Rockets fired on United States Ain al-Asad airbase in Iraq in suspected retaliatory attack


At least 10 rockets have been launched towards a military base in western Iraq that hosts United States, coalition and Iraqi forces, according to US officials.

It’s not immediately known if there were any casualties.

The rockets struck Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province at 7:20am local time on Wednesday, US military spokesperson Colonel Wayne Marotto said, adding that investigations were continuing.

The Iraqi military released a statement saying the attack did not cause significant losses and that security forces had found the launch pad used for the missiles.

It was the first attack since the US struck Iran-aligned militia targets along the Iraq-Syria border last week.

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The US strike along the border had been in response to a spate of rocket attacks that targeted the American presence, including one that killed a coalition contractor from the Philippines outside the Irbil airport.

The Pentagon had said the strike was a “proportionate military response” taken after consulting coalition partners.

It stoked fears of a possible repeat of a series of tit-for-tat attacks that escalated last year, culminating in the US-directed strike that killed Iranian General Qassim Soleimani outside the Baghdad airport.

Wednesday’s attack comes two days before Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Iraq, despite deteriorating security in some parts of the country.

The much anticipated trip will include the capital city of Baghdad, southern Iraq and the northern city of Irbil.

US troops in Iraq significantly decreased their presence in the country last year under the Trump administration.

The forces withdrew from several Iraqi based across the country to consolidate chiefly in Ain al-Asad and Baghad.

Frequent rocket attacks targeting the heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses the US Embassy, during President Donald Trump’s time in office frustrated the administration, leading to threats of embassy closure and escalatory strikes.

AP/Reuters

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Queensland defends slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout


Defending the pace of the vaccinations, which Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk had warned would be “very slow”, Queensland Health said the rollout was “not a race”.

“Queensland is used to being picked on by others,” an official tweet from the Health Department read.

“We saw this many times last year, even though our response remains one of the best in the world. Our response is safe, measured and sensible.

“That’s what Queenslanders expect. Our vaccine rollout approach is no different. This is not a race.”

State health officials aimed to vaccinate 1000 people in week one and 3000 in week two, and Ms Palaszczuk said she was “very happy with the rollout, we are reaching our targets”.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said almost 60,000 more doses of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines would land in Queensland in the next 10 days.

Two coronavirus vaccines were approved for use in Australia: the Pfizer vaccine, which was being administered to priority groups, and the AstraZeneca vaccine, expected to be used for most of the population.

NSW would administer its first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 10 while Queensland had not named the date it would deliver the second vaccine.

Deputy Premier Steven Miles said Queensland would get the vaccine out “as quickly as possible” but could not guarantee timelines as they depended on the supply secured by the Commonwealth.

“While we do receive some information from the Commonwealth about what to anticipate, we can not action the arrival of those vaccines until they are here, until we know that we are getting them.

“It’s incredibly important that we get this right and, as I say, the number that we do [vaccinate] in the first or second week isn’t what’s important, it’s how quickly we can get it out and how confident our community is in getting it.”

– with Mary Ward

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Attorney General Christian Porter denies rape claim, message for accuser’s parents


Attorney-General Christian Porter has remembered the woman who he says falsely accused him of rape in 1988 as an “intelligent, bright and happy person” who he agreed did iron his shirt the night of a debating dinner – as she suggests in an unsworn affidavit.

Choking back tears, a distraught Mr Porter said there was “no truth” to the rape claims but he agreed there were some claims in the woman’s unsworn affidavit that were true.

There is a photo of the two of you sitting at the formal dinner that night. Do you remember that dinner?,’’ Mr Porter was asked.

“I am sure there was a formal dinner that night. I am sure that is the case. We were a group of people who were going out debating during the day, going out to functions and things at night. I am absolutely sure there would be such a photo,’’ he said.

RELATED: Porter in tears denying rape claim

Mr Porter was then asked if he remembered dancing with the woman at the Hard Rock Cafe in Kings Cross.

“That may well have been the case,’’ he said.

