First death in Tonga volcano blast as nation remains cut off

A plume rises over Tonga after the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai erupted in this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency on January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
A plume rises over Tonga after the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai erupted in this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency on January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
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Updated 18 January 2022

First death in Tonga volcano blast as nation remains cut off

A plume rises over Tonga after the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai erupted in this satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency on January 15, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • The first known death in Tonga itself was confirmed: that of a British woman swept away by the tsunami

SYDNEY: The first death from a massive underwater volcanic blast near the Pacific island nation of Tonga has been confirmed, as the extent of the damage remained unknown Monday.
Tonga remained virtually cut off from the rest of the world, after the eruption crippled communications and stalled emergency relief efforts.
It is two days since the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano exploded, cloaking Tonga in a film of ash, triggering a Pacific-wide tsunami and releasing shock waves that wrapped around the entire Earth.
But with phone lines still down and an undersea Internet cable cut — and not expected to be repaired for weeks — the true toll of the dual eruption-tsunami disaster is not yet known.
The first known death in Tonga itself was confirmed: that of a British woman swept away by the tsunami. She was identified as Angela Glover, 50, who lived in the Tonga capital with her husband James, Glover’s brother Nick Eleini told British media.
Two women also drowned Saturday in northern Peru in big waves recorded after the volcanic blast, authorities there said.
Only fragments of information have filtered out via a handful of satellite phones on the islands, home to just over 100,000 people.
In one of the few communications with the outside world, two stranded Mexican marine biologists made a plea for help from their government, using a satellite phone provided by the British embassy to call their family.
“They said they were sheltering in a hotel near the airport and they asked us for help to leave the island,” Amelia Nava, the sister of 34-year-old Leslie Nava, told AFP in Mexico.
Tonga’s worried neighbors are still scrambling to grasp the scale of the damage, which New Zealand’s leader Jacinda Ardern said was believed to be “significant.”
Both Wellington and Canberra scrambled reconnaissance planes Monday in an attempt to get a sense of the damage from the air.
And both have put C-130 military transport aircraft on standby to drop emergency supplies or to land if runways are deemed operational and ash clouds allow.
There are initial reports that areas of Tonga’s west coast may have been badly hit.
Australia’s international development minister, Zed Seselja, said a small contingent of Australian police stationed in Tonga had delivered a “pretty concerning” initial evaluation.
They were “able to do an assessment of some of the Western beaches area and there was some pretty significant damage to things like roads and some houses,” Seselja said.
“One of the good pieces of news is that I understand the airport has not suffered any significant damage,” he added.
“That will be very, very important as the ash cloud clears and we are able to have flights coming into Tonga for humanitarian purposes.”
Major aid agencies, who would usually rush in to provide emergency humanitarian relief, said they were stuck in a holding pattern, unable to contact local staff.
“From what little updates we have, the scale of the devastation could be immense — especially for outlying islands,” said Katie Greenwood, IFRC’s Pacific Head of Delegation.
Even when relief efforts get under way, they may be complicated by Covid-19 entry restrictions. Tonga only recently reported its first-ever coronavirus case.

France, which has territories in the South Pacific, pledged to help the people of Tonga.
“France is willing to respond to the population’s most urgent needs,” the foreign ministry said. This assistance would be provided through a humanitarian aid mechanism with Australia and New Zealand that is known as FRANZ, the ministry added.
What is known is that Saturday’s volcanic blast was one the largest recorded in decades, erupting 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) into the air and depositing ash, gas and acid rain across a swathe of the Pacific.
The eruption was recorded around the world and heard as far away as Alaska, triggering a tsunami that flooded Pacific coastlines from Japan to the United States.
The Tongan capital Nuku’alofa was estimated to be cloaked in 1-2 centimeters of ash, potentially poisoning water supplies and causing breathing difficulties.
“We know water is an immediate need,” Ardern told reporters.
After speaking to the New Zealand embassy in Tonga, she described how boats and “large boulders” washed ashore.
Wellington’s defense minister said he understood the island nation had managed to restore power in “large parts” of the city.
But communications were still cut. The eruption severed an undersea communications cable between Tonga and Fiji that operators said would take weeks to repair.
“We’re getting sketchy information, but it looks like the cable has been cut,” Southern Cross Cable Network’s networks director Dean Veverka told AFP.
“It could take up to two weeks to get it repaired. The nearest cable-laying vessel is in Port Moresby,” he added, referring to the Papua New Guinea capital more than 4,000 kilometers from Tonga.
Tonga was isolated for two weeks in 2019 when a ship’s anchor cut the cable. A small, locally operated satellite service was set up to allow minimal contact with the outside world until the cable could be repaired.


UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued
Updated 53 min 18 sec ago

UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

UK police end Downing Street party inquiry, 126 fines issued

LONDON: British police said on Thursday they had ended their investigation into COVID-19 lockdown parties held at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Downing Street office, saying they had issued a total of 126 fines.
“Our investigation was thorough and impartial and was completed as quickly as we could, given the amount of information that needed to be reviewed and the importance of ensuring that we had strong evidence for each FPN (fixed penalty notice) referral,” London Police Acting Deputy Commissioner Helen Ball said.
“This investigation is now complete.”


One person wounded in German school shooting — police

One person wounded in German school shooting — police
Updated 19 May 2022

One person wounded in German school shooting — police

One person wounded in German school shooting — police
BERLIN: Shots were fired at a German school in the northern city of Bremerhaven on Thursday and one person was wounded, police said.
One person was detained after the shooting and the injured person was taken to hospital, they said.
German paper Bild had reported that a second suspect was on the run, armed with a crossbow. Police said they were looking into whether more than one person was involved.
The shooting took place at the Lloyd Gymnasium, Bild reported.
Online newspaper Nord24 said a schoolgirl who heard shots had called the police. Students barricaded themselves in their classrooms, it added.

Nearly 60m people internally displaced worldwide in 2021

Nearly 60m people internally displaced worldwide in 2021
Some 59.1 million people were registered as internally displaced worldwide in 2021. (File/AFP)
Updated 19 May 2022

Nearly 60m people internally displaced worldwide in 2021

Nearly 60m people internally displaced worldwide in 2021
  • Some 59.1 million people were registered as internally displaced worldwide in 2021
  • That marks the second-highest annual number of new internal displacements in a decade after 2020

GENEVA: Conflicts and natural disasters forced tens of millions to flee within their own country last year, pushing the number of internally displaced people to a record high, monitors said Thursday.
Some 59.1 million people were registered as internally displaced worldwide in 2021 — an all-time record expected to be broken again this year amid mass displacement inside war-torn Ukraine.
Around 38 million new internal displacements were reported in 2021, with some people forced to flee multiple times during the year, according to a joint report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
That marks the second-highest annual number of new internal displacements in a decade after 2020, which saw record-breaking movement due to a string of natural disasters.
Last year, new internal displacements from conflict surged to 14.4 million — marking a 50-percent jump from 2020 and more than doubling since 2012, the report showed. And global internal displacement figures are only expected to grow this year, driven in particular by the war in Ukraine.
More than eight million people have already been displaced within the war-ravaged country since Russia’s full-scale invasion began on February 24, in addition to the more than six million who have fled Ukraine as refugees.
NRC chief Jan Egeland agreed, warning: “It has never been as bad as this.”
“The world is falling apart,” he told reporters. “The situation today is phenomenally worse than even our record figure suggests.”
In 2021, sub-Saharan Africa counted the most internal movements, with more than five million displacements reported in Ethiopia alone, as the country grappled with the raging and expanding Tigray conflict and a devastating drought.
That marks the highest figure ever registered for a single country.

Unprecedented displacement numbers were also recorded last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s return to power, along with drought, saw many flee their homes. (File/AFP)

Unprecedented displacement numbers were also recorded last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s return to power, along with drought, saw many flee their homes.

