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Friday, April 29, 2016

Spain commemorates the 400th anniversary of Cervantes' death

April 23, 2016

MADRID (AP) — Spain commemorated the 400th anniversary of the death of its best-known writer, Miguel de Cervantes on Saturday. Events took place throughout the country celebrating the author of "Don Quixote," one of the most influential books in world literature and a work generally regarded as the precursor of the modern novel.

In Alcala de Henares, Cervantes' birthplace, King Felipe VI honored Mexican author Fernando del Paso with the Cervantes Prize and Spain's Culture Minister Inigo Mendez highlighted his "contribution to the development of the novel, combining tradition and modernity, as Cervantes did."

The Cervantes award is handed out each year on April 23. It coincides with UNESCO's World Book Day , which promotes literature and commemorates Cervantes and English playwright William Shakespeare, who died on that date in 1616.

Cervantes actually died on April 22, 1616, but Spain commemorates his death on the date he was buried. Some artists and academics have been critical of Spain's central government for not allocating funds to organize events on a scale similar to those celebrating Shakespeare's life in Britain.

Yet many still found imaginative ways to honor Cervantes. Computer expert Diego Buendia designed a program that uploaded the entire text of "Don Quixote" onto Twitter in blocks of 140 characters at a time over the last 17 months. And a popular TV cookery show asked competitors to produce menus linked to the region of La Mancha where "Don Quixote" is set.

A fusion of fantasy and reality, the book narrates the journeys and adventures by its hero and his mule-straddling squire, Sancho Panza. Alonso Quijano is an unremarkable gentleman who, after immersing himself in countless books about adventurous knights, decides to become one himself. Taking the name Don Quixote de La Mancha, he mounts his nag Rocinante and ventures out from a nameless village in the heart of Spain to right the wrongs of the world and defend the oppressed.

He is clearly mad and mistakes inns for enchanted castles, peasant girls for stunning princesses and confuses windmills with malevolent giants. Sancho knows his master's judgment is unsound, but he sticks by him.

The book has been a best-seller in many languages since it was first published in December 1604. Cervantes' descriptive ability convey many elements of Spain that readers can still recognize, including some regional recipes that have come down the centuries almost unchanged.

Modern research has revealed details about Cervantes that have increased interest in him and his work. A man of no formal schooling, he was 58 when "Don Quixote" was published. His life was nomadic and full of hardship. He took part in the brutal naval battle of Lepanto that left him with a shattered left arm. Then he spent five years as a hostage in Algeria from where the Barefoot Trinitarians nuns in Madrid rescued him by paying his ransom.

An archaeological excavation in 2014 found what experts concluded were Cervantes' bones buried in their convent.

Death toll from Ecuador earthquake tops 650

April 24, 2016

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — The death toll from last week's magnitude-7.8 earthquake that flattened towns along Ecuador's coast has risen to 654 with another 58 people missing, the government said Saturday.

The website of the secretariat for risk management said that 113 people had been rescued alive following the quake and more than 25,000 people remained in shelters. The death toll from Ecuador's quake has surpassed that of Peru's 2007 temblor, making it the deadliest quake in South America since one in Colombia in 1999 killed more than 1,000 people.

Hundreds of aftershocks have rattled the country since last Saturday night's quake and Ecuadoreans are still sleeping outside and struggling to find food and water. Aid is arriving from abroad but relief workers have warned of delays in water distribution and said mosquito-borne illness could spread through the camps.

President Rafael Correa has said the quake caused $3 billion in damage and warned that the reconstruction effort will take years. His administration is temporarily raising taxes to fund the recovery. Even before the quake, Ecuador was bracing for a bout of austerity, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting the economy would shrink 4.5 percent this year.

Memories painful on Chernobyl's 30th anniversary

April 26, 2016

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — As Ukraine and Belarus on Tuesday marked the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident with solemn words and an angry protest, some of the men who were sent to the site in the first chaotic and frightening days were gripped by painful memories.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko led a ceremony in Chernobyl, where work is underway to complete a 2 billion euro ($2.25 billion) long-term shelter over the building containing Chernobyl's exploded reactor. Once the structure is in place, work will begin to remove the reactor and its lava-like radioactive waste.

The disaster shone a spotlight on lax safety standards and government secrecy in the former Soviet Union. The explosion on April 26, 1986, was not reported by Soviet authorities for two days, and then only after winds had carried the fallout across Europe and Swedish experts had gone public with their concerns.

"We honor those who lost their health and require a special attention from the government and society," Poroshenko said. "It's with an everlasting pain in our hearts that we remember those who lost their lives to fight nuclear death."

About 600,000 people, often referred to as Chernobyl's "liquidators," were sent in to fight the fire at the nuclear plant and clean up the worst of its contamination. Thirty workers died either from the explosion or from acute radiation sickness within several months. The accident exposed millions in the region to dangerous levels of radiation and forced a wide-scale, permanent evacuation of hundreds of towns and villages in Ukraine and Belarus.

At a ceremony in their honor in Kiev, some of the former liquidators told The Associated Press of their ordeal and surprise that they lived through it. Oleg Medvedev, now 65, was sent to the zone on the first day of the crisis, to help evacuate the workers' city of Pripyat, less than four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the destroyed reactor. Four days later "I already had to go away from the zone because I'd received the maximum allowable radiation dose. Thirty years passed and I'm still alive, despite doctors giving me five. I'm happy about that."

"My soul hurts when I think of those days," said Dmitry Mikhailov, 56. He was on a crew sent to evacuate a village where residents knew nothing of the accident. "They smiled at us. They didn't understand what was happening," he said. "I wish I knew where and how they are now. I just can't forget them."

In Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where the government is bringing farming to long fallow lands affected by Chernobyl fallout, more than 1,000 people held a protest march through the city center. Belarus routinely cracks down on dissent, but authorities allowed the march.

