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Japan starts shutdown of nuke reactor The operator of Japan’s ageing Hamaoka nuclear plant, located near a tectonic faultline southwest of Tokyo, on Friday began shutting down one of its two running reactors, a plant official said. Chubu Electric Power started installing control rods into the number four reactor of the power plant early Friday, the first procedure in the operation, said Kazuhide Enoo, an official at the plant. “We plan to stop electricity generation in the morning, and then the reactor is scheduled to be non-critical around noon today,” Enoo said. “So far procedures went smoothly as no problems were found,” he said, adding that the reactor was expected to be in “cold shutdown” status “within a day at the earliest.” Prime Minister Naoto Kan last week called for the closure of the plant, eight weeks after a massive quake and tsunami damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant northeast of Tokyo, sparking the world’s worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl in 1986. Seismologists have long warned that a major quake is overdue in the Tokai region southwest of Tokyo where the Hamaoka plant is located. It is only 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the capital and megacity of Tokyo. The Hamaoka plant has five reactor units, but only two are currently running — numbers four and five. Reactors one and two, built in the 1970s, were stopped in 2009, and three is undergoing maintenance. The firm also plans to begin shutting down the number five reactor on Saturday. Standard and Poors on Thursday lowered its ratings on Chubu Electric to ‘A+’ from ‘AA-‘, leaving the outlook on the firm’s long-term corporate credit rating negative. “Chubu Electric’s decision to suspend operations at the Hamaoka nuclear power plant will cause profitability and cash flow protection to deteriorate for at least two years,” the ratings agency said. “We expect downward pressure on the ratings will continue, particularly in measures of its financial profile,” it said. The Hamaoka plant accounts for almost 12 percent of the output of Chubu Electric, which services part of Japan’s industrial heartland, including many Toyota auto factories. Kan has explained the plant should stay shut while a higher sea wall is built and other measures are taken to guard it against a major quake and tsunami. Local media said the suspension would last about two years. Japan, the world’s number three economy, endures 20 percent of all major earthquakes and generates about 30 percent of its power from nuclear plants. The record March tremor and wave which battered Japan’s northeast coast caused 11 of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors to automatically shut down, while triggering a major crisis at the Fukushima plant.

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Turkey death toll nears 500 Homeless survivors of Turkey’s devastating earthquake shivered in sub-zero temperatures as the government admitted that it was struggling to cope with the demand for shelter. As the death toll neared 500 and complaints mounted over the speed of the relief effort, authorities were in a race against time to provide some form of shelter with snowfall expected. After the rescue of a 16-day-old baby and her grandmother sparked scenes of joy on Tuesday, emergency teams managed to beat the odds again on Wednesday by pulling a 27-year-old woman out of the rubble of her home in the eastern town of Ercis, which took the full brunt when disaster struck on Sunday. Gozde Bahar, a teacher, was immediately rushed to hospital after being trapped under the rubble for 66 hours. But her rescue was a rare slice of good news as the number of body bags mounted. The latest official death toll was 461 but the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said that “hundreds, possibly thousands” of people are still trapped under the rubble. And as hopes of finding more survivors receded rapidly, the complaints from those left homeless grew louder. There was uproar among the crowds when they learned that the local governor’s office had stopped distributing tents, instead transferring responsibility to village headmen. “Yesterday I waited here until midnight and I received nothing. I came back this morning at 3:00 am and have been waiting since then and now the distribution is cancelled,” said 29-year-old Erdal Bayram, a construction worker. “I need a tent for myself and for my father. We made a makeshift tent to sleep under but it rained last night and the wind was blowing.” Hasan Edemem, a 31-year-old teacher, worried that the village headmen would not give priority to those most in need of shelter. “Now they are transferring the responsibility to village headmen but I am pretty sure they will allocate the tents to their fellows,” Edemem said. On Tuesday, locals had to wait in queues stretching for hundreds of metres outside the governor’s office before being handed supplies by the military police. “They treat us here like animals,” said one young local waiting in line. “We stopped the distribution because there was too much confusion here. It will start as soon as we can restore security and order,” said an official in the governor’s office. While the government in Ankara initially refused outside offers of help it reversed that decision late Tuesday. “We were not expecting such a huge demand for tents,” the daily Milliyet quoted Besir Atalay, the deputy prime minister, as saying. “When people ask for tents for 100,000 households, you cannot meet that demand,” Atalay said. Israel’s foreign ministry said that it had been asked to help despite the recent deterioration of ties between the two countries. Some remote villages in the worst affected Van province have received only rudimentary help so far. In the village of Guvecli, locals said they had had to recover the bodies of their loved ones by themselves. “We had to do it by our own means, by shovels and digging tools,” Guvecli resident Ahmet Yayin told AFP. While the Red Crescent had handed out some tents, they were far from enough to go round. “We are a family of 12 but we could only get one tent,” said Abdulaziz Yatkin, another villager. The tents are designed for a maximum of five. Residents clustered around fires to keep warm on Wednesday. Snow was forecast for later in the day. In Gedikbulak village, only 70 tents were distributed for a population of 2,000, the NTV news channel reported. Only a few houses remained standing there. Turkey has a tragic history of earthquakes, including in Van province. In 1999, two strong quakes in northwest Turkey’s heavily populated and industrialised regions left some 20,000 dead. A powerful earthquake in the town of Caldiran in Van province killed 3,840 people in 1976.

