Jobs data focus for Australian investors

The Australian share market is set for a flat start to the week before attention shifts to an expected lift in employment figures.

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US stocks ended flat on Friday after a weaker-than-expected jobs report and US missile strikes in Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack, with the Dow Jones industrial average down 0.03 per cent.

That signals a flat start to local trading on Monday.

AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver said the US missile strikes against Syria caused a bit of uncertainty in financial markets but it looks to have been short-lived, as has been the case in the past in response to limited military strikes and most terrorist attacks.

“This is likely to remain the case as the strike was highly targeted and proportional to the chemical attack and does not signal increased US involvement in Syria,” Dr Oliver said.

Thursday’s jobs data will be the main focus for Australian investors.

The market forecast is for a rise of 20,000 jobs in March and the unemployment rate remaining at 5.9 per cent.

Monday’s housing finance data for February will also be of interest, with the market forecast for a flat result.

Commonwealth Bank economist Kristina Clifton said conditions in the housing market remain in focus following the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority’s decision to implement additional measures to slow the growth of interest-only loans and loans with high loan to valuation ratios.

The Reserve Bank of Australia is concerned soaring housing prices are pushing up the level of household debt relative to incomes.

Ms Clifton said the RBA will elaborate further on its views on housing in its financial stability review on Thursday.

Westpac, which expects a one per cent dip in owner occupier loans, said the value of investor loans could remain strong in February as lenders moved to increase investor loan rates in March and APRA’s harder line on macro prudential measures was announced in April.

Chinese state media cheer Xi-Trump meeting

Chinese state media is cheering the meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping as one that shows the world that confrontation between the two powers was not inevitable.

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The official China Daily newspaper on Saturday said it was encouraging to see the two-day summit that ended on Friday “going as well as it could” after earlier “confusing signals” from Washington about how it was approaching the US-China relationship.

Trump had campaigned with strident anti-China rhetoric and had angered Beijing before taking office by talking to the president of Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own.

But the two sides avoided any diplomatic gaffes at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida that would have tarnished the meeting in the eyes of the protocol-conscious Chinese.

China Daily said both parties appeared “equally enthusiastic about the constructive relationship they have promised to cultivate”.

State-run Chinese tabloid Global Times said the meeting “served as an indicator that the China-US relationship is still very much on course since the Trump administration took office in January” and it was likely the two nations would develop a more “pragmatic relationship”.

Their comments were echoed by a front-page commentary in the overseas edition of the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, which said the meeting established the tone for the development of US-China relations.

In a tweet on Saturday, Trump wrote of the meeting: “goodwill and friendship was formed, but only time will tell on trade”.

In the talks, Trump pressed Xi to do more to curb North Korea’s nuclear program and the two agreed to a 100-day plan for trade talks aimed at boosting US exports and reducing the gaping US trade deficit with Beijing.

US industry had hoped Trump would deliver a strong message to Xi behind closed doors to end what they see as discriminatory trade policies, but not do anything rash to spark a trade war.

Scott moves within striking distance of second Green Jacket

The first and only Australian to win the Masters, Scott finds himself three shots back of co-leaders Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia going into Sunday’s final round at Augusta National.

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He has more work to do than in 2013 when he trailed by one after three rounds before prevailing in a playoff victory over Argentine Angel Cabrera.

“That’s plenty close,” summed up Scott. “It’s just the great players in front, and in conditions like this, if they’re like this again tomorrow it’s going to be hard, because you’re going to have to make it happen.

“I’m just going to need the round of the year for me tomorrow.”

A second Green Jacket seemed a long-shot after Scott missed the cut last week in his Masters tune-up in Houston, and then opened his account on Thursday with a three-over 75.

But the 36-year-old has barely made a mistake since, and his bogey-free performance on Saturday, which included several golden birdie chances that shaved the hole but did not drop, left him alone in seventh on three-under 213.

“When you feel quite close to the lead it seems like that could just flip with a birdie and a bogey,” said Scott. “I think conditions weren’t quite as nice as this (on) that Sunday.

“It seemed easy today after what we’ve been through the last couple of days.

“I’m going to have to lean on my ball-striking tomorrow, and hit it a couple of feet closer on a few holes to give me realistic chances a bit more often.”

Playing in his 16th Masters, Scott knows he will have to get through the front nine without any damage and then attack.

As always at Augusta, it will come to a boil on the back nine, though come-from-behind victories are not as common as many think.

