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Thursday, May 4, 2017

Car crash turns Afghan refugee's dream into a nightmare

April 13, 2017

DOLJEVAC, Serbia (AP) — Fatima Bakhshi stays close to her mother and two sons, afraid she might lose them as they trudge through the cold Balkan darkness. The smuggler they've paid to escort them safely into Western Europe orders them to squeeze into a car with more than a dozen other migrants.

Bakhshi, the boys in her lap, is crammed so tightly in the back that she can barely breathe. The driver swerves and she yells at him to stop. Other migrants snap at her to keep quiet and she dozes off. All she wants is a new life with relatives in Ireland, away from a brutish husband and a controlling father back in Afghanistan.

In an instant, on a road in southern Serbia, the 26-year-old's dream turns into a nightmare. The car hits a barrier and overturns, killing Bakhshi's mother and another person. Bakhshi's younger son is hurt, and she is so badly wounded that her legs must be amputated above the knees.

"I wake up in the hospital, I see I didn't have feet, there is doctors," Bakhshi says in broken English. "Where is my mother? Where is my feet? I am calling, crying, all the time I am crying." Bakhshi's tragedy highlights the dangers facing migrants — particularly women — who rely on smugglers to take them on dangerous journeys through Central and Eastern Europe in hopes of finding new lives in more prosperous countries to the west. She doesn't remember many details of her journey and finds others too hard to talk about, including how they found the smuggler and how much they paid. The driver of the car fled and it's not clear if he was ever found.

Tens of thousands of people remain stranded across the Balkans after countries throughout Europe last year tightened migration rules and border controls. Most are fleeing war or poverty in the Middle East or Africa.

Bakhshi fled a life of abuse in Afghanistan. When she was 16, her father pulled her out of school to marry a man 10 years her senior whom she had never seen before. She says he turned out to be a drug addict who harassed and beat her severely.

A year ago, she tried to leave her abusive husband and return to her parents' home, but her father wouldn't take her in. Her mother decided to help her get away. The two set off with the boys, now ages 5 and 9. Details of the journey are hazy, but Bakhshi recalls that they first went to Pakistan, then to Iran, Turkey, Greece and Macedonia. They spent eight months in a refugee camp in Greece, then were detained and pushed back to Greece once from Macedonia, before finally reaching Serbia in December.

"It's very hard. You don't understand because you don't see," Bakhshi said of the ordeal. "It's very hard (on) my feet, walking to mountain and from Iran to Turkey. It's very hard." "I come here with my mother, I think I'll be happy with my kids and then I had accident in car," she said.

More than three months after the Dec. 29 crash, Bakhshi is now out of the hospital, staying in a small care home in the village of Doljevac, in southern Serbia. She has started a rehabilitation program that should result in prosthetic limbs. Her children are well, by her side.

Faced with her immense loss, bed-ridden and desperate, Bakhshi speaks in a hushed, low voice, smiling only at the sight of her boys playing nearby. She said her only wish remains to join her mother's brother and other relatives in Ireland so her children can have a future in a larger family.

"I don't want to live, I live just for my kids," she said sadly, bowing her head. "Before I liked learning. Now it's very hard. I just sleep." The United Nations refugee agency in Serbia, the UNHCR, has declared Bakhshi a refugee and offered to help resettle her in an as-yet-undecided third country where she can have access to a better treatment than in impoverished Serbia. But the agency cannot guarantee it will be Ireland.

"This depends on the quotas that are at hand," said Davor Rako, an associate protection officer for the UNHCR. "At this point in time, unfortunately, Ireland does not have a quota for UNHCR, for settlement."

Vladimir Bogosavljevic, a psychologist with Indigo, a group for children and youth that also works with migrants, has worked with Bakhshi and her children. He said he hopes to enroll the boys in a local school, but that the family is anxious not to separate at all. Bogosavljevic appealed to "people of good will and in high places" to help Bakhshi and the boys join their relatives in Ireland because "so far that is her only wish."

"It's important to give her hope," he said. Bakhshi said that for her, Ireland also means a connection to her late mother, whom she considers the only friend she's ever had. "Always my mother helped me. Why my mother died?" she sobbed. "I had just mother in life. Why is like this, why?"

U.S.-backed Syrian militia close to full capture of al-Tabqah

By Andrew V. Pestano
May 2, 2017

May 2 (UPI) -- The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the Syrian Democratic Forces militia is close to fully capturing the city of al-Tabqah from the Islamic State as its offensive to free Raqqa escalates.

The SOHR on Monday said the SDF and U.S. Special Forces control about 80 percent of al-Tabqah. The monitor said local mediators are working to negotiate an agreement to secure a passage for remaining Islamic State militants to travel to Raqqa to fully withdraw from al-Tabqah.

The SDF, with the help of the U.S.-led international coalition, said it captured six al-Tabqah districts on Saturday and another three on Sunday from the control of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh.

"In the last 48 hours, the ISIS defense lines have been destroyed, and [we] were able to liberate nine districts," SDF Cmdr. Abdulqadir Hafidli said on Monday.

Hafidli said Islamic State militants have established strong defenses in the last three districts of al-Tabqah and at the Euphrates Dam.

The SDF seeks to surround and isolate Raqqa before launching an offensive to recapture the city, similar to what Iraqi security forces did in their offensive on Mosul.

Source: United Press International (UPI).
Link: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2017/05/02/US-backed-Syrian-militia-close-to-full-capture-of-al-Tabqah/4051493733015/.

Observers: Large explosion rocks Syrian capital

April 27, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — A large explosion rocked the Syrian capital early Thursday, followed by a fire near the Damascus airport, Syrian opposition activists and a monitor said. The explosion was heard across the capital, jolting residents awake, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdurrahman said. He said the explosion was reported to have happened near the Damascus airport road.

The dawn explosion was also reported by other activists' networks but the source was unclear. Activist-operated Diary of a Mortar, which reports from Damascus, said the explosion near the airport road was followed by flames rising above the area. A pro-government site Damascus Now said the explosion was near the city's Seventh Bridge, which leads to the airport road.

Syria is in the sixth year of a bloody civil war pitting the government of President Bashar Assad and his allies against opposition forces that has left more than 400,000 people dead. The explosion comes a day after France said that the chemical analysis of samples taken from a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria earlier this month "bears the signature" Assad's government and shows it was responsible.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said France came to this conclusion after comparing samples from a 2013 sarin attack in Syria that matched the new ones. The findings came in a six-page report published Wednesday.

