Aussie Price eyes Dakar podium finish

Australian rider Toby Price says he has achieved his goal for the first week of the Dakar Rally having retained second place overall.


The 28-year-old has won three of the seven stages completed to sit three minutes and 12 seconds behind overall leader Paulo Goncalves.

In the last stage before the rest day, Price finished fifth behind Frenchman Antoine Meo.

Price, in his second Dakar, says he is determined not to drop his guard as the race enters its second week.

“My goal is to finish the race and get a podium spot,” Price said.

“We had a good first week, no significant mistakes, and our objective was to get to the rest day in a good position.”

Heavy storms and torrential rain have hampered the race’s first week and led to cancellations and changes.

Since encountering setbacks during stages three and four, Price has been able to stay largely trouble-free in the gruelling event in which riders are forced to endure headache-inducing high altitudes.

“I’m happy with the work we’ve done so far but it’s far from over, a mechanical or a navigational mistake can destroy everything,” Price said.

Price, from Singleton in the NSW Hunter Valley, had back-to-back wins on stages five and six.

“The Australian flags at the finish were great to see. It’s nice to get support when you’re racing so far from home,” he said.

In the car division, Sebastian Loeb leads at the midway point by more than two minutes from French countryman Stephane Peterhansel.

The Dakar Rally, running in Argentina and Bolivia, resumes on Monday and ends next Saturday in Rosario, Argentina.


Catalan independence back on track

Catalonia’s parliament swore in a new separatist leader on Sunday evening.


The action puts the pro-independence movement’s commitment to break with Spain over the next 18 months back on track after a long political deadlock.

The 11th hour decision played into a fraught national political scene since an inconclusive election last month in which Spain’s ruling People’s Party won the most seats but lost its parliamentary majority.

The country has been in stalemate since then.

After months of tense negotiations between Catalan parties over a leader who could unite the pro-independence movement, Carles Puigdemont, mayor of Girona, replaced Artur Mas as head of a majority separatist Catalan parliament, which will now restart the push for a unilateral split with Spain.

Catalonia’s parties had until Monday to agree on a new leader or new regional elections would have had to be called.

Under the separatists’ 18-month “road map”, Catalan authorities will approve their own constitution and begin building institutions necessary for an independent state such as an army, central bank and judicial system.

“We begin an extremely important process, unparalleled in our recent history, to create the Catalonia that we want, to collectively build a new country,” Puigdemont told the Catalan parliament.

He said Catalonia would need to negotiate with the Spanish state, the European Union and the international community to achieve such a goal.

His plan faces fierce opposition from Spain’s central government under the People’s Party, which refused to allow a referendum in Catalonia in 2014, arguing it would contravene Spain’s constitution.

Acting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Sunday he would block any unilateral move from the new Catalan government and had instructed all government officials to enforce the law.

“I will defend and preserve democracy all over Spain. I will defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people,” he told a news conference.

Rajoy said he had received the backing of Socialist party leader Pedro Sanchez and newcomer centrist party Ciudadanos’ leader Albert Rivera, having spoken to both that afternoon.

The resurgence of a unified independence movement increases pressure on Rajoy and his Socialist rivals to bury their differences and form a German-style “grand coalition” in Madrid to thwart the Catalan parties.

A senior PP official said on Sunday a coalition would be the best response to the separatist challenge.

“We should reach an agreement amongst us all to form the broadest government possible of the main parties – the People’s Party, the Socialists, and also, logically, Ciudadanos,” Fernando Martinez Maillo told a news conference.


Natural alternatives might not be the answer: your guide to microbeads

The US government has approved a bill banning the sale of cosmetic products containing microbeads, a move that has been applauded by environmentalists the world over.


Microbeads pollute waterways where they destroy marine life.

The US plans to phase out microbead-containing products by 2018.

But will Australia, home to one of the richest marine ecosystems, follow suit?


What are microbeads?

Microbeads are small particles used as exfoliants in body scrubs, soaps, and toothpastes.

