Syrian war: Reports of chlorine gas attack on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta

A man is seen near rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike on the Eastern Ghouta town of Misraba, Syria, January 4, 2018.

A chlorine gas attack has been carried out on a besieged rebel-held enclave on the outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, reports say.

People in the Eastern Ghouta region, which is under daily bombardment, reported a smell of gas after a missile strike, the BBC has learned.

Health workers said six people were treated for minor breathing problems.

Some 400,000 locals have been under siege from Russian-backed government forces since 2013.

There have been a number of reports of chlorine gas attacks since Syria’s civil war broke out, but the government has always denied using chemical agents.

On 10 January the UN’s high commissioner for human rights said an upsurge in air strikes and ground attacks had killed at least 85 civilians in Eastern Ghouta since 31 December.

“In Eastern Ghouta, where a crippling siege has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, residential areas are being hit day and night by strikes from the ground and from the air, forcing civilians to hide in basements,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said in a statement.

The Eastern Ghouta region is strategically important, as rebels based there are able to fire rockets into residential neighbourhoods of Damascus. This has also caused civilian deaths, according to state media.

Yusuf Ibrahim, a teacher who now lives underground in the rebel-held town of Harasta, just outside Eastern Ghouta, described the situation there.

“Today is not so difficult as it was yesterday because there are no warplanes or any raids till now, just heavy artillery bombardments … like surface-to-surface rockets, which are targeting the buildings and the population in Harasta,” he told the BBC.

“The inhabitants of the city are all underground, living in the basement or the cellars because of such heavy bombardment.

“There is no means of life such as markets or good services.”

Last week, aid workers said at least 10 hospitals in rebel-held areas of Syria had suffered direct air or artillery attacks within a 10-day period.

An adviser to a coalition of medical charities told the BBC the attacks had been the most intense for a year.

Food shortages have led to many cases of severe malnutrition, and a UN report in November said some residents in Eastern Ghouta had been reduced to eating animal fodder and even rubbish.

Several are reported to have died of starvation.

Eastern Ghouta is one of several “de-escalation” zones in Syria announced by Russia, Iran and Turkey in 2017.

Czech election: Zeman faces presidential run-off against Drahos

Czech President Milos Zeman arrives to cast a vote during the presidential election at a polling station in Prague, January 12, 2018

The Czech presidential election will go to a run-off after incumbent Milos Zeman led the first round but did not secure enough votes to win outright.

With nearly all results in, Mr Zeman had 39% ahead of his nearest rival Jiri Drahos on 26.3%. Turnout was 61%.

Mr Zeman, 73, is seeking a second five-year term but has stoked controversy with his outspoken views and pro-Russian stance.

The second round is scheduled for 26-27 January.

The BBC’s Rob Cameron in Prague says Mr Zeman appears to have done worse than expected in rural areas, where his forthright views on immigrants and political correctness have traditionally struck a chord. To avoid a run-off, he needed to secure more than half the vote.

Mr Drahos knows he has a good chance of unseating Mr Zeman when the two men go head to head in two weeks’ time, he adds.

Many voters who chose one of the other seven candidates are likely to switch their allegiance to Mr Drahos in the second round.

  • The politically incorrect president dividing a nation

President Zeman has become one of the EU’s most outspoken opponents of sanctions against Moscow and has also made improving relations with China a priority.

Election committee members count votes after polling stations closed for presidential election in Prague, January 13, 2018

Mr Drahos, a pro-European academic, has been forthright in his opposition to the president, saying: “We say in Czech that ‘the fish stinks from the head’ and that perfectly sums up Mr Zeman’s term.”

The first round of voting, which took place over two days, passed uneventfully apart from a semi-naked protester who tried to disrupt Mr Zeman casting his vote in Prague on Friday and accused him of being in the pocket of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

She was bundled away and Mr Zeman then cast his ballot, but was visibly shaken by the incident.

Who’s who in Czech run-off?

