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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pakistani Shiites demand protection after bombing killed 18

October 24, 2015

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani Shiites rallied to demand greater government protection on Saturday after a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite religious procession, killing at least 18 people and wounding 40 others.

The bomber struck a public Ashoura rally Friday night in Jacobabad, a city in the southern province of Sindh, senior police officer Zafar Malik said. Local media reported a higher death toll than the government, saying as many as 24 people were killed.

Malik added that mourners were preparing for mass funerals Saturday and that the government had protectively deployed extra troops to handle any "untoward situation." Shiite Muslims, a minority in Pakistan, hold public rallies to mark Ashoura, a 10-day ritual that commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and an iconic Shiite martyr. Some mourners whip themselves with knives attached to chains and women and children beat their own chests as they march in the streets.

Sunni extremists who consider Shiites to be heretics. On Thursday, a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite mosque in southwest Pakistan, killing 10 people in Baluchistan province. The attacks have sparked Shiite anger at the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for failing to protect Shiite citizens. On Friday in Jacobabad after the bombing, angry Shiites ransacked local government offices.

Shiite community leader Syed Hamid Ali Shah Moosavi called for mourners to participate peacefully in Saturday's funeral processions, and demanded that the government provide greater protection and arrest those responsible for the bombings.

Pakistani authorities have put heightened security arrangements in place to protect Ashoura events, sealing off procession routes, assigning paramilitary troops to escort processions and suspending cell phone service in certain areas.

Najib vows not to quit as Malaysia marks National Day

August 31, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's prime minister vowed he would not quit over a $700-million financial scandal, and accused protesters of showing "poor national spirit" by holding a massive rally to demand his resignation on the eve of the country's National Day on Monday.

After a weekend of demonstrations, the government took back the streets of Kuala Lumpur, with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Cabinet ministers attending a gala parade involving 13,000 people. They watched jets whizz by above the landmark Independence Square, which over the weekend was surrounded by tens of thousands of protesters.

In his National Day speech late Sunday, Najib slammed protesters for showing a "shallow mind and poor national spirit." He said the protests can disrupt public order and were not the right way to show unhappiness in a democratic country.

Najib said Malaysia was not a failed state and slammed protesters for tarnishing the country's image. He vowed not to bow to pressure. "Once the sails have been set, once the anchor has been raised, the captain and his crew would never change course," he said.

Police sealed off the square over the weekend. Large crowds of protesters in yellow shirts of the Bersih movement — a coalition for clean and fair elections — camped overnight around the square, even after authorities blocked the organizer's website and banned yellow attire and the group's logo.

The rally ended peacefully after protesters ushered in the country's 58th National Day at midnight Sunday amid tight security. Police estimated the crowd size at 35,000, but Bersih says it swelled to 300,000 on Sunday from 200,000 on Saturday.

"What is 20,000?" Najib said, downplaying even the police number. "We can gather hundreds of thousands," he said in a speech in a rural area in a northern state earlier Sunday. "The rest of the Malaysian population is with the government," he was quoted as saying by the local media.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been spearheading calls for Najib's resignation, added momentum to the rally when he turned up at the rally with his wife on both days. Mahathir, who clamped down on dissent during his 22-year rule, said people power was needed to remove Najib and return the rule of law. He stepped down in 2003 but remained influential.

Najib has been fighting for political survival after leaked documents in July showed he received some $700 million in his private accounts from entities linked to indebted state fund 1MDB. He later said the money was a donation from the Middle East and fired his critical deputy, four other Cabinet members and the attorney general investigating him.

Many of the protesters, such as Azrul Khalib, slept on the street. "This is a watershed moment. Malaysians are united in their anger at the mismanagement of this country. We are saying loudly that there should be a change in the leadership," said Azrul.

He said he was aware that the rally will not bring change overnight, but he still participated because he wanted to be "part of efforts to build a new Malaysia." Some used colored chalk to scrawl their demands on the street, writing slogans such as, "We want change," and "We want clean and fair (elections)."

Two previous Bersih rallies, in 2011 and 2012, were dispersed by police using tear gas and water cannons. Analysts said the rally attracted a largely urban crowd with a smaller participation of ethnic Malays, which could be the reason why the Najib government allowed it to go on.

A nation of 30 million, Malaysia is predominantly Malay Muslim, who form the core of the ruling party's support. The country also has significant Chinese and Indian minorities who have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the government recent years.

Malaysia's ambitions to rise from a middle income to a developed nation this decade have been stymied by slow-paced reforms and Najib's increasing authoritarianism. Still, the government feels "safe because it has not really affected the rural Malay segment, their bedrock support," said political analyst Ibrahim Suffian. However, he said this doesn't mean that rural Malays are happy with the government, as many are upset with the plunging currency and economic slowdown.

Support for Najib's National Front has eroded in the last two general elections. It won in 2013, but lost the popular vote for the first time to an opposition alliance. Concerns over the political scandal partly contributed to the Malaysian currency plunging to a 17-year low earlier this month.

In his speech, Najib rejected fears that the economy is crumbling. "We are stable, with strong fundamentals and will continue to survive and remain competitive," he said.

Iraq: Popular Mobilization Forces burn mosques and kill dozens in Baiji

Monday, 26 October 2015

An Iraqi tribal leader has accused Shia Popular Mobilization Forces of burning mosques and killing dozens of people in Baiji in the Salahuddin province in Iraq.

Sheikh Abdul Razzaq Al-Shammari said: "Eight mosques were burned and destroyed in the city of Baiji by the Popular Mobilization Forces in the past days," adding that dozens of people were arrested and taken to an unknown destination.

Al-Shammari explained that the city of Baiji is currently witnessing "genocide" after the forces destroyed the mosques and then burned them.

On 12 October, Iraqi national army, with the support of the Popular Mobilization Forces, launched large-scale military operations that aimed at restoring the city of Baiji after it was seized by Daesh.

Baiji is located 210 kilometers north of Baghdad and has the largest oil refinery in Iraq.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/21890-iraq-popular-crowd-militias-burn-mosques-and-kill-dozens-in-baiji.

Classes swell in Iraq camps as teachers leave for Europe

October 26, 2015

KAWERGOSK, Iraq (AP) — The young Syrian refugees at the Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq have already lost so much — and now they're losing their teachers.

One after another, school teachers have packed up and left for Europe — searching for opportunity, safety and a better life. With the school year just kicking off in Iraq, schools like this one are scrambling to accommodate the refugee students left behind. Nine of Kawergosk's teachers fled to Europe this summer and the remaining teachers are doubling up on students.

Mizgeen Hussein, 28, is among those teachers left behind. A refugee from Derik, Syria, Hussein admits that despite her commitment to the students, she would leave if she had the money. "The reason for me to leave is to have a future", said Hussein, who teaches a class of 37 children at the camp's school. "For sure this has an effect on us," she added. "For now, we'll solve it with the people who are here until they will bring other teachers."

Camps across Iraq are experiencing the same exodus of teachers heading to Europe. Meanwhile student numbers are on the rise as fighting continues to tear through Syria and Iraq, forcing people to flee their homes. An increasingly chaotic civil war has gripped Syria for nearly five years, and the Islamic State militant group has claimed territory in a third of both Iraq and Syria.

Four of the 21 teachers at the Kobani primary school in Domiz camp have left in the past month. With over 1,000 students, manager Abdullah Mohammed Saeed said the school's future is in jeopardy. "We need new people, otherwise we have to close the school," he said.

"Our problem is that now our teachers are escaping to Europe," said Mazhar Mohammed, Kawergosk's principal. "We don't have any other problems. The government is providing us with enough books." Iraq's semi-autonomous northern region hosts approximately 250,000 Syrian refugees, with more than a third of them living in camps. Many have found work, opened shops and pursued some form of education. But their uncertain future has caused those in doubt to flee the region, either back to Syria or across the border to Turkey and beyond.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of Syrians leaving northern Iraq for Europe has tripled in recent months. Among them are many Syrian teachers who have been getting paid by the Kurdish regional government to teach at the various camps. But the region is facing a severe financial crisis, and many teachers have not received salaries -- another reason to leave.

On the first day of school at Kawergosk, children gripped the school's fence waiting for the gates to open. Hundreds flooded into the schoolyard, anxious to get back into their classrooms. The lessons are shortened, as there are not enough teachers to handle all the students. "We dropped the last lessons, so we send the students home earlier," Mohammed, the camp principal, said. The lack of teachers has forced many instructors to give lessons in areas outside their specializations, with history teachers covering geography and math teachers expanding into physics.

Some teachers, like Jeveen Salah Omer, have nevertheless vowed to stay, whatever the cost. "The education of students is more important than anything," she said. "They became refugees and had to come here. This is the least we can do for them."

Egypt buys 2 warships from France, 2nd big military purchase

September 23, 2015

PARIS (AP) — Egypt has agreed to buy two assault ships from France, the French government said Wednesday, dramatically increasing its capabilities on- and off-shore as the country tries to assume a more prominent role against Islamic State militants.

The assault ships, which can each carry 16 helicopter gunships, 700 troops and up to 50 armored vehicles, were originally intended for Russia. France continued building to Russia's specifications — including stenciling Cyrillic writing throughout the vessels — until the deal finally fell apart because of the Ukraine crisis. It was originally supposed to be the biggest arms sale ever by a NATO country to Russia.

