India rescuers hit snags in two-week bid to free 41 tunnel workers

India rescuers hit snags in two-week bid to free 41 tunnel workers
Rescue personnel move a digging machine during rescue operation for workers trapped in the Silkyara under construction road tunnel, days after it collapsed in the Uttarkashi district of India's Uttarakhand state on November 25, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 27 November 2023
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India rescuers hit snags in two-week bid to free 41 tunnel workers

India rescuers hit snags in two-week bid to free 41 tunnel workers
  • The workers reman trapped since an under-construction tunnel in northern India caved in on Nov. 12
  • The tunnel is part of PM Modi’s infrastructure project aimed at cutting travel times between Hindu temples

SILKYARA TUNNEL: Indian rescuers began digging a vertical shaft Saturday to free 41 workers trapped inside a collapsed road tunnel for two weeks, after efforts through another route hit snags just meters from freeing the men.
In the latest setback in attempts to rescue the increasingly desperate workers, engineers driving a metal pipe horizontally through 57 meters (187 feet) of rock and concrete ran into metal rods and construction vehicles buried in the earth.
A giant earth-boring machine snapped just nine meters from breaking through.
Thick metal girders in the rubble are blocking the route, and using cutting tools to clear them is tricky from inside the confined pipe, only wide enough for a man to crawl through.
Ambulances are on standby and a field hospital has been prepared to receive the men, who have been trapped since a portion of the under-construction Silkyara tunnel in the northern state of Uttarakhand caved in on November 12.

Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami confirmed that vertical drilling had begun to dig 89 meters downwards, a risky route above the men in an area that has already suffered a collapse.
AFP reporters saw a heavy earth digger being taken up a specially cut track to the top of forested hill above the tunnel, to begin the dig.
At the same time, a special superheated plasma cutter was being brought to the remote mountain location to remove the broken drill and metal blocking the horizontal route. Digging will then continue by hand.
“We will proceed manually,” Dhami told reporters, adding he had spoken to the trapped men.
“They are in good spirits. They said: ‘Take as many days as you require, don’t worry about us.’“
The workers were seen alive for the first time on Tuesday, peering into the lens of an endoscopic camera sent by rescuers down a thin pipe through which air, food, water and electricity are being delivered.
Though trapped, they have plenty of space in the tunnel, with the area inside 8.5 meters high and stretching about two kilometers in length.

Rescue teams have stretchers fitted with wheels ready to pull the exhausted men through 57 meters of pipe, if it can be driven through the final section of rubble blocking their escape.
Efforts have been painfully slow, complicated by falling debris as well as repeated breakdowns of crucial heavy drilling machines, with the air force having to twice airlift new kit.
Since Wednesday, officials have said repeatedly they were optimistic of a breakthrough within hours, but a government statement warned the rescue was “subject to change due to technical glitches, the challenging Himalayan terrain, and unforeseen emergencies.”
Arnold Dix, president of the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association, who is advising the rescue on site, said he remained optimistic as there were “many ways” to reach the men.
“I am confident that the 41 men are coming home,” he said.
Work has also begun from the far side of the road tunnel, a much longer third route estimated to be around 480 meters.
Syed Ata Hasnain, a senior rescue official and retired general, said their efforts were “exactly like war.”
“We have to have some patience, we need to understand that a very difficult operation is going on,” he told reporters.
“I feel everyone has their attention on this as to when this operation will be over, but you need to see that this operation is getting even more complex,” he added.
“We have never given you the timeline. I have experienced that when you do something with mountains, you cannot predict anything. This situation is exactly like war.”
The Silkyara tunnel is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s infrastructure project aimed at cutting travel times between some of the most popular Hindu temples in the country.
The 4.5-kilometer (2.7-mile) passage is meant to connect Uttarkashi and Yamunotri, two of the holiest sites.


Austria appeals for a pause in fighting for Ramadan

Austria appeals for a pause in fighting for Ramadan
Updated 4 sec ago
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Austria appeals for a pause in fighting for Ramadan

Austria appeals for a pause in fighting for Ramadan
  • FM Alexander Schallenberg said the Middle East has witnessed enough devastation and cruelty

BEIRUT: Austria’s foreign minister on Thursday urged Israel and Hezbollah against escalating the conflict along the volatile Israel-Lebanon border and expressed hope for a pause in the fighting in Gaza in time for the start of the holy month of Ramadan in March.

The Middle East has witnessed enough devastation and cruelty, said Alexander Schallenberg, speaking after meeting his Lebanese counterpart in Beirut.

