Philippine prisoner deaths spark call for probe

A police officer on board an armored vehicle patrols a neighborhood to enforce the reimposed lockdown amid a spike in the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases, in Navotas, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Reuters)
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Updated 22 July 2020

Philippine prisoner deaths spark call for probe

  • Officials push for inquiry into ‘suspicious’ deaths, including leading drug figures

MANILA: The hasty cremation of inmates in a Philippines prison has led to calls for greater transparency from prison authorities and lawmakers in the country.

The prisoners reportedly died of coronavirus-related illness, but Senate President Vicente Sotto III called for an inquiry into the deaths, claiming “there are too many unanswered questions.”

In a tweet on Tuesday, Sotto said: “If the inmates died of COVID-19 or were killed for some reason, that will be no issue to some. But what if they are missing? Shall we turn a blind eye?”

Among the victims at the New Bilibid Prison were major figures in the drug world.

On Tuesday, the Philippines Department of Justice asked the National Bureau of Investigation to investigate the matter.

“Why are there no autopsies? Were relatives informed? Why was the justice department not told?” Sotto asked.

In a Senate resolution, Sotto said: “Due to unclear, inaccurate and unverified reports, speculations are now being made as to whether these inmates actually died from coronavirus.”

On Saturday, it was rumored that Jaybee Sebastian, a convicted kidnapper who had linked Sen. Leila De Lima to the illicit drug trade at the prison when De Lima was justice secretary, had allegedly died from coronavirus.

De Lima, a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, has been detained at the Philippine National Police custodial center in Camp Crame for three years.

Besides Sebastian, other alleged COVID-19 deaths included nine Filipino and Chinese drug figures.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Corrections, which is in charge of the prison, confirmed the inmates died from COVID-19, but refused to reveal their identities, citing data laws.

On Monday, Justice Secretary Medardo Guevarra summoned Gen. Gerald Bantag, the corrections bureau director, for a briefing on the issue, after which the Justice Department confirmed the death of Sebastian and several other inmates.

Bantag told Guevarra that 21 inmates had died from COVID-19 since March.

He also informed Guevarra that the cremation of bodies has been carried out within 12 hours to prevent the spread of infection.

Bantag welcomed the investigation by the bureau.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Gordon called for a probe into the deaths, saying he “cannot accept the word of the corrections bureau.”

He added: “Not only Jaybee Sebastian but all the Chinese dealers, I have to know that they really died. I don’t believe just on the say-so of the prisons bureau.”

The bureau “has not earned public trust,” Gordon said.

De Lima questioned the bureau’s refusal to disclose the names of the 10 high-profile inmates, adding: “If they are truly dead, then they must have death certificates, a public document that is accessible to the public.”


Ukraine's Defence Minister Reznikov to be replaced: MP

Updated 23 sec ago

Ukraine's Defence Minister Reznikov to be replaced: MP

  • "Time and circumstances require reinforcement and regrouping", Ukranian lawmaker says

KYIV: Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov will be replaced by the head of the military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, a senior lawmaker said on Sunday.
"War dictates personnel policies," announced lawmaker David Arakhamia.
"Time and circumstances require reinforcement and regrouping. This is happening now and will continue to happen in the future," he added, without specifying a timeline for the planned re-shuffle.


Republicans criticize Biden for waiting to shoot down Chinese balloon

Updated 41 min 39 sec ago

Republicans criticize Biden for waiting to shoot down Chinese balloon

  • “China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did,” Trump wrote on social media

