Brussels attacks a ‘failure of intelligence’: Belgian terrorism expert

A Brussels-based terrorism and security expert has told SBS News the attacks in the Belgian city were the result of a “failure of intelligence”.

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Speaking from Belgium, Thomas Renard, a terrorism expert at the Egmont Institute, a Brussels-based think-tank, said there had clearly been a “major failure” in the country’s security services.

“To put it bluntly, when there is an attack, something went wrong and this is quite clear,” he told SBS News.

“Now the question is, what went wrong, and we don’t know yet. Obviously at this stage it’s too early to tell.”

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He said the fault could be down to a multitude of factors including a breakdown in interagency communication and co-operation, security authorities underestimating the threat posed by people of interest or whether too much emphasis had been put into the hunt for the Paris attackers, including Salah Abdeslam.

A US government official told Reuters the attacks showed Belgium had not “upped their game” in national security, despite being home to more returned Syrian fighters than any other European country.

However Mr Renard said it was quite difficult to completely defend against attacks like that seen at the airport, where explosives were hidden in bags and under coats.

“How do you prevent this kind of people from walking into a metro station or walking in an airport hall way?” he said.

“Unless you live in a war zone where you have these kinds of security checks before entering the airport or before entering buildings – I don’t think that that in any of our democratic societies, citizens will accept these measures for more than one day.”

Since the attacks there have been harsh criticisms of the security at Brussels airport, but Mr Renard said these were “misplaced”.

“If you go to Brussels, you’ll find exactly the same kind of preventive measures that you will encounter in any international airport,” he said.

“Since last November when the threat level was raised to the highest level … military personnel have been patrolling the airport on a daily basis.

“In Belgium we did not have military on the streets for a long, long time so it’s just clear that this threat has been taken seriously.

“In absolute numbers, although not a lot of military personnel were actually in the airport, there were about 500 army personnel permanently in the street, now they’re raising that number to 750. It doesn’t seem much, but for a country like Belgium, it’s actually quite a lot.”

However others are not so sure Belgium is on top of the security threat to the country.

The former head of the Belgian intelligence service, Alain Winants, told Reuters Belgium had been slow to adopt modern surveillance techniques and equipment, such as phone tapping.

He said police had even had to deny they let Abdeslam, who has since been arrested and is in custody in Bruges, slip through their fingers due to a law banning house raids at night.

Reuters reported the country had 193 local police forces, and in Brussels along there were 19 autonomous mayors – all part of a bureaucracy that hindered information sharing.

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There were concerns not enough is being done to prevent disaffected young people from finding acceptance in the notorious Molenbeek area – a neighbourhood that has become synonymous with Islamic militants and radicalisation, Reuters reported.

Mr Renard said while some security measures had already been taken, there was “always room for improvement”.

“I think that the way to solve the problem is to increase the resources and the powers of our intelligence and security services on the one hand, and improve our prevention force and deradicalisation programs. I think these are the real priorities here,” he said.

He said these attacks would most likely result in an investigation into how the attacks were able to be carried out.

“Not only will a lot of people raise questions about this, but I think they will criticise,” Mr Renard said.

“In this case, there is certainly going to be an investigation on the investigation.

“First we will need to leave time and space for the police investigation, but once that is done, I am rather confident that there will be a parliamentary investigation or something similar and if they discover that there’s been a major issue related to lack of cooperation and coordination at the political level at the level or security of Belgium services, then in that case one may envisage a reform of their functioning.”

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With Reuters.

Russian court sentences Ukrainian pilot to 22 years in jail

A Russian court sentenced Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko to 22 years in jail on Tuesday after finding her guilty of involvement in the killing of two Russian journalists during the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said his country would never recognise the verdict of what he called a “kangaroo court” and called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Savchenko back home to Ukraine.

Fighting in eastern Ukraine has subsided since a fragile ceasefire was agreed, but Savchenko’s trial showed the depth of bitterness that remains. Savchenko, 34, is a national hero in Ukraine but many in Russia see her as a Ukrainian nationalist with the blood of civilians on her hands.