"Chernobyl is continuing today. Our relatives and friends are dying of cancer," said 21-year-old protester Andrei Ostrovtsov. The final death toll from Chernobyl is subject to speculation, due to the long-term effects of radiation, but ranges from an estimate of 9,000 by the World Health Organization to one of a possible 90,000 by the environmental group Greenpeace.

The Ukrainian government, however, has since scaled back benefits for Chernobyl survivors, making many feel betrayed by their own country. "I went in there when everyone was fleeing. We were going right into the heat," said Mykola Bludchiy, who arrived in the Chernobyl exclusion zone on May 5, just days after the explosion. "And today everything is forgotten. It's a disgrace."

He spoke Tuesday after a ceremony in Kiev, where top officials were laying wreaths to a Chernobyl memorial. At midnight on Monday, a Chernobyl vigil was held in the Ukrainian town of Slavutych, where many former Chernobyl workers were relocated.

Thirty years later, many could not hold back the tears as they brought flowers and candles to a memorial for the workers killed in the explosion. Some of the former liquidators dressed in white robes and caps for the memorial, just like the ones they had worn so many years ago.

Andriy Veprev, who had worked at the Chernobyl nuclear plant for 14 years before the explosion and helped to clean up the contamination, said memories of the mayhem in 1986 were still vivid in his mind.

"I'm proud of those guys who were with me and who are not with us now," he said. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin, in a message to the liquidators, called the Chernobyl disaster "a grave lesson for all of mankind."

Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, and Jim Heintz and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, contributed to this report.

Mock group becomes surprise election success in Serbian town

April 27, 2016

MLADENOVAC, Serbia (AP) — A young man poses as a sleazy, bejeweled politician in a white suit, sitting atop a white horse surrounded by hordes of bodyguards while promising jobs and prosperity to the voters.

Luka Maksimovic and his friends started out to have fun, but the young pranksters have become a sensation — and have been elected to office — after finishing second in a local vote in a run-down industrial town in central Serbia.

The success of the rookie citizens' group at last weekend's election in Mladenovac, outside Belgrade, seems to reflect widespread disillusionment with politicians in crisis-stricken Serbia and the desire for new, young faces still untouched by the corruption that has plagued all aspects of the Balkan country's political scene.

Maksimovic and his friends said the election outcome surprised them as well. "This is quite a shock. None of us are experienced politicians," the 24-year-old media and communications student told The Associated Press. "It all started out as a joke. ... We wanted to make video clips mocking Serbia's political scene."

Maksimovic described his alter ego — Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli — as the worst possible version of a typical Serbian politician: He is loud and dishonest, owns a shady business and obeys no rules. He promises jobs and better lives, but never delivers.

During campaigning, Preletacevic parodied Serbia's political reality: bare-chested, he saved children from imaginary danger, posed with small animals in his arms, handed out forged university diplomas and promised healthier sandwiches than his opponents.

Even the name Preletacevic is symbolic. The English translation would be something like "Switchover" — suggesting that he switches political parties easily for personal gains. His closest aide — Sticker — is sticking to his boss without asking questions.

"This is a satire, a show, but it turned out that people responded to it," Maksimovic said. The group's election list, dubbed "Hit it Hard — Beli," won 20 percent of the votes, or 13 out of 50 or so seats in the municipal council — behind the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Aleskandar Vucic's populist Progressive Party but ahead of all the opposition parties in Mladenovac.

The future council members from the list include Preletacevic and Sticker, but also independent activists determined to help change the situation in their town and serve as a control mechanism for the work of the local authorities, Maksimovic said.

Draza Petrovic, the editor-in-chief of the liberal Danas daily and a satirical columnist, said the happenings in Mladenovac show that citizens increasingly have been turning to irony and satire as a form of opposition to the dismal reality of their everyday lives.

"People are looking for opposition leaders among the people who are not part of the political establishment and who are fun," Petrovic said. "They are definitely disappointed with official politics." Petrovic predicted that the Mladenovac group could set an example for other Serbian towns and future elections.

Amid Serbia's recent economic crisis, Mladenovac has turned from an industrial hub into a worn-out town, where many of the 20,000 residents have been left without jobs after factories closed one after another.

The situation is similar throughout the country, even though Serbia has recently made advances in its bid to one day join the European Union. Out in the streets, Mladenovac citizens laugh and wave as a cheerful, blue-eyed Preletacevic walks the town in his white suit, his hair bundled on top of his head.

"At least, he jokes," said 63-year-old Dusan Glisic, who is jobless. "The others pretend to be serious, but they most certainly have been kidding with us." Emergency nurse Emilija Milosevic, 43, described Maksimovic as a "real refreshment which brings hope that people can actually use their brains."

Maksimovic and his friends said that although they started in mockery, they will take their roles seriously. Maksimovic promises to keep an eye on municipal spending and make local strongmen uneasy. "I will be there in my white suit, to remind the others who they really are," Maksimovic said. "We are there now and that's it, like a destiny or something."

Serbia's pro-EU populists win vote, initial projections show

April 24, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The incumbent pro-European Union populists swept Serbia's parliamentary election in a landslide Sunday, leaving pro-Russia nationalists far behind, according to preliminary unofficial results.

The triumph by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's Progressive Party means Serbia will continue on its path toward EU membership despite opposition from right-wing parties, which seek close ties with traditional Slavic ally Russia instead.

"The election results today represent a strong support to our democracy, reforms and European integration," Vucic told supporters in his victory speech at party headquarters in Belgrade. "We have shown to ourselves and the world that Serbia is united in an attempt for a better future."

The preliminary results released by the independent CESiD polling agency show the Progressives winning 49 percent of the vote and their Socialists coalition partner with 11 percent. Two ultra-nationalist parties lagged far behind — the Radical Party with 8 percent and DSS-Dveri with 5 percent.

Three pro-Western opposition parties fragmented their support and were each hovering around the 5 percent threshold needed to win seats in parliament. The polling firm based its projections on the actual vote count at representative polling stations. The first official results are expected later this week.

