Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes

General view of smoke and flames from the fire in Belin-Beliet, as wildfires continue to spread in the Gironde region of southwestern France, on Wednesday. (Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 10 August 2022

Wildfires rage in France, thousands evacuated from homes

  • Skies darkened from the smoke billowing from forests destroyed by fires that have razed more than 6,000 hectares
  • France, like the rest of Europe, has been struggling this summer with successive heatwaves and its worst drought on record

HOSTENS, France: Wildfires tore through the Gironde region of southwestern France on Wednesday, destroying homes and forcing the evacuation of more than 8,000 residents, some of whom had clambered onto rooftops as the flames got closer.
Skies darkened from the smoke billowing from forests destroyed by fires that have razed more than 6,000 hectares (14,826 acres) and were continuing to burn out of control despite the efforts of firefighters backed by water-bombing aircraft.
France, like the rest of Europe, has been struggling this summer with successive heatwaves and its worst drought on record. Dozens of wildfires are ablaze across the country, including at least eight major ones.
“Prepare your papers, the animals you can take with you, some belongings and WAIT FOR THE INVITATION TO LEAVE which will be notified to you by the gendarmerie, officials or volunteers going door-to-door,” the Gironde municipality of Belin-Beliet said on Facebook after authorities decided to evacuate part of the town.
In the nearby village of Hostens, police had earlier been door to door telling residents to leave as the fire advanced. Camille Delay fled with her partner and her son, grabbing their two cats, chickens and house insurance papers before taking flight.
“Everyone in the village climbed onto their rooftops to see what was happening — within ten minutes a little twist of smoke became enormous,” the 30-year-old told Reuters by telephone.
Firefighters said more evacuations were likely. Even so, some Hostens residents were reluctant to abandon their homes.
“It’s complicated to go with the dogs and we cannot leave them here,” said Allisson Horan, 18, who stayed behind with her father.
“I’m getting worried because the fire is in a plot of land behind ours and the wind is starting to change direction.”
Numerous small roads, and parts of a highway, were closed.

HEATWAVES
Sweden and Italy are among countries preparing to send help to France, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said.
He repeated calls for everyone to be responsible — nine out of 10 fires are either voluntarily or involuntarily caused by people, he said.
The Gironde wildfire is one of many that have broken out across Europe this summer, triggered by heatwaves that have baked the continent and brought record temperatures to some places.
In Portugal, nearly 1,200 firefighters backed by eight aircraft have battled a blaze in the mountainous Covilha area some 280 km (174 miles) northeast of Lisbon that has burned more than 3,000 hectares of forest since Saturday.
Spain and Greece have also had to tackle multiple fires over the past few weeks.
The Gironde was hit by major wildfires in July which destroyed more than 20,000 hectares of forest and temporarily forced almost 40,000 people from their homes.
Authorities believe the latest inferno was a result of the previous fires still smoldering in the area’s peaty soil.
Fires were also raging in the southern departments of Lozere and Aveyron. In the Maine et Loire department in western France, more than 1,200 hectares have been scorched by another fire.