“It was 33 years ago. I remember two evenings that week. One was a night with – at one of the colleges with bowls of prawns which sticks in my mind. I do remember a formal dinner and going out dancing sounds about right.”

The Attorney-General was also asked if he remembered walking her back to her accommodation at Sydney University.

RELATED: Minister speaks out and denies rape claim

Mr Porter was then asked about a third claim in the woman’s unsworn affidavit that she had ironed his shirt earlier that night.

“It’s not impossible, I have never been in the person’s room. I did read that as part of the material, and I recall, it sparked a memory, there were four of us, three boys, and this person whose name I can’t even say because of the situation we are in,’’ he said.

“I don’t think any of us had ever ironed a shirt before, and I recall, she showed us how to do it, I remember that.”

“She ironed your shirt for you. She claims you said she would make a wonderful wife some day?,’’ a reporter asked.

“I don’t remember that specifically but it is not impossible that that was said.”

RELATED: Rape claim ‘nowhere near’ over: senator

The Attorney-General commenced his press conference with a personal appeal to the parents of the dead woman.

“I want to start by saying something to the parents who are grieving for the loss of their adult daughter,’’ he said.

“I only knew your daughter for the briefest periods at debating competitions when we were teenagers about 33 years ago. I was 17 years old and I think that she was 16 years old.

“In losing that person, your daughter, you have suffered a terrible loss and you did not deserve the frenzied politicisation of the circumstances of your daughter’s death in the past week.

“I have thought long and hard about the implications for you of what I feel that I need to say today.

“And I hope that whatever else happens from this point – that you will understand that in saying today – the things that are being claimed to have happened, did not happen – that I do not mean to impose anything more on your grief.

“But I hope that you will also understand that because what is being alleged did not happen – I must say so publicly.

“Likely the only thing that I’m ever going to be able to say – and it’s the truth – and that is that nothing in the allegations that have been printed ever happened.

“The allegations appear to be about a period in early 1988 during an end of school debating competition at Sydney University. I was 17 years old and the other person was 16. We were both selected with two others on the Australian Schools debating team and we went to Sydney University for an international competition. It was a long time ago – I always remembered it as a happy time – but I can say categorically what has been put in various forms and allegations simply did not happen.”

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Grace Tame tells Scott Morrison ‘having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience’



Australian of the Year Grace Tame has criticised Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s rhetoric in the aftermath of Brittany Higgins’ Parliament rape allegations. 

The 26-year-old appeared before the National Press Club on Tuesday – delivering a powerful speech addressing her own experience with sexual assault and the need for more action to help others. 

Mr Morrison said he spoke with his wife Jenny after Ms Higgins, a former Liberal staffer, shared her distressing allegations of being raped inside a ministerial office in Parliament House. 

“Jenny and I spoke last night and she said to me, you have to think about this as a father. What would you want to happen if it were our girls?” he told reporters at the time.

“Jenny has a way of clarifying things. Always has. And so, as I’ve reflected on that overnight and listened to Brittany and what she had to say.”

Asked about Mr Morrison’s response, Ms Tame said: “It shouldn’t take having children to have a conscience.”

“And actually, on top of that, having children doesn’t guarantee a conscience,” she said. 

Ms Tame used her speech to call for national reforms to address the challenges facing women coming forward with sexual assault allegations.

She said a uniform, national standard of sexual consent needed to be implemented to effectively teach this principle across Australia.  

“To our government – our decision-makers, and our policymakers – we need reform on a national scale. Both in policy and education,” she said. 

“To address these heinous crimes so they are no longer enabled to be perpetrated.

“It is so important for our nation, the whole world, in fact, to listen to survivors’ stories.”

Ms Tame was recognised with the Australian of the Year honour for her tireless advocacy, particularly her fight to overturn Tasmanian laws preventing survivors from speaking out.

More to come

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, you can call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit http://1800RESPECT.org.au. Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at http://Beyondblue.org.au.

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Eltham intersection upgrade could be a waste, say angry locals


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They also say the upgrade has been poorly planned and is a waste of resources, with the North East Link, connecting the M80 Ring Road and the Eastern Freeway via a tunnel beneath the Yarra River, set to ease traffic on Fitzsimons Lane.

