UN chief tells Myanmar to end military ops as 500,000 Rohingya flee

“The situation has spiraled into the world’s fastest developing refugee emergency, a humanitarian and human rights nightmare,” Guterres said in a speech to the UN Security Council.

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More than 500,000 Rohingya refugees have flooded into neighboring Bangladesh. The exodus came after attacks by Rohingya militants on security posts prompted a Myanmar military crackdown last month.

The speech comes as witnesses and survivors claim at least 15 people, mostly children, drowned and others were missing when a boat carrying Rhongya refugees capsized off Bangladesh on Thursday.

0:00 Myanmar invites UN Secretary General to visit country Share Myanmar invites UN Secretary General to visit country

“They drowned before our eyes. Minutes later, the waves washed the bodies to the beach,” said Mohammad Sohel, a local shopkeeper.

The UN has received “bone-chilling accounts” of refugees being subject to “excessive violence and serious violations of human rights, including indiscriminate firing of weapons, the use of landmines against civilians and sexual violence,” Guterres told the public session of the council.

“This is unacceptable and must end immediately,” he added.

Myanmar’s military has been accused of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims.

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Guterres called on Myanmar to halt military operations, allow “unfettered access” for humanitarian aid, and the “safe, voluntary, dignified and sustainable return of the refugees to their areas of origin.”

“The reality on the ground demands action — swift action — to protect people, alleviate suffering, prevent further instability, address the roots of the situation and forge, at long last, a durable solution,” he said.

The UN chief noted that the “systemic violence” could cause unrest to spill into the central part of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, threatening 250,000 Muslims with displacement.

Guterres said a donors’ conference would be held on October 9, without specifying the location.United Nations Secretary General António Guterres address U.N. Security Council meeting on Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, Thursday Sept. 28, 2017 at U.N.AAP

On Thursday night, witnesses and survivors said a boat carrying Rohingya refugeees overturned just yards from the coast in rough waters, after it was lashed by torrential rain and high winds.

“They drowned before our eyes. Minutes later, the waves washed the bodies to the beach,” said Mohammad Sohel, a local shopkeeper.

The tragedy is the latest in a series of deadly accidents as desperate refugees surge across the border into Bangladesh from neighbouring Myanmar, where the country’s military has been accused of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims.

Distraught survivors

The latest drowning tragedy comes after a series of deadly accidents as desperate refugees surge across the border into Bangladesh from neighboring Myanmar.

Local police inspector Moahmmed Kai-Kislu told AFP 15 bodies including at least 10 children and four women had so far been washed ashore, and there were fears the number could rise still further.

0:00 Myanmar rejects use of ‘genocide’ at UN to describe Rakhine crisis Share Myanmar rejects use of ‘genocide’ at UN to describe Rakhine crisis

The International Organization for Migration, which is leading the relief effort in the area, told AFP that one survivor said the boat sank as it tried to dock at a place that was out of sight of security forces.

“It’s a very sad story. There were a hundred Rohingya on board when it sank,” IOM spokesperson Hala Jaber told AFP.

“As (the captain) was trying to dock, the boat capsized and it was not far from the shore but it was far enough and was still deep,” she said, adding that search efforts were ongoing. 

One distraught survivor told AFP that his wife and one of their children had been killed when the ship sank.

“The boat hit something underground as it came close to the beach. Then it overturned,” said Nurus Salam, who had set off set off for Bangladesh from a coastal village in Myanmar late Wednesday with his family.

Another survivor, who was weeping on the beach, told an AFP reporter that her parents and children were missing.

The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) said 27 survivors had been located so far, including eight women and seven children.

‘Desperate’ escape

The huge influx of Rohingya to Bangladesh — the largest mass movement of refugees in the region in decades — was put at 501,800 by the UN Thursday. 

The exodus began on August 25 when attacks by Rohingya militants on security posts prompted a Myanmar military crackdown.

