Grenfell Tower Survivors Weep as Inquiry Begins in London

Survivors of a devastating high-rise fire in London wept Monday as relatives paid tribute to some of the 72 victims at the opening of an inquiry into Britain’s deadliest blaze in decades.

The Grenfell Tower inquiry is beginning with two weeks of tributes to those who died when a fire that began in a faulty fridge raced through the 24-story apartment block in June 2017. The statements from friends and family members are meant to keep the victims at the center of the inquiry, which will try to determine how the disaster happened and prevent a similar tragedy happening in the future.

“When we die, we live on in the memories of those who knew and loved us,” said retired judge Martin Moore-Bick, who is leading the inquiry. “It is fitting therefore that the opening hearings … should be dedicated to the memory of those who died.”

The victims included baby Logan Gomes, who was stillborn after his family escaped from the 21st floor of the building.

“He might not be here physically, but he will always be here in our hearts, and will be forever,” said his father Marcio Gomes, his voice breaking. “I know he’s here, with God, right next to me, giving me strength and courage to take this forward.”

The inquiry heard a message left by Mohamed Amied Neda from inside his apartment.

“Goodbye, we are leaving this world now, goodbye,” said the 57-year-old, who came to Britain from Afghanistan and ran a chauffeur company. He was found dead after falling from the building. His wife and son were left comatose but survived.

Mohammadou Saye remembered his 24-year-old daughter Khadija Saye, a promising visual artist whose work was shown at last year’s Venice Biennale.

“Her burning passion was photography, encouraged by her mother, Mary Mendy, who also lost her life in the same fire,” he said in a statement read by a lawyer.

“Khadija said to me one day: `Daddy, I’m in love with images.”

Moore-Bick’s inquiry will look at causes of the blaze, the response of local authorities and the country’s high-rise building regulations. But some survivors are critical because it won’t investigate wider issues around social housing that many residents had wanted to include.

Many residents accuse officials in Kensington and Chelsea, one of London’s richest boroughs, of ignoring their safety concerns because the publicly owned tower was home to a largely immigrant and working-class population.

Police say they are considering individual or corporate manslaughter charges in the blaze, but no one has yet been charged.

Swedes Told to Prepare for Conflict in Cold War-Style Booklet

Sweden will send out instructions to its citizens next week on how to cope with an outbreak of war, as the country faces an assertive Russia across the Baltic Sea.

The 20-page pamphlet titled “If Crisis or War Comes” gives advice on getting clean water, spotting propaganda and finding a bomb shelter, in the first public awareness campaign of its kind since the days of the Cold War.

It also tells Swedes they have a duty to act if their country is threatened. “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up,” the booklet says. “All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false.”

The leaflet’s publisher, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, did not spell out where an attack might come from. “Even if Sweden is safer than most countries, threats do exist,” agency head Dan Eliasson told journalists.

But Sweden and other countries in the region have been on high alert since Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March, 2014. They have also accused Russia of repeated violations of their airspace – assertions that Moscow has either dismissed or not responded to.

The Kremlin has in the past insisted that it does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries and has accused Western powers of stoking “Russophobia.”

Stockholm has repeatedly cited Russian aggression as the reason for a series of security measures including the reintroduction of conscription this year and the stationing of troops on the Baltic island of Gotland.

The Swedish government decided to start increasing military spending from 2016, reversing years of declines.

The booklet on its way to Sweden’s 4.8 million households warns that supplies of food, medicine and gasoline could run short during a crisis.

It also lists oat milk, tins of Bolognese sauce and salmon balls as examples of food that people should store in case of an emergency along with tortillas and sardines.

The publication describes what an air raid warning sounds like in the first such publication handed out since 1961.

Sweden has not been at war with anyone for more than 200 years, not since its war with Norway in 1814. It was officially neutral during World War II.

