Four dead, including attacker, after London terror strike

Five people were killed and 40 others injured in a terror attack in central London on Wednesday when a man drove into pedestrians and stabbed a police officer before being shot dead.

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The attack took place on Westminster Bridge near Big Ben and the British Houses of Parliament, popular landmarks that draws millions of tourists.

The attacker’s car struck pedestrians on the bridge before crashing into the railings surrounding the heavily-guarded Houses of Parliament.

The assailant then ran through the gates brandishing a knife and stabbed unarmed 48-year-old PC Keith Palmer to death before being shot dead by another officer.

PC Keith Palmer who was killed during the terrorist attack on the Houses of Parliament, London. (Metropolitan Police)Metropolitan Police

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A woman from South Australia is among those injured.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed the Australian permanent resident was receiving treatment in hospital.

British police have arrested a number of people in a raid on a property in Birmingham just hours after the deadly attacks, according to news reports in London.

The raid was linked to the assailant from Wednesday’s attacks.

British Prime Minister Theresa May described the attack as “sick and depraved” in an address from Downing Street in which she confirmed the UK parliament would meet as normal on Thursday.

Following an emergency cabinet meeting Mrs May said Britain’s alert level would remain unchanged at severe.

“We will all move forward together, never giving in to terror and never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart,” Mrs May said.

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A woman from South Australia is among the injured in the London terror attack, parliament has been told.

Inviting British High Commissioner Menna Rawlings into the parliamentary chamber on Thursday to listen to condolence speeches, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull revealed an Australian permanent resident had been injured and was receiving treatment in hospital.

Islamist-related terrorism

Britain’s top counter-terrorism officer Mark Rowley said the five victims included the policeman guarding parliament, three members of the public and the attacker.

“Islamist-related terrorism is our assumption,” Rowley told journalists.

He said investigators believe they know the identity of the assailant and police would be examining the scene of the attack through the night.

Queen Elizabeth II postponed her appearance on Thursday to open the new headquarters of London’s Metropolitan Police, where the force’s flag was flown at half-mast following the incident.

The attack came a year to the day after Islamic State jihadists killed 32 people in twin bomb attacks in Brussels and after a series of deadly assaults in Europe that had hitherto spared Britain.

WATCH: Eyewitness describes the London attack

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Parliament was locked down for several hours and hundreds of lawmakers and visitors were later evacuated to nearby Westminster Abbey and the Metropolitan Police headquarters.

An air ambulance flew in and police cordoned off a large area, while tourists on the London Eye, a popular visitor attraction, were stuck up to 135 metres in the air for more than an hour.

Related:’Everybody started screaming’

Witness Matt Haikin told SBS News he initially thought the attack was just a car accident. 

“Then when I heard the shots it was clear something had happened. At that point I was starting to get a bit worried that this could have been much, much bigger,” Mr Haikin said. 

Another witness, Steve Voake, said he was walking across the bridge at the time of the attack. 

“Suddenly everybody started screaming and one of the buses stopped. At first I thought someone had been run over perhaps,” he told SBS News. 

“I saw there was a shoe on the side of the road, a body on the other side of the road and another body further up. When I looked over the side of the bridge there was a body floating face down in the water as well”. 

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Mr Voake said it took around four minutes for emergency services to begin arriving on the bridge. 

“It probably seemed like about four or five minutes before anything happen,” he said.

“The first person to arrive was a medic on a bike I think. Then some ambulances arrived pretty quickly, then just after that police started to arrive.” 

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Craig Meichan was with a group of 15 friends at the time of the attack and said they struggled to find each other in the immediate aftermath.

“You don’t expect this thing to happen to you, so when it does you get this incredible feeling of vulnerability and fear,” he told SBS News.

Australia stands in resolute solidarity with the people of Britain in war against terrorism. Our heartfelt sympathies are with the victims.

— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) March 22, 2017’We are not afraid’ 

Britain’s last terror attack was the assassination of MP Jo Cox by a pro-Nazi sympathiser in her constituency in northern England.

The worst previous attack in London was in 2005 when four British suicide bombers inspired by Al-Qaeda attacked the transport system, killing 52 people.

Britain’s allies reacted with shock and vowed to stand with London in the fight against terror.

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US President Donald Trump and French President Francois Hollande both spoke to May and Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany stood with Britons “against all forms of terrorism”.

Lights on the Eiffel Tower in Paris were switched off at midnight in solidarity with victims of the attack.

‘International victims’

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is due to travel to London on Thursday morning to visit three French pupils on a school trip who were among those hurt.

