Yemen peace talks back on track

Yemen’s warring factions have agreed on an agenda for UN-backed peace negotiations, following heavy pressure from world powers.

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The talks to end fighting between the Iran-allied Houthis and supporters of Saudi-backed President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi started last week but were suspended on Sunday amid bickering about flights over Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition, which the Houthis say is a violation of the April 10 truce.

Differences over the agenda had made it difficult for the two sides to start real negotiations to end the 13-month war that has killed more than 6200 people, wounded more than 35,000 and displaced more than 2.5 million people.

The two sides agreed last week to a five-point agenda outlined by the UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, but remained divided over whether to start with a unity government or focus on a Houthi withdrawal.

Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, whose country is hosting the talks, waded into the dispute, helping to smooth differences over the truce and over the agenda, delegates said.

The return to talks followed strong pressure from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

“The diplomats were quite tough and used harsh language, telling them that peace in Yemen was important for regional security and that no one would be allowed to leave Kuwait without an agreement,” one source told Reuters.

The stability of Yemen, where al-Qaeda and Islamic State are vying for influence, is of international concern as the country neighbours Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and is also near key shipping lanes.

Hadi supporters, backed by the Saudi-led coalition, have attacked the AQAP stronghold in southern Yemen over the past two days, driving them from the Hadramout provincial capital and from key Arabian Sea ports.

Pain of Port Arthur massacre remains

Fencing in a paddock of his 324-hectare cattle farm on the Tasman Peninsula, Neil Noye heard a siren travelling south at high speed.

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A couple of minutes later he saw an ambulance and a police car whiz past.

“I thought to myself: `I better find out what’s going on’.”

The news that would greet the then-Tasman Council mayor would change his life, and the lives of those in his small community.

It was April 28, 1996, and just a few kilometres away at the Port Arthur historic site, a gunman had gone on a bloody rampage.

At the time the incident was acknowledged as the world’s worst massacre, with 35 people killed, 23 injured and an untold number of others left emotionally scarred.

“The news that filtered through at first was that six or seven people had been shot,” Mr Noye, now aged 84 and retired, told AAP.

“By that afternoon we were talking to reporters who had got through the cordon, and we were getting the full story.”

A tourism hotspot about 90 minutes drive from Hobart, the picturesque historic site, nestled in a bay, is dotted with convict ruins on a sea of lush grass and well-kept gardens.

Usually the sound of native birds is interrupted only by chatty visitors and the odd maintenance vehicle.

But on this fateful Sunday the peace and quiet was broken by the stark and unfamiliar crack of gunfire.

That was back in the days when visitors could drive into the site and pull up quite close to the attractions, and that’s what Martin Bryant did, before arming himself with a rapid-fire weapon and entering the popular Broad Arrow Cafe.

It was lunch time.

The shooting was indiscriminate: men, women, children of all ages and nationalities.

Carolyn Loughton was shot in the back, her 15-year-old daughter Sarah was shot in the head and killed.

“It was just this immense explosion,” Ms Loughton told SBS of the moment the shooting started.

“I’m seeing bits of the walls coming away and then I saw him with this massive, massive gun up shooting people.”

Countless survivors have told how they played dead on the floor as the gunman stalked his victims.

There are unconfirmed reports Bryant had previously been thrown out of the cafe for trying to sell crayfish to patrons.

On his way to Port Arthur Bryant had stopped at a bed and breakfast property, Seascape, where he killed the owners, David and Sally Martin.

It later emerged the couple had refused Bryant’s request to buy their nearby farm.

Bryant has never offered an explanation for his actions, but there is speculation, including from investigators, that his murders were sparked out of retribution for grievances and others were collateral damage.

Local woman Nanette Mikac had been visiting the historic site that day with daughters Alannah, six, and Madeline, three.

As the shootings took place the young mother instinctively led her girls along a road leading away from the site.

Thinking she must have almost made it to safety, Bryant’s yellow Volvo had come along.

The gunman had stepped from his car before shooting dead Ms Mikac and then each of her daughters.

“The Mikac girls, I’d been playing with them on the Saturday night – there was a concert on and their father was in the concert and I was looking after the kids,” Mr Noye said, shaking his head.

“So sad. So very sad.”

As Bryant drove away from the three lifeless bodies the death count stood at 27.

A short time later he shot and killed the four occupants of a car arriving at the historic site, before stealing their BMW.

More people would die and a man was taken hostage as the gunman made his way back to Seascape, where he was holed up for 18 hours.

The police car Mr Noye saw pass his property was just arriving at Port Arthur, but the damage was done.

By the time Bryant emerged, on fire, from the burning Seascape cottage which he had set alight, news had spread around Australia and the world, of mass murder at sleepy Port Arthur.

In the days and weeks that followed the peninsula crawled with reporters.

“I’d get phone calls from BBC London interrupting their live soccer broadcast, to go directly to the `mayor of Tasmania’,” Mr Noye said.

