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After Tehran talks, Syria and Russia forces step up Idlib attacks

Syrian government forces backed by their Russian allies have stepped up their bombardment of rebel-held territories in northwest Syria, killing at least six civilians, according to local activists.

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ANTAKYA, Turkey: Syrian government forces backed by their Russian allies have stepped up their bombardment of rebel-held territories in northwest Syria, killing at least six civilians, according to local activists.

The air raids and shelling on Saturday came a day after Russia rejected a Turkish call for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province, where a major government assault aimed at recapturing the last rebel stronghold in the country is seemingly imminent.

Also read: Iran ‘to boost missile capacity, buy modern warplanes’

The attacks targeted areas in southern Idlib province and in the north of neighbouring Hama province, in what is seen as the biggest escalation over the past week.

One hospital in the village of Hass in southern Idlib was destroyed by a barrel bomb dropped from a helicopter.

Local activists told Al Jazeera that six civilians died in the bombardment, including one child.

According to Abd al-Kareem al-Rahmoun, a representative of the White Helmets, a volunteer rescue group operating in rebel-held parts of Syria, the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in northern Hama province was targeted with more than 150 shells.

The shelling killed two men and wounded five others, including two children.

At least 26 people in rebel-held areas have been killed since the beginning of the month, the White Helmets said.

Rebel factions in northern Hama province responded to Saturday’s attacks with rocket fire and shelling of areas under government control, including the city of Salhab further west. According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), there were no reported casualties.

On Friday, rebel shelling killed 10 people, including five children in the Christian-majority town of Maharda in western Hama province, SOHR reported.

Mohamad Haj Ali, commander of the First Coastal Division, which is part of the moderate opposition formation al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (NLF), told Al Jazeera that despite the escalation, the battle for Idlib has not started yet.

“[The offensive was delayed] because of Turkish pressure on the Russians. We still hope for a diplomatic solution,” he said, adding, however, that he expects the offensive to be launched in the coming weeks.

If this happens, its first stage will target northern Latakia province and the area around the town of Jisr al-Shaghour in southern Idlib, he said.

In a separate development, clashes erupted between Syrian troops and Kurdish security forces known as Asayesh in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli in northern Hasakah province.

Also read: Israel says it launched 200 strikes in Syria since 2017

At least 13 members of the government forces were killed and seven Asayesh fighters, according to SOHR.

Although Qamishli is fully controlled by Kurdish forces, Damascus has retained control of a military base in its outskirts.

The story was first published on Al Jazeera.

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Australia bushfires, explained

Bushfires continue to rage in Australia this week having now torched an area almost as large as West Virginia since the current round of blazes ignited last September.

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Australia

Bushfires continue to rage in Australia this week having now torched an area almost as large as West Virginia since the current round of blazes ignited last September.

It’s already one of Australia’s worst fire seasons on record and the deadly heat, wind, smoke, and flames show no signs of letting up through the weekend. Fire risk in parts of the country will reach “extreme” and “catastrophic” levels on Friday and Saturday, according to Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.

“Conditions are set to mirror, or even deteriorate, beyond what we saw on New Year’s Eve as temperatures climb to 40 degrees [Celsius] near the coast, and as high as 45 degrees [Celsius] inland,” said Jonathan How, a meteorologist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, on Friday. “Strong, dry, northwesterly winds will cause ongoing fires to flare up yet again.”

The fires have now killed at least 20 people, torched more than 14.8 million acres, and destroyed more than 900 homes since September. The blazes turned skies orange and made breathing the air in Sydney as bad as smoking 37 cigarettes. The bushfires have also killed 480 million animals, environmental officials told the Times in the United Kingdom, including nearly one-third of the koalas in one of Australia’s most populated koala habitats, an area 240 miles north of Sydney.

Officials have issued more evacuation orders this week in New South Wales amid concerns of blocked roads and power outages. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a state of emergency in response to the fires earlier in December. Australia’s military deployed ships and aircraft on New Year’s Day to help rescue thousands of people trapped by fires in coastal tourist destinations.

