Did You Know
SYDNEY: Australia on Monday (Apr 8) launched a major education campaign to encourage its residents, particularly those travelling overseas, to get vaccinated against measles as a sudden spike in cases amid a global resurgence causes alarm.
Measles - an airborne infection causing fever, coughing and rashes that can be deadly in rare cases - was declared officially eliminated from Australia by the World Health Organisation in 2014.
In developed nations including Australia however, the growing anti-vaccine movement has seen a reemergence of the disease.
The announcement by Health Minister Greg Hunt came as a spate of cases hit Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, with the latest infection alert on Sunday involving two people who holidayed in the Philippines.
Hunt said there were 83 measles cases so far this year, compared to 103 for all of last year and 81 for 2017.
"I am concerned about the recent increases in measles cases in Australia and want to make sure our community is well protected against this very serious disease," Hunt said in a statement.
He warned that due to changing vaccine schedules for Australians born between 1966 and 1994, some people may have received only one dose of vaccine, instead of two, making them more susceptible to infection.
Promotional materials including videos were being developed by the Australian Academy of Science to raise awareness about the need to be fully vaccinated, he added.
Some 93.5 per cent of two-year-olds in Australia have received two doses of measles vaccine.
WELLINGTON: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed on Thursday (Apr 4) that she paid for a harried mother's groceries in a gesture sure to enhance a reputation already soaring because of her response to the Christchurch mosque attacks.
Ardern was reluctant to discuss the incident, revealed on social media, involving a mother-of-two who was ahead of the prime minister at a supermarket checkout when she realised she did not have her purse.
"(Ardern) paid for my friends' shopping in the supermarket the other day when she had forgotten her purse and had two screaming kids in tow," Twitter user Helen Burness posted, adding: "like we didn't love her enough".
Ardern swiftly wrapped up a media appearance Thursday when asked why she had helped the woman, replying only, "because she was a mum".
The 38-year-old had her own daughter Neve last June, becoming only the second prime minister in the world to give birth while in office, and later taking the infant onto the floor of the UN Assembly in New York.
She has won widespread praise for her response to the Mar 15 Christchurch attacks in which a white supremacist gunman is accused of killing 50 Muslims in an atrocity that shook the normally peaceful nation.
The New Zealand Herald has described her actions as a mix of "solace and steel" after she donned the hijab while comforting devastated families and also moved swiftly to tighten gun laws.
CHICAGO: In a historic first, a gay African American woman was elected mayor of America's third largest city Tuesday (Apr 2), as Chicago voters entrusted a political novice with tackling difficult problems of economic inequality and gun violence.
Lori Lightfoot, a 56-year-old former federal prosecutor and practicing lawyer who has never before held elected office, was elected the midwestern city's mayor in a lopsided victory.
She beat out Toni Preckwinkle, who is also an African American woman, by a wide margin of 74 to 26 per cent in early voting results with most ballots counted.
Lightfoot will become Chicago's first openly gay mayor and the first African American woman to hold the post. Since 1837, Chicago voters have elected only one black mayor and one female mayor.
Preckwinkle is the chief executive of Cook County where Chicago is based, which analysts said worked against her during a change election as voters sought to shake up city hall.
"People (are) hoping for something different to come along. To be the vessel for that is overwhelming," Lightfoot told reporters earlier after the polls opened.
Voters had left little doubt they want the next mayor to tackle major issues vexing the city of 2.7 million people - especially economic disparities and gun violence that claims more lives than in other major American cities.
More than 550 people were killed in Chicago last year due to gang violence often fueled by the drug trade - most in economically-struggling and majority African American neighborhoods.
LONDON: MPs on Monday (Apr 1) once again failed to find a majority on any alternative Brexit plan before them, leaving Britain's chaotic path towards leaving the EU mired in uncertainty less than two weeks before its departure date.
Brussels has set Britain an Apr 12 deadline to agree to the divorce terms Prime Minister Theresa May has struck with the bloc, find an alternative or crash out of the European Union.
MPs have already rejected the Brexit divorce deal three times, shredding May's authority.
Parliament's lower House of Commons seized the initiative last week by holding a first round of votes on eight alternative Brexit options but failed to find a majority on any of them.