Djordje Vukovic from CESiD said there might be slight changes from the preliminary results, but he said it's clear that the Progressives will end up with a landslide victory. "We are not happy, but that is what the people decided. Our struggle will continue. Most important for us is that we have regained the parliamentary status," said the Radical Party's firebrand leader Vojislav Seselj, speaking to supporters at his party's Belgrade headquarters.

Seselj, who was acquitted of war crimes last month by an international tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands, will be returning to parliament after the Radical Party apparently cleared the threshold needed for parliamentary representation. Once the strongest party in Serbia, the Radicals failed to win any seats in the last election in 2014 at a time Seselj was on trial before the tribunal.

Other opposition parties claimed there were irregularities in Sunday's election. "We don't have the democracy that we had before 2012," said former Serbian President Boris Tadic, leader of the pro-Western Social Democrats.

Vucic called the election two years early, saying he needed a new mandate to press ahead with tough reforms demanded by the EU at a time Serbia is facing deep economic and social problems. But his opponents said he really wanted to tighten his autocratic rule and win another four-year mandate while he is still popular.

Pre-election polls predicted the Progressives would win most of the 250 seats in parliament. Turnout was around 53 percent one hour before polls closed, slightly higher than in 2014 when Vucic's party also swept the vote.

Vucic was once an extreme nationalist himself, but has transformed into a pro-EU reformer. There had been fears in the West before the vote that the election could tilt Serbia further to the right and toward Russia. Any rekindling of nationalism in the Balkans is considered more dangerous than in the rest of Eastern Europe because of the wars in the 1990s that claimed around 100,000 lives.

Western countries have sought to pacify Balkan nations by keeping them on track for EU membership. "I am almost certain that we will carry on our European integration process and we will have to speed up the process of (EU) accession," Vucic said after voting earlier Sunday. "And of course, preserve our traditional ties with our friends (Russia) in the east."

Vucic added that he was "not going to make any compromises with right-wing political parties" over the issue of EU membership which he considered to be in the strategic long-term interests of the Serbian people.

Seselj had called the vote a de-facto referendum on whether Serbia joins the "enemy" EU, or turns to some kind of a union with "our traditional ally Russia." While pro-Russian sentiments in Serbia are traditionally high because of close historic and cultural ties, many Serbs also want to see their country reach the economic and democratic standards of the rich EU nations.

"Our membership in the European Union is something we have to fight for, because there is no other way for us," said Blazo Mitric, a Belgrade resident, upon casting his vote.

Jovana Gec and Amer Cohadzic contributed to this report.

Serbia's general election tests EU bid amid far-right surge

April 24, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbs are voting Sunday in an election that is seen as a test of the prime minister's proclaimed bid to lead the Balkan nation to the European Union amid an ultra-nationalist surge which favors close ties with Russia instead.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic called the election two years early, saying he needed a new mandate to press ahead with tough reforms demanded by the EU as the country faces deep economic and social problems. But his opponents say he really wants to tighten his autocratic rule and win another four-year mandate while he is still popular.

The populist Serbian Progressive Party led by Vucic, who has transformed from an extreme nationalist into a pro-EU reformer, is slated to win most of the 250 seats in parliament. If Serbia remains firmly on the EU path, or sways away from it, will depend on whether the party gets enough votes to rule alone or if it has to form a coalition government with some anti-Western group.

"I am almost certain that we will carry on our European integration process and we will have to speed up the process of (EU) accession," Vucic said after voting on Sunday. "And of course, preserve our traditional ties with our friends (Russia) in the east."

Vucic added "that has to be one of the strategic, long term decisions of Serbian people and I'm not going to make any compromises with right-wing political parties." The right-wing revival has seen growing support for the Serbian Radical Party, headed by firebrand nationalist Vojislav Seselj who is slated to return to Parliament after being acquitted of war crimes by a U.N. tribunal. Liberal pro-Western opposition groups are fragmented and sidelined, struggling to reach the 5 percent parliamentary threshold. They include a party led by former President Boris Tadic.

Seselj has said the vote is a de-facto referendum on whether Serbia joins the "enemy" EU, or turns to some kind of a union with "our traditional ally Russia." "We can form a coalition only with the parties that will give up European Union (membership) and choose integration with Russia," Seselj said as he cast his ballot on Sunday. "These elections are very important for Serbia."

While pro-Russian sentiments in Serbia are traditionally high because of close historic and cultural ties, many Serbs would also like to see their country reach the economic and democratic standards of the rich EU nations.

"Our membership in the European Union is something we have to fight for, because there is no other way for us," said Blazo Mitric, a Belgrade resident, upon casting his vote. While no major surprises are expected, Sunday's vote could tilt Serbia to the right. Any rekindling of nationalism in the Balkans is considered more dangerous than in the rest of Eastern Europe because of the wars in the 1990s that claimed some 100,000 lives. Western countries have sought to pacify Balkan nations by keeping them on track for EU membership. This could fail if Serbia gives up EU integration and turns to Russia instead, analysts say.

There are 6.7 million voters in the election.

Jovana Gec and Amer Cohadzic contributed.

Poland buries remains of World War II resistance commander

April 24, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's president and government ministers attended the state burial Sunday of a World War II resistance commander and communist regime victim whose remains were found in a hidden mass grave.

The funeral at Warsaw's Powazki military cemetery was part of democratic Poland's efforts to remind the nation about facts and figures from the past that were taboo themes under decades of communism — for example, resistance against the regime and the persecution it was met with.

The current conservative government of the Law and Justice party is especially focused on honoring wartime and communist-era independence fighters who were imprisoned, executed and secretly dumped in unmarked mass graves by the communist regime in the 1940s and '50s. Only a few of the graves have been found.

One of the victims was Col. Zygmunt Szendzielarz, codename "Lupaszka," who was executed in a Warsaw prison in 1951, aged 41. An officer of a mounted regiment, he fought against the Nazi German and Soviet invasion in September 1939 and later led an underground resistance movement.