The blazes ignited amid an unprecedented heat wave across much of Australia, closing out a hellish year of weather, the country’s hottest and driest on record.

Temperatures topped 105 degrees Fahrenheit in Sydney and triple-digit temperatures scorched much of the rest of the country this week, and more extreme heat is in store for the weekend.

The ongoing severe heat is accompanied by brisk winds across much of Australia, worsening fire risks. Wind speeds gusted up to 60 mph on Monday and more strong winds are expected to fan flames and push deadly smoke over major cities.

It’s currently summer in Australia, and high temperatures, dry weather, and wildfires are not unusual this time of year. But the severity and continued persistence of these fiery conditions are alarming.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, veterinarian Gundi Rhoades described the conditions for ranchers in Inverell, a town in NSW, in apocalyptic terms:

“Most farmers in my district have not a blade of grass remaining on their properties. Topsoil has been blown away by the terrible, strong winds this spring and summer. We have experienced the hottest days that I can remember, and right now I can’t even open any windows because my eyes sting and lungs hurt from bushfire smoke.

For days, I have watched as the bushland around us went up like a tinderbox. I just waited for the next day when my clinic would be flooded with evacuated dogs, cats, goats and horses in desperate need of water and food.”

The extreme heat in Australia this week is not just a fluke. There were unique patterns in rain, temperature, and wind that converged to scorch the continent, factors that scientists were able to detect in advance. But Australia is also deep in the throes of the accelerating climate crisis, facing not just extreme heat but changes in rainfall patterns. These shifts in turn stand to worsen other problems like drought and wildfires. At the same time, the Australian government is struggling to limit its own contributions to climate change while appeasing its major greenhouse gas emitters, including its powerful coal mining industry.

Taken together, Australia serves as a microcosm of all the complicated ways that climate variables interact. Its weather this year also shows what other parts of the world may face as temperatures continue to rise. So let’s walk through the ingredients of Australia’s heat and wildfires, and how they will likely intensify in the future.

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE: Once a city of gardens, Lahore is now a concrete jungle

The warning signs of Australia’s current heat wave have been building up for years

Australia’s climate is notorious for its volatility, but this summer’s high temperatures — peaking at close to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in December — and subsequent fires have still been outliers.

The country itself spans a region from the tropics in the north to more temperate climates in the south, with deserts in the middle. It also sits between two major oceans and is buffeted by the shifting circulation patterns of both. So the weather over the continent can change drastically year to year and become hard to predict. Still, Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a senior lecturer at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, explained that there were warning signs that this year’s summer in Australia would get brutally hot.

One signal was that the Indian Ocean Dipole, the cycle of the temperature gradient between the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean, was in its positive phase this year. That led to much less rainfall over Australia as prevailing winds pushed moisture gathering above the Indian Ocean away from the continent in the spring.

Another alarm bell this year was the Southern Annular Mode. This describes the movement of the circular belt of wind around Antarctica as it shifts north or south. It’s in its negative phase right now, bringing dry conditions to Australia. This year, it also blended with a surge of heat in the stratosphere, channeling gobs of hot, dry air to southern Australia.

And while Australia’s annual monsoon rains in the northern part of the country packed a devastating wallop in February, causing dangerous flooding in the state of Queensland, they were also behind schedule. That allowed more heat to accumulate over the central part of the country this year.

“So there was lots going on in terms of natural climate variability for this season to be quite hot,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick wrote in an email.

At the same time, there were longer-term factors at work. One of them is that much of Australia is facing a severe drought, spurred by three winters in a row with very little precipitation.

“That’s never happened in the instrumental record,” Michael Roderick, a climate researcher at the Australian National University told the Sydney Morning Herald in November. “They’ve never really had two failed winters in a row.”

With drought conditions, there is less moisture evaporating in the heat, a phenomenon that usually has a cooling effect.

