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Friday, April 7, 2017

Leftist claims win in Ecuador election; rival cries foul

April 03, 2017

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Leftist candidate Lenin Moreno appeared to have won Ecuador's presidential election but his opposition rival refused to recognize the results, calling on his supporters to take to the streets to guard against "fraud."

Sunday's second-round runoff in the Andean nation of 16 million was being watched closely as a barometer of whether the left, which had dominated South American politics for the past 15 years, could stop a string of right-wing victories across the region.

With more than 97 percent of voting acts counted, Moreno garnered 51 percent of the vote while conservative banker Guillermo Lasso stood at just under 49 percent. A difference of about 224,000 votes separated the two candidates with a smaller number of ballots still left to count.

Lasso said he would challenge the results in all of Ecuador's 24 provinces after three exit polls showed him winning. He also questioned why results that took three days to calculate following the first round of voting in February were announced so quickly in Sunday's runoff.

"This is very sickening. We're not going to allow it," Lasso told supporters, adding that he had shared his concerns with the head of the Organization of American States in a phone conversation. He accused President Rafael Correa of trying to install an "illegitimate" government and called on his supporters to protest peacefully but firmly.

Thousands of outraged Lasso supporters shouting "fraud" crashed through metal barricades to almost reach the entrance of the electoral council's headquarters in Quito. By midnight a few hundred protesters remained.

In Guayaquil, where Lasso is from, supporters shouted "Get out Correa!" and threw sticks at riot police in formation before being pushed back with tear gas. There were reports of small scuffles and clashes in other cities.

Correa accused Lasso supporters of trying to disavow the results and provoke violence, while the head of the electoral council, a favorite punching bag of the opposition, appealed for calm. "Ecuador deserves that its political actors show ethical responsibility in recognizing the democratic will expressed by the people at the voting booths," National Electoral President Juan Pablo Pozo said while announcing results.

So far the only evidence of possible fraud presented by Lasso's campaign are the results in one tiny provincial voting center that it said were reversed when they were reported to electoral authorities in Quito. There was no immediate comment from the OAS, which sent a mission of electoral observers.

Moreno, meanwhile, said he would start work immediately on his transition. With Correa standing behind him, the two joined supporters in singing leftist classics in an outdoor rally. Outside the region, the election was being closely watched by supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has been living under asylum at Ecuador's embassy in London since 2012. Before the election, Lasso had said he would evict the Australian activist, who is wanted for extradition by Sweden, within 30 days of taking office. Moreno said he would allow him to stay.

On his Twitter account shortly after the results became known, Assange took a jab at Lasso's pledge. "I cordially invite Lasso to leave Ecuador within 30 days (with or without his tax haven millions)," he wrote.

Three exit polls had shown Lasso winning, including one that accurately predicted the first-round results and gave him a six-percentage point victory. A quick count of voting acts by a respected local watchdog found there was a technical tie with a difference of less than 0.6 percentage points separating the two candidates. The group refrained from saying which candidate had the advantage.

Correa said the exit polls had "lied." "The moral fraud of the right-wing won't go unpunished," he wrote on Twitter. For weeks Ecuadoreans polarized by 10 years of Correa's iron-fisted rule had been bracing for a contested vote

With Ecuador's economy slated to shrink by 2.7 percent this year as oil prices remain low, analysts had been anticipating that Lasso would rally support from the 60 percent of voters who backed anti-Correa candidates in the first round and join the growing list of Latin American nations — Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela — shifting to the right in recent elections.

The majority of voters also said they were hungry for change amid ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials in Correa's government and a $12 million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador.

Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno inched ahead in polls amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country's 1999 banking crisis. Moreno also benefited from last-minute doubts that the pro-business Lasso if elected would gut social programs that have endeared poor voters to Correa's "Citizens' Revolution."

Moreno, who has used a wheelchair since being shot in an attempted robbery two decades ago, cuts a softer image than the infamously irritable Correa which was on display Sunday night as he addressed supporters.

"It's time for peace and union. Everyone will have a new opportunity and we will seek dialogue and harmony," said Moreno. "Our hand is outstretched."

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.

Leftist Moreno heading to disputed win in Ecuador election

April 03, 2017

QUITO, Ecuador (AP) — Ruling party candidate Lenin Moreno looked headed to victory in Ecuador's presidential runoff Sunday but his rival refused to recognize the results, claiming he was the victim of fraud in what could set the stage for protests.

The election in the small Andean nation of 16 million was being watched closely for whether it marked a comeback for leftist candidates after a string of right-wing victories across Latin America, With almost 96 percent of voting acts counted, the National Electoral Council said Moreno had 51 percent of the vote to banker Guillermo Lasso's 49 percent. A difference of 214,000 votes separated the two candidates with about twice the number of votes still left to count.

Lasso demanded a recount after three exit polls showed him winning. He also questioned why results that took three days to calculate following the first round of voting in February were announced so quickly in Sunday's runoff.

"This is very sickening. We're not going to allow it," said Lasso, who called on supporters to protest the results peacefully but firmly. "They've crossed a line, which is pretending to abuse the people's will" and install an "illegitimate" government, Lasso said.

So far the only evidence of possible fraud presented by Lasso's campaign are the results in one tiny provincial voting center that it said were reversed when they were reported to electoral authorities in Quito

Thousands of outraged Lasso supporters shouting "fraud" broke through metal barricades and almost reached the entrance of the electoral council's headquarters in Quito before being pushed back by police. A similar scuffle took place outside the electoral offices in Guayaquil.

Moreno supporters celebrated and accused their opponents of trying to disavow results. The head of the electoral council, a favorite punching bag of the opposition, appealed for calm. "Ecuador deserves that its political actors show ethical responsibility in recognizing the democratic will expressed by the people at the voting booths," said National Electoral President Juan Pablo Pozo. "Not a single vote has been given or taken away from anyone."

Three exit polls, including one that accurately predicted the first-round results, showed Lasso winning by as much as six percentage points. A quick count of voting acts by a respected local watchdog found there was a technical tie with a difference of less than 0.6 percentage points separating the two candidates. The group refrained from saying which candidate had the advantage.

"The moral fraud of the right-wing won't go unpunished," Correa said on Twitter, referring to what Moreno called misleading exit polls that had "lied" to his rival. Earlier, a jubilant Lasso claimed victory and told supporters in Guayaquil that he would free political prisoners and heal divisions created by 10 years of iron-fisted rule by Correa. Before the election, he said he would evict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange from the Ecuadorean embassy in London within 30 days of taking office while Moreno has said he will allow him to stay. .

With Ecuador's economy slated to shrink by 2.7 percent this year as oil prices remain low and with a majority of citizens stating in surveys that they are eager for change, analysts had been anticipating that Ecuadoreans would back Lasso and join the growing list of Latin American nations shifting to the right.

