Downed flying objects still a mystery. New banknote chaos in Nigeria. Pressure on Erdoğan over quake. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Gabrielle wreaks havoc across NZ’s North Island

Great power rivalry

United States: Security agencies in the United States were still trying this week to identify three mysterious flying objects the US Air Force shot down over North America last weekend but confirmed that the objects were not Chinese spy balloons.

The US military this week recovered electronic sensors and other components from a suspected spy balloon that was shot down off the coast of South Carolina on February 4 and is believed to be part of a global Chinese balloon surveillance program. It has since emerged that suspected Chinese balloons have been spotted in recent years over Taiwan, Japan and India, and that a Chinese balloon flew earlier this month over Costa Rica, Colombia and Venezuela.

China has claimed the balloons over the US and Latin America were weather-monitoring aircraft but this week accused the US of flying spy balloons over Chinese airspace 10 times in the past year. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, said on Monday the US was “the world’s largest surveillance habitual offender and surveillance empire”.    

A spokesperson for the US National Security Council, Adrienne Watson, said in a tweet that the US had not operated spy balloons over China but that China had overflown more than “40 countries across 5 continents”. On Monday, the director-general of security for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, Mike Burgess, told a senate estimates hearing he was not aware of any Chinese spy balloons flying over Australia.

Military analysts believe China has been deploying balloons because they are harder to detect than satellites and because its satellites are not as sophisticated as those of the US.

Following the destruction of the initial balloon, the US last weekend shot down three flying objects over northern Canada, Alaska and Michigan. Two of the objects were believed to be balloons. The White House said the objects – which were flying at lower altitude than the initial balloon – were not believed to have been spying and may have been operated privately for commercial or research purposes.

As the balloon saga continued, the US this week said Russia had effectively lost the war in Ukraine and that Ukraine was expected to mount a counteroffensive within months.

During a visit to Brussels, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: “Russia has lost – they’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically and they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield.” 

The neighbourhood

New Zealand: Cyclone Gabrielle left a trail of destruction across New Zealand’s North Island this week, causing landslides and flooding that has killed at least five people and forced 10,000 to flee their homes.

The cyclone, the worst in New Zealand since 1988, passed across the North Island from Sunday to Tuesday, destroying roads and highways and leaving more than 200,000 homes without power.

On Tuesday, the government declared a state of emergency as the military was deployed to assist with rescues in areas cut off by flooding or ruined roads. The fatalities included a child who drowned in Eskdale, two people who were in homes crushed by landslides in Muriwai and in the Hawke’s Bay region, and two people who are believed to have drowned in Napier and Gisborne.

Chris Hipkins, New Zealand’s prime minister, said the disaster was the worst weather event “in a generation”.

The heavy rains and floodwaters forced people to swim from their homes or to take refuge on their rooftops.

In the town of Wairoa, where access and communications were cut off, authorities said on Wednesday they were struggling to secure food, water and fuel supplies and appealed for emergency aid.

“We are geographically isolated with roads into the district closed and bridges washed away on state highways,” Craig Little, the mayor, said in a statement on social media.

“At this stage we have enough food, water and fuel for the next few days.”

The cyclone came two weeks after intensive downpours and flooding in Auckland left four people dead.

James Shaw, a Green Party MP who is the minister for climate change, said rising temperatures had exacerbated the severity of this week’s disaster. “We cannot put our heads in the sand when the beach is flooding,” he said.

Democracy in retreat

Nigeria: A plan to introduce new banknotes in Nigeria has caused chaos in the lead-up to the general election on February 25, as residents have been unable to access the new notes and have been left without cash for food and transport.

The government decided to introduce the new notes to remove counterfeits from circulation and to address money laundering, inflation and corruption. In addition, the move is aimed to rein in the large amount of cash – about 84 per cent of the total currency in circulation – that is kept by people at their homes rather than within the banking system. About 40 per cent of the country’s 225 million residents do not have bank accounts.

Nigerians were initially given until January 31 to swap their old banknotes, but the deadline has been repeatedly delayed because many people have been unable to get hold of the new currency. Queues at ATMs and banks have been lasting hours but people are often restricted to tiny maximum withdrawals of as little as 1000 naira ($3.13).

Abraham Osundiran, a 36-year-old construction worker in Lagos, told BBC News he had missed work because he could not access cash to pay for his taxi fare.

“I have not eaten today,” he said. “I don’t have any cash.”

The crisis could damage the electoral prospects of the ruling All Progressives Congress party. Bola Tinubu, the party’s presidential candidate, has criticised the currency rollout but promised the move would ultimately benefit the economy. “We will make lemonade out of our current lemons,” he said in a statement.

Spotlight: Pressure on Erdoğan over quake

Türkiye: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Türkiye’s president, is facing growing criticism over the country’s preparedness for the devastating earthquake last week that has killed more than 41,000 people in Türkiye and Syria and left millions homeless.

Erdoğan this week defended his record after the opposition accused him of mishandling the relief effort and critics shared videos from several years ago of him praising housing projects that have since collapsed. Appearing on live television, he announced a program to build safe new housing in the earthquake zone and to provide financial support to the families of victims.

“At a time when we needed to be united … unfortunately, politics in Türkiye, with a certain part, the main opposition, has become seriously ugly,” he said.

During his 20 years in power, Erdoğan has steadily targeted his political critics, tightened control over the media and undermined the independence of the judiciary.

Since the devastating earthquake on February 6, residents in affected areas have attacked the relief effort, and city officials and engineers have criticised the building standards in the quake zone. In recent years, more than 40,000 construction projects in the zone were granted building amnesties that allowed projects to proceed, even if they did not satisfy building codes.

As of Wednesday, the death toll from the earthquake was more than 41,000, including 35,400 in Türkiye, 4400 in rebel-held Syria, and 1400 in government-controlled Syria.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 18, 2023 as "Gabrielle wreaks havoc across NZ’s North Island".

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