A prolonged undersea search for the Malaysian jetliner could cost nearly a quarter billion U.S. dollars if private companies are used, Australia's top transport official said Thursday.
Martin Dolan emphasized that the $234 million price tag is a "ballpark rough estimate" of an extended search and salvage mission.
Searchers seem to be preparing for the possibility that an underwater drone scan of the southern Indian Ocean may not yield immediate debris from Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
If no traces of MH370 are found, officials will be forced to review the operation and find a way forward, the Malaysian acting transport minister said Thursday.
"There'll come a time when we need to regroup and reconsider," Hishammuddin Hussein said. "But in any event, the search will always continue. It's just a matter of approach."
A later phase could involve a search along a large portion of sea highlighted by a partial digital "handshake" between the jetliner and a Inmarsat PLC satellite, Dolan said.
That arc of sea is over 370 miles long and 30 miles wide.
For now, search crews are awaiting data analysis following a scan by the underwater drone, which completed its first full mission Thursday.
Bluefin-21 has now searched a total of 90 square kilometers (34.7 square miles) in its first three trips to the ocean floor.
The Bluefin was forced to abort its mission twice this week; the first time after it exceeded its depth limit and the second time over a technical issue. After the latter was resolved, officials dipped it into the ocean again.
Data from its second and third mission have been downloaded, the Australian Joint Agency Coordination Centre said.
The underwater vessel takes two hours to get near the ocean floor and another two hours to return to the surface. It aims to map the ocean floor for 16 hours to retrieve data, which then take four hours to analyze.
The vessel searches maximum depths of 4,500 meters (14,764 feet). The U.S. Navy has determined the seafloor in the search area reaches a maximum depth of 4,600 meters (15,092 feet).
Bluefin operators said they can reprogram it to operate at 5,000 meters (16,404 feet), giving it more leeway.
Officials believe a recent ping heard in the search area has the right frequency to belong to the flight data recorder's emergency beacon.
The quality of the "ping" led authorities to focus the underwater search in the area.
And as the underwater focus continues, officials faced other setbacks.
Preliminary analysis of an oil sample collected in the southern Indian Ocean shows that it is not aircraft engine oil or hydraulic fluid, Australia's Joint Agency Coordination Centre said Thursday.
Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished on March 8 with 239 people aboard after taking off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, bound for Beijing.
With no debris found so far and no possible pings from the plane's "black boxes" detected in a week, officials shifted focus of the search underwater.
Air and sea surface searches continued Thursday about 2,170 kilometers (1,348 miles) northwest of Perth.
Those searches are probably nearing an end, officials said.
A technical glitch during a video conference to update Chinese families Wednesday turned into a screaming match.
"You're all bloody liars, and you're lying to us again," one man yelled.
Families of the passengers attending the Beijing briefing exploded in anger and stormed out.
Chinese relatives of those aboard the flight have accused Malaysia of withholding information. They demanded an apology from the Malaysian diplomat behind the botched briefing.
"We will request their team of experts to come to Beijing to conduct face-to-face communications and fulfill their commitment," said Jing Hui, a spokesman for some of the families. "What is the truth? What problem do they want to cover up?"
The families have 26 questions they want answered. They included requests for shared evidence, including the flight's logbook and recording of air traffic control the night the plane disappeared.
Most of the people on the plane were Chinese. Their relatives families have become distrustful of Malaysian authorities and airline officials.
Hishammuddin defended his government's handling of the operation and accused the media of focusing on the Chinese families. He said relatives of other nations represented have not had problems.
"The most difficult part of any investigation of this nature is having to deal with the families in our case," he said.
A Malaysian delegation will travel to Beijing in a few days to advise families on the ongoing search.
Malaysia has put together a committee to work with the relatives, he said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday said modernization and regularization in the air force should be accelerated to build a stronger military.
Xi, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, told troops to speed up airspace integration and sharpen their offensive and defensive capabilities while inspecting the air force's command headquarters.
During the visit, the president said efforts should not slacken in the search for the missing Malaysian plane MH370 while debriefing airmen in the mission via video link.
As a strategic military service, the air force plays a vital role in safeguarding national security, Xi said, urging the army to strengthen exercises and be prepared for combat, so as to quickly respond to emergencies.