In most products, these microbeads are made of unrecyclable plastics.

Senior research associate at the Univeristy of New South Wales, Dr. Mark Anthony Browne, says microbeads are only one source of microplastic pollution, of which clothing fibers are the largest contributor.

“It’s just NGOs make more of a fuss about exfoliants.” he says.

Clothes particles from laundry grey water, packaging materials, and even larger sheets of plastic that have been broken down into microparticles contribute to this pollution.

These microplastics, which are too small to be caught by most water filters, pollute our waterways and destroy the marine life that calls them home. 

A study estimated 236,000 metric tons of microplastic waste enters the ocean each year; in early 2015, Middle Harbour scientists found 60 to 100 particles of micro debris per 100 millilitres of sediment in the Sydney Harbour.

This is among the highest levels recorded in the world.

Microplastics can also be ingested by fish and the humans that consume them.


So why are microbeads on our shelves in the first place?

Dr. Browne says plastic microbeads came onto the market with good intentions.

“They started out as a way to recycle plastic debris,” he says, as an alternative to natural exfoliants like shells and husks.

But a lack of testing for specific environmental effects, he says, has also contributed to why microbead cosmetics have staying in market for so long. 

“These products first hit the market without sufficient testing, and then they discover they cause all these problems, and then it’s too late,” he says.

 Are there environmentally-friendly alternatives to microbeads?

Australia has prevented the use of the petrochemical exfoliants to some extent already.

In 2014, social change group, Do Something, launched a campaign to ban microbeads in the country.

Coles and Woolworths have pledged to pull down all products containing microbeads off their shelves by 2017’s end.

Other cosmetics manufacturers like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and The Body Shop do sell some products containing microbeads, but are working to find alternative materials.

Many luxury brands, like Lush and Miranda Kerr’s Kora Organics, sell scrubs using nature-based granules.

However, Dr. Browne claims there is is no way to know whether natural alternatives are any better for the environment without sufficient testing.

“Research and testing are important. We’re just guessing, really, hoping a natural based exfoliant is better than a synthetic one.”

Asbestos, a natural mineral with disasterous health impacts, was used in construction up until the 1980s, and was only banned from all products in December 2003.

“The main scientific question is if we stopping using one thing and shift to another are things going to go away or become worse?” Dr. Brown added.


How can you tell what products have and don’t have microbeads in them?

“A lot of exfoliating products don’t specify whether the scrub component contains plastics or not, so it’s up to the consumers to be aware of the issue and try to opt for cosmetics with nut kernel pieces, coffee granules, sugar and so on,” says SBS Online Science Editor Signe Dean.

But it can be hard to tell what products do or don’t contain microbeads.

To help consumers out, the International Campaign Against Microbeads in Cosmetics has compiled list of companies that most likely still use microbeads in their products.

The list can be accessed here.


How far is Australia from banning microbeads for good?

The US’s latest legislative measure against microbeads has been a source of encouragement.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt appeared on ABC’s 7:30 Report, sharing the key to phasing out microbeads will be forming partnerships with industry.

“I have to confess, it’s one of those issues which emerged later than it should have,” he said

In December 2015, a meeting of Commonwealth, state and territory Environment Ministers announced plans to phase out microbeads by no later than July 2018.

Dr. Browne believes that with better testing policies for consumer products, and frequent analysis of plastic emissions data, microplastic pollution could be a thing of the past.

“Yes, I think we could solve it. We could solve it if we did a couple of things.” he says.


Queen and Cambridges commemorate Anzacs

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have made a surprise appearance at a poignant ceremony marking 100 years since the end of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.


William and Kate on Sunday joined the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh at a wreath-laying service held at a war memorial on the monarch’s Sandringham estate.

The Cambridges were not scheduled to attend the ceremony which marked the 100th anniversary of the final withdrawal of allied troops from the Gallipoli peninsula in the First World War.

