JOHANNESBURG: Police with sniffer dogs searched on Friday through the gutted remains of a Johannesburg apartment block as authorities stepped up investigations into the cause of a fire that killed more than 70 people.
Officers cordoned off areas around the run-down five-story building that was destroyed in a blaze in the early hours of Thursday in one of South Africa’s worst such disasters in living memory.
Most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition and investigators would have to rely on DNA samples from friends and relatives to identify them, said Thembalethu Mpahlaza from Gauteng province’s Forensic Pathology Services.
Only 12 of the 74 bodies they had recovered so far were identifiable by sight, he added.
“I am devastated,” said block resident Wambali Kaunda, who lost his brother and niece in the fire.
“We have been told that if you are able to identify your family members, then you will be able to collect the bodies.”
He said he was on the first floor not far from the exit when the fire broke out, so managed to escape.
While household fires are common in Johannesburg, especially in poor areas, the incident has highlighted a housing crisis in one of the world’s most unequal cities with widespread poverty and joblessness.
The apartment block is owned by municipal authorities, but officials have struggled to provide a clear picture of who lived there, saying the block had been “invaded and hijacked” by unknown groups.
A provincial official said some of those who died may have been renting from, or were being extorted by, criminal gangs in the so called “hijacked buildings” syndicates.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said the fire was “great tragedy” and a wake-up call for South Africa to tackle its inner-city housing crisis.
Ramaphosa, who visited the scene, also said the tragedy was partly caused by “criminal elements” who had taken over the building and were charging people to live there.
“The lesson for us is that we’ve got to address this problem,” Ramaphosa said.
Ramaphosa’s call was repeated by many figures from national and local government, who said it was time to resolve Johannesburg’s housing crisis. Emergency services teams have left the scene and pathologists on Friday faced the grisly task of identifying dozens of charred bodies.
Johannesburg Emergency Services spokesperson Nana Radebe said the building has been handed over to the police and forensic investigators, who will conduct their own searches and were already working at the scene on Friday.
The police have opened a criminal case, although it was unclear who might face any charges over the deaths as no official authority was in charge of running the building.
South Africa’s parliament has called for a wider investigation.
But hijacked buildings have been an issue in the city’s center for years, if not decades.
Senior city officials conceded they had been aware of problems at the building since at least 2019.
The sudden focus on the issue, only after so many people died, angered some.
“We have seen the president calling this incident tragic,” said Herman Mashaba, a former mayor of Johannesburg and now the leader of an opposition political party.
“What do you mean tragic? You’ve been aware of this. We have seen the decay of this city over 25 years. It’s not something that just happened overnight.”
NICOSIA: Five Israeli tourists were again remanded in Cyprus police custody for six days Tuesday in connection with the alleged gang rape of a young Briton in Ayia Napa, authorities said.
The five men, aged between 19 and 20, were arrested after a 20-year-old British tourist told police she was gang-raped on Sept. 3 in a hotel room at the seaside resort.
On Sept. 4, the five were remanded for eight days, and on Tuesday at Paralimni district court they were ordered to remain in custody for six more days, police said.
They face possible charges of rape, sexual coercion, forced sexual intercourse, sexual harassment, abduction and indecent assault against a woman.
The state-funded Cyprus News Agency said the arrests came after police secured witness testimony to support the allegation.
Only three suspects appeared in court Tuesday because two are in quarantine after contracting COVID-19, CNA said.
According to the Cypriot Philenews website, forensic examiners found injuries and bruises on the woman.
Israeli media reported she told police she struck up a conversation with one suspect by the hotel pool and that he pulled her by the arm to the room and then tried to remove her swimsuit.
According to Israel’s Walla website, the woman said she resisted, but two more men appeared and raped her.
It said the woman picked out the suspects from a police lineup.
The incident is reminiscent of a gang rape case in Ayia Napa four years ago when 12 Israelis were arrested for attacking a teenage British girl.
