What you need to know about the coronavirus right now

(Reuters) – Here’s what you need to know about the coronavirus right now:

White House slams “corrupt” WHO

The White House pushed back on concerns expressed by the World Health Organization after a U.S. health official said a coronavirus vaccine might be approved without completing full trials.

The Washington Post newspaper reported that the administration of President Donald Trump would not join a global effort to develop, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine because of the involvement of the WHO.

About 172 countries are engaging with the WHO’s COVID-19 vaccine plan to ensure equitable access to vaccines, the organization has said.

“The United States will continue to engage our international partners to ensure we defeat this virus, but we will not be constrained by multilateral organizations influenced by the corrupt World Health Organization and China,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.

India reopens

India’s coronavirus infections rose to almost 3.8 million on Wednesday, as states continued to relax rules on movement despite the surge in cases.

The country reported 78,357 new cases in the past 24 hours, according to federal health data, taking total infections to 3,769,523. Some 66,333 people have died.

India’s total cases lag only the United States and Brazil, which it will overtake in days based on current trends.

Authorities in the capital New Delhi are due to meet to discuss the reopening of the city’s metro, despite fresh cases there sitting at a two-month high.

In Sydney, the show must go on

Australia’s most-populous state reported the biggest daily jump in coronavirus infections in two weeks on Wednesday but said there were no plans to cancel the New Year fireworks show over Sydney Harbor, as new cases nationally also ticked up.

New South Wales state reported 17 new cases, the biggest one-day jump since Aug. 12, while nationally the count rose to 109 cases from 85 a day earlier.

Victoria state remained the hardest-hit region with 90 cases, although this was well down from its daily peak of more than 700 in early August at the height of a second wave of infections.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state was pushing ahead with plans to host large events such as the New Years Eve fireworks over Sydney Harbor. “I think for a lot of people the fireworks represent hope.”

Elderly drive South Korea case surge

More than 40% of new coronavirus cases in South Korea are being found in people over the age of 60, contributing in part to a surge in the number of COVID-19 patients who are severely or critically ill, health authorities said on Wednesday.

The surge in cases over the past three weeks has depleted medical facilities, with less than 3% of hospital beds – or just nine – available for critical cases in greater Seoul, versus 22% about 10 days ago, the health ministry said.

South Korea is battling a second wave of infection, centered in the capital Seoul and surrounding areas which are home to 25 million people.

Pandemic ignites demand for home appliances

From sanitizing closets to customizable fridges, the coronavirus pandemic has fanned demand for home appliances – so much so that Samsung Electronics is adding warehouses and bringing popular products to more markets.

In particular, consumers have been willing to splurge on products that make their homes cleaner.

In Brazil and other emerging economies, households which once relied on maids are now investing in dishwashers and robot vacuum cleaners, while Samsung says its overseas sales of air purifiers jumped more than five times in January-July compared to the same period last year.

Samsung’s AirDresser, a closet that steam cleans clothes and kills bacteria, has seen a spike in sales. Big fridges have also climbed in popularity as people cooking more often at home seek more freezer space.

(Compiled by Linda Noakes; Editing by Alison Williams)

World welcomes new year amid wildfires and protests

By Swati Pandey, Jessie PANG and Twinnie Siu

SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The world rang in the new year on Wednesday with spectacular firework displays from Sydney to Tokyo, though celebrations in Australia were overshadowed by deadly wildfires and the festive mood in Hong Kong and India was dampened by protests.

Around a million revellers thronged Sydney harbour and nearby districts to watch more than 100,000 fireworks explode above the city, even as thousands of people along Australia’s eastern seaboard sought refuge from the bushfires on beaches.

Hong Kong cancelled its popular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Victoria Harbour due to security concerns as protesters formed giant human chains and marched through shopping malls, vowing to continue to fight for democracy in 2020.

Thousands of Indians also planned to greet the new year with protests, angered by a citizenship law that they say will discriminate against Muslims and chip away at India’s secular constitution.

Sydney decided to press ahead with its fireworks display despite calls by some members of the public for it to be cancelled in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales, of which the city is the capital.

Sydney mayor Clover Moore said planning had begun 15 months ago and that the event also gave a boost to the economy.

Some other towns in eastern Australia cancelled their new year celebrations as naval vessels and military helicopters helped firefighters to rescue people fleeing the fires, which have turned swathes of New South Wales into a raging furnace.

