Afghan peace talks open in Doha, 19 years after 9/11 triggered war

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani attend the signing of a US-Taliban agreement in the Qatari capital Doha on February 29, 2020. – Washington and the Taliban are set to sign a landmark deal in Doha that would see them agree to the withdrawal of thousands of US troops from Afghanistan in return for insurgent guarantees.


The opening ceremony for talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents began in Qatar’s capital Doha on Saturday, marking the start of negotiations aimed at ending two decades of war that has killed tens of thousands of combatants and civilians.

The 19-year conflict is also the United States’ longest overseas military action, vexing three successive presidents.

The ceremony began at 9 a.m. (0600 GMT) with a recitation from the Koran, followed by opening comments by Qatar’s foreign minister.

Major players in the process, including Afghanistan’s peace council chairman Abdullah Abdullah and Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are also scheduled to speak.

Officials, diplomats and analysts say that although getting both sides to the negotiating table was an achievement, this does not mean the path to peace will be easy.

“The negotiations will have to tackle a range of profound questions about the kind of country Afghans want,” Deborah Lyons, the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, told the U.N Security Council this month.

The inauguration ceremony comes one day after the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States that triggered its military involvement in Afghanistan.

U.S. forces intervened in Afghanistan on the orders of President George W. Bush a month after the attacks to hunt down their mastermind, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who had been given sanctuary by the country’s radical Islamist Taliban rulers. They initially offered mainly air support to the Taliban’s local enemies.

Although the Taliban regime was quickly toppled, they regrouped and have since waged an insurgency that has sucked in Afghanistan’s neighbours and troops from dozens of countries, including NATO forces.

Negotiations to broker a comprehensive peace deal were envisaged in a troop withdrawal pact signed between the United States and the Taliban in February in an attempt to find a political settlement to end the war.

After months of delay, a dispute over the Taliban’s demand for the release of 5,000 prisoners was resolved this week.

Ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November, President Donald Trump is looking to show progress in his pledge to end the U.S. involvement and pull out most of the foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan.

The United States has reduced its troop levels and by November is expected to have fewer than 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, down from about 13,000 when the U.S.-Taliban deal was signed. More than 2,300 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, and about 450 British soldiers.

A European diplomat in Kabul said that a ceasefire — which the Taliban have so far rejected — should top the talk’s agenda.

“The Taliban leaders will have to stop fighters from attacking Afghan forces and civilians, violence continues to degrade the atmosphere and potentially derail negotiations,” the diplomat said.

How to include the Taliban, who reject the legitimacy of the Western-backed Afghan government, in any governing arrangement and how to safeguard the rights of women and minorities who suffered under Taliban rule are big challenges, experts said.

Nevertheless many diplomats, victims of violence and members of civil society say negotiations are the only realistic way to bring an end to a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 civilians and hampered Afghanistan’s development, leaving millions in poverty.

“Solutions will not be found on the battlefield, we know this,” Lyons said.  

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Lionel Messi, Barcelona, billion dollar release clause triggered

Lionel Messi has informed Barcelona that he wants to “unilaterally” terminate his contract with the Spanish giants, according to multiple reports on Wednesday.

Lawyers for the Argentina star sent Barca a fax in which they announced Messi’s desire to rescind his contract by triggering a release clause.

If Messi leaves, a reunion with former Barca coach Pep Guardiola at Manchester City is seen as his most likely move.

However, the club maintains the clause expired in June and he remains under contract until the end of the 2021 season.

“In principal, this clause expired on June 10, but the unusual nature of this season disrupted by the coronavirus opened the way for Messi to ask to be released from his contract now,” wrote Spanish sports daily Marca.

“It’s the first step towards opening negotiations over his departure, on the basis of which his release clause amounts to $1.15 billion (AUD).”

According to Spanish media, Messi met with new Barca coach Ronald Koeman last week and told the Dutchman he saw himself “more out than in” the club.

“The end of the glorious era of Leo Messi at Barcelona seems to be close. After the arrival of Ronald Koeman, what looks like the exit of his friend Luis Suarez and a difficult and turbulent end to the season, Messi told Barcelona in a fax of his intention to leave the club,” said Once radio station.

Barcelona suffered a humiliating 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals in Lisbon earlier this month, resulting in the dismissal of coach Quique Setien after barely six months in charge.

Former Barcelona defender Carles Puyol responded to the news by tweeting: “Respect and admiration, Leo. All my support, friend.”


