Sydney Festival chair ‘very sorry’ after Israeli sponsorship sparks boycott

Sydney Festival chair ‘very sorry’ after Israeli sponsorship sparks boycott
David Kirk apologized to artists but refused to return the Israeli cash. (File/AFP)
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Updated 13 January 2022

Sydney Festival chair ‘very sorry’ after Israeli sponsorship sparks boycott

Sydney Festival chair ‘very sorry’ after Israeli sponsorship sparks boycott
  • But David Kirk refuses to return $20,000 provided or end sponsorship deal
  • Independent review will be launched into festival’s sponsorship-approval process

LONDON: The chair of Sydney Festival, which has been boycotted by scores of artists over an agreement with the Israeli government, has issued a public apology, saying he regrets the distress caused to artists.

David Kirk told Guardian Australia that the festival board was unaware of the sponsorship deal with the Israeli Embassy in Canberra until he noticed the Israeli government logo on the festival program in late November.

“It was just a miss. We followed all of our normal processes,” he said. “And the next question becomes … are your normal processes fit for purpose in the current environment? And that’s something that we’re going to look into in the independent review that we have confirmed and absolutely committed to undertaking.”

At the start of this year, it emerged that dozens of acts had decided to boycott Sydney Festival 2022 over a sponsorship deal agreed with the Israeli government.

Kirk said an independent review would be launched into the festival’s sponsorship-approval process.

“We don’t want to preempt the review,” he added. “We just need to make sure it’s independent. The board has already had discussions about the broad nature of it … and we will work with (the independent reviewers) on the terms of reference, and get on with it as soon as the festival is over.”

But he rejected the idea that the festival return the $20,000 provided by Israel in order to quell dissent among festival acts.

“That’s not something we think is appropriate in the circumstances,” he said. “I think if we had understood, had the foresight to realize that this would be the sort of issue that it has become, then we would have had detailed discussions and we would have considered what the best way forward was, but we didn’t.”

He added: “We are very sorry for the fact that we put artists in a situation where they felt compromised or have been pressurized, and have either been in a position where they’ve felt the need to withdraw their work or continue with their work (and) have been subjected to pretty serious social media pressure to withdraw.

“We really regret that. We accept that we caused that and the review that we intend to undertake is focused on ensuring this never happens again.”

Israel provided the money to fund a Sydney Dance Co. production of “Decadence,” devised by Tel Aviv choreographer Ohad Naharin.

There are conflicting reports as to exactly when the deal was reached. An Israeli Embassy spokesperson said festival organizers approached the embassy with the sponsorship proposal in early July.

But the Sydney-based Palestinian Justice Movement said the deal was reached in May 2021 — the same month Israeli jets were bombing Gaza, killing 250 Palestinians and wounding many more.


Texas synagogue shooter was known to MI5: Report

Texas synagogue shooter was known to MI5: Report
Updated 5 sec ago

Texas synagogue shooter was known to MI5: Report

Texas synagogue shooter was known to MI5: Report
  • Briton Faisal Akram had ranted about 9/11 attacks a day after they happened
  • Brother: ‘He’s known to police, got a criminal record. How was he allowed to get a visa and acquire a gun?’

LONDON: The British man killed by police after taking people hostage in a US synagogue was known to British security services, The Independent has reported.

Faisal Akram, from the town of Blackburn, also had previous criminal convictions but was still able to obtain a visa and travel to his target in Texas.

The Independent reported that it was not known when MI5 became aware of Akram, 44, but that he had not been considered an imminent threat.

He was known to local police for criminal offenses, and in 2001 had been banned from a local court after ranting about the 9/11 terrorist attacks a day after they took place.

A letter sent to Akram from the court at the time read: “In a clear reference to the terrorist attack on New York the previous day you said on more than one occasion to one of my court ushers ‘you should have been on the ******* plane’.”

Speaking with Sky News, Akram’s brother Gulbar questioned how he had been allowed to travel to the US in the first place and then acquire a gun while there.

“He’s known to police, got a criminal record,” Gulbar said. “How was he allowed to get a visa and acquire a gun?”

US President Joe Biden branded the attack an “act of terror,” and said Akram had made “antisemitic and anti-Israel comments.”

