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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Election campaign begins in Spain for June 26 national vote

June 09, 2016

MADRID (AP) — Spain's political parties are launching a two-week campaign leading up to a June 26 election aimed at breaking six months of political paralysis after a December vote shattered the nation's traditional two-party system and politicians failed to create a governing coalition.

Campaigning begins at midnight with rallies led by acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Popular Party, Pedro Sanchez of the Socialists, Pablo Iglesias of the far-left Podemos party and Albert Rivera of the business-friendly Ciudadanos party.

Polls suggest the Popular Party will win the most votes as it did on Dec. 20 but again fall far short of the parliamentary majority it held from 2011-2015. The surveys have indicated the Socialists and Podemos will vie for 2nd place and Ciudadanos will come in fourth.

The Popular Party and the Socialists alternated running Spain for decades after the country returned to democracy following the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. But voters angry with high unemployment, unpopular austerity measures and corruption scandals gave strong support to upstart newcomers Podemos and Ciudadanos in December and appear poised to do so again on June 26.

Analysts predict the result will again yield a political stalemate forcing the parties to negotiate to try to form a coalition government. Spain would face a third election in the fall if they fail. "This will likely be a drawn-out process and the outcome cannot be taken for granted, even if the parliamentary math supports it," said Federico Santi, a London-based analyst with the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy.

Possible coalitions include the Popular Party with Ciudadanos, the Socialists with Podemos or a so-called grand alliance of the Popular and Socialist parties that has never happened before in Spain but has elsewhere in Europe.

"Any deal will be very challenging to negotiate," Santi said in a note to clients. "Indeed, a repeat of events earlier in the year, with interlocking vetoes preventing any agreement, cannot be ruled out. This would likely leave the country without a functioning government for over a year."

Spanish lawmakers ban bull-spearing at Tordesillas festival

June 08, 2016

MADRID (AP) — Spanish lawmakers have voted to ban the spearing to death of bulls at one of the country's goriest spectacles. Wednesday's decision by lawmakers in the Castile and Leon region confirms an earlier government decree to prohibit bull killing at September's annual Toro de la Vega festival in the town of Tordesillas 200 kilometers (120 miles) northwest of Madrid. The vote does not affect traditional bullfighting in the region.

During the centuries-old festival, men on horseback traditionally have chased a bull and speared it in front of onlookers. The event has attracted increasing protests in recent years by animal rights activists.

Bullfight and bull spectacle supporters who demonstrated Wednesday outside the regional parliament argued that the ban would violate the cultural heritage of Tordesillas and Spain.

Pro-squatter protesters clash 2nd time with Barcelona police

May 24, 2016

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Protesters supporting squatters in Barcelona clashed with police again Tuesday, less than 24 hours after demonstrators set trash containers and vehicles ablaze in confrontations that left at least 15 people injured.

The activists want squatters allowed back inside a vacant bank branch they occupied for years before they were evicted and the latest clash came after they managed to use tools to pry open a small hole in the metal doors sealing the entrance to the bank.

Riot police then moved in, beating back protesters with their batons. The demonstrators, numbering in the hundreds, responded by throwing rocks at police but were driven a few blocks away. No injuries or arrests were immediately reported.

On Monday night, about 500 people marched peacefully in the upscale neighborhood. But a police official said the demonstration turned violent around 10 p.m. when some protesters set garbage containers on fire.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of police policy, said that 14 of those hurt were officers and that the sole demonstrator injured was also arrested. Officers only kept track of injuries reported by ambulances sent to the scene, meaning it was possible that more people sought medical assistance elsewhere for injuries, the official said.

During the first night of mayhem, riot police clashed with demonstrators who burned a trash truck and damaged other vehicles. Businesses in the neighborhood and at least one store were ransacked during the chaos of the first protest that ended after midnight Tuesday.

The protesters have pledged to hold five consecutive nights of demonstrations in their bid to get the squatters bank into the bank branch, which was being used as a "community center" for the group.

Clendenning reported from Madrid.