The fires have killed at least 11 people since October, two of them overnight into Tuesday, destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and left many towns and rural areas without electricity or mobile coverage.

Some tourists trapped in Australia’s coastal towns posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.

Elsewhere, revellers from Auckland in New Zealand to Pyongyang, capital of isolated North Korea, welcomed the new year with firework displays. In Japan, people took turns to strike Buddhist temple bells, in accordance with tradition.

NOT FIREWORKS BUT TEAR GAS

In Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters were urged to wear masks at a New Year rally called “Don’t forget 2019 – Persist in 2020”, according to social media posts.

A “Symphony of Lights” was planned instead of the firework display, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after a countdown to midnight.

“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”

Some 6,000 police were deployed and Chief Executive Carrie Lam appealed for calm and reconciliation in her New Year’s Eve video message.

The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

In India, protesters angry about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law planned demonstrations on Tuesday evening in the capital New Delhi, in the grip of its second coldest winter in more than a century, as well as the financial hub Mumbai and other cities.

(Reporting by bureaux in Sydney, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kevin Liffey)

Fight or flight: Australians grapple with difficult decision as bushfires approach

By Jill Gralow

YANDERRA, Australia (Reuters) – It was oppressively hot, above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), and the wind was picking up. Bushfires were devastating nearby towns and now threatened Yanderra, a small village with just over 600 people located south of Sydney.

Diane and Ron Baxter bought a block of land here 43 years ago. They’d since built a house and a life, raising two children including a daughter now living next door with her family.

As smoke filled the sky on Saturday and fire embers fell nearby, the Baxters, aged in their 70s, chose to remain and defend their property, rather than doing what their family wanted them to do – leave.

“We left our run a little bit too late to get out and the roads were blocked, but we felt we needed to stay and protect the house anyway,” Diane Baxter told Reuters at her home.

“We just feel at this time in our life we needed to stay with our home,” she said, adding she and her husband couldn’t face having to rebuild their lives.

“It would be very hard to start over again, very hard.”

Fire is a pervasive danger in Australia, but many people choose to stay to defend their properties at considerable risk.

By patrolling their homes, people can put out sparks and embers before they take hold as they likely would in a building left vacant.

But this fire season is proving to be particularly dangerous. On Saturday, fires swept through the town of Balmoral, located just a couple of kilometers from Yanderra, prompting New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian to declare there was “not much left”.

During the past couple of months, more than 900 homes have been lost across the dry continent, according to authorities, even though the southern hemisphere summer has not yet reached its mid-point. At least six people have died.

Authorities understand some people will want to defend their homes and they have developed check-lists which include having protective clothing and making sure a home is adequately prepared and free of flammable debris.

“You have to physically and mentally be able to withstand the onslaught of a fire,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service liaison officer Elizabeth Ellis told Reuters.

“And everybody in the household has to be prepared to do that. Because the worst thing you can do is tail run for it at the last minute.”

The scorching heat from the weekend has subsided, and authorities are using the cooler conditions to strengthen fire containment lines ahead of the next wave of heat, forecast for late in the week.

Matthew Doyle, from the nearby town of Bargo, left his and his partner’s new home on Saturday as the heat intensified and fire approached.

He said that while his “gut feeling” was that he should protect his house, he decided it wasn’t worth the risk.

A last-minute shift in the wind direction saved the house, but Doyle stood by his decision.

“You can replace everything, except for your lives,” he said.

(Reporting by Jill Gralow in Yanderra; writing by Jonathan Barrett; editing by Richard Pullin)

Ring of fire: Australian state declares emergency as wildfires approach Sydney

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s most populous state declared its second emergency in as many months on Thursday as extreme heat and strong winds stoked more than 100 bushfires, including three major blazes on Sydney’s doorstep.

A day after Australia recorded its hottest day on record, thick smoke blanketed the harbor city, shrouded the Opera House and brought many outdoor activities to a halt.

The state of emergency declaration gave firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities across New South Wales, which is home to more than 7 million people.

Authorities said nearly 120 fires remained ablaze by late afternoon, more than half of which are uncontrolled, and with temperatures forecast to top 45 degrees Celsius (113°F) in some areas, officials warned residents to be on high alert.

“The firefront has been spreading very quickly and intensely,” NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney, adding that two firefighters had been airlifted to hospital with burns to their faces and airways. “It’s still a very difficult and dangerous set of circumstances.”

