Also today: US, Iraqi troops kill top al-Qaeda leaders near Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit; Thais readying for crackdown on “Red Shirt” protesters; Americans obliquely accuse Syrians of giving Hezbollah Scud missiles; HRW claims Indonesian blasphemy law constrains religions; Oklahoma City bombing memories won’t go away.
Europeans struggle to open skies after volcanic blast
In what’s starting to sound like the Berlin Airlift, German airline Lufthansa said it would bring 50 planeloads of passengers home from airports around the world as European skies begin to reopen after the Icelandic volcanic ash-cloud. But the eruption that’s caused five days of flight chaos is said to be sending more ash toward Britain, making it unlikely that London’s airports will immediately reopen. Three KLM passenger jets have left Amsterdam for New York, Dubai and Shanghai after EU transport ministers divided northern European skies into three areas: a “no-fly” zone immediately over the ash cloud, a caution zone that has some contamination and an open-skies zone. Authorities are hoping that progressively more planes will start to fly.
Photo: An aerial view shows Lufthansa planes parked on the tarmac of the closed Frankfurt’s airport, April 19, 2010. German airports remain closed due to the ash cloud caused by an Icelandic volcano that turned northern Europe into a no-fly zone. REUTERS/Johannes Eisele
US, Iraqi troops kill top al-Qaeda leaders near Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit
US and Iraqi forces claim to have killed al-Qaeda’s two top bosses in the war-torn country in an air and ground assault on their safe-house near Saddam Hussein’s birthplace of Tikrit. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki showed photographs of the men’s bloody corpses at a news conference, with US military officials later confirming their deaths. The allies hope it’s a potentially killer blow to the group, but the Iraqi wing of the organisation has shown it can quickly change tactics and adapt. The killings come at a time when the US is preparing to withdraw most of its troops from the country. Al-Qaeda has launched repeated attacks on Iraqi civilians in an attempt to sow mayhem and exploit political stasis in the wake of recent inconclusive parliamentary elections.
Thais readying for crackdown on “Red Shirt” protesters
Bangkok’s business district is being patrolled by troops in full combat gear as thousands of anti-government protesters threaten to disrupt the Thai capital. Offices are closed and at least one hotel was reported to have temporarily shut in the face of another possible eruption of violence. So-called “Red Shirt” protesters had claimed they’d stage a big demonstration, but later called it off. The country’s on tenterhooks after more than a month of demonstrations turned deadly last week, with some 25 people killed in clashes. The Red Shirts want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down and dissolve parliament, paving the way for fresh elections. They back former pro-poor PM Thaksin Shinawatra – now a fugitive — who was ousted in a 2006 coup. So far the government has played it fairly cool, but rumours abound of an imminent crackdown.
Americans obliquely accuse Syrians of giving Hezbollah Scud missiles
The US state department summoned Syria’s senior diplomat in Washington, obliquely accusing his government of supplying arms to the Iranian-backed Islamist militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. The allegations were vague, but alluded to the transfer of Scud ballistic missiles, after Israeli President Shimon Peres last week directly accused Damascus of providing the missiles to Hezbollah. Scuds were used by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the two Gulf conflicts, and can carry a one-ton warhead, making them much more powerful than the biggest rockets in Hezbollah’s arsenal. The US condemned in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms from Syria to Hezbollah. But the state department wouldn’t confirm such a transfer had taken place. Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai reported Hezbollah sources as confirming they’d received a shipment of Scuds from Syria, but said the missiles were old and unusable (whatever that means).
HRW claims Indonesian blasphemy law constrains religions
International human rights group, Human Rights Watch, criticised Indonesia’s constitutional court for its decision to uphold the country’s 1967 blasphemy law, saying it threatens religious freedom in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Only six spiritual beliefs are officially recognised in the country of some 200 million people – Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism. HRW claims the blasphemy law poses a threat to the beliefs of Indonesia’s religious minorities and says it should be scrapped.
Oklahoma City bombing memories won’t go away
In the 15 years since a home-grown terrorist bomb destroyed an Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others, surviving victims and their families say the passing of time has made the tragedy a little more bearable, but has healed nothing. Some 2,000 people gathered at the memorial this week to honour those killed and injured in April 1995 in the deadliest home-grown terrorist attack on US soil. The bomb that went off in the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City was the work of Timothy McVeigh, an American militia movement sympathiser, and his co-conspirator, Terry Nichols, who detonated an explosive-filled truck that damaged 324 buildings within a 16-block radius, and estimated at some $652 million.