Spain's ex-PM meets with jailed Venezuelan opposition leader

June 05, 2016

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Spain's former prime minister met with jailed Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez on Saturday, the first meeting of its kind in more than two years. The prison visit was part of a high-risk diplomatic effort to defuse Venezuela's escalating crisis.

The meeting between Lopez and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero lasted about 90 minutes, Adriana Lopez, the prisoner's sister, told The Associated Press. She said she didn't know what the two discussed and declined further comment.

It's the first time in more than two years an outside visitor besides Lopez's family or lawyers has met with the combative leader in the military prison outside Caracas where he's being held. In 2015, he was sentenced to nearly 14 years in jail for inciting violence at anti-government protests in proceedings widely condemned as a politically-motivated show trial by the U.S. and human rights groups.

"We don't know who permitted it or why," Leopoldo Lopez, who shares his son's name, said on Twitter. "All we know is that there was a surprise." Venezuela's opposition is demanding the release of Lopez and dozens of other activists it considers political prisoners as part of an international mediation effort led by Zapatero and the former presidents of Panama and the Dominican Republic.

Last month, the three presided over two days of informal meetings in the Dominican Republic in which they shuttled messages between representatives of the opposition and the government. One of the government's participants at that meeting, Caracas Mayor Jorge Rodriguez, escorted Zapatero to the jail on Saturday but did not partake in the meeting, according to a source close to the family who spoke on condition of anonymity because the conversation was private.

Zapatero has kept quiet about his dealings and many observers believe they are doomed to fail so long as Maduro refuses to yield to the opposition's demands that his government allow to go forward this year a proposed recall referendum on whether to cut short his six-year term.

But Saturday's meeting is likely to give more oxygen to the mediation effort, which has the support of the Obama administration and regional governments and comes as pressure is mounting on the Organization of American States to suspend Venezuela for violating standards of democracy and the rule of law.

Lopez's jailers have in the past turned back attempted visits by the former leaders of Colombia and Chile, as well as legislative delegations for from Brazil and Spain. Maduro is under pressure to negotiate an end to the stalemate as Venezuelans' frustration with an economic crisis marked by triple-digit inflation and widespread food and medicine shortages grow.

Venezuela's government has yet to comment on the meeting.

Hernandez reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Lima, Peru.

Freeing Fujimori may smooth the way for next Peru president

June 11, 2016

LIMA, Peru (AP) — The man who stands most to benefit from Pedro Pablo Kuczynski's presidential victory in Peru may be his defeated rival's father: imprisoned ex-President Alberto Fujimori. Kuczynski began the task of forming a government Friday after his rival Keiko Fujimori conceded defeat in Peru's closest presidential contest in five decades. His margin of victory was less than 43,000 votes — or 0.2 percentage points.

Even more challenging is his position in congress, where Fujimori's party, smarting after a bitter campaign, holds 73 of 130 seats and his own bloc has just 18. Analysts say his best chance to ease hostility could be in releasing Alberto Fujimori to house arrest, freeing him from the prison where he is serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and supporting death squads during his autocratic rule in the 1990s.

During the campaign, Keiko Fujimori signed a pledge never to issue a pardon — a move intended to mitigate fears her father would be pulling the strings in her government. Kuczynski may be more flexible.

In first interview as President-elect, he reiterated that he opposes pardoning Fujimori, but would sign legislation giving older inmates including the 77-year-old Fujimori the right to house arrest. Still, he said he had doubts whether Fujimori's Popular Force party would push for such an outcome because many hardliner loyalists would consider it a political defeat.

"They want him to walk out the front door, but there was a conviction," Kuczynski told Semana Economica magazine. Kuczynski's rise to power was in many ways accidental. The businessman had shown few political instincts and in February his poll numbers were sinking him deeper into a crowded field. But he began rising as two stronger candidates were disqualified on technicalities and fears grew that Fujimori would bring back the corruption and criminality associated with her father's rule.

