Dozens trapped in Ghana shopping center collapse

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Dozens of people were trapped and at least three people died when a multi-story shopping mall in the capital of Ghana collapsed shortly before opening Wednesday, according to Ghanaian authorities.

About 23 people had been rescued, according to news reports. It was unclear how many more remained in the rubble.

[Updated at 11:25 a.m., Nov. 7: Around 40 people had been rescued from the building by late Wednesday, according to news reports.

President John Dramani Mahama suspended campaigning for upcoming elections, visited the scene of the collapse and later spoke to survivors in hospital.]

"My prayers are with the workers, shoppers and others who are trapped in the rubble of the collapsed Achimota Melcom building," he said earlier in a tweet.

The shopping complex in Accra -- rented by Melcom Superstores, Ghana's biggest retail supermarket chain -- was opened earlier this year.

Ghana, a small cocoa and gold exporting nation in West Africa, is known best for its democratic successes in recent years in a region more often known for coups and stolen elections. The country is preparing for elections next month.

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Billions for Japan tsunami recovery went elsewhere, reports find

Japan  reconstruction
TADANOUMI, Japan -- Billions of dollars meant to help Japan recover from its devastating tsunami went to government projects that had little or nothing to do with the disaster, a new spending review shows.

Japanese politicians have questioned why millions went to a factory that makes contact lenses, or why money was spent to fend off  environmental activists opposed to whaling, or other projects in areas far removed from the tsunami. Local media have dug up numerous  examples of dubious spending, from renovating government buildings outside the disaster zones to job training in  prisons.

All in all, government documents show roughly one out of every four dollars budgeted for reconstruction went to unrelated projects, and more than half has not been allocated at all, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. An outside analysis by recovery expert Yoshimitsu Shiozaki found the same pattern of spending on projects outside the disaster zones.

PHOTOS: Japan hit by magnitude 9.0 earthquake

The funds were originally earmarked solely for the stricken areas, but the government ultimately loosened the rules, saying the money could also be used to bolster the economy and prepare for future disasters nationwide. The reconstruction money was up for grabs at a time when government agencies were downsizing, making it a tempting spigot of cash.

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Alleged Pakistani militant leader offers to help storm-stricken U.S.

SaeedISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, a Pakistani hard-line cleric with a $10-million bounty placed on him by the U.S. because of his alleged links to militancy, says he wants to help Americans on the East Coast broadsided by Hurricane Sandy.

Saeed, who founded the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1980s and now heads up its social welfare wing, Jamaat ud-Dawa, issued a statement Tuesday saying his charity was prepared to provide doctors, rescue experts, food and medicine to victims of the storm, which has ravaged the East Coast and left millions without power.

“Regardless of what the U.S. government propagates about us, including their announcement of bounties, we look forward to acting on the traits of our prophet Muhammad ... and serving adversity-struck American people,” Saeed said in a statement posted on Jamaat ud-Dawa’s Facebook page.

Earlier this year, the U.S. announced a reward of $10 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Saeed, widely viewed in the West and in India as the alleged mastermind behind the 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people.

The U.S. and India have long regarded Jamaat ud-Dawa as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba’s militant activities. In 2008, the U.S. and the United Nations declared Jamaat ud-Dawa as a terrorist organization, a label the Americans gave to Lashkar-e-Taiba, which it links to Al Qaeda, in 2001.

Saeed formed Lashkar-e-Taiba with the help of the Pakistan’s main spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, to fight Indian rule in a portion of the Himalayan region of Kashmir. The U.S. and other Western governments are concerned that the militant group has broadened its agenda to include Western targets.

Despite Washington’s announcement of a bounty on Saeed, Pakistani authorities have refused to take him into custody, contending they have no evidence to build a case against him.

Saeed has strongly denied maintaining links with any Pakistani militant group, saying Jamaat ud-Dawa focuses solely on humanitarian work and has no relationship with Lashkar-e-Taiba or any other extremist organization. His offer is likely to be viewed in Washington as a public relations stunt.

“We consider this a humanitarian issue,” Saeed said in the statement. “Wherever and whenever humanity is at stake and needs urgent help, Islam orders us to help them without discriminating between religion, caste or creed.”


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Photo: Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, addresses demonstrators at a protest in Lahore on Sept. 30 against an anti-Islam movie made in California. Credit: Arif Ali / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Hong Kong police arrest 7 in harbor collision that killed 38 people

BEIJING -- Hong Kong police arrested two captains and five crew members Tuesday in connection with the collision of a pleasure boat and a ferry that left 38 people dead and more than 100 injured in the territory’s worst maritime accident in four decades.

