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New demolitions halt search in deadly French building collapse

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MARSEILLE: Pressure grew on Marseille’s mayor and other officials Thursday, accused of ignoring warnings about unsafe housing as a seventh body was pulled from rubble after a deadly building collapse in the southern French port city.
The bodies of five men and two women have so far been recovered from the mound of rubble where two buildings suddenly crumbled on Monday. Authorities believe one person might still be trapped. Rescue workers are being forced to work slowly because the collapse destabilized other buildings along the Rue d’Aubagne. The search resumed Thursday afternoon after it was halted Wednesday so two other buildings could be pulled down.
Chances of finding any survivors “are thin, very thin, but really,” said Charles-Henri Garie, who commands the water brigades of the port city’s fire department. Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin defended his administration’s efforts to deal with thousands of dilapidated lodgings in the city while calling for parliament to make it easier to compel private owners to undertake necessary maintenance or make improvements.
Citing “terribly long, complex and costly procedures” for renovating or demolishing squalid buildings, Gaudin said, “some people are taking advantage of this in opposition to society’s interests.” But he told a news conference he would not heed calls to resign, saying 35 million euros ($40 million) had been spent demolishing or renovating social housing blocks since 2005. “Do you think a ship captain quits during a storm?” he asked. Furious residents along the Rue d’Aubagne, dozens of whom have been evacuated from their homes, have accused city authorities of neglecting the safety risks at the derelict buildings despite years of complaints.
“Gaudin, Fructus, murderers!” a crowd of around 100 protestors yelled at the site on Wednesday evening, referring to the mayor’s deputy in charge of housing, Arlette Fructus. The mayor’s deputy for risk prevention, Julien Ruas, said Thursday that 51 complaints were made on Wednesday alone, leading to 37 checks on buildings and four evacuations. A silent march has been called for Saturday in Noailles, the working-class neighborhood where the incident occurred.
It remains unclear what caused the two houses built in the late 18th century to collapse, though city officials point to heavy rains the night before. Marseille prosecutor Xavier Tarabeux said a resident in one of the apartments had called firefighters the night before the disaster to warn that a crack in the wall had widened, only to call back later to say they were not required after all. The other building had been condemned and boarded up, but residents told Media the building was often squatted in by homeless people or sellers of black-market cigarettes.
City officials said building experts inspected the occupied building on October 18 and shoring up work was carried out before residents were allowed back in. A 2015 government report said about 100,000 Marseille residents were living in housing that was dangerous. Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said this week that 6,000 properties have been identified as “at risk” in the city, representing some 44,000 lodgings, mainly in lower-class neighborhoods. “It’s unthinkable that such things happen in our time,” said Christian Gouverneur, who owns a flat across the road from the collapsed buildings.

 

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Europe

Russia fails to block chemical arms body’s new powers

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THE HAGUE” Russia failed on Tuesday in its bid to stall the global chemical warfare watchdog’s controversial new power to apportion blame for attacks like those in Syria.
After a bitter war of words, states approved the 2019 budget for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which includes funding for the new role.
They also shot down a proposal by Russia and China to set up an “expert group” which the West said would have effectively blocked the new powers.
In June the OPCW approved a British-backed move to allow the body to attribute blame for chemical attacks. Previously it could only confirm whether or not toxic arms had been used.
“A clear majority against an attempt to wreck the historic June decision,” British ambassador to the OPCW Peter Wilson said on Twitter. “An overwhelming result, which clearly says #NoToChemicalWeapons.”
Applause broke out at the meeting in The Hague after member states voted 99 to 27 in favor of the 2019 budget.
It was the first time the OPCW had ever voted on the budget, after Russia and Iran, which both oppose the new attribution powers, insisted on a vote.
The OPCW also voted 82-30 against Russia’s joint plan with China to set up an “open-ended” group to scrutinize how the new powers would work.
Iran, Syria, Pakistan, South Africa, Palestine, and Cuba were among those that backed Russia.
The West pushed through the new blaming powers after a string of chemical incidents in Syria, as well as a nerve agent attack on Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal in the British city of Salisbury in March.
The OPCW says it aims to set up a team early next year that could attribute blame for all chemical attacks in Syria since 2013.
It will also be allowed to point the finger for attacks elsewhere if asked to by the country where the incident happened.
Britain and the United States had accused their rivals of trying to effectively reverse the earlier change to the watchdog’s rules.
Russia and the West traded bitter accusations of lying and hypocrisy on Monday as the OPCW debated the issue.
Russian envoy Alexander Shulgin said Western claims of chemical weapons use by Damascus and Moscow were “out and out lies” and said the new powers were “illegitimate”.
US Ambassador Kenneth Ward, however, accused Russia of “pungent hypocrisy” and warned against allowing a “new era of chemical weapons use to take hold.”
The meeting also took place under the shadow of the expulsion of four Russians accused by Dutch authorities of trying to hack into the OPCW’s computer system in April.
The alleged Russian agents from the GRU military intelligence agency used electronic equipment hidden in a car parked outside a nearby hotel, the Netherlands said.
At the time the organization was investigating the attack on Skripal as well as a major chemical attack in Syria. The spying incident is not on this meeting’s agenda, however.
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, the OPCW was set up by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention under which almost every country in the world pledged to give up toxic arms.
The OPCW says it has overseen the destruction of 96.5 percent of the world’s chemical arms stocks.

