Over a million Rohingya refugees living in camps, Bangladesh says

A Rohingya refugee waits with others for food aid at Thankhali refugee camp in Bangladesh's Ukhia. Some of the refugees have been living in Bangladesh for many years, but the repatriation agreement only covers those who have arrived since October 2016. (AFP)
Updated 17 January 2018
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Over a million Rohingya refugees living in camps, Bangladesh says

COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh: Bangladesh has counted more than a million Rohingya refugees living in camps near the border with Myanmar, higher than previous estimates, the head of its registration project said Wednesday as preparations for their return got under way.
The Bangladesh army began biometric registering of the refugees last year after the latest mass influx of Rohingya from Myanmar, where the Muslim minority have faced decades of persecution.
The registration is aimed partly at aiding repatriation of the refugees — a controversial issue as most say they do not want to return.
Bangladesh says it wants to start sending them home next week and has reached an initial agreement with Myanmar to complete the process within two years.
“So far we’ve registered 1,004,742 Rohingya. They are given biometric registration cards,” said Saidur Rahman, a brigadier general with the Bangladesh army who heads the Rohingya registration project.
Several thousand more have yet to be registered, he said.
The figures are higher than those provided by the UN, which estimates there are 962,000 Rohingya living in southeast Bangladesh, near the Myanmar border.
That includes the 655,000 the UN estimates have entered the country since August 25, when the Myanmar military launched a violent crackdown in Rakhine state following attacks by Rohingya militants.
Doctors Without Borders has said at least 6,700 Rohingya Muslims were killed in the first month of the crackdown.
Refugees in Bangladesh have alleged mass rape and widespread arson at the hands of soldiers and the Buddhist majority in Rakhine.
Some of the refugees have been living in Bangladesh for many years, but the repatriation agreement only covers those who have arrived since October 2016.
The two sides said on Tuesday they have agreed to complete the repatriation within a two-year period, the first concrete timeline given for the refugees’ return.
On Wednesday a Bangladesh official said thousands of Rohingya stranded in no man’s land since the latest violence erupted would be among the first to return under the agreement with Myanmar.
“What we’ve proposed to them is that they start with some 6,500 who have been stranded for a long time in no man’s land,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
Rights groups and the UN have expressed serious reservations about starting the process, particularly as Rohingya are still fleeing Rakhine.
There are also questions marks over where returning refugees would live after many of their homes were burned to the ground.
“With memories of rape, killing and torture still fresh in the minds of Rohingya refugees, plans for their return to Myanmar are alarmingly premature,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said on Tuesday.
“The obfuscation and denials of the Myanmar authorities give no reason to hope that the rights of returning Rohingya would be protected, or that the reasons for their original flight no longer exist.”


North Korea preps nuclear site demolition despite US summit doubts

Updated 17 min 16 sec ago
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North Korea preps nuclear site demolition despite US summit doubts

SEOUL: Invited foreign journalists gathered in North Korea Wednesday to witness the slated destruction of the reclusive regime’s nuclear test site, a high profile gesture on the road to a summit with the US that Donald Trump now says might not happen.
In a surprise announcement Pyongyang said earlier this month that it planned to “completely” destroy the Punggye-ri facility in the country’s northeast, a move welcomed by Washington and Seoul.
Punggye-ri has been the site of all six of the North’s nuclear tests, the latest and by far the most powerful in September last year, which Pyongyang said was an H-bomb.
The demolition is due to take place sometime between Wednesday and Friday, depending on the weather.
The North has portrayed the destruction on the test site as a goodwill gesture ahead of planned June 12 summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore.
But doubts have since been cast by both sides on whether that potentially historic meeting will take place.
Last week Pyongyang threatened to pull out if Washington pressed for its unilateral nuclear disarmament. Trump also said the meeting could be delayed as he met with South Korean leader Moon Jae-in in Washington on Tuesday.
“There are certain conditions we want to happen. I think we’ll get those conditions. And if we don’t, we won’t have the meeting,” he told reporters, without elaborating on what those conditions might be.

Politically, Trump has invested heavily in the success of his meeting with Kim, and so privately most US officials, as well as outside observers, believe it will go ahead.
But as the date draws near, Trump’s divergence from his top aides, the differences between the two sides and the high stakes are coming into sharp relief.
Washington has made it clear it wants to see the “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization” of the North.
Pyongyang has vowed it will never give up its nuclear deterrence until it feels safe from what is sees as US aggression.
“Everything is on thin ice,” Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told AFP.
“Trump wants a swift denuclearization, something that will be done within his first term in office. In that case, he has to provide North Korea with a corresponding, swift security guarantee.”
Observers will be watching the nuclear test site destruction ceremony closely for any clues to the North’s mood.
Experts are divided over whether the demolition will render the site useless. Sceptics say the site has already outlived its usefulness with six successful nuclear tests in the bag and can quickly be rebuilt if needed.
Previous similar gestures by the North have been rapidly reversed when the international mood soured.
But others say the fact that North Korea agreed to destroy the site without preconditions or asking for something in return from Washington is significant.

Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said both sides were playing “a game of chicken” in the run up to the summit “to gain an upper hand in negotiations.”
He said the destruction of the Punggye-ri test site would win Pyongyang international sympathy even if the summit collapses.
“North Korea can say to the international community that it did its best to achieve denuclearization through negotiations but was pressured by the United States and couldn’t do it,” he said.
A handful of foreign journalists, including from South Korea, were invited to attend the demolition ceremony.
Reporters from China, the US and Russia departed on a charter flight from Beijing on Tuesday for the North Korean city of Wonsan.
From there they are expected to travel for some 20 hours up the east coast by train and bus to the remote test site — a vivid illustration of the impoverished country’s notoriously decrepit transport infrastructure.
South Korean journalists were initially left off the flight because they were not granted permission by Pyongyang.
But on Wednesday Seoul’s Unification Ministry said they had been allowed to attend at the last minute.
The ministry said it planned to arrange a rare direct flight on Wednesday between the two countries, who remain technically at war, to ferry the journalists to Wonsan.
Agence France-Presse is one of a number of major media organizations not invited to cover the demolition.