Milos Zeman at Prague Castle 13 December 2017

Milos Zeman

  • Joined the Communist Party in 1968 during the “Prague Spring”, when liberal reforms were crushed by Soviet intervention
  • After communism fell he joined the left-leaning Social Democratic party and became leader in 1993
  • In 2013 he became the third president of the Czech Republic since it split from Slovakia in 1993
  • In his outspoken remarks on immigration he once said that Muslims were “impossible to integrate” into Europe
Jiri Drahos arrives for a political debate in Radonice, Czech Republic, 4 January 2018

Jiri Drahos

  • Studied chemistry and technology and was president of the Czech Academy of Sciences from 2009 to 2017
  • He is a supporter of EU and Nato membership buts opposes the EU’s quota system for distributing migrants, as do all other presidential contenders
  • He considers himself a centrist politician who can unite the country
  • His main support comes from pro-European voters and people living in cities

Japanese TV show featuring blackface actor sparks anger

A Japanese TV programme has sparked accusations of racism and cultural insensitivity after a comedian painted his face to impersonate Eddie Murphy.

The New Year’s Eve show featured celebrity comic Hamada appearing in a Beverly Hills Cop skit with his face blacked up.

Using makeup to lampoon black people – a practice known as blackface – is seen by many to be deeply offensive.

Protest over the show have grown over the past days.

US-born writer and columnist Baye McNeil – who is black and has lived in Japan for 13 years – drew attention to the show on Twitter, arguing that black people were “not a punchline nor a prop”.

“Need a black actor, get a black actor that speaks Japanese,” he urged.

He said he loved Japan and wanted to draw people’s attention to how the practice of blackface is widely regarded as racist.

He tweeted that his “nightmare scenario” was that during the opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, “Japan naively sends a Blackface doowop group out to pay homage to black athletes”.

“What a fiasco that’ll be! So I implore you please #stopblackfaceJapan now.”

But there is debate on Twitter over whether Japanese audiences are aware of the racist history of minstrel shows in the US and Europe, and whether it remains racist if performers and audiences are unaware of that history.

Other Twitter users defended the show, saying the comedians merely wanted the Eddie Murphy portrayal to be as accurate as possible and pay homage to the actor.

But Mr McNeil said people should learn to be more careful and sensitive with the issue.

Talking to Japanese media, he said the first minstrel shows were brought to the country from the US in the 19th Century.

Throughout the 20th Century, Japanese singers imitating African-American musicians have often used the same technique.

In 2015, Mr McNeil started a successful campaign to stop the performance of two bands in blackface on national TV.

“I’ve had numerous conversations with my Japanese friends about the innocuous nature of Blackface in Japan (due to their not having a racialized history or historical ties to Blackface…which is inaccurate),” Mr McNeil writes on Facebook.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily racist. I don’t. At least not intentionally. But it is definitely problematic regardless of whether the people doing it have racist motives or not.”

In a similar vein, Japanese advertising campaigns have caused controversy in the past for portraying Westerners with Japanese actors wearing blonde wigs and long plastic noses.

Both Japanese airline ANA and electronics giant Toshiba had to pull their TV ads when viewers took offence at the blatantly stereotypical depiction of foreigners.

South Africa train crash: Fourteen dead in truck collision

A passenger train has caught fire in South Africa after colliding with a truck, killing at least 14 people and injuring 268, officials have said.

Video footage showed a fire blazing through at least one carriage, near a crushed car and an overturned truck.

Evacuated passengers were seen standing on the roadside with luggage.

The collision occurred near Kroonstad city in Free State province, after the truck failed to stop at a crossing, a passenger told local media.

  • Scene of crash

About 850 passengers had been safely evacuated from the train, police were quoted as saying.

The driver of the truck tried to flee, but was arrested by police, passenger Seipati Moletsane told the privately owned eCNA news site.

Passengers in the first two coaches were wounded, she added.

“I was so traumatised. I didn’t know what to do. I was looking for a door just to jump out. Every door was locked… All of a sudden, we just saw smoke, smoke, smoke,” Ms Moletsane said.

The emergency services rushed to the scene and battled the blaze on the train, which had been travelling from the coastal city of Port Elizabeth to the commercial capital, Johannesburg.

Officials fear the number of dead could rise, reports the BBC’s Lebo Diseko from Johannesburg.

Passenger Tiaan Esterhuizen told South Africa’s TimesLive news site that he and his family managed to get off the train, and he then tried to help three women trapped in the mangled wreckage.

“Two of the women were sort of on top of each other. Another was further back. Her legs were trapped. One of the women was shouting that there was a baby inside also. We searched but could not find the child,” Mr Esterhuizen was quoted as saying.

Image copyright @ER24EMS
Image caption Some passengers managed to escape

The flames became intense, forcing him and others to retreat, he said.

“We used some fire extinguishers the police had‚ but it didn’t work. I am quite sure those women burned to death‚” Mr Esterhuizen was quoted as saying.

