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S. Korea officials admit responsibility in Halloween tragedy

S. Korea officials admit responsibility in Halloween tragedy

South Korean officials admitted responsibility and apologized on Tuesday for failures in preventing and responding to a Halloween crowd surge that killed more than 150 people and left citizens shocked and angry.

The government is facing growing public scrutiny over whether the crush Saturday night in Seoul’s Itaewon district, a popular nightlife neighborhood, could have been prevented and who should take responsibility for the country’s worst disaster in years.

National police chief Yoon Hee Keun said an initial investigation found there were many urgent calls from citizens notifying authorities about the potential danger of the crowd gathering in Itaewon. He said police officers who received the calls failed to handle them effectively.

“I feel a heavy responsibility (for the disaster) as the head of one of the related government offices,” Yoon said in a televised news conference. “Police will do their best to prevent a tragedy like this from happening again.”

Yoon said police have launched an intense internal probe into the officers’ handling of the emergency calls and other issues, such as the on-the-spot response to the crowd surge in Itaewon that night.

Separately, South Korea’s interior minister, emergency office chief, Seoul mayor and the head of a ward office that includes the Itaewon neighborhood all offered public apologies.

Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon apologized deeply and wept and briefly halted his news conference as he talked about the parent of a 20-year-old woman who was declared dead earlier in the day.

“When I tried to comfort a person with a daughter hospitalized at the National Medical Center yesterday, they said their daughter would survive and they believed so,” he said. “But I heard she passed away this morning. I am sorry that my apology has come late.”

The disaster — which left at least 156 people dead and 151 others injured — was concentrated in a narrow downhill alley in Itaewon. Witnesses described people falling on one another, suffering severe breathing difficulties and falling unconscious. They said rescuers and ambulances failed to reach the crammed alleys in time because the entire Itaewon area was packed with slow-moving vehicles and partygoers clad in Halloween costumes.

Most of the dead were in their 20s and 30s, and about two-thirds were women.

During a Cabinet council meeting Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol acknowledged that South Korea lacks research on crowd management. He called for the use of drones and other high-tech resources to develop an effective crowd control capability, and said the government will soon meet with experts to review national safety rules.

The crowd surge is South Korea’s deadliest disaster since a 2014 ferry sinking that killed 304 people and exposed lax safety rules and regulatory failures. Saturday’s surge has raised public questions about what South Korea has done since then to prevent human-made disasters.

“My heart is aching a lot as all the victims were like my grandchildren,” 74-year-old Chung Kil-soon said after paying respects at a mourning station Tuesday. “People say our country is an advanced country, but I don’t think we are truly advanced.”

After the Itaewon disaster, police launched a 475-member task force to find its cause.

Senior police officer Nam Gu-Jun told reporters Monday that officers have obtained videos taken by about 50 security cameras in the area and were analyzing video clips posted on social media. Nam said police had also interviewed more than 40 witnesses and survivors so far.

Police said they had sent 137 officers to maintain order during the Halloween festivities on Saturday, much more than the 34-90 officers mobilized in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before the pandemic. But some observers questioned whether the 137 officers were enough to handle the estimated 100,00 people gathered Saturday in Itaewon.

Adding more questions about the role of police was the fact that they sent 7,000 officers to another part of Seoul earlier Saturday to monitor dueling protests involving tens of thousands of people. Police also acknowledged that the 137 officers dispatched to Itaewon were primarily assigned to monitor crime, with a particular focus on narcotics use, not crowd control.

The death toll could rise as officials said that 29 of the injured were in serious condition. The dead included 26 foreign nationals from Iran, China, Russia, the United States, Japan and elsewhere.

President Yoon asked officials to provide the same government support to the bereaved families of the foreign victims as for the South Korean dead and injured people. He also thanked many world leaders for sending condolence messages.

The Itaewon area, known for its expat-friendly, cosmopolitan atmosphere, is the country’s hottest spot for Halloween events and parties, with young South Koreans taking part in costume competitions at bars, clubs and restaurants. Saturday’s gathering was the biggest Halloween celebration in the area since the pandemic.

Halloween festivities in Itaewon have no official organizers. South Korean police said Monday they don’t have any specific procedures for handling incidents such as crowd surges during an event that has no organizers.