He continued his fight for Poland's sovereignty after communism was imposed on Poland in 1945. Secret security agents arrested him in 1948 and he was given a death sentence. "Today, 65 years later, as we honor Col. Szendzielarz with these ceremonies, we are giving Poland its dignity back," President Andrzej Duda said during a funeral Mass at the Powazki church. "Dignity that was trampled by those who tortured and murdered" Szendzielarz.

"Today, Poland has top authorities who remember, honor and appreciate" such fighters, Duda said. Szendzielarz's remains were found in 2013 among dozens of others, buried in sand under wild grass in a Powazki corner. Szendzielarz and some others were identified through DNA tests. A white stone memorial has been since put up at the site.

Polish leaders threaten fate of nearly finished WWII museum

April 24, 2016

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland's conservative government is taking steps that threaten an ambitious new World War II museum which international experts have spent eight years creating — the latest ideological battle the nation's nationalistic authorities are waging against the pro-European rivals they ousted from power last year.

The Museum of the Second World War has been under development since 2008 and was due to open next year in Gdansk, where the first shots of the war were fired. The $120 million project was launched with the support of former Prime Minister Donald Tusk, now one of the European Union's top leaders, a man deeply hated by the head of Poland's new ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The Euro-skeptic Law and Justice party accuses the state-funded museum of not focusing enough on Poland, objecting to an approach that puts Poland's wartime experience in the broader context of the fate of other nations under the German, Soviet and Japanese occupations. Kaczynski vowed in 2013 that if his party ever took power it would change the museum so it "expresses the Polish point of view."

Critics are convinced Kaczynski, the most powerful man in Poland, is also motivated by his hatred of Tusk and Civic Platform, the pro-EU party that governed Poland for eight years before Law and Justice came in last year.

A group of historians and museum professionals wrote an open letter of protest, saying they see Law and Justice's move as part of "a political struggle that involves the destruction of institutions brought to life by the previous government with no regard to their substantive value."

"It is difficult for us to accept a mindless act of vandalism carried out on our culture," they said. The development comes amid a broader attempt by the new authorities to purge elites they believe are aligned with their political foes. Many of those losing their jobs now are professional experts with no party affiliation. The government says it aims to reshape a country that had become too liberal and whose national identity had been eroded by membership in the 28-nation EU.

Among those advising on the museum are some of the world's most renowned World War II historians, including Norman Davies of Oxford and Timothy Snyder of Yale, scholars whose works are considered sympathetic to Poles' suffering under German and Soviet occupations. The building itself is a multi-storied, avant-garde glass design chosen by a jury chaired by the Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind.

"What they have is a museum that is going to be seen as remarkable on a European and on an international scale that will draw millions to Poland," Snyder told The Associated Press. The fate of the museum became unclear April 15 when Culture Minister Piotr Glinski announced he might merge the museum with another museum that does not yet exist — a step that would allow the government to legally abandon the concept of the original museum. The new museum would focus on the German attack on Poles on the Gdansk peninsula of Westerplatte, the opening move in the war, and Poland's defense against the German invasion in 1939.

Museum Director Pawel Machcewicz said the proposed new concept is a "fictional entity" being used as legal trick to take over his institution and break his job contract, which runs through 2019. Abandoning the original project "would mean destroying 90 percent of the entire content of our museum, which has already been partially produced and some of which is already being installed," said Machcewicz, a historian of the 20th century with no party affiliation. "I have never heard of such a situation."

The museum's advisory board said it was "stunned and troubled" by the culture minister's announcement, which was issued without consultation. Snyder, a signatory of that statement and author of "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin," said the world has other World War II museums but they all take an exclusively national view. The Gdansk museum would be unique because it would be the first to involve the stories of all the affected nations in Europe and Asia, he said.

"It's an intellectual breakthrough, because it allows us to make sense of the Second World War and see if from multiple points of view," he said. "It also makes Polish history accessible to anyone from anywhere. So if you are Dutch or Japanese or American, and you go to this museum knowing nothing about Poland, at the end of it you will see how central the Polish experience was to the war."

Amid the uproar, the culture minister said all options remain, but added that merging the two museums would be the most efficient thing to do. "There is no sense in operating two museums in the same city with the same profile," he told the news agency PAP.

One stumbling block could be the stiff opposition from Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdansk, which donated the land for the museum. Adamowicz, a member of Civic Platform, said the city has the legal right to revoke the land donation if the museum is not built as planned. He said he is prepared to take that step.

Snyder says the government's concept of a museum focusing solely on Westerplatte and Poland's military struggle in 1939 would result in a narrowly focused exhibit that would not appeal to a wider international audience. He said it would also leave out key events like the Katyn massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police.

That, he said, would be counterproductive for a government keen on spreading knowledge of Poland's suffering and military resistance. "Why not just take credit for the museum? The Civic Platform government didn't manage to finish it before they lost power. Politicians usually finish someone else's project and take all the credit. It seems like a golden opportunity to do that," Snyder said.

Moldova PM: reforms must start with the government

April 28, 2016

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Moldova's prime minister says badly needed reforms in the impoverished country must start with the government. Premier Pavel Filip, who became the sixth prime minister of this impoverished former Soviet republic in January, told The Associated Press that he believes "reforms should start with us who are proposing reforms."

In a telephone interview Wednesday, he said he plans to slash the number of ministries by almost half to make government more efficient, and he believes private investment will come "when they have the certainty that corruption doesn't exist, there are no bureaucratic barriers, and there are no longer abusive controls by the state."

His aim is "a prosperous and stable Moldova in the European Union," he said — a vision that currently seems remote, with Moldova forced to borrow from commercial banks to cover state pensions and salaries.

The country is so poor that it needed emergency food aid from neighbor Romania this winter. A key aspect of his reforms is restoring Moldova's credibility. Filip vowed to find and prosecute those who stole more than $1 billion from three Moldovan banks in November 2014, sparking months of protests and political instability.