Russia, a close ally of Assad, denounced the report, saying the samples and the fact the nerve agent was used are not enough to prove who was behind it. The United States has also blamed Assad's government for the April 4 attack. The Trump administration ordered the cruise missile attack on the air base and issued sanctions on 271 people linked to the Syrian agency said to be responsible for producing non-conventional weapons. Syria has strongly denied the accusations.

Death toll in Turkish air raids on Syria Kurds rises to 28


AL-MALIKIYAH - The toll in Turkish air raids on Kurdish positions in northeastern Syria rose to 28 killed, a monitor said Wednesday, a day after Ankara said it had targeted "terrorist havens" near its border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of those killed were members of the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which is battling the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said 19 others were wounded in the Tuesday raids on a media center and other buildings in Al-Malikiyah, a town in Hasakeh province.

YPG spokesman Redur Khalil on Tuesday said 20 fighters were killed and 18 wounded in the Turkish strikes, which the United States said were carried out without the knowledge of a Washington-led international coalition fighting IS in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Abdel Rahman said a female Kurdish fighter was among the dead.

Turkey, which backs Syrian rebel groups and which launched a ground operation in northern Syria last year, vowed to continue acting against groups it links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

It also killed six Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq on Tuesday in an apparent accident.

The strikes underlined the complexities of the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, where twin US-backed offensives are seeking to dislodge IS from its last major urban strongholds.

They could also exacerbate tensions between Ankara and its NATO ally Washington, which sees the Kurds as instrumental in the fight against IS.

Source: Middle East Online.
Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82784.

Chinese jihadis' rise in Syria raises concerns at home

April 22, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Many don't speak Arabic and their role in Syria is little known to the outside world, but the Chinese fighters of the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria are organized, battled-hardened and have been instrumental in ground offensives against President Bashar Assad's forces in the country's northern regions.

Thousands of Chinese jihadis have come to Syria since the country's civil war began in March 2011 to fight against government forces and their allies. Some have joined the al-Qaida's branch in the country previously known as Nusra Front. Others paid allegiance to the Islamic State group and a smaller number joined factions such as the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham.

But the majority of Chinese jihadis are with the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria, whose vast majority are Chinese Muslims, particularly those from the Turkic-speaking Uighur majority native to Xinjiang in China. Their growing role in Syria has resulted in increased cooperation between Syrian and Chinese intelligence agencies who fear those same jihadis could one day return home and cause trouble there.

The Turkistan Islamic Party is the other name for the East Turkistan Islamic Movement that considers China's Xinjiang to be East Turkistan. Like most jihadi groups in Syria, their aim is to remove Assad's secular government from power and replace it with strict Islamic rule. Their participation in the war, which has left nearly 400,000 people dead, comes at a time when the Chinese government is one of Assad's strongest international backers. Along with Russia, China has used its veto power at the U.N. Security Council on several occasions to prevent the imposition of international sanctions against its Arab ally.

Beijing has blamed violence back at home and against Chinese targets around the world on Islamic militants with foreign connections seeking an independent state in Xinjiang. The government says some of them are fleeing the country to join the Jihad, although critics say the Uighurs are discriminated against and economically marginalized in their homeland and are merely seeking to escape repressive rule by the majority Han Chinese.

Abu Dardaa al-Shami, a member of the now-defunct extremist Jund al-Aqsa group, said the TIP has the best "Inghemasiyoun," Arabic for "those who immerse themselves." The Inghemasiyoun have been used by extremist groups such as IS and al-Qaida's affiliate now known as Fatah al-Sham Front. Their role is to infiltrate their targets, unleash mayhem and fight to the death before a major ground offensive begins.

"They are the lions of ground offensives," said al-Shami, who fought on several occasions alongside TIP fighters in northern Syria. Xie Xiaoyuan, China's envoy to Syria, told reporters in November that the two countries have had normal military exchanges focused on humanitarian issues, although Chinese officials have repeatedly rejected the possibility of sending troops or weapons.

In the last year, however, Chinese and Syrian officials have begun holding regular, once-a-month high-level meetings to share intelligence o militant movements in Syria, according to a person familiar with the matter. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to reveal military secrets.

"These people not only fight alongside international terrorist forces in Syria, but also they will possibly return to China posing threat to China's national security," said Li Wei, terrorism expert at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations and Director of the CICIR Institute of Security and Arms Control Studies.

Rami Abdurrahman who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there are about 5,000 Chinese fighters in Syria, most of them with the TIP fighters in northern Syria who along with their families make about 20,000. Li, the terrorism expert, said Abdurrahman's numbers are way too high, adding that he believes the number are about 300 Chinese fighters in Syria who brought with them about 700 family members.

"As the control of the passage along the borders between Turkey and Syria is being tightened, it is becoming more difficult for them to smuggle into Syria," Li said. Syrian opposition activists and pro-government media outlets say dozens of TIP fighters have carried out suicide attacks against government forces and their allies and for the past two years have led battles mostly in the north of the country.

The suicide attackers include one known as Shahid Allah al-Turkistani. He was shown in a video released by TIP taken from a drone of an attack in which he blew himself up in the vehicle he was driving near Aleppo late last year, allegedly killing dozens of pro-government gunmen.

In 2015, members of the group spearheaded an attack on the northwestern province of Idlib and captured the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour on the edge of Assad's stronghold of Latakia region. They reportedly damaged a church in the town and raised their black flag on top of it.

In late 2016, TIP was a main force to briefly break a government siege on the then rebel-held eastern parts of the northern city of Aleppo. The role of the Chinese jihadis in Syria was a topic that Assad spoke about last month in an interview with Chinese PHOENIX TV, saying "they know your country more than the others, so they can do more harm in your country than others."

Unlike other rebel groups, TIP is a very secretive organization and they live among themselves, according to activists in northern Syria. They are active in parts of Idlib and in the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour, as well as the Kurdish Mountains in the western province of Latakia.

Abdul-Hakim Ramadan, a doctor who was active in Idlib province, said one of his teams was trying to enter a northwestern village to vaccinate children when TIP fighters prevented them from entering, saying only Chinese can go into the area.

Ramadan said unlike other fighters who have come to Syria, the Chinese have not merged into local communities and the language has been a major barrier.

Shih reported from Beijing.

Mass evacuation in Syria postponed after blast kills 80 kids

April 16, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — The evacuation of more than 3,000 Syrians that was scheduled to take place Sunday from four areas as part of a population transfer has been postponed, opposition activists said, a day after a deadly blast that killed more than 120 people, many of them government supporters.

