Rescuers look for victims at Cuba hotel after blast kills 22

Update Rescuers look for victims at Cuba hotel after blast kills 22
Picture of the Saratoga Hotel in Havana after a huge blast wrecked the establishment, in Havana on May 6, 2022. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 07 May 2022

Rescuers look for victims at Cuba hotel after blast kills 22

Rescuers look for victims at Cuba hotel after blast kills 22
  • Hundreds of Cubans and tourists alike gathered near the property under a hot sun as police cordoned off the area around the hotel

HAVANA: Rescuers in Cuba’s capital were searching rubble through the night to find more victims of an explosion that killed at least 22 people and injured dozens at a luxury hotel that once hosted dignitaries and celebrities, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z
A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of Friday’s blast at Havana’s 96-room Hotel Saratoga. The 19th-century structure in the city’s Old Havana neighborhood did not have any guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a planned Tuesday reopening.
Relatives of missing people remained at the site late Friday night as rescuers sifted through rubble. Others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.
“I don’t want to move from here,” Cristina Avellar told The Associated Press near the hotel, whose outer walls were blown away by the explosion, leaving the interiors of many rooms exposed.
Avellar was waiting for news of Odalys Barrera, a 57-year-old cashier who has worked at the hotel for five years. She is the godmother of Barrera’s daughters and considers her like a sister.
Although no tourists were reported injured, the explosion is the latest blow to the country’s crucial tourism industry.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was already struggling with the sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and kept in place the Biden administration. The sanctions limited visits by US tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the US to their families in Cuba.
Tourism had started to revive somewhat early this year, but the war in Ukraine crimped a boom of Russian visitors, who accounted for almost a third of the tourists arriving in Cuba last year.
The hotel’s first floors appeared to have suffered most of the damage from Friday’s blast. The missing walls made it possible to distinguish mattresses, pieces of furniture, hanging glass, tattered curtains and cushions covered in dust.
Dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, said at least 74 people had been injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from the office of President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
Cuba’s national health minister, José Ángel Portal, told The Associated Press the number of injured could rise as the search continues. Fire Department Lt. Col. Noel Silva said rescue workers were still looking for a large group of people who may be under the rubble.
The search was to continue through the night. The shattered hotel remained cordoned off as workers operated heavy machinery to lift huge pieces of wall and masonry and trucks left the site loaded with rubble. Firefighters and rescue workers toiled inside the wreckage.
Authorities refused to release the names of the dead, even to their relatives. Authorities placed emergency lights at the site and brought in trained dogs to help in the search.
Rescuers declined to answer questions because the authorities had ordered them not to to avoid confusion.
A 300-student school next to the hotel was evacuated. Havana Gov. Reinaldo García Zapata said five of the students suffered minor injuries.
The emblematic hotel is about 110 yards (100 meters) from Cuba’s Capitol building, which had broken glass and damaged masonry after the explosion.
The hotel was first renovated in 2005 as part of the Cuban government’s revival of Old Havana and is owned by the Cuban military’s tourism business arm, Grupo de Turismo Gaviota SA. The company said it was investigating the cause of the blast and did not respond to an email from the AP seeking more details about the hotel and the renovation it was undergoing.
In the past, the Hotel Saratoga has been used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyoncé and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.
García Zapata said structures adjacent to the hotel were being evaluated, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Díaz-Canel said families in affected buildings had been transferred to safer locations.
Photographer Michel Figueroa said he was walking past the hotel when “the explosion threw me to the ground, and my head still hurts.... Everything was very fast.”
Worried relatives of people who had been working at the hotel showed up at a hospital to look for loved ones. Among them was Beatriz Céspedes Cobas, who was tearfully searching for her sister.
“She had to work today. She is a housekeeper,” she said. “I work two blocks away. I felt the noise, and at first, I didn’t even associate” the explosion with the hotel.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is scheduled to arrive in Havana for a visit late Saturday and Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.


