Phuket Gazette

PHUKET MEDIA WATCH
– World news compiled by Gazette editors for Phuket's international community

Scores injured in London theatre collapse
Reuters / Phuket Gazette
PHUKET: Emergency services said nearly 90 people were injured on Thursday when part of the ceiling collapsed during a performance at a packed London theatre, bringing the city's West End entertainment district to a standstill.

The audience was showered with masonry and debris following the incident at the Apollo Theatre, where about 720 people including many families were watching the hugely popular play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Emergency services said 88 people were injured. They described 81 as "walking wounded", many with head injuries, while seven others were taken to hospital with more serious injuries.

Nick Harding from London Fire Brigade said a section of ornate plaster ceiling, measuring about 10 meters (33 feet) by 10 meters, had fallen onto the audience watching the evening show.

"The ceiling took parts of the balconies down with it," he said. "Everyone is out of the building and everyone is safe," he added, confirming there had been no fatalities.

He said it was too early to speculate about the cause but police said there was no suggestion that it was the result of any deliberate act or attack.

There was no indication either that heavy storms earlier in the evening were to blame and investigations would continue through the night, Harding said.

Witnesses said they saw the ceiling in the four-storey auditorium suddenly collapse during the performance, creating panic when those inside realized it was not part of the play.

"We saw the ceiling give way and it just dropped down onto the stalls. There was dust everywhere and people were screaming," Steve George, 29, who was sitting in seats at the top of the theatre, told Reuters.

"I have no idea how many people would have been injured," added George, a cinema manager who had taken his wife Hannah to the show for a birthday treat.

"It became like a black mist with people walking over me," added Michelle Chew, another member of the audience.

Emergency vehicles blocked off Shaftesbury Avenue in the heart of London's theatreland, packed with revelers on one of the busiest nights of the year in the week before Christmas.

"People were running in here with dust all over themselves," said Thomas Asihen, manager of the McDonald's restaurant located on the same block.

He said people were being brought out by paramedics shrouded in plastic blankets, with some carried out on stretchers.

Those injured inside the Apollo, which first opened its doors in February 1901, were taken to the nearby Gielgud Theatre while a bus was being used to transport those needing hospital treatment.

"In my time as a fire officer I've never seen an incident like this. I imagine lots of people were out enjoying the show in the run-up to Christmas," Harding said.

U.S. Senate to ease path for sending Guantanamo detainees home
Reuters / Phuket Gazette
PHUKET: The U.S. Senate on Thursday is expected to open the way for President Barack Obama to speed up the transfer of many prisoners from Guantanamo Bay to their home countries, a crucial step toward the long-delayed closure of the military prison.

Tucked inside a defence spending bill awaiting final congressional approval, a bipartisan deal will ease some of the tough restrictions on Obama's ability to send more of the 158 remaining inmates home after years of detention without trial at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba.

Even with the new legislation, Obama will still face major obstacles to shutting Guantanamo. But he will be in a better position than before to reduce the detainee population at the facility, which has long been the object of international condemnation.

"While the bill does not address all of the administration's concerns, its provisions regarding foreign transfers of detainees… will provide the administration additional flexibility to transfer detainees abroad consistent with our national security interests," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Obama repeatedly pledged to close Guantanamo when he was campaigning for a first term and after he took office in 2009. But he blamed congressional resistance for frustrating his efforts to vacate the camp, which was opened by his predecessor, George W. Bush, to hold terrorism suspects rounded up overseas after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Renewing his long-standing vow to shutter the prison in a major policy speech at Washington's National Defence University in May, Obama called it "a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law."

The administration then named two special envoys to oversee the effort, stepped up negotiations with other countries, including Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Yemen, and worked with Congress to craft a compromise deal.

Ban on transfers to U.S. to remain intact

Though lawmakers on both sides of the aisle refused to budge on a ban on bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. mainland, they gave ground on the rules for sending prisoners home.

Among the earlier restrictions was that the administration had to certify that the country where an inmate was being sent was not "facing a threat that is likely to substantially affect its ability to exercise control over the individual." This all but ruled out politically chaotic Yemen, home to the largest group of Guantanamo detainees.

Transfers were also banned to countries that Washington had designated "state sponsors of terrorism," a category that made it difficult to move Syrian inmates. Prisoners also could not be sent back to any country where previously released Guantanamo detainees had returned to "terrorist activity."

Such rules were lifted or significantly relaxed under the current bill, the National Defence Authorization Act, which was approved by the House of Representatives last week.

Even before the Senate gave final congressional approval, the administration had been showing signs of a more active transfer policy. In recent weeks, it sent two detainees back to Sudan, two to Saudi Arabia and two to Algeria.

About half of Guantanamo's remaining detainees have been cleared for transfer or release since 2009, but most were blocked from going home because of congressional restrictions.

While more transfers are sure to follow, the White House made clear that it will move carefully. Obama can also expect continued pressure from some lawmakers, including Republican critics, who want to keep Guantanamo open.

"The president has directed the administration to responsibly reduce the detainee population to the greatest extent possible," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden.

"Even in the absence of transfer restrictions, our longstanding policy is to transfer detainees only if the threat posed by the detainee can be sufficiently mitigated and when consistent with our humane treatment policy," she said.

On top of that, complications remain with Yemen, where an active al Qaeda branch is the main U.S. concern. The Yemeni government also has yet to build a long-promised detention centre to house any Guantanamo prisoners sent home.

Putin to pardon jailed tycoon Khodorkovsky
– Phuket Gazette Editors

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