The Middle East and North Africa region recorded its lowest number of new displacements in a decade, as the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq de-escalated somewhat, but the overall number of displaced people in the region remained high.
Syria, where civil war has been raging for more than 11 years, still accounted for the world’s highest number of people living in internal displacement due to conflict — 6.7 million — at the end of 2021.
Despite the hike in conflict-related displacement, natural disasters continued to account for most new internal displacement, spurring 23.7 million such movements in 2021.
A full 94 percent of those were attributed to weather and climate-related disasters, like cyclones, monsoon rains, floods and droughts.
Experts say that climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of such extreme weather events.


North Korea completes preparation for nuclear weapon test: Seoul lawmaker

North Korea completes preparation for nuclear weapon test: Seoul lawmaker
Updated 19 May 2022

North Korea completes preparation for nuclear weapon test: Seoul lawmaker

North Korea completes preparation for nuclear weapon test: Seoul lawmaker
  • Biden will arrive in Seoul late Friday for a series of summits
  • North Korea announced its first COVID-19 cases last week, and is now reporting hundreds of thousands of cases of “fever” daily

SEOUL: North Korea has completed preparations for a nuclear test and is seeking the best moment to carry it out, a South Korean lawmaker said Thursday, a day before US President Joe Biden is due to arrive in Seoul.
Despite North Korea’s recent Covid-19 outbreak, “preparations for a nuclear test have been completed and they are only looking for the right time,” lawmaker Ha Tae-keung told reporters after being briefed by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service.
The United States said earlier it believes there is a “genuine possibility” that North Korea could conduct a nuclear test while Biden is on his first trip as president to Asia.
Biden will arrive in Seoul late Friday for a series of summits.
“Our intelligence does reflect the genuine possibility” of nuclear-capable missile tests or a nuclear weapon test around the time of Biden’s trip, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said.
Satellite imagery indicates North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear test, and the United States and South Korea have been warning for weeks that it could come any day.
North Korea announced its first COVID-19 cases last week, and is now reporting hundreds of thousands of cases of “fever” daily, with analysts saying a test could help distract the regime from the outbreak.


Battle for Mariupol draws toward close after surrender

Battle for Mariupol draws toward close after surrender
Updated 19 May 2022

Battle for Mariupol draws toward close after surrender

Battle for Mariupol draws toward close after surrender
  • The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol

KYIV: The battle that turned Mariupol into a worldwide symbol of defiance and suffering drew toward a close as Russia said nearly 1,000 last-ditch Ukrainian fighters who held out inside a pulverized steel plant had surrendered.
Meanwhile, the first captured Russian soldier to be put on trial by Ukraine on war-crimes charges pleaded guilty Wednesday to killing a civilian and could get life in prison. Finland and Sweden applied to join NATO, abandoning generations of neutrality for fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop with Ukraine.
The Ukrainian fighters who emerged from the ruined Azovstal steelworks after being ordered by their military to abandon the last stronghold of resistance in the now-flattened port city face an uncertain fate. Some were taken by the Russians to a former penal colony in territory controlled by Moscow-backed separatists.
While Ukraine said it hopes to get the soldiers back in a prisoner swap, Russia threatened to put some of them on trial for war crimes.
Amnesty International said the Red Cross should be given immediate access to the fighters. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, cited lawless executions allegedly carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine and said the Azovstal defenders “must not meet the same fate.”
It was unclear how many fighters remained inside the plant’s labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers, where 2,000 were believed to be holed up at one point. A separatist leader in the region said no top commanders had emerged from the steelworks.
The plant was the only thing standing in the way of Russia declaring the full capture of Mariupol. Its fall would make Mariupol the biggest Ukrainian city to be taken by Moscow’s forces, giving a boost to Putin in a war where many of his plans have gone awry.
Military analysts, though, said the city’s capture at this point would hold more symbolic importance than anything else, since Mariupol is already effectively under Moscow’s control and most of the Russian forces that were tied down by the drawn-out fighting have already left.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 959 Ukrainian troops have abandoned the stronghold since they started coming out Monday.
Video showed the fighters carrying out their wounded on stretchers and undergoing pat-down searches before being taken away on buses escorted by military vehicles bearing the pro-Kremlin “Z” sign.
The US has gathered intelligence that shows some Russian officials have become concerned that Kremlin forces in Mariupol are carrying out abuses, including beating and electrocuting city officials and robbing homes, according to a USofficial familiar with the findings.
The Russian officials are concerned that the abuses will further inspire residents to resist the occupation and that the treatment runs counter to Russia’s claims that its military has liberated Russian speakers, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment.
Resistance fighting was reported in the occupied southern city of Melitopol, where the regional military administration said Ukrainians killed several high-ranking Russian officers and a Russian armored train carrying troops and ammunition overturned, causing the munitions to detonate.
The administration said on Telegram that the Russian military does not maintain the tracks and overloads the trains, and “with help” from resistance fighters the train derailed. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
In a sign of normalcy returning to Kyiv, the US Embassy reopened on Wednesday, one month after Russian forces abandoned their bid to seize the capital and three months after the outpost was closed. A dozen embassy employees watched solemnly as the American flag was raised. Other Western countries have been reopening their embassies in Kyiv as well.
In the war-crimes case in Kyiv, Russian Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old member of a tank unit, pleaded guilty to shooting an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through a car window in the opening days of the war. Ukraine’s top prosecutor has said some 40 more war-crimes cases are being readied.
On the diplomatic front, Finland and Sweden could become members of NATO in a matter of months, though objections from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threaten to disrupt things. Turkey accuses the two countries of harboring Kurdish militants and others it considers a threat to its security.
Ibrahim Kalin, a foreign policy adviser and spokesman for Erdogan, said there will be “no progress” on the membership applications unless Turkey’s concerns are met. Each of NATO’s 30 countries has an effective veto over new members.
Mariupol’s defenders grimly clung to the steel mill for months and against the odds, preventing Russia from completing its occupation of the city and its port.
Its full capture would give Russia an unbroken land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014. It also would allow Russia to focus fully on the larger battle for the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial east.
For Ukraine, the order to the fighters to surrender could leave President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government open to allegations it abandoned the troops he described as heroes.
“Zelensky may face unpleasant questions,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the independent Penta think tank in Kyiv. “There have been voices of discontent and accusations of betraying Ukrainian soldiers.”
A hoped-for prisoner swap could also fall through, he cautioned.
Russia’s main federal investigative body said it intends to interrogate the surrendering troops to “identify the nationalists” and determine whether they were involved in crimes against civilians.
Also, Russia’s top prosecutor asked the country’s Supreme Court to designate Ukraine’s Azov Regiment — among the troops that made up the Azovstal garrison — as a terrorist organization. The regiment has roots in the far right.
The Russian parliament was scheduled to consider a resolution to ban the exchange of any Azov Regiment fighters but didn’t take up the issue Wednesday.
Mariupol was a target of the Russians from the outset. The city — its prewar population of about 430,000 now reduced by about three-quarters — has largely been reduced to rubble by relentless bombardment, and Ukraine says over 20,000 civilians have been killed there.
In other developments, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said Russia has begun using a prototype new laser weapon in Ukraine that is capable of hitting a target 5 kilometers (3 miles) away, state news agency Tass quoted him as saying on national television. He said it was tested Tuesday against a drone and incinerated it within five seconds.
Borisov said a new generation of laser weapons will eventually allow Russia to conserve its expensive long-range missiles.
Speaking late Wednesday in his nightly video address, Zelensky likened the Russian boast to Nazi Germany’s claims of Wunderwaffe, or wonder weapons, as the tide began to turn against it during World War II.
A senior US defense official said Wednesday that the US has seen nothing to corroborate the claims. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the US military assessment.