Australian child pleads with PM to be rescued from Syrian camp

Women and children walk at Camp Roj, where relatives of people suspected of belonging to the Daesh group are held. (File/AFP)
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Updated 01 June 2023

Australian child pleads with PM to be rescued from Syrian camp

  • Around 40 Australians, including 10 women, 30 children, remain detained inside the Roj camp in north-east Syria

LONDON: An Australian child stuck in a Syrian detention camp has written to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, pleading to be brought home, the Guardian reported on Thursday.

The child, who is less than 10 years old, told Albanese “please don’t leave me behind,” after the government rescued a second group of Australians from the camps more than seven months ago and promised to repatriate others left behind. 

Around 40 Australians, including 10 women and 30 children, remain detained inside the Roj camp in north-east Syria, the Guardian reported. They are the wives, widows and children of dead or jailed Daesh fighters. Most have been in the camp for more than four years.

Some of the children born in the camp have never left. Many of the women claim their husbands coerced or manipulated them into traveling to Syria. 

“I am one of the children left behind in Roj camp and I have spent half my life in a tent closed off by gates like a prison. “I have never been to school, laid in grass or climbed a tree,” the child said to the prime minister. 

“When my friends left, I thought I was going to go to Australia too. I had so much hope and was looking forward to Australia saving me from this place. But it’s been seven months, we are still here.”

A UN expert panel has repeatedly expressed “deep concerns about the deteriorating security and humanitarian conditions of detention in Roj camp”. It has warned that boys separated from their families are at risk of being “forcibly disappeared, and subject to sale, exploitation, abuse (and) torture.”

In the message, the child said: “I am very sick. I took lots of needles. There is no hospital here to help us. I am always scared that the soldiers will walk into our tent and take me or my sisters or my mum.”

The child pleaded not to be left in Syria. “I just want to feel safe, live in a house and be a normal kid. Please, can you save me like you save the other Australian children that you took back. Please don’t leave me behind.”

Australia has carried out two repatriation operations from Syrian camps. 

In 2019, eight orphaned children including a pregnant teenager were returned to New South Wales. In October, four women and 13 children were also rescued from Roj.

That rescue mission was politically controversial, with Australian opposition leader Peter Dutton saying he had “grave concerns” that those repatriated posed a “significant risk … that can’t be mitigated”.

Mat Tinkler, chief executive of Save the Children Australia, said that the Roj camp was “one of the worst places in the world to be a child.”

“They have untreated shrapnel wounds from conflict, medical conditions that could be treated but they can’t access sufficient care, severe dental decay meaning they are malnourished, and psycho-social illnesses: these kids are in a really fragile state, and we hold grave concerns that some may not survive,” Tinkler said.

“These are innocent kids, these are Australian citizens, and they have an entitlement to return to their home country. If we don’t make the decision to bring them home to safety, inevitably a child will be injured or killed as a result.”

Ukraine on the defensive as Russia war enters third year

Updated 24 February 2024

Ukraine on the defensive as Russia war enters third year

  • While the EU has assured Ukraine of continuing support, the overall picture remains bleak for Kyiv due to the US Congress blocking a vital $60 billion aid package

KYIV: Ukraine on Saturday marked two years since Russia’s invasion, entering a new year of war weakened by a lack of western aid while Russia is emboldened by fresh gains.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “special military operation” at dawn on February 24, 2022, many expected Moscow’s victory within days, but Ukraine fought back, forcing Russian troops into humiliating retreats.
But Ukraine has suffered setbacks with the failure of its 2023 counteroffensive. The Russian army has in turn built up a position of strength thanks to booming war production, while Ukraine’s troops are short of manpower and running low on Western-supplied ammunition for artillery and air defenses.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday that decisions on arms supplies have to be “the priority.”
Saturday’s anniversary will see visits by Western leaders including EU commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, but the overall picture remains bleak for Kyiv due to the US Congress blocking a vital $60 billion aid package. This has come on top of delays in promised European deliveries.
US President Joe Biden renewed calls for Republican lawmakers to unblock the additional funding, warning that “history is waiting” and “failure to support Ukraine at this critical moment will not be forgotten.”

Russia is attacking hard in the east, with the destroyed town of Maryinka near Donetsk the latest hotspot after it captured the heavily fortified town of Avdiivka on February 17.
Ukraine’s economy has also been hit by a border blockade by Polish farmers that Kyiv says threatens exports and has held up deliveries of weapons.

