The Guardian 2024-03-22 10:01:20


David Cameron says Aukus and Nato must be in ‘best possible shape’ ahead of potential Trump win

UK’s foreign secretary is in Australia alongside defence secretary Grant Shapps for high-level talks with Richard Marles and Penny Wong

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The UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, has suggested the Aukus pact and Nato alliance must get into “the best possible shape” to increase their chances of surviving Donald Trump’s potential return to the White House.

Speaking after high-level talks in Australia, Cameron was careful to avoid criticising the former US president and presumptive Republican nominee for 2024, saying it was “up to America who they choose as their president”.

“What we will do, as I am sure an Australian government would do, is work with whoever becomes the president,” Cameron told reporters in Adelaide, South Australia.

But Cameron appeared to implicitly acknowledge the risks that Aukus and Nato might face in the event of a second Trump presidency, by calling for efforts to ensure both were seen by the next president as well-functioning.

Cameron described the Aukus partnership – which will see the US and the UK help Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines – as “an absolutely brilliant arrangement” and Nato as “the most successful defensive alliance in history”.

“The best thing we can do is to get those alliances, to get those projects into the best possible shape, so whoever is the new president can see that they are working with a very successful set of arrangements,” Cameron said.

The Australian deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles, endorsed Cameron’s comments.

“We feel confident given what we have seen particularly over the course of the last few months in Congress that the Aukus arrangements really do enjoy support across the political spectrum in the United States,” he said.

“We move forward with complete confidence about what the future will hold.”

The comments were in response to a question about whether the election of Trump in November would affect the Aukus agreement that was sealed with the Biden administration last March.

Under the deal, the US will share sensitive nuclear technology with Australia and sell it at least three Virginia-class submarines in the 2030s.

Australia and the UK eventually plan to build and operate a new class of submarine to be called SSN-Aukus.

Trump has not expressed any hostility to the Aukus deal to date, although he has been highly sceptical about Nato, particularly over its members’ performance against a pledge to spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defence.

During a stump speech in February, Trump recalled telling an unnamed European leader that he would “not protect” any Nato member that was “delinquent” and he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want”.

Cameron and the UK defence secretary, Grant Shapps, were in Australia for annual talks with their Australian counterparts on Friday.

The Australian foreign minister, Penny Wong, said Aukus was “good not just for Australia, but for Britain and the United States”.

“We will make sure it does happen,” Wong said. “We do that understanding the scale of the enterprise, the scale of the task.”

The Australian government is facing domestic criticism after confirming it would send A$4.6bn (£2.4bn) to the UK over the next 10 years to expand the Rolls-Royce nuclear reactor production line in Derby.

The figure, while previously unpublished, is understood to come from within existing Aukus funding. The government last year indicated that the Aukus project would cost $50bn to $58bn in the first 10 years of the plan.

The Greens’ defence spokesperson, David Shoebridge, said it was “an extraordinarily bad deal and a bad day for Australian taxpayers”.

Marles said the nuclear reactors for Australia’s submarines would be made at the Rolls-Royce plant and it was “completely appropriate” to fund an increase in production.

Friday’s meeting also covered the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s “destabilising activities” in the South China Sea.

“We know how many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are starving,” Wong told reporters.

In a joint statement issued afterwards, Australia and the UK called on Israel to “allow immediate, safe, unimpeded and increased humanitarian relief to reach Palestinians in Gaza”.

“Given the large number of displaced persons taking refuge in the area and lack of safe spaces in Gaza, ministers shared deep concern at the potentially devastating consequences for the civilian population of an expanded Israeli military operation in Rafah,” the statement said.

Australia and the UK also “expressed the urgency of an immediate cessation of fighting in Gaza to allow aid to flow and hostages to be released as a crucial step toward a permanent, sustainable ceasefire”.

The ministers discussed how recognition of a Palestinian state “might assist in giving momentum toward” a two-state solution, but the statement did not give any detail about the timing of such a move.

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Mascot Towers sale deal to end five years of ‘purgatory’ for owners of defect-riddled Sydney apartments

A majority of owners agree to deal, which will give them a share of the $30m building price and support from the NSW government

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Five years of legal headaches may soon be over for many apartment owners in the defect-riddled Mascot Towers in Sydney, with a deal allowing them to sell their homes and walk away debt-free.

A majority of owners have agreed to a deal struck by the New South Wales government, which allows them to sell to a third-party commercial consortium rather than having to sell as a collective.

Apartment owners will now get a share of the $30m building price and means-tested support from the state government. The state’s building commission has also negotiated with banks to let owner-occupiers move out “debt free”.

Under the deal, lenders have agreed to reduce loan balances by up to 40%. The state government will then resolve any remaining debt. But this option is only available for owner-occupiers, who were living in the property before being forced out due to defects in 2019.

Owner-occupiers and some investors will also be eligible for $120,000 in government support, provided they have a taxable income of less than $156,000 and assets – excluding their Mascot Tower apartment – of less than $1m. Those experiencing financial hardship or who have a disability support pension could receive up to $360,000.

While the deal will wipe debts, owners will receive vastly less than the original purchase price due to the fallen value of their apartments.

The NSW minister for fair trading, Anoulack Chanthivong, said the deal would “close the book on one of the darkest chapters in building in this state”.

“After half a decade stuck in this nightmare, it appears that 75% of owners have now agreed to sell to a third-party buyer and move on,” Chanthivong said.

“Owners have been stuck in a purgatory of legal challenges and remediation costs for too long, this is finally a chance for them to break free.”

A state government spokesperson said work would now begin on determining how much government support owners would receive and to ensure lenders deliver on the agreement.

Residents of the tower block in Sydney’s south were evacuated in 2019 after engineers became concerned about cracks in the primary support structure and facade masonry of the then 10-year-old building on Bourke Street.

Despite being unable to live in their homes, owners have had to continue paying levies, mortgages and remediation costs. The towers have 132 residential and nine commercial lots.

The 132 families evacuated from their homes have spent the past two years lobbying the state government via a Change.org petition to improve construction regulations and hold developers responsible for defects in buildings.