He called on military leaders to run the military in accordance with the law and enforce strict discipline to improve scientific management of troops.
The Party's absolute leadership over troops should be unswervingly stuck to, Xi said.
He also urged further implementation of the "mass line" campaign in the army, which is targeted at cleaning up undesirable work styles — formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance.
"I00t220 0is the right of every human being to choose their gender," it said in granting rights to those who identify themselves as neither male nor female.
It ordered the government to provide transgender people with quotas in jobs and education in line with other minorities, as well as key amenities.
According to one estimate, India has about two million transgender people.
In India, a common term used to describe transgender people, transsexuals, cross-dressers, eunuchs and transvestites is hijra.
Campaigners say they live on the fringes of society, often in poverty, ostracised because of their gender identity. Most make a living by singing and dancing or by begging and prostitution.
Members of the third gender have played a prominent role in Indian culture and were once treated with great respect. They find mention in the ancient Hindu scriptures and were written about in the greatest epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
In medieval India too, they played a prominent role in the royal courts of the Mughal emperors and some Hindu rulers. Many of them rose to powerful positions.
Their fall from grace started in the 18th Century during the British colonial rule when the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 categorised the entire transgender community as "criminals" who were "addicted" to committing serious crimes. They were arrested for dressing in women's clothing or dancing or playing music in public places, and for indulging in gay sex.
After Independence, the law was repealed in 1949, but mistrust of the transgender community has continued. Even today, they remain socially excluded, living on the fringes of society, in ghettoised communities, harassed by the police and abused by the public. Most make a living by singing and dancing at weddings or to celebrate child birth, many have moved to begging and prostitution.
It is hoped that the landmark court ruling will help bring them into the mainstream and improve their lot.
Rights groups say they often face huge discrimination and that sometimes hospitals refuse to admit them.
They have been forced to choose either male or female as their gender in most public spheres.
"Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue," Justice KS Radhakrishnan, who headed the two-judge Supreme Court bench, said in his ruling on Tuesday.
"Transgenders are also citizens of India" and they must be "provided equal opportunity to grow", the court said.
"The spirit of the Constitution is to provide equal opportunity to every citizen to grow and attain their potential, irrespective of caste, religion or gender."
The judges asked the government to treat them in line with other minorities officially categorised as "socially and economically backward", to enable them to get quotas in jobs and education.
"We are quite thrilled by the judgement," Anita Shenoy, lawyer for the petitioner National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa), told the BBC.
"The court order gives legal sanctity to the third gender. The judges said the government must make sure that they have access to medical care and other facilities like separate wards in hospitals and separate toilets," she said.
Prominent transgender activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, who was among the petitioners in the case, welcomed the judgement, saying the community had long suffered from discrimination and ignorance in the traditionally conservative country, reports the Agence France-Presse news agency.
"Today, for the first time I feel very proud to be an Indian," Ms Tripathi told reporters outside the court in Delhi.
In 2009, India's Election Commission took a first step by allowing transgenders to choose their gender as "other" on ballot forms.
But India is not the first country to recognise a third gender. Nepal recognised a third gender as early as in 2007 when the Supreme Court ordered the government to scrap all laws that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And last year, Bangladesh also recognised a third gender.
Tuesday's ruling comes after the Supreme Court's decision in December which criminalised gay sex by reversing a landmark 2009 Delhi High Court order which had decriminalised homosexual acts.
According to a 153-year-old colonial-era law – Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code – a same-sex relationship is an "unnatural offence" and punishable by a 10-year jail term.
Legal experts say Tuesday's judgement puts transgender people in a strange situation: on the one hand, they are now legally recognised and protected under the Constitution, but on the other hand they may be breaking the law if they have consensual gay sex.
Saddam systematically killed more than 100,000 Iraqi Kurds in the al-Anfal ("the spoils of war") campaign, which lasted from February to September 1988, towards the end of Saddam's war against neighbouring Iran – in which the Iraqi leader was supported by many Western countries. In March 1988, Saddam also ordered the chemical bombing of Halabja, where 5,000 Kurds – including women, children and entire families – were murdered.
Some of Iraq's largest military operations against the Kurds took place on April 14, 1988 – which is now the official day of remembrance for those killed in al-Anfal.
