Pastor’s release requested
Preacher Gong Shengliang (龔聖亮) led a popular Christian group that spiraled into violence under persecution by authorities and the temptations of power. Now Gong has suffered an apparent stroke in prison, and his family members are calling for his release. In an emotional open letter that calls for prayers, Gong’s family members said prison authorities rebuffed a request that he be given medical parole that they raised after seeing his condition. An impassioned speaker and effective organizer, Gong built the following of his South China Church to an estimated 100,000 across the small corn and rice farms in the center of the country before the government closed in. Its popularity, along with its refusal to join the state-backed Christian church with its ban on proselytizing, brought the South China Church into conflict with the government, which labeled the group a cult in 1995.
Border Christmas tree lit
Christian groups have lit a Christmas tree-shaped tower near the tense border with North Korea for the first time in two years following Pyongyang’s rocket launch. Seoul’s Defense Ministry yesterday said it allowed Christian groups to light the massive steel tower on Saturday. It is to stay lit until Jan. 2. Pyongyang views the tower as propaganda warfare, though it has not yet responded to this year’s lighting. The lighting came 10 days after the North placed a satellite into orbit aboard a long-range rocket. Seoul and the US said the launch was a test of banned missile technology. The tree was not lit last year after officials asked Christians to refrain from doing so to avoid tension following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December last year.
Toad stowaway rehomed
They say cats have nine lives. Now a Chinese toad has joined that club of wily survivors. The public is marveling at the endurance of a toad that got trapped in a cargo shipment from China to Cape Town after jumping into a porcelain candlestick. Officials reportedly planned to put down the creature, fearing it would cause harm as an invasive species if it were let go in the wild. However, the toad got a last-minute reprieve. Mango Airlines, a local airline, transported the toad on Friday to Johannesburg for delivery to an animal sanctuary after officials decided to find a way to let the globe-trotting toad live. The two-hour flight was a breeze compared to the trip from China, an odyssey of many weeks and thousands of kilometers across the Indian Ocean.
Two killed in office fire
Two people were killed and 20 injured when a fire swept through a 14-story office tower on Saturday, state media reported. Flames tore through the World Trade Building in downtown Yan’an in Shaanxi Province for about 10 hours, Xinhua news agency reported. Seventeen of the injured, aged seven to 51, were guests of a hotel occupying the upper floors of the building, while the other three were staff members, Xinhua said. They had suffered burns and carbon monoxide poisoning and all were in a stable condition after receiving treatment, Xinhua quoted an officer with the city’s fire department as saying. A total of about 1,700 residents living next to the building were evacuated. More than 460 firefighters had brought the blaze under control after noon, the report added. The fire’s cause was under investigation.
Ex-marine freed from jail
A former marine, jailed in Mexico after illegally crossing the border with an antique shotgun, has been released, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. Jon Hammar, 27, a south Florida resident and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was arrested after entering Mexico on his way to Costa Rica for a vacation. In Mexico, shotguns are reserved for military use. Sixty-eight lawmakers wrote to Mexican authorities last week seeking information and calling for Hammar’s release. Hammar was set free after a Mexican court ruled that he did not intend to break the law when he entered the country with the shotgun, Mexican media reported. Hammar was arrested on Aug. 13 when he crossed into the Mexican border town of Matamoros with a .410 Sears & Roebuck shotgun in his vehicle. Mexican customs agents had told Hammar that he could bring the gun into the country as long as he registered it immediately with authorities, the letter signed by US lawmakers said. Hammar, who has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, faced abuse from fellow prisoners and lawmakers, his family said. They have also accused Mexican prison authorities of repeatedly handcuffing Hammar to his bed, which Mexico denies.
Banton trial juror probed
A Florida juror who voted to convict Jamaican reggae singer Buju Banton on drug charges has denied improperly researching the case during the trial, despite a weekly newspaper’s report that quoted her as saying that she did. Banton is serving a 10-year prison sentence for convictions on cocaine conspiracy and trafficking charges stemming from a 2009 arrest. The Grammy winner faces an additional five years for his conviction on a related gun possession charge, but his resentencing hearing was postponed to investigate the report of juror misconduct. Banton’s attorneys have filed a motion in Tampa Federal Court seeking a new trial. If granted, it would be the second mistrial for Banton, whose first trial in 2010 ended with jurors deadlocked. He was convicted last year in his second trial.
Plane crashes in Arctic
Authorities say a plane en route from Winnipeg to the remote Arctic territory of Nunavut has crashed with nine people on board. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp, citing a Nunavut government official, reports that the Perimeter Aviation plane aborted a landing and crashed less than 1km from the end of a runway in the community of Sanikiluaq. The broadcaster said the plane was carrying seven passengers and two crew and went down at about 6pm. It added that the Nunavut government official indicated there were survivors, some of them injured.
Police seize huge drug haul
Authorities seized more than 1,000kg of cocaine and heroin and arrested seven people last weekend. National Drug Control Agency director Rolando Rosado said the drugs were found on Friday aboard a speedboat from South America. Rosado on Saturday said that four Dominicans and three Venezuelans were detained after they threw 30 of the 47 drug packets into the sea. He said agents seized more than 1,190kg of cocaine and 7kg of heroin, along with 110 heroin capsules. Rosado said it is authorities’ second-largest drug seizure this year. He added that authorities have seized more than 8 tonnes of cocaine this year, setting a record.