The reasons for the delay were not immediately clear. It came as shells fired by the Islamic State group on government-held parts of the eastern city of Deir el-Zour wounded two members of a Russian media delegation visiting the area, according to state-run Syrian news agency SANA.

Russia is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian journalists enjoy wide access in government-held parts of the country. Russia's Anna-News military news service, which employs the journalists, said one was wounded in the arm while the other suffered leg and stomach wounds. The news service said the two were evacuated adding that their condition was "satisfactory."

The United Nations is not overseeing the transfer deal, which involves residents of the pro-government villages of Foua and Kfarya and the opposition-held towns of Madaya and Zabadani. All four have been under siege for years, their fate linked through a series of reciprocal agreements that the U.N. says have hindered aid deliveries.

Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV, earlier said that 3,000 people will be evacuated from Foua and Kfarya, while 200, the vast majority of them fighters, will be evacuated from Zabadani and Madaya.

Abdurrahman and opposition activist Hussam Mahmoud, who is from Madaya, said the evacuation has been delayed. Abdurrahman said no permission was given for the evacuation to go ahead while Mahmoud said it has been delayed for "logistical reasons."

It was not immediately clear if the evacuees feared attacks similar to Saturday's bombing. Abdurrahman said Saturday's blast —which hit an area where thousands of pro-government evacuees had been waiting for hours — killed 126. He said the dead included 109 people from Foua and Kfarya, among them 80 children and 13 women.

No one has claimed the attack, but both the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida-affiliated Fatah al-Sham Front have targeted civilians in government areas in the past. A wounded girl, who said she lost her four siblings in the blast, told Al-Manar TV from her hospital bed that children who had been deprived of food for years in the two villages were approached by a man in the car who told them to come and eat potato chips. She said once many had gathered, there was an explosion that tore some of the children to pieces.

Anthony Lake, UNICEF's executive director, said in a statement Sunday that after six years of war and carnage in Syria "there comes a new horror that must break the heart of anyone who has one." "We must draw from this not only anger, but renewed determination to reach all the innocent children throughout Syria with help and comfort," he said.

After the blast, some 60 buses carrying 2,200 people, including 400 opposition fighters, entered areas held by rebels in the northern province of Aleppo, Abdurrahman said. More than 50 buses and 20 ambulances carrying some 5,000 Foua and Kfarya residents entered the government-held city of Aleppo, Syrian state TV said, with some of them later reaching a shelter in the village of Jibreen to the south.

U.N. relief coordinator Stephen O'Brien said he was "horrified" by the deadly bombing, and that while the U.N. was not involved in the transfer it was ready to "scale up our support to evacuees." He called on all parties to uphold their obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, and to "facilitate safe and unimpeded access for the U.N. and its partners to bring life-saving help to those in need."

Residents of Madaya and Zabadani, formerly summer resorts, joined the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad. Both came under government siege in the ensuing civil war. Residents of Foua and Kfraya, besieged by the rebels, have lived under a steady hail of rockets and mortars for years, but were supplied with food and medicine through military airdrops.

Critics say the string of evacuations, which could see some 30,000 people moved across battle lines over the next 60 days, amounts to forced displacement along political and sectarian lines. In eastern Syria, an airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition on the village of Sukkarieh near the border with Iraq killed eight civilians who had earlier fled violence in the northern province of Aleppo, according to Deir Ezzor 24, an activist collective, and Sound and Picture Organization, which documents IS violations.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition had killed dozens of civilians over the past several weeks as the battle against the extremists intensifies in Syria and Iraq.

Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.

New Hamas program softens language, but some goals remain

May 02, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Islamic militant Hamas on Monday unveiled what had been billed as a new, seemingly more pragmatic political program aimed at ending the group's international isolation.

With the new manifesto, Hamas rebrands itself as an Islamic national liberation movement, rather than a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which has been outlawed by Egypt. It also drops explicit language calling for Israel's destruction, though it retains the goal of eventually "liberating" all of historic Palestine, which includes what is now Israel.

It's not clear if the changes will be enough to improve relations with Egypt which, along with Israel, has been enforcing a crippling border blockade against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip since the group seized the territory in 2007.

Hamas clung to hard-line positions that led to its isolation in the first place. The group reaffirmed that it will not recognize Israel, renounce violence or recognize previous interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals — the West's long-standing conditions for dealing with Hamas.

The five-page program, a result of four years of internal deliberations, was presented at a news conference in Doha, Qatar, by Khaled Mashaal, the outgoing Hamas leader in exile. The group has said Mashaal's replacement is to be named later this month, after the completion of secret leadership elections.

The document reflects a "reasonable Hamas, that is serious about dealing with the reality and the regional and international surroundings, while still representing the cause of its people," said Mashaal.

A copy of the program was distributed to journalists in Gaza who followed the news conference by video link. The new platform seemed to cement the ideological divide between Hamas and its main political rival, the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas drove out forces loyal to Abbas in its 2007 takeover of Gaza, a year after defeating Fatah in Palestinian parliament elections. Reconciliation efforts have failed. The Hamas manifesto was released at a time of escalating tensions between the two sides. In recent weeks, Abbas has threatened to exert financial pressure, including cutting wage payments and aid to Gaza, as a way of forcing Hamas to cede ground.

Leaders of the group have vowed they will not budge. The war of words with Hamas was seen as an attempt by Abbas to position himself as a leader of all Palestinians ahead of his first meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House on Wednesday. The U.S. president has said he would try to broker Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a peace deal, despite repeated failures over the past two decades.

In the past, Hamas has sharply criticized Abbas' political program, which rests on setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast War.

In its founding charter, Hamas called for setting up an Islamic state in historic Palestine, or the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, which also includes Israel. The new program for the first time raises the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines, saying it's a "national consensus formula." However, the wording suggests Hamas considers this to be an interim step, not a way of ending the conflict.

The document does not contain an explicit call for Israel's destruction, but says "Hamas rejects any alternative to the full and complete liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea." "There shall be no recognition of the legitimacy of the Zionist entity," the document says.

The Palestine Liberation Organization, now led by Abbas, exchanged letters of mutual recognition with Israel in 1993. The Hamas document said it considers armed resistance against occupation as a strategic choice and that the group "rejects any attempt to undermine the resistance and its arms."

Over the years, Hamas has carried out shooting, bombing and rocket attacks in Israel. Since 2008, Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza have fought three cross-border wars. Abbas has been an outspoken opponent of violence, saying it undercuts Palestinian interests.

