Vulture with GPS tracker held in Yemen on suspicion it was used for spying

Hisham al-Hoot, Yemeni representative of Wild Fauna and Flora (FWFF), inspects Bulgarian Griffon vulture Nelson in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on April 23, 2019. (AFP / Mohammed Huwais)
Updated 25 April 2019
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Vulture with GPS tracker held in Yemen on suspicion it was used for spying

  • The bird migrated from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then Yemen
  • Govt forces detained the bird on suspicion that the attached GPS tracker was a spy device for Houthi militants

SANAA: Griffon vulture Nelson crossed into war-torn Yemen in search of food but ended up in the hands of Yemeni fighters — and temporarily in jail for suspected espionage.
The sand-colored bird came down in the country’s third city of Taiz, an unusual move for a young vulture that can soar for long distances across continents in search of food and moderate weather.
Nelson, approximately two years old, embarked on his journey in September 2018 from Bulgaria, where his wing was tagged and equipped with a satellite transmitter by the Fund for Wild Fauna and Flora (FWFF).
But he seems to have lost his way, eventually coming down into Taiz — under siege by Houthi rebels but controlled by pro-government forces, who mistook Nelson’s satellite transmitter for an espionage device and detained the bird.
Forces loyal to the government believed that the GPS tracker attached to the bird may have been a spy device for the rebels.
Hisham Al-Hoot, who represents the FWFF in Yemen, traveled from the rebel-held capital Sanaa to Taiz to plead with local officials to release the helpless animal.
“It took about 12 days to get the bird,” he told AFP.
“The Bulgarian foreign ministry reached out to the Yemeni ambassador, who in turn contacted local officials (in Taiz) and told them to immediately give the organization the vulture.”
Hoot said that the bird migrated from Bulgaria, to Turkey, to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and then Yemen — where the FWFF lost track of the bird.
Nelson was MIA until April 5, when the conservation group received hundreds of messages from Yemenis concerned about the creatures’ welfare.
Today, the locally-famous vulture is being properly fed and getting stronger every day.
“When we first took him, he was in very bad condition,” said Hoot, adding that the bird was underweight.
Smiling, he puts on gloves and carefully handles the majestic creature — blowing it a kiss.
Hoot said the bird will be released in two months when he believed Nelson will have regained his full strength and his wing — broken somewhere during his journey — will have healed.
“We thought at first it would take six months for him to heal, but now we don’t think it will be more than two months,” he said.
Hoot said that Nelson was not able to find any source of sustenance in Yemen.
“They can eat carcasses of dead animals, but now there is no more with the current situation of war.
“This is what forced him to come down and stopped him from completing his journey.”
The four-year conflict in Yemen has unleashed the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations, with millions facing famine.
The war escalated in March 2015 when a coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, intervened to bolster the efforts of Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi.
Since then, at least 10,000 people — most of them civilians — have been killed and more than 60,000 wounded, according to the World Health Organization. Other rights groups estimate the toll could be much higher.


Mexicans buy fake cellphones to hand over in muggings

In this May 15, 2019 photo, Axel, a vendor at an indoor electronics market, shows his dummy mobile phones which people buy in the case they are mugged and have to hand over their phones, in Mexico City. (AP)
Updated 22 May 2019
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Mexicans buy fake cellphones to hand over in muggings

  • The government of the eastern borough of Ixtapalpa — one of the city’s biggest and poorest precincts — launched a program this week to have police ride the buses to prevent robberies

