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On a beach in Sydney, 5,000 go on a racist witch-hunt (12 December 2005)
SYDNEY � Racial violence sparked off a full-fledged riot in Australia yesterday, severely tainting the country's tolerant and laidback image.

An issue that had started heating up after two lifeguards on Cronulla beach were beaten up last week � allegedly by young men of Lebanese descent � exploded in surreal fashion.

Following a mobilisation campaign through text messages, a 5,000-strong mob gathered to exact revenge by chasing down and beating up people of Middle Eastern appearance, even attacking paramedics and policemen who tried to protect them.

Carrying Australian flags, the crowd started yelling: "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie ... oi, oi, oi!"

Police cars trying to move from one flare-up to the next were surrounded and thumped on.

A car that was trying to spirit away a young man who looked Lebanese had its doors kicked in.

Pubs and even trains, which were believed to be sheltering the mob's targets, were surrounded and had to be physically protected by the police.

A New South Wales police official labelled the violence "disgusting", saying that people of certain ethnic backgrounds had been clear targets.

Authorities are being criticised for being insufficiently prepared even though text messages had urged "Aussies" to take revenge against "Lebs" and "wogs".

New South Wales political leader, Premier Morris Iemma, condemned the violence. He said police would not hesitate to use force against the trouble-makers.

"It's time for everyone involved in this to just calm down," he said. � Agencies

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Australia arrests 17, says stops terrorist attack (8 November 2005)

Australian police on Tuesday arrested 17 people, including a Muslim cleric and a man they said wanted to become a suicide bomber, on charges of planning terrorist attacks as part of a "violent jihad in Australia".

One of the arrested men was in critical condition in hospital after being shot by police when he opened fire during early morning raids in Sydney and Melbourne. Police

seized chemicals, firearms, computers, backpacks and travel documents in the raids.

The loose-knit group did not have a target, but it was trying to buy chemicals similar to those used in the London bombings in July, for a "catastrophic" attack, police said.

"I am satisfied that we have disrupted what I would regard as the final stages of a terrorist attack or the launch of a terrorist attack in Australia," said New South Wales state Police Commissioner Ken Moroney.

During a court appearance, police said Muslim cleric Abu Bakr, who called bin Laden a "great man" that defends Muslims fighting U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, was the spiritual leader of the group. He was remanded in custody until January 31.

The Melbourne court was told the men had engaged in military-like training in rural Australia and that one man had expressed a desire to become a "martyr" in Australia.

Police said they had 240 hours of telephone intercepts and recordings of the group. Police detective Chris Murray told the court that one man had "asked permission to become a martyr in Australia, he wanted to die here".

Murray said the man had been told to wait, but was impatient, adding he wanted to "go in a similar way to a suicide bomber".

Prime Minister John Howard last week said Australia received intelligence about a "terrorist threat" and amended anti-terror laws making it easier for police to arrest suspects. Police said the new laws aided the counter-terrorism operation.

Victorian state Police Commissioner Christine Nixon told reporters the group did not have a target and specifically ruled out the Commonwealth Games, which are due to be held in Melbourne in March and opened by the Queen.

Australian media last week said that possible targets under police watch were the Sydney Opera House, the harbour bridge, oil refineries and stock exchange among others.

Australia, a staunch U.S. ally with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, has never suffered a major peacetime attack on home soil.

Four Australians are awaiting trial in Sydney and Melbourne on terrorism charges, linked to supporting and training with banned groups such as al Qaeda.

"VIOLENT JIHAD"

More than 450 police raided houses in Sydney and Melbourne as part of the country's largest ever counter-terrorism operation involving hundreds of police, following a 16-month investigation.

Police said eight people were arrested in Sydney and nine in Melbourne. Those arrested were charged with offences including acts in preparation of a terrorist attack, being a member of a terrorist group and conspiracy to commit a terrorist act.

