TIME North Korea

North Korea ‘Election’ Reports Perfect Turnout

North Korea Elections
People gather to watch performers near an election site in the Central District near Taedong Gate, in Pyongyang, March 9, 2014. Kim Kwang Hyon—AP

The first national 'election' under dictator Kim Jong Un -- with only one candidate on the ballot papers -- allows the state to conduct an unofficial census, as well as rubber-stamp state-chosen representatives for the national parliament

North Korea reported perfect turnout in the first national election under dictator Kim Jong Un.

The sham election allows the state to conduct an unofficial census, as well as rubber-stamp state-chosen representatives for the national parliament, reports the Wall Street Journal. Only one candidate appears on ballot papers in an election that features dance parties and music, and are intended as a celebration of patriotism.

Kim cast his vote for one of the almost 700 members of the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korean media reported, which meets occasionally to project the illusion of support for the regime’s decisions.

[WSJ]

TIME Ukraine

Ukrainian Prime Minister to Visit Washington D.C.

Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk
Ukrainian interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk arrives to a EU-Ukraine head of states Summit at the EU council headquarters in Brussels, March 6, 2014. Ian Langsdon—EPA

Ukraine's interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk plans to travel to Washington D.C. on Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Crimea and potential international support for his country's struggling economy with President Barack Obama

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced on Sunday he will travel to Washington D.C. this week to discuss the crisis in Crimea with President Obama and top officials and as the region moves closer to a March 16 referendum that could lead to its annexation by Russia.

Just a day after vowing Ukraine would never give up “a centimeter” of its territory to Russia, Yatsenyuk announced his trip to the United States, set for Wednesday.

“I am going to the United States to hold top-level meetings on resolving the situation unfolding in our bilateral and multilateral relations,” Yatsenyuk said at the start of a government meeting in Kiev.

The White House confirmed the visit, and added that the visit will emphasize “the strong support of the United States for the people of Ukraine.”

“The President and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk will discuss how to find a peaceful resolution to Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Crimea that would respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said the White House. The two will also discuss possible international support for Ukraine’s economy.

Kiev and Moscow remained on a knife’s edge Sunday, with the Kremlin acting as quickly as possible to facilitate a Crimean annexation to Russian territory, and the West debating heavy sanctions on Moscow. Russian troops remained in a tense standoff with Ukrainian soldiers Sunday.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of a $1 billion aid bill for Ukraine’s fledgling government on Thursday, as the United States set travel bans and imposed financial sanctions on top officials deemed responsible for the Ukraine crisis.

[Reuters]

TIME Malaysia Airlines missing jet

Vietnamese Officials Cannot Find Airplane Debris Spotted in South China Sea

Malaysian Airlines missing aircraft
A picture taken by personnel of a Vietnamese search aircraft and made available by Tienphong.vn on March 9, 2014, shows what is believed to be a piece of debris of the missing Malaysia Airlines airplane Tienphong.vnt—EPA

Vietnamese officials say they spotted fragments of an inner door and part of the tail from missing 777 in the South China Sea, but could not find the debris after searching overnight

Updated: 11:02 p.m. E.T.

Vietnamese air-rescue crews spotted floating fragments in the South China Sea on Sunday that they suspect may be debris from the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. However, after searching overnight they still could not find a rectangle object spotted and thought to be one of the jet’s doors.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communication said it had located fragments of an inner door and part of the plane’s tail, about 50 miles (80 km) south-southwest of Tho Chu Island, the Wall Street Journal reports. It released a photograph purportedly showing a piece of debris.

Reports of the discovery came as the Malaysian air force said the missing jet might have turned back before vanishing, as international authorities investigated up to four passengers with suspicious identities.

The Malaysian air force did not say which direction the plane turned when it supposedly went off course or how long it flew in a new direction, but air-force chief Rodzali Daud did say that evidence from military radar “in some parts” was “corroborated by civilian radar,” the Associated Press reports.

Authorities are investigating the identities of at least four passengers on the flight. Two of the names listed on the flight’s manifest match the names on two passports that were reported stolen in Thailand, Foreign Ministries in Italy and Austria said. China’s e-ticket verification system suggests the people who traveled on the stolen passports bought their tickets together.