Refining them down to four, backbenchers voted again on Monday, hoping to find one solution that most of them could agree on.
All four failed to find a majority although the result was close for proposals to hold a second referendum and negotiate a permanent customs union with the EU.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay hinted the government could now bring its deal back for a fourth vote this week and avoid a longer delay to Brexit that would mean holding European Parliament elections in May.
He warned that otherwise "the default legal position is the UK will leave the EU in just 11 days time" without a deal - an option that experts have warned could cause huge economic disruption on both sides of the Channel.
"Cabinet will meet in the morning to consider the results of tonight's vote and how we should proceed," Barclay said.
The EU has called an emergency summit for Apr 10 and warned that without a plan, Britain risks abruptly ending ties with its largest trading partner two days later, causing huge economic disruption.
"With our British friends we have had a lot of patience, but even patience is running out," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told Italian television channel Rai 1.
Following the result, Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament's Brexit committee, said: "A hard Brexit becomes nearly inevitable".
When MPs meet again on Wednesday "the UK has a last chance to break the deadlock or face the abyss," Verhofstadt said.
Britain voted by 52 per cent to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum, but the process has been mired in divisions over the terms of the divorce and what kind of future ties to seek.
The political chaos forced May to postpone Britain's exit from the original date of Mar 29, but she said it would be "unacceptable" for a further delay beyond European Parliament elections on May 23-26.
Frustrated with her approach, MPs last week gave themselves powers to find an alternative strategy, by holding so-called "indicative votes" on a range of different Brexit options.
They brought them back on Monday but once again, nothing produced a majority, even with May's cabinet abstaining.
The first motion, calling for the government to negotiate a permanent customs union with the EU, was defeated by 276 votes to 273.
The second option, dubbed "Common Market 2.0", would accept May's divorce terms but require her to negotiate a new EU customs arrangement and membership of the EU single market. It was beaten by 282 votes to 261.
A vote on plans for a second referendum went down by 292 to 280.
The final option, which would have instructed government to revoke the legislation to leave the EU a day before Britain is due to crash out, was rejected by 292 to 191.
Nick Boles, a Conservative MP who had proposed the Common Market 2.0 plan, announced he was leaving the party after the vote.
"I have given everything to an attempt to find a compromise," an emotional Boles told parliament.
"I accept I have failed. I have failed chiefly because my party refuses to compromise. I regret therefore to announce I can no longer sit for this party," he said.
Cabinet ministers will meet on Tuesday to discuss the outcome of the ballots, and could still decide to hold a fourth vote on May's deal on Wednesday or Thursday.
The votes by MPs were are not legally binding but would have been politically hard to ignore if a majority was found.
BERLIN: A plane crashed in Germany on Sunday (Mar 31) killing three people, police said, as one of Russia's richest women was identified by the company she co-owns as among the victims.
Natalia Fileva, a co-owner of private Russian airline S7, died in the accident, the company said in a statement.
A police car racing to the scene of the crash collided with an other vehicle, killing the two people inside and seriously injuring three police officers, the DPA news agency reported.
The air crash involved a six-seater aircraft travelling from France to the town of Egelsbach south of Frankfurt which went down in a field at around 1330 GMT, police said.
A second passenger, also believed to be Russian, and the pilot were also killed.
Fileva, whose husband is S7 CEO Vladislav Filev, was listed in 2018 by Forbes magazine as the fourth richest woman in Russia with an estimated fortune of US$600 million.
"On March 31, 2019, S7 Airlines shareholder Natalia Fileva was killed at the age of 55 during the descent in a private Epic-LT plane to (a) Frankfurt airport. The cause of the tragedy is not yet known," the company said in a statement.
"After impact, the aircraft was completely burnt out," police said.
The police statement said the passengers would probably only be positively identified in the coming week.
SYDNEY: Flights at Sydney Airport were grounded for more than an hour on Friday (Mar 29) after smoke was detected at its air traffic control tower.
The control tower was evacuated, although it was "not in lockdown", air navigation service provider Airservices Australia said.
"There is a full ground stop in place with no aircraft departing or arriving at this time at Sydney Airport," it said at around 12pm local time (9am Singapore time) on Twitter.
Airservices Australia about 20 minutes later said that it had started processing arrivals.
