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Wars, quakes usher in 2024

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Picture: Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Taken January 2, 2024 – A car passes a collapsed wooden house in Shika Town, Ishikawa prefecture on January 2, a day after a major 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the Noto region in Ishikawa prefecture in the afternoon. Japanese rescuers battled against the clock and powerful aftershocks on January 2 to find survivors of a major earthquake that struck on New Year’s Day, reportedly killing more than 20 people and leaving a trail of destruction.

By AFP, Xinhua, Sputnik and IANS

Fireworks lit up skies across the world as crowds gathered to welcome 2024, but airstrikes marred the year’s earliest hours in Gaza, Israel and Ukraine, while fear gripped Japan which experienced a powerful earthquake and tremors that triggered tsunami warnings. The shaken nation was next shocked by news of a major plane collision at Tokyo International Airport in Haneda, one of the world’s busiest airports.

Many around the world were hoping to shake off global tumult and disasters this year, which heralds elections for half the planet’s population of more than eight billion in Russia, Britain, the EU, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, the US and Venezuela.

Yet as the new year started there were already ominous signs this week.

Middle East

Israel continued to pound the densely populated Gaza Strip, where the UN says 85 percent of people have fled their homes.

Since Hamas militants attacked Israel on October 7, the Israeli Defence Force has reduced vast areas of Gaza to rubble and killed at least 22,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the territory’s health ministry.

Tensions have also surged with Israel’s northern neighbour Lebanon, where a strike in Beirut on Tuesday, widely assumed to have been carried out by Israel, killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aruri.

Aruri was killed in the south Beirut stronghold of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, which has traded tit-for-tat fire across the border with Israel for months.

Hezbollah has vowed that the death of Aruri and six other Hamas operatives on its home turf will not go unpunished.

In Iran, President Ebrahim Raisi joined mourners in Kerman yesterday for the funerals of the 89 people killed, including women and children, in twin blasts claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group, state media said.

Suicide bombings struck crowds in the southern city, where many had gathered on Wednesday to commemorate slain Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general Qasem Soleimani, on the fourth anniversary of his death in a US drone strike.

The Security Council condemned the bombings as a “cowardly terrorist attack” and urged all UN member states “to co-operate actively” with Iran in holding its “perpetrators, organisers, financiers and sponsors” accountable.

Soleimani, who headed the Guards’ foreign operations arm, the Quds Force, was a staunch enemy of IS, a Sunni extremist group which has carried out previous attacks in majority-Shia Iran.

In the US, Pentagon spokesperson Pat Ryder confirmed that US forces conducted a strike in Iraq targeting the pro-Iran military commander of Harakat-al-Nujaba, Mushtaq Taleb al-Saidi, also known as Abu Taqwa, for his alleged role in attacks on US troops in the region.

In response, Iraqi military spokesperson Yehia Rasool described it as an “unprovoked attack on an Iraqi security body operating in accordance with the powers granted to it by the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces”.

The Iraqi Foreign Ministry slammed the incident as a “dangerous escalation”. The ministry stressed that “Iraq reserves its right to take a firm stance and all necessary measures to deter anyone who tries to harm its territory and its security forces”.

The strike came after a spate of attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria since the start of the Israeli-Gaza war. Washington said there have been more than 100 since mid-October. Many have been claimed by the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a loose alliance of Iran-linked armed groups that oppose US support for Israel in the Gaza war.

The US has about 2,500 troops in Iraq and 900 in Syria as part of the multinational coalition which has been fighting the IS (Islamic State) since 2014.

Meanwhile, the Iran-backed Houthi militia rejected a joint statement issued this week by 12 Western nations warning the rebels against attacking commercial shipping in the Red Sea and vowed to continue targeting “Israel-linked” vessels until the war in Gaza stopped.

Houthi spokesperson Dhaifallah al-Shami said it was “a moral failure and a miserable attempt to cover up the crimes of Israel”, considering “America and Western countries are supporting Israel in committing more genocides against the Palestinian people”, reported Xinhua.

He said the group would continue attacking what it called “Israel-linked commercial ships” until Israel ended its offensive in Gaza. Since November, the militia has carried out attacks on commercial shipping in the region more than 20 times after it declared support for Hamas.

In a joint statement, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK and the US issued the warning to the Houthis and called the attack in the Red Sea “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilising”. They said there was “no lawful justification for intentionally targeting civilian shipping and naval vessels”, adding that if the attacks continued the Houthis would “bear the consequences”, the BBC reported.

The countries also called for an “immediate end” to the attacks which, they said, posed a “direct threat to freedom of navigation” in the critical waterway through which almost 15 percent of global trade passes.

Asia

In Japan, an earthquake early on New Year’s Day killed at least 84 people, damaged homes, set off a major fire, caused power outages, closed highways and prompted people to evacuate to higher ground.