The FBI, with support from British counterterror police, is investigating why Akram targeted the synagogue and took hostages.

British Home Secretary Priti Patel pledged “full support” from the UK police and security services throughout the investigation.

Two British teenagers were arrested on Sunday in relation to the attack, but no further details have been released.

During the attack, Akram had demanded the release of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who is jailed in Texas for trying to kill US military officers in Afghanistan.

An FBI agent said after the attack that they believed Akram was “singularly focused on one issue and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community,” but added that they will continue to “work to find motive.”


Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19

Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19
Updated 3 sec ago

Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19

Hong Kong to cull 2,000 animals after hamsters get COVID-19
  • Customers who bought hamsters in Hong Kong from Dec. 22 will also be subject to mandatory testing

HONG KONG: Hong Kong authorities said Tuesday that they will cull some 2,000 small animals, including hamsters after several of the rodents tested positive for the virus at a pet store where an infected employee was working.
The city will also stop the sale of hamsters and the import of small mammals, according to officials from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The move came after the pet shop employee tested positive for the delta variant on Monday. Several hamsters imported from the Netherlands at the same store tested positive as well.
“If you own a hamster, you should keep your hamsters at home, do not take them out,” said department director Leung Siu-fai at a news conference.
“All pet owners should observe good personal hygiene, and after you have been in contact with animals and their food, you should wash your hands.”
“Do not kiss your pets,” he added.
Even though authorities acknowledged that there is “no evidence” that pets can transmit the coronavirus to humans, as a precautionary measure, customers who had purchased hamsters from the affected store after Jan. 7 will be traced and be subject to mandatory quarantine.
They must also hand over their hamsters to authorities to be put down.
Authorities said that all pet stores selling hamsters in Hong Kong must cease operations and that around 2,000 small mammals, including hamsters and chinchillas, will be culled in a humane manner.
Customers who bought hamsters in Hong Kong from Dec. 22 will also be subject to mandatory testing and are urged not to go into the community until their tests have returned negative. If their hamsters test positive, they will be subject to quarantine.
For now, authorities said they would not rule out transmission between human and animals.
Separately, Hong Kong police have arrested two former flight attendants for allegedly leaving their homes when they should have been in isolation for possible coronavirus infections, which were later confirmed.
The two arrived from the US on Dec. 24 and 25. While in medical surveillance, they had “conducted unnecessary activities,” according to a government statement posted late Monday.
While the statement did not name their employer, the arrests came after flagship carrier Cathay Pacific said it had fired two crew members for breaching coronavirus protocols. Both later tested positive for the omicron variant.
Cathay previously said the actions of the crew who had broken coronavirus protocols was “extremely disappointing” and apologized for the disruption. The company had to cut back on flights — both passenger and cargo — in January amid tightened virus curbs.
The duo have been released on bail and will have their case heard in court on Feb. 9. If convicted of violating anti-epidemic regulations, they could face up to 6 months imprisonment and a fine of up to 5,000 Hong Kong dollars ($642).
Hong Kong has been grappling with a local omicron outbreak traced to several Cathay Pacific crew members who had dined at bars and restaurants across the city before later testing positive for the omicron variant.
Previously in Hong Kong, certain air and sea crew members could isolate at home under certain quarantine exemptions. Regulations tightened Dec. 31 require crew members to isolate in a designated quarantine hotel for about a week to safeguard public health.


Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake

Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake
Updated 15 min 40 sec ago

Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake

Rescuers search for survivors after deadly Afghan quake
  • Images circulating on social media showed residents, including children, searching through the rubble of collapsed homes

