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Magnitude 6.2 earthquake destroys towns in central Italy, killing at least 159

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JUDY WOODRUFF:  In today’s early morning hours, Italy’s countryside was jolted awake by an earthquake, striking just beneath the surface and wreaking terrible havoc.  The official number of deaths has reached 159, but that number is expected to grow.

An army of rescue workers quickly descended on three small Italian towns that were leveled in the quake.  They were able to pull some people from the rubble, but others remain trapped.

GIANCARLO, Earthquake Survivor (through translator):  I heard people asking for help, people calling out, asking for help, but in this condition, what could I do?  I have been to the center, and it’s all in rubble.

AGOSTINO SEVERO, Earthquake Survivor (through translator):  We came out to the piazza, and it looked like Dante’s Inferno, people crying for help, help.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit in the middle of the night, just after 3:30 a.m.  It was felt across Central Italy, but the tiny towns of Amatrice, Accumoli, and Pescara del Tronto were hardest-hit.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi arrived in Amatrice late today after promising the area his full support.

MATTEO RENZI, Prime Minister, Italy (through translator):  This is a time when we’re allowed to shed tears.  For the faithful, it is a moment to say a prayer.  For everyone, it is a moment of respect and pain.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  It’s slow going for the rescue workers who are combing the wreckage for survivors, oftentimes using only their hands.

ANDREA GENTILI, Department of Civil Protection (through translator):  We need chain saws, shears to cut iron bars, and jacks to remove beams.  Everything.  We need everything.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The hard work paid off in Accumoli, where a 65-year-old man was pulled out of the rubble after nine hours.  Applause followed the man as he was loaded into an ambulance.

We get an on-the-scene report now from special correspondent Christopher Livesay, who is in Amatrice, Italy.  We spoke just a short time ago.

Chris Livesay, welcome.

First of all, you have been there all day long.  What are you seeing?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  Well, I’m seeing what looks like the aftermath of a war zone.  The imagery all around me is much more similar to what we’re used to seeing come out of places like Aleppo and Syria, not the idyllic hillside town of Amatrice.

Normally, this is a place where tourists go to escape the heat during the summer, especially the month of August, which in Italy is the national month of vacations.  So a town of normally 2,000 people had twice the population this time of year, only increasing the amount of injuries and fatalities, unfortunately.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  When people think of Italy, of course they think of history.  Just how widespread was the damage?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  The damage stretches all the way from the west coast to the east coast.  I mean, if you want a sense of history and culture, just look behind me at the Church of St. Augustine.  It dates back to the 14th century.

Half of it is collapsed right before your eyes.  Only the belfry is really standing.  And that’s rather indicative of the damage that stretches all across Central Italy, not just here in the region of Lazio around Rome, but also the nearby region of Umbria, which has a number of artistic heritage sites.

We’re talking not just in that region, but all across Central Italy, buildings that range from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.  There’s going to be all types of loss, not just of life, but, of course, that is the most important thing that everyone is rushing to save.  People all around me, volunteers and professionals likewise, are working around the clock to see if there are any survivors still underneath this rubble.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Do they have the resources they need, Chris, to get this done?

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:  They seem to have all the resources they need, especially in terms of manpower.  I have been overwhelmed by the amount of volunteers and other rescue agencies from firefighters to ambulance drivers to civil protection agents, you name it.  Even the military is chipping in at this point.  They’re all working around the clock to help people.

You have tents.  You have cots that have been set up in parks.  There’s a sports center that has been converted into a makeshift dormitory.  So, just in this town of Amatrice, there are temporary beds set up for hundreds of people, and that’s the case all across Italy right now.  Thousands of temporary beds and housing have been set up.

So the people do appear to have all the help they need.  What they have working against them is perhaps the very thing that makes this part of Italy so picturesque, and that’s the fact that these are small hilltop towns with twisting and winding roads.

