71 homes destroyed as Australia bushfire rages near locked-down Perth

71 homes destroyed as Australia bushfire rages near locked-down Perth
This handout photo taken on Feb. 2, 2021 and released by West Australia's Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) shows a firefighter working to contain a fire outside Wooroloo, near Australia's fourth-biggest city Perth. (File/AFP)
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Updated 03 February 2021

71 homes destroyed as Australia bushfire rages near locked-down Perth

71 homes destroyed as Australia bushfire rages near locked-down Perth
  • The blaze has torn through swathes of land in the Perth Hills and was moving toward more densely populated areas
  • Several emergency warnings were issued, with conditions set to worsen later Wednesday and strong gusting winds expected to fan the flames

PERTH: At least 71 homes have been destroyed in a bushfire raging out of control near Australia’s fourth-biggest city Perth, authorities said Wednesday, as they told residents to ignore a coronavirus lockdown and leave threatened areas.
The blaze has torn through swathes of land in the Perth Hills and was moving toward more densely populated areas.
Six firefighters received minor injuries — including one who officials said suffered burns and continued working to extinguish the blaze — but no deaths or serious injuries have been reported so far.
“To the people who have lost their homes, it’s just devastating for them. Our thoughts go out to them,” Western Australian fire commissioner Darren Klemm said.
Several emergency warnings were issued, with conditions set to worsen later Wednesday and strong gusting winds expected to fan the flames.
The blaze hit a population that had just been forced into a snap lockdown after a coronavirus case was detected. About two million people in and around Perth fell under the stay-at-home orders imposed on Sunday.
“This is a situation the likes of which we have never seen before,” said Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan.
“A full lockdown and raging bushfires. It is frighting and it will test us all.”
No new virus cases have been detected since the lockdown began, but the number of homes lost is still expected to rise slightly.
As the fire front edged nearer to more populated areas, Klemm called on locals to act swiftly to escape the potentially deadly blaze despite the coronavirus restrictions.
“What we don’t want is indecision from people about whether they should evacuate or not when we require them to evacuate,” he said.
“So that evacuation overrides any quarantining requirements that people may have.”
Hundreds of people have fled the area since the bushfire was sparked on Monday, with many sleeping in evacuation centers overnight.
Among them was Peter Lavis, 68, who left two nights ago after watching distant smoke quickly transform the landscape until it “looked like a bomb had gone off.”
“We could see the fire clearly, the red glow and occasional rush of flames going up,” he told AFP.
“We had a little family conference and decided the best thing to do was to leave.”
Lavis said he believed his home was safe while a neighbor had reported his eldest daughter’s nearby house was also standing despite everything around it being burned.
“It’s some of the best news but also the saddest — a lot of people haven’t been so lucky,” he said.
Bushfire smoke has blanketed Perth, about 30 kilometers west of the blaze which had a 75-kilometer (47-mile) perimeter Tuesday and has so far burned almost 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres).
“It was just scorched earth. Even where I was behind the fire, there was a lot of active burning because the crews just had to react so fast,” local mayor Kevin Bailey told public broadcaster ABC.
Temperatures were forecast to peak at 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday before a predicted ex-tropical cyclone could bring rain and cooler temperatures but more unpredictable winds later this week.
Milder conditions overnight Tuesday had allowed firefighters to build containment lines in some areas, but Klemm cautioned there were “challenging times ahead.”
More than 200 firefighters are battling the bushfire supported by water-bombing aircraft.
More than 3.5 million hectares were burned across Western Australia during the country’s devastating 2019-2020 climate change-fueled bushfires but the state was largely spared the loss of properties and lives seen in Australia’s more densely populated southeast.
Scientists said the layout of the Perth Hills left it particularly vulnerable to blazes made increasingly more dangerous by climate change, with large fires engulfing homes in the area four times since 2009.
“Urban-bushland living will increasingly mean living with bushfire threat as climate change brings with it more frequent high bushfire danger conditions days,” said Jim McLennan, a bushfire researcher at La Trobe University.


Greek PM Mitsotakis to meet crown prince during official visit to Saudi Arabia

Greek PM Mitsotakis to meet crown prince during official visit to Saudi Arabia
Updated 25 October 2021

Greek PM Mitsotakis to meet crown prince during official visit to Saudi Arabia

Greek PM Mitsotakis to meet crown prince during official visit to Saudi Arabia
  • The pair are set to discuss the Kingdom’s green initiatives, investment during Mitsotakis’ two-day trip
  • Greek-Saudi ties have deepened in recent months in matters of defense, tourism and culture

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will visit Saudi Arabia on Oct. 25 in a further sign of the warming ties between two countries. 

Mitsotakis will participate in the Middle East Green Initiative and in the Future Investment Initiative, and will meet with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during his two-day visit.

The crown prince unveiled the MGI in March, alongside its domestic counterpart, the Saudi Green Initiative, as pillars of the Kingdom’s efforts to reverse environmental degradation and climate change. 

