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No solution for boat people

A regional conference called to address the swelling tide of boat people in Southeast Asia ended with no major breakthroughs, with Myanmar deflecting blame for fueling the crisis and warning that "finger pointing" would not help.

But delegates agreed on one thing at least— the need to keep talking. The U.S. also prepared to begin surveillance flights in Thai airspace to help search for migrants who might be still stranded, after Thailand gave its permission.

In Myanmar, state television said the navy had seized a boat with 727 migrants off the coast of the Irrawaddy Delta region, the latest vessel found in the last few weeks. The report identified those on board as "Bengalis" — a reference to Bangladeshis — and said they were taken to a nearby island. Forty-five of them were children.

Friday's meeting in Bangkok was attended by representatives of 17 countries, along with the United States and Japan and officials from international organizations such as the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration. That so many countries — including Myanmar — participated was considered progress in itself.

"The most encouraging result was the general consensus that these discussions need to continue," said IOM Director-General William Lacy Swing. "It cannot be a one-off."

Southeast Asia has been beset for years by growing waves of desperate migrants from Bangladesh and Myanmar. In the last several weeks alone, at least 3,000 people have been rescued by fishermen or have made their way ashore in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Several thousand more are believed to still be at sea after human smugglers abandoned their boats amid a regional crackdown that has unearthed the graves of dozens of people who died while being kept hostage in illegal trafficking camps.

Some are Bangladeshis who left their impoverished homeland in hope of finding jobs abroad. But many are Rohingya Muslims who have fled persecution in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which has denied them basic rights, including citizenship, and confined more than 100,000 to camps. There are more than 1 million Rohingya living in the country formerly known as Burma.

At the start of the meeting, the U.N.'s assistant high commissioner for refugees responsible for protection, Volker Turk, said there could be no solution if root causes are not addressed.

"This will require full assumption of responsibility by Myanmar toward all its people. Granting citizenship is the ultimate goal," he said. "In the interim ... recognizing that Myanmar is their own country is urgently required (as well as) access to identity documents and the removal of restrictions on basic freedoms."

Htin Linn, the acting director of Myanmar's Foreign Affairs Ministry, shot back in a speech afterward, saying Turk should "be more informed." He also cast doubt on whether "the spirit of co-operation is prevailing in the room. ... Finger pointing will not serve any purpose. It will take us nowhere."

The word "Rohingya" did not appear on the invitation for the meeting, after Myanmar threatened to boycott the talks if it did, and most of those who spoke avoided it. Myanmar's government does not recognize Rohingya as an ethnic group, saying they are Bangladeshis. Bangladesh also does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens.

An official summary of the meeting included a list of proposals and recommendations, including ensuring the U.N. has access to migrants and addressing the issue's root causes. It was not clear that any of them had been agreed on, however, or that they would be implemented.

There were small signs of progress. Thai Foreign Minister Thanasak Patimaprakorn said Bangkok agreed to allow the U.S. military to operate flights out of Thailand to search for boats — one week after Washington put in a request to do so. The U.S. pledged $3 million to help the IOM deal with the crisis, and Australia promised $4.6 million toward humanitarian assistance in Myanmar.

Southeast Asian governments have largely ignored the issue for years. The problem has recently attracted international attention amid increased media scrutiny as more migrants and refugees pour out of the Bay of Bengal. In many cases, they pay human smugglers for passage to another country, but are instead held for weeks or months while traffickers extort more money from their families back home. Rights groups say some migrants have been beaten to death.

Human rights groups have urged those involved in the talks to find a better way of saving the migrants and put pressure on Myanmar to end its repressive policies that drive Rohingya to flee.

Swing said more than 160,000 people have fled into Southeast Asia since 2012, 25,000 of them this year.

"These are large numbers, but this is not an invasion or an inundation. It is something that is entirely manageable if we can come together as a community with the right policies," he said, adding that one of the challenges is changing the way migrants are viewed.

"Now it's a fairly toxic narrative, a fairly negative one," Swing said. But he said many nations were "built on the backs of migrants and with the minds of migrants. We need to ... look upon migrants as opportunities rather than a problem."

That will not be easy. Most countries in the region view the boat people as a burden, and refugees have been ping-ponged back and forth between Southeast Asian nations that have long tried to push them away.

