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December 17, 2017

Pope arrives in Sri Lanka and backs search for wartime truth

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Pope Francis brought calls for reconciliation as well as justice as he arrived Tuesday in Sri Lanka at the start of a weeklong Asian tour, saying the island nation can’t fully heal from a quarter-century of ethnic civil war without pursuing the truth about abuses that were committed.

In a show of ethnic coexistence, the pope’s welcoming ceremony at Colombo’s airport featured traditional dancers and drummers from both majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil ethnic groups, as well as a children’s choir serenading him in both of Sri Lanka’s languages — as well as Italian and English.

With 40 elephants dressed in colorful costumes lining the airport road behind him, Francis said that finding true peace after so much bloodshed “can only be done by overcoming evil with good, and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace.”

He didn’t specifically mention Sri Lanka’s refusal to cooperate with a U.N. investigation into alleged war crimes committed in the final months of the war. But he said: “The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity.”

Tamil rebels fought a 25-year civil war to demand an independent Tamil nation after decades of perceived discrimination by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority. U.N. estimates say 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the course of the war, which ended in 2009; other reports suggest the toll could be much higher.

Sri Lanka’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, has promised to launch a domestic inquiry into wartime abuses, but he has also pledged to protect everyone who contributed to the defeat of Tamil Tiger separatists from international legal action.

A 2011 U.N. report said up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians may have been killed in the last months of the civil war, and accused both sides of serious human rights violations. It said the government was suspected of deliberately shelling civilians and hospitals and preventing food and medicine from getting to civilians trapped in the war zone. The rebels were accused of recruiting child soldiers and holding civilians as human shields and firing from among them.

A few months after the U.N. report was released, the government of longtime President Mahinda Rajapaksa released its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission findings, which concluded that Sri Lanka’s military didn’t intentionally target civilians at the end of the war and that ethnic rebels routinely violated international humanitarian law.

Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday after an election upset, told Francis in the airport welcome ceremony that his government aims to promote “peace and friendship among our people after overcoming a cruel terrorist conflict.”

“We are a people who believe in religious tolerance and coexistence based on our centuries-old heritage,” he said.

Tamils, however, say they are still discriminated against, and human rights activists say the government isn’t serious about probing rights abuses.

In his speech, Francis said it wasn’t enough for the government to build infrastructure and meet material needs of Sri Lanka’s people. “The great work of rebuilding,” he said, must embrace “promoting human dignity, respect for human rights and the full inclusion of each member of society.”

Thousands of people lined Francis’ 28-kilometer (17-mile) route in from the airport, which he traveled entirely in his open-topped popemobile. While some who had staked out positions since dawn were frustrated that he sped past so quickly, Francis took so long greeting well-wishers that he canceled a meeting with Sri Lanka’s bishops in the afternoon after falling more than an hour behind schedule.

“This is like Jesus Christ himself coming to Sri Lanka!” marveled Ranjit Solis, 60, a retired engineer. He recalled that Pope Paul VI only spent two hours in Sri Lanka in 1970, while St. John Paul II spent a day in 1975. “The current pope is coming for three days! He serves the poor and is concerned about poor countries. It’s a great thing.”

Aside from the airport welcome ceremony, Francis’ other main event Tuesday was a meeting with representatives from Sri Lanka’s main religions.

Some 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist — most from the Sinhalese ethnic group. Another 13 percent are Hindu, most of them Tamil, and some 10 percent are Muslim. Catholics make up less than 7 percent of the island nation’s 20 million people, but the church counts both Sinhalese and Tamils as members and sees itself as a strong source for national unity.

Francis is expected to call for greater interfaith dialogue amid a surge in anti-Muslim violence by extremist Buddhists.

“It is a blessing and will be helpful for inter-religious friendship,” said Rev. Wimalananda, a young Buddhist monk, who was out on the street to welcome Francis.

Francis arrived just days after Rajapaksa was upset in an election he had called. The victor, Sirisena, had defected from the ruling party in November in a surprise move and won the election by capitalizing on Rajapaksa’s unpopularity among ethnic and religious minorities.

