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Update March 2019


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Airlines ground Boeing jet after plane crashes in Ethiopia

Wreckage is piled at the crash scene of an Ethiopian Airlines flight crash near Bishoftu, or Debre Zeit, south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Monday, March 11. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Elias Meseret and Yidnek Kirubel

Hejere, Ethiopia (AP) — Airlines in Ethiopia, China, Indonesia and elsewhere grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 jetliner Monday after the second devastating crash of one of the planes in five months. But Boeing said it had no reason to pull the popular aircraft from the skies.

As the East African country mourned the 157 victims of the Ethiopian Airlines plane that went down in clear weather shortly after takeoff Sunday, investigators found the jetliner's two flight recorders at the crash site outside the capital of Addis Ababa.

An airline official, however, said one of the recorders was partially damaged and "we will see what we can retrieve from it." The official spoke on condition of anonymity for lack of authorization to speak to the media.

A witness to the crash told The Associated Press that smoke was coming from the back of the plane before it hit the ground.

"Before falling down, the plane rotated two times in the air, and it had some smoke coming from the back then, it hit the ground and exploded," Tamrat Abera said. "When the villagers and I arrived at the site, there was nothing except some burning and flesh."

Ethiopian authorities are leading the investigation into the crash, assisted by the U.S., Kenya and others.

The crash was similar to that of a Lion Air jet of the same model in Indonesian seas last year, killing 189 people. The crash was likely to renew questions about the 737 Max 8, the newest version of Boeing's single-aisle airliner, which was first introduced in 1967 and has become the world's most common passenger jet.

Safety experts cautioned against drawing too many comparisons between the two crashes until more is known. Besides the groundings by airlines in Ethiopia, China and Indonesia, Aeromexico, Caribbean carrier Cayman Airways, Comair in South Africa and Royal Air Maroc in Morocco temporarily grounded their Max 8s.

Ethiopian Airlines decided to ground its remaining four 737 Max 8s until further notice as "an extra safety precaution," spokesman Asrat Begashaw said. The carrier had been using five of the planes and awaiting delivery of 25 more.

But Chicago-based Boeing said it did not intend to issue any new recommendations about the aircraft to its customers. It plans to send a technical team to the crash site to help investigators and issued a statement saying it was "deeply saddened to learn of the passing of the passengers and crew" on the jetliner.

Among the airlines still using the plane are Southwest, American and Air Canada.

In Washington, Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said passenger safety was the first priority for the administration.

"I want travelers to be assured and that we are taking this seriously and monitoring latest developments," she said.

It's unusual for authorities to take the step of grounding planes, and it's up to each country to set standards on which planes can fly and how those planes are maintained, said Todd Curtis, an aviation safety analyst who directs the Airsafe.com Foundation.

"If there is a suspicion ... that there's not only something inherently wrong with 737 Max 8 aircraft, but there are no procedures in place to cure the problem, then yes, they should either ground the plane, or there are several levels of things they could do," Curtis said.

People from 35 countries died in the crash six minutes after takeoff from Ethiopia's capital for Nairobi. Ethiopian Airlines said the senior pilot issued a distress call and was told to return but all contact was lost shortly afterward. The plane plowed into the ground at Hejere near Bishoftu, scattering debris.

"I heard this big noise," resident Tsegaye Reta told the AP. "The villagers said that it was a plane crash, and we rushed to the site. There was a huge smoke that we couldn't even see the plane. The parts of the plane were falling apart."

Kenya lost 32 people, more than any country. Relatives of 25 of the victims had been contacted, Transport Minister James Macharia said, and taking care of their welfare was of utmost importance.

"Some of them, as you know, they are very distressed," he said. "They are in shock like we are. They are grieving."

In Addis Ababa, members of an association of Ethiopian airline pilots wept uncontrollably for their dead colleagues. Framed photos of seven crew members sat in chairs at the front of a crowded room.

The flight's main pilot, Yared Getachew, issued a distress call shortly after takeoff and was told to return, but all contact was lost.

Canada, Ethiopia, the U.S., China, Italy, France, Britain, Egypt, Germany, India and Slovakia all lost four or more citizens.

At least 21 staff members from the United Nations were killed in the crash, said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who led a moment of silence at a meeting where he said "a global tragedy has hit close to home."

Both Addis Ababa and Nairobi are major hubs for humanitarian workers, and some had been on their way to a large U.N. environmental conference set to begin Monday in Nairobi. The U.N. flag at the event flew at half-staff.

The crash shattered more than two years of relative calm in Africa, where travel had long been chaotic. It also was a serious blow to Ethiopian Airlines, which has expanded to become the continent's largest and best-managed carrier and turned Addis Ababa into the gateway to Africa.