Now that he's won, he must take reins one of South America's most ungovernable countries, one awash in illegal proceeds from cocaine trafficking and where social tensions stoked by multinational mining projects frequently erupt into deadly unrest.

At 77, Kuczynski will be Peru's oldest president when he is sworn in July 28 and, as a former Wall Street investor who has spent much of his life in the U.S., he has a notable lack of appeal among the country's poor. TV comedians love to ridicule his "gringo" accented Spanish.

The campaign left a bitter residue in part because Kuczynski accused his rival of being the harbinger of a "narco-state" after it was leaked to the media that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was investigating a major donor and secretary general of her party for money laundering. In conceding, Fujimori blasted politicians, business leaders and members of the media for orchestrating a "hate-filled" campaign to discredit her candidacy.

Still, there are reasons why the two could find common ground on many policies. Kuczynski supported the younger Fujimori in the 2011 runoff won by President Ollanta Humala, both share a pro-business agenda and about a third of her lawmakers are newcomers who could be ripe for switching loyalties in Peru's notoriously free-wheeling congress.

If she proves obstructionist, Kuczynski can also call congressional elections — an option he already said he'd be willing to use as a last resort. Harder to appease may be Peru's left, which is feeling emboldened after delivering, albeit begrudgingly, the votes Kuczynski needed to erase a nearly 20-point lead for Fujimori following the first round of voting.

Leftist activists staged the biggest street demonstration Peru has seen in a generation on the eve of voting to reject a return of a Fujimori to the presidential palace. Failure to take them into account "would be a total betrayal of the people who got him over the hump," said Steve Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist who has spent two decades studying Peru. "He will pay a cost. There will be marches."

Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Peru's presidential election wait enters 4th day

June 09, 2016

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peru's presidential election went down to the wire, with the final ballots trickling in from abroad and frayed nerves reaching the breaking point as the wait entered its fourth day on Thursday.

With 99.5 percent of the polling stations counted, front-runner Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was topping rival Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of imprisoned ex-President Alberto Fujimori, by a 50.1 to 49.9 margin.

While most experts said it's already mathematically impossible for Fujimori to make up the roughly 40,000-vote difference separating her from Kuczynski, she hasn't conceded and her supporters are holding out hope for a turnaround.

"She's worked so hard crisscrossing the country," said Lusa Maria Cuculiza, a congresswoman for Fujimori's Popular Force party. "It would be unfair if she doesn't win." Dozens of supporters of Fujimori have held demonstrations outside the electoral board to denounce what they said was fraud, even though neither the candidate nor her campaign have presented any evidence to back up their supporters' claims.

Kuczynski, a former World Bank economist, has urged patience from his supporters while talking as if he were already the winner. Still being counted are the last ballots cast by an estimated 885,000 Peruvians eligible to vote abroad. Peruvians living outside the South American country, most of them in the United States, turned out massively for Fujimori in the 2011 election but with 90 percent of their vote already counted they appear to have favored Kuczynski this time around.

Another potential spoiler is the thousands of handwritten tallies that were being disputed and evaluated by a special electoral board. Currently 677 such tallies representing up to 200,000 votes remain to be computed. Disputes are common in Peru, where voting is mandatory and any observer can lodge a complaint, but they've never proven decisive in past elections and almost always a losing candidate ends up conceding defeat before they are resolved.

Both candidates have remained largely silent while awaiting final results of Peru's tightest presidential race since 1962, a contest that ended in a military coup. While Fujimori has traveled every day to her campaign headquarters, Kuczynski has remained mostly holed-up in his mansion with his family and aides.

President Ollanta Humala on Wednesday urged Peruvians to avoid jumping to conclusions and said the police would remain on alert until results were known. "We exhort the authorities to deliver the results the quickest and most-responsible manner," he said.

Regardless of who wins, half of voters are bound to be disappointed, making it harder for the next president to govern. Aides in both campaigns were jockeying for positions in an eventual alliance in congress, where Fujimori's party won a solid majority of 73 of 130 seats. Kuczynski's fledgling movement will have just 18, fewer than the country's main leftist alliance.