The Andrews government said in 2018 the North East Link would take 14,000 vehicles off Fitzsimons Lane each day.

This is backed by the toll road’s environmental effects statement, which estimated that by 2036 traffic on Fitzsimons Lane would drop by 20 per cent – the equivalent of removing 20 years of traffic growth from the road.

Once the North East Link is built, demand for Fitzsimons Lane is “projected to generally decrease with a reduced concentration of trips from the outer north”, the statement finds. The study, which does not factor in the planned upgrade, found “traffic bound for the CBD is also less likely to use Fitzsimons Lane.”

One of the state’s top road bureaucrats agrees that traffic congestion on Fitzsimons Lane would be eased by the North East Link, but he said the traffic relief brought about by the state’s most expensive toll road would be short-lived.

Major Roads Project Victoria chief executive Allen Garner said once the North East Link is built in 2027, traffic on Fitzsimons Lane would improve. Government modelling suggests traffic on Fitzsimons Lane would return to 2017 levels.

An artist’s impression of the redesigned intersection at Fitzsimons Lane and Main Road in Eltham.Credit:Victorian government

But Mr Garner said this would only serve as “temporary relief” and congestion would in fact continue to get worse.

“Our traffic modelling shows that without a signalised intersection solution, any temporary congestion relief when North East Link opens in 2027 would soon subside and the current problems would still exist and only get worse.

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“We absolutely need to upgrade Fitzsimons Lane and both projects are needed in their own right. A roundabout will not alleviate the congestion and queuing issues even after North East Link opens,” he said.

Eltham resident, and former senior transport director at consultancy firm AECOM, Denis Johnston acknowledged there were 40-minute delays at the roundabout during the morning peak.

But demand had lowered considerably since COVID-19 and the North East Link would ease traffic pressures, Mr Johnston said, providing good reason to reconsider the project’s “oversized” design.

“This is not only professionally poor planning but a waste of resources,” Mr Johnston said.

“The intersection won’t be complete until 2023 and the North East Link opens in 2027, so we will have three years of traffic chaos when they construct this thing for four years of traffic relief until the North East Link opens, and then this design will be fit for another 20-30 years before the traffic gets back to where it was.”

The government has already felled an estimated 30 trees lining the existing roundabout, which Mr Johnston described as a “gateway” to his community – “where the bitumen stopped and the bush began”.

“Now they’ve cut it all down,” he said.

In the wake of local backlash against the upgrade, the Andrews government agreed to review the design and has proposed to remove two traffic lanes, reduce the intersection’s footprint by 150 per cent and save 150 trees.

But resident Sana Kojicin said the changes do not go far enough and the design was still “overkill”.

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Key questions about the project, including the number and location of trees to be felled, details about a tall retaining wall and traffic modelling to justify the intersection’s size have gone unanswered, she said.

Overall, there had been a lack of consultation, Ms Kojicin said.

“MRPV [Major Roads Project Victoria] have been unresponsive in the broad sense, specifically the design hasn’t changed in response to COVID-19, the changes that the North East Link will bring,” she said.

The government said its consultation was extensive, noting it held one-on-one meetings with community members, conducted briefings for councils and 560 conversations with community members.

A spokeswoman would not confirm exactly how many trees were being cut down, but said an additional 5000 native trees would be planted under the project, which amounted to about six new trees for every tree being removed.

Planning for the Fitzsimons Lane upgrade started in 2017 and took account of a future North East Link, the government said.

“The Fitzsimons Lane Upgrade is part of the $18 billion of major transport works invested in the north-east of Melbourne,” a government spokeswoman said.

“The North East Link Project and Fitzsimons Lane Upgrade have been carefully planned to give thousands of commuters better journeys every day.”

The opposition spokesman for transport infrastructure David Davis said this project showed the government was willing to “build anything to get action during COVID-19, no matter what the scope of the project or the business case or the arguments against it.”

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Here’s what you can expect with today’s Stonnington weather



Today’s forecast is mostly cloudy.