U.S. investigative company Kroll, hired to probe the loss which represented one-eighth of Moldova's gross domestic product, will present a plan for recouping the losses at the end of May. Located between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has traditionally been in Russia's orbit. Moscow opposed Moldova signing an association agreement with the EU in 2014, and placed an embargo on Moldovan fruit and wines.

Pavel says Russia has nothing to lose from Moldova moving closer to the European mainstream. "What we want in our relationship with Russia is reciprocal respect and predictability," he said. "Moldova is free to choose (its path) and Russia should see this as an opportunity."

Britain to admit 3,000 Syrian child refugees from camps

April 22, 2016

The British government announced yesterday its intention to take in 3,000 Syrian refugees, all of them minors, who are currently in refugee camps in countries neighboring Syria.

“Taking in this number of children is considered to be the largest initiative of its kind in the world,” said Immigration Minister James Brokenshire in a press release. He explained that the process is being carried out in coordination with the UNHCR. The minister stressed that Britain is committed to providing a save haven for thousands of orphan children and those prone to danger due to their situation in the camps.

He added that the British government has always been clear that the vast majority of vulnerable children are better off remaining in host countries in the region so that they can be reunited with surviving family members. “However, there are exceptional circumstances in which it is in a child’s best interests to be resettled in the UK.”

In this context, he announced that Britain is to send 75 officials to Greece to help with the processing and administration in detention centers and deal with the cases of the refugees who will be sent back to Turkey in line with the latest EU agreement with Ankara.

The agreement is to send back refugees in exchange for resettling those who came to Turkey legally. The fact that Britain will hold a referendum in June over its membership of the EU is considered to be one of the main motives behind increasing the number of migrants to be allowed into the UK.

Source: Middle East Monitor.
Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160422-britain-to-admit-3000-syrian-child-refugees-from-camps/.

Austrian law-and-order presidential candidate wins 1st round

April 24, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — The law-and-order candidate of Austria's right-wing party swept the first round of presidential elections on Sunday, winning over 35 percent of the vote for the party's best ever result. Government coalition contenders were among the five losers, signaling deep voter rejection and political uncertainty ahead.

The triumph by Norbert Hofer eclipses his Freedom Party's best previous national showing — more than 27 percent support in 1996 elections that decided Austria's membership in the European Union. His declared willingness to challenge the governing coalition of center-left Social Democrats and centrist People's Party spells potential confrontation ahead — Hofer might push for new parliamentary elections should he win the May 22 runoff in hopes that his Freedom Party will triumph.

Preliminary final results with absentee ballots still to be counted gave Hofer 35.5 percent support, far ahead of Alexander Van der Bellen of the Greens party who ran as an independent. Still, with 20.4 percent backing, he will challenge Hofer in the second round.

Independent Irmgard Griss came in third. At 18.5 percent, she was still ahead of People's Party candidate Andreas Khol and Social Democrat Rudolf Hundstorfer, both slightly above 11 percent. Political outsider Richard Lugner was last, with 2.4 percent.

With the candidates of establishment parties shut out of the office for the first time since Austria's political landscape was reformed after World War II, Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache hailed the "historic event" that he said reflected massive "voter dissatisfaction."

Still, Van der Bellen remained in the running. Many of those who voted for other candidates are likely to swing behind him in the runoff in hopes he will defeat Hofer and the Freedom Party. "That was the first round," Van der Bellen said. "The second one will decide."

Hofer's triumph was significant nonetheless, and in line with recent polls showing Freedom Party popularity. Driven by concerns over Europe's migrant crisis, support for his party has surged to 32 percent compared with just over 20 percent for each of the governing parties.

But voters were unhappy with the Social Democrats and the People's Party even before the migrant influx last year forced their coalition government to swing from open borders to tough asylum restrictions. Decades of bickering over key issues — most recently tax, pension and education reform — has fed perceptions of political stagnation.

Reflecting voter dissatisfaction, an ORF/SORA/ISA poll of 1,210 eligible voters released Sunday after balloting ended showed only 19 percent "satisfied" with the government's work. Its margin of error was 2.8 percentage points.

Vienna Social Democratic Mayor Michael Haeupl spoke of "a catastrophic result," but even worse could lie ahead for both his and the People's Party. As president, Hofer has threatened to call a new national election.

That would likely result in a Freedom Party victory and could move Austria closer to the camp of anti-immigrant Eurosceptic EU nations, further complicating joint European Union attempts to solve the migrant crisis and find consensus on other divisive issues.

An Austrian president has the powers to dismiss a government. But none has since the office was newly defined after World War II. Instead, the role has been traditionally ceremonial, with presidents rarely going beyond gentle criticism of the government.

Trying to ease concerns that he would be too confrontational in office, Hofer told reporters that he would be "there for all Austrians." "No one need be afraid," he told reporters. Still, he added "that does not mean that I reject my principles." Alluding to his threat, he said that with him as president, the present government would "face serious difficulties" if it didn't change its course.

Political uncertainty may lie ahead, even if Hofer is defeated. Van der Bellen has vowed not to swear in any Freedom Party politician as Austria's chancellor if he wins Sunday's vote. The president has a six-year mandate. Because parliamentary elections that will decide the next chancellor must be held by 2018, possible confrontation looms between the Freedom Party and Van der Bellen, should he triumph.

Associated Press video journalist Philipp Jenne contributed to this report.

Mainstream hopefuls lag as Austrians vote for new president

April 24, 2016

VIENNA (AP) — The outcome is unclear as Austrians vote for their next president. But one thing is nearly certain — for the first time the winner is unlikely to be a candidate supported by either of the two mainstream parties that have dominated politics since World War II.

Austrians cast their ballots Sunday with the latest polls showing support of 11-15 percent for contenders backed by the Social Democrats and the centrist People's Party, which have governed alone or together for decades.