Hindu man killed as religious tensions boil in India

Hindu man killed as religious tensions boil in India
Updated 6 min 25 sec ago

Hindu man killed as religious tensions boil in India

Hindu man killed as religious tensions boil in India
  • The Hindu man, Kanhaiya Lal, was stabbed multiple times Tuesday inside his tailoring shop
  • The killing comes after months of rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims
NEW DELHI: Tensions were high in India’s western Udaipur city Wednesday, a day after police arrested two Muslim men accused of slitting a Hindu tailor’s throat in a brutal attack that highlights a dramatic escalation of communal violence in a country riven by deep religious polarization.
The Hindu man, Kanhaiya Lal, was stabbed multiple times Tuesday inside his tailoring shop by two cleaver-wielding men who also filmed the attack and posted it online, police said, warning that the incident could inflame religious tensions and lead to violence. The video showed the tailor taking measurements of one assailant before he attacks Lal from behind and stabs at his throat with a cleaver.
TV reports aired video of Lal lying on the ground with his throat slit. The two men later claimed responsibility for the killing in another video and accused Lal of blasphemy. They also threatened to kill Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the same manner, brandishing the blood-stained weapons they used to attack Lal.
Local media reported the victim had purportedly shared a social media post supporting a suspended spokesperson for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party who made controversial remarks on the Prophet Muhammad last month.
The killing comes after months of rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims, as well as a spate of attacks by Hindu nationalists on minority groups — especially Muslims — who have been targeted for everything from their food and clothing style to interfaith marriages. More recently, Muslim homes have also been demolished using bulldozers in some Indian states, in what critics call a growing pattern of “bulldozer justice” against the minority group.
These tensions escalated in May when two spokespeople from Modi’s party made speculative remarks that were seen as insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha. Both were later suspended by Modi’s party after it led to severe diplomatic backlash for India from many Muslim-dominated countries. The controversy also led to protests in India that turned violent in some places after demonstrators pelted stones at police. At least two people were killed.
Experts worry that the latest incident could worsen India’s religious fault lines that critics say have deepened since Modi came to power in 2014.
“This gruesome incident could lead to escalated religious tensions across India, especially with the ruling party espousing a very strident Hindu majoritarian cause,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, a public policy think tank.
“It is unlikely that this government or leadership would go out of its way to tell supporters to not get provoked, to urge for calm and peace,” he said.
Attacks on people accused of alleged blasphemy are common in neighboring Muslim majority countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. But in India, where religious tensions often boil over into sporadic riots and deadly protests, incidents of brutal killings of this nature are rare.
In May, a Hindu man in the southern city of Hyderabad was stabbed to death in public by his Muslim wife’s relatives. Last year, a Muslim man was beheaded by members of a vigilante group on orders of his girlfriend’s Hindu family because they didn’t approve of their interfaith marriage. In Rajasthan state in 2017, a Hindu man brutally killed a Muslim laborer and shared a video of the victim being hacked to death and then set on fire.
Police said both accused were arrested within hours of Lal’s death, but in a bid to calm frayed nerves in parts of the city, authorities suspended Internet services in Rajasthan state and banned large gatherings. Authorities also rushed additional police into the city to counter any religious unrest.
India’s home ministry has dispatched a team of its anti-terror agency to Rajasthan to investigate whether the killing had any links to terrorist groups. So far, the state police have not charged the two arrested men with terrorism.
Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot ensured a speedy investigation into Lal’s killing. He said the criminals will be punished and urged people not to share the video on social media because of its highly inflammatory content.
“I again appeal to all to maintain peace,” Gehlot said Tuesday in a tweet.

Widespread relief for Shanghai’s restaurant sector as dine-in resumes

Widespread relief for Shanghai’s restaurant sector as dine-in resumes
Updated 49 min 8 sec ago

Widespread relief for Shanghai’s restaurant sector as dine-in resumes

Widespread relief for Shanghai’s restaurant sector as dine-in resumes
  • Many restaurants in Shanghai were forced to suspend dine-in services as early as mid-March when the number of COVID-19 cases began rising

