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Putin issues chilling warning on rising nuclear war threat

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  • MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a chilling warning Thursday about the rising threat of a nuclear war, saying “it could lead to the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet.”

    Speaking at his annual news conference, Putin pointed at the U.S. intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty. He said that if the U.S. puts intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Russia will be forced to take countermeasures.

    “We are witnessing the breakup of the arms control system,” Putin said, noting the U.S. plan to opt out of the INF Treaty and its reluctance to negotiate the extension of the New START agreement.

    He also noted that Western analysts are talking about the possibility of using low-yield nuclear weapons.

    “There is a trend of lowering the threshold” of using nuclear weapons, Putin said. “Lowering the threshold could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe.”

    “We will have to ensure our security,” he said. “And they shouldn’t squeak later about us gaining unilateral advantages. We aren’t seeking advantages, we are trying to preserve the balance and ensure our security.”

    Putin also emphasized that the U.S. is pondering the use of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, saying that the launch of such a missile could be mistaken for the launch of a nuclear-tipped one and trigger a global catastrophe.

    “If that happens, it could lead to the destruction of the entire civilization and may be even our planet,” he said.

    Putin also noted that the U.S. appears to show little interest in extending the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, which expires in 2021.

    “You aren’t interested, you don’t need it? OK, we know how to ensure our security,” he said.

    On the economy, Putin hailed another year of Russian growth after a previous period of stagnation.

    Russia’s gross domestic product is set to grow by 1.8 per cent this year, while industrial output has grown faster at 3 per cent, he said.

    The Russian president noted that the nation’s hard currency reserves have increased from $432 billion at the start of the year to $464 billion now.

    The positive statistics follow a difficult period in recent years when Russia’s economy has suffered a combined blow of low oil prices and Western sanctions.

    Russia’s economy registered 1.5-per cent growth last year following the two-year stagnation.

    Putin pledged that the government will create incentives to speed up growth.

    Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press





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    Official: Sri Lanka failed to heed warnings of attacks

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  • COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan officials failed to heed warnings from intelligence agencies about the threat of an attack by a domestic radical Muslim group that officials blame for Easter Sunday bombings that killed more than 200 people, the country’s health minister said Monday.

    The co-ordinated bombings that ripped through churches and luxury hotels were carried out by seven suicide bombers from a militant group named National Thowfeek Jamaath, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said.

    International intelligence agencies warned of the attacks several times starting April 4, Senaratne said. On April 9, the defence ministry wrote to the police chief with intelligence that included the group’s name, he said. On April 11, police wrote to the heads of security of the judiciary and diplomatic security division, Senaratne said.

    It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken in response. Authorities said little was known about the group except that its name had appeared in intelligence reports.

    Because of political dysfunction within the government, Seranatne said, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet were kept in the dark about the intelligence until after the attacks.

    President Maithrela Sirisena, who was out of the country at the time of the attacks, ousted Wickremesinghe in late October and dissolved the Cabinet. The Supreme Court eventually reversed his actions, but the prime minister has not been allowed into meetings of the Security Council since October.

    All of the bombers were Sri Lankan citizens, but authorities suspect foreign links, Senaratne said.

    Earlier, Ariyananda Welianga, a government forensic crime investigator, said an analysis of the attackers’ body parts made clear that they were suicide bombers. He said most of the attacks were carried out by individual bombers, with two at Colombo’s Shangri-La Hotel.

    The bombings, Sri Lanka’s deadliest violence since a devastating civil war ended a decade ago on the island nation, killed at least 290 people with more than 500 wounded, Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said Monday.

    Meanwhile, Sri Lankan police investigating the bombings are examining reports that intelligence agencies had warnings of possible attacks, officials said Monday.

    Two government ministers have alluded to intelligence failures. Telecommunications Minister Harin Fernando tweeted, “Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence. Therefore there was a delay in action. Serious action needs to be taken as to why this warning was ignored.” He said his father had heard of the possibility of an attack as well and had warned him not to enter popular churches.