All the while, the climate is getting hotter. “Australia’s climate has warmed by just over 1° C since 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events,” according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s 2018 State of the Climate report. This has also led to more rainfall in northern Australia, but less in the southeast, where most Australians live.

These converging factors are why the temperatures in the country have been so stunningly hot. Australia broke a heat record on December 17, reaching a national average temperature of 105.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That record was broken the very next day, averaging 107.4.

“This in itself (the record being broken at the start of the season, being broken two days in a row, and by such a large margin) is phenomenal,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick said. “If the climate wasn’t changing, the chance of this happening is ridiculously low.”

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Australia’s fire season is getting longer and more dangerous

The prolonged bout of surging temperatures this year has been an important element in the raging deadly infernos across Australia.

It’s important to note that wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem in Australia. Many plants and other organisms even depend on regular blazes to germinate, cycle nutrients, and clear decay. However, the combination of rising heat and drier weather has turned vegetation into tinder, leaving trees, shrubs, and grass ready to ignite near some of the most densely populated parts of the country. “There has been a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia,” according to the 2018 State of the Climate report.

However, the links between fire risk and climate change are more complicated than the links between extreme heat and climate change. That isn’t to say humans aren’t contributing to the danger from fires. As in the United States, human-caused factors like building in fire-prone areas are contributing to the growing fire risk in Australia. Arson is also suspected as a cause of some of the recent fires.

And as the climate changes, the underlying conditions for Australian bushfires will continue to amplify, namely heat and dryness. “Some cities in Australia will likely hit temperatures in the 50’s (Celsius) [more than 122 degrees Fahrenheit] by the end of the century,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick said.

As a result, scientists expect to see more extreme wildfires in Australia in the latter part of this century. That means history can no longer serve as a guide for cities coping with the heat or firefighters battling flames.

“Events that are unprecedented in a given region, such as the 2018 [fire] event, reveal that firefighting preparation and training cannot rely on previous events as guidance for the most dangerous conditions they can expect in the current and future climate in which large-scale fires occur more regularly,” researchers warned in a study published in December in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society looking back at the 2018 fires in Australia.

That’s why fire officials are growing anxious about the prospects of more extreme fires. A group of 23 fire chiefs requested a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in April to discuss the threat, a meeting that has yet to take place.

 

The article was first published in THE VOX, Australia.

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Turkey’s maiden domestic drive

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unveiled prototypes of a domestically-produced electric car, putting him closer to fulfilling a long-held dream of building Turkey’s first “national” automobile.

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TOGG

Long after first mentioning the idea of a domestically-produced electric car, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has finally unveiled prototypes of the country’s first ‘Made in Turkey’ automobile.

Turkey’s first “national” automobile as Erdogan called it was showcased at a ceremony in Gebze, in Turkey’s northwestern industrial heartland. Erdogan showcased the SUV and sedan models of the car, known for now as TOGG after a consortium of Turkish companies producing them.

The president also offered to put his name down on a possible list for advance orders. The Turkish vehicles are expected to hit the road as early as 2022.

“We are witnessing a historic day, realizing a 60-year dream,” Erdogan said. “I know that our people is impatiently waiting for the day they can own this car.”

TOGG

Erdogan drives a prototype of the electric car, in Gebze, Turkey – AP

It should be noted that the Turkish leader has long wished for and pushed industrialists to produce a domestic automobile, much as part of his vision of seeing Turkey as an economic powerhouse. Several foreign brands including Ford and Toyota already have assembling industries in Turkey.

The vehicle is being produced by a consortium of five Turkish companies called the Automobile Initiative Group of Turkey, or TOGG, in cooperation with the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges.

Turkish media reports said the car was designed by Italy’s Pininfarina design company, which has created models for Ferrari and California-based electric car maker Karma.

