Suicide attacks on bases in Syria’s Homs kill 42: monitor

Suicide attacks on two security service bases in the heart of Syria’s government-held third city of Homs killed 42 people on Saturday, overshadowing peace talks in Geneva, state television and a monitor said.

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“There were at least six attackers and several of them blew themselves up near the headquarters of state security and military intelligence,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

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State television reported that the province’s army intelligence chief, General Hassan Daabul, a close confidant of President Bashar al-Assad, was among the dead when the six suicide bombers struck in the heavily guarded Ghouta and Mahatta neighbourhoods.

Security forces locked down the city centre.

Homs has been under the full control of the government since May 2014 when rebels withdrew from the centre under a UN-brokered truce deal.

But it has seen repeated bombings since then. Twin attacks killed 64 people early last year.

State television paid tribute to the “martyrs” in the latest bombings.

There was no immediate claim for the bombings but they bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group, which controls swathes of the largely desert countryside east of Homs.

Government forces retook the oasis city of Palmyra and its UNESCO-listed ancient ruins in a much heralded Russian-backed offensive in March last year but were then pushed out by IS in December.

Since then, the focus of government efforts has been further north, on second city Aleppo, which they fully retook after a rebel withdrawal in December, and areas to its east and west.

Saturday’s attack comes as the UN is struggling to get a new round of peace talks off the ground aimed at ending the six-year civil war which has killed more than 310,000 people. 

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura said that despite government and rebel delegations being present in Geneva for the talks there had been little discussion of substance between the rival parties.

“We discussed issues relating to the format of the talks exclusively,” said Syrian regime delegation chief Bashar al-Jaafari after meeting de Mistura on Friday.

IS claimed a Friday suicide bombing that killed 51 people outside the northern town of Al-Bab, which Turkish-backed rebels said this week they had taken from the jihadists. 

The Observatory said that a car bomb targeted twin command posts at a rebel base in Susian, about eight kilometres (five miles) from Al-Bab, which was one of IS’s last remaining strongholds in Aleppo province. 

Separately, two Turkish soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in Al-Bab on Friday as they were carrying out road checks.

Two Vic MPs resign over allowances furore

Victoria’s parliamentary Speaker and Deputy Speaker have resigned their posts after they were found to have claimed a controversial allowance designed to support country MPs.

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This week Speaker Telmo Languiller agreed to pay back $37,000 in second residence allowances he claimed while living on the coast south of Melbourne instead of his western suburbs electorate.

But on Saturday he said offering to repay the allowance was not enough and would resign.

“No matter what difficult personal circumstances I may have been going through, I have to recognise it as an error of judgement and I accept that I should pay the price for that error of judgement,” he said.

By Saturday evening, the Deputy Speaker Don Nardella also fell on his sword after facing similar questions about his second residence allowance.

It was found Mr Nardella claimed about $100,000 in allowances for living an hour away from his electorate in Ocean Grove on the Bellarine Peninsula since April 2014.

Mr Nardella said he had “acted in accordance with all rules regarding Member of Parliament allowances” but had decided to withdraw his position as Deputy Speaker.

The second residence allowance is designed to support country MPs who live more than 80km from the city and who maintain a second home in Melbourne.

Both Mr Nardella’s and Mr Languiller’s electorates are within 80km of the city.

Premier Daniel Andrews said the allowance will be investigated to see if changes need to be made.

“It is self-evident that the second residence allowance is meant for regional MPs who must travel to Melbourne for Parliament,” he said in a statement on Saturday.

“For that reason, I have asked the Special Minister of State to urgently determine what changes are required so what has occurred in these instances does not happen again.”

As Mr Languiller and Mr Nardella move to the backbench, the role of Speaker and Deputy Speaker will have to be filled.

Mr Andrews says the party will nominate candidates at the next regular caucus meeting.

Kohli rages, Smith completes captain’s ton

The showdown between skippers Steve Smith and Virat Kohli was billed as the battle that will all but decide Australia’s bid for a boilover in India.

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It’s far too early to suggest Australia will record the nation’s second Test series win in India since 1970, but Smith’s century in Pune helped them record the nation’s first Test win in India since 2004.

Smith posted his 10th – and arguably most important – Test ton as captain of Australia on day three of the absorbing contest.

Former Australian captain Michael Clarke regarded it as “as good a Test hundred” as any of the 18 that Smith has celebrated.

Smith agreed.

“It’s got to be right up there,” he said.

“It took a lot of grit … it was great to get such a big lead and give our bowlers plenty to bowl at.”

Clarke suggested his successor’s knock was very important in the context of “not only this Test but the series”.

“No matter what conditions are or where he is in the world, he adapts and finds a way,” Clarke said on Star Sports.

“Australia are in an extremely dominant position because of that innings.”

India’s sloppy fielding also helped. Kohli struggled to contain his rage as Smith was dropped on 23, 29, 37 and 67. Jayant Yadav missed a chance to run the skipper out on 60.

“He was getting a little bit angry at fielders for dropping catches,” Smith said.

Kohli and his teammates also straddled the line of dissent after a couple of confident appeals were turned down, including when Smith should have been given out lbw on 73.

The Decision Review System (DRS) is being used but Kohli, who has a history of on-field verbal spats with Smith, had already unsuccessfully used both referrals.

It capped a poor couple of days for Kohli, who was dismissed for his first Test duck at home and criticised by locals for taking the second new ball on day one when Mitchell Starc was teeing off.

The loss was Kohli’s first at home as captain.

Smith’s tenure as skipper started in the absence of an injured Clarke, when he tallied four hundreds and 769 runs at 128.16 against India in 2014/15.

The 27-year-old, who has matured since becoming the nation’s youngest Test captain since Kim Hughes, has produced higher scores and far better looking innings than his milestone in Pune.

But he has rarely had to fight so hard for every run. Smith was in his element as he hammered home Australia’s advantage on a spinner’s paradise produced with the world’s two best bowlers in mind.

Star spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja both had their moments against the classy right-hander, with the latter finally dismissing him after 260 minutes at the crease.