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Children’s bushfire fears triggered by fog, clouds, more than six months on from Canberra’s horror summer

Jeremy, 5, and Charlotte, 4, were evacuated from their south Canberra home in January as the Orroral Valley bushfire burned out of control in nearby Namadgi National Park.

At first, the siblings were “excited” to see fire trucks outside their house when the fire sparked in late January 2020.

But it went on to burn for weeks, and eventually destroyed homes over the border in New South Wales.

The children’s mother, Emily McPherson, said emergency vehicles were parked out the front of their Gordon home constantly.

“We were on alert the whole time — it spread very fast with the wind blowing our direction,” she said, explaining her bushfire survival plan was to evacuate when the situation escalated.

Charlotte and Jeremy evacuating their south Canberra home during the Orroral Valley bushfire.(Supplied)

Fog, low-lying clouds still causing fear

More than six months on from the event, the children fear a fire is nearby when low-lying clouds or fog descend upon the valley in which the city rests.

Being winter, it is a regular occurrence — the children remember the bushfire smoke that choked the city and made Canberra’s air quality the worst in the world.

“They often bring up the fire — it was a huge time in their life, obviously they have never experienced anything similar,” Ms McPherson said.

“I explain to them that it is just fog or a cloud and we are completely safe.”

The bushfire was particularly traumatic for the family as Jeremy has autism and Charlotte suffers from severe asthma.

They evacuated when ash began falling on the house.

Namadgi bushfire on the horizon
The Orroral Valley fire was one of many that burned across Australia during the summer, disrupting thousands of lives.(Supplied: Tony C Mathew)

“It was very difficult for them as they didn’t understand,” Ms McPherson recalled.

“The waterbombing helicopters flew directly over our house and quite low, shaking the house and very loud.

“The noise from the trucks, the sirens and the helicopters was way too much for them to cope with, which also helped my decision to leave.”

Jeremy and Charlotte are just two of many children who were impacted by Australia’s bushfire season, and who continue to experience the psychological effects of the disaster.

Headspace have just revealed that their calls for help more than tripled in the past quarter, and they held 1,000 sessions with clients between April and June as coronavirus took over.

And experts say that the full impact of the trauma from the bushfires may only be starting to appear now, as the initial effects of the experience begin to wear off.

An aerial shot of Canberra and Black Mountain Tower.
Fog is typical during Canberra’s winters, but this year has reminded children of the heavy bushfire smoke that choked the city in January.(ABC News)

Involve children in the conversation, experts say

Australian Child and Adolescent Trauma, Loss and Grief Network director, Nicola Palfrey, explained that adrenaline from an experience like the bushfires can last for a few weeks or even months — but eventually, other emotions creep in, including anger or sadness.

“It kind of hits us when we’ve actually had time to catch our breath,” she said.

“Unfortunately, the next surge is about that [experience], and there’s a lot of grief and loss.”

In addition to the loss of family, friends or property, for children that could also mean the loss of a sense of safety.

“It kind of becomes clear that mum and dad are fallible.”

Dr Palfrey said she was not at all surprised by the McPherson children’s reactions.

“I certainly know some families I’ve contacted here have had some children feeling distressed about the fog, and thinking it’s smoke,” she said.

Orange haze obscures Parliament House.
In January, Canberra’s air quality was the worst in the world due to bushfire smoke filtering in from every direction.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

Dr Palfrey runs the trauma network out of the Australian National University, and she said huge numbers of people had been accessing the Emerging Minds Community Trauma Toolkit she created more than a year ago.

The toolkit is a guide for parents of children going through traumatic or worrying events, but even she could not have predicted how much of a demand there would be.

“Unfortunately, the toolkit’s been used a lot — we’ve been working a lot with communities who were impacted by the fires,” Dr Palfrey said.

“What you’re seeing in communities is … kind of ‘cascading disasters’.

“[But] if we give them good, quality information, they can feel reassured.”

What else can adults do for the children around them?

Emily and Charlotte smile in a closeup selfie.
Emily and her daughter Charlotte, who was three when the Orroral Valley fire threatened parts of the ACT and NSW.(Supplied)

Dr Palfrey said one of the best things an adult could do was talk to children about their fears and help them navigate those emotions.

Without the same information adults have, children often react differently — sometimes with mood swings or tantrums — instead of expressing their fears.