Tsunami waves over a metre high crashed into the coast after a 7.6-magnitude quake and multiple tremors, US and Japanese weather agencies said.

The powerful main tremor, followed by hundreds of aftershocks, injured at least 330 people, local authorities said.

Throughout the Ishikawa prefecture on the main island of Honshu, sirens blared as emergency workers tried to navigate roads and battled this week to find survivors and retrieve bodies from the rubble as hopes faded for the dozens listed as missing.

The Noto Peninsula was the worst-hit by the quake, with port towns like Wajima and Suzu resembling war zones.

Many cheered on social media on Thursday at the news that a woman in her 80s, trapped on the ground floor of her house, had been rescued three days after the quake.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told a press conference that the quake was “the worst catastrophe” in the current imperial Reiwa era in the Japanese calendar, which began in 2019.

At Tokyo International Airport in Haneda, workers began clearing the wreckage of the passenger plane yesterday, three days after a near-catastrophic collision with a coast guard aircraft.

Five of the six crew on the smaller aircraft died on Tuesday but all 379 people on the Japan Airlines (JAL) Airbus A350 were evacuated before it was engulfed in flames.

The coast guard plane’s captain Genki Miyamoto is its only survivor.

A Japan Coast Guard spokesperson said clearance work was also under way to remove the mangled remains of its plane which had been heading to deliver aid to an earthquake-hit area.

All 367 passengers and 12 crew on the JAL plane escaped down emergency slides within 20 minutes in what has been described as a “textbook evacuation”, with only two suffering minor physical injuries, JAL said.

Soon afterwards, the entire aircraft was an inferno.

The cause of the collision is being investigated. The flight recorder and voice recorder from the coast guard plane have been found, as has the flight recorder from the passenger jet.

According to a communications transcript released by the Japanese government, the flight JAL-516 was cleared at 5.44pm by air traffic control to land.

On the tarmac, the coast guard plane was instructed 15 seconds later to “taxi to holding point C5” near the edge of the runway. The pilot acknowledged the order immediately afterwards, the transcript showed.

Roughly two minutes later, the JAL plane landed and slammed into the coast guard’s DHC-8, suggesting that the latter had proceeded on to the actual runway.

Broadcaster NHK said yesterday that one of its cameras at the airport had recorded the coast guard plane entering the runway from a taxiway and stopping for about 40 seconds before the collision.

The JAL flight crew had no “visual contact” with the other plane, although one of them spotted “an object” just before impact, an airline spokesperson told AFP. “After the plane landed and around the time when the front wheels touched or were about to touch the ground – during those few seconds, they said they felt an impact.”

Europe

In Ukraine, the authorities said they had foiled a “record” number of Russian drones after a week of intense Russian bombardment. Russia, meanwhile, reported more Ukrainian drone strikes on its Belgorod region near the countries’ common border.

In his New Year’s message, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces would feel the “wrath” of his country’s weapons in 2024. His Russian counterpart, President Vladimir Putin, vowed on New Year’s Day to intensify attacks on military targets in Ukraine.

On Thursday, Putin signed into law a decree granting Russian citizenship to foreigners who have concluded a contract to serve in the Russian armed forces, and their family members,

Sputnik reported, quoting a document published on Russia’s legal information portal.

The same right will be given to foreign citizens who have resigned from the Russian armed forces during the special military operation, their spouses and children.

Putin also signed into law a decree granting Russian citizenship to Ukrainian citizens and stateless persons born and residing in Crimea before March 18, 2014.

Africa

The African Union (AU) appealed for calm in the Horn of Africa after regional tensions soared following a contested deal between Ethiopia and the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Somalia has vowed to defend its territory after an “agreement” on Monday, which it described as an “aggression” and a “blatant assault” on its sovereignty by neighbouring Ethiopia.

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) gives landlocked Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, long-desired access to the Red Sea through Somaliland.

AU Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat issued a statement appealing for “calm and mutual respect to de-escalate the simmering tension” between Ethiopia and Somalia. He called on the two nations to engage in a negotiation process “without delay” to settle their differences.

Faki also urged them to “refrain from any action that unintentionally may lead to a deterioration of the good relations between the two neighbouring Eastern African countries”.

Somaliland, a former British protectorate of about 4.5 million people, declared independence from Somalia in 1991, a move not recognised internationally and staunchly opposed by Mogadishu.

Markets

There was no new year bounce for stocks this week.

Asian markets were mixed on Tuesday as most traders returned from the New Year break looking forward to a 2024 that is expected to see a series of Federal Reserve interest rate cuts, but also to be full of economic and political uncertainty.

After a blockbuster run in the past two months, Wall Street stuttered last week, although analysts are hopeful for another surge as US monetary policy eases. – This wrap of the stories making headlines this week was compiled from reports by AFP, Xinhua, Sputnik and IANS