Up to 13 feared dead in volcanic eruption off New Zealand

White Island is northeast of the town of Tauranga on North Island, one of New Zealand’s two main islands. (AFP)
Updated 09 December 2019

Up to 13 feared dead in volcanic eruption off New Zealand

  • Police said the site was still too dangerous hours later for rescuers to search for the missing
  • The White Island volcano is one of New Zealand’s most active

WHAKATANE, New Zealand: A volcano off the New Zealand coast erupted Monday with a towering blast of ash and scalding steam as dozens of tourists were exploring its moon-like surface, killing five people and leaving eight others missing and feared dead, authorities said.
Helicopter crews landed on White Island despite the danger and helped evacuate the dozens of survivors, some of them critically injured.
Hours after the disaster, authorities said the site was still too dangerous for rescuers to search for the missing. But aircraft flew over the island repeatedly, and “no signs of life have been seen at any point,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.
The missing and injured included New Zealanders and tourists from the US, China, Australia, Britain and Malaysia, the prime minister said. Some of those who were exploring the volcano were passengers from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, docked on neighboring North Island.

“My god,” Michael Schade tweeted as he posted video of the eruption. “My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable.”
His video showed a wall of ash and steam around White Island and a helicopter heavily damaged and covered in ash. He said one woman was badly injured but seemed “strong” by the end.
The terrifying disaster immediately raised questions of why people were allowed to visit the island some 30 miles (50 kilometers) off mainland New Zealand after scientists had noted an uptick in volcanic activity in recent weeks. White Island is the tip of an undersea volcano.
Authorities said 47 people were on the island at the time. Some were walking along the rim of the crater just before the eruption. In addition to the dead and missing, 31 survivors were hospitalized and three others were released, officials said. Some of the victims were reported severely burned.
The eruption took place about 2 p.m. and consisted of two explosions in quick succession, the prime minister said. It sent a plume of steam and ash an estimated 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) into the air. One of the boats that returned from the island was covered with ash half a meter (yard) thick, Ardern said.
The GeoNet agency, which monitors volcanoes and earthquakes in New Zealand, had raised the alert level on White Island on Nov. 18 from 1 to 2 on a scale where 5 represents a major eruption, noting an increase in sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma deep in the volcano. It also said that volcanic tremors had increased from weak to moderate strength.
Ardern said White Island is a “very unpredictable volcano,” and questions about whether tourists should be visiting will have to be addressed, “but for now, we’re focused on those who are caught up in this horrific event.”
Brad Scott, a volcanologist with research group GNS Science, said the alert level on White Island is often raised and then dropped without any eruption. He said there hadn’t been any major problems with tourists visiting the island in the past, though there had been some close calls.
He would not venture an opinion on whether it was safe enough for tourists immediately before Monday’s eruption.
After the disaster, GeoNet raised its alert level to 4, later dropping it to 3.
“In the scheme of things, for volcanic eruptions, it is not large,” said Ken Gledhill from GeoNet. “But if you were close to that, it is not good.”
White Island is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano. About 70% of the volcano lies under the sea.
Twelve people were killed on the island in 1914 when it was being mined for sulfur. Part of a crater wall collapsed and a landslide destroyed the miners’ village and the mine itself.
The remains of buildings from another mining enterprise in the 1920s are now a tourist attraction. The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit every year.
The island is also known by the indigenous Maori name Whakaari.

Taliban halt talks with Kabul over delay in prisoner swap deal

Updated 34 min 23 sec ago

Taliban halt talks with Kabul over delay in prisoner swap deal

  • Spokesman says group will no longer engage in “fruitless meetings“
  • Issue is over Afghanistan’s delay in releasing 5,000 insurgents by March 9

KABUL: The Afghan Taliban on Tuesday said they would be discontinuing all talks with President Ashraf Ghani over a prisoner exchange program, a day after a senior member of his administration said that Kabul would not be releasing 15 senior members of the group for their role in some of the major attacks in the war-torn country.

“We sent a technical team…to Kabul for verification and identification of our prisoners as the release of prisoners was to start as per the signed agreement and the promise made (to us). But, unfortunately, their release has been delayed under one pretext or another... Therefore, our technical team will not participate in fruitless meetings with relevant sides starting from tomorrow,” Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s Qatar-based spokesman, said in a series of tweets early on Tuesday.

As part of a historic peace deal struck in Doha, Qatar in February this year, Washington was to facilitate the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by Ghani’s government by March 9, before the start of the first intra-Afghan dialogue. In return, the Taliban would release 1,000 government forces held by the insurgents.

Officials in Ghani’s government refused to comment on the Taliban’s statement which follows Matin Bek, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG), saying on Monday that the delay in releasing the Taliban inmates was due to the group’s “stubborn” insistence to free 15 key leaders who were involved in “big attacks”.

Bek is a confidant of Ghani and a member of the delegation which was formed by the government to hold the intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban.

The development could further throw into doubt the start of a long-awaited intra-Afghan dialogue which had been slotted for March.

It follows weeks of a stand-off between Kabul and the Taliban over the prisoner exchange program, resulting in the two sides holding virtual talks on a Skype video call after the US and Qatar intervened to resolve the matter.

Nearly two weeks ago, a Taliban delegation – with the help of the Red Cross – traveled to Kabul from Qatar to discuss the technical aspect of the program with the Afghan government officials.

Ghani, whose government was secluded from the year and a half of secret talks between the Taliban and Washington, had initially said that the final decision would be taken for the release of the prisoners would be taken by his government and not the US

However, he reversed his decision later to say that the Taliban inmates would be released in phases. 
The Taliban’s decision to halt the talks with Kabul comes two days after they said in a statement said Washington had violated parts of the US-Taliban agreement, citing among other issues, the Afghan government’s failure to free Taliban inmates and start talks with the Afghans.

The Taliban warned that continuation of the infringements could damage their trust in Washington and lead to increased attacks which they had scaled back as a pre-condition to the peace deal.

Washington, apparently frustrated by Ghani’s delay in forming a negotiation team for talks with the Taliban, threatened to halt $1 billion in this year’s Afghan aid, last month.

Analysts say all of these developments are signs of a stalemate in future talks.

“The US’ warning to cut aid for Kabul, its “growing frustration with Afghan leaders”...and the government’s failure to swap prisoners, are all clear signs that the Afghan peace process will not start any time soon and there will be some tough times ahead,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, told Arab News kn Tuesday.

He added that it could propel the Taliban to “start their spring offensive after the government failed to free Taliban prisoners.”

“Americans are fed up with Ghani, are planning to pull the troops out and want to reduce by half its aid... We are in serious trouble if leaders fail to realize the sensitivity of the situation,” he said.

Zubair Shafiqi, who runs a prominent newspaper, the Weesa Daily, said there were certain circles within the government that “opposed the start of peace talks with the Taliban and the release of their prisoners,” but added that “Washington will put pressure on Ghani to reverse his decision.”