The sentence is likely to prompt protests from the European Union, which has called for Savchenko’s release.

Savchenko, who was elected a member of the Ukrainian parliament while awaiting trial, was defiant as the verdict was read out. She climbed onto a bench and sang the Ukrainian national anthem at the top of her voice.

Savchenko, who wore a T-shirt bearing the Ukrainian trident, a state symbol, has denied having anything to do with the deaths of the journalists.

Poroshenko said after the verdict: “Ukraine will never – I repeat, never – recognise either the kangaroo court of Nadezhda Savchenko, nor its so-called sentencing.”

He said Putin had promised him some months ago that he would return Savchenko to Ukraine once the trial was over.

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“The time has come to fulfil that promise,” Poroshenko said in a statement. “In turn, I am prepared to hand over to Russia the two Russian servicemen captured on our territory for taking part in armed aggression against Ukraine.”

Russian officials have previously signalled they would be willing to consider a prisoner exchange.

Only Putin can decide whether Russia will trade Savchenko with Kiev, the Interfax news agency quoted Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, as saying on Tuesday.

Singing protest 

At the hearing in southern Russian, judge Leonid Stepanenko, between shouted interruptions by Savchenko, dismissed her lawyers’ arguments that she could not have been involved in killing the journalists.

“The evidence provided by the prosecution side is trustworthy and completely disproves the theory of the defence about Savchenko’s innocence,” the judge said.

He said the court had decided “to select as the final punishment for Savchenko 22 years of confinement of liberty with a fine of 30,000 roubles (US$442).”

The sentence was one year less than the term prosecutors had sought.

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Asked by the judge if she understood the sentence, Savchenko stood on a bench in the cage where she was being kept and began singing the Ukrainian national anthem. Her supporters in the courtroom joined the singing and tried to unfurl a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, before security staff bundled them out.

Savchenko, who had taken leave from her job as a military pilot to volunteer with Ukraine’s ground forces fighting against the separatists in eastern Ukraine, was captured by pro-Moscowrebels there in June 2014.

She was handed over to Russia where she was charged with directing mortar fire which killed the two Russian journalists who were covering the conflict.

She has repeatedly gone on hunger strike, and says she is the victim of a show trial aimed at humiliating Ukraine.

During the trial, angry Ukrainians have pelted the Russian embassy in Kiev with eggs over her plight, while Russians have picketed the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow demanding justice for the dead journalists.

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Minute’s silence for Brussels victims

People across Brussels have held a minute’s silence to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks on the international airport and a subway station in the Belgian capital.

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King Philippe, the premier and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker attended a memorial event at the commission’s headquarters.

Top Belgian and EU officials marked the occasion near the Maelbeek subway station, located close to European Union offices.

More than 1000 people gathered around an improvised shrine with candles and street paintings outside the Brussels bourse.

Television and radio broadcasters had announced they would participate in the minute’s silence, which was also marked in other parts of the country.

Belgian police have identified a prime suspect in Tuesday’s blasts and two suspected suicide bombers, linking them directly to Islamic State militants behind last November’s Paris attacks, Belgian media reported on Wednesday.

Najim Laachraoui, 25, is believed to be the man seen on CCTV pushing a baggage trolley alongside the bombers and then running out of the Brussels airport terminal.

Earlier some media reported that he had been captured in the Brussels borough of Anderlecht, but they later said the person detained was not Laachraoui.

Police and prosecutors refused immediate comment but the federal prosecutor was due to hold a news conference at 1200 GMT (2300 AEDT).

The death toll in the attacks on the Belgian capital, home to the European Union and NATO, rose to at least 31 with about 260 wounded, Health Minister Maggie De Block said on VRT television.

It could rise further because some of the bomb victims at Maelbeek metro station were blown to pieces and victims are hard to identify.