Those roads were not made for heavy vehicles, lots of ambulances, one after another.  They’re having to negotiate the road.  Oftentimes, there’s just not enough space for everyone to go in and out of these place, so they’re relying heavily on helicopters to air evac people into nearby hospital, but also hospitals as far afield as Rome, which is almost 100 miles from here.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Chris Livesay in Amatrice, thank you.

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News Wrap: Strong earthquake strikes Myanmar; militants bomb Afghan university

Rubble is seen after an earthquake in Bagan, Myanmar August 24,
         2016.  REUTERS/Stringer          FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. - RTX2MW0K

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HARI SREENIVASAN:  Five thousand miles away from Italy, another powerful earthquake rocked Myanmar today, killing at least four people.  The 6.8-magnitude quake struck near the town of Chauk, 20 miles from the former capital of Bagan.  Officials estimated almost 200 of Bagan’s centuries-old Buddhist pagodas were damaged.  The devastation could have been worse, had the quake not hit so deep underground.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  Militants attacked the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, the capital, today.  At least one person was killed and 18 more were wounded.

Foreign staff and dozens of students were reportedly trapped inside the compound.  Student witnesses said the shooting lasted for more than an hour.

ZIAUCOIN, Student, American University of Afghanistan (through translator):  First, an explosion happened, and then we heard the sound of gunfire.  Twenty of us were in the class.  Two bullets hit on the door of our classroom.  All the boys escaped through the window of the class.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  There was no immediate claim of responsibility.  This is the second time this month that the university or its staff have been targeted.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  In South Sudan, at least 275 people have died in fighting between government troops and rebel forces.  Each side blamed the other today for launching attacks in a northeastern town less than a week ago.  Those reports came after word that opposition leader Riek Machar, who’d recently fled the country, is now in Sudan for urgent medical attention.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  North Korea’s successful launch of a ballistic missile triggered swift condemnation today.  It was fired from a submarine, and flew over 300 miles within range of hitting South Korea and parts of Japan.  It is the farthest distance the North has successfully fired such a weapon.  The foreign ministers of China, Japan, and South Korea denounced the launch today in Tokyo, in a rare show of unity.

WANG YI, Foreign Minister, China (through translator):  China opposes North Korea’s nuclear missile program, and opposes any words or deeds that could cause tensions on the Korean Peninsula.  China will adhere to its consistent and firm stand of making persistent efforts towards denuclearization on the peninsula.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The U.S. State Department echoed that sentiment, saying its commitment to protecting its allies in the region from North Korean aggression was — quote — “iron-clad.”

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And stocks slipped on Wall Street today, led by drops in the health care and materials sectors.  The Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 66 points to close at 18481.  The Nasdaq fell 42 points, and the S&P 500 dropped 11.

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Turkish, U.S. forces launch operation in Syria; Biden calls for Kurds to halt advances

Smoke rises from the Syrian border town of Jarablus as it is pictured
         from the Turkish town of Karkamis, in the southeastern Gaziantep province, Turkey, August 24, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas -
         RTX2MVAL

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Turkish military forces launched a major operation inside Syria today to retake the strategic border town of Jarabulus from ISIS.

Turkish and American jets attacked from above, as Turkish tanks and special forces moved into the town. Syrian rebel groups were also part of the operation.

Beyond ousting ISIS from the area, Turkey has another motive for attacking on Jarabulus, to stem the ambitions of the main U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, which has been taking over territory from ISIS.

Vice President Biden was visiting Turkey today, and he called upon the Kurds to limit their advances.

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We have made it absolutely clear to the elements that were part of the Syrian democratic forces, the YPG that participated, that they must move back across the river. They cannot, will not and under no circumstances get American support if they do not keep that commitment, period.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We examine the significance of all of this now with Aaron Stein. He’s a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Aaron Stein, thank you for being here.

AARON STEIN, Atlantic Council: Thank you for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is the significance of this incursion across the border into Syria?

AARON STEIN: I think the biggest one is, it denies ISIS one of its last major crossing points across the Turkish-Syrian border.

