Beyond Harvey: Deadly Floods Cause Havoc in Africa, Asia

Harvey has gathered headlines as the most powerful storm to hit Texas in half a century, but floods have killed many more people in Africa and Asia this year amid extreme weather worldwide.

Here are some of them:

South Asia

Floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have killed more than 1,200 people and affected 40 million, and are likely to intensify as monsoon rains continue, aid agencies say.

All three countries suffer frequent flooding during the June-September monsoon season, but aid agencies say things are worse this year, with thousands of villages cut off and people deprived of food and clean water for days.

Tens of thousands of houses, schools and hospitals have been destroyed as humanitarians prepare for more deaths, hunger and waterborne diseases.

“These are some of the worst floods we’ve seen in South Asia in decades, and the impact is likely only going to get worse,” Madara Hettiarachchi, Christian Aid’s humanitarian head in Asia, said in a statement. “Farms and livestock have been washed away, so food security is going to be a huge problem.”

The worst floods in a decade struck Nepal, killing 150 people and destroying 90,000 homes.

Monsoon floods submerged more than a third of low-lying, densely populated Bangladesh, causing more than 130 deaths and widespread crop damage.

The latest disaster zone is Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, where overnight floods killed at least a dozen people, officials said  Thursday.

West Africa

Widespread flooding has killed at least 40 people in Niger since the rainy season began in June, leaving thousands homeless, without cattle or crops.

Aid agencies are increasingly worried about waterborne diseases like cholera as the waters are not expected to subside until rains end in September.

A mudslide in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, on August 14 killed about 500 people after heavy rains, with hundreds still missing.

Sporadic downpours continue, flooding parts of the coastal city and washing away more mud containing human remains.

Heavy rainfall also sparked a landslide at a rubbish dump in Conakry, the capital of neighboring Guinea, last week, killing 10 people, while at least 200 people are thought to have died in another slide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yemen

At least 18 people were killed in Yemen in flooding caused by heavy rains, the government-run news agency Saba reported Wednesday.

Aid organizations say the rains could exacerbate Yemen’s cholera epidemic, which has infected more than half a million people and killed nearly 2,000 since April.

Sources: Oxfam, International Committee of the Red Cross, UNICEF, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reuters

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UN: 28 Afghan Civilians Killed in Recent US Airstrikes

Two American counterinsurgency airstrikes in Afghanistan this week have killed at least 28 civilians and injured 16 others, all women and children, the United Nations said it confirmed Thursday.

The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), while releasing initial findings of its probe into the attacks, urged authorities to ensure independent, impartial and prompt investigations of both incidents.

UNAMA also called for appropriate steps to be taken to ensure accountability, compensation for victims and the prevention of such incidents in the future.

The first strike took place Monday in western Herat province, where a drone reportedly targeted Taliban insurgents in the Shindand district. The attack left 15 civilians dead and four others injured after munitions hit at least two civilian homes in the area, UNAMA said.

The second airstrike, in the Pul-e-Alam district of eastern Logar province, occurred Wednesday and killed at least 13 civilians and injured 10 others. That attack reportedly targeted a civilian compound used by insurgents to attack aircraft, according to the preliminary findings.

The U.S. military has stated an official investigation is under way into Wednesday’s attack in Logar, saying it takes all allegations of civilian casualties seriously and is working with Afghan partners to determine the facts of the incident.

“I am deeply saddened to hear that women and children have once again suffered so terribly from the conflict,” said UNAMA head Tadamichi Yamamoto. “This is unacceptable. All parties must live up to their obligations to take all feasible measures to protect civilians.”

UNAMA vowed to continue its independent probe to establish facts around the harm caused to civilians from these attacks, including looking into allegations that insurgents used civilians as human shields.

UNAMA warned it already had recorded a 43 percent rise in civilian casualties, including 95 deaths, from aerial operations during the first six months of 2017, with a substantial increase in deaths of women and children.

The latest Afghan civilian casualties came days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced his new war strategy for Afghanistan, which will increase airpower assistance to Afghan security forces and raise the number of American troops in the country.