They were released after she retracted her statement but said police pressured her into doing so.
The 19-year-old was convicted in 2020 for causing public mischief and given a four-month suspended jail term.
In 2022, the Supreme Court quashed her conviction on appeal after defense lawyers argued there had been a miscarriage of justice.
Police later said they would examine whether mistakes had been made in the investigation.
UK-based Justice Abroad, which successfully appealed the conviction, has taken on the new case after the woman’s family requested their help.
Official tourism figures for July show Israelis were the second largest group of visitors to Cyprus at 10.2 percent, or more than 46,400 arrivals, behind Britain at 34.8 percent.
HELSINKI: Latvia is growing worried over the increasing number of migrants attempting to cross over into the Baltic nation through the border with Belarus and has called up the military to assist border guards.
Latvia’s State Border Guard said on Tuesday that 103 people had been stopped in the previous 24 hours for trying to illegally cross the Latvia-Belarus border that runs a total of 173 kilometers (108 miles). A total of seven persons were allowed in Latvia, a European Union and NATO nation of 1.8 million, for humanitarian reasons.
Most migrants are from Africa and the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan and Syria.
The number of people turned away at the Belarus border has exceeded 100 on several days since the end of August — a substantially higher daily figure than earlier in the year, officials said. Nearly 900 migrants were stopped from crossing over last week alone. This year’s cumulative figure is almost 7,800, up from 5.826 in full year 2022.
Guntis Pujats, head of the border guard, told Latvian television on Tuesday that the large number of illegal border crossing attempts was fueled what he called a state-sponsored international people smuggling operation by Belarus’ authoritarian President Aleksander Lukashenko.
Pujats said that, from time to time, Lukashenko targets either Latvia, Lithuania or Poland, which all share borders with Belarus, to test their abilities to deal with “hybrid attacks” from Minsk including pushing migrants to border areas.
In 2021, thousands of migrants, many from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, flocked to Belarus’ border with Poland, where they were stranded for weeks. The EU accused Lukashenko, of aiding illegal border crossings in retaliation for sanctions imposed after an election the West described as a sham. Lukashenko denied encouraging migration to Europe.
Due to the recent surge in illegal migration, Pujats said Latvia’s border guard was proposing to close the Silene crossing point on the border with Belarus that is also the EU’s external border.
Defense Minister Inara Murniece told the Latvian broadcaster that the government had decided to reschedule a local military exercise and instead ask the Latvian army to send soldiers to assist border guards at the eastern border with Belarus.
In addition, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — all NATO members — have signaled that if the situation continues to deteriorate, they reserve the right to completely close their borders with Belarus.
Lithuania said it would send 20 border guards to Latvia, its northern neighbor, to tackle the increasing flows of migrants from Belarus.
“We see that Latvia is facing a serious challenge right now,” Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite told reporters on Tuesday. “The traffic and the attempts to enter have increased significantly. Considering that Latvia has not yet secured its state border with a physical barrier and surveillance systems … it is difficult for them to manage this process.”
In early August, the interior ministers Poland and the Baltic states, including also Estonia, warned that the nations were prepared to seal off their borders with Russia’s ally Belarus in the event of any military incidents or a massive migrant push by Minsk.
The Polish government said at the time it was planning to deploy an additional 2,000 troops to its border with Belarus, twice the number the country’s Border Guard agency had requested, as fears of illegal migration rise.
LONDON: Officials from the British Victoria and Albert Museum on Tuesday signed an historic agreement with Yemen to look after four ancient stone artifacts found by police in an east London shop, the Guardian reported.
The stelae, dating from the second half of the first millennium B.C., are thought to have been stolen from necropoli subjected to looting in recent years.
The Metropolitan police’s art and antiques unit, which investigates art theft, illegal trafficking, and fraud, recovered the stones after an archeology enthusiast noticed them in an interior design store.
Under the terms of the deal, the museum will temporarily care for, research, and conserve the stelae before returning them to Yemen when it is safe to do so.