The Boeing 777 plane was carrying 239 people including crew and passengers when it lost contact with ground control somewhere between Malaysia and Vietnam. It was en route to Beijing after leaving Kuala Lumpur early Saturday morning.

The unusual circumstances of the disappearance — the weather was mild, the plane was cruising, and the pilots did not send a distress signal — have led some experts to suspect foul play, even as authorities continue to search for the remains of the plane.

TIME Afghanistan

Afghan Vice President Dies from Illness

In this Sept. 22, 2011 file photo, Afghanistan’s Vice President Field Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim attends a press conference honoring former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul, Afghanistan Kamran Jebreili—AP

Afghanistan's government announced on Sunday that Mohammed Qasim Fahim, who served as the head of the the nation’s intelligence service in the 1990s, and was appointed as first Vice President in 2009, has died of natural causes

Afghan Vice President Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim has died of natural causes, the government announced on Sunday, and three national days of mourning will be observed.

The official Twitter account of Aimal Faizi, the spokesperson of President Hamid Karzai, stated that Kabul has called for the flag to be flown at half-mast during that time.

Fahim, 56, was reportedly suffering from diabetes and died as a result of illness at his home in Kabul, according to Tolo News. AFP reports Fahim was labeled a “ruthless strongman” who received U.S. support after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

According to an official biography, Fahim was born in 1957 in Panjshir province in northern Afghanistan. He fought against the nation’s Soviet occupation alongside military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Fahim served as the head of the the nation’s intelligence service in the 1990s, and was appointed as first Vice President in 2009.

His death comes ahead of the planned withdrawal of most foreign troops in December, and less than a month before Afghanistan’s national elections take place. Voters are due to decide a replacement for the mercurial Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from running for another term.

President candidates Ashraf Ghani and Zalmai Rassoul both quickly expressed their condolences on Twitter. “I am deeply saddened & shocked by the news of Marshal Qasim Fahim, 1st VP’s, passing. My heartfelt condolences with his family and #Afg ppl,” wrote Rassoul, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs who stepped down from office to run for president this year.

[AFP]

TIME China

Stolen Passports Used on Missing Malaysian Airliner

Risman Siregar, left, comforts his wife Erlina Panjaitan, center — both are parents of Firman Chandra Siregar, a 24-year-old Indonesian passenger of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — on March 9, 2014, in Medan, Indonesia
Risman Siregar, left, comforts his wife Erlina Panjaitan, center — both are parents of Firman Chandra Siregar, a 24-year-old Indonesian passenger of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — on March 9, 2014, in Medan, Indonesia Atar—AFP/Getty Images

At least two of the passengers listed on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370's manifest were not on board the now missing aircraft

It has been a week of lost innocence for China. On March 1, a brutal massacre by machete- and dagger-wielding assailants claimed 29 lives in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, bringing the specter of terror to a nation unused to such horrifying episodes. The Chinese government has identified the attackers as separatists from the northwestern region of Xinjiang who were intent on joining a global jihadi movement. Then a week later, tragedy descended again. Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 destined for Beijing from Kuala Lumpur disappeared without a trace in the early hours of March 8. Of the 227 passengers, 154 were listed as coming from mainland China or Taiwan, with 38 Malaysians making up the second largest national contingent. (The dozen members of the flight crew were also Malaysian.)

Malaysia is a popular holiday destination for Chinese, particularly during the wintry, smoggy season in China. Late last year, Malaysia’s tourist authority predicted 2 million Chinese would visit in 2014. Among the Chinese believed to have boarded the flight are many holiday seekers and 29 members of an artist delegation from Sichuan province who were taking part in an exhibit in Kuala Lumpur. Others on the plane manifest included a group of 20 Malaysian and Chinese employees of a Texas semiconductor firm. Several expatriates living in Beijing are believed to have been on the flight as well, including students at the French school and a Canadian couple. Four Americans including an infant were also thought to have been on board.

(MORE: Search Expanded for Missing Malaysian Airlines Flight)

With the plane still missing, the focus remains on search-and-rescue operations that are centered in waters off Vietnam. But flight experts, who are working with a frightening paucity of information, have concentrated on possible explanations of what went wrong: a catastrophic mechanical failure of the airplane or pilot error — like what happened to Air France Flight 447 in 2009 over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 on the jetliner — or some kind of malign human intervention. “I would say right now that the probability of terrorism is low, but it should not be discounted,” says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “The investigation needs to be carried out with all possibilities considered: an act of sabotage, crime or terrorism, as well as mechanical failure.” Malaysian officials say they are not discounting any theory, including terrorism.