It was not clear, however, whether the airstrikes against Taliban insurgents in Herat and Logar suggested implementation of Trump’s plan.

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Mattis Signs Orders for More US Troops in Afghanistan

U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis says he has signed orders to deploy additional American troops to Afghanistan beyond the 11,000 currently serving in the war-torn country.

Speaking to reporters Thursday at the Pentagon, Mattis said the additional troops would mostly advise and “enable the Afghan forces to fight more effectively” against the Taliban and more than a dozen terror groups in Afghanistan.

The secretary said he would provide the public with more information once he had completed the orders and notified Congress next week of the military’s next steps.

“I’ve signed orders, but it’s not complete. In other words, I’ve signed some of the troops that will go and we’re identifying the specific ones,” Mattis said.

News of the new deployment orders comes a day after the Pentagon announced that approximately 11,000 U.S. troops are currently serving in Afghanistan, not 8,400 troops, as the Defense Department had previously reported.

The higher number emerged following Mattis’s call for a more accurate troop-strength estimate, as the Trump administration worked on a new U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

The chief spokesperson at the Pentagon, Dana White, told reporters Wednesday the estimate of 11,000 troops is based on a simplified accounting method that provides greater “transparency” while “increasing commanders’ ability to adapt to battlefield conditions.”

The lower number of troops cited previously excluded service members on assignment in Afghanistan for less than 120 days — short-term duty that could include temporary combat support or materiel recovery missions.

Lieutenant General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie Jr., staff director on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the new method of counting troops in the field uses approximations rather than exact numbers of troops. This, he said, allows commanders “more flexibility” when it comes to battlefield deployments.

“We all recognize that whole units are inherently more prepared and more ready than units that are fragmented in order to meet an arbitrary force management level,” McKenzie said.

White and McKenzie said the changes made in calculating troop strength in Afghanistan eventually will be applied to American troops fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Officials have suggested that Secretary Mattis is looking to deploy about 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to fulfill the commander’s needs on the ground.

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UN Committee: Britain ‘Going Backwards’ on Rights of Disabled

The U.N. Committee on the rights of disabled people said on Thursday it had more concerns about Britain – due to funding cuts, restricted rights and an uncertain post-Brexit future — than any other country in its 10-year history.

The committee, which reviews states’ compliance with the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, published a 17-page report with recommendations about how Britain could do better.

“The UK is at the moment going backwards in accordance to the information that we have received,” committee member Stig Langvad told a news conference in Geneva.

Britain said it was disappointed by the report. It said it did not reflect the evidence it had provided to the committee, nor did it recognize progress that had been made.

The U.N. committee’s chairwoman Theresia Degener has described the situation in Britain as a “human catastrophe.”

“The austerity measures that they have taken – they are affecting half a million people, each disabled person is losing between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds per year, people are pushed into work situations without being recognized as vulnerable, and the evidence that we had in front of us was just overwhelming,” she said.

The most acute concern was the limitations on independent living.

“Persons with disabilities are in our view not able to choose where to live, with whom to live, and how to live,” Langvad said.

Britain was also not fulfilling its commitment to allow inclusive education, and there was a high incidence of bullying at schools. A growing number of disabled people were living in poverty.

Budgets for local authorities had not only been slashed, but they were no longer ear-marked for disabled people, another committee member, Damjan Tatic, said.

Langvad said people with disabilities should be involved in preparations for Britain’s Brexit talks with the European Union, to avoid losing protections that historically came from the EU.

“Persons with disabilities are afraid of the future since they do not know what is happening and since they do not feel that they are involved in the discussions on how to secure the rights of people with disabilities afterwards,” he said.

Britain’s government said it was a recognized world leader in disability rights, and almost 600,000 disabled people had moved into work in the last four years.

“We spend over 50 billion pounds a year to support disabled people and those with health conditions — more than ever before, and the second highest in the G7,” a government spokesperson said.

Debbie Abrahams, the opposition Labour party’s spokeswoman for Work and Pensions, said the “damning” report was a vindication of Labour’s criticism of the government’s policies.