“The more you tried to tell them you weren’t the mayor of Tasmania, the more confused they got.”

Grief counselling was offered to residents as the local economy hit the doldrums.

Then-prime minister John Howard used the massacre to gather support for tighter gun laws, which passed parliament.

Bryant was locked up in Hobart, and questioned by police.

Seven months later a judge ordered he serve 35 life sentences plus hundreds of additional years, without the chance of parole.

He will die in jail.

Many others are serving a life sentence as a result of his actions.

Mr Noye knew eight of the people Bryant killed at Port Arthur.

He will not be attending a commemorative service at the site to mark the 20th anniversary, but appreciates that others want to.

“There are people who have lost loved ones and they are still hurting and this is going to really liven it up again,” he said of the plans for April 28.

“Twenty years on, it is raw.”

Norfolk Island residents petition UN to stop Australian ‘recolonisation’

Norfolk Island’s 2210 residents – many of them descendants of mutineers from HMS Bounty – have presented a petition to the United Nations accusing Australia of trying to “re-colonise” their tiny South Pacific island.

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Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson flew to New York from London to deliver the petition on Monday in a last-ditch attempt to help Norfolk retain its status as an autonomous territory.

The Australian government signalled last year it would end the island’s local administration, and has already closed down its parliament, paving the way for rule from the Australian capital Canberra, nearly 2000 km away.

A regional council is planned and elections are scheduled for the middle of next year.

The volcanic island covers just over 34 square km in the Pacific Ocean, between New Caledonia and New Zealand.

It was mapped by the British navigator and explorer Captain James Cook in 1774, and was occupied just 40 days after he established a convict settlement in Sydney in 1788.

I can’t believe this is Australia-Gov’t taking the extraordinary step of banning criticism of Australia on #NorfolkIsland radio station. No!

— Helena Sindelar™ (@Helena_Sindelar) April 26, 2016

Robertson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from New York on Monday that Australia’s “heavy-handed attempt to re-colonise part of its domain” is internationally embarrassing as it coincides with its campaign to win a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“They’ve locked up the parliament and sent administrators from Canberra to run the place, even though it’s been running itself perfectly well for a long time,” he said.

“After 36 years of democracy, their self-governance has been abolished, their freedom of speech curtailed – any mention of opposition on a local radio station has been banned – and their membership of international sporting and political bodies like the Commonwealth has been cancelled.”

In Australia Paul Fletcher, minister for major projects, territories and local government, said Norfolk Island had been an integral part of the Commonwealth of Australia since 1914.

“The Australian Government is ultimately responsible for the governance of Norfolk Island – as it has been for more than a century – and for the welfare of all Australians including those that comprise the majority of the Norfolk Island community,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

“The Australian Government established what was effectively an experimental form of self-government on Norfolk Island in 1979. The result of this experiment is clear – it has not worked very well.”

Norfolk Islanders are themselves divided about the plan to abolish self-rule, with the descendants of Fletcher Christian’s mutineers leading the resistance campaign.

Government settles in Christmas Island child detention case

The relieved family of a girl being compensated over her detention on Christmas Island as a five-year-old want to get on with their lives in Australia, her lawyer says.

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The federal government has agreed to pay a confidential settlement to the now nine-year-old, who is living with her family in the community on a temporary bridging visa pending a decision on their refugee status.

The family of ‘AS’ will be relieved the three-year legal case is over, the girl’s litigation guardian Sister Brigid Arthur says.

“I think they’re very, very relieved at this stage to have it behind them,” the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project co-ordinator told reporters.

“In one way while it’s an effort to get justice, it’s also an extra trauma for them and an extra thing that they were waiting for a response to.”

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The Victorian Supreme Court on Wednesday approved the settlement of AS’s case,which was launched in 2014 as a class action and alleged the girl received inadequate care while in the Christmas Island immigration detention centre.

AS spent a total of 10 months detained on Christmas Island after arriving by boat with her parents in July 2013, when she was five.

Her treatment in detention caused the girl significant psychiatric and physical harm, including post traumatic stress disorder and a recurrent dental infection, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers principal Tom Ballantyne said.

“Mostly it’s been about the traumatic experiences that they had on Christmas Island, the role that the conditions of detention played in that,” Mr Ballantyne said outside court.

“They’re ongoing, as they are for most people who went through that, but the family are now trying to just get on with their lives.”

Mr Ballantyne said hundreds and possibly thousands of other asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island may be able to bring claims over their treatment despite a judge stopping AS’s case running as a class action.

About 35,000 asylum seekers in total were detained on Christmas Island between August 2011 and August 2014, the period covered by the class action claim.

The class action against the immigration minister and Commonwealth of Australia, who denied the allegations, sought compensation for those detainees who allegedly suffered injuries as a result of inadequate care at the Christmas Island detention centre.

