US split deepens over Putin’s intentions in Syria civil war

Russia has repositioned artillery near the disputed city of Aleppo, several US officials told Reuters.

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Despite withdrawing some fixed-wing aircraft in March, Russia has also bolstered its forces in Syria with advanced helicopter gunships, and renewed airstrikes against moderate opposition groups, said US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Russian reassertion of military backing has prompted some US officials to warn that a failure to respond would be seen by Moscow as a fresh sign of American timidity. That, they say, could encourage Russia to escalate challenges to US and allied militaries through more provocative Russian air and naval maneuvers.

They also contend that a US failure to respond would further damage Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states seeking to oust Assad, and with Turkey, which has been firing artillery at Islamic State targets in Syria.Related

However, other officials, including National Security Advisor Susan Rice, have vetoed any significant escalation of US involvement in Syria, the officials said.

“Rice is the fly in the ointment,” said a person familiar with the internal debate.

Obama himself has long been reluctant to deepen US involvement in the war, saying last October that Washington would not get drawn into a “proxy war” with Moscow. His administration has focused more on pressing the fight against the militant Islamic State group, which controls a swathe of northeastern Syria.

The White House declined comment about any internal debate on Syria or Putin’s intentions.

The United States and other Western nations have struggled to read Putin’s intentions ever since Russian forces launched a surprise deployment in support of Assad last September.

His abrupt announcement in March of a partial withdrawal and other steps have continued to leave Western policy makers guessing about his agenda.

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The current debate over how to respond to Russia’s military moves partly reflects a difference of opinion in Washington over whether Putin has been sincere in his backing for the UN peace process which is now struggling for survival.

US officials and experts question why Putin hasn’t been able, or willing, to press Assad into making more concessions in the negotiations.

“Either Russia has pulled the wool over Obama’s and (US Secretary of State John) Kerry’s eyes or they’ve pulled it over their own eyes,” said the person familiar with the internal debate and who asked not to be identified.

On one side are US military and intelligence officials who think Putin does support the UN-backed talks.

These officials argue that Assad then undermined the initiative by obstructing the Geneva process and ignoring the ceasefire, provoking responses by the rebels and leaving the truce in shreds. As a result, Putin had no choice but to ramp up support for his Syrian ally, they say.

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“I think the regime played a very, very sly game,” said Charles Lister, an expert with the Middle East Institute. “They were playing spoiler with the full knowledge that the opposition’s patience would wear out.”

Other U.S. officials and experts think Putin has never been sincere about diplomacy, and that Obama and Kerry were naive to believe Russian statements of support.

Putin remains wedded to keeping Assad in power and ensuring that Russia retains a naval port on the Mediterranean coast and an airfield in northern Syria, the only major military bases it has outside the former Soviet Union, they said.

“This was a cynical game from the beginning by Putin,” agreed Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I don’t believe for a minute that he was buffaloed by Assad. I think they are in league together.”

While U.S. officials gave conflicting assessments on whether Russia had sent additional artillery to Syria, the Obama administration on Thursday openly expressed concern about reports that Russia has shipped more materiel into the country.

The Pentagon has declined to speculate on Russian motives. 

“I don’t know what their intentions are. What I do know is that we have seen regime forces, with some Russian support as well, begin to mass and concentrate combat power around Aleppo,” Army Colonel Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said on Wednesday.

Victorian sky rail work to start ‘within weeks’

Work will start “within weeks” on the controversial sky rail project that will elevate a Melbourne train line to remove nine dangerous level crossings, the Victorian government says.

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Preliminary works are scheduled to begin at the end of April on the $1.6 billion project between the city and Dandenong, after contracts were signed on Friday with an alliance including Lendlease and Metro Trains Melbourne.

The state government hopes the project will be completed by the end of 2018 with the Dandenong line closed for 25 days during construction.

Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan on Friday acknowledged “a number” of residents concerned about elevated sections of rail overlooking their properties had spoken to the Level Crossing Removal Authority about selling their houses to the government.