Yet in the final weeks of the race, Moreno had inched ahead in polls amid an aggressive campaign led by Correa to cast Lasso as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician who profited from the country's 1999 banking crisis.

Authorities deployed thousands of officers to beef up security at vote-processing centers around the country after a contentious first-round election on Feb. 19, in which Moreno fell just short of the required threshold to avoid a runoff.

The vote count dragged on for several days before the official results were announced, provoking accusations of fraud from both sides and angry protests that have injected an unusual degree of volatility in the election results.

Fearing a contested election, church leaders have appealed to both campaigns to accept whatever the results. Lasso has put forward a pro-business agenda aimed at attracting foreign investment, reducing taxes and generating more jobs and in recent days drew comparisons between continuing a Correa-style government and going down the same path as socialist Venezuela.

Lasso has benefited from ongoing corruption allegations related to bribes Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht paid to officials in Correa's government and a $12 million contracting scandal at state-run PetroEcuador, but analysts say he has not connected with lower-income voters.

While Lasso has said he would evict Assange from the embassy where Ecuador granted him asylum in 2012 to prevent his extradition to Sweden, Moreno has said he could stay, increasing international interest in Sunday's vote.

AP Writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.

Official results confirm Serbia PM Vucic elected president

April 03, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A near-complete official vote count of Serbia's presidential election confirmed on Monday that prime minister Aleksandar Vucic has won by a landslide in the first round of voting, further strengthening his authoritarian rule in the Balkan country amid support from Russia.

The State Election Commission said after counting 91 percent of ballots that Vucic won 55 percent of votes, followed by liberal candidate Sasa Jankovic with 16 percent, and Luka Maksimovic, a parody politician, with 9 percent.

The triumph in Sunday's balloting is a major boost for Vucic, who is now expected to further tighten his already firm grip on power in Serbia. Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party also dominates the parliament.

A former extreme nationalist who has rebranded himself as a pro-EU reformer, Vucic has said he wants to lead the Balkan country into the European Union, while also pushing for deeper ties to longtime ally Russia.

Vucic's candidacy was endorsed by Russian President Vladimir Putin amid fears from some of Moscow's expanding influence in the tense Balkan region. Putin on Monday congratulated Vucic on his "convincing election," including popular support for his "meaningful and balanced foreign policy," the TASS news agency said.

Putin has reportedly promised his signature on the delivery of fighter planes, battle tanks and armored vehicles to Serbia. The move triggered fears of an arms race in the war-weary Balkans. In Brussels, the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn warned Monday that Vucic has a "certain responsibility" in light of Sunday's polls "to use this strong support by the citizens in a careful way."

Hahn told reporters that he was comforted by Vucic's early assurances that "he will fully respect the constitutional framework, and I trust him." Opposition candidates have accused Vucic of control over the media, mudslinging and intimidation of voters. Critics say Vucic's full control deals a blow to Serbia's fragile democracy.

"No runoff means our society is politically immature," analyst Jovo Bakic said. "Where else is there no runoff? Only in North Korea!" Vucic has been prime minister since 2014. He is expected to appoint a figurehead successor as prime minister and transform the presidency from a ceremonial office into a more powerful post.

Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

Serbia's powerful PM claims landslide presidential win

April 02, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's powerful Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic claimed victory Sunday in the presidential election that was a test of his authoritarian rule, an outcome that could expand Russia's influence in the Balkans.

Speaking to supporters at his right-wing party's headquarters, Vucic said, "My victory is crystal clear. This is a very important day for us, showing which way Serbia should be heading." "A huge majority of people in Serbia support continuation of the European path for Serbia, along with preserving our traditionally good ties with Russia and China," Vucic said, while his backers chanted "Victory, victory!"

While Vucic has said he wants to lead Serbia into the European Union, he has been pushing for deeper ties to longtime ally Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed him. Right before the election, Vucic visited Putin, who reportedly promised his signature on the delivery of fighter planes, battle tanks and armored vehicles to Serbia. The move triggered fears of an arms race in the western Balkans, which Russia considers its sphere of influence.

Vucic claimed victory after projections by different independent polling agencies had him receiving more than 55 percent of the votes cast during Sunday's election. Liberal challenger Sasa Jankovic placed second with 15 percent and Luka Maksimovic, a media student who ran as a parody politician, came in third with 9 percent, according to the pollsters.

Official results are expected Monday. Vucic, a former ultranationalist who now declares support for Serbia joining the European Union, had been forecast to win the presidency by a high margin. He needed to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election on April 16 that would have put him in a trickier position facing off against a single opposition candidate.

Vucic has been prime minister since 2014. He is expected to use a win in the presidential race to appoint a figurehead successor as prime minister and to transform the presidency from a ceremonial office into a more powerful post from which he could rule unchallenged.

The opposition has accused Vucic of muzzling the media and intimidating voters ahead of the election. Vucic denied the allegations, saying only he can bring stability to a region scarred by the wars of the 1990s, which Vucic supported at the time.

Jankovic, an independent candidate with no party affiliation, said Sunday he was happy with his campaign, which galvanized the pro-democratic movement opposed to Serbia's persistent corruption and growing autocracy.

Jankovic said he would await the official results to concede defeat, and called the election "just the beginning." "Even participation in such an election was worth respect," he said, referring to the unfair pre-election conditions. "But this election race goes on, and will go on."

The biggest surprise of the election was Maksimovic, a media student who ran as a parody politician. As a satirical candidate decked out in a white suit, oversized jewelry and a man-bun, Maksimovic mocked corruption in Serbian politics by promising to steal if he were elected. His supporters were mostly young voters alienated by Serbia's decades-long crisis and economic decline.

Maksimovic's widely viewed videos on social media networks portrayed him doing pushups, sucking a raw egg and riding a white horse surrounded by mock bodyguards.

Associated Press writers Amer Cohadzic, Ivana Bzganovic and Jovana Gec contributed.

Serbia's powerful PM favored to win presidential election

April 02, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbs voted Sunday in a presidential election that was a test of their powerful leader's authoritarian rule amid growing Russian influence in the Balkan region. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist now a declared pro-European Union politician, is slated to win the presidency by a high margin against 10 opposition candidates, including a parody candidate who is mocking the country's political establishment.

Vucic's political clout could face a blow, however, if he does not sweep his opponents in the first round of voting. Vucic needs to win by more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday to avoid a runoff election on April 16 that would put him in a much trickier position against a single opposition candidate.

Vucic's main challengers in the vote include human-rights lawyer and former Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic and firebrand nationalist and Vucic's former mentor Vojislav Seselj, who has been tried for war crimes.

The opposition has accused Vucic of muzzling the media and intimidating voters ahead of the election. Vucic denies such accusations, saying only he can bring stability to a region scarred by the wars of the 1990s, which Vucic had supported at the time.