Mr Ballantyne said the court’s removal of the class action was an administrative issue that did not affect the rights of individuals to bring their own claims if they suffered injuries during their detention on Christmas Island.

“It in no way judged the actual conditions on Christmas Island,” he said.

“There’s still thousands of people out there who were detained on Christmas Island who may have their own claim.

“There’s thousands of people out there who have been deeply affected by their experiences and we’d encourage them to seek legal advice if they wanted to.”

AOC investigating bullying allegations

The Australian Olympic Committee’s executive board held a crisis meeting on Wednesday evening in response to a formal complaint made against media director Mike Tancred.

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In a statement, the AOC Executive said it had “agreed to delegate the determination of the complaint to an independent committee with appropriate experience and ability, and the committee will comprise three senior counsel or retired judges, including at least one female”.

“The committee will be asked to inform the Executive of their determination within one month of their appointment.”

Mr Tancred temporarily stood down from his role ahead of the meeting, despite denying bullying allegations against him.

He will stand aside until the resolution of a complaint made against him by ex-AOC chief executive Fiona de Jong.

It comes amid an increasingly bitter contest for the AOC presidency, with incumbent John Coates facing a challenge for the first time since taking the role 27 years ago.

Olympic hockey gold medallist Danni Roche is challenging Coates with a vote to be held on May 6 at the AOC’s annual general meeting.

Ms De Jong has lodged a formal complaint alleging Tancred threatened her after she quit from her job last year.

Mr Tancred on Wednesday rejected Ms de Jong’s claims.

“I deny all the allegations made against me,” he told AAP.

“I have made no comment to any of the allegations because I am bound by a confidentially agreement which I signed.

“Ms de Jong also signed that agreement but breached it over the weekend.”

Several former AOC staffers have also alleged harassment from Tancred while working at the organisation, which he has denied.

Trump less predictable after 100 days

Donald Trump has become less predictable as he reaches his first 100 days in office, a group of academics has warned, raising problems for global security and the world economy.

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The Australian National University on Wednesday launched a series of essays marking 100 days of the Trump administration in the United States.

Professor Michael Wesley, who heads the university’s College of Asia and the Pacific, said Mr Trump had “broken the mould” in terms of global politics.

The ANU created a “predictometer” to gauge the Trump administration’s delivery on its policy agenda.

The meter was set at 25 per cent on day one, but based on the three factors of what the president said he would do, what has been done and the policy positions of senior appointees in the administration – this has gone backwards and is now nudging single digits.

Prof Wesley said the gap between what Mr Trump said and did had “left friends and rivals alike unsure of what the administration really thinks about crucial issues, or whether there is anyone doing very much policy thinking at all”.

“Uncertainty is going to continue to be part of the Trump administration for the foreseeable future,” he told the National Press Club at the essay launch.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will hold his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Trump in New York next week.

Professor Warwick McKibbin, who also contributed an essay, said the prime minister should push the benefits of open trade and sticking to global trade rules as he sought to gauge the president’s economic policy.

Prof McKibbin said one of the biggest risks for Australia was the US retreating into protectionism and raising tariffs, which could cause a global recession.

“What you do get is the potential for a trade war three or four years down the track because once the fiscal policies are in place and once the imbalances in the external accounts get worse, somebody has to be blamed,” he said.

“You won’t blame the administration … you will blame the foreigners.”

Another essay author, Jane Golley, said this made it all the more important for Australia to take a leadership role in promoting open markets and borders.

“It’s no time to be talking Australian jobs for Australians and shutting down our doors,” she said.

One of the biggest policy uncertainties is how the US will respond to North Korea.

“The economic costs of protectionism … really become immaterial if someone decides to press that button and drop the bomb,” Dr Golley said.

“I think it’s going to take far more clever foreign policy to ensure that doesn’t happen and that matters more than anything else.”

Thompson warns Buckley over AFL future

AFL premiership coach Mark Thompson has a basic warning for Nathan Buckley – the Collingwood players will save or doom you.

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Thompson has great sympathy for the embattled Magpies coach and knows exactly what he is going through.

He went close to being sacked from Geelong at the end of 2006, only to lead them to their drought-breaking 2007 premiership and another two years later.

Collingwood’s Anzac Day loss to Essendon inevitably ramped up the pressure on Buckley, with their failure in the biggest home-and-away game of the season leaving the Magpies floundering at 1-4.

Last August, Buckley acknowledged his coaching future at Collingwood was tied to making the finals this season.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire pledged support to Buckley on Wednesday and is adamant the club will not turn on their own.

Thompson said Buckley’s priority must be to make sure of the relationship with his players.

“You’ve got to get to your players and keep talking to them – they don’t deliberately go out and lose,” Thompson told Fox Sports.

“They are the ones who are going to save your job.

“It (the pressure) is horrendous – everywhere you walk, you think people are looking at you.

“You think you’re a failure, but what you have to do, if he wants to fight for his job, he has to let all that go and just get to his players and just be positive.”

