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Disaster-hit Japan hopes to cool reactors soon

KITAKAMI, Japan, (AFP) - Japanese engineers fighting to cool overheating reactors laid a power line into a stricken nuclear power plant on Saturday as hundreds of thousands of quake-tsunami survivors endured desperate conditions in the frozen north.
In an updated toll, national police said at least 18,000 were dead or missing in Japan’s worst natural disaster in 88 years. Just under 7,200 were confirmed killed, lost to the tsunami or interred in the wreckage of buildings.
Amid the sea of carnage on Japan’s northeast coast, one tiny drop of good news seemed to have emerged with the military announcing the rescue of a young man who it said had survived after eight days trapped in his mangled house.
But a spokesman for the Self-Defense Forces later clarified that the man in his 20s was in fact a disaster evacuee who had returned to his house.
Half a million homeless people are struggling to stay warm in freezing temperatures and with scant supplies of food and fuel, after the tsunami reduced whole towns and villages to splintered matchwood.
Further south at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, crews were locked in what the UN’s atomic watchdog said was a “race against time” to cool overheating reactors and prevent radiation spewing into the atmosphere.
After an epic week-long tussle to tame the ageing facility, where the tsunami knocked out all-important backup generators, the crews were expecting Saturday to restore electricity to four of its six reactors, officials said.
The nuclear safety agency said workers had got a power line into the plant after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake - the biggest in Japan’s recorded history - felled electricity pylons in the area.
With power back up, the radiation-suited Fukushima engineers hope they can get vital cooling systems online. In the meantime, they have been dumping water by hose and by air on the reactors to avert a feared meltdown.
But given the extent of damage at the plant, it was not yet clear whether the cooling system would work properly even if power is restored.
The lack of power has sent the temperatures of fuel rods -- both in the reactors and in separate containment pools -- soaring as fast-evaporating coolant water leaves them exposed to the air.
The natural disaster on March 11 led to a series of hydrogen explosions and fires at buildings housing the reactor units, stoking anxiety among governments and the public worldwide and contributing to turmoil on financial markets.
But in a televised address Friday evening, Prime Minister Naoto Kan promised the traumatised nation: “We will overcome this tragedy and recover... We will once more rebuild Japan.”
Recalling Japan’s recovery from the ashes of World War II, Kan promised “firm control” of the disaster and said: “We are in a situation in which this crisis is truly testing us as a people.”

Demos across Syria after foiled Damascus rally

DAMASCUS (AFP) - Syrian security forces killed four people and wounded hundreds as demonstrations erupted across the country in the first such show of discontent under Bashar al-Assad’s rule, rights groups said.
“Security forces fired live bullets at the protesters. Four people were killed” on Friday, said a human rights activist in the southern city of Daraa contacted by AFP from Nicosia.
He identified the victims as Akram al-Jawabra, Hussam Abdelwali Ayash, Ayham al-Harri and a member of the Abu Aoun family.
“Hundreds of protesters were wounded and many were snatched by the security force from the hospital where they had been taken and removed to an unknown location,” he added.
Similar demonstrations were reported in the coastal town of Banias, in Homs, north of the capital, as well as in Damascus,
Plain-clothes police broke up a protest after Friday prayers at the main mosque in central Damascus and dragged away at least two activists, AFP reporters witnessed.
A crowd inside the men’s section of the historic Omayyed Mosque could be heard chanting “There is no God but God” in crescendo after the noon prayers.
Dozens of security agents deployed outside the mosque pulled out batons as soon as the chants broke out and detained at least two people, beating one who resisted and kicking him in the nose.
At least 200 people immediately rallied in a square outside the mosque, shouting support for Assad, who rose to power in 2000, and waving Syrian flags.
Some carried portraits of his late father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad.
Terrified families could be seen fleeing the square, with many children in tears.
Facebook group The Syrian Revolution 2011 had called for demonstrations after Friday prayers during a “Day of Dignity.” The group had attracted more than 52,000 fans by Friday.
A video posted Friday on the page showed a crowd of men inside the Omayyed Mosque chanting “there is no God but God” in response to a few calls of “freedom” which were quickly drowned out.
Another video showed one man being dragged out of the mosque by other men who had attended the prayers.
The Facebook group also posted a video of a rally outside a landmark mosque in the city of Homs, 150 kilometres (about 100 miles) north of Damascus, where dozens of protesters marched, chanting “God, Syria, freedom.”
Two other videos, allegedly from the coastal city of Banias, showed crowds, one with at least 100 people, chanting for freedom.
The page said clashes had occurred between protesters and security forces in Daraa, while video footage showed fire trucks turning their hoses on a procession to disperse demonstrators.
More footage showed hundreds of protesters, mainly men, chanting in Daraa, some 100 kilometres south of the capital.