"I really hope that with these elections, Serbia will carry on toward its further stability with full support of its government," Vucic said as he cast his ballot. "I don't know if I'll win, but I truly hope that those who want to destabilize Serbia will not succeed."

Jankovic, the independent candidate, said Sunday he's happy with his campaign, which has galvanized the pro-democratic movement in Serbia that has been upset with the country's persistent corruption and growing autocracy.

"In Serbia, a new, honest political movement has been created, and it's the reason why we should be optimistic," Jankovic said after he voted. The prime minister since 2014, Vucic expected to use his win to appoint a figurehead successor and transform the presidency from a ceremonial office into a more muscular role — and rule unchallenged like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has endorsed him.

Contrary to his claims that he wants to lead Serbia into the EU, Vucic has been pushing for deeper ties with longtime ally Russia. Right before the vote, Vucic even visited Putin, who reportedly promised his signature on the delivery of fighter planes, battle tanks and armored vehicles to Serbia. The move triggered fears of an arms race in the western Balkans, which Russia considers its sphere of influence.

One of the biggest surprises of the election campaign has been Luka Maksimovic, a media student who is running as a parody politician, decked out in a white suit, oversized jewelry and a man-bun. Maksimovic's parody character mocks corrupt Serbian politicians by promising to steal if he is elected.

His widely viewed videos on social media networks portray him doing push-ups, sucking a raw egg or riding a white horse surrounded by mock bodyguards. His supporters are mostly young voters alienated by Serbia's decades-long crisis and economic decline.

"Let the best candidate win! And definitely, I'm the best," Maksimovic said after he voted.

Associated Press writers Amer Cohadzic, Ivana Bzganovic and Jovana Gec contributed.

Hungary approves stricter terms for Soros-founded university

April 04, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Lawmakers from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz party on Tuesday approved an education bill that critics say targets a university founded by billionaire American philanthropist George Soros.

The move prompted thousands to protest outside the Central European University's campus in Budapest, and drew swift criticism from the top U.S. diplomat in Hungary's capital. The bill modifies rules regulating the 28 foreign universities in Hungary. CEU says parts of the bill directly target it, and could force it to close.

The legislation would require the governments of the United States and Hungary to agree on new terms for the university's operations within the next few months. If a deal doesn't materialize, CEU would be banned from enrolling new students after Jan. 1 and would have to conclude its educational activities by 2021.

"The United States is disappointed by the accelerated passage of legislation targeting Central European University," David Kostelancik, the charge d'affaires at the U.S. embassy, said in a statement. "The United States will continue to advocate for its independence and unhindered operation in Hungary."

CEU rector Michael Ignatieff met Tuesday in Washington with U.S. Under Secretary of State Tom Shannon. Ignatieff said the institution would appeal to Hungarian President Janos Ader to review the legislation, which it considers to be a violation of Hungary's constitution

"CEU will continue its operation and maintain the continuity of its program in all circumstances," Ignatieff said. "We want to remain in Budapest. We've done nothing wrong." Orban, a former Soros scholarship recipient, has been increasingly critical of the Hungarian-born philanthropist, accusing him of trying to influence Hungarian politics.

Orban said last week that CEU was "cheating" because it did not have a campus in the United States, but issued diplomas recognized both in Hungary and the U.S. CEU is accredited in New York state but does not have a U.S. campus.

Despite protestations from the U.S. State Department, Orban insists that the future of the Soros-funded institution should be negotiated with the administration of President Donald Trump. Orban, who wants to turn Hungary into an "illiberal state" while promoting Hungarian nationalism, appears to be trying to ally himself with Trump against the Hungarian-born Soros, a promoter of liberal ideals around the world and a prominent backer of Hillary Clinton in last year's U.S. presidential election.

However, Washington is not considering negotiating with Hungary over the university because it doesn't consider it to be a bilateral issue between the U.S and Hungary, said a U.S. official who wasn't authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.

The U.S. supports the university and hopes that Hungary's government, having created the obstacle to the university's operation, will find a way for the university to stay open, the official said. Hundreds of academics and universities have expressed support for CEU, founded in 1991. It currently enrolls 1,400 students from 108 countries.

"This law is practically a witch-hunt against CEU, freedom of education and against independent, autonomous and critical thinking," said Bernadett Szel, a lawmaker from the Hungarian opposition party Politics Can Be Different.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France on Tuesday that Europe "cannot be silent if the air to breathe is taken from civil society, and even science, like now at the Central European University."

Hungary's Foreign Ministry said it had summoned diplomats from the U.S. and Germany to discuss the new law on Wednesday. Zoltan Balog, whose ministry oversees education, appeared to link CEU to the non-governmental organizations supported by Soros in Hungary.

Speaking at the start of the debate in parliament, he described them as "faux-civic, agent organizations" working to hinder the democratically elected Hungarian government. "Instead of respecting the laws, the Soros university has chosen to keep its privileges at all costs and is using every means to achieve this," Balog's Ministry of Human Resources said in a statement.

The deadlines for meeting the new conditions were markedly shortened in a last-minute modification backed by the government. "This is not how a normal democratic society should function," Ignatieff said. "This is a punitive timetable."

On Tuesday evening, protesters marched a few blocks from CEU to Parliament, where they stood facing rows of police officers on the steps of the legislature and demanded to place a European Union flag on the building.

Josh Lederman in Washington and David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.

Hungary: Government asks to rush bill targeting Soros school

April 03, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary's deputy prime minister is asking Parliament to rush through a draft bill on higher education seen as targeting a university founded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

According to a motion sent Monday by Zsolt Semjen, also head of the Christian Democrat party, the debate and vote on the draft bill would take place on Tuesday. Semjen says his request to Parliamentary Speaker Laszlo Kover is justified by "government interests to pass the law early."

Prime Minister Viktor Orban considers the Hungarian-born Soros an ideological foe whose "open society" ideal contrasts with his own efforts to turn Hungary into an "illiberal state." On Sunday, some 10,000 people took part in a march in support of Central European University, founded in 1991 and currently counting some 1,400 students from 108 countries.

Large rally in Hungary for imperiled Soros-founded school

April 02, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Thousands of people marched in Hungary's capital on Sunday to protest proposed legal changes that are seen as targeting a Budapest university founded by billionaire Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.

Many Hungarian and international scholars and institutions have expressed support for Central European University. The school, founded by Soros in 1991, enrolls over 1,400 students from 108 countries.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban considers Soros an ideological foe whose "open society" ideal contrasts with his own efforts to turn Hungary into an "illiberal state." Organizers said some 10,000 people participated in the march, which started at Corvinus University and ended outside Parliament.

Corvinus professor Daniel Deak said the protest was an attempt to defend CEU from the government attack. The new rules are "a shot coming from the Hungarian government against all Hungarian universities," Deak said. "We strongly request freedom for academia and autonomy for universities."

