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The Star Online: Metro: Sunday Metro

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The Star Online: Metro: Sunday Metro

Thai protesters vow to storm PM's crisis HQ

Posted: 18 Feb 2014 09:23 PM PST

BANGKOK: Defiant Thai opposition protesters threatened to storm Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's crisis headquarters Wednesday, stepping up their campaign a day after dramatic street clashes left five dead and dozens wounded.

The spike in violence has punctured hopes of an easing of a three-month political standoff in which 16 people have been killed - including both demonstrators and policemen - and hundreds injured in gunfire and grenade blasts.

The backdrop to the unrest is a nearly decade-long political rift between opponents and supporters of Yingluck's brother, fugitive former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, that has unleashed a series of rival street protests.

A convoy of trucks carrying whistle-blowing protesters set off for a defence ministry complex in a Bangkok suburb where Yingluck has held meetings over the last few weeks, after being driven out of her besieged headquarters in the government district.

"It's hard to accept that Yingluck asked her people to kill us and then she hides at the office of the permanent secretary of defence. We will storm it and find her," firebrand protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said.

All government meetings at the building were cancelled, according to deputy government spokeswoman Sunisa Lertpakawat, who said it was unclear if Yingluck would visit the offices, which were guarded by security forces.

A spokesman for the office of the permanent secretary of defence, Major Surachart Chitjaeng, said Yingluck was expected to stay away.

"The prime minister is fully aware that if she comes it will cause of trouble for defence ministry officials as well as local people," he said.

On Tuesday, violent clashes broke out after riot police tried to clear rally sites in the capital's historic district.

Chaotic scenes ensued as explosions and gunfire shook an area of the city near the Golden Mount temple and other tourist attractions.

A policeman was shot dead and four civilians were killed, the Erawan emergency centre said in a new toll on Wednesday, while more than 60 others were injured.

Police said 24 officers were among those hurt.

National Security Council chief Paradorn Pattanatabut said there was no plan to launch a new operation on Wednesday to try to clear protest areas, but he denied Tuesday's operation marked a defeat for the authorities.

"The operation was not a failure. At least we regained the energy ministry and 80 percent of the government complex," he said, referring to a group of state offices in the north of the capital. 

Demands for reform

The protesters are demanding Yingluck quit to allow an unelected prime minister to take office to introduce vaguely-defined reforms such as an end to corruption and alleged misuse of public funds to buy political influence.

In a new twist, the National Anti-Corruption Commission said Tuesday that it was pressing charges against Yingluck for neglect of duty in connection with a controversial rice subsidy scheme. If found guilty she could be removed from office.

More than seven years after royalist generals ousted Yingluck's brother Thaksin in a bloodless coup, the kingdom appears more politically divided than ever.

The billionaire tycoon-turned-politician fled overseas in 2008 to avoid jail for a corruption conviction, but his critics accuse him of pulling the strings of power from self-exile.

The opposition protesters, mainly from Bangkok and southern Thailand, have vowed to rid the country of the "Thaksin regime", but Yingluck insists the dispute should be resolved at the ballot box.

Pro-Thaksin parties have won every election for more than a decade, and Yingluck is counting on her family's traditionally strong support in the northern half of the kingdom to return her to power in a general election that was held on February 2.

The opposition boycotted the polls and the results are not expected to be known until election re-runs are held in constituencies where voting was obstructed by protesters.

Yingluck has declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas, but could face a new setback with a Civil Court due to rule Wednesday on the legality of the decree. -AFP

Koreans gather ahead of longed-for reunion

Posted: 18 Feb 2014 09:34 PM PST

SEOUL: A group of 83 mostly elderly South Koreans accompanied by family converged Wednesday on a coastal resort prior to crossing into North Korea for the first reunion in more than three years for the peninsula's divided families.

Having had their hopes shattered when Pyongyang cancelled a previous reunion last September, many had been wary of the agreement to hold a gathering from Thursday at a mountain retreat in North Korea.

The accord almost fell apart when the North took exception to overlapping joint military drills by South Korea and the United States, and was only saved by some rare high-level talks last week.