 

Poland’s Walesa Visits Disabled Protesters in Parliament

Former Polish president and anti-communist leader Lech Walesa met Monday with disabled people and their parents who have been staging a sit-in in the parliament for over a month, offering them his solidarity and strongly denouncing the country’s populist government.

Several young adults in wheelchairs and their parents, their full-time caretakers, want more state aid, a demand the government has not fully met. While the numbers of protesters are small, their occupation of a corridor in parliament has received heavy coverage in the Polish media, becoming a headache for the conservative ruling party.

The parliament speaker has reacted by restricting access to some reporters, which itself is sparking complaints to prosecutors.

Walesa, a strong government critic, joined them Monday morning for about an hour, taking a seat and telling them: “You called me, so here I am.”

“I would like to make a contribution to your fight,” Walesa said.

The ruling party, Law and Justice, is strongly pro-Catholic and won elections in 2015 promising to help the poor and other disadvantaged people, but now faces accusations of treating society’s weakest members in a heartless way.

The president, prime minister and the minister for social policies have all visited the protesters, and the president this month signed a law raising the monthly benefits for disabled adults to 1,030 zlotys (239 euros; $281) from 865 zlotys. But they say the state can’t afford to pay them the additional 500 zlotys per month that they seek.

The protesters have asked to also meet party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, but there has been no meeting. Kaczynski has been recently hospitalized, reportedly for knee surgery.

Law and Justice leaders also accuse opposition lawmakers, who let the protesters into parliament, of using them as a tool in a political fight. With criticism rising, the parliament issued a statement on the weekend saying officials there were treating the protesters with “respect and empathy.”

Walesa listened to one of the mothers saying the families have felt humiliated by the government. Most of his comments were directed at criticizing the government.

“Those few people who are in power are chiefly intent on sowing discord. Through quarrels and feuding they are trying to stay in power,” Walesa said. “We must remove these people from power as soon as we can. They fight evil with evil and lawlessness with lawlessness.”

Walesa was the leader of the Solidarity freedom movement in the 1980s that helped topple communism. As Poland emerged as a new democracy he served as president from 1990-95.

Today he is deeply disliked by leaders of Law and Justice, who accuse him of having collaborated with the communist secret police in the 1970s and of mismanaging the country’s transition from communism to democracy, allowing former communists to continue to have too much influence in the new system.

Walesa denies those accusations.

LGBT Community Cheers Pope’s ‘God Made You Like This’ Remark

Pope Francis’ reported comments to a gay man that “God made you like this” have been embraced by the LGBT community as another sign of Francis’ desire to make gay people feel welcomed and loved in the Catholic Church.

Juan Carlos Cruz, the main whistleblower in Chile’s clerical sex abuse and cover-up scandal, said Monday he spoke to Francis about his homosexuality during their recent meetings at the Vatican. The pope invited Cruz and other victims of a Chilean predator priest to discuss their cases last month.

Cruz said he told Francis how Chile’s bishops used his sexual orientation as a weapon to try to discredit him, and of the pain the personal attacks had caused him.

“He said, ‘Look Juan Carlos, the pope loves you this way. God made you like this and he loves you,'” Cruz told The Associated Press.

The Vatican declined to confirm or deny the remarks in keeping with its policy not to comment on the pope’s private conversations. The comments first were reported by Spain’s El Pais newspaper.

Official church teaching calls for gay men and lesbians to be respected and loved, but considers homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered.” Francis, though, has sought to make the church more welcoming to gays, most famously with his 2013 comment “Who am I to judge?”

He also has spoken of his own ministry to gay and transgender people, insisting they are children of God, loved by God and deserving of accompaniment by the church.

As a result, some sought to downplay the significance of the comments as merely being in line with Francis’ pastoral-minded attitude.

In addition, there was a time not so long ago when the Catholic Church officially taught that sexual orientation was not something people choose, the implication being it was how God made them.

The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the dense summary of Catholic teaching published by St. John Paul II in 1992, said gay individuals “do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial.”

