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DISASTER MANAGEMENT
Pentagon chief arrives in Europe amid Syrian, Afghan crises
By Thomas WATKINS
Madrid (AFP) Oct 4, 2015


Migrant crisis debris: Greek island battles lifejacket mountain
Mytilene, Greece (AFP) Oct 4, 2015 - For the thousands of refugees and migrants landing on its beaches every day, Greece's Lesbos island is a step to safety and a brighter future in Europe.

But the continent's biggest migration challenge since World War II is now presenting an unexpected environmental headache: what to do with the vast heaps of lifejackets and inflatable boats left behind by the arrivals?

On the beach of Skala Sikaminias on Lesbos' northern coast, a key landing point for migrants, a group of municipal employees are loading discarded jackets and dinghies on a truck.

"We've barely finished when it's time to start all over again," sighs Yiorgos Katsanos, the deputy mayor in charge of waste management.

The city has mobilised 12 additional staff to handle the overload and sends two trucks and a crane to clear the beaches every day.

For the time being, the thousands of life vests and boats are deposited at a dump further north. Until a permanent decision on what to do with it emerges, they're being left there.

The municipal vehicles can only access areas served by roads, and there are plenty of inaccessible coves littered with debris.

"With materials such as these, the only solution is recycling," says Katsanos.

The plastic "could be used to make water tanks" to be used in fire-fighting, he notes.

"But we have not found a company prepared to undertake this job," he adds.

- Lifejackets turn up on eBay -

To some of the reporters and volunteers who gather on the beach each day to greet the arrivals, a lifejacket can be a kind of trophy.

Some have even ended up on Internet auction website eBay, "allegedly to finance humanitarian operations", says Katsanos.

"If only they actually saved lives. But no, they're junk" hastily made in Turkey or cheaply ordered from China, the deputy mayor adds.

"They were really flimsy, not very solid at all," says Sajjad, a 22-year-old Afghan who paid seven euros ($7.8) for his own life vest in Turkey.

As in the case of his fellow travellers, he discarded it as soon as he set foot on the island.

Sajjad said he was grateful he never actually had to use the vest, as he cannot swim.

More than half a million people have reached Europe via the Mediterranean this year -- including over 310,000 landing in Greece, figures from the UN refugee agency show.

Nearly 3,000 others have died or disappeared during the crossing.

Two more people -- a woman and a child -- drowned on Wednesday off Lesbos.

Greece and other European countries have repeatedly criticised Turkey for not doing enough to stamp out smuggler networks that profit at the expense of the migrants, many of whom are fleeing the conflict in Syria.

The smugglers charge exorbitant prices -- up to $2,000 -- for passage on board flimsy vessels that frequently sink, dooming entire families.

In mid-September, France suspended an honorary consul and maritime supplier in the Turkish holiday resort town of Bodrum who was secretly filmed by France 2 television selling dinghies to refugees.

But there are also questionable practices closer to home.

On Lesbos, after the migrants and volunteers who help them have moved on, locals derisively known as "crows" move in to scavenge what they can.

The gutted boats will never sail again but plastic can be reused for making tarpaulin, and wood for fences.

Engines can also be resold at a tidy profit.

On the neighbouring island of Leros, police recently arrested four people found to have appropriated a combined 35 engines from migrant boats.

"There's a black market for everything," said Michalis Dimou, a local coastguard.

"We've arrested a few people but right now the priority lies elsewhere," he shrugs.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter arrived in Madrid on Sunday, beginning a European tour amid alarm over Russian bombardments in Syria and the refugee crisis sparked by the conflict.

He is also dealing with the fallout from a suspected US air strike on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz that killed 22 people, some of whom burned to death in their beds.

"My reaction was I think the same as anybody's," Carter told reporters on the flight to Madrid, describing the situation as "confused and complicated."

"This is a tragic loss of life, your heart can only go out to innocent people that were caught up in this type of violence."

The five-day trip to Spain, Italy, Britain and a NATO ministerial summit in Brussels is intended to recognise the work of ally nations as they scramble to tackle the refugee crisis as well as respond to Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine.

The tour comes at a fraught time for Carter, who started in the Pentagon's top job in February and who faces pressure at home over Syria and a simmering scandal involving military officials allegedly cherry-picking intelligence.

The Kunduz incident adds to Carter's woes and he -- along with President Barack Obama -- has promised a full and transparent investigation.

A senior defense official said US special operations forces in an "advise and assist" role in Kunduz had been taking fire and called in air support from an AC-130. The plane opened fire but the military wasn't "positively certain" it hit the hospital, the official said.

While in Spain, Carter will visit a base in Moron de la Frontera, where a permanent force of 2,200 US marines has been established. The facility was bolstered in the wake of the 2012 attack on a US mission in Benghazi, eastern Libya.

The main mission of the Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response (MAGTF) unit is to protect US embassies in Africa, evacuate civilians in difficulty, or intervene in conflicts or humanitarian crises.

- Support for Ukraine -

Carter, 61, has been on the job for eight months but unlike some of his predecessors -- such as Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates -- he has not established himself as a household name.

Carter has appeared reluctant to stray from official White House talking points and critics say he is overly cautious in his public pronouncements.

The Pentagon is under massive pressure over its efforts to intervene in Syria. While the White House does not want to commit ground forces to another difficult Middle East conflict, opponents are outraged by what they see as a lack of US action to halt the war that has claimed some 250,000 lives and displaced millions.

America leads a coalition of more than 60 nations conducting daily drone and plane strikes against Islamic State jihadists in Syria and Iraq, but is not targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia this week started bombing Syria to support Assad, adding a bloody new geopolitical dimension to the humanitarian catastrophe.

The Pentagon is also trying to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight IS but the programme has been roundly denounced as a flop after some rebels gave ammunition to an Al-Qaeda-linked group and other fighters disappeared.

And a scandal has seen the Pentagon inspector general probe allegations senior military officials cherry-picked information to downplay the strength of the Islamic State group and Al-Qaeda's branch in Syria.

After Spain, Carter visits Sigonella in Italy, where a forward operating base for the MAGTF has been established. He will then meet leaders in Rome.

On Thursday, he travels to Brussels to attend a NATO summit expected to discuss Ukraine, Russia, Syria, Afghanistan and nuclear capabilities.

The US is helping train Ukrainian forces and has sent "non-lethal" military aid. On the ground, the security situation in east Ukraine appears to have improved in recent weeks with a truce between government troops and pro-Russian separatists largely holding.

Carter visits London for bilateral talks Friday with Britain's Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, to discuss the UK's ongoing Strategic Defence and Security Review.

He is also expected to discuss innovation. Carter, a physicist and a former Harvard University professor, has stressed the need for the US military to retain its technological edge.


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Previous Report
DISASTER MANAGEMENT
UN slams 'inexcusable' Afghan hospital air strike that killed 19
Kabul (AFP) Oct 4, 2015
A suspected US air strike on a charity hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz killed 19 people Saturday, a bombardment US President Barack Obama said was a "tragic incident" but which the UN condemned as "inexcusable". Washington has promised a "full investigation" into the bombing at the facility, a key lifeline that has been running beyond capacity during fighting that saw the Taliban seize ... read more


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