“I mean, it’s cliche here at the Masters, but it all starts on the back nine,” said Scott. “For me in my position I just have to play a really good front nine, so I can start something on the back nine.

“But I’m going out there with no pressure tomorrow, playing really well tee to green, feeling good on the greens.

“Anything can happen. So it’s really going to be an exciting day tomorrow.”

(Editing by Andrew Both)

Fire kills one in Lebanon refugee camp: Red Cross

Lebanon is home to more than one million refugees fleeing the conflict in neighbouring Syria, many of whom live in informal tented settlements in the arid Bekaa Valley.

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Sunday’s fire broke out in a refugee camp near the village of Qab Elias.

“One person died and six were wounded. About 700 refugees were evacuated from the camp,” George Kettaneh of the Lebanese Red Cross told AFP. 

Residents said the victim was a child but the Red Cross did not confirm the report.

An AFP correspondent said Red Cross volunteers and firefighters were still helping wounded refugees out of the camp to receive treatment. 

Residents of nearby villages could be seen using their own trucks and tractors to bring tanks of water to help extinguish the blaze. 

Zafer al-Nakhlawi, a Lebanese who lives in Qab Elias, said he came to the camp to help firefighters put out the blaze. 

“There are only three tents left standing out of the camp’s 93 tents. Part of a nearby wheat field was also burned,” Nakhlawi said.

It was unclear what caused the fire, but Nakhlawi said he suspected that scorching temperatures of 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit) and the valley’s whipping winds may have been a factor. 

The blaze came two days after clashes in two refugee camps in Lebanon’s northeast left a young girl dead and seven Lebanese soldiers wounded. 

Four suicide bombers detonated explosives as the Lebanese army raided the Al-Nur camp near the border town of Arsal on Friday, the armed forces said. 

The girl, whose parents are both refugees, was killed and three soldiers wounded.  

A second raid on the nearby Al-Qariya camp wounded three Lebanese soldiers, the army said. 

Aztec tower of skulls found in Mexico City

A tower of human skulls unearthed beneath the heart of Mexico City has raised new questions about the culture of sacrifice in the Aztec Empire after crania of women and children surfaced among the hundreds embedded in the forbidding structure.

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Archaeologists have found more than 650 skulls caked in lime and thousands of fragments in the cylindrical edifice near the site of the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, which later became Mexico City.

The tower is believed to form part of the Huey Tzompantli, a massive array of skulls that struck fear into the Spanish conquistadores when they captured the city under Hernan Cortes, and mentioned the structure in contemporary accounts.

Historians relate how the severed heads of captured warriors adorned tzompantli, or skull racks, found in a number of Mesoamerican cultures before the Spanish conquest.

But the archaeological dig in the bowels of old Mexico City that began in 2015 suggests that picture was not complete.

“We were expecting just men, obviously young men, as warriors would be, and the thing about the women and children is that you’d think they wouldn’t be going to war,” said Rodrigo Bolanos, a biological anthropologist investigating the find.

“Something is happening that we have no record of, and this is really new, a first in the Huey Tzompantli,” he added.

 Over 650 skulls were dicovered near the site of the Templo Mayor, one of the main temples in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.Reuters

Raul Barrera, one of the archaeologists working at the site alongside the huge Metropolitan Cathedral built over the Templo Mayor, said the skulls would have been set in the tower after they had stood on public display on the tzompantli.

Roughly six meters in diameter, the tower stood on the corner of the chapel of Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of the sun, war and human sacrifice. Its base has yet to be unearthed.

There was no doubt that the tower was one of the skull edifices mentioned by Andres de Tapia, a Spanish soldier who accompanied Cortes in the 1521 conquest of Mexico, Barrera said.

In his account of the campaign, de Tapia said he counted tens of thousands of skulls at what became known as the Huey Tzompantli. Barrera said 676 skulls had so far been found, and that the number would rise as excavations went on.

The Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples performed ritualistic human sacrifices as offerings to the sun.

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China says US warship near South China Sea island ‘serious provocation’

The destroyer, the USS Stethem, sailed less than 12 nautical miles from tiny Triton Island in the Paracel Islands archipelago, which is claimed by China as well as Taiwan and Vietnam, a US official told AFP.

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The distance is commonly accepted as consituting the territorial waters of a landmass.

The operation, meant to demonstrate freedom of navigation in disputed waters, came just hours before a scheduled phone call between President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

China had dispatched military vessels and fighter planes in response, foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement late Sunday, according to state news agency Xinhua.