Jarabulus has historically been a place where they have moved men and material across. So, by Turkey moving in alongside of its host of Arab groups, ISIS loses territory along its border, ISIS goes weaker. And this is a good thing for the U.S. and Turkey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if it hadn’t been for this move, it’s possible that the Syrian Kurds would have been in that territory sooner or later, is that not right?

AARON STEIN: Yes, I think that’s the issue here, is that the United States is having to thread a very fine needle. It’s having to thread the needle very finely here.

But it has to, one, prosecute the war against ISIS, where the Syrian Kurds have become the most prominent ground force and the one capable of taking the most territory, while managing ties with a NATO ally who is very wary of the Syrian Kurds moving up to its border.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I know, for many people, some of these terms are hard to follow. I mentioned the YPG, this particular Syrian Kurdish group.

But let me ask you about the U.S. interest here, because until now it seems the U.S. has been careful to respect the role of the Kurds in that region, despite the tensions with Turkey’s government. What’s changed?

AARON STEIN: I don’t think anything has changed.

What I think is going on is that, in this previous operation, the one for the city of Manbij, which is just a few miles south, they had Turkish buy-in for heavy Turkish presence in there, contingent upon the larger, broader deal that the Kurds, as the vice president said, would move back across the river.

And I think that’s what the vice president was saying today, is that the Kurds have got to uphold their end of the bargain. The United States essentially told Turkey that they would make the Kurds move back. And then concurrent to that, you have Turkey moving into Jarabulus.

Syria is a very complicated place with a lot of moving parts. And this is just one of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But let’s back up and look at the larger political — geopolitical picture here, and that has to do with the coup attempt in Turkey just a month or so ago. That’s really changed the dynamic, hasn’t it, between the U.S. and Turkey?

AARON STEIN: Right.

I don’t think anybody was planning for a coup on July 15, a coup attempt in Turkey on July 15. And that’s obviously complicated relations largely because the person that Turkey accuses of being the mastermind of the coup, Fethullah Gulen, is a U.S. green card holder who lives in Pennsylvania.

And there’s been some back and forth about the extradition process. Turkey just wishes we would hand him over, and the U.S., for very obvious reasons, if you ask me, is making Turkey follow all the legal steps, because, if you really violate those legal steps, and if you take special measures, even for an ally, it sends the wrong message that the U.S. will just simply turn people over.

And sometimes an ally doesn’t ask to turn people over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, connect the dots. Between Turkey’s nervousness and asking to get Fethullah Gulen back extradited from the United States, and then Turkey being anxious to put a stop to any potential Kurdish move in Syria, connects the two things.

AARON STEIN: Well, so this is where the politics become very important.

So, the United States has an incentive to support Turkey, a NATO ally, as it moves into Syria, particularly in Jarabulus. And I think, moving forward, that’s where the questions will be. So, how long does Turkey plan to stay in Jarabulus? Does it have plans to move farther? And what is the U.S. role in this?

And I think we’re still figuring that out, as outsiders, and I would even say that the U.S. government is still figuring that out, because this operation does seem to have kind of come together relatively quickly on the Turkish side, even if their plans have been on the shelf for a little over — for the past year or so.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Aaron Stein, remind us why Turkey is an important ally for the United States.

AARON STEIN: Well, they have been an ally in the NATO alliance since 1952.

It’s always hard to point to why breaking such an alliance is a big deal, other than, at a time when transatlantic relations and the NATO alliance has come under pressure from the Republican presidential candidate for the presidency, you want to keep the transatlantic alliance in place.

And if you look beyond ISIS, the threat from the Islamic State, Turkey is in a part of the world where the U.S. likes to play a role in. And obviously we would like to have as many friends as possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this is clearly — or in part, at least, a case of the United States placating, wanting to make sure it stays on good terms with Turkey, as Turkey deals with its insecurity when it comes to the Kurds.