The state-owned carrier has a good reputation and the company's CEO told reporters no problems were seen before Sunday's fight. But investigators also will look into the plane's maintenance, which may have been an issue in the Lion Air crash.

The plane was delivered to Ethiopian Airlines in November. The jet's last maintenance was on Feb. 4, and it had flown just 1,200 hours.

China's Civil Aviation Administration said that it ordered airlines to ground all 737 Max 8 aircraft as of 6 p.m. (1000 GMT) Monday, in line with the principle of "zero tolerance for security risks."

It said it would issue further notices after consulting with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing.

China Southern Airlines is one of Boeing's biggest customers for the aircraft.

Comair, the operator of British Airways and Kulula flights in South Africa, said it has grounded its Boeing 737 Max 8 while it consults with Boeing, other operators and technical experts. The statement did not say how many planes are affected. Wrenelle Stander, executive director of Comair's airline division, said that Comair "remains confident in the inherent safety of the aircraft."

An official with Royal Air Maroc said the carrier in Morocco has halted the commercial use of its sole operational model, pending tests and examinations. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with departmental rules, said the plane was scheduled to fly on Monday from Casablanca to London but was replaced.

The 737 is the best-selling airliner in history, and the Max, the newest version of it with more fuel-efficient engines, is a central part of Boeing's strategy to compete with European rival Airbus.

"Safety is our No. 1 priority and we are taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved," Boeing said in a statement.

Boeing's stock fell 7 percent to $391.80 in afternoon trading.


Indonesian woman freed 2 years after killing of Kim Jong Nam

 

Indonesian Siti Aisyah smiles during a press conference upon returning home from Malaysia at Halim Perdanakusumah Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, March 11. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Eileen Ng

Shah Alam, Malaysia (AP) — One of two women accused of killing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's half brother by smearing VX nerve agent on his face was freed after two years of detention Monday when Malaysian prosecutors unexpectedly dropped the murder charge against her.

Indonesian Siti Aisyah and her Vietnamese co-defendant, Doan Thi Huong, have said they thought they were taking part in a prank for a TV show.

Prosecutors did not give any reason for the remarkable retreat in their case against Aisyah in the killing of Kim Jong Nam at a busy Kuala Lumpur airport terminal.

Indonesia's government had lobbied repeatedly for her release. Vietnam has pushed less hard on behalf of Huong, and recently hosted leader Kim Jong Un for an official visit and a summit with President Donald Trump.

Aisyah cried and hugged Huong before leaving the courtroom and being ushered away in an Indonesian Embassy car. She told reporters that she had only learned Monday morning that she would be freed.

She flew back to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, later Monday and thanked the president and other officials for their help.

"I feel happy, very happy that I cannot express in words," she told reporters at Jakarta's airport. "After this I just want to gather with my family."

Huong, who remains on trial, was distraught.

"I am in shock. My mind is blank," she told reporters after Aisyah left.

The two women had been the only suspects in custody after four North Korean suspects fled the country the morning of Feb. 13, 2017, when Kim Jong Nam was killed.

The trial is to resume Thursday, and prosecutors are expected to reply to a request by Huong's lawyers for the government to withdraw the murder charge against her as well.

The High Court judge discharged Aisyah without an acquittal on Monday after prosecutors applied to drop the murder charge against her.

Prosecutor Iskandar Ahmad said that means Aisyah can be charged again if there is fresh evidence, but there are no such plans now.

Aisyah's release comes just a month before Indonesia's general election and is seen as a boost to President Joko Widodo, who is seeking re-election.

Aisyah, surrounded by government officials and a mob of reporters at Jakarta's arport, struggled for words as journalists shouted questions. After a prompt from Indonesia's law and human rights minister, she thanked the president and Cabinet ministers.

Indonesia's government said its continued high-level lobbying had resulted in Aisyah's release. Its foreign ministry said in a statement that she was "deceived and did not realize at all that she was being manipulated by North Korean intelligence."

It said Aisyah, a migrant worker, never had any intention of killing Kim.

The ministry said that over the past two years, Aisyah's plight was raised in "every bilateral Indonesia-Malaysia meeting," including at the presidential level, the vice presidential level and in regular meetings of the foreign minister and other ministers with their Malaysian counterparts.

Huong's lawyer, Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, said after Monday's court session that Huong felt Aisyah's discharge was unfair to her because the judge last year had found sufficient evidence to continue the murder trial against both of them.

"She is entitled to the same kind of consideration as Aisyah," he said. "We are making representation to the attorney general for Doan to be taken equally ... there must be justice."