One of the suspects seen on CCTV pushing baggage trolleys at Brussels airport just before the explosions was identified as Brahim El Bakraoui, public broadcaster RTBF reported. It said his brother, Khalid, blew himself up on the metro train.

Both had criminal records for armed robbery but had not previously been linked by investigators to Islamist militants.

Laachraoui is wanted in connection with the Paris attacks.

His DNA was found on at least two explosives belts used in those attacks and at a Brussels hideout used last week by prime Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested last Friday after a shoot-out with police.

RTBF said Khalid El Bakraoui had rented under a false name the apartment in the city’s Forest borough, where police hunting Abdeslam killed a gunman in a raid last week. He is also believed to have rented a safe house in the southern Belgian city of Charleroi used to mount last November’s Paris attacks.

The Syrian-based Islamist group claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attacks, four days after Abdeslam’s arrest in Brussels, warning of “black days” for those fighting it in Syria and Iraq. Belgian warplanes have joined the coalition in the Middle East, but Brussels has long been a centre of Islamist militancy.

The attacks sent shockwaves across Europe and around the world, with authorities racing to review security at airports and on public transport, and rekindled debate about European security cooperation and police methods.

Prime Minister Charles Michel cancelled a trip to China and convened his inner cabinet to discuss security.

Police searched an apartment in the northern Brussels borough of Schaerbeek late into the night, finding another bomb, an Islamic State flag and bomb-making chemicals.

Local media said authorities had followed a tip from a taxi driver who may have driven the bombers to the airport.

An unused explosive device was later found at the airport and a man wearing a light-coloured jacket and a hat, believed to be Laachraoui, was seen running away from the terminal after the explosions.

The suspects were photographed pushing bags on trolleys, and witnesses said many of the airport dead and wounded were hit mostly in the legs, possibly indicating blasts at floor level.

The two men in dark clothes wore gloves on their left hands only. One security expert speculated they might have concealed detonators. The man in the hat was not wearing gloves.

Life began to return to normal in Brussels on Wednesday, with some public transport working and cars returning to the European district, but the metro system remained closed and the airport was still shut to travellers.

Brussels airport will remain closed on Thursday, chief executive Arnaud Feist said.

Australian journalist shot in the neck covering Philippines conflict

The ABC South East Asia correspondent was covering the Philippine military’s recovery operation of parts of the besieged city from IS militants when the incident happened.

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In recent days Harvey had been reporting of the military’s use of fighter jets and helicopters to repel militants from the city.

Thanks everyone – I’m okay. Bullet is still in my neck, but it missed everything important. pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/PBYfdrTTa6

— Adam Harvey (@adharves) June 15, 2017

In videos posted on social media, Harvey can be seen receiving medical treatment with a neck brace and a protective helmet.

“I’m fine, I’m just going to get an X-ray to get it checked out,” he says.

“I just felt like something (inaudible) in the side of the neck, a piece of shrapnel.”

Harvey later shared a picture of his X-ray showing the bullet lodged in his neck.

Lucky. pic.twitter长沙桑拿按摩论坛,/2ZPYZfidO9

— Adam Harvey (@adharves) June 15, 2017

His sister and fellow journalist Claire Harvey said he was doing ok.

“We thought it was shrapnel but it was a bullet that got him in the neck,” she told 2gb radio.

“There’s some suggestion it’s still in his neck.”

CNN quoted Philippine presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella reminding journalists covering the conflict to “remain objective”.

“I think they should try to be objective as possible. And to see it in the context that this is really a… That this is basically an action of rebellion,” he said.

“And that they see it along that line, they report along these lines, that they are objective. Stay out of trouble.”

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Jobless rate hits four-year low of 5.5%

A surprise surge in full-time employment has driven Australia’s jobless rate to a four year low and could spark some decent growth in long-stagnant wages, economists say.

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The jobless rate fell to 5.5 per cent in May, beating economists’ expectations of an unchanged 5.7 per cent, as full-time jobs jumped by 52,100 and part-time jobs fell by 10,100.

