US defence secretary asserts Syrian government definitely behind attack

When it comes to trying to determine responsibility for last week’s deadly chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, United States defence secretary James Mattis expresses no doubt.

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“The Assad regime planned it, orchestrated it and executed it. We have gone back through and looked at all the evidence we can, and it is very clear who planned this attack, who authorised this attack and who conducted this attack, itself. That we do know, with no doubt whatsoever.”

Turkey’s Health Ministry has conducted autopsies on three of the victims and says sarin gas was used.

General Mattis used his media briefing to insist US policy towards Syria has not changed and the priority remains trying to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

But he was asked what prompted the United States to intervene when it had not acted in the past as barrel bombs were used in Syria to kill civilians.

“When you look at what happened with this chemical attack, we knew that we could not stand passive on this. But it was not a statement that we could enter full-fledged, full-bore into the most complex civil war probably raging on the planet at this time. So, the intent was to stop the cycle of violence into an area that, even in World War Two, chemical weapons were not used on battlefields.”

On the last point, General Mattis went further to explain the US intervention.

“Even in World War Two, chemical weapons were not used on battlefields. Even in the Korean War, they were not used on battlefields. Since World War One, there’s been an international convention on this. And to stand idly by when that convention is violated, that is what we had to take action on urgently in our own vital interest.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to make the same point.

But he wound up entangled in a separate controversy.

“We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War Two. You know, you had someone who’s as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”

Questioned whether he was saying Adolf Hitler did not gas people to death, he then scrambled to clarify what he meant.

“I think, when you come to sarin gas, there was no … he was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing. I mean, there was clearly … I understand … thanks … thank you, I appreciate that … there were not … he brought them into the Holocaust centres, I understand that … but I’m saying in the way that Assad used them, where he went into towns, dropped them down to innocent (people) into the middle of towns. It was brought … so, the use of it … I appreciate the clarification there. That was not the intent.”

After the media briefing, Mr Spicer issued a further statement.

“In no way was I trying to lessen the horrendous nature of the Holocaust. I was trying to draw a distinction of the tactic of using airplanes to drop chemical weapons on population centres. Any attack on innocent people is reprehensible and inexcusable.”

Russia maintains history appears to be repeating itself.

President Vladimir Putin says the United States’ missile attack resembles its behaviour in 2003, when it invaded Iraq on the pretext of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction.

Mr Putin says he believes the United States intends to carry out chemical attacks in Syria and put the blame on Russia.

“Are new strikes possible or not? We have information from various sources that similar provocations — I cannot call it anything else — are being prepared for other Syrian regions, including the southern suburbs of Damascus, where there are plans to plant some substance and then blame Syrian authorities for using it.”

It is not only Mr Putin questioning the US motivations.

Democratic Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has been criticised for insisting the United States has yet to prove the Syrian government was responsible.

Ms Gabbard travelled to Damascus in January and met President Assad, saying she would meet anyone if there was a possibility it could achieve peace.

She says the United States is trying to overthrow him with what she calls a “regime-change war.”

“The fact is that the United States has been waging this war, this regime-change war, now for years, covertly through the CIA, to overthrow the Syrian government. The result of this has been the suffering of the Syrian people, hundreds of thousands of people dead, millions of refugees and the strengthening of terrorist groups in Syria like al-Qaeda and ISIS whose goal is to overthrow the Syrian government.”

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is now in Moscow for talks after failing to get backing from the G7 industrialised nations to impose sanctions on Russia.

 

PM slaps down super for house deposit push

Malcolm Turnbull once called allowing first home buyers to access their superannuation a “thoroughly bad idea” – and he’s not backing away from the description.

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The prime minister says debate about letting people redirect super contributions into home deposit accounts – which has split coalition MPs before the May budget – has spun round and round “for a long time”.

“I’ve read all of the speculation; standing here in Mumbai I won’t contribute to it, although I’ve expressed fairly strong views about it in the past,” he told reporters in India on Wednesday.

The prime minister said the purpose of superannuation was to provide for retirement.

“That’s the whole purpose of it and that’s why the whole system was set up in the first place,” he told Sky News.

His government is planning to make a housing affordability package the centrepiece of next month’s budget.

Cabinet minister Matt Canavan wants his colleagues to at least consider the proposal to divert compulsory super payments into a special account, which could then be used for a deposit by first home buyers.

“It seems strange that you’re allowed to invest in other people’s assets, in equities, in bonds, but you’re not allowed to invest in your most important asset in your life which is your own home,” Senator Canavan told ABC radio on Wednesday.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott agrees, telling News Corp superannuation is the people’s money not the government’s.

“Why shouldn’t people be able to spend their money on housing now rather than on retirement in 30 or 40 years’ time?” he said.

“Along with measures to ease demand, giving homebuyers access to their super would help re-weight the odds in their favour.”

However, Nationals MP Andrew Broad doesn’t share his coalition colleagues’ view.