In a turnaround, Malaysia and Indonesia agreed this month to provide Rohingya with shelter for one year.

Myanmar, meanwhile, released the results of its first census since 1982, putting the country's population at 51.5 million. The figure included an estimate of more than 1 million people categorized by the U.N. as Rohingya. They were not physically counted in the census "to avoid the possibility of violence occurring due to intercommunal tensions," the Population Ministry said.

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Associated Press writers Todd Pitman in Bangkok and Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar, contributed to this report.

The Canadian Press


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Man impaled by fish

Hawaii fire officials say a man is dead after he was apparently impaled by the bill of a fish.

West Hawaii Acting Battalion Chief John Whitman says witnesses reported that a man in his 40s jumped from a Kailua-Kona pier Friday in an attempt to catch a billfish, likely a short nose spear fish.

Whitman says the man was later seen floating and firefighters responded to the scene. Whitman says the man had a puncture wound to his right, upper torso. The man was taken to Kona Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Whitman estimates the fish was about 30 pounds. He says that type fish has a bill that can be up to a foot long.

The man's identity has not been released.

The Canadian Press


Beaches remain closed

A seven-mile stretch of Southern California coastline where globs of oily goo washed ashore will remain closed until officials determine the water is safe for swimmers and surfers, authorities said Friday.

The popular beaches on Santa Monica Bay will stay shut down indefinitely as crews collect the remaining tar balls and tar patties that began washing up Wednesday, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Michael Anderson said.

"This is just us being thorough," he said. "Most of the tar balls are cleaned up but we want to make sure we get them all."

Workers scooped up truckloads — about 30 cubic yards — of sandy goo along the shoreline from Manhattan Beach to Redondo Beach, and the mess seemed to have mostly dissipated by Friday.

Anderson estimated that about 90 per cent of the material had been removed.

Coast Guard and state officials said samples of tar and water would be analyzed to identify where the material originated, but it could take days to get the results.

There is a refinery and offshore oil tanker terminal nearby but the Coast Guard did not find a sheen from a possible spill after the tar started to accumulate. There is also a major shipping channel in the area.

Nothing has been ruled out, including last week's oil spill that dumped thousands of gallons of crude along the Santa Barbara County coast about 100 miles to the northwest. Two beaches there remain closed.

The environmentalist group Heal The Bay worried that the Los Angeles-area shoreline might reopen too soon.

"From a human health perspective, exposure through skin contact is a concern," the group said in a statement.

Someone dropped off an oil-covered loon at a wildlife centre in Manhattan Beach, but it's not clear exactly where the bird or the oil came from, the Coast Guard said. No other wildlife issues have been reported. The loon is expected to recover and be released back into the wild.

Lifeguards chased a handful of surfers out of the water Thursday at Manhattan Beach, but beach life was otherwise normal for people exercising, playing volleyball, skating and riding bikes along the shore. Beachgoers are used to stepping in small tar balls from natural seafloor seepage, but the amount that came ashore this week was highly unusual.

Public health officials told people to avoid contact with the water, wet sand or any material that washed up in the area.

The Canadian Press


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FIFA president re-elected

ZURICH - Sepp Blatter has been re-elected as FIFA president for a fifth term, chosen to lead world soccer despite separate U.S. and Swiss criminal investigations into corruption.

The 209 FIFA member federations gave the 79-year-old Blatter another four-year term on Friday after Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan conceded defeat after losing 133-73 in the first round.

Prince Ali's promise of a clean break from FIFA's tarnished recent history was rejected despite the worst scandal in the organization's 111-year history.

The Canadian Press


Love locks coming undone

Any hope that the love locks clinging to Paris' famed Pont des Arts bridge would last forever will be unromantically dashed by the city council's plan to dismantle them Monday — for good.

The padlocks — signed and locked by lovers on the metal grills on the bridge's sides by lovers — are widely regarded as an eyesore on Paris' most picturesque bridge, which overlooks the Eiffel Tower.

Last summer, they also became symbol of danger after a chunk of fencing fell off under their weight.

The city council said this week that the several hundred thousand padlocks in places around Paris cause "long-term heritage degradation and a risk for visitors' security."

Padlock-proof plexiglass panels will soon replace the Pont des Arts bridge's metal grills.