CommSec chief economist Craig James said May’s job creation follows almost 100,000 jobs added across March and April in a positive employment trend that would drive the economy forward.

“This is a result to be celebrated by consumers and businesses alike,” Mr James said in a research note.

St George senior economist Janu Chan said job ad numbers and recent business surveys pointed to healthy future jobs growth but expressed concern about the sustainability of the trend in the face of lacklustre consumer spending.

“The recent strength in the labour market is unlikely to persist over the medium term, particularly if soft conditions in consumer spending continue,” she said.

Recent official data has shown retail spending rose in April but that followed two months of flat or falling figures.

The labour participation rate, which refers to the number of people either employed or actively looking for work, rose by just 0.1 per cent in May to 64.9 per cent.

Meanwhile, the quarterly seasonally adjusted underemployment rate fell 0.1 percentage points to 8.8 per cent.

HSBC economists Paul Bloxham and Daniel Smith said the jobs figures pointed to a tightening labour market, which may signal an end to prolonged weak wages growth.

“As the labour market tightens further we expect it to start to put some upward pressure on wages growth in coming quarters,” they said.

Mr James said the surprise jobs figures meant the central bank would not be in a hurry to lift interest rates.

“But rate cuts can now be taken off the table,” he said.

Royal Bank of Canada fixed income and currency strategist Michael Turner said the RBA would now have a more comfortable view of the labour market – and its holding stance on rates – after three months of employment growth.

“This in turn will likely put a neutral stance on a more confident footing, particularly given that there are few signs of a noticeably slower housing market yet,” he said.

The Australian dollar was boosted by the news, hitting a two-month high of 76.30 US cents soon after the figures were released before falling back to 76.07 US cents at 1625 AEST.

Qld reassures unit residents after UK fire

The Queensland government says proposed new building laws will crack down on potentially flammable building cladding, which is being blamed for London’s devastating tower block fire.

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Housing Minister Mick de Brenni said the proposed laws, introduced last month, will give the state’s building regulator the power to stop unsafe products being sold and force existing buildings to remove dangerous cladding.

“The new laws will give the Queensland Building and Construction Commission power to investigate concerns around building products on both active building sites and existing buildings,” Mr de Brenni said.

“We want to make sure the regulator has the teeth to protect Queenslanders.”

There have been two incidents in recent years on the Gold Coast where substandard cladding was identified and replaced, as well as a third incident in Brisbane where a residential building was inspected and found to be compliant.

The minister stopped short of calling for a full review of cladding used in Queensland, saying the strengthened laws would be sufficient.

At least 12 people have been confirmed dead and many more are missing after a huge fire destroyed Grenfell Tower in London’s north Kensington.

There are reports cladding added to the building in a recent refurbishment may have helped spread the flames quickly.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Deputy Commissioner Mark Roche said the state’s firefighters are trained for high-rise fires.

“Recently in Brisbane we’ve just conducted four very large-scale exercises on high rise buildings, and we are doing that right across the state,” Deputy commissioner Roche told reporters on Thursday.

“We’ll be looking at what lessons are to be learnt (from the London fire), we have a very high regime of maintenance and inspection, and we’ve got the highest quality of people actually conducting it.”

Newcomers to sit ‘up front’ English test

Migrants wanting to become Australians will have to sit a stand-alone English language test before being allowed to apply for citizenship.

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Under a raft of new measures introduced to parliament on Thursday applicants will need to prove a competent level of reading, writing, listening and speaking.

It will be up to the immigration minister to determine what level of proficiency is needed.

People aged over 60 and children under 16 will be exempt, as will those with hearing, speech or sight impairments, or permanent or enduring physical or mental incapacity.

“English language was essential to economic participation and social cohesion,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told parliament.

“There is also strong public support to ensure aspiring citizens are fully able to participate in Australian life by speaking English, our national language.”

The legislation makes several changes to citizenship requirements, as flagged by the Turnbull government in April.