The group travelled Wednesday to the resort near the eastern port city of Sokcho, where they were to spend the night before crossing the heavily-fortified border nearby.

With an average age of 84, they were accompanied by 59 family members for physical and emotional support.

The reunion at a complex on North Korea's Mount Kumgang will be the first of its kind since 2010.

Lee Ok-Ran, 84, said she had barely been able to sleep at the prospect of seeing the two sisters she left behind in the North's western province of Hwanghae.

South Korean TV showed her at home carefully packing bundles of gifts, ranging from underwear and analgesic patches to Choco Pies - a South Korean chocolate and marshmallow biscuit snack.

"I've heard Choco Pies are popular and expensive in the North", Lee said.

"Ok-Bin, Ok-Hi, I'm waiting to hug you hard and dance together," she said looking into the camera and calling her sisters' names.

Millions of Koreans were separated by the 1950-53 war, and the vast majority have since died without having any communication at all with surviving relatives.

Because the Korean conflict concluded with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas technically remain at war and direct exchanges of letters or telephone calls are prohibited.

Up to 73,000 South Koreans are wait-listed for a chance to take part in one of the reunion events, which select only a few hundred participants at a time.

The reunion programme began in earnest in 2000 following an historic inter-Korean summit.

Sporadic events since then have seen around 17,000 relatives briefly reunited.

But the programme was suspended in 2010 following the North's shelling of a South Korean border island.

The Mount Kumgang reunion with 180 North Korean relatives will last until Saturday, after which the South Korean group will return home.

Then a group of 88 selected North Koreans will travel to Mount Kumgang to meet 361 of their relatives from the South from Sunday to Tuesday.

For the vast majority it will be the last contact they ever have with each other.

Last year alone, around 3,800 South Korean applicants for reunions died without ever realising their dreams. -AFP

Husband joins search in Bali for missing Japan diver

Posted: 18 Feb 2014 09:30 PM PST

SEMAWANG, Indonesia: The husband of a Japanese diver missing off Bali since last week joined the search for his wife Wednesday, following the dramatic rescue of five others in the group and the death of a sixth.

Putu Mahardena Sembah, who is Indonesian, told reporters "I wish we can find" his wife, instructor Shoko Takahashi, as he set off with rescuers in a boat - but police cautioned chances of locating her alive five days after she went missing were slim.

Sembah and Takahashi ran the operator Yellow Scuba that took the seven female Japanese divers out on an expedition Friday from Nusa Lembongan island, east of the resort island of Bali.

The women, all experienced divers, went missing - and as days passed hopes faded any of them would be found alive in an area known for its stunning underwater beauty but also strong, unpredictable currents.

Then fishermen spotted five of the women Monday - three days after they disappeared - clinging to a coral reef. They were plucked to safety and taken to hospital.

The body of a sixth diver, however, was found by members of the public Tuesday floating near a beach in southern Bali, the island's search and rescue chief said.

Sembah set off from Semawang beach in south Bali Wednesday morning with a group of some 15 rescuers in three boats, while a search and rescue helicopter hovered overhead, an AFP reporter at the scene said.

Japanese friends and relatives of the divers, who had travelled to Bali to help in the search, were among the rescuers setting off from the beach, which is lined with scuba diving centres.

Local police chief Nyoman Suarsika said the search would focus on the areas of Sanur and Kuta, popular tourist spots in southern Bali.

But, he warned: "The chances of finding her alive are very slim now that she has been missing for five days.

"Whether alive or dead, we will try our very best to find her."

Hopes had been raised early Tuesday, before the body of the sixth diver was discovered, that the final two missing women were still alive after villagers spotted two people on coral reef sending out what they thought were distress signals.

However Suarsika said rescuers scoured the area, called Manta Point off Nusa Penida island, and it turned out the people were local anglers. Manta Point is where the other five were found alive.

The five rescued divers, who are in hospital in Bali, have suffered sunburn and dehydration but none is in a serious condition, doctors say. -AFP


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