While British, Swedish, Norwegian and South Korean parliaments have all recognised the al-Anfal campaign as constituting genocide, no governments have done so – except for that of Iraq. That allows them to avoid legal liability for supporting and arming Saddam during this time.
Iraqi Kurds have been especially critical of the UK, given its support and arms shipments to Saddam during the 1980s.
"It is disappointing that Britain, which has led on upholding human rights globally and which helped to liberate Kurdistan, is not taking this step," said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) High Representative to the UK. The KRG controls an autonomous northern region of Iraq, where ethnic Kurds are a majority.
"For Western governments to recognise the systematic persecution of the Kurds as genocide… will help the Kurdish people achieve justice for the overwhelming suffering they experienced at the hands of Saddam Hussein," said Kurdish-British MP Nadhim Zahawi, who in 2012 launched an online petition that ultimately prompted the debate in the British parliament to recognise the al-Anfal campaign as genocide.
The extent to which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Britain was responsible for arming Saddam's Iraq was revealed in 2011, when secret government files from 1981 were made public. The documents show Thatcher's approval of large military contracts with Iraq and her turning a blind eye to ongoing private sales of allegedly "non-lethal" military equipment. According to the documents, she sought to "exploit Iraq's potentialities as a promising market for the sale of defence equipment".
By the end of the 1980s, Baghdad had acquired a massive arsenal – enabling it to hold its own against Iran and launch offensive operations such as al-Anfal. "Tragically, governments from all around the world turned a blind eye to the heinous acts that Saddam was committing against the Kurds," said Zahawi.
The systematic and targeted mass murder of Iraq's Kurds falls under the definition of genocide according to the UN Genocide Convention. But the current British government argues that proclaiming events like al-Anfal to be a genocide must take place in the courts, and cannot be recognised by a political body.
"In the UK we all agree that Saddam's Anfal campaign was an appalling crime, and we all acknowledge the suffering of the Iraqi Kurds. But the recognition of a genocide can only be done by a judicial body. It is not up to a government to say what is or is not a crime," explained John Mitchell, the British deputy consul general to the KRG. "There has not been an international tribunal that has ruled that Anfal was an act of genocide."
Similarly, Hugh Robertson – the UK minister for the Middle East – said in a press release that, while acknowledging "our revulsion and condemnation of the attacks against Iraq's Kurds […] governments are not qualified to decide on the complex legal question of whether genocide – a very specific crime – was committed in such instances. This must instead be a decision for judicial bodies."
But many Kurdish politicians disagree. "It is highly unlikely that an international judicial process would take place now, 26 years after Anfal and Halabja," said Rahman – suggesting that governments must act to declare it a genocide.
Government recognition of a genocide would not necessarily make it legally liable for its own past actions, but it would weaken a government's case if it were sued, explained Gavriel Mairone, founder and managing partner of MM-LAW LLC, a law firm representing victims of genocide. "The government would then have difficulty in court trying to deny that it was genocide," said Mairone.
What's in a name?
The argument over whether genocide took place could seem to be a matter of semantics. But for many Kurds, an official ruling declaring what happened in 1988 to be a genocide could help healing on both an individual and collective basis.
"Some people may think that it's about compensation. But for us, it's important because it could prevent it from happening again," said Falah Mustafa, head of KRG's department of foreign relations. "It would be a moral and psychological relief for all of us [Kurds] if the international community was committed and took a firm stance to not allow such a thing to happen again."
Thirty-seven-year-old Haider was 11 when his hometown of Halabja suffered a five-hour chemical attack, during which he witnessed his family die. Today he lives in the UK and campaigns for the UK to recognise al-Anfal as genocide. This, he said, would help assure "that those who committed the crime be punished. Recognition will also encourage other countries to not repeat such an action."
Mairone, who works with victims of genocide, torture and terrorism, explained that "the pain inflicted upon my clients is magnified multifold by the failure of all those complicit to apologise or be held accountable.
"If these events are recognised as genocide, every country that could have done something to prevent genocide could be held legally liable, including their own leaders and companies who may have aided Saddam," said Mairone.
Rahman, who was born in Iraqi Kurdistan but raised in the UK, said: "We consider Britain a friend and an ally."
Nevertheless, she added, "If our friends are to understand us – understand our people, our policies and decisions – they need to understand and recognise our tragic past."