To date, the NSW government has provided $21m in accommodation or investor support to affected owners.

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Jordanian army personnel carrying out an airdrop over northern Gaza on 15 March. Photograph: Jordan Pix/Getty Images
by Ana Lucía González Paz, Lucy Swan, Paul Scruton and Harvey Symons. Words by Oliver Holmes

Israel’s siege of Gaza has created what aid officials are referring to as “man-made starvation”, with the territory facing the threat of mass deaths from famine in the coming weeks. Children are already dying from hunger.

As part of its devastating war strategy against Hamas, Israel has restricted shipments of food and medicine to just a fraction of what Palestinian civilians need to survive.

The crisis is an artificially created one. Gaza, population roughly 2.3 million, is not geographically isolated. The small strip of land on the eastern Mediterranean coast served as a well-connected port for centuries, linking Asia with Europe.

“Starvation is used as a weapon of war,” the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said this week. “Israel is provoking famine.”

Gaza used to have multiple land border crossings, but only two remain open – Rafah and Kerem Shalom. Israel ripped up the strip’s only international airport 20 years ago, and years of blockade and isolation means Gaza has no capacity for big ships to dock.

Aid arriving by road

The easiest, fastest and most obvious way for aid to enter would be by road. Israel controls several land routes into Gaza that could be used to get more than enough food and supplies in.

Israel says it needs to inspect every shipment to make sure no cargo can be used to the benefit of its Hamas enemies. Even trucks travelling from Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel, are inspected by Israeli forces.

Aid officials criticise the slow and often arbitrary inspection process, which in practice blocks aid, with trucks waiting weeks for approvals. The onerous Israeli system means humanitarian convoys travelling from Egypt and Jordan have to take circuitous routes.

The few that get into Gaza need to drive over destroyed roads and avoid hijacking by criminal or militant groups operating in a near-anarchic situation that has resulted from the war. Israeli forces have also attacked aid convoys and bombed warehouses inside Gaza.

Israeli authorities turn back some aid deliveries at the border because of items they claim to be of dual use, meaning they can be used for civilian but also military purposes, such as for making explosives.

There is no official public list of what Israel considers dual-use items, and some items may be blocked at certain points and then let in later, making it impossible for aid organisation to plan a smooth delivery of aid.

Médecins Sans Frontières said it had “consistently been denied the import of power generators, water purifiers, solar panels and other medical equipment”. And a UK aid shipment containing 2,500 solar lanterns and 1,350 water filters was rejected.

Philippe Lazzarini, of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, has said one aid truck was turned back “because it had scissors used in children’s medical kits”.

Aid arriving by air

Delivering aid by air to Gaza is not possible as Israel destroyed the strip’s international airport two decades ago.

However, after failing to persuade Israel to allow sufficient aid into Gaza by land, the US and other countries such as Jordan, France and Germany have gained permission to use aid drops.

The highly expensive method can deliver between one and three truckloads, depending on the aircraft used, with pallets being pushed out the back and landing via parachute. Aid groups point out that once the aid is on the ground, the first people to get to it will often be the strongest, meaning many vulnerable people will lose out.

People are desperate and starving – aid officials say Gaza has no functioning economy due to the war and years of blockade. Prices have soared, with reports of bags of sugar priced at $20 and nappies at over $50.

Aid arriving by sea

Israel has maintained a naval blockade for years, preventing ships from arriving. However, efforts this month to get aid to Gaza’s shores saw the first maritime aid shipment of the war.

A Spanish ship departed from Cyprus, the nearest EU country to Gaza, and delivered 200 tonnes of food. Other ships are expected to follow, although Gaza does not have a properly functioning port, which severely limits the effort.

US forces plan to build a temporary dock on the shoreline to allow delivery of humanitarian aid on a larger scale. But it will be weeks before it is operational.

Palestinians in Gaza have never had a commercial cargo seaport, and their only access out to sea is through a small fishing port in Gaza City that is about 5 metres deep. The depth needed for a standard cargo ship is about 12 metres. A proposal exists for a new port to be built in southern Gaza with a jetty that could accommodate smaller vessels that could dock in a depth of 8-10 metres.

Israel agreed to the construction of a deeper commercial seaport in the 1990s but its forces destroyed early construction work during the early 2000s Palestinian uprising. Years later, negotiations restarted for the construction of a new seaport, but these were abandoned in 2007 when Hamas took power.

Alarm over the prospect of famine in Gaza has increased in recent weeks. On Monday the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, regarded as the international gold standard in assessing food crises, said northern Gaza faced imminent famine and that the rest of the territory was also at risk.

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David Cameron accuses Israel of blocking key aid crossing in Gaza

An Israeli official denied the claim in an online row with the UK foreign secretary and has since been suspended

David Cameron has accused Israel of demanding the closure of a key aid crossing into Gaza, in a clash with a British-born government spokesperson that has reportedly resulted in the official’s suspension.

In a blistering letter, the UK foreign secretary said aid was not getting into Gaza owing to “arbitrary denials by the government of Israel and lengthy clearance procedures, including multiple screenings and narrow opening windows in daylight hours”.

The spokesperson, Eylon Levy, whom Israeli media reported as having been suspended, had tweeted Lord Cameron suggesting Israel was not placing any obstacles in the delivery of aid.

Levy has not commented on the cause of his suspension, but British MPs said some of the claims were not cleared inside the Israeli government. There were also reports of a previous clash between Levy and Cameron that had created tensions.

In a letter to the chair of the foreign affairs select committee chairwoman, Alicia Kearns, Cameron denied a claim by Levy that the UN had requested Kerem Shalom crossing be closed on Saturdays. Cameron said Israel closes the vital aid crossing for the Sabbath.

The tone of the Cameron letter is remarkable for the frankness with which he attributes the problems in distributing aid, flatly contradicting Israeli assertions that the number of aid trucks crossing into Gaza had reached a satisfactory level.