0:00 UN: ‘Egregious’ sexual violence reports emerge from Rohingya Share UN: ‘Egregious’ sexual violence reports emerge from Rohingya

It has created a humanitarian crisis as the government and aid agencies struggle to provide food, clean water and shelter.

Those who have made it to Bangladesh have brought with them harrowing accounts of murder and villages torched by Myanmar soldiers and mobs of ethnic Rakhine, who are Buddhists.

Rakhine, long a cauldron of ethnic and religious tensions, has been scarred by seething animosity since severe bloodshed erupted across the state in 2012.

The wave of violence has led to an outpouring of international criticism against the country’s Nobel Peace Prize winning leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose reputation as a human rights champion has been left battered.

But a diplomat at the UN said delegates were mindful she was treading a difficult line with the country’s all-powerful army, which has led the military operations. 

“We do not want to complicate civil-military relations in Myanmar,” said a Western diplomat.

Sea critters crossed Pacific on debris

Nearly 300 species of fish, mussels and other sea critters hitchhiked across the Pacific Ocean on debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami, washing ashore alive in the US.

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It’s the largest and longest marine migration ever documented, outside experts and the researchers said.

The scientists and colleagues combed the beaches of Washington, Oregon, California, British Columbia, Alaska and Hawaii and tracked the species to their Japanese origins. Their arrival could be a problem if the critters take root, pushing out native species, the study authors said in Thursday’s journal Science.

“It’s a bit of what we call ecological roulette,” said lead author James Carlton, a marine sciences professor at Williams College, in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

It will be years before scientists know if the 289 Japanese species thrive in their new home and crowd out natives. The researchers roughly estimated that a million creatures travelled 7,725km across the Pacific Ocean to reach the West Coast, including hundreds of thousands of mussels.

Invasive species is a major problem worldwide with plants and animals thriving in areas where they don’t naturally live.

Marine invasions in the past have hurt native farmed shellfish, eroded the local ecosystem, caused economic losses and spread disease-carrying species, said Bella Galil, a marine biologist with the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Tel Aviv, Israel, who wasn’t part of the study.

A magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami on March 11, 2011, that swept boats, docks, buoys and other man-made materials into the Pacific. The debris drifted east with an armada of living creatures, some that gave birth to new generations while at sea.

“The diversity was somewhat jaw-dropping,” Carlton said.

“Mollusks, sea anemones, corals, crabs, just a wide variety of species, really a cross-section of Japanese fauna.”

The researchers collected and analysed the debris that reached the West Coast and Hawaii over the last five years, with new pieces arriving Wednesday in Washington. The debris flowed across the North Pacific current, as other objects do from time to time, before it moved north with the Alaska current or south with the California current. Most hit Oregon and Washington.

Last year, a small boat from Japan reached Oregon with 20 good-sized fish inside, a kind of yellowtail jack native to the western Pacific, Carlton said.

Some of the fish are still alive in an Oregon aquarium. Earlier, an entire fishing ship – the Sai sho-Maru – arrived intact with five of the same 6-inch fish swimming around inside.

The researchers note another huge factor in this flotilla: plastics.

Decades ago, most of the debris would have been wood and that would have degraded over the long ocean trip, but now most of the debris – buoys, boats, crates and pallets – are made of plastic and that survives, Carlton said.

Trump lifts barriers to Puerto Rico hurricane aid

A week after the Category Four storm stuck, the White House said Trump had made it easier for fuel and water supplies to arrive to the ravaged island of 3.

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4 million US citizens. 

He waived a 1920 law that restricts foreign-flagged ships from operating between US ports, in response to a request from Puerto Rico’s governor.

“It will go into effect immediately,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

For eight days, Puerto Ricans have struggled to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of a storm that took down the power grid, crippled cell phone communications and wrecked water supplies.

0:00 Puerto Rico hammered by Hurricane Maria Share Puerto Rico hammered by Hurricane Maria

Hours-long lines have been the norm at island gas stations as people scramble to find fuel for generators and cars.

Around 10,000 people are in shelters according to emergency responders at FEMA, thousands more are clearing their homes of debris.