Treasurer Tim Pallas rejected opposition suggestions Labor hadn’t followed due process in awarding the contracts.

“We’ve gone through a very rigorous process of competitive tendering here,” he told reporters, adding Lendlease wasn’t given any preferential treatment after the East West Link tollway it was due to build was scrapped.

“They won this on merit.”

As well as removing nine level crossings, the sky rail project involves the construction of five new stations and the creation of 11 MCG’s worth of new public open space.

Liberal MP David Davis said Mr Andrews had “no mandate to build this cheap and nasty eyesore” and that residents had been “hoodwinked”.

“Despite Daniel Andrews’ efforts to paint sky rail as a utopian paradise, everyone knows it will be a crime magnet with all sorts of unsavoury and anti-social behaviour around it,” he said.

60 Minutes case a PR exercise: expert

A Nine Network review of a bungled 60 Minutes child custody story risks becoming a public relations exercise rather than a rigorous examination of its processes, a media expert says.

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Nine has launched an internal review of the current affairs show’s coverage of Australian mum Sally Faulkner’s efforts to return her two young children into her custody after four of its staff spent two weeks in a Lebanese jail on kidnapping charges.

The review will be conducted by former 60 Minutes executive producer Gerald Stone, Nine executive David Hurley and the broadcaster’s in-house general counsel Rachel Launders.

“At no stage did anyone from Nine or 60 Minutes intend to act in any way that made them susceptible to charges that they breached the law or to become part of the story that is Sally’s story,” Nine chief executive Hugh Marks said in a leaked statement to staff on Thursday.

The review will “ascertain what went wrong and why our systems, designed to protect staff, failed to do so in this case,” he said.

But former ABC and Seven news boss Peter Manning is not confident the review will be independent.

“It’ll be a public relations makeover,” Professor Manning, now at the University of Technology, Sydney, told AAP on Friday.

“What’s needed here is an industry-wide look at what happened.”

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Prof Manning said Ms Faulkner had lost access to her two children as a result of Channel Nine’s actions.

He stopped short of recommending heads roll, but said it was important there was a very high level of accountability.

“You could guess quickly at the beginning of that whole process that this would go badly wrong,” Prof Manning said.

“Why would any executive in Channel Nine put their reporters, producers, cameramen and sound recordists lives and bodies at risk?”

60 Minutes reporter Tara Brown, producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Ben Williamson and sound recordist David Ballment returned to Australia from Beirut on Thursday night after kidnapping charges against them were dropped.

Journalism professor Chris Nash from Monash University believes executives at Nine would lose their jobs and the saga may spell the end of 60 Minutes.

He likened the situation to the News of the World phone hacking scandal where the UK masthead was shut down in 2011.

“This is actually a News of the World moment where the broader profession of journalism has been brought into disrepute quite seriously,” Prof Nash told AAP.

“It’ll be very interesting to hear from the staff what freedom they felt to decline the job.”

Both experts urged Australian news organisations to end chequebook journalism.

But Prof Manning said the inclusion of Mr Stone on the inquiry panel would hurt any chances of a shift away from the practice.

“He’s the man who invented chequebook journalism for 60 Minutes way back when it began,” he said.

“I just can’t imagine he’ll discover that everything he stood for was wrong.”

Queensland Nickel under Clive Palmer

CLIVE PALMER’S QUEENSLAND NICKEL SAGA

2009 – Clive Palmer buys the struggling Yabulu nickel refinery in Townsville from BHP Billiton.

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2011 – Nickel prices begin a five-year downward spiral, slumping to a 15-year low at the end of 2015.

2013 – Palmer officially steps down as director of Qld Nickel upon entering parliament.

2016

January

15: 237 Queensland Nickel workers axed on the back of sliding nickel prices.

18: The company enters voluntary administration.

20: Australian Workers Union (AWU) asks Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) to look at whether Palmer acted illegally as a shadow director.

29: Palmer doesn’t attend the first creditors meeting where workers are told company has $100 million in debts.