But after attending a traditional Sunday service at Sandringham’s St Mary Magdalene Church with the Queen and Philip they walked behind the monarch to the nearby war memorial cross.

Kate, who celebrated her 34th birthday on Saturday, was joined at church by her parents Michael and Carole Middleton and siblings Pippa and James.

The Queen and Prince Philip, who is patron of the Gallipoli Association, stood still as the Last Post was played by a bugler and a minute’s silence was observed.

Then, with solemnity and quiet dignity, the Queen and Duke each placed a wreath at the war memorial dedicated to local men who fought in the Great War and paid the ultimate sacrifice.

The Gallipoli land campaign against Turkey was one of the major engagements of the First World War, involving more than 400,000 British and around 140,000 Commonwealth and Irish servicemen.

At dawn on April 25, 1915, waves of Allied troops launched an amphibious attack on the strategically important peninsula, which was key to controlling the Dardanelles straits, the crucial route to the Black Sea and Russia.

But the plan backed by Winston Churchill was flawed and the campaign, which faced a heroic defence by the Turks, led to stalemate and withdrawal eight months later.

Some 44,000 Allied troops died, including 8700 from Australia and 2700 New Zealanders. Almost 87,000 Turks lost their lives.

The last Allied troops were withdrawn on January 9, 1916.


Sean Penn’s curious habit of inserting himself into international controversy

He has jumped into riots, protested wars, drunk with dictators and aided natural disaster relief.


Now, Sean Penn has taken his boldest step yet in what appears to be a never-ending quest to ensure he is remembered as more than an actor. He found the world’s most hunted criminal and asked him some questions for Rolling Stone magazine.

Why, you might have asked, would Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán sit down with the guy from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”?

Because while you know Penn as a box office regular, the cartel kingpin knows him as a rebellious activist. Penn has been using his Hollywood power to jump into high-profile conversations for nearly the entirely of his career, from humanitarian moments in New Orleans and Haiti to political kerfuffles as controversial as this encounter with Guzmán.

“I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals,” Penn wrote in his Rolling Stone piece, published on Saturday. But as he was gearing up to meet the people who would eventually lead him to Guzmán, Penn said, he was in his “rhythm” – this was the kind of story he has been working toward for years, and not just because it might lead to a movie eventually. The escaped fugitive was “interested in seeing the story of his life told on film,” if the project involved Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. Presumably, he did not foresee that contacting two extremely famous actors would lead authorities to his capture last week.

A Mexican law enforcement official denied media reports that the Mexican government has requested to interrogate Penn. But the official added that “lines of investigation” could include Penn, without specifying how.

The actor’s drive to be at the heart of the action seems to come from basic curiosity. A 2006 profile in the New Yorker describes how Penn drove into the thick of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992 because he wanted to see it for himself. The adventure ended with a shopping cart crashing into his windshield.

“He’s not taking a secondhand opinion. He really wants to know what’s going down,” actor-director Dennis Hopper told the magazine.

As his success continued on screen, Penn’s growing reputation allowed for his curiosity to take him to more dangerous and exclusive places. In 2002, he traveled to Iraq. In 2003, after the invasion of US troops, he went back, this time to write about the experience for the San Francisco Chronicle. Penn enjoyed the experience of playing reporter enough to try it again in 2005, this time in Iran. Reporting, he told the New Yorker, was just like acting.

“You wake up in the morning with an interest in listening and expressing,” he said. “It all feels the same to me. Acting is Everyman-ness, and loving Everyman. Finally, you’re reaching out to people’s pain.”

Penn, who declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story, wasn’t approaching turmoil in the Middle East as an unbiased journalistic observer. He had previously taken out an advertisement in The Washington Post condemning President George W. Bush on Iraq, and later called for his impeachment. “The needless blood on your hands, and therefore, on our own, is drowning the freedom, the security, and the dream that America might have been, once healed of and awakened by, the tragedy of September 11, 2001,” Penn wrote to Bush in 2010.