Schallenberg said he came to Lebanon after visiting Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israeli airstrikes on Lebanese villages along the southern border killed two people and wounded 14 others in the village of Kafra on Wednesday night, National News Agency reported.

Meanwhile, an Israeli drone strike hit a truck near the western Syrian town of Qusair close to the Lebanese border on Thursday, killing a Hezbollah member, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, and a Hezbollah official said.

European and American officials have tried to ease the tensions in visits to Beirut, to avoid a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah, which has said it would not discuss any deals before the war in Gaza ends.


Aid groups appeal to EU to release urgent funds for UNRWA

Aid groups appeal to EU to release urgent funds for UNRWA
Updated 6 min 46 sec ago
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Aid groups appeal to EU to release urgent funds for UNRWA

Aid groups appeal to EU to release urgent funds for UNRWA

BRUSSELS: Humanitarian aid groups have appealed to the EU to release tens of millions of euros in funding due to the main UN agency that delivers most aid to people in the Gaza Strip as the organization teeters on the brink of financial collapse.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, was due to disburse €82 million ($89 million) to the UNRWA aid agency on Feb. 29. UNRWA said that it still had not received the payment as of Thursday morning.

“This is a moment of reckoning for the EU as a humanitarian leader and a critical donor for this crisis,” said Niamh Nic Carthaigh, from Plan International’s EU Liaison Office.

“Any further cuts to UNRWA funding would be an effective death sentence for civilians trapped in Gaza and the region who rely on the agency for their survival,” she said in a joint statement from 17 aid groups, including the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and Oxfam.

UNRWA is reeling from allegations that 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff members participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel. The agency immediately fired the employees, but more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about $450 million, almost half its budget for 2024.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini has described the payment due from the EU as “absolutely critical.”

The agency has been the leading supplier of food, water, and shelter during the war in Gaza. Lazzarini has warned that it may be forced to suspend its work soon.

Two UN investigations into Israel’s allegations against the agency are underway, but the European Commission — the third biggest donor to UNRWA after the US and Germany — has demanded a separate audit and wants to appoint experts to carry it out.

Asked on Thursday how the audit is evolving and when funds might be released, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said that “work is ongoing.”

“The plight of the Palestinian people is of utmost concern to us. At the same time, we have set out several points that need to be agreed with UNRWA before we decide on the next payment, which is indeed foreseen for the end of the month,” Mamer said.

The war has driven 80 percent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians from their homes, and UN officials say a quarter of the population is starving.

The European Commission acknowledged this week that no agency other than UNRWA is capable of helping Gaza’s people correctly and that Israel has provided no evidence to support its allegations against the agency’s staff. The agency provides Israel with a yearly staff list and has received no objections.

Despite this, it insists on “a review of all UNRWA staff” to confirm they had no role in the attacks. Of the UN agency’s 13,000 Gaza staff members, more than 3,000 continue working there.

Among the EU’s 27 member countries, several have unilaterally suspended funding. Germany said it “will temporarily not approve any new funds” until investigations are concluded. France, Italy, and the Netherlands have taken similar positions.


US has no expectation of free and fair vote in Iran, State Dept says

US has no expectation of free and fair vote in Iran, State Dept says
Updated 8 min 54 sec ago
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US has no expectation of free and fair vote in Iran, State Dept says

US has no expectation of free and fair vote in Iran, State Dept says
  • “I suspect that a great number of Iranians have no expectation that those elections will be free and fair,” Miller said

WASHINGTON: Washington has “no expectation” that a parliamentary election in Iran on Friday will be free and fair, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller told reporters on Thursday.
“I suspect that a great number of Iranians have no expectation that those elections will be free and fair,” Miller said.

“As you probably already know, thousands of candidates were already disqualified in an opaque process and the world has long known that Iran’s political system features undemocratic and non-transparent administrative, judicial and electoral systems.”