While the founding charter was filled with anti-Jewish references, the new document stresses that Hamas bears no enmity toward Jews. It says its fight is with those who occupy Palestinian lands. Mashaal is to step down as Hamas leader later this month. Two possible contenders for the No. 1 spot are Moussa Abu Marzouk, a former Hamas leader, and Ismail Haniyeh, a former top Hamas official in Gaza.

The Mashaal announcement was initially scheduled for 7 p.m. (1600 GMT) Monday, but was delayed after a Doha hotel withdrew consent at the last minute to host the Hamas news conference. Hamas scrambled to find a new venue.

Laub reported from Ramallah, West Bank.

Migrants flee Libya as weather warms and Libyan patrols loom

April 18, 2017

ROME (AP) — Warm weather and calm seas usually spur smugglers to send migrants across the Mediterranean come spring. But aid groups say another timetable might be behind a weekend spike: the looming start of beefed-up Libyan coast guard patrols designed to prevent migrants from reaching Europe.

Over Easter weekend, rescue ships plucked some 8,360 people from 55 different rubber dinghies and wooden boats off Libya's coast, Italy's coast guard said. Thirteen bodies were also recovered. While such numbers are not unheard-of for this time of year, they come as Italy is preparing to deliver patrol boats to Libya as part of a new European Union-blessed migration deal.

Italy and Libya inked a deal in February calling for Italy to train Libyan coast guard officers and to provide them with a dozen ships to patrol the country's lawless coasts. EU leaders hailed the accord as a new commitment to save lives and stem the flow of migrants to Europe, where the refugee influx has become a pressing political issue.

Aid groups, however, have criticized it as hypocritical and cruel, arguing that migrants who have already endured grave human rights abuses in Libya will face renewed violence, torture, sexual assault and other injustices if they are returned by the Libyan coast guard. Doctors Without Borders called it "delusional" while even the Vatican's own Caritas charity said it was worrisome.

International Organization of Migration spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo said improved weather conditions certainly are fueling renewed flows in recent days. But he said smugglers are also telling their customers, "'You have to hurry up and leave the country right now because otherwise in a couple of months you will be rescued by the Libyan coast guard and you will be sent back,' which is the last things that migrants would like to do."

The United Nations refugee agency also cited the pending arrival of Italian patrol boats as a possible cause for the weekend's high numbers, although spokeswoman Barbara Molinario said it was too early in the season to identify trends.

"For now it's premature, even if 8,300 in 55 operations is a high number," Molinario said. Overall, Some 35,700 people have been rescued in the central Mediterranean route in 2017, up from 24,974 in 2016, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said. Molinario noted that the numbers are constantly in flux and a week or two of poor weather could alter the year-on comparison. The IOM reports some 900 people are known to have died so far this year.

Some 800 people rescued over the weekend arrived in Sardinia on Tuesday, where officials struggled to find accommodation for them after some 900 were brought to the island by rescue boats last month. They hailed from Syria, Egypt and Libya, as well as more than a dozen other African countries.

The entry into force of the new Libyan patrols could heighten tensions that have already flared between the European Union and humanitarian organizations, which have assumed increasing role in rescuing migrants as their vessels tend to patrol closer to Libya's territorial waters, and their numbers have skyrocketed in the last two years.

The European border agency Frontex has said these humanitarian aid ships in 2016 were responsible for 40 percent of all rescues, up from 5 percent a year earlier. Frontex has essentially accused them of encouraging smugglers to set migrants off in increasing numbers and on increasingly flimsy vessels, since rescue is so close at hand.

"While there is no question that saving lives is an obligation of whoever operates at sea ... it seems the Libyan smugglers are taking full advantage of this fact, and they do so with impunity," Frontex spokeswoman Izabella Cooper said.

The aid groups have denied being in cahoots with smugglers, but Catania's chief prosecutor, Carmelo Zuccaro, testified to parliament last month about the phenomenon, in particular the funding behind the aid groups' operations.

Cooper says there are both "push and pull" factors at play in the Libyan migration saga, with wars, poverty and famine pushing the migrants to Libya and the relative ease with which they then can reach Europe pulling them to make the risky crossing.

But behind it all is money: Europol reported that smugglers made some 5-6 billion euros in 2015, a peak year for arrivals in the EU, making it one of the most profitable activities for organized criminals in Europe. On the Libyan end, an EU military task force reported in December that Libyan coastal communities earned around 270-325 million euros a year from smuggling operations.

Trisha Thomas in Rome contributed to this report.

Spain saves 73 migrants from 5 boats crossing from Africa

April 14, 2017

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Spanish rescue ships saved 73 migrants, including one pregnant woman, from five different smuggling boats trying to cross the sea from Africa to Europe during the previous 24 hours.

The pregnant woman and 25 other migrants were aboard a vessel that was taking on water in the Atlantic Ocean when reached by the rescue boat Salvamar Gadir before daybreak Friday. They were found 15 miles (24 kilometers) southwest of the Atlantic coastal town of Barbate, which lies between Cadiz and Gibraltar. Emergency services for Spain's Andalucia region said the 20 men and six women were all of North African descent.

Another four boats carrying migrants who told Spanish authorities they were from Algeria were intercepted in the Mediterranean Sea. The civil guard based on the island of Mallorca said their ships had found two boats with 14 men each both on Thursday and Friday. Closer to the mainland, civil guard boats patrolling near Cartagena intercepted another two boats — one on Thursday with 11 men, a second craft on Friday with eight more men.

All the migrants were in good health, according to authorities. Tens of thousands of migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan African countries, try to reach the shores of Spain and Italy by boat each year. On Wednesday, a 10-year-old girl and two adults died when their boat capsized while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Spain.

Maduro decrees Venezuelans will write new constitution

May 02, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's embattled president issued a decree Monday for writing a new constitution, ratcheting up a political crisis that has drawn hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters into the streets.

President Nicolas Maduro gave no details on how members would be chosen for a planned citizen assembly to produce a new charter, though he hinted some would selected by voters. Many observers expect the socialist administration to give itself the power to pick a majority of delegates to the convention.

Opposition leaders immediately objected, charging that writing a new constitution would give Maduro an excuse to put off regional elections scheduled for this year and a presidential election that was to be held in 2018. Polling has suggested the socialists would lose both those elections badly amid widespread anger over Venezuela's economic woes.

