults on two guesthouses in Kabul, a reminder that the insurgents still have the strength to launch attacks even in the heavily defended capital. At least six of the victims were Indian citizens whose bodies were returned home Saturday on an air force jet sent from New Delhi. Afghan President Hamid Karzai telephoned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday to express regret and vowed his government would take extra security measures, Karzai's office said. An Indian statement said Singh was "outraged" at the attack. The Marjah offensive has been the war's biggest combined operation since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban regime and the first major test of NATO's counterinsurgency strategy since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 new American troops to try to reverse Taliban gains. Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, said success in Marjah will be measured by whether its people, who have lived for years under the Taliban's hard-line interpretation of Islam, eventually feel as secure as under the religious militia. "The president was very clear before the operation that we have to convince the people of Marjah that we'll bring them security, we'll bring them good governance and life will be better for them than under the Taliban," Omar said Saturday. Saturday's linkup between the U.S. military units along with their Afghan partners means the offensive on the town has now given way to what military officials are calling "the hold phase," though that doesn't mean an end to fighting in Marjah. There remain some suspected groups of Taliban fighters on the western outskirts of town. Marine spokesman Capt. Abe Sipe downplayed the development, describing it as another step in the effort to secure Marjah. He warned that the combined forces expect to face intermittent attacks for at least two more weeks. "We are not calling anything completely secure yet," Sipe said. On Saturday, a Marine convoy hit a large roadside bomb on Saturday, but there were no injuries. U.S. Army soldiers have also discovered buried explosives in northern Marjah, but they have had no direct enemy contact for two or three days. Gunfire rang out Saturday from the British-patrolled eastern side of the area's main canal, but it was unclear if there were any casualties. Sipe said armed resistance has "fallen off pretty dramatically" in the last four to five days, but he added, "We don't think that necessarily means it's gone completely." Hujum, who spent two decades in Afghanistan's various militia before joining the nascent national army, shared that view. He said most of the Taliban in the area probably buried their AK-47s and blended with the civilians. "I can sense them all around us," Hujum said Friday as squads of Afghan troops and some Marines stormed a mosque where a child had said eight insurgents were preparing an ambush. Villagers were somewhat hostile _one threw a stone at a Marine waiting outside. But again, there wasn't a single rifle or Taliban in sight. ___ Associated Press writers Christopher Torchia in Marjah, and Kay Johnson and Kathy Gannon in Kabul contributed to this report.