The Canadian Press


God's credit rating

A Russian-born man whose first name is God has settled a lawsuit with a credit reporting agency that had refused to recognize his name as legitimate.

Under the agreement reached in Brooklyn federal court this week, Equifax will enter God Gazarov's name into its database. The terms of the settlement were not disclosed.

Gazarov now has a robust 820 credit score.

He says he was shocked by Equifax's refusal to acknowledge his moniker.

The Russian native is a Brooklyn jewelry store owner who is named after his grandfather. He says it's a relatively common name in his native country.

He told the New York Post he's relieved the matter has been settled and plans to buy a new BMW.

Lawyers for Equifax declined to comment.

The Canadian Press


Spectacular eruption

A volcano erupted in spectacular fashion on a small island in southern Japan on Friday, spewing out rocks and sending black clouds of ash nine kilometres into the sky. Authorities told people on the island to evacuate.

One person was reported to have suffered minor burns from falling debris after Mount Shindake erupted, sending dense flows of rock and hot gases seaward, the Japan Meteorological Agency reported.

The injured man, another person who was feeling unwell and a third person were airlifted to nearby Yakushima island, the Fire and Disaster Management Agency said.

Another 133 people were evacuated on a coast guard vessel, a ferry and fishing boats.

"There was a really loud, 'dong' sound of an explosion, and then black smoke rose, darkening the sky," Nobuaki Hayashi, a local village chief, told public broadcaster NHK as he and dozens of others gathered at a shelter before leaving the island.

The agency raised the alert level for Kuchinoerabu island, where Shindake is located, to five, the highest on its scale. Shindake also erupted in August last year for the first time since 1980.

A military helicopter was sent to survey the island and assess damage.

Kuchinoerabu is 80 km southwest of Japan's main southern island of Kyushu. A heavily forested, mountainous island bordered mostly by rocky cliffs, it is a national park supported mainly by tourism and fishing.

About two hours after the eruption, NHK showed the mountain shrouded in light grey ash as the clouds from the eruption cleared.

It has little effect on air travel, with no cancellations or major route changes reported.

Kuchinoerabu usually can be reached only by a once-a-day ferry from Yakushima, 12 km to the east, which has an airport and a population of more than 13,000 people.

Japan, which sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," has dozens of volcanoes and is frequently jolted by earthquakes.

In March 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake rocked northeastern Japan, triggering a tsunami that killed more than 18,500 people and ravaged much of the northern Pacific coast.

Authorities recently closed part of a popular hot springs about 80 km from Tokyo because of fears of an eruption of Mount Hakone, which is southeast of Mount Fuji.

The Canadian Press


Tire-slashing bingo fight

Police have arrested an 82-year-old Lake Wales man for slashing a woman's tires because he claimed she was sitting in his favourite bingo seat.

WTVT-TV reports Fred Smith was charged with criminal mischief last Monday when police say he took an ice pick to 88-year-old Ethel Britt's van during a weekly bingo game at the Lake Ashton Retirement Community Club House.

Police say Smith stormed out of the bingo hall and punctured two of Britt's tires because she was sitting in a chair he usually sits in. Smith was caught on surveillance video in the act.

Lake Wales Deputy Chief Troy Schulze Smith says Smith admitted to the crime and expressed regret. Smith faces having to pay $500 in tire damage and restitution back to Britt.

The Canadian Press


Quake strikes off coast

A strong earthquake has struck in a remote region off the coast of Alaska and officials say there is no tsunami threat or immediate report of damage.

The U.S. Geological Survey says the magnitude-6.7 quake struck at 9 p.m. Thursday and was centred in the ocean about 35 miles beneath the seabed and some 400 miles southwest of Anchorage — a remote and lightly populated Aleutian Island region.

Officials say the temblor was felt on the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island, more than 100 miles away, but there are no immediate reports of damage.

The police dispatch office in Kodiak says that the temblor was felt at the station, but they have had no reports of any problems.

The National Tsunami Warning Center says there is no tsunami danger.

The Canadian Press


Death toll passes 1,800

Dizzying temperatures caused water shortages in thousands of Indian villages and killed hundreds more people over the past day, driving the death toll from a weekslong heat wave to at least 1,826, officials said Friday.