The updated edition, which is the only edition available online and on the Vatican website, was revised to remove the reference to homosexuality not being a choice. The revised edition says: “This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial.”   

Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which advocates for equality for LGBT Catholics, said the pope’s comments were “tremendous” and would do a lot of good.

“It would do a lot better if he would make these statements publicly, because LGBT people need to hear that message from religious leaders, from Catholic leaders,” he said.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit whose book “Building a Bridge” called for the church to find new pastoral ways of ministering to gays, noted that the pope’s comments were in a private conversation, not a public pronouncement or document. But citing the original version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Martin said they were nevertheless significant.

“The pope is saying what every reputable biologist and psychologist will tell you, which is that people do not choose their sexual orientation,” Martin said in a telephone interview.

A great failing of the church, he said, is that many Catholics have been reluctant to say so, which then “makes people feel guilty about something they have no control over.”

Martin’s book is being published this week in Italian, with a preface by the Francis-appointed bishop of Bologna, Monsignor Matteo Zuppi, a sign that the message of acceptance is being embraced even in traditionally conservative Italy.

 

 

Former Yugoslav Autocratic Leader’s Iconic Yacht Given New Life

Decades of rust are covering its hull, the furniture is broken in its once luxurious salons, its powerful engines are permanently idle. But against all odds, the iconic yacht that once belonged to the late Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito has been given a new lease on life.

The once-imposing ship that hosted Hollywood celebrities, some 70 world leaders and took Tito up the River Thames for a historic meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill will be turned into a floating museum.

The ship, called Galeb, or Seagull, is moored at the northern Croatian Adriatic port of Rijeka. After its turbulent history, including two sinkings since it was launched in 1938 and a failed purchase by a Greek tycoon, it was destined for a junkyard.

But authorities in Rijeka, the city that has been chosen by the European Union to be the European Capital of Culture in 2020, decided to completely refurbish it in a 5.4 million euro ($6.4 million) project that will start in 2019.

“Galeb is a ship with very interesting and turbulent history,” Rijeka Mayor Vojko Obersnel said. “Of course the most interesting part of that history is when it was a ship belonging to President Josip Broz Tito.”

The decision to renovate the 5,100-ton, 106-meter (350-foot) vessel has triggered anger from Croatia’s nationalists.

They blame Tito, who ruled communist Yugoslavia for 35 years until he died in 1980, for autocratic rule and for forcing Croatia to join the former federation of six republics that comprised Yugoslavia.

The boat has become a symbol of Tito’s well documented life of luxury and splendor. And his critics in Croatia want it to be destroyed.

But Obersnel says the renovation plan will go forward. “First of all, it’s our history and we cannot change that history,” Obersnel said. “During that period, we could talk about good things and maybe some not so good things. But that’s our history.”

The decaying ship hulk has been towed to an isolated dock in the harbor, with its bow pointing at downtown Rijeka, once a drab port town that is gradually becoming one of Croatia’s main tourist destinations.

“The idea of renovation is to make it a ship museum to primarily show its history, all of its life phases that were many and very interesting,” said Kristina Pavec from Rijeka’s City Museum, which is overseeing the project.

The ship’s once luxurious salons and stairways are full of broken down 1960s furniture. Torn carpets and wallpaper lines the decks and bulkheads. In his private quarters, Tito’s walk-in closet for ties, shoes and flashy military uniforms stands empty; his bed mattress is still there, but the bed is not. On the captain’s fly bridge, naval maps flutter in spring breeze and the engine order telegraph is pointing at idle.

In Tito’s era, the ship belonged to the Yugoslav naval academy. After the bloody breakup of the federation in the 1990s, it first was parked in Montenegro before being sold to Croatia for $150,000.

Built in Genoa, Italy, the ship was intended for transport of tropical fruit from Africa. During World War II, the Nazis used it as an auxiliary naval ship to lay mines. The ship was eventually sunk in Allied bombings of Rijeka’s port toward the end of the war.