“One of the things that we encourage people to do is to check in with their kids and see how they’re travelling,” Dr Palfrey said.

Dr Palfrey said that reassurance extended to involving children in preparations ahead of the next fire season, so that they could be confident a plan was in place.

“Kids will pick up on some things, but we don’t necessarily reassure them about what is being done,” she said.

Dr Palfrey also said kids and adults alike could take encouragement from seeing so many people rallying to support one another, both during the fires and since then.

“Seeing people coming together or people realising what skills they do have, or families or communities coming together … sometimes there’s strength that comes out of adversity.”

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China raises the cost of Australian beef as ChAFTA safeguard is triggered

China has increased tariffs on imports of Australian beef and looks set to increase tariffs on whole milk powder later this year.

Australian meat analyst Simon Quilty said, from this week, the duty on beef would jump from 4.8 per cent to 12 per cent for the remainder of 2020.

Under the China Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) preferential tariffs are withdrawn once a Special Agricultural Safeguard (SSG) is triggered.

This year the safeguard was set to 179,687 tonnes of beef, a volume that was met on Tuesday.

Despite Australia triggering the safeguard for the past two years, a spokeswoman from the Department of Agriculture said that June was the earliest that preferential tariffs have been dropped since CHAFTA was established in 2015.

“The unprecedented growth of Australian beef meat exports to China in the year to date means that the volume has reached the threshold already this year,” the spokeswoman said.

‘The economy in China is struggling’

Mr Quilty says the impact of the increased tariffs is already being felt in the Australian beef industry.

“New Zealand and Costa Rica are now on zero tariffs [into China], but Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Canada are all on 12 per cent, and we are as well,” he said.

“Chinese importers have already asked Australian exporters to either renegotiate contracts already in the system or, in some instances, have looked to cancel contracts, which we know is a real no-no in the market place.

“The economy in China is struggling and we’re finding lower prices each day for meat products, right across the board.”

The preferential tariffs will be reinstated from January 1, 2021 before being completely removed under ChAFTA from January 1, 2024.

The Agriculture Department says the change in tariffs is “not related in any way to other trade issues or COVID-19”.

Minister hopeful abattoirs can resume trade

The Australian Government is currently considering how it will respond to a decision by China earlier this year to impose an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley.

It has also been a difficult few months for beef exporters after China imposed a ban on four Australian abattoirs.

On Wednesday, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the Government had no indication of when those abattoirs would be permitted to export to China again.

“China is under no requirement to make a response straight up,” Mr Littleproud said.

“We’re working through the translation of our document [responding to the bans] into their language as quickly as we can.

“We’re hoping they’ll come back to us in the near future and remove those temporary bans.

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Ex-soldiers say potential COVID-19 drug triggered depression, memory loss

Australian Army veterans given a controversial drug while deployed in East Timor have raised concerns about its safety, saying the medicine should not be used as a treatment for COVID-19.

The anti-malarial tafenoquine is being explored as a treatment for coronavirus with laboratory studies conducted in Melbourne claiming tafenoquine was four times more potent against SARS-CoV-2 cells than hydroxychloroquine.

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed but drug company 60 Degrees Pharmaceuticals (60P) is planning to conduct clinical research to determine its effectiveness in humans.

Chief executive Geoff Dow said the company was optimistic about the initiative.

Glen Norton says he was a “happy and keen” young soldier before taking a controversial anti-malaria drug.(ABC: Supplied)

“Like many companies, 60P and its partners are trying to do our part to provide solutions for treating and preventing COVID 19,” he said.

But some doctors and veterans have raised serious concerns about tafenoquine’s safety.

Glen Norton is one of almost 700 soldiers who took the anti-malarial during trials conducted by the Defence Force between 1998 and 2002.

Two decades later, Mr Norton continues to suffer chronic depression, anxiety, nightmares, hallucinations, memory loss and extreme mood swings.

He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but believes his symptoms are long-term side effects from taking tafenoquine.

“This drug has totally destroyed my personal life.”

‘We were having nightmares’

Mr Norton said he first began noticing changes when he took tafenoquine while deployed in East Timor in 2000.

“We used to call Sunday nights psycho night because of the side effects,” he said.

Two young men with faces painted in camoflage in the bush.
Glen Norton says he began having nightmares while taking the anti-malarial on a peace keeping mission in East Timor.(ABC: Supplied)

Mr Norton is no longer in the Army and owns businesses in Cairns and Darwin.