The draft law, scheduled to be debated by lawmakers on Wednesday, sets new conditions for foreign universities in Hungary. One would force CEU to open a campus in New York state, where it is accredited but does not carry out academic activities, while another could make it change its name.

Orban on Friday accused Central European University of "cheating" and unfairly competing with local universities since its diplomas are recognized both in Hungary and the United States. Orban also conditioned CEU's survival to a bilateral agreement with the United States.

Some protesters chanted "Today CEU, tomorrow it's you!" and held signs with phrases that included "We don't want CEUthanasia" and "CEU stands for Community, Education, Understanding." CEU student Gaspar Bekes compared Orban's campaign to close CEU to actions by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"It is an attack on our democracy and an attack on the highest quality of education that people around the world deserve," Bekes said.

French presidential contenders clash on jobs, security

April 05, 2017

PARIS (AP) — France's top candidates for president advocated starkly opposing economic, European and security policies during a crucial debate Tuesday night, less than three weeks before the first round of voting.

Anger at globalization, worries about extremist violence and skepticism of the European Union were key themes in the televised debate. It featured all 11 candidates for the race — nine men, two women seated in a semi-circle facing the journalists for almost 4 hours.

Polls currently suggest independent centrist Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, far-right leader of the National Front, would dominate the April 23 first round and Macron could win the May 7 runoff. But lesser-known rivals stood out in the debate — notably far left candidates Jean-Luc Melenchon and Philippe Poutou, with their rhetoric for the working classes and jabs at the frontrunners.

Asked how they want to create jobs in a country where the unemployment rate has for years hovered around 10 percent, Macron promoted pro-free market views, in contrast with Le Pen and her support for protectionism.

Macron pledges to cut business taxes, loosen France's stringent labor rules and boost negotiations between unions and employers to help create jobs. Le Pen — who wants France to follow Britain and exit the European Union, like several candidates — proposed a tax on businesses that hire foreign workers.

"Without a clever protectionism, we are going to watch jobs being destroyed one after another", she said. Le Pen lobbed several punches at Macron, her chief rival. "You do not present yourself as new when you are using 50-year-old ideas," she said to the former economy minister, who is 39 years old and running for his first elected office.

"Madame Le Pen, sorry to tell you, but you are using lies we hear for 40 years and we were hearing in your father's mouth," Macron retorted, a reference to the National Front's founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who repeatedly has been convicted of crimes based on anti-Semitism and racism.

As many candidates from the left and right harshly criticized the European Union, Macron said he has the European project "in (his) heart". The best way to improve the situation of European workers is for France to discuss with Germany and reform the EU, he said.

Security issues prompted a vigorous discussion as the country is still under state of emergency following deadly attacks in Paris in 2015. Le Pen wants to reinstate France's national borders to prevent potential attackers from entering the country.

She pledged to boost the military budget and suggested closing a hundred mosques in the country she describes as preaching a "radical" Islam. Macron vowed to pursue France's military operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa's Sahel region and promised to hire 10,000 police forces to help ensuring security on the country's territory.

The debate heated up when the candidates discussed the "moralization" of French politics. Le Pen and conservative candidate Francois Fillon tried to fend off accusations of corruption by other candidates in the presidential race. They denied any wrongdoing.

Le Pen is embroiled in a set of corruption allegations, along with her anti-immigration National Front party. She said she is "politically persecuted" and added that in any case, as a member of the European Parliament, she has "parliamentary immunity."

Fillon was given preliminary charges for allegedly giving his wife and two children government-funded jobs which they never did. He said "I am entitled to the presumption of innocence". "I didn't acknowledge errors. ... I'm still here and nobody will come intimidate me. The French will make a judgment in a little less than three weeks."

Fillon, once considered the favorite of the vote before corruption allegations break in French medias, is now struggling to survive in the race.

EU's Tusk, Britain's May seek smooth start to Brexit talks

April 06, 2017

LONDON (AP) — European Council President Donald Tusk and British Prime Minister Theresa May met Thursday to seek a smooth start to the U.K.'s EU departure, a day after the European Parliament laid out tough guidelines for the divorce negotiations.

The talks came as both sides are settling on their negotiating positions, and after some strong tabloid headlines in Britain about the bloc's exit bill for Britain and the status of the British territory of Gibraltar.

The two politicians smiled on the doorstep of May's 10 Downing St. office before a meeting in London that lasted two hours. Afterward, May's office praised the "constructive approach" of the EU leadership and said "the tone of discussions had been positive on both sides."

Tusk said the pair had agreed to stay in regular contact throughout the Brexit process. British voters in June chose to leave the 28-nation European Union and last week May triggered the mechanism that starts a two-year countdown on Britain's departure.

The European Parliament on Wednesday backed the bloc's chief negotiator in demanding that Britain pay as much as 60 billion euros ($64 billion) for outstanding commitments. EU lawmakers also called for phased negotiations, in which divorce terms are settled before a new trade deal is secured. Britain wants the two strands to go hand-in-hand.

Draft negotiating guidelines drawn up by the EU also said no future agreement between Britain and the bloc would apply to Gibraltar unless both the U.K. and Spain agreed. That raised hackles in Britain, where some saw it as a bid by Madrid to assert control over the future of an enclave that has been British since 1713.

May told Tusk Thursday that "there would be no negotiation on the sovereignty of Gibraltar without the consent of its people," Downing St. said. May began a two-year countdown to Brexit last week by invoking Article 50 of the EU's key treaty. But she has acknowledged that getting a final deal may take longer. She says there will be an "implementation" phase once a deal is hammered out so businesses and government can adjust to the new rules.

Full negotiations are expected to start in late May once the negotiating guidelines of the EU's 27 remaining nations have been sealed in a mandate for the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. The foreign ministers of Portugal and Denmark said Thursday they want a negotiated settlement that serves the interests of both Britain and the rest of the EU.

Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen said he hoped for what he called a "good transition" as Britain departs the bloc. "We both hope to find a good solution with the U.K," Samuelsen said after talks with his Portuguese counterpart, Augusto Santos Silva.

Barry Hatton contributed reporting from Lisbon.

May visits Saudi Arabia without headscarf

April 04, 2017

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May has forgone wearing a headscarf during her visit to Saudi Arabia. May stepped off a plane in the Saudi capital of Riyadh Tuesday morning without the headscarf the kingdom favors for women.

Under the kingdom's dress code, Saudi women are required to wear a headscarf and loose, black robes in public, but covering one's head is not required for foreigners. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama also declined to wear headscarves during visits to the country.

May is getting a mixed reaction on social media to the move. Some users see it as a display of feminism, while others call it disrespectful. May's Downing Street office had no comment on her wardrobe choice.

Britain to offer Jordan more trainers in anti-IS strikes

April 03, 2017

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May has begun a visit to Jordan where she is to announce plans to send more British military trainers to help the kingdom's air force in the fight against Islamic State group extremists.