France agreed to refund 950 million euros ($1 billion) already paid by Russia. France didn't say how much Egypt has agreed to pay, but denied losing money. A military official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the deal said Egypt would pay 950 million euros ($1 billion) for both ships, which will be delivered next March.

Russia had traditionally supplied Egypt's military, but the country has turned more recently toward Western arms purchases, with France taking a leading role. Egypt bought 24 advanced fighter jets from France earlier this year for nearly $6 billion, as it sought international help to bomb IS targets.

President Francois Hollande said he and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi closed the deal Tuesday after several weeks of talks. "France will assure delivery of these boats while losing nothing, and by doing so protecting Egypt," Hollande said. He noted French military cooperation with Egypt and Egypt's "important role" in the Middle East.

He said el-Sissi underscored the role of the Suez Canal and "how important it is for Europe, for the Middle East, for trade that the Suez Canal be protected." Analysts said it was unlikely that Egypt would re-sell the ships to Russia given the increasing value of its relationship with France. And the military official said it was not permitted for the buyer of a warship to re-sell without permission from the original seller.

But, conveniently, Egypt already owns Russian-made helicopters that are of the same kind originally planned for the decks of the two Mistrals, the official said. The Egyptian government has been battling a long-running insurgency in the northern Sinai region, which escalated after the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 amid massive protests against his rule, and cracked down on Islamic groups. A local IS affiliate has been claiming responsibility for militant attacks in the area.

Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and a former Royal Navy officer, said Egypt's military is shifting its focus, previously on the Sinai, to a more regional outlook.

"It does provide an interesting window into the decision-making of Egypt's leaders at this moment," he said. Analysts said the purchase showed Egypt's attempt to take a more muscular role in the region, notably with the disintegration of Yemen and Libya.

"The reality is that Egypt isn't going to try to conquer Libya or Yemen," said Ben Moores, an analyst with IHS Janes. "It's not trying to change those countries. It's just trying to keep a lid on them."

Afghan earthquake rocks Asia, dozens dead

October 26, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A strong earthquake in northern Afghanistan shook buildings from Kabul to Delhi, cut power and communications in some areas and caused more than 150 deaths, mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Pakistani officials said that at least 147 people were killed and nearly 600 others wounded across the country, while Afghan officials said 33 people were killed and more than 200 wounded. The U.S. Geological Survey said the epicenter of the 7.5-magnitude earthquake was in the Hindu Kush mountains, in the sparsely populated province of Badakhshan, which borders Pakistan, Tajikistan and China. It said the epicenter was 213 kilometers (130 miles) deep and 73 kilometers (45 miles) south of the provincial capital, Fayzabad.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sent his condolences to families who had lost relatives and property, and appointed an "assessment committee" to ensure emergency relief reached the needy as soon as possible, his office said.

In Takhar province, west of Badakhshan, at least 12 students at a girls' school were killed in a stampede as they fled shaking buildings, said Sonatullah Taimor, the spokesman for the provincial governor. Another 42 girls were taken to the hospital in the provincial capital of Taluqan.

In Pakistan, Inayatullah Khan, the provincial minister for local bodies, said the death toll in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone had jumped to 121. The toll from Afghanistan's Badakhshan province was likely to rise as reports came in from remote areas. The province is often struck by earthquakes, but casualty figures are usually low.

The province also suffers from floods, snowstorms and mudslides, and despite vast mineral deposits is one of Afghanistan's poorest regions. It has recently also been troubled by Taliban-led insurgents, who have used its remote valleys as cover to seize districts as they spread their footprint across the country.

Power was cut across much of the Afghan capital, where tremors were felt for around 45 seconds. Houses shook, walls cracked and cars rolled in the streets. Officials in the capital could not be immediately reached as telephones appeared to be cut across the country.

Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah tweeted that the earthquake was the strongest felt in recent decades. He had earlier called an emergency meeting of disaster officials, which was broadcast live on television. He instructed doctors and hospitals to be prepared to receive and treat casualties.

Abdullah said telecommunications have been disrupted in vast parts of the country, preventing officials from getting a precise picture of damage and casualties. He also warned of aftershocks from the earthquake.

In Pakistan, Zahid Rafiq, an official with the meteorological department, said the quake was felt across the country. In the capital, Islamabad, buildings shook and panicked people poured into the streets, many reciting verses from the Quran.

"I was praying when the massive earthquake rattled my home. I came out in a panic," said Munir Anwar, a resident of Liaquat Pur in Pakistan's eastern Punjab province. Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, ordered troops to the quake-affected areas, the military said in a statement. It gave no further details.

The quake was also felt in the Indian capital New Delhi, though no damage was immediately reported. Office buildings swayed and workers who had just returned from lunch ran out of buildings and gathered in the street or in parking lots.

In Srinagar, the main city in the India-controlled portion of disputed Kashmir, the tremors lasted at least 40 seconds, with buildings swaying and electrical wires swinging wildly, residents said. "First I thought somebody had banged the door. But within seconds, the earth began shaking below my feet, and that's when I ran out of the building," said government official Naseer Ahmed.

People ran outside, shouting, crying and chanting religious hymns in an effort to keep calm. "I thought it was the end of the world," shopkeeper Iqbal Bhat said. Srinagar Police Inspector General Syed Javaid Mujtaba Gilani said that "some bridges and buildings have been damaged," including a cracked highway overpass.

Two elderly women died from heart attacks suffered during the earthquake, including a 65-year-old woman in the northern Kashmiri town of Baramulla and an 80-year-old in the southern town of Bijbehara, officials said.

Ahmed reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Riaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, Roshan Mughal in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Anwarullah Khan in Khar, Pakistan, Sherin Zada in Mingora, Pakistan, Aqeel Ahmed in Mansehra, Pakistan, Asim Tanveer in Multan, Pakistan, Aijaz Hussain in Srinagar, India, and Nirmala George in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Poland expected to turn inward under right-wing party

October 26, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — With the election of a right-wing and Euroskeptic party, Poland is expected to become a more inward-looking country, and one less willing to work with European partners to forge common policies on pressing issues like climate change and migrants.

"Poland will be a different Poland in Europe starting from today," Agnieszka Lada, an expert on foreign affairs, said Monday. Law and Justice, which is strongly anti-migrant and determined to preserve Poland's coal industry, swept to power in a parliamentary election Sunday, possibly with enough votes to hold a majority.

According to final results announced late Monday, Law and Justice won 37.6 percent of the vote. Poland's state electoral commission did not say if that would translate into a majority in parliament once the seats are apportioned, but it appeared likely that the party could have a slim majority in the 460-seat lower house, or Sejm. It also won a majority of seats, 58 out of 100, in the less powerful Senate.

The party has also vowed not to adopt the euro currency until Polish wages have caught up with those in Germany, a prospect that is decades away at best. That marks a setback for Europe's ambitions for ever greater monetary union given the importance of Poland's economy, the largest in Central Europe, the sixth-largest in the bloc and one that is developing fast.

The populist party's strong showing came after a campaign in which it took a hard line on migrants, essentially saying it doesn't want any, and criticizing the outgoing centrist leadership for agreeing to a take some 7,000 refugees under a European Union plan.

Days before the election, party chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski even warned that migrants could carry "protozoa and parasites" and other diseases that could be dangerous to Europeans. Several of his political opponents accused him of using language reminiscent of that used by Nazi Germany against the Jews.

"They tapped in so well to the general mood that 'we don't want refugees,'" said analyst Jacek Kucharczyk, who believes Law and Justice's anti-migrant position was a key factor in the extent of its victory.

Kucharczyk, who is the head of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank, said the political shift reveals the "shallow integration" of Poland into the EU since it joined in 2004. Many of the party's supporters take for granted the EU funds that drive growth, and the freedom to easily cross European borders for travel and work. But at the same time they often resist making sacrifices themselves or changing their deeply traditional mindset, for example by accepting gay marriage or other liberal Western values.

"They welcome the EU if it brings funds but not if it brings migrants and the Western decadent lifestyle," Kucharczyk said. He argues that the party won such a decisive victory because it made people believe that it could "create an invisible wall around Poland," allowing Poles to keep all the things they like about EU membership while insulating them from what they don't like.

The party's candidate for prime minister, Beata Szydlo, insists that the party is "very pro-European" but only wants to protect Poland's interests. At some point Law and Justice will have to make a crucial decision on whether it will back former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, of the rival Civic Platform, for a second term as EU president, after his current terms expires in May 2017.

The party has had bad blood for years with Tusk, and some political observers find it almost inconceivable that Law and Justice could give its support to a man they have vilified for years. But refusing to back him and letting him lose the job would also hurt Poland's interests, depriving it of the high-profile role it now has in Brussels.

Law and Justice could also find its own hold on power jeopardized in the future should Tusk, a former prime minister and political heavyweight, return to Polish politics. Civic Platform, the centrist, pro-market party which Tusk led for years, has weakened considerably without him at the helm. It won 24.1 percent of the vote, turning it into an opposition party after eight years of running the country.

Three other parties will also make it into parliament: a party led by the right-wing rock musician Pawel Kukiz, which got 8.8 percent; a pro-business party led by an economist, Ryszard Petru, with 7.6 percent, and the agrarian Polish People's Party, with 5.1 percent. Results also confirmed that no left-wing party made it in at all, the first time in 26 years of democracy that the former communists have no presence in the lawmaking body.