UN chief ‘condemns’ deadly Gaza aid delivery incident

UN chief ‘condemns’ deadly Gaza aid delivery incident
Updated 51 min 50 sec ago
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UN chief ‘condemns’ deadly Gaza aid delivery incident

UN chief ‘condemns’ deadly Gaza aid delivery incident
  • United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the events “need to be investigated" “
  • We don’t know exactly what happened but whether people were shot and died as a result of Israeli gunfire”

UNITED NATIONS: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “condemns” the deadly aid delivery incident in northern Gaza, in which Hamas says over 100 people were killed, his spokesperson said Thursday.
Desperate for food, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza City flocked to an aid distribution point early Thursday, only to be met with lethal chaos including live fire by Israeli troops.
An Israeli source has acknowledged that troops opened fire on the crowd, believing it “posed a threat,” but a spokesperson for the prime minister’s office also said that many people had been run over by the aid trucks.
United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the events “need to be investigated.”
“We don’t know exactly what happened but whether people were shot and died as a result of Israeli gunfire, whether they were crushed by a crowd, whether they were run over by truck, these are all acts of violence, in a sense, due to this conflict,” said Dujarric.
He said there was “no UN presence” at the scene and reiterated the secretary-general’s call for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the unconditional release of all hostages.”
“The desperate civilians in Gaza need urgent help, including those in the besieged north where the United Nations has not been able to deliver aid in more than a week,” Dujarric said, adding that Guterres was “appalled by the tragic human toll of the conflict.”


Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack

Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack
Updated 29 February 2024
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Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack

Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack
  • The four men on trial in Paris are accused of crimes ranging from “terrorism” to helping supply weapons
  • The trial opened at the Paris court with the suspects confirming their names

PARIS: Four men went on trial on Thursday over a 2018 Christmas market attack in France’s eastern city of Strasbourg, with a key suspect insisting he did not know the plans of the radical Islamist who killed five people before being shot dead by police after a 48-hour manhunt.
The traditional Christmas market was in full swing on December 11 when Cherif Chekatt — a convicted criminal featured on a list of possible extremist security risks — opened fire on revellers, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest” in Arabic).
The four men on trial in Paris are accused of crimes ranging from “terrorism” to helping supply weapons, including the 19th-century revolver Chekatt used in the attack.
The trial opened at the Paris court with the suspects confirming their names.
One of them, Audrey Mondjehi, faces the maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted of “terrorism.” The others risk 10 years imprisonment.
The trial, due to last until early April, is the latest legal process over the militant attacks that have hit France since 2015, with most of those in the dock accused of complicity since the actual perpetrators were generally killed while carrying out their attacks.
In December 2022, a Paris court convicted all eight suspects in the trial over a 2016 truck attack in the Mediterranean city of Nice, which left 86 dead, including the driver.
In the highest-profile case, 20 defendants were convicted in June 2022 over their roles in the November 2015 attack in the French capital, when 130 people were killed.
The Daesh group claimed the Strasbourg attack, but the then-French interior minister Christophe Castaner said it was taking credit for an attack it hadn’t planned.
A video pledging allegiance to the group was however found at the assailant’s home.
Of the accused only Mondjehi, 42, was charged with “terrorism,” while the three others — all in their 30s — face criminal conspiracy charges for their role in supplying weapons.
A fifth defendant, in his mid-80s, may be tried at a later date after a medical examination found his health was not compatible with taking part in the current long trial.
Mondjehi, a former cellmate of the assailant, played “a key role in supplying a weapon” by putting him in touch with sellers, and “could not have been unaware of, or may have even shared, all or part of Cherif Chekatt’s radical convictions,” according to the indictment.
Mondjehi told the court this was not true.
“Never could I have known that this weapon could have been for an attack,” he said.
His lawyer Michael Wacquez said he was concerned Mondjehi could be used as a scapegoat.
“Mondjehi should not be an outlet for the grief of the victims and should not be condemned because Cherif Chekatt is not there,” he said.
According to the investigation, there was no evidence of the other suspects having been aware of Chekatt’s plans.
Although Chekatt cannot now be brought to justice, survivors and relatives of victims said the trial was still crucial.
The attack “turned my whole life upside down,” said Mostafa Salhane, a 53-year-old former taxi driver who spent 15 terrifying minutes with Chekatt who climbed into his cab with a gun in his hand as he fled the scene.
A lawyer representing some of the families, Arnaud Friederich, said the trial was a “key moment” for his clients.
“There will be a before and an after,” he said.
Claude Lienhard, a lawyer for several dozen people, said there was a perception the investigation has been dragging on.
“There’s a fear that this will be a low-cost trial compared with other terror trials, as many feel they have been forgotten,” he said.
Audrey Wagner, who saw Chekatt wound one of her friends, said she expected proceedings to be “distressing” but important to “turn the page.”
Jean-Yves Bruckman, a now-retired firefighter who aided one of the victims said he needed answers “to heal.”
“One question keeps coming back to me: How can you kill someone like that?“