NSW feels the heat over backburning

THE NSW government is under fire for its ”appalling” record on hazard reduction.The opposition said NSW must learn the lessons of the the 900-page Teague report on Victoria’s Black Saturday disaster and massively increase backburning efforts in the state.Opposition spokeswoman for emergency services Melinda Pavey accused the Keneally government of tying up the process of hazard reduction in ”green tape”.”If we can believe the government’s own statistics, on average only around 115,000 hectares of hazard reduction has taken place in each of the past four years, representing a mere 0.4 per cent of fire-prone land in the state annually,” Ms Pavey said. Royal commission chairman Bernard Teague said backburning in Victoria must be nearly tripled to bring the total area of public land backburnt to 5 per cent.Ms Pavey called on the NSW government to increase funds to ensure backburning in NSW could be similarly expanded.”The $17 million the Keneally Labor government spends on hazard reduction each year represents only about 8 per cent of the Rural Fire Service expenses of $220.2 million, which is clearly not enough,” she said.”With the smell of an election in the air the state Labor government has been desperately playing catch up during autumn and winter, however wet conditions have delayed this process.”Ms Pavey said there were now significant fuel loads in many areas including the Blue Mountains, central coast, south coast and the Monaro.Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan said NSW would carefully review the final recommendations of the Teague report, saying the state had already developed strong fire prevention and management practices.”It is important that we now take stock of the events in Victoria and look at opportunities for further improvement as we continue to build on our experience and expertise in bush fire management.”Mr Whan said since Black Saturday NSW had introduced the nationally agreed system of fire danger ratings, which provide clearer information and trigger points for the public before a fire starts.
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Toxic heater cost blowout

EXCLUSIVEREPLACING toxic gas heaters in NSW schools could take up to a decade and the cost will balloon way past the $170 million estimated by the state government, according to heater industry experts.In another blow for Premier Kristina Keneally and her Education Minister Verity Firth, some schools will have to have their entire electricity supply upgraded, at a cost of about $150,000 each, to switch heating methods.The Sun-Herald has also learnt sections of the NSW public service believe the government’s bungled commitment to replace 55,000 heaters is a purely political decision seven months out from an election and that unflued heaters – millions of which are used in the US, Britain and New Zealand – are perfectly safe.The debacle threatens to destabilise the leadership of Ms Keneally. Both teachers and MPs from Labor’s Left faction are furious at the treatment of Ms Firth by the Premier after Ms Firth announced the replacement program without Treasurer Eric Roozendaal’s approval.For the past two decades, every unflued gas heater in NSW state schools has been made and installed by just one company, Bowin Manufacturing at Brookvale.Industry sources said the most likely alternative supplier to Bowin is the Japanese-owned Rinnai, whose energy-saver model, at between $3000 and $4000 a unit installed, will cost up to four times as much as Bowin’s purpose-built DB90 Lo-Nox model.The price for heaters alone would be $220 million – $50 million above current estimates – but Ms Firth conceded last week that some schools, particularly heritage-listed ones, could not be fitted with flued heaters and would need alternatives such as reverse-cycle airconditioning.Experts say that will mean in many cases having to upgrade electricity substations, already overworked from the energy demands school computers, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars at each school.Rinnai makes its heaters in Japan and imports fewer than 5000 into Australia each year, making a replacement program a massive undertaking.Rinnai group sales and operations manager Darren Pollard said it would take years to install 55,000 heaters.Sources at Bowin said it would take a minimum of five years and up to a decade to replace unflued heaters.Parents’ groups that had celebrated Ms Firth’s surprise backdown said the government should prioritise the replacement program.”If we go at the current rate, we will have a whole generation of kids in some areas who go through school before [the heaters] are replaced,” said Jo Keown, from the parents’ action group COUGH.Questions surround the decision to replace the heaters, with one gas industry expert saying last night: ”It’s a purely political decision; the science is crap.”NSW Health, which for years has staunchly defended the safety of unflued heaters if used with ventilation, said ”the results of the Woolcock study do not change the recommendations”.A spokesman for Ms Firth said the Education Department would not comment on the cost or time frame for replacing heaters until investigations had been completed over the next fortnight.
