Italian island readies for Concordia disaster anniversary

Updated 13 January 2013
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Italian island readies for Concordia disaster anniversary

GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy: An Italian island prepared yesterday to mark the first anniversary of the Costa Concordia cruise disaster, as officials promised the 290-meter (951-foot) wreck will be removed by September.
Survivors and victims’ relatives began to arrive on Giglio for a commemoration today for the 32 passengers and crew who perished that night on a ship twice the size of the Titanic.
“It’s not easy to return,” said Kevin Rebello, whose brother was a waiter on the Costa Concordia and is still officially reported as missing.
“I was looking at the ship when I was coming in on the ferry. It brought back memories of those days.... I have still not found peace,” he said.
The liner crashed into a group of rocks just off Giglio, veered sharply and keeled over just as many passengers were sitting down for supper on the first night of a Mediterranean cruise.
Salvage workers have been laboring around the clock for months to stabilize the wreck and eventually refloat it and tow it away in an operation that has never been attempted before.
The removal has been hit by delays but the head of Italy’s civil protection agency, Franco Gabrielli, said it would happen by September at the latest.
“The program envisages the definitive removal by September,” Gabrielli told reporters on the island, underlining that the operation was “exceptional”.
Franco Porcellacchia, an executive from ship owner Costa Crociere who is overseeing the project, said the budget had increased from $300 million to $400 million and could rise further.
Nick Sloane, a representative of US salvage giant Titan said the actual refloating of the ship could happen by July.
“The most difficult part lies ahead. Refloating the boat should only take six hours, but the weight of the shifting water inside the ship as we right it must be extremely carefully controlled,” he said.
Meanwhile marquees to host the more than 100 survivors expected at the ceremony have sprung up along the Tuscan island’s port, just a few hundred yards from where the ship capsized with 4,229 people from 70 countries on board.
Mayor Sergio Ortelli said islanders were keen to welcome back those who lived through that night, even though Costa Crociere asked survivors to stay away from the commemoration because of logistics.
Many of them had sought shelter in local homes and a church in the port after being pulled shivering from the freezing sea after a panicky evacuation.
“The idea is to exorcise a horrible episode, and to share the pain and drama of those who lost a loved one,” Ortelli said.
“Many survivors and relatives of victims have returned to thank us, and share their memories with us. Some, a year on, still send us emails,” he said.
The commemorations today will include replacing where it once stood the rock that the ship crashed into and tore away. There will then be a mass.


After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

Updated 1 min 23 sec ago
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After Afghan cease-fire gamble, prospects rise for US-Taliban talks

KABUL/WASHINGTON: Prospects have risen for negotiations between the Taliban and the United States after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called a cease-fire and allowed militants to roam into cities in a gamble to encourage peace talks.
The Taliban, ousted from power in 2001 by US-led troops, insist that any negotiations with what it calls the “puppet” Afghan government on a peace plan can begin only after talks with the United States about withdrawing foreign forces.
Analysts and Western diplomats said Ghani’s offer to hold unconditional peace talks had set the stage for US officials to open backchannel negotiations with the Taliban, despite Washington’s policy that peace talks be Afghan-led.
“Ghani has done his bit,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank.
“It is now for the US to cut through this blockade,” he said, although that would be a departure from US policy that talks to end the 17-year-old war must be wholly Afghan-led.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared ready to tweak the policy when he welcomed Ghani’s 10-day extension of a cease-fire that is currently due to end on Wednesday. The Taliban said its cease-fire ended on Sunday.
“As President Ghani emphasised in his statement to the Afghan people, peace talks by necessity would include a discussion of the role of international actors and forces,” Pompeo said. “The United States is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”
Richard Olson, former US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, described the statement as significant “in that it signals that the US is prepared to ultimately discuss the issue that is paramount to the Taliban, which is the withdrawal of foreign forces.”
A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the start of the cease-fire, however said there were a number of issues that made direct talks between the Taliban and the United States unlikely in the short-term.
The official said there was a substantial gap in knowledge about the Taliban — for instance as to who had the authority to negotiate on the their behalf. “There is not enough intelligence or resources on this issue,” the official said.
A second official said there was still a question of what would happen with hard-line elements of the Taliban. “There are Taliban that won’t come to the table,” the official said.
Taliban call
The Taliban, in a statement marking the end of their cease-fire on Sunday, said the organization was unified and called on “the invading American party” to “sit directly for dialogue with the Islamic Emirate to find a solution for the ongoing imbroglio.”
A senior diplomat with knowledge of the negotiations leading to the cease-fire estimated the chances of eventual talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government at “50-50.”
“The Taliban want to talk to the US directly on withdrawal (of foreign forces) because they do not want to share the credit of withdrawal with the government,” the official said.
And while Washington has long resisted direct talks with Taliban, the official said that recent developments indicate “the US now seems less and less averse to it.”
In August, US President Donald Trump unveiled a more hawkish military approach to Afghanistan, including a surge in air strikes. Afghan security forces say the impact has been significant, but the Taliban roam huge areas of the country and, with foreign troop levels of about 15,600, down from 140,000 in 2014, there appears little hope of outright victory.
Ghani, never widely popular, met his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, on Sunday to secure support for peace talks. He visited a restaurant in Kabul where he met diners and took selfies with children, trying to capitalize on the unprecedented party atmosphere created by the cease-fire to mark last weekend’s Eid Al-Fitr festival.
But Amrullah Saleh, the former head of intelligence and head of a political party, said Ghani had committed a blunder by allowing insurgents to pour into government-controlled areas.
“Thousands of Taliban fighters were allowed to enter with guns and some of them could be hiding in civilian areas, planning attacks,” Saleh told Reuters.
Ghani has also come in for praise.
“Now we can say that our president is making an absolute honest attempt” for peace, said Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the chairman of the outspoken New National Front of Afghanistan.