Prosecutor Richard Maidment told the Melbourne court that the men were committed to "violent jihad in Australia". "There have been discussions about bomb making," he told the court.

The court was told the men had stolen cars to raise funds to buy firearms and chemicals. The Sydney group had tried to buy chemicals used in the London transport bombings and the Melbourne group had ordered chemical handling equipment.

Bakr, also known as Abdul Nacer Benbrika, was charged with directing the activities of a terrorist organisation. "Osama Bin Laden, he is a great man," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in an interview in August.

Police said the group was part of an Islamist cell which followed a philosophy similar to Osama bin Laden.

The seven men in Melbourne were remanded in custody until January and the court reserved a ruling on two bail applications.

Those arrested in Sydney were also remanded in custody and will appear in court on Friday.

"These young men are presumed innocent," said defence lawyer Adam Houda. There is no evidence in this case that terrorism was contemplated or being planned by any particular person."

The Australia Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), last week said for the first time that Australia had home-grown extremists, some of whom trained overseas. Muslims make up 1.5 percent of Australia's 20 million population. Reuters

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Asia-Pacific countries discuss bird flu disaster plan (31 October 2005)

Ministers attending an Asia-Pacific conference on avian flu said on Monday border closures were an option in the event of a pandemic, but said this was only a remote possibility.

"Borders and airports could of course be shut down in the last phase of a pandemic," said Vietnamese Vice Minister of Agriculture Bui Ba Bong, on the sidelines of a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. "But that is not the situation we are facing at the moment."

His comments were echoed by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer, who cited medical experts as saying there was only a 10 percent chance that bird flu would mutate into a virus transmittable from human to human.

The H5N1 avian influenza is still primarily a bird disease, but it has infected 121 people and killed 62 since 2003, while tens of millions of birds have died of infection or been culled.

Principal pandemic and disaster management officials from all 21 APEC economies are attending the forum in Brisbane to discuss regional responses to any outbreak of the disease.

Cambodia's Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Prak Thaveak Amida said controlling the spread of avian flu across borders was central to his country's disaster planning, given the disease is "at Cambodia's front gate" after incidents in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam.

Ornithological Armageddon

Downer insisted any cover-up of avian flu outbreaks would be a "true human catastrophe" given that speedy identification of cases is the greatest challenge facing the international community, but he was confident APEC was focussed after Monday's "promising stocktake" of preparedness.

"You don't learn to dance on the day of the party," agreed Doug Steadman of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. "You have to practise, and that's what we're doing here to make sure we have the plans and that we can implement them effectively."

Steadman is drawing on Canada's first-hand experience of SARS and avian flu in recent years to instruct delegates about the importance of a water-tight plan, particularly as "there is still time for prevention before a pandemic".

The meeting comes as the Australian Medical Association (AMA) said regional bird flu planning should be based on information and preparedness and not on fear and panic.

"People need to be able to get on with their lives without the prospect of some sort of ornithological Armageddon creating fear in the community," AMA president Dr Mukesh Haikerwal said in a statement on Monday.

"People need to understand that the present avian flu virus cannot cause a pandemic because it is barely infectious to humans. You have to work very hard to catch it," he said, adding that early warning systems to detect and identify the disease and to monitor its progress were essential. Reuters

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Australia's CSL says dosage key to quick flu vaccine (24 October 2005)

An Australian company said on Monday it was confident the vaccine it was testing in humans could protect against a pandemic form of the H5N1 bird flu virus unless it undergoes major genetic changes.

CSL Ltd, the world's largest maker of blood plasma products, has begun human vaccine trials using different dosages and hopes to know results by next February.

If the trial is successful, the company says it can produce a vaccine against a pandemic form within three months if H5N1 mutates into a form able to be transmitted human-to-human, and in six months if a totally new strain emerges.

The virus has already killed more than 60 people in Asia and spread to Europe. Scientists say it is only a matter of time before it mutates into a form than can cause a pandemic that could kill millions of people.