Days out from Christmas, a time when many Australians head to the coast for the holidays, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian advised people to make sure “you are prepared to change your plans should circumstances change.”

In Shoalhaven, a popular coastal destination some 190 km (120 miles) south of Sydney, local mayor Amanda Findley said people were poised to evacuate.

“There is a large amount of smoke looming over the city, which shows how close the fire is,” Findley told Reuters by telephone. “It is extremely hot and windy now so we are all worried the fire could spread. People are really worried that they may lose everything.”

The RFS posted footage on its official Twitter account showing firefighters tackling one of the three blazes ringing Sydney. A waterbomber aircraft was dwarfed by thick grey and black billowing cloud as it attempted to douse flames in bushland just meters away from homes.

Australia has been battling wildfires across much of its east coast for weeks, leaving six people dead, more than 680 homes destroyed and nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of bushland burnt. Berejiklian said as many as 40 homes had been destroyed on Thursday.

SMOKY SYDNEY

Australia on Wednesday broke all-time heat records for the second day running, with maximum temperatures reaching an average of 41.9 degree Celsius, the Bureau of Meteorology said.

Some 1,700 firefighters have been deployed across NSW, but officials warned that was still not enough to cover every potential danger and urged people in high risk areas to evacuate while it was still safe to do so.

The current state of emergency will last for seven days, while a total fire ban that has been in place since Tuesday will remain until midnight on Saturday.

The major fires around Sydney, which is home to more than 5 million people, have resulted in days of heavy pollution in the city usually known for its sparkling harbor and blue skies.

One megafire in the Kanangra Boyd National Park to the city’s southwest had crept to the very outskirts of Campbelltown, a suburb of 157,000 people.

By late afternoon, Sydney was sitting at No.4 on the IQAir AirVisual live rankings of pollution in global cities, above Dhaka, Mumbai, Shanghai and Jakarta.

Many commuters have donned breathing masks in recent weeks as air quality has plunged to hazardous levels not previously seen in the city.

NSW Ambulance Commissioner Dominic Morgan said the service had experienced a 10% surge in call-outs for patients suffering respiratory conditions over the past week and urged susceptible people to remain indoors and keep their medication close.

POLITICAL STORM

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weathered a storm of criticism on social media in recent days for going on an overseas holiday during the emergency, adding to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies.

As local media reported Morrison was in Hawaii on a family holiday, about 500 protesters gathered outside his official Sydney residence to demand urgent action on climate change. Morrison’s office refused to confirm his whereabouts.

One protestor, wearing an Hawaiian shirt, carried a sign reading, “ScoMo, where the bloody hell are you?” referencing the leader’s nickname and a decade-old international advertisement for Tourism Australia that was banned in several countries because the language was deemed offensive.

Australia’s low-lying Pacific neighbors have been particularly critical of the coal-rich nation’s climate policies following modest progress at the U.N. climate talks in Madrid.

“It was particularly disappointing to see our Pacific cousins in Australia actively standing in the way of progress at a time when we have been watching in horror as their own country is ablaze,” Marshall Islands president Hilda Heine said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Reporting by John Mair, Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett; Writing by Wayne Cole; Editing by Jane Wardell)

Fears grow about Sydney after Australia fires merge into giant blaze

Fears grow about Sydney after Australia fires merge into giant blaze
By Colin Packham and Byron Kaye

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Bushfires fanned by winds combined into a single giant blaze north of Sydney late on Friday, blanketing Australia’s biggest city in hazardous smoke, causing weekend sports games to be canceled and prompting calls for outdoor workers to stay home.

Wildfire has killed at least four people and destroyed more than 680 homes across eastern Australia since the start of November, months earlier than the usual summer bushfire season, with the authorities blaming an extended drought, strong wind and suspected arson.

Smoke and flying ash has lingered over Sydney for most of the past week, turning the daytime sky orange, obscuring visibility and prompting commuters to wear breathing masks. Satellite images spread on social media showed the smoke spreading across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) away.

“The massive #NSW fires are in some cases just too big to put out at the moment,” wrote the Australian Bureau of Meteorology in a post on its official Twitter account.

Sydney is the capital city in New South Wales state.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) said in a tweet that “a number of fires in the Hawkesbury, Hunter and Central Coast areas have now joined”. The tweet included a map showing 10 separate fires connecting about 50 kilometers north of metropolitan Sydney.

The total area burnt by those fires was around 335,000 hectares, or 830,000 acres, the RFS added.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said authorities were particularly concerned the fires may spread east.