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Escapees in 300km chase

TWO prison escapees led police on a 300-kilometre chase in a stolen four-wheel-drive through southern NSW yesterday.The men were forced to drive the last 100 kilometres along rural highways with the four-wheel-drive running on two bare rims after the tyres were shredded by road spikes.The early morning chase along the Olympic Way, the Sturt and Hume highways and through towns including Wagga Wagga and Junee ended after three hours when police recaptured Adon Burns, 24, and Stephen Fenwick, 18.The red four-wheel-drive had become bogged in a muddy field while trying to make a U-turn on the Olympic Way near Junee at 8am.Police said the pair had been on the run after being reported missing on Friday night from Mannus Correctional Centre, a minimum-security prison farm near Tumbarumba, near the Victorian border.Burns was due to be paroled on October 19. He had been sentenced to serve a minimum nine months of a two-year jail term for assault occasioning actual bodily harm.Fenwick was due out on April 12 next year. He had been sentenced to a minimum 12 months of an 18-month sentence for stealing and driving while disqualified.Police first spotted the pair in the stolen vehicle in Common Street, Junee, at 5.01am yesterday. A highway patrol vehicle from Wagga Wagga joined a general duties car in the chase along the Olympic Way.”The officers chased the vehicle to Coolamon, then to Wagga, then to Tarcutta and then to Junee,” a police spokesman said.”Other police deployed spikes across the road at Alfredtown but the vehicle continued despite damage to one tyre. A further set of spikes was again deployed at Brucedale but the vehicle kept going and was running on two rims.”Police will allege during the pursuit speeds reached about 130km/h in the 110km/h zone.”He said there was little traffic on the roads.After the vehicle became bogged, the inmates tried to flee on foot but were quickly captured.The two men were taken to Wagga Wagga police station and charged last night with escaping lawful custody and stealing a motor vehicle. They are expected to face further traffic-related charges.
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Claims of killings in a divided Hamas

GAZA CITY: At 2am on July 16 last year, Mohammed Warshara was woken by a phone call from Hamas, the militant Islamic resistance movement that controls the Gaza Strip.”They told me my son had been found in a tunnel in Rafah [the city that borders Gaza’s border with Egypt],” Mr Warshara told the Herald.At the time a prominent leader of the military wing of Hamas, the al-Qassam Brigades, if Munir were alive today he would be 37.”They said Munir had been shot by the Egyptian border police,” Mr Warshara said. ”But this was not possible. His body was on the Gaza side of the border. He could not have been shot in this way and found where he was.”Whatever the precise circumstances of Munir’s death, it appears certain he was the victim of a bitter quarrel within Hamas.As Hamas strives to maintain its authority over Gaza’s 1.5 million residents three years after winning control of the territory from its secular political rival, Fatah, Munir’s death is an example of an increasingly violent internal power struggle raging within the movement.Inside Gaza, rumours abound of bodies turning up in smugglers’ tunnels, their deaths blamed on ”digging accidents”, or lying near the border with Israel, apparent victims of Israeli sniper fire.One disaffected Hamas insider, who spoke to the Herald on the condition of anonymity, showed a list identifying more than 20 people who had been killed over the past 12 months.”They say they die from accidents, but they have clearly died from many gunshots or they show signs of being beaten and tortured,” the source said.According to Mr Warshara, his son was executed because he disagreed with the way Hamas was distributing aid money to victims of last year’s war with Israel. He has six other sons who are members of Hamas who want to leave the movement but have been threatened with acts of retaliation if they do.”Munir wanted the money to be distributed equally to all people who needed it. The other Hamas leaders wanted to give the money only to other members of Hamas, or keep the money for themselves,” Mr Warshara said.In the sitting room of his home in Beit Lahiya, Mr Warshara broke down as he unfurled a banner that had been produced by Hamas in honour of his son.Bearing a large portrait of Munir, the banner reads: ”The Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, considers its son Sheikh Munir Mohammed Warshara as a martyr”.”The men who killed my son, they came to his funeral,” an anguished Mr Warshara said. ”They cried at his funeral, yet they were the ones who killed him.”As if to emphasise his son’s level of commitment, and his own commensurate sense of betrayal, Mr Warshara produced photographs showing a swag of weapons that Munir smuggled into Gaza before his death.So proud was Mr Warshara of his son’s accomplishments, that he and other members of the family had posed for photographs with the weapons caches, which included rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machineguns, automatic