After the war, it was completely reconstructed and turned into a Yugoslav naval academy training ship. A VIP bloc was added so the yacht could serve as Tito’s luxury residence on his frequent sea voyages. The crew typically included 200 sailors and some 20 VIP guests, including an orchestra that entertained them during parties.

The late president preferred it to airplane travel and used it extensively on tours to Africa, Asia, South America and Europe. It became famous in 1953 when Tito sailed into London to meet Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II as the first Communist leader to visit Britain after World War II.

World leaders entertained on the ship included late Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and India’s Indira Gandhi. Tito was particularly excited to welcome movie celebrities such as Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who played Tito in a 1973 war epic filmed in Yugoslavia.

Turkey’s Erdogan Seeks Votes in Bosnia After Ban on Campaigning Elsewhere

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took a swipe at European countries that refused to let him campaign on their territory on Sunday as he called at a rally in Bosnia for expatriate Turks to vote for him and his ruling AK Party in elections next month.

The presidential and parliamentary polls on June 24 will see Turkey switch to a powerful, executive presidential system that was narrowly approved in a referendum last year.

“As European Turks you have always supported us by a wide margin. Now we need your support again in the elections on June 24,” Erdogan told a rally in a Sarejevo sports hall, where supporters waved Turkish and Bosnian flags.

Ahead of the 2017 referendum, ministers traveled to countries with big Turkish communities — including Germany and the Netherlands — to urge support for the change, but were stopped from campaigning by authorities citing security fears. Erdogan nevertheless said last month he was expecting to hold a campaign rally in a European city.

“At a time when renowned European countries claiming to be the cradle of civilization failed, Bosnia and Herzegovina showed by allowing us to gather here that it is a real democracy not a so-called one,” he told a crowd of around 15,000.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who heads a right-wing coalition opposed to Turkey joining the European Union, said last month Erdogan would be barred from “trying to exploit” Europe’s Turkish communities.

Germany, home to about 3 million people of Turkish origin, says it will not allow foreign politicians to campaign on its territory ahead of elections.

Earlier in the day, Erdogan pledged a multibillion-euro investment in a motorway connecting Belgrade and Sarajevo. Thousands of Turks came from Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, and from across the Balkans for the rally.

“Turkey is our mother nation,” said Coskun Celiloglu, a Macedonian student of Turkish descent. “We came to Sarajevo just for one day to support our savior Erdogan.”

The most popular — and divisive — politician in recent Turkish history, Erdogan has ruled for 15 years, overseeing a period of rapid economic growth. But a widespread crackdown against his opponents has led rights groups and Western allies of the NATO member to voice concerns about Turkey’s record on civil rights and Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism.

On Saturday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu agency reported there had been tip-offs about a potential assassination attempt against Erdogan while he visits the Balkans.

Asked about the report, Erdogan said: “This news reached me and indeed that is why I am here … Such threats and operations cannot deter us from this path.”

Iran: EU Not Doing Enough to Support Nuclear Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Sunday that Europe’s political support to save the 2015 international nuclear accord after the U.S. withdrawal was not sufficient if too many European companies end their investments in Iran.

“The cascade of decisions by EU companies to end their activities in Iran makes things much more complicated,” Zarif said after meeting with European Union energy commissioner Miguel Arias Canete.

Iranian state broadcaster IRIB quoted Zarif as saying, “With the exit of the United States from the nuclear deal, the expectations of the Iranian public towards the European Union have increased… and the EU’s political support for the nuclear agreement is not sufficient.”

With the threat of reimposed U.S. sanctions against European companies doing business in Iran, several foreign firms have already pulled out of the country.

French oil major Total said it is abandoning its $4.8 billion investment in Iran unless it gets a sanctions waiver from the U.S., while another energy company, Engie, said it plans to stop its engineering work in Iran before November, when U.S. says it will reimpose sanctions.  

