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The Star Online: World Updates

Philippine security forces arrest top communist leaders

Posted: 22 Mar 2014 09:30 PM PDT

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippines security forces arrested the country's top communist leaders on Saturday, a week ahead of the 45th anniversary of the group's armed struggle when it is expected to launch attacks on government targets, head of the armed forces said on Sunday.

The communist leaders had been blocking peace negotiations and ordering followers to step up attacks against plantations, mines, telecommunications and construction firms to raise funds to finance their revolution, according to the military.

Benito Tiamzon, chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)) and his wife, Wilma Austria Tiamzon, were in two vehicles when army and police forces intercepted them in Carcar, Cebu, on Saturday, said General Emmanuel Bautista, the head of the armed forces.

"The arrest of Benito and Wilma Tiamzon is another victory for the combined efforts between Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Philippine National Police (PNP) and other stakeholders in pursuit of peace and security," Bautista said in a statement.

"We will continue to strengthen our resolve to bring other criminals to justice in honour of the victims of the violence perpetrated by the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army and in honour of our people who deserve to live in peace and developed society."

The 3,000-member New People's Army, the armed wing of the communist party, has been waging a protracted guerrilla war for a communist state from the rural countryside.

The conflict has killed more than 40,000 people. The government offered a 5.6 million pesos ($123,600) for the arrest of Benito Tiamzon in 2012.

Bautista called on the Maoist-led guerrillas to abandon the armed struggle and return to the comfort of their families.

Negotiations between the government and National Democratic Front, the political arm of the rebel group, brokered by Norway had stalled since 2011 over demands to free political prisoners.

The government is also fighting Muslim separatists in the south of the mainly Roman Catholic state in Southeast Asia, but a comprehensive peace agreement will be signed this week with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending four decades of conflict that has killed 120,000 people. ($1 = 45.3000 Philippine Pesos)

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Michael Perry)

Venezuela death toll rises to 34 as troops and protesters clash

Posted: 22 Mar 2014 06:21 PM PDT

CARACAS (Reuters) - Three Venezuelans died from gunshot wounds during protests against socialist President Nicolas Maduro, witnesses and local media said on Saturday, pushing the death toll from almost two months of anti-government demonstrations to 34.

Troops briefly clashed with a small group of protesters who attempted to block a highway in an upscale neighbourhood of Caracas after thousands of opposition sympathizers marched to demand the release of students imprisoned during the unrest.

Demonstrators complaining of soaring prices and product shortages have vowed to remain in the streets until Maduro resigns, although there are few signs that the country's worst turmoil in a decade will force him from office.

Argenis Hernandez, 26, was shot in the abdomen as he was demonstrating near a barricade in the central city of Valencia and died early on Saturday in a nearby hospital, according to local media reports.

A motorcyclist attempted to cross the barricade and opened fire on demonstrators when they would not let him through, wounding Hernandez.

Bus driver Wilfredo Rey, 31, died on Friday night after being shot in the head during a confrontation between demonstrators and hooded gunmen in the western city of San Cristobal, according to local residents.

Rey had not been involved in the protests, they said.

Forty-year-old Jesus Labrador was hit by a bullet on Saturday in the Andean city of Merida during a shoot-out between armed protesters burning tires and hooded gunmen on motorcycles, according to a resident of the area.

Labrador died minutes after arriving at the hospital. Four others suffered bullet wounds in the incident.

The protests began in February with sporadic demonstrations by university students. They intensified after three people were killed following a February 12 rally in downtown Caracas.

Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez called on Maduro to resign in a letter read by his wife at a rally.

"Maduro, if you resign, you will open a path toward peace for Venezuelans," wrote Lopez, who was jailed last month on charges including instigating violence after helping turn the protests into a national movement. "The solution is in your hands."

A group of demonstrators later gathered near Plaza Altamira, which has been a hot spot of opposition protests, but the National Guard dispersed them with tear gas.


The opposition has repeatedly declined Maduro's offers for dialogue about the situation, saying they refuse to take part in meetings that will provide little more than photo-ops for the ruling Socialist Party.

Maduro says their refusal to engage in dialogue is evidence they are interested in snatching power rather than negotiating.

During a rally following the pro-government march, Maduro accused opposition extremists of setting fire to a military university in San Cristobal earlier this week.

"Can this be called protest? This is terrorism. This is fascism," Maduro said.

"These 'Chuckies' are the direct descendants of the Nazis," he said, referring to the murderous doll of the horror movie series - a designation often used by government leaders to describe the violent protesters.

The state prosecutor's office said on Saturday evening that a 21-year-old man had been detained in relation to the incident and charged with crimes including sabotage.

Demonstrations have ranged from peaceful marches to violent clashes between police and hooded protesters hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails.

They have also involved street barricades made of trash and debris that is set on fire, snarling traffic and angering drivers of all political persuasions.