Collingwood are far from the AFL’s worst team this season – their biggest losing margin is only 19 points.

But their forward line is impotent and they will need a massive turnaround to threaten the top eight.

Again, Buckley put it best when he said after Tuesday’s loss that they are not far off, but they are a mile off.

Since Buckley took over from Mick Malthouse in McGuire’s controversial succession plan, the Magpies have slid from fourth in 2012 to 12th for the past two seasons and their last final appearance was in 2013.

On Wednesday, McGuire strongly defended Buckley and backed him to turn around the floundering team’s fortunes.

“Every time I’ve looked to Nathan Buckley as a player, as a person, as a coach he has never let me or Collingwood down,” McGuire said.

“There has been no greater servant of the Collingwood Football Club.

“There is no better person to have our club’s future in his hands than Nathan Buckley.”

And McGuire, president since 1999, said their on-field woes would not cause off-field division.

“We’ll never give up, we’ll never dog it, we won’t turn on our own,” McGuire told TripleM.

“We won’t desolate people who give to the club day in and day out and we don’t turn on our people. We stand side-by-side.”

Collingwood’s next assignment is unbeaten Geelong on Sunday at the MCG.

“Geelong are a great club, they might beat us but I tell you what. It will be the spirit of Collingwood that will be tested on Sunday afternoon,” McGuire said.

McCann case may never be solved: UK police

Almost a decade after three-year-old Madeleine McCann vanished, London police are still following critical lines of inquiry but say they might never solve the case.

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McCann disappeared from her bedroom on May 3, 2007 during a family holiday in Portugal, while her parents were dining with friends at a nearby restaurant in the resort of Praia da Luz.

Despite a massive international search and media coverage, her fate remains a mystery.

“Sadly investigations can never be 100 per cent successful,” said London Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley. He said police had no definitive evidence as to whether Madeleine was alive or dead.

Her parents, Kate and Gerry, said the 10-year anniversary was a “a horrible marker of time, stolen time”.

In the 10 years since McCann vanished, the media has suggested a host of explanations for her disappearance, ranging from a burglary gone wrong to abduction by slave traders.

Madeleine’s parents were named as official suspects by Portuguese police four months after the disappearance but in 2008 were cleared.

The McCanns and friends who were with them on the night Madeleine went missing later won large payouts from newspapers over stories that they were involved. Another Briton was awarded STG600,000 ($A1 million) in damages over false allegations he had abducted the girl.

“We are bracing ourselves for the next couple of weeks,” the McCanns said. “It’s likely to be stressful and painful and more so given the rehashing of old ‘stories’, misinformation, half-truths and downright lies which will be doing the rounds in the newspapers, social media and ‘special edition’ TV programmes.”

The Portuguese closed their inquiry in 2008. London police launched a review of the case in 2011 after the McCanns wrote to then British Prime Minister David Cameron.

“Where we are today is with a much smaller team focused on a small number of remaining critical lines of inquiry that we think are significant,” Rowley said.

“If we didn’t think they were significant, we wouldn’t be carrying on.”

North Korea marks military anniversary with massive artillery drill

Speculation had mounted that Pyongyang could carry out a sixth nuclear test or another missile launch to mark 85 years since the founding of its army.

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But no such event — which usually happens in the morning — had taken place by noon, and Seoul’s defence ministry said “no unusual development had been detected”.

Instead the South’s Yonhap news agency cited an unnamed government source saying Pyongyang marked the anniversary with its “largest ever firing drill”, carried out in the eastern port city of Wonsan and presumed to have been overseen by leader Kim Jong-Un.

North Korea has ambitions to build a missile capable of reaching the US mainland and tensions have soared in recent months as it carried out a string of missile tests that sparked tit-for-tat sabre-rattling between it and Washington.

This image made from North Korea’s KRT news on shows the military anniversary celebartions.KRT

Pyongyang’s rhetoric always intensifies in the spring, when Seoul and Washington hold joint military drills it sees as rehearsals for an invasion.

The North’s Rodong Sinmun – the official mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea – warned Tuesday of dire consequences in the event of a US-led pre-emptive strike.

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It promised “the most brutal punishment… in the sky and land as well as at sea and from underwater without any warning or prior notice”.

Watch: North Koreans mark the military anniversary

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North Korea launched two missile tests this month while US President Donald Trump and his senior aides have warned that “all options are on the table” against Pyongyang, including military action.

WATCH: North Korea denounces US for UN meeting

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Trump on Monday urged the UN Security Council to consider stronger sanctions against Pyongyang, and US senators will be briefed on North Korea at the White House on Wednesday.

Washington has sent the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to the Korean peninsula, where it is expected to arrive — after a derision-provoking delay — later this week.

Watch: Trump says UN must ready new sanctions for North Korea

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The vessel will take part in joint naval drills with the South’s forces to “demonstrate Seoul and Washington’s strong determination to punish North Korean provocations”, the South Korean Navy said in a statement.

