Australia, Nov 27 (AP/UNB) — A wildfire stoked by heatwave conditions in northeast Australia has destroyed at least four homes, forced the evacuation of hundreds of others and razed 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) of farmland and woodland, authorities said Tuesday.
Police had been knocking on doors of homes in the small rural communities of Baffle Creek, Deepwater, Oyster Creek and Rules Beach in Queensland state to advise residents to evacuate but some were refusing, Gladstone Region Mayor Matt Burnett said.
"When you have a police officer knock at your door saying a fire is coming, it is time to get out — it's serious," Burnett said. "There is no one in that area that is safe to stay," he added.
Hundreds of firefighters were preparing for worse conditions on Wednesday, when temperatures are expected to reach 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) with winds reaching 40 kph (25 mph).
Large swathes of Queensland were experiencing record high November temperatures and the heat wave will continue for days, Bureau of Meteorology state manager Bruce Gunn said.
"This really has been an exceptional — and still is an exceptional — heat and fire event in Queensland," he said.
"We've seen all-time temperature records absolutely shattered — records that have stood for 60 or 70 years," he added.
Queensland Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Katarina Carroll said the perimeter of the fire that began on Saturday had expanded to 66 kilometers (41 miles).
Sydney, Nov 12 (AP/UNB) — A former strawberry farm supervisor was accused in court Monday of retaliating over a workplace grievance by putting needles into the fruit, sparking recalls that devastated the Australian industry.
Magistrate Christine Roney said while prosecutors were alleging My Ut Trinh was "motivated by spite or revenge" she would not consider granting bail for the woman until the reasons for her actions became clearer.
While no injuries were reported from the needles, the crisis escalated to six states and neighboring New Zealand. Australia's multimillion-dollar strawberry industry suffered major financial losses, with fruit recalled from supermarket shelves and destroyed. Major food distributors in New Zealand removed Australian strawberries from stores.
State Crime Command Superintendent Jon Wacker told reporters before the court hearing that 230 incidents were reported nationwide, impacting 68 strawberry brands. The scare was concentrated in Queensland state, where 77 incidents were reported, with 15 of them believed to be hoaxes or false complaints.
Trinh, 50, was the first person arrested and has been charged with seven counts of contamination of goods with intent to cause economic loss, and would face up to 10 years in jail if convicted.
A Vietnamese refugee who arrived by boat two decades ago and became an Australian citizen, Trinh was working as a supervisor of fruit pickers at the Berrylicious strawberry farm near Caboolture, north of Brisbane, when she allegedly inserted needles into the fruit between Sept. 2 and 5, the court was told.
Prosecutor Cheryl Tesch said it would be alleged in court that DNA matching Trinh's was found on one of the needles discovered in a strawberry.
Trinh's lawyer Michael Cridland withdrew a bail application, but said his client was not an unacceptable flight risk. She was remanded in custody until Nov. 22.
Walker said the police investigation into the broader crisis was continuing.
Sydney, Nov 9 (AP/UNB) — A knife-wielding man stabbed three people, one fatally, in Australia's second-largest city on Friday in an attack police linked to terrorism.
The attack during the afternoon rush hour brought central Melbourne to a standstill. Hundreds of people watched from behind barricades as police tried to apprehend the attacker.
Police said the man got out of a pickup truck, which then caught fire, and attacked three bystanders with a knife. He also attempted to attack police who arrived on the scene before being shot in the chest by an officer.
The suspect died later at a hospital. One of the victims also died, while the two others were hospitalized.
Police said the attacker's vehicle contained several barbecue gas cylinders in the back. A bomb squad rendered them safe without any exploding.
Victoria state police Commissioner Graham Ashton said the suspect, who was originally from Somalia, was known to police and the incident was being treated as terrorism.
"From what we know of that individual we are treating this as a terrorism incident," Ashton told reporters, adding that the police counterterrorism command was working on the case, as well as homicide detectives.
"He's known to police mainly in respect to relatives that he has which certainly are persons of interest to us, and he's someone that accordingly is known to both Victorian police and the Federal intelligence authorities," he said. He did not elaborate.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement released through its Aamaq media arm, but provided no evidence. It said the man was an Islamic State fighter and had responded to IS calls for attacks in countries that are part of the international coalition fighting the militants in Syria and Iraq.
IS, which has suffered heavy battlefield setbacks in the past year, often claims attacks without any clear connection.
Friday's attack occurred on the eve of a busy weekend in Melbourne, with a major horse race scheduled for Saturday and a national league soccer match the following day. Sunday is also Remembrance Day, when memorial ceremonies for World War I are held.
Ashton said police were "doing security reassessments of these events in light of what's occurred," but there was "no ongoing threat we're currently aware of in relation to people surrounding this individual."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison condemned the "evil and cowardly attack."