The disaster happened about 8:25 p.m. Monday near Lamma Island, west of Hong Kong Island.

Dozens of passengers were thrown into the water from a vessel chartered by Hong Kong Electric Co. for its employees to watch a holiday fireworks display in Victoria Harbor marking China’s National Day. The electric company's boat rapidly sank, and photos from the scene showed a Titanic-like image of just the vessel’s bow sticking up vertically from the water.

All of the fatalities appeared to be from the company boat; the ferry was able to sail to port on Lamma Island. Local media said Tuesday night that 27 people remained hospitalized, two in critical condition. Sixty-six others had been discharged.

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26 killed in gas pipeline explosion in Mexico

  Pipeline explosion in Mexico

MEXICO CITY -- At least 26 oil workers were killed Tuesday and several dozen injured in a huge explosion and fire along a natural gas pipeline in northeastern Mexico, officials said.

Officials with Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, the state-owned oil giant, said they were investigating the cause of the explosion, which ripped through a distribution plant, sent orange flames into the sky and forced temporary evacuations of parts of the area in Tamaulipas state, which borders Texas.

Pemex initially said 10 people were killed and 40 injured. Later, via its Twitter account, the company raised the death toll to 26. It did not update the number of wounded but said four of the dead worked for Pemex and 22 worked for contractors. It was not clear if that included foreign companies.

Pemex's vast operations in Tamaulipas, a violent state dominated by drug cartels, have suffered thefts of gas and oil and the kidnappings of numerous workers.


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Photo: A Mexican army vehicle patrols as fire and smoke rise from a gas pipeline distribution center in Tamaulipas state. Credit: El Manana de Reynosa / Associated Press


North Korea reverses, says it won't accept flood aid from South

SEOUL -- North Korea reversed its decision to accept flood aid from South Korea on Wednesday, dealing a blow to hopes of an improvement in the two countries' relationship.

In the wake of a destructive typhoon,the government in Pyongyang had said it would be open to possible humanitarian aid from Seoul. But just two days later, the secretive regime announced its refusal in a written notice, citing dissatisfaction over the aid being supplied, South Korea's Ministry of Unification reported. 

In the past, North Korea has asked for aid in the form of rice, cement and heavy equipment. The South Korean government didn't included such items this time, fearing that they might be used for military purposes. Instead, it offered to supply 10,000 tons of flour, 3 million cups of instant ramen noodles, plus medicine and medical supplies worth $10 million.

"[South Korean officials] have hugely insulted us by offering insignificant goods," a North Korean Red Cross official was quoted as saying by KCNA, North Korea's national agency. 

An official with the South Korean ministry shot back, "We hoped our aid to be helpful for the North Korean citizens, but feel resentful for such reaction from North Korea this time."

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Earthquakes kill dozens in southwest China

At least 50 people were killed after a pair of earthquakes jolted a mountainous region of southwestern China
BEIJING -- At least 50 people were killed after a pair of earthquakes jolted a mountainous region of southwestern China on Friday, damaging thousands of buildings and forcing scores of residents from their homes, the official New China News Agency said.

The first earthquake, with a magnitude of 5.7, shook the border region of Yunnan and Guizhou provinces at 11:19 a.m. local time. An hour later, a second quake struck, measuring 5.6.

The temblors destroyed or damaged 20,000 homes and injured 150 people in the largely impoverished, rural area. State media reported that 100,000 people had been evacuated.

PHOTOS: Deadly earthquakes in China

A local official in Yunnan's Yiliang, the worst hit county, told the Associated Press that many homes had collapsed. 

"The casualty number is still being compiled," said the official, who declined to give his name. "I don't know what [it] was like for the other towns, but my town got hit badly."

Building standards remain a sensitive subject in China's countryside. In 2008, central Sichuan province was devastated by a major earthquake that killed nearly 90,000 people. Shoddy construction in the underdeveloped disaster zone was blamed for the high death toll.


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Two buses make their way through fallen rocks after earthquakes hit southwest China. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Food sent to North Korea after floods; nearly 63,000 homeless


The World Food Program is dispatching emergency help to North Korea after devastating flooding that has killed scores of people and left nearly 63,000 homeless. The emergency aid will provide flood victims with 400 grams of maize per day for two weeks, the United Nations agency said.

