Migrant deaths spur calls for safe passage

Three deadly Mediterranean incidents that claimed the lives of hundreds of would-be asylum-seekers fleeing war and repression sharpened calls Saturday for humanitarian corridors to allow safe passage to Europe.

At least 34 people drowned in Maltese waters south of the Italian island of Lampedusa when a boat packed with hundreds of Syrians and Palestinians capsized Friday, the same day 12 migrants died in a shipwreck off Egypt.

Those tragedies came eight days after at least 339 Eritreans died when their boat sank within sight of Lampedusa — 70 miles from Africa and a gateway to Europe — in one of the worst verified migrant sea disasters on the Mediterranean Sea.

The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, expressed concern that Syrians fleeing conflict have sought to reach Europe by such a perilous route, calling it “inhumane.”

“They escaped bullets and bombs only to perish before they could ever claim asylum,” he said.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for action “that places the vulnerability and human rights of migrants at the center,” while Pope Francis lamented that “too often we are blinded by our comfortable lives and refuse to see those dying at our doorstep.”

— Associated Press

Spending level holds despite war losses

Syria’s government has agreed on a 2014 budget of $8.18 billion, the state news agency SANA reported Saturday, a marginal increase over this year’s spending despite the economic devastation wrought by 2½ years of conflict.

The report gave no breakdown of spending, which it said was $50 million higher than the 2013 budget. But Prime Minister Wael al-Halki was quoted as saying that budget expenditures will focus on education, health and agriculture.

Syria’s war has ruined the country’s economy, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage and depriving it of crucial revenue from tourism and oil exports. Figures released by Syria’s Central Bank showed that foreign reserves fell by more than a third in the 10 months after protests erupted against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.

But the country has received extensive financial support from Iran, including billions of dollars in credit to buy oil products to help shore up its economy.

— Reuters

Snowden speaks out
in online video clips

Former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden says surveillance programs used by the United States to tap into phone and Internet connections around the world are making people less safe.

In short video clips posted by the WikiLeaks Web site Friday, Snowden said the NSA mass surveillance he revealed before fleeing to Russia “puts us at risk of coming into conflict with our own government.”

Snowden, who faces U.S. espionage charges, described the techniques as “dragnet mass surveillance that puts entire populations under sort of an eye that sees everything even when it’s not needed.”

The videos are the first of Snowden speaking since July 12, when he was shown at a Moscow airport pleading with Russian authorities to grant him asylum, which they did on Aug. 1.

— Associated Press

U.S.- chartered ship escorted to port by Venezuelan navy: A ship carrying five American oil workers was expected to touch shore Sunday after Venezuela intercepted the U.S.-chartered vessel in disputed waters off the coast of Guyana, a move that threatens to revive a decades-old territorial dispute between South America’s biggest oil producer and one of the region’s poorest nations. The survey research vessel, sailing under a Panamanian flag, was conducting a seismic study under contract for Anadarko Petroleum on Thursday when it was detained by a Venezuelan navy vessel and ordered to sail under escort to Margarita Island, which is part of Venezuela. Guyana’s government on Saturday requested a meeting with Venezuelan officials to discuss the developments.

Car bomb at Iraqi market kills 17: A pickup truck packed with explosives blew up at an Iraqi vegetable market, police said, killing 17 people. They said the nighttime bombing in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad, also wounded at least 35 people. More than 5,000 people have been killed in Iraq since attacks began accelerating in April.

Egyptian Islamist to be tried for insulting judges: A former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was charged with insulting the judiciary, Egyptian officials said, the latest move by prosecutors to bring to trial leading members of the former president’s allies. The officials said that 85-year-old Mahdi Akef had been referred to a criminal court in Cairo but that a trial date had not been set.

Blast in fireworks factory kills 19 in Vietnam: An explosion at a military-run fireworks factory in northern Vietnam killed at least 19 workers and injured dozens, officials and state media said. The military chief in Phu Tho province said that about 200 employees, who have been working weekends to produce fireworks for the Lunar New Year festival in January, were present at the time and that it was unclear how many escaped.

Peru bus accident kills 52: A makeshift bus carrying 52 Quechua Indians from a party in rural Peru plunged off a cliff into a river southeast of the capital, Lima, killing everyone on board, including 13 children, late Friday night. The bus fell about 650 feet into the chasm.

— From news services