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UK police arrest man over 2021 deaths of 27 people in Channel tragedy

UK police on Tuesday arrested a man suspected of playing a "key role" in the deaths of at least 27 people who drowned attempting to cross the Channel in a dinghy last November.

UK police arrest man over 2021 deaths of 27 people in Channel tragedy
Photo: AFP

The National Crime Agency (NCA) said 32-year-old Harem Ahmed Abwbaker was arrested at an address near Cheltenham, southwest England.

He is suspected of being “a member of the organised crime group who conspired to transport the migrants to the UK in a small boat”.

NCA investigators are working with the French authorities to track down those responsible for the tragedy.

French prosecutors have so far charged 10 people for their alleged role in the disaster on November 24 last year.

It was the worst accident in the Channel since the narrow strait became a key route for people from Africa, the Middle East and Asia attempting to reach England from France.

The vessel sank after leaving the French coast, leading to the death of all but two of those aboard. Four people remain missing.

The suspect will appear before London’s Westminster Magistrates Court on Wednesday, where extradition proceedings to France will commence.

READ ALSO What is France doing to prevent small-boat crossings of the Channel?

Charges faced there include the French equivalent of manslaughter and facilitating illegal immigration.

“This is a significant arrest and comes as part of extensive inquiries into the events leading to these tragic deaths in the Channel,” said NCA deputy director Craig Turner.

“The individual detained today is suspected of having played a key role in the manslaughter of those who died.

“Working closely with our French partners we are determined to do all we can to get justice for the families of those whose lives were lost,” he added.

Among the 27 – aged seven to 47 – were 16 Iraqi Kurds, four Afghans, three Ethiopians, one Somali, one Egyptian and one Vietnamese.

Tributes and demonstrations took place on Thursday for the 27 victims of the tragedy that France’s interior minister admitted should have been prevented.

Several boats packed with rescuers and local elected figures took to sea off the coast of Dunkirk to mark the anniversary.

“It’s a tragedy that we were expecting and there will probably be others,” said the head of the local branch of the SNSM lifeboat service, Alain Ledaguenel.

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POLITICS

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

France braced on Monday for another day of mass protests and strikes over proposed pension reform, with the government of President Emmanuel Macron and its left-wing opponents trading blame for the expected disruption.

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

Around 1.1 million people took to the streets for the first strike day on January 19, according to official statistics, the biggest demonstrations since the last major round of pension reform under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.

A police source told AFP that security forces were expecting similarly sized crowds on Tuesday, with 1.2 million seen as the upper limit at 240 demonstrations around the country.

With unions warning more stoppages are to come, the strikes represent a major test for Macron as he seeks to implement a showcase policy of his second term in office.

The president’s ministers and their opponents are desperately seeking to sway public opinion ahead of what is expected to be a bitter and costly standoff over the next month.

READ MORE: LATEST: What to expect for Tuesday’s French pension strikes

Senior hard-left MP Mathilde Panot from the France Unbowed (LFI) party accused Macron and his ministers of being responsible for the stoppages that are expected to cripple public transport and other services again.

“They’re the ones who want to wreak havoc on the country,” she told BFM TV while also criticising comments by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend as a “provocation.”

Darmanin, a close Macron ally, said Saturday that left-wing political parties were “only looking to screw up the country” and were defending “idleness and champagne socialism.”

Macron’s reputation

The most controversial part of the proposed reform is hiking the minimum retirement age to 64 from its current level of 62, which is the lowest level in any major European economy.

Macron made the change part of this re-election manifesto in April last year and he insists it is needed to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

Opponents point out that the system is currently balanced and that the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council recently told parliament that “pension spending is not out of control, it’s relatively contained.”

For pro-business Macron, who has repeatedly told French people they “need to work more”, failure to succeed with a signature proposal would severely undermine his credibility for the remainder of his second and last term in office, analysts say.

The government headed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has signalled there is wiggle room on some measures as parliamentary committees started examining the draft law on Monday.

Conditions could be improved for people who started working very young, as well as for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children and for people who invested in further education, Borne has suggested.

But the headline age limit of 64 is not up for discussion, she said Sunday, calling it “non-negotiable.”

Despite the policy being a flagship of his second mandate following his 2022 re-election, Macron has so far sought to stay above the fray and commented only occasionally on the growing tensions.

Darmanin’s intervention has not helped reduce strains, with the tough-talking minister telling the Le Parisien daily Saturday the left were defending an idea of a “society without work and effort”.

Parliamentary battle

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to get their pensions plan approved.

A new poll by the OpinionWay survey group, published on Monday in Les Echos newspaper, showed that 61 percent of French people supported the protest movement, a rise of 3.0 percentage points from January 12.

A majority of French people — 56 percent — think reforming the pension system is necessary, the data showed.

But the proportion convinced of the need for change is falling, down five points since January 12, the survey group said.

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