In Kyiv, the mood was grim but still defiant as people said they had grown accustomed to wartime conditions.
“For women of Ukraine, this is our heartache — for our husbands, for our children, for our fathers,” said nutritionist Olga Byrko in Kyiv.
“I would really like this to end as quickly as possible.”
“Yes of course we have learned to live with it... now the war is our life,” said Yuriy Pasichnyk, a 38-year-old businessman.
“I think we need to have more weapons so that we can drive this evil spirit out of our land and start rebuilding our Ukraine,” said 51-year-old Kostyantyn Gofman.
Ukraine needs almost half a trillion dollars to rebuild towns and cities destroyed by Russia’s invasion, according to the latest estimate by the World Bank, European Union, United Nations and Ukrainian government.
Ukraine has estimated that around 50,000 civilians have been killed.

Neither side has given numbers for military deaths and injured, while both claim to have inflicted huge losses.
In August 2023, The New York Times quoted US officials as putting Ukraine’s military losses at 70,000 dead and 100,000 to 120,000 injured.
Leaked US intelligence in December indicated that 315,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded.
On the eastern front, morale is low as outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian troops are ceding ground to Russian forces.
“We are running out of shells and the Russians keep coming. Lots of our comrades are injured — or worse. Everything is getting worse and worse,” said one soldier near Bakhmut, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Moscow has massively ramped up its arms production and received drones from Iran, while Kyiv says it has confirmed Russia’s use of North Korean missiles.
Zelensky said in December the military wanted to draft up to 500,000 more troops. A bill to broaden mobilization has caused wide public fear.
The conflict has thrown Russia into even greater isolation from the West, with the United States and its allies imposing a slew of sanctions.
But Putin has brushed off the fallout and hailed the troops as “true national heroes.”
He has used the war years to rally patriotism and mount an even harsher crackdown on dissent, with few daring to voice opposition to the war.
The death in prison of opposition leader Alexei Navalny has removed Putin’s arch-foe, and he is set to extend his term in office in elections next month.
On the streets of Moscow, most people told AFP they back the soldiers fighting in Ukraine.
“I’m proud of our men,” said 27-year-old Nadezhda, an environmental engineer.
“Of course I am anxious for them, but it’s a pleasant feeling that they are doing great, they are out there fighting for our country.”
One of the few to give an alternative opinion, was Konstantin, a drama teacher working as a waiter, who said: “I’m against any war. Two years have passed and it annoys me that people can’t talk to each other and are still at war.”

France’s support for Ukraine ‘will not waver’, Macron vows

Updated 24 February 2024

France’s support for Ukraine ‘will not waver’, Macron vows

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin early Saturday not to “count on any fatigue from Europeans” over the war in Ukraine, pledging that France’s support for Kyiv “will not waver.”
“Battered and bruised, but still standing. Ukraine is fighting for itself, for its ideals, for our Europe. Our commitment at its side will not waver,” he wrote in a message on X marking the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion, which falls on Saturday.
A separate statement from Macron’s office touted the European Union’s support for Kyiv, including accepting refugees, offering civil and military aid, and levelling sanctions on Moscow.
“President Putin’s Russia must not count on any fatigue from Europeans,” the statement said.
“France is also committed to continuing its support on all fronts, including the supply of military equipment, cooperation between defense industries through the development of co-productions, training, intelligence and civilian aid,” it added.
“The outcome of this war will be decisive for European interests, values and security.”
The French pledge of support came as other key Ukrainian allies renewed their commitment to assisting Kyiv.
US President Joe Biden on Friday announced more than 500 new sanctions against Russia, while vowing sustained pressure to stop President Vladimir Putin’s “war machine.”
The sanctions, described as the largest single tranche since the start of the war, also seek to impose a cost for the death last week in a Siberian prison of Putin’s most vocal critic, Alexei Navalny.
Britain, meanwhile, announced Saturday a new £245 million ($311 million) defense package to help boost the production of “urgently needed artillery ammunition” for Ukraine, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak insisting in an earlier statement that “tyranny will never triumph.”

