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S Korea in national mourning after deadly Halloween crowd crush

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151 people including 19 foreigners killed

(Korea Herald/ANN) Relatives search for missing family members following a crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon that killed 151 people, including 19 foreigners.South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has declared a period of national mourning following a deadly Halloween crush in the country’s capital, Seoul, as distraught relatives flocked to the city’s hospitals searching for their missing family members.

“This is truly tragic,” Yoon said in a statement on Sunday, hours after some 151 people were killed in a crowd crush in Seoul’s Itaewon district.

“The government will designate the period from today until the accident is brought under control as a period of national mourning,” he said.

Fire officials said most of the victims were women and young people in their 20s and included 19 foreigners from Iran, Uzbekistan, China and Norway.A further 82 people were also injured, 19 of them seriously.

The Yonhap news agency called the disaster, which hap pened shortly after 10pm local (13:00GMT) when a huge crowd thronged a narrow alley near the Hamilton Hotel, the deadliest such incident in South Korean history.It happened at the first Halloween celebrations in Seoul in three years, after the country lifted COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing. Tens of thousands of partygoers, wearing masks and Halloween costumes, had reportedly gone to Itaewon for the event.

The cause of the crush was not immediately clear, though some local media said it happened after a large group of people rushed to a bar in the area after hearing an unidentified celebrity visited there.Witnesses described scrambling to get out of the suffocating crowd in the downhill alley as people ended up piling on top of one another.

“People kept pushing down into a downhill club alley, resulting in other people screaming and falling down like dominos,” one unidentified witness was quoted as saying by the Yonhap news agency. “I thought I would be crushed to death too as people kept pushing without realizing there were people falling down at the start of the stampede.”

“There were so many people just being pushed around and I got caught in the crowd and I couldn’t get out at first too,” 30-year-old Jeon Ga-eul told the AFP news agency. “I felt like an accident was bound to happen.”

Babette Vanderhaeghen, a Belgian resident of Seoul, told the Korea Joong Ang Daily newspaper that she escaped the melee. “We thought we were going to die because there were far too many people,” she said.Another survivor blamed owners of bars and clubs for the high death toll, accusing them of blocking people trying to escape the crush.

“It looks like the casualties were more severe as people attempted to escape to nearby stores but were kicked out back to the street because business hours were over,” the survivor who asked not to be named told Yonhap.

Videos and images from the immediate aftermath showed chaotic scenes of fire officials and citizens treating dozens of people who appeared to be unconscious. Footage from later on in the evening showed dozens of bodies spread on the pavement covered by bed sheets and emergency workers dressed in orange vests loading even more bodies on stretchers into ambulances.

The Seoul Metropolitan government, which had issued emergency text messages urging those in Itaewon to swiftly return home, said on Sunday that it has received reports of 355 missing people following the disaster.It said 60 staff members have been assigned to about 50 hospitals to support the bereaved families of the victims.

The Korea Herald reported desperate scenes outside the Soonchunhyang University hospital, less than a kilometre (mile) away from Itaewon, as relatives searched for their loved ones.One mother looking for her son said she had gone to the police when he failed to answer his phone. One police officer said her son’s last phone activity had been in Itaewon, so she rushed there.

“When I got to Itaewon they said there were a lot of lost phones, and that I should try the nearby hospital and see if he made it there,” she told the Korea Herald. Commenting on the death toll at that point, she said: “One hundred and forty? That’s so many. Maybe he died. I don’t know. I can’t reach him.”

Another sobbing mother told the news outlet that she had gone back and forth between the hospital and a gym in the area where the bodies of victims had been taken to.

“Where do I have to go?” she asked the police officers there. “Please tell me what I have to do.”



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Trains on northern railway line will end at Mahawa for five months from 15th January 2023

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Minister of Transport and Highways Dr Bandula Gunawardena told Parliament today (28) that trains on the Northern railway line will end at Mahawa for a period of five months commencing 15th January 2023.

The Minister said that repairs to the railway line between Mahawa and Jaffna will commence on 15th January and will be completed within a period of five months.

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SLPP dissidents ask govt. to bring back USD 35 bn ‘parked’ overseas

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underscore need to amend Exchange Control Act

By Shamindra Ferdinando

MP Gevindu Cumaratunga, who represents the SLPP dissidents, yesterday (27) alleged that the incumbent government was yet to bring enough pressure to bear on those who had parked as much as USD 36 billion overseas to bring the money back.Cumaratunga said the government’s failure to amend the Exchange Control Act No 12 of 2017 should be examined against the backdrop of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Budget proposal to draw more loans in 2023.

The leader of the civil society group Yuthukama, Cumaratunga, who represents the Uththara Lanka Sabhagaya, one of the breakaway factions of the ruling SLPP, said that two of his colleagues, Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Wimal Weerawansa, had, during the ongoing Budget debate, had raised the issue of forex stashed away overseas.

