Fire engulfs skyscraper in China’s Changsha city

A screengrab shows thick smoke billowing from a skyscraper in Changsha, in China’s central Hunan province. (AFP)
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Updated 16 September 2022

Fire engulfs skyscraper in China’s Changsha city

  • The 218-meter building was completed in 2000 and is located near a major ring road

BEIJING: A fire engulfed a skyscraper Friday in the central Chinese city of Changsha, with authorities saying that no casualties had yet been found.
The blaze broke out in a 42-floor building housing an office of state-owned telecommunications company China Telecom, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
“Thick smoke billowed from the site, and dozens of floors burned ferociously,” CCTV reported.
The provincial fire department said later in a social media post that “at present, the fire has been extinguished, and we have not yet discovered any casualties.”
An initial photograph released by CCTV showed orange flames searing through the building in a built-up area of the city as black smoke billowed into the sky.
A later image shared on social media appeared to show that the flames had subsided, as emergency personnel sprayed jets of water onto its charred facade.
China Telecom said in a statement on social media: “By around 4:30 p.m. today, the fire at our No. 2 Communications Tower in Changsha has been extinguished.
“No casualties have yet been discovered and communications have not been cut off.”
A video shared on social media appeared to show dozens of people fleeing the building as flaming debris fell from the upper floors.
AFP was not immediately able to verify the footage.
Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, has a population of about 10 million people.
The 218-meter (715-foot) building was completed in 2000 and is located near a major ring road, according to CCTV.
Deadly fires are common in China, where lax enforcement of building codes and rampant unauthorized construction can make it difficult for people to flee burning buildings.
In July last year, a warehouse fire in northeastern Jilin province killed at least 15 people and injured at least 25, according to state media reports.
The month before that, a fire killed 18 people — mostly children — at a martial arts school in central Henan province, causing an uproar over fire safety standards.
A further two dozen people died in a pair of blazes in Beijing’s migrant neighborhoods in 2017, while 58 perished when a huge fire swept through a 28-story Shanghai housing block in 2010.


Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opens

Updated 7 sec ago

Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opens

  • Rights groups and observers say the trial illustrates how the legal system is being used to crush what remains of the opposition
  • The trial is being heard in an open court but without a jury, a departure from the city’s common law tradition
HONGKONG: Hong Kong’s largest national security trial opened Monday with dozens of pro-democracy figures accused of trying to topple the government in a case critics say reflects the criminalization of dissent in the Chinese territory.
The 47 defendants, who include some of the city’s most prominent activists, face up to life in prison if convicted.
Sixteen have pleaded not guilty to charges of “conspiracy to commit subversion” over an unofficial primary election.
The other 31 have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced after the trial.
A rare, small protest erupted before the court convened, despite the large police presence.
One man was seen raising his fist in solidarity.
The defendants maintain they are being persecuted for routine politics, while rights groups and observers say the trial illustrates how the legal system is being used to crush what remains of the opposition.
Most of the group have already spent nearly two years behind bars.
They now face proceedings expected to last more than four months, overseen by judges handpicked by the government.
The case is the largest to date under the national security law, which China imposed on Hong Kong after huge democracy protests in 2019 brought tear gas and police brawls onto the streets of the Asian financial hub.
Wielded against students, unionists and journalists, the law has transformed the once-outspoken city.
More than 100 people had queued outside the court, some overnight, hoping to see the trial begin on Monday.
Chan Po-ying, a veteran campaigner and wife of defendant “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, joined supporters carrying a banner that read “Crackdown is shameless” and “Immediately release all political prisoners.”
“This is political persecution,” she said outside the court.
Inside, Leung repeated his not-guilty plea, adding: “Resisting tyranny is not a crime.”
Those on trial represent a cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition — including activists Joshua Wong and Lester Shum, professor Benny Tai and former lawmakers Claudia Mo and Au Nok-hin.
Most — 34 out of 47 — have been denied bail, while the few released from custody must abide by strict conditions, including speech restrictions.
Families of the accused have called these measures “social death.”
The group was jointly charged in March 2021 after organizing an unofficial primary a year earlier.
Their stated aim was to win a majority in the city’s legislature, which would allow them to push the protesters’ demands and potentially force the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader.
According to prosecutors, this was tantamount to trying to bring down the government.
“This case involves a group of activists who conspired together and with others to plan, organize and participate in seriously interfering in, disrupting or undermining (the government)... with a view to subverting the State power,” the prosecution said in its opening statement.
More than 610,000 people — about one-seventh of the city’s voting population — cast ballots in the primary. Shortly afterwards, Beijing brought in a new political system that strictly vetted who could stand for office.
The case has attracted international criticism, and diplomats from 12 countries including the United States, Britain, Australia and France were seen at the court Monday.
“This is a retaliation against all the Hong Kongers who supported the pro-democratic camp,” Eric Lai, a fellow of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law, told AFP of the trial.
“Beijing will go all out — even weaponizing the laws and court — to make sure democratic politics in Hong Kong cannot go beyond the lines it drew.”
The trial is being heard in an open court but without a jury, a departure from the city’s common law tradition.
“It is as if the national security law is now the new constitution for Hong Kong and the judges are playing their role in making sure that happens,” said Dennis Kwok, Hong Kong’s former legal sector legislator.
Weeks before the hearing began, Hong Kong’s Chief Justice Andrew Cheung defended the courts against accusations of politicization.
“Whilst inevitably the court’s decision may sometimes have a political impact, this does not mean the court has made a political decision,” Cheung said.