 

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Economy

EasyJet logs soaring annual profit

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LONDON: EasyJet’s annual net profit jumped by almost a fifth on strong sales and record passenger numbers, the British no-frills airline announced today. 
Profits after taxation jumped 17 percent to £385 million ($460 million, 400 million euros) in the 12 months to September, EasyJet said in a statement. The total number of passengers rose 10.2 percent to a record high of 88.5 million. Pre-tax profit surged 41.4 percent to £578 million, as revenues rose 17 percent to £5.9 billion. The carrier made a smaller-than-expected loss on its purchase of Berlin’s Tegel Airport from bankrupt German carrier Air Berlin. “EasyJet has delivered a great performance during the year,” said chief executive Johan Lundgren, who has been in the job since last December.
“Our financial success and increasing customer loyalty demonstrate the resilience of our operations, the underlying strength of our business and our unrivaled customer experience,” EasyJet added that it was continuing to prepare for Brexit, operating via three airline divisions based in Austria, Britain, and Switzerland, in order to be able to continue flying in Europe.
It expressed confidence that flying rights would continue as normal despite turbulence over Brexit talks. “Both the EU and the UK have said that their objective is to maintain flights between the EU and the UK, whatever the Brexit outcome,” the group said. “This gives EasyJet confidence that flying rights will be maintained, and it continues to work with EU institutions, EU member states, and the UK to ensure that this is achieved.”

 

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Economy

France: Yellow Vest protests persist

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PARIS: Protesters angry over high fuel prices blocked access to French fuel depots and stopped traffic on major roads Monday, incensed by the government’s refusal to scrap anti-pollution taxes.
One person was accidentally killed and 511 people injured, 17 seriously, during three days of “Yellow Vest” protests that have galvanized resistance to President Emmanuel Macron’s economic policies.
On Monday, tens of thousands of demonstrators were still manning hundreds of barricades on motorways and petrol stations, down from nearly 300,000 protesters at over 2,000 sites on Saturday.
Oil giant Total confirmed that some of its trucks had been prevented from reaching depots in the south and east of the country, causing alarm among small business owners.
“The worst thing would be to block the economy and make the whole situation worse,” Alain Griset, head of the U2P federation of small and medium-sized businesses said in a statement.
On Monday, security forces cleared protesters from several sites, including a suspension bridge leading to the south-western city of Bordeaux that had been blocked for three days.
The “Yellow Vest” movement — named after the high-visibility vests motorists are required to carry in their cars — was sparked by rising diesel prices, which many blame on taxes implemented in recent years as part of France’s anti-pollution fight.
It quickly snowballed into a protest by rural and small-town France over falling spending power of the less well-off under President Emmanuel Macron, assailed as a “president of the rich.”
“It’s about much more than fuel. They (the government) have left us with nothing,” Dominique, a 50-year-old unemployed technician told AFP at a roadblock in the town of Martigues, near the southern city of Marseille.
Macron’s government, which is trying to buff its environmental credentials, has vowed not to back down on trying to wean people off their cars through fuel taxes.
Speaking during a visit to China Environment Minister Francois de Rugy ruled out canceling planned increases on hydrocarbons “at the first sign of difficulty”.
While the number of protesters has fallen since the weekend, in tandem with plummeting temperatures, further large-scale demonstrations are planned.
Two separate calls for mass protests in Paris on November 24 were widely circulated on social media.
The start of the protests was marred by the death of a 63-year-old demonstrator, who was run down by a panicked motorist at a roadblock in the eastern Savoie region.
Several other people were injured in attempts by truck drivers and motorists to force their way through barricades.

 

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