WASHINGTON: Republican US lawmakers on Sunday criticized President Joe Biden for waiting days to shoot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon as it floated over the United States, accusing him of showing weakness toward China and initially trying to keep the breach of US airspace undisclosed.
A US Air Force fighter jet on Saturday shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina, a week after it first entered US airspace near Alaska, triggering a dramatic spying saga that has further strained American-Chinese relations.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday the US military was able to collect “valuable” intelligence by studying the balloon, and that three other Chinese surveillance balloons had transited the United States during Donald Trump’s administration — a disclosure the Republican former president denied.
“We should have shot this balloon down over the Aleutian Islands. We should never have allowed it to transit the entire continental United States,” said Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to the chain of small islands that arc off the coast of mainland Alaska.
Cotton told the “Fox News Sunday” program that he believed Biden had waited to disclose the penetration of US airspace because he wanted to salvage Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned diplomatic trip to Beijing, which ultimately was postponed.
“I think part of it is the president’s reluctance to take any action that would be viewed as provocative or confrontational toward the Chinese communists,” Cotton added.
Biden said on Saturday he issued an order on Wednesday to down the balloon after it crossed into Montana, but the Pentagon had recommended waiting until it could be done over open water to protect civilians from debris crashing to Earth from nearly twice the altitude of commercial air traffic.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, said of the Republican criticisms: “they are premature and they are political.”
The Defense Department in the coming week will brief the Senate on the suspected Chinese spy balloon and Chinese surveillance, Schumer told a news conference on Sunday.
NUCLEAR MISSILE SITES
Republican Representative Mike Turner, chairman of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said the panel also was set to receive a briefing on the spy balloon this week, though the exact timing has not been determined.
Turner said the balloon traveled unhindered over sensitive US nuclear missile sites, and that he believed China was using it “to gain information on how to defeat the command and control of our nuclear weapons systems and our missile defense systems.”
“The president has allowed this to go across our most sensitive sites and wasn’t even going to tell the American public if you hadn’t broken the story,” Turner told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “There was no attempt to notify Congress, no attempt to put together the Gang of Eight (a bipartisan group of congressional leaders). I think this administration lacks urgency.”
Republican US Senator Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told the ABC News program “This Week” that he would ask administration officials what future preparations have been made to prevent such an incident.
Rubio also said China was trying to send a message that it could enter US airspace, adding that he doubted that the balloon’s debris would be of much intelligence value.
Trump on Sunday disputed Austin’s statement that Chinese government surveillance balloons transited the continental United States briefly three times during his presidency.
“China had too much respect for ‘TRUMP’ for this to have happened, and it NEVER did,” Trump wrote on social media.
Speaking on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures” show, Trump’s former director of National Intelligence, John Ratcliffe, also denied such balloon incidents.
China on Sunday condemned the US action against what Beijing called an airship used for meteorological and other scientific purposes that had strayed into US airspace “completely accidentally” — claims rejected by US officials.
“China had clearly asked the US to handle this properly in a calm, professional and restrained manner,” China’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “The US had insisted on using force, obviously overreacting.”


Pope Francis wraps up South Sudan trip, urges end to ‘blind fury’ of violence

Updated 05 February 2023

Pope Francis wraps up South Sudan trip, urges end to ‘blind fury’ of violence

JUBA: Pope Francis wound up a peace mission to South Sudan on Sunday urging the people to make themselves immune to the “venom of hatred” to achieve the peace and prosperity that have eluded them through years of bloody ethnic conflicts.
Francis presided at an open-air Mass on the grounds of a mausoleum for South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005 before the predominantly Christian country broke away from Muslim Sudan in 2011.
The 86-year-old pope wove his homily around the themes that have dominated his trip to the world’s newest nation — reconciliation and mutual forgiveness for past wrongs. The crowd sang, drummed and ululated as Francis entered the dusty area.
He begged the crowd of about 70,000 people to shun the “blind fury of violence.”
Two years after independence, South Sudan plunged into a civil war that killed 400,000 people. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
At the end of the service, in a farewell address shortly before heading to the airport to fly home, the pope thanked the people of South Sudan for the affection they showed him.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I return to Rome with you even closer to my heart,” he told them. “Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace. May hope and peace dwell among you. May hope and peace dwell in South Sudan!“
The pope has had a longstanding interest in South Sudan. In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, he knelt to kiss the feet of the country’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in 2019.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, accompanied the pope during his visit to South Sudan.
The “pilgrimage of peace” was the first time in Christian history that leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions conducted a joint foreign visit.
HOPE OF A TURNING POINT
Earlier on his Africa trip, the pope visited Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the continent’s largest Roman Catholic community, where he celebrated Mass for a million people and heard harrowing stories from people harmed by war in the eastern part of the country.
Among the worshippers at Sunday’s Mass in the South Sudanese capital Juba was Ferida Modon, 72, who lost three of her children to conflict.
“I want peace to come to South Sudan. Yes, I believe that his visit will change the situation. We are now tired of conflict,” she said. “We want God to listen to our prayers.”
Jesilen Gaba, 42, a widow with four children, said: “The fact that the three Churches united for the sake of South Sudan, this is the turning point for peace. I want the visit to be a blessing to us. We have been at war, we have lost many people.”
Francis made another appeal for an end to the tribalism, financial wrongdoing and political cronyism at the root of many of the country’s problems.
He urged the people to build “good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice.”
South Sudan has some of the largest crude oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa but a UN report in 2021 said the country’s leaders had diverted “staggering amounts of money and other wealth” from public coffers and resources.
The government dismissed the report and has denied accusations of widespread corruption.


Fierce fighting in north of Ukraine’s Bakhmut, says Russian head of Wagner militia

Updated 05 February 2023

Fierce fighting in north of Ukraine’s Bakhmut, says Russian head of Wagner militia

  • Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner group, said his soldiers were “fighting for every street, every house, every stairwell”

The head of Russia’s private Wagner militia said on Sunday that fierce fighting was ongoing in the northern parts of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been the focus of Russian forces’ attention for weeks.
Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner group, said his soldiers were “fighting for every street, every house, every stairwell” against Ukrainian forces who were not retreating.