February

11: ASIC draws up “shopping list” of reviews into the refinery, including claims Palmer acted as shadow director at Qld Nickel, potential conflicts of interest and corporate donations.

March

7: Palmer regains control of the refinery from administrators under Queensland Nickel Sales.

11: 550 refinery workers are sacked but there is confusion over whether they might be rehired by Qld Nickel Sales. They remain out of work.

14: Palmer writes to the Queensland government, outlining five requirements that must be met for the refinery to resume operations in July.

April

11: ABC’s Four Corners alleges Palmer was making multimillion-dollar financial decisions, and had veto rights, after he stepped down as a director of Qld Nickel.

12: An administrator’s report recommends Qld Nickel be liquidated, revealing Palmer and his nephew Clive Mensink, Qld Nickel’s registered director, acted recklessly.

22: Creditors meet in Townsville and unanimously vote to wind up the company in the hope of regaining their money.

Peter Greste awarded Anzac Day honour

Journalist and press freedom campaigner Peter Greste has been awarded the Anzac Peace Prize.

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Mr Greste was the subject of international outcry when he was detained for 400 days in a Cairo prison while covering unrest in Egypt as an Al Jazeera correspondent.

Released in February last year, he has since used his profile to campaign for imprisoned journalists around the world.

A humbled Greste was presented with the RSL’s Anzac Day award at Brisbane’s Anzac Square on Friday, where he laid a wreath and held a moment of silent contemplation.

“It feels very strange to be in this position because a lot of what’s happened to me is because of what I’ve come to represent more than what I’ve done,” he said.

“(But) freedom of speech, freedom of press, rule of law and standing up for your mates are still principles I’m very proud to represent.”

Mr Greste spent 22 years working as a foreign correspondent, covering apartheid in South Africa, central African conflicts and more recently unrest in Egypt.

It allowed him to witness the vast spectrum of human experience.

“For every atrocity, for every act of brutally that you see, you see a dozen extraordinary human examples of courage, compassion and goodwill.”

“(They’re) pivotal parts in human history but they also represent so much of what make us human.” The annual RSL award is given to those who promote the concept of international understanding and make a contribution to world peace.

RSL national president Ken Doolan said Mr Greste was the perfect candidate.

“(His) selfless attitude and strong sense of social justice captures the very essence of the Anzac Peace Prize,” he said.

Previous winners include philanthropist Frederick Hyde and the Fred Hollows Foundation.

An official ceremony for Greste will be held at the RSL’s AGM in June.

Tributes pour in for Prince

Tributes have quickly flooded in for pop superstar Prince, after the 57-year-old was found dead at his Paisley Park home in Minnesota.

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Television pictures from the scene on Thursday showed fans gathering across the road from his home in the rain, with a number of dark-coloured cars parked inside property.

Celebrities and fans alike, turned to social media to share their disbelief and grief, with Chic frontman Nile Rodgers tweeting: “RIP our dearly beloved Prince. Tears and love on our tour bus … I’ll never forget my brother. We’ve had good times.”

Madonna, who collaborated with Prince on Love Song on her album Like A Prayer, posted a picture of the two of them together on Instagram, writing: “He Changed The World!! A True Visionary. What a loss. I’m Devastated.”

Chaka Khan posted a picture of herself with Prince, adding: “I LOVED him, the world LOVED him. Now he’s at peace with his Father. Rest in power, @prince, my brother.”

Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood wrote: “I will miss a good friend who was so talented. He was such a great performer/guitar player. Sleep well Prince.”

Music producer Quincy Jones tweeted: “RIP to @prince … a true artist in every sense of the word. Gone way too soon.”

Film director Spike Lee wrote on Instagram: “I Miss My Brother. Prince Was A Funny Cat. Great Sense Of Humor.”

Model Iman, who lost her husband David Bowie earlier this year, wrote: “So sad to hear of Prince’s passing; one of the greatest musical talents of my lifetime. Maybe of the 20th century. RIP.”