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Athens smoulders after austerity protests “It’s culture that has gone up in smoke,” filmmaker Nikos Kavoukidis lamented as he shot footage of the crowd gathered at the ruins of the Attikon cinema. “What do we have left? Television and football?” Officials say 45 buildings were wholly or partly destroyed by fire as violence erupted during demonstrations while parliament voted Sunday for tough new austerity measures aimed at averting national bankruptcy. The minister in charge of police later said security forces and fire crews had waged a “superhuman” effort to contain violence. “(The police) made superhuman efforts, as did the fire department, despite the fact that they were attacked and impeded from reaching fire outbreaks,” Citizens’ Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis told reporters. Overall, 170 businesses around the city centre sustained damage, including banks, bookstores, jewellery shops, home appliance stores and supermarkets, the Athens chamber of commerce said. The government, neck-deep in debt, said it would find a way to help out. “Ways will be examined to support citizens whose property was destroyed,” said government spokesman Pantelis Kapsis. The Attikon was housed in a neo-classical building dating back to the late 19th century. The cinema was famed for its sumptuous decor, plush red seats and the sweeping curves of its main auditorium. Until Sunday, the film on show was “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” starring Gary Oldman. Around 150 people held a candlelit vigil outside the gutted building on Monday evening in a silent protest campaign organised on Facebook. “I am ashamed, it’s hooliganism,” lamented one of Sunday’s demonstrators, a 55-year-old security guard who gave her name only as Melpo, standing outside the ruined building earlier in the day. The Attikon building was home to several other businesses, including a store whose owner fretted for the future of his four employees in a country where unemployment is more than 20 percent. About 80,000 people took to the streets on Sunday to protest austerity measures, according to police estimates, while media reports said the number was almost double that. Rioters attacked “emblematic buildings, about 10 neo-classical edifices,” dating from the beginning of the 20th century, the deputy mayor in charge of maintenance Andreas Varelas said. Another group tried to storm the Athens city hall but were arrested. A few metres (yards) from the Attikon, a memorial site celebrating Greek resistance to the Nazis during World War II suffered broken windows and had been daubed in red graffiti stating: “Uprising.” Condemnation for the violence came quickly. “Violence and destruction have no place in a democracy,” Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said late Sunday, while calling on Athenians for calm. European Union economic affairs commissioner Olli Rehn on Monday slammed the violence as unacceptable. “These individuals do not represent the vast majority of Greek citizens who are genuinely concerned for the future of their country,” Rehn said in a statement. Greece’s new budget cuts were demanded by the European Union and International Monetary Fund as the price of a second 130-billion-euro ($172 billion) debt rescue to avert imminent bankruptcy and keep Greece in the eurozone. The new cuts include reductions in the country’s minimum wage and further layoffs in the public sector. Athenians on their way to work were shocked at the extent of the damage. “It’s a reminder of December 2008,” deputy mayor Varelas said, in reference to nearly a month of urban violence in Athens sparked after a youth was killed by a policeman. The health ministry said 54 civilians had been hurt, while police said 68 members of the force had suffered injuries. Some 67 people were arrested and police say there was an organised plan by some to cause casualties. “Through their actions, they showed that they sought human casualties,” Greek police chief Nikos Papagiannopoulos told a news conference. Athens police chief Ioannis Lioungas added that 15 people had to be rescued from a burning bank, reviving memories of three people — one of them a pregnant woman — who died inside another firebombed bank branch in 2010. Municipal workers were on Monday clearing up the debris of marble ripped up from the pavements and hurled by rioters. Rubbish bins smoked and everywhere near the centre, from the tourist area of Monastiraki to the chic streets of the Kolonaki quarter, the ground was littered with shattered glass.