"Australians will never be intimidated by these appalling attacks and we will continue to go about our lives and enjoy the freedoms that the terrorists detest," he said in a statement.
One witness said one of the stabbing victims, believed to be a man in his 60s who later died, was stabbed in the face, and that desperate efforts were made to save him.
"Because he was on his stomach, they turned him over to see if he's all right, he was still alive," the witness, Markel Villasin, told Australian Associated Press.
"He was breathing and he was bleeding out."
Video from the scene showed a man swinging a knife at two police officers near a burning car before he was shot.
In December 2014, a 17-hour siege in which a gunman took 18 people hostage in a Sydney cafe ended with two hostages dead and the gunman killed by police. Though the erratic gunman demanded that police deliver him an Islamic State flag at the outset of the crisis, there was no evidence he had established contact with the militant group.
However, at a later inquest, the coroner of New South Wales state said the gunman's actions fell "within the accepted definition of terrorism."
Melbourne was also the scene of two fatal car-ramming incidents last year, but neither was linked by police to terrorism.
Beijing, Nov 8 (AP/UNB) — The foreign ministers of China and Australia are meeting in Beijing on Thursday in a sign of a thaw in the recently frosty relationship between the key economic partners.
Wang Yi was to meet with his counterpart Marise Payne after months of tension over accusations of Chinese interference in Australian politics, media and academia.
In an earlier announcement, Payne said she looked forward to talks on "strategic, economic and people-to-people connections."
China took particular offense at a new law passed after allegations of Chinese meddling in Australian politics and media exposes about the Communist Party's dealings with Chinese university students and the expatriate Chinese community in Australia.
Australia has also banned Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE Corp. from new telecommunications projects, and an Australian security think tank has raised concerns about increasing collaboration between Australian universities and China's People's Liberation Army scientists on research programs such as hypersonic missiles and navigation technology.
On Wednesday, the Australian government said it intends to block a Hong Kong and Chinese consortium's 13 billion Australian dollar ($9 billion) bid to take over an energy infrastructure company because it conflicts with Australia's national interest.
Earlier, China announced it will invest in redeveloping a Papua New Guinea naval base as concerns mount over increasing Chinese influence in the South Pacific.
China has denounced all accusations of interference as prejudiced "Cold War thinking" and alleges that Australia's longstanding military alliance with the U.S. is intended to contain China's growing influence. Australia and the U.S. have both challenged China's territorial claims in the South China Sea with flybys and naval sorties.
Canberra, Nov 5 (AP/UNB) — A newly elected independent lawmaker said on Monday a tough policy toward asylum seekers was a major reason Australia's conservative government lost its parliamentary majority.
Kerryn Phelps on Monday was declared the winner of an Oct. 20 by-election forced when former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quit parliament after his conservative coalition turned against him.
The high-profile medical doctor and gay rights advocate will take her seat when Parliament resumes on Nov. 26. The government now holds half of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives and may need to negotiate with independent lawmakers such as Phelps to pass its legislative agenda.
Phelps partly blamed the tough refugee policy for a voter swing against the government in the wealthy Sydney seat of Wentworth of more than 19 percent since Turnbull last won it in 2016.
Australia refuses to allow asylum seekers who attempt to reach its shores by boat to ever settle in the country. Asylum seekers are banished to the poor island nations of Nauru and Papua New Guinea where some have languished for more than five years.
"What the Australian people have said is that it's not good enough to trap people on an island offshore from Australia indefinitely for no reason other than that they sought asylum on our shores," Phelps told a Sydney ceremony that declared her victory.
"The children on Nauru must be evacuated as soon as possible," she added.
A government envoy said last week that Australia hoped to have all the asylum seeker children on Nauru brought to the Australian mainland by the end of the year.
Children and their parents were being brought to Australia at an increasing pace in recent weeks in an indication that their plight had become an electoral liability. There were only 38 children left on Nauru last week.
The government's policy has all but ended the people-smuggling boat traffic from Southeast Asian ports.
Pressure has mounted on the government from doctors and rights groups to make an exception for children, but some government lawmakers argue that would only encourage asylum seekers to put children at risk by bringing them on treacherous voyages to Australia on rickety boats.
The United States agreed in 2016 to accept up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Papua New Guinea. But after more than a year of screening, only 439 have found new homes in the U.S.
With the government behind in opinion polls and elections due early next year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already begun campaigning. He kicked off a four-day bus tour on Monday through crucial seats in Queensland state.
Morrison said his government remained functional despite losing its majority.
"It's obviously easier if there's one extra but with one less, the government will continue to function in the way you'd expect it to — in a professional way working closely with" independent lawmakers, Morrison told reporters.