Ecuador struck by large earthquake, scores dead

Ecuador’s strongest earthquake since 1979 has killed at least 77 people, causing severe damage and prompting the government to declare a state of emergency.

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The 7.8-magnitude quake struck the northwestern part of the country at 7.58pm on Saturday (0958 AEST Sunday), the US Geological Survey said.

Its epicentre was 20km underground and about 170km northwest of the capital Quito.

Vice President Jorge Glas said the death toll had risen to 77 and at least 588 people were injured, according to CNN.

In an earlier televised address he had expressed fears of the toll rising as relief agencies were unable to reach the worst-hit areas.

There were some 50 aftershocks in the first four hours after the quake hit, the vice president said.

Glas, who is leading the country in the absence of President Rafael Correa, said the armed forces and national police were put on maximum alert.

Correa, who was at the Vatican for a conference, took to Twitter to express his “infinite love” for the families of the deceased, and called on his compatriots to show courage.

The president, who was rushing back from Italy and was expected to arrive in Ecuador by Sunday afternoon, said the damage was “serious” and called for citizens to remain “united”.

In the country’s largest city, Guayaquil, there were reports that a three-storey building had been levelled by the quake.

Some 16 people were reported dead in the city of Portoviejo, 10 in the coastal city of Manta and two in the province of Guayas, Glas said.

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Some 71 houses had collapsed in the coastal city of Esmeraldas near the epicentre, according to El Telegrafo newspaper.

Electricity went down in parts of Quito, according to El Telegrafo.

The quake came as a result of movement at or near the plate boundary between the Nazca and Pacific plates, USGS said.

Ecuador – on the so-called Pacific “ring of fire” – has a history of such quakes. Since 1900, seven magnitude-7 or greater earthquakes have had an epicentre within 250km of the latest quake, the US agency said.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre initially said tsunami waves reaching 0.3m to 1m above the tide level were possible for some areas along the Ecuadorian coast.

Tsunami waves of less than 0.3m above the tide level were possible along the coasts of Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Peru.

But by 0256 GMT the centre said that the “tsunami threat from this earthquake has now mostly passed”.

Mal and Gal to sit down next week

Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga will sit down with Paul Gallen at next week’s True Blues dinner in Sydney to discuss his retention in the national set-up.

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Gallen’s future in the green and gold has been under a cloud with the retiring NSW State of Origin skipper revealing earlier this week he hadn’t spoken with Meninga since the former Queensland coach was appointed Kangaroos mentor last December.

Meninga said it was normal for him not to speak to players before the representative season begins.

“That’s me. I’ve always had the attitude that club football goes first,” Meninga told AAP.

“When the rep season is about to come on, I’ll start ringing players up that I think are going to be part of the team. That hasn’t happened yet.”

Meninga admitted he also wanted to see how Gallen returned from his recent knee injury, having missed three weeks earlier in the NRL season.

The Cronulla captain, who hasn’t played for Australia since May 2014, has since punched out a total 132 minutes over the past fortnight.

“He’s just got back on the footy field, hasn’t he?” Meninga said.

“He’s in the picture, so we’ll keep a pretty close eye on his performance this weekend in particular and make some more judgment as we go forward.

“I’ll have a yarn to him next week anyway because I’m at the True Blues dinner. I can have a yarn to him at that as well as a few of the other NSW boys who are in the picture.”

Meninga met with newly-appointed selectors Bob Fulton and Darren Lockyer for their first selection meeting last week, with plenty of debate about the outside backs and back row.

Injuries to mainstays Billy Slater, Will Chambers and Aaron Woods have disrupted the line-up.

“From our perspective there won’t be too many changes to the team, considering who the top teams are. But there is some talk around outside backs and obviously back row,” Meninga said.

Greg Inglis is likely to decide whether he wants to fill in at fullback, while Meninga conceded he had to choose between a left side combination of Johnathan Thurston, Inglis and Darius Boyd, or Parramatta pair Michael Jennings and Semi Radradra.

Josh Dugan is likely to be named at right centre.

“But, as things happen, someone like Will Chambers hurt himself (last week). Things change pretty quickly, so we’ve just got to wait and see what happens over the next few weeks,” Meninga said.

The Kangaroos host world No.1 New Zealand in Newcastle on May 6 in what will be their first Test since losing to the Kiwis in the annual mid-year fixture last year.

Putin chastises – and praises – Obama in annual Q and A

Speaking for more than three hours, Mr Putin addressed topics including relations with the United States, Russia’s economy and the Syrian conflict.

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Vladimir Putin’s annual televised question-and-answer session allows the Russian public to pose questions directly to their president.

In the wide-ranging discussion, Mr Putin covered several pertinent issues including the Syrian conflict, for which Russia’s role has been significantly criticised by Western nations.

Mr Putin said terrorism remains a global threat and Russia knows it first-hand.

“Many countries in the world suffer from this danger, from this virus: the Middle East, Asia, the United States and European countries, I won’t mention Russia here – we know well what it is, we suffered serious losses during our fight against terrorism and this threat persists.”

Mr Putin added that despite a drawdown of Russian forces, his government is doing everything to ensure the situation in Syria does not continue to deteriorate.

“We left the Syrian army in a position where, with the support of part of the contingent that was left there, it can carry out serious offensive operations. Already after our withdrawal it has taken Palmyra. It has taken some other important strategic settlements.”

Russia began its campaign of air strikes in Syria last September in support of the Syrian government of President Bashar al Assad.

Despite the ongoing offensive, Mr Putin has called on the warring parties to end the conflict and launch a political process.

“We really hope that non-use of arms by both sides, which are supported by various parties, including our support, will lead to a peaceful resolution, but it is necessary to come to an agreement, sit down for political talks and adopt a new constitution and hold early elections based on this constitution and through this come out of the crisis.”

Meanwhile, Mr Putin referred to United States President Barack Obama’s recent remark that the “worst mistake” of his presidency was his failure to come up with an action plan for the aftermath of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s ousting.

Mr Putin said Mr Obama didn’t learn the lessons from Iraq when dealing with the conflict in Libya, but he praised his courage in admitting it.

“It is not easy to say such things. Barack, when he was still a senator, criticised the actions of the administration of the day for their actions in Iraq. But unfortunately, when he himself was president, he made the mistakes which he himself mentioned – in Libya. And this is right and very good that my colleague has the courage to make such statements. Not everyone can do this.”

Mr Putin also addressed the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, and called on Ukraine’s governent and its western allies to support Russia.

“I will try to be very accurate, but nonetheless, some things are obvious. Issues of a political nature are the first and most important among the problems in the southeast of Ukraine. It is necessary to ensure that people living in these territories feel safe and know they have rights like in a civilised and modern society.”

Speaking on the issue of the recently released “Panama Papers” which implicated a friend of Mr Putin’s, he said US officials were behind the leaks and media reports were designed to sow doubts about individuals.

He pointed out the newspaper which initially received the leaked papers is owned by an American corporation.

“Süddeutsche Zeitung is a part of a media holding which belongs to the US financial corporation Goldman Sachs. The ears of the instigator are sticking out everywhere but they don’t even redden.”

Meanwhile, Mr Putin said it’s too early to say whether he’ll seek a new term as president in elections due in 2018.

“I think it is too early to talk about it. In such situations I usually say the same thing and want to repeat it once again now. Now we need to think not about where and how we will work in the future, but how to justify people’s trust today, to achieve the goals we set, the promises we’ve made. And depending on the situation and how the work goes – certain decisions will be made.”