They will take place in the East Sea, the South’s name for the Sea of Japan, it said, and the two allies will also begin joint naval exercises in the West Sea on Tuesday “in relation to the current security situation”.

The nuclear-powered US submarine USS Michigan also made a port call to the South’s Busan on Tuesday in another show of force.

Trump has said the US was sending an “armada” to the Korean peninsula, including submarines.

Watch: Bishop says North Korea is a threat

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The USS Michigan is built to carry submarine-launched ballistic missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles capable of making precision strikes against the North’s nuclear facilities, Yonhap said.

But the South Korean Navy called the vessel’s visit “routine”, adding it would not take part in any joint exercises.

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US sets up missile defence in South Korea amid tensions

In a defiant bit of timing, South Korea has announced that key parts of a contentious US missile defence system have been installed a day after rival North Korea showed off its military power.

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The South’s trumpeting of progress on setting up the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence system, or THAAD, comes as high-powered US military assets converge on the Korean Peninsula and as a combative North Korea signals possible nuclear and missile testing.

North Korea conducted live-fire artillery drills on Tuesday, the 85th anniversary of the founding of its million-person strong Korean People’s Army.

On the same day, a US guided-missile submarine docked in South Korea, and the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier is headed toward the peninsula for a joint exercise with South Korea.

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The moves to set up THAAD within this year have angered not only North Korea, but also China, the country that the Trump administration hopes to work with to rid the North of nuclear weapons.

China, which has grown increasingly frustrated with its ally Pyongyang, and Russia see the system’s powerful radars as a security threat.

South Korea said in a statement on Wednesday that unspecified parts of THAAD were installed and Yonhap news agency reported the parts include two or three launchers, intercept missiles and at least one radar.

The statement said that Seoul and Washington have been pushing to get THAAD quickly working to cope with North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile threats.

On Tuesday, North Korea conducted live-fire drills near the east coast city of Wonsan that involved 300 to 400 artillery pieces, Yonhap reported. An official from Seoul’s Defence Ministry couldn’t confirm those specific details.

North Korea’s official media said early Wednesday that leader Kim Jong Un personally observed the exercises.

The drills reportedly included submarine torpedo attacks on mock enemy warships “while fighters and bombers made zero feet flight above the sea to drop bombs on the targets,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

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President Donald Trump has sent more US military assets to the region in a show of force while leaning on China to exert economic pressure on its wayward ally.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spoke to Trump on Monday, is urging restraint from both Pyongyang and Washington where top administration officials are due to brief the entire US Senate on Wednesday.

How a two-week army crackdown reignited Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis

At dawn the next morning soldiers encircled and then entered the village.

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Rahim and his mother crept into a rice field. Crouching, Rahim said they saw the soldiers set fire to homes and shoot fleeing villagers.

“I thought we were going to die that day,” said Rahim, who like many Rohingya identifies by a single name. “We kept hearing gunshots. I saw several people shot dead.”

His account, told in a Bangladesh refugee camp where thousands of Rohingya are sheltering, was corroborated by four people from his village.

The attack on Rahim’s village, Dar Gyi Zar, on Nov. 12-13, claimed dozens of lives, Rohingya elders said. The killings marked the start of a two-week military onslaught across about 10 Rohingya villages in northwest Rakhine State, a Reuters reconstruction of events has found.

Rohingya elders estimate some 600 people were killed. A United Nations report from February said the likely toll was hundreds. At least 1,500 homes were destroyed, Human Rights Watch satellite imagery shows. Countless women were raped, eyewitnesses and aid workers said. Doctors in Bangladesh told Reuters they treated women who had been raped.

It was the latest round of ethnic bloodletting in Myanmar, a majority Buddhist country where the roughly one million Muslim Rohingya are marginalised, often living in camps, denied access to healthcare and education and uprooted and killed in pogroms.

Myanmar’s march to democracy, beginning in 2011, uncorked long-suppressed ethnic and religious tensions between Rakhine’s Buddhists and the Rohingya. Clashes between the two communities in 2012 killed at least 192 people and displaced 140,000, mostly Rohingya.

This latest eruption of violence drove some 75,000 Rohingya across the border into Bangladesh, the United Nations said. Myanmar’s government has conceded some soldiers may have committed crimes but has rejected charges of “ethnic cleansing.” It has promised to prosecute any officers where there is evidence of wrongdoing.

Noor Jahan, 35, a Muslim Rohingya woman, stands outside her shelter at Thet Kel Pyin, an internally displaced person camp, in Rakhine State, 9 March 2017. EPA

The military assault involving a little under 2,000 soldiers has presented Aung San Suu Kyi with the first major crisis since her party won elections in late 2015. Many hoped Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, would bring a new era of tolerance after five decades of military rule. While generals remain in control of a significant part of the government, she now faces accusations of failing to oppose human rights abuses.