Speaking hours after another big march demanding his ouster ended in clashes between police and protesters, Maduro said a new constitution is needed to restore peace and stop the opposition from trying to carry out a coup.

"This will be a citizens assembly made up of workers," Maduro said. "The day has come brothers. Don't fail me now. Don't fail (Hugo) Chavez and don't fail your motherland." If the constitutional process goes forward, opposition leaders will need to focus on getting at least some sympathetic figures included in the citizens assembly. That could distract them from the drumbeat of near daily street protests that they have managed to keep up for four weeks, political analyst Luis Vicente Leon said.

"It's a way of calling elections that uses up energy but does not carry risk, because it's not a universal, direct and secret vote," Leon said. "And it has the effect of pushing out the possibility of elections this year and probably next year as well."

The constitution was last rewritten in 1999, early in the 14-year presidency of the late Hugo Chavez, who began Venezuela's socialist transformation. The leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Julio Borges, called the idea of a constitutional assembly a "giant fraud" by Maduro and his allies designed to keep them in power at any cost. Borges said it would deny Venezuelans the right to express their views at the ballot box, and he urged the military to prevent the "coup" by Maduro.

"What the Venezuelan people want isn't to change the constitution but to change Maduro through voting," he said at a news conference in eastern Caracas, where anti-government protesters once again clashed with police Monday.

Anti-government protests have been roiling Venezuela for a month, and Borges said more pressure is needed to restore democracy. He called for a series of street actions, including a symbolic pot-banging protest Monday night and a major demonstration Wednesday.

Earlier Monday, anti-Maduro protesters tried to march on government buildings in downtown Caracas, but police blocked their path — just as authorities have done more than a dozen times in four weeks of near-daily protests. Officers launched tear gas and chased people away from main thoroughfares as the peaceful march turned into chaos.

Opposition lawmaker Jose Olivares was hit in the head with a tear gas canister and was led away with blood streaming down his face. Some demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs and dragged trash into the streets to make barricades.

A separate government-sponsored march celebrating May Day went off without incident in the city. At least 29 people have died in the unrest of the past month and hundreds have been injured. People of all ages and class backgrounds are participating in the protests. The unrest started in reaction to an attempt to nullify the opposition controlled-congress, but has become a vehicle for people to vent their fury at widespread shortages of food and other basic goods, violence on a par with a war zone, and triple-digit inflation. Maduro accuses his opponents of conspiring to overthrow him and undermine the country's struggling economy.

The move to rewrite the constitution underscored many protesters' chief complaint about the administration: That it has become an unfeeling dictatorship. Sergio Hernandez, a computer technology worker who attended Monday's protest, said he would not return to his normal life until Maduro's administration had been driven out.

"We're ready to take the streets for a month or however long is needed for this government to understand that it must go," he said.

Venezuela's Maduro hikes minimum wage amid rising protests

May 01, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro hiked wages and handed out hundreds of free homes Sunday amid his efforts to counter a strengthening protest movement seeking his removal.

On his regular television show, "Sundays with Maduro," the president ordered a 60 percent increase in the country's minimum wage starting Monday. It was the third pay increase the socialist leader has ordered this year and the 15th since he became president in 2013.

It is small solace to workers who seen the buying power of their earnings eroded by a sinking currency and the world's highest inflation — forecast to accelerate to 2,000 percent next year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

With the latest wage increase and mandatory food subsidies, the minimum take home pay for millions of Venezuelans now stands at 200,000 bolivars a month — or less than $50 at the widely used black market rate.

"We're here to take care of the workers, those who are most humble, and not the privileges of the oligarchs," Maduro said. In addition to the pay hike, he announced a special "economic war" bonus to retirees to make up for what he says are attempts by the opposition to sabotage the economy.

The president also watched as officials in several states handed over the keys to hundreds of new apartments, some built with Chinese funding, bringing to 1.6 million the number of public housing units built by a program started by the late President Hugo Chavez.

The announcements came as government supporters and Maduro's opponents prepared for rival marches to commemorate May Day on Monday. Twenty-nine people have been killed, hundreds injured and more than 1,300 arrested during a month of protests that are the bloodiest to hit Venezuela since anti-government unrest in 2014 resulted in more than 40 dead.

Protesters accuse Maduro of taking Venezuela down the path of dictatorship, unrest triggered by the government-stacked Supreme Court stripping congress of its last vestiges of power. They are demanding early elections and freedom for dozens of political prisoners as a way out of the stalemate.

The opposition blames the recent deaths on security forces and pro-government militias for the deaths. The government has complained of what it considers biased media coverage that will pave the way for some sort of foreign intervention in Venezuela.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez met with foreign correspondents for a second straight week to present the government's case. Rodriguez sought to "completely disprove" the opposition's claim that security forces fired a tear gas canister which hit the chest of 20-year-old college student and killed him died during a protest in Caracas last week. She said there were strong indications that the youth, Juan Pablo Pernalete, might have been killed with a cattle stun gun used against him by fellow protesters.

As political tensions have mounted, Maduro, a former bus driver, has worked hard to reinforce his everyman image. In recent days he has appeared on state TV tossing a baseball around with aides, rapping with a hip-hop group and taking first lady Cilia Flores on a popular tourist gondola to the top of Avila Mountain overlooking Caracas.

But the campaign to project business as usual has sometimes backfired. For example, last week he posted to his more than 3 million followers on Twitter a video showing him driving a car at night through a neighborhood that hours earlier experienced street clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces. It didn't take long before someone noticed that passing by the open passenger window was a large graffiti scribbled on a wall that read "Maduro: Assassin of students."

Maduro on Sunday repeated his call for dialogue, which the opposition has rejected after Vatican-sponsored talks collapsed in December with little progress. He also repeated a pledge to hold gubernatorial elections soon, perhaps as early as this year.

Many in the opposition consider Maduro's offer of gubernatorial elections an empty concession and are pushing for an early presidential vote after the government cancelled regional races last year. Maduro's allies currently govern in 20 of Venezuela's 23 states but polls indicate the opposition would likely win the next election after it took control of congress in December 2015 by a landslide.

Venezuelans march in memory of those killed in unrest

April 23, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Thousands of Venezuelans dressed in white marched in the capital Saturday to pay homage to the at least 20 people killed in anti-government unrest in recent weeks. Protests have been roiling Venezuela on an almost daily basis since the pro-government Supreme Court stripped congress of its last powers three weeks ago, a decision later reversed amid a storm of international rebuke.