That's well short of the 21-24 percent backing for Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party and Alexander Van der Bellen and Irgmard Griss, who are running as independents. And it suggests political uncertainty lies ahead in a country where government stability has been the norm.

No candidate is expected to get a majority Sunday, making a runoff likely on May 22. With Social Democrat Rudolf Hundstorfer and People's Party candidate Andreas Khol long shots, that second round will likely see either Van der Bellen or Griss, both liberals, face Hofer, whose law-and-order stance is meant to capitalize on the Freedom Party's popularity.

Driven by concerns over Europe's migrant crisis, support for the Freedom Party has surged to 32 percent compared with just over 20 percent for each of the governing parties. But voters were unhappy with the Social Democrats and the People's Party even before the migrant crisis last year forced their coalition government to swing from open borders to tough asylum restrictions. Their bickering over key issues — most recently tax, pension and education reform — has fed perceptions of political stagnation.

That could translate into a win for Hofer and trouble for the traditional parties. Instead of focusing on the office's symbolic functions like past presidents, he has threatened to dismiss the government coalition and call a new national election — something no president has done since the office was newly defined after World War II. That in turn, could hoist his Freedom Party into power and swing Austria toward the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic views of some EU nations.

Exuding confidence as he cast his vote in the town of Pinkafeld, east of Vienna, Hofer told reporters: "I can only say, going by my feeling that it looks pretty good." His chief rivals were more subdued as they voted in the Austrian capital. Van der Bellen described himself as an "outsider... (who) could finish in second or even worse third place," while Griss said she would "take it as it comes."

Still, both of them have a good chance to go to the runoff — and once there, collect extra support. Hofer's tough stance means that whoever opposes him is expected to be able to line up a sizable number of votes from Austrians who backed the socialists or centrists in round one but are opposed to the Freedom Party.

That has led some of those voting Sunday to suggest that they were less interested in backing one candidate than keeping another out of office. "There's a strong trend towards voting for the FPO," said Stefanie Wagner, using the Austrian acronym for the Freedom Party. "That's exactly what I want to prevent with my vote.

"But I think it's going to be a close shave."

Associated Press video journalist Philipp Jenne contributed.

Russia launches 1st rocket from new space facility

April 28, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia on Thursday successfully launched the first rocket from its new space facility after a last-minute delay the day before. The Soyuz 2.1a booster blasted off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East in the early hours Moscow time on Thursday. The Roscosmos space agency said in a statement that the three satellites the rocket was carrying orbited several hours later.

The launch was originally scheduled for Wednesday but was called off 1 ½ minute before the planned lift off. President Vladimir Putin flew to Vostochny for the launch and had to extend his stay in order to see it on Thursday.

Putin, who watched the launch from about a mile (1.6 kms) away on Thursday, congratulated the facility's staff. "This is just the first stage of enormous work, and everything you were supposed to do you did brilliantly," he said in televised comments.

The launch pad is so far equipped only for the launches of rockets carrying small cargo like satellites. More facilities have to be built there to accommodate heavy-lift launch vehicles and service manned launches.

Roscosmos officials said on Wednesday the space agency was working to pinpoint what went wrong on Wednesday. The construction of the vast space complex some 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) east of Moscow has been troubled by delays — the first launch had been expected about four months ago — and dogged by corruption scandals. Workers who had complained of going unpaid for months went on strike last spring. The directors of three project subcontractors were arrested on corruption charges.

Space X's Red Dragons to start Mars exploration in 2018

Los Angeles CA (Sputnik)
Apr 28, 2016

The Space X aerospace company has scheduled a 2018 test mission to Mars that, under the ambitious plans announced by company head Elon Musk, will become the first step to colonizing the Red Planet.

On Wednesday, the company teased the launch of its "Red Dragon" on Twitter, intended to "inform overall Mars architecture."

A company spokesperson detailed that the major goal of the mission will be to find a safe method of landing large payloads on the surface of Mars, a planet with a very low-density atmosphere, compared with Earth.

Red Dragon, designed for long-range outer space missions, will use an upgraded version of Space X's Dragon cargo spacecraft. The spacecraft will be powered by eight SuperDraco engines that will provide enough propulsive capability for a soft landing on the Martian surface, Ars Technica reported.

Space X will launch the Red Dragon spacecraft atop its Falcon Heavy rocket, a newer version of the Falcon rocket, in has tested recently.

The first Martian mission will be unmanned, but Musk said that piloted flights could become possible by 2020.

The Space X mission, if successful, will be the first interplanetary travel conducted by a commercial enterprise.After the first mission, Space X intends to use the Red Dragon to explore areas space beyond Mars.

Musk has promised to provide details on a hypothetical city to be built on Mars, at the upcoming September 2016 Aeronautical Conference.

Source: Mars Daily.
Link: http://www.marsdaily.com/reports/Space_Xs_Red_Dragons_to_Start_Mars_Exploration_in_2018_999.html.

SpaceX vows to send capsule to Mars by 2018

Miami (AFP)
April 27, 2016

SpaceX chief Elon Musk announced Wednesday that he will send an unmanned spaceship to Mars as early as 2018, as part of his quest to colonize the Red Planet some day.

Few details of the plan were released by Musk, the Internet entrepreneur who rose to fame as the cofounder of PayPal and currently also runs Tesla Motors.

"Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018," Musk announced on Twitter.

"Red Dragons will inform overall Mars architecture details to come."

He appeared to be referring to an upgraded version of the California-based company's Dragon cargo capsule, which is currently used as an unmanned spacecraft to shuttle food and supplies to and from the International Space Station.

"Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight," Musk tweeted.

However, there were no immediate plans for people to hitch a ride, he noted.

"But wouldn't recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region. Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys," he wrote.

The internal volume of the capsule is about the size of a sports utility vehicle, he added.

NASA is studying the effects of long-term spaceflight on the human body and has announced plans to send people to Mars by the 2030s.

