3 dead, dozens injured as Australia wildfires raze homes

Around 1,500 firefighters were battling more than 70 fires across Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales. (AFP)
Updated 09 November 2019

3 dead, dozens injured as Australia wildfires raze homes

  • Around 1,500 firefighters were battling more than 70 fires across Australia’s most populous state
  • At least 150 homes had been destroyed since Friday

CANBERRA, Australia: Wildfires razing Australia’s drought-stricken east coast have left three people dead and several missing, more than 30 injured and over 150 homes destroyed, officials said Saturday.
Around 1,500 firefighters were battling more than 70 fires across Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, with the most intense in the northeast, where flames were fanned by strong winds, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
A woman who was found unconscious and with serious burns Friday near Glen Innes died in a hospital, he said.
Her daughter-in-law Chrystal Harwood identified the victim as 69-year-old grandmother Vivian Chaplain, who was alone in her house in the small community of Wytaliba when it was engulfed in flames.
“I was the last one to speak to her. She was in an absolute panic. She said: ‘We’re on fire. There’s fire everywhere. I need the boys here now,’” Harwood told Nine Network television of their final phone call.
“Before I even got to tell her to just get out, she’d hung up on me. I couldn’t get back through to her. I tried so many times,” Harwood said. “She was amazing. She was such a strong, loving woman.”
On Friday, Harwood made a desperate plea on social media for someone to come to Chaplain’s rescue.
“Viv is alone can someone help, anyone please ... boys are on the way down if they can get through,” Harwood posted. “’The RFS can’t get to her they are trying ... the road down is a tunnel of fire.”
Firefighters found another body on Saturday in a burned car near Glen Innes, a victim of the same fire, officials said. The local man’s name has not been released.
A third body was found Saturday afternoon in a burned building at Johns River, north of Taree, a police statement said. That victim died in a fire hundreds of kilometers (miles) from Glen Innes.
Another seven people have been reported missing in the vicinity of the Glen Innes fire, Fitzsimmons said.
“We are expecting that number (of missing people) to climb today,” he said. “There are really grave concerns that there could be more losses or indeed more fatalities.”
More than 30 people including firefighters received medical treatment for burns and one patient had cardiac arrest, he said.
At least 150 homes had been destroyed since Friday, and damage assessment teams had yet to reach some devastated areas, a Rural Fire Service statement said. Residents could not yet return because of the dangers of fire, smoke and loose asbestos in the rubble, the statement said.
Hundreds of people evacuated their homes along a 500-kilometer swath of the eastern seaboard from the Queensland state border south to Forster.
Forster is a town 300 kilometers north of Sydney, Australia’s largest city. Many spent the night in evacuation centers, while some slept in cars.
In Queensland, around 50 wildfires were raging on Saturday. At least one house was lost, a firefighter suffered a broken leg and 6,000 residents were evacuated from three communities in the state’s southeast, police said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned Australia to expect more bad news from the fire zones. His warning came before the third victim was confirmed.
“The devastating and horrific fires that we have seen particularly in New South Wales but also in Queensland have been absolutely chilling,” Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
The Insurance Council of Australia declared the wildfire crisis a “catastrophe,” meaning insurance claims will be given priority.


Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

Updated 21 November 2019

Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

  • Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky
  • Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much

WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat directly implicated President Donald Trump Wednesday in a scheme to force Ukraine to probe a political rival, in bombshell testimony to a televised impeachment hearing.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers he followed the president’s orders in seeking a “quid pro quo” deal for Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for a White House summit.
Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky for the investigation and that top officials in the White House and State Department knew about it.
The unexpectedly damning testimony drew a sharp backlash from Trump who tweeted: “This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!.”
Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much, despite the senior diplomat having donated $1 million to his inauguration and testifying that he had spoken to the president some 20 times while ambassador.
Democrats said Sondland’s seven hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had bolstered their case for Trump’s impeachment for what they have labeled “extortion.”
“Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” said committee chairman Adam Schiff.
“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”
A succession of Democrats hoping to win the nomination to take on Trump in next year’s election also said the testimony had strengthened the case for impeachment as the issue dominated the opening exchanges in their latest televised primary debate.
Sondland said Trump directed him and two other senior diplomats to work with Giuliani.
From early in the year, Giuliani mounted a pressure campaign on Zelensky’s government to investigate Biden over his son Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and to probe a conspiracy theory espoused by Trump that Ukraine helped Democrats against him in 2016. Biden is one of the favorites to challenge Trump in next year’s presidential election.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland told the panel.
“Mr Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.”
Far from being a “rogue” operation outside normal US diplomatic channels, Sondland told the hearing top officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were kept constantly informed.
“We followed the president’s orders,” he said.
Like Trump a multimillionaire developer with a chain of high-end hotels, Sondland, who wore a $55,000 Breguet white gold watch to the hearing, fended off pressure from both Democrats and Republicans.
He had not implicated the president in earlier private testimony, when he answered scores of questions by saying he could “not remember.”
But subsequent testimony by other witnesses which had further implicated him in the Ukraine pressure scheme had jolted his memory, he said on Wednesday.
While he confirmed the linkage between the investigations and a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump, he would not attest to allegations that Trump froze $391 million in aid as well to Ukraine to add pressure on Ukraine.
“I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement” of the investigations, he said, contradicting testimony from two other diplomats.
In separate testimony, a Pentagon official appeared to undermine a key Republican defense in the impeachment battle, that Kiev did not even know until late August or even September about the July 18 aid freeze, rendering moot Democrats’ allegations that Trump had extorted Ukraine.
Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine affairs, said Kiev voiced concern over a holdup in aid on July 25.
That was the same day that Trump told Zelensky in a phone call that he wanted a favor, asking for investigations into Biden specifically and the 2016 conspiracy theory.
“The Ukrainian embassy staff asked, ‘What is going on with Ukrainian security assistance?” she told the committee.
At the White House, Trump denied making the demand of Zelensky, citing Sondland’s own recall of their September 9 phone call on the Ukraine issue.
Reading from large-print notes, he said that he told Sonderland: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”
“If this were a prizefight, they’d stop it!” he said of the inquiry.
Speaking at the Democrats’ debate, Biden dodged a question on the role of his son but said the testimony had shown that “Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee.”
And Bernie Sanders, another of the frontrunners for the nomination, said Trump had been shown to be “not only a pathological liar” but also “the most corrupt president in the modern history of America.”