He wrote: “You cite claims that international donors should send as much aid as they wish and Israel will facilitate its entry. I wish that were the case. It is of enormous frustration that UK aid into Gaza has been routinely held up waiting for Israeli permissions. For instance, I am aware of some UK-funded aid being stuck at the border just under three weeks waiting for approval.

“The main blockers remain arbitrary denials by the government of Israel and lengthy clearance procedures including multiple screenings and narrow opening windows in daylight hours.”

He added that the number of trucks entering Gaza by daily average was 165 but with large fluctuations. He said this was an improvement on January but that more urgent progress was needed to get the figure up to the 500 trucks a day that arrived before the Hamas attack on Israel of 7 October .

He also argued one of the key reasons for distribution issues within Gaza was that Israel was preventing the necessary staff from getting visas. He wrote “this needs to change”, and said more than 50 visas were awaiting Israeli approval to allow experienced staff to enter Gaza.

Part of Cameron’s evident frustration is that he and his special envoy for humanitarian affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories feel they have been raising the same checklist of requests since mid-January.

Cameron said Israel had the ability to turn the water supplies back on by allowing fuel to enter Gaza for water pumping and salination. He said that in northern Gaza 300,000 people were without water. “Israel has the ability to turn the taps back – they should do so,” he wrote.

On 8 March, Levy wrote a now-deleted post on X responding to Cameron, who had urged Israel “to allow more [aid] trucks into Gaza”.

Levy said: “I hope you are also aware there are NO limits on the entry of food, water, medicine, or shelter equipment into Gaza, and in fact the crossings have EXCESS capacity.

“Test us. Send another 100 trucks a day to Kerem Shalom and we’ll get them in,” he added, referring to an Israeli-controlled border crossing.

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EU and US pile on pressure for Gaza ceasefire

EU leaders call for ‘immediate humanitarian pause’ while US expected to bring UN resolution calling for truce without delay

EU leaders have overcome their differences to call for an “immediate humanitarian pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire” in Gaza, hours before the US is expected to bring a resolution to a vote at the UN calling for a truce and a hostage deal without delay in the face of a looming famine.

The EU declaration, at a Brussels summit late on Thursday, marked the first time European leaders had agreed a declaration on the Middle East since October. The US draft resolution to be put to a vote in the UN security council on Friday morning also reflects greater urgency in Washington’s position. It is the first time the Biden administration has put forward language calling for an “immediate ceasefire”, although it continues to link a truce with a hostage deal.

The council will vote on the US resolution at the same time as CIA and the Mossad spy chiefs William Burns and David Barnea are expected to arrive in Qatar on Friday in the hope of clinching an elusive truce-for-hostages deal between Israel and Hamas. Speaking in Egypt, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said difficult work remained to be done but added: “I continue to believe it’s possible.”

The EU declaration calls for the “unconditional release of all hostages” by Hamas, but does not make its demand for a halt to Israeli military operations dependent on a deal. In Brussels, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said all 27 EU members had agreed “a strong and unified statement on the Middle East” which including a call for “full and safe humanitarian access into Gaza”.

The eight-paragraph EU text expressed deep concern over the “imminent risk of famine caused by insufficient entry of aid into Gaza”.

A European diplomat said the shift in US language in its draft resolution helped clear the path to an EU consensus on a European declaration, allowing countries such as Austria and the Czech Republic to “revisit their position”.

Blinken characterised the US draft resolution as calling for “an immediate ceasefire tied to the release of hostages”.

“After many rounds of consultations with the Security Council, we will be bringing this resolution for a vote on Friday morning,” the US mission spokesperson at the UN, Nate Evans said, noting it had been under discussion by council members for several weeks.

“This resolution is an opportunity for the council to speak with one voice to support the diplomacy happening on the ground and pressure Hamas to accept the deal on the table.”

The Biden administration has argued that an unconditional ceasefire would undermine leverage on Hamas to release its captives, seized during its 7 October attack on Israel, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. If the hostage talks in Doha fail however, the Biden administration will be faced with a dilemma: whether to continue to insist on the linkage between hostages and a ceasefire in the face of a clear warning this week from a UN panel of experts that a catastrophic famine in Gaza is imminent.

Thursday night’s European declaration reinforced a consensus among Washington’s allies that an unconditional ceasefire has to be implemented before a hostage deal if necessary, in the face of a humanitarian catastrophe.

At the UN, the French envoy, Nicolas de Rivière, said: “It’s time to save lives.”

“The death toll is around 32,000 men and women. It needs to stop now. This is why I will encourage the security council to take action before the end of the week, before the weekend,” de Rivière said. “Each time there is a crisis in the world, the first thing the security council is asking for a ceasefire, and then talks. This is what we have to do on Gaza as well. There should not be an exception.”

The wording of the new US draft resolution, presented on Thursday and seen by the Guardian, gives some ground to the demands of Washington’s European and Arab partners, with stronger language demanding humanitarian access and more ambiguous wording on the linkage between a truce and a hostage deal.

It said an “immediate and sustained ceasefire” was “imperative” adding that “towards that end” unequivocal support should be given to the hostage negotiations.

A European diplomat at the UN said the stress on an “immediate” ceasefire and the phrase “towards that end” showed significant movement in the US position. “I think it is a shift in saying that a ceasefire is not contingent on a specific deal,” the diplomat said.

The change in US language also increases the pressure on the Israeli government, which has been insisting it will carry out a new offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, in the face of strong US objections.

The hostage talks in Doha will focus on closing a stubborn gap between the negotiating positions of the two parties. Israel has rejected a Hamas proposal for hostage release in exchange for an agreement that would end the war. Israel is focused instead on a temporary pause, in which 40 particularly vulnerable hostages, elderly and sick people and some women, would be freed for a six-week cessation of hostilities.

“I think the gaps are narrowing, and I think an agreement is very much possible,” Blinken told the Saudi news channel Al Hadath. “The Israeli team is present, has authority to reach an agreement.”

Blinken restated the US opposition to a planned Israeli offensive on Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza where more than 1 million Palestinians have take shelter from Israeli bombing.

