Blizzards, ice storms wreak havoc across US’ northern Plains

Associated Press
Tue, 2016-12-27

CHICAGO: Travel conditions remained hazardous as a winter storm swept across much of the northern Plains on Monday, with blowing and drifting snow forcing the closure of an airport and creating near-zero visibility on some roads.
The combination of freezing rain, snow and high winds that forced vast stretches of highways in the Dakotas to be shut down Sunday continued into Monday, and authorities issued no-travel warnings for much of North Dakota.
Meanwhile, in parts of the South, unseasonably warm temperatures was raising the risk of tornadoes and damaging thunderstorms. About 3 million people in parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee could see damaging winds gusts and isolated tornadoes Monday, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, said, but no major outbreak is expected.
Most of North Dakota was to remain under a blizzard warning through Monday afternoon or early evening, according to the National Weather Service in Bismarck. Severe whiteout conditions led to the closure of Minot International Airport, and the facility wasn’t expected to reopen until 3 a.m. Tuesday. The airports serving Fargo and Bismarck also list flight cancelations on their websites.
Winds gusting 40 mph to 50 mph associated also led to delays and cancelations at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The storm also has caused power outages in the Dakotas and Nebraska.
The South Dakota Rural Electric Association said roughly 19,000 of its customers were without power Monday afternoon. In Nebraska, winds gusting up to 70 mph were cited for hundreds of power outages in central and eastern portions of the state Sunday, although by Monday morning, utilities reported that power had been restored to most customers.
The North Dakota Transportation Department closed most of a 240-mile stretch of Interstate 94 Sunday night, from the Montana border to Jamestown. That stretch remained closed Monday. Portions of US Highways 2, 52 and 281 were also closed because of snow, ice and “near zero visibility.” Motorists who drive past the roadblocks can be fined up to $250.
No-travel adviseries were issued for much of North Dakota, including the Williston, Dickinson, Minot, Bismarck, Jamestown, Valley City and Grand Forks areas.
Authorities in South Dakota shut down Interstate 90 from the Wyoming border to Chamberlain — about 260 miles.

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Israel Urges Jews To Leave France, Suspends “Working Ties” With Countries That Voted For UN Resolution

In an unexpected escalation that was not the result of Israel’s angry response to Friday’s UN vote which passed a resolution condemning the country’s Palestinian settlements, and which the US refused to veto,  Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Monday called on French Jews to leave their country to protest a Paris-hosted conference planned for next month aimed at restarting Palestine-Israel peace talks, Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth has reported.

Avigdor Lieberman

According to Turkey’s Anadolu news agency, the Israeli government has repeatedly stated in recent months that it would not participate in the conference, which is scheduled to be held on Jan. 15 with the participation of representatives from 70 countries. Speaking at a meeting of his right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, Lieberman reportedly said: “Perhaps it’s time to tell the Jews of France, ‘This isn’t your country, this isn’t your land. Leave France and come to Israel’.”

“That’s the only response to this plot,” Lieberman added, in reference to the planned conference.

He also criticized the timing of the event, which will be held shortly before French presidential elections. “With France going to elections soon, this is not the time for a peace summit,” the newspaper quoted Lieberman as saying. “It [the planned conference] is a tribunal against the State of Israel.” He added: “This summit’s entire purpose is to undermine the State of Israel’s security and tarnish its good name.”

According to the website of the Jewish Agency for Israel (a para-statal organization responsible for Jewish immigration to Israel), an estimated 1.5 million Jews live in Europe, roughly 600,000 of whom reside in France. According to Jewish Agency data, some 8,000 French Jews immigrated to Israel last year. An earlier report issued by the Israeli prime minister’s office found that 6,655 Jews had departed France for Israel in 2014, compared with 3,293 the previous year.

* * *

Then, in an expected escalation that was the result of Friday’s UN vote, CNN’s Jim Sciutto reported that Israel has suspended “working ties” with 12 nations that voted for a United Nations resolution condemning settlements. The suspension of diplomatic ties comes after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vow last week to exact a “diplomatic and economic price” from the countries on the UN Security Council that passed the resolution, 14-0.

Breaking: #Israel suspends “working ties” with all 12 nations who voted for UN resolution on settlements – sources tell @eliselabottcnn

— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) December 26, 2016

Those countries are: Britain, France, Russia, China, Japan, Ukraine, Angola, Egypt, Uruguay, Spain, Senegal and New Zealand

— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) December 26, 2016

What it means: PM Netanyahu will not meet w/foreign ministers of those countries & their ambs will not be received at Israel’s FM

— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) December 26, 2016

The countries were Britain, France, Russia, China, Japan, Ukraine, Angola, Egypt, Uruguay, Spain, Senegal and New Zealand, Malaysia. Israel does not have diplomatic ties with Venezuela or Malaysia, which also voted for the resolution.