Political observers will also be watching to see what kind of tone the incoming government takes with Germany. When Law and Justice ran the government from 2005-2007 it liked to nurture historical grievances against Germany, which inflicted massive suffering on Poland during World War II. Ties between the two countries became deeply strained and many Poles learned the lesson that taking a combative attitude today to Germany, a model democracy that helped bring Poland into NATO and the EU, is counter-productive.

Recently the party's leaders, including President Andrzej Duda, have signaled a desire to engage constructively with Berlin.

Associated Press writer Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

Migrant Balkan surge continues amid EU attempt to slow it

October 26, 2015

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — With freezing weather setting in, tens of thousands of migrants surging across Europe could face even more hurdles after European Union leaders pledged to stem their flow by introducing tighter border controls.

EU leaders committed at a weekend summit to helping the Balkans handle the flow of people making their way through the region en route to more prosperous countries. But with record numbers arriving from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, the moves will likely make their journeys more difficult.

On Monday, thousands of people, including many women, children and elderly, waited in long lines at the Croatian and Slovenia borders as the flow of humanity continued unabated. "It is not difficult for me, but for people with families and children, it is so hard," said a 19-year-old Afghan, Habibi Loh.

Humanitarian officials warned of plummeting winter temperatures. "In the short term, the situation is manageable," said Antonija Zaniuk of the Slovenian Red Cross. "We have a lot of winter clothing, blankets. We are distributing cups of tea, food. But, in the long term, who knows."

In a statement seeking to paper over deep divisions about how to handle the crisis, the EU and Balkan leaders meeting in Brussels committed to bolster the borders of Greece as it struggles to cope with the wave of refugees who cross over through Turkey. They also pledged to boost the capacities of reception centers in Greece and along the Balkans route to shelter 100,000 more people as winter looms and additional EU border watchdog agency officials are deployed to monitor the flow.

"This is a step in the right direction and now it is crucial to respect the commitments," said Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, whose tiny Alpine nation has been overwhelmed since Hungary put up a fence on the border with Serbia and Croatia, diverting the flow to Slovenia.

Slovenia has hinted that it will build a fence on the border with Croatia if the migrant surge becomes too difficult to handle. "OK, place a fence, but if you are not ready to shoot at the people, it will not stop anyone," Croatian Interior Minister Ranko Ostojic said amid a spat between the two neighbors over how to handle the crisis.

Croatian police said that as of early Monday, more than 13,000 migrants had arrived from Serbia over the previous 24 hours, while Slovenian police reported nearly 10,000 arrivals from Croatia in the same period. Further west, in Austria, some 3,500 people had to sleep outside in the cold fall weather, while Germany said it had seen 15,000 arrivals over the weekend.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic warned that addressing the crisis will take time. "We will all be able to achieve some results in the coming weeks and months," he said. "But, it is clear that this crisis cannot be solved in a few weeks or months, but will improve step by step."

Sunday's meeting was called in response to a string of chaotic actions taken by countries along the route. With no real ability to control Greece's porous island border or stop people leaving Turkey for sanctuary or jobs in Europe, the EU wants to restore some order and apply the brakes on those passing through.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said resolving the crisis mostly depends on Turkey, where most of the refugees enter Europe, and on Germany, the desired destination of the vast majority of Syrians and others seeking protection in Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday she remained confident Germany can integrate the large number of refugees who are arriving, and noted that many won't stay forever. "There are very, very many, but there are 80 million of us," the German leader said at a town hall meeting in Nuremberg. "We can and we will manage this integration."

Merkel said most Syrians will get residency for three years but many likely will want to help rebuild Syria when the war ends. She said the Geneva Convention on refugees obliges Germany to protect people, "but we don't have the task of keeping everyone here for life."

Associated Press writer Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.

8 men up for FIFA presidential race on deadline day to enter

October 26, 2015

GENEVA (AP) — Deadline day to enter the FIFA presidential election saw surprise entries and a potential eight-man lineup on Monday.

Among late tactical changes, two unexpected additions were Gianni Infantino — the right-hand man of suspended UEFA President Michel Platini, whose own entry will likely be barred — and Liberian soccer leader Musa Bility, whose campaign seemed hopelessly stalled in August.

The list of contenders to succeed Sepp Blatter leading the corruption-hit world soccer governing body grew longer than expected and will surely be cut before the Feb. 26 ballot. A further twist stopped the race reaching nine as a former FIFA secretary general, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, told The Associated Press he decided not to run despite getting the required nominations from five of the 209 member federations.

Just over one month ago, Platini was a strong front-runner in a small field with key backers in Asia and the Americas. That changed Sept. 25 when the former France great was implicated in a Swiss criminal investigation. Platini got a suspected "disloyal payment" of $2 million in backdated salary from FIFA funds got in 2011 with Blatter's approval. Both are serving 90-day bans imposed by FIFA's ethics committee pending a full investigation.

Platini's bloc of support seemed sure to transfer to Asia's soccer confederation president, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa. The Bahraini royal family member duly filed his nomination papers Monday and is likely the current favorite, yet his bid has exposed himself and his home country to exposure for their human rights record.

Sheikh Salman's entry has already been criticized by rights groups who urged FIFA's election committee to reject him as a candidate when it oversees integrity checks in the next two weeks. Questions have been raised over whether Sheikh Salman, as the Bahrain Football Association president in 2011, adequately protected national team players after some took part in pro-democracy protests. Some players say they were tortured while detained by government forces.

"Sheikh Salman played a key role in Bahrain's retaliation against athlete-protesters," the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain said in a joint statement. "Throughout the government crackdown, he allegedly examined photographs of the protesters, identifying Bahraini athletes for the security forces."

Sheikh Salman did not make a statement Monday. He previously challenged critics to present proof of wrongdoing, which he denies, and suggested that such questions have to do with politics and not soccer.

Still, Infantino's late entry offers the Europe-Asia alliance an extra option if both Platini and Sheikh Salman are ruled ineligible as candidates. UEFA agreed to its new strategy after an emergency executive committee meeting held via video conference.

"I am very proud of what we have achieved at UEFA and the way in which we conduct ourselves as an organization," said Infantino, a Swiss lawyer who has been Platini's top administrator for six years. He was already viewed as a potential FIFA secretary general or UEFA presidential candidate.

Africa got a second contender when after Bility re-emerged two months since his campaign seemed over when African soccer leaders refused to support him. "I don't want to go into any race that I cannot win," Bility told the AP, saying more than 25 of the 54 African voting federations offered to nominate him.

Bility joined the race one day after longtime African confederation president Issa Hayatou — the interim FIFA president, who has declined to publicly support Sexwale — met with Sheikh Salman in Cairo.

Other probable candidates vying for the FIFA job include Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, South African tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, former FIFA official Jerome Champagne and David Nakhid, a former player from Trinidad and Tobago.

Prince Ali, a former FIFA vice president, cut ties with Platini after losing to Blatter in the election in May. That was held amid a crisis provoked by American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption which have forced Blatter to leave office early.

Sexwale, an Apartheid-era political prisoner, was appointed by Blatter to improve relations between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer bodies; Champagne, a former diplomat from France, was a senior FIFA official for 11 years under Blatter; Nakhid has career links to a Blatter aide.

They were not joined by Zen-Ruffinen, who said he gained five nominations but lacked significant backing within a crowded field. "Some of the candidates are very strong and it doesn't make a lot of sense to go," Zen-Ruffinen said Monday. "I have hesitated until very late tonight."

Later Monday, Champagne and Nakhid shared a platform at a sports conference dedicated to good governance, the two-yearly Play The Game event in Denmark. "I am sure there will be a lot of sleaze," Champagne predicted at a session examining the FIFA race. "It has started, believe me."

AP Sports Writer Rob Harris in Manchester, England, contributed to this report.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Egypt's government resigns amid corruption probe

September 12, 2015

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's government resigned Saturday in the face of intense criticism from state-friendly media that reflects growing discontent but stops short of faulting President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the former general who led the overthrow of an Islamist president two years ago.

The office of the president said he accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb and his Cabinet but that the ministers would continue to serve until a new body is appointed. El-Sissi tasked Petroleum Minister Sherif Ismail with forming a new Cabinet within a week.

Prior to handing in his resignation, Mehleb provided a report detailing the performance of the government, which two officials from the president's office said el-Sissi found "unsatisfying." The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief reporters.

Egypt's president is generally in charge of major affairs of state while the prime minister, whom he appoints, handles day-to-day running of the government. El-Sissi in recent months has had to perform tasks that normally should fall to Mehleb, such as arranging meetings with ministers and negotiating business deals with foreign investors, according to the two officials. Mehleb also failed to pressure his ministers into following through on memorandums of understanding that el-Sissi signed during a much-publicized economic summit in March, they said.

The country's private media, while lavishing praise on el-Sissi, have slammed the government in recent weeks, accusing ministers of incompetence and of being out of touch with ordinary citizens suffering from years of turmoil since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

"El-Sissi and the armed forces are responsible for the accomplishments we see," said Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent journalist and popular TV host, who called Mehleb and his Cabinet a "burden" on the president. "All of the ministers that failed were Mehleb's choices," Eissa told viewers earlier this week.

The government suffered a major blow when Agriculture Minister Salah el-Din Helal was detained Monday after tendering his resignation amid an investigation into allegations that he and others received over $1 million in bribes.