“A major military operation in Rafah would be a mistake, something we don’t support, and it’s also not necessary to deal with Hamas,” Blinken told a news conference in Cairo. The Biden administration has invited Israeli officials to Washington to discuss alternatives, a meeting that is expected next week.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is meanwhile threatening to use his political clout in the US and his close relationship with the Republican party to resist pressure from the administration. Netanyahu held a 45-minute call with Republican senators on Wednesday, in which he vowed to press ahead with a Rafah operation. The House speaker, Michael Johnson, said he intended to invite the Israeli leader to address a joint session of Congress, which would be an echo of Netanyahu’s previous appearance in 2015, when he used it as a platform to voice opposition to Barack Obama’s Middle East policies.

The US draft resolution is unusually detailed, containing 26 operative paragraphs, stressing the demand for “the immediate, safe, sustained and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance at scale directly to the Palestinian civilian population throughout the Gaza Strip”.

Details of the draft resolution were revealed as the UN released an analysis of satellite imagery showing that 35% of buildings in Gaza had been damaged or destroyed during Israel’s offensive, which has claimed almost 32,000 Palestinian lives.

The new text sends Israel the clearest message yet of the Biden administration’s growing frustration with its prosecution of the war, and comes after a warning from the UN human rights chief, Volker Türk, that Israel may be committing a war crime by using “starvation as a method of war”.

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Analysis

The US finally backs a ceasefire, but the nuances in its UN resolution show the tightrope it walks

Julian Borger in Washington

Draft resolution loosens linkage between Gaza ceasefire and hostage release as US tries to claw back leadership on issue at UN

Washington’s draft UN security council resolution on Gaza marks a shift in the US position, but it is a nuanced shift, retaining the linkage between a ceasefire and hostage release while loosening that linkage and emphasising that an immediate end to hostilities is the priority.

The primary focus for now is the hostage negotiations underway in Qatar, which are moving into high gear again, with the CIA and Mossad chiefs, William Burns and David Barnea, expected to fly into Doha on Friday.

The US draft resolution is designed to provide a sense of urgency to those talks. It also represents an attempt by the Biden administration to keep pressure on Hamas while seeking to regain some international credibility and mend ties with allies after three vetoes of UN ceasefire resolutions.

The latest veto was cast on 20 February, on an Algerian ceasefire resolution. At the time the US envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, insisted that an unconditional ceasefire could derail the talks on a hostage deal, which Washington portrayed as the best way to a sustainable truce. The US mission at the UN circulated an alternative text in which the security council “underscores its support for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable, based on the formula of all hostages being released”.

A month has passed since then, however. There has been no hostage deal and Gaza has slipped much further towards absolute catastrophe, with a UN panel of experts warning that a famine is imminent. The US is struggling to avoid the accusation of complicity in that disaster, and February’s version of the text now looks all the more complacent.

The new version of the draft resolution circulated on Thursday morning “determines the imperative of an immediate and sustained ceasefire to protect civilians on all sides, allow for the delivery of essential humanitarian assistance, and alleviate humanitarian suffering, and towards that end unequivocally supports ongoing international diplomatic efforts to secure such a ceasefire in connection with the release of all remaining hostages”.

It represents stronger language. It uses the word “immediate”, and the linkage to the hostage deal is not as tight. “Towards that end” has some ambiguity over whether an agreement is essential, rather than just helpful, in securing a ceasefire.

The nuances reflect the tightrope the US is still trying to walk, seeking to claw back leadership on the issue at the UN, while keeping pressure on Hamas to agree a limited deal that would exchange 40 of the most vulnerable hostages for a six-week pause.

So the resolution does not demand a ceasefire but simply “determines the imperative of one”. Antony Blinken, who is visiting Arab capitals, has gone out of his way to emphasise the linkage between a ceasefire and a hostage agreement.

But the draft resolution leaves the US wiggle room if the hostage talks fail, and that keeps up pressure on Israel to accept the six-week ceasefire on the table and to get serious finally about the flow of aid into Gaza. In their recent rhetoric, US officials such as the aid chief, Samantha Power, have made clear that Israel will bear primary responsibility for a famine if it does not change the level of humanitarian access.

Power, Thomas-Greenfield and Blinken have been seeking to push Biden towards a ceasefire call for weeks, but the president has put his faith in the hostage deal, with a look over his shoulder at the damage the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, could do to him in an election year.

The House speaker, the Republican Mike Johnson, said on Thursday he intends to invite Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress.

The last time that happened, in 2015, at the invitation of a previous Republican speaker, Netanyahu’s appearance on Capitol Hill was seen as a partisan swipe at US nuclear talks with Iran and the Obama White House, which was not initially consulted over the invitation.

The threat to Biden now is that Netanyahu paints him as abetting terrorism by pushing Israel into a ceasefire, allowing the Israeli leader to blame the US president for a failure to eliminate Hamas.

A new survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that Americans are still generally supportive of Israel, with 58% saying the state has valid reasons for fighting Hamas, and 38% saying Israeli conduct of the war has been acceptable, compared to just 34% saying it has been unacceptable.

That could change as conditions worsen further in Gaza, but if he waits for US public opinion to shift before using the full extent of US leverage, Biden will risk sharing complicity for the famine that is now barrelling towards 2.3 million people who are starving and under siege.

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Snappy customer: crocodile captured after walking into Queensland service station

Police called after the 1.4-metre freshwater crocodile wandered into the Townsville business

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A freshwater crocodile has surprised residents by wandering into a north Queensland service station, prompting an unusual call to police.

The snappy customer was spotted wandering into the Townsville business on Tuesday night.

Police received the call from surprised residents about the 1.4-metre crocodile’s arrival at the service station after 7pm.

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Senior wildlife officer Tony Frisby soon arrived to snap up the roaming reptile.

Frisby said the freshie’s motives were a mystery.

“We do not know why the freshwater crocodile entered the service station,” he said.

“But with recent heavy rainfall, crocodiles of all sizes and species are on the move.”

Frisby said freshwater crocs were usually timid and not considered dangerous.

But he said the recent sighting was no joke.

“A crocodile walking into a service station is a reminder that Townsville is croc country and people should be crocwise at all times,” Frisby said.

