London fire inquiry starts amid anger, despair of survivors

Demonstrators gather outside the Grenfell Tower public Inquiry in central London, Britain, September 14, 2017. (REUTERS)
Updated 14 September 2017
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London fire inquiry starts amid anger, despair of survivors

LONDON: A public inquiry into a fire that killed at least 80 people at London’s Grenfell Tower will get to the truth about the tragedy, its chairman pledged on Thursday, but critics said survivors of the blaze were still being failed.
The 24-story social housing block, home to a poor, multi-ethnic community, was gutted on June 14 in an inferno that started in a fourth-floor apartment in the middle of the night and quickly engulfed the building.
Grenfell Tower was part of a deprived housing estate in Kensington and Chelsea, one of the richest boroughs in London, and the disaster has prompted a national debate about social inequality and government neglect of poor communities.
The inquiry started with a minute’s silence to honor the victims, whose exact number remains unknown because of the devastation inside the tower.
“(The inquiry) can and will provide answers to the pressing questions of how a disaster of this kind could occur in 21st century London,” its chairman, retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, said in his opening statement.
He said the inquiry was not there to punish anyone or to award compensation, but to get to the truth. A separate police investigation is underway, which could result in manslaughter charges. There have been no arrests.
The inquiry will examine the cause and spread of the fire, the design, construction and refurbishment of the tower, whether fire regulations relating to high-rise buildings are adequate and whether they were complied with. It will also look at the actions of the authorities before and after the tragedy.
But critics warned of a disconnect between the technical, legalistic inquiry process and the ongoing ordeal of traumatized former Grenfell Tower residents still awaiting new homes.
Prime Minister Theresa May pledged that all families whose homes were destroyed in the fire would be rehoused within three weeks, but three months later most still live in hotels.
Just three out of 197 households that needed rehousing have moved into permanent homes, while 29 have moved into temporary accommodation.
“We lost everything. It’s difficult for the other people to be in our shoes,” Miguel Alves, who escaped his 13th-floor apartment in Grenfell Tower with his family, told the BBC.
“Now I’m without anything, I’m in the hotel, I have to cope with my family. My daughter, she just started school. They need some stability and that I cannot give to my family,” he said.
“BALLROOM DRIPPING WITH CHANDELIERS“
Emma Dent Coad, a member of parliament from the opposition Labour Party who represents the area, said the inquiry’s remit was too narrow and would fail to address the blaze’s deeper causes such as failings in social housing policies.
She also criticized the choice of venue for Moore-Bick’s opening statement, a lavishly decorated room in central London.
“We were sitting in a ballroom dripping with chandeliers. I think it was the most incredibly inappropriate place to have something like that, and actually says it all about the us-and-them divide that people see,” she told the BBC.
Many of those affected have also expressed disquiet about the fact that Moore-Bick and the other lawyers appointed to run the inquiry are all white and part of a perceived “establishment” far removed from their own circumstances.
“The experience of many residents of that tower is that they were ignored because of their immigration status,” lawyer Jolyon Maugham, who is advising some residents, told the BBC.
“We need someone on the inquiry team that can speak to that experience and at the moment on the panel we have a bunch of white privileged barristers,” he said.
One of the difficulties facing the inquiry is that it needs former residents to give evidence but some fear possible deportation.
The government has said it would grant a 12-month amnesty to anyone affected by the fire who was in Britain illegally. Supporters say only permanent residency rights will persuade people to come forward.


UN Security Council meets over Syria in remote Swedish farmhouse

Updated 14 min 59 sec ago
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UN Security Council meets over Syria in remote Swedish farmhouse

BACKARA- SWEDEN: The UN Security Council met in a secluded farmhouse on the southern tip of Sweden on Saturday in a bid to overcome deep divisions over how to end the war in Syria.
In a first for the Council, which normally holds its annual brainstorming session in upstate New York, the 15 ambassadors and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres were this year invited to hold an informal meeting in Backakra by Sweden, a non-permanent member of the body.
The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is expected on Sunday.
The farmhouse is the summer residence of Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations’ second secretary-general who died in a plane crash in Africa in 1961.
Situated in the heart of a nature reserve, just a stone’s throw from the Baltic Sea, the farmhouse consists of four buildings around a courtyard and has been completely renovated in recent years.
The southern wing serves as the summer residence for the Swedish Academy which awards the Nobel Literature Prize.
With both New York and Damascus thousands of kilometers away, the Council is exploring “the means to strengthen and make more effective United Nations peacekeeping missions,” the Swedish government said.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom welcomed the decision to hold the meeting in Sweden, “where there is a long tradition of peaceful conflict prevention and resolution.”
But as she arrived in Backakra on Saturday morning she warned against being too hopeful the Syrian issue would be resolved over the weekend.
“Hopefully there will be some new ideas on the table and I think it’ll be on those tracks: the humanitarian situation, the chemical weapons,” she said.
But “not even the beautiful settings like these can solve all the problems,” the minister added.
The country’s deputy UN Ambassador Carl Skau said the idea was to foster dialogue and “relaunch momentum” with “humility and patience,” a week after the air strikes by France, Britain and the United States against the Syrian regime.
“It’s important for the council’s credibility,” Skau told reporters in New York.
While the war in Syria is not the only topic of the deliberations, it is high up on the agenda because it was an issue that divided council members deeply in recent months.
Skau said Backakra was a “fitting and inspiring venue” to reconnect with the power of diplomacy.
“It’s a place to roll up our sleeves, take off our jackets and ties and come up with some real and meaningful ways forward,” he said.