Wetuzmpka, Jan 21(AP/UNB) — Homes, businesses, government offices and churches were among the buildings badly damaged or demolished when tornadoes struck central Alabama over the weekend.
The severe weather hit Saturday and another tornado was reported later that evening at an air base in the Florida Panhandle.
On Sunday, the National Weather Service says its initial surveys indicated there was an EF 1 tornado in Autauga County, and a stronger EF2 twister in Wetumpka, Alabama.
"We suffered a tremendous amount of damage," Mayor Jerry Willis said at a morning news conference with city and Elmore County officials. "Something that we've never had here before."
The familiar steeple of the First Baptist Church of Wetumpka was missing after the storm. And much of a historic Presbyterian church was reduced to rubble.
Officials said at a news conference Sunday morning that at least 25 homes were seriously damaged or destroyed. Also severely damaged were the Wetumpka police station, senior citizens center and recreation center, according to WSFA-TV .
"Thus far we've seen damage indicating wind speeds of 120 to 130 mph," John DeBlock, of the National Weather Service in Birmingham, said during the news conference.
No deaths or life-threatening injuries were reported.
Willis advised Wetumpka residents to avoid the downtown area as debris was being removed Sunday. There were no immediate estimates of the dollar value of the damage. Willis said that was being documented in anticipation of seeking federal aid. The Central Alabama Community Foundation is raising money to help Wetumpka storm victims.
In the Florida Panhandle, authorities said buildings on an air base were damaged by a tornado early Saturday evening. Tyndall Air Force Base posted a message on its official Facebook page that no one was injured but that the tornado damaged structures and vehicles on the military installation. The air base was hammered by Hurricane Michael in October.
Mali, Jan 21 (AP/UNB) — Al-Qaida-linked jihadists carried out one of the deadliest attacks on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in months, killing 10 peacekeepers and wounding at least 25 in northern Mali, the U.N. said Sunday.
All of the peacekeepers killed in the assault on their camp in Aguelhoc were from Chad, the U.N. secretary-general's spokesman said in a statement. He strongly condemned the attack, saying it may constitute a war crime.
Peacekeepers "responded robustly and a number of assailants were killed," the statement said. Residents said the attackers in the Sunday morning assault arrived in motorcycles and cars.
The 15,000-strong peacekeeping mission in Mali, established in 2013, is one of the U.N.'s deadliest. The West African nation is under threat from a number of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization, and attacks have moved from the arid north to more populated central Mali.
The U.N. mission is one of several military efforts to fight the jihadists, alongside Malian forces, France's largest overseas military operation and a recently formed five-nation regional counterterror force.
Peacekeepers from Chad, a strong contributor to regional security efforts, have suffered from the repeated assaults in Mali. As of the end of 2018, 51 Chadian peacekeepers had died while serving the U.N. mission.
Rome, Jan 21 (AP/UNB) — A private rescue boat carrying dozens of migrants said Sunday that for a second day several nations had not given permission for it to enter a safe port, while another vessel filled with panicky migrants and described as taking on water in the southern Mediterranean was helped by a cargo ship.
The Dutch-flagged boat Sea-Watch 3, run by a German non-governmental group, said it had contacted Italy, Malta, Libya and the Netherlands asking where it could land the 47 migrants it had taken aboard. Sea-Watch tweeted that Libyan officials hung up when it asked for a port assignment.
An Italian state TV reporter aboard Sea-Watch 3 said the rescue took place Saturday about 50 kilometers (30 miles) off the coast west of Tripoli in Libya's search-and-rescue area. Libya-based human traffickers launch flimsy or rickety boats crowded with migrants hoping to reach Europe and its opportunities for better lives.
Separately, the Sea-Watch group tweeted Sunday afternoon that because it appeared no country's coast guard had initiated a rescue mission, Sea-Watch 3 was heading toward a vessel with 100 migrants aboard that said it was taking on water.
"We can't cover by ourselves the Mediterranean, where persons are left to die," Sea-Watch lamented, estimating that it would take it would take 15 hours for its boat to reach the stricken vessel in waters north of Misrata, Libya.
Sea-Watch said news of the migrants' plight was relayed by another aid group, Alarmphone, which promotes and operates a telephone hotline for use by people in distress at sea.
Late Sunday night, the Italian coast guard said a cargo ship, flying a Sierra Leone flag and asked by Libyan authorities to aid the stricken vessel, had rescued all aboard. The condition and numbers of survivors weren't immediately known.
