No victory against Taliban soon: Australia

SYDNEY: Australia’s defence minister warned Thursday he did not expect victory against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan in the near future and would not commit more troops unless NATO members did so too.

Warning that Australia’s 1,000-strong contingent was likely to remain in the war-torn country for years to come, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that other countries needed to do more.

“Australia could double its troop numbers tomorrow and without significant additional contributions from others it would make no difference,” he said.

“We have always said this is not about numeric. It’s about ensuring, before we even consider doing more, that those NATO countries, which I believe are under committed, are prepared to do more.”

Fitzgibbon was speaking from Poland where NATO defence ministers were gathering to reassess strategy on Afghanistan as the United States prepares to deploy 17,000 more troops to fight Taliban-led insurgents.

Asked how long Australian troops would remain in Afghanistan, Fitzgibbon replied: “No-one believes we will meet with success any time soon. The reality is we are talking years.

“How many years we don’t know because we don’t yet know how much will there is amongst the NATO partners to achieve success.”

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Australia could bolster Afghanistan troop numbers

CANBERRA: Australia welcomed a U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan and could also send more soldiers, if European allies agreed to do the same, Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said Wednesday.

Fitzgibbon told Australian television he looked forward to discussing details of the plan to deploy an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to battle al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at a NATO forum in Krakow, Poland, this week. President Barack Obama’s administration has not yet requested a larger Australian contribution, but such a request would be considered, Fitzgibbon said.

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Australia wildfire arsonist given in police custody

MELBOURNE: Australian police called for calm Monday as a suspected arsonist was named in court after a swarm of wildfires killed more than 180 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

A magistrate lifted an order suppressing the name of 39-year-old Brendan Sokaluk, who prosecutors say started a fire that killed some 11 people and razed about 200 homes.

Sokaluk, who has been charged with arson causing death and intentionally lighting a bush fire, did not appear in court and was remanded in custody until the next hearing on April 14.

He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in jail if convicted on the arson charge.

Sokaluk was arrested in a small country town last Friday over a bush fire near Churchill east of Melbourne before being transferred to the Victoria state capital for his own safety.

Earlier, state police chief Christine Nixon had appealed to the public to stay away from the court.

“We hope that we don’t have to deal with a gang of people who are angry and concerned about this arrest. We know people are,” state police commissioner Christine Nixon told reporters.

“Coming to court and protesting is not an appropriate thing to do.

“We will make sure he is protected and can go before the justice system, as he should, and be dealt with through that process.”

There was a heavy police presence in court for the hearing Monday, but no angry protesters turned up.

Police are still investigating some of the other fires that raged through Victoria state, with arson suspected in at least one other major blaze that destroyed the town of Marysville and killed up to 100 people.

“Our teams are working hard. We hope to be able to come to some conclusions about that fire (Marysville), particularly, in the not too distant future,” Nixon said.

Firefighters were still battling eight blazes burning out of control as the government announced Monday that a national day of mourning for the victims would be held.

The death toll of 181 is expected to rise as more bodies are found in the charred rubble of homes and towns, police say.

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Suspect charged in deadly Australian fire

MELBOURNE, Australia – Authorities charged a man Friday with lighting one of the wildfires that killed a total of more than 180 people in Australia, and whisked him into protective custody to guard him from public fury.

Police said the suspect was charged with one count of arson causing death and intentionally lighting a wildfire near the town of Churchill that killed at least 21 people. It was one of hundreds of fires that raged through southeastern Victoria state Feb. 7, leaving 7,000 people homeless and razing entire towns.

The suspect also was charged with possessing child pornography.

The disaster’s official death toll is 181, but efforts to find and identify victims were continuing and officials expected the final tally to exceed 200. More than 1,800 homes and 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) of forests and farms were burned.

The suspect’s identity was being kept secret for his own safety, Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Dannye Moloney told a news conference. He was brought to the state capital of Melbourne from Morwell, 75 miles (120 kilometers) to the east and near the the town of Churchill.

“He has been moved from that area and moved to the Melbourne metropolitan area for security reasons,” Moloney said.

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported from Morwell that the suspect was formally charged in the town’s magistrate’s court, but that he did not appear. He was ordered to be held in custody and to undergo psychiatric evaluation, the broadcaster said.

Police said in a statement that Magistrate Clive Allsop banned publication of any details or photographs of the man that could identify him. Another court hearing was scheduled for Monday.

If found guilty, the man faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison for the deadly arson charge, and a maximum of 15 years on the second arson charge.

Police have said they believe foul play was the cause of at least two of the deadly blazes, including the Churchill fire. Those suspicions disgusted the country and prompted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to describe the fires as possible mass murder.

Ruth Halyburton, whose home in the town of Marysville was burned to the ground, said Friday she could not comprehend why anyone would want to light wildfires.