Opposition sympathizers accuse troops of using excessive force against demonstrators, spurring outrage that has helped keep the protests going.

Maduro says adversaries are seeking to destabilize the government as part of a Washington-backed coup similar to the one that briefly ousted socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2002.

Prosecutors in recent days ordered the arrest of two opposition mayors following accusations they had not done enough to clear barricades in their municipalities.

Congress on Tuesday asked prosecutors to open a criminal probe of Maria Corina Machado, an opposition legislator and high-profile protest leader, for crimes including treason and inciting civil war in association with the unrest.

(Additional reporting by Javier Faria in San Cristobal; Editing by Gunna Dickson and Lisa Shumaker)

Pilot of missing plane shared his flight simulator passion online

Posted: 22 Mar 2014 06:20 PM PDT

HONG KONG/TOKYO (Reuters) - Some trace of the passion that Zaharie Ahmad Shah had for flying can be found in the trail of e-mail exchanges and online message board posts that detail the Malaysia Airlines pilot's construction of a state-of-the-art flight simulator at home.

Now the stack of computer monitors, graphics cards and software he painstakingly sourced and improved is being pored over by investigators trying to make sense of the disappearance more than two weeks ago of the passenger jet he was piloting.

There is no evidence that Zaharie was responsible for the loss of Flight MH370, which had 227 passengers and 10 crew, including the 53-year-old captain, aboard.

In fact, many in the online community of specialist vendors and flying enthusiasts whom Zaharie turned to for components and advice say it is common for pilots to enjoy flying so much that they have simulators at home.

"Many pilots contact me interested in making 'home' simulators. Zaharie along with some others pilots actually used my motion controllers to upgrade the realism of their simulators by building motion platforms," Thanos Kontogiannis, a California-based aviation enthusiast who helped Zaharie build the simulator, posted on his blog on Monday.

Kontogiannis, whose LinkedIn profile and blog describe him as a San Diego-based Qualcomm employee who builds motion controllers in his spare time, did not respond to requests for comment.

But with investigators convinced that the missing plane was diverted thousands of miles off its scheduled course from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing by a skilled aviator, attention has focused on Zaharie and the 27-year-old co-pilot, Fariq Abdul Hamid.

Malaysian police seized the simulator last week from Zaharie's gated home in an upscale suburb west of Kuala Lumpur. Games he was running from the Microsoft "Flight Simulator" series and the latest "X-plane" title were being examined.

"Looking through the flight logs in these simulator games is a key part of the investigation," said an official with direct knowledge of the investigation into Zaherie and his co-pilot.

"X-plane 10 was interesting to investigators because it was the latest thing Zaharie bought. Also it is the most advanced out there and had all sorts of emergency and combat scenarios."

Malaysian investigators have asked the FBI for help in memory recovery after discovering some data was deleted on February 3.


Zaharie spent thousands of hours in the virtual cockpit of the machine playing flying games or boosting its capabilities. He seemed proud of the results.

On the evening of November 17, 2012, he posted a picture of his newly-finished simulator and its specifications to an online forum, calling it "awesome" and saying it was his "passion". He said it was "time to take to the next level of simulation" with a motion controller and that he was "looking for buddies".

A motion controller makes the chair of the simulator pitch and turn like in a real cockpit to simulate the climbs, descents and banked turns of a real plane. Zaharie's set-up also included a centre pedestal, where aircraft controls sit, and overhead panel.

It's impossible to estimate exactly how much Zaharie spent on his simulator, but rough estimate by Reuters shows it was likely to be well in excess of $7,000.

Flight simulator costs vary depending on parts used. For example, a replica Boeing-737 seat on Flight Simulator Centre, a website with simulator parts, costs almost $5,000. An overhead panel listed on another website costs $800.

The software, currently a focus for investigators, would have allowed him to practice landing at more than 33,000 airports, on aircraft carriers, oil rigs, frigates, which pitch and roll with the waves, and heli-pads atop buildings.

Other software Zaharie was using would have let him to use the Internet to fly with friends and he could have simulated "a lot of malfunctions, emergencies, go-arounds, return-to-base or divert with fairly exact procedures", according to Naoya Fujiwara, a flight simulator expert from Japan.

He could have simulated any weather and even downloaded real weather, wind and temperature data from a professional server, Fujiwara said.

Given the large amount of cheap memory loaded onto modern computers, it's unlikely Zaharie would have had to erase his flight data for technical reasons - so it remains unclear why some of the data was erased on February 3.

"Today storage capacity is not a problem for a computer running simulators," said Fernando Nunez Correas, a simulation software developer using some of the same components as Zaharie.

Erasing data may have been part of a regular maintenance routine or done to help improve the simulator's performance, flight simulator users say.

He could not have practiced evading radar, for instance, because radar is not part of the simulation, Nunez said.

(Additional reporting by Niki Koswanage in KUALA LUMPUR and Noel Randewich in SAN FRANCISCO; Editing by Alex Richardson)


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