"The mutation that would make it spread from human to human, which is what we're worried about, is probably not enough to render the vaccine ineffective," said CSL research and development spokeswoman Rachel David.

Other experts, however, have said that the H5N1 strain of bird flu could move too quickly for drugs and vaccines if it begins to easily infect humans.

The H5N1 strain, like all viruses, mutates continually but the changes are usually very small. A pandemic form of the virus can occur through steady mutation or through a process called genetic reassortment.

This occurs when two different strains, for example a human flu virus and a bird flu virus, infect the same cell and swap pieces of genetic material.

David said a vaccine could still be ready within six months if dosage formulations it was using in its vaccine trial were shown to be inadequate or if a completely new strain of the virus emerged somewhere in the world.

"That second scenario is much less likely. The most likely scenario that would blow out the time would be if the dose that we need was higher than expected," she said.

Otherwise, if the trial proves the vaccine is effective and the dosages are correct, then it could be produced in large quantities within three months.

She said CSL was working on trials using two injections of 7.5 micrograms of viral antigen and two 15-microgram injections while also using adjuvants, or substances which help enhance the body's immune response to antigens.

Vaccine trials elsewhere, such as in the United States, have not used adjuvants and therefore required much higher levels of antigens which were consequently harder to produce, CSL said.

"We made assumptions about what these doses will be, knowing there is a relationship between the dose's active ingredient in the vaccine and how quickly you can produce it for a large number of people," David said.

The Australian government gave CSL A$5 million ($3.8 million) in July to fast-track development of a vaccine.

"Our research goal is actually to vaccinate the entire population," David said. Australia has 20 million people.

"We could make a vaccine tomorrow that would guarantee immunity in a small number of people but for us that's useless.

"For us the goal is to vaccinate a large amount of people very, very quickly," she said.

CSL's chief scientific officer Andrew Cuthbertson said an alternative to their current approach was to use a weaker vaccine to minimise the severity of the illness but not completely prevent it.

He told The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday that approach might save lives but added it was up to policy makers to decide on what was an acceptable level of protection. Reuters

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Fishermen use machetes, poles against Australia navy (19 October 2005)

Illegal fishermen used burning poles and machetes to try to avoid capture by the Australian navy after their boat was intercepted in Australian waters, Justice Minister Chris Ellison said on Wednesday.

An Australian customs patrol boat and a navy patrol ship were forced to fire warning shots after the Indonesian-flagged fishing boat initially refused to stop when it was found on Tuesday.

"The fishing boat crew deployed anti-boarding poles and set them on fire, brandished knives and machetes, and threw lead weights at the customs boarding party," Ellison said in a statement.

The confrontation highlights the increasing desperation of illegal fishermen off Australia's north after Australia earlier this month announced an A$88 million ($66 million) programme to crack down on poachers in Australia's territorial waters.

Ellison said customs officers found two holds full of dried shark fin and more than 50 whole sharks on the latest boat. He said nine crew had been arrested and would now face charges. Reuters

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Australia's tough new security laws planned after the July London bombings may be watered down after a number of key political leaders called on Monday for more debate, worried the measures are being rushed.

Last month, Australia's six states and two territories agreed to pass conservative Prime Minister John Howard's new security laws even though one state leader described them as "draconian".

Under the laws, suspects can be detained for 48 hours without charge, electronic tracking devices would be used to keep tabs on suspects, and supporting insurgents in countries like Iraq would carry a seven-year jail sentence.

But two weeks before the legislation goes to parliament, the leaders of Australia's two territories said they might not support the bill after seeing draft legislation.

"Law of this significance made in this haste can't be good law," Jon Stanhope, chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), told local radio.

The chief minister of the outback Northern Territory, Clare Martin, also said she would not be rushed into passing the laws, expressing concern about legal safeguards for Australians.

