9 dead, search for 300 missing after Brazil dam collapse
By ANNA JEAN KAISER, MARCELO SILVA DE SOUSA and PETER PRENGAMAN
Saturday, January 26
SAO PAULO (AP) — Rescuers in helicopter on Saturday searched for survivors in a huge area in southeastern Brazil buried by mud from the collapse of dam holding back mine waste, with at least nine people dead and up to 300 missing.
Nearly a full day since the disaster happened, finding many more survivors was looking increasingly unlikely.
“Most likely, from now on we are mostly going to be recovering bodies,” said Romeu Zema, the governor of the state of Minas Gerais.
Workers with Brazilian mining company Vale were eating lunch Friday afternoon when the dam collapsed, unleashing a sea of reddish-brown mud that knocked over and buried several structures of the company and surrounding areas.
The status of the workers and others in the city of Brumadinho was unknown Saturday, but the level of devastation quickly led President Jair Bolsonaro and other officials to describe it as a “tragedy.”
Nine bodies had been recovered by Saturday, according to a statement from the Minas Gerais governor’s office. But the fear was that there would be many more as rescue and recovery teams dug through feet of mud.
Vale CEO Fabio Schvartsman said he did not know what caused the collapse. About 300 employees were working when it happened. About 100 had been accounted for, and rescue efforts were underway to determine what had happened to the others.
“The principal victims were our own workers,” Schvartsman told a news conference Friday evening, adding that the restaurant where many ate “was buried by the mud at lunchtime.”
After the dam collapsed in the afternoon, parts of Brumadinho were evacuated, and firefighters rescued people by helicopter and ground vehicles. Local television channel TV Record showed a helicopter hovering inches off the ground as it pulled people covered in mud out of the waste.
Photos showed rooftops poking above an extensive field of the mud, which also cut off roads. The flow of waste reached the nearby community of Vila Ferteco and a Vale administrative office, where employees were present.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Josiele Rosa Silva Tomas, president of Brumadinho resident’s association, told The Associated Press by phone Friday night. “It was horrible…the amount of mud that took over.”
Silva Tomas said she was awaiting news of her cousin, and many she knew were trying to get news of loved ones.
Another dam administered by Vale and Australian mining company BHP Billiton collapsed in 2015 in the city of Mariana in Minas Gerais state, resulting in 19 deaths and forcing hundreds from their homes.
Considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazilian history, it left 250,000 people without drinking water and killed thousands of fish. An estimated 60 million cubic meters of waste flooded rivers and eventually flowed into the Atlantic Ocean.
Schvartsman said what happened Friday was “a human tragedy much larger than the tragedy of Mariana, but probably the environmental damage will be less.”
The state fire department told The Associated Press that about 200 people were missing. The Minas Gerais governor’s office said 150 were missing.
Bolsonaro, who assumed office Jan. 1, said he lamented the accident and sent three cabinet ministers to the area.
“We will take all the possible steps to minimize the suffering of families and victims,” Bolsonaro said in a speech, which he posted on Twitter.
Bolsonaro planned to tour the area by helicopter on Saturday. The far-right leader campaigned on promises to jump-start Brazil’s economy, in part by deregulating mining and other industries.
Environmental groups and activists said the latest spill underscored a lack of regulation.
The latest spill “is a sad consequence of the lessons not learned by the Brazilian government and the mining companies responsible for the tragedy with Samarco dam, in Mariana, also controlled by Vale,” Greenpeace said in a statement.
“History repeats itself,” tweeted Marina Silva, a former environmental minister and three-time presidential candidate. “It’s unacceptable that government and mining companies haven’t learned anything.”
The rivers of mining waste raised fears of widespread contamination.
According to Vale’s website, the mine waste, often called tailings, is composed mostly of sand and is non-toxic. However, a UN report found that the waste from the 2015 disaster “contained high levels of toxic heavy metals.”
Vale is Brazil’s largest mining company. Two hours after the accident, its stock fell 10 percent on the New York Stock Exchange.
Just before midnight Saturday, firefighters put out a list of 187 people who had been rescued throughout the afternoon.
Of the 427 workers who were on hand when the dam collapsed, 279 had been accounted for, Vale said in a statement.
More than 100 firefighters were on the scene and another 200 were expected to arrive Saturday.