Thailand mourns children, others slain by ex-police officer

Updated 10 sec ago

Thailand mourns children, others slain by ex-police officer

UTHAI SAWAN, Thailand: Friends hugged sobbing family members struggling with staggering loss Friday in a rural northeastern Thailand community mourning the children and other victims slain by a fired police officer in the nation’s deadliest shooting rampage.
At least 24 of the 36 people killed in the assault Thursday in the small town of Uthai Sawan were children.
On Friday morning, royal and government representatives in white, military-style coats stood in lines to lay wreaths at ceremonial tables in front of the Young Children’s Development Center’s main door. They were followed by weeping family members, who gathered their hands in prayer before laying white flowers on the wooden floor.
“I cried until I had no more tears coming out of my eyes. They are running through my heart,” said Seksan Sriraj, 28, whose pregnant wife was a teacher at the center and was due to give birth this month. “My wife and my child have gone to a peaceful place. I am alive and will have to live. If I can’t go on, my wife and my child will be worried about me, and they won’t be reborn in the next life. That’s about it.”
Many relatives were gathered in front of the child care center to start the process of claiming compensation and psychologists were also sent to the site to help them. Seven of the 10 people who were wounded were still hospitalized Friday.
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida were expected later Friday to visit two hospitals treating the wounded, and Prime Minster Prayuth Chan-ocha was expected to visit the daycare center and the hospitals.
When asked whether he thought the child care center was secure enough, Seksan noted the attacker had been a police officer. “He came to do what he had in his mind and was determined to do it. I think everyone did the best they could.”
Police speculated the gunman targeted the center because it was near his home. They identified him as Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant fired earlier this year because of a drug charge involving methamphetamine. He had been due to appear in court Friday.
Witnesses said the attacker got out of a car and shot a man eating lunch before pausing to reload. Staff at the child care center locked the door, but the gunman shot his way through it. The children, mainly 2- and 3-year-olds, had been taking an afternoon nap, and photos taken by first responders showed their tiny bodies still lying on blankets.
Panya took his own life after killing his wife and child at home.
Nopparat Langkapin, a local official in Uthai Sawan, said the victims were “all children of our community.”
“Relatives, families and close friends are deeply saddened by this incident. And we all felt this across the community very quickly. Most of us are feeling depressed and sad because they are our children,” he said.
The attack took place in Nongbua Lamphu province, one of the country’s poorest regions.
A video taken by a first responder arriving at the scene showed rescuers rushing into the single-story building past a shattered glass front door, with drops of blood visible on the ground in the entryway. Photos showed slashes to the victims’ faces and gunshots to their heads.
In footage posted online after the attack, frantic family members wept outside the building. The floor was smeared with blood, and pictures of the alphabet and other colorful decorations adorned the walls.
Mass shootings are rare but not unheard of in Thailand, which has one of the highest civilian gun ownership rates in Asia, with 15.1 weapons per 100 population compared to only 0.3 in Singapore and 0.25 in Japan. That’s still far lower than the US rate of 120.5 per 100 people, according to a 2017 survey by Australia’s GunPolicy.org nonprofit organization.
The US and Australia expressed sympathy and solidarity. “All Australians send their love and condolences,” Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tweeted. “This violence is both senseless and heartbreaking,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Thailand’s previous worst mass shooting involved a disgruntled soldier who opened fire in and around a mall in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima in 2020, killing 29 people and holding off security forces for some 16 hours before eventually being killed by them.
Nearly 60 others were wounded in that attack. Its death toll surpassed that of the previously worst attack on civilians, a 2015 bombing at a shrine in Bangkok that killed 20 people. It was allegedly carried out by human traffickers in retaliation for a crackdown on their network.
Last month, a clerk shot co-workers at Thailand’s Army War College in Bangkok, killing two and wounding another before he was arrested.

Xi’s ‘final purge’ ahead of Chinese Communist Party congress

Updated 07 October 2022

Xi’s ‘final purge’ ahead of Chinese Communist Party congress

  • More than 1.5 million officials in China have been punished since Xi Jinping became leader a decade ago
  • Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as party leader, upending the succession norms in place since the 1990s

BEIJING: President Xi Jinping has embarked on a “final round of purges” ahead of a major Chinese Communist Party congress, wielding his long-running anti-corruption campaign to cement his grasp on power, analysts say.
When he became leader a decade ago, Xi vowed to root out dishonest officials, both senior “tigers” and low-ranking “flies.”
More than 1.5 million officials have been punished since then, according to data from the party disciplinary body, and China’s ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index has improved.
But critics say the campaign is also a thinly veiled political tool that has helped Xi eliminate his rivals — and the build-up to this year’s congress has seen more heads roll.
About 1,100 officials have been caught in the party dragnet since the beginning of this year, according to party data.
Among them are former deputy public security minister Sun Lijun and former justice minister Fu Zhenghua, who will now spend the rest of their lives behind bars.
“This final round of purges, masquerading as an anti-corruption campaign, will ensure that Xi will have tighter if not absolute control over personnel and policy issues (at the Congress),” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Xi is widely expected to secure a third term as party leader at the meeting, upending the succession norms in place since the 1990s.
“Despite all signs that his major goal of a third term is pretty much guaranteed, Xi is still paranoid about his control over appointments to key decision-making bodies within the party,” Lam added.

Once a trusted lieutenant of Xi, Sun oversaw security in Hong Kong during months of unrest in 2019 and was even sent to Wuhan at the start of the Covid pandemic.
But he reportedly fell from grace because of his political ambitions, and was officially accused of “seriously damaging the unity of the party.”
Sun confessed on national television in January to taking bribes worth $14 million, hidden inside boxes of what appeared to be seafood.
Others allegedly in his “political clique,” including Fu and three former police chiefs, were also rounded up and given harsh sentences.
“Sun Lijun’s case is linked to Xi’s absolute control of the security apparatus, which is indispensable for his political agenda,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
“It also sends a stern message to anyone with dissenting views about Xi’s leadership.”
Chinese Communist Party politics — despite the facade of unity — has always been deeply factional with different groups vying for influence.
“There are some who are anti-Xi but very pro-party. They don’t like where the party is heading under him,” Alex Payette, chief executive of consultancy Cercius Group, told AFP.
The congress presents an opportunity for Xi to reduce that threat by promoting close allies to positions on the Politburo’s seven-person standing committee, the apex of power.