The period of permanent residency will be changed from one year to four, while a new values test, and stronger character checks, will be introduced.

Other proposals include:

* Potential citizens must demonstrate their integration into the community, including by “behaving in a manner consistent with Australian values”;

* All applicants would need to be of good character to be eligible for Australian citizenship; and

* The ‘pledge of commitment’ would be renamed the ‘pledge of allegiance’.

Malcolm Turnbull said it was clear what had transpired in other countries where migration was not controlled.

“We have seen literally, in Europe, existential threats to nation states, to their political stability, to their harmony,” the prime minister told parliament.

“We have seen uncontrolled and irregular migration flows threaten the very existence of nations in the world today.”

But Greens immigration spokesman Nick McKim said the proposed changes radically redefined citizenship and would destabilise thousands of families.

“Australians want other people to succeed, not to fail. They want to help people join our community, not slam the door in their face,” he said.

Lawyers are deeply concerned about expanded powers for the immigration minister to overrule independent citizenship decisions made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

“The AAT exists to provide an important check and balance on ministerial power. This will be substantially watered down through this legislation,” Australian Law Council president Fiona McLeod said.

Labor accused the federal government of “stretching” in its claims that the citizenship changes were needed for national security.

It will settle its final position at a caucus meeting on Tuesday.

Opposition citizenship spokesman Tony Burke wants people living permanently in Australia to be fully committed to the country, but warned about putting barriers in the way, such as with changes to language requirements.

“Is the impact of this legislation going to be that we end up with a permanent group of residents in Australia who will live here their entire lives, who will work here their entire lives and will always be told you don’t quite belong?” Mr Burke told ABC radio.

“I’m not sure how that’s good for us as a society.”

Carly’s Law passes parliament

Ten years after her daughter was murdered, Sonya Ryan watched on as new laws to protect children from a similar fate cleared federal parliament.

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All she could think about was Carly, who was killed in Adelaide in 2007 when, at the age of 15, she met up with a 50-year-old paedophile posing as a teenage boy.

“It’s absolutely overwhelming for me to think that she didn’t go through all that suffering for nothing,” Ms Ryan later told reporters in Canberra.

“That the suffering she endured for hours and hours – I don’t even know how long – that there’s something good has come out of something so horrendous and cruel.”

Senators paid tribute to Ms Ryan as Carly’s Law cleared the upper house on Thursday afternoon, thanking her for her work to protect children from cyber predators.

The legislation will make it easier for police to intervene before predators have the chance to act and for online predators to be prosecuted and face 10 years in prison.

It targets predators who prepare or plan to groom children online, including those who lie about their age.

“I think about what Carly would say and I just can’t imagine what she’d say to me today, that there’s a law in her name to protect children from harm,” Ms Ryan said.

“(This law) is a real step in protecting our innocent, vulnerable, beautiful kids that are just trying to connect in an online space.

“They should be able to do so without having to worry about being taken advantage of or hurt or worse by a criminal trying to infiltrate their lives.”

South Australian senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore, who pushed for the laws alongside colleague Nick Xenophon, said its success was a testament to Ms Ryan’s strength.

“What has happened today boils down to the fact Sonya Ryan – who endured more pain, more loss and more suffering than any mother or parent should have to endure – has campaigned for Carly’s Law,” she said.

“Thank you Sonya, on behalf of all Australian familes, on behalf of all Australian children.”

Senator Xenophon pondered what might have been if the laws were in place sooner.

“If Carly’s Law was in place 11 years ago I wonder how many children would have been saved including Carly,” he said.

“Because the predator that murdered Carly was communicating with something like 200 children around the world.”

‘No gas shortage’, says Santos boss

Santos chief executive Kevin Gallagher says Australia is not facing a gas shortage and has attacked government “distractions” and failure to support new development for high prices now threatening industry and household budgets.

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“Gas prices have increased because all the cheap gas has been developed, so it is costing more to get gas out of the ground,” Mr Gallagher told a business lunch in Sydney.