Marcelo Silva de Sousa reported from Rio de Janeiro and Peter Prengaman reported from Arraial do Cabo, Brazil.
Asylum seekers worry new US policy will mean more waiting
By ELLIOT SPAGAT and MARIA VERZA
Saturday, January 26
TIJUANA, Mexico (AP) — Eusebio Gomez thought his arduous journey to the U.S. and monthslong wait in the border town of Tijuana, Mexico, would end when he made it to American soil. But a shift in the Trump administration’s immigration policy could mean more waiting.
The Mexican government said Friday that the United States plans to return 20 migrants per day at the San Ysidro border crossing as they await an answer to their asylum requests. The practice could be one of the more significant changes to the immigration system in years.
Gomez, who was one of 25 names called for processing Friday at San Ysidro, said he would feel far less safe waiting in Tijuana, with its sky-high homicide rate. The 18-year-old Honduran said he wanted to come to the U.S. to escape violence.
“It’s not about the dollar, it’s about safety,” Gomez said.
“The Mexican government doesn’t agree with this unilateral move,” but will accept the migrants under certain conditions, said Roberto Velasco, spokesman for Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department. He said the U.S. government wants to extend the practice, known as “remain in Mexico,” to the rest of the border crossings.
Juan Portillo, 38, who arrived in Tijuana two months ago from Venezuela with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, said he was fleeing political oppression after protesting President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
“We do not feel safe” in Tijuana, Portillo said, shortly before Mexican authorities whisked him, his family and seven others away in a van to be turned over to U.S. authorities.
Advocacy groups condemned the idea. The Southern Poverty Law Center warned it would create more chaos at the border. Astrid Dominguez, director of the ACLU’s Border Rights Center, said in a statement that it endangers lives. A legal challenge is expected.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, both Democrats, released a statement warning that the changes would harm asylum seekers.
“Asylum seekers are easy prey for criminals and gangs in Mexico, but the Trump plan forces people to remain in harm’s way, even if there is a significant possibility they will be persecuted or tortured in Mexico,” they said in a statement.
Velasco said around midday Friday that the first 20 migrants would be returned at the San Ysidro crossing, across from Tijuana, “in the next few hours.”
He said all are Central Americans and all apparently had temporary visas in Mexico. That suggests they may have been part of last year’s migrant caravans, many of whom had such visas. U.S. officials have said Mexican asylum seekers and children traveling alone are exempt from the new policy.
Mexico will not accept migrants who have appealed a denial of asylum, unaccompanied children or people with health problems, Velasco said.
He did not say how or where Mexico would house the migrants, who might have to wait months or years for their asylum claims to be resolved.
Akbar Heybari of Iran, who has been paying for a Tijuana hotel with his wife and children, ages 15 and 12, said he would much prefer to stay with a niece who is studying medicine at the University of California, Irvine.
“It’s good (in Tijuana), but we don’t want to stay here more,” said Heybari, a grape farmer who plans to seek asylum on grounds of government persecution for his political activities.
There are about 2,400 names on the asylum processing list at San Ysidro. U.S. officials have been calling up to 100 names a day.
U.S. authorities plan to bus asylum seekers back and forth to the border for court hearings in downtown San Diego, including an initial appearance within 45 days, according to a U.S. official familiar with the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity because it was not yet publicly announced.
The Trump administration will make no arrangements for them to consult with attorneys, who may visit clients in Tijuana or speak with them by phone, the official said.
The U.S. has witnessed a surge in asylum claims, especially from Central American families. Due largely to a court-imposed 20-day limit on detaining children, families are typically released with a notice to appear in immigration court. With a backlog of more than 800,000 cases, it can take years to settle cases.
Verza reported from Mexico City.
US, EU express concern after Nigeria chief justice suspended
By BASHIR ADIGUN
Saturday, January 26
ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — The United States, Britain and the European Union expressed concern on Saturday after Nigeria’s president suspended the country’s chief justice three weeks before the presidential election, with the U.S. warning it could “cast a pall” over the vote in Africa’s most populous nation.
President Muhammadu Buhari set off an uproar on Friday by announcing the suspension, citing corruption allegations. The chief justice would play a key role in any legal challenge to the election in which Buhari seeks a second term.