HERAT: Rescuers searched Tuesday for survivors of a powerful earthquake in a remote western region of Afghanistan that killed at least 22 people and caused “massive” damage to buildings, officials said.
Monday afternoon’s shallow 5.3-magnitude quake jolted Qadis district in Badghis province, a rural area not easily accessible by road.
“The earthquake caused massive damage to houses, about 700 to 1,000 have been damaged,” Badghis provincial spokesman Baz Mohammad Sarwary said in a video message.
Afghanistan is already in the grip of a humanitarian disaster, worsened by the Taliban takeover of the country in August when Western countries froze international aid and access to assets held abroad.
Sarwary said 22 people were killed and four were injured, revising the death toll from the previous figure of 26 he gave to AFP late Monday.
“There is the possibility that the casualties could increase,” he said in his latest video message.
Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed the toll.
Images circulating on social media showed residents, including children, searching through the rubble of collapsed homes.
Government officials said rescue workers were helping search for survivors and transferring the injured to local hospitals.
A Taliban team was in the area assisting in the relief work.
Mujahid said that all government agencies had been instructed to provide the food, medical aid and shelter to those affected.
“We also call on international aid agencies and humanitarian agencies to assist the victims of the disaster,” he said in a statement posted on Twitter.
The epicenter of the quake was near the city of Qala-i-Naw, the capital of Badghis, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Turkmenistan border, according to the United States Geological Survey.
The United Nations has said it needs $5 billion in 2022 to avert the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan.
A devastating drought has compounded the crisis, with earthquake-hit Qadis one of the worst affected areas.
Afghanistan is frequently hit by earthquakes, especially in the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies near the junction of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
Even weak earthquakes can cause significant damage to poorly built homes and buildings in the impoverished country.
In 2015, more than 380 people were killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan when a powerful 7.5-magnitude earthquake ripped across the two countries, with the bulk of the deaths in Pakistan.
In that disaster, 12 young Afghan girls were crushed to death in a stampede as they tried to flee their shaking school building.


Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday

Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday
Updated 40 min 30 sec ago

Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday

Vladimir Putin to host Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday
  • Meeting will be Ebrahim Raisi’s most important official visit abroad since he took office in August

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin will host his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Moscow on Wednesday, the Kremlin said, amid talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal.
The meeting will be Raisi’s most important official visit abroad since he took office in August, and the first visit by an Iranian president to Russia since 2017.
The leaders will discuss the “whole range of issues of bilateral cooperation,” including the 2015 deal that offered Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, the Kremlin said in a statement.
In 2018, Washington announced its unilateral withdrawal from the agreement under former president Donald Trump, prompting Iran to walk back on its commitments.
Since last year, Iran has been in talks with the signatories of the accord — the United States, France, Britain, Russia, China and Germany — to restore the deal, but negotiations stopped in June after Raisi’s election.
They resumed in November.
Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this month noted “real progress” in the talks.
Moscow and Tehran have strong political, economic and military ties, shared interests in Afghanistan, and are key allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s decade-long civil war.


Pakistani police officer killed in gunbattle with local Taliban

Pakistani police officer killed in gunbattle with local Taliban
Updated 18 January 2022

Pakistani police officer killed in gunbattle with local Taliban

Pakistani police officer killed in gunbattle with local Taliban
  • Firefight started when two gunmen of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan opened fire on a police checkpoint

ISLAMABAD: A police officer was killed and two others injured in a shootout with Pakistan’s Taliban in Islamabad, officials said Tuesday, a rare attack by the militants in the heavily guarded capital.
The Monday night firefight started when two gunmen of the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) opened fire from a motorbike on a police checkpoint in central Islamabad.
“A policeman was martyred while two others were wounded,” the police said in a statement, adding that both attackers were killed.
The TTP — a home-grown Pakistani movement that shares common roots with the Afghan Taliban — claimed responsibility for the ambush.
“We are proud of these heroes, and our fighters will continue to follow in their footsteps,” the group said in a statement.
Pakistan’s interior minister warned of the potential for further attacks in the capital — home to dozens of embassies — where security has improved in recent years.
“It is a signal that terrorist activities have started in Islamabad,” Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters.
“It is the first terrorist incident of this year and we need to say alert,” he added.
Pakistan’s government announced late last year it had entered a month-long truce with the TTP, facilitated by Afghanistan’s Taliban, but that expired on December 9 after peace talks failed to make progress.
The TTP has been blamed for hundreds of suicide bomb attacks and kidnappings across the country, and for awhile held sway over vast tracts of the country’s rugged tribal belt, imposing a radical version of Islamic law.
But after the 2014 massacre of nearly 150 children at a Peshawar school, the Pakistan military sent huge numbers of troops into TTP strongholds and crushed the movement, forcing its fighters to retreat to Afghanistan.