The 77-year-old Kuczynski was once far behind, but rose by reminding voters of Alberto Fujimori's ties to the corruption, organized crime and death squads for which he's serving a 25-year prison sentence.

Kuczynski also benefited from a last-minute endorsement by the third-place finisher in the first round of voting, leftist congresswoman Veronika Mendoza.

Joshua Goodman contributed from Bogota, Colombia.

Serbs protest demolitions for UAE-investment project

June 11, 2016

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Thousands of people took part Saturday in the latest in a series of protests in Belgrade triggered by shady demolitions in a popular city area marked for a United Arab Emirates-financed real estate project.

More than 5,000 people demanded that the Belgrade mayor Sinisa Mali resign and that those behind the nighttime destruction in April of a block of houses by a group of masked men be punished. The citizens' protests sparked by the demolitions have become a challenge to Prime Minister-designate Aleksandar Vucic, who faces accusations of hardline rule despite promising to take Serbia toward integration with the European Union.

Some protesters at Saturday's rally wore balaclavas to mock the demolitions, while many blew horns and whistles. The protest banners read "Masks have fallen, when will the government?" or "Belgrade Is Our City."

"Resignations are only the first step," said Luka Knezevic Strika, from the "Don't Drown Belgrade" group behind the protest. "We will force them to acknowledge responsibility of all who participated (in the incident.)"

Vucic's ruling Serbian Progressive Party dismissed the gathering as a "circus" organized by the opposition parties. Under pressure, Vucic — who is a former nationalist-turned pro-EU reformer — recently has admitted that Belgrade city authorities were behind the demolitions but he didn't name any city officials.

The Belgrade mayor, Mali, is a close ally who played an important role in the agreement with UAE investors to build a Dubai-style business and residential complex in the run-down urban area by the Sava River.

Some of Belgrade's prominent architects and citizens' groups have sharply criticized the Belgrade waterfront plan as unsuitable for the Serbian capital and allege corruption.

Hope lost in Greece, some Syrians pay smugglers to get home

June 11, 2016

DIDIMOTICHO, Greece (AP) — Europe seemed like the promised land, worth risking their lives to reach. But in a muddy field on the northern edge of Greece, their dreams died. Now, dozens of Syrian refugees are risking their lives again but in the opposite direction — paying smugglers to take them back to Turkey, and heading home.

Rather than brave the often treacherous waves of the Aegean again, they face the dangerous currents of the Evros River, which runs along the Greek-Turkish border. Each night, groups of migrants and refugees huddle at the railway station of the small border town of Didimoticho, about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the frontier, setting up small tents and waiting for their chance to cross.

Among them is Atia Al Jassem, a 27-year-old Syrian barber from Damascus who is heading east with his wife and 1-year-old daughter after spending months stuck on the Greek-Macedonian border, watching his hopes of reaching Europe ebb away.

"I am going to Turkey, I do not want Europe any more. Finished," he said, sitting in a small park near the railway station in Thessaloniki, Greece's main northern city, where he, his 20-year-old wife Yasmine Ramadan and their daughter Legine, who they call Loulou, spent what they hoped would be their last night in the country.

"We are really tired. We're destroyed and I have a baby. I ask God to help me get back to Turkey," he said. "In Syria under the bombs we would be better off than here." The family arrived in Greece on Feb. 24, crossing the Aegean and then making their way north. But their journey to Germany was cut short at the Greek-Macedonian border.

The European Union and Turkey since agreed on a deal which returns migrants who arrived on the Greek islands after March 20 to Turkey — but it doesn't affect earlier arrivals trapped on the Greek mainland.

Balkan and European countries increasingly tightened entry restrictions at the start of the year, before shutting their land borders to refugees completely in March. That trapped about 57,000 people in Greece, a country enduring a six-year financial crisis and with unemployment running at around 24 percent. Few refugees want to settle here.

Al Jassem and his family stayed for months in Idomeni, a sprawling impromptu refugee camp that sprang up on the Greek-Macedonian border. Authorities evacuated the camp last month, and the family were moved to an official camp with thousands of others.