Cumaratunga said that he couldn’t comprehend why the government delayed making it mandatory for exporters to bring back much required foreign exchange.Responding to The Island queries, lawmaker Cumaratunga emphasised that though the vote on the Second Reading of the Budget was approved on Nov. 22, with a majority of 37 votes, it failed to address even the basic issues. Cumaratunga was among 84 MPs who voted against the Budget whereas it received the backing of 121 lawmakers.

The other Yuthukama MP in Parliament Anupa Pasqual, now a State Minister, voted for the Budget.The parliament couldn’t absolve itself of the responsibility for taking immediate measures to amend the Exchange Control Act No 12 of 2017, the MP said, pointing out in terms of Article 148 that dealt with public finance this issue should have been addressed long ago.

Cumaratunga was not an MP at the time the Yahapalana administration introduced that controversial legislation.The first-time entrant to Parliament said that the government was on its knees before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for USD 2.9 bn spread over a period of four years, whereas exporters deliberately denied the country more than 10 times that amount in much needed forex.

Addressing the Parliament during the debate on the Budget, lawmaker Cumaratunga questioned the role played by the then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake in introducing the questionable piece of legislation.  Cumaratunga slammed Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, who previously held the Finance portfolio for ignoring the contentious issue of massive amount of money ‘parked’ overseas by exporters.

Declaring that Sabry hadn’t been involved with the then Joint Opposition following the 2015 change of government, lawmaker Cumaratunga questioned the circumstances under which the prominent President’s Counsel entered politics. The activist asked whether it was fair to accommodate Sabry on the SLPP National List in return for his role as leading lawyer for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and his current role.

During two speeches in Parliament, MP Cumaratunga dealt with several contentious issues, including an alleged move to deprive farmers of their land. The outspoken MP warned the government of dire consequences of a decision regarding state land that was to be taken soon, while appealing for Premier Dinesh Gunawardena’s intervention.

Referring to a steep increase in the allocation made to the President at the 2023 Budget, MP Cumaratunga said that the President received Rs 2,467 bn last year, Rs 3,044 bn this year and a staggering Rs 7,888 bn next year.

Appreciating a significant drop in the allocation made for the Premier, MP Cumaratunga said that the ministerial staff received Rs 132 bn last year, Rs 217 bn this year and Rs 263 bn next year. Such allocations should be studied taking into consideration the state of the national economy, lawmaker Cumaratunga said, alleging that the Budget didn’t reflect the actual situation.

The MP said that having received the executive presidency, through a vote in Parliament on July 20, to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, the UNP leader was pursuing an agenda contrary to what he preached as Premier (May 12-July 13, 2022).

Referring to statements made by Wickremesinghe during that period pertaining to the then proposed 21st Amendment to the Constitution, MP Cumaratunga questioned the rationale in the President holding onto the Finance portfolio. The MP said as Premier Wickremesinghe continuously expressed the view that the President shouldn’t hold any Cabinet portfolio. The MP said that they were of the view that the President should hold the Defence portfolio. Having vowed to strengthen Parliament, President Wickremesinghe could justify his role as the Finance Minister. The President holds several other ministerial portfolios for want of an agreement with the SLPP pertaining to sharing of portfolios.

Referring to the Budget declaration that the government intended to procure Rs 1,000 bn in loans and settle loans amounting to Rs 440 bn, MP Cumaratunga said that the bottom line is the increase in debt. “Aren’t we getting further embroiled in a debt trap?” he asked.

MP Cumaratunga strongly criticized the government for planning to open Mahaweli lands to outsiders. The declaration that profit-making Sri Lanka Telecom and Sri Lanka Insurance would be privatized, on the pretext of restructuring, came under fire by the MP, who also expressed serious concerns over the proposed privatization of Hilton as well as profit-making sections of SriLankan Airlines.

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Security stickers on bottles of liquor: The corrupt make a killing – Buddhika

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More than 100,000 bottles of liquor with fake security stickers are currently in the market, says SJB Matara District MP Buddhika Pathirana. Addressing the media at the Opposition Leader’s office in Colombo, recently, Pathirana said the security sticker racket has deprived the state coffers of billions of rupees in taxes.

“Leading liquor manufacturers are carrying out this racket with the help of some corrupt Excise officials. The business of counterfeit security stickers is far more lucrative than producing dud notes.  The QR codes printed on the so-called security stickers cannot be read by QR reader apps in mobile phones. Now, a lot of people know how to use mobile phones to scan QR codes to access information contained therein. Many software companies as well as open sources offer QR reader apps free of charge to be downloaded to the mobile phones.

“We have been warning of this security sticker project since inception. We have also warned that the company selected for printing QR code stickers for liquor is under a cloud.”

Pathirana said that State Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya too had admitted that artificial toddy is for manufacturing arrack. “Minister Siyambalapitiya has stated that the country’s liquor industry needs at least 150,000 liters of toddy a day but only 45,000 litres can be produced from the coconut palms in the country, and the shortfall is met with artificial toddy. I know that he too is now in a position where he cannot fight against the racketeers because the Finance Ministry officials do not support him,” Pathirana said.

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