Five South Korean tourists were wounded, the Yonhap news agency reported, while the Romanian foreign ministry said two Romanians were also injured.

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A Portuguese man was hurt, the country’s government said, while a seriously injured woman was rescued from the River Thames following the incident.

A doctor at nearby St Thomas’ Hospital said they were treating people with “catastrophic” injuries.

Watch: Dramatic footage of the moment of attack on Westminster Bridge

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Islamic terrorism linked to attack: Fallon

British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon says the working assumption is that the London attack is linked to Islamic terrorism.

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He told BBC Radio Four’s Today program: “It was no accident that this attack was on Westminster, because it is at Westminster that we debate differences, very sharp differences, very freely and respectfully between us, and this kind of Islamic terrorism doesn’t respect those differences, so it is no accident that there was an attack here.”

Fallon said police were investigating whether the attacker acted alone or had help.

“Our forces are working extremely hard to identify those who are involved in this and I have every confidence they will be able to track down the associates of this particular man.”

Asked if it was known the attacker had associates, Fallon said: “No. The police have to proceed on the assumption that he may well have been assisted in this task. There may well have been others involved. They have to check all that and they are doing that.

“The working assumption is that this is related to Islamic terrorism in some form. That is their assumption at the moment, but they don’t have a full enough picture of this man and his known associates, and who may, or may not, have helped him prepare this attack. That work is still going on.”

Fallon praised the police response, saying: “They have been working right through the night, looking into his background, and how he got hold of the vehicle, where the vehicle has been in the last day or two, and who may, or may not, have helped him.”

Asked if the attacker was known to police, he said: “I can’t confirm that, you will have to ask the police that.”

Fallon said a spirit of defiance was the best response to such attacks.

“It is also, I think, evident form everyone involved yesterday that we are not going to let this kind of terrorism win.”

Scientists closer to anti-ageing drug

Scientists are a step closer to unlocking the mystery of how to reverse the ageing process.

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They’ve discovered that a natural compound found in fruit and vegetables including avocado and broccoli can help repair DNA that’s been damaged by ageing and radiation exposure.

Their discovery has attracted interest from US space agency NASA and sparked hope that it might one day help improve the long-term health of children with cancer.

So far the scientists from the University of NSW and Harvard Medical School in the US city of Boston have only tested the compound known as NMN in mice.

They plan to start clinical trials to test its safety in 25 people later this year in Boston.

Their work, published in the prestigious journal Science on Friday, builds on previous studies demonstrating the anti-ageing effects of NMN in older mice.

The latest study focused on NMN’s ability to repair DNA, which gets damaged every time we go out into the sun or are exposed to radiation.

The ability of our cells to repair the damage decreases as we age.

The scientists found that giving mice a dose of NMN in their drinking water improved the ability of their cells to repair DNA damaged by radiation or old age.

“The cells of the old mice were indistinguishable from the young mice after just one week of treatment,” the study’s lead author professor David Sinclair, who works at the UNSW and Harvard and shot to fame after identifying anti-ageing qualities in red wine more than a decade ago.

“This is the closest we are to a safe and effective anti-ageing drug that’s perhaps only three to five years away from being on the market if trials go well.”

NASA is working with Prof Sinclair and his UNSW colleague Dr Lindsay Wu to see if NMN could help protect astronauts from having their body cells age prematurely as a result of being exposed to cosmic radiation.

The scientists won a NASA competition in 2016 designed to help the space agency send astronauts to Mars.

“That trip will take two years in each direction, so that’s four years of being exposed to cosmic radiation and this is likely to cause a substantial amount of DNA damage to those astronauts,” Dr Wu told AAP.

The scientists believe NMN could also help repair the damaged DNA of aircraft passengers exposed to cosmic radiation as well as children with cancer who have undergone radiotherapy.

Dr Wu said nearly all childhood cancer survivors go on to develop by age 45 chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s – conditions usually associated with older adults.

The radiotherapy is blamed for causing the children’s cells to age prematurely.

“Our primary goal at the moment is treating the side effects of radiotherapy primarily because that’s where the biggest need is,” Dr Wu said.

“There’s nothing else out there to treat those side effects.”

Hawks veteran Hodge guilty of striking

Hawthorn launched an impassioned ‘steel arms’ defence at the AFL tribunal on Tuesday night but it wasn’t enough to get veteran Luke Hodge off a one-game suspension.

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Hodge was charged by the match review panel with striking Sydney’s Tom Papley during the second quarter of the Hawks’ six-point win over the Swans at the MCG on Friday night.