Jordan's royal court said Monday that May and Jordan's King Abdullah II toured a military facility, inspecting a rapid response force and a joint training program. May is on a three-day visit to Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

In Jordan, she is to present a package of measures to boost cooperation between British forces and Jordan's air force. Jordan has carried out air strikes against IS targets as part of a U.S.-led military coalition against IS. IS controls parts of neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The training is to take place in Jordan and Britain.

Lack of German means Turk must vacate Austrian kebab stand

April 03, 2017

WIENER NEUSTADT, Austria (AP) — Alihan Turgut has dished out falafel for more than a decade to the townsfolk of Wiener Neustadt, and many call him one of their own. But "Kebab Ali" now stands to lose his stand at the main marketplace — and with it his livelihood.

Turgut is paying the price for something that he says has not previously been a problem: his German remains rough at best, more than 25 years after he came to Austria from Turkey. Mayor Klaus Schneeberger says that makes him someone "we don't need" in what will soon be the refurbished market area.

Local politicians have seized on Turgut's lack of German in denying him a stand and banning him from setting up anywhere else in the downtown district of their city south of Vienna. Turgut belongs to an earlier group of "guest workers" and subsequent generations who arrived well before the unprecedented migrant waves that Europe now is wrestling with. They initially were expected to return home after doing the menial work that the citizens of economically growing Western Europe considered below them.

After arriving in Austria, Germany, or elsewhere, many "guest workers" decided to stay. But they, and those who trickled in over subsequent decades, were mostly on their own as far as integration is concerned, without the language lessons, courses on socially acceptable behavior and job training that EU nations are offering their new arrivals nowadays.

At a time of EU-Turkish tensions, town fathers are depicting Turgut as a poster boy of a "parallel society," loyal to Ankara, that sometimes resorts to violence on Europe's streets in support of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his drive for greater powers.

In part as a reaction, the government is tightening rules on demonstrations, while Austrian news and public affairs programs reflect growing concerns about where loyalties lie. A much-watched TV talk show last week was titled "Austro-Turks for Erdogan: Does the new homeland not count for anything?"

But Turgut appears more a political football than part of a fifth column. A white apron spanned over his expansive belly, he trades quips in mangled but understandable German with customers lined up for a schnitzelburger or a kebab.

He acknowledges that he remains a Turkish citizen but says it's only because his German isn't good enough to pass strict Austrian citizenship tests. He describes his priorities on arrival as bringing his family to Austria and establishing a livelihood, not learning German.

In any case, he says, the focus on language is a "political game," adding in fractured German: "My customers want me to stay downtown." German Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged that people like Turgut and others before him didn't have the integration opportunities of today's migrants. She say officials back then "pushed a book in their hands titled 'German for Foreigners' and said: 'OK, that should work.'"

In terms of adapting," they were simply thrown in cold water," she said two years ago, in comments marking the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the first "guest workers." Along with Turks, workers from Yugoslavia made up the bulk of the earlier migrant arrivals that lasted into the 1980s. But while both groups had to struggle to escape the traps of poor education, menial jobs and lack of German, the Turks faced additional hurdles.

Migration and assimilation researcher Kenan Guengoer says that most "brought with them a special feeling of being foreign" in a Christian Europe because of their Muslim roots. "Even today, the children and grandchildren of that generation don't have the feeling that they have arrived," said Guengoer, adding that — for many — this explains their affinity to Turkey, even if born in Austria.

An Austrian government study from last year says 51.8 percent of first- and second- generation Turks feel at home more in Turkey than in Austria. Erdogan, Guengoer said, "gives them the feeling of being someone, of being able to look up to a charismatic leader, of being part of a country they can call their own."

Schneeberger, the mayor, acknowledges past mistakes and points to present integration efforts as proof that Austria has learned from them. He praises Syrians as "progressive, ready to adapt," and says the problem is "not the Turks, it's some of the Turks."

He invokes examples of Wiener Neustadt school classes where the majority of children speak Turkish with each other, adding: "If this is the case with children, what will our society look like tomorrow?"

"I am ready to praise those who integrate," he says. "Others who don't must be sent home." He describes as "grotesque" the views of those who refuse to send their children to schools with a high percentage of migrants while saying "Herr Ali has to stay."

But Turgut's clients remain loyal. Frederike Steiner calls him "a traditional part of Wiener Neustadt." Ella Raunig says he is "part of the city." And Gabriella Jacob, who runs the vegetable stand next to Turgut, describes him as "part of us."

"We will all miss him."

Associated Press writer David Rising contributed from Berlin

Kushner, Dunford meet with Iraqi prime minister

April 04, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford met Monday in Baghdad with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The visit marks an early foray for the Trump administration into the situation in Iraq. It comes against the backdrop of an ongoing investigation into civilian deaths in an area of Mosul near the site of an air-strike by U.S.-led coalition forces last month.

Dunford invited Kushner and Thomas P. Bossert, a presidential assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, on the trip to meet with Iraqi leaders and U.S. forces and receive an update on the fight against the Islamic State group. Capt. Greg Hicks, a spokesman for Dunford, said Kushner was "traveling on behalf of the president to express the president's support and commitment to the government of Iraq and U.S. personnel currently engaged in the campaign."

The meeting with al-Adabi came after some confusion regarding Kushner's whereabouts Monday morning. Kushner's travel plans initially were revealed late Sunday by a Trump administration official who said Kushner wanted to see the situation there for himself and show support for Baghdad's government.

The official said Kushner had already arrived. But when presented with information indicating that was not accurate, the official said the timing of his arrival was unclear but confirmed that Kushner was scheduled to be in Iraq on Monday. Such visits from high-ranking officials are typically kept secret out of security concerns.

The administration official who provided the information late Sunday wasn't authorized to speak about confidential meetings by name and demanded anonymity. Kushner's West Wing portfolio is robust. He has been deeply involved with presidential staffing, recently launched a task force meant to modernize government using lessons drawn from the private sector, and has played the role of shadow diplomat, advising on relations with the Middle East, Canada and Mexico.

And though Kushner had no previous diplomatic or government experience, Trump also tasked him with trying to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. "If you can't produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can," Trump told Kushner at a gala a few days before his inauguration.

Kushner was also the latest Trump associate to be swept up into the ongoing probe into contacts with Russian officials. The White House confirmed last week that he had volunteered to be interviewed by the Senate intelligence committee. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the committee's chairman, said that Kushner would likely be under oath and would submit to a "private interview" about arranging meetings with the Russian ambassador and other officials.

Kushner is married to Trump's oldest daughter, Ivanka. He was expected to have a major role in meetings later this week between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump's winter retreat in Palm Beach, Florida.