Suu Kyi’s National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said some individuals may have committed abuses “in the heat of the confrontation.” But he stressed the government did not approve of such conduct. Suu Kyi did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about events in Rakhine.

The army began its “clearance operation” in Rakhine after Rohingya militants attacked border posts there on Oct. 9. For a month, it tried to pressure villagers to hand over the rebels, without success. That approach changed on Nov. 12-13 in Dar Gyi Zar and the neighbouring village Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, marking a sharp escalation of the military operation.

This article pieces together how events unfolded, drawing on interviews with Rohingya refugees, diplomats, aid workers and Myanmar government officials. Reuters also gained rare access to Myanmar security officials and spoke with a Rohingya militant leader.

The reconstruction of the military operation contains previously unreported details about army negotiations with villagers over the insurgents, a shift in military strategy and the army units involved. Reuters also learned new details about investigations into alleged atrocities that are being conducted by Myanmar’s army and by the home affairs ministry.

The violence was brutal. A 16-year-old girl assaulted in the village of Kyar Gaung Taung, said two soldiers raped her. Speaking in a Bangladesh refugee camp, she said she still suffers anxiety and trauma after the attack.

“I am angry with myself for being Rohingya,” said the teen, whose name Reuters is withholding. “If I had been Bangladeshi or American, I would never have been raped. But they did it to me because I was born Rohingya.”

Watch: Shocking images show the aftermath of an army operation against Rohingya Muslims

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The army has denied there were widespread abuses and said it was carrying out a legitimate counterinsurgency operation. The army and the ministry of home affairs did not respond to detailed questions from Reuters about events in Rakhine.

“It is possible that individual security officers or individual policemen may have reacted in an excessive manner,” Thaung Tun, the security adviser, said. “But what we want to make clear is that it’s not the policy of the government to condone these excesses.”

Clearance

After years of persecution, some Rohingya have begun to fight back. A militant group called Harakah al-Yaqin, or “Faith Movement”, was formed by Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia after the 2012 violence, according to the International Crisis Group. Its leader, Ata Ullah, said hundreds of young Rohingya men have joined the ranks of the group, which now wants to be known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. Myanmar’s government estimates it has about 400 fighters.

“In 2012, they killed us and we understood at that time, they would not give us our rights,” said Ata Ullah, speaking by video link from an undisclosed location in Myanmar.

Before dawn on Oct. 9, Rohingya militants staged attacks on border police. The army set about trying to capture the rebels. For a month, it attempted to pressure villagers to give up the insurgents, according to Rohingya elders and villagers.

The village of Kyet Yoe Pyin, located on the main road north to Bangladesh in northwest Rakhine, was one of the first to draw the army’s attention on Oct. 13, according to a military intelligence source.

Insurgents had used logs to erect roadblocks near the settlement of 1,300 houses, blocking the way for military vehicles, residents and the military intelligence source said. In retaliation, about 400 soldiers burned down a part of Kyet Yoe Pyin and shot several people, according to four villagers.

Officials have blamed insurgents and villagers themselves for the burning of homes.

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After a few days of trying unsuccessfully to capture the insurgents, the soldiers asked village elders to negotiate. The meeting took place in western Kyet Yoe Pyin.

About 300 soldiers crowded the road while four commanders led the talks with five Rohingya men, according to a village elder who attended the meeting. The talks, confirmed by the military intelligence source, were an example of the army’s attempts in those early weeks to pressure the villagers to help identify the rebels.

“Their first question was: ‘Who cut the trees?’ We told them we didn’t know,” the village elder recounted. “They told us: ‘We will give you a chance: You can either give us the names of the insurgents, or we will kill you’.”

The officers visited Kyet Yoe Pyin on several further occasions, asking about insurgents and taking money in exchange for leaving the remaining houses untouched, the villagers said. A variation of this scene was repeated in other villages in the weeks leading up to Nov. 12, residents said.

Two weeks

On Nov. 12, this low-grade violence escalated abruptly when the army clashed with rebels north of two villages in northwestern Rakhine – Rahim’s village Dar Gyi Zar, a settlement of more than 400 houses, and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, with some 600 houses.

Muhammad Ismail, another Rohingya teacher from Dar Gyi Zar, said the army spotted insurgents a few kilometres to the north of his village at around 4 a.m. After a two-hour shootout, the militants fled towards neighbouring Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, where fighting resumed in the afternoon. The area is densely forested, and residents could not say how many militants there were.

The leader of the insurgents, Ata Ullah, said he and his men found themselves surrounded. “We had to fight,” he told Reuters. He did not say how many insurgents were involved in the clash.

During a day-long battle, some villagers joined the insurgents, fighting the security forces with knives and sticks, according to Ata Ullah and the military. A senior officer was killed and the army brought in two helicopters mounted with guns as back-up, according to official accounts, which described the incident as an ambush by the insurgents.