But Hawks legal counsel Peter O’Farrell argued Hodge was simply moving to block Papley as he ran toward an open goal.

“We’ve got a saying – ‘steel arms’ – so if someone goes through you try to hold them or get a hand in to slow them down,” Hodge told the tribunal.

“If I had let someone go past Clarko (coach Alastair Clarkson) would have roared at me at halftime.

“If I think I’ve done the wrong thing (over my career) I’ve copped the whack – in this incident I didn’t punch or strike him so that’s why I’ve challenged.”

But the jury – consisting of Paul Williams, Stewart Loewe and Richard Loveridge – deliberated for 21 minutes before finding the four-time premiership star guilty.

The 33-year-old, who will retire at the end of the season, will miss Sunday’s clash against Richmond, which is also good mate Jarryd Roughead’s 250th game.

“We disagreed with it being (assessed as) a strike … we didn’t think it was but they didn’t agree with that,” Hodge told reporters after the hearing at AFL headquarters.

“It’s disappointing with Rough playing his 250th this week. I guess that was part of the reason behind (the challenge) as well – to try and get out there to play with him.

“But that’s footy – you take what they give you and I look forward to the week after.”

The 302-game veteran didn’t risk missing any extra matches if he was unsuccessful at the tribunal, but was slapped with a $2,500 fine in addition to the ban.

The Hawks, a game-and-a-half outside the eight in 12th, must beat the Tigers at the MCG if they are to keep their faint finals hopes alive.

Criminals trying to ‘corrupt’ visa system

Authorities are concerned that organised criminals are using bribery and other means to try and corrupt Australia’s visa system – potentially for terrorism or fraud.

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It’s also feared some businesses are establishing inappropriate relationships with public officials in a bid to bypass the country’s strong biosecurity controls.

The head of the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity on Tuesday warned a parliamentary committee looking into Australia’s border arrangements that both were significant issues.

Michael Griffin, who oversees a number of agencies including federal police and Border Force, said organised crime groups are motivated by the fact Australia is one of the world’s most profitable markets for illicit drug importations.

He said there were a lot of indicators of criminals attempting to corrupt the visa issuing process both domestically and offshore to enable organised crime, possibly terrorism and commercial fraud.

“They are the traditional methods of corrupting officials through the use of influence, through extended family relationships, through bribery, through entrapment processes – we are seeing that,” Mr Griffin said.

“It is of such significance to draw our attention and to have us focused very closely on it.”

He also expressed concern about the possibility of unscrupulous businesses circumventing Australia’s border regulations through forming corrupt or inappropriate relationships with public officials.

“It is premature for me to say much more in public, although it is enough to say that this type of corruption may introduce significant biosecurity risk through lax procedures in the screening of agricultural imports,” he told the hearing in Canberra.

The watchdog has uncovered a number of cases of officials accepting “very substantial bribes”.

Mr Griffin noted 26 matters had been prosecuted and convicted recently, ranging in punishments of up to 14 years in jail.

The AFP is also concerned organised crime figures are getting work at airports and ports and exploiting their security passes.

It has identified drug importations facilitated by “trusted insiders” in aviation.

“Airport criminal infiltration may exploit vulnerabilities across a lengthy supply chain from airport logistics and functions, air freight logistics, security, baggage handling and even air crew,” AFP Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan told the inquiry.

More than 60 organisations and companies can issue aviation and maritime security identification cards, with the AFP warning the more people who can dish them out, the more vulnerable they become.

The Office of Transport Security, which regulates Australia’s airports, ports and and offshore oil and gas sites, is pursuing a raft of measures to crack down on staff security.

Anyone with links to serious or organised crime would be blocked from getting identification cards under legislation before parliament.

The agency is boosting screening of airport staff working in restricted areas, expanding the scope of background checks and forcing those who issue ID cards to verify identities face-to-face.

They’re also looking at the design of the aviation and maritime ID cards, including their security features.

OTS executive director Sachi Wimmer told the inquiry the agency was investigating the possibility of introducing biometrics into the cards and cutting the number of people who can issue them.

Trump’s new communications director gone in 10 days

This time, newly appointed Anthony Scaramucci is out as communications director.

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He had spent a little more than a week in the job.

Anthony Scaramucci is no longer communications director for the Trump administration, having lasted just 10 days in the job.

It marks the latest turn in a string of tumultuous staffing changes at the White House.

An official statement says Mr Scaramucci is leaving because “he felt it best to give chief of staff John Kelly a clean slate and the ability to build his own team.”