The stones will be put on public display at the London museum’s East Storehouse when it opens in 2025, the Guardian said.
The agreement was inked by museum director, Tristram Hunt, and Yemeni ambassador to the UK, Yassin Saeed Noman Ahmed.
Hunt told the Guardian: “This is a historic agreement that will give the public the chance to appreciate these exceptional examples of Yemeni culture and creativity, before the objects are repatriated, and shine a light on how the V and A’s Culture in Crisis program helps curtail the illegal trade of looted objects and the preservation of cultural heritage worldwide.”
Charles Harper, the UK’s deputy ambassador to Yemen, said: “Arts and culture can play an important role in rebuilding a society from conflict and this agreement is a fantastic way to ensure Yemeni culture remains in Yemeni care.
“The war has taken a devastating toll on Yemenis. The UK will continue to support UN-led efforts to bring about a sustainable and inclusive peace in Yemen.”
The stones are of the sort on the International Council of Museums’ emergency red list of cultural objects at risk.
LONDON: More than 2,000 migrants on Tuesday arrived on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa on 33 boats, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.
The migrants — most of whom had departed from the Tunisian city of Sfax — came from Sudan, Chad, Tunisia, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Cameroon. They claimed to have each paid 5,000 Tunisian dinars ($1,595) for the crossing.
The arrivals followed the landing of 51 boats on Monday, which carried 1,993 migrants to Italy’s southernmost point.
Authorities in the Sicilian city of Agrigento arranged a ferry to pick up 600 people from Lampedusa and transport them to Porto Empedocle, ANSA reported. The coast guard ship Diciotti is also scheduled to transport migrants from the island.
Meanwhile, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Tuesday offered her country’s support to Libya after the country was hit by devastating floods. She said she had offered to send assistance.
Her office told ANSA: “Premier Giorgia Meloni learned with pain of the major damage caused by Hurricane Daniel, which hit eastern Libya causing death, injury and destruction.
“Italy expresses all its closeness and solidarity to the families of the victims and to the Libyan people and it has activated the Civil Protection Department to assist Libya in the best possible way with this emergency.”
WARSAW: The Polish government on Tuesday agreed to extend a ban on Ukrainian grain imports unilaterally even if the current EU restrictions expire on September 15.
“Regardless of the (European) Commission’s further decision, we will not open the border to Ukrainian grain after that date,” the government said in a statement.
The statement said the government was still looking to extend the ban at the EU level but would do so in any case.
“If Brussels does not keep the embargo, we will introduce these measures ourselves… The interests of the Polish countryside are most important to us,” it said.
The conflict in Ukraine and the problems with Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea have resulted in the EU becoming a major transit route and export destination for Ukrainian grain.
In June, the EU agreed to restrict imports of grain from Ukraine to five member states seeking to protect their farmers who blamed those imports for the slump in prices on local markets.
The five member states are Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.
The five have asked for the restrictions, which expire on Friday, to be extended.
The issue is particularly sensitive in Poland as the country is holding elections next month.
The current populist right-wing government of the Law and Justice party has strong support in farming regions.
“I want to assure all farmers, the entire Polish countryside, that we will definitely defend the interests of the Polish farmer,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said at the cabinet meeting.
Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said Poland wanted to help Ukraine “but at the same time we must remember our citizens.”
The government adopted a resolution calling on the EU to extend the ban on wheat, corn, rapeseed and sunflower seed imports.
It said Poland’s ban “will remain in force until agricultural relations between Poland and Ukraine are regulated.”
Poland is a major supplier of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and hosts some one million Ukrainian refugees.
The issue of grain imports has triggered a diplomatic spat between the two neighbors.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said Tuesday that Kyiv was considering legal action.
“We have no intention of harming Polish farmers… But in case of violation of trade law in the interest of political populism before the elections, Ukraine will be forced to turn to WTO arbitration to obtain compensation for violation of GATT norms,” he said on social media, referring to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.