Quoting Alarmphone, Sea-Watch had said earlier that the migrant vessel reported navigational problems and that a child among them was "unconscious or deceased." Subsequent communication said the boat was "taking in water" and seeking assistance, "regardless of what this would mean concerning a possible return to Libya," Sea-Watch said.
The migrants told Alarmphone they were freezing on the open sea. Alarmphone tweeted that the migrants were panicking and screaming.
The Italian coast guard said that after the rescue, the cargo ship was awaiting instructions from the coordinating Libyan authorities about where it could take the migrants. The Libyan coast guard couldn't carry out the rescue itself because it was busy rescuing 140 migrants on two other boats, the Italian coast guard said in a statement.
Italy's interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who leads an anti-migrant party, told reporters Sunday that Libya had completed the rescue of at least one of those boats, and reiterated opposition to any role by private rescue groups.
Migrants dread the prospect of being returned to Libya, where they have reported torture, including beatings and rapes, in overcrowded detention centers.
The governments of Malta and Italy have been refusing to allow private boats rescuing migrants to dock. Both contend that in recent years they have taken in many migrants rescued at sea and that fellow European Union nations must agree to take their share of these asylum-seekers.
Earlier this month, Malta transferred to land 49 migrants who had been aboard Sea-Watch 3 as long as 19 days but it refused the boat port entry. The migrants were allowed to set foot on the southern Mediterranean island only after an EU-brokered deal found several countries willing to take them as well as other migrants who had been rescued at sea earlier in separate operations by Malta.
Switzerland, Jan 21 (AP/UNB) — Wealth inequality around the world is "out of control" and doing particular harm to women, anti-poverty campaigner Oxfam warned Monday ahead of the annual gathering of business and political leaders in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.
Oxfam, which has for years been trying to bring attention to the issue ahead of the World Economic Forum, said in a report that billionaire fortunes increased by 12 percent last year — the equivalent of $2.5 billion a day — while the 3.8 billion people who make up the world's poorest half saw their wealth decline by 11 percent.
"This is not inevitable, this is unacceptable," Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International's executive director said in an interview with The Associated Press.
In the report, which is based on figures from Credit Suisse' Wealth Databook and Forbes' annual list of billionaires, Oxfam said the number of billionaires has almost doubled since the financial crisis a decade ago yet tax rates on the wealthy and corporations have fallen to their lowest levels in decades.
"While corporations and the super-rich enjoy low tax bills, millions of girls are denied a decent education and women are dying for lack of maternity care," Byanyima said.
Oxfam said making taxes fairer will help address many of the world's ills. It said getting the world's richest 1 percent to pay just 0.5 percent extra tax on their wealth could raise more money than it would cost to educate the 262 million children out of school, and provide lifesaving health care for 3.3 million people. It also suggested governments look again at taxes on wealth such as inheritance or property, which have been reduced or eliminated in much of the developed world and barely implemented in the developing world.
"Governments must now deliver real change by ensuring corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share of tax and investing this money in free health care and education that meets the needs of everyone — including women and girls whose needs are so often overlooked," said Byanyima.
Byanyima, who has been a regular participant at the Davos gathering, defended the organization's continued participation at the World Economic Forum despite mounting evidence of growing inequality.
Byanyima said "the people in Davos" have the power to be "the solution to end extreme inequality."
"The solutions are there and that is why we come to Davos, to remind these leaders that you have made the commitment; now get on with the action. The policies are there, the solutions are proven."
Mexico, Jan 21 (AP/UNB) — People in the town where a gasoline explosion killed at least 85 people say the section of pipeline that gushed fuel has been a habitual gathering site for thieves, repeatedly damaged and patched like a trusty pair of jeans.
"It was the popular tap," said Enrique Cerron, 22, who lives near the field. "You could pass by at 11 or 12 in the morning and see people filling up here."
On Friday, amid countrywide fuel shortages at gas stations as the government attempts to stem widespread fuel theft, this particular section of pipeline had come back into service after being offline for nearly four weeks when somebody punctured the line again. Word quickly spread through the community of 20,000 people that gas was flowing. Come one, come all.
Hundreds showed up at the spigot, carrying plastic jugs and covering their faces with bandanas. A few threw rocks and swung sticks at soldiers who tried to shoo them away. Some fuel collectors brought their children along.
Tlahuelilpan is a largely agrarian community located 90 minutes by car from the capital and just 8 miles (13 kilometers) from the state-run Tula oil refinery. It's surrounded by verdant alfalfa fields and power plant stacks, and is reasonably affluent by rural Mexican standards. Hidalgo state data shows about half the community lives in moderate poverty, in line with the national average.