rifles and hand grenades.Mr Warshara said he refuses to be intimidated by threats from senior Hamas members that he keep silent. ”I want the world to know what Hamas is doing to people who do not agree with them,” Mr Warshara said.The executive director of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Raji Sourani, who has won numerous international awards for his work as a human rights lawyer inside Gaza, said an unmistakable scent of tension hangs over Hamas.”You can smell it,” he said this week. ”We hear stories of violence within the movement, only stories, but we are limited in what we can do to investigate these rumours.”In the words of Sayyed Salem Abu Musameh, one of the seven founding members of Hamas, who is now a member of its ruling Shura council, the Islamist movement is a house divided between ”doves” and ”hawks”.The doves, or pragmatists, Dr Abu Musameh said, are interested in talking to and negotiating with the Israelis and maintaining the ceasefire that has been in place since the end of last year’s war. The hawks want a return to armed confrontation.The most pragmatic of all is Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza.The hardliners are led by such men as Khaled Meshaal, chairman of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus, and Mahmoud Zahar, another co-founder of Hamas, who serves as the Foreign Minister in Mr Haniyeh’s government.Describing himself as a dove, Dr Abu Musameh said he has long argued that firing rockets into Israel, or sending suicide bombers to kill Israeli civilians, was against Hamas’s interests.”I have lived with the Israelis for a long time,” Dr Abu Musameh said. A former tailor, Dr Abu Musameh said he had traded with Jewish businessmen in Israel for decades.”I know and respect many Jewish people, I have seen their faces. But the young people who are joining the military wings, they do not have this experience. They only know them through the war, and the uprisings. They know Hamas has rearmed itself and they see no reason for continuing with the ceasefire.”Despite the evident tensions, Dr Abu Musameh discounted claims that Hamas is in any danger of splitting. ”These tensions have been present since the very beginning,” he said.Yet the longer the ceasefire continues, the more men such as a former Hamas fighter, Abu Mousab, are being tempted to sign up with more radical Islamist groups operating inside Gaza.A former mathematics student at the Islamic University of Gaza, Abu Mousab, now 25, said he joined Hamas while he was studying, but recently left after becoming disaffected with its political strategy.Asked whether Hamas was in danger of tearing itself apart, Abu Mousab said: ”Yes. In a big way.” Before leaving, Abu Mousab said a poll was conducted among the al-Qassam brigade members in northern Gaza, and about 90 per cent of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the Hamas’s leadership.Abu Mousab estimated that about 15 per cent of brigade members have since left to join other more radical groups, although a large minority has stayed on to try change Hamas from within. ”The things that made [Fatah] hated in Gaza, these are the things that Hamas is doing now,” he said.As well as the obvious political tensions, Akram Atallah, a Gaza columnist for the Fatah-aligned newspaper Al-Ayyam, said there is also a struggle over religious values. ”Some people want to turn Gaza into a more conservative Islamic state, others are resisting this, believing that things have gone far enough and that Hamas risks alienating the majority here …”I don’t believe that Hamas is yet at the breaking point. But that does not mean that we will not see more violent confrontations within.”THE HAMAS STORYDecember 1987: First intifada, or Palestinian uprising. Formation of Hamas, an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement, is announced.1992: Hamas says it has formed an armed wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.1993: Hamas rejects the Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).1997: Israel’s secret intelligence service, Mossad, fails to assassinate a rising Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Jordan.2004: Israel assassinates the Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.2004: Less than a month later, Israel assassinates Yassin’s successor, Abdel Aziz Rantissi. Meshaal, now in Damascus, succeeds him.2005: Israel conducts a unilateral withdrawal of all Israeli settlers living in the Gaza Strip.2006: Hamas wins parliamentary majority in first elections in Palestinian territories in a decade.June 2006: Hamas abducts the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.June 2007: Hamas wrests control of Gaza from Fatah.. Israel and Egypt impose a blockade on Gaza in response.December 2008: Israel launches Operation Cast Lead aimed at ending Hamas’s capacity to fire rockets into Israel. Since 2002, Hamas had fired thousands of rockets, killing more than 20 people. 1400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis are killed.June 2010: Israel and Egypt ease the Gaza blockade after Israeli troops storm a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine people.