The helicopters swooped in around 4 p.m., hovering low over the road connecting Dar Gyi Zar and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son, according to eyewitnesses. The villagers dispersed in panic as one of the helicopters sprayed the insurgents with bullets. The other helicopter fired indiscriminately on those fleeing, five eyewitnesses said. The military intelligence source confirmed that the helicopters dispersed the crowd but denied they shot at civilians.

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It marked the start of an offensive across a section of northwest Rakhine that lasted about two weeks, according to villagers, aid workers and human rights monitors and a review of satellite imagery from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Security and administrative officials confirmed the scope of the sweep but said they were not aware of abuses.

Whole communities fled north towards larger villages and then west to Bangladesh, pursued by the army. Women who were raped said the soldiers shouted “go to Bangladesh.”

Three doctors from small clinics near refugee camps in Bangladesh have described treating some three dozen cases of Rohingya women whom they say were raped.

“I treated one woman. She was so badly raped she had lost sensation in her lower limbs,” said John Sarkar, 40, a Bangladeshi doctor who has worked with Rohingya refugees for eight years.

National Security Adviser Thaung Tun said a commission, set up by Suu Kyi in December and chaired by vice president Myint Swe, a former head of military intelligence, needed time to investigate.

“We find it really difficult to believe that the Myanmar military would use (sexual violence) as a tool, sex slaves or rape as a weapon. In Myanmar this is repulsive, it’s not acceptable,” he said.

The Suu Kyi appointed investigation is one of several. The army is conducting an internal probe and the ministry of home affairs, which is controlled by the army, is also carrying out an inquiry. Separately, the United Nations has ordered a fact-finding mission to examine allegations of human rights abuses.

A senior government source and a senior military source said the commander of the army division that led the operation, Major General Khin Maung Soe, had been questioned by investigators in the army probe. The army did not respond to Reuters questions about Khin Maung Soe’s role and Reuters was unable to contact him directly.

The ministry of home affairs, meanwhile, is examining 21 cases, including five suspected murders, six rapes, two cases of looting and one case of arson and seven unexplained deaths, according to police colonel Shwe Thaung. Investigators were seeking the army’s cooperation to interrogate soldiers.

Left behind

When the sun went down on the villages of Dar Gyi Zar and Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son on Nov. 12, the fighting stopped. “The night was tense. Some people sneaked out to neighbouring villages. Others were preparing to move first thing in the morning,” said Muhammad Ismail, the Rohingya teacher who witnessed fighting.

But at dawn the next day, soldiers encircled the two villages and set the houses on fire, five eyewitnesses said. Those who could, fled. But the elderly and the infirm stayed. From the rice field where he hid, Rahim said he saw soldiers shooting indiscriminately.

Police reports from the period confirm that security forces focused their attention on about 10 villages – Dar Gyi Zar, Yae Khat Chaung Gwa Son and other settlements nearby. They detained nearly 400 people between Nov. 12 and 30, according to a senior administrator in the state capital of Sittwe who received the daily dispatches.

The administrator, who briefed Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the reports described a lawful counterinsurgency operation.

A family at the Thet Kel Pyin Muslim internally displaced person camp near Sittwe of Rakhine capital, western Myanmar, 10 March 2017. EPA

One of the villages that bore the brunt of the post-Nov. 12 crackdown was Kyar Gaung Taung, a settlement of about 300 houses in northwest Rakhine.

Residents say that for five days starting around Nov. 16, security forces swooped in, searching for men. As in neighbouring villages, they arrested or killed most working-age men, and gathered the women in groups, carrying out invasive body searches.

Reuters talked to 17 people from Kyar Gaung Taung from November through March by telephone and in person in Bangladeshi camps, including five rape victims, three close relatives of those raped and several village elders. They corroborated one another’s accounts.

Shamshida, a 30-year-old mother of six, was ordered to come out of her house.

“One of the soldiers put a machete to my chest and bit me on the back. Then, they started picking women from the group gathered on the road. I was selected and pulled inside the house. I knelt down thinking that may help and the last thing I remember was one of the soldiers kicking me in the head,” said Shamshida, who identifies with a single name.

When her husband and her sister found her several hours later, she was stripped naked, unconscious, covered in bruises and bleeding from her mouth and her vagina.

They carried her to the neighbouring village of U Shey Kya several hundred metres away, where she regained consciousness, was showered and taken care of by a village doctor.

After eight days, she returned to her village, where there were no men left and many houses were burned down.

Doctors in Bangladesh said the Rohingya women they treated had torn vaginal tissue and scars inside their mouths from having guns inserted. In some cases, the women couldn’t walk and had to be carried by relatives to the clinics. Many were covered in bruises and bite marks.

Sarkar, the Bangladeshi doctor, and others administered abortion-inducing kits, painkillers and antibiotics. In cases where the kits didn’t work, they referred the women to regional hospitals for abortions.