“Words can’t describe how I feel about them,” Halyburton told The Associated Press at a relief center in nearby Alexandra. “I’m a Christian, but I don’t think to kindly of people if they go light a match and destroy people’s property and lives. They don’t have a brain in their head.”

Marysville, a town of some 500 people, was almost completely destroyed Saturday by one of the fires — but not the Churchill blaze.

Firefighters still struggled to contain about a dozen blazes and one of them flared up Friday and menaced the town of Healesville, coming within less than a mile (1 kilometer) and sending embers dropping like rain over houses.

The threat was downgraded after a few hours, but it served as a reminder that the disaster may not be over yet.

“You can’t see anything. All you can see is smoke, and you can’t even see where the fire is actually coming from,” plant nursery owner John Stanhope told ABC radio from Healesville during the flare-up. “It’s just thick smoke everywhere and everyone is just very much on edge.”

Firefighters raced to take advantage of cooler weather, rain and lighter winds and lit controlled burns Friday in efforts to prevent further breakouts.

The catastrophe’s scale became clearer Friday. Officials raised the tally of destroyed homes by 762 to 1,831, and the number of people left homeless or who fled their homes and have not returned was raised by 2,000 to 7,000.

Officials said the nation had pledged more than 75 million Australian dollars ($50 million) in donations to various charities for survivors. Rudd ordered military bases to be opened to house some of the homeless.

The disaster increased the urgency for a nationwide fire warning system, which has been snarled for years in bickering between state and federal officials.

“I am determined to see this thing implemented across the nation,” Rudd said late Thursday. “If it means cracking heads to ensure it happens we’ll do that.”

Officials partly blamed the dramatic death toll on the number of people who appeared to have waited until they saw the fast-moving blazes coming before trying to flee. Many bodies were found in burned-out cars.

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KIWI gives a target of 302 runs to Australia in third one-day

SYDNEY: Brad Haddin reached his first one-day international century with a blazing top-order knock against New Zealand to help Australia post a healthy total of 9 for 301 at the SCG this afternoon.

Following in the footsteps of great wicketkeeper batsman Adam Gilchrist, Haddin cracked three sixes and eight fours in a hard-hitting 109 off 114 balls that could see him become a fixture at the start of the Australian innings. Classy finisher Michael Hussey (51) and a fresh-faced Callum Ferguson (28) guided Australia through the pointy end of the innings with a 62-run partnership.

Earlier, New Zealand somewhat stemmed the flow of runs by dismissing the returning Ricky Ponting cheaply for 16. New Zealand failed to continue its clinical form in the field from the previous two matches, with McCullum also dropping a hot chance with Clarke on 54.

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Fit-again Smith ready to take Australia in home series

CAPE TOWN: South Africa captain Graeme Smith will lead his team in the three-Test home series against Australia.

He said that his team would not be proved an easy prey for Australia in the Test series, too.

After recovering from his left hand fracture, Graeme Smith is ready to lead his team once again as he could not play the matches due to injury in the One-day International series on the tour of Australia.

Graeme Smith said that after defeating Australia in Australia, his team would also outclass the world champions in the home series

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4th ODI: Australia and S Africa meet at Adelaide tomorrow

ADELAIDE: The fourth One-day International between Australia and South Africa will be played at Adelaide tomorrow.

Visiting South African team is leading the five-match series 2-1 but it will not get the services of experienced wicketkeeper Mark Boucher, whose foot was injured from a Shaun Tait ball in the third one-dayer.

Meanwhile, Australian captain is facing problems in bowling department besides issues in middle-order batting.

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New Zealand named squad for Chappell-Hadlee series

WELLINGTON: New Zealand have named two new faces in their 14-man squad to play Australia in the Chappell-Hadlee one-day series starting next month.

Uncapped all-rounder Brendon Diamanti and 18-year-old bowler Trent Boult were included after impressive domestic performances. Batsman Peter Fulton and seam bowler Iain O’Brien were recalled.

The tour includes five one-day matches and a Twenty20 game against Australia.

Squad; Daniel Vettori (Captain), Trent Boult, Neil Broom, Brendon Diamanti, Grant Elliott, Peter Fulton, Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Kyle Mills, Iain O’Brien, Jeetan Patel, Jesse Ryder, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor.

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Proteas chasing 250 runs in 2nd one-day match

HOBART: Australia has given South Africa a target of 250 runs to win in the second one-day match being played in the Oval ground here.

South Africa having won the toss invited Australia to bat first, which saw Australia scoring 249 for 9 in 50 overs. Shaun Marsh and Captain Ricky Ponting scoring 64 runs remained prominent among the batsmen, while any other batman of the Kangaroos couldn’t face confidently the Proteas. South Africa’s Macaya Martini took 3 wickets, while Stein and Callis 2 each. It may be recalled that Australia had to face defeat in the first one-day match against South Africa.

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