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The Star Online: World Updates

Grenade attack on Thai anti-graft office ahead of PM hearing

Posted: 27 Mar 2014 09:00 PM PDT

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Grenades were thrown at the offices of Thailand's anti-corruption agency, which has summoned the prime minister to answer charges of dereliction of duty next week, as protesters trying to oust her prepared for a big weekend rally.

Nobody was injured in the overnight attack, the second on the agency's offices this week, police said on Friday. It was not clear who threw the grenades. Supporters of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra have been demonstrating at the building this week.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission is examining the alleged failure of Yingluck to stop corruption and stem huge losses in a government rice-buying programme.

It is widely expected to recommend her impeachment by the Senate. If the Senate takes up the case, Yingluck will have to step aside, with a deputy prime minister expected to take over. If she is found guilty by the Senate, she has to step down.

Her supporters, who have been restrained during five months of anti-government protests in the capital, are starting to mobilise and are planning their own big rally, or series of rallies, on April 5.

Anti-government demonstrators resumed street protests on Monday after lying low for weeks. Their rally on Saturday is expected to draw up to 50,000 people Paradorn Pattanathabutr, a security adviser to the prime minister, told Reuters.

"We don't expect any violence at the rally but provocateurs might try to stir trouble to discredit the government side," Paradorn said.

Thailand has been in crisis since former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother, was ousted in a 2006 coup. The conflict broadly pits the Bangkok-based middle class and royalist establishment against the mostly poorer, rural supporters of the Shinawatras.

The turmoil entered a fresh phase in November, when anti-government protesters first took to the streets, with 23 people killed during the political violence over the following months

The protesters disrupted a general election on February 2 and the ballot was annulled by the Constitutional Court this month.

Yingluck heads a caretaker administration with limited powers, unable to take any big policy decisions binding on the next government.

The political paralysis is hurting the economy.

Data on Friday showed factory output fell 4.42 percent in February from a year before, the 11th fall in a row.

And although customs data on Wednesday logged a 2.4 percent rise in exports in February compared with a year before, imports plunged 16.6 percent after a 15.5 percent drop in January, showing the weakness of domestic demand and the reluctance of industry to invest in capital goods because of the crisis.

(Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Writing by Alan Raybould)

Mudslide deaths expected to soar; some question disaster response

Posted: 27 Mar 2014 08:40 PM PDT

DARRINGTON, Washington (Reuters) - Rescuers searching for 90 people still missing five days after a massive mudslide in Washington state braced the public on Thursday for an impending steep rise in the death toll even as they sought to deflect criticism about the early disaster response.

At least 25 people are known to have died when a rain-soaked hillside collapsed without warning on Saturday, unleashing a wall of mud that engulfed dozens of homes in a river valley near the rural town of Oso, 55 miles (89 km) northeast of Seattle.

Only the first 16 victims recovered and examined by coroners have been formally counted among the dead, though local fire district chief Travis Hots said that figure would soon climb sharply higher. Nine more bodies that have since been found have yet to be added to the official toll.

"In the next 24 to 48 hours, as the medical examiner's office catches up with the difficult work that they have to do, you're going to see these numbers increase substantially," he said.

Snohomish County officials said on Wednesday about 90 people remained missing, down from 176, and Hots said on Thursday the revised figure was holding. An estimated 180 people lived in the path of the landslide.

Authorities have acknowledged there is little chance of finding any more survivors in the square-mile heap of mud-caked debris and muck left by the landslide, and that the remains of some victims may never be recovered.

Everyone who was discovered alive in the mud was rescued by helicopter within the first few hours after the landslide, and rescuers have not found further signs of life, officials said.

Still, Hots said a round-the-clock search effort by more than 200 people, who were painstakingly combing through a disaster site that included "clay balls the size of ambulances," would press on indefinitely.

"We're not changing the pace of this. And we're going to exhaust all options to try to find somebody alive," he said. "If we find just one more person that's alive, to me, that's worth it."


Tom Minor, commander of a search-and-rescue team from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, struck a similar chord when asked about the chances of finding a survivor, saying, "I would say there's always some hope."

As the scope of the tragedy sank in, many area residents have voiced anger that local officials refused to allow volunteers to join the search for victims immediately after the slide, when chances for finding survivors were greatest.

While some used their intimate knowledge of the area to sneak into the disaster zone to help, others said they returned home feeling frustrated and helpless.

"I went the first day, but we got roadblocked," said Calvin Burlingame, a retired lumber mill worker whose nephew is missing. "I'm upset that they did that because they weren't in full control yet and ... the community could have done a lot on our own."

Burlingame, 62, said he understood the risks involved but said it would have been worthwhile: "If we give up something to get something for somebody else, then that's OK."