Though he allegedly tried to interview Bush, Penn never made it to the White House. Instead he veered toward a different brand of world leader, developing relationships with Cuban President Raúl Castro and Venezuela’s late Hugo Chávez.

Penn visited Cuba for Christmas in 2005, “under the auspices of religious tourism,” with his then-wife Robin Wright and their two children. The family was introduced to Castro in a private midnight meeting, where they discussed the actor’s trips to the Middle East, Latin American history and gay rights. Penn wrote about the encounter in a 17,000-word story for The Nation, in which he also describes meeting and befriending Chávez. When Chávez died in 2013, Penn called him one of the “most important forces we’ve had on this planet.”

This is apparently what piqued Guzmán’s interest in Penn.

“He asks about my relationship with the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez with what seems to be a probing of my willingness to be vilified through associations,” Penn wrote in Rolling Stone.”I speak to our friendship in a way that seems to pass an intuitive litmus test measuring the independence of my perspective.”

When he flew to the post-disaster scenes of Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake, Penn was accused of showboating. He responded by saying he hoped those critics would “die screaming of rectal cancer,” then founded “J/P Haitian Relief Organization.” The non-profit held a benefit gathering the same evening as the Rolling Stone interview Guzmán with was released.

“I’m just another a – trying to feel good about himself,” he told Esquire last year. And why shouldn’t I? That’s what everybody should try to do.”

“I’d seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike,” he wrote. “I was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who had lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.”

It’s just the kind of thing that would make a captivating movie, perhaps one day, starring Sean Penn.


Drug lord Guzman faces extradition to US

Mexico aims to extradite drug lord Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman to the United States after security forces recaptured the fugitive cartel leader.


He blew his cover through a series of slip ups, including an attempt to make a movie about his life.

The Mexican Attorney General’s office will be working as fast as possible to establish the path to extradition, and Chapo could be sent to the United States by mid-year, a source familiar with the situation said on Saturday.

However the timing might depend on injunctions filed by Guzman’s legal team.

Guzman, the world’s top drug smuggler and boss of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, is wanted by US authorities on a host of criminal charges.

His organisation has smuggled billions of dollars worth of drugs into the United States and is blamed for thousands of deaths in Mexico and the United States due to addiction and gang warfare.

Guzman’s dramatic capture in the town of Los Mochis on Friday followed a six month-long intelligence operation during which the drug lord relaxed his security just enough to allow authorities to pick up his trail.

Among his errors, Guzman got in touch with people in the film industry to have them make a “biopic” movie of his eventful life journey from rural poverty to untold wealth and dramatic jailbreaks.

“Another important aspect which helped locate him was discovering Guzman’s intention to have a biographical film made. He contacted actresses and producers, which was part of one line of investigation,” Mexico’s Attorney General Arely Gomez said.

Perhaps more importantly, Gomez said security forces also identified a expert in digging tunnels in Guzman’s circle who was outfitting houses in the states of Sinaloa and Sonora.

Authorities caught wind of that and began carefully watching a house in Los Mochis, Sinaloa.

They spotted unusual activity when a vehicle pulled up before dawn on January 7, and intelligence officials confirmed Guzman was on the property.

A raid followed.

Mexican Marines chased Guzman and his chief hitman through a drain and then nabbed them as he tried to flee by car.

The United States requested Guzman’s extradition in late June, just a couple of weeks before his brazen escape from a maximum security prison through a mile-long tunnel which burrowed right up through the floor of his cell.

The failure to extradite him before his elaborate jailbreak strained relations with the United States.

Sending Guzman to the United States would help allay fears the drug lord could use his massive fortune to bribe prison officials and escape from a Mexican maximum security jail yet again.

Though the US Drug Enforcement Administration and US Marshals helped in the recapture, American officials have taken no credit and instead lavished praise on Mexico.


WA fires downgraded amid easing conditions

Easing weather conditions are helping firefighters battle the blaze that has killed two people and destroyed more than 140 properties.


But the Department of Fire and Emergency Services says the threat still remains.