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders has confirmed he is out.

“He does not have a role at this time in the Trump administration. And we put out a statement earlier announcing that. And I don’t have much else to add beyond that.”

The announcement came just hours after President Trump swore in John Kelly, a retired Marine general, as his chief of staff following Reince Preibus’s dismissal.

Mr Trump had tweeted there was “no chaos in the White House” and later said it was a “great day!”

While Mr Scaramucci’s reign was brief, he had made headlines with profanity-filled comments to The New Yorker magazine about some key staff figures.

He attacked Mr Priebus, chief of staff at the time, and Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

Sarah Sanders says the comments worked against him.

“The President certainly felt that Anthony’s comments were inappropriate for a person in that position. And he didn’t want to burden General Kelly, also, with that line of succession. As I think we’ve made clear a few times over the course of the last couple of days to several of you individually, General Kelly has the full authority to operate within the White House, and all staff will report to him.”

In the first six months of Donald Trump’s presidency, a national-security adviser, a communications director, a press secretary and a chief of staff have all come and gone.

CNN commentators Brian Stelter and Gloria Borger have speculated President Trump may not have enjoyed the attention Mr Scaramucci was garnering.

(Stelter:) “Of course, Mooch became bigger than Trump, and haven’t we seen this before? The fact that I’m using the word Mooch, using the name Mooch, he was in the tabloids all weekend. He was the centre of attention.”

(Borger:) “But not in a good way. I was just texting with a source, who said to me, ‘Look, he was getting too far out front, and in a bad way,’ and that the President realised it. And I’m sure family, by the way, realised it. I’m sure Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner did not like the language that Scaramucci was using. And to your point, there is only one star in this constellation, and that is Donald Trump.”

House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes has told CNN Mr Scaramucci’s behaviour was unacceptable for the White House.

Mr Himes says he is hopeful General Kelly can bring some order to Washington.

“Well, I’m not at all surprised. I think, look, Kelly in and Scaramucci out is nothing but good for this White House and for the country. Mr Scaramucci showed on about Day 3 that he was all about himself, that he was willing to step well beyond the bounds of anything acceptable in the most powerful building in the land. And, you know, John Kelly, a Marine, well-respected, he … if anyone can bring order to what has been a chaotic White House operation, I would expect it would be a four-star Marine. I think he’s respected around town, around Washington. I think he’s going to be respected within the White House.”

Former press secretary Sean Spicer had stepped down on July the 21st in response to Mr Scaramucci’s appointment.

Mr Spicer said he would continue to serve until the end of August, but it is unclear what his status will be now.

 

 

Border agencies under pressure as plane plot investigation continues

How much do we know about the people looking after our borders?

According to national border protection and security agencies, not enough.

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An inquiry into Australia’s border integrity has revealed serious gaps within vetting procedures and a lack of checks on border employees.

It follows the breaking up of a plot to bring down a passenger plane, with police arresting several men in Sydney following raids over the weekend.

The group is being held without charge under special terror-related powers while investigations continue.

Passengers passing through Australian airports are adjusting to longer wait times and heightened security arrangements, which could be ongoing.

The Australian Federal Police says it will maintain a presence at airports as long as deemed necessary by intelligence agencies.

Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan says while the organisation realises the demands of national security, its resources are being tested.

“We’re stretched, there is no spare capacity. We do not have people ready to respond to something. If something happens, I have to risk-manage other activities. It’s like asking a senior police officer who already wants more resources a bit of a vexed question because the answer is always going to be ‘yes we do’, but it’s a matter of priorities across government, which I understand. If we’re going to police more designated airports within the current funding environment, that will mean something else we’re doing is not going to be done.”

The A-F-P merged its aviation portfolio into its protection operations in March 2016.

Assistant Commissioner Gaughan says he’s particularly concerned about staffing in the industry, and who is given clearance to receive an aviation or maritime security identification card, known as an ASIC (A-sik) or MSIC

“We know that individuals with links to criminal groups have been able to gain employment at Australia’s ports, and obtain ASICs or MSICs. These employees were able to exploit processes, procedures, and their access to restricted areas within the airport because of their ASIC/MSIC status – I think it would be very naive to suspect this is not ongoing.”

On Monday the courier company DHL voiced concern over the continued use of paper documents for security and background checks, and recommended a biometric system.

The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission agrees the current vetting system is inadequate.

The Commission’s executive director of intelligence, Col Blanch, wants continuous checks.