“Using superannuation to address housing affordability for first home buyers is a lazy response to the problem,” he tweeted.

Labor and some crossbenchers have already labelled the idea “crazy”.

Prominent economist Chris Richardson said the idea would just pump extra money into an already overheated market.

He said prices could rise by up to one per cent.

“Super is for retirement, not for housing,” said Mr Richardson, from Deloitte Access Economics.

Student killed as protests rock Venezuela

A 19-year-old student died Tuesday after he was shot during clashes between Venezuelan police and demonstrators, prosecutors said, the second death in a week at violent protests against President Nicolas Maduro.

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Daniel Queliz was shot in the neck as police broke up protesters who want to remove Maduro from office over a spiraling economic and political crisis.

He died early Tuesday in the northern city of Valencia, the state prosecution service said.

It said 40 people will be charged for “acts of violence” in Monday’s unrest.

Maduro is fighting efforts to oust him as Venezuela, once a booming oil exporter, flounders through severe shortages and the world’s highest rate of inflation.

Monday saw the fifth day of clashes this month in the South American country, home to the world’s largest oil reserves.

Riot police in Caracas and other cities fired tear gas and water cannon at stone-throwing demonstrators, whose leaders vowed to keep up pressure on Maduro.

No major protests were announced for Wednesday, but opposition leaders called for huge rallies on April 19.

Another 19-year-old protester, Jairo Ortiz, died on Thursday last week after he was shot in the chest when police broke up a demonstration in Caracas. A policeman has been charged over that killing.

The secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, condemned the deaths on Tuesday.

“We can’t accept a regime that is willing to sacrifice the lives of Venezuelans in order to perpetuate itself in power,” he said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

The regional group has been fiercely critical of what Almagro has called Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Watch: Venezuelan opposition takes to streets

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Maduro supporters staged their own rally on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of a short-lived coup against Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, the late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, in 2002.

“Today the revolution is at risk again,” Maduro supporter Franklin Barrios, 50, said. “But the Venezuelan people will always be on their feet to defend the legacy of Comandante Chavez.”

The opposition, which also accuses Maduro of installing a dictatorship, is demanding the authorities set a date for postponed regional elections.

They also want a referendum on removing Maduro from power.

“All this violence is erupting because they won’t let the people have their say via elections,” said the speaker of the opposition-majority legislature, Julio Borges, as he hand-delivered a petition to the National Guard headquarters calling on police to “stop the repression.”

The opposition is also furious over moves to limit the powers of the legislature and ban senior opposition leader Henrique Capriles from politics.

Also on Tuesday, Venezuelan television interrupted the live broadcast of a military parade when Maduro, who was taking part, was hit by objects thrown from a crowd. Reports on social media said the projectiles included eggs and stones.

Watch: Venezuelan meltdown

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New lead in stolen child mystery

But three years ago, her family was contacted by a woman in Fiji who claimed to be their missing child.

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Now her family is on an international mission to find her and, maybe, bring her home to Australia.

Alimah Bowia was eight years old when she disappeared from a beach on Thursday Island.

The family did not know what happened and nothing was heard from their missing child for over 50 years.

Her cousin, Milton Savage, says her disappearance was a complete shock for the family and the island’s community.

“For our culture here, our family we have this trust, kids can go down and walk on the beach, everyone will know where everyone is … How can a child have been taken away from our doorstep?”

But in 2014, Mr Savage was contacted by a Fijian woman who claimed she was his long-lost cousin, Alimah.

At the time, she was living under the name of Flosy Ganier and was in a Brisbane prison awaiting deportation back to Fiji.

She was deported to Fiji by Australian officials, but Flosy Ganier still says she was the girl who was kidnapped from Thursday Island.

“Two men approached Aunty Margaret Bowia with boxes of food or something in the box and they ask us kids if we want some lollies and they gave us some lollies and he picked me and said if I want more … so I followed him. And when I followed him, went into the boat and they locked me up in one room.”

She says she was abused on the boat and taken to Fiji, where she was prostituted and eventually sold to a Fijian man who became her husband.

She says on her husband’s death bed five years ago, he wrote a letter stating that she was actually Alimah Bowia.

She has also signed a statutory declaration detailing her story, offering details of the day she was abducted and her life on Thursday Island.

Since being deported to Fiji in 2014, Ms Ganier has made attempts to get a passport in Alimah’s name and return to Australia.

However her requests have been denied by the Australian High Commission in Fiji.

Three years have passed since Flosy Ganier first made contact with her family, so Milton Savage and his friend, Charles Passi, travelled to Fiji to meet her.

Mr Passi says if she is Alimah, she has to be returned to her family.

“It’s something that needs to be done. We need to get her back to her country, join her back with her people and complete not only her wish but the wish of her family to have her back again.”

But when the pair met her, they became unsure about whether she really was their relative.