“The Chinese side strongly urges the US side to immediately stop such kind of provocative operations that violate China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security,” the spokesman said. 

The statement added that Beijing would continue to take all necessary means to defend national sovereignty and security.

It was the second operation of its kind carried out by the United States since Trump took office and comes days after his administration took a number of steps that seemed sure to strain US-Chinese relations.

Trump on Thursday authorised a $1.3 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China considers a rebel province. The same day, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a Chinese bank accused of laundering North Korean cash.

Also Thursday, the State Department expressed concern about Beijing’s respect for freedom in Hong Kong, on the 20th anniversary of Britain ceding the territory back to China.

And two days earlier, the State Department placed China on a list of the world’s worst human trafficking offenders.

Related readingA sharp cooling 

All those steps added up to a sharp reversal in tone from April, when Xi travelled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida for a first face-to-face meeting that Trump later said had helped build an “outstanding” relationship.

Further positive signs had followed, including an agreement in May on exporting US beef and natural gas to China.

Trump had praised China’s efforts to bring pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile programs. 

But when those efforts failed to produce results — Pyongyang conducted new missile tests in violation of UN Security Council resolutions — the American president made his frustration known. 

Those efforts had “not worked out,” Trump tweeted on June 20, adding, “At least I know China tried!”

Trump is scheduled to speak with Xi on Sunday at 8:45 pm (00h45 GMT Monday), 45 minutes after speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Related readingA growing Chinese presence 

The latest US “freedom of navigation” exercise comes as Beijing continues muscular efforts to cement its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The United Nations says countries can establish the reach of their territorial waters up to a limit of 12 nautical miles.

China has rapidly built reefs in the area into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.

Freedom of navigation operations are designed to challenge the sovereignty of countries with claims to disputed territory. Washington has challenged annexations of South China Sea islets while advocating for a diplomatic settlement.

On May 25, the USS Dewey guided-missile destroyer sailed less than 12 nautical miles from Mischief Reef — part of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, south of the Paracel Islands.

Australian surgeon seen in hostage video from Al-Qaeda linked group

Al-Qaeda’s Mali branch has released a proof-of-life video of six foreign hostages, including elderly Australian surgeon Arthur Kenneth Elliott and Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, US-based monitoring group SITE said.

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The 16 minute, 50 second video by Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, also known as the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, was released on Telegram on Saturday, SITE said.

The other four hostages shown are South African Stephen McGown, Romanian Iulian Ghergut, Swiss missionary Beatrice Stockly and Colombian nun Gloria Cecilia Narvaez Argoti.

No group had previously claimed responsibility for kidnapping Frenchwoman Petronin, who was abducted in late 2016 by armed men in the northern Malian town of Gao, where she ran an organisation for malnourished children.

After a video clip showing Petronin, the narrator said she was hoping the French president would help return her to her family, according to SITE.

The video was released just before President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Mali on Sunday to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force.

In the video, the hostages are separately introduced by a narrator, who says that so far there have been no negotiations for their release.

The first shown is McGown, who was abducted in Timbuktu, northern Mali, in November 2011.

“It’s a long time to be away … Until when do you think this will come to an end? Now we’re making a new video, but I don’t know what to say. It’s all been said in the past. It’s all been said in previous videos I’ve made,” McGown says, according to a transcription by SITE.

He is followed by Australian Elliott, in his 80s, who, along with his wife Jocelyn, was abducted in January 2015 in Djibo, Burkina Faso, where the couple had run the sole medical clinic since 1972.

Jocelyn was released in February 2016.

Next in the video is Romanian mineworker Ghergut, who says he was captured in Burkina Faso on April 4, 2015.

The women are then shown, including Swiss missionary Stockly, who was kidnapped in Mali in January 2016.

Colombian nun Argoti was seized by armed men in the Mali village of Karangasso close to the Burkina Faso border in February 2017.

At the end of the undated video, while not spelling out any demands the narrator tells the hostages’ families “no genuine negotiations have begun” for their release but then adds that negotiations are “still active”.

In 2012, Mali’s north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda who exploited an ethnic Tuareg-led rebel uprising, though the Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation in January 2013.

Since then, jihadists have continued to mount numerous attacks on civilians and the army, as well as on French and UN forces stationed there.

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Flushed chemicals create transgenic fish

Chemicals flushed down household drains have caused around 20 per cent of male river fish to have female characteristics, according to research.

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Males are displaying feminised traits and even producing eggs, a study by Professor Charles Tyler of the University of Exeter has found.