“Someone may come in to an organisation with pure intentions and work well for five or six years and then find themselves in a situation later on in life where things have changed or they’re related to a person perhaps doing the wrong thing. It’s not necessarily the initial vetting, that’s certainly important to make sure you get the right people in, but people’s circumstances change.”

The organisation has also called for domestic travel to be tightened, to stop organised crime exploiting a loophole where travellers don’t need identification.

Australian Border Force says controls are in place for those who break the rules.

James Watson, from Border Force, says there are disciplinary avenues.

“We have a number of mechanisms to ensure the right people are in the right place at the right time. If we detect breaches, we have a number of options that are available to us as an issuing authority, and that might be issuing a warning, for instance, to an individual or to individuals if they have not complied with the requirements of an ASIC to move in and out, we could issue an infringement, or indeed an exclusion or, where necessary, prosecutions can occur.”

 

 

 

Worries of more conflict following Venezuela vote

President Maduro has declared a sweeping victory in the election of the new legislative body, which grants his party the power to rewrite the constitution.

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But much of the world — and many of his own citizens — are refusing to recognise the results, calling it an assault on democracy.

Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro is celebrating the results of Sunday’s vote for a new Constituent Assembly as what he calls a “vote for the revolution.”

“The Venezuelan people have shown that, when fate challenges us, when the stateless oligarchy challenges us, when imperialism challenges us, it is when we make known the blood of the liberator that runs through the veins of men, women, children, youths.”

The victory means the President’s ruling socialist party will replace the current legislative body, the National Assembly, with a new, 545-member Constituent Assembly.

The new assembly, all nominated by the Maduro administration, will have virtually unlimited powers, including the ability to rewrite the constitution.

It was hoped the vote would lead to peace in Venezuela, which for months has endured violent protests that have killed more than 120 people.

But it appears to have further divided the country, with many Venezuelan citizens incensed.

“There cannot be peace when there aren’t legitimate things. Like this constitutional assembly. The constitution clearly states you have to consult the people to decide on a constitutional assembly, and they didn’t do it.”

Venezuelans have taken to the streets for months to challenge the vote.

It prompted the government to ban protests and promise punishment for anyone disrupting the electoral process.

Despite that, violence marred the voting day, as many boycotted the election and a number of polling stations were attacked.

At least 10 deaths have been reported in new rounds of clashes between protesters and police.

The country’s elections authority, the National Electoral Council, says more than 8 million people voted, more than double the turnout estimated.

But members of the opposition are disputing the count, saying only 2 to 3 million ballots were cast.

The president of the opposition-led National Assembly, Julio Borges, is calling for fresh protests.

“No-one can think that, because the government, through blood and fire, literally, his fraudulent process … no-one can think that the regime got away with it.”

And it is not just those in Venezuela refusing to recognise the results.

The United States has labelled President Maduro a “dictator,” imposing sanctions on his administration for undermining democracy.

Under the sanctions, US firms and individuals are banned from doing business with him.

US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchi says it sends a clear message to his government.

“Yesterday’s illegitimate elections confirm that Maduro is a dictator who disregards the will of the Venezuela people. By sanctioning Maduro, the United States makes clear our opposition to the policies of his regime and the support for the people of Venezuela, who strive to return their country to a full and prosperous democracy.”

Latin American nations from Argentina to Mexico, which usually do not side with the United States in regional disputes, are sharply condemning the vote.

Spain and Canada have also joined in the condemnation, and the European Union says it is unlikely to acknowledge the result.

European Commission deputy chief spokeswoman Mina Andreeva says the recent violence has cast doubts over the state of Venezuela’s democracy .

“The Commission has, indeed, grave doubts as to whether the election result can be recognised. The events of the past 24 hours have reinforced the European Union’s preoccupation for the fate of democracy in Venezuela.”

Analysts say Venezuela is heading towards becoming a pariah state.

Economist Luis Vicente León is president of the Venezuelan data-polling centre Datanálisis.

He warns, while the results may consolidate President Maduro’s power, they are also likely to deepen the country’s political crisis.

“This is not a typical election. It’s an election that doesn’t resolve a problem but, rather, amplifies it. And that’s not normal.”

 

 

US assures Balkan allies of support against Russia

It comes as US vice president Mike Pence has called on Russia to reverse a decision limiting the US diplomatic presence in that country.

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Russia’s move followed the announcement of new sanctions to be imposed on Russia by the United States.

United States vice president Mike Pence has sought to reassure Baltic states of US support in the face of any Russian aggression.

While visiting the Estonian defence-force headquarters in Tallinn, Mr Pence has voiced assurances that the United States firmly backs NATO’s doctrine of collective defence.

