A shocking Australian military report into war crimes has found evidence that elite Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians.
Australian Defence Force Chief Gen. Angus Campbell said Thursday the shameful record included alleged instances in which new patrol members would shoot a prisoner in order to achieve their first kill in a practice known as “blooding.” He said the soldiers would then plant weapons and radios to support false claims the prisoners were enemies killed in action.
Campbell told reporters in Canberra the illegal killings began in 2009, with the majority occurring in 2012 and 2013. He said some members of the elite Special Air Service encouraged “a self-centered, warrior culture.”
The chief was announcing the findings of a four-year investigation by Maj. Gen. Paul Brereton, a judge and Army reservist who was asked to look into the allegations and interviewed more than 400 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents. Brereton recommended 19 soldiers be investigated by police for possible charges, including murder.
“To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologize for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers,” Campbell said.
He said he’d spoken directly to his Afghan military counterpart to express his remorse.
“Such alleged behavior profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people who had asked us to their country to help them,” Campbell said. “It would have devastated the lives of Afghan families and communities, causing immeasurable pain and suffering. And it would have put in jeopardy our mission and the safety of our Afghan and coalition partners.”
As well as the 39 killings, the report outlines two allegations of cruel treatment. It says that none of the alleged crimes were committed during the heat of battle.
Only parts of the report have been made public. Many details, including the names of alleged killers, remain redacted.
The report said a total of 25 current or former troops were involved as perpetrators or accessories in 23 separate incidents, with some involved just once and a few multiple times.
It said some Australian troops would regularly carry “throw downs” — things like foreign pistols, radios and grenades that they could plant on those they killed so the Afghan civilians would appear like combatants in photographs.
The report said most of the alleged crimes were committed and concealed at a patrol commander level by corporals and sergeants, and that while higher-level troop and squadron commanders had to take some responsibility for the events that happened on their watch, they weren’t primarily to blame.
The report paints a picture of a toxic culture in which soldiers were competing against those from other squadrons, accounts of deaths were sanitized or embellished, and many procedures to ensure safety and integrity had broken down.
“Those who wished to speak up were allegedly discouraged, intimidated and discredited,” Campbell said.
The report recommended 19 soldiers be referred to federal police for criminal investigation. Campbell said he’s accepting all the report’s recommendations.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already announced a special investigator will help pursue possible prosecutions because the workload would overwhelm existing police resources.
Many troops are also likely to be stripped of their medals and the defense force will undergo significant structural changes. The report says that where there is credible evidence of unlawful killings, Afghan families should be compensated immediately by Australia without waiting for the criminal cases to proceed.
“This will be an important step in rehabilitating Australia’s international reputation, in particular with Afghanistan, and it is simply the right thing to do,” the report states.
Spending on health care in Australia surpassed 190 billion Australian dollars (138.1 billion U.S. dollars) in 2019, said a report published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) on Friday.
It revealed that health spending increased by 3.1 percent to 195.7 billion AUD (142.2 billion USD) in the financial year 2018-19 - down from an average increase of 3.5 percent per year over the last decade.
More than two thirds of that spending was by governments on services such as Medicare, Australia's universal health care system, with the federal government spending 80.6 billion AUD (58.6 billion USD) and state and territory governments a combined 53 billion AUD (38.5 billion USD).
The report covers a period prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, with spending expected to have increased significantly in 2019-20 as a result of the pandemic.
"Spending in 2018-19 equated to an average of 7,772 AUD (5,650.8 USD) per person," Adrian Webster, an AIHW spokesperson, said in a media release.
"In real terms, this was 111 AUD (80.7 USD or 1.5 percent) more per person than in 2017-18, slightly lower than the average growth over the decade of 1.9 percent.
"Health spending represented around 10 percent of economic activity in 2018-19, roughly the same as the previous year. This has not increased since 2015-16."
Government health spending accounted for 24.3 percent of tax revenue, down from 24.5 percent.
"In terms of the key health services, spending on hospitals grew by 2.8 billion AUD (2.03 billion USD) in real terms to 79 billion AUD (57.4 billion USD), making up 40.4 percent of total health spending," Webster said.