Shortages of food and water have added to the misery and uncertainty amid a frustratingly slow relief effort.

In a sign of the seriousness of the challenge, the US military on Thursday tapped three-star general Jeff Buchanan to lead its response.

Around 4,400 military personnel have been deployed to deal with the crisis.

This, after Republican Senator Marco Rubio complained “there is no clear command, control, and communication between local officials on the ground and federal agencies.”

Asked why it took eight days to get a top general on the ground, Trump’s homeland security advisor Tom Bossert defended the administration’s response.

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“It didn’t require a three-star general eight days ago,” he said, saying that much of the criticism was based on out of date information.

Critics say Washington is repeating the errors of Hurricane Katrina — which ravaged New Orleans in 2005.

Retired lieutenant general Russel Honore, who commanded military relief efforts during Katrina, said the military deployments come four days too late.

“We’re replaying a scene from Katrina in deploying the Department of Defense in helping the people of Puerto Rico,” Honore said in an interview with NPR.

Because of its distance from the mainland and the loss of the power grid Puerto Rico “is a bigger and tougher mission than Katrina,” he said.

Praised for the federal response to hurricanes in Texas and Florida, Trump has been on the defensive over his handling of the crisis in Puerto Rico.

Bottlenecks

Accused of showing indifference to its plight as he feuded with NFL football players, he has since pledged a massive relief effort and will visit the hurricane-battered island on Tuesday.

On Wednesday the US military swung into action, stepping up an air bridge to the island, and the USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed hospital ship based in Virginia, is expected to depart Friday for Puerto Rico to shore up its storm-hit hospitals.

Meanwhile, bottlenecks have developed in the distribution of aid that has arrived in Puerto Rico.

Cruz, the San Juan Mayor, confirmed that 3,000 containers of supplies were stuck in the city’s port because of disagreements over how the aid should be distributed.

Critics of the Jones Act say the lack of competition with foreign shippers makes any shipment from the US mainland to Puerto Rico 30 percent more expensive than it would be from a foreign port. 

The Jones Act restrictions were lifted for Texas and Florida after they were hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma respectively, but had not been waived for Puerto Rico.

The Department of Homeland Security said the waiver would last only 10 days.

“It is intended to ensure we have enough fuel and commodities to support lifesaving efforts, respond to the storm, and restore critical services and critical infrastructure operations in the wake of these devastating storms,” Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of homeland security said in a statement.

Seven lawmakers led by Representative Nydia Velazquez of New York had urged Trump to waive the restrictions for a year in order to speed delivery of critically needed supplies.

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Catalan students rally to defend independence vote

“We will vote!” and “Independence!” they chanted as they marched along the Gran Via, one of Barcelona’s main avenues, blocking traffic.

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Many were draped in red and yellow Catalan independence flags.

Barcelona police said 16,000 people took part. Organizers put the figure five times higher at 80,000.

The Catalan government has insisted it will press ahead with Sunday’s plebiscite in the wealthy northeastern region which is home to 7.5 million people, despite a crackdown by Madrid which wants to prevent a vote ruled unconstitutional by the courts.University students hold Catalan pro-independence ‘Estelada’ flag during a demonstration against the position of the Spanish government on the referendum.AAP

The showdown is one of Spain’s biggest political crises since the end of the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco four decades ago and it had deeply divided Catalonia.

Opinion polls show Catalans are split on the issue of independence, but a large majority want to vote in a legitimate referendum to settle the matter.

“The majority of young people are separatists, and if they weren’t, they have become separatist after seeing what Spain has done in recent weeks,” 16-year-old high school student Aina Gonzalez told AFP.

Over the past few days, judges and prosecutors have ordered the seizure of electoral material including millions of ballot papers, the closure of websites linked to the vote and the detention of key members of the team organising the referendum.

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The electoral board set up to oversee the vote has been dissolved, and on Wednesday a judge ordered police to prevent public buildings from being used as polling stations.

