Fears for 2,000 people trapped in Marawi battle in the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across the southern third of the Philippines shortly after the fighting erupted, warning the gunmen were involved in an effort by the Islamic State group to set up a local caliphate.

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But street-to-street battles and a relentless military bombing campaign has so far failed to end the crisis in Marawi, one of the biggest Muslim cities in the mainly Catholic Philippines, and authorities expressed alarm about the fate of those trapped.

“They are texting us and calling us for help,” Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee, said of the 2,000 people his office had recorded being unable to leave areas held by the militants.

“They can’t leave because they are afraid of running into checkpoints put up by the gunmen.”

Authorities said the gunmen had already murdered at least 19 civilians, including women and children, while 17 members of the security forces had died in the clashes and 61 militants were killed.

Philippines escalates war on terror

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Eight bodies were found on Sunday morning dumped off a bridge on the outskirts of Marawi, which is normally a bustling city of 200,000 people known as a centre of Islamic culture and education.

Myrna Bandung, a Catholic woman, told reporters at a checkpoint on Monday as she accompanied one of those bodies out of the city that she had been with the eight when they were murdered.

“They did not kill me because I was able to recite a Muslim prayer. The others were not so lucky,” a visibly shocked Bandung said.

Most of the city’s residents had fled to nearby towns.

But adding to the fears for those who remained, the military announced on the weekend that it would intensify a bombing campaign on the areas being held by the militants.

When asked on Monday about fears of civilians being bombed, military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters that airstrikes would be done with precision.

However he said the bombings would continue in whichever areas the militants were hiding.

Meanwhile, an AFP reporter heard intense gunfire on Monday afternoon near the main university in Marawi, and saw smoke apparently from a bomb explosion rise up in the distance.

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The violence began when dozens of gunmen went on a rampage throughout Marawi in response to an attempt by security forces to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a veteran Filipino militant regarded as the local leader of IS.

The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and has offered a bounty of $5 million for his capture.

The gunmen on Tuesday planted black IS flags, took a priest and up to 14 other people hostage from a church, and set fire to buildings. The fate of those hostages remained unknown.

Duterte and military chiefs have said most of the militants belong to the local Maute group, which has declared allegiance to IS and which the government estimates has about 260 armed followers. 

Malaysia, Indonesian, Singaporean and other foreign fighters had joined them, the military said.

Padilla said Monday that some of the more than 100 inmates who had escaped a local jail during the initial rampage last week were also suspected to have joined the fighting.

He said some of those who escaped were members of the Maute group.

Duterte had previously said local criminals were also backing the Maute in Marawi.

Cooperation between Islamist militants, criminals and corrupt politicians is common across Mindanao, where a Muslim separatist rebellion has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s.

The main Muslim rebel groups have signed accords with the government aimed at forging a final peace, giving up their separatist ambitions in return for autonomy. 

The Maute and other small hardline groups are not interested in negotiating and have in recent years looked to IS to help them.

Duterte said Saturday he was prepared to enforce martial law for as long as was necessary to end the terrorist threat, and even ignore constitutionally mandated safeguards such as Supreme Court and congressional oversight.

Invasion for IS caliphate in Philippines

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Australia to send 30 more soldiers to Afghanistan

Australia will deploy another 30 troops to Afghanistan to help train local soldiers in their fight against Taliban militants.

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NATO has asked all its member countries to re-examine their contributions, deciding it needs several thousand more foreign troops to advise the Afghan army.

The 30 extra soldiers will bring the total Australian contribution in Afghanistan to 300.

They are there to train and advise the local force, now grappling with a resurgent Taliban.

Australia has promised to keep troops in the country until at least next year.

But Defence Minister Marise Payne says that date is under constant review.

“The one thing we cannot afford to do is to allow terrorism to take further and greater root in Afghanistan and then continue to spread its tentacles elsewhere.”

The extra soldiers will be provided in response to a request from NATO around a month ago, although the organisation did not ask for a specific number.

The general in charge says the mission is short by a few thousand troops and has asked all member countries to consider sending more.