Japan denies news of ‘eight-day survivor’

OSAKA, Japan (AFP) - A man thought to have survived for eight days in the rubble of Japan’s earthquake and tsunami zone was actually an evacuee who had returned to his house, a military spokesman said Saturday.
Troops had found the man -- aged in his 20s, apparently in shock and unable to speak -- inside a wrecked house in the disaster area of Kesennuma city in Miyagi prefecture, the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) said earlier.
“When the person was transported to hospital, a fire department official recognised him as an evacuee who had been in a centre for a week and who had tried to return to his home,” an SDF spokesman later told AFP.
The man had temporarily returned home, together with his family, and was alone on the second floor of his half-destroyed house when he was found by a pair of troops, Jiji Press said, citing SDF and hospital sources.
The man was identified as Katsuharu Moriya, Kyodo News agency reported.
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake on March 11 triggered a giant tsunami that flattened Japan’s northeast coast and killed 7,197, according to the latest police death toll, with almost 11,000 officially listed as missing.

Japan disaster dead, missing toll tops 18,000: Police

TOKYO, March 19, 2011 (AFP) - The number of people confirmed as dead or listed as missing by Japan’s national police agency topped 18,000 on Saturday, eight days after the massive earthquake and tsunami struck.
There were fears of a far higher death toll from the disaster that wiped out vast residential areas along the Pacific coast of northern Honshu island.
The national police agency said 7,197 people had been confirmed dead and 10,905 officially listed as missing -- a total of 18,102 -- as of 9:00 am Saturday (0000 GMT) as a result of the March 11 catastrophe.
Hopes of finding many more survivors amid the rubble have diminished amid a cold snap that has hit Japan’s northeast, covering much of the disaster area in snow earlier this week.
The death toll has surpassed that of the 7.2-magnitude quake that struck the western Japanese port city of Kobe in 1995, killing 6,434 people.
The March 11 quake is now Japan’s deadliest natural disaster since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed more than 142,000 people.
The latest police figures for people missing do not include local reports from along the tsunami-hit coast of vast numbers of people unaccounted for.
The mayor of the coastal town of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture said Wednesday that the number of missing there was likely to hit 10,000, Kyodo News reported.
On Saturday, public broadcaster NHK said that around 10,000 people were unaccounted for in the port town of Minamisanriku in the same prefecture.


Senegal says ‘plot’ to oust the government

DAKAR, March (AFP) - Senegal on Saturday denounced a “plot” to topple the government of President Abdoulaye Wade, who came to power exactly 11 years ago, and said arrests would follow.
The plotters included opposition activists, artists and students, a communique by Justice Minister Cheikh Tidiane Sy read on state television said early Saturday.
“The avowed objective of the plotters is to stir trouble to bring the people on to the streets, create disorder and violence to topple the regime,” it said.
“The state prosector has decided to nip the plot in the bud ... by proceeding to arrest individuals duly identified as being involved in the plot,” it said.
A range of political and civic groups have announced plans to demonstrate on Saturday, the 11th anniversary of Wade’s electoral victory on March 19, 2000. He was sworn in on April 1 that year and is now 84.
He was re-elected for five years in 2007 after a change to the constitution and announced as of September 2009 that he would seek another mandate. The opposition believes he should step down in 2012.
“The security and defence forces are already prepared to channel demonstrations and make them safe. They have also received orders to tolerate no excesses, no violence, no deterioration of property,” the ministry of the interior said in a statement.
“Organisers and participants in gatherings, rallies and demonstrations where there is damage and violence will be held financially responsible for the costs” incurred, the ministry warned.
The government said that none of the pre-announced demonstrations had been banned, despite fears of unrest in the west African country, where there is heated debate over Wade’s tenure.
Saturday’s rallies also come in a tense social and economic climate, marked notably by frequent power cuts, which have caused severe setbacks to business and industry and exasperated many Senegalese people.


Fighting reported near Benghazi

BBC - Explosions have rocked Libya’s rebel stronghold of Benghazi, despite Libya’s government declaring a ceasefire.
A jet appears to have been shot down over the city in spite of a UN no-fly resolution, says the BBC’s Ian Pannell.
The rebels say they are under attack from pro-Gaddafi forces, but the government denies the claims.
Leaders from Britain, the US, France and Arab countries are due to meet in Paris to discuss military action in Libya under the new UN resolution.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the world must “speak with one voice” on Libya.
The resolution authorised “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians.
Earlier, US President Barack Obama said forces loyal to Col Muammar Ghaddafi must stop attacking rebel areas or face military action.
“Gaddafi must stop his troops from advancing on Benghazi, pull them back from Ajdabiya, Misrata and Zawiya and establish water, electricity and gas supplies to all areas,” he said on Friday.
On Friday, Col Gaddafi’s government declared a unilateral truce but there were reports that government offensives in rebel-held towns were continuing, and our correspondent says gunfire was also heard coming from the sea.