Part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 to reshape its economy, both initiatives provide an ambitious roadmap for Saudi Arabia and the region to meet worldwide emissions targets. 

Greece, meanwhile, is also taking an active role in combating climate change, promoting “green diplomacy” both across the EU and the wider region.

The two countries have become close recently, sharing a common vision on stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf. 

Mitsotakis’ first visit to Saudi Arabia came in February 2020, a few months after he took over as prime minister. He also met with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan at the Philia Forum in Athens in February this year.

Bilateral ties have deepened particularly in the field of defense, with the deployment of a Greek Patriot anti-aircraft missile system, or PAC-2, to Saudi Arabia in September to boost the Kingdom’s role in combating Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

In addition, 120 Greek soldiers are stationed in Saudi Arabia to operate it, while the PAC-2 is set to be upgraded to the PAC-3 system in due course. The heads of the countries’ joint general staffs have also developed close and frequent contacts.

“The deepening of Greek-Saudi relations is of strategic significance for both nations as well as for the entire Eastern Mediterranean-Middle East regional complex,” Prof. Michael Tanchum, senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., told Arab News. 

“2021 has witnessed landmark events raising the level of the Greek-Saudi security partnership, notably Saudi Arabia’s first bilateral military exercise with Greece, ‘Eye of the Falcon 1,’ in March 2021, and the Kingdom’s participation in the September 2021 ‘Hercules 21’ exercises — the first multilateral joint military exercises between Greece, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. 

“In the absence of a convincing security guarantee from its European partners, Athens has skillfully developed its defense relations with Egypt, Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, while engaging with select EU member states to achieve a sufficient deterrence capability,” he said. 

“Athens similarly needs to deepen its economic relations with each of these countries to create a robust Mediterranean-Middle East commercial corridor … that can even extend from Israel and the Gulf states to India,” he added. “Raising the level of the Greek-Saudi business relationship, resulting in large-scale investments in each country, is the next step and is likely a high priority agenda item for Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ upcoming state visit to Saudi Arabia.”

Prof. Spyros Litsas from the University of Macedonia said: “The new official visit of the Greek premier … must be seen as another decisive step towards the construction of a strategic triangle of security and stability in the Arabian Gulf, with Athens, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi forming its related durable angles — especially after the signature of the mutual defense cooperation and assistance pact between Greece and the UAE, and the (deployment) of the Greek PAC-2 to Saudi Arabia.

“It goes without saying that the construction of this triangle of security and stability is of paramount importance for the dynamic deterrence of radical groups and revisionist states too in the post-COVID-19 era, while it also enhances the geostrategic role of Greece, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as regional pillars of smart defense and cooperation,” he added.

Bilateral ties, though, are not confined to defense, and are blossoming in tourism, culture and investment.

At a meeting on May 20, Saudi Arabia’s culture minister, Prince Badr bin Farhan, met the President of the Hellenic Republic Katerina Sakellaropoulou in Athens to discuss a memorandum on international cooperation in culture, which will be signed later this year in Riyadh. 

In September, tourism, investment and trade topped the agenda of talks between Greek Minister of Tourism Vassilis Kikilias and Saudi Minister of Investment Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al-Fatih during the latter’s visit to the Greek capital. Al-Fatih also met with Greece’s investments and development minister, Adonis Georgiadis.


West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys

West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys
Updated 25 October 2021

West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys

West braces for Turkey’s possible expulsion of 10 envoys
  • The expulsions are a response to a joint statement calling on Erdogan to release a detained philanthropist
  • Erdogan’s rule has been punctuated by a series of crises and then rapprochements with the West