The Egyptian government has long been plagued by corruption allegations, particularly regarding land deals. El-Sissi routinely insists that he is rooting out corruption. Mehleb walked out of a press conference in Tunisia earlier this week after being asked about the allegations, a move widely ridiculed by the pro-Sissi private media.

"Didn't you watch el-Sissi's speeches?" television host Youssef el-Hosseiny said, before playing clips of the president's past press conferences for comparison. The corruption allegations have fed into the perception that the government is detached from the people and engaged in the sort of cronyism that was widespread in the Mubarak era and was a central grievance of the protesters who overthrew him.

Last week, the higher education minister reportedly tried to exempt the children of judges, army and police officers from unpopular regulations that restrict where Egyptians can attend university. In May, the justice minister suggested the children of sanitation workers could never aspire to be judges.

Mehleb, a former construction magnate and prominent member of Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party, angered many in July when he suggested the country's youth consider driving auto-rickshaws, known as tok-toks, instead of counting on government employment.

El-Sissi has approved a new civil service law that many believe will dramatically reduce the country's 6 million-strong public workforce. There have been few public expressions of discontent with the government. A draconian law restricting protests, and a wide-ranging crackdown on supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as well as secular activists, have largely silenced dissent.

The dismissal of the Cabinet could further bolster support for el-Sissi ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, furthering the image he has cultivated of himself as a leader who is above the political fray.

Turkey: Assad should stay in Moscow to give Syrians 'relief'

October 21, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey's prime minister says he wishes that Syrian President Bashar Assad stayed in Moscow longer to give his people "relief" and start the political transition.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke Wednesday in response to journalists' questions about Assad's visit to Moscow a day earlier. It was the Syrian leader's first known trip abroad since the war broke out in 2011.

Davutoglu said: "If only he could stay in Moscow longer, to give the people of Syria some relief; in fact he should stay there so the transition can begin." Davutoglu also reiterated Turkey's position that Assad should have no role in Syria's future, insisting that efforts to find a solution to the Syrian crisis should focus "not on a transition with Assad, but on formulas for Assad's departure."

Turkey starts delivering water to Cyprus' breakaway north

October 17, 2015

CAMLIBEL, Cyprus (AP) — Turkey's president expressed hope Saturday that an undersea pipeline carrying fresh water from Turkey to the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of ethnically split Cyprus could help reunify the island amid Greek Cypriot protests that the project is a Turkish ploy to cement its grip on the island.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials inaugurated the pipeline by symbolically turning open a large valve, starting the flow of water through the 107-kilometer (66.5-mile) pipeline at a ceremony at the Mediterranean town of Anamur in Turkey. At a second ceremony in Cyprus, Erdogan, who flew in by helicopter, and other Turkish and Turkish Cypriot officials, symbolically pushed buttons to mark the water's arrival at a nearby dam as confetti showered a cheering crowd.

The project is aimed to meet the north's irrigation and drinking waters needs for the next half century, supplying around 2.6 billion cubic feet (75 million cubic meters) of water annually. Turkey has said the water could be shared with Greek Cypriots once the island is reunified. But Greek Cypriot officials have said the pipeline violates international law, serves to "integrate" the north and to "augment Turkey's influence and control over Cyprus."

Cyprus was split in 1974 when Turkey invaded after a coup by supporters of union with Greece. Turkey doesn't recognize Cyprus as a state and only recognizes a Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence while still maintaining 35,000 troops in the north.

With Turkey geared toward an election on Nov. 1, both ceremonies had the feel of an election campaign. Spectators at a balloon and flag-festooned water treatment plant in the north of the island broke out in a chant in support of Erdogan, who was Turkey's prime minister when the project was initiated.

"Our wish is for the whole of Cyprus to benefit from this water as a result of a fair and lasting solution," Erdogan said. "Let's hope that the waters of (Turkey) lead to an environment where unity takes root and lives forever."

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told a cheering, flag-waving crowd at Anamur that Turkey and north Cyprus "have been interlocked in such a way that they will never be separated." The project comes at a time of renewed peace talks between Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci.

Akinci said the water would turn the drought-prone island into a "green island." "When the time comes and by increasing the volume, this water can be shared with the south too. Then it will become a true 'water of peace,'" a reference to the name of the project.

Akinci also said Cyprus could serve as a conduit for east Mediterranean natural gas to Europe. Cyprus has one proven deposit off its southern coast that's estimated to contain more than 4 trillion cubic feet of gas.

The Cyprus government says any future gas revenues could be shared with Turkish Cypriots after a reunification accord is reached. Ilhame Yildiz, 57, was among several hundred spectators who arrived at a water treatment plant in the north of the island.

"This is good for Cyprus. The government on this side can take water and the government on the other side can take water too," Yildiz said. Farhan Kul, a 76-year-old from Nicosia, said: "If they give water to south Cyprus, this will help bring peace."

Suzan Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey.

Turkish jets shoot down drone at its border with Syria

October 17, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey shot down an unidentified drone that flew into its airspace Friday near the Syrian border, while Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country's air campaign backing a Syrian government offensive has killed hundreds of militants.

A U.S. official said the downed drone was Russian, but Moscow staunchly rejected the claim. The incident underlined the potential dangers of clashes involving Russian, Syrian and U.S.-led coalition planes in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria. Russian and U.S. military officials have been working on a set of rules to prevent any problems.

The Turkish military said it issued three warnings before shooting down the aircraft with its fighter jets. It didn't specify how it had relayed the warnings to the operators of the drone. The drone crashed 3 kilometers (about 2 miles) inside Turkish territory, said Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu. "We have not been able to establish who the drone belongs to, but we are able to work on it because it fell inside Turkish territory," he added.

Earlier this month, Turkey had protested two incursions by Russian warplanes, which also drew strong condemnation from Turkey's NATO allies. The U.S., Russia and the Syrian government all operate drones in the region.

The drone was definitely not American, and the U.S. believes it was Russian, said a U.S. defense official, who was not authorized to discuss details of the incident and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Moscow strongly denied ownership of the drone. "I state with absolute responsibility that all our drones are either performing tasks or staying at the base," said Col.-Gen. Andrei Kartapolov, a deputy chief of the Russian General Staff, speaking at a meeting with foreign military attaches in Moscow.

The Lebanon-based pro-Syrian Al-Mayadeen TV quoted an unidentified Syrian military official as saying that no Syrian or Russian warplane or drone was shot down over Turkey. Seeking to soothe Turkey's anger over violation of its airspace by Russian aircraft, Moscow sent a high-level military delegation to discuss preventing such incidents.

"They apologized a few times, said it happened by accident, and that they have taken measures so that it will not occur again," Sinirlioglu said of Thursday's talks in Ankara with the Russian delegation.

Since 2013, Turkey has shot down a Syrian military jet, a helicopter and a surveillance drone that strayed into Turkish airspace. The incidents occurred after Ankara changed its rules of engagement following the downing of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria.

Turkey, which patrols the border with F-16s, has also reported numerous incidents of harassment by Syrian fighter planes or Syria-based surface-to-air missile systems locking radar on the aircraft. Russia began its air campaign Sept. 30, and Syrian troops and allied militiamen launched a ground offensive in central Syria a week later. They have so far met stiff resistance from rebels using U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles that have impeded swift breakthroughs, although they have taken a few villages from rebels in the past week.

On Friday, Syrian troops supported by Russian air power and fighters from Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group pressed an assault against rebels in central Syria and launched another offensive in the northern province of Aleppo to try to recapture territory, according to activists and the government. The multiple-front offensives appear aimed at stretching rebel lines and keeping the insurgents off-balance.

A Syrian military spokesman said in a televised statement that the army launched an operation in the Damascus rebel-held neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Harasta. He added that troops now control of all hills that overlook Harasta and the nearby suburb of Douma, a stronghold of Islam Army rebel group.

The attack appears aimed at securing President Bashar Assad's seat of power that has been shelled recently from rebel-held areas. The fighting is particularly intense in the central province of Homs, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said about 60 people were killed in Russian airstrikes and fighting. The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network that follows the war, put the death toll at 57.

The Russian military has rejected claims of civilian casualties, saying its planes haven't targeted populated areas. At a meeting in Kazakhstan of leaders of former Soviet nations, Putin said his air force has achieved "impressive" results in Syria.

"Dozens of control facilities and ammunition depots, hundreds of terrorists and a large number of weapons have been destroyed," he said. Putin said the Russian air campaign against the Islamic State group and other radicals in Syria will continue "for the period of the Syrian troops' offensive operations against terrorists." He would not elaborate.

Between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet countries are fighting alongside Islamic State militants, he said. "We can't allow them to use the experience they have just gained in Syria back home," he added.

Russian jets have flown 669 sorties since Sept. 30, including 394 this week, said Kartapolov, the Russian general. He emphasized the urgent need for a U.S.-Russian agreement on avoiding clashes, which is being negotiated.

"The sky over Syria is swarming with aircraft," Kartapolov said. "Such intense and uncoordinated use of air power in Syria's relatively small airspace may sooner or later lead to an incident." In a bid to dispel claims by the U.S. and its allies that Moscow is focused on moderate rebels instead of its declared targets of Islamic State militants, Kartapolov said the Russian Defense Ministry would send a detailed map showing positions of the IS and Syria's al-Qaida affiliate targeted by the Russian aircraft.