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Violence flares in Kosovo, talks delayed EU-brokered talks between Belgrade and Pristina were delayed Tuesday after the latest surge of violence on the disputed Serbia-Kosovo border left four NATO troops and six Serb protesters wounded. “Due to the tension the dialogue has been delayed until tomorrow (Wednesday),” an EU diplomat said in Brussels. Kai Gudenoge, deputy spokesman of the NATO-led KFOR force, told AFP that “four KFOR soldiers are wounded by a pipe bomb (an improvised explosive device). One of them badly and three slightly.” He added that the seriously injured soldier was medivaced for treatment. A manager of nearby Kosovska Mitrovica’s hospital told local media that six Serb protesters who clashed with KFOR at the disputed Jarinje border post were seriously injured by gunfire. The situation around Jarinje was calm but tense after the incident and sporadic gunfire could still be heard, an AFP correspondent reported. KFOR spokesman Ralph Adametz said late Tuesday that the situation “is currently tense but under control”. “Acts such as these, whether by individuals or groups, are a serious threat to the safety,” Adametz told reporters. In Brussels, the European Union called for the removal of barricades and condemned the violence. “The EU supports the removal of the barricades. These barricades restrict freedom of movement and should be removed,” said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. An EU diplomat said the two delegations were likely to hold bilateral talks in Brussels through the evening with EU facilitator Robert Cooper in a bid to defuse the tension ahead of Wednesday’s resumption of the dialogue. Earlier Serbia’s chief negotiator in the talks, Borko Stefanovic, blamed KFOR for any impact the latest violence might have on the talks. “This is being done with the goal of getting Serbia to give up the dialogue and then accusing it of not wanting peaceful solutions,” Stefanovic said. The talks, the seventh round this year, aim to resolve practical problems caused by Serbia’s refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence, unilaterally declared in 2008. The Serb majority in the north, while the rest of Kosovo is predominantly ethnic Albanian, refuse to recognise the government in Pristina and still consider themselves to be part of Serbia, which makes control of the border a key issue. Serbian President Boris Tadic urged both sides to show restraint and called for a dialogue to maintain. “The international forces are here to defend unarmed people and not to clash with them, I call on KFOR to exercise maximum restraint,” Tadic said in a statement. The unrest started brewing early Tuesday as KFOR moved to dismantle one of the main roadblocks near Jarinje. After some skirmishes, the Serb protesters moved to erect a new barricade nearby, blocked several KFOR trucks and started pelting the soldiers with stones. The troops hit back firing tear gas into the crowd and rubber bullets. “They (Serbs) threw stones on German soldiers. One soldier was hit and the troops were forced to fire non lethal rounds in self-defence,” deputy spokesman Gudenoge said. This in turn provoked the Serbs at the barricades who approached the KFOR positions and threw explosives, severely wounding one soldier. Adametz later said that a “civilian vehicle attempted to force the gate” at Jarinje and one KFOR soldier “was injured by the vehicle” while the unit tried to stop it. “During the incident, an attempt was made to seize the soldier’s weapon and, after a verbal warning, a KFOR soldier fired a shot, injuring the civilian attempting to steal the weapon,” he said. Nicholas Hawton of the EU rule of law mission said “violence against KFOR or EULEX is not acceptable”. “It is important that everyone shows restraint and acts responsibly,” Hawton said, adding that EULEX was planning to launch an ivestigation into the incident. Last Friday, Kosovo police and EULEX officials took control of the two crossings. Fearing this would limit their access to Serbia, Serbs in northern Kosovo responded by erecting a dozen barricades to block traffic to and from the posts. By stationing Kosovo police and customs officials on the northern crossings, Pristina is trying to assert its authority on the north. The latest tensions follow violent clashes that took place in late July when Serb protesters confronted Kosovo police who tried to take control of the border posts to enforce a trade ban with Serbia.

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Tensions rising on Kosovo-Serbia border Dozens of youths set fire to one of two border posts on Kosovo’s northern frontier with Serbia that have been at the centre of rising tensions, media reports and witnesses said Wednesday. RTS national television showed footage of young masked people, apparently ethnic Serbs, throwing Molotov cocktails at the Jarinje border post and destroying it with the help of a bulldozer. “The entire Jarinje post has been burned and is covered with smoke,” a witness told AFP by telephone. According to the witness, about 25 police and border officers, including some from the European Union’s EULEX mission, took refuge on the Serbian side of the border. EULEX spokesman Nicholas Hawton told AFP no one was injured in the attack. NATO’s KFOR mission in Kosovo said in a statement that its personnel near the border post had been fired upon, and said it was reinforcing its presence in the area to prevent further incidents. Kosovo’s prime minister Hashim Thaci blamed Serbia for the attack. “These violent acts were ordered, coordinated and managed by the highest political structures of the government of Serbia,” he told reporters at a late-night extraordinary press conference. “It was done by masked people but everything is clear. Behind this is Belgrade.” Serbian President Boris Tadic called for an end to the violence. “Extremists and hooligans act against the interests of Serbian citizens and of Serbia and join with the Albanian extremists who want to end, through unilateral acts and violence, the peace process and dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina,” Tadic said in a statement. EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton also condemned violence in the area. “I strongly condemn the violence that has taken place in northern Kosovo. These latest developments are unacceptable,” she said in a statement. “It is the responsibility of both Belgrade and Pristina to immediately defuse the tensions, and restore calm and security for everyone. Violence will never be tolerated and unilateral actions are not the way forward,” she said. NATO’s top official in Kosovo, German General Erhard Buhler, said there was “a difficult and tense situation” in northern Kosovo, warning that his 5,000-strong force was ready to act to maintain security. “KFOR is prepared and authorised to defend security by all means,” he said in an interview with local television. On Monday, the ethnic-Albanian-dominated government in Pristina sent elite police units to seize control of the Brnjak and Jarinje border crossings. One officer was killed and four others hurt in a clash with angry local Serbs. The officers were withdrawn on Wednesday, officials said. The goal of the operation was to replace local Serb police officers suspected of turning a blind eye to imports from Serbia after a ban was introduced a week ago. The seizure of the crossings marked a sharp escalation in the trade row between Kosovo and its former rulers in Belgrade, ramping up tensions in an area mainly inhabited by ethnic Serbs.

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