Research by Australia's national science agency has found that potential vaccines for COVID-19 would not be affected by how the virus has mutated.
A study published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) on Thursday has dispelled fears that vaccines would not be effective against multiple strains of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19.
According to the study most candidate vaccines have been modelled on the 'D-strain' of the virus that was dominant at the outbreak of the pandemic.
However, the virus has since evolved into the 'G-strain', or 'D614G' mutation, which now accounts for 85 percent of SARS-CoV-2 genomes.
The CSIRO team tested both strains of the virus on the blood of ferrets that had been vaccinated with INO-4800, a candidate vaccine developed by Inovio Pharmaceuticals, finding that it was effective against both D- and G-strains.
"This brings the world one step closer to a safe and effective vaccine to protect people and save lives," Larry Marshall, the chief executive of the CSIRO, said in a statement.
"Research like this, at speed, is only possible through deep collaboration with partners both in Australia and around the world."
Lead author of the study, S.S. Vasan from the CSIRO's Dangerous Pathogens Team, said the findings were good news for hundreds of vaccines being developed around the world.
"Most COVID-19 vaccine candidates target the virus' spike protein as this binds to the ACE2 receptors in our lungs and airways, which are the entry point to infect cells," said Vasan.
"Despite this 'D614G' mutation to the spike protein, we confirmed through experiments and modelling that vaccine candidates are still effective.
"We've also found the G-strain is unlikely to require frequent 'vaccine matching' where new vaccines need to be developed seasonally to combat the virus strains in circulation, as is the case with influenza."
Authorities have removed 380 carcasses of pilot whales from Tasmania State in Australia while around 70 more whales were rescued from Australia’s worst mass stranding on Thursday.
The number of rescues had been estimated at 50 late Wednesday, but 20 more came to light following later discussions with rescue crews, Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service Manager Nic Deka said.
Another 20 surviving whales could potentially still be saved on Thursday and vets were considering euthanizing another four, Marine Conservation Program wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon said.
An estimated 470 whales were discovered on Monday and Wednesday beached on the shore and sand bars along the remote west coast of the island state near the town of Strahan.
“We’re continuing with the rescue operation. We still have live animals that are viable for rescue,” Deka said. “But at the same time, we’re starting initial efforts with collection for disposal of carcasses.”
Deka said disposal at sea of the decomposing carcasses was the preferred option, but he was taking expertise advice.
Carlyon said some of the first whales rescued on Tuesday had beached again, but those guided back to sea on Wednesday appeared to have not returned. The rescued whales are marked to indicate which have returned.
“The 70 animals that have been refloated and released, we’re confident that most of the animals have got away,” Carlyon said. “Once they get into deeper water, they’re very hard to keep track of.”
Why the whales ran aground is a mystery. Theories include that the pod followed sick whales or made a navigational error.
Tasmania is the only part of Australia prone to mass stranding, although they occasionally occur on the Australian mainland.
Australia’s largest mass stranding had previously been 320 pilot whales near the Western Australia state town of Dunsborough in 1996.
Tasmania’s previous largest mass stranding involved 294 whales on the northwest coast in 1935.
At least 90 pilot whales out of a group of 270 that remained stranded in Australia’s Tasmania have died, officials said Tuesday.
Rescuers managed to save 25 whales and returned them to the sea during an ongoing operation, reports AP.
“We’ve rescued about 25 whales and escorted them out to sea and crews are continuing to work, so that number will increase before we get to the end of the day,” Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service Manager Nic Deka told reporters.
The whales were discovered Monday on a beach and two sand bars near the west coast town of Strahan. Sixty people have joined the rescue effort.
Wildlife biologist Kris Carlyon said progress would be slow. “We’ll take the animals with the best chance to start with and the ones that we are able to deal with,” he said.
About one third of the whales had died by Monday night and most were inaccessible by boat, Carlyon said.
He also said that pilot whales are a robust species and the survivors have a chance of lasting several days if the weather stays cool.
Tasmania is prone to whale stranding but this is the largest mass stranding on Australia's most southern state in years.
Authorities do not know why the whales became stranded.