"Our aircraft have been used on targets outside of populated areas," he said. Kartapolov also criticized the U.S.-led coalition for striking a power plant near Aleppo, leaving the city without electricity and paralyzing its water supply and sewage system, something he said could only increase the flow of refugees.

In a separate interview with the daily newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Kartapolov shrugged off the U.S. claim that four of 26 cruise missiles launched at targets in Syria by the Russian navy from the Caspian Sea had crashed in Iran.

"The Pentagon may say whatever it wants," he said. "All our missiles reached their targets." Kartapolov said the Russian jets haven't yet faced any surface-to-air missiles and warned that their use by rebels would signal a foreign involvement.

Following a similar statement by Putin, the general ruled out Russian military involvement in ground action in Syria. He said Russian air and land assets in Syria will be pulled together with its Soviet-era Tartus navy facility in one base.

Kartapolov wouldn't offer any further details, and Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refused to comment on the issue. Russian warships in the Mediterranean helped provide cover for its air base in the coastal province of Latakia and could take part in attacks on targets in Syria, Kartapolov said.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow. AP National Security Writer Robert Burns in Washington, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

Turkey bans rally by activists mourning colleagues

October 13, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish authorities on Tuesday banned a protest rally and march by trade union and civic society activists who lost friends and colleagues in Turkey's bloodiest terror attack, but hundreds of people defiantly gathered for the protest.

The two suicide bombings on Saturday came amid political uncertainty in the country — just weeks before Turkey's Nov. 1 election which is in effect a re-run of an inconclusive June election. The bombings raised fears that the NATO country, a candidate for European Union membership, may be heading toward a period of instability.

The blasts have further polarized Turkey as it grapples with more than 2 million refugees and tries to avoid being drawn into the chaos in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Dogan news agency video footage on Tuesday showed police pushing back a group of demonstrators trying to reach the rally to commemorate the 97 victims of the two blasts.

Plain-clothed police pushed at least two demonstrators to the ground and detained them. "Our brothers were killed! What are you doing?" a woman demonstrator was heard shouting. The Istanbul governor banned the protest citing "sensitivities at this time" and because the routes demonstrators planned to march along were heavily used by the public.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said the Islamic State group was the main focus of the investigation. Authorities said Saturday's attacks bore similarities with a suicide bombing that killed 33 activists at a town near the border with Syria in July. No one has claimed responsibility for Saturday's explosions that also wounded hundreds.

The bombers likely infiltrated Turkey from a neighboring country, according to Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus. He said several arrests were made in connection to the attacks but did not elaborate.

As with previous terror probes, authorities imposed "partial secrecy" on the investigation which even restricts defense lawyers' access to information. The government has also banned the publication of images of the aftermath of the attack.

In Ankara, some 200 students held a brief sit-in at Ankara University's faculty of political science to commemorate the victims. The youngest was 9-year-old Veysel Atilgan, who died in an explosion outside Ankara's main train station, along with his father. He was buried on Monday following an emotional ceremony at his school.

The city is on edge following the blasts and on Tuesday, police detonated a suspicious bag found near the station's VIP lounge, hours after Davutoglu visited the site to lay carnations in respect to the victims. The bag, however, contained food.

Suicide bombings kill 95 people at Ankara peace rally

October 11, 2015

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Nearly simultaneous explosions targeted a Turkish peace rally Saturday in Ankara, killing at least 95 people and wounding hundreds in Turkey's deadliest attack in years — one that threatens to inflame the nation's ethnic tensions.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said there were "strong signs" that the two explosions — which struck 50 meters (yards) apart just after 10 a.m. — were suicide bombings. He suggested that Kurdish rebels or Islamic State group militants were to blame.

The two explosions occurred seconds apart outside the capital's main train station as hundreds of opposition supporters and Kurdish activists gathered for the peace rally organized by Turkey's public workers' union and other groups. The protesters planned to call for increased democracy in Turkey and an end to the renewed violence between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces.

The attacks Saturday came at a tense time for Turkey, a NATO member that borders war-torn Syria, hosts more refugees than any other nation in the world and has seen renewed fighting with Kurdish rebels that has left hundreds dead in the last few months.

Many people at the rally had been anticipating that the rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, would declare a temporary cease-fire — which it did hours after the bombing — to ensure that Turkey's Nov. 1 election would be held in a safe environment.

Television footage from Turkey's Dogan news agency showed a line of protesters Saturday near Ankara's train station, chanting and performing a traditional dance with their hands locked when a large explosion went off behind them. An Associated Press photographer saw several bodies covered with bloodied flags and banners that demonstrators had brought for the rally.

"There was a massacre in the middle of Ankara," said Lami Ozgen, head of the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions, or KESK. The state-run Anadolu Agency said the attacks were carried out with TNT explosives fortified with metal ball-bearings.

Turkey's government late Saturday raised the death toll in the twin bomb blasts to 95 people killed, 248 wounded. It said 48 of the wounded were in serious condition. Selcuk Atalay of the Turkish Medical Association's Ankara branch put the death toll at at least 97 and feared the toll could rise even higher, since several of the wounded were in serious condition with burns.

"This massacre targeting a pro-Kurdish but mostly Turkish crowd could flame ethnic tensions in Turkey," said Soner Cagaptay, an analyst at the Washington Institute. Cagaptay said the attack could be the work of groups "hoping to induce the PKK, or its more radical youth elements, to continue fighting Turkey," adding that the Islamic State group would benefit most from the full-blown Turkey-PKK conflict.

"(That) development could make ISIS a secondary concern in the eyes of many Turks to the PKK," Cagaptay said in emailed comments, using another acronym for IS militants. Small anti-government protests broke out at the scene of the explosions and outside Ankara hospitals as Interior Minister Selami Altinok visited the wounded. Some demonstrators chanted "Murderer Erdogan!" — referring to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom many accuse of increasing tensions with Kurds to profit at the ballot box in November. Erdogan denies the accusations.

Later Saturday, thousands gathered near Istanbul's main square denouncing the attacks and also holding the government responsible. The Turkish government imposed a temporary news blackout covering images that showed the moment of the blasts, gruesome or bloody pictures or "images that create a feeling of panic." A spokesman warned media organizations they could face a "full blackout" if they did not comply.

Many people reported being unable to access Twitter and other social media websites for several hours after the blasts. It was not clear if authorities had blocked access to the websites, but Turkey often does impose blackouts following attacks.

At a news conference, Davutoglu declared a three-day official mourning period for the blast victims and said Turkey had been warned about groups aiming to destabilize the country. "For some time, we have been receiving intelligence information based from some (Kurdish rebel) and Daesh statements that certain suicide attackers would be sent to Turkey... and that through these attackers chaos would be created in Turkey," Davutoglu told reporters, using the IS group's Arabic acronym.

"The (Kurdish rebels) or Daesh could emerge (as culprits) of today's terror event," Davutoglu said, promising that those behind the attacks would be caught and punished. Davutoglu said authorities had detained at least two suspected would-be suicide bombers in the past three days in Ankara and Istanbul.

Authorities had been on alert after Turkey agreed to take a more active role in the U.S.-led battle against the Islamic State group. Turkey opened up its bases to U.S. aircraft to launch air raids on the extremist group in Syria and carried out a limited number of strikes on the group itself. Russia has also entered the fray on behalf of the Syrian government recently, bombing sites in Syria and reportedly violating Turkish airspace a few times in the past week.

On a separate front, the fighting between Turkish forces and Kurdish rebels flared anew in July, killing at least 150 police and soldiers and hundreds of PKK rebels since then. Turkish jets have also carried out numerous deadly airstrikes on Kurdish rebel targets in northern Iraq.

Erdogan condemned Saturday's attacks, which he said targeted the country's unity, called for solidarity and canceled a planned visit Monday to Turkmenistan. "The greatest and most meaningful response to this attack is the solidarity and determination we will show against it," Erdogan said.

President Barack Obama offered condolences to Erdogan in a phone call Saturday. The White House said in a statement that Obama affirmed that the U.S. will stand with Turkey in the fight against terrorism.

Critics have accused Erdogan of re-igniting the fighting with the Kurds to seek electoral gains — hoping that the turmoil would rally voters back to the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Electoral gains by the country's pro-Kurdish party caused the AKP, founded by Erdogan, to lose its parliamentary majority in a June election after a decade of single-party rule.

The attacks Saturday, which even surpassed twin al-Qaida-linked attacks in Istanbul in 2003 that killed some 60 people, also drew widespread condemnation from Turkey's allies. Turkey's state-run news agency said President Barack Obama called Erdogan to extend his condolences. The Anadolu Agency, citing unnamed officials, said Obama told Erdogan the United States would continue to side with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. It quoted Obama as saying the U.S. "shared Turkey's grief."

Erdogan earlier said the twin bombings aimed to destroy Turkey's "peace and stability." Anadolu said the two leaders agreed to talk more in the coming days. German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent her condolences, calling the attacks "particularly cowardly acts that were aimed directly at civil rights, democracy and peace."

"It is an attempt at intimidation and an attempt to spread fear," she said. "I am convinced that the Turkish government and all of Turkish society stands together at this time with a response of unity and democracy."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said "there can be no justification for such a horrendous attack on people marching for peace... All NATO allies stand united in the fight against the scourge of terrorism."