Justin Timberlake wrote a heartfelt post on Instagram, writing: “They say don’t meet your idols … That they let you down. But, some of my greatest, funniest (yes, he was hilarious), and most prolific encounters and conversations about music came from the moments that I spent with him.

“It would be silly to say that he has inspired our music … It’s beyond that. He’s somewhere within every song I’ve ever written.”

The Rev Jesse Jackson praised Prince for fighting for the freedom of artists and for himself, calling him “a transformer”.

President Obama to make historic visit to Hiroshima

President Barack Obama is set to visit Hiroshima after a Group of Seven summit next month.

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It would be the first visit by an incumbent US president to the Japanese city devastated by a US nuclear attack 71 years ago.

Citing an unidentified senior US government official, the Nikkei newspaper on Friday said Washington planned to propose to Tokyo a visit by the president on May 27, when the summit wraps up.

Officials at Japan’s foreign ministry and cabinet office could not immediately be reached for comment.

A presidential visit would be controversial in the United States if it were seen as an apology.

A majority of Americans view the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and of the city of Nagasaki three days later, as justified to end the war and save US lives. The vast majority of Japanese think the bombings were unjustified.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry said during a visit to the city this month that Obama wanted to travel there, though he did not know if the president’s schedule when he visited Japan for the May 26-27 summit would allow him to.

Hiroshima bombing survivors, and other residents, have said they hope for progress in ridding the world of nuclear weapons, rather than an apology, if Obama makes the historic visit.

Hopes for Obama’s visit to Hiroshima were raised after a speech in April 2009 in Prague when he called for a world without nuclear weapons. He later said he would be honoured to visit the two cities that suffered nuclear attack.

Kerry, who toured the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and Museum, called its haunting displays “gut-wrenching” and said everyone should visit.

The displays include photographs of badly burned victims, the tattered and stained clothes they wore and statues depicting them with flesh melting from their limbs.

Cheaper fuel, fruit to dampen inflation

Tumbling fuel and fruit prices are likely to have kept a lid on inflation in the first few months of the year, leaving room for a rate cut by the central bank.

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The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is expected to have risen 0.25 per cent in the March quarter for an annual rate of 1.77 per cent, according to an AAP survey of 10 economists.

Underlying inflation, which strips out the effects of volatile price movements, is forecast to have been at 0.5 per cent in the quarter and 1.95 per cent over the year.

The data will be released on Tuesday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Petrol prices, which dropped 11 per cent on average between January and March, have maintained significant downward pressure on headline inflation, NAB economists said.

With evidence that refining margins remain elevated, fuel prices are unlikely to prove a driver of inflation in the coming months.

“Even if global oil prices settled at current prices, any narrowing of refining margins the quarter ahead could see petrol prices continuing to weigh on headline inflation in 2016,” NAB economists said in a note.

Small increases in vegetable prices, led by broccoli, carrots and lettuce, have also been significantly offset by large falls in fruit prices.

The NAB economists estimate wholesale prices for bananas dropped 28 per cent in the March quarter, while mangoes fell 20 per cent and strawberries were nearly 10 per cent lower.

Like fuel, there are indications fruit prices will continue to slide.

“We acknowledge that this has some downside risks given wholesale prices are suggestive of a 30 per cent fall in fruit prices in average,” they added.

Westpac economist Justin Smirk said the Australian dollar’s fall in the early months of 2016 may also be a factor in subdued inflation.

“We expect the seasonal fall in clothing and footwear, household contents and recreation will be somewhat less than it usually is,” he said.

CommSec economist Savanth Sebastian said the forecast tame inflation would leave the door open to a cash rate cut, if needed.

“A mild result should ensure that the Reserve Bank sticks to its easing bias, however a significantly lower inflation result would be needed to trigger a May rate cut,” he said.

US concerned by Russia’s moves in Syria

The United States says it is concerned by reports that Russia is moving more military equipment into Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad, with a truce in tatters and peace talks in meltdown.

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Asaad Zoubi, chief negotiator for the main Syrian opposition, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), said all its members would leave the peace talks in Geneva by Friday, with little prospect of a resumption unless the situation on the ground changes radically.

UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura will decide on Friday whether talks to end the five-year war that has killed at least 250,000 people can go on without the HNC, and with combatants accusing each other of breaking a February ceasefire deal.

Two Western diplomats said it looked like de Mistura would continue the talks until next Wednesday, given the late arrival of the Syrian government delegation.

“The HNC stayed the course, including through extended technical discussions on real substance,” one said.

“It’s natural that the special envoy may continue discussion with those still in town who have yet to offer any real ideas, to press them to do so.”

A second diplomat said some experts from the HNC would remain for technical consultations.

HNC spokesman Salem al-Meslet suggested de Mistura might be better off preparing for the next round of talks and ensuring the government was serious.

A US official told Reuters on Thursday that Russia has been repositioning artillery to northern Syria – a move that may suggest the Syrian government and its allies are preparing another assault on the divided city of Aleppo.

“It’s understandable that the opposition felt unable to stay further given sustained regime attacks on Syrian civilians and continuation of siege and starvation tactics,” one senior Western diplomat said.

“Those who back the regime need to get a leash on them.”

The arrival of Russian reinforcements would risk driving the war into an even higher gear.

Endorsed by the UN Security Council, the Geneva peace talks marked the most serious effort yet to resolve the war, but failed to make any progress with no sign of compromise over the main issue dividing the sides: Assad’s future.

Government negotiators say Assad’s presidency is non-negotiable.

Underlining confidence in Damascus, a top Assad aide reiterated its view that local truce agreements and “destroying terrorism” were the way towards a political solution.

The opposition wants a political transition without Assad, and says the government has failed to make goodwill measures by releasing detainees and allowing enough aid into opposition-held areas besieged by the military.

Aussie fashion app ‘Stashd’ makes Chinese TV debut

Fashion app entrepreneur Jess Wilson always had high aspirations for her business but the speed of her expansion into China has taken her by surprise.

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Ms Wilson, creator of the fashion discovery and shopping app “Stashd”, is about to showcase her business smarts to millions of TV viewers on Chinese reality TV show The Next Unicorn.

Dubbed a cross between The Shark Tank and The X-Factor, The Next Union pits 55 start-ups against each other in the hunt for a future $1 billion tech behemoth – a “unicorn” in start-up language, with $2.5 million prize money on the line.

Ms Wilson travelled to Shanghai at the show’s invitation in January to pitch to its panel of entrepreneur judges – among them an ex-CEO of online marketplace Alibaba and seed investors in Paypal and Chinese search engine Baidu.

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The experience, she said, had inspired her to transform her business.

“We’ve completely picked up Stashd, shaken it and tailored it to the Chinese market,” she said ahead of the airing of the show in China on Saturday.

“It’s completely translated, in different currencies, with tailored brands that show up.

“China has always been something we wanted to target but I never thought it would be so quick.”

The 24-year-old Coffs Harbour native, who left her job as a fashion rep to create the app in November 2013, describes her business as a “global digital fashion mall” that lets users accept or reject clothes by swiping left or right, Tinder-style, on their smartphone.

Partnered with brands like ASOS, Net-a-porter, Farfetch and Estee Lauder, Stashd receives approximately 10 per cent of the proceeds of its sales.

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Ms Wilson said Stashd’s “gamified” shopping experience had no rival in the Chinese tech scene – a valuable asset as a growing Chinese middle class tunes in to Western brands and trends.

“It’s definitely a crowded market in China but I think one of the edges we have is that we have access to a lot of Western clothing – people in China absolutely love their Western brands,” she said.

“As well as this, the different user experience of Stashd, the swipe left, swipe right, there aren’t apps over in China that are doing that right now.”

Ms Wilson remained tight-lipped on her performance on The Next Unicorn but said she has been encouraged by the feedback she received from the show’s expert judges.

“They believe we’ve got something special and something that can potentially change the way people shop on mobile, and just having that confirmation from people of that calibre was incredible,” she said.