“The European Union must take concrete supplementary steps to increase its investments in Iran,” Zarif said. “The commitments of the EU to apply the nuclear deal are not compatible with the announcement of probable withdrawal by major European companies.”

EU leaders have pledged to try to keep Iran’s oil trade flowing, but conceded it would not be easy.

Arias Canete said, “We have to preserve this agreement so we don’t have to negotiate a new agreement. Our message is very clear. This is a nuclear agreement that works.”

If the nuclear deal falls apart in the aftermath of President Donald Trump withdrawing the U.S., Iran has threatened to resume industrial uranium enrichment “without limit.”

Tehran’s economy was hobbled by the sanctions imposed before the international agreement was reached to restrain Iran’s nuclear development, in exchange for ending the sanctions. Even as Trump withdrew the U.S., the remaining five signatories –Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — have all said they intend to stay in the pact with Tehran.

The U.S. has said it wants to reimpose sanctions to force Iran to negotiate a new deal with tighter curbs to prevent its development of nuclear weaponry, end its ballistic missile tests and rein in its military advances in the Middle East.

 

Markle Picks Simple, Sleek Dress by Givenchy Designer

Meghan Markle picked a sleek sculpted dress by the British designer of couture house Givenchy for her wedding to Prince Harry on Saturday, worn with a five-meter long veil and a sparkling diamond tiara lent by Queen Elizabeth.

The pure white long-sleeved gown with a boat neck had been eagerly anticipated by royal fans around the world, with speculation over which designer would be chosen starting soon after the couple announced their engagement in November.

As the bride stepped out of her classic Rolls-Royce, Kensington Palace announced that Clare Waight Keller, who became the first female artistic director at famed French house Givenchy last year, had secured the coveted role of making the dress.

Focus on neckline

The 47-year-old, previously at Pringle of Scotland and Chloe, met Markle earlier this year and the two worked together on the design, which “epitomizes a timeless minimal elegance,” Kensington Palace said.

“The focus of the dress is the graphic open bateau neckline that gracefully frames the shoulders and emphasizes the slender sculpted waist,” the palace said in a statement.

“The lines of the dress extend towards the back where the train flows in soft round folds cushioned by an underskirt in triple silk organza. The slim three-quarter sleeves add a note of refined modernity.”

The double bonded gown made of cady silk with a sweeping train was simple in style, which won praise from fashionistas.

Reaction

Edward Enninful, the editor of British Vogue, called the dress “beautiful” while bridal designer Raishma said the gown was “an example of couture design at its most classic and timeless.”

On social media, fans mainly showered the bride, who wore her hair up, with compliments, some even posting an image of Cinderella. Outside the wedding venue in Windsor, well-wishers were divided over its simplicity.

“It was simple and elegant,” 23-year-old Emily Devaney from New Zealand said. “It’s probably hard to dress for a royal wedding — you probably don’t have much you can go with but I thought she looked beautiful.”

Nursing student Linda O’Dwyer said it was “very modern and classy” and she preferred it to the lace-embroidered gown Kate Middleton wore at her 2011 wedding to Prince William.

“It was like (Megan) didn’t want it to be too over the top with lots of embroidery. It really suited her style,” she said.

However spectator Jennifer Hill, 69, described it as “very plain.” “I’m not surprised but slightly disappointed,” she said. “I thought it might be a little more flamboyant but it was very simplistic. I prefer her hair down.”

​Commonwealth tribute

The well-kept secret over who would design the dress had kept royal fans and fashionistas guessing for months. Among those cited as contenders were labels Ralph & Russo and Burberry as well as designer Stella McCartney.

Waight Keller, whose name has now been catapulted into the global spotlight, described the chance to work on the historic occasion as “an honor.”

“We wanted to create a timeless piece that would emphasize the iconic codes of Givenchy throughout its history, as well as convey modernity through sleek lines and sharp cuts,” she was quoted by British Vogue as saying on the magazine’s website.