Syria has suspended the transfers for what it says are security reasons, but last Sunday said it planned to resume them in the "coming days", the AFP news agency reported.
Sigrid Kaag, coordinator for the international operation to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, warned the council on Thursday that any further delay would make it "increasingly challenging" to stick to the June 30 deadline, according to diplomats cited by AFP.
"Assuming that operations restart immediately, operations could be achieved on time," diplomats quoted her as saying.
"I have repeated to Syrian authorities the need for a swift resumption of the removal operation. Operations have to restart immediately," she reportedly said.
'Containers ready for shipment'
According to diplomats, Kaag said there were 72 containers filled with chemical weapons ready to be transferred to the main Syrian port of Latakia for shipment out of the country, adding that their removal from the country would account for 90 percent of the country's stockpile.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a report to the UN last week that the total percentage of chemicals either removed or destroyed inside the war-torn country is 53.6 percent. T
he report said Syria pledged to remove all chemicals by April 13, except for those in areas "that are presently inaccessible", which face an April 27 deadline.
Damascus agreed to give up its chemical weapons in September under a deal to ward off the threat of US air strikes.
The agreement was reached after deadly chemical attacks outside Damascus last August that the West blamed on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Fighting between the army and tribal fighters erupted on Thursday and continued until the early hours of Friday morning near a government complex in Ramadi, the capital of the western Anbar province.
Violence escalated in the Sunni-dominated province after anti-government fighters seized the city of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi earlier in January. Since then, security forces have managed to wrest back control of most of Ramadi, but a stalemate has persisted in Fallujah.
Unrest has been driven principally by complaints among the Sunni Arab minority of mistreatment by the Shia-led government and security forces, and by the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, two car bombs exploded on Thursday, killing at least 13 people and injuring scores.
The first car bomb detonated near a petrol station in the Ameen area in the capital's east, killing at least seven people and wounding 35, officials said.
The other car bomb exploded in an area of shops in the Baghdad's northern Shia-majority Sadr City district, killing at least six people and wounding 18.
The latest wave of violence comes in the run-up to a parliamentary vote scheduled at the end of the month.
The parliamentary elections, the first since the US forces pulled out in 2011, will be a major test for security forces, who were able to keep violence to a minimum during last year's provincial polls, but have subsequently failed to bring a year-long surge in unrest under control.
The bloodshed in Iraq has killed more than 2,500 people this year and sparked fears Iraq is slipping back into the all-out sectarian fighting of 2006-2007.
At least 290 people have been killed across the country this month alone, according to AFP news agency figures based on security and medical sources.
Friday's attack on one of the country's most senior Sunni Arab politicians comes less than three weeks before a contentious parliamentary election, the first since US troops left the country, which will be a major test for security forces.
"Mr Mutlak is safe and was not hurt," an assistant to the deputy prime minister, who was travelling in the convoy, told the AFP news agency.
The identity of the attackers was not immediately clear.
While an Interior Ministry official said only that gunmen attacked the convoy, Mutlak's assistant specifically blamed the army.
"We were the target of an assassination attempt by the army who opened fire on us, and the bodyguards responded in the same way," the assistant said, without elaborating.
There is widespread anger among Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which complains of being marginalised and mistreated by the Shia-led government and security forces.
The attack comes ahead of an April 30 general election, which Mutlak's list is contesting.
UN Iraq envoy Nickolay Mladenov has warned that campaigning for the election "will be highly divisive".
"Everyone is ratcheting it up to the maximum, and you could see this even before officially the campaign started," Mladenov told AFP.
"I would hope that it would be more about issues, and how the country deals with its challenges, but at this point it's a lot about personality attacks," he said.
Political analyst and parliamentary candidate Tareq al-Maamuri has said that "violence will increase during the election campaign, as well as the settling of accounts".
"Since the beginning of the political process in Iraq, the electoral competition [has been] a dishonest competition," he said.
The election will be held against the backdrop of rampant violence that kills hundreds of people each month, a long-deadlocked legislature and severely lacking basic services.
While security forces were able to keep violence to a minimum during last year's provincial polls, they have failed to bring a subsequent year-long surge in unrest under control.
Shelling in the city of Fallujah, just a short drive from Baghdad, killed three children and wounded three others on Friday, a doctor and a tribal leader said.