China accuses US of indiscriminate use of force over balloon

Updated 06 February 2023

China accuses US of indiscriminate use of force over balloon

BEIJING: China on Monday accused the United States of indiscriminate use of force when the American military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon Saturday, saying that had “seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-US relations.”
The US shot down a 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.
Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said he lodged a formal complaint with the US Embassy on Sunday over the “US attack on a Chinese civilian unmanned airship by military force.”
“However, the United States turned a deaf ear and insisted on indiscriminate use of force against the civilian airship that was about to leave the United States airspace, which obviously overreacted and seriously violated the spirit of international law and international practice,” Xie said.
The presence of the balloon in the skies above the US 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.
Xie repeated China’s insistence that the balloon was a Chinese civil unmanned airship that blew into US mistake, calling it “an accidental incident caused by force majeure.”
China would “resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies, resolutely safeguard China’s interests and dignity and reserve the right to make further necessary responses,” he said.
US President Joe Biden issued the shootdown order after he was advised that the best times for the operation would be when it was over water, US officials said. Military officials determined that bringing down the balloon over land from an altitude of 60,000 feet (18,000 meters) would pose an undue risk to people on the ground.
“What the US has done has seriously impacted and damaged both sides’ efforts and progress in stabilizing Sino-US relations since the Bali meeting,” Xie said, referring to the recent meeting between Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Indonesia that many hoped would create positive momentum for improving ties that have spiraled to their lowest level in years.
The sides are at odds over a range of issues from trade to human rights, but Beijing is most sensitive over alleged violations by the US and others of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Beijing strongly protests military sales to Taiwan and visits by foreign politicians to the island, which it claims as Chinese territory to be recovered by force if necessary.
It reacted to a 2022 visit by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi by firing missiles over the island and staging threatening military drills seen as a rehearsal for an invasion or blockade. Beijing also cut off discussion with the US on issues including climate change that are unrelated to military tensions.
Last week, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned Pelosi’s successor, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, not to travel Taiwan, implying China’s response would be equally vociferous.
“China will firmly defend its sovereignty, security and development interests,” Mao Ning said. McCarthy said China had no right to dictate where and when he could travel.
China also objects when foreign military surveillance planes fly off its coast in international airspace and when US and other foreign warships pass through the Taiwan Strait, accusing them of being actively provocative.
In 2001, a US Navy plane conducting routine surveillance near the Chinese coast collided with a Chinese fighter plane, killing the Chinese fighter pilot and damaging the American plane, which was forced to make an emergency landing at a China naval air base on the southern Chinese island province of Hainan.
China detained the 24-member US Navy aircrew for 10 days until the US expressed regret over the Chinese pilot’s death and for landing at the base without permission.
The South China Sea is another major source of tension. China claims the strategically key sea virtually in its entirety and protests when US Navy ships sail past Chinese military features there.
At a news conference Friday with his South Korean counterpart, Blinken said “the presence of this surveillance balloon over the United States in our skies is a clear violation of our sovereignty, a clear violation of international law, and clearly unacceptable. And we’ve made that clear to China.”
“Any country that has its airspace violated in this way I think would respond similarly, and I can only imagine what the reaction would be in China if they were on the other end,” Blinken said.
China’s weather balloon excuse should be dismissed outright, said Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert on Chinese military affairs and foreign policy at Stanford University.
“This is like a standard thing that countries often say about surveillance assets,” Mastro said.
China may have made a mistake and lost control of the balloon, but is was unlikely to have been a deliberate attempt to disrupt Blinken’s visit, Mastro said.
For the US administration, the decision to go public and then shoot down the balloon marks a break from its usual approach of dealing with Beijing on such matters privately, possibly in hopes of changing China’s future behavior.
However, Mastro said, it was unlikely that Beijing would respond positively.
“They’re probably going to dismiss that and continue on as things have been. So I don’t see a really clear pathway to improved relations in the foreseeable future.”


7.8-magnitude quake destroys buildings in Turkiye and Syria, at least 10 confirmed dead

Updated 06 February 2023

7.8-magnitude quake destroys buildings in Turkiye and Syria, at least 10 confirmed dead

  • The quake came as the Middle East is experiencing snowstorm expected to last till Thursday
  • Netizens from as far as Jerusalem and Beirut talked of being awakened by the strong shaking

RIYADH/ANKARA: A 7.8 magnitude quake knocked down multiple buildings in Turkiye and Syria early Monday and officials warned of many casualties.