Saturday was the third attack against meetings of Kurdish activists. In July, a suicide bombing blamed on the Islamic State group killed 33 peace activists, including many Kurds, in the town of Suruc near Turkey's border with Syria. Two people were killed in June in a bomb attack at the pro-Kurdish party's election rally.

"This attack (Saturday) resembles and is a continuation of the Diyarbakir and Suruc (attacks)," said Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the Turkey's pro-Kurdish party. He held Erdogan and Davutoglu's government responsible for the latest attack, saying it was "carried out by the state against the people."

In the aftermath of the Ankara attack, the PKK declared a temporary cease-fire. A rebel statement said Saturday the group is halting hostilities to allow the Nov. 1 election to proceed safely. It said it would not launch attacks but would defend itself.

The government has said there would be no letup in its fight against the Kurdish rebels. "Our operations (against the PKK) will continue until they lay down arms," Davutoglu said late Friday. __ Burhan Ozbilici in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

Afghan president orders investigation into fall of Kunduz

October 11, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has appointed a team of investigators to look into the circumstances leading to the Taliban's brief capture of the northern city of Kunduz as well as a U.S. airstrike that destroyed a hospital and killed at least 22 people there, his office said Saturday.

The five-man delegation appointed by presidential decree will leave soon for Kunduz to conduct a province-wide probe into how the insurgents were able to overrun the city on Sept. 28 and hold it for three days before government troops launched a counter offensive, Ghani's office said.

Part of the team's mandate would include looking into the Oct. 3 airstrike on a trauma center run by the international charity Doctors Without Borders. The team would be led by the former head of the national intelligence agency, Amrullah Saleh, and would report to the president.

The "fact-finding team" will deliver a "comprehensive report so that we know what happened in Kunduz, what kind of reforms should be brought and what are the lessons learned for the future," the president was quoted as saying.

Ten days after government troops entered Kunduz, they are still fighting to clear out pockets of Taliban insurgents, officials and residents said. Sarwar Hussaini, spokesman for the provincial police chief, said three areas of the city had been retaken overnight, though a gas station in Seh Darak was hit by a rocket and destroyed. Hussaini said he did not know which side was responsible.

Kunduz resident Abdullah said that people were still leaving the city for safety. He said he had seen grocers emptying their shops of food to take home, fearing scarcities. He would only give his first name because of security concerns.

The World Food Program said it was feeding thousands of people who had left Kunduz and were now living in camps in other cities in the north, and that "additional wheat is being milled in anticipation of increased needs in the coming days."

Food and water were still not getting through in adequate quantities, and the city remained without electricity, residents said. "The whole city is empty of people," Abdullah said. "Residents are still not feeling safe."

Representatives of Doctors Without Borders met with Ghani and his national security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar on Friday, his office said in a statement. Ghani told them he had ordered Afghan security forces to ensure the protection of humanitarian organizations. The statement quoted him as saying investigations were needed "so that we know what happened in the incident, how information was collected, and how the incident happened based on that information."

Doctors Without Borders has called for an independent probe of the incident by the Swiss-based International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission — which is made up of diplomats, legal experts, doctors and some former military officials from nine European countries, including Britain and Russia. It was created after the Gulf War in 1991, and has never deployed a fact-finding mission.

Doctors Without Borders — a Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization that provides medical aid in conflict zones — is awaiting responses to letters sent Tuesday to 76 countries that signed the additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, asking to mobilize the 15-member commission.

For the IHFFC to be mobilized, a single country would have to call for the fact-finding mission, and the U.S. and Afghanistan — which are not signatories — must also give their consent. The airstrike was requested by Afghan ground forces, according to the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, but mistakenly hit the hospital.

The bombing continued for about an hour and destroyed the hospital's main building. President Barack Obama apologized and the U.S. military is investigating. The hospital has been abandoned. Doctors Without Borders said that 12 staff members and 10 patients, all of them Afghans, were killed. Many more are still missing, though all foreign staff have been accounted for.

In Washington, the Pentagon said it would offer "condolence payments" to civilians injured in the airstrike and the families of those killed as well as provide funds for repairing the hospital. The compensation will be handled through the already existing Commanders' Emergency Response Program in Afghanistan, and if necessary additional authority will be sought from Congress, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement issued Saturday.

"The Department of Defense believes it is important to address the consequences of the tragic icncident atht eh Doctors Without Borders hospital," Cook said.

Rights group says US-backed Kurds displacing Arabs in Syria

October 13, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have forcefully displaced thousands of Syrian civilians, mostly Arabs, and demolished villages in northern Syria, often in retaliation for the residents' perceived sympathies for the Islamic State group and other militants, Amnesty International said Tuesday.

Amnesty said its findings were based on visits to 14 towns and villages in the provinces of Hassakeh and Raqqa this summer, areas that are under Kurdish control. It said the abuses amount to war crimes.

The rights group said at least two villages were entirely demolished. In at least eight other villages, the residents were forced to leave, sometimes threatened with being shot or targeted in U.S. airstrikes. It said the victims were mainly Arab, but also included Turkmens and other Kurds.

Amnesty quoted Kurdish fighters as saying the displacement was carried out for security purposes. A Kurdish official in northern Syria told The Associated Press that forces may have committed minor violations against people suspected of ties to the IS group, but that such actions were not based on ethnicity. The official was not authorized to brief media and so spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Kurds, Syria's largest ethnic minority, have carved out a semi-autonomous enclave in the north since the start of the civil war in 2011. Kurdish fighters have been among the most successful ground forces battling the IS group. Backed by U.S.-led airstrikes, they defeated the IS group in the Syrian border town of Kobani earlier this year and have since expanded their territory along the border with Turkey.

But Amnesty adviser Lama Fakih said the Kurds' treatment of civilians amounted to collective punishment. "In its fight against IS, the (Kurdish administration) appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle."

The London-based group called on Kurdish officials to end such abuses, compensate the families for their losses and hold those responsible accountable.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

For Tunisia, Nobel is good news in troubled, violent year

October 10, 2015

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The leader of a Tunisian human rights group that was among the winners of this year's Nobel Peace Prize said the honor has meaning not just for his country but for all those mired in war.

It's also a ray of good news for a North African nation that has suffered two major terror attacks this year. Abdessatar Ben Moussa, president of the Tunisian League of Human Rights, told The Associated Press on Saturday that he saw a message in giving the prize to the Tunisian coalition that laid the groundwork for the only democracy springing from the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrations.

"It's a message for neighboring countries where the civil is now permanent, in Libya for example where arms are used for years, and that doesn't resolve problems," he said. For many Tunisians, including Wided Bouchamaoui, the head of the employers' association UTICA, which was also honored, it's also a message of confidence for the future of a country that is still troubled by poverty and violence.

Since two terror attacks this year that killed scores of tourists — one at the Bardo museum and another at a beach resort in Sousse — foreign tourism has plummeted and with it, hope for economic growth. Growth in 2015 for Tunisia is expected to be flat or negative while unemployment is over 15 percent and inflation has been running around 6 percent.

"It says that Tunisia is a country where life is good. People can come and invest safely in Tunisia," Bouchamaoui said. Hopes were high even among Tunisians not directly affected by the prize, in a country that had become increasingly despairing after this year's deadly attacks.

"More than support and aid from abroad, this is an honor for Tunisians and should move them to give more in the service of the country to deal with the difficult situation it's enduring," said 25-year-old Monem Arfaoui.

France, Saudi Arabia deepen alliance with 10B euros in deals

October 13, 2015

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — France has signed deals worth 10 billion euros ($11.4 billion) with Saudi Arabia, said French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Tuesday, underscoring the shared foreign policy stances that have helped deepen the two countries' military and economic ties.

Valls, who announced the deals on his official Twitter account, is in Saudi Arabia with a large delegation of French business representatives and top officials, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

France's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the deal includes the start of negotiations to provide Saudi Arabia with its own communication and observation satellites — something the kingdom has been coveting as it expands its regional military reach and fights a war against Shiite rebels in Yemen.

The two sides also signed deals in Riyadh for $2 billion worth of Saudi public investment in French private funds with a focus on renewable energy and signed a letter of intent for cooperation in that sector. They also signed a cooperation agreement to establish a naval research center and to increase joint military training exercises.

The two countries agreed to hold another joint session in Paris next March. The visit to Saudi Arabia is part of a regional tour that included stops in Jordan and Egypt, where a $1.1 billion deal for two French Mistral amphibious assault ships was signed.

The French delegation, which arrived in Saudi Arabia on Monday, held talks with King Salman, Crown Prince and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman in the capital, Riyadh.

A French official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media, says a military helicopter deal is also expected to be signed in Riyadh. In June, Saudi Arabia signed agreements worth billions of dollars to buy 23 helicopters for the Interior Ministry, 50 Airbus jets and two possible nuclear reactors from France.

The alliance between France and Saudi Arabia has grown stronger in recent years as ties between Washington and Riyadh cooled under President Barack Obama, particularly following his administration's strong backing of a nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers.

Though France was a part of the nuclear negotiations, its position has more strongly reflected Saudi concerns that the deal could bolster Iran's influence in the region if economic sanctions are not lifted gradually. Iran and Saudi Arabia back opposite sides in the civil war in Syria.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said in a press conference Tuesday with his French counterpart "there is no future" for President Bashar Assad in Syria, who is backed by Iran and Russia. Valls, meanwhile, also met Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holding Company — which owns or manages several iconic landmarks in France, including The Four Seasons Hotel George V and the Le Royal Monceau Hotel.