The train was travelling from the coastal city of Port Elizabeth to the commercial capital, Johannesburg, when the crash occurred.


Japan sumo champion Harumafuji fined over assault

Harumafuji at a news conference

Former sumo grand champion Harumafuji has been fined 500,000 yen (£3,280; $4,400) in Japan after being found guilty of assault.

The 33-year-old wrestler from Mongolia admitted hitting a junior wrestler over the head with a karaoke machine remote control during a night out in Tottori in October.

He has already apologised and stepped down over the incident.

The case rocked the world of sumo, a hugely popular ceremonial sport.

The assault on fellow Mongolian Takanoiwa happened while they were out drinking with other wrestlers in a bar in the western city.

The grand champion is reported to have been angered that his countryman was checking his phone while being given advice, seeing it as showing a lack of respect.

The latter was admitted to hospital with concussion and a fractured skull.

Two others involved in the incident have faced disciplinary action and Takanoiwa’s stablemaster – as coaches are known – has been demoted for allegedly delaying reporting the incident.

  • Inside the scandal-hit world of sumo
  • Mongolian girl grappling with sumo world

Harumafuji started his career in Japan at the age of 16 and was promoted to grand champion or yokozuna – sumo’s highest rank – in 2012.

He released a statement in late December, Reuters news agency reports, saying his life “is now set to be sharply different from what I thought it would be”.

“I have a feeling of chagrin, to be honest. But the responsibility is all mine.”

What is sumo?

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Japan’s much-loved traditional sport dates back hundreds of years
  • Two wrestlers face off in an elevated circular ring and try to push each other to the ground or out of the ring
  • There are six tournaments each year in which each wrestler fights 15 bouts
  • Wrestlers, who traditionally go by one fighting name, are ranked and the ultimate goal is to become a yokozuna (grand champion)

How does sumo wrestling work?

What other scandals clouded the sport recently?

  • Last year, a wrestler and his coach had to pay nearly $300,000 to a fellow fighter whom they had allegedly abused so badly he lost sight in one eye, according to reports
  • Several wrestlers have been implicated in match-fixing scandals and links between sumo and the mafia-like yakuza crime syndicates
  • Another Mongolian grand champion retired from the sport in 2010 after reports of his involvement in a drunken brawl
  • In 2007 a sumo stablemaster received six years in prison after a novice was beaten to death by older wrestlers

Australia drugs: Backpackers in hospital after snorting white powder

White powder cut into lines

Nine young backpackers were rushed to hospital in the west Australian city of Perth after snorting a drug they mistook for cocaine.

Three remain in critical condition after ingesting the mystery white powder which arrived in the post addressed to someone else.

The nine suffered seizures, paralysis and hallucinations.

Tests suggest the powder contained Hyoscine, a prescription drug which has gained notoriety as a date rape drug.

What do we know?

Five of the backpackers are French, two are German, one is Italian and one is Moroccan, and they are aged between 21 and 25, say reports.

They were staying at a property in the city’s Victoria Park district when a package arrived in the post addressed to a previous occupant, one of the victims told the West Australian newspaper.

They decided to open the package and found a white powder inside, wrapped in a piece of paper bearing the word “scoop”, said the man, who said his first name was Simone.

“Scoop” may have been a reference to “Scopolamine”, another name for Hyoscine.

Believing the powder to be cocaine, they divided it into nine doses and snorted it up their noses – only to quickly become paralysed and unable to summon help.

  • Are backpackers worried about safety in Australia?

“We were powerless, we couldn’t do anything,” Simone said. The alarm was only raised when another housemate, who had been out for the evening, returned home.

Neighbours spoke of their terror as they watched the housemates being taken out of the house on stretchers, some unconscious and some suffering glassy-eyed seizures.

What condition are the backpackers in?

Three – two French and one German – remain on full life support in intensive care, said Royal Perth Hospital emergency doctor David McCutcheon.

“Several of these people would have died I’m pretty sure without medical intervention,” he told the West Australian, adding that the nine were brought to hospital “in a state of agitated delirium”.

“They were hallucinating, their hearts were racing, several of them had to be put in a medically induced coma for their own protection and I really need to emphasise how seriously unwell they were.”

Acting deputy police commissioner Gary Budge said the incident flagged up the serious risks to health posed by taking unknown substances, be they illicit or prescription drugs.