Some have reduced sperm quality and display less aggressive and competitive behaviour, which makes them less likely to breed successfully.

The chemicals causing these effects include ingredients in the contraceptive pill, by-products of cleaning agents, plastics and cosmetics, according to the findings.

Professor Tyler said: “We are showing that some of these chemicals can have much wider health effects on fish that we expected.

“Using specially created transgenic fish that allow us to see responses to these chemicals in the bodies of fish in real time, for example, we have shown that oestrogens found in some plastics affect the valves in the heart.”

Tests showed 20 per cent of male freshwater fish, such as roach, at 50 sites had feminine characteristics.

More than 200 chemicals from sewage plants have been identified with oestrogen-like effects and drugs such as antidepressants are also altering fish’s natural behaviour, his study found.

“Other research has shown that many other chemicals that are discharged through sewage treatment works can affect fish, including antidepressant drugs that reduce the natural shyness of some fish species, including the way they react to predators,” Professor Tyler said.

Professor Tyler also found that the offspring and grandchildren of affected fish can be more sensitised to the chemicals in subsequent exposures.

He will present his findings in the opening lecture of the 50th Anniversary Symposium of the Fisheries Society in the British Isles at Exeter University from July 3 to 7.

Islamic State kills dozens of civilians trying to flee Mosul – witnesses

Troops are meeting fierce resistance as militants retreat into the Old City, where street fighting is expected in the narrow alleyways and around the mosque where Islamic State declared its caliphate nearly three years ago.

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A man who spoke to Reuters via telephone said he had found the mutilated body of a relative strung up from an electricity pole in the Tenek district along with three other young men caught trying to flee by the militants.

“Their appearance was shocking. We weren’t able to get them down and they have been there for two days,” said the relative on condition of anonymity.

The Kurdistan Region security council said the number of people killed by the militants on Monday and Tuesday was as high as 140.

In the Old City, more than 40 civilians were killed when the militants caught them trying to escape, said a resident of the Farouq district where the symbolic Nuri mosque is located.

Another resident of the Old City’s Shahwan district said a family of six, including an elderly woman, had also been killed for the same reason.

A woman from the Yarmouk district said she had narrowly escaped death along with her husband and children after the militants caught them trying to flee among a group of around 30 people.

“They took our bags thinking there was gold or money in them and as they were busy checking the contents, we fled through the houses taking advantage of the pitch darkness,” said the woman, who is now in an area under the control of the security forces.

“I fear those (families) who stayed in Daesh’s grip met a terrible fate”. 

(Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Reynolds stakes claim to keep NSW spot

Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds has staked his claim to return to the NSW Origin side with a game-winning field goal in South Sydney’s 21-20 win over Penrith on Friday.

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Reynolds showed why he is one of the game’s best in the clutch, slotting over a 19-metre effort in the final minute to fire the Rabbitohs into the top eight.

In a week where fellow halfback candidate Mitchell Pearce’s field goal troubles went under the spotlight, Reynolds’ effort is sure to have caught the eye of Blues coach Laurie Daley.

Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire said he was delighted with Reynolds’ ability to step up when the game is on the line, particularly with his kicking.

“I was very pleased with Adam’s finish there. He’s done a lot of work around that area to make sure that when those times come, he comes up with the right play,” he said.

Reynolds humbly credited halves partner Cody Walker, who scored a try and set up Reynolds for another in the second half, for his role in the match-winning play.

Walker provided the speedy play-the-ball for Reynolds to steal the win.

“He found space, took it, made the right decision holding the ball, got up and played it really quick to give me a chance to take the shot. Credit goes to Cody,” Reynolds said.

“It all comes back to practice, that’s what we practise so hard at training for. If you don’t practise, 90 per cent of the time it doesn’t come off.”

While Pearce hasn’t kicked a field goal since 2011, Reynolds has nailed at least one every season since his debut in six years ago.

He kicked three in the Rabbitohs’ premiership-winning season in 2014.

“I don’t think (my percentage is) too good at the moment. I’ve kicked a few, but there’s been a few that’s gone wayward. It’s something we continually practice at training,” he said.

“We’re just trying to build momentum through our club. It’s a continual work in progress for us. We’re working hard as a spine and as a unit to gradually get better.”

South Sydney next face Canterbury in the traditional Good Friday fixture.

US strikes on Syria: How the world reacted

Against 

RUSSIA: Unsurprisingly, the main ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was robust in its opposition to the strike.