“When I first met up with Alimah in Fiji I couldn’t get that connection, couldn’t get that connection, and it was hard for me to relate to her.”

The family has done DNA tests, which originally gave them hope, but DNA expert, Associate Professor Peter Gunn, says the test they took cannot claim to be a definitive answer.

“You can use DNA testing to tell if people might be half-sisters, and the DNA testing will give you some weight as to the strength of that phrase ‘might be’. You can never prove absolutely that they are or that they are not half-sisters but you can get some evidence which really helps you make that decision.”

Alimah’s sister, Norah, has been sending money to Fiji to support Alimah, but Mr Savage said the family has to be careful.

“This is where I said to Charles, wow we have to be really careful, like we don’t want to be harbouring international fraud.”

Professor Gunn says the only way to prove Flosy Ganier is Alimah Bowia is to have a mitochondrial DNA test.

But until that happens, Flosy Ganier remains in Fiji.

Mr Passi was interviewed by Australian Immigration officials about Alimah, and he and Mr Savage continue to investigate whether Alimah may have been taken to Fiji.

 

Turnbull and Tendulkar join forces

With a little help from the star power of Sachin Tendulkar, Malcolm Turnbull has wrapped up what he describes as a very productive visit to India.

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The cricketer joined the prime minister in Mumbai on Wednesday to launch a sports partnership that will harness Australia’s sporting expertise to help Indian athletes do better and encourage healthier lifestyles.

A star-struck Mr Turnbull accompanied the Little Master to see children taking part in programs already linking the two countries, the Naz Foundation, which is supported by Netball Australia, and the KOOH sports education platform that uses technology to provide training and progress monitoring for 200,000 students in 200 Indian schools.

Mr Turnbull said the formal sports partnership was a key priority for his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

“India wants to be more successful in elite sport, at the Olympic level, to have Olympic performance that matches its cricketing prowess … but also to see that sport is more widely engaged in across the community,” he told reporters in Mumbai.

“When (Mr Modi) sought to identify a country that could partner with India, he saw Australia as being the best candidate.”

The first concrete initiative in the new partnership is Victoria University and the University of Canberra joining to help India establish its own national sports university, in the model of the Australian Institute of Sport.

Mr Turnbull has also invited India’s team to train in Australia before the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

The two countries will also build initiatives in athlete and coach training and development, sports science, sports governance and integrity, and grassroots participation.

TPG’s mobile push set to trigger price war

A price war looms in Australia’s mobile market after internet provider TPG Telecom announced plans to spend $1.

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9 billion to build its own network.

The company has spent a hefty $1.26 billion for premium mobile broadband spectrum in a government auction, and will pour another $600 million into the construction of a network that will cover 80 per cent of the population.

Executive chairman David Teoh said the spectrum acquisition is a “tremendous development for the long-term future of TPG”, Australia’s second largest fixed-line internet provider behind Telstra.

“We are uniquely positioned to leverage our success in the Australian fixed-line broadband market to drive the next phase of growth for TPG’s shareholders and bring new competition to the Australian mobile market,” he said.

TPG – which has expanded via a merger with SP Telemedia in 2008 and takeover of iiNet in 2015 – expects significant cross-selling potential from its 1.9 million fixed-line broadband subscribers and 500,0000 mobile customers, who currently use Vodafone Australia’s network.

The company’s move into the mobile market, dominated by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, unnerved Telstra investors, sending its shares to a four and a half year low of $4.22.

Telstra was not eligible to participate in the latest spectrum auction, while Vodafone secured some spectrum for $286 million.

Optus missed out, with company spokesman Andrew Sheridan citing its “financial discipline” and substantial holding of existing spectrum.

Mr Sheridan said TPG paid a lot of money for the spectrum, with Optus and Telstra paying about $500 million each for the same amount of spectrum in 2013, and for a shorter licence period.

“This has gone for a very substantial price,” Mr Sheridan said.

A Telstra spokesman said the spectrum investments show Australia has a “strong and competitive mobile market” under current regulation.

TPG shares are in a trading halt as the company completes a $400 million capital raising to help fund its spectrum acquisition.

Alvin Lee, senior analyst at research firm Telsyte, expects TPG’s mobile network to increase competition in metropolitan areas.

“There will be extensive competition based on bundling and price,” he said.

Vodafone will take a hit when TPG begins migrating its mobile subscribers to its network in a few years’ time, and Optus could also face similar issues when its wholesale agreement with iiNet expires, Mr Lee said.

TPG said the Australian mobile industry generates earnings of about $8 billion, with the group forecasting its mobile network to breakeven with only 500,000 subscribers, or market share of about two per cent.

The construction of Australia’s fourth mobile network will commence in 2018 and take between two to three years to complete.

TPG is also in the early stages of rolling out a mobile network in Singapore, and has reaffirmed its forecast of underlying earnings between $820 million and $830 million in 2016/17, up from $775 million a year earlier.