“This is a good opportunity to unify the country after a war and bring together a society divided with an election,” said another Francis watcher on the road in from the airport, Saman Priyankara. “It will be a strength to the new government at a time we are free from an autocracy and on a new path.”

On Wednesday, Francis will canonize Sri Lanka’s first saint, the Rev. Joseph Vaz, a 17th-century missionary from India who is credited with having revived the Catholic faith among both Sinhalese and Tamils amid persecution by Dutch colonial rulers, who were Calvinists.

Later in the day he flies into Tamil territory to pray at a shrine beloved by both Sinhalese and Tamil faithful.

On Thursday he heads to the Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic country in Asia and third-largest in the world, for the final leg of the journey.

There he’ll comfort victims of the devastating 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing, displaced some 4 million and turned a huge densely populated region into a wasteland.

Millions of Filipinos are expected to turn out for his events, possibly surpassing the record 5 million who turned out for the last papal visit: St. John Paul II in 1995. Themes Francis is expected to raise are related to the family, poverty and the environment.

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Associated Press Writer Krishan Francis contributed to this report.

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Follow Nicole Winfield on Twitter at twitter.com/nwinfield

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Pope arrives in Sri Lanka and backs search for wartime truth

Seventeen migrants dead, 278 saved in Strait of Sicily: navy

ROME (Reuters) – Italian sailors have rescued 278 migrants in the Strait of Sicily but found 16 others dead in their inflatable boat and one more who died shortly after help arrived, the navy said on Friday.

The dead apparently succumbed to hypothermia and dehydration in one of three boats found on Thursday south of the island of Lampedusa, it said.

There were 75 survivors from the boat carrying the corpses and another 202 people were rescued from the two other inflatable boats found in the same area.

Photographs released by the navy showed standing passengers packed into the overcrowded outboard-powered boats.

Some 3,200 migrants have died this year trying to reach Europe from Africa, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has said. Many of them are fleeing conflict and human rights abuses at home.

Italy is closing its “Mare Nostrum” search and rescue mission which has saved some 100,000 migrants, and making way for a smaller pan-European project called Triton.

Mare Nostrum, which included five warships on permanent patrol, was launched last October after more than 360 migrants died when their boat capsized a mile off the coast of Lampedusa.

The mission cost nearly 10 million euros ($12.35 million) a month, becoming a controversial strain on an economy that is suffering its third recession in six years.

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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Seventeen migrants dead, 278 saved in Strait of Sicily: navy

Rossi aims to cement second MotoGP spot in Sepang

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – Yamaha rider Valentino Rossi is looking to take a major step towards securing second place in the world championship over teammate Jorge Lorenzo at the Malaysian MotoGP this weekend.

The Italian great is eight points clear of the Spaniard going into Sunday’s penultimate race in Sepang following his win at Phillip Island, Australia, just a few days ago.

With Spanish sensation Marc Marquez crowned the championship winner earlier this month, second place is the best Rossi, 35, and Lorenzo, 27, could hope for but are determined to secure it.

Rossi has won seven premier class titles in Malaysia but will be aware that the last of those was in 2010. The Italian was only able to finish fourth last year, one place behind Lorenzo.

He will also be conscious of the 5.5 kilometre (3.4 mile) track’s unique challenges, particularly the often difficult weather conditions with high temperatures and heavy tropical rain.

“Apart from the temperature being a bit too high for MotoGP racing, I really like the Malaysian track,” Rossi told MotoGP.com.

“I will do my best to win again. I got my second win of the season and now I want to fight for second place in the championship.”

Honda’s Spanish star Dani Pedrosa won last time round pipping teammate Marquez into second, with Lorenzo finishing third. Pedrosa also triumphed in 2012.

“I look forward to racing at Sepang, it’s a nice track,” said Lorenzo on MotoGP.com.

“I would like to be competitive again, especially because I want to fight for second place in the championship.”

