British to renew Australian defence ties

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague

 

Jan 14 (KATAKAMI.COM / THE AGE.COM.AU) — British Foreign Secretary William Hague says his nation has neglected its relationship with Australia during the past two decades.

Mr Hague will join UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox, as well as Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Defence Minister Stephen Smith, in Sydney next Tuesday for the third Australia-UK ministerial talks, known as AUKMIN.

It will be the first visit to Australia by British cabinet ministers since David Cameron’s government took office in May.

Mr Hague said on his video blog Britain needed a strong relationship with “dynamic economies” such as Australia and New Zealand, which will host the two ministers late next week.

But the previous Blair and Brown Labor governments had neglected the relationship, with the last foreign secretary to visit being Douglas Hurd in 1994.

“I will be the first (British) foreign secretary for nearly 20 years to go to Australia,” Mr Hague said.

“So I think there has been a little bit of ministerial neglect that we are going to put right.”

Mr Hague said his top priority was the mission in Afghanistan, which involves 9500 British and 1550 Australian troops.

“Right at the top of the list is our work in Afghanistan to improve security and hopefully to bring to Afghan leadership a political process alongside the military work to bring lasting security and stability,” he said.

The talks also will focus on three other issues: changing power dynamics in Asia, particularly China; strategic cooperation, including intelligence sharing, cyberspace and the relationship with the US; and global counter-terrorism.

There is also expected to be a discussion over lunch on national security structures, the Middle East and Iran and nuclear proliferation.

The meeting is not expected to approve a new cooperation treaty but a number of defence documents will be signed, sources close to the talks say.

It will be the first AUKMIN to be held in Australia, with the previous one held in Leeds in November 2008. (*)

 

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Prime Minister Julia Gillard announces troop boost for floods

Prime Minister Julia Gillard (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Jan 14, 2011 (KATAKAMI.COM / SBS.COM.AU) — The number of defence force personnel involved in the Queensland flood operation will be doubled to 1200, Prime Minister Julia Gillard says.

“This will be the biggest deployment for a natural disaster since Cyclone Tracy,” Ms Gillard said at Amberley air base west of Brisbane on Friday.

Ms Gillard said, after talks with Defence Minister Stephen Smith and military chiefs, “Now is the right time to dramatically increase the number of defence personnel who are working in Queensland to assist with the Queensland floods.”

The prime minister on Friday spoke with ADF personnel at the air base, ahead of a visit to the flood-ravaged Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane.

“It’s so important at this time that townships that have been isolated can still get vital supplies,” she said. (*)

Australia PM pledges financial help for flood-hit Queensland

Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard flies in a Black Hawk helicopter as she views flooding near the northern Australian city of Rockhampton, in this January 8, 2011 handout photograph. Gillard pledged financial support for Australia's flood-hit northeast on Saturday during a tour of the most heavily inundated parts of Queensland state, but warned the recovery would be slow. REUTERS/Australian Department of Defence/Handout

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SYDNEY, Jan 08 (KATAKAMI / Reuters) – Prime Minister Julia Gillard pledged financial support for Australia’s flood-hit northeast on Saturday during a tour of the most heavily inundated parts of Queensland state, but warned the recovery would be slow.

In a series of visits by military helicopter, Gillard went to towns whose streets have been turned into waterways by a Christmas deluge that left an area the size of France and Germany combined under water.

The floods have swamped coal mines and hit agriculture hard, washed away roads and railways, killed four, and brought the country’s $50 billion coal export industry to a near standstill.

Some river levels have hit records and some are still rising with further rain forecast for this weekend. Months more wet weather is predicted, brought by the La Nina weather phenomenon.

“The scale of the floodwaters, the sheer size of this is best appreciated from the air and we are talking about huge areas, lots of water, a lot of it still very fast moving and so it’s going to be a long time back,” Gillard told a news conference in the flooded town of Rockhampton, 600 km (370 miles) north of the state capital Brisbane.

Asked how much it would cost Australia’s federal government, she said: “I’ve been very clear that we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Thousands have been evacuated from their homes, and in many towns locals and relief workers have taken to getting around the streets in boats. Authorities say around 200,000 people have been affected.

Gillard pledged funding to help improve flood protection for Rockhampton, a town of around 75,000 situated near the mouth of the Fitzroy River which peaked at 9.2 meters on Wednesday. On Saturday, it was still at 9.15 meters and predicted to stay above 8.5 meters until next Friday.

Rendering some highways flood-proof would be a priority, she said, after the state’s major rail and road links were seriously disrupted and in some cases washed away.

Earlier in the flooded town of St George, 450 km (270 miles) west of the state capital Brisbane, Gillard said A$4 million ($4 million) in emergency payments had already been paid and more was on the way to help “families who are doing it tough.”

Gillard pledged to work with state Premier Anna Bligh to “help Queensland through.” The Balonne River in St George was forecast to peak at near 13.4 meters over the weekend.

On Saturday a fourth person was confirmed dead in the latest flooding, a 55-year-old truck driver whose truck veered off a road while transporting water to the inundated town of Condamine. The scale of the disaster has prompted fears of disease in the largely tropical areas affected, and in some areas drinking water has been in short supply.