But months of living rough had sapped their morale and their resolve. They gave up the dream of a life in Germany. "We did not expect we were going to be treated as such in Europe," said Al Jassem. "We thought they will be humane, looking after us and after our children, protect our children. We though we will be helped, but we found the opposite. Europe has no feeling for us at all."

They decided to head to Turkey, where Al Jassem's brother lives. But like many others, they found there was no easy way back. Syrians cannot be officially returned to their war-ravaged country, and the legal path to Turkey would be lengthy and bureaucratic. So many opt for smugglers, who migrants say now charge cut-price rates of just a few hundred euros instead of thousands to be taken in the opposite direction.

"Recently we have observed a reverse flow of migrants and refugees coming from Idomeni toward our northern borders," said Ilias Akidis, head of the police union of Didimoticho. "From what they tell us, they are trying to cross to Turkey ... because they have relatives there or because they want to head back to their country."

Didimoticho deputy mayor Ioannis Topaloudis said authorities have been seeing around 20-40 people heading toward the Turkish border each day. With a fence sealing the small section of land border, the ONLY OPTION to those without the correct documentation is to take their chances across the river. Over the years, the Evros' current has claimed many migrant lives.

Authorities stop those they find. Police say they have detained about 150 migrants trying to cross illegally into Turkey over the past two months. In mid-May, police caught five Syrians aged between 23 and 52 trying to row across the river in a dinghy.

"This season the Evros (river) is very dangerous. Because of the rains, the water level is very high," said Akidis. "They are always trying to go back. It is very dangerous. They don't succeed because we also are preventing them from crossing, but for their own reasons they keep trying."

Among those giving up on hopes of a life in Europe was Majd Hamed, a 21-year-old fine arts student also from Damascus. After three months in Idomeni, he decided in mid-May to head home. "I want to go to Syria and continue my studies in the Fine Arts School. Even if the (European) borders open, I'm going back. I'm very angry with the Europeans for this situation we've been living here," he said, sitting outside the train carriages where he had been sleeping in Idomeni before the camp was evacuated.

Hamed says he sought help from U.N. agencies to return home, but was told it wasn't possible. "They told me that it's not safe for me to go back to Syria," he said. So he sought out the alternative. Armed with a map with Didimoticho marked out, he was heading to Thessaloniki to catch a train to the border. "From there I'm going to cross the river, as others from Syria have told me," he said. He aimed to fly from Turkey to Lebanon and make his way home to Damascus.

"I never tried to cross the border with Macedonia illegally," he says. "I wanted to get to Germany legally, but now I'm forced to try to return to my country in this way." Some lucky few do manage to take a legal route. Alia Mohamad, a 21-year-old from Aleppo, was heading with her husband and barely 2-month-old son Uday to Thessaloniki to catch a flight to Turkey with tickets sent by her sister, who was getting married in Turkey and had officially invited them over.

The young family had spent three months in Idomeni. "It is not possible to continue like this and I see it is impossible to get to Europe," Mohamad said. After the wedding, they aim to return to Syria.

"We have no more money, and the situation here is bad also for the baby," said her 23-year-old husband Mahmud Kusa Ali. "We have decided to return to our country." They will settle down about 70 kilometers from their hometown of Aleppo. "It is safer there," he said.

Demonstrators form human chain near US base in Germany

June 11, 2016

BERLIN (AP) — Demonstrators have formed a human chain near a U.S. air base in western Germany to protest against lethal drone strikes. Organizers estimated that about 5,000 people took part in the chain near the Ramstein Air Base on a rainy Saturday, while police put the number at some 2,000, news agency dpa reported.

Activists contend that the base is used to relay flight control data for lethal drone strikes. They are calling for the base, a major U.S. military hub, eventually to be closed altogether. President Barack Obama said during a 2013 visit to Berlin that "we do not use Germany as a launching point for unmanned drones ... as part of our counterterrorism activities."