Australia commemorates war dead with few COVID restrictions

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Large crowds gathered in Australia on Monday to pay tribute to their war dead on Anzac Day largely free of pandemic restrictions for the first time since 2019.

Australia and New Zealand commemorate Anzac Day every April 25 — the date in 1915 when the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps landed in Turkey in an ill-fated campaign that was the soldiers’ first combat of World War I.

Monday was the first such commemoration of casualties of all wars since both nations withdrew troops from Afghanistan last year.

The dawn service in New Zealand’s largest city Auckland was initially planned to be closed to the public due to pandemic restrictions. But a veterans’ association intervened and a smaller-than-usual crowd was allowed to attend. A Ukrainian flag was flown above the Auckland War Memorial Museum ceremony.

In Australia’s largest city, Sydney, downtown Martin Place was filled to capacity with tens of thousands gathered for its dawn service.

There were no restrictions on numbers attending most Australian services, although some, including at the west coast city of Perth, were ticketed events to reduce crowds.

Those who could not attend the Perth service in Kings Park were urged to pay their respects from their driveways at dawn as Australians have done on the previous two Anzac Days.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and deputy opposition leader Richard Marles acknowledged Ukraine’s fight for freedom when they spoke at a dawn service in the northern city of Darwin, which was devastated by Japanese bombing during World War II.

Marles was standing in for opposition leader Anthony Albanese who is isolating at his Sydney home after testing positive to COVID-19 last week.

Morrison is campaigning for a fourth three-year term for his conservative government at elections on May 21.

Anzac Day has focused attention on a new security threat to Australia, a bilateral security treaty between China and the Solomon Islands announced last week that could potentially result in a Chinese military presence 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) from the northeast Australian coast.

Morrison said at the Darwin ceremony that Australia’s freedom had been secured by the sacrifices of previous generations in war.

“An arc of autocracy is challenging the rules-based order our grandparents had secured,” Morrison said, referring to China, Russia and North Korea. “And democratic, free peoples are standing together again.”

Australia is the Solomon Islands main security partner and largest donor of foreign aid. The opposition center-left Labor Party has described the Chinese security pact with the island nation as Australia’s biggest policy failure in the Pacific since World War II.

President Joe Biden’s administration has warned that the United States will take unspecified action against the Solomon Islands should the Chinese pact pose a threat to the U.S. or allied interests.

Cases of the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus, which was first detected in Australia in December, have peaked across the country in recent weeks.

Australia began relaxing pandemic restrictions late last year when 80% of adults were fully vaccinated. Australia has one of the most vaccinated populations in the world, with 93% of adults fully vaccinated.

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