Meteorological officials called the heat wave "severe" and warned that it would continue for at least two days across a huge swathe of the South Asian country from Tamil Nadu in the south to the Himalayan foothill state of Himachal Pradesh.

Most of those killed by heat-related conditions including dehydration and heat stroke have been in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where 100 people died just on Thursday as temperatures hovered about 43 C.

Thousands of water tankers were delivering supplies to more than 4,000 villages and hamlets facing acute water shortages in the central state of Maharashtra, state officials told the Press Trust of India news agency.

People across India were reporting scorched crops and dying wildlife, with some animals succumbing to thirst.

Indians were doing whatever they could to beat the heat, including staying in the shade, plunging into rivers, and drinking buttermilk, onion juice and plenty of water.

But many farmers and construction workers struggling with poverty were still working outdoors despite the risks. They along with the impoverished elderly were among the most vulnerable, without access to air conditioners or sometimes even shade-giving trees.

Cooling monsoon rains were expected next week in the south before gradually advancing north.

However, forecasting service AccuWeather warned of prolonged drought conditions, with the monsoon likely to be disrupted by a more active typhoon season over the Pacific.

"While there will be some rainfall on the region, the pattern could evolve into significant drought and negatively impact agriculture from central India to much of Pakistan," senior meteorologist Jason Nicholls at AccuWeather said in a statement.

The Canadian Press


Plastic pollution problems

About 80 per cent of human-made debris found in the Great Lakes is plastic, ranging from tiny micro-beads found in cosmetics and clothing fibers to bottles and plastic wrap, scientists said Thursday during a meeting of Great Lakes scientists being held at the University of Vermont.

While the big pieces can be ugly, the smaller pieces can attract dangerous chemicals, such as pesticides or herbicides, which can then be eaten by plankton, mussels, fish or birds, the scientists said.

"The concern is ... these plastics act as a means to move ... toxic compounds into the food web and into us," said Sherri Mason, a chemist who led a Thursday session on micro-plastics at the 58th Annual Conference on Great Lakes Research.

The danger of plastic pollution in the world's oceans has been around for some time. However, the scientific awareness of the threat to the Great Lakes is relatively new, only coming to the attention of scientists in the last several years, said Mason, who works at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

During the past couple of years, Mason and her colleagues have documented micro-plastic litter — some too small to see with the naked eye — in the Great Lakes. Some of the particles are abrasive beads used in personal care products such as facial and body washes and toothpastes. Others are more traditional litter that don't decompose and only gets broken into smaller pieces.

Some states are making efforts to control the microbeads. Earlier this week, Michigan's two Democratic U.S. Senators, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, introduced legislation to phase out the manufacture and sale of microbeads found in household products. Similar legislation has been introduced in the U.S. House.

Thursday's sessions were for scientists to bring each other up to speed on what is being done in different parts of the Great Lakes to confront the problem. They heard of efforts to count how much plastic is washing up on beaches in the U.S. and Canada. They also heard of efforts to count plastic pieces floating in the water of the lakes and their tributaries and in the sediment on the bottom.

The meeting also gave the scientists the opportunity to trade techniques and tips as detailed as the size of mesh that's most effective when used to skim for tiny plastics.

"The goal of all of this ... is creating a framework for assessing the risk of these plastics in the environment," said Melissa Duhaime of the University of Michigan. "So (we're) thinking about the risk of exposure to plastics and potentially to toxins, potentially to microbes and what the implications might be."

The Canadian Press


Own a piece of Letterman

You can own a piece of Late Night history.

Over the 33-year run of David Letterman’s talk show, there were many iconic and memorable moments.

Among them, the “bumpers” that were used to transition the show in and out of commercial breaks. These were creative photographs that involved a slice-of-life moment with “Late Night with David Letterman” written somewhere in the frame.

On May 31, a collection of the images will be auctioned off at the Bergamont Station Arts Centre in Santa Monica, Calif.

The exhibit, titled Art of Late Night, includes 33 photographs that are all signed by the artist, Marc Karzen.

According to the auction site, the photographs have been stored in Karzen’s archives for more than two decades and were thought to be missing.

One of the bumpers used in the final episode will be included in the auction.

The full list of images can be found here.



Soccer's defiant boss

As defiant as ever, Sepp Blatter resisted calls to resign as FIFA president Thursday and deflected blame for the massive bribery and corruption scandal engulfing soccer's world governing body.