At first the gasoline leak was manageable, locals say, emitting a tame fountain of fuel that allowed for filling small buckets at a time. But as the crowd swelled to more than 600, people became impatient.
That's when a man rammed a piece of rebar into a patch, according to Irma Velasco, who lives near the alfalfa field where the explosion took place, and gasoline shot 20 feet (6 meters) into the air, like water from a geyser.
A carnival atmosphere took over. Giddy adults soaked in gasoline filled jugs and passed them to runners. Families and friends formed human chains and guard posts to stockpile containers with fuel.
For nearly two hours, more than a dozen soldiers stood guard on the outskirts of the field, warning civilians not to go near. Officials say the soldiers were outnumbered and their instructions were to not intervene. Only a week earlier, people in a different town had beaten some soldiers who tried to stop them from gorging on state-owned fuel.
The lure of free fuel was irresistible for many: They came like moths to a flame, parking vehicles on a nearby road.
The smell of gas grew stronger and stronger as thousands of barrels spewed. Those closest to the gusher apparently became delirious, intoxicated by fumes. Townspeople stumbled about. The night filled with an eerie mist, a mixture of cool mountain air and fine particles of gasoline.
Velasco said she rushed to aid a man she saw staggering along the road and away from the gusher. She removed his gas-drenched clothes to help alleviate the overwhelming stench of toxic fuel. Then she helped another young man, who described to her how the geyser had erupted.
Cerron was at the heart of the mayhem when he sensed mounting danger.
He pulled a 70-year-old man out of a ditch where gasoline was pooling; the man had passed out from the vapors. Then Cerron, a student, decided it was time to go home.
"They looked like zombies trying to get all that gasoline out," says Cerron.
He passed soldiers warning would-be scavengers to stay away. It's going to explode, they said. And it did. Once home, Cerron turned for one last glance at the gusher. Instead he saw flames.
The fireball that engulfed those scooping up gasoline underscores the dangers of the epidemic of fuel theft that Mexico's new president has vowed to fight.
By Sunday evening, the death toll blaze had risen to 85, with 58 others hospitalized, federal Health Minister Jorge Alcocer said. Dozens more were listed as missing.
Soldiers formed a perimeter around an area the size of a soccer field where townspeople were incinerated by the fireball, reduced to clumps of ash and bones. Officials suggested Sunday that fields like this, where people were clearly complicit with the crime of fuel theft, could be seized by the government.
But Attorney General Alejandro Gertz ruled out bringing charges against townspeople who merely collected spilled fuel, and in particular those hospitalized for burns. "Look, we are not going to victimize the communities," he said. "We are going to search for those responsible for the acts that have generated this tragedy."
The disaster came just three weeks after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador launched an offensive against fuel theft gangs that had drilled dangerous, illegal taps into pipelines an astounding 12,581 times in the first 10 months of 2018, an average of about 42 per day. The crackdown has led to fuel scarcity at gas stations throughout the country due to shifts in distribution, both licit and illicit.
Officials say pipeline in and around Tlahuelilpan has been perforated 10 times over the past three months.
Lopez Obrador vowed on Sunday to continue the fight against a practice that results in about $3 billion per year in stolen fuel. Legally, that fuel belongs to the Mexican people, with state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, acting as custodian.
But Pemex has long been plagued by corruption. Lopez Obrador described the company on Sunday as "at the service of people without scruples," saying Pemex had been kidnapped by "a gang of ruffians," referring to crooked government officials and executives within the company.
Lopez Obrador faces an uphill fight against a practice that has become an economic salve for poor rural areas where pipelines pass, covered by only a foot or two of dirt. Gangs recruit locals who then rally support from the community via gifts or threats of violence.
Storage sheds and warehouses dot the region, with landowners earning extra income from the rent or gifts of fuel.
The president plans a tour next week to several towns outside Mexico City where fuel theft has become entrenched in the local economy. He promises jobs and financial aid as an alternative for communities along pipelines that are somewhat dependent on income from fuel theft rings.
"Mexico needs to end corruption," Lopez Obrador said Sunday. "This is not negotiable."
Lopez Obrador launched the offensive against illegal taps soon after taking office Dec. 1, deploying 3,200 marines to guard pipelines and refineries. His administration also shut down pipelines to detect and deter illegal taps, relying more on delivering fuel by tanker truck.
Another pipeline burst into flames Friday in the neighboring state of Queretaro as a result of another illegal tap. But there were no reported casualties.
In December 2010, authorities blamed thieves for a pipeline explosion in the central Mexico state of Puebla, not far from the capital, that killed 28 people, including 13 children.