Fire crews in Western Australia are describing the massive bushfire in the state’s southwest as “contained but not controlled”.

Calmer weather conditions have been a welcome reprieve for firefighters entering their sixth day of battling the blaze which has burnt more than 70,000 hectares of land.

The bushfire was sparked by lightning last Wednesday morning.

An emergency warning in place for east of Waroona, Hamel, Yarloop and surrounding areas has now been downgraded to ‘watch and act’.

Damon Childs, from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services, says favourable conditions have led to the downgrade.

“Fortunately we’ve had better weather conditions in the last couple of days and that’s assisted firefighting operations. We’ve also had a chance to contain the fires so we’ve got containment lines around the fire and we still have some areas that have uncontrolled fire but they are contained so there’s no real danger. So we could downgrade the alerts to a watch and act in certain areas and some others have even come down as low as an all clear and other ones in between are an advice.”

Easing conditions also saw the alert level drop to advice for Preston Beach and Lake Clifton including the Waroona townsite.

An advice alert remains in place for Pamelup Estate to Binningup townsite, including the townsite of Myalup.

Four firefighters have been injured, while a New South Wales contingent, including 60 firefighters, is now assisting fatigued local crews.

Volunteers who battled to save the town of Yarloop have used social media to defend themselves from criticism that residents were not adequately warned of the danger.

But Yarloop resident Alan Coleman, who was inside his home just minutes before the flames hit, says people should’ve been given more warning.

“Very frightening, it was scary. The fire was just roaring all the time, the house on the corner caught fire, just helped my neighbours out, got them on the oval. And yeah, everything went wrong.”

Authorities have also discovered two bodies in Yarloop of men aged 73 and 77, who are believed to have died in the blaze.

Meanwhile, a number of major roads in the area remain closed raising concerns about food supplies to the southwest.

Local MP Murray Cowper says the road closures could be felt as far as supermarkets in Perth and other towns, with market gardeners struggling to get their produce through.

Mr Cowper says milk supplies may also run short, as major dairy suppliers in the Harvey area were forced to dump milk.

Store owners, like Colin Bell in the town of Binningup, have been allowed through roadblocks after running critically low on supplies.

“We’ve run out at a lot of stores and we can’t top the shop up, they wouldn’t let the trucks in this week to supply the community with the goods, so yeah, we’re just doing what we can do.”

Fire crews are hoping for better news as stable weather conditions are expected over the next few days, before high temperatures and strong winds once again take hold.



People reluctant to heed cancer risks

People are reluctant to change their unhealthy lifestyle choices even when they know they could contribute to them getting cancer, new research has found.


Four out of five smokers are not willing to kick the habit to reduce their risk of getting the disease, according to a study revealing “worrying attitudes” towards the disease.

Fifty-one per cent refused to lose weight while 60 per cent said they would not give up sunbathing or tanning beds, Merseyside NHS Trust and The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust Foundation found.

While a recent study advised 90 per cent of cancers are caused by external factors, the study found people were willing to take a gamble with their health.

Of the 2010 people asked whether they would change their lifestyles to reduce their risk of cancer, just 20 per cent of the 585 smokers said they would quit.

Fifty-nine per cent were not willing to drink less, 34 per cent would not opt for a healthier diet and 54 per cent said they would not be willing to get a good night’s sleep.

Fourteen per cent said they would not change anything to reduce their risk of cancer.

Dr Peter Kirkbride, medical director of The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre NHS Foundation Trust, said: “A healthier lifestyle can significantly reduce the risk of developing cancer as well as improving general health and wellbeing.

“Eating better, moving more, drinking less alcohol and reducing sun exposure will mean you’re much less likely to develop cancer, and smokers can get lots of support to help them quit.”

The survey also revealed a “glaring lack of knowledge” about recognising the symptoms of cancer – despite 64 per cent having direct experience of the disease, researchers said.

More than half (54 per cent) of people said they would not recognise the early signs of breast cancer, which the study said was “frighteningly low”.