Flood warnings were still current on Saturday for more than 10 rivers in Queensland. Up to 200 mm of rain was forecast in some areas over the weekend, but forecasters said the worst would likely spare the areas most heavily affected by the floods.

The man tasked with overseeing the recovery, Major General Mick Slater, has warned it is likely to take years and said the damage cannot be properly assessed until the waters recede. While traveling with Gillard on Saturday, he said the crisis was “not over yet.”   (*)

A message from The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall to The Prime Minister of Australia about the flooding in Queensland

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January 05, 2011 (KATAKAMI / PRINCEOFWALES.GOV.UK) — Clive Alderton, Private Secretary for Commonwealth and Foreign Affairs to the office of The Prime Minister of Australia: “The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall have been deeply moved by news of the flooding in Queensland. The Prince of Wales has asked if you could kindly arrange for the following message to be delivered to the Prime Minister as soon as possible, please.”

The message from Their Royal Highnesses:

“My wife and I have been horrified by reports of the terrible flooding in Queensland. The scale of the disaster all but defies belief and, on behalf of us both, I just wanted you to know how much our hearts go out to the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives and property have been affected. I also wanted to say how enormously impressed we have been by what is, clearly, outstanding combined work of the military, emergency services, Federal and State authorities in ensuring that people are evacuated to places of safety.

As we all mark the start of a New Year I can only pray that the worst of the flooding is over and send you every possible good wish as you work for the recovery of the many communities involved.”  (*)

Photostream : New Year's Eve celebrations in Australia

Fireworks explode over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House during a pyrotechnic show to celebrate the New Year January 1, 2011. Local authorities planned for over 1.5 million people to crowd the Sydney Harbour foreshore and welcome in the new year under the massive fireworks display. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

The sky above the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the city center lights up at midnight during the fireworks display to celebrate the New Year's Day in Sydney, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

A curtain of fireworks cascades over the Sydney Harbour Bridge during the 9 pm fireworks display on new year's eve in Sydney, Australia, Friday, Dec. 31, 2010. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 31: Fireworks explode at Circular Quay during the preliminary 9pm session on December 31, 2010 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Jeremy Ng/Getty Images)

The sky above the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the city center lights up at midnight during the fireworks display to celebrate the New Year's Day in Sydney, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Creating jobs a big challenge, says PM Julia Gillard

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

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January 1st, 2011 (KATAKAMI / THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD) — IN THEIR new year messages the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, have voiced optimism for the year, and have reminded voters of their differences.

”As I look forward to 2011, I do see some challenges for our country,” Ms Gillard said.

”Like creating jobs in a strong economy, giving every child a great start in life at school, tackling climate change and persevering in our mission in Afghanistan.”
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Mr Abbott said: ”We should be optimistic about our future as long as we don’t forget those among us who are doing it tough.

”I hope 2011 will be a year of lower taxes, fairer welfare, better services and stronger borders and I’ll be talking to the Australian people about how best to achieve these important goals.”

Exhorting the population to work hard to keep Australia a ”lucky” country, Ms Gillard said Australians should look forward to a future as a fair and prosperous nation.

”As the fireworks fade and the cricket moves from Melbourne to Sydney, I’m proud to be Australian and excited about the year ahead.”

Mr Abbott promised he would do his best to protect Australian families from added burdens on their cost of living.

”I hope this year we will count our blessings and strive to be worthy of all of the advantages that go with being Australian.”

Ms Gillard said: ”I hope you enjoy the rest of your break, and come back full of energy and excitement – but not too soon. Happy new year.”  (*)

Australian Prime Minister warns asylum boat toll to rise in grim hunt

A boat full of refugees is smashed by violent seas off Australia's Christmas Island, as shown in this Channel 7 TV frame grab of a photo released by The West Australian. Hope dwindled for survivors of a refugee boat wreck off Australia Thursday which killed at least 28 people, including seven children. (AFP/The West Australian)

 

SYDNEY (KATAKAMI / AFP) – Hope dwindled for survivors of a refugee boat wreck off Australia Thursday which killed at least 28 people, including seven children, renewing debate on the plight of boat people travelling from Asia.

The wooden craft, crowded with up to 100 Iraqi, Kurdish and Iranian asylum seekers and their children, hit rocks at remote Christmas Island Wednesday and was shattered by huge waves as residents watched in horror.

Traumatised survivors pulled from the sea after the disaster huddled in a hospital and reception centre Thursday, with the most seriously injured flown to Perth as hope faded of finding their fellow passengers alive in wild seas.

“We have got to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that more bodies will be found and there has been further loss of life than we know now,” warned Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who cut short her holiday to respond to the emergency.

Cyclonic conditions hampered search and rescue efforts which resumed at first light but yielded no further bodies or survivors by late Thursday, Customs said.

Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor said 28 bodies had been recovered, including four infants, three children and nine women, underscoring “the tragedy that’s occurred here”.