AARON STEIN: I think we do have an incentive to try and reach back out to Turkey, even though, within Turkey, there has been, in my opinion, sort of an overplaying of the anti-American card to deflect from what really has been a very traumatic past month in Turkey.

You have a failed coup attempt, over 200 people killed. Parliament was bombed. And the military was really fractured. So this is a big problem, and the Turkish leaders have leaned on anti-American sentiment to explain it away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, just bottom line here, it’s a reminder that, yes, ISIS is a big enemy, but ISIS is not the only complicating factor in that part of the world. There’s a lot going on between the Turks and the Kurds.

AARON STEIN: Absolutely.

For Turkey, the Kurdish sub-state actor problem is always number one. ISIS, I would say, is 1-A, and now you have to add Fethullah Gulen, who Turkey also claims is a sub-state actor, who they say carried out a coup attempt on July 15 and now lives in the United States. All three things came together. And it’s a very difficult time for U.S.-Turkey relations because of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there are a lot of threads to follow here. And we thank you for helping us understand what’s going on.

Aaron Stein, we appreciate it.

AARON STEIN: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

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In Iceland, refugee population helps yield diversity, economic growth

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first: Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in Europe, and it has spread to Iceland, one of the more unusual destinations for refugees from the war in Syria.

But many people on this island nation in the middle of the North Atlantic welcome the prospect of their traditionally white, Christian country becoming more multicultural.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.

MALCOLM BRABANT, Special Correspondent: Outside Iceland’s tiny Parliament, pro-refugee supporters outnumber and encircle a group from a new party called the Icelandic National Front, which objects to recent legislation relaxing rules on immigration.

One of their standard-bearers is nurse Maria Magnusdottir.

MARIA MAGNUSDOTTIR, Icelandic National Front: We do not want people that are not adapting to our culture, like, for example, Muslims. I’m not saying that all Muslims are bad people. But, unfortunately, they are not adapting to cultures. So, like, in Europe, we can see two cultures in most of those countries. And that is what we are afraid of.

MALCOLM BRABANT: One of the cheerleaders on the other side is Salmann Tamimi, a Palestinian imam who stopped off in Iceland en route to North America in the 1970s, and never left.

IMAM SALMANN TAMIMI, Muslim Association of Iceland: You see how many supporters are, five, six, 10 times more than the other guys. And this is how the Icelandic society is, really. We have maybe 2 or 3 percent who are what I call racists and fascists. And — but the majority is nice people and we are happy for their support that we are getting.

SIGRIDUR BALDVINSDOTTIR, Artist: The population is very small here in Iceland. We are very few persons. And if you open all the borders, then we’re in trouble.

MALCOLM BRABANT: “This is a disgusting use of the flag,” shouts Logi Stefansson, a well-known musician who shares Icelandic and Angolan heritage.

LOGI STEFANSSON, Musician: They want to basically keep the country white. They’re talking about — like, they have 800 asylum-seekers coming next year, which is, like, a disgraceful number. That’s too small. They just want the white supremacy. Like, seriously, the system for asylum-seekers in Iceland is disgusting. They get treated like dogs.

MALCOLM BRABANT: But the treatment afforded the Al-Mohammad family from Aleppo has been exemplary. The Al-Mohammads left Syria for Lebanon in 2012, signed up for the U.N. refugee resettlement program, and in January were told that they were going to Iceland. Although it wasn’t their choice, English teacher Khattab is not complaining.

KHATTAB AL-MOHAMMAD, Syrian Refugee: This is now the dream of most of the Syrians, to restore the happiness of their children and find a means for making this happen. And we were very lucky to be here, for example, and have this chance to play, because other children in Syria now, they are killed by the — our criminal president and his supporters.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Al-Mohammad, his wife, their six children and his mother, have been given an apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Akureyri, a northern town less than 40 miles from the Arctic Circle.