“They have the potential or are expected to spread further east, which unfortunately is getting into more populated areas, villages, communities, isolated rural areas, and other farming practices and businesses throughout the region,” Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney.

About 500 homes in coastal communities around 350 kilometers south of Sydney had lost electricity to fire and repair workers were unable to start restoring power until the area was declared safe, energy provider Endeavour Energy said in a tweet. “Affected customers should consider alternative accommodation until their power is back.”

Sporting body Cricket NSW urged clubs to consider cancelling weekend games due to poor air quality.

“We appreciate this may mean some finals are not played and players may be disappointed, however the welfare of our cricket communities is our number one priority,” Cricket NSW CEO Lee Germo said in a statement.

Australia’s worst bushfires on record destroyed thousands of homes in Victoria state in February 2009, killing 173 people and injuring 414 more.

(Reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Muralikumar Anantharaman)

Australians shelter from bushfires as political heat climbs

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Firefighters battled hundreds of bushfires across Australia on Thursday as scores of blazes sprang up in new locations, triggering warnings that it was too late for some residents to evacuate.

As Thick smoke blanketed the most populous city of Sydney for a third day, residents were urged to keep children indoors, stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to tackle climate change.

By early afternoon, dozens of fires were burning across the southeastern state of Victoria and temperatures of 40.9 Celsius (105.6 F) in Melbourne, its capital, matched the hottest day on record in 1894, Australia’s weather bureau said.

Authorities warned residents of towns about 50 km (31 miles) north of Ballarat, the state’s third largest city, that it was too late for them to evacuate safely.

“You are in danger, act now to protect yourself,” fire authorities said in an alert. “It is too late to leave. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately.”

Blazes across several states have endangered thousands of people, killing at least four people this month, burning about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroying more than 400 homes.

The early arrival and severity of the fires in the southern hemisphere spring follows three years of drought that experts have linked to climate change and which have left bushland tinder-dry.

With 10 days remaining to the official start of summer, extreme temperatures and high winds have sparked wildfires in new areas, even as firefighters tracked the crisis across the mainland, the Northern Territory and the island of Tasmania.

In Victoria, power to more than 100,000 homes was knocked out amid lightning strikes and strong, gusty winds of more than 110 kph (68 mph) that knocked tree branches into power lines, ahead of a cool change expected to bring relief in the evening.

The extensive damage was likely to leave some customers without power through the night as utilities worked to restore networks and fix downed powerlines, a spokeswoman for power provider Ausnet said.

State authorities issued its first Code Red alert in a decade, signifying the worst possible bushfire conditions, warning that should a fire start it would be fast moving, unpredictable and probably uncontrollable.

In the state of New South Wales, strong winds blew smoke from 60 fires still burning over much of Sydney, shrouding the harbor city and its famous landmarks in thick smog.

The state imposed tough new water curbs in Sydney from Dec. 10, when a key dam is expected to be down to 45% capacity. Residents face fines if they use hoses to water their gardens and wash their cars.

CLIMATE POLITICS

The unrelenting conditions have sharpened attention on the climate change policies of Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who rejected any link.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon, and we’re doing our bit as part of the response to climate change,” Morrison told ABC radio.

“To suggest that, with just 1.3% of global emissions, that Australia doing something differently – more or less – would have changed the fire outcome this season, I don’t think that stands up to any credible scientific evidence at all.”

Morrison’s conservative government has committed to the Paris Agreement for a cut in emissions from 26% to 28% by 2030, versus 2005 levels. Critics say current projections suggest it will miss that target and have urged remedial steps.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell and Clarence Fernandez)

Sydneysiders urged to stay indoors as Australian bushfire smoke blankets city

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Strong winds stoked more than 100 fires across Australia’s east coast on Tuesday, blanketing Sydney in hazardous smoke and prompting health warnings for the country’s most populous city.

Australia is prone to bushfires in its dry, hot summers, but fierce blazes have been sparked early, in the southern spring, by a long drought and soaring temperatures.

Wildfires have so far this month claimed at least four lives, burnt about 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of farmland and bush and destroyed more than 300 homes.

Powerful winds fanned around 130 fires that have been burning across New South Wales and Queensland states for several days, and pushed smoke south to form a thick haze over Sydney, home to around 5 million people.

Officials said the air quality above parts of the harbor city was measured at 10 times hazardous levels on Tuesday and advised people to stay indoors as much as possible as the smoke lingers over coming days.