A High Court judge last August had found there was enough evidence to infer that Aisyah, Huong and the four missing North Koreans engaged in a "well-planned conspiracy" to kill Kim Jong Nam. The defense phase of the trial had been scheduled to start in January but was delayed until Monday.

Lawyers for the women have previously said that they were pawns in a political assassination with clear links to the North Korean Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and that the prosecution failed to show the women had any intention to kill. Intent to kill is crucial to a murder charge under Malaysian law.

Malaysian officials have never officially accused North Korea and have made it clear they don't want the trial politicized.

Kim was the eldest son in the current generation of North Korea's ruling family. He had been living abroad for years but could have been seen as a threat to Kim Jong Un's rule.


UK, EU announce change to Brexit deal ahead of key vote

 

British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, poses for the media with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg, France, Monday, March 11. (Vincent Kessler/Pool Photo via AP)

Raf Casert and Jill Lawless

Strasbourg, France (AP) — Britain and the European Union emerged from last-minute talks late Monday to announce they had finally removed the biggest roadblock to their Brexit divorce deal, only hours before the U.K. Parliament was due to decide the fate of Prime Minister Theresa May's hard-won plan to leave the EU.

On the eve of Tuesday's vote in London, May flew to Strasbourg, France, to seek revisions, guarantees or other changes from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that would persuade reluctant British legislators to back her withdrawal agreement with the EU, which they resoundingly rejected in January.

At a joint news conference, May and Juncker claimed to have succeeded.

May said new documents to be added to the deal provided "legally binding changes" to the part relating to the Irish border. The legal 585-page withdrawal agreement itself though was left intact.

"In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. It is what you do with this second chance that counts. Because there will be no third chance," Juncker warned the legislators who will vote late Tuesday.

"Let's be crystal clear about the choice: it is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all," he said.

May said the changes should overcome lawmakers' qualms about a mechanism in the deal designed to keep an open border between Britain's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.

Brexit-supporters in Britain fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely.

May said the new wording "will guarantee that the EU cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely."

"Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and deliver on the instruction of the British people," she said.

But the changes appear to fall well short of Brexiteers' demands for a unilateral British exit mechanism from the backstop.

Pro-Brexit U.K. lawmakers said they would read the fine print and wait for the judgment of Britain's attorney general before deciding how to vote on Tuesday.

Announcing the breakthrough in Britain's House of Commons, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said lawmakers faced "a fundamental choice ... to vote for the improved deal or to plunge this country into a political crisis."

And Juncker warned Britain "there will be no new negotiations" if lawmakers rejected the deal again.

Britain is due to pull out of the EU in less than three weeks, on March 29, but the government has not been able to win parliamentary approval for its agreement with the bloc on withdrawal terms and future relations. The impasse has raised fears of a chaotic "no-deal" Brexit that could mean major disruption for businesses and people in Britain and the 27 remaining EU countries.

"This is a government in chaos, with a country in chaos because of this mess," Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said.

May has staked her political reputation on securing an exit deal with the EU and is under mounting pressure to quit if it is defeated again. She survived a bid to oust her through a no-confidence vote in December. As a result, she cannot be forced from office for a year.

The EU is frustrated at what it sees as the inability of Britain's weak and divided government to lay out a clear vision for Brexit. It is irritated, too, that Britain is seeking changes to an agreement that May herself helped negotiate and approve.

May has been working frantically to save her deal, speaking by phone to eight EU national leaders since Friday, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

If Parliament throws out May's deal again on Tuesday, lawmakers will vote over the following two days on whether to leave the EU without an agreement — an idea likely to be rejected — or to ask the EU to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled March 29 departure date.

Conservative lawmaker Nicky Morgan said May's position will become "less and less tenable" if she suffers more defeats in Parliament this week.

"It would be very difficult for the prime minister to stay in office for very much longer," Morgan told the BBC.

Alan Wager, a Brexit expert at the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, said Parliament this week could decisively rule out both May's deal and a no-deal departure.

That, in turn, would make such options as a new Brexit referendum or a "softer" withdrawal from the EU lot more likely, he said.

"Finally, the House of Commons is going to have to make a final judgment on what it wants in terms of Brexit," he said.


Chaos spreads in Venezuela after days without power

People collect water falling from a leaking pipeline along the banks of the Guaire River during rolling blackouts, which affects access to running water in people's homes, offices and stores, in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, March 11. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Fabiola Sanchez and Scott Smith

Caracas, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans on Monday converged on a polluted river in Caracas to fill water bottles and held scattered protests in several cities as growing chaos took hold in a country whose people have had little power, water and communications for days.