The French delegation additionally took part in a business forum. According to Saudi media, France is the third largest investor in Saudi Arabia and has more than 80 companies operating in the kingdom, employing around 11,000 Saudi nationals.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy away from oil and to create more jobs in the private sector for its growing young population. A slump in oil prices has gutted the kingdom's most important source of revenue, forcing it to run a budget deficit and draw from its large foreign currency reserves.

John Sfakianakis, the Middle East director for British fund manager Ashmore Group, participated in the Saudi-French business forum and said it was more than just "empty words." "It's actually based on contracts that will materialize," he said. "The Saudi-French business ties are very deep and old, and quite extensive and cover many sectors ranking from defense, security, health care, retail, food sector. It's very important for Saudi's diversification efforts."

The visit to Saudi Arabia comes after Paris expanded its airstrikes against the Islamic State group by targeting IS militants in Syria last month for the first time. France had previously targeted IS militants in Iraq, where the group also holds territory. France and Saudi Arabia are both part of the U.S.-led coalition bombing IS.

The strong alliance between France and Saudi Arabia was highlighted in May when French President Francois Hollande met with the heads of state of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh for a meeting in his honor. And in November, France and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to provide the Lebanese army with $3 billion worth of weapons paid for by Riyadh. The Lebanese military is widely considered much weaker than the Shiite Hezbollah militant group, which is armed and funded by Iran.

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

Chinese dissidents protest Britain's treatment of activist

October 24, 2015

BEIJING (AP) — Veteran Chinese pro-democracy campaigners have protested Britain's treatment of an activist detained during Chinese President Xi Jinping's pageant-filled visit to the country, saying London was putting economic ties over rights concerns.

Shao Jiang was arrested in London on Wednesday after scaling barriers and standing in front of Xi's motorcade holding placards. His home was searched and computer equipment taken away. Veteran dissidents Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi said in a statement Saturday that Britain appeared to have jettisoned human rights concerns in favor of securing business deals.

"Britain is sadly lending legitimacy to a regime with no rule of law, no freedom of speech, and with geopolitical ambitions that threaten the security of its neighboring nations — and perhaps the world," the statement said.

"Trade takes priority over basic human rights, and exiled protesters with legitimate grievances with the Beijing government are now no longer safe even the democracies that gave them refuge," it said, describing Britain's actions as "shameful."

Wang and Kaixi were top student leaders of the 1989 pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square that was brutally suppressed by China's army. Like Shao, also a veteran of the movement, they now live in exile.

Speaking to Britain's The Independent newspaper, Shao said he was surprised by the extent of the actions taken by police, but hoped his arrest would raise awareness of human rights in China. "I was protesting peacefully," the Independent quoted him as saying. "And when I was arrested I couldn't believe that this country was no longer protecting freedom of expression. It's just like China now."

Xi's state visit sparked a series of protests over China's human rights record and other issues. Two Tibetan activists, Sonam Choden and Jamphel Lhamo, were also arrested for attempting to unfurl Tibetan flags as Xi's motorcade passed.

Chinese state media provided blanket coverage of Xi's visit, with an emphasis on the ostentatious ceremonies laid on for Xi and the respect their country's leader commanded. However, reports on the visit by international broadcasters such as CNN and the BBC were blacked out in China for several minutes at a time, apparently because Chinese censors objected to their reporting on human rights and other sensitive issues.

London's Metropolitan Police confirmed that three people were arrested "to prevent a breach of the peace" and on suspicion of conspiracy to commit threatening behavior. They were later released on bail and have not been charged.

Lucy D'Orsi, commander of the police operation for the state visit, said in a statement that police had worked "tirelessly" to facilitate peaceful protests, but that tight security was needed to ensure the safety of Xi and his wife, as well as the British royal family and prime minister.

"The assertion that political manipulation of the command team or, indeed, the broader Metropolitan Police took place is wrong and doesn't reflect the facts," D'Orsi said. Xi, who also heads China's Communist Party, which brooks no opposition, returned to China on Friday after a carefully orchestrated visit that included a stay at Buckingham Palace and an address to Parliament.

Organized crowds waving Chinese flags greeted Xi throughout, outnumbering pro-Tibet and human rights protesters concerned about the lavish welcome accorded to Xi. The two countries signed more than $46 billion in economic agreements during the trip.

Associated Press writer Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

Exit poll: Right-wing party wins Poland's parliamentary vote

October 26, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland took a decisive turn to the right in its parliamentary election Sunday, tossing out the centrist party that had governed for eight years for a socially conservative and Euroskeptic party that wants to keep migrants out and spend more on Poland's own poor.

An exit poll showed the conservative Law and Justice party winning 39 percent of the vote, enough to govern alone without forming a coalition. The ruling pro-European Civic Platform party received 23 percent of the vote, according to the exit poll that prompted Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of Civic Platform to concede.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Law and Justice, promised his party would govern fairly. "We will exert law but there will be no taking of revenge. There will be no squaring of personal accounts," he said. "There will be no kicking of those who have fallen of their own fault and very rightly so."

Kaczynski credited his late brother, former Polish President Lech Kaczynski, with the party's strong showing. His brother was killed in the 2010 air crash in Russia that claimed the lives of the president and many of Poland's top leaders.

If the exit poll results are confirmed, the Law and Justice will take 242 seats in the 460-seat lower house of parliament and 58-year-old lawmaker Beata Szydlo will become Poland's next prime minister. Civic Platform will get 133 seats and only three other parties will make it into parliament — two of them for the first time.

Law and Justice is strongly pro-NATO but also more skeptical of the 28-nation European Union, of which Poland is a member. The party opposes adopting the euro currency and is strongly anti-migrant, positions that are expected to have a broader impact on the whole EU.

The Civic Platform party was seen as falling out of touch with what was happening in Poland and with ordinary voters. In her victory speech, Szydlo promised to not let that happen. "We are the same as our countrymen, we have not detached ourselves from reality," she said. "We must always remember that we are serving."

The Catholic Church was seen as backing Law and Justice, as were many Poles who have not benefited from the country's strong economic growth, expected at 3.5 percent this year. Law and Justice has promised to reverse an unpopular rise in the retirement age and put more money into the pockets of struggling families with tax breaks, monthly cash bonuses for children under 18 and free medication for people over 75. It also wants to raise taxes on the mostly foreign-owned banks and big supermarkets in Poland and give tax breaks to smaller local businesses and those that adopt Polish technologies.

For the first time in Poland's post-communist history, no left-wing forces appeared to have won enough votes Sunday to enter into parliament, according to the Ipsos exit poll. It showed that only five parties gained enough votes to make it into parliament: Law and Justice; the centrist Civic Platform; a right-wing party led by rock star Pawel Kukiz; the new pro-business party Modern Poland led by a former World Bank economist and the Polish Peasants Party.

Two left-wing forces had been in the running: the United Left, a coalition of several parties, and a new party, Together. Civic Platform had led Poland through a period of strong economic growth and political stability, even during the global financial crisis of 2008-09 and the 2010 plane crash that killed so many top Polish officials. But the presidential vote in May signaled problems for Civic Platform when Law and Justice candidate Andrzej Duda edged out their incumbent.

Having the backing of the Catholic Church has led to some fears that Law and Justice will try to ban in vitro fertilization and create a total ban on abortion. For now, abortion in Poland is only allowed in rare cases, such as when the mother's life is at risk or the fetus is damaged.

Economics and morality drive the choices of 2 Polish voters

October 24, 2015

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — When Adam Jerzy Kowalewski steps into a voting booth on Sunday, his choice will be shaped by deep Roman Catholic faith and reverence for his late father, who was tortured by the Germans during World War II for taking part in Poland's anti-Nazi resistance.

Only one party suits the 43-year-old: Law and Justice, a political force that mixes conservative and patriotic values with promises to do more to help the disadvantaged. He is impressed that party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski's father — like his own father — was part of the anti-Nazi resistance. "Law and Justice is made up of people who love God and who love the country," he said.

Kowalewski, who listens to gospel and other religious music, shares the party's opposition to abortion and homosexuality. The party's economic proposals are also close to his heart. Kowalewski is among those Poles who haven't seen their lives improve much despite years of strong economic growth. He works in a travel agency but says that his wages are so low that he struggles to find the 250 zlotys (59 euros, $67) he needs every month for medication for epilepsy and a thyroid problem.

He is convinced that the government of the past eight years, led by the pro-business Civic Platform party, only cares about business people and other elites. He says Civic Platform leaders — including Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz and her predecessor Donald Tusk, now the EU president — have done almost nothing to help people like himself.

"They don't see the problems of the people," he said.

Radek Ciszewski has some misgivings about Civic Platform. He thinks the party could have worked for greater tolerance in society — for instance by encouraging an open attitude to refugees and legalizing civil partnerships for gays and straight couples. "I expected more courage," Cieszewski said.

Still, the 41-year-old business consultant says he will cast his ballot for the centrist and free-market party on Sunday, mainly because of the huge economic growth it has overseen in the past years, and which is estimated at 3.5 percent this year. He said its election program "is really fantastic" and would help this ex-communist country continue on its path toward achieving a standard of living comparable to that in Western Europe.