“Freshwater crocodiles are timid and will usually flee at the first sight of people approaching.

“But they will act defensively if they feel cornered or threatened and people should observe them from a distance.”

The reptile was taken to a government facility in Townsville, where it was placed into a secure pond.

The croc was found to be in a healthy condition and it was released into a suitable habitat in the nearby Ross River.

People are reminded to report all crocodile sightings to the environment department.

“Crocodiles can turn up in unexpected places during the warmer months as they move around looking for food, a mate and territory,” Frisby said.

“They can also seek higher ground or calmer waters during periods of heavy rain.”

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Snappy customer: crocodile captured after walking into Queensland service station

Police called after the 1.4-metre freshwater crocodile wandered into the Townsville business

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

A freshwater crocodile has surprised residents by wandering into a north Queensland service station, prompting an unusual call to police.

The snappy customer was spotted wandering into the Townsville business on Tuesday night.

Police received the call from surprised residents about the 1.4-metre crocodile’s arrival at the service station after 7pm.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

Senior wildlife officer Tony Frisby soon arrived to snap up the roaming reptile.

Frisby said the freshie’s motives were a mystery.

“We do not know why the freshwater crocodile entered the service station,” he said.

“But with recent heavy rainfall, crocodiles of all sizes and species are on the move.”

Frisby said freshwater crocs were usually timid and not considered dangerous.

But he said the recent sighting was no joke.

“A crocodile walking into a service station is a reminder that Townsville is croc country and people should be crocwise at all times,” Frisby said.

“Freshwater crocodiles are timid and will usually flee at the first sight of people approaching.

“But they will act defensively if they feel cornered or threatened and people should observe them from a distance.”

The reptile was taken to a government facility in Townsville, where it was placed into a secure pond.

The croc was found to be in a healthy condition and it was released into a suitable habitat in the nearby Ross River.

People are reminded to report all crocodile sightings to the environment department.

“Crocodiles can turn up in unexpected places during the warmer months as they move around looking for food, a mate and territory,” Frisby said.

“They can also seek higher ground or calmer waters during periods of heavy rain.”

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William Tyrrell’s former foster parents found guilty of intimidating different child

Magistrate clears couple of other domestic violence allegations in hearing at Sydney’s Downing Centre

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William Tyrrell’s former foster parents have been found guilty of intimidating another child in their care, but cleared of a slew of other domestic violence allegations.

In a hearing at Sydney’s Downing Centre on Friday, magistrate Susan McIntyre found the former foster mother – who cannot be legally identified – guilty of intimidating the child on two occasions, including threatening to slap them.

The father was found guilty of intimidating the child on one occasion while driving the child to school, when the child was heard “crying and sobbing”, the court was told.

But the magistrate dismissed a slew of domestic violence allegations facing the couple, with the foster mother cleared of five counts of intimidation, while the foster father had one count of assaulting the child dismissed.

None of the allegations relate to their treatment of William.

Prosecutors relied on more than 1,000 hours of covert recordings made in the couple’s home and vehicles over a period of 14 months in 2020 and 2021 by detectives investigating William’s disappearance.

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Three-year-old William went missing while playing at his foster grandmother’s home in Kendall on the New South Wales mid-north coast on 12 September 2014.

Prosecutors are yet to provide an update on the prospect of charges being laid over his disappearance.

The former foster mother also earlier pleaded guilty to assaulting the child on two occasions in January and October 2021, striking her with a wooden spoon and kicking her on the thigh while she was sitting on the floor during a time out.

Lawyers for the woman argued her actions did not constitute a pattern of violence and that she is “distraught and remorseful” for her actions, which the magistrate accepted.

The former foster father was cleared of assaulting the child while implementing a “time out”, which involved him placing his hands on the child’s shoulder and applying pressure in order to place them in a seated position.

Interviews with the child in which they said they had never been hurt by the foster father, helped establish the foster father’s innocence, McIntyre said.

The child was removed from their class at school by homicide detectives and interviewed in relation to the accusations against their foster mother.

When asked if they liked their foster mother they replied, “Yeah we go on walks together. She’s nice and easy to talk to.”

Police also asked if there was anything the child didn’t like about their foster mother.

“She’s very bossy. Always telling me what to do,” the child replied.

A sentence date for the pair has been set for 27 March.

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Neo-Nazis’ sentences over attack on hikers don’t reflect level of violence, Victorian prosecutor tells court

Director of public prosecutions launches appeal against sentences handed down to Thomas Sewell and Jacob Hersant

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Prosecutors are pushing for more jail time for two neo-Nazi leaders who attacked a group of hikers in a national park, arguing their original sentences were manifestly inadequate.

Thomas Sewell, 31, and Jacob Hersant, 25, were sentenced in October 2023 after pleading guilty in the county court to a violent affray in Victoria’s Cathedral Ranges state park.

Sewell received a 37-day jail term, reckoned as time served, while Hersant was ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid community work over 14 months. The three days Hersant spent on remand were also noted in his sentence as time served.

Victoria’s director of public prosecutions launched an appeal of their sentences, with the chief crown prosecutor, Brendan Kissane, on Friday arguing they were manifestly inadequate.

Kissane told the state’s court of appeal that in her sentencing, Judge Kellie Blair had failed to recognise the “terrifying” incident was a serious example of the violent disorder offence.

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Blair had also placed too much weight on the pair’s late guilty pleas and she wrongly found their prospects of rehabilitation were good, the prosecutor said.

Sewell and Hersant were part of a group of far-right National Socialist Network and European Australian Movement members who set upon the hikers in May 2021.

Ten to 15 men ran toward the hikers’ car, concealed their identities and threatened the group of friends, including one with a knife.

Prosecutors at the time claimed Sewell injured his arm on a broken window, either by breaking it himself or reaching into the car, while Hersant was said to have reached through the driver’s side window to either turn off the car or take the keys.

On Friday, Kissane argued the original prosecutors had pushed for a combination sentence of up to a year in jail and a community corrections order for both Sewell and Hersant.