However, it remains unclear how people would survive the long journey of a year or more, needing adequate food and water and protection from space radiation during the trip.

Musk has previously spoken of his vision of creating a colony of a million earthlings on Mars, in order to make humanity "multi-planetary" and avoid the risk of extinction on Earth.

His most recent feats include managing to return the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets to an upright landing on water and on solid ground, as part of his effort to make rockets as reusable as airplanes.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/SpaceX_vows_to_send_capsule_to_Mars_by_2018_999.html.

Russia to put 11 communications satellites into orbit by 2025

Moscow (Sputnik)
Apr 22, 2016

Russia plans to put a dozen of new communications satellites into the Earth's orbit in the next nine years, the head of the country's communications agency Rossvyaz said Thursday.

"A program has been laid out on how to expand the civil satellite constellation in 2017-2025. Under it, we plan to launch seven satellites into the geostationary orbit and four into the highly-elliptical orbit," Oleg Dukhovnitsky said at a Satellite Russia conference in Moscow.

The Rossvyaz chief added that "paperwork is already being prepared for five devices," which will be launched in 2019-2020.

Russia's space agency Roscosmos said earlier that a total of 44 satellites would be put into orbit by 2025, including for military and scientific purposes. The program's federal budget is worth 87.4 billion rubles ($1.3 billion)...

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Russia_to_put_11_communications_satellites_into_orbit_by_2025_999.html.

China aims for deeper space with new generation rockets

Beijing (XNA)
Apr 22, 2016

China will take its new generation heavy-lift rocket Long March-5 to the skies later this year, and is planning even bigger models.

According to Wang Jue, head of the Long March-5 project, the rocket has a liftoff weight of 869 tonnes, with a payload capacity of 25 tonnes to the low Earth orbit (LEO) and 14 tonnes to the geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

"It can carry more than two and half times as much as our current launch vehicles," Wang said. "It is a marker of China's transformation from a major space player to a major space power."

Using non-toxic and pollution-free propellant, the 60-meter-long rocket measures five meters in diameter and will be equipped with four thrusters, each measuring 3.35 meters in diameter like previous Long March rockets.

Long March-5 rockets will come in six slightly different models and will be the main launch vehicles for manned space programs as well as lunar and Martian explorations.

"The more our rockets can lift, the farther we can venture into space," Wang said.

China has plans to launch the Long March-7, a medium-sized rocket that can carry up to 13.5 tonnes to low Earth orbit, this year. It will transport cargo for the planned space station.

Together, Long March-5 and Long March-7 are expected to eventually replace the earlier Long March rockets to meet domestic and international launch needs.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/China_aims_for_deeper_space_with_new_generation_rockets_999.html.

China plans to launch core module of space station around 2018

Beijing (XNA)
Apr 22, 2016

China will launch a core module belonging to its first space station around 2018, according to a senior engineer with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. on Thursday. Two space labs will be launched later and dock with the core module, "Tianhe-1," said Wang Zhongyang, spokesperson with a key research institute attached to the corporation.

The construction of space station is expected to finish in 2022, Wang said.

China set to launch "more livable" space lab in Q3

China will put the country's second space lab Tiangong-2 into space in the third quarter of this year with more livable conditions for astronauts, a spokesman said here Thursday.

According to Wang Zhongyang, spokesman with the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), the new space lab will consist of a hermetically sealed experiment cabin, designed to provide astronauts with clean air and suitable temperature and humidity, and a resource module featuring solar wings, batteries and propellant for thrusters.

"We have specifically modified the interior of the new space lab to make it more livable for mid-term stays for our astronauts," Wang said ahead of the country's Space Day on April 24, set to mark the launch of China's first satellite 46 years ago.

Tiangong-2 is China's second space lab designed to carry out space science experiments and repair tests to pave way for the country's first orbital space station which is expected to be in service around 2022.

Tiangong-1, launched in September 2011 with an initial design life of two years, just ended its data service earlier this year after an operational orbit of 1,630 days during which it docked with the Shenzhou-8, Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spacecraft and undertook a series of experiments.

"Unlike Tiangong-1, Tiangong-2 will be our first genuine space lab," said Wang.

Earlier reports said Tiangong-2 will dock with the Shenzhou-11 spacecraft, which is expected to blast off in the fourth quarter and carry two male Chinese astronauts for a 30-day mission in the new space lab before returning to Earth.

The astronauts are currently receiving training.

In 2017, Tiangong-2 will dock with China's first space cargo ship Tianzhou-1, which will be launched in the first half of next year on top of a next generation Long March-7 rocket. Scientists will verify key technologies such as propellant refueling while in orbit during the process.

China's multi-billion-dollar space endeavors have become a source of surging national pride and a milestone of China's global stature and technical expertise.

The country sent its first astronaut into space in 2003, the third nation after Russia and the United States to achieve manned space travel independently. In 2008, astronauts aboard Shenzhou-7 made China's first space walk.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/China_plans_to_launch_core_module_of_space_station_around_2018_999.html.

Europe to launch satellites for Earth, Einstein

By Pascale Mollard
Paris (AFP)
April 21, 2016

Europe is set to launch two satellites on Friday with very important missions: one will track environmental damage to Earth, while the other will test a mainstay of physics theory.

Setting off on a Russian Soyuz rocket will be Sentinel-1B with its Earth surveillance radar, and Microscope, a French-built orbiter seeking to poke a hole in Einstein's theory of general relativity.

They will be hoisted from Europe's launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, at 2102 GMT Friday.

Sentinel-1B is the twin of Sentinel-1A, launched two years ago.

The pair are equipped with sophisticated, cloud-penetrating radar with which to monitor Earth's surface by day and night, regardless of the weather conditions.

Their mission is to track climate and environmental change and assist in disaster relief operations.

Sentinel-1A and 1B are part of the 3.8-billion-euro ($4.3-billion) Copernicus project, which will ultimately sport six orbiters in all. It is a joint undertaking of the European Space Agency and the European Commission.