ANKARA: Turkey’s relations with Western allies edged Monday toward their deepest crisis of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 19-year rule, as world capitals braced for Ankara’s possible expulsion of ambassadors from the US and nine other countries.
The lira broke through historic lows ahead of a cabinet meeting that could prove fateful to Turkey’s economic and diplomatic standing for the coming months — and some analysts fear years.
The cabinet session will address Erdogan’s decision Saturday to declare the Western envoys “persona non grata” for their joint statement in support of jailed philanthropist Osman Kavala.
Expulsion orders are officially issued by foreign ministries and none of the Western capitals had reported receiving any by Monday.
Some analysts said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and a few other cabinet members were still trying to talk Erdogan out of following through on his threat and to change his mind.
But the Turkish lira — a gauge of both investor confidence and political stability — lost more than one percent in value on fears of an effective break in Ankara’s relations with its main allies and most important trading partners.
“Typically, the countries whose ambassadors have been kicked out retaliate with tit-for-tat expulsions, potentially in a coordinated manner,” Eurasia Group’s Europe director Emre Peker said.
“Restoring high-level diplomatic relations after such a spat would prove challenging.”
The crisis started when the embassies of the United States, Germany, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden issued a highly unusual statement last Monday calling for Kavala’s release.
The 64-year-old civil society leader and businessman has been in jail without a conviction for four years.
Supporters view Kavala as an innocent symbol of the growing intolerance of political dissent Erdogan developed after surviving a failed military putsch in 2016.
But Erdogan accuses Kavala of financing a wave of 2013 anti-government protests and then playing a role in the coup attempt.
The diplomatic escalation comes as Erdogan faces falling domestic approval numbers and a brewing economic crisis that has seen life turn more painful for ordinary Turks.
Main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu accused Erdogan of trying to artificially deflect attention from Turkey’s economic woes ahead of a general election due by June 2023.
“These actions are not to protect the national interests, it’s an attempt to create false justifications for the economy that he has destroyed,” Kilicdaroglu tweeted on Saturday.
Erdogan’s rule as prime minister and president has been punctuated by a series of crises and then rapprochements with the West.
But analysts believe his latest actions could open up the deepest and most lasting rift to date.
They could also cast a pall over a G20 meeting in Rome this weekend at which Erdogan had expected to discuss with US President Joe Biden his hopes of buying a large batch of US fighter planes.
Erdogan this month further threatened to launch a new military campaign in Syria and orchestrated changes at the central bank that infuriated investors and saw the lira accelerate its record slide.
A dollar now buys about 9.75 liras. The exchange rate stood at less than 7.4 liras at the start of the year — and at 3.5 liras in 2017.
“I am really sad for my country,” Istanbul law office worker Gulseren Pilat said as the country awaited Erdogan’s next move.
“I really hope that it will not be as bad as we fear,” said Pilat. “But I am convinced that even more difficult days await us.”


Turkey’s financial problems have been accompanied by an unusual spike in dissent from the country’s business community.
The Turkish Industry and Business Association issued a veiled swipe at Erdogan last week by urging the government to focus on stabilising the lira and bring the annual inflation rate — now at almost 20 percent — under control.
But some analysts pointed out that some European powers — including fellow NATO member Britain — refrained from joining the Western call for Kavala’s release.
“The conspicuous absence of the UK, Spain, and Italy... is telling, pointing at the emergence of a sub-group within the Western family of nations adept at skipping confrontation with Ankara,” political analyst Soner Cagaptay wrote.


Greenhouse gas levels reach new record high: UN

Greenhouse gas levels reach new record high: UN
Updated 25 October 2021

Greenhouse gas levels reach new record high: UN

Greenhouse gas levels reach new record high: UN
  • The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin said the annual rate of increase last year was above the annual average between 2011 and 2020

GENEVA: Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere reached new record levels last year, the United Nations said Monday in a stark warning to the COP26 summit about worsening global warming.
The Greenhouse Gas Bulletin, from the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, said the annual rate of increase last year was above the annual average between 2011 and 2020 — and the trend continued in 2021.


More than half of Afghans face ‘acute’ food shortage: UN agencies

More than half of Afghans face ‘acute’ food shortage: UN agencies
Updated 25 October 2021

More than half of Afghans face ‘acute’ food shortage: UN agencies

More than half of Afghans face ‘acute’ food shortage: UN agencies
  • More than 22 million Afghans will suffer “acute food insecurity” this winter, UN agencies said Monday

KABUL: More than 22 million Afghans will suffer “acute food insecurity” this winter, UN agencies said Monday, warning the already unstable country faces one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
“This winter, millions of Afghans will be forced to choose between migration and starvation unless we can step up our life-saving assistance,” said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme.


Amnesty International to close Hong Kong offices this year

Amnesty International to close Hong Kong offices this year
Updated 25 October 2021

Amnesty International to close Hong Kong offices this year

Amnesty International to close Hong Kong offices this year
  • Hong Kong implemented a sweeping national security law in 2020 following months of massive anti-government protests
  • Critics in Hong Kong say the national security law is an erosion of freedoms, such as those of expression and assembly

HONG KONG: Amnesty International said Monday it would close its two offices in Hong Kong this year, becoming the latest non-governmental organization to cease its operations amid a crackdown on political dissent in the city.
The human rights group said its local office in Hong Kong would close this month while its regional office will close by the end of the year, with regional operations moved to other offices in the Asia-Pacific region.
“This decision, made with a heavy heart, has been driven by Hong Kong’s national security law, which has made it effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s board, said in a statement.
Hong Kong implemented a sweeping national security law in 2020 following months of massive anti-government protests. The law outlaws secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and foreign collusion to intervene in the city’s affairs. More than 120 people, many of them supporters of the city’s democracy movement, have been arrested under the law.
The majority of the city’s prominent pro-democracy activists are behind bars for taking part in unauthorized assemblies, and dozens of political organizations and trade unions have ceased operations out of concern for their members’ personal safety under the security law.
Bais said the recent targeting of local human rights and trade union groups signaled authorities were intensifying their campaign to rid the city of dissenting voices. “It is increasingly difficult for us to keep operating in such an unstable environment,” she said.
Critics in Hong Kong say the national security law is an erosion of freedoms, such as those of expression and assembly, that were promised the city for 50 years when the former British colony was handed over to China in 1997.