MEXICO CITY: Armed robberies have gotten so common aboard buses in Mexico City that commuters have come up with a clever if disheartening solution: Many are buying fake cellphones, to hand over to thieves instead of their real smartphones.
Costing 300 to 500 pesos apiece — the equivalent of $15 to $25 — the “dummies” are sophisticated fakes: They have a startup screen and bodies that are dead ringers for the originals, and inside there is a piece of metal to give the phone the heft of the real article.
That comes in handy when trying to fool trigger-happy bandits who regularly attack the buses, big and small, that ferry people from the poorer outlying suburbs to jobs in the city center.
The scene is repeated over and over again, courtesy of the cameras that many buses now carry that record the assaults, often late at night or in the early morning: Sleepy passengers are seen bouncing along in the jitneys when one or two of the men aboard suddenly pull masks over their faces. One will pull out a gun while his accomplice passes down the aisle, often with his own gun, demanding valuables.
“You’re all screwed now! Don’t move or you’re dead! Cellphones and wallets!” barks a thief in one recent video. Time and again, those who resist or refuse are hit in the head with a pistol, or simply shot and left to bleed on the floor of the bus.
Martha Patricia Rociles Estrada, a schoolteacher from the low-income suburb of Nezahualcoyotl, was robbed herself. Now, she says, most city residents make their daily commutes in fear. “Getting on public transportation is now a risk,” Rociles Estrada said. “You get on, but you never know if you’re going to return.”
“Now you have to be careful to carry money, because if you don’t, the thieves get angry and you run the risk that they’ll shoot you if you’re not carrying money.”
There were an average of 70 reported violent muggings every day in Mexico City in the first four months of 2019. About two-thirds were committed against pedestrians, with the rest split almost evenly between bus passengers and assaults on motorists stopped at lights or caught in traffic jams. Between 2017 and 2018, such assaults rose by about 22 percent.
But when Rociles Estrada was robbed at gunpoint several years ago, most people weren’t carrying costly smartphones around with them.
“They just took whatever I had of value, my change purse, that was all,” she recalled
The advent of smartphones changed all that. Now, many people carry a device worth hundreds of dollars in their pocket, and one that may also hold their bank or credit card information.
That’s where “dummy” vendors like Axel come in. Axel says he sells three or four dummy phones a week out of his stall in a downtown electronics marketplace, next door to a colonial college building that dates to 1767.
Axel, who asked his full name not be used for fear police would accuse him of selling fake merchandise, said all of his customers know they are buying fakes.
“It’s useful for robberies, the large number of muggings happening in Mexico City,” said Axel. “They say ‘hand over your cellphone, give me everything’, and people know now they have to hand over the phone quick, in a matter of seconds, so they hand over these phones and often the thieves don’t realize it.”
But Axel admits the victim would be in trouble if a thief caught them handing over a “dummy” phone.
“Obviously there are problems, because if the criminals search it or find out ... there is going to be a problem.”
Because of that, some try a different strategy, spending a little more to buy a cheap but real second phone.
Gloria, who works at her own stall at another market across the street in a converted art-deco movie house, said the dummy trade started about 14 years ago, but for different reasons: Phone shops would buy dummies for their exhibition cases to protect against another type of crime, the so-called “sledgehammer crews” who can clear out a jewelry or electronics store in seconds by breaking windows.
“Generally, the dummy is for a showcase, for people who sell real cellphones,” Gloria explained. “Dummies have been sold here for about 14 years, for use in showcases, but nowadays people are buying them to protect their own cellphones.”
Gloria sells an iPhone dummy for 300 pesos ($15), that would save a victim the 18,000 pesos ($900) a real iPhone would cost here.
“In most cases, people want to avoid getting their cellphone stolen, but also their data,” says Gloria, who also asked her last name not be used.
The paranoia about assaults and muggings has been amplified by the fact that so many of the robberies are now videotaped by surveillance cameras on public buses. The tapes are often shown on news programs, instilling terror in people.
The government of the eastern borough of Ixtapalpa — one of the city’s biggest and poorest precincts — launched a program this week to have police ride the buses to prevent robberies. But even as the program started up with fanfare and media photo ops, some residents were skeptical.
Oscar Armenda, a transportation worker who was riding a bus in Iztapalapa around midday as police started climbing aboard, said, “This is good in a way, but in a way it’s not.”
“They should do this at the time of day when it’s needed, at night, not now,” Armenda said.