He said he was horrified to hear tafenoquine was being considered as a treatment for coronavirus.

“I would prefer to catch COVID-19 and take the risk than to let anyone go through the pain and suffering myself and other soldiers have experienced.”

Doctors debate drug’s safety

Tafenoquine was approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for use as a malaria prevention drug in 2018.

Side effects listed in the product information include sleep disturbances, depression and anxiety in up to 1 per cent of cases.

Dr Dow said clinical studies of tafenoquine had been reviewed by independent medical experts, who concluded the drug was safe.

But some doctors have warned the drug’s long-term risks may not be fully understood.

American epidemiologist Remington Nevin said tafenoquine belonged to a class of anti-malaria medications shown to be neurotoxic.

“I am afraid we’re seeing the same thing potentially playing out with tafenoquine,” Dr Nevin said.

“Our group’s concern is that there is simply incomplete study data on these drugs.”

Hydroxychloroquine tablets are displayed on a dark surface
Tafenoquine belongs to the same family of drugs as hydroxychloroquine, also developed to treat malaria.(AP: John Locher)

Dr Nevin believes there were critical flaws in the study conducted on Australian soldiers, who were deployed on peacekeeping missions at the time.

“When symptoms develop in this environment, it’s very tempting to attribute these — and possibly misattribute these — simply to the stresses of deployment and not to the drugs,” he said.

Others have argued the drug is safe.

University of Queensland anti-malaria expert James McCarthy gave evidence to a Senate inquiry into the use of tafenoquine in the Defence Force in 2018.

Professor McCarthy told the inquiry tafenoquine had never been associated with neuropsychiatric side effects at normal doses for preventing malaria.

“Comprehensive reviews of multiple clinical trials suggest that the incidence of neurological side effects was no higher in those receiving tafenoquine compared with a placebo,” he said.

Large-scale study underway

A 2018 review by the US Food and Drug Administration found there was enough evidence to conclude tafenoquine was safe.

However, it also flagged concerns about the drug’s potential neuropsychiatric side effects and recommended further research.

Some members of the review committee said safety data from clinical studies were small and the noted follow-up periods were short.

A scientist looks into a microscope while wearing a protective suit at the CSIRO Australia Animal Health Laboratory.
Researchers are looking into tafenoquine as a COVID-19 treatment.(Supplied: CSIRO)

Dr Dow said a large-scale study into the psychiatric safety of tafenoquine had been underway since 2017, with results expected in the second half of next year.

Mr Norton said clinical trials of tafenoquine against COVID-19 should not take place until further research was completed.

“How can you conduct a trial and say that this drug is safe, it’s all singing, it’s all dancing, when you’re not looking at the long-term effects of what these drugs do to the human body?” he said.

‘Some days I would have killed someone’

Veterans are calling for a royal commission into drug trials conducted by the military’s Malaria and Infectious Diseases Institute, amid allegations of corruption and ethics breaches.

Wayne Karakyriacos, who also took tafenoquine while deployed in East Timor, said soldiers did not give informed consent to participate in the trials.

“We got told if you did not sign the paperwork, you would not deploy,” he said.

Middle-aged man in red shirt looking through medical documents at a small table in a hotel room.
Ex-soldier Glen Norton says there’s been no research into the long-term side effects suffered by veterans who took the controversial anti-malaria drug while deployed in East Timor and Bougainville.(ABC Far North: Marian Faa)

The 2018 Senate inquiry heard evidence from more than a dozen soldiers, veterans and their relatives who said tafenoquine had a major detrimental impact on their lives.

A Defence spokeswoman said the inquiry found the trials were conducted ethically and lawfully, in keeping with national guidelines.

She said the Commonwealth had committed $2.1 million to support veterans concerned about having taken tafenoquine and other anti-malaria drugs.

“These health assessments will be conducted by GPs trained to address medical issues specific to veterans and anti-malarial medications.”

The spokeswoman said Defence had agreed to 12 of the inquiry’s 14 recommendations and agreed in principle to the remaining two.

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The Hayden Ballantyne sledge that triggered Matthew Scarlett punch

Former Fremantle forward Hayden Ballantyne has revealed the sledge that triggered a furious reaction from Geelong champion Matthew Scarlett.