His visit came just two weeks after al-Abadi said he was assured by the president the U.S. will accelerate its support for his country's struggle against the Islamic State group. Al-Abadi met with Trump and Kushner in Washington recently and said he had the impression that the United States would take a more aggressive approach, although he did not say what that might entail.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently presented Trump with the outlines of a comprehensive approach to defeating IS and other extremist groups on a global scale, but specifics have yet to be worked out. Officials have indicated that the approach is unlikely to depart radically from the Obama administration's strategy, at least with regard to ongoing efforts in Iraq and Syria.

Iraq was part of the Trump administration's original travel ban but was removed from the revised version after a request from the Pentagon and the State Department highlighting Iraq's key role in fighting the Islamic State. The second travel ban, which restricts immigration from six Muslim-majority countries, has been halted by a federal court. The U.S. Justice Department has announced an appeal.

Associated Press writers Jonathan Lemire, Lolita C. Baldor, Vivian Salama and Catherine Lucey in Washington contributed to this report.

Russian opposition leader Navalny to campaign despite ban

April 06, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Alexei Navalny's campaign chief says Russia's popular opposition leader will keep campaigning for authorities to cancel an election ban. Navalny, who organized nationwide anti-corruption protests last month, plans to run against Russian President Vladimir Putin in the 2018 election. Yet Navalny's February conviction in a retrial of a fraud case formally barred him from running for president.

The March anti-corruption protests that rocked Russia's 11 time zones were stunning for Putin's authoritarian rule. The rallies, largest in years and previously contained to the country's cosmopolitan cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, spilled over to provincial towns that rarely see political protests.

Navalny, a lawyer, made his mark by publishing investigations about official corruption in Russia. His latest expose — an hour-long documentary about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's alleged secret wealth — has received more than 15 million views. Navalny called the March protests to demand an official reaction from the government, which kept mum about it.

His campaign chief Leonid Volkov, who was released Wednesday after spending ten days in police custody for disobeying police orders, told The Associated Press on Thursday that "the March 26 protests showed that Alexei Navalny is the politician who feels the political sentiment in the country most keenly."

More than 1,000 protesters were arrested in Moscow at the March 26 rally, and many of them were sentenced to brief jail terms and fines. A dozen people working for Navalny also served jail time. Without naming Navalny, President Putin, who faces re-election in March 2018, has denounced the protest organizers for trying to use anti-corruption slogans in their "narrow selfish political goals."

With the official election ban in place, the immediate goal of Navalny's campaign, Volkov said, is to get the Kremlin to overturn the ban by showing to them that the damage from not allowing Navalny to run is greater than the risk of allowing him on the ballot.

Navalny is a rare opposition politician who wants to campaign all over Russia instead of focusing on a few major urban areas. He has opened campaign headquarters in nearly two dozen cities from western Russia to the Far East. The campaign expects to open 40 offices by the end of May.

Campaigning across Russia and calling for rallies in the areas that have not seen protests for years is an important step in empowering Russia's marginalized opposition, Volkov said. "(People told us) 'We didn't know there were so many of us in our town,'" Volkov said. "Our main goal is to hold on to this and turn this into a political movement."

Navalny, who was arrested immediately after arriving at the Moscow rally, is due to be released Monday.

Blast on Russian subway kills 10, injures 50; 2nd bomb found

April 03, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — An explosion ripped through a subway train in the Russian city of St. Petersburg on Monday, killing at least 10 people and injuring 50 others, the city's governor told Russian television. The blast came as Russian President Vladimir Putin was visiting the city, his hometown.

Witnesses on the subway said the blast spread panic among passengers, who ran toward the exits. Putin, speaking from Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg, said investigators were looking into whether the explosion on the train was a terror attack or if there might have been some other cause. He offered his condolences to the families of those killed.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the blast. Within two hours, Russia authorities found and deactivated another bomb at a separate busy St. Petersburg subway station, Vosstaniya Square by the Moscow railway station, Russia's National Anti-Terrorist Committee said.

The unidentified explosive device went off at 2:20 p.m. on a train that was leaving the Technology Institute station and heading to the Sennaya Square station, the agency said. Social media users posted photographs and video from the Technology Institute subway station, showing injured people lying on the floor outside a train with a mangled door. Frantic commuters were reaching into doors and windows, trying to see if anyone was there, and shouting "Call an ambulance!"

"Everything was covered in smoke, there were a lot of firefighters," Maria Smirnova, a student on a train behind the one where a bomb went off, told the Dozhd television channel. "Firefighters shouted us to run for the exit and everyone ran. Everyone was panicking."

The St. Petersburg subway immediately shut down all of its stations and the national anti-terrorism body said security measures would be tightened all key transport facilities across Russia. Maxim Liksutov, Moscow's deputy mayor, said that included tightening security on the subway in the Russian capital.

St. Petersburg, Russia's second-largest city with over 5 million residents, is the country's most popular tourist destination and the two stations affected by the blast are some of the subway's busiest.

Nataliya Maksimova was running late for a dentist appointment and entered the subway near the explosion site shortly after the blast. "If I hadn't been running late, I could have been there," she told The Associated Press.

Putin was in St. Petersburg on Monday for talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, and went ahead with the talks after appearing on Russian television to speak about the attack. "Law enforcement agencies and intelligence services are doing their best to establish the cause and give a full picture of what happened," Putin said.

St. Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko was overseeing the rescue effort. Russian transport facilities have been the target of previous terror attacks. Two suicide bombings in the Moscow subway on March 29, 2010, killed 40 people and wounded more than 100 people. Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov claimed responsibility for that attack by two female suicide bombers, warning Russian leaders that "the war is coming to their cities."

The high-speed Moscow-to-St. Petersburg train was also bombed on Nov. 27, 2009, in an attack that left 26 dead and some 100 injured. Umarov's group also said he ordered this attack. Russian airports have also been hit by attacks. On Jan. 24, 2011, a suicide bomber hit Moscow's Domodedovo Airport, killing 37 people and wounding 180. The same airport in August 2004 saw Islamic suicide bombers board two airplanes and bring them down, killing a total of 90 people.

Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.

2 dozen reported arrested in Moscow protest attempts

April 02, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Police in Moscow have detained about two dozen people at unauthorized rallies in the capital, a week after anti-government protests broke out across Russia. The police presence was notably heavy in central Moscow on Sunday. Pedestrian access to Red Square was only through metal detectors and police blocked off Pushkin Square, traditionally a gathering point for demonstrations.

About 20 people were arrested while trying to conduct a march on Triumphalnaya Square, which is adjacent to a main avenue, and seven others were detained at Manezhnaya Square, which is adjacent to the Kremlin, according to police figures reported by the state news agency Tass.

Last week's protests, in which more than 1,000 people were arrested in Moscow alone, were the largest opposition show of defiance in several years.

Colombia: 193 dead after rivers overflow, toppling homes

April 02, 2017

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — An avalanche of water from three overflowing rivers tore through a small city in Colombia while people slept, destroying homes, sweeping away cars and killing at least 193 unsuspecting residents.