And more than 90 per cent said they would not recognise symptoms of other common cancers including pancreatic, ovarian and uterine (womb) cancers.

Dr Kirkbride said: “Recognising early symptoms of cancer could save your life – the sooner you’re diagnosed and start treatment, the better the outcome – but this survey has revealed that many people just don’t know what warning signs to look out for.

“On top of this, there are many types of cancer that people haven’t heard of at all. Cancer can occur anywhere in the body.

“It’s really important that we all do what we can to reduce our chances of developing cancer by leading healthier lifestyles – and that people know what symptoms to look out for and consult a healthcare professional if they develop them.

“Early diagnosis and early treatment helps save lives.”


Suspect in actress murder in custody

The suspected killer of former EastEnders actress Sian Blake remains in custody and could be brought before a court in Ghana on Monday.


Arthur Simpson-Kent, 48, was reportedly eating a coconut on a beach when he was arrested on Saturday after he was “smoked from a thicket” where he had been hiding and arrested by armed police.

He left the country following the deaths of his former partner and their two young sons, Zachary, eight, and four year-old Amon.

British police said they will make a formal request for his extradition “in due course”.

The Ghanaian authorities cannot hold a suspect for more than 48 hours without putting him before a court, so it is likely Simpson-Kent will go before a judge on Monday and that police will apply to have him remanded in custody.

At a news conference in Ghana’s capital Accra yesterday, Detective Chief Inspector Graeme Gwyn, of the Metropolitan Police’s homicide and major crime command, heaped praise on the “outstanding” work of the Ghanaian authorities.

He said: “I want to pass on my thanks from myself and Scotland Yard and the UK authorities for all the work the Ghanaians have done for us in effecting an arrest.

“The second thing is our thoughts continue to, and always do remain with, Sian’s family and the boys, this is why we are here, this is why we do what we do, and we are here to get justice for them.”

Pictures broadcast on BBC News showed Simpson-Kent with his hands cuffed behind his back being paraded in front of cameras and journalists in the West African country.

British police have faced criticisms that their murder investigation has been blighted with delays.

But Gwyn insisted that “there is nothing we or the Ghanaians could have done any quicker to get out here as quickly as we could”.

An international manhunt was launched for the former model turned hairdresser after he went missing following the death of his girlfriend and children.

Blake and her two sons were last seen on December 13.

Their bodies were eventually discovered by police three weeks later buried in the garden of their home in Erith, Kent.

It later emerged that Simpson-Kent left the country after officers spoke to him on December 16.

The case was referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission for investigation.


Air strikes reported near Libya’s Sirte

Unidentified aircraft attacked an Islamic State convoy on Sunday near the Libyan city of Sirte, a resident told Reuters.


The coastal city has been controlled for months by the militant group, which has used it as a base from which to try to expand its presence in Libya.

The witness account could not be verified, and the air force allied to one of Libya’s competing governments, based in the east of the country, said it had not carried out any strikes.

Also on Sunday, a spokesman for the Petroleum Facilities Guard said three boats had tried to attack the oil port of Zueitina.

The guards repelled the attack before the boats reached the port, hitting one of the vessels and setting it on fire, Ali al-Hassi said.

He said Islamic State militants were suspected of carrying out the attack.

Earlier this week Islamic State launched an assault on the major Libyan oil terminals of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, which lie between Zueitina and Sirte.

Clashes over three days left 18 guards dead and more than 50 injured, Hassi said on Sunday, giving an updated toll.

They also triggered fires at seven oil storage tanks that were later extinguished.

Zueitina oil port was closed in November in a move linked to the wider dispute between Libya’s rival governments.

The export terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf have been closed since December 2014.

The UN is currently trying to win support for a plan to form a national unity government, though it has faced resistance from factions on the ground.

Islamist militants have taken advantage of a security vacuum that developed as numerous rival groups have competed for power and for Libya’s oil wealth since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.