“This therefore is a pricing problem, not a gas shortage problem.”

Mr Gallagher’s comments came on the same day EnergyAustralia blamed gas exporters as one of the causes of hikes in electricity and gas prices that will take effect in 2017/18.

The Santos boss – whose company is a partner in the GLNG gas export plant in Queensland – said the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) had confirmed that latest industry projections of domestic gas production were sufficient to meet expected gas demand.

As concerns grow that east coast manufacturers could run out of gas this winter unless the LNG industry is forced to divert gas exports to local users, Mr Gallagher said government intervention has distracted attention away from the underlying causes of the problem.

“We are being asked to believe that high prices and shortages in supply are the fault of the LNG exporters whilst at the same time state and territory governments have either banned or restricted gas exploration and production,” Mr Gallagher told the American Chamber of Commerce lunch in Sydney.

“Unfortunately the politics of the situation have now taken over.”

Mr Gallagher blamed “the failure by previous governments at all levels” to encourage the development of a steady gas supply.

On Thursday EnergyAustralia announced electricity costs for NSW households will rise by 19.6 per cent in 2017/18, while gas prices will rise 6.6 per cent.

Energy Australia chief customer officer, Kim Clarke cited higher wholesale costs caused by the closure of coal-fired power stations and increased demand for gas by LNG projects in Queensland as factors in the price rises.

Despite NSW importing 95 per cent of its gas, Mr Gallagher said politicians were reluctant to challenge the negative perception of coal seam gas and fracking and the role they could play in Australia’s energy security.

He called the situation a “national issue” requiring government to collaborate over a National Energy Plan.

Mr Gallagher said a record 23,000 public submissions were made to the NSW Planning Department for the company’s proposed $3 billion coal seam gas project in Narrabri.

Despite scientific research “consistently proving” that regulated fracking and CSG development is safe, Mr Gallagher said activism against gas development was strong in Australia and politicians would not expose themselves by association.

Santos has spent nearly a decade and over a billion dollars trying to get its controversial Narrabri Gas Project over the line, he said.

“Had Santos been able to develop this project in a suitable timeframe, we would not be talking about an east coast gas crisis today,” he said.

Fire-prone cladding on Vic CBD buildings

More than 20 high-rise Melbourne residential buildings and the Royal Women’s Hospital are still covered in potentially flammable cladding more than 12 months after a safety audit.

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It is similar to the cladding that fuelled London’s deadly Grenfell Tower fire.

The Victorian Building Authority’s audit, released last year, found half of 170 high-rise residential apartments in Melbourne’s CBD and surrounding suburbs had non-compliant cladding.

Twenty-six buildings are still listed on the VBA’s non-compliance list a year later, including a building at Royal Freemasons Homes of Victoria and at the University of Melbourne.

Cladding is being removed at the Royal Women’s Hospital, which the VBA says is safe to occupy.

VBA chief executive Prue Digby said the hospital’s developer was working “to achieve compliance on that building”.

A Department of Health and Human services spokesman said 12 per cent of the exterior of the building was cladding but only a small amount of that would need to be removed.

He said the builder Lendlease would replace the cladding at no cost to the taxpayer in spring, and test panels had been successfully installed in May.

Ms Digby said although the non-compliant cladding remained on some CBD buildings, installing sprinklers and escape routes could make a building compliant with fire safety laws.

“Non-compliance can take various forms, you may have some buildings with a small amount of decorative aluminium composite panel, it may be on the third level and it is a low-level risk,” she said.

“It is still non-compliant, but the building is safe to occupy.

“Cladding is only one one part of that. It has failed in terms of the non-compliance we have found, but it does mean the other measures equal safety.”

The VBA’s audit was sparked after the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands caught fire in 2014, and the owners and builders L.U. Simon have been ordered to remove its cladding by July 2018.