Their current sentences did not reflect the seriousness of the offending, nor did it deter the community from committing similar crimes, he said.

But Sewell’s barrister, Dermot Dann, told the court the DPP’s case was “highly questionable”.

He said Blair rightly took into account Sewell’s onerous six months in custody during the pandemic, in which he had spent most of his time in solitary confinement.

The sentencing judge also gave correct weight to Sewell’s plea, as it avoided the need for a trial with witnesses being called, Dann said.

He said Corrections Victoria had correctly assessed Sewell’s prospects through the usual approach, rather than being focused on his political views.

Hersant’s barrister, Christopher Carr, said his client’s “entrenched views” would not predispose him to reoffending or affect his prospects of rehabilitation.

Carr said the sentencing judge did not make an error as she properly took into account that Hersant was a young offender with no prior violent offences.

Hersant had already completed his 200 hours of unpaid community work and resentencing him to more jail time would hinder his rehabilitation, he said.

The court of appeal president, Karin Emerton, and justices Maree Kennedy and Christopher Boyce reserved their decision to a later date.

Outside court, Sewell told reporters the appeal was a “political witch-hunt”, adding that he spent his six months in solitary confinement “meditating”.

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Man, 63, charged following alleged hit-and-run death of 28-year-old lawyer Mitch East in Sydney

East was found critically injured on Fletcher Street in beachside Tamarama about 4am on Sunday morning and pronounced dead at the scene

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A man will face court after allegedly hitting a young lawyer with his car and leaving him to die on a Sydney street.

The 63-year-old man was charged on Friday following the death of Mitch East, 28, in the early hours of Sunday.

The younger man was found critically injured on a street in beachside Tamarama, in the city’s eastern suburbs.

Police and paramedics were called to Fletcher Street about 4am, but East was pronounced dead at the scene after unsuccessful attempts to revive him.

The 63-year-old is due to face Parramatta bail court on Saturday after attending Granville police station on Friday.

He has been charged with failing to stop and assist after a vehicle impact causing death, dangerous driving occasioning death, negligent driving occasioning death and driving while using a mobile phone when not permitted.

East worked at Sydney law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler after beginning his legal career in his native New Zealand.

He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2022, according to his LinkedIn profile.

An email to Arnold Bloch Leibler staff described East as a highly talented lawyer and a popular and valued member of the firm, whose loss would be deeply felt.

“The partners expressed heartfelt condolences to Mitch’s parents, his partner and many close friends, both within and outside of [the firm],” a spokeswoman for the company said after employees were told the news of his death on Monday.

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Man, 63, charged following alleged hit-and-run death of 28-year-old lawyer Mitch East in Sydney

East was found critically injured on Fletcher Street in beachside Tamarama about 4am on Sunday morning and pronounced dead at the scene

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

A man will face court after allegedly hitting a young lawyer with his car and leaving him to die on a Sydney street.

The 63-year-old man was charged on Friday following the death of Mitch East, 28, in the early hours of Sunday.

The younger man was found critically injured on a street in beachside Tamarama, in the city’s eastern suburbs.

Police and paramedics were called to Fletcher Street about 4am, but East was pronounced dead at the scene after unsuccessful attempts to revive him.

The 63-year-old is due to face Parramatta bail court on Saturday after attending Granville police station on Friday.

He has been charged with failing to stop and assist after a vehicle impact causing death, dangerous driving occasioning death, negligent driving occasioning death and driving while using a mobile phone when not permitted.

East worked at Sydney law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler after beginning his legal career in his native New Zealand.

He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2022, according to his LinkedIn profile.

An email to Arnold Bloch Leibler staff described East as a highly talented lawyer and a popular and valued member of the firm, whose loss would be deeply felt.

“The partners expressed heartfelt condolences to Mitch’s parents, his partner and many close friends, both within and outside of [the firm],” a spokeswoman for the company said after employees were told the news of his death on Monday.

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One in 20 Australian mortgage holders are spending more than they earn

Reserve Bank says households are generally weathering the record run of interest rate rises but 5% of owner-occupiers are in a dire financial position

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About one in 20 owner-occupiers on variable-rate mortgages are spending more than they earn because of higher interest rates and cost-of-living increases but that share should halve by the end of 2025, the Reserve Bank said in its latest financial stability review.

The semi-annual report, released on Friday, was generally upbeat about the financial health of households and businesses, finding “nearly all borrowers continue to service their debts on schedule” even though conditions are likely to remain challenging for many this year.

Most borrowers remain able to service their debts, even as debt servicing costs have risen about 30-60% since the RBA started hiking its cash rate in May 2022. However, about 5% of owner-occupiers on variable rate loans face expenses exceeding income, with lower-income borrowers most likely to be in this category.

However, many of those with negative cash flow still have savings to draw upon. Those with both low buffers and more money leaving than being received make up less than 2% of the total number of owner-occupiers with loans although the share has risen sharply over the past two years.

Less than 1% of all housing loans were 90 or more days in arrears, the report said.

The outlook for borrowers, though, should start to improve provided the economy evolves as predicted, halving the share of those with negative cash flow by the end of next year.

“The cumulative effect of moderating inflation, higher real wages and a lower cash rate over the next two years will help to ease pressure on borrowers with stretched finances,” it said.

The report noted the “strong labour market” had supported household incomes and the ability to finance debt. That support may be even stronger than the RBA anticipated with the jobless rates unexpectedly diving to 3.7% last month from 4.1% in January, with a bumper 117,000 extra jobs generated, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said on Thursday.

In its quarterly forecasts released last month, the RBA expected the jobless rate to reach 4.2% by June.

The financial stability review notably did not model the impact of the revisions to the stage 3 tax cuts that take effect from 1 July. The amendments trimmed the tax cuts being received by those earning more than about $160,000 a year, distributing them to those earning less.

The review assumed the RBA’s cash rate would be down to 3.9% by the end of 2024, or about two 25 basis-point cuts from its current level, based on market forecasts in February.

With household finances generally holding up, the share of bank loans in default remained “relatively low, reflecting the resilience of the Australian economy and banks’ prudent lending standard over recent years”.