US downs Chinese balloon, drawing a threat from China

Updated 05 February 2023

US downs Chinese balloon, drawing a threat from China

  • An operation was underway in US territorial waters in Atlantic Ocean to recover debris from balloon
  • Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the balloon descending toward the water

WASHINGTON: The US military on Saturday shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the Carolina coast after it traversed sensitive military sites across North America. China insisted the flyover was an accident involving a civilian aircraft and threatened repercussions.
President Joe Biden issued the order but had wanted the balloon downed even earlier, on Wednesday. He was advised that the best time for the operation would be when it was over water, US officials said. Military officials determined that bringing it down over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.

China responded that it reserved the right to “take further actions” and criticized the US for “an obvious overreaction and a serious violation of international practice.”
In its statement Sunday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “China will resolutely uphold the relevant company’s legitimate rights and interests, and at the same time reserving the right to take further actions in response.”
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the US this week dealt a severe blow to already strained US-Chinese relations that have been in a downward spiral for years. It prompted Secretary of State Antony Blinken to abruptly cancel a high-stakes Beijing trip aimed at easing tensions.
“They successfully took it down and I want to compliment our aviators who did it,” Biden said after getting off Air Force One en route to Camp David.The giant white orb was spotted Saturday morning over the Carolinas as it approached the Atlantic coast. About 2:39 p.m. EST, an F-22 fighter jet fired a missile at the balloon, puncturing it while it was about 6 nautical miles off the coast near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, senior defense officials said.
The spectacle had Americans looking to the skies all week, wondering whether the mysterious balloon had floated over them.
On Saturday, Ashlyn Preaux, 33, went out to get her mail in Forestbrook, South Carolina, and noticed her neighbors looking up — and there it was, the balloon in the cloudless blue sky. Then she saw fighter jets circling and the balloon get hit.
“I did not anticipate waking up to be in a ‘Top Gun’ movie today,” she said.
The debris landed in 47 feet of water, shallower than officials had expected, and it spread out over roughly seven miles and the recovery operation included several ships. The officials estimated the recovery efforts would be completed in a short time, not weeks. A salvage vessel was en route.

US defense and military officials said Saturday that the balloon entered the US air defense zone north of the Aleutian Islands on Jan. 28 and moved largely over land across Alaska and then into Canadian airspace in the Northwest Territories on Monday. It crossed back into US territory over northern Idaho on Tuesday, the day the White House said Biden was first briefed on it.
The balloon was spotted Thursday over Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base, which has fields of nuclear missile silos.
The Americans were able to collect intelligence on the balloon as it flew over the US, giving them a number of days to analyze it and learn how it moved and what it was capable of surveilling, according to two senior defense officials said. The officials briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
The officials said the US military was constantly assessing the threat, and concluded that the technology on the balloon didn’t give the Chinese significant intelligence beyond what it could already obtain from satellites, though the US took steps to mitigate what information it could gather as it moved along.
Republicans were critical of Biden’s response.
“Allowing a spy balloon from the Communist Party of China to travel across the entire continental United States before contesting its presence is a disastrous projection of weakness by the White House,” said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., tweeted: “Now that this embarrassing episode is over, we need answers from the Biden Administration on the decision-making process. Communist China was allowed to violate American sovereignty unimpeded for days. We must be better prepared for future provocations and incursions by the CCP.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was more positive: “Thank you to the men and women of the United States military who were responsible for completing the mission to shoot down the Chinese surveillance balloon. The Biden Administration did the right thing in bringing it down.”

China has claimed that the balloon was merely a weather research “airship” that had been blown off course. The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that it was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.
The Chinese government on Saturday sought to play down the cancelation of Blinken’s trip. “In actuality, the US and China have never announced any visit, the US making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement. Officials said the balloons are part of a fleet that China uses for surveillance, and they can be maneuvered remotely through small motors and propellers. One official said they carry equipment in the pod under the balloon that is not usually associated with standard meteorological activities or civilian research.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.
This isn’t the first time Chinese spy balloons have crossed into US airspace in recent years, one of the officials said. At least three times during the Trump administration and at least one other time during Biden’s time as president they’ve seen balloons cross, but not for this long, the official said.
Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the US was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”
Uncensored reactions on the Chinese Internet mirrored the official government stance that the US was hyping the situation. Some used it as a chance to poke fun at US defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leaped to use the news to mock the US
China has denied any claims of spying and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the US not to “smear” it because of the balloon.
In preparation for the operation Saturday, the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily closed airspace over the Carolina coast, including the airports in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina. The FAA rerouted air traffic from the area and warned of delays as a result of the flight restrictions. The FAA and Coast Guard worked to clear the airspace and water below the balloon as it reached the ocean.
Television footage showed a small explosion, followed by the giant deflated balloon descending like a ribbon toward the water.
Bill Swanson said he watched the balloon deflate instantly from his house in Myrtle Beach as fighter jets circled around.
“When it deflated it was pretty close to instantaneous,” he said. “One second it’s there like a tiny moon and the next second it’s gone.” Swanson added that a trail of smoke followed the balloon as it dropped.