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US imposes sanctions on Russian officials over ‘unacceptable’ poisoning of Alexei Navalny


The United States on Tuesday imposed sanctions on seven senior Russian officials as it said its intelligence concluded that Moscow orchestrated the near fatal poisoning of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

In action coordinated with the European Union, President Joe Biden’s administration renewed demands that Russia free Mr Navalny, who has been sent to a notorious penal colony after spurring massive rallies through his allegations of corruption by President Vladimir Putin.

“The intelligence community assesses with high confidence that officers of Russia’s Federal Security Service FSB used a nerve agent known as Novichok to poison Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny on August 20, 2020,” a senior US official told reporters.

Officials said that the United States would impose sanctions on “seven senior members of the Russian government” with the details expected to be released later on Tuesday local time.

The announcement comes one day after EU member states approved sanctions on a partly overlapping list of four senior Russian justice and law enforcement officials involved in his detention.

The targeted Russians will be restricted from traveling either to the European Union or the United States, with any assets in the Western nations frozen.

The Biden administration said it will also restrict certain exports to Russia as it vowed a harder line than defeated president Donald Trump, who voiced admiration for Putin.

“We will take the appropriate actions as we see fit to make very clear that this kind of conduct is unacceptable for us, and we’ll do it with our allies and partners,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview released Tuesday.

Hardening US stance

The Kremlin earlier on Tuesday denounced moves to impose sanctions.

“Those who continue to depend on these measures should probably give it some thought: are they achieving some goal by continuing such a policy?” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“The answer will be obvious: such a policy does not achieve its goals.”

The Biden administration has vowed a clear-eyed view on Russia without either Mr Trump’s sweet spot for Mr Putin or former president Barack Obama’s initial attempt to “reset” relations.

But Mr Biden also quickly extended New START, the last major nuclear reduction treaty between the Cold War powers.

“We’re not seeking to escalate, we’re not seeking to reset; we are seeking stability and predictability and areas of constructive work with Russia where it’s in our interest to do that,” one of the officials told reporters.

Officials said that the United States would in the coming weeks also roll out intelligence assessments on other points of concern with Russia.

The rows include allegations that Russia paid Taliban-linked militants bounties to kill US troops in Afghanistan, and early indications that Moscow was behind the massive SolarWinds hack that devastated US agencies and businesses.

The arrest of opposition political leader Alexei Navalny has seen his supporters take to the streets in protest like here in Nizhny Novgorod.

AAP

Mr Navalny, 44, fell violently ill when he was taking a domestic flight.

He was rushed to treatment in Germany where doctors said he had been poisoned with Novichok, a nerve agent developed by Soviet researchers and which was also blamed in a 2018 attack in England against Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

After recuperating, Mr Navalny defiantly returned to Moscow in January and was immediately arrested.

He was sent to the penal colony east of the Russian capital as a judge ruled that while in Germany he violated terms of parole in a suspended sentence over a 2014 fraud case, which critics say was trumped up.

Mr Navalny has persisted in needling Mr Putin, releasing a viral video that purported to show a palatial Black Sea residence belonging to the president, who was forced to deny publicly that it was his.

The dissident has also mockingly said that the veteran Russian leader “will go down in history as a poisoner of underpants” – where agents allegedly placed the Novichok.



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Brazil COVID-19 variant can re-infect people, scientists warn


London: A highly transmissible COVID-19 variant that emerged in Brazil and has now been found in at least 20 countries can re-infect people who previously recovered from the disease, scientists say.

In a study of the mutant virus’ emergence and its spread in the Amazon jungle city of Manaus, the scientists said the variant – known as P.1 – has a “unique constellation of mutations” and had very rapidly become the dominant variant circulating there.

Relatives help a funeral worker, wearing protective gear, remove a body from a home in Manaus, Brazil, last year.Credit:AP

Out of 100 people in Manaus who had previously recovered from infection with the coronavirus, “somewhere between 25 and 61 of them are susceptible to re-infection with P.1,” said Nuno Faria, a virus expert at Imperial College London, who co-led the research which has not yet been peer reviewed.