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Champions of democracy, or people with bloodied hands?

By volume, it was unprecedented: almost 92,000 ”logs” – raw, ground-level accounts of a nine-year conflict in which the US, Australia and 40 other nations are mired – dumped on a website that prides itself on championing whistleblowers and which claims, immodestly, to be helping underpin ”true democracy and good governance on which all mankind’s dreams depend”.But this week’s release by WikiLeaks of the classified US military documents, uniquely in concert with three big news organisations, invited searing scrutiny and allegations that the exercise had compromised the security of coalition forces while unmasking Afghan informants now at risk of reprisals.And by week’s end, wonder was that the medium was perhaps the message, that while the thrust of the documents was hardly revelational, the high-tech disgorging of secret material might prove an increasingly popular method for airing grievances, for exposing lies and cover-ups, and – yes, maybe – for keeping governments honest.”I’m sure that we are changing the game here,” says Daniel Schmitt, a 32-year-old former IT security specialist from Berlin who, with the Australian Julian Assange, is the public face of WikiLeaks. ”Just look at the sheer amount of good leaks we’ve had in the past three years. The whole idea of automating the leaking process is changing the way that society works.”Call it the democratisation of leaking: individual media groups were more inclined to keep custody of the information they were scrutinising, says Schmitt, [but] ”we publish the documents in full”.However, on this occasion WikiLeaks gave selected media accomplices – The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel – a month to scrutinise the material that was drawn essentially from battlefield and intelligence reports compiled between 2004 and last year.The result was a collaboration that disseminated the contents widely, while lending WikiLeaks the imprimatur of some of the world’s most respected mastheads.But Nick Davies, a Guardian special correspondent, draws a clear distinction between the two camps. ”WikiLeaks is operating in a different way to a news organisation: we select and check and make judgments and publish; Wikileaks says, ‘Here it is’. I think Julian is a responsible man but it would be very wrong if they have published material that leads to anybody being harmed.”Across the Atlantic, Bill Keller, the executive editor of The New York Times, has also sought to distance the newspaper from WikiLeaks. ”First, the Times has no control over WikiLeaks – where it gets its material, what it releases and in what form. To say that it is an independent organisation is a monumental understatement …”Obviously we did not disclose the names of Afghans, except for public officials, who have co-operated with the war effort, either in our articles or in the selection of documents we posted on our own website. We did not disclose anything that would compromise intelligence-gathering methods.”Davies says The Guardian published fewer than 300 of the 92,000 documents. ”From hour one, day one, it was clear we had to be careful not to publish anything that would lead to harm. The three news websites are clean. But I don’t know if [Assange] has succeeded in making the WikiLeaks website clean.”Assange declined to speak to the Herald. But in his public statements he has asserted WikiLeaks follows a ”harm minimisation policy” and has claimed that the documents released via its website had been checked.”We held back 15,000 reports, not because we viewed that they would be any threat to Western forces in Afghanistan but rather because some of them – a very, very few number – mentioned the names of local Afghanis that might have been subject to retribution. We’re not sure yet, but we decided to pause.”But by Wednesday, The Times of London had published redacted files that it claimed contained names and locations of Afghan sources. In just two hours of searching the archive, its reporters claimed to have uncovered the names of ”dozens of Afghans credited with providing detailed intelligence to US forces. Their villages are given for identification and also, in many cases, their fathers’ names.”An angry Pentagon has upped the pressure.”Mr Assange can say whatever he likes about the greater good he thinks he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.News organisations worldwide continue to trawl the material, looking to unearth fresh information about a mission that remains a long way short of being accomplished.And there is plenty more information to be shared: this year, WikiLeaks has been receiving about 25 submissions a day. ”Even if half of that is complete bullshit … it’s still a huge amount of documents,” Schmitt says. ”That’s going to be information from all over the world, from all walks of life and from all industries.”Publish and be damned? Schmitt says WikiLeaks does not intend to be reckless. But publishing can be problematic. ”Every piece of information you publish has the possibility that with publication, someone might be harmed … That is something we have to be honest about.”
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