The incident triggered by a sudden, heavy rainstorm happened around midnight Friday and into early Saturday in Mocoa, a provincial capital of about 40,000 tucked between mountains near Colombia's southern border with Ecuador.

Muddy water quickly surged through the city's streets, toppling homes, ripping trees from their roots and carrying a torrent of rocks and debris downstream. Many residents did not have enough time to flee.

According to the Red Cross, 202 people were injured and 220 believed missing. President Juan Manuel Santos declared a state of emergency and said the death toll will likely rise but warned against speculating about how many are dead. Late Saturday, he said the toll had reached 193.

"We don't know how many there are going to be," he said of the fatalities when he arrived at the disaster zone to oversee rescue efforts. "We're still looking." Eduardo Vargas, 29, was asleep with his wife and 7-month-old baby when he was awoken by the sound of neighbors banging on his door. He quickly grabbed his family and fled up a small mountain amid the cries of people in panic.

"There was no time for anything," he said. Vargas and his family huddled with about two dozen other residents as rocks, trees and wooden planks ripped through their neighborhood below. They waited there until daylight, when members of the military helped them down.

When he reached the site of his home Saturday, nothing his family left behind remained. "Thank God we have our lives," he said. As rescuers assessed the full scope of the damage, many residents in Mocoa continued a desperate search for friends and relatives.

Oscar Londono tried in vain throughout the night to reach his wife's parents, whose home is right along one of the flooded rivers. He decided it was too dangerous to try to reach them in the dark. So he called over and over by phone but got no answer.

Once the sun began to rise he started walking toward their house but found all the streets he usually takes missing. As he tried to orient himself he came across the body of a young woman dressed in a mini-skirt and black blouse.

He checked her pulse but could not find one. "There were bodies all over," he said. When he finally reached the neighborhood where his in-laws live he found "just mud and rocks." Rescue workers with the military oriented him toward the mountain, where he found his relatives camped with other survivors.

"To know they were alive," he said, "it was a reunion of tears." Santos said at least 22 people were seriously injured and being airlifted to nearby cities, as the small regional hospital in Mocoa struggled to cope with the magnitude of the crisis. Herman Granados, an anesthesiologist, said he worked throughout the night on victims, cleaning wounds. He said the hospital doesn't have a blood bank large enough to deal with the number of patients and was quickly running out of its supply.

Some of the hospital workers came to help even while there are own relatives remained missing. "Under the mud," Granados said, "I am sure there are many more." The Red Cross planned to set up a special unit in Mocoa Saturday afternoon to help relatives search for their loved ones.

"In this moment, it's chaos," said Oscar Forero, a spokesman with the Colombian Red Cross. "There are many people missing." Rescuers suspended the search late Saturday night due to darkness but vowed to continue at first light Sunday.

Santos blamed climate change for triggering the avalanche, saying that the accumulated rainfall in one night was almost half the amount Mocoa normally receives in the entire month of March. With the rainy season in much of Colombia just beginning, he said local and national authorities need to redouble their efforts to prevent a similar tragedy.

The crisis is likely to be remembered as one of the worst natural disasters in recent Colombian history, though the Andean nation has experienced even more destructive catastrophes. Nearly 25,000 people were killed in 1985 after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted and triggered a deluge of mud and debris that buried the town of Armero.

President's party seen winning Armenian parliamentary vote

April 03, 2017

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Early results in the Armenian parliamentary election shows the country's ruling party has won just under half of the vote. Sunday's election was the first since the ex-Soviet nation modified its constitution to expand the powers of parliament and the prime minister.

The Central Election Commission said on Monday that 94 percent of the ballots counted show the Republican Party of Armenia's president, Serzh Sargsyan, winning 49 percent of the vote. The bloc led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian trails with 28 percent. Two more parties also look set to clear the 5-percent barrier necessary to get seats in parliament.

Critics see the constitutional amendments as part of Sargsyan's efforts to retain control of the country after he steps down in 2018 due to term limits.

Armenia holds a parliamentary election, ruling party favored

April 02, 2017

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — Armenians voted Sunday in the country's first parliamentary election since the ex-Soviet nation modified its constitution to expand the powers of parliament and the prime minister.

Polls prior to the vote showed the Republican Party of Armenia's president, Serzh Sargsyan, in the lead, closely followed by a bloc led by businessman Gagik Tsarukian, one of Armenia's richest men. Critics see the amendments as part of Sargsyan's efforts to retain control of the country after he steps down in 2018 due to term limits. If his party controls parliament, he could be appointed prime minister after leaving the presidency.

But the 62-year-old Sargsyan, who has led Armenia since 2008, has rejected the allegations, describing the constitutional changes approved in a 2015 referendum as steps toward strengthening democracy.

"We have set a task to make resolute step toward developing a European-style democracy and strengthening democratic institutions," Sargsyan said. The constitutional changes, set to take force after Sargsyan's term ends, envisage largely symbolic powers for the nation's president, who will now be elected by parliament instead of by popular vote.

Prime Minister Karen Karapetian has spearheaded the Republican Party's campaign, promising to encourage foreign investment in the economically struggling nation. Tsarukian also has pledged to attract up to $15 billion in foreign investment from Persian Gulf countries and elsewhere.

The nationalist Dashanktsutyun party and two other parties also are expected to make it into the parliament. Sergei Minasian, an independent political expert based in Yerevan, said the ruling party had a "significant advantage" in the campaign, thanks to its use of administrative resources. The European Union mission in Yerevan has expressed concern about "allegations of voter intimidation, attempts to buy votes, and the systemic use of administrative resources to aid certain competing parties." It didn't name any parties.

Landlocked Armenia, one of the poorest of the ex-Soviet nations, borders Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. It has suffered from a crippling economic blockade imposed by Turkey, which supports its ally Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Armenia is also a member of Moscow-dominated economic and security alliances and hosts a Russian military base. The country has seen some unrest in recent years. In 2015, thousands demonstrated in Yerevan for weeks protesting electricity price hikes. In July, several dozen armed men captured a police compound in the capital, demanding freedom for an opposition activist and the government's ouster. They held several police officers and medics hostage before eventually releasing them. The two-week siege left two people dead and several wounded and triggered rallies in support of the gunmen.

In March, several hundred protesters rallied in Yerevan after an activist who fed the siege perpetrators died in prison while on a hunger strike.

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to the report.

100 years ago, war declaration started The American Century

April 05, 2017

ROMAGNE-SOUS-MONTFAUCON, France (AP) — Carpenter Guy Ford liked to watch fish play in the currents around his ship as it sailed for Europe to offload untested troops for a war as horrendous as it was defining for the century to come.

Ford would soon lose his innocence. But unlike many young Americans who crossed the Atlantic a century ago to fight in World War I, he lived to see his country go from a fledging, inward-looking nation to a world power.