The scientists estimated that P.1 was 1.4 to 2.2 times more transmissible than the initial form of the virus.

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Enter Candyman 2.0: girls, cars and court



A flashy Gold Coast businessman will face trial for dangerous driving.

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Nigerian president expresses ‘overwhelming joy’ as all 279 kidnapped students are released


All 279 girls kidnapped from their boarding school in northern Nigeria have been released and are on government premises, the local governor told AFP on Tuesday.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari expressed “overwhelming joy” over the release of the girls from days of captivity, vowing tougher action against kidnappers.

Nigeria has been rocked by four mass abductions of students in less than three months, sparking widespread anger against the government and memories of the 2014 kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls in Chibok, in the country’s east, that shocked the world.

“I am happy to announce that the girls are free,” Dr Bello Matawalle, governor of Zamfara state, told an AFP journalist early on Tuesday. “They have just arrived in the government house and are in good health.”

An AFP reporter saw hundreds of girls wearing hijabs, gathered at the government premises.

Authorities initially said 317 girls were abducted in the raid by hundreds of gunmen on the Government Girls Secondary School in remote Jangebe village on Friday.

But Dr Matawalle said the “total number of female students abducted” was 279.

“We thank Allah they are all now with us.”

AFP footage showed minibuses pulling up in the night with students inside and lines of girls filing into a building. 

Government officials had been in talks with the kidnappers, known locally as bandits.

A source said “repentant bandits” had been contacted to reach out to their former comrades as part of efforts to free the students.

Armed gangs

Heavily armed criminal gangs in northwest and central Nigeria have stepped up attacks in recent years, kidnapping for ransom, raping and pillaging. 

The Nigerian military deployed to the area in 2016 and a peace deal with bandits was signed in 2019 but attacks have continued.

In December, more than 300 boys were kidnapped from a school in Kankara, in President Muhammadu Buhari’s home state of Katsina, while he was visiting the region.

The boys were later released but the incident triggered outrage and memories of the kidnappings of 276 schoolgirls by jihadists in Chibok.

Many of those girls are still missing.

The gangs are largely driven by financial motives and have no known ideological leanings.

But there are concerns they are being infiltrated by armed Islamists. The jihadists’ decade-old conflict has killed more than 30,000 people and spread into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

Authorities have denied paying any ransom to secure the recent releases, although analysts say this is unlikely and security experts fear that this will lead to an increase in kidnappings in these regions plagued by extreme poverty.

President Buhari, who has been criticised for failing to deal with the unrest, had insisted that he would “not succumb to blackmail by bandits”.

In a statement on Tuesday Mr Buhari said he was excited the schoolgirls were freed without any incident, adding that “being held in captivity is an agonising experience not only for the victims, but also their families and all of us”.

The Nigerian leader urged “the police and the military to go after these kidnappers and bring them to justice”.

Nigeria has been rocked by four mass abductions of students in less than three months.

AFP

Security deteriorating

Mr Buhari was elected president for the first time in 2015, a year after the mass kidnapping at Chibok, where 276 girls were abducted by the jihadist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria – triggering an international outcry.

More than one hundred of them remain missing and it is not known how many of them are still alive.

Mr Buhari had promised to end the conflict in the northeast, but the situation has sharply deteriorated since.

Jihadists linked to the Islamic State have attacked a UN base and overrun a humanitarian hub in Dikwa, northern Nigeria, trapping 25 aid workers, security and humanitarian sources said late Monday. The attack was still under way on Tuesday.

If the northeast is still not secure, the northwest is also under the yoke of armed groups the authorities call “bandits”, who terrorise the people, steel cattle and perpetuate mass kidnappings for ransom.

Kidnapping for ransom in Africa’s most populous country is already a widespread national problem, with businessmen, officials and ordinary citizens snatched from the streets.

At least $US11 million ($A14.1 million) was paid to kidnappers between January 2016 and March 2020, according to SB Morgen, a Lagos-based geopolitical research consultancy. 

The student abductions have increased the number of children who cannot attend school, especially girls.

The regions involved account for the greatest number of unschooled children in the world, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says.

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