Spaceship Odysseus lying sideways after dramatic moon touchdown

Updated 24 February 2024

Spaceship Odysseus lying sideways after dramatic moon touchdown

  • Shares of stocks of Intuitive Machines, maker of the lunar lander, descend fast after CEO's revelation
  • Odysseus is still considered the first success for a new fleet of NASA-funded lunar landers

WASHINGTON: The first American spaceship to the Moon since the Apollo era is probably lying sideways following its dramatic landing, the company that built it said Friday, even as ground controllers work to download data and surface photos from the uncrewed robot.
The Odysseus spacecraft landed near the lunar south pole Thursday at 6:23 p.m. Eastern Time (2323 GMT), after a nail-biting final descent when ground teams had to switch to a backup guidance system and took several minutes to establish radio contact after the lander came to rest.
Intuitive Machines, the company behind this first-ever lunar landing by a private company, initially posted on social media that its hexagonal spaceship was upright, but CEO Steve Altemus told reporters on Friday that statement was based on misinterpreted data.
Instead, it appears that it caught a foot on the surface and tipped over, coming to rest horizontally with its top perched on a small rock — taking some shine off an accomplishment widely hailed as a historic achievement.

The revelation by Altemus caused shares of Intuitive Machines to tumble 30 percent in extended trade, wiping out a Friday rally after the dramatic touchdown.

On Feb. 22, 2024, Intuitive Machines’ Odysseus lunar lander captured a wide field of view image of Schomberger crater on the Moon approximately 200 km uprange from the intended landing site. (X: @Int_Machines)

The stock of the first private company to successfully land on the moon nearly doubled from $4.98 before the Feb. 15 launch to $9.59 as of Friday’s close. Friday’s late-day sell-off left it below $7.
Still, the company said the spacecraft is “alive and well” and engineers were sending commands to the vehicle, and NASA officials at a news conference praised the effort.
The first touchdown on the lunar surface by a US spacecraft in more than half a century enthused investors of fellow space startups, sending up shares of companies such as Astra Space and Satellogic. They slipped between 0.5 percent and 2.8 percent in after-hours trading.
Stephen Altemus, CEO of Houston-based Intuitive Machines, which built and flew the lander, said the vehicle is believed to have caught one of its six landing feet on the lunar surface during its final descent and tipped over, coming to rest on its side propped up on a rock.

The Texas-based company’s lunar lander touched down at the Malapert A crater, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) from the moon’s south pole on February 22.
It was sent to the moon on Feb. 15 using a Falcon 9 rocket launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The company, co-founded in 2013 by serial space industry investor Kam Ghaffarian and NASA veterans Altemus and Tim Crain, is awaiting first images from the lunar surface.
The landing could open the doors to investments and government contracts, helping space companies ride out what has been a tough period of funding due to an uncertain economy.

A NASA probe called the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter should be able to photograph Odysseus over the weekend, helping pinpoint its exact location.
Altemus said that while solar arrays were on the top-facing side, the team’s ability to download data from the science experiments on board was being hampered because of antennas facing downward that “are unusable for transmission back to Earth — and so that really is a limiter in our ability to communicate and get the right data down so we get everything we need for the mission.”
Because of complications associated with the landing, a decision was taken not to shoot out an external camera to capture the descent as it happened, according to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which built the “EagleCam” device.
But the team will still attempt to deploy it from the ground to try to obtain an outside image of Odysseus.

Odysseus is still considered the first success for a new fleet of NASA-funded lunar landers designed to carry out science experiments that will pave the way for the return of American astronauts to the Moon later this decade, under the Artemis program.
A moonshot by another American company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate that private industry has what it takes to repeat a feat last achieved by US space agency NASA during its manned Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Underlining the technical challenges, Intuitive Machines’ own navigation technology failed and ground engineers were forced to jury-rig a solution, hastily writing a software patch to switch to an experimental NASA laser guidance system that was intended to run only as a technology demonstration.
Altemus later revealed Odysseus’ own laser system failed to turn on because someone had forgotten to flip a safety switch before takeoff, which he described as “an oversight on our part.”
Confirmation of landing was supposed to come seconds after the milestone, but instead around 15 minutes passed before a faint signal was detected, enough to declare the spaceship was in one piece and had met its goal.

NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to ship six experiments under an initiative which delegates cargo services to the private sector in a bid to achieve savings and stimulate a wider lunar economy.
Odysseus also carries cargo for private customers, including a reflective heat wrapping developed by Columbia Sportswear and used to protect the spaceship’s cryogenic propulsion tank.
The United States, along with international partners, want to develop long-term habitats on the south pole, harvesting ice there for drinking water — and for rocket fuel for eventual onward voyages to Mars.
The first crewed landing under NASA’s Artemis program is set to take place no sooner than 2026. China, meanwhile, plans to put its first crew on the Moon in 2030, opening a new era of space competition.
The mission was the fourth attempt at soft lunar touchdown by the private sector. Intuitive Machines joins the national space agencies of the Soviet Union, United States, China, India and Japan in an exclusive club of landing on the Moon.


Indian court seeks renaming of ‘interfaith’ lion pair

A man walks past the idols of Hindu deities Ram and Sita at a temple in Varanasi on February 23, 2024. (AFP)
Updated 24 February 2024

Indian court seeks renaming of ‘interfaith’ lion pair

  • Critics say religious intolerance toward India’s 200-million-strong Muslim minority has grown since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in 2014

NEW DELHI: An Indian court has asked authorities to find new monikers for two lions named after a Hindu goddess and a Muslim emperor, following a religious group’s petition to stop them from sharing an enclosure.
Sita and Akbar were shipped to Siliguri zoo in West Bengal this month as part of an animal exchange program from a neighboring state.
That irked the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a prominent right-wing Hindu organization that has campaigned against interfaith relationships.
The group took the matter to court saying the lion pair’s cohabitation was an act of “blasphemy” that hurt Hindu religious sentiments.
Justice Saugata Bhattacharyya of the Calcutta High Court asked government counsel to rename the pair on Thursday.

Indian PM Narendra Modi performs the groundbreaking ceremony of a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Ram, in Ayodhya, India, Aug. 5, 2020. (AP)

“These names should be avoided and discontinued to avoid unnecessary controversy,” he said from the bench, according to the Hindustan Times newspaper.
Government counsel Joyjit Choudhury told the judge that the state was “already thinking of renaming” the pair.
Sita is one of the main characters of the Hindu epic Ramayana and the wife of Ram, one of the Hindu faith’s most revered deities.
Akbar was a 16th-century Mughal emperor who extended Islamic rule over much of the Indian subcontinent — a time Hindu nationalist groups say was a period that their religion was oppressed.
The VHP also claimed that Akbar the lion had originally been named after Ram before the pair arrived in Siliguri.
Critics say religious intolerance toward India’s 200-million-strong Muslim minority has grown since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in 2014.
The VHP, a group loosely affiliated with Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has campaigned against interfaith marriages and supported efforts by state governments to make them more difficult.
It has also promulgated a “Love Jihad” conspiracy theory that alleges India’s Muslim minority hoodwink Hindu women into marriage to convert them to Islam.


Eight in hospital after reports of ‘odour’ at Sweden intel service

Updated 24 February 2024

Eight in hospital after reports of ‘odour’ at Sweden intel service

  • Images from the scene showed police wearing gas masks alongside several ambulances and emergency vehicles
  • After ending their emergency operation, police said they had started an investigation into “causing bodily harm” but did not have any suspects

STOCKHOLM: Police opened an investigation Friday after a suspicious odour at Sweden’s Security Service office left eight people needing hospital treatment with respiratory symptoms.
Images from the scene showed police wearing gas masks alongside several ambulances and emergency vehicles as an area around the office of the agency, known as Sapo, was closed off.
“Around 1:00 p.m. today, there were indications that there was a dangerous substance at Sapo’s offices,” Patrik Soderberg, chief physician at the local health care authority Region Stockholm, told AFP.
“A total of eight people with symptoms have been treated at hospital,” Region Stockholm said in a statement, adding that the “cause of the leak was still unclear.”
After ending their emergency operation, police said they had started an investigation into “causing bodily harm” but did not have any suspects.
Police said an area of “a couple of hundred meters” around the building had been closed off after “a potential gas leak.”
Some of those taken to hospital were officers who had “smelled an odour when they arrived,” the service added in a statement.
Sapo spokeswoman Karin Lutz told AFP the intelligence agency had called emergency services after receiving an alarm.
Lutz said the building had been “partly evacuated” during the emergency but declined to give further details or comment on whether they suspected foul play.
In a later statement, Sapo said “emergency services ended the operation after confirming that there was no gas inside the premises or outside the building.”
The Nordic country is on high alert as it is expecting to clear the final hurdle to its bid to join NATO on Monday, with the last holdout Hungary scheduled to vote on ratifying its membership.
The Aftonbladet newspaper said witnesses had reported smelling something that reminded them of paint, and that locals had been told to close their windows.
Swedish media also reported that a gas sensor on the roof of the building had alerted the presence of phosgene, but these reports have not been confirmed.
The gas was used as a chemical warfare agent during World War I, but is also widely used in industry for the production of plastics and pesticide.