Despite this age of high-tech communications and surveillance, few details have emerged about what led MH370 to simply disappear from the sky. The aircraft was a Boeing 777, which has a workhorse reputation and a strong safety record. But some of the few pieces of information that have emerged are troubling. At least two of the passengers listed on the plane’s manifest, it turns out, were not actually on the flight. Local governments have confirmed that an Italian and Austrian, whose names were on the passenger list released by Malaysia Airlines, had their passports stolen in Thailand over the past two years. International law-enforcement agencies have been called in to help, including the FBI.

Whether or not the passports turn out to have had anything to do with the flight disaster, security expert Gunaratna says MH370’s fate highlights the need for governments to better coordinate in sharing information on stolen or lost passports. Interpol maintains a database on such passports, and the service is free. Around 40 million passports have been logged in the system. But registration with the service by local governments and usage of the database by immigration authorities are spotty. Only a “handful” of governments dutifully check in, according to Interpol, which estimates that last year more than a billion flights were taken by people whose passports were not screened against the database. Altered passports can be used for everything from drug running and illegal immigration to, potentially, terrorism. “This is a situation we had hoped never to see,” said Interpol Secretary General Ronald K. Noble in a statement. “For years Interpol has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates.”

In its statement, Interpol confirmed that both the Austrian and Italian passports had been entered into their registry, one in 2012 and the other in 2013. Yet Malaysian immigration authorities did not discover the deception because they never checked the database. In fact, Interpol reports that no country’s authorities had ever checked the registry for these two passports. “Aviation is the most sensitive security domain of all, and there’s clearly been a glaring flaw in the security system because no one should be able to board a flight on someone else’s passport,” says Gunaratna. “Everything must be done to ensure there is no security breach; everything must be done to prevent any incident.”

Regional security analysts credit the Malaysian government’s commitment to counterterrorism, with efforts redoubled as Malaysian nationals were previously implicated in a series of terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia. At the same time, Malaysia is a regional air hub that deals with a large number of transit passengers. Two bombmaking masterminds linked to the Bali bombings and a string of hotel and embassy attacks in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, were Malaysian. Both are deceased.

Two security experts, one American, say that they had heard no intelligence chatter about a possible terrorist attack involving airplanes in East Asia. That, of course, does not mean that such an incident could not occur. But there has been no sustained, consistent pattern of Asian terrorist groups targeting regional airlines.

None of this speculation can ease the sorrow of the families of the 239 passengers and crew of MH370. Chinese who just a week ago took to social media to pour out their grief for the Kunming attack, found themselves mourning anew. A week of horror continues.

TIME Malaysian Airlines

Search Expanded for Missing Malaysian Airlines Flight

Rosmah Mansor, left, wife of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, cries with family members of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at a hotel in Putrajaya March 9, 2014. Zulfadli Zaki—Reuters

Investigators look into possibility that missing plane turned back

Speculation is a largely futile exercise when confronted with a tragedy of the scale of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Yet conjecture is somewhat unavoidable when so many uncomfortable questions linger. The Boeing 777-200 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday with 239 people on board. On Sunday, there was still no sign of a crash site, and the carrier admitted to “fearing for the worst.”

The 11-year-old aircraft, powered by Rolls-Royce Trent engines, took off at 12:40 a.m. local time from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and was due to arrive in the Chinese capital at 6:30 a.m. Weather conditions were good when it went missing without a distress call.

“The search and rescue operations will continue as long as necessary,” Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters.

Some 40 ships and 22 aircraft —from Malaysia, Vietnam, China, Singapore and the U.S. — are so far involved in search and rescue operations, with Indonesia possibly joining the effort too. While no crash site was positively identified, two ominous fuel slicks stretching for 15 km were spotted off the coast of Phu Quoc Island in southern Vietnam.

“Our two rescue boats have approached the two oil spills since 3 a.m. today but we haven’t found any sign of the Malaysian plane yet,” Vietnamese Navy Admiral Ngo Van Phat told Reuters. “Other boats are ready to go to support if needed.”

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has also sent a team of investigators to Asia to assist with the investigation.

