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Rescue drama all in a day's work for Italy's navy heroes
Rome (AFP) May 26, 2016

UN reaches out to China to build peacekeeping force
United Nations, United States (AFP) May 26, 2016 - The United Nations is reaching out to China as it pulls together a standby force of 15,000 troops for quick deployment to conflict zones, the UN peacekeeping chief said Thursday.

Although Herve Ladsous did not name the countries that will take part in the new reserve force, he does plan to travel to China early next month to discuss its offer of 8,000 troops.

"The goal we are pursuing is that, by the end of the year, we would have the capacity of 15,000 people ready for deployment within a very short period," he told reporters.

China made a splash last year when it announced that it was ready to set up an 8,000-strong standby force to bolster UN peacekeeping.

That would put Beijing among the top contributors of UN troops and police.

China's offer was "remarkable," Ladsous said, praising Beijing for contributing peacekeepers to South Sudan and a squadron of transport helicopters to Sudan.

"These are very welcome factors," he said.

The standby force will be fully trained and equipped for peacekeeping missions, which is expected to reduce deployment time by several months.

More than 100,000 soldiers and police serve in the UN's 16 peacekeeping mission worldwide, the bulk of them provided by a small group of countries.

They include Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

S. African, US firefighters help battle Fort McMurray wildfire
Ottawa (AFP) May 26, 2016 - Canadian firefighters battling an out of control wildfire near the oil city of Fort McMurray, Alberta were reinforced Thursday with the arrival of nearly 500 Americans and South Africans.

The fire has spread to more than 566,200 hectares (1.4 million acres), including 4,600 hectares in neighboring Saskatchewan province, although it has started to retreat from populated areas.

A total of 2,054 firefighters have been dispatched to the remote northern oil sands region -- an area that holds the world's third largest oil reserve -- to keep the flames at bay.

They include 200 American and 280 South African firefighters who went at Ottawa's request.

They have been assisted by 88 helicopters, 256 pieces of heavy equipment and 25 air tankers.

Some 100,000 residents of Fort McMurray and nearby towns and oil camps, are meanwhile planning their return home starting June 1, almost a month after being ordered to evacuate.

"You are returning to a community that was profoundly affected by a wildfire. Services that you are used to or rely on may be limited for some," authorities warned in a statement.

"If you're driving back, consider arriving with basic necessities to last for up to 14 days including food, drinking water and prescriptions."

Oil workers also are starting to return to facilities north of the city this week to restart oil production.

Officials also said the Fort McMurray airport has been scheduled to reopen for commercial flights on June 10.

An Italian navy captain who led the rescue of hundreds of people from a capsized fishing boat off Libya described Thursday how one of his men had pulled a drowning migrant from the waves by his hair.

And Francesco Iavazzo, the skipper of the Bettica patrol boat, said he was not in the least surprised to see several of his crew throw themselves into the Mediterranean to clutch floundering survivors from the jaws of death at the height of Wednesday's drama.

"When you work for the military, the navy particularly, you do what you have to do, you don't do it thinking about what's in your job description," he said in one of several satellite phone interviews with Italian media.

"At sea, the saving of human lives is something sacred."

Iavazzo's crew did surprise the skipper however after his boat had pulled more than 400 people out of the water, including 43 children, 10 of whom were babies.

"In this tragedy the one small consolation is that we saved all the children," he said.

"And they all got toy bears that my sailors produced from goodness knows where. I saw a baby girl clutching a white one that was bigger than her."

In total, the Bettica and its navy sister ship the Bergamini rescued 562 people from the capsized fishing boat.

Sailors also recovered five corpses and Iavazzo said it was possible others had been unable to get off the boat and had perished when it sank.

- Fatal panic -

The Bettica was headed on Thursday for Sicily, where the survivors will be added to the list of nearly 40,000 migrants to arrive at Italy's southern ports this year.

Salvatore Vitiello, the admiral who heads Italy's "Safe Seas" operation to protect merchant shipping off Libya, was on board the Bergamini during the rescue.

He described how the capsize happened after nearly half the passengers had been transferred to safety.

"At that point there were still dozens of people below deck and in their desperation to get out and be saved they all moved to one side of the hull, causing the boat to roll over.

"But by using dinghies and rafts we were able to get nearly all of them out of the water alive."

Capsizes have been responsible for some of the deadliest sinkings of Europe's migrant crisis and often panic is the fatal factor.

- 'Freedom, freedom!' -

Antoine Laurent, a French merchant navy officer who is currently on board the migrant rescue boat Aquarius, said people traffickers' boats were often inherently unstable.

"On normal boats there is a lot of weight at the bottom -- fuel, equipment etc -- which ensures the centre of gravity is in the middle of the hull.

"On migrant boats it is people below deck who provide the ballast and often they end up trying to get out as quickly as possible because the heat is unbearable or there is gas leaking somewhere.

"It is very hard to stay calm during transfers, even if the boat is stable and the sea is calm the migrants are always on the brink of panic.

"Most of them do not know how to swim -- to them the water is like a torrent of lava, for us, if you fall in you're dead."

Iavazzo said the survivors had mostly been picked up by dinghies fitted with hydrojet motors to avoid the risk of propellers injuring people in the water.

"As soon as people come on board we warm them up in the classic way with hot tea and blankets and the medical team screen them for emergency cases that might require helicopter evacuation."

Vitiello, who has now been at sea for three and a half months, admitted he had been deeply moved by the reaction of the survivors who ended up on his deck.

"It was a beautiful thing, seeing all these young people crying with happiness, hugging our sailors and shouting 'Freedom, Freedom!'."

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