In a sign of both the reach of anti-government fighters and the weakness of security forces, all of Fallujah and shifting parts of Anbar provincial capital Ramadi, to its west, have been out of government control since early January.
DNA tests confirmed the H5 strain of the virus at a farm in Kumamoto prefecture that kept 56,000 birds, after its owner reported on Saturday a lot of sudden deaths among his poultry, the agriculture ministry said in a statement.
Officials also ordered the culling of another 56,000 birds at a separate farm run by the same owner after treating it as a location of possible infections, the ministry said on Sunday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga held a meeting with selected ministers, including Agriculture Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, to discuss the outbreak.
"The government will take thorough measures to prevent wider infections," Suga told the meeting.
It was the first confirmed outbreak of bird flu in Japan in three years.
The ministry has however been warning farmers about infection risks, citing the continued spread of the disease in Asia, including neighbouring South Korea.
Local authorities on Saturday banned movement of chickens from the two affected farms as well as other farms in their vicinities.
Authorities were sanitising areas around the two farms and testing birds at other area farms.
Officials were also setting up areas to disinfect vehicles travelling on major roads around the affected farms to prevent the virus from spreading further.
The government will dispatch a team of officials and experts to identify the cause of the latest infections and to assist local authorities to take necessary measures.
ISLAMABAD (AFP) â€“ A bomb tore through a bustling fruit and vegetable market in Islamabad Wednesday, killing at least 22 people, police said, the latest violence to hit government peace talks with the Taliban.
The blast took place around 8:00 am (0300 GMT) at the wholesale market close to the Pakistani capitalâ€™s twin city Rawalpindi, as hundreds of grocers and sellers gathered to trade.
The bombing â€” the deadliest to hit Islamabad since a huge truck bomb at the Marriott Hotel in 2008 â€” left a 1.5-metre (five-foot) diameter crater and littered the site with body parts and guava fruits drenched in blood, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
The attack comes as the government tries to negotiate an end to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistanâ€™s (TTP) campaign of violence.
Talks began between government and TTP intermediaries in February, but more than 160 people have been killed in attacks since the start of the process, leading many to question its worth.
Javaid Qazi, the vice-chancellor of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) hospital, said 22 people had been killed and 96 wounded in the blast.
The TTPâ€™s main spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said the group had nothing to do with the attack and urged the government to find those responsible.
– â€˜Bodies flying everywhereâ€™ –
Eyewitness Muhammad Tahir described the bloody carnage as the bomb detonated.
â€œThe blast took place around 8:00, when we were standing there â€” bodies were flying everywhere, bodies were flying at the height of 20 to 25 feet,â€ he told AFP.
Ambulances were rushing in and out carrying wounded people and dead bodies.
Senior local administration official Nauman Yousuf told AFP â€œit was a planted bombâ€.
A bomb disposal official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the device hidden in a fruit box weighed five to six kilograms (11 to 13 pounds) and was packed with nuts and bolts to cause maximum carnage.
Thousands have been killed in militant violence since the TTP rose up against the Pakistani state in 2007 but attacks on the capital, much of which is heavily guarded, have been rare in recent years.
Wednesdayâ€™s blast came a little over a month after a gun and suicide bomb attack on a court complex in Islamabad killed 11 people including a judge.
The TTP also denied that attack, which was claimed by the Ahrar-ul-Hind splinter group which rejects the peace process.
Fighting has erupted between rival TTP factions since Sunday and four more people were killed in South Waziristan tribal agency on Wednesday.
The clashes pit supporters of Khan Said Sajna against followers of the late Hakimullah Mehsud, the TTP commander killed by a US drone in November.
The government has freed more than 30 Taliban prisoners in the past week to try to spur talks with the militants and on Friday the TTP said they would extend a ceasefire begun on March 1.
On March 26 a four-member government committee held their first direct meeting with members of the TTPâ€™s political council in North Waziristan tribal district.
There have been suggestions that high-profile figures held by the militants, including the son of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, could be freed in return.
The peace talks were a key campaign pledge for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before he was elected to office for a third time last year.
But some analysts have voiced scepticism about their chances for success, given the Talibanâ€™s demands for nationwide sharia law and a withdrawal of troops from the lawless tribal zones.
Regional deals struck in the past between the military and the Taliban have failed and some have accused the militants of using them as a means to regroup and rearm.