"We, or I, cannot monitor everyone all of the time," Blatter said in his first public remarks on the crisis that has further tainted his leadership on the eve of his bid for a fifth term as president.

The 79-year-old Blatter insisted he could restore trust in world soccer after a pair of corruption investigations brought "shame and humiliation" on his organization and the world's most popular sport.

"We cannot allow the reputation of football and FIFA to be dragged through the mud any longer," he said. "It has to stop here and now."

Despite a tide of criticism and pressure on him to leave, Blatter is moving ahead with a presidential election Friday that is likely to bring him another four years in office as one of them most powerful men in sports.

"The events of yesterday have cast a long shadow over football," he said, his voice shaky at times, in a speech to open FIFA's two-day congress. "There can be no place for corruption of any kind."

Blatter refused to back down after European soccer body UEFA demanded earlier Thursday that he quit following the latest — and most serious allegations — to discredit FIFA during his 17 years in office.

"Enough is enough," UEFA President Michel Platini said. "People no longer want him anymore and I don't want him anymore either."

Platini met privately with Blatter and asked him to go.

"I am asking you to leave FIFA, to step down because you are giving FIFA a terrible image," Platini said he told Blatter. "In terms of our image, it is not good at all and I am the first one to be disgusted by this."

Blatter, who is expected to win Friday's election against Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, is coming under increasing scrutiny amid U.S. and Swiss federal investigations into high-level corruption tearing at FIFA.

A U.S. Justice Department investigation accused 14 international soccer officials or sports marketing executives of bribery, racketeering, fraud and money-laundering over two decades in connection with marketing rights worth hundreds of millions of dollars awarded for tournaments in North and South America. Seven officials — including two FIFA vice-presidents and members of its finance committee — remained in custody in Zurich on Thursday. Blatter was not implicated in the indictment.

In addition, Swiss officials are investigating the FIFA votes that sent the World Cup tournament to Russia in 2018 and to Qatar in 2022. Both decisions were marred by allegations of wrongdoing.

One of FIFA's major sponsors, Visa, warned Thursday that it could pull out of its contract, which is worth at least $25 million a year through 2022.

Visa urged FIFA "to take swift and immediate steps to address these issues within its organization."

While acknowledging that many people hold him responsible for FIFA's tattered image, Blatter blamed the "actions of individuals" for harming the organization.

"If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it," he said. "I will not allow the actions of a few to destroy the hard work and integrity of the vast majority of those who work so hard for football."

Blatter said the crisis could mark a "turning point" for FIFA to clean itself up.

"We will co-operate with all authorities to make sure anyone involved in wrongdoing, from top to bottom, is discovered and punished," he said. "There can be no place for corruption of any kind. The next few months will not be easy for FIFA. I'm sure more bad news will follow. But it is necessary to begin to restore trust in our organization."

Referring to Friday's election, Blatter said: "We have the opportunity to begin on what will be a long and difficult road to rebuilding trust. We have lost their trust, at least a part of it, and we must now earn it back."

The Canadian Press


No more 'mankinis'

It was one small ban for mankinis, one giant step for an English seaside resort town.

Officials in Newquay say crime has fallen since they cracked down on stag parties with revelers wearing the revealing one-piece garments.

The town in southwest England is a haven for surfers and also attracts large numbers of young partygoers.

After two teenagers fell from cliffs to their deaths in 2009, residents protested about the excessive partying.

Police clamped down on anti-social behaviour, including public drunkenness and the wearing of "inappropriate clothing," including the sling-style men's swimsuits made notorious by comic character Borat, which one senior police officer called "revolting."

Police said Thursday that reported cases of anti-social behaviour had nearly halved since 2009-2010, and crime fell from 1,823 incidents in 2012-2013 to 1,624 incidents in 2014-2015.

Police Inspector Dave Meredith said the town had seen "a miraculous improvement."

Newquay mayor David Sleeman said the town was unrecognizable from a few years ago, when "you couldn't walk the streets on a Saturday without seeing someone wearing a mankini or what have you."

"But now they're not allowed in Newquay. The police will tell them to go home and get changed if they see them wearing one, and the guest houses and campsites are pretty good at warning their guests about what's acceptable.

"I think we have turned the corner here."

The Canadian Press




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