More than any other Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, Xi has built a strong personality cult, with children as young as 10 required to take lessons in “Xi Jinping Thought.”
And according to Wu Muluan, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore, he has used the anti-corruption campaign to turn the Communist Party “from a collective dictatorship to a personalist dictatorship.”
He has already brought under his wing the three critical power centers of the party — the military, the propaganda machine and the internal security apparatus — by rooting out dissenting voices and replacing them with his proteges.
For example, the recently appointed minister of public security Wang Xiaohong has known Xi at least since the mid-1990s, when they were both working in southeastern Fujian province.
“Xi is cherry-picking people who have shown absolute loyalty to him for decades,” Wu said.
Surrounding himself with allies going into his next term has become even more important given the significant political headwinds Xi faces, including an ailing economy, deteriorating relations with the United States and a strict zero-Covid policy that has accelerated China’s inward turn from the world.
“The anti-corruption card is a potent tool for Xi to send a message to the still-considerable number of opponents in the upper echelon of the party,” analyst Lam said.
“Any opposition could mean a jail term... or at least ugly harassment by the anti-graft agencies such as 24-hour surveillance.”
 


Latest 4-member SpaceX crew, including cosmonaut, welcomed aboard space station

Updated 07 October 2022

Latest 4-member SpaceX crew, including cosmonaut, welcomed aboard space station

  • The crew consists of two American NASA astronauts, a Japanese astronaut, and a Russian cosmonaut
  • Cosmonaut Anna Kikina joined the SpaceX Crew-5 flight under a NASA-Roscosmos ride-sharing agreement

A four-member SpaceX Crew Dragon team, including a Russian cosmonaut and the first Native American woman sent to orbit, safely docked with the International Space Station (ISS) on Thursday and moved aboard to begin a five-month science mission.
Rendezvous of the latest NASA expedition to the orbiting laboratory came just after 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) following a 29-hour flight to the ISS as the two vehicles circled the globe some 250 miles (420 km) above Earth off the west coast of Africa, according to a NASA webcast of the docking.
The autonomously flying Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Endurance, was lofted into orbit on Wednesday atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The crew consists of two American NASA astronauts — flight commander Nicole Aunapu Mann, 45, and pilot Josh Cassada, 49 — as well as Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata, 59, a veteran of four previous spaceflights, and cosmonaut Anna Kikina, 38, the first Russian aboard an American spacecraft in 20 years.
The inclusion of Kikina, the lone female cosmonaut in active service with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, was a sign of continued US-Russian cooperation in space despite escalating tensions between Moscow and Washington over the war in Ukraine.
Kikina joined the SpaceX Crew-5 flight under a new ride-sharing agreement signed in July between NASA and Roscosmos allowing the two countries to keep flying on each other’s spacecraft to and from ISS.
The team was led by Mann, the first indigenous woman NASA has sent to space and the first woman to take the commander’s seat of a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Mann, a US Marine Corps colonel and combat fighter pilot, is also among the first group of 18 astronauts selected for NASA’s upcoming Artemis missions aimed at returning humans to the moon later this decade.
“We look forward to getting to work,” Mann radioed moments after the linkup was completed.
On arrival, the Endurance crew spent nearly two hours conducting a series of standard procedures, such as leak checks and pressurizing the chamber between the capsule and ISS, before opening the entry hatches.
A live NASA video feed showed the smiling new arrivals weightlessly floating headfirst through the padded passageway one by one into the station.
They were greeted with hugs and handshakes by the four-member team they are replacing — three Americans and the Italian station commander, Samantha Cristoforetti — as well as by two Russians and a fourth NASA astronaut who shared a Soyuz flight to the ISS last month.
“A lot of people are working hard to make sure our common manned space exploration will continue to exist, to develop further. We are living proof of this,” Kikina said in Russian remarks translated to English through a mission-control interpreter during a brief welcoming ceremony.
The Endurance crew marked the fifth full-fledged ISS team NASA has flown aboard a SpaceX capsule since the private rocket venture founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk began sending US astronauts to space in May 2020.
SpaceX has flown eight crewed missions to orbit in all, including non-NASA flights.
The new arrivals are set to conduct more than 200 experiments during their 150-day mission, many focused on medical research ranging from 3-D “bio-printing” of human tissue to a study of bacteria cultured in microgravity.
ISS, spanning the length of a football field, has been continuously occupied since 2000, operated by a US-Russian-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.
 


