- Witness at ex-dictator's trial links Guatemalan president to war crimes
- Magnitude 5.4 earthquake shakes buildings in Mexico City
- More deaths in China from new bird flu; U.S., Japan on guard
Posted: 04 Apr 2013 07:36 PM PDT
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A former member of Guatemala's armed forces implicated President Otto Perez in civil war atrocities as he testified on Thursday at the genocide trial of ex-dictator Efrain Rios Montt.
Hugo Reyes, who was stationed as an army engineer in a violent region of Guatemala under Rios Montt's 1982-1983 rule, said Perez commanded soldiers who burned down homes and shot and killed civilians during the civil war, which pitted leftist insurgents against a series of right-wing governments.
Perez, a retired army general who was elected president in 2011, also known as major Tito Arias during the civil war, has previously denied involvement in war crimes.
Reyes, speaking to the court by video link from an undisclosed location, said he witnessed the killing of farmers on an army base near the village of Nebaj in northwestern Guatemala by troops under the command of Perez and another officer.
"The soldiers under the orders of Major Tito Arias, known as Otto Perez Molina, Francisco Marin and the officers they were in charge of, and the commander of the company of engineers, coordinated the burning (of homes) and pulling people out so they could execute them," Reyes, 47, told the court.
There were gasps in the court as he spoke, and people who had been chatting fell silent. Throughout his testimony, Reyes kept his face hidden with the peak of the baseball cap he wore.
Before Perez took office in 2012, Reuters asked him about testimony linking him to war crimes during the 1960-1996 war in which around 200,000 people died and another 45,000 disappeared. Perez said the allegations were "completely false."
As president, Perez is protected by amnesty granted to public officials and cannot be subpoenaed.
Rios Montt, who left Congress last year, was ordered to stand trial in January when a judge found sufficient evidence linking him to the killing of more than 1,700 indigenous people in a counterinsurgency plan carried out under his command.
Prosecutors allege Rios Montt turned a blind eye as soldiers used rape, torture and arson against leftist rebels and targeted indigenous people in a "scorched earth" offensive that killed at least 1,771 members of the Mayan Ixil group.
Rios Montt, 86, has yet to take the stand in the trial, the first in which a country has prosecuted one of its former heads of state for genocide and crimes against humanity.
Reyes, now a mechanic, related how soldiers took kidnapped civilians to a military base where they were tortured, killed and dumped in mass graves.
"Some had their tongues cut out and their fingernails removed and other injuries," he said. "The army officers said to them: 'Sons of bitches, talk or we'll cut out your tongues.'"
Many of the victims of the conflict were ethnic Maya.
"Indian seen, Indian dead. That was the motto they had," said Reyes, the only former member of the armed forces prosecutors have lined up for the witness stand.
Perez, a conservative, was the first military man to take the Guatemalan presidency since the end of the war.
He won election not long after Guatemala began sentencing military officials for crimes committed during the war, and human rights activists raised concerns that Perez might obstruct efforts to bring army officials to justice.
Perez sought to allay those fears, and there was jubilation among victims' families when Rios Montt went to trial.
But when Reyes was asked by a lawyer working for the prosecution if he feared he had put his life in danger by testifying, he said he was afraid of retribution from Perez and his former military comrades.
"I'm totally sure that they feel nothing in their soul torturing and disappearing someone," he said.
(Editing by Dave Graham and Mohammad Zargham)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 04 Apr 2013 07:31 PM PDT
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A 5.4 magnitude earthquake shook buildings in Mexico City on Thursday, but there were no immediate reports of injuries or damages.
The epicentre of the earthquake was in Guerrero state on Mexico's Pacific coast, the U.S. Geological Survey reported.
A Reuters witness in the Pacific resort of Acapulco, the biggest city in Guerrero, said the earthquake seemed slight, with some people not even noticing the tremor.
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera said city services were operating normally after the earthquake.