Out of the country

As thousands of Rohingya were fleeing across the river border to Bangladesh, Suu Kyi was not in the country. In early December she went to Singapore, attending meetings and a ceremony to have a purple orchid named after her in the city-state’s botanic gardens.

Suu Kyi’s defenders, including some Western diplomats, say she is hamstrung by a military-drafted constitution that left the army in control of key security ministries and much of the apparatus of the state. Suu Kyi may be playing a long game, these diplomats said – back the military for now and coax the generals into accepting a rewriting of the constitution to reduce their power.

During her trip, Suu Kyi gave an interview to state broadcaster Channel News Asia, in which she accused the international community of “always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment,” adding it didn’t help “if everybody is just concentrating on the negative side of the situation.” She appealed for understanding of her nation’s ethnic complexities, and said the world should not forget that the military operation was launched in response to the Rohingya insurgents’ attacks on border posts.

Rahim, the village schoolteacher, and his family were among thousands of Rohingya who made the 2 kilometer (1.2 mile) river crossing to Bangladesh.

On April 8, in a Bangladesh refugee camp, Rahim’s wife Rasheda gave birth to their first boy, Futu, or “little son.” Rahim doesn’t know whether Futu will ever see his homeland.

Trump slams ruling on ‘sanctuary cities’

President Donald Trump has attacked a federal judge’s ruling that blocked his executive order seeking to withhold funds from “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants, vowing to appeal it to the US Supreme Court.

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Tuesday’s ruling by US District Judge William Orrick in San Francisco was the latest blow to Trump’s efforts to toughen immigration enforcement. Federal courts have also blocked his two travel bans on citizens of mostly Muslim nations.

“First the Ninth Circuit rules against the ban & now it hits again on sanctuary cities-both ridiculous rulings. See you in the Supreme Court!” Trump said in a tweet, referring to the San Francisco-based federal appeals court and its judicial district.

The Trump administration has targeted sanctuary cities, which generally offer safe harbour to illegal immigrants and often do not use municipal funds or resources to advance the enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Critics say authorities endanger public safety when they decline to hand over for deportation illegal immigrants arrested for crimes, while supporters argue that enlisting police co-operation to round up immigrants for removal undermines trust in local police, particularly among Latinos.

Dozens of local governments and cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, have joined the “sanctuary” movement.

In his ruling, Orrick said Trump’s January 25 order targeted broad categories of federal funding for the sanctuary cities and that plaintiffs challenging it were likely to succeed in proving it unconstitutional.

An appeal is likely to be heard by the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals before it goes to the Supreme Court. Republicans view the appeals court as biased toward liberals, and Trump was quick to attack its reputation in his tweets.

It “has a terrible record of being overturned (close to 80 per cent). They used to call this “judge shopping!” Messy system,” he wrote.

The appeals court raised Trump’s ire earlier this year when it upheld a Seattle judge’s decision to block the Republican president’s first travel ban on citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations.

In May, the court will hear an appeal of a Hawaii judge’s order blocking Trump’s revised travel ban, which placed restrictions on citizens from six mostly Muslim countries. A Maryland judge also blocked portions of the second ban.

Restrictions to be imposed on gas exports

Export restrictions will be placed on gas companies as the Turnbull government further tightens the screws on industry chiefs to guarantee domestic supply.

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The prime minister said a domestic gas shortage had triggered a dramatic cost hike, and it was time prices in Australia “fairly reflect international export prices as they should”.

“Australians are entitled to have access to the gas they need at prices they can afford. Thousands of jobs depend on secure, reliable and affordable gas,” he said.

The new powers, to be announced on Thursday, will allow the government to impose export controls based on advice about Australia’s forecast needs from the market operator and regulator.

Exporters who take more from the Australian market than they put in will be forced to explain how they will fill the shortfall of domestic gas.

Mr Turnbull said the government would not prescribe how exporters respond, “giving companies considerable flexibility in finding commercial solutions”.

The latest measure comes after Mr Turnbull twice hauled gas chiefs to Canberra to press them on action to end a supply crisis in Australia.

The government sought commitments from the industry that each east coast LNG exporter would put more gas into the domestic market than they took out.

“While good progress has been made, those requirements have not been met,” Mr Turnbull said.

“It is unacceptable for Australia to become the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, but not have enough domestic supply for Australian households and businesses.”

Mr Turnbull again argued gas companies operated with a social licence from Australians.

“They cannot expect to maintain that licence if Australians are short-changed because of excessive exports,” he said.

“The government remains committed to LNG exports but not at the expense of Australian interests.”

Mr Turnbull said the “targeted, temporary” restrictions were expected to apply only to east coast exporters and would comply with Australia’s international obligations.

Consultation with industry will take place before the regulations take effect on July 1.

The export restrictions are the third measure announced in response to the gas crisis. The consumer watchdog has been told to investigate the entire gas supply chain, and the government has committed to pursuing a range of pipeline and gas market reforms.