Biden cites Cuban Missile Crisis in describing Putin’s nuclear threat

Updated 07 October 2022

Biden cites Cuban Missile Crisis in describing Putin’s nuclear threat

NEW YORK: US President Joe Biden said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons threatens to bring about the biggest such risk since the Cuban Missile Crisis, adding Washington was “trying to figure out” Putin’s off-ramp.
The White House has said repeatedly that it has seen no indication that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons in despite what it calls Putin’s “nuclear saber-rattling.”
But Biden on Thursday made clear he was keeping a wary eye on Putin and how he might react as Ukraine’s military makes gains against Russian invaders.
“For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, we have a direct threat to the use of nuclear weapons, if in fact things continue down the path they’d been going,” Biden told Democratic donors in New York.
He also said, “we have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis.”
In the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States under President John Kennedy and Soviet Union under its leader, Nikita Khrushchev, came close to the use of nuclear weapons over the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba.
Putin, said Biden, is “not joking when he talks about potential use of tactical nuclear weapons or biological or chemical weapons, because his military is, you might say, is significantly underperforming.”
“I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily (use) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon,” Biden said.
Biden said he and US officials are searching for a diplomatic off-ramp.
“We’re trying to figure out what is Putin’s off-ramp...Where does he find a way out? Where does he find himself in a position he does not, not only lose face but lose significant power in Russia,” Biden said.
Biden spoke at the New York home of businessman James Murdoch, turning to the son of conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch to try to boost his party’s chances in Nov. 8 congressional elections.
The event at Murdoch’s home was to benefit the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is providing support for Democratic candidates for the Senate.


2 Russians seek asylum after reaching remote Alaska island

Updated 07 October 2022

2 Russians seek asylum after reaching remote Alaska island

JUNEAU, Alaska: Two Russians who said they fled the country to avoid military service have requested asylum in the US after landing in a small boat on a remote Alaska island in the Bering Sea, US Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office said Thursday.
Karina Borger, a spokesperson for the Alaska Republican senator, said in an email that the office has been in communication with the US Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection and that “the Russian nationals reported that they fled one of the coastal communities on the east coast of Russia to avoid compulsory military service.”
Thousands of Russian men have fled since President Vladimir Putin announced a mobilization to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine. While Putin said the move was aimed at calling up about 300,000 men with past military service, many Russians fear it will be broader.
Spokespersons with the US Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection referred a reporter’s questions to the US Department of Homeland Security public affairs office, which provided little information Thursday. The office, in a statement, said the people “were transported to Anchorage for inspection, which includes a screening and vetting process, and then subsequently processed in accordance with applicable US immigration laws under the Immigration and Nationality Act.”
The agency said the two Russians arrived Tuesday on a small boat. It did not provide details on where they came from, their journey or the asylum request. It was not immediately clear what kind of boat they were on.
Alaska’s senators, Republicans Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, on Thursday said the two Russians landed at a beach near the town of Gambell, an isolated Alaska Native community of about 600 people on St. Lawrence Island. Sullivan said he was alerted to the matter by a “senior community leader from the Bering Strait region” on Tuesday morning.
Gambell is about 200 miles (320 kilometers) from the western Alaska hub community of Nome and about 36 miles (58 kilometers) from the Chukotka Peninsula, Siberia, according to a community profile on a state website. The remote, 100-mile (161-kilometer) long island, which includes Savoonga, a community of about 800 people, receives flight services from a regional air carrier. Residents rely heavily on a subsistence way of life, harvesting from the sea fish, whales and other marine life.
A person who responded to an email address listed for Gambell directed questions to federal authorities. A message seeking comment also was sent to the Consulate General of Russia in San Francisco.
Sullivan, in a statement, said he has encouraged federal authorities to have a plan in place in case “more Russians flee to Bering Strait communities in Alaska.”
“This incident makes two things clear: First, the Russian people don’t want to fight Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Sullivan said. “Second, given Alaska’s proximity to Russia, our state has a vital role to play in securing America’s national security.”
Murkowski said the situation underscored “the need for a stronger security posture in America’s Arctic.”
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Wednesday, as initial details of the situation were emerging, said he did not expect a continual stream or “flotilla” of people traversing the same route. He also warned that travel in the region could be dangerous as a fall storm packing strong winds was expected.
It is unusual for someone to take this route to try to get into the US.
US authorities in August stopped Russians without legal status 42 times who tried to enter the US from Canada. That was up from 15 times in July and nine times in August 2021.
Russians more commonly try to enter the US through Mexico, which does not require visas. Russians typically fly from Moscow to Cancun or Mexico City, entering Mexico as tourists before getting a connecting a flight to the US border. Earlier this year, US authorities contended with a spate of Russians who hoped to claim asylum if they reached an inspection booth at an official crossing.
Some trace the spike to before Russia invaded Ukraine, attributing it to the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny last year.