North Korean state media reported this week that 4,000 homes were submerged from the torrential rain that hit the country in recent weeks. Televised reports showed North Koreans paddling boats to reach people stranded on roofs and streets as vast muddy rivers.

At least 88 people died, according to official government figures. The United Nations found that many hospitals were damaged and inaccessible, wells had been sullied by overflowing latrines, and fields of rice, soy and maize were damaged.

North Korea already had a chronic food shortage, leaving it especially vulnerable when disasters strike. Last year, the country got too much rain, damaging farmland; it already faced a shortfall of roughly 240,000 metric tons of food before it began suffering drought this year, according to researchers   Marcus Noland and Stephan Haggard.

Malnutrition is so dire that North Koreans are several inches shorter, on average, than their South Korean counterparts; the minimum height requirement for the military was recently lowered to 4 feet 9 inches, the Times’ Barbara Demick reported.

Help has not kept pace with the estimated need. The World Food Program has gotten only a third of the money it has sought under programs for pregnant women, children and the elderly, and to help North Koreans restore their livelihoods.

A planned infusion of food aid from the United States was scuttled after North Korea launched a rocket this year, an act that the U.S. said showed that the country would not abide by international norms. The U.S. has also worried about food being diverted to the military or the country's elite.

A State Department spokesman said Thursday that the U.S. was concerned about the North Korean people, but had not gotten requests for assistance.

“If requested, it’s something that we would carefully evaluate, but we’re not at that point,” press office director Patrick Ventrell said.

Instead, North Korea turned to the U.N., asking it to release emergency stocks of food and fuel that were already in position, a spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Thursday.


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Photo: Residents wait on a in Anju City, South Phyongan Province, North Korea on Monday. Credit: Kim Kwang Hyon / Associated Press 

At least 95 killed in Nigerian tanker explosion

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- At least 95 people were burned to death in Nigeria's oil-rich Rivers State when a petrol tanker that overturned and spilled fuel on a highway exploded, officials said.

The blast happened as dozens of people gathered around the crashed tanker, trying to recover the gasoline leaking into containers, a spokesman for the Federal Road Safety Commission, Kayode Olagunju, told local media.

Nigeria has experienced many similar catastrophes in the past, including explosions at fuel pipelines where people try to siphon off fuel.

The Federal Road Safety Commission reported that 95 people died and 18 were injured. However, Nigeria's Vanguard newspaper quoted a local witness who said he counted 98 bodies. Children and pregnant women were among the dead, the newspaper reported.

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Deadly avalanche strikes French Alps; at least nine climbers dead

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

PARIS -- Nine climbers died and several others were missing after a climbing party was struck by an avalanche in the French Alps early Thursday.

Search and rescue teams, including sniffer dogs, were still combing the snow-covered slopes hours after the disaster, which was described as one of the worst such tragedies in recent years. Eight other climbers were injured after being swept down the mountain and were flown by helicopter to a hospital. Another two climbers escaped unhurt.

PHOTOS: Deadly avalanche in French Alps

The dead were reported to include three Britons and climbers from Switzerland, Germany and

The 25-member group was making a dawn ascent of the perilous north face of Mont Maudit, which translates as Cursed Mountain in English, in the Mont Blanc range near the resort town of Chamonix. The climbers were above the 13,000-foot level when the avalanche struck shortly after 5 a.m. Early reports suggested the party was climbing in three groups roped together when they were hit by a wall of snow and ice dislodged by rising summer temperatures.

One of the injured climbers contacted the emergency services by mobile phone.

[Updated July 12, 9:40 a.m.: Officials later raised the number of people in the climbing group to 28. The search was called off late Thursday and expected to resume Friday, weather permitting.]

It was the worst disaster in the Mont Blanc range since August 2008, when 20 climbers were caught in a huge avalanche that killed eight of them. The area is popular with climbers.

In 2007, four people who were badly equipped died of exposure on Mont Blanc. In July 2003, six climbers and a mountain guide were struck by a block of ice that killed three of them.

On Thursday, Philippe de Rumigny, the local governor, said a slab of snow and ice nearly 16 inches thick had come loose in a particularly icy section of the mountain.

"There was no weather warning of an avalanche risk," De Rumigny told reporters.


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-- Kim Willsher

 Photo: A helicopter patrols the air as part of rescue operations following an avalanche on Mont Maudit, near Chamonix in the French Alps. Credit: Gregory Yetchmeniza / European Pressphoto Agency.


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