The Grocon-built AAMI Park sports stadium – where spectators occasionally light flares – had cladding stripped from the walls and roof in December 2015, and a small amount on the scoreboard was replaced in early 2016.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne said a fire like London’s would not happen in Australia as we had the “strongest building codes really of any first world country”.

UN investigators say civilian toll soaring at Raqqa

It comes as coalition-backed forces close in on the IS stronghold.

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Despite the advance, there is increasing criticism of the casualties inflicted by coalition forces in both Syria and Iraq.

United Nations war-crimes investigators say intensified coalition air strikes have killed at least 300 civilians in the northern Syria city of Raqqa since March.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, a group of Kurdish and Arab militias backed by the United States-led coalition, began an assault to retake the city from IS a week ago.

The chairman of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry for Syria says the commission is deeply concerned about the rising civilian toll from the air strikes on IS-controlled areas.

And Paulo Pinheiro says the number being driven from their homes is a big concern as well.

“We note, in particular, that the intensification of air strikes which have paved the ground for an SDF advance in Raqqa has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced.”

A commissioner on the independent panel, Karen Abuzayd, says it has documented 300 deaths from coalition air strikes in three months, most of them in the village of al-Mansoura.

“We’ve documented the deaths just caused by the coalition air strikes only, and we have about 300 deaths, 200 in one place, in al-Mansoura, one village. So, those are the figures that we have been able to record.”

The UN investigators do not have access to Syria.

Instead, their data is collected by interviewing survivors and witnesses in neighbouring countries or by Skype with those still in Syria.

The London-based monitoring group Airwars says the figure of 300 deaths is nearly twice as high as the deadliest strike in the Iraqi city of Mosul, (MO-zul) which the coalition has admitted to.

Sahr Muhammedally is the Middle East and North Africa director for the Washington-based Centre for Civilians in Conflict.

She has told SBS she is concerned with the coalition conducting operations in densely populated areas in both Iraq and Syria.

“The numbers that the coalition has put out is a little bit over 400 since 2014, both in Iraq and Syria, which I think is incredibly low, given the amount of munitions and bombs that have been dropped, and especially since the campaign intensified in October of 2016. Other external organisations are reporting much higher numbers of civilian harm attributed, like in the thousands. I think Airwars has reported around 3,000 or so.”

Airwars recently reported data from the coalition’s Operation Inherent Resolve showed a 34 per cent jump in munitions dropped by coalition forces in May alone.

Most of that was said to be around Raqqa.

Meanwhile, data released by Australia’s Operation Okra shows Australian planes dropped a record 119 munitions on IS in the month of May, all in Iraq.

The figures come as US defence secretary James Mattis has recently announced an accelerated coalition strategy.

“The bottom line is we are going to move in an accelerated and reinforced manner, throw them on their back foot. We have already shifted from attrition tactics, where we shove them from one position to another, in Iraq and Syria, to annihilation tactics, where we surround them. Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight.”

But Sahr Muhammedally says the coalition needs to address the issue of civilian casualties as it moves forward.

“Sometimes, it’s not really the numbers. It’s about what the coalition is doing when these numbers are being reported, to assess, to see how they can change their tactics. And as the campaign is being undertaken in very densely populated areas, where the civilians are not being allowed to move, the likelihood of civilian casualties is just almost a given. So they really need to slow down and assess how slowly, block by block, they’re going to be engaging ISIS and trying to allow civilians to move to safer areas.”

 

 

Senate votes for rare inquiry into banks

Malcolm Turnbull is under renewed pressure to call a banking royal commission after the Senate voted to establish a rare form of parliamentary inquiry into the banks.

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The vote came as bank executives prepare to face a Senate hearing on Friday into the government’s proposed $6.2 billion levy on the liabilities of five big banks.

A private bill co-sponsored by the Greens and crossbenchers – including One Nation, the Nick Xenophon Team, Derryn Hinch and Jacqui Lambie – to establish a commission of inquiry into banking and financial services passed the Senate with Labor support on Thursday.

The bill went to the lower house on Thursday afternoon, but did not progress to a debate despite the best efforts of the Greens and Labor.