KHATTAB AL-MOHAMMAD: We found a lot of similarities between the two societies, for example, the safety of children, and the educational system, health care. These are free in Syria, and now we found it here. And maybe the most obstacle was the weather, the climate itself.

So, we used to have sunny days. A little bit were cold winter, but not snow for, for example, six months. It’s very hard for us.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The local council is working hard to integrate the newcomers. And the refugee coordinator is visiting to help the family with temporary citizenship documents that will enable them to travel freely throughout Europe.

Al-Mohammad is looking to get off welfare benefits and is seeking a business partner to set up a restaurant.

KHATTAB AL-MOHAMMAD: Although we are — appreciate their help, but we want to participate in this society and in the economy of this country. So, we don’t like to be living on this kind of charity. And I suppose all the Syrians are trying their best in the different places. We are normally independent. We don’t like to be dependent on someone.

NOUFA AL MOHAMMAD, Syrian Refugee (through translator): I’m very happy. Icelanders are good people. The country is very generous and welcoming. And we are proud to be here and to be part of this country.

BOY (through translator): I’m happy here. I have friends to play ball with.

HALINA AL-MOHAMMAD, Syrian Refugee (through translator): Of course it’s better here, and secure. The living here is good, especially the kids’ school.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Akureyri is a bustling town of 18,000 people, popular with tourists for whale watching and another nature pursuits.

The council is anxious to avoid the mistakes of much bigger countries, which have created ghettos by placing immigrants together. In a nation of just 330,000 people, it’s much easier to house refugees amongst Icelanders.

The town’s Red Cross has organized a support group whose purpose is to help the newcomers find their feet and bloom.

KARI LAURSSON, Conservationist: I hope that, if at some point, Iceland would go sort of be a war zone or something like that, someone somewhere else on the planet would welcome me as well as they possibly can.

KRISTIN ISLEIFSDOTTIR, Student: I think of our country as just a part of the global village. Nobody can decide where they’re born, and I think everyone should have a fair chance.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Two of the volunteers are heading out to the house of an electrician from Damascus called Joumaa Naser, who lives with his wife and their five children.

INGIBJORG STEFANSDOTTIR, Red Cross Volunteer: They don’t speak English but they’re very good at practicing Icelandic. And we are helping them to learn. I want to teach them how to be themselves in our society and to use the Icelandic language.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As the girls help one of the younger children with his Icelandic, the town’s cultural coordinator is on hand to translate a conversation between one of the sons, who is just about to start high school, and his new teachers.

Joumaa Naser’s skills as an electrician are in demand, and he’s happy to be working.

JOUMAA NASER, Syrian Refugee (through translator): In the long term future, we haven’t yet decided what’s going to happen. But for the immediate future, we are settling here. This is good for the children. They feel safe here. They will get an education. But, ultimately, our aim is to get back to Syria, when it’s safe to do so.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Much of the debate about refugees and immigration centers on multiculturalism and religion. But the realpolitik of hard cash has entered the fray.

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, Iceland has been trying to get back on its feet, and it has succeeded. The economy is booming. The growth rate here is about 4 percent a year, and, according to the country’s business leaders, Iceland needs 2,000 immigrants a year to maintain that level of growth.

Akureyri’s Mayor Eirokur Bjorgvinsson is very clear where he stands on the issue.

MAYOR EIROKUR BJORGVINSSON, Akureyri, Iceland: Some people say that the people need also social support. So it is also money getting out. But they are giving more back than they have actually received. Maybe they have received something for months or years, but in the long term, they will give much more back than they have received.

MALCOLM BRABANT: As elsewhere in Europe, some Icelanders have a profound fear, if not phobia, of Islam.

KHATTAB AL-MOHAMMAD: Islam is a group of values, not only just praying and you agree that — values. The values of Islam, we see it here. So, why are they afraid?

The values, to be honest, the value of to be helpful, the value to be democratic, the value of being human, these are the values of Islam. And we found them here. We missed them in Syria, but we found them here.

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