A 3-year-old girl with a brain tumor languished in a Caracas hospital, awaiting treatment after doctors started surgery but then suspended the operation when nationwide power outages first hit on Thursday, said the girl's fearful mother, who only gave her first name, Yalimar.

"The doctors told me that there are no miracles," said Yalimar, who hopes her daughter can be transferred Tuesday to one of the few hospitals in Venezuela that would be able to finish the complex procedure.

The girl's story highlighted an unfolding horror in Venezuela, where years of hardship got abruptly worse after the power grid collapsed. On Monday, schools and businesses were closed, long lines of cars waited at the few gasoline stations with electricity and hospitals cared for many patients without power. Generators have alleviated conditions for some of the critically ill.

Late Monday, President Nicolas Maduro said on national television that progress had been made in restoring power in Venezuela. He also said two people who were allegedly trying to sabotage power facilities were captured and were providing information to authorities, though he gave no details.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido and his chief ally, the United States, say Maduro's claims that the U.S. sabotaged the power grid with a "cyberattack" are an attempt to divert attention from the government's own failings.

There have been acts of kindness during Venezuela's crisis: People whose food would rot in fridges without power donated it to a restaurant, which cooked it for distribution to charitable foundations and hospitals.

The blackouts have also hit the oil industry. The country hasn't shipped $358 million in oil since the power failures started, and "the whole system is grinding to a halt," said Russ Dallen, a Miami-based partner at the brokerage firm Caracas Capital Markets.

Two large tankers are sitting empty at the Jose offshore oil-loading dock, and at least 19 other ships are waiting their turns there, Dallen said.

Engineers have restored power in some parts of Venezuela, but it often goes out again. There have been a few protests in Caracas and reports of similar anti-government anger elsewhere. Guaido tweeted about reports of looting in some cities, but details were difficult to confirm.

Security forces in the city of Maracaibo dispersed "criminals" trying to take advantage of the power cuts, Mayor Willy Casanova told local media.

However, numerous videos posted on social media that purported to be from Maracaibo showed crowds roaming the streets and people running from looted, damaged buildings with no police in sight.

In Caracas, some people reported more sightings of "colectivos," a term for armed groups allegedly operating on behalf of the state to intimidate opponents. While Maduro and other government officials said they were working to provide basic necessities, the mood in Caracas was desperate.

Marian Morales, a nurse working for a Catholic youth group, and several colleagues handed out diapers and food from their car, parked near a hospital. Police and men in civilian clothing ordered them to leave, saying they didn't have permission.

Morales said the needy are cautious about approaching to collect the handouts because of the presence of security forces.

The opposition-controlled National Assembly debated the power cuts and declared that the situation was an emergency, a largely symbolic move aimed at pressuring Maduro.

Early Monday, an explosion rocked a power station in the Baruta area of Caracas. Residents gathered to look at the charred, smoldering equipment.

Guaido said three of four electricity transformers servicing the area were knocked out. He has blamed the blackouts on alleged government corruption and mismanagement.

Winston Cabas, the head of Venezuela's electrical engineers union, which opposes the government, disputed government allegations that the dam was sabotaged. He blamed a lack of maintenance as well as the departure of skilled workers from the troubled country over the years.

"The system is vulnerable, fragile and unstable," he said.

Spain's airline pilots union asked for Spanish airline Air Europa to stop flying to Venezuela after one of its crews was attacked at gunpoint in Caracas. The Sepla union said two pilots and eight more crew members of a flight from Madrid were assaulted on Saturday while going from the airport to their hotel in the Venezuelan capital. None of the crew members was injured.

Air Europa responded by ordering the crews of flights to Venezuela to not spend the night in the country, according to the union.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, imposed sanctions on a Moscow-based bank jointly owned by Russian and Venezuelan state-owned companies, for allegedly trying to circumvent U.S. sanctions on the South American country. The U.S. said it is targeting Evrofinance Mosnarbank for supporting Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., an entity previously targeted by sanctions in January.

Evrofinance said it is carrying out its activities normally despite the announcement and pledged to "meet its obligations to the clients and partners in full."

The U.S. and more than 50 governments recognize Guaido as interim president and say Maduro wasn't legitimately re-elected last year because opposition candidates weren't permitted to run. Maduro says he is the target of a U.S. coup plot.

Also Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Cuba and Russia for continuing to support Maduro and described Cuba as the "true imperialist power" in Venezuela. Cuba has made the same accusation against the U.S., alleging that it is after Venezuela's oil.
 


DAILY UPDATE

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Airlines ground Boeing jet after plane crashes in Ethiopia

Indonesian woman freed 2 years after killing of Kim Jong Nam

UK, EU announce change to Brexit deal ahead of key vote

Chaos spreads in Venezuela after days without power