Cocaine is illegal in Australia, with federal and state laws providing penalties for possessing, using, making or selling the drug.

What is Hyoscine (Scopolamine)?

Hyoscine, from the nightshade family of plants, is also known colloquially as “Devil’s Breath”.

It’s used to treat nausea, motion sickness, and gastro-intestinal pain, among others, with common side-effects including sleepiness and dry mouth. But in higher doses it can also cause hallucinations, agitation, seizures and unconsciousness.

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption The drug is most widely known in Colombia, where it is derived from a tree which grows wild

In the criminal world, the drug is used for its ability to diminish resistance, creating “zombies”, and reduce memory of events. As such it is used in robberies, sexual assaults, date rapes and kidnappings.

The criminal use of the drug is mainly associated with Colombia, where it is derived from the borrachero tree which grows wild in the northern Andean region.

Some 50,000 incidents are associated with the drug every year in Colombia. However, some have questioned the horror stories attributed to the drug – for instance, that powder can simply be blown into victims’ faces.

Canadian cannabis grower Aurora heads to Europe


A Canadian marijuana maker is set to sell cannabis in several European countries after striking a deal with Denmark’s biggest tomato producer.

Aurora Cannabis is partnering with Alfred Pedersen & Son to produce cannabis for medical use in Europe.

The greenhouses used for tomatoes can be converted to grow the drug as both plants have similar growth needs.

The joint venture will focus on selling cannabis in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

Aurora Nordic Cannabis will build a production facility that can produce up to 120,000kg of cannabis annually, Aurora said.

Alfred Pedersen was granted a licence to cultivate cannabis from Denmark’s Medicines Agency this week.

The drug has become legal in Denmark as part of a four-year trial, allowing patients with illnesses such as cancer and multiple sclerosis to obtain cannabis on prescription. It remains illegal for recreational use.

Several countries have legalised medicinal marijuana, including Canada, Israel, Australia and more than half of US states.

California this week became the largest US state to make the drug legal for recreational use.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A customer chooses cannabis products at the MedMen store in Los Angeles

The Californian move sent shares in several Canadian cannabis firms soaring this week, including Aurora.

In July, Canada will become the second country to legalise recreational marijuana, following Uruguay.

Meanwhile, the Australian government said on Thursday it planned to become the fourth country in the world to legalise exports of medicinal marijuana.

It wants local firms to win a slice of a market expected to be worth almost $56bn a year by 2025, according to US-based Grand View Research.

Cannabis cultivation in Australia is still relatively small, as recreational use remains illegal. But the government hopes that both domestic medical marijuana use, which was legalised last year, as well as exports will rapidly boost production.

The announcement sent shares soaring in listed Australian cannabis producers, with Cann Group, AusCann Group and BOD Australia all rising more than 20% to record highs.

Uruguay, Canada and the Netherlands have legalised the export of medicinal marijuana, while Israel plans to follow suit later this year.

The Australian government’s proposal must be approved by parliament when it returns next month, but the opposition Labor Party has signalled its support for the move.

Poland lists child sex offenders online

handcuffs, file pic

The Polish government says a new public online register with data on convicted paedophiles is a “breakthrough tool” to protect children.

Deputy Justice Minister Michal Wos said the register would enable parents to check if any paedophiles were living in their area.

“The good of the child is the most important thing,” he told Polish radio.

Personal data on 768 paedophiles, including ID photos, can be viewed on the Polish justice ministry website.

Critics say such open disclosure can make it harder for paedophiles to reintegrate into society after serving their sentence. It can also put them at risk of vigilante attacks, some argue.

The Polish register gives details of each paedophile’s crimes and sentencing, date and place of birth and home district.

Polish public broadcaster TVP says they are mainly paedophiles who have raped children aged under 15, some of whom acted with particular cruelty.

‘Severe consequences’

It quoted Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro as saying sex offenders “must face very severe consequences – not only a long sentence, but also loss of anonymity”.

In the UK such data is available from police on request, via the Sex Offenders Register. But the applicant will not necessarily get the data – the police decides whether to disclose it, and to whom, in each case.

In the US, Megan’s Law gives people the right to find data about paedophiles by doing an internet search. Australia has a similar system.

US states vary in the amount of data they disclose about paedophiles online, but in many cases it is quite detailed. Arkansas, for example, lets people search for sex offenders on a map.

The authorities in Texas give details and photos of the “Texas 10 most wanted sex offenders”, with rewards offered totalling thousands of dollars.