The U.S. said Buhari acted “without the support of the legislative branch” and noted widespread criticism in Nigeria that the move was unconstitutional. It urged authorities to quickly resolve the crisis that could undermine the credibility of the Feb. 16 vote.
At stake is a country that is Africa’s largest oil producer, with a population of some 190 million and multiple security challenges, including the decade-old Boko Haram extremist insurgency. Buhari’s election in 2015 was a rare peaceful transfer of power.
Britain said that “we are compelled to observe that the timing of this action, so close to national elections, gives cause for concern. It risks affecting both domestic and international perceptions on the credibility of the forthcoming elections.”
The EU election observer mission called on all parties to “respond calmly.”
Some Nigerian elections have been marked by violence.
The Nigerian Bar Association has called Buhari’s move an “attempted coup against the Nigerian judiciary.” Senate president Abubakar Bukola Saraki has said the president in such a matter cannot act alone.
Buhari’s top election challenger, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, has called the suspension illegal and “an act of dictatorship.”
Nigerians have pointed out that the suspension occurred shortly before the chief justice was to swear in members of various election petition tribunals.
The chief justice, Walter Nkanu Samuel Onnoghen, faces trial on charges of allegedly failing to declare his assets. Buhari said his suspension will continue until the case is concluded. This is the first time a chief justice is standing trial in Nigeria, where corruption is widespread. Onnoghen’s side has argued that the charges lack merit.
Beyond the charges, “security agencies have since then traced other suspicious transactions running into millions of dollars” to Onnoghen’s accounts, the president said in a statement.
Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammed will act as Nigeria’s most senior judge, Buhari said. Muhammed, like the president, is from Nigeria’s largely Muslim north while Onnoghen is from the largely Christian south.
Follow Africa news at https://twitter.com/AP_Africa
Spanish boy found dead in borehole after dire 13-day search
By ARITZ PARRA
Saturday, January 26
MADRID (AP) — Rescue crews in Spain early Saturday found the body of a 2-year-old boy, whose fall into a deep borehole 13 days earlier prompted a complex and heart-wrenching search-and-rescue operation that had the country holding its breath.
Julen Rosello fell down the narrow 110-meter (360-foot) -deep borehole on Jan. 13 while his family was preparing a countryside Sunday lunch. Adding to the family’s tragedy, Spanish media had reported that his parents had another young son who died of a heart attack in 2017.
Julen’s remains were found in the early hours of Saturday by rescuers digging a tunnel to reach him, said Alfonso Rodriguez, the Spanish government’s representative for the southern region of Andalusia. They were accompanied by a member of the Civil Guard, which then took charge of removing the body.
Rodriguez said that the results of the boy’s autopsy would remain secret under a judicial commission following up with the accident’s investigation. The Civil Guard was investigating if the borehole had been made illegally.
The tragedy had gripped Spaniards from day one and the country had followed closely every turn of an extremely complex operation, frequently hampered by layers of hard rock.
Spain’s King Felipe VI and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez both offered their condolences to the family.
“All of Spain shares in the infinite sadness of Julen’s family,” Sanchez wrote on Twitter. “We have followed each step taken to reach him. We will always be grateful for the tireless effort of those who worked to find him during these days. My support and warmth to his parents and loved ones.”
The dry waterhole, only 25 centimeters (10 inches) in diameter, was too narrow for an adult to get into and hardened soil and rock blocked equipment from progressing to the place two-thirds of the way down where the toddler was trapped.
During the nearly two weeks of the ordeal, officials came up with several alternative routes to the toddler. A series of small explosions set off since Thursday afternoon, including a fourth one late on Friday, helped the crews make their way through a 3.8-meter (12 ½-foot) -long horizontal tunnel to the cavity.
Before that tunnel could be dug some 70 meters (230 feet) underground, a vertical shaft was drilled during days of painstaking engineering to bring miners and rescue experts up and down.
The difficulty of the operation had prompted Jorge Martin, a spokesman with the Malaga province Civil Guard, to say: “We have to be very careful, here the mountain is in control.”
Only hair that matched Julen’s DNA was found in the borehole and no other verbal or visual contact had been established with him. Despite that, officials had refused to speculate over whether the boy could have survived so long.