For Marquez this year’s race is a chance to atone for that loss, free of pressure with the world championship title already in the bag.

The 21-year-old has added motivation and won’t be taking his foot off the pedal as he bids to equal Australian Mick Doohan’s record of 12 wins in a single season.

Marquez, who last year became MotoGP’s youngest world champion is also looking to bounce back after crashing out at Phillip Island on Sunday.

“The race in Australia didn’t end as how I would’ve liked and to crash 10 laps from the end is infuriating,” he said.

“I will be going for the win in Malaysia and give it everything I’ve got in one of my favourite circuits,” Marquez added on his Repsol Honda blog.

The Spaniard secured the championship in Japan this month but organisers insist that hasn’t dampened ticket sales, with 65,000 tickets already sold.

The spotlight will also be on driver safety, three years after Sepang witnessed one of its darkest moments when Italian rider Marco Simoncelli died after coming off his bike.

“We will ensure the safety of riders,” the circuit’s chief executive officer Razlan Razali said.

The last MotoGP race of the season will be in Valencia, Spain, next month.

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Rossi aims to cement second MotoGP spot in Sepang

Motorcycling: Fight on for title scraps behind Marquez

The pressure is off Marc Marquez after he clinched back-to-back world championships but the heat is still on in the race to finish second heading into Sunday’s Australian MotoGP at Phillip Island.

The 21-year-old Spanish Honda rider wrapped up the 2014 world title last weekend, finishing runner-up at Motegi in Japan, with races in Australia, Malaysia and Spain remaining.

With the title in the bag, Marquez can bask in his achievement of 11 victories in 15 races this year as Valentino Rossi, Dani Pedrosa and Jorge Lorenzo fight for the championship scraps in the remaining races, starting with Phillip Island.

“I feel really good, less pressure, more free,” Marquez said of his fourth world championship in five seasons.

“The championship is done, but you are more tired after all the commitments. Of course, you can enjoy it a lot after winning a championship and the confidence is high.”

Although Marquez won the 125cc race in Australia in 2010, he has never won a premier class GP at Phillip Island and that will be an incentive for him to give his all again this weekend.

“Phillip Island is a special place and it is one of the best circuits we come to. It is really nice to ride here,” Marquez said.

“I’ve only won here in the 125’s but the track is incredible and I have a good memory from 2012 that I won the (Moto3) world title here, so I am really focused and motivated for this weekend.”

– ‘My favourite place’ –

Fellow Spaniard Lorenzo, who won last year’s MotoGP at Phillip Island on the way to losing the world championship by four points to Marquez, is coming off two wins and is hitting form at the right time.

“We just needed to put the pieces of the puzzle together,” the Movistar Yamaha racer said.

“We are competitive now and strong. It is not going to be easy to keep winning races, because there are four riders in very good shape. But our level is high.

“For me it is always a pleasure to come here. It is my favourite place we come to,” he added.

Last year in Australia Lorenzo took victory by seven seconds in a race which involved the riders changing bikes midway through due to tyre durability concerns.

Lorenzo, a two-time MotoGP world champion in 2010 and 2012, lies three points behind Yamaha teammate Rossi and Pedrosa in fourth place in the world championship standings.

Rossi, a nine-time world champion through the classes, is well in the mix after finishing on the podium in five of the past six races, including victory in San Marino.

The Italian great, 35, has finished on the podium 14 times in 17 visits to Phillip Island across all three GP classes.

Marquez’s Repsol Honda teammate Pedrosa was runner-up behind Lorenzo at last year’s Phillip Island GP, but has lost points to Lorenzo and Rossi in recent races.

The 4.448-kilometre (2.764 mile) circuit, located on the shores of the storm-tossed Bass Strait, is a season classic for the world’s top riders with its sweeping blend of seven left-handers and five right-handers.

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Motorcycling: Fight on for title scraps behind Marquez

EU mission to help Italy with migrant crisis to start in November

By Julia Fioretti

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union plans to launch a mission to help Italy cope with swarms of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa, the EU said on Tuesday.

