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Australia centralises national security agencies amid heightened threat

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Tuesday Australia’s domestic security bodies, including the police and the national spy agency, will be centralised under a single minister as Canberra tackles the rising threat of “lone wolf” attacks.

Oversight of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the police force had previously been the responsibility of three government officials but would now be handled by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, Turnbull said, under a model similar to that used by the British Home Office.

Turnbull said the centralised model would ensure greater coordination between Australia’s security agencies.

The national security overhaul came as Australia, a staunch ally of the United States, reshapes its counter-terrorism response after a series of lone-wolf attacks and heightened fear of attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East.

“Our security environment is being shaped by changes in our region and beyond,” Turnbull told reporters in Canberra.

“It is being shaped by the very real threat of home-grown terrorism that is increased with the spread of global Islamist terrorism,” he said.

The Cabinet shake-up came a day after Turnbull said Australia’s military would be more readily deployed to respond to “terrorist incidents” at home.

Under those proposed law changes, state and territory governments would be able to call for military help at any time after a “terror incident” has been declared .

Previously, the military could only be called upon once police concluded they could no longer deal with an incident.

Australia’s domestic security policies have come under close scrutiny since a lone gunman staged a 16-hour siege at a Sydney cafe in December 2014, during which two hostages were killed.

A coronial inquiry found in May that police failed to respond quickly enough to end the siege, which has been described as Australia’s deadliest incident inspired by Islamic State extremists .

The gunman, who was killed by police, had no direct ties to the militant group.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait

Airport shooting reignites security debate before French election

PARIS Police questioned and then released relatives of a man shot dead at a Paris airport, as investigators sought clues on why he attacked an army patrol in an incident that has pushed security to the forefront of France’s election campaign.

Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said late on Saturday that the man, named as 39-year-old Ziyed Ben Belgacem, had shouted he was there to “die for Allah” when he tried to seize a gun from a woman air force member on patrol at Orly airport.

After throwing down a bag containing a can of petrol and putting an air pistol to the head of the soldier, he was shot three times by her colleagues.

More than 230 people have died in France in the past twoyears at the hands of attackers allied to the militant Islamist group Islamic State, making security a key issue in the two-round presidential election on April 23 and May 7.

Emmanuel Macron, the centrist frontrunner, told France 2 television on Sunday it was “essential” to maintain the current state of emergency, in force since November 2015 . He reiterated that he would strengthen military operations and intelligence against Islamist militants.

Conservative Francois Fillon said France was in a “situation of virtual civil war” and spoke out against the idea of lifting the state of emergency, as floated by the justice minister last week.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, running on an

anti-immigration, anti-European Union ticket, told a rally that the government was “overwhelmed, stunned, paralysed like a rabbit in the headlights.”

IN AND OUT OF PRISON

Belgacem, who had been in and out of prison for theft and drug offences according to judicial sources, was already on the authorities’ radar . They said he became a radicalised Muslim when he served a prison term several years ago for drug-trafficking.

He had been reporting regularly to police under the terms of a provisional release from custody, and did not have the right to leave the country.

Several hours before he was killed, Belgacem had shot and wounded a police officer with his air pistol when he was stopped for a routine traffic check north of Paris, officials said . He then fled the scene.

He later entered a bar where he was a regular customer in Vitry-sur-Seine on the other side of Paris, and opened fire with his air gun without hitting anyone . He also stole a car before arriving at the airport.

Belgacem’s father, who was initially detained by police but released late on Saturday, denied his son had been involved in terrorism.

“My son has never been a terrorist . He has never prayed: he drinks . And, under the influence of alcohol and cannabis, this is what happens,” the father, whose name was not given, told Europe 1 radio.

He said he had received a phone call from his son in which Belgacem referred to shooting the police officer, saying: “I ask your forgiveness . I screwed up with a policeman.”

An autopsy showed the presence of cannabis and cocaine in Belgacem’s body, as well as an alcohol blood level of 0.93 grams per litre, a judicial source said on Sunday.

The legal limit for alcohol while driving in France is 0.5 g/l.

An earlier search of Belgacem’s home had found several grams of cocaine, the prosecutor said.

Belgacem was born in Paris, according to the prosecutor . French media said his family was of Tunisian origin.

A brother and cousin of Belgacem were also questioned by police and then released on Sunday, the judicial source said.

(Writing by Richard Balmforth; Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Sandra Maler)

Attack on Syrian security forces in Homs kills 42

BEIRUT Militants attacked two Syrian security offices in the western city of Homs on Saturday with guns and suicide bombers, killing at least 42 people including a senior officer, a war monitor said.

The attackers killed the head of military security and 29 others at one of its headquarters in the city and 12 more people at a branch of state security in attacks that began early in the morning, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syrian state television reported that clashes had rocked the districts of al-Ghouta and al-Mohata, where the two targets were located, before three suicide bombers detonated their explosives at each place . It did not give a death toll.

It was not immediately clear if the militants were from Islamic State or other groups, the Observatory, a Britain-based war monitor, said.

IS has carried out bombing attacks in the city, which is under government control except for one besieged district held by more moderate rebels . Several bombings have targeted Syrian cities held by the government of President Bashar al-Assad in recent months.

(Reporting by John Davison and Angus McDowall; additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; editing by David Clarke and Hugh Lawson)