Before April 6, 1917, the United States still was, in the words of American writer Walter Lippmann, a country where "money spent on battleships would be better spent on schoolhouses." Then, 100 years ago Thursday, the United States declared war on Germany and, following victory in 1918, started what would eventually become known as "The American Century."


Guy Ford, an only child from Ronceverte, West Virginia, was closing in on 30 when the so-called Great War started in August 1914. Two months earlier, a Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip had shot and killed Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

The shot was heard around Europe, where diplomatic alliances quickly drew most of the continent into war, with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire pitted against Britain, Russia and France. But the reverberations didn't immediately cross the Atlantic.

"The attitude of the Americans was not yet the attitude of a big power," said Professor Luc De Vos, a military historian of Leuven University.

American immigrant communities were torn over whether to help the British, and pacifism was the watchword after the destruction of the U.S. Civil War. President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 with the slogan "He has kept us out of war." Another of his campaign catchphrases had a more contemporary ring: "America first."

In Europe, both sides had already dug in for trench warfare in northern France and Belgium, with gas and tanks and precision shelling making battle more deadly than ever. Some days there were tens of thousands of casualties in unprecedented slaughter.

Ford's granddaughter, Mary Thompson, who also lives in West Virginia, retraced his steps through the war and stopped off at Verdun in northern France. There, the mangled remains of some 130,000 unknown soldiers from both sides, impossible to separate, lie together in the Douaumont Ossuary.

"I can't imagine a boy from Summers County in West Virginia coming to this country and marching ahead of death bombs," she said.

Nor, for most of the war, could most Americans.


Despite American reluctance to get involved, there was outrage early on at the bombing and German destruction of Belgium's Louvain library and reports of other atrocities. Then, German submarines started attacking ships in the Atlantic. In 1915, the British liner Lusitania was torpedoed, killing some 1,200, including 128 Americans. Early in 1917, unrestricted submarine warfare resumed. In his April 2 war message to Congress, Wilson called it "warfare against mankind."

"American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of," he said, four days before war was declared.

And in a diplomatic faux pas with huge consequences, German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a telegram to his Mexico City office to draw Mexico into the war with a promise to get territory back in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. There was no WikiLeaks then, but British intelligence got hold of the missive and fed it to Wilson.

"It means to stir up enemies against us at our very doors," Wilson said.

He asked for war. On April 6, Congress obliged.


By then, millions had already died. The U.S. entry changed everything.

"Yes, they were essential in turning the tide. Why? There was a real deadlock," said De Vos, the historian. Tens of thousands of lives were wasted as one side advanced a few miles (kilometers) on the Western Front, from one trench to the other, and then back. "The big problem was: how to break through the front?"

It took more than a year for Guy Ford and hundreds of thousands of other young Americans to be ready for the front lines.

When war was declared, "the U.S. army was smaller than the Danish army and much smaller than the Belgian army," De Vos said.

The British and French wanted them fast, but commander Gen. John J. Pershing insisted his troops needed training first.

So it was May 26, 1918, before Ford, drafted by the American Expeditionary Force, left for France. He kept a small diary noting in short form how seas were rough, target practice was held and with "wind blowing schools of fish at play."

He landed in Brest, France's westernmost port on the tip of Brittany, on June 8. On Independence Day that July 4, when others at home would have been celebrating and drinking, his entry in the diary consisted of "Left Halinghen, hiked to Samer. Loaded on train. That night was issued overcoat before leaving. Air raid that night."

As he was making the 850-kilometer (530-mile) trip across France to the Verdun region with the 305th Engineering Battalion of the 80th Division, the war was entering its end game, the outcome much more uncertain than it seems now in hindsight.

Germany had long fought on two fronts, against Russia in the east and France and Belgium in the west. When Russia signed a peace treaty in 1918, Germany was able to pull troops west and push for the decisive breakthrough. The Germans came within bombardment reach of Paris, but failed again to fully turn the war.

From then on, the arrival of up to 2.1 million U.S. troops became an ever-bigger factor.

"At that decisive moment in the balance of powers, the 2 million Americans — young, enthusiastic troops, they attacked and they were everywhere on the front," De Vos said.

The sense of urgency and stress of battle was evident in Ford's diary, where verbs were in increasingly short supply, giving way to the staccato rendering of villages and dates — ever closer to the America's defining World War I battle of Meuse-Argonne, a region in eastern France close to Verdun.


A century later, little has changed in the landscape of the Meuse-Argonne where Ford fought, with neat patches of rich pasture cutting a line between opposing forests that once provided a hiding place for the American and German soldiers behind the lines.

At a vital stage of World War I in the fall of 1918, the Meuse-Argonne offensive was the biggest and bloodiest operation of the American Expeditionary Force. It involved more than 1.2 million American soldiers and lasted 47 days, with a loss of over 26,000 American lives. Ford survived.

Today, only chirping birds and the distant hum of lawnmowers break the solemn silence at the vast estate of the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon. Days before the centennial, gardeners neatly clipped every edge of greenery and raked leaves left from winter. Visitors were few and far between.

It is the largest American cemetery in Europe and memorializes 15,200 war dead. The stark white crosses, lined up in neat rows between the trees, are engraved with each soldier's name, rank, home state and date of death.

"I'm moved to tears," said Mary Thompson's husband, Bob. "It brings it all home. I know these towns and states. I almost feel like I know these people."

At huge cost, the Americans were driving the Germans back ever farther when, on Nov. 11, the armistice ended the fighting.

Ford wrote only "Nov. 11 - Hiked to Le Mort-Hommes," a slight misspelling of the ghost village aptly named The Dead Man. The reports of a spontaneous concert, bonfires and massive rejoicing at the momentous victory within the regiment never made it into his diary. Emotion was dulled to the extent that for the next day, he wrote only "12 - to Chatel."

Some never made it that far. Even a century later, a day could make a fateful difference. One white marble headstone at Meuse-Argonne reads "ROGERS E. TRAHAN SERGT. 9 INF. 2 DIV. LOUISIANA NOV 11, 1918."


In May of 1919, Guy Ford returned to life in West Virginia, officially authorized by the 305th engineers "to wear the Service Ribbon" with three bronze stars, for having participated in the Somme, St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives.

As much of Europe lay in ruins, with 14 million soldiers and civilians from around the globe dead, the United States emerged as a major power in the world.

In "a personal word" to his soldiers in which he signed off as commander in chief, Gen. Pershing wrote that they "in a succession of brilliant offensives have overcome the menace to our civilization."

Ford eventually married and had a boy and then a set of twin boys. In 1934, when Mary Thompson's father was just four, Ford died at the age of 46. Countless people had returned from the war with physical and mental scars never fully examined.

"We'll never know what caused his death," Mary Thompson said. "We understood from relatives that it was his heart, but who knows — it could have been something from the war."