New Zealand crews reenter coal mine 8 years after 29 killed

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In this image released by the Pike River Recovery Agency, families gather at the entrance of the Pike River Mine, near Greymouth on the West Coast of New Zealand, Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (AP)
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This handout photo from the Pike River Family Reference Group taken on and recieved by AFP on May 21, 2019 shows family members and workers watching the re-opening of the entrance to the Pike River Mine where 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion in 2010 in the north west of the South Island of New Zealand. (AFP)
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In this image released by the Pike River Recovery Agency, workers react after the first of the two airlock doors was opened in the Pike River Mine, near Greymouth on the West Coast of New Zealand, Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (AP)
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This handout photo from the Pike River Family Reference Group taken on and recieved by AFP on May 21, 2019 shows family members and workers hugging after the re-opening of the entrance to the Pike River Mine where 29 miners lost their lives in an explosion in 2010 in the north west of the South Island of New Zealand. (AFP)
Updated 22 May 2019
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New Zealand crews reenter coal mine 8 years after 29 killed

  • The plan won’t allow access into the inner workings of the mine, which are blocked by a massive rockfall

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: Crews in New Zealand on Tuesday reentered an underground coal mine where a methane explosion killed 29 workers more than eight years ago, raising hopes among family members that they might find bodies and new evidence that leads to criminal charges.
Anna Osborne, whose husband Milton was killed in the explosion, said the families had been fighting for this ever since the Pike River mine exploded.
“We did it. We won,” she said.
She said it had been a “hugely emotional” day for the families and it was a moving experience to watch people going back into the mine. She said they hope the crews can recover electronic equipment that indicates what went wrong, much like the black box in a plane.
“The families are all hoping that the team going in, with their forensic expertise, will find new evidence for future prosecutions against those who allowed the mine to blow up in first place,” she said.
Nigel Hampton, a lawyer who is acting for the families, said that if they discover what ignited the methane, it could help link acts of negligence with the deaths of the miners and result in charges such as manslaughter.
“There’s still a long way to go yet, but it’s possible,” he said.
Two workers escaped the mine after the deadly November 2010 explosion. After several more explosions, the mine was sealed shut with a concrete barrier.
New Zealand’s previous conservative government concluded the mine remained too unsafe to reenter. But the liberal government elected in 2017, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, reconsidered.
“New Zealand is not a country where 29 people can die at work without real accountability,” said Andrew Little, the minister responsible for Pike River reentry. “That is not who we are. And that is why today we have fulfilled our promise. Today we have returned.”
The plan won’t allow access into the inner workings of the mine, which are blocked by a massive rockfall. It remains unclear how many miners were on either side of the rockfall at the time of the explosion or how many bodies might be recovered.
New Zealand police said they’ll be examining any new evidence from the mine, which they could use to file charges.
An earlier investigation concluded the Pike River Coal company had exposed miners to unacceptable risks as it strove to meet financial targets. The report found the company ignored 21 warnings that methane gas had accumulated to explosive levels before the disaster.
The company, which went bankrupt, didn’t contest labor violation charges against it.
Labor violation charges against former chief executive Peter Whittall were dismissed after he and the company made a financial settlement, a development which angered many of the grieving families. New Zealand’s Supreme Court later ruled the settlement was unlawful.
Whittall moved to Australia about five years ago.


UN gives Myanmar aid cut warning over Rohingya camp closures

Updated 18 June 2019
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UN gives Myanmar aid cut warning over Rohingya camp closures

  • Myanmar has closed several camps holding around 9,000 Rohingya
  • They have not been allowed to return to their former homes and remain dependent on handouts

YANGON: The UN has warned it will pare back aid to thousands of Rohingya Muslims left destitute as Myanmar’s government closes camps in Rakhine state, over fears its continued support “risks entrenching segregation.”
Aid agencies are facing an increasingly sharp dilemma in the region as they balance relief for desperate communities with leverage over the government.
The majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh by a 2017 army crackdown, but around 400,000 remain inside conflict-battered Rakhine.
Those include nearly 130,000 held since 2012 in squalid camps, currently supported by UN agencies and humanitarian groups.
As part of its strategy to address the crisis, Myanmar has closed several camps holding around 9,000 Rohingya.
But they have not been allowed to return to their former homes and remain dependent on handouts. Instead, they are being settled in new accommodation close to the former camps.
That has sparked fears aid agencies are effectively being used to prop-up a policy that fails to address the fundamental needs of the Rohingya, including housing, work, food and security.
The camp closure plan “risks entrenching segregation,” UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby wrote to the government in a leaked letter, dated 6 June and seen by AFP.
The letter, also written on behalf of aid groups, warned support “beyond life-saving assistance” at the closed sites would in future be linked to “tangible” progress made on “the fundamental issue of freedom of movement.”
“Life-saving” support includes food, health and water, but site planning, shelter construction and education facilities could be phased out, aid agency sources told AFP.
The UN has faced criticism for a slow response to violence against the Rohingya, which escalated after 2012 riots between Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
A UN report released Monday admitted “systemic failures” in its handling of the build-up to the Rohingya crisis.
Limited access to Rakhine’s camps makes independent reporting on conditions difficult.
But AFP has reviewed recent interviews conducted in five camps by an NGO requesting anonymity to protect its work.
“If I build a house, it can be seized arbitrarily,” one Rohingya man said.
“I have no right to the land and I can also be arrested at any time.”
An aid worker called the remaining 23 sites in Rakhine little more than “concentration camps.”
On condition of anonymity, she spoke of the “complicity” humanitarian staff feel for perpetuating the segregation.
Amnesty International has described Rakhine as an “apartheid state.”
All aid must be “heavily conditioned,” researcher Laura Haigh said, warning donors that building infrastructure could make them complicit in crimes against humanity.
The government defended the camp closures, telling AFP it would continue working with the UN and NGOs on the issue.
Any former camp resident holding a National Verification Card (NVC) will be able to “move freely within their township” and access “education, health facilities and livelihood activities,” the social welfare ministry said.
Most Rohingya refuse to apply for the card believing they should already be treated as full citizens.
Those interviewed said the few to have caved had no more rights than anyone else.
They were also forced to designate themselves as “Bengali,” a term implying they are from Bangladesh.
“They are just trying to dominate us and make us illegal through different ways,” one Rohingya man said.