Called Operation Triton, the mission will be managed by Europe’s border control agency, Frontex. It will reinforce Italy’s own rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, which began after 366 people drowned just a mile from the Italian island of Lampedusa when their boat capsized a year ago.

Italy has repeatedly called for more help from the EU to cope with the record number of sea-borne arrivals from conflict-torn Libya and Syria over the past year. Mare Nostrum, or “Our Sea,” has been costing Italy 9 million euros a month, straining the resources of its navy and coastguard.

“With the launch of the Triton operation, tailored to the needs and requests defined by the Italian authorities, the EU can show concrete solidarity to Italy, by reinforcing its border surveillance and supporting its humanitarian efforts,” said EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom in a statement on Tuesday.

Frontex has called on member states for contributions to the new mission, which is expected to cost 2.9 million euros ($3.66 million) a month, so that it can begin on Nov. 1.

In addition to two Italian patrol vessels, Frontex is hoping for two surveillance aircrafts and three more vessels to patrol the waters up to 30 miles from Italy’s southern coast.

EU officials said Germany, France and Spain had already indicated they would help, although they could provide no details on what the three countries might contribute.

More than 100,000 migrants have arrived by sea so far this year in Italy, and in September the International Organization for Migration reported than almost 3,000 people had drowned in shipwrecks in the Mediterranean in 2014.

Questions remain over the future of Mare Nostrum, which was originally envisaged as an emergency response to the flows of migrants from North Africa. Last Friday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Mare Nostrum would not be stopped until the EU came up with something just as good or better.

Given that Triton’s budget is just a third of Mare Nostrum’s, it is unclear how Frontex would manage to patrol the seas if Mare Nostrum were to be abandoned.

(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Editing by Larry King)

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EU mission to help Italy with migrant crisis to start in November

Costa Concordia Completes Its Final Journey

The Costa Concordia has completed its final journey, after being towed into the Italian port of Genoa to be broken up and scrapped.

The cruise liner, around twice the size of the Titanic, struck rocks and capsized in January 2012 with more than 4,000 people on board.

The tragedy claimed 32 lives.

The damaged hull had been towed from the disaster site off the Tuscan island of Giglio to the northern port after a four-day, 175 mile (280km) journey.

The salvage operation, the biggest ever attempted, is expected to cost in the region of $2bn (£1.17bn).

“We can finally breathe a sigh of relief,” Italy’s environment minister Gian Luca Galletti said.

There were fears the damaged hull would break up under the strain and spill toxic waste into Europe’s biggest marine sanctuary, but these were unfounded.

The 114,500-tonne liner arrived overnight and weighed anchor around two nautical miles (3.6 miles) off shore.

Engineers then attached it to a number of tugboats, which manoeuvred into Voltri port at 11am UK time.

Curious locals gathered near the port on the outskirts of the city from first light to catch a glimpse of the battered ship.

The delicate operation of securing the ship is expected to be completed this afternoon.

Once the Costa Concordia is fastened in place, interior furnishings and fittings will be stripped out in order to make it light enough to tow into the scrapping area, where it will be split into three parts for dismantling.

More than 80% of it is expected to be recycled or reused.

Between 40,000 and 50,000 tonnes of steel will be melted down and reused for construction.

Undamaged copper wiring, plumbing, plastics, machinery and furniture will be recovered and sold on.

Any personal belongings recovered will be returned, while items such as the ship’s piano, which was being played as the liner struck rocks, could end up in a museum.

Another task will be to search for the body of Indian waiter Russel Rebello, whose remains were never found and may have been trapped in a previously inaccessible part of the vessel.

The ship’s captain, Francesco Schettino, is currently on trial for manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the vessel before all passengers had evacuated.

The 53-year-old, who is fighting the charges, is accused of deliberately altering the course of the Concordia in order to carry out a sail-by salute of the island to impress local residents and passengers.

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Costa Concordia Completes Its Final Journey