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International

Guatemalan Leader, Deputy Jailed For Fraud

A Guatemalan court on Wednesday sentenced former President Otto Perez to 16 years in prison, finding him guilty of leading a massive customs fraud scheme while in office.

Perez, who was forced to resign in 2015, was found guilty of racketeering and fraud targeting the customs system, Judge Irma Valdes said as she read out the sentence.

Perez was sentenced to eight years on each count.

His former vice president Roxana Baldetti received the same sentence.

A United Nations-backed anti-corruption body revealed several scandals in Guatemala before it was shut down in 2019 by then-President Jimmy Morales after it began investigating him.

One of its key successes was uncovering a multimillion-dollar scheme to cheat Guatemala’s customs duty system, which ultimately led to Perez’s resignation.

Those involved in the scheme – known as “La Linea” (The Line) – received bribes of some $3.5 million, according to investigators, who estimate that Guatemala was defrauded out of almost $10 million in tax revenue.

After the sentence was handed down Perez, 72, told reporters, “I truly feel frustrated, I feel disappointed.”

He said he would appeal the ruling.

Sixteen other people involved in the scam were convicted during the sentencing and 11 others were acquitted.

“The ‘La Linea’ case is one of the most symbolic and is a milestone in Guatemalan history,” director of Transparency International’s local chapter, Citizen Action, Edie Cux, told AFP.

“It is important that in some way the people of Guatemala have justice and that the case does not go unpunished,” she added.

(AFP)

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International

Trump Organization Convicted Of Tax Fraud

Donald Trump’s real estate company was convicted on Tuesday of carrying out a 15-year-long criminal scheme to defraud tax authorities, adding to the legal woes facing the former U.S. president as he campaigns for the office again in 2024.

The Trump Organization – which operates hotels, golf courses, and other real estate around the world – was found guilty of paying personal expenses for top executives including former chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, and issuing bonus checks to them as if they were independent contractors.

The company faces up to $1.6 million in fines after being convicted on all charges, including scheming to defraud tax authorities, conspiracy and falsifying business records. Trump was not charged in the case.

Justice Juan Merchan, who presided over the trial in state court in New York, set a sentencing date for Jan. 13.

While the fine is not expected to be material for a company of the Trump Organization’s size, the conviction could complicate its ability to do business.

Weisselberg, 75, testified as the government’s star witness as part of a plea deal that calls for a sentence of five months in jail.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office prosecuted the case, called the verdict “very just.”

“The former president’s companies now stand convicted of crimes,” Bragg said in the New York courthouse after the verdict, speaking of the Trump Corporation and Trump Payroll Corporation, the two units of the Trump Organization which were convicted.

Asked if he regretted not charging Trump in the case, Bragg did not respond.

He has said that the office’s investigation into Trump is continuing.

(Reuters)

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International

Forbes says Elon Musk Is No Longer World’s Richest Man

Twitter owner and Tesla (TSLA.O) boss Elon Musk briefly lost his title as the world’s richest person on Wednesday, according to Forbes, following a steep drop in the value of his stake in the electric-car maker and a $44 billion bet on the social media firm.

Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of luxury brand Louis Vuitton’s parent company LVMH (LVMH.PA), and his family briefly took the title as the world’s richest, but were back at No. 2 with a personal wealth of $185.3 billion, according to Forbes.

Musk, who has held the top spot on the Forbes list since September 2021, has a net worth of $185.7 billion. Musk took over the title from Amazon.com (AMZN.O) founder Jeff Bezos.

Tesla shares, which have lost more than 47% in value since Musk made his offer to buy Twitter earlier this year, were down 2.7%.

Musk’s net worth dropped below $200 billion earlier on Nov. 8 as investors dumped Tesla’s shares on worries the top executive and largest shareholder of the world’s most valuable electric-vehicle maker is more preoccupied with Twitter.

Tesla has lost nearly half its market value and Musk’s net worth has dropped by about $70 billion since he bid for Twitter in April. Musk closed the deal for Twitter in October with $13 billion in loans and a $33.5 billion equity commitment.

Besides Tesla, Musk also heads rocket company SpaceX and Neuralink, a startup that is developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect the human brain to computers.

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