Scarlett floored Ballantyne with a punch to the face during their Round 1 match in 2012 that saw the Cats defender suspended for three weeks

“Pretty much every interview I do this gets raised,” Ballantyne told SEN’s This Is Your Sporting Life thanks to Tobin Brothers Funerals.

“Paul Chapman, he was our target player for that game. Ryan Crowley was the tagger at the time and Chapman was out, he had a good 15-20 metres on ‘Crowls’ so I thought I’ve got to stop this bloke.

“So I’ve come off my line and laid a good bump on him and he obviously didn’t see me coming because he was pretty winded, and I got a few weeks for that.

“One of our young blokes, first-year player, ran down Matty Scarlett, got him holding the ball and then we kicked a goal.

“He was the best defender at the time in the AFL so I just went and gave him a few choice words saying, ‘Your six All-Australians count for not much at the moment’ … how do you feel? And he just laid one on my chin.

“It got to him really quick and he just cracked it I suppose.”

Ballantyne retired at the end of last season after kicking 172 goals in 171 games
for the Dockers.

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How Beijing’s second coronavirus wave triggered a salmon boycott

A new outbreak of coronavirus in Beijing, China, is claiming an unexpected victim: imported salmon.

On Sunday, Beijing authorities confirmed 59 new cases of coronavirus, which brings the number of active infections in the city to 80. The outbreak marks the city’s first reports of locally-transmitted infections in two months. In total, Beijing has reported 673 infections and nine deaths since the pandemic first broke out in late January.

Authorities believe the cases can all be traced to Xinfadi, a large wholesale meats and vegetables market in the southern city district of Fengtai that supplies 70% of the city’s produce. Public health officials investigating the outbreak found traces of the virus on a cutting board from a seller of imported salmon at the now-closed market, a government official said on Saturday. The disclosure sparked fears that salmon imported from Europe may be contaminated with the virus, putting in jeopardy China’s $700 million market for the fish.

Salmon carrier?

Supermarkets across Beijing have removed salmon from their shelves and traders elsewhere in China temporarily stopped importing salmon, even as public health authorities downplayed the likelihood of salmon as a virus carrier. They’ve have cautioned that, while technically possible, it is unlikely that imported salmon caused the new outbreak.

“Our seafood products are typically stored and transported in cold containers, thus it is possible for the virus to be preserved for a long time and increase the likelihood of infecting people,” said Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “[But] we cannot conclude that salmon is the source of infection just because novel coronavirus was detected on a chopping board of a seller.” 

Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at Hong Kong University, said that it’s “very unlikely” the disease came from salmon.

Still, the backlash against salmon in China was almost immediate.

“There is zero demand for salmon now. Deliveries have stopped. But I think this will blow over,” a salmon trader in the southern city of Xiamen told the Australian Financial Review on Monday.

As the largest exporters of salmon to China, Chile, Norway, Australia, and Denmark are set to be hardest hit by the sudden drop in demand.

The Global Times, a Chinese nationalist tabloid, fueled the salmon speculation on Sunday when it floated two possible explanations for the new Beijing cluster: that it came from imported seafood or from infected humans who entered the market.

“It’s much more likely that there was an infected person,” Cowling says.

Lockdown measures

Origins aside, the new outbreak in Beijing has forced the capital into “wartime emergency mode” to contain the spread, local official Chu Junwei said at Saturday briefing.

In response to the outbreak, Beijing officials have embarked on a massive contact tracing and testing campaign for people with links to the market. Authorities converted a sports stadium into a COVID-19 testing center, and on Sunday alone reportedly tested 76,499 people who had visited Xinfadi.

As of Monday, Beijing had placed 20 residential compounds surrounding the market under lockdown and instituted new restrictions on nearby neighborhoods, such as barring non-residents from entering.

Even in this early stage of the outbreak, the city government has punished several officials for allowing the virus to spread. On Monday, it dismissed the manager of the market and two local district government officials for failing to implement proper COVID-19 prevention and control measures, according to Chinese state media.

Provinces surrounding Beijing have warned residents against traveling to the capital city; new cases in nearby Liaoning and Hubei, and Sichuan provinces are believed to have ties to Beijing’s outbreak.

The outbreak and state efforts to associate it with an imported good speak to the nationalist nature of China’s battle against the coronavirus. Beijing has touted its early containment of the virus, first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, as proof that its authoritarian style of government is superior to Western democracies like the United States. Every new outbreak of coronavirus in China is a threat to that claim.

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