"Aircraft are landing albeit a slower rate. Nil departures at this time," it said.
Virgin Australia said in a tweet that no aircraft was flying in and out of Sydney Airport.
Flight monitoring site Flightradar24 showed multiple aircraft clustering around Sydney Airport.
Passengers stuck in the airport and in planes on the tarmac also posted on social media.
Airservices Australia said at 1.19pm that flights have resumed after firefighters cleared staff to return to the tower.
"We are fully back to operations at Sydney Tower. Departures are running smoothly. All restrictions lifted," it said.
Australia's News.com.au reported that a malfunctioning battery pack attached to the control tower’s computer system had started to smoke at 11.40am, causing the fire alarm to go off. Twenty people were evacuated from the building.
New South Wales Fire and Rescue Superintendent Bryce Jonas told the news site that firefighters were called to reports of a burning smell in the tower.
“The internal components of the battery pack system had started to smoke which created that nasty, electrical burning smell,” he said.
An electrician was called in to get rid of the smoking battery pack, he added.
SEATTLE: Two people in Seattle were killed and two others critically injured when a gunman opened fire on two motorists and a Metro bus on Wednesday (Mar 27), then caused a collision as he tried to flee in a stolen car during the afternoon rush hour, police said.
The incident unfolded in a northeastern Seattle neighborhood when the suspect approached a motorist at an intersection and shot her before walking into the street and firing on the bus, police said in a statement.
The bus driver was struck but managed to turn the bus around and head away from the assailant, police said. The suspect then approached a second motorist, in a Toyota Prius, and opened fire, killing the car's driver.
As police arrived, the gunman climbed into the Prius and sped away but collided with a nearby vehicle, killing that driver. Officers pursuing the suspect took him into custody following a brief standoff, police said.
Authorities did not immediately offer an explanation for what might have precipitated the shooting or specify the type of weapon used.
The suspect, who was not identified, was taken to a local hospital, where he remained under guard while being treated for non-life-threatening injuries, according to police.
Police said one motorist was killed by gunfire and the other motorist was killed in the collision. Both were men, as was the wounded bus driver. None of the victims were immediately identified.
King County's Metro transit authority said on Twitter that the bus driver had activated an emergency alarm to report being struck by gunfire, and that none of his 12 passengers was injured.
Although wounded in the torso, the bus driver was able to walk to a gurney to be transported by paramedics to a hospital, the Seattle Times newspaper quoted a transit union president as saying.
WELLINGTON: New Zealand's intelligence minister said on Wednesday (Mar 27) he was allowing spy agencies to carry out "intrusive" activities following the Christchurch mosque shootings that claimed 50 lives.
The government this week ordered a judicial inquiry into whether the South Pacific nation's intelligence services could have prevented the Mar 15 attack amid criticism the white supremacist gunman went unnoticed as they were too focused on Muslim extremists.
Andrew Little - the minister responsible for the GCSB and SIS intelligence services - said he had signed powerful surveillance warrants as information gathering continued in the wake of the attack.
"I have given authority to the agencies to do intrusive activities under warrant, the number of those (warrants) I'm not at liberty to disclose," he told Radio New Zealand.
Little said intelligence services typically monitored 30 to 40 people but that number had now increased, although he was unwilling to reveal by how much.
He said a warrant permitted anything from physical surveillance to the monitoring of telecommunications activity.
"The whole gambit of what would otherwise be described as intrusive activity," he told the New Zealand Herald.
"The purpose of a warrant is to authorise and effectively make lawful what would otherwise be unlawful activity."
Little denied New Zealand had proved a "soft target" for the accused gunman, an Australian with apparent links to right-wing groups who reportedly moved to the country with the intention of carrying out an attack.
Little said he maintained confidence in the intelligence services and until the inquiry into their actions was complete it was "premature" to say they had failed.
"Until there's a very microscopic look at what the agencies have been doing and whether they've missed anything, I can't say for certain," he told RNZ.
"It's important for me, the agencies, but ultimately for public confidence that we let that commission of inquiry do its job and reach its conclusions."
Meanwhile, police remained tight-lipped about two raids conducted by armed officers in Christchurch overnight.
The raids took place at opposite ends of the city centre on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Police said the first operation was "in relation to an ongoing inquiry" but refused to say if either raid was linked to the Christchurch shootings.