Australia is a non-member contributor to the United States-led coalition.

Former army chief Peter Leahy (lay) says the local fighting force still clearly needs international help.

“Frankly, the Afghan army isn’t a particularly happy place. The levels of desertion are fairly high. They’re taking a lot of casualties, and they’re seeing the country being challenged. And we see that the Taliban and some of the terrorist groups, almost at will, at any time and place of their choosing, can mount an attack. So, we do need to advise.”

But not everyone supports the bolstering of troop numbers.

Independent MP and former spy Andrew Wilkie says the war in Afghanistan has already been lost.

He says sending more troops will only inflame the situation.

“If we want to diminish the risk of terrorism within Australia, we should focus on our national interest, and we should pull the almost 300 soldiers out of Afghanistan, and we should pull the well over a thousand soldiers that are engaged further west in the Middle East. I mean, that would be good foreign-security policy. Again, it just comes down to the fact that, whatever the US wants, we deliver.”

Meanwhile, coalition is investigating how one of its air strikes killed more than a hundred civilians in Iraq.

Australian Defence Force chief Mark Binskin has told a Senate Estimates hearing no Australian aircraft were involved in the strike in the city of Mosul in late March.

“While no Australian aircraft were involved in this incident in Mosul, we’re working with our partners to assess the extent at which Australian personnel were involved in the coalition approval process.”

US military officials say Iraqi troops requested the strike.

 

 

 

Plan to strip funding from hospitals will ‘never’ be policy

A plan to strip Commonwealth cash from public hospitals and force patients to pay more for coverage will never be government policy, the health minister has vowed, as Labor prepares to grill officials over the proposal.

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Health Minister Greg Hunt says he has already rejected a plan to radically overhaul hospital funding outlined in documents obtained by Fairfax Media, and would do the same it the idea was ever floated again.

“The story does not reflect government policy. It will not be government policy. It will never be government policy,” Mr Hunt told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

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Bureaucrats have considered a “commonwealth hospital benefit” plan that would pool all funds the federal government now provides for public hospitals, private sector doctors and health insurance rebates and use it to pay a standard amount for services regardless of whether patients were in public or private hospitals.

Under existing arrangements the commonwealth pays close to 40 per cent of the cost of public hospitals.

The department’s presentation to the taskforce suggests that would be reduced to 35 per cent under the proposed scheme.

The plan has been discussed by a taskforce, being run by a private strategic policy think tank Global Access Partners, but is not yet government policy.

Mr Hunt said the proposal pre-dates his time as minister.

“I know that the issue was raised with me coming out of officials meetings with the states as a possible item for COAG and I struck it out,” he said.

“I’ve rejected it once. If it ever comes forward, I’ll reject it again.”

Labor senator Murray Watt, who will quiz senior health department officials during a Senate hearing on Monday, says the reports are extremely disturbing.

“We know Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party have form when it comes to cutting Medicare and cutting funding to public hospitals,” he said.

“If those reports are accurate then this seems to have been a very detailed piece of work and we’ll be very interested in asking about it.”

Opposition health spokeswoman Catherine King said the revelation was typical of the way the coalition did business.

“This is the nature of this government, deals in secret, beavers away … in the background and then presents it to the states and territories as though it’s a fait accompli,” she said.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann insists there is nothing to see.

“There’s no secret taskforce, no secret plan,” he told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

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Katrina Dawson’s family blast police ‘mismanagement’ of Lindt siege

The family of Katrina Dawson, who died in the Lindt Café siege, wanted adverse findings to be made against two senior NSW Police officers for not storming the café sooner and setting an “unacceptably high” threshold for intervening.

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Ms Dawson was killed by police bullet fragments after officers stormed into the cafe soon after gunman Man Haron Monis fatally shot café manager Tori Johnson.

In submissions to the inquest released today, the family said the police officers set a high bar for the trigger used to decide whether to storm the building.

That trigger was based on a hostage’s death or injury, but the Dawson family wanted that to be eased, to an “immediate and imminent risk of death or serious injury”.