The crackdown continued Thursday as police seized more than six million ballots and envelopes and 100 ballot boxes at a warehouse in Igualada, a town near Barcelona, a police source said. 

It is the first time ballot boxes have been confiscated though it is unclear if they were destined for the referendum, as the company alleges they were for internal elections at the FC Barcelona football club.

Risk of violence

Some students have said they may occupy schools and universities that could be used as polling stations, which firefighters and farmers have vowed to protect.

Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, has warned of the risk of “the disruption of public order” if officers try to prevent people from casting ballots. But Spain’s central government downplayed the risk of violence.

0:00 Spain says Catalans can celebrate and demonstrate but not vote Share Spain says Catalans can celebrate and demonstrate but not vote

“If the judge’s orders are carried out… there is no reason for there to be a violent response on the part of anybody, and I trust this will be the case,” secretary of state for security, Jose Antonio Nieto, told reporters.

Justice Minister Rafael Catala accused Catalan president Carles Puigdemont of “serious irresponsibility” for pressing ahead with the vote and repeated Madrid’s call that the separatists “stop this process”.

Madrid argues that the referendum is illegal as it goes against the Constitution. Catalonia’s leaders retort they have a right to decide their future even if it not allowed by the Constitution.

‘Not solve anything’

“This referendum does not solve anything, it is a problem because it pits the two sides of Catalonia against each other,”  said Alex Ramos, the vice president of a group that opposes secession called the Sociedad Civil Catalana (SCC).

He said the “silent majority” of Catalans who oppose the referendum would not protest in the streets to avoid raising tensions.

Catalan firefighters unfold a large banner with a ballot box at the Museum of History of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017.AAP

Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau called for European Union mediation in the standoff over the vote in an opinion piece in Britain’s Guardian daily newspaper, writing the city “does not want a collision with unforeseen consequences”.

Meanwhile media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders complained that journalists were the target of pressure from both the pro and anti independence camps.

The Bank of Spain warned that political tensions over the independence drive in Catalonia, which accounts for about a fifth of the Spanish economy, put its growth forecasts at risk although it kept them unchanged for this year and the next.

Lorena Torrecillas, a 27-year-old physiotherapist who passed by the student protest, said she opposed independence because the pro-separatist camp had not explained well enough what the advantages of splitting from Spain would be.

“I prefer to remain with what is known than with what will come, because it could be very good or very bad,” she told AFP.

0:00 Catalan parliament president accuses Spanish government of generating fear Share Catalan parliament president accuses Spanish government of generating fear

China sets 2019 deadline for green-cars

China has set a deadline of 2019 to impose tough new sales targets for electric plug-in and hybrids vehicles, slightly relaxing an earlier plan to launch the rules from next year that had left global automakers worried about being able to comply.

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Car makers will need to amass credits for so-called new-energy vehicles (NEVs) equivalent to 10 per cent of annual sales by 2019, China’s industry ministry said in a statement on Thursday. That level would rise to 12 per cent for 2020.

A single vehicle can generate multiple credits meaning the proportion by NEVs by volume would likely be lower.

The targets, announced by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), closely mirror previously announced plans, but remove an explicit 8 per cent quota for 2018, in effect giving carmakers an extra year grace period.

The quotas are a key part of a drive by China, the world’s largest auto market, to develop its own NEV market, with a long-term aim to ban the production and sale of cars that use traditional fuels announced earlier this month.

Global automotive manufacturers, however, had urged a softening of the proposals for all-electric battery vehicles and electric plug-in hybrids.

Under the rules, car makers will receive credits for new-energy vehicles including plug-in hybrids and fully electric cars that can be transferred or traded. Firms with annual sales volumes above 30,000 units will need to comply with the targets.

These credits – which will vary depending on the range and performance of the vehicle – will be used to calculate if firms have met their quota, a system which would likely mean the actual proportion NEVs made up of total sales was lower.

“The rules could result in the production of more than one million EVs annually in China by 2020, or about 4 per cent of sales,” Simon Mui, a transport and energy exert at the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council wrote in note.