On Sunday afternoon, the director-general of Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation Director, Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, told a press conference that investigators were looking into the possibility that the plane turned around, and the search was being widened to include the western coast of Malaysia by Penang.

With minimal clear evidence, theories abound. If a bomb exploded then any fuel would have evaporated into thin air, says Captain Ross Aimer, an aviation consultant who was formerly an instructor for the 777. Moreover, “if it was an explosion or catastrophic failure in the air, thousands, perhaps millions of parts would be scattered all over the place,” he told TIME. “Given that nothing has been found, perhaps this isn’t [what happened].”

But then the lack of communication is even more puzzling. The plane was last in contact with air traffic controllers around 120 nautical miles off the east coast of the Malaysian town of Kota Bharu. Not only was there no mayday call from the cockpit, but the radar transponder did not register a problem.

An unnamed airline pilot told Malaysia’s New Straits Times newspaper that he had made brief contact with the plane, when in the air himself, via his emergency frequency after receiving a request from Vietnamese aviation authorities.

“The voice on the other side could have been either Captain Zaharie [Ahmad Shah, 53,] or [co-pilot] Fariq [Abdul Hamid, 27], but I was sure it was the co-pilot,” he said. “There was a lot of interference … static … but I heard mumbling from the other end. That was the last time we heard from them, as we lost the connection.”

Officials revealed Sunday that the Flight MH370 aircraft had suffered a clipped wingtip but this had been repaired by Boeing and the plane declared fit to fly. Even so, the 777 had “an extraordinary safety record in respect to millions of hours flown,” says Aimer. In the 19 years since its launch, the model have been only around 60 minor incidents before the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco airport in July 2013, which killed three passengers and injured more than 180.

Investigators have urged patience. When Air France Flight 447 disappeared while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009, it took two years to find the wreckage. Admittedly, though, waters around Malaysia are considerably shallower than the Atlantic Ocean. Says Aimer: “If there is wreckage they will find it.”

TIME

U.N. Warns Capital of Central African Republic Nearly Cleared of Muslims

Relatives sit near Aliou Abalaye, 4, as he lies sick on the floor near  Kilometre 12
Relatives sit near Aliou Abalaye, 4, as he lies sick on the floor near Kilometre 12 (PK12), in Bangui, Central African Republic, where internally displaced Muslims are stranded due to the ongoing sectarian violence, on March 6, 2014. SIEGFRIED MODOLA—REUTERS

The U.N. says less than one percent of the Muslims who once lived in Central African Republic's capital of Bangui remain after a year of political instability and intense street fighting devolved into an unprecedented inter-religious conflict

Fewer than 1,000 Muslims of the more than 130,000 who once lived in the ramshackle capital of Central African Republic remain, the United Nations warned on Friday, after weeks of targeted attacks by largely Christian militias spurred a Muslim exodus.

Human rights experts and aid groups are increasingly worried about the demographic shift nearly a year after the mostly Muslim rebel alliance Séléka toppled the government and began a campaign of looting and killing against Bangui’s Christian population. The attacks prompted the loose organization of Christians and animists into self-defense groups called anti-balaka and led to street fighting in December that left 1,000 dead in two days. Since then, with Séléka in retreat and thousands of foreign peacekeepers unable to rein in the violence, anti-balaka have staged an unprecedented revenge almost solely based on religion.

“The demography of C.A.R. is changing, from a situation where you had 130,00o to 145,000 Muslims in Bangui, to where you had around 10,000 in December,” Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, told a news conference in Geneva. “That number, we think, has now gone down to 900. So we have to act rapidly.”

Amos’ remarks—she also noted that 650,000 people remain displaced and the U.N. has received less than one-fifth of the $551 million in humanitarian assistance it appealed for in December—came one day after the Security Council began considering a proposal by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to deploy 12,000 peacekeepers to the former French colony. The African Union’s 6,000 peacekeepers and France’s 2,000 troops have struggled to contain the violence and protect civilians since being sent in after the December flare-up. If approved, Ban said it would take at least six months for the force to assemble and ship out.

(MORE: The Muslims of the Central African Republic Face a Deadly Purge)

Antonio Guterres, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, highlighted the plight of Muslims during the Security Council meeting. “Tens of thousands of them have left the country, the second refugee outflow of the current crisis, and most of those remaining are under permanent threat,” he said. “The demon of religious cleansing must be stopped—now.”