SHANGHAI: Restaurants and eateries in China’s largest city Shanghai begun reopening their doors to diners on Wednesday, bringing widespread relief to an industry that was badly hit by the city’s two month COVID-19 lockdown.
Large chains such as hot pot brand Haidilao, fine dining establishments and family owned eateries had started scrubbing tableware and getting uniforms laundered since Saturday when authorities announced the curbs were lifting, a month after the city’s lockdown eased on June 1.
“It’s a very good feeling,” said Oli Liu, co-owner of tapas restaurant chain Brownstone as he prepared to open his five outlets for indoor dining on Wednesday.
“With indoor dining we can make money...Until now we could do takeaway and delivery but the commissions we have to pay (to delivery platforms) means we can’t make money from that.”
Many restaurants in the city of 25 million were forced to suspend dine-in services as early as mid-March when the number of COVID-19 cases in Shanghai began rising. While some were able to resume food deliveries in the midst of the lockdown, others remained shut throughout.
The reopening, however, is far from straightforward. Some owners said they had not yet received the green light from their districts and are required to cap customer numbers at 50 percent as well as a limit each session to 90 minutes.
All restaurant staff will also be required to undergo daily COVID-19 testing, while diners have to show proof of a PCR test taken within three days to enter.
Local media reports have also suggested dining parties should nominate a “leader” who will be responsible for their table, though it’s unclear what might happen if guests later test positive.
Complying with such onerous rules will not be easy, and many eateries already have or are expected to call it quits, said Stefan Stiller, chef-owner of fine dining restaurant Taian Table, who added that he expects restrictions to be in place in some form for the rest of the year.
For his three-star Michelin restaurant that only seats 30 at capacity and specializes in 10 to 12 course tasting menus that typically take several hours to complete, meeting the criteria is “not so easy ... but we will manage somehow,” he said.
But many diners are eager to get back into restaurants after months of mostly eating at home.
One of the first customers through the door at Brownstone’s Lujiazui location at lunchtime on Wednesday was a Shanghai resident surnamed He.
“Normally at home I don’t cook... I have especially missed eating out,” he said. “For so long I missed eating many things — crayfish, barbecue, drinking beer.”


NATO chief says alliance facing ‘biggest challenge’

NATO chief says alliance facing ‘biggest challenge’
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the military alliance faces its “biggest challenge” since World War II. (AFP)
Updated 29 June 2022

NATO chief says alliance facing ‘biggest challenge’

NATO chief says alliance facing ‘biggest challenge’
  • Stoltenberg said at the start of the NATO summit in Madrid that the allies are meeting “in the midst of the most serious security crisis we have faced”

MADRID: Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was meeting in Madrid “in the midst of the most serious security crisis we have faced since the Second World War.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shattered Europe’s peace and driven NATO to pour troops and weapons into eastern Europe on a scale not seen since the Cold War.
Members of the alliance have also sent billions in military and civilian aid to Ukraine. The 30 NATO leaders will hear directly from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is likely to ask them to do even more when he addresses the gathering by video link.
Money could be a sensitive issue — just nine of NATO’s 30 members currently meet the organization’s target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.
The war has already triggered a big increase in NATO’s forces in the east, and allies are expected to agree at the summit to increase the strength of the alliance’s rapid reaction force nearly eightfold, from 40,000 to 300,000 troops by next year. The troops will be based in their home nations, but dedicated to specific countries on NATO’s eastern flank, where the alliance plans to build up stocks of equipment and ammunition.
Stoltenberg said NATO was undertaking “the biggest overhaul of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.”
The leaders are also set to publish NATO’s new Strategic Concept, its once-a-decade set of priorities and goals.
Russia is set to be declared the alliance’s number one threat, but the document will also set out NATO’s approach on issues from cybersecurity to climate change — and the growing economic and military reach of China. For the first time, the leaders of Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand are attending the summit as guests, a reflection of the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific region.
The summit opened with one problem solved, after Turkey agreed Tuesday to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland joining NATO. In response to the invasion, the two Nordic nations abandoned their long-held nonaligned status and applied to join NATO as protection against an increasingly aggressive and unpredictable Russia — which shares a long border with Finland.
Stoltenberg said leaders of the 30-nation alliance will issue a formal invitation Wednesday to the two countries to join. The decision has to be ratified by all individual nations, but he said he was “absolutely confident” Finland and Sweden would become members.
Stoltenberg said he expected the process to be finished “rather quickly,” but did not set a time on it.


Northern California wildfire threatens 500 buildings

Northern California wildfire threatens 500 buildings
Updated 29 June 2022

Northern California wildfire threatens 500 buildings

Northern California wildfire threatens 500 buildings
  • The Rices Fire erupted at around 2 p.m. near the Yuba River in Nevada County and had spread to more than 202 hectares by nightfall