Between them, the twin satellites will be able to take a picture of anywhere on Earth every six days from an altitude of nearly 700 kilometers (435 miles).

The images can be used to spot icebergs and oil spills, illegal logging or landslides.

They will help scientists monitor changes in forest cover, water and crop health.

And their mapping of areas stricken by flood or earthquake will help emergency teams target the worst-hit areas and locate passable roads, railway lines and bridges.

- Free fall -

Also on board the Soyuz will be Microscope, designed to test a key component in the theory of general relativity published by Albert Einstein 100 years ago.

The 130-million-euro satellite will probe -- with 100 times more accuracy than has been possible on Earth -- the so-called "equivalence principle," which says that a feather in a vacuum should fall at the same speed as a lead ball.

The experiment will compare the motion of two different objects "in almost perfect and permanent free fall" aboard the orbiting satellite, according to France's CNES space agency, which financed 90 percent of the project.

If any difference in motion is observed, the equivalence principle would collapse -- "an event that would shake the foundations of physics," it states on its website.

Such a result would suggest that Einstein's relativity theory may be flawed. This would be a great relief to physicists who have long struggled to explain why the theory cannot be reconciled with quantum physics, the other pillar of modern physics.

"We shall then know that Einstein's theory of general relativity is not the whole story of gravity -- that there are other forces contributing to it," French physicist Thibault Damour told reporters in Paris last week.

"It will not mean that Einstein's theory is completely wrong -- just incomplete," he added.

The Soyuz will also boost into orbit three so-called "CubeSats", tiny orbiters built by European science students.

Source: Space Daily.
Link: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Europe_to_launch_satellites_for_Earth_Einstein_999.html.

Russia asks UN to blacklist 2 powerful Syrian rebel groups

April 28, 2016

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Russia said Wednesday it has asked the U.N. Security Council to blacklist two powerful Syrian rebel groups that it considers "terrorist organizations," one which is playing a key role in political negotiations aimed at ending the five-year conflict.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters the two hardline Islamic groups — Jaish al-Islam, or the Army of Islam, and Ahrar al-Sham — aren't observing the cessation of hostilities in Syria "and are engaged in terrorist activities" and therefore should be subject to sanctions.

Mohammed Alloush, a leading figure in Jaish al-Islam, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, heads the High Negotiating Committee, the main opposition umbrella group, at the Geneva peace talks which are largely stalled. The High Negotiating Committee postponed its participation in the talks, which wrapped up their latest round on Wednesday, citing an escalation in fighting and insufficient aid deliveries to besieged areas.

The Syrian government, which Russia backs, also considers the two groups "terrorist" organizations and opposed their representation in the Geneva talks. Churkin said Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham "are not participating in negotiations and they're not participating in the cessation of hostilities so it's time to call a spade a spade."

But Russia's attempt to get the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against al-Qaida and the Islamic State extremist group to add the two Syrian rebel groups to the blacklist is facing an uphill struggle.

New Zealand's U.N. Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen said Russia's attempt to sanction the two groups was raised during closed-door council consultations on Syria following a briefing by U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura and sparked "controversy" IN THE ROOM.

Van Bohemen said he told the council that there are a lot of bad people in Syria, but not every one of them is "a terrorist."

Nepal marks anniversary of quake that killed nearly 9,000

April 24, 2016

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — People gathered Sunday at the remains of a historic tower in Nepal's capital that collapsed in a devastating earthquake a year ago, as Nepalese held memorial services to mark the anniversary of a disaster that killed nearly 9,000 people and left millions homeless.

Minor protests were also held, with demonstrators angry at the slow rate of reconstruction in the wake of the magnitude-7.8 quake that ravaged vast areas of Nepal. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli laid a wreath at the ruins of the Dharahara tower in the heart of Kathmandu. The iconic structure collapsed in the quake, killing 132 people. In all, 8,856 people died in the April 25, 2015, disaster.

Participating in the memorial ceremonies were people who lost loved ones in the quake, and others who simply came to pray for those killed. "I lost a friend who was working at the top of the tower on that day. I hope he and others are in a good place," said Ram Shrestha, pointing at the remains of the Dharahara tower. He said that he had just stepped out a few minutes before the earthquake struck to go shopping.

Madhav Newpane, who runs a shop near the tower, witnessed its collapse. He returned on Sunday with a bouquet of flowers and candles. "There were many people killed here on that day. I will never be able to forget that day," Newpane said.

About 100 protesters scuffled with riot police outside the prime minister's office demonstrating against the slow reconstruction of the homes. More than 600,000 homes were destroyed and around 185,000 damaged in the quake.

"Government, where is reconstruction. Open the gates of the government," the protesters chanted as they tried to force their way through a police barricade. According to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, an estimated 4 million people are still living in sub-standard temporary shelters in conditions that pose a threat to their health and well-being. Only 661 families have received the first installment of a 200,000-rupee ($1,868) government grant, getting 50,000 rupees ($467) so far.

Nepal has made almost no progress in rebuilding from the quake despite foreign donors pledging more than $4 billion in aid during a donor's conference last year. The government, in disarray for nearly a decade, has not regrouped enough to be a strong force for reconstruction.

Out of the $4.1 billion pledged, Nepal has so far received just $1.28 billion. The delay in getting the money has been blamed on the government taking months to set up the National Reconstruction Authority, which was done only in December.

Finance Minister Bishnu Prasad Paudel said the delay was because it was necessary to conduct a detailed survey of the damaged houses before reconstruction could begin. "Nepal had signed a written commitment in black and white that there would not be any reconstruction without the detailed beneficiary survey during the donor's meeting," Paudel said Friday. "But until the detailed beneficiary survey was completed, there was no way we could go ahead with the actual reconstruction."

Now that the work is completed in 11 of the 14 districts affected by the earthquake, work will proceed at full speed, Paudel said.