Meanwhile, back in the US, Newt Gingrich continued his outspoken ways, and slammed President Obama for not vetoing the resolution, likening the move to a “war” against the key ally in the Middle East. “Why is the Obama team waging war against Israel? Why are they taking steps to isolate and then kill a democracy and an ally?” Gingrich tweeted.

“President-elect Trump must prepare a comprehensive offensive for Jan 29 to undo the damage to Israel the Obama team is inflicting.”

“Congress should pass resolutions January 3-4 condemning Obama attacks on Israel and demanding he not participate in French or (U.N. Security Council) attacks,” Gingrich, a key Trump ally, wrote online.

The move was the culmination of years of strained ties between the White House and Israel over the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump was fiercely opposed to the resolution and vowed U.S. policy toward Israel will change when he takes office.

Then again, one wonders how much of the drama in the last few days is merely spoon-fed for public consumption: despite the alleged tension between the US and Iseael, Obama approved a $38 Billion military aid package to Israel in September, the largest in U.S. history.

The 10-year aid packages underpin Washington’s Congressionally mandated requirement to help maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region. According to the MOU, at least $3.8 billion a year in aid, up from $3.1 billion annually under the current pact, would be provided to Israel. Netanyahu had originally sought upwards of $4.5 billion a year. The new package for the first time will incorporate money for Israeli missile defense, which until now has been funded ad hoc by Congress. U.S. lawmakers have in recent years given Israel up to $600 million in annual discretionary funds for this purpose.

In short, ignore the pointed rhetoric and focus on the actions.

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12 years after tsunami, 400 bodies unidentified in Thailand

Tue, 2016-12-27

BANGKOK: At least 400 victims of Asia’s 2004 tsunami that killed 226,000 people remain unidentified in Thailand 12 years on, police said on Monday.
The 9.15 magnitude Dec. 26 earthquake triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean in one of the biggest natural disasters in history.
Thailand, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka were among the worst hit countries. Some 5,395 people were killed in Thailand, among them about 2,000 foreign tourists.
“Since the 2004 tsunami, authorities have contacted between 4,000 to 5,000 relatives to come and receive bodies. There are about 400 bodies that we cannot identify,” Anand Boonkerkaew, deputy superintendent of Takua Pa district police in Phang Nga province, told Reuters.
Thailand’s tourist high season is in full swing and in much of the area affected by the tsunami, it is business as usual. New hotels have replaced those flattened by the wall of water.
Thailand expects a record 32.4 million foreign tourists this year.
Critics have said Thailand’s tsunami warning system remains inadequate, partly because it isn’t maintained properly. The government has said it is in good order.

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Kashmir struggles to cope with tide of trauma