WASHINGTON: The U.S. Department of Defense shifted US$1 billion to plan and build a 57-mile section of "pedestrian fencing", roads and lighting along the border between the United States and Mexico, the Pentagon chief said on Monday (Mar 25).
Last week, the Pentagon gave Congress a list that included US$12.8 billion of construction projects for which it said funds could be redirected for construction along the U.S.-Mexico border.
U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency last month in a bid to fund his promised border wall without congressional approval.
Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said in a memo to Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen that the Department of Defense had the authority to support counter-narcotics activities near international boundaries.
Shanahan authorized the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to begin planning and executing the project that would involve building 57 miles of 18-foot-high fencing, constructing and improving roads, and installing lighting within the Yuma and El Paso sections of the U.S.-Mexico border.
AL-HAMADA AL-HAMRA, Libya: Braving the cold and hostile Libyan desert, Milad Mohammed scratches the ground to extract what he calls "manna from heaven" - white truffles coveted as a delicacy at home and abroad.
The fungus known locally as "Terfas" is the only thing, besides some wild grass, that grows under the desert sands nurtured by the combined effect of rain and cold temperatures at night.
They have been consumed since Roman times for their delicate taste as well as their nutritious and medical properties, and are sold to Gulf countries as a luxury food item.
Mohammed harvests the white truffle as a hobby and each year before springtime he treks through the desert region of Al-Hamada al-Hamra, southwest of Tripoli, to look for them.
"I don't earn my living from this. It's a passion," says Mohammed, in his 60s, a retired civil servant from the western city of Zintan.
"It's like a therapy, a way to purify myself from the chaos of the city," he adds as he takes a drag from a cigarette outside a tent he pitched in the desert after a day's work.
"It's a beautiful place, and rough, and you feel so isolated here," says Mohammed.
For hours he wanders across the desert by foot or in his pickup truck, covering dozens of kilometres (miles) and stopping at several spots to scratch the sand with his hands or a cane in search of white truffles.
Usually they are buried deep underground.
DIGGING WITH BARE HANDS
"There is nothing more satisfying than to use your bare hands to dig into the sand and extract these delicious truffles," says Mohammed.
"They're manna from heaven."
But searching for this white gold in the oil-rich North African country that descended into chaos after the fall of veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi in the 2011 NATO-backed uprising is no easy task.
Libya has been gripped by unrest since the revolt, with various groups vying for control of its oil wealth and cities, while the desert has become a hornet's nest for jihadists and criminal gangs.
Unlike hunters of black truffles, who use dogs or hogs to search for the prized mushroom, Mohammed only trusts his eyes to spot the place where they grow.
According to him, white truffles - scientifically known to provide a rich source of protein - have health benefits and their juice is used to treat eye diseases.
But truffles are also in great demand in Gulf markets.
BUYERS AND SELLERS
Over the past few years the price per kilo of white truffles tripled to 130 dinars (US$33), a merchant said, as harvesting the fungus became more difficult due to Libya's unrest and unfavourable weather conditions.
This year the harvest was good thanks to abundant rain but that meant that the cost per kilo dropped to 80 dinars.
Wholesale transactions often take place at a tent erected on a road near Zintan that leads to Al-Hamada al-Hamra.
It is there that pickers like Mohammed and Khaled Abdelwahed go to sell the truffles they found in the desert.
"We endured very cold weather but the merchant is offering us a fraction of the price," says Abdelwahed, as he tried to negotiate a good deal for the eight kilos of truffles he collected after four nights spent in the desert.
"The merchant's making a better profit than us, and all that time he keeps warm in his tent" while truffle pickers do all the hard work, he says
The buyer Khalifa al-Sahraoui, a merchant from neighbouring Algeria who travels to Libya each year for truffle season between November and March, disagrees.
"We buy the truffles and sell them to other merchants," he says.
Abdallah Miloud, another truffle merchant, says the harvest is sold to middlemen who in turn "sell them to clients abroad".
The Libyan white truffle is "of excellent quality" and "prized in Gulf countries", he adds.
There are no official figures for the export of Libyan truffles.
But according to Miloud, revenues from sales have "rescued several families" from financial hardship.