When Civic Platform began to run the country in 2007, per capita GDP in Poland was about 53 percent of the EU average. Now it is nearly 70 percent, a sign to Ciszewski that Poland is on the right track.

Ticking off other successes, he notes that exports have doubled since the party came to power eight years ago, and that unemployment fell from 17 to 10 percent. He is also pleased with the huge improvements in infrastructure, with cities being modernized, and thousands of new day care centers and pre-schools built.

It's progress that he feels in his own life. Ciszewski lives in a village in the Warsaw region. Going by car to the capital used to be a journey of 2½ hours each way on a dangerous two-lane road. Thanks to a new motorway completed in 2013, the trip now takes only about an hour and 20 minutes, and is much safer.

Law and Justice will certainly not get his vote. He has no sympathy for its anti-migrant stance, with party leader Kaczynski recently warning that migrants could carry "parasites and protozoa" to Europe.

"He only said that to get voters on his side," Ciszewski said.

Montenegro police throw tear gas on protest

October 25, 2015

PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — Montenegrin police on Saturday fired tear gas at opposition supporters who hurled fire bombs and torches to demand the resignation Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's government which hopes to steer the Balkan country toward NATO membership later this year.

Several thousand protesters charged at the Parliament building in downtown Podgorica, the capital, shouting "Milo Thief" and throwing various objects, including fire-bombs, at riot police guarding the site. The police then threw tear gas, chasing away the demonstrators with armored vehicles.

Witnesses said that several shop-windows were broken in the unrest, as tear gas smoke enveloped the city center. Police said 15 policemen were hurt, while 24 protesters sought doctors' help because of tear gas. One opposition leader was detained.

Anti-government protesters gathered earlier at a central square, pledging to bring down the government. Opposition leader Nebojsa Medojevic shouted "the dictator must fall," referring to Djukanovic, who has been in power for 25 years and whom opposition accuse of authoritarian rule.

Some of the demonstrators carried banners reading "No to NATO" and "For military neutrality of Montenegro." Zoran Kovacevic, a 57-year-old unemployed electrician said that "we are against NATO, but most of all we are hungry."

Police also used tear gas twice last week against stone-throwing government opponents, who are also calling for early elections and a referendum on whether Montenegro should join NATO. Montenegrin pro-Western government hopes to be invited to join the military alliance in December. Many Montenegrins with historic ties to Russia remain opposed.

The Adriatic nation of some 600,000 people split from a union with much larger Serbia in 2006.

Police, protesters clash overnight in Kosovo

October 24, 2015

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Police in Kosovo say one officer and two protesters were injured in clashes in the capital early Saturday, a day after the opposition disrupted parliament with tear gas to protest against agreements with Serbia and Montenegro.

Police said 10 protesters were arrested as a few hundred opposition supporters threw petrol bombs and other objects outside the parliament building in Pristina. Local media said two protesters received treatment after being exposed to tear gas used by police.

The opposition Self-Determination Party condemned the police action. "It is very important that these criminals understand soonest that there is no (police) violence to stop the civic revolt," it said in a statement.

Opposition lawmakers disrupted Friday's session of parliament, opening tear gas canisters and hurling plastic water bottles at the speaker and Cabinet ministers. After failing twice to hold the parliament session, lawmakers of the two governing political parties moved to a different space in the building to meet — without their opponents.

Police said none of the lawmakers was injured or arrested. This was the third session in which the opposition smuggled in tear gas despite tight police checks of everyone entering the building, including diplomats.

"Tear gas and violence have no place in Assembly chamber; such actions jeopardize Kosovo's future," U.S. Ambassador Greg Delawie wrote on his Twitter feed. The opposition had demanded cancellation of Friday's session unless the government renounced deals with Serbia to give more powers to Serb-dominated areas in Kosovo, and with Montenegro on border demarcation.

The government accuses the opposition of trying to come into power in an undemocratic way and insists it is set in applying the deals and continuing talks with Serbia. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a move not recognized by Serbia.

TV comic Jimmy Morales wins Guatemala presidential runoff

October 26, 2015

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — TV comic and self-styled outsider Jimmy Morales swept to Guatemala's presidency on the back of popular anger against the political class after huge anti-corruption protests helped oust the last government.

Morales, who is to assume the presidency Jan. 14 and has never held political office, said he would get right to work with a transition team to study economic issues and work on development-oriented government policies.

"It is not I who declare myself the winner but rather the people who have done so," said Morales, 46, who starred in the comedy "Moralejas." Morales claimed victory late Sunday and his runoff opponent, former first lady Sandra Torres, conceded defeat after official results showed him winning around 68 percent of the votes with 97 percent of polling stations tallied. Election officials were expected to give a final count Monday.

"We recognize Jimmy Morales' triumph and we wish him success," Torres said. "Guatemala has serious problems, but the people made their choice and we respect it." Hundreds of Morales backers gathered at his party headquarters, where a "banda" musical group played while they waited for the candidate.

"It is a historic vote," said supporter Israel Orozco. "It is a response by the people to ratify hope for change." The runoff was held a month and a half after President Otto Perez Molina resigned and was jailed in connection with a sprawling customs scandal. His former vice president has also been jailed in the multimillion-dollar graft and fraud scheme.

Though the protests have died down since Perez Molina's resignation, many Guatemalans remain fed up with corruption and politics as usual, and Morales will face pressure to deliver immediately on widespread demands for reform.

"The important thing is that the next government avoids corruption," said Alexander Pereira, an insurance salesman who was the first to vote at one polling place. "I hope that the next government really makes a change. We had an achievement in kicking out the last government."

Election officials reported preliminary voter participation figures as a little above 50 percent, down from 71 percent in the first round. "The abstention and apathy catch one's attention. We were looking at a proposal of more of the same or the other proposal which doesn't exist," political analyst Roberto Wagner said, referring to the platforms of Torres and Morales. "Citizen pressure will be important for changing the structures" of power.

Morales and Torres were the top two vote-getters in the first round Sept. 6, when presumed front-runner Manuel Baldizon finished a surprising third — a result considered to be a rejection of Guatemala's political establishment in the wake of the corruption scandal.

The protests began in April after the scheme involving bribery at the customs agency was unveiled by Guatemalan prosecutors and a U.N. commission that is investigating criminal networks in the country.

Investigators first targeted former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, whose personal secretary was named as the alleged ringleader of the scheme, and then Perez Molina. Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, who replaced Baldetti as vice president after she resigned, assumed the country's top job upon Perez Molina's departure from office.

Morales, like Torres, promised during the campaign to keep Attorney General Thelma Aldana, a key figure in the investigation, and the U.N. commission in place. He also vowed to strengthen controls and transparency, saying in a debate this past week that the government has controls and auditing powers at its disposal.

"All the elements for auditing available to the presidency and vice presidency are going to be put to work," Morales said. Election officials and international observers said the vote came off without violence.

"They were very calm elections," said Juan Pablo Cordazzoli, chief of the Organization of American States observer mission. "There were no serious incidents like in the first round."

Tanzania's ruling party in unpredictable race to keep power

October 24, 2015

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Tanzanians vote Sunday in an election that could end the dominance of the ruling party, which has held power for decades but faces a united opposition buoyed by growing discontent over official corruption.

The apparent strength of a united opposition, led by former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa, has also fueled fears of possible violence in a country that has avoided the bloody unrest experienced among its neighbors in Africa's Great Lakes region.

Lowassa defected from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party earlier this year after it refused to make him its presidential candidate. He captured national attention when he joined the opposition party, Chama Cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo, known as Chadema. Lowassa now heads the four main opposition parties hoping to oust the party of Tanzania's revered founding leader Julius Nyerere.

Lowassa's massive rallies across the country have led some analysts to believe he poses a serious threat to the ruling party, whose grip on power has never before been so seriously threatened. "The competition's been stiff. Even at this moment it's too early to say who will win," said Benson Bana, a political science lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam. "Lowassa has mounted a good campaign. He will garner a good number of votes but I don't know if they will sufficient for him to be declared president."

Lowassa, 62, was prime minister in President Jakaya Kikwete's government from 2005 to 2008, but was forced to resign by a corruption scandal that continues to color his career despite his denials. He has a reputation as a fabulously wealthy politician, apparently one of the reasons why the ruling party rejected him as its presidential candidate.

The ruling party's eventual choice, Works Minister John Magufuli, 55, is widely seen as a corruption-free, effective public servant who could improve the ruling party's image in the eyes of ordinary people fed up with state graft.

"He is credible," said Bana. In Zanzibar, which is run by a semi-autonomous government, the ruling party faces strong opposition from the Civic United Front, whose leaders promise reduced taxes and free education. The party narrowly lost control of the island in the previous election.

"We expect to win by majority this time, and if that dream comes true we will offer our people the best social services," said Omar Ali Shehe, the Civic United Front's director of elections. Amid concerns over possible chaos, outgoing president Kikwete has urged calm, saying Tanzania's security forces will work to keep the peace.

There are concerns that some opposition groups may be training and arming their own militias, said Jeffrey Smith, director of Africa policy for the Washington D.C.-based group Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

"Tanzanians take great pride in being a bright spot, and importantly, a stable democracy, in a region that is otherwise plagued by autocratic and repressive regimes," said Smith. "However, the prospect of electoral violence looms heavy on the minds of many."

Associated Press reporter Ali Sultan in Zanzibar contributed to this report.