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The strikes were an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international norms,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

The action has inflicted “considerable damage” to already “lamentable” US-Russia ties, it added.

As a first practical response, Moscow said it would “halt” its deal with the US to avoid clashes in Syrian airspace.

Russia’s military said the Syrian forces’ air defences will be boosted following the US strike.

“To protect Syria’s most sensitive infrastructure, a complex of measures will be implemented in the near future to strengthen and improve the effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces’ air defence system,” said spokesman Igor Konashenkov.

Russia also called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting following the strikes.

SYRIA: The Syrian government said it would redouble its efforts against rebel groups after the US strike which it called “foolish and irresponsible”.

“What America did is nothing but foolish and irresponsible behaviour, which only reveals its short-sightedness and political and military blindness to reality,” President Bashar al-Assad’s office said in a statement.

Syrian army spokesman on US attack

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IRAN: The Iranian regime, another Syrian ally, “strongly condemned” the strike, just as it condemned “all unilateral military action”.

It said the US action was taken under the “pretext” of the chemical strike.

For 

NATO: Syria is to blame for the US missile strikes NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said.

“The Syrian regime bears the full responsibility for this development,” Stoltenberg said in a statement.

“Any use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, cannot go unanswered, and those responsible must be held accountable,” he added.

EUROPEAN UNION: EU President Donald Tusk said in a tweet that the “US strikes show needed resolve against barbaric chemical attacks. EU will work with the US to end brutality in Syria.”

Experts analyse Syrian attack aftermath

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FRANCE/GERMANY: In a joint statement, President Francois Hollande and Chancellor Angela Merkel said Assad bore “sole responsibility” for the US strike following the suspected chemical attack.

BRITAIN: The close American ally said it “fully supported” the strikes, judging them an “appropriate response to the barbaric chemical weapons attack”. It said the strikes were “intended to deter further attacks.”

SPAIN: The Spanish government called the US action “a measured and proportionate answer to the use by the Syrian army of chemical weapons against the civilian population.”

Pentagon footage of Tomahawk missile launch

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TURKEY: NATO ally Turkey, which is a key player in the Syria conflict and has endured choppy relations with Washington recently, welcomed the strikes as “positive” but said that more action was needed.

“I want to say that I welcome this concrete step as positive,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a longtime foe of President Bashar al-Assad.

“I don’t see this as enough… the time has come for steps for a serious result to protect the oppressed Syrian people,” he added.

Turkey called for a no-fly zone in Syria in the wake of the US strike.

And foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu repeated Ankara’s call for Assad to be removed from power, stressing: “This regime should be ousted from leading Syria at once.”

SAUDI ARABIA: A foreign ministry official hailed US President Donald Trump as “courageous” for taking action when “the international community has failed to put a halt to the regime’s actions.”

ISRAEL: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “fully supports” the “strong and clear message” sent by the air strikes.

He added that the message should “resonate not only in Damascus, but in Tehran, Pyongyang and elsewhere.”

JAPAN: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan “supports the US government’s resolve that it will never tolerate the spread and use of chemical weapons.”

SYRIAN REBELS: A leading Syrian rebel group said one strike was “not enough”, adding that there were “26 airbases that target civilians.”

CANADA: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada supports the strike.

“Canada fully supports the United States’ limited and focused action to degrade the Assad regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons attacks against innocent civilians, including many children,” he said in a statement.

ITALY: “Italy understands the reasons for the US military action, proportionate in its duration and methods,” said Italy’s Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, who called for renewed US-Russia dialogue and international engagement to bring about regime change in Syria.

Others 

CHINA: Beijing offered a nuanced reaction, saying it was “urgent” to avoid “further deterioration of the situation.” A foreign ministry spokeswoman added: “We oppose use of chemical weapons by any country, organisation or individual in any circumstance, for any purpose.”

UNITED NATIONS: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged restraint and said there was “no other way to solve the conflict than through a political solution.”

“Mindful of the risk of escalation, I appeal for restraint to avoid any acts that could deepen the suffering of the Syrian people,” he added in a statement.

Turnbull Government backs US strike in Syria

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in an attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun had to be punished.

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“The use of these weapons, under any circumstance, is illegal and abhorrent. It’s a violation of international law. It is a war crime.”

United States president Donald Trump’s defence secretary phoned Australia’s defence minister, Marise Payne, this morning to let her know the strike was coming.

Australia did not participate in the execution, but Mr Turnbull says the United States has his full support.