That doctrine states that an attack against one ally is considered an attack against all the allies.

“At the heart of our alliance is a solemn promise that an attack on one is an attack on all. But this oath requires action, and every NATO member must renew their commitment to our common defence, and they must renew it now.”

Mr Pence’s comments to the presidents of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania come ahead of large-scale military manoeuvres Russia has planned next month with Belarus.

The comments also come under the shadow of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and US president Donald Trump’s lukewarm support early on for NATO.

Mr Pence says President Trump is due to sign legislation soon that will strengthen sanctions against Russia.

“President Trump has called on Russia to cease its destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere and to cease its support for hostile regimes like North Korea and Iran. And under President Trump, the United States will continue to hold Russia accountable for its actions, and we call on our European allies and friends to do the same.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin has retaliated to an announcement of new US sanctions against Russia last week by slashing the US embassy and consular staff in Russia.

He ordered it cut by about 60 per cent.

While the vast majority of the roughly 1,200 US embassy and consulate staff in Russia are Russian citizens, the cuts are still the most dramatic between the two since the Cold War.

Speaking on Russian state television, President Putin says Russia had to respond.

“We have a lot of options how to respond. Why now? Because the US has made this, what’s really important, unprovoked step to deteriorate the US-Russia ties, to impose illegal restrictions, to influence their allies who want to develop relations with Russia. (Russian …) I decided that it’s time for us to show that we will not leave anything without response. Is it a lot? Well, from the point of view of an embassy, it’s considerable.”

Mike Pence says the United States is open to a better relationship with Russia but Russia must reverse the actions, he says, caused the sanctions to be imposed originally.

Russian analyst Anna Matveeva, from King’s College in London, has told Al Jazeera television Russia is sending a signal it has lost hope in improving ties with the United States.

“Definitely, this is a response action. Most of the policy has been reactive. They have been already hesitant to what extent the early hopes to build a good relationship with President Trump can come to fruition. Now, this is a signal that there is a serious sign of doubt. Moscow has not been really responding to various hostile actions coming from the US. This is the first time where Moscow actually responded in kind.”

Mike Pence has also visited Montenegro, the NATO alliance’s newest member, and Georgia, an aspiring member that fought a brief war with Russia in 2008.

 

Etihad working with AFP over alleged terror plot

There are calls for stronger security presence in regional and domestic airports, following a thwarted alleged terror plot to bring down a commercial airliner.

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Abu Dhabi-based Etihad has not confirmed the alleged plot was targeting one of their flights, but has said that it is working with Australian police.

“The Etihad Airways aviation security team is assisting the Australian Federal Police with its investigation and the matter is ongoing,” the airline said in a statement. 

“Etihad is complying fully with the enhanced security measures at airports in Australia and monitoring the situation closely.”

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The Trade Workers Union believes less stringent security measures at regional airports are posing a major risk.

“They are still failing to come and to engage, and say ‘who is responsible’ for some airport breaches that are happening at our airports,” TWU Secretary Tony Sheldon told reporters in Sydney.

0:00 ‘We have to be more prudent’: AirAsia CEO on security measures Share ‘We have to be more prudent’: AirAsia CEO on security measures

“There is high staff turnover, lack of training, poor conditions, and no whistleblower protections.”

AirAsia X CEO Benyamin Ismail has told SBS World News that aviation safety rests on the shoulders of each airport.

“Everybody is concerned about attacks, but we just have to make sure we work together with airports to make sure that all these [security] processes are seamless,” Mr Ismail said.

At a Parliamentary inquiry into Australian border security, the newly-founded Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) said there remains an “unprecedented risk” to national security.

“In terms of the aviation and maritime sectors: they are highly vulnerable to serious and organised crime exploitation,” said ACIC deputy Paul Williams.

“They are a key link to the international illicit economy. They can facilitate the importation of illicit goods into Australia.”

Sydney father and son Khaled and Mahmoud Khayat, and Khaled and Abdul Merhi, remain behind bars without charge after being arrested on Saturday during raids across Sydney.

It is believed the alleged terror plot to bring down an Australian plane was “fairly well along” when authorities moved in, according to a Reuters report citing two US officials familiar with the case. 

Police have already obtained a court order to hold and question the four men for seven days, as investigators strengthen their case to lay charges.

MORE NEWS:

MPs deny same-sex marriage vote threatens Turnbull leadership

Trump fires Scaramucci after 10 days as Communications Director

Chinese Christian churches targeted in religious crackdown

In an old apartment building in Beijing, a covert gathering of a dozen Christians takes place every Friday.