(Reporting by Dave Graham, Elinor Comlay and Luis Enrique Martinez; Editing by Stacey Joyce)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 04 Apr 2013 07:17 PM PDT
SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) - China said it was mobilising resources nationwide to combat a new strain of bird flu that has killed six people, as Japan and Hong Kong stepped up vigilance and the United States said it was closely monitoring the situation.
All of the 14 reported infections from the H7N9 bird flu strain have been in eastern China and at least four of the six dead are in the financial hub of Shanghai, a city of 20 million people.
The strain does not appear to be transmitted from human to human but authorities in Hong Kong raised a preliminary alert and said they were taking precautions at the airport. Vietnam banned imports of Chinese poultry.
In Japan, airports have put up posters at entry points warning all passengers from China to seek medical attention if they have flu-like symptoms.
A total of 14 people in China have been confirmed to have contracted H7N9, all in the east of the country. One of the cases was a four-year-old child, who was recovering, the official Xinhua news agency said.
Hong Kong authorities said six people had died.
Authorities in Shanghai also discovered the H7N9 virus in a pigeon sample taken from a traditional wholesale market, Xinhua added, believed to be the first time the virus has been discovered in an animal in China since the outbreak began.
In the United States, the White House said it was monitoring the situation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it had started work on a vaccine if it was needed. It would take five to six months to begin commercial production.
But the groundwork is being laid.
The virus has been shared with World Health Organization (WHO) collaborating centres in Atlanta, Beijing, London, Melbourne and Tokyo, and these groups are analysing samples to identify the best candidate to be used for the manufacture of vaccine - if it becomes necessary.
Any decision to mass-produce vaccines against H7N9 flu will not be taken lightly, since it will mean sacrificing production of seasonal shots.
That could mean shortages of vaccine against the normal seasonal flu which, while not serious for most people, still costs thousands of lives.
Sanofi Pasteur, the world's largest flu vaccine manufacturer, said it was in continuous contact with the WHO through the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), but it was too soon to know the significance of the Chinese cases.
Other leading flu vaccine makers include GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis
Preliminary test results suggest the new flu strain responds to treatment with Roche's drug Tamiflu and GSK's Relenza, according to the WHO.
SHADOW OF SARS
With the fear that a SARS-like epidemic could re-emerge, China said it was pulling out the stops to combat the virus.
"(China) will strengthen its leadership in combating the virus ... and coordinate and deploy the entire nation's health system to combat the virus," the Health Ministry said in a statement on its website (www.moh.gov.cn).
In 2003, authorities initially tried to cover up an epidemic of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in China and killed about 10 percent of the 8,000 people it infected worldwide.
China "will continue to openly and transparently maintain communication and information channels with the World Health Organisation and relevant countries and regions, and strengthen monitoring and preventative measures", the ministry said.
Other strains of bird flu, such as H5N1, have been circulating for many years and can be transmitted from bird to bird, and bird to human, but not generally from human to human.
So far, this lack of human-to-human transmission also appears to be a feature of the H7N9 strain.
"The gene sequences confirm that this is an avian virus, and that it is a low pathogenic form (meaning it is likely to cause mild disease in birds)," said Wendy Barclay, a flu virologist at Britain's Imperial College London.
"But what the sequences also reveal is that there are some mammalian adapting mutations in some of the genes."
Regions near the affected zone have begun taking precautions.
In Hong Kong, authorities activated the preliminary "Alert Response Level" under a preparedness plan for an influenza pandemic, which calls for close monitoring of chicken farms, vaccination, culling drills, and a suspension of imports of live birds from the mainland.
All passengers on flights in and out of Hong Kong were being asked to notify flight attendants or airport staff if they were feeling unwell.
Vietnam said it had banned poultry imports from China, citing the risk from H7N9.
(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Olivier Fabre in TOKYO, Hanoi newsroom; Kate Kelland in LONDON and Julie Steenhuysen in CHICAGO; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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