“This confirms what Labour has been saying all along, that the lack of progress on all convention articles, including cruel changes to social security and the punitive sanctions regime, are causing real misery for sick and disabled people.”

A Labour government would incorporate the convention fully into British law, she said in a statement.

Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Richard Balmforth

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Huge WWII Bomb to Be Defused Close to German Gold Reserves

Frankfurt’s city center, an area including police headquarters, two hospitals, transport systems and Germany’s central bank storing $70 billion in gold reserves, will be evacuated on Sunday to allow the defusing of a 1.8-metric ton World War II bomb.

A spokesman for the German Bundesbank said, however, that “the usual security arrangements” would remain in place while experts worked to disarm the bomb, which was dropped by the British air force and was uncovered during excavation of a building site.

The Bundesbank headquarters, less than 600 meters (650 yards) from the location of the bomb, stores 1,710 metric tons of gold underground, around half the country’s reserves.

“We have never defused a bomb of this size,” bomb disposal expert Rene Bennert told Reuters, adding that it had been damaged on impact when it was dropped between 1943 and 1945. Airspace for 1.5 kilometers (nearly a mile) around the bomb site will also be closed.

Frankfurt city officials said more than 60,000 residents would be evacuated for at least 12 hours. The evacuation area will also include 20 retirement homes, the city’s opera house and the diplomatic quarter.

Bomb disposal experts will use a wrench to try to unscrew the fuses attached to the bomb. If that fails, a water jet will be used to cut the fuses away, Bennert told Reuters.

The most dangerous part of the exercise will be applying the wrench, Bennert said.

Roads and transport systems, including the underground, will be closed during the work and for at least two hours after the bomb is defused, to allow patients to be transported back to hospitals without traffic.

It is not unusual for unexploded bombs from World War II air raids to be found in German cities, but rarely are they so large and in such a sensitive position.

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US Orders Russian Consulate in San Francisco to Close

U.S. officials have ordered Russia to close three diplomatic buildings in the United States, part of the ongoing quarrel between the two countries over U.S. sanctions.

The action follows Russia’s demand earlier this month that the U.S. reduce the number of personnel at its diplomatic missions in the country.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to tell him that the United States has fully implemented the decision by the Russian government to reduce the size of the U.S. mission in the country.  

In a statement, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert called the Russian decision “unwarranted and detrimental to the overall relationship between our countries.”  

Nauert continued, “In the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians, we are requiring the Russian government to close its Consulate General in San Francisco, a chancery annex in Washington, D.C. and consular annex in New York City.”

She said the closures would need to be completed by September 2.

Nauert stressed that the U.S. “has chosen to allow the Russian government to maintain some of its annexes in an effort to arrest the downward spiral in our relationship.” A senior administration official stressed that Tillerson and Lavrov both still want to improve U.S.-Russian relations, and described their phone call as professional.

Russia Today reported that Lavrov responded to the closures by “expressing regret” over the escalation of tensions.  He said that Moscow would study the new measures carefully and inform Washington of its reaction.

The diplomatic retaliations stem from U.S. sanctions of Russia over its annexation of Crimea, as well as Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Last month, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill preventing President Donald Trump from easing sanctions on Russia without congressional approval. After Trump signed the bill, Russian authorities denounced it as “trade war.”

A senior U.S. administration official told reporters the Russian Consulate General in San Francisco is the oldest Russian consulate in the United States.  She said the two annexes ordered closed in Washington and New York were primarily trade missions.  She said no Russian diplomats are being expelled – the diplomats in those three building may be reassigned  to other Russian consulates in the U.S.

The senior official said the U.S. has complied with the Russian order to reduce its presence in Russia down to 455 staff members.  The official stressed that with this new U.S. order to close three buildings, the Russian would still have more consulates and annexes in the United States than the U.S. has in Russia.

The U.S. president’s response to the tensions has also sparked controversy.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the U.S. diplomats were being expelled, Trump responded by saying,  “I want to thank him because we’re trying to cut down the payroll.”

White House officials later told reporters the president was being sarcastic.

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