BRIDGEPORT, California: A wildfire that erupted in Northern California forced evacuations as it threatened about 500 homes and other buildings Tuesday, authorities said.
The Rices Fire erupted at around 2 p.m. near the Yuba River in Nevada County and had spread to more than 202 hectares by nightfall, said Unit Chief Brian Estes of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
The flames also threatened power lines, water delivery systems and a state park, Estes said.
The rural area is in the Sierra Nevada, northeast of Sacramento and about halfway between the state Capitol and the Nevada border.
Authorities earlier said the fire began with a burning building and the flames spread to nearby dry vegetation.
At an evening news conference, however, Estes said he couldn’t confirm reports that some buildings had been destroyed.
About 350 buildings homes and other buildings were under evacuation orders, county Sheriff Shannan Moon said.
Firefighters fought the blaze on the ground and in the air, with aircraft making dozens of drops of water and fire retardant.
The fire was one of several in Northern California that flared Tuesday as the state sweltered under summer heat, with temperatures in the Rices Fire area hitting as high as 98 F (36.6 C) with low humidity.
A blaze that erupted Tuesday morning in San Luis Obispo County burned through grass and brush. It threatened about 50 buildings but no damage or injuries were reported and the blaze was 25 percent contained, fire officials said.
In Glenn County, a fire that charred more than 121 hectares was 65 percent contained.
Another fire near Davis, west of Sacramento, was contained without building damage or injuries after burning 202 hectares, authorities said.


German court gives 101-year-old ex Nazi guard five years in jail

The accused Josef S. covers his face as he sits at the court room in Brandenburg, Germany, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (AP)
The accused Josef S. covers his face as he sits at the court room in Brandenburg, Germany, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (AP)
Updated 29 June 2022

German court gives 101-year-old ex Nazi guard five years in jail

The accused Josef S. covers his face as he sits at the court room in Brandenburg, Germany, Tuesday, June 28, 2022. (AP)
  • The pensioner, who now lives in Brandenburg state, had pleaded innocent, saying he did “absolutely nothing” and had not even worked at the camp

BRANDENBURG AN DER HAVEL, Germany: A German court on Tuesday handed a five-year jail sentence to a 101-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard, the oldest person so far to go on trial for complicity in war crimes during the Holocaust.
Josef Schuetz was found guilty of being an accessory to murder in at least 3,500 cases while working as a prison guard at the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, between 1942 and 1945.
He is highly unlikely to be put behind bars given his age.
The pensioner, who now lives in Brandenburg state, had pleaded innocent, saying he did “absolutely nothing” and had not even worked at the camp.
“I don’t know why I am here,” he said at the close of his trial on Monday.
But presiding judge Udo Lechtermann said he was convinced Schuetz had worked at Sachsenhausen and had “supported” the atrocities committed there.

This undated file photo shows a roll call, in the early morning or late evening hours, on the roll call square in front of the camp gate of the Nazi concentration camp Sachsenhausen in Oranienburg on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany. (AP)

“For three years, you watched prisoners being tortured and killed before your eyes,” Lechtermann said.
“Due to your position on the watchtower of the concentration camp, you constantly had the smoke of the crematorium in your nose,” he said.
“Anyone who tried to escape from the camp was shot. So every guard was actively involved in these murders.”
More than 200,000 people, including Jews, Roma, regime opponents and gay people, were detained at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1936 and 1945.
Tens of thousands of inmates died from forced labor, murder, medical experiments, hunger or disease before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.

Schuetz, who was 21 when he began working at the camp, remained blank-faced as the court announced his sentence.
“I am ready,” he said when he entered the courtroom earlier in a wheelchair, dressed in a grey shirt and striped trousers.
Schuetz was not detained during the trial, which began in 2021 but was postponed several times because of his health.
His lawyer, Stefan Waterkamp, told AFP he would appeal — meaning the sentence will not be enforced until 2023 at the earliest.
Thomas Walther, the lawyer who represented 11 of the 16 civil parties in the trial, said the sentencing had met their expectations and “justice has been served.”
But Antoine Grumbach, 80, whose father died in Sachsenhausen, said he could “never forgive” Schuetz as “any human being facing atrocities has a duty to oppose them.”
During the trial, Schuetz had made several inconsistent statements about his past, complaining that his head was getting “mixed up.”
At one point, the centenarian said he had worked as an agricultural laborer in Germany for most of World War II, a claim contradicted by several historical documents bearing his name, date and place of birth.

After the war, Schuetz was transferred to a prison camp in Russia before returning to Germany, where he worked as a farmer and a locksmith.
More than seven decades after World War II, German prosecutors are racing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice.
The 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk, on the basis that he served as part of Hitler’s killing machine, set a legal precedent and paved the way for several of these justice cases.
Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused.
Among those brought to late justice were Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard at Auschwitz.
Both were convicted at the age of 94 of complicity in mass murder but died before they could be imprisoned.
However, Schuetz’s five-year sentence is the longest so far handed to a defendant in such a case.
Guillaume Mouralis, a research professor at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told AFP the verdict was “a warning to the perpetrators of mass crimes: whatever their level of responsibility, there is still legal liability.”