At least 10 deaths have been confirmed in the southeastern province of Sanliurfa, according to Gov. Salih Ayhan.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Twitter that “search and rescue teams were immediately dispatched” to the areas hit by the quake.

“We hope that we will get through this disaster together as soon as possible and with the least damage,” he wrote.

There were at least 6 aftershocks and he urged people not to enter damaged buildings due to the risks, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said.

“Our priority is to bring out people trapped under ruined buildings and to transfer them to hospitals,” he said.

In northwest Syria, the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense described the situation in the rebel-held region as “disastrous” adding that entire buildings have collapsed and people are trapped under the rubble. The civil defense urged people to evacuate buildings to gather in open areas.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) said the quake was centered about 33 kilometers (20 miles) from Gaziantep, a major city and provincial capital. It was centered 18 kilometers (11 miles) deep, and a strong 6.7 aftershock rumbled about 10 minutes later.

Turkiye’s Disaster and Emergency Management agency, AFAD, said the quake measured 7.4 and was centered in the town of Pazarcik, in Kahramanmaras province.

The German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ) measured the quake at Magnitude 7.7, with a shallow depth of 10 kilometers.

Several buildings tumbled down in the neighboring provinces of Malatya, Diyarbakir and Malatya, HaberTurk television reported. 

Syria’s state media reported that some buildings collapsed in the northern city of Aleppo and the central city of Hama.

In this handout photo taken by Sana news aganecy in Hama, Syria on February 6, 2023, rescuers evacuate a victim from an eight-storey building that collapsed after an 7.8-magnitude earthquake in southern Turkey. (Photo courtesy: SANA/AFP)

In Damascus, buildings shook and many people went down to the streets in fear.

The quake jolted residents in Lebanon from beds, shaking buildings for about 40 seconds. Many residents of Beirut left their homes and took to the streets or drove in their cars away from buildings.

The earthquake came as the Middle East is experiencing a snowstorm that is expected to continue until Thursday.

Netizens from as far as Jerusalem and Beirut talked of being awakened by the strong shaking.

"I live in Gaziantep, Türkiye.  Was sleeping when it started. Absolutely terrifying," Nasip (@iam_nasib) commented on a video posted on Twitter.

"Felt it in Jerusalem," said Amy di Nardò (@amybellabella).

Sagittarius (@JRsagittarius) said he was in Beirut and the experienced "was terrifying."

Karolingston (@karolingston) of Cyprus said he was awakened because "My bed was shaking."

"Felt it in Lebanon. It was a hell of a feeling!" chimed in CharbelRahmé (@charbelrahm_e)

Turkiye is in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones.

Duzce was one of the regions hit by a 7.4-magnitude earthquake in 1999 — the worst to hit Turkiye in decades.

That quake killed more than 17,000 people, including about 1,000 in Istanbul.

Experts have long warned a large quake could devastate Istanbul, which has allowed widespread building without safety precautions.

A magnitude-6.8 quake hit Elazig in January 2020, killing more than 40 people.

And in October that year, a magnitude-7.0 quake hit the Aegean Sea, killing 114 people and wounding more than 1,000.

(With agencies)


Ukraine to replace defense minister after corruption scandals: MP

Updated 05 February 2023

Ukraine to replace defense minister after corruption scandals: MP

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

KYIV: Ukraine’s defense minister will be preplaced by the chief of the military intelligence ahead of an expected Russian offensive and following corruption scandals, a senior lawmaker said on Sunday.
“Kyrylo Budanov will head the defense ministry, which is absolutely logical in wartime,” said senior lawmaker David Arakhamia, referring to the 37-year-old chief of the military intelligence.
Reznikov, 56, will be appointed minister for strategic industries, the lawmaker said without specifying a timeline for the planned re-shuffle.
“War dictates personnel policies,” added Arakhamia.
“Time and circumstances require reinforcement and regrouping. This is happening now and will continue to happen in the future,” he added.
“The enemy is preparing to advance. We are preparing to defend ourselves.”
One of the best-known faces of Ukraine’s war effort, Reznikov was appointed defense minister in November 2021 and has helped secure Western weapons to buttress Ukrainian forces.
But his ministry has been beset by corruption scandals.
Reznikov’s deputy was forced to resign in late January after the ministry was accused of signing food contracts at prices two to three times higher than current rates for basic foodstuffs.
Speaking to reporters earlier Sunday, Reznikov did not say if he planned to stay on at the ministry.
But he added that only President Volodymyr Zelensky, who last week stepped up efforts to clamp down on corruption, could decide his fate.
“The stress that I have endured this year is hard to measure precisely. I am not ashamed of anything,” Reznikov said. “My conscience is absolutely clear.”


Republicans criticize Biden for waiting to shoot down Chinese balloon

Updated 05 February 2023

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.”