But for the first since the protests began, demonstrators managed to cross from the wealthier eastern side of Caracas to the traditionally pro-government west without encountering resistance from state security.

Opposition lawmaker Freddy Guevara, relishing the feat, likened the protesters' arrival in the city's more humble neighborhoods as "crossing the Berlin wall." Once assembled outside the headquarters of the Roman Catholic bishops' confederation, religious leaders led the crowd in a moment of silence and asked God for strength. Then a string of political leaders passed around a megaphone and from the back of a pick-up truck repeated their demand of recent days for immediate elections and freedom for dozens of jailed government opponents they consider political prisoners.

"Let it be heard: The dictatorship is in its final days," said Maria Corina Machado, who was stripped of her seat in congress in 2014. The crowd responded with shouts of "Freedom! Freedom!" Many Venezuelans blame the socialist policies of President Nicolas Maduro's administration for triple-digit inflation and widespread shortages of food and medical supplies.

Among the demonstrators gathered in Caracas was Andres Ramirez, a 34-year-old agricultural engineer who marched with a giant cross draped in the Venezuelan flag. "I am here carrying this cross for the peace of all Venezuelans," he said beneath a punishing sun. "We ask God to protect us in these moments of crisis and suffering."

Elsewhere in the city, smaller pockets of violent protesters, some of them with their faces covered and throwing rocks, clashed with riot police, who responded with tear gas. The opposition contends rogue armed pro-government groups have been fomenting the violence that has swirled around protests. Government leaders claim the violence is generated by right-wing opposition forces working with criminal gangs in an attempt to remove them from power.

"These are terrorist groups on a mission to sow hate and death," Diosdado Cabello, leader of the ruling socialist party, told supporters this week.

Scotland Sets Wind Record, Provides Enough Electricity for 3.3 Million Homes in March

True Activist
12 April

By Amanda Froelich

Slowly but surely, it is becoming fact that households and entire countries can run on clean, renewable energy. Costa Rica, for instance, ran on renewable energy sources for 285 days in 2015 and achieved similarly in 2016. Additionally, Denmark produced 160 percent of its energy needs in one day in July of 2015 via wind power.

Now it has been reported that Scottish turbines provided 1.2 million megawatt hours of electricity to the National Grid—enough energy to meet the electrical needs of 136 percent of households in the country (or ~3.3 million homes). What's more, 58 percent of Scotland's entire electricity needs were met for the entire month. The Independent reported that on March 17 and March 19, enough energy was generated to power Scotland's total power needs for an entire day.

An analysis of WeatherEnergy data by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Scotland revealed that the amount of energy generated in March increased by a staggering 81 percent compared to the same month in 2016.

WWF Scotland's director, Lang Banks, commented on the monumental achievement:

"Given this March wasn't as windy as it has been in some previous years, this year's record output shows the importance of continuing to increase capacity by building new wind farms.

"As well as helping to power our homes and businesses, wind power supports thousands of jobs and continues to play an important role in Scotland's efforts to address global climate change by avoiding millions of tonnes of carbon emissions every year," he added.

Karen Robinson of WeatherEnergy added her insight:

"It's massively impressive how Scotland has steadily grown its wind power output [over] the years. The total output from turbines this March was up more than four-fifths compared to the same period last year. This was enough power to provide the equivalent of the electrical needs of over three million homes. More importantly, it meant the equivalent of almost three-fifths of Scotland's total electricity needs during March were met by onshore wind power."

Now that Scotland has set an impressive new wind record, the WWF is calling on political parties to continue backing onshore wind power to help the country meet its carbon emission cut targets. One of the country's goals is to deliver the equivalent of 50 percent of the energy required for Scotland's heat, transport and electricity needs from renewable energy sources by 2030.

Source: EcoWatch.
Link: http://www.ecowatch.com/scotland-wind-power-record-2357425827.html.

2 teens die in April avalanche in western Romania

April 22, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romanian authorities say two teenagers have died in an avalanche in western Romania after the country was hit by a blast of wintry weather. Emergency situations chief Raed Arafat told The Associated Press that rescue workers pulled the bodies of two youngsters, aged 13 and 14, out of the snow after the avalanche hit Saturday but three others were not in danger.

He said the group was in the Retezat Mountains, an area popular with hikers 350 kilometers (220 miles) northwest of Bucharest, the capital. He didn't know whether they were hiking or skiing. He says "they were caught in the avalanche and unfortunately they couldn't be saved."

Arafat said local authorities had warned about a high risk of avalanches, saying it was unsafe even to send a helicopter there.

Italy's Renzi easily in Democratic Party primary

May 01, 2017

ROME (AP) — Former Premier Matteo Renzi regained the Democratic Party leadership, handily winning a Sunday primary that he hopes will bolster the center-left's ability to counter growing support for populist politicians in Italy ahead of national elections.

"Forward, together," Renzi tweeted, invigorated by his comeback after a stinging defeat in a December reforms referendum aimed in part at streamlining the legislative process led him to resign as head of Italy's government and as leader of his squabbling party.

"The alternative to populism isn't the elite," Renzi told supports late Sunday after unofficial results indicated he got more than 70 percent of votes cast nationwide. "It's people who aren't afraid of democracy."

Some politicians predicted that the primary win would embolden Renzi to maneuver seeking to bring national elections ahead of their spring 2018 due date as part of his effort to rein in increasing popularity for the populist, anti-euro 5-Star Movement.

But a top Renzi ally sought to counter that idea. "The government's horizon is 2018. Starting tomorrow, we'll work with Premier (Paolo) Gentiloni. Gentiloni's government is our government," said Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina.

Renzi's party is still the main force in Italy's center-left coalition government, but opinion polls indicate it is no longer the country' most popular. Overtaking the Democrats in recent soundings was the 5-Star Movement, whose leader, comic Beppe Grillo, wants a crackdown on migrants, rails against European Union-mandated austerity and opposes Italy belonging to the euro single currency group.

Throughout the day, some 2 million voters lined up at makeshift gazebos in piazzas and street corners, at ice cream parlors, cafes or local party headquarters around the country to cast ballots for a new head of the splintering Democratic Party, whose rank-and-file range from former Communists to former Christian Democrats.

Primary voting was open to anyone 16 years of age of older — the oldest voter was reported to be 105. Holding Democratic Party membership wasn't a requirement. Trailing far behind in the votes were Justice Minister Andrea Orlando and Puglia region Gov. Michele Emiliano.