State police spokesman Bob Calkins said conditions were simply too dangerous to allow non-professional volunteers into the disaster zone immediately after the slide.

"We wish they could have helped, too," Calkins said. "It would not have been safe, and we'd have had more victims."

Authorities finally agreed on Tuesday to start allowing volunteers to join the official rescue teams.

Members of the public were not the only ones with recriminations about how the early response was handled.

Two local politicians, state Representative Elizabeth Scott and Snohomish County Councilman Ken Klein, told the Seattle Times that county authorities had wasted time by failing to quickly recognize the scope of the disaster and opting to handle it on their own, without seeking more experienced outside help.

The state National Guard's commanding officer offered to deploy a 50-member search team on Saturday, an offer local emergency management officials did not accept until Monday, a spokeswoman for the Washington Military Department said.


Military department spokeswoman Karina Shagren said while county officials did not initially grasp the magnitude of the devastation, there was no room for more personnel because of quicksand-like conditions and fears of further slides.

"There wasn't a resources issue, there was a safety issue," she told Reuters.

FEMA's Minor also defended the handling of the situation, saying the first day of any disaster is always marked by a level of confusion and disarray. He called Snohomish County's response "outstanding."

"They knew what they wanted. They asked for it. And when we got here, they knew what our mission was and they gave us our mission. And that doesn't always happen," Minor said. "To say that we could've, should've or might have been here earlier - no, it's about what it takes."

He said the hours required to mobilize a distant FEMA and National Guard team means that "we aren't going to be here on day one." The FEMA crew was activated on Monday, he said.

As authorities investigated the cause of the mudslide Washington State Department of Natural Resources said it would review recent forestry activities in the area to determine if they could have contributed to the slide.

The U.S. Geological Survey said there was no indication that an earthquake had brought the hillside down.

With spirits dimming as they days wore on, emotions were running raw among loved ones of the dead and missing, and the crews of people searching for them.

Jessica Neal, 30, said she found comfort from Wednesday's recovery of the body of her father-in-law, Steve Neal, a hot water heater installer who was working at a house hit by the slide, and in learning that he apparently did not suffer long.

"The coroner had details that it was fast," she said as she fought back tears.

Community members assembled late Wednesday to offer prayers for the missing.

"We know, and most of us, I think, are accepting that many of our people are not going to make it," Megan Fanning, 41, said at the gathering in nearby Darrington. "But please, we need a miracle. Just one. One little miracle would be wonderful."

(Additional reporting by Eric Johnson in Arlington, Washington and Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Jonathan Oatis, Bernadette Baum and Ken Wills)

China sacks ally of former security chief as graft probe widens

Posted: 27 Mar 2014 08:10 PM PDT

BEIJING (Reuters) - A former aide to China's retired domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang was sacked on Thursday after authorities opened a corruption probe, state media said, the latest move targeting associates of Zhou, who is also under investigation for graft.

The official Xinhua news agency said Ji Wenlin had been removed from his post as a vice governor of the southern island province of Hainan.

The ruling Communist Party's anti-corruption watchdog announced in February that Ji was being investigated for suspected serious breaches of party discipline and the law, the usual euphemism it uses for graft.

The government has given no other details and it has not been possible to reach Ji for comment. Sources have told Reuters that Zhou has been put under virtual house arrest.

President Xi Jinping has launched a sweeping crackdown on corruption since taking power, warning corruption is a threat to the Communist Party's survival.

Ji worked with Zhou when Zhou was land resources minister in the late 1990s. He then followed Zhou to Sichuan province and became one of his secretaries when Zhou was provincial party boss, Ji's official resume shows.

The two also worked together in the Ministry of Public Security in the early 2000s. In late 2010, Ji was shifted to Hainan province, known in China for its pristine beaches and resorts.

The party also fired Yao Mugen, the vice governor of the eastern province of Jiangxi, for "suspected severe violations of discipline", state news agency Xinhua reported on Friday.

The Xinhua report, which cited the ruling party's central Organisation Department, said his case was handled "in line with procedures". The term "discipline violation" is also generally used to denote corruption.

Several of Zhou's political allies have been held in custody and questioned over corruption, including former Vice Minister of Public Security Li Dongsheng and Jiang Jiemin, who was the top regulator of state-owned enterprises for just five months until September.

It is unclear if the government will put Zhou on trial and risk embarrassing public revelations about China's elite, potentially undermining confidence in the party.

Zhou was a patron of former high-flying politician Bo Xilai, who was jailed for life in September for corruption and abuse of power in the worst political scandal since the 1976 downfall of the Gang of Four led by the widow of former leader Mao Zedong at the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Zhou retired in 2012. He was last seen at an alumni celebration at the China University of Petroleum on October 1.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Paul Tait)


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