Tue, 2016-12-27

SRINAGAR: In a consultation room in a Kashmiri hospital, Parvaiz Ahmed struggles to find the words to describe how his interrogation at the hands of India’s security forces seven years ago has left him traumatized.
Speaking in a whisper and barely looking up from the table, Ahmed’s face is wracked with pain as he speaks of his sleepless nights, still haunted by his months in detention in 2009.
“I worry all the time that they will come back and arrest me again,” the 38-year-old tells his trauma therapist.
“We can see maybe 190 patients per day and I average around 100,” says Arshad Hussain as he explains the workload at the Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital.
“Sixty to 80 percent of them are trauma, depression or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) patients,” he adds. The hospital is situated in the center of Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir — an often achingly beautiful Himalayan region which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed in full by both.
Since an uprising erupted in the Indian-controlled part of the territory in the late 1980s, rights groups estimate some 70,000 people have been killed.
While the violence is on a smaller scale these days, tensions are never far from the surface. More than 100 people have been killed since July when a prominent militant leader was shot dead by Indian forces.
A Doctors Without Borders survey last year found more than 1.5 million living in the Kashmir Valley have symptoms of depression.
Some are relatives of those killed, such as Mohammad Shafi Bhat, who lost his voice for several years after troops shot dead his 23-year-old son Bashir Ahmad Bhat in 2014, and still finds speaking a struggle.
Shafi, 50, is barely audible as he tries to recount the events surrounding Bashir’s shooting as he waters the flowers around his son’s grave in Srinagar’s ‘Martyrs’ Cemetery’.
He soon gives up and instead pulls a miniature photo portrait of his son from his wallet, his face streaming in tears.
Some of the other sufferers don’t even have a body to mourn over. For some, the last glimpse of their loved ones was as they were being hauled away for questioning. It’s a situation which further complicates the grieving process.
Rahma Begum’s son Mir Ali disappeared 13 years ago from their hamlet in the Kashmir Valley, home to around 7 million people.
For three years afterwards, she got up at dawn to search for her son, scouring the nearby forest for any clues as to his whereabouts, unable to accept he was gone for good.
“Everyone told me I had gone mad, that I was mad,” she said.
Amnesty International and other advocacy groups say around 8,000 people have permanently “disappeared” after being taken away for questioning by the security forces in Kashmir.
Their bodies are widely believed to have been buried in unmarked graves or thrown into rivers by security forces, who can operate with virtual impunity under a special act.
Then there are the likes of Ahmed who spent years bottling up the resentments bred from often brutal interrogations by security agents whom rights groups have accused of using torture.
Mudasir Hassan, who conducts therapy sessions at Srinagar’s Psychiatric Diseases Hospital, said a lot of his patients suffered from erectile dysfunction.
While Kashmir is a predominantly Muslim region, some victims have turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, said Hassan.
“Alcohol is an issue, as is drug dependency,” he told AFP.
Big queues crowd around the tiny window of the dispensary at Hassan’s hospital from where the pharmacists dispense cocktails of pills throughout the working day.
Medics say stress levels are exacerbated by India’s large military presence, with troops and armored vehicles posted on just about every street corner in Srinagar and at checkpoints throughout the Kashmir Valley.
People living in villages regarded as militant hotbeds by the security forces are often woken in the middle of the night by the sound of army patrols or raids on houses.
“People are talking about this more… They understand now that there is something behind these symptoms,” said Hussain.
“It is not a problem with them. It is because of something outside that has happened to them.”

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Rebels blamed for killing 35 in DR Congo

Tue, 2016-12-27

GOMA: Attacks in villages and fighting between militias killed at least 35 people over the Christmas weekend in North Kivu, a majority Christian area in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The bloodshed began in Eringeti — a town 55 kilometers (35 miles) north of the regional hub Beni, which for two years has been hit by massacres killing hundreds, many of whom were hacked to death.
Rebels from The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) killed 22 people after storming Eringeti on Saturday, regional official Amisi Kalonda told AFP.
The toll climbed to 35 on Monday with the announcement that at least 13 Hutu civilians, mostly women and an eight-year-old girl, were killed on Sunday by a militia from the Nande ethnic group.
“The victims were all Hutu. There was an eight-year-old girl, a father and the rest were women,” said local official Alphonse Mahano.
They were killed around the village of Nyanzale, a Hutu majority community.
The Nande and some other ethnic groups regard the Hutus as outsiders because of their attachment to the majority ethnic group in neighboring Rwanda.
A string of attacks in the past year by both Hutu and Nande militia forces has deepened hatred between the communities.
Hutu farmers have also been forced to abandon land further south because of high property costs and under pressure from major landowners. Although Congolese officials have blamed the attacks on the ADF, several expert reports have suggested that other groups, including elements within the Congolese army, took part in some killings.
When the Beni massacres began in October 2014, the ADF was quickly branded the culprit by both DR Congo authorities and MONUSCO, the UN mission in DR Congo.
More than two years on, Congolese authorities and the UN have been unable to protect civilians and the ADF remains the only official explanation — with the government insisting on a terror link to the killings.
It comes as relations with the international community have soured over President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down despite his term ending on Dec. 20.
Separately, the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) announced Monday that its troops had killed 10 soldiers from neighboring Burundi after they crossed the border last week in pursuit of rebels.
“There were 10 deaths,” Major Dieudonne Kajibwami, told AFP, following a previous statement that five bodies had been taken to Uvira, a lakeside town in the eastern South Kivu province.
Kivu is rich in natural, mainly mineral resources, such as gold, coltan and cassiterite, coveted by the telecommunications industry. Both south and north Kivu have rich agricultural and forestry resources.
North Kivu is one of the DRC’s most densely populated areas.
Tiny compared to the vast size of the country, the two provinces suffer not only because of fighting over their mineral resources but because of their proximity to an unstable border with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, along with Tanzania.

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