MORE FROM THIS WEEK’S ISSUE: Blinding Justice and a Case of Uniforms

Erdogan said the cars would be produced in a factory to be built on former military-owned land in the province of Bursa. The factory, scheduled to be completed in 2021, is expected to employ 4,300 people.

TOGG cheif executive Gurcan Karakas said Turkey hopes to produce five different models of the car within 15 years.

The TOGG is Turkey’s second effort to produce a Turkish-made automobile. During the 1960s, a group of Turkish engineers built prototypes of a car called Devrim, or Revolution in English,. The project was later abandoned.

Several foreign brands, including Ford and Toyota, are assembled in Turkey.

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Kashmir: Nine-year-old ‘gang-raped, eyes gouged out’

At least five people arrested, including the stepmother, for brutal gang rape and murder of nine-year-old child.

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Indian-occupied Kashmir

BARAMULLAH, Indian-occupied Kashmir: A nine-year-old child has been gang-raped and murdered in Indian-occupied Kashmir’s (IOK) Baramullah district, bringing back memories of the brutal gang rape of an eight-year-old in the Indian-occupied Jammu region of the state.

According to police reports, the child was reported missing on September 23 and was murdered on the same day.

Also read: US threatens India with sanctions if it buys Russia’s S-400 missiles

Five people have been arrested in connection with the case, including the stepmother and the stepbrother.

The girl was lured to a secluded spot in a forest by her stepmother and was raped in turn by her 14-year-old stepbrother, his friends and accomplices, the police said.

Later, the stepmother strangled her and the stepbrother swung an axe at her head. One of the men gouged out her eyes and burned parts of her body with acid to destroy evidence, the police added.

“There is conclusive evidence for murder, there is destruction of evidence in regards to rape. But we have got vital clues to prove the rape charges in the court,” Mir Imtiyaz Hussain, police chief in Baramullah district who is supervising the investigation, told Qatar media outlet Al Jazeera.

“We have identified the culprits. Our job will be complete when the culprits are convicted in a court of law,” he added.

Police say they found the decomposed body in a forest near her home in Uri on September 2, almost 10 days after she went missing.

‘Watertight case’

The father of the child had two wives and the first wife harboured acrimonious feelings towards the second wife and her daughter which spurred her to murder the child, police said.

The police said they are building a “watertight case” so the perpetrators are punished this time.

The case is the second such incident in the restive Kashmir region after the brutal gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua earlier this year, which caused widespread revulsion across India.

The girl in Kathua was held captive in a temple and sexually assaulted for a week before being strangled and battered to death with a stone in January.

Violence against women in the South Asian country is widespread and has deep roots.

In recent years, the country has witnessed renewed public outrage over the number of violent sexual assaults against women, especially children.

Crimes against minors

In July this year, doctors confirmed sexual abuse at a girls’ shelter in the state of Bihar, with children reporting being beaten, drugged, raped and scalded with hot water.

A child is sexually abused every 15 minutes in India, according to NGO Child Rights.

Crimes against minors have risen more than 500 percent over the past decade, the right group said, after analysing government data.

In 2016, police in India received 38,947 reports of rape compared with almost 35,000 in 2015, according to data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau.

India has enacted strident anti-rape laws in response to nationwide outrage in the wake of a series of child rape cases.

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act has now been amended to introduce the death penalty for the rape of children below age 12.

But campaigners say laws, on their own, do not act as a deterrent.

Also read: Pakistan tells US it won’t bow down for Washington’s interests

“The brutal assault on this child tells us the law is not working. When you have death penalty for rape, they don’t just rape, but they murder and they destroy evidence like they tried with this girl by using acid,” Enakshi Ganguly, founder and adviser at HAQ Centre for Child Rights in New Delhi, told Al Jazeera.

“This case should be a lesson to the government. They rushed to bring the death penalty but the number of rapes have not gone down. What we are dealing with is what is happening behind closed doors, inside families. Our studies show in more than 70 percent of child abuse cases, the rapists are known to the family,” she added.

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