In one of the few media interviews the child’s parents gave before the body was found, father Jose Rosello said the family was “heartbroken” by the long wait but hoping for “a miracle.”
El Pais reported that the couple had lost Julen’s older brother, Oliver, when the 3-year-old suffered a heart attack during a walk on the beach two years ago.
Pope lowers expectations for next month’s sex abuse summit
By NICOLE WINFIELD
Monday, January 28
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AP) — Pope Francis has sought to lower expectations from his big sex abuse prevention summit next month.
Francis told reporters returning from Panama on Sunday that he wants the Feb. 21-24 meeting to essentially be a catechism class for bishops about sex abuse. He said he wanted to sensitize church leaders around the globe to the pain of victims, instruct them how to investigate cases and develop general protocols for the entire hierarchy to use.
“Let me say that I’ve sensed somewhat inflated expectations,” he said. “We have to deflate the expectations to these three points, because the problem of abuse will continue. It’s a human problem.”
Francis’ lowering of expectations will likely not go over well in the United States, where rank-and-file Catholics are withholding donations and demanding accountability from their bishops after the hierarchy’s repeated failures to protect children were exposed again last year.
The crisis began in early 2018 when the Argentine pope strongly defended a Chilean bishop accused of cover-up. It intensified when a prominent U.S. ex-cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, was accused of sexually abusing minors and adults, and then reached crisis point when a grand jury in Pennsylvania detailed allegations of 70 years of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses in the state.
Francis himself was implicated in the McCarrick scandal when a former Vatican ambassador accused him of rehabilitating McCarrick from sanctions despite knowing of his penchant to sleep with seminarians. Francis, who removed McCarrick as a cardinal when the allegations of abusing a minor were lodged, is expected to soon decide whether to defrock him.
Francis in September summoned the presidents of bishops conferences for the summit after realizing that church leaders in some parts of the world still didn’t “get it.” In fact, more than 30 years after the scandal first erupted in Ireland and Australia and 20 years after it hit the U.S., bishops in many parts of Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia either deny the problem exists in their regions or downplay it.
Just last year, for example, Italian bishops began developing protocols for handling cases and accompanying victims.
Expectations for the February summit grew in part because the head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, claimed that the Vatican had cited the need to wait for the meeting’s outcome before adopting U.S. protocols to address the scandal last year. In fact, the Vatican blocked the U.S. vote on the protocols because the U.S. conference had withheld the legally problematic proposals from Vatican review until the last minute.
The U.S. bishops had wanted to create a reporting mechanism to hold themselves accountable that would have involved a lay-led commission receiving accusations when bishops themselves were accused of misconduct. An alternate proposal called for the accusations to be fielded by the metropolitan bishops who have regional responsibilities over other bishops.
Francis suggested that idea could figure into the general protocols under consideration, saying the protocols would discuss “what bishops, the metropolitans and the president of the conference must do.”
Francis entertained a wide range of questions during his 45-minute in-flight press conference. In addition to abuse he
— ruled out a blanket relaxation of priestly celibacy but expressed a willingness to consider letting older, married men serve as priests in remote communities where priests are in short supply. The proposal for so-called “viri probati” is expected to figure into debate at a big meeting of bishops later this year from the Amazon, where the faithful can go weeks or months without a Mass.
— called abortion a “terrible drama” that can only really be understood in the confessional. He said when he is hearing the confession of a woman who has had an abortion, he urges her to speak to her child, “sing him the lullabies you didn’t have a chance to sing to him.” ”Here you have a path of reconciliation of the mother with the child, and with God. God will forgive.”
— said schools should by all means provide sex education to children, but without imposing an ideology in the process. Francis has frequently lashed out at what he calls “ideological colonization” of students with school books and programs promoting gender theory, abortion and other teachings about sex that go against Catholic teaching.
— said he has refrained from picking sides in Venezuela’s political debate because he is pastor to all Venezuelans. Francis said if he followed other countries in endorsing one leader over another — “I would place myself in a role that I don’t know. It would be pastorally imprudent and I would do harm.” Francis on Sunday called for a “just and peaceful” solution to the crisis that respects human rights and avoids suffering. But he didn’t say if the Holy See would recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido in his claim for the presidency over Socialist President Nicolas Maduro.