Loans with payments overdue for less than 90 days have “continued to tick up gradually” and are expected to continue to increase in part because of weak household consumption.

The larger threats to the domestic financial system may come from abroad. Among the global risks was the state of the Chinese economy, where further weakness of that nation’s property market could dim growth prospects in Australia’s biggest trading partner.

“If stresses in the Chinese economy and financial system intensified or broadened, they could spill over to the rest of the world (including Australia) through trade channels and an increase in global risk aversion,” it said.

Similarly, should the anticipated soft landing in the global economy – with inflation ebbing but unemployment levels remaining subdued – not transpire, financial markets could be “vulnerable to an adverse shock”.

Other threats, though, continue to build including from “cyber-attacks, risks associated with climate change and geopolitical tensions”, the report said.

Australia’s mortgage holders are faring better than expected as on-going strength in the labour market enables most people to keep up with rising debt repayment levels, the Reserve Bank said in its quarterly financial stability report.

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Australian and UK foreign and defence ministers on Friday stressed the “urgency of an immediate cessation of fighting in Gaza to allow aid to flow and hostages to be released”, in a statement after talks in Adelaide, reports AFP.

The call came just hours before the US was expected to put a resolution to the UN security council that would stress the need for “an immediate ceasefire”.

London’s call for an “immediate cessation of fighting” is a sign that the UK is also growing more anxious about the toll and impact of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

The UK and Australia said a cessation was now urgently needed to “allow aid to flow and hostages to be released as a crucial step toward a permanent, sustainable ceasefire”.

The UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, his Australian counterpart, Penny Wong, Australian defence minister Richard Marles and UK defence secretary Grant Shapps called the humanitarian crisis in Gaza “catastrophic” and “called on Israel to allow immediate, safe, unimpeded and increased humanitarian relief to reach Palestinians in Gaza”.

According to Reuters, a joint statement was released on Friday after the defence and foreign secretaries of the UK met with their Australian counterparts in Adelaide. The statement warns that there were potentially devastating consequences of an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah in Gaza.

“Given the large number of displaced persons taking refuge in the area and lack of safe spaces in Gaza, ministers shared deep concern at the potentially devastating consequences for the civilian population of an expanded Israeli military operation in Rafah,” the statement said.

Ufologists tried to break into my home for telling truth, says ex-Pentagon investigator

Sean Kirkpatrick is no longer head of the ‘UFO hunting’ office – but a new report he worked on has shaken the world of ufology

Sean Kirkpatrick doesn’t seem too thrilled to be chatting with me about UFOs. Since taking over the Pentagon’s All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO) in 2022 – government-speak for UFO hunting – Kirkpatrick has received violent threats, social-media smear campaigns, and even had to call the FBI after a UFO fanatic tried to break into his home.

“I’ve had people threaten my wife and daughter, and try to break into our online accounts,” Kirkpatrick says. “I didn’t have China and Russia trying to get on me as much as these people are.”

So, after 18 months in the job, Kirkpatrick called it quits last December. Then, last week, AARO published the first part of a report he had worked on that concluded there is no evidence “that any USG [US government] investigation, academic-sponsored research, or official review panel has confirmed that any sighting of a UAP [unidentified aerial phenomenon] represented extraterrestrial technology”.

AARO’s conclusions sent the world of ufology – the study of UFOs, the practitioners of which are known as ufologists – into a tailspin.

After all, it was only in July last year that former intelligence officer David Grusch told a packed congressional hearing that for decades the US government had been hoarding crashed alien spaceships and attempting to reverse-engineer them. True believers thought we were getting closer than ever to full disclosure; it was only a matter of time until the government would wheel out the flying saucers on to the White House lawn.

Kirkpatrick was watching that hearing. Over the course of three hours, and via testimony from two former US navy pilots, David Fravor and Ryan Graves, Congress heard about unknown aircraft making impossible manoeuvres, or the government’s possession of “non-human biologics” recovered from crashed spaceships. At one point, Representative Tim Burchett asked Grusch if he had any personal knowledge of people being harmed or injured in efforts to cover up or conceal extraterritorial technology. Grusch replied: “Yes.” Burchett then asked Grusch if he had heard of anyone being murdered. The former intelligence official answered: “I directed people with that knowledge to the appropriate authorities.” Grusch also claimed that the Men in Black were on his case and were harassing other witnesses.

Crucially, Grusch said he hadn’t seen the spaceships and “biologics” with his own eyes; someone in the intelligence community told him the story.

Naturally, Kirkpatrick tried to talk to him. But although Grusch had dropped most of these bombshells months before on the cable channel NewsNation, when asked to discuss it with the one man in the US government who really needed to hear the yarn, he was a no-show. “We tried to reach out to him four or five times to get him to come in,” Kirkpatrick says. “And as of the time that I left, he had refused to come for a variety of reasons.”

Kirkpatrick – who has sharp features, a thin goatee and speaks in a measured monotone that makes even this topic seem slightly boring – says the evidence against Grusch’s claims is conclusive. “There’s no evidence to support any of the allegations or any extraterrestrial reverse engineering or ‘human biologics’ or whatever you want to call it,” he says. “You see this story crop up every couple of decades, and it’s pretty much the same story.”

And it comes, he says, from the ufologists who gave him such grief – a core of people that can only be described as America’s new UFO lobby.

A new age

The 21st century’s UFO craze began on 16 December 2017 after the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had created something called the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP). This was supposedly a secret department investigating unidentified aerial phenomena or UAPs (the Department of Defense’s preferred acronym for UFOs).

The Times piece also included three videos, the most compelling of which showed an object eerily similar to a flying saucer, moving with no apparent means of propulsion.

The story went viral and UFOs went mainstream. Serious people were now taking little green men and their spaceships very seriously. Barack Obama told The Late Late Show with James Corden that things were happening in our skies that the US government simply could not explain.

However, not everything in the Times’ story was accurate. Yes, the Pentagon did have a UFO programme, but it was called the Advanced Aerospace Weapon System Applications Program (AAWSAP), not AATIP, and it had bizarre beginnings.