Among the 42 survivors were eight children, one unaccompanied minor and three Indonesian crew, he added.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen earlier said there had been between 70 and 100 people on board the leaky fishing boat, according to survivors, adding that the exact number of dead would “probably never” be known.

Medical personnel believe as many as 50 people may have perished on the jagged limestone outcrop, some 2,600 kilometres from Australia’s mainland.

FILE : Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard

“Yesterday we saw a truly horrific event, a terrible human tragedy on what is a very dangerous coastline at Christmas Island,” said Gillard.

“I know the nation is shocked by what we have seen.”

Gillard was forced to defend border police as questions mounted about how the boat managed to cross the most closely-watched people-smuggling corridor between Indonesia and Australia without being intercepted.

The prime minister said the boat had approached the island in predawn darkness and “extreme weather conditions” meant it was not detected “until seen from Christmas Island itself”.

“In very rough and dangerous seas there is a limit to what can be achieved through radar and other surveillance mechanisms,” Gillard said, adding there would be a criminal investigation as well as a coroner’s probe.

Officials could not comment on the vessel’s origin and said it was not being tracked because it was made of wood and was hard to detect.

Local police said they had received an emergency call from someone claiming to be on a boat with about 80 people — believed to be the stricken vessel — about 20 minutes after it was first sighted as it drifted after losing power.

Residents said they were woken at dawn Wednesday by the screams of victims, gathering life jackets and rushing to the cliffs to offer help, but were helpless as strong winds blew the flotation devices back onshore.

They watched in horror as the victims were crushed against limestone rocks, despite the efforts of navy rescuers to reach them in towering swells.

More than 5,000 asylum seekers from Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka have made their way to Australia this year, mostly on unseaworthy vessels from Indonesia, prompting criticism of Canberra for softening its refugee policy.

But lawyers and refugee advocates including Amnesty and the UNHCR said the tragedy highlighted the desperate plight of refugees and urged greater cooperation between nations for more humane solutions.

Survivors of the wreck were recovering Thursday in a hospital and a reception centre on Christmas Island, the site of Australia’s main immigration detention centre for boat people.

Five seriously injured people were flown to the mainland for medical treatment.

Though they would be dealt with under normal immigration processes, Gillard said survivors would be given time to recover from their ordeal, and said the children and families would be allowed to live in the community instead of detention camps.

 

(*)

Australia blames U.S. over WikiLeaks, founder held in UK

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd

 

December 08, 2010 (KATAKAMI / Reuters) – Australia blamed the United States Wednesday for the release by WikiLeaks of U.S. diplomatic cables after a British court ordered the detention of the group’s founder over allegations of sex crimes in Sweden.

WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, a 39-year-old Australian, handed himself in to British police Tuesday after Sweden had issued a European Arrest Warrant for him. Assange, who denies the allegations, will remain behind bars until a hearing on December 14.

He has spent some time in Sweden and was accused this year of sexual misconduct by two female Swedish WikiLeaks volunteers. A Swedish prosecutor wants to question him about the accusation.

WikiLeaks, which has provoked fury in Washington with its publications, vowed it would continue making public details of the 250,000 secret U.S. documents it had obtained.

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said the people who originally leaked the documents, not Assange, were legally liable and the leaks raised questions over the “adequacy” of U.S. security.

“Mr Assange is not himself responsible for the unauthorized release of 250,000 documents from the U.S. diplomatic communications network,” Rudd told Reuters in an interview.

“The Americans are responsible for that,” said Rudd, who had been described in one leaked U.S. cable as a “control freak.”

The original source of the leak is not known, though a U.S. army private who worked as an intelligence analyst in Iraq, Bradley Manning, has been charged by military authorities with unauthorized downloading of more than 150,000 State Department cables.

U.S. officials have declined to say whether those cables are the same ones now being released by WikiLeaks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates welcomed news of Assange’s arrest.

“I hadn’t heard that but it sounds like good news to me,” Gates told reporters Tuesday during a trip to Afghanistan.

Assange defended his Internet publishing site in a newspaper commentary Wednesday, saying it was crucial to spreading democracy and likening himself to global media baron Rupert Murdoch in the quest to publish the truth.

At the Tuesday court hearing in London, Senior District Judge Howard Riddle said: “There are substantial grounds to believe he could abscond if granted bail.”

He said the allegations were serious, and that Assange had comparatively weak community ties in Britain.

His British lawyer, Mark Stephens, told reporters a renewed bail application would be made, and that his client was “fine.”

Stephens said many people believed the prosecution was politically motivated, and that he would be “released and vindicated.”

But a Swedish prosecutor was cited in newspaper Aftonbladet as saying the case was a personal matter and was not connected with his WikiLeaks work.

Assange, dressed in a navy suit and wearing an open-neck white shirt, initially gave his address in court as a P.O. Box in Australia. Pressed for a more precise address, he gave a street in Victoria, Australia.

Australian journalist John Pilger, British film director Ken Loach and Jemima Khan, former wife of Pakistani cricketer and politician Imran Khan, all offered to put up sureties to persuade the court Assange would not abscond.

The U.S. government and others across the world have argued the publication of the cables is irresponsible and could put their national security at risk.  (*)

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