“We know that heatwaves cause severe illness, hospital admission and even deaths, and that people are more sensitive to heatwaves early in the season,” Richard Broom, director of environmental health at NSW Health said In an emailed statement.

“The combination of heat and poor air quality adds to the risk.”

In NSW, firefighters were scrambling to strengthen fire containment lines ahead of forecast higher temperatures for much of the rest of the week.

“More than 1,300 firefighters are working on these fires, undertaking backburning operations and strengthening containment lines ahead of forecast hot, dry and windy weather, with seven areas under a total fire ban,” the NSW Rural Fire Service said in a statement.

The current bushfire crisis has mostly been contained to the east coast of NSW and Queensland states, but officials in South Australia warned on Tuesday that forecast near-record temperatures raises the risks in that state.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said temperatures in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, will hit 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit) on Wednesday, which coupled with strong winds will create “catastrophic” fire danger conditions.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait and Jane Wardell)

#SaveRahaf: Activists’ lightning campaign made Saudi teen’s flight a global cause

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, a Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her country and family, is seen in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019 in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. TWITTER/ @rahaf84427714/via REUTERS

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panu Wongcha-um

BANGKOK (Reuters) – On Sunday morning, a new Twitter account was created by an 18-year-old Saudi woman denied entry into Thailand as she fled from what she said was an abusive family.

The first message from Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, in Arabic, was at 3:20 a.m. Thai time (2020 GMT Saturday) and posted from the transit area of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport. It said: “I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in real danger if I am forced to return to Saudi Arabia.”

Within hours, a campaign sprung up on Twitter dubbed #SaveRahaf. Spread by a loose network of activists around the world, within 36 hours it prompted Thailand’s government to reverse a decision to force the young woman onto a plane that would return her to her family.

Qunun was allowed to enter Thailand and on Tuesday was beginning the process of seeking asylum in a third country through the U.N. refugee agency.

“Everybody was watching. When social media works, this is what happens,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, of the international outcry.

Qunun’s family could not be reached to respond to her allegations of abuse. Reuters could not directly contact Qunun, but spoke to several confidants who described how the dramatic campaign unfolded across the world.

After her initial Tweet, Qunun posted nearly non-stop for five hours, saying she had been abused and threatened by her family.

Halfway around the world, retweets by Saudi Twitter users were noticed by Egyptian-American activist Mona Eltahawy in Montreal who began translating and retweeting Qunun’s Arabic tweets at 4 a.m. Thailand time, even though she was initially unsure if the account was authentic.

“(I was) doing my best to get attention to her because I could not live with myself if she was real and I ignored it,” Eltahawy told Reuters in an e-mail.

BANGKOK, MONTREAL, SYDNEY

About two hours later – 6 a.m. Sunday morning in Thailand but mid-afternoon in Australia – a Sydney-based video journalist noticed and retweeted Eltahawy’s translated messages.

The journalist, Sophie McNeill of Australia Broadcast Corp., began tweeting back to Qunun, and later the two began privately corresponding by direct message.

At 11 a.m. on Sunday in Thailand – eight hours after Qunun began tweeting – Human Rights Watch’s Robertson, who is based in Bangkok, also began tweeting about the case.

He also contacted Qunun directly and she replied.

“She said very clearly that she has suffered both physical and psychological abuse. She said she has made a decision to renounce Islam. And I knew once she said that, she is in serious trouble,” Robertson told Reuters.

Renouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death under the Saudi system of sharia, or Islamic law, though the punishment has not been carried out in recent memory.

By early Sunday afternoon, Robertson had notified the U.N. refugee agency in Thailand and several foreign embassies about the unfolding case, and they began to contact Thai authorities.

BARRICADED DOOR

At around the same time, journalist McNeill decided to fly to Thailand and try to meet Qunun.

“I’d never spoken to her before,” she told Reuters. “For me, it was so important that this was documented, and I wanted to be there and witness it.”

While McNeill boarded a flight from Sydney to Bangkok, Qunun was holed up in an airport transit hotel and afraid she would be forced onto the next flight back to Kuwait. She continued tweeting and also corresponding with Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

At around 5 p.m. Sunday, she was taken out of her room by Thai officials but later allowed to return.

“She filmed these two people talking to her,” said Robertson. “They said to her very clearly that they will put her on the Kuwait Airways flight KU 412 leaving (Monday) at 11:15 a.m.”

