January 8, 2013

World Dispatches

From news service reports

SYDNEY

Parks closed as heat, wind fuel catastrophic fire threat

Firefighters battled scores of wildfires raging across southeast Australia on Tuesday with officials evacuating national parks and warning that blistering temperatures and high winds had led to “catastrophic” fire conditions in some areas.

Thousands of firefighters were on standby across the nation’s most populous state of New South Wales, where fire authorities said wildfire conditions were at catastrophic threat levels – the most severe rating available – in parts of the state. All state forests and national parks were closed as a precaution and total fire bans were in place, with temperatures expected to reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas.

No deaths had been reported, although officials in Tasmania were still trying to find around 100 residents who have been missing since a fire tore through the small town of Dunalley last week, destroying about 90 homes.

On Tuesday, police said no bodies were found during preliminary checks of the ruined houses.

One volunteer firefighter suffered severe burns to his hands and face while fighting a grass fire near Gundaroo village, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said Monday. He was flown to a hospital in Sydney for treatment.

DERA ISMAIL KHAN, Pakistan

U.S. drone missile strike killsat least 8 suspected militants

Pakistani officials say several American drones have fired missiles at a compound near the Afghan border, killing at least eight suspected militants.

The two intelligence officials say the compound hit Tuesday was located near the town of Mir Ali in the North Waziristan tribal area.

One of the officials says an al-Qaida operative was believed to have been killed in the strike.
The U.S.’s covert drone program is extremely controversial in Pakistan, where many in the country look at it as an infringement on their sovereignty.

NEW DELHI

Media barred from hearingfor rape, murder suspects

An Indian magistrate ruled Monday that the media will not be allowed to attend pre-trial hearings or the trial of the five men accused of raping and killing a young student in the capital city, a police official said.

Magistrate Namrita Aggarwal upheld the prosecutor’s request that the media be barred from attending the proceedings, according to police spokesman Rajan Bhagat. Hundreds of journalists, lawyers from other cases and curious onlookers had crowded the courtroom where the five were to appear. Outside the courthouse, more than a dozen TV satellite trucks jammed the streets.

The five defendants later appeared before the magistrate, who scheduled another pre-trial hearing on Thursday that is expected to result in the case being sent to a special “fast-track” court. The trial is expected to begin in the coming days. Indian rape trials are normally closed to the media.

Authorities have charged the men with murder, rape and other crimes that could bring them the death penalty.

A sixth suspect, who is 17 years old, is expected to be tried in a juvenile court, where the maximum sentence would be three years in a reform facility.

Prosecutor Rajiv Mohan said last week that a DNA test confirmed that the blood of the victim matched blood stains found on the clothes of all the accused.

On Sunday, two of the defendants offered to become “approvers,” or informers against the others, according to reporters present at the hearing. The two were presumably seeking lighter sentences.

JOHANNESBURG

Explorer and team leavefor risky Antarctic crossing

It’s a six-month expedition in almost constant darkness, in the coldest place on the planet, with no chance of rescue if things go wrong.

British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes calls it one of the last remaining polar challenges: crossing Antarctica during the region’s winter.

Against the backdrop of Cape Town’s majestic Table Mountain, Fiennes, 68, and his five-member team left the South African port city on Monday aboard a South African polar vessel, the SA Agulhas, for what they have dubbed “The Coldest Journey.”

After reaching the southernmost continent, the expedition will begin its journey via the South Pole on March 21, traversing nearly 2,485 miles in a place, beautiful and forbidding, where temperatures often dip to minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit and lower.

The trip is particularly hazardous because no aircraft can travel inland in the winter due to the darkness and risk that fuel will freeze, meaning there is virtually no chance of a search and rescue operation if disaster strikes.

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