“Australia was not involved in the strike, but we remain fully committed as a coalition partner to our ongoing military operations in Iraq and Syria.”

Nonetheless, the Prime Minister says Australia is not at war with Syria.

“We are not at war with the Assad regime, and the United States has made it clear that they are not seeking to overthrow the Assad regime.”

As is usual with military operations, Labor has offered bipartisan support.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten says Mr Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, should join in the condemnation.

“You can’t gas the citizens of your own country. That’s a war crime, pure and simple. And I think it’s time for (Vladimir) Putin and the Russians to step up.”

Malcolm Turnbull has called on the United Nations to find a solution as soon as possible.

Ceasefire talks between the Syrian government and opposition forces have repeatedly broken down.

A Middle East analyst at the Australian National University, Professor Amin Saikal, says further US attacks may be needed to force Mr Assad to the negotiating table.

“If the Americans follow their cruise missile attacks with further operations against the Assad regime’s targets, then I think that that may well really bring it home to the Assad regime, as well as to the Russians, that the only way out of this conflict is a political settlement.”

Russia warns US over Syria missile strike

Russia has warned that US cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base could have “extremely serious” consequences, as President Donald Trump’s first major foray into a foreign conflict opened up a rift between Moscow and Washington.

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The warships USS Porter and USS Ross in the Mediterranean Sea launched dozens of Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat air base, which the Pentagon says was involved in a chemical weapons attack this week.

It was Trump’s biggest foreign policy decision since taking office in January and the kind of direct intervention in Syria’s six-year-old civil war his predecessor Barack Obama avoided.

The strikes were in reaction to what Washington says was a poison gas attack by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that killed at least 70 people in rebel-held territory.

They catapulted Washington into confrontation with Russia, which has advisers on the ground aiding its close ally Assad.

“We strongly condemn the illegitimate actions by the U.S. The consequences of this for regional and international stability could be extremely serious,” Russia’s deputy UN envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, told a meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev charged that the US strikes were one step away from clashing with Russia’s military.

US officials informed Russian forces ahead of the missile strikes and avoided hitting Russian personnel.

Satellite imagery suggests the base houses Russian special forces and helicopters, part of the Kremlin’s effort to help Assad fight Islamic State and other militant groups.

Trump has frequently urged improved relations with Russia, strained under Obama over Syria, Ukraine and other issues, but in launching the attacks on Thursday night he said action had to be taken against Assad.

“Years of previous attempts at changing Assad’s behaviour have all failed and failed very dramatically,” Trump said as he announced the attack on Thursday night from his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where he was meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping.

US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Friday the Trump administration was ready to take further steps if needed.

“We are prepared to do more, but we hope that will not be necessary,” she told the UN Security Council. “The United States will not stand by when chemical weapons are used. It is in our vital national security interest to prevent the spread and use of chemical weapons.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was in Florida with Trump and is scheduled to go to Moscow next week, said he was disappointed but not surprised by the Russian reaction because it showed continued support for Assad.

Iran, which supports Assad and has been criticized by Trump, condemned the strike, with President Hassan Rouhani saying it would bring “only destruction and danger to the region and the globe.”

US officials called the intervention a “one-off” intended to deter future chemical weapons attacks and not an expansion of the US role in the Syrian war. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said the United States would announce additional sanctions on Syria in the near future but offered no specifics.

US allies from Asia, Europe and the Middle East expressed support for the attack, if sometimes cautiously.

The action is likely to be interpreted as a signal to Russia, and countries such as North Korea, China and Iran where Trump has faced foreign policy tests early in his presidency, of his willingness to use force.

The United States is now likely to be more aggressive in pursuing intelligence about Syria’s suspected chemical weapons program. The Pentagon has also signalled interest in determining any Russian complicity.

Russia joined the war on Assad’s behalf in 2015, turning the momentum in his favor. Although Moscow supports opposing sides in the war between Assad and rebels, the United States and Russia say they share a single main enemy, Islamic State.

Tillerson said the strike took out about 20 per cent of the seventh wing of the Syrian air force and hit a fueling facility. The base’s runway was still in use.

Assad’s office said Syria would strike its enemies harder.

Damascus and Moscow denied Syrian forces were behind the gas attack but Western countries dismissed their explanation that chemicals leaked from a rebel weapons depot after an air strike.

The Syrian army said the US attack killed six people and called it “blatant aggression” that made the United States a partner of “terrorist groups” including Islamic State. There was no independent confirmation of civilian casualties.