    And Mano Ganeshan, the minister for national integration, said his ministry’s security officers had been warned by their division about the possibility that two suicide bombers would target politicians.

    The police’s Criminal Investigation Department, which is handling the investigation into the blasts, will look into those reports, Gunasekara said.

    Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, said the attacks could have been thwarted.

    “We placed our hands on our heads when we came to know that these deaths could have been avoided. Why this was not prevented?” he said.

    Earlier, Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists, and police said 13 suspects had been arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

    The Tamil Tigers, once a powerful rebel army known for its use of suicide bombers, was crushed by the government in 2009, and had little history of targeting Christians. While anti-Muslim bigotry has swept the island in recent years, fed by Buddhist nationalists, the island also has no history of violent Muslim militants. The country’s small Christian community has seen only scattered incidents of harassment in recent years.

    The explosions — mostly in or around Colombo, the capital — collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests in one scene after another of smoke, soot, blood, broken glass, screams and wailing alarms.

    A morgue worker in the town of Negombo, outside Colombo, where St. Sebastian’s Church was targeted, said many bodies were hard to identify because of the extent of the injuries. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

    Lakmal, a 41-year-old businessman in Negombo who declined to provide his last name, went with his family to St. Sebastian’s for Easter Mass. He said they all escaped the blast unscathed, but he remains haunted by images of bodies being taken from the sanctuary and tossed into a truck.

    At the Shangri-La Hotel, a witness said “people were being dragged out” after the blast.

    “There was blood everywhere,” said Bhanuka Harischandra a 24-year-old from Colombo and founder of a tech marketing company. He was heading to the hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. “People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode.”

    Most of those killed were Sri Lankans. But the three bombed hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists, and Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners from a variety of countries were recovered.

    The U.S. said “several” Americans were among the dead, while Britain, India, China, Japan and Portugal said they, too, lost citizens.

    The streets were largely deserted Monday morning, with most shops closed and a heavy deployment of soldiers and police. Stunned clergy and onlookers gathered at St. Anthony’s Shrine, looking past the soldiers to the stricken church.

    The Sri Lankan government initially lifted a curfew that had been imposed during the night but reinstated it Monday afternoon. Most social media remained blocked Monday after officials said they needed to curtail the spread of false information and ease tension in the country of about 21 million people.

    Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the massacre could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, and he vowed to “vest all necessary powers with the defence forces” to take action against those responsible.

    The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war, when the Tamil Tigers, from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from the Sinhalese-dominated country. The Sinhalese are largely Buddhist. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

    Sri Lanka, off the southern tip of India, is about 70 per cent Buddhist. In recent years, tensions have been running high between hard-line Buddhist monks and Muslims.

    Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, as did countries around the world, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing in Rome.

    Six nearly simultaneous blasts took place in the morning at the shrine and the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo, as well as at two churches outside Colombo.

    A few hours later, two more blasts occurred just outside Colombo, one at a guesthouse where two people were killed, the other near an overpass, Atapattu said.

    Also, three police officers were killed during a search at a suspected safe house on the outskirts of Colombo when its occupants apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, authorities said.

    Authorities said a large bomb had been found and defused late Sunday on an access road to the international airport.

    Air Force Group Captain Gihan Seneviratne said Monday that authorities found a pipe bomb filled with 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of explosives. It was large enough to have caused damage to a 400-meter (400-yard) radius, he said.

    Harischandra, who witnessed the attack at the Shangri-La Hotel, said there was “a lot of tension” after the bombings, but added: “We’ve been through these kinds of situations before.”

    He said Sri Lankans are “an amazing bunch” and noted that his social media feed was flooded with photos of people standing in long lines to give blood.

    ___

    Associated Press journalists Gemunu Amarasinghe in Negombo, Sri Lanka, Rishabh Jain in Colombo and Sheila Norman-Culp in London contributed to this report.

