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Disaster Down Under

International | Blazes rage on amid economic and political turmoil in Australia
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 1/14/20, 03:31 pm

Australian firefighters on Sunday celebrated a break in the weather that allowed them to get ahead of disastrous bushfires that have blazed since September. Firefighters near Bodalla, New South Wales, said the cooler temperatures and mild winds allowed them to pull down small trees and burn bushland in the fire’s projected path.

The fires have burned more than 25.5 million acres—a little more than the size of Indiana—killing 28 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes. Beyond the damages to lives and property, the fires also have kindled political and economic conflict.

This fire season began earlier than usual following a three-year drought that left the country’s bushland vulnerable. In a report released last week, Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said 2019 was the warmest year on record, with total rainfall 40 percent below average. The bureau’s head of climate monitoring, Karl Braganza, said while forecasters expected more rainfall, it would not be enough to put out the blazes.

“Unfortunately, we’re not looking at widespread, above-average rainfalls at this stage,” he said. “We are not looking at a short and sharp end to the event—it looks like something that we will have to persist with for some time.”

Authorities have blamed arsonists for a small fraction of the blazes this season. The New South Wales police said they charged 24 people with deliberately lighting bushfires. In October, officials in the northern village of Rappville said there was “suspicious activity” surrounding the Busbys Flat fire that destroyed 44 homes and burned more than 120,000 acres of land.

But New South Wales Rural Fire Service Inspector Ben Shepherd said lightning set most of the fires. “I can confidently say the majority of the larger fires that we have been dealing with have been a result of fires coming out of remote areas as a result of dry lightning storms,” he said.

Last week, the Insurance Council of Australia said insurance claims had reached $485 million, a figure that likely will rise as more affected areas become accessible. The government has set aside $1.4 billion for a recovery fund, including $52 million for psychological counseling for firefighters and members of the affected communities, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Morrison’s conservative government has come under heavy criticism for its response to the disaster. Over Christmas break, the prime minister traveled to Hawaii with his family as the crisis worsened. Thousands of protesters gathered in Sydney and Melbourne on Friday to call for his resignation and a tougher response to what they blame for the fires: global warming.

In an interview on Sunday with Australia’s ABC News, Morrison admitted there were “things I could’ve handled on the ground much better.” He said the government is now setting up a national disaster risk reduction framework under the Department of Home Affairs to respond to wildfires, floods, cyclones, and drought.

Despite the eased weather conditions, New South Wales’ fire service on Sunday said 111 bush and grass fires were still burning, including 40 that are uncontained. Authorities also anticipated more hot weather this week. The fire threat and evacuations have been mostly concentrated in rural communities across New South Wales and parts of Victoria, but wildfire smoke has reached some of Australia’s largest cities.

Associated Press/Photo by Alfred Frias/Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division Associated Press/Photo by Alfred Frias/Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (center) at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on Jan. 7

Countries on alert after Soleimani death

After a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia are concerned Islamic terrorists may retaliate for his death.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the United States for taking out the terror mastermind but told other Israeli officials not to comment, The Washington Post reported. Israeli embassies worldwide braced for reprisals, including from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Both groups have sympathy for and ties to Iran.

Germany raised its terror threat levels and said it would take “appropriate security measures,” including protecting U.S. and Israeli institutions in the country. German lawmaker Armin Schuster joined other politicians in warning a Middle East escalation could prompt increased terrorism in Western Europe.

Nigerian police also went on high alert following Soleimani’s death. “Domestic interests are planning to embark on massive public disturbances and sabotage,” authorities said in an intelligence report. While Reuters couldn’t independently confirm the threat, last month, the Islamic State in Nigeria (known as ISWAP) executed 11 Nigerian Christians around Christmas, saying it was revenge for the U.S. raid in Syria that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

On Wednesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte issued a mandatory evacuation order for thousands of Filipinos working in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon and planned to send planes and coast guard vessels to transport them to safer ports in nearby countries. Two days later, after tensions eased a little, officials limited the plan and reversed the requirement that their citizens evacuate Iran and Lebanon. —Julia A. Seymour

Youtube/Melodyinter World Youtube/Melodyinter World Pastor Lawan Andimi appears in a proof-of-life video.

Abducted Nigerian pastor appears in video

A Nigerian pastor pleaded for his release in a video sent out last week. Kidnappers abducted Pastor Lawan Andimi, who also heads the Christian Association of Nigeria in northeast Adamawa state, during a Boko Haram raid on his hometown of Michika on Jan. 3. The insurgents dressed in military clothing rushed into the town in a convoy, seizing food and other items. Witnesses said they saw the assailants force the pastor into a Toyota truck.

In the six-minute video, Andimi urged his colleagues and Pastor Joel Billy, president of the EYN-Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, to speak to the state governor to secure his release. Andimi remained hopeful, adding that the insurgents have so far treated him well. “I have never been discouraged because all conditions that one finds himself [in] is in the hand of God,” he said.

Attacks have spiked since December across Nigeria’s northeastern region. On Dec. 22, insurgents separated Christians from Muslims when they ambushed two passenger buses in Borno state. They killed three men on the spot, including a pastor, and abducted three other people. On Christmas Day, the Islamic State West Africa Province released a video showing militants beheading 10 Christians and shooting one Muslim. A separate attack this month in the town of Monguno in Borno state left at least 20 soldiers dead and nearly 1,000 people homeless. —O.O.

Associated Press/Photo by Renata Brito (file) Associated Press/Photo by Renata Brito (file) Migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea

Norway accepts stranded migrants

Norway last week said it would take in 600 asylum-seekers who were evacuated to Rwanda from Libyan detention centers. The Scandinavian nation hopes to stop the illegal smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

Rwanda set up a camp for migrants from overcrowded and derelict camps in Libya following an agreement reached in September among Rwanda, the African Union, and the United Nations. War-torn Libya had become a major transit point for mostly African nationals trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Some 800 people are staying at an emergency transit center in Rwanda’s Bugesera District.

“For me it is important to send a signal that we will not back smuggling routes and cynical backers, but instead bring in people with protection needs in organized form,” Norwegian Justice and Immigration Minister Joran Kallmyr said.

The United Nations migration agency last week revealed at least 1,283 people died along illegal migration sea routes into Europe in the past year. The International Organization for Migration also recorded 11,669 migrant and refugee arrivals by sea, down 5 percent from 2018. —O.O.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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    Posted: Wed, 01/15/2020 03:57 pm

    Coiuntries on Alert?

    Countries should have been on alert a long time ago. Terrorists (which includes Iran) have been killing for years. The U.N. continues to do nothing but collect money from us and do nothing.

    All this time they have been killing because they can. At least Trump has been successful at stopping some, but without Pelosi's blessing.

    But now they can say it's retaliation. With Pelosi blessings Iran bombs our military. There are people in the world (especially in America) who are dumb enough to believe that we should not mess with Iran. Until when? When there more and bigger killings?