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Greens MP Adam Bandt told parliament other inquiries and reviews into misbehaviour and systemic problems in the banks had failed.

“If the government won’t act, then the parliament will do the job for it,” he said.

Opposition manager of business Tony Burke sought parliament’s support to set a date for debate in August, hoping Liberal National Party MP George Christensen would back it.

With time running out on the final sitting day of the week, Mr Burke moved the motion be put.

Mr Christensen sided with government colleagues and, with the vote being tied at 70-all, Speaker Tony Smith cast his vote to defeat Labor and the crossbench.

Labor leader Bill Shorten said Mr Christensen was a “lion in Mackay and a mouse in Canberra”.

“Today we saw the vaguely comical scenes of poor old Member for Dawson, bracketed by the treasurer, bracketed by the leader of the National party, in a witness protection program that will do the FBI proud,” Mr Shorten said.

Mr Christensen said if Labor had moved to suspend standing orders, extend hours and bring on debate immediately on Thursday night he would have supported it.

“They almost had my vote,” he told Sky News.

Another related bill to be moved by independent Bob Katter had his support, Mr Christensen said.

Government backbencher Warren Enstch, who has previously called for a royal commission, said the proposed commission of inquiry didn’t address his concerns, describing it as political grandstanding.

He says he’s been working with Treasurer Scott Morrison on a mechanism for resolving historical cases of bank misconduct worth more than $5 million.

It’s understood up to six government backbenchers from rural electorates impacted by bank misconduct have been in discussions over recent months about potentially supporting the bill.

Nationals senator John “Wacka” Williams had vowed to cross the floor to support the bill in the upper house, but he wasn’t required to since it passed without a formal division.

Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said it was a historic moment, with the Senate voting only for the second time since Federation to establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry.

The inquiry would hang over the prime minister and the banks “like a Damocles sword”, he said.

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Calls for better protection of elders

Australia’s law reform commission today issued more than 40 recommendations to stop financial and physical abuse of the elderly.

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It is a problem advocates say is far too prevalent in Australia, with up to one in twenty senior Australians suffering some form of abuse.

But Council on the Ageing chief executive, Ian Yates, say elder abuse is difficult to track.

“Elder abuse is fairly widespread. It is a minority, but it’s in numbers in, you know, the tens of thousands a year, that are disturbing. And it’s disturbing that we don’t know about it. Elder abuse remains neglected, and it’s time that we picked up our game and did something really significant about it.”

Andrew Simpson from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers says elder abuse can be a family affair.

He says it be physical, emotional or financial.

“Financial abuse is very difficult to police because often it happens at the hands of a family member or friend. People help themselves to mum or dad’s money without authority, and ultimately depriving mum and dad of their own wealth. One of the problems with older people, is often they have compromised capacity, and they don’t have social networks around them that can provide the support that they need. And so often, by the time the abuse has occured and the money has been taken, it’s too late.”

The Australian law reform commission launched an inquiry into the elder abuse last year.

It has now released its findings, in a report that includes 43 recommendations.

Among them – improved responses in aged care homes, enhanced employment screening of care workers, and safeguard systems to support at-risk adults

It also pushes for banks to introduce better financial protection for vulnerable customers.

Mr Yates welcomes the report.

“We very much suffer at the moment from a bits and piecey approach. Inconsistent laws, gaps in laws, and no national framework at all.”

The report also calls for consistent laws across states and territories.

Age Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Kay Paterson, says that would help reduce confusion over matters like power of attorney.

“They’re absolutely vital. And I think people who are making powers of attorney need to understand what their rights are. And I think we know as well as we should that we can put conditions on it.”

In a statement Attorney-General George Brandis welcomed the findings, saying the government has committed to a national framework, and invested 15 million dollars to protect older Australians.

Kay Patterson believes that support is crucial.

“And it really requires action from all levels of government. From businesses, like banks, from health professionals, and anybody who comes in contact with older people.”