Meghan’s long veil, made of silk tulle, was decorated with a trim of hand-embroidered flowers in silk threads and organza, the palace said, and paid tribute to the 53 countries of the Commonwealth.

“Ms. Waight Keller designed a veil representing the distinctive flora of each Commonwealth country united in one spectacular floral composition,” the palace said.

Prince Harry last month was appointed a Commonwealth youth ambassador.

Queen Elizabeth lent the 36-year-old bride a historic tiara for the occasion. Made in 1932 for Queen Mary, the sparkling diamond and platinum bandeau has a center brooch dating from 1893.

Meghan, now to be called the Duchess of Sussex, also wore Cartier earrings and bracelet, and silk duchess satin shoes.

Report: Europe, China, Russia Discussing New Iran Deal

Diplomats from Europe, China and Russia are discussing a new accord to offer Iran financial aid to curb its ballistic missile development and meddling in the region, in the hope of salvaging its 2015 nuclear deal, a German newspaper reported Sunday.

The officials will meet in Vienna in the coming week under the leadership of senior European Union diplomat Helga Schmid to discuss next steps after the May 8 decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to pull out of a 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, the Welt am Sonntag newspaper said, citing senior EU sources.

No US participation

Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China would participate in the meeting, but the United States would not, it said. It was not immediately clear if Iran, which has resisted calls to curb its ballistic missile program in the past, would take part.

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of most Western sanctions. One of the main complaints of the Trump administration was that the accord did not cover Iran’s missile program or its support for armed groups in the Middle East, which the West considers terrorists.

Concluding a new agreement that would maintain the nuclear provisions and curb ballistic missile development efforts and Tehran’s activities in the region could help convince Trump to lift sanctions against Iran, the paper said.

“We have to get away from the name ‘Vienna nuclear agreement’ and add in a few additional elements. Only that will convince President Trump to agree and lift sanctions again,” the paper quoted a senior EU diplomat as saying.

No immediate comment was available from the German foreign ministry.

Reassurances to Iran

The EU’s energy chief sought to reassure Iran on Saturday that the 28-member bloc remained committed to salvaging the nuclear deal and strengthening trade with Tehran.

Officials from the EU, Germany and other countries that remain committed to the deal have said it would disastrous if EU efforts fail to preserve it.

Iran has struggled to achieve financial benefits from the deal, partly because remaining unilateral U.S. sanctions over its missile program deterred major Western investors from doing business with Tehran.

The officials are looking for a new approach given an understanding that it would be difficult for European firms to work around new U.S. sanctions, the newspaper reported.

It said the new deal could include billions of dollars of financial aid for Iran, in line with an EU deal that provided billions in aid to Turkey for taking in millions of migrants and closing its borders, which helped end a 2015 migrant crisis.

Iran and European powers have made a good start in talks over how to salvage the 2015 deal but much depends on what happens in the next few weeks, Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif said last week.

Greece, Lenders Reach Deal on Bailout Review

Greece and representatives from its European and International Monetary Fund creditors have reached an initial agreement on the country’s reform progress under its final bailout review, the finance minister said Saturday.

“The staff-level agreement closed. We have an agreement on all issues,” Euclid Tsakalotos told reporters, adding it would be ratified at an upcoming meeting of euro zone finance ministers.

Greece is keen for a quick closure of the review as it looks to the end of its third bailout in August. It is being assessed on more than 80 demanded reforms, including on energy issues, pension and labor issues.

Athens also wants to reach a deal with its lenders before July on further debt relief, which will be implemented in the post-bailout period.

Greece has received about 260 billion euros in emergency loans since 2010 in exchange for unpopular austerity measures and reforms. The money has kept it afloat but has also increased its debt, which now stands at 180 percent of GDP.

The government wants to emerge from the bailout without requesting a precautionary credit line or extra financial aid. It has been building a cash buffer and wants to be able to service its debt with funds raised directly from the markets.