    Bharatha Mallawarachi And Krishan Francis, The Associated Press













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    Grassy Narrows worries about fate of Trudeau Liberals’ promised treatment home

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  • OTTAWA — The chief of a First Nation in northwestern Ontario long-plagued by the debilitating impacts of mercury contamination says he is worried about the fate of a federally promised treatment facility as the calendar speeds towards this fall’s election without any signs of progress.

    Grassy Narrows First Nation has suffered from the health impacts of mercury contamination stemming from when a paper mill in Dryden, Ont., dumped 9,000 kilograms of the substance into the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s.

    Those afflicted with mercury poisoning suffer from impaired peripheral vision, hearing, speech, and cognitive function. Other symptoms include muscle weakness, numbness or stinging pain in the extremities and mouth.

    Help for those residents appeared a certainty two years ago when the minister in charge of the file promised a specialized treatment facility on the reserve. A required feasibility study was produced last November that outlined costs and design ideas.

    Grassy Narrows Chief Rudy Turtle said there has been little action on the project. Meanwhile, there also appears to be a political disagreement between the federal Liberals and the Ontario Tory government over jurisdictional responsibility.

    In an interview, Turtle said the community wants to see evidence of progress from the Trudeau government so the project doesn’t disappear.

    “They made a commitment,” he said of the federal government. “We would like to get it going and right now, it is kind of stalled.”

    He urged the federal government to put $88.7 million — the estimated 30-year cost for the facility, according to the feasibility study — into a trust fund for the community to ensure the project moves ahead no matter the results of the fall federal election.

    “We will be certain that there’s money there, that money was set aside for the project and whoever gets in (as government), that we can continue on with the work,” Turtle said.

    The Ontario government secured a $85-million trust for clean up of the land and water nearby in 2017, and that fall, then Indigenous services minister Jane Philpott promised community leaders that Ottawa would fund the treatment facility on reserve.

    Philpott followed up in December with a letter confirming the government would pay for the feasibility study and “the construction and operation of the treatment centre in Grassy Narrows once the design work and programming is ready.”

    Philpott was moved from the post this past January in a cabinet shuffle. She now sits as an Independent MP after being removed from the Liberal caucus over her public concerns about the government’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

    “I actually had been preparing to go to the community myself before I was shuffled,” Philpott said.

    Her replacement at Indigenous Services, Seamus O’Regan, plans to visit the community and said the government remains “absolutely committed” to the mercury home. He said design work is underway along with building a construction schedule, but he did not offer specifics.

    Grassy Narrows has suffered for generations, O’Regan said, but work can’t go ahead without Ontario’s co-operation.

    “Ultimately, it is a health facility so we have to make sure we work with them (Ontario) on that because delivery of health care is provincial jurisdiction,” O’Regan said. “We are committed to building the facility and we will do that.”

    Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government argued the federal Liberals were playing partisan political games to distract from inaction. A spokesman for Ontario Northern Development Minister Greg Rickford said Philpott’s 2017 promise came absent any funding or operational commitment from the previous provincial Liberal government.

    “There’s absolutely nothing stopping the federal government from fulfilling their commitment to the community,” Brayden Akers said in a statement. “Any suggestion otherwise is blatantly false.”

    In the meantime, Grassy Narrows awaits word about when O’Regan will visit. The First Nation has also sent multiple invitations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that have yet to be answered.

    At the end of March, Trudeau apologized for his response to a protester who interrupted a Liberal fundraising event to draw attention to the mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows. As security escorted the woman out, Trudeau thanked her for her donation: “I really appreciate your donation to the Liberal Party of Canada.”

    Philpott said she personally hopes federal work on the mercury home will move ahead quickly because Canadians can’t understand why the people of Grassy Narrows have not yet gotten the help they need.

    “That we can’t provide care is really something that shames us all,” she said.

    —Follow @kkirkup on Twitter

    Kristy Kirkup, The Canadian Press


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