Seated next to Grusch in that congressional hearing was George Knapp, a journalist who in 2006 co-wrote a book called Hunt for the Skinwalker (a shape-shifting witch in Navajo culture). Knapp’s book tells stories of vanishing cattle, “invisible objects emitting magnetic fields” and flying orbs zooming around the eponymous Skinwalker Ranch – a large property in Utah.

The book has proved to be instrumental in modern ufology. It found its way to James Lacatski, an intelligence officer in the Department of Defense, who was blown away by it and contacted the aviation billionaire Robert Bigelow, the owner of Skinwalker Ranch at the time. Bigelow allowed Lacatski to visit the ranch and investigate; one evening, Lacatski claimed to see an apparition in the kitchen, described in Knapp’s and Lacatski’s 2021 follow-up book Skinwalkers at the Pentagon as “an unearthly technological device” which took the form of “a complex semi-opaque, yellowish, tubular structure”.

Lacatski and Bigelow took their findings to the late Harry Reid, the Nevada senator, who also had a keen interest in UFOs. Bigelow was a longtime donor to Reid’s campaigns, and persuaded him that it was time to look into UFOs and related phenomena.

There was one problem: a defence programme focused on UFOs would not loosen any purse strings at the Pentagon, so Lacatski buried the true purpose of his research under an unremarkable acronym: AAWSAP, which promptly kicked off a search for poltergeists, ET and “the freakish hybrid of small dinosaur [sic] and large beaver”.

The Pentagon gave $22m to AAWSAP in 2007 – and AAWSAP gave the funds to none other than Bigelow and his company, Bigelow Aerospace, who used the money to chase UFOs and the paranormal at Skinwalker Ranch.

In 2012, the Pentagon got wind of what was really happening, and closed AAWSAP down. There’s no evidence that AAWSAP found spaceships or aliens.

But the myth had taken root.

In Kirkpatrick’s report, he says all the stories – the alien bodies and crashed spaceships that Grusch peddled in Congress – “largely originate from the same group of individuals who have ties to AAWSAP/AATIP program”and “worked with each other consistently in various UAP-related efforts”.

Their beliefs, he says now, are as circular as their associations with one another. “Some of that same core group of individuals had reached out to one of these industry partners and convinced them to take a look at a piece of material that they claimed was part of a crashed UFO. And then they turned around to point to that company and say, ‘Hey, ‘they’re reverse engineering crashed UFOs?’ Well, they were the ones that gave it to them.” Nevertheless, he and his team at AARO looked into it. “It turns out that’s not really a UFO. It’s most likely a piece of a missile case from an air force test,” he says.

What about the leaked UFO videos, like the one in the New York Times? Kirkpatrick says there’s not enough data to provide a definitive analysis of each one but insists that, like all the stories that came across his desk, they have mundane explanations that don’t involve space aliens. The rotating object shaped like a flying saucer is probably glare from a distant heat source. “The source could be any number of things. Even a weather balloon will give off that kind of glare if it’s got enough shiny metal on it, and the sun’s just right,” he says.

But evidence is not the point. Some will never be swayed. “There’s the absolute true belief, which would suggest it is more akin to a religion than an actual factual thing,” he says. “And those are the people that you’re never going to convince, no matter what you put in front of them. I can lay out the pictures of the classified programmes that they mistook, and they still wouldn’t believe it. They would say, ‘No, that was derived from alien technology.’”

And what if the government does eventually get its hands on aliens and their flying saucers? “It’s not their job [to keep it secret],” he says. “It would immediately get turned over to Nasa, and Nasa would immediately disclose it to everybody. That’s their job.”

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Japan schools move to protect cheerleaders from upskirting at sporting events

Several schools have brought in shorts for cheerleaders at baseball tournament while another positioned teachers between the cheerleaders and spectators

High schools taking part in Japan’s annual spring baseball tournament are taking action to prevent spectators from taking sexualised photographs of female cheerleaders.

The invitational tournament – and a regular tournament held every summer at Koshien stadium near Osaka – are supposed to be a celebration of youthful sporting prowess and a chance for teenage boys from 32 schools around the country to make their mark and perhaps catch the eye of a professional ball club.

But in recent years the events have been marred by incidences of voyeurism, in which female members of cheerleading groups, often dressed in sleeveless tops and short skirts, are photographed without their consent, with the images posted online in some cases.

In response, cheerleaders from several schools now perform in the stands wearing long-sleeved shirts and shorts, although other schools have retained the traditional uniform.

Earlier this week, girls from Takasaki high school in Gunma prefecture, north-west of Tokyo, performed in shorts that had been designed to complement the uniforms worn by its baseball team.

Despite complaints by some girls that they preferred to wear skirts, school officials said the group had accepted the costume change.

“Voyeuristic photos can potentially cause lifelong emotional damage to our students,” said Takasaki teacher Kohei Shiozawa, according to the public broadcaster NHK.

Airi Ozawa, the head of the school’s cheerleading team, told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper: “At first, I thought a skirt would be better, but when I actually wore [shorts] and started cheering, I felt a sense of unity as the outfits matched the baseball team uniforms. And they were easy to move about in. Now I can dance with peace of mind.”

As an additional deterrent, teachers from the school are patrolling the stands at Koshien with signs asking spectators to refrain from photographing students. Earlier this week, teachers from another school positioned themselves between the cheerleaders and regular spectators to block the view of would-be voyeurs.

Concern over secret photography has spread to other sports in Japan, with complaints from women competing in gymnastics, track and field and synchronised swimming, among other sports, that they have been secretly filmed or photographed.

In 2020, the Japan Olympic Committee described upskirting and other forms of secret photography targeting female athletes as “despicable”, warning that it would empower stadium officials to check images taken by spectators during the Tokyo Games.

The sportswear manufacturer Mizuno has developed a special fabric it says will deter voyeurs from secretly using infrared cameras that produce a “see-through” effect.

The firm plans to make the textile commercially available for track and field uniforms, sports bras and swimsuits, according to the Asahi Shimbun.

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