"The states were very concerned what the appropriate safeguards were in what was tough legislation ... that anyone picked up under the legislation had a right to legal representation and there was a sunset clause," Martin told local radio.

"I think every state leader ... will be very concerned that those principles ... are reflected in that draft legislation."

Howard said on Monday he would not water down the new laws, but he needs all Australia's states and territories to pass the legislation in order to meet constitutional requirements.

"What is going to be in that legislation is what I announced and what the states agreed to -- no more, no less," a defiant Howard told Australian television.

"I announced that we were going to have preventive detention. I announced that we were going have control orders. I announced that we would be expanding the sedition offence to include incitement of violent behaviour against the community."

Howard said expanding the sedition offence would not prevent people criticising government security policy. But Stanhope said he would not simply rubber stamp the new security laws.

"It's clear to me the prime minister doesn't want debate. He doesn't want to have to respond to the critics," Stanhope said.

"He simply is intent on crashing through this legislation, with its fundamental implications for civil liberties and human rights, without a need to go through a process of consultation." Reuters

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Australia wrongly cancels visas of up to 8,000 international students (16 September 2005)


SYDNEY : Australia's immigration department said on Friday it had wrongly cancelled the visas of up to 8,000 international students and asked diplomatic posts around the world to tell the wronged pupils they can resume their courses.

In a major hitch for Australia's stated goal of becoming Asia's education hub, a court found the immigration department had been using incorrect paperwork from May 2001 to August 2005.

The ruling forced the government to reinstate the revoked visas of 700 foreign students in Australia and more than 7,000 who left the country after being told they could not complete their courses.

The immigration department said it had asked its overseas offices to inform students, education bodies and other relevant organisations of the decision.

"The department is working to notify all potentially affected people through a range of methods, including an advertising campaign, letters to clients and website information," it said in a statement.

The case arose after a student launched a legal challenge after his visa was cancelled because he had not attended sufficient classes in his cookery course.

The court found that the standard warning notice sent to the student was incorrectly worded.

Australia's schools and universities earn about A$7.5 billion (US$5.8 billion)a year from foreign students, representing the country's fourth largest export earner worth more than the traditional exports of wool and wheat combined.

The vast majority of the students come from Asia, with China the fastest growing market.

The immigration department is already under fire for a series of bungles arising from the country's hardline border protection policies.

The department has admitted wrongfully detaining more than 200 people who were in the country legally, including a German-born woman who was locked up for 10 months and a Philippines-born woman who was wrongfully deported. - AFP

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Australia expels US peace activist (15 September 2005)

CANBERRA (Reuters) - A U.S. peace activist has been expelled from Australia over security concerns and handed an A$11,700 ($8,982) bill to cover his detention and deportation costs.

Scott Parkin, who arrived in Australia in June, was sent back to the United States on the advice of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), a spokesman for Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said on Friday.

"I'm just completely baffled by all of this," Parkin told reporters in Los Angeles on Thursday.

Parkin, a 36-year-old Texan history teacher helped organize anti-globalisation protests to coincide with a three-day meeting -- arranged by U.S. business magazine Forbes -- of 350 corporate chiefs in Sydney in August.

Parkin, who co-founded U.S. activist group Houston Global Awareness Collective, was detained by Australian authorities in the southern city of Melbourne on Saturday before he was escorted by two officials back to the United States on Thursday.

He said he had been banned from entering Australia for three years and would have to pay the bill of A$11,700 -- for his airfare, the airfares of the officials who accompanied him back and his five days in custody -- before he could return.

"ASIO did not oppose Mr Parkin's visa at the time of application. However, ASIO's understanding of his intentions has changed while he has been in Australia," Justice Minister Chris Ellison told parliament on Thursday.

"ASIO is responsible, of course, for protecting the community from security threats and all forms of politically motivated violence, including violent protest activity."

Australia is a close ally of the United States and sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. Reuters

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� 2004 APC Process.  Last updated Sunday, December 11, 2005