In addition to countering the challenge of 5-Star's popularity, to regain Italy's premiership, Renzi will have to contend with malcontents and defectors in his own party. A group of mostly former Communists split from the Democrats and formed a small, new party in resentment over both Renzi's centrist leanings and his authoritarian style.

Renzi's reputation in politics is one of ruthlessness. In early 2014, he promised then-premier and fellow Democrat Enrico Letta that he wouldn't undermine the government, only to shortly afterward engineer Letta's downfall. Renzi then became premier.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella recently insisted that electoral laws must be overhauled before new elections. Currently, there is one set of electoral rules for the lower Chamber of Deputies and a completely different one for the Senate, a consequence of the failed reform referendum.

Le Pen and Macron clash in no holds-barred debate in France

May 04, 2017

PARIS (AP) — The only face-to-face televised debate between France's presidential candidates turned into an uncivil, no-holds-barred head-on clash of styles, politics and personalities Wednesday. Emmanuel Macron called his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen a "parasite" who would lead the country into civil war. She painted the former banker as a lackey of big business who is soft on Islamic extremism.

Neither landed a knockout blow in the 2½-hour prime-time slugfest — but not for lack of trying. The tone was ill-tempered from the get-go, with no common ground or love lost between the two candidates and their polar opposite plans and visions for France. Both sought to destabilize each other and neither really succeeded.

For the large cohort of voters who remain undecided, the debate at least had the merit of making abundantly clear the stark choice facing them at the ballot box Sunday. Neither candidate announced major shifts in their policy platforms. They instead spent much of their carefully monitored allotments of time attacking each other — often personally.

Le Pen's choicest barb came as she argued that Macron, if elected, would be in the pocket of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Either way France will be led by a woman; either me or Madame Merkel," she said derisively.

Macron gave as good as he got and, at times, got the upper hand with his pithy slights. In the closing minutes, he used a sharp-tongued monologue to target one of Le Pen's biggest vulnerabilities: her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme-right former presidential candidate repeatedly convicted for hate speech and who founded her party, the National Front.

Throughout, Macron portrayed Marine Le Pen as an empty shell, shaky on details and facts, seeking to profit politically by stirring up hatred and the anger of French voters — a dominant theme of the campaign — without feasible proposals. He called her "the high priestess of fear."

"Your project consists of telling the French people, 'This person is horrible.' It's to cast dirt. It's to lead a campaign of lies and falsifications. Your project lives off fear and lies. That's what sustains you. That's what sustained your father for decades. That's what nourished the extreme right and that is what created you," Macron said. "You are its parasite."

"What class!" Le Pen retorted. One of the most heated exchanges was on terrorism — a top concern for Le Pen's voters and many French in the wake of repeated attacks since 2015. Saying that Islamic extremists must be "eradicated," Le Pen said Macron wouldn't be up to the task.

"You won't do that," she charged. Saying France's fight against terror would be his priority if elected, Macron countered that Le Pen's anti-terror plans would play into extremists' hands and divide France.

"The trap they're setting for us, the one that you're proposing, is civil war. What the terrorists expect is division among ourselves. What the terrorists expect is heinous speech," Macron said. Sitting opposite one another at a round table, the debate quickly became a shouting match. She had piles of notes in colored folders, and referred to them occasionally. His side of the table was sparser, with just a few sheets of paper. He at times rested his chin on his hands as she spoke, fixing her in his gaze and smiling wryly at her barbs.

They clashed over France's finances, its future and their respective proposals for tackling its ills. He scoffed at her monetary plans, saying reintroducing a franc for purchases within France but allowing big firms to continue using the shared euro currency that Le Pen wants to abandon made no sense.

She dismissed his economic proposals with sweeping critiques and bristled at his suggestions that she didn't understand how finance and business work. "You're trying to play with me like a professor with a pupil," she said.

They also clashed over foreign policy. Macron said he wants to work with U.S. President Donald Trump on intelligence-sharing, at the United Nations and on climate change. He spoke less favorably of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying on many subjects "we don't have the same values and priorities."

"We have no reason to be in a cold war with Russia," Le Pen said. He said that her election would harm France's image abroad, charging: "The world won't look favorably on us." While Macron was borderline patronizing at times, she sought — but failed — to make it seem like he has trouble controlling his temper, which stayed fairly even throughout.

"You're interrupting me about every 10 seconds. I sense you're a bit exasperated," she said. The debate offered risk and reward for both. A major trip-up or meltdown beamed direct into the homes of millions of electors could have dented their presidential ambitions in the closing stages of the intense campaign that has already steered France into uncharted territory. The first round of voting on April 23 eliminated mainstream parties from the left and right and propelled the 39-year-old Macron, who has no major party backing, and the 48-year-old Le Pen into the winner-takes-all runoff on Sunday.

Trailing in polls, Le Pen needed but failed to land a knockout blow in the debate to erode the seemingly comfortable lead of Macron, the front-runner who topped round one, nearly three points ahead of Le Pen.

For Macron, the priority was to prevent Le Pen from making up ground in the race's final days. Mission accomplished.

Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley and Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

Would-be French first lady an unusual presence in campaign

May 03, 2017

PARIS (AP) — As French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron prepares for a Sunday runoff against far-right rival Marine Le Pen, his wife is pondering the prospect of a prominent job herself. That's unusual for France, as is the fact that throughout the campaign Brigitte Macron has been her husband's closest collaborator.

Le Pen and her companion, Louis Aliot, an official with her far-right National Front party, remain discreet about their relationship, only occasionally appearing publicly as a couple. Brigitte Macron, meanwhile, has become one of the most talked-about women in France. Much of it is mean-spirited, focusing on her age: She is 64 while her husband is 39. Feminists denounce the comments as sexist and note that the Macrons' age difference is identical to that of Donald and Melania Trump.

Many voters have ignored such talk, focusing on the economic and security issues in the campaigns. "Of course it's very unusual for a woman to be much older than her husband, but once you've said that there's nothing much to add," said Parisian Marie Coste, 34. "It's more important to focus on the candidates' policies."

Emmanuel Macron responded to the issue Monday by acknowledging that his family is "a little different." "So yes, there are in France lots of families," he told a crowd chanting his wife's name. "There are same-sex couples and different-sex couples. There are different filiations. And there is plenty of love."

The crowd gave him a standing ovation. The couple met when she was about the age he is now; he was a teenager. Then known as Brigitte Auziere, the married mother of three taught French literature in the northern French town of Amiens, where Emmanuel Macron attended a Catholic high school.