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“It is submitted that (both) should both be the subject of adverse findings for setting the trigger at what was an unacceptably high threshold,” the family said in the submission obtained by SBS World News.

Last week’s inquest findings delivered by coroner Michael Barnes said while police were not to blame for the deaths, the 10 minutes it took to enter the building after the gunman fired the first shot was too long.

The Dawson family also criticised another NSW Police officer who was responsible for the siege negotiations for failing to ask federal police for details about Monis.

“No steps were apparently taken to approach the AFP for the information that agency held, or to raise the possibility that the AFP might hold such information,” the family said.

“These steps were not taken at either the identification stage or the post-identification stage.

“At the very least those steps should have been taken as soon as Monis was identified.”

In addition, the Dawson family was also critical on why a federal police assessment about the possibility of Monis having a bomb in his backpack was not obtained by NSW Police.

The family said it did not appear the force failed to request that information because of protocol.

“Rather, a cogent explanation as to why the information was not sought is that a mindset was held by the NSWPF that whatever might have been offered by federal agencies was not needed,” the family said.

The family also criticised a psychiatrist involved in assessing Monis’s dangerousness, saying it was flawed.

“That advice grossly underestimated Monis’s capacity for violence,” the family said.

“In these submissions we argue that the NSW Police response to the siege was mismanaged both as to the circumstances leading to the initiation of the Emergency Action, and in the conduct of the Emergency Action itself.”

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Ego-free Warburton, the Lions captain who might not play

The Lions require every player to check in their ego when they collect their kit and in Warburton, the second man after Martin Johnson to lead the team on successive tours, they have the epitome of such selflessness.

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Flanker Warburton faces a real battle for a test slot and Gatland recognises that if there is one player could be named captain, not be picked, and still give his absolute all the cause, then it is the Welshman.

“One of the things I admire about Sam is that it’s not about Sam Warburton, it’s about the team first,” Gatland said when announcing his appointment last month.

“He would be the first one to understand that if someone is better than him in the number seven position, whether it’s Sean O’Brien or Justin Tipuric or whoever else, and we picked him over Sam, then Sam would understand that.”

Gatland knows Warburton intimately of course, not only through their shared Lions experience in Australia four years ago but through their years together as coach and captain of Wales.

This year though, both have vacated those positions. Gatland took a sabbatical to concentrate on the Lions whereas Warburton stood down from the captaincy after six years to concentrate on his own form.

It proved an inspired decision as he seemed to rediscover the trademark energy that had slipped out of his game during his injury-ravaged previous season.

Typically of Warburton, he was happy to pack down on the blindside for Wales in this year’s Six Nations, with Tiupric selected ahead of him at openside, and was his usual, ultra-reliable self.

So, in the absence of another stand-out candidate, Warburton’s selection as Lions skipper was warmly received, with plaudits raining down on a man who, just like Johnson, leads not with big speeches, but by example.

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It is often forgotten that he was only 22 when selected as Wales captain and 24 when he led the Lions.

He has enjoyed some great times with both, but the two pinnacles of his international career to date both come with asterisks that leave him with unfinished business.

The first was the World Cup semi-final of 2011 in New Zealand when he was sent off after 20 minutes for a tip-tackle and had to watch as Wales fell to an agonising 9-8 loss to France.

Then on the Lions tour, having played superbly in the first two matches, he missed the decider with a hamstring injury and was again on the sidelines as compatriot Alun Wyn Jones led the side to victory.

Now, he has the chance to do what only one man has ever done before – lead the Lions to a series victory in New Zealand.

“I genuinely didn’t think I’d be a front runner for the captaincy again because I thought it was going to be one of the captains from the home nations,” he said.

“I’m a lot more relaxed this time round. I found 2013 really tough, being only 24. Now I feel like although I am still quite a young player, I’ve got a lot of caps and am one of the experienced guys.

“In 2013 it was amazing, all fresh and new, but this is going to be the toughest thing I’ve done – it’s the ultimate challenge in rugby.”

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)