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They meet to read the bible, pray and sing Christian songs.

“We’ve been questioned by the police before. Friday is a less obvious day for us to meet,” says Pastor Xu Yonghai.

Every other day of the week the apartment is simply home to Pastor Xu and his wife. But on Friday it becomes a ‘house church.’

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“A few decades ago there was no such thing as a ‘house church.’ We had never even heard of Christianity. Now I believe there are thousands in this city alone,” says Pastor Xu.

And it’s this growth, says Bob Fu from the US-based NGO China Aid, which has caught the attention of the Chinese government.

“We definitely have been seeing a major deterioration and worsening. That has to do with the overall President Xi regime’s hardening policy.”

According the official estimates there are about 23 to 30 million Protestant Christians in China, but Bob Fu believes there are up to 100 million unregistered believers.

The state only recognises the Protestant ‘Three-Self Patriotic Movement’, a government-aligned church based on the principles of “self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in China’s constitution, but many independent churches like Pastor Xu’s are outside the Chinese Communist Party’s control, “so they’re perceived as threat,” says Mr Fu.

Christians are turning to illegal ‘house churches’ in a bid to evade authorities.SBS World News

Punishment against Christians intensifying 

Last month Wang Zuo’an, director of China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs, published an article in a Communist Party magazine banning religion for its approximately 90 million members. Wang wrote that “foreign forces have used religion to infiltrate China.”

Concealing his identity to avoid punishment for speaking out, human rights lawyer Wang Yuan (not his real name) specialises in cases involving religious freedom. He says in some areas of China local authorities are intensifying punishment for Christians found worshipping in ‘home churches’.

Mr Wang says one of his clients from Xinjiang province was recently charged for ‘disturbing public order’ after holding a four-person Bible study at home.

“Disturbing public order usually refers to large gatherings in public places, such as protests etc. But these were just people in a private home reading and praying,” he says.

“Previously, people caught in home churches would be detained for 15 days at most. Now they’re being charged and sentenced to three, four or five years in jail. Even six and seven years.”

But Wang Yuan says the treatment of Christians varies throughout China.

“In some areas and cities the attitude of the local government is different. There are many Christians who can practice religion without too much trouble,” says Mr Wang.

But Bob Fu says churches previously allowed to grow unhindered have in recent years faced intense scrutiny, or have been destroyed.

Chinese are turning to Christianity in greater numbers.SBS World News

Crackdown nothing compared to decades before

In May a church in China’s northeastern Henan province was demolished after being deemed an “illegal structure,” by authorities.

The congregation of about 40 Christians reportedly tried to stop the demolition and were detained, but not charged. Weeks before government officials in the southern Zhejiang province reportedly forced their way into a church to install surveillance equipment.

“These cases are very common, more and more so in recent years,” says Mr Fu.

Pastor Xu Yonghai says he’s aware of the risk involved in continuing to run his ‘house church’, but has no intention of stopping.

He is no stranger to being imprisoned for his beliefs.

“I’ve been arrested three times. The first time in the ’90s I was sent to a labour camp for two years for ‘smearing the government’ in an article I wrote about the growth of Christianity.

“In 2003 I wrote another article about the treatment of Christians in the south, and was sentenced to two years in prison for “leaking state secrets”. In 2014 thirteen of us from our ‘home church’ were detained for one month because at one stage our congregation became too big and caught the attention of the police.” 

“We’ve since changed locations,” he adds smiling.

Pastor Xu feels the current crackdown is nothing compared to decades before.

“There hasn’t been a day when a Christian in China wasn’t in jail. But Christians before us in the ’50s were given lifelong sentences, they were in jail for 20 years. Compared to that, what we face is nothing, right? In some things you take two steps forward, five steps back. Right now we’re just in the five steps back stage.”

Followers of the Christian faith attend a ‘house church’.SBS World News

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PNG waiting to have next PM confirmed after chaotic and violent poll

Parliament will sit for the first time since the poll to vote for a prime minister, with the incumbent Peter O’Neill claiming his coalition has the numbers.

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Mr O’Neill’s People’s National Congress (PNC) was invited last Friday to form government during a controversial return of election writs, with counting in only 80 of 111 electorates completed.

A further extension of writs means a possible six electorates could still be undeclared when the 10th parliament sits, the largest number of empty seats for the first sitting ever in PNG history.