By this time, global media outlets had picked up on the story and Thai immigration officials were confirming that Qunun was to be expelled on Monday morning.

At about 1 a.m. Monday morning, Qunun posted a video of herself pushing a table to barricade her hotel room door.

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is seen with Thai immigration authorities at a hotel inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Thailand January 7, 2019. Thailand Immigration Police via REUTERS

THREATENING LANGUAGE

McNeill arrived in Thailand early on Monday and managed to join Qunun in her hotel room.

“When it became clear that she wasn’t going to leave, I decided it was important to stay and have someone documenting what was going on,” McNeill said.

Qunun refused to open the door when various officials came to escort her to the Kuwait Airways flight.

“We were inside the room and there were numerous people coming to the door … There were several Arabic speakers who came and were using threatening language to try and force her back on the plane,” McNeill recalled.

The flight to Kuwait City left without Qunun.

At 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Thailand’s immigration chief Surachate Hakparn held a press conference at the airport for dozens of Thai and international media representatives gathered in the transit area.

After a day of insisting that Qunun must be sent back under Thai law, Surachate said she would not be immediately be expelled since she could be in danger and he would meet U.N. officials to discuss her case.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative Giuseppe de Vincentiis arrived at the airport at about 5 p.m. on Monday to meet Thai officials and Qunun herself.

By about 7:30 p.m on Monday, Surachate told reporters Qunun would be allowed to enter Thailand and apply for asylum in a third country.

The UNHCR said on Tuesday that it would take time to process Qunun’s application, and its officials continued to interview her at an undisclosed location.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday denied on its Twitter account that its embassy in Thailand had asked for Qunun to be extradited, although Surachate had said the previous day the embassy had been in contact with Thai immigration before her arrival from Kuwait.

The Saudi embassy in Bangkok declined to comment on Qunun’s case when contacted by Reuters on Monday and could not be reached on Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, the Thai immigration office released a video clip of its officials meeting Saudi diplomats to discuss the case.

“When she first arrived in Thailand, she opened a new site (account) and the followers reached about 45,000 within one day,” a Saudi official speaking in Arabic through a translator tells Thai officials in the video.

“I wish you had taken her phone, it would have been better than (taking) her passport,” the official said.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Rare Tornado Brings Record Winds to Australia

A rare tornado ripped through Sydney on Wednesday morning, reportedly bringing the fastest winds ever recorded in that region of Australia and leaving a wake of destruction in its path.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported the storm featured wind gusts of 132 mph, which smashed the record for the state of New South Wales. The previous high of 106 mph was set back in 1974.

The tornado occurred as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued severe thunderstorm warnings for the region surrounding Sydney, Australia’s largest and perhaps most famous city.

Westpac Life Saver, a search and rescue helicopter service in New South Wales, shared photos on social media that showed the damage in Kurnell, a Sydney suburb. The pictures showed numerous downed trees, widespread debris and several homes that were missing roof shingles.

Other photographs shared on social media showed large hailstones, some the size of golf balls.

The Bureau of Meteorology reported the thunderstorms dumped more than three inches of rain in one hour in Nowra, about four hours south of Sydney. The precipitation in Sydney was significant enough to trigger some flash flooding, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

The BBC reported no one was significantly injured in the tornado, though some properties were so severely damaged that authorities deemed them unlivable. Australian media outlet 9News reported officials are warning of the threat of asbestos in debris, particularly from older homes.

Crews were working to restore power to about 20,000 customers, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Heroes Of Sydney Terror Attack Praised

In the wake of the Islamic terror attack on a Sydney café, local officials are confirming the acts of bravery committed by the two hostages killed during the assault.

The first victim was a 38-year-old mother of three who died protecting a pregnant co-worker.  Katrina Dawson was a lawyer who worked in the central business district opposite the café.  She had been drinking coffee with Julie Taylor, a fellow lawyer who is pregnant, and when terrorist Man Haron Monis began firing she used her body to shield her friend.

The other victim was Tori Johnson, the manager of the Lindt Café.  Johnson jumped forward when the terrorist began to fire at the hostages in an attempt to wrestle the gun away from the attacker.  He suffered fatal wounds during the fight with Monis.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted to the press that the attacker was not on the terrorism watch list.  He could not explain why the openly hostile jihadist was not on the list.

The London Daily Mail said that Monis was on bail related to charges that he had plotted to kill a woman at the time of his assault on the café.