Monday, December 31, 2012

Philippines braces for bloody New Year revelry

The Philippines braced Sunday for its annual orgy of New Year's Eve merrymaking which every year leaves hundreds maimed by firecrackers or hit by bullets fired in the air by armed revellers. A total of 171 people have been injured by fireworks since the Christmas weekend, one was poisoned eating them, while another was wounded by a stray bullet, Assistant Health Secretary Eric Tayag said in an updated toll. President Benigno Aquino interrupted his holidays to meet emergency services officials about government preparations for mass casualties, fires and other potential mayhem from the often drunken revelry. "The President called this meeting because he wanted to emphasise that he's quite serious about these things, that we need to learn and not ignore the law an hour before midnight on December 31," said Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras. Filipino families celebrate Christmas and New Year by buying and setting off large quantities of fireworks on their own, instead of watching public displays as in some other countries. The government reported 454 firecracker-related injuries as 2012 was welcomed in. Many of those hurt were children or drunk adults, while some of those accused of indiscriminately firing their guns were soldiers and police officers. The health department said more than 40 percent of the victims this year are children. It said some were being poisoned after eating the fireworks. Manila police chiefs ceremonially taped the muzzles of the service firearms of the capital's 17,000 officers on Saturday and vowed to prosecute those caught firing in the air on New Year's Eve. The police laboratory will test the weapons for gunpowder residue after the celebrations. At the televised meeting Sunday, Aquino expressed concern at the sale of oversized firecrackers, and chastised officials for failing to shut down factories and retailers making and selling them. "If you tossed that onto the road, would it damage the road as well?" he asked, halting a slide show on banned firecrackers including a giant 58-square-centimetre (nine-square-inch) one called "Goodbye Philippines". Aquino was told that it would. Individual fireworks containing not more than 0.2 grams (0.007 ounces) of explosive material are allowed by law. But police told the meeting they had seized illegal fireworks worth 11.9 million pesos ($290,000). "Please direct the (local government units) to explain how such a store can be selling regulated items without the necessary permits," an apparently irritated Aquino said. The president also urged the public to use social media to disclose abuses, including posting video clips of people firing off celebratory rounds.