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.


Leaders of two Koreas hold surprise meeting as Trump revives summit hopes

Updated 27 May 2018
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Leaders of two Koreas hold surprise meeting as Trump revives summit hopes

SEOUL/WASHINGTON: South Korean President Moon Jae-in held a surprise meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Saturday in an effort to ensure that a high-stakes summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump takes place successfully, South Korean officials said.
The meeting was the latest dramatic turn in a week of diplomatic flip-flops surrounding the prospects for an unprecedented summit between the United States and North Korea, and the strongest sign yet that the two Korean leaders are trying to keep the on-again off-again summit on track.
Their two hours of talks at the Panmunjom border village came a month after they held the first inter-Korean summit in more than a decade at the same venue. At that meeting, they declared they would work toward a nuclear-free Korean peninsula and a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War.
“The two leaders candidly exchanged views about making the North Korea-US summit a successful one and about implementing the Panmunjom Declaration,” South Korea’s presidential spokesman said in a statement. He did not confirm how the meeting was arranged or which side asked for it.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said an advance team of White House and US State Department officials would leave for Singapore on schedule this weekend to prepare for a possible summit there.
Reuters reported earlier this week that a US advance team was scheduled to discuss the agenda and logistics for the summit with North Korean officials.
“There is a very strong possibility a US-North Korea summit could be back on very soon,” said Harry Kazianis of the conservative Center for the National Interest think-tank in Washington.
Whether one takes place depends on Kim agreeing to some sort of a realistic and verifiable denuclearization plan, added Kazianis, citing his own Trump administration sources. “If not, no summit. That is what it hinges on,” he said.
TRUMP HAILS “PRODUCTIVE TALKS“
In a letter to Kim on Thursday, Trump had said he was canceling the summit planned for June 12 in Singapore, citing North Korea’s “open hostility.”
But on Friday he indicated the meeting could be salvaged after welcoming a conciliatory statement from Pyongyang.
“We’re talking to them now. They very much want to do it. We’d like to do it,” Trump told reporters at the White House.
In a tweet later, Trump cited “very productive talks” and said that if the summit were reinstated it would likely remain in Singapore on June 12, and that it could be extended if necessary.
A senior White House official told reporters on Thursday that organizing a summit by June 12 could be a challenge, given the amount of dialogue needed to ensure a clear agenda.
“And June 12 is in ... 10 minutes,” the official said.
If the summit is not held, some analysts warn that the prospect of a military confrontation between the two nations would rise, while a successful summit would mark Trump’s biggest foreign policy achievement.
The Trump administration is demanding that North Korea completely and irreversibly shutter its nuclear weapons program. Kim and Trump’s initial decision to meet followed months of war threats and insults between the leaders over the program.
Pyongyang has conducted six nuclear tests, and has developed a long-range missile that could theoretically hit anywhere in the United States. Experts, however, are doubtful that North Korea possesses a warhead capable of surviving the stresses of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Video and a photo released by South Korea’s presidential Blue House on Saturday showed Kim hugging Moon and kissing him on the cheek three times as he saw Moon off after their meeting at Tongilgak, the North’s building in the truce village, which lies in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — the 2.5-mile (4 km) wide buffer that runs along the heavily armed military border.
Video footage also showed Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, greeting Moon as he arrived at Tongilgak and shaking hands, before the South Korean leader entered the building flanked by North Korean military guards.
Moon is the only South Korean leader to have met a North Korean leader twice, both times in the DMZ, which is a symbol of the unending hostilities between the nations after the Korean War ended in 1953 in a truce, not a peace treaty.