A Human Rights Watch report released the next day added weight to his statements with grim details from towns outside the capital. “We are seeing entire Muslim communities that have lived in the Central African Republic for generations fleeing their homes,” writes Peter Bouckaert, HRW’s emergencies director. Within the last week, 650 Muslims being safeguarded in a Catholic church were evacuated from Boali, leaving the town without any left. And the Muslim populations in Baoro and Yaloké, about 4,000 and 10,000 respectively, are now nonexistent. Elsewhere, Muslims who haven’t fled face “extreme” violence from anti-balaka or are unable to leave. “The depth of the suffering caused by anti-balaka violence is just unfathomable,” Bouckaert writes. “In a misguided attempt to avenge the destruction of the Séléka, anti-balaka forces are committing horrific abuses against residents simply because they are Muslim.”

At least 2,000 people have been killed since December and about a quarter of the country’s 4.6 million people have been uprooted. Whole towns in the north and west have been emptied or burned, and about 300,000 people have fled into neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon. More than half of the country’s population needs aid, the U.N. says, ahead of the rainy season that begins in April.

TIME Pakistan

The Pakistani Women Brick-Makers Enslaved By Debt

Tens of thousands of "bonded laborers" in Pakistan work hard labor for decades to pay off debts accrued by their husbands or parents. This photo essay of female bonded laborers by AP photographer Muhammed Muheisen is in honor of International Women's Day.

TIME Paralympic Games

Ukraine Wins 5 Medals On First Day of Sochi Paralympics

Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games
Olena Iurkovska of Ukraine celebrates during the flower ceremony at the Biathlon Women's 6km Sitting competition during the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Games, March 8, 2014. Krasnaya Polyana, Russia, 08 March 2014. Valdrin Xhemaj—EPA

Amid the growing tensions involving Russia, Ukraine scored five medals at the Sochi Paralympics, with Olena Iurkovska winning the bronze in the women's six-kilometer sitting competition and dedicating her victory to her country's independence

The first Ukrainian medalist of the Sochi Paralympic Games dedicated her achievement Saturday to her country’s independence, as the embattled country took five medals on the first day of competition.

Olena Iurkovska won bronze in the women’s six-kilometer sitting competition Saturday as tensions between Moscow and Kiev seemed to approach a breaking point. Russian troops invaded Crimea last week and on Friday, the government supported the region’s referendum to secede to full Russian control.

Iurkovska won a medal only hours after Ukraine decided to compete in Russia in defiance of the crisis, reports the Associated Press. “I devote my first medal in Sochi to an independent Ukraine,” she said. “Every time I race, it will be for Ukrainian independence and peace in my country.”

Appealing for peace at the post-event flower ceremony Saturday, Iurkovska embraced Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, which just the day before had pledged to support Crimea’s bid to join Russia.

Ukraine won two more bronze medals in the biathlon Saturday while Maksym Yarovyi claimed silver in the men’s 7.5-kilometer sitting event and Vitaliy Lukyanenko took gold in the visually impaired class. Russia won a total of 12 medals in the first day of competition.

[AP]

TIME movies

Noah Banned In Qatar, Bahrain and UAE

NOAH
Niko Tavernise—Paramout

Hollywood's retelling of the Bible story was banned in the three countries on religious grounds after receiving censure across the Arab world. The $125 million film is due to premiere in the United States on March 28

The Hollywood movie Noah has been banned on religious grounds in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates ahead of its worldwide premiere.

Noah, which retells the story of the great flood from the Book of Genesis, was banned because it “contradicts the teachings of Islam,” a representative of Paramount Pictures told Reuters. The $125 million film stars Russell Crow and Anthony Hopkins and is due to premiere in the United States on March 28.

The highest religious authority in Sunni Islam, Cairo’s Al-Azhar, issued a religious injunction against the film on Thursday, saying it rejected the depiction of messengers and prophets of God.

Islamic religious stricture opposes representing holy figures in art, and pictorial depictions of the Prophet Mohammad in the West have sparked rage throughout the Muslim world, from the Danish cartoon in 2006 that led to riots in the region to a 2012 amateur Youtube video that fueled the deadly attacks in Benghazi on the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Several other Arab countries including Jordan, Egypt and Kuwait are also expected to ban the film.

[Reuters]

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