Mr O’Neill claims his coalition has at least 56 members, enough to rule, while an opposition alliance made up of the National Alliance, Pangu Parti and independents claims it almost has 50 MPs and is within striking distance of power.

The election has been marred by widespread electoral roll irregularities, with many thousands of people unable to vote, in what was described by international election observers as alarming.

Violence between rival supporters over disputed vote counting has cost numerous lives in the volatile Highlands, including two police officers killed with assault rifles, and caused rioting in major centres.

Electoral commissioner Patilias Gamato has faced calls for him to resign for incompetence, allegations he rejects.

Former prime minister Sir Mekere Morauta came out of political retirement to win a seat as an independent and has condemned the handling of the poll.

Mr O’Neill has said it was one of the most peaceful elections on record.

No one party has ever held a majority, but after writs the one with the highest number of MPs is usually asked to try to form government.

In the lead up to parliament sitting, “camps” of MPs-elect try to build a coalition, with PNC and its allies meeting in the regional town of Alotau, while opponents united by a shared wish to unseat Mr O’Neill met in Kokopo and Goroka.

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Both camps have returned to Port Moresby ahead of parliament sitting, with each keeping a careful watch that MPs who have declared their allegiance do not swap sides.

About 50 per cent of MPs lose their seats in PNG’s five-yearly election and many high-profile PNC ministers have been thrown out, while some veteran politicians have returned, along with newcomers with no parliamentary experience.

MPs are often financially broke after the election and allegations of inducements circulate, including offers of money and plumb ministerial positions being offered by the camps.

As the last of the electorates were still being declared and the opposing sides built up their numbers, at least one opposition MP was the target of a kidnap attempt at gunpoint.

Mr O’Neill said the alleged plotter, a failed candidate who was accompanied by police, was no longer a member of the PNC.

With the widespread election irregularities, many MPs will face further challenges in the court of disputed returns.

After the 2012 poll, it took four years to finalise the last cases.

One certainty is the new parliament will be all male, with no women elected after a record number in the previous term and despite the highest number of female candidates in the country’s short democratic history standing.

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Charity row over Italian migrant rescue rules

“There were two sticking points that prevented us from signing the code,” said Tommaso Fabbri, head of MSF’s Italy mission, after the charity took part in a meeting in Rome between the interior ministry and non-governmental organisations.

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One was the obligation for rescue vessels to operate with an Italian police official on board, and the other was the ban on moving rescued migrants from one aid vessel to another at sea, which complicated missions, he said.

“We are doctors, not policemen,” Fabbri told AFP.

“We will continue to carry out rescue operations without changing anything,” he said, but added the organisation was “open to controls” by the Italian coastguard in the name of transparency.

The code, created to address the biggest migrant phenomenon in Europe since World War II, lays down 13 rules Rome insists must be followed to prevent aid groups rescuing migrants from acting as a magnet for human traffickers.

But the rules have been widely criticised by the NGOs as making it more difficult for them to save the lives of those attempting the perilous crossing from the shores of crisis-hit Libya to Europe.

The interior ministry said those who “refuse to agree and sign are excluded from the system of sea rescues”.

The German NGO Jugend Rettet, a privately-funded aid organisation which has been carrying out rescue operations in the central Mediterranean, also refused to sign.

“We would only sign if the new rules made our work more efficient and increased the security of our volunteers,” spokesman Titus Molkenbur told journalists at the close of the meeting in Rome.

 ‘Restore climate of trust’

The new rules, which have been given a green light by Brussels, forbid NGOs from sailing into Libyan waters unless lives are at risk, or communicating with smugglers — including using lights that could attract traffickers.

Save the Children had signed up because its ship — the Vos Hestia — already operated according to most of the rules laid out in the code, the charity’s director general Valerio Neri said in a statement.

He said the decision to agree to the code “was dictated by the desire to guarantee continuity for the rescue operations, in a transparent fashion, and restore a climate of trust and collaboration”.

The charity said it would “constantly monitor” the code’s application “to make sure it does not hinder the efficacy of search and rescue operations at sea by NGOs”.

MOAS, the Maltese-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station, also rubber-stamped the rules “in solidarity with the government and the Italian people,” said founder Christopher Catrambon.

“Our mission has always been to save as many lives as possible at sea, and this document allows us to continue to do just that,” he said.

Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms sent a letter to Rome saying it was willing to sign the code, the ministry said.

Nearly 95,000 people have been brought to safety in Italy this year, a rise of one percent on the same period last year, according to the interior ministry.

The privately-funded aid boats performed 26 percent of the rescues carried out in 2016, rising to 35 percent so far this year.