Although she never was assigned as his teacher, she was in charge of the high school drama club when he joined. They got to know each other when the 16-year-old Emmanuel suggested they write a play together.

"We wrote, and little by little, I was totally awed by the intellect of this boy," she recalled in a documentary on French television last year. "His culture, his clever, well-formed head. Amazing." Macron's parents, worried about the budding love affair, sent him away for his last year of high school. Brigitte eventually divorced, returned to her maiden name, Trogneux, and joined him in Paris.

The couple married in 2007. They have no children together but Macron says his wife's three children and seven grand-children are his family. The couple appeared hand-in-hand on stage the night he placed first in the presidential election's first round. They waved at the crowd with tears in their eyes and kissed — another rarity in French politics, where politicians usually keep their private lives private.

Brigitte Macron often accompanies her husband on campaign stops, taking selfies and listening to people's concerns. She also helps prepare his speeches. A fashion lover, her style is often described as "modern" in French magazines. She sat in the front row at recent Dior and Louis Vuitton shows.

She quit her job at a chic Parisian high school in 2015 to help her husband. Former students at the Lycee Saint-Louis de Gonzague describe her as an enthusiastic, dynamic, joyful person keen to share her passion for French authors.

As a first lady, she says, she would continue to focus on young people. "My combat will be education," she told Paris Match magazine last year. Genevieve Perrier, 91, who lives in the countryside in the Burgundy region, praised Brigitte Macron's apparent "simplicity" because "she seems to speak to everyone when we see her on television. She seems very kind."

Perrier said Brigitte Macron reminds her of another atypical woman, Germaine Coty, France's first lady in the 1950s. At first mocked for her grandmotherly style, Coty went on to enjoy great popularity because of her devotion to the French people.

More recently, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's now-former wife, Cecilia, played a major role in his campaign and worked alongside him. The couple split up a few months after Sarkozy's election in 2007. The president soon remarried and his new wife, model and singer Carla Bruni, assumed a more traditional role as first lady by staying out of politics and taking part in charity events.

Emmanuel Macron says he would formalize the job of first lady if he wins the election, and his wife would help decide how. "She has her word to say in this," he said this month. France has not had a first lady since current President Francois Hollande and his girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, parted ways. Their breakup came in 2014 after a tabloid magazine exposed his affair with actress Julie Gayet. Gayet and Hollande have never appeared together in public.

France's Macron promises to pass ethics bill if elected

May 02, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is promising an ethics bill that will block office-holders from conflicts of interest, nepotism and other ethical issues that have infuriated voters.

Macron, who started his own political movement just a year ago, also promised he could get a legislative majority to pass the measure and others he says France needs to pull itself from the economic doldrums.

Legislative elections are in June, and whoever is president will depend on lawmakers to implement an agenda. Candidates of the two main parties, the Socialists and the Republicans, failed to make it to the presidential runoff for the first time in modern French history. Macron, who has pulled support from both wings, said Tuesday candidates will have to quit their parties to run in his movement.

French campaign revs up with rival rallies, May Day marches

May 01, 2017

PARIS (AP) — With just six days until a French presidential vote that could define Europe's future, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron are holding high-stakes rallies Monday that overlap with nationwide May Day labor marches reminding both candidates that jobs are voters' No. 1 concern.

The tense campaign interrupted the usual calm of the May Day holiday, as supporters of both candidates are taking to the streets, airwaves and social networks to weigh on an election closely watched by global financial markets and France's neighbors as a test of the global populist wave.

Le Pen's efforts to clean up the racism and anti-Semitism that has stained her anti-immigration National Front party's past may be undermined by a parallel Paris event by her father, Jean-Marie, expelled from the party over his extreme views.

Seeking to remind voters of the National Front's dark past, Macron paid homage to a Moroccan man thrown to his death in the Seine River on the sidelines of a far-right march more than two decades ago. Macron joined the man's father and anti-National Front protesters at an annual commemoration near the Louvre Museum.

The National Front traditionally holds a march in central Paris on May 1 to honor Joan of Arc, and at the 1995 event, a group of skinheads broke away and pushed 29-year-old Brahim Bourram off a bridge into the Seine, where he drowned. Then-party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen sought to distance himself from the attackers, but the death drew national outrage.

Jean-Marie Le Pen is holding the Joan of Arc event again Monday, a march his daughter wants nothing to do with. Instead she is holding a rally in an exhibition center north of Paris. Marine Le Pen said on France-2 television Sunday night that the political rupture with her father "is definitive." She called it a "violent" decision for herself, but said she did it "because the higher interest of the country was at stake."

Her event will be opened by Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a conservative candidate from the first-round election who shocked many French by agreeing to be Le Pen's prime minister if she wins the presidency. Le Pen, speaking Monday on Europe-1 radio, reached out to "all those who are patriots" and who want to restore French borders and currency and "rediscover the voice of labor, defend our identity, fight against Islamic fundamentalism."

Meanwhile, the traditional May 1 union marches across France will be politically charged this year. Some groups want a united front to keep Le Pen from the presidency, but unions also fear that Macron — a former investment banker — will dismantle worker protections.

Macron, who says his plans to restructure France's complex labor laws would boost job creation, said Sunday night that May 1 "is the face of a globalization that protects workers ... an accomplishment of the great labor fights to defend worker rights. ... Globalization is not only the face of those who oppress."

Macron's startup-style campaign upends French expectations

May 01, 2017

POITIERS, France (AP) — Whether or not Emmanuel Macron wins the French presidency in next Sunday's runoff, he has already accomplished the unthinkable. That's thanks to an unorthodox, American-style grassroots campaign, which has harvested ideas from the left and the right, tossed them with a dose of startup culture and business school acumen and produced a political phenomenon. Without a party to back him up or any experience stumping for votes, the 39-year-old Macron came out on top of the first round of the French presidential vote, winning over 8 million voters and overturning decades of French political expectations.

An inside look by The Associated Press at Macron's campaign found a mix of high-tech savvy, political naivete and a jarring disconnect between his multilingual, well-traveled campaign team and a mass of ordinary voters who have never left France and fear being crushed by immigration and job losses.

"It's not a done deal," campaign spokeswoman Laurence Haim told The AP during a campaign trip Saturday, careful to insist that, despite polls naming Macron the election favorite, risks remain. "We are extremely cautious."

The centrist Macron is facing off against far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the presidential runoff. Detractors dub Macron a bubble that, if elected, would deflate and self-destruct at the first national crisis. Le Pