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Survivors mourn hundreds killed in Afghan landslide

Posted: 03 May 2014 11:52 PM PDT

AAB BAREEK, Afghanistan: Survivors of a landslide that entombed a village in northern Afghanistan mourned hundreds of dead relatives on Sunday as aid teams rushed to care for 700 families left homeless in the mountains.

Much of Aab Bareek village in Badakhshan province was swallowed on Friday by a fast-moving tide of mud and rock that sweep down the hillside and left almost no trace of 300 homes.

Government officials have put the current death toll at 300 people and warned it could rise by hundreds more, after initial reports suggested that as many as 2,500 people may have died.

Large crowds gathered at the remote disaster site, where the volume of deep mud covering houses made rescue efforts hopeless.

Only a few dead bodies have been pulled from the debris.

Wailing near her father's destroyed house, Begum Nisa, a 40-year-old mother of three, described the moment when the wall of mud smashed through the village.

"I was eating lunch by the window of my house, then suddenly I heard a huge roar, and I realised that our village was hit by landslides," she said.

"I shouted to my family to save themselves, but it was too late. I have lost my dear father and mother. I also lost my uncle and five members of his family."

Local people and emergency workers had used shovels to try to dig out survivors but without success, and relief work turned to caring for about 700 displaced families.

Tents, food and water began arriving on Saturday as Afghan and international aid groups worked to get supplies through to the village. 

More landslides feared

Many families spent another night in the open, with residents and visiting officials fearing that the unstable hillside could unleash more deadly landslides in the coming days.

"We have a list of around 300 people confirmed dead," Badakhshan governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb told reporters at the scene on Saturday.

"We cannot continue the search and rescue operation anymore, as the houses are under metres of mud. We will offer prayers for the victims and make the area a mass grave."

Many villagers were at Friday prayers in two mosques when they were entombed by the torrent of mud, and a second landslide hit people who had rushed to assist those in need.

Afghanistan held a national day of mourning on Sunday after President Hamid Karzai expressed his condolences to those who had lost loved ones.

The UN mission in Afghanistan said its staff was on the ground, along with the Afghan Red Crescent and other aid groups.

"The immediate focus is on approximately 700 families displaced either directly as a result of this slide or as a precautionary measure from villages assessed to be at further risk," UNAMA said.

It added that more water, medical support, food and emergency shelters were needed.

Badakhshan is a mountainous province in northeast Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.

It has been relatively peaceful since the US-led military intervention began in 2001, but has seen increasing Taliban activity in recent years.

The landslides follow recent severe flooding in other parts of northern Afghanistan, with 150 people dead and 67,000 people affected by floods in Jowzjan, Faryab and Sar-e-Pul provinces.

Flooding and landslides often occur during the spring rainy season in northern Afghanistan, with flimsy mud houses offering little protection against rising water levels and torrents of mud.

Afghanistan is in the middle of presidential elections, with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani due to compete in a head-to-head vote on June 7.

Both candidates called for urgent action to support those affected by the landslide. -AFP

South Korean divers struggle to open blocked ferry cabins

Posted: 03 May 2014 10:04 PM PDT

Seoul (AFP) - South Korean dive teams struggled Sunday to gain access to blocked cabins of a submerged ferry that sank nearly three weeks ago, as the confirmed death toll from the disaster rose to 242.

Six more bodies were recovered early Sunday, 18 days after the 6,825-tonne Sewol capsized and sank with 476 people on board -- most of them schoolchildren -- while 60 remain unaccounted for.

"Rescuers using some equipment are trying to open blocked cabins," spokesman Ko Myeong-Suk told a morning briefing.

The search has been hampered by fast currents and high waves, while dive teams have been working in challenging and sometimes hazardous conditions.

They have to grope their way down guiding ropes to the sunken ship, struggling through narrow passageways and rooms littered with floating debris in silty water.

As days go by, personal belongings and other items from the ship have been spotted further and further away, fuelling concerns that some victims of the ferry disaster may never be found.

One body was retrieved Friday by a fishing vessel four kilometres (two miles) away from the recovery site, and another was found two kilometres away on Wednesday.

As a precaution, recovery workers have put rings of netting around the site.

Bedding materials from the ship were found as far as 30 kilometres from the disaster site on Friday.

It is one of South Korea's worst peacetime disasters, made all the more shocking by the loss of so many young lives.

Of those on board, 325 were students from the same high school in Ansan city, just south of Seoul.

Public anger has focused on the captain and crew members who abandoned the ship while hundreds were trapped inside, and on the authorities as more evidence emerges of lax safety standards and possible corruption among state regulators.

The captain and 14 of his crew have been arrested.

The Sewol's regular captain, who was off duty on the day of the accident, has told prosecutors that the ferry operator -- Chonghaejin Marine Co -- "brushed aside" repeated warnings that the 20-year-old ship had stability issues following a renovation in 2012.

Two Chonghaejin officials were arrested on Friday on charges of having the ferry overloaded well beyond its legal limit. - AFP

Long-time HDB tenants get extended grace period

Posted: 03 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A RECENT rule to curb speculation in the Housing Board commercial and industrial rental market has been effective so far, and the authorities are extending a concession to long-time tenants.

Last October, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) banned new tenants from transferring such rental premises for a cash premium, known as an assignment fee.

Business owners "assign" their properties to others because they are not doing well, or can profit from the transfer of a popular place.

Since the rule began, average transfer fees have fallen 33% for HDB commercial property and 42% for industrial property, said National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

ERA Realty key executive officer Eugene Lim said: "This shows that the policy has been successful in doing its job of curbing rising ope­rating costs and speculation in HDB rental commercial and industrial properties."

While stepping in to curb speculation, which may ultimately lead to higher costs for consumers, HDB had also given old-time tenants a grace period of three years, up to 2016, to transfer their shops or industrial property.

It is now extending this by three years. This means tenants who qua­lify now have until 2019 to decide.

The concession applies to existing commercial and industrial tenants who have been renting from HDB for at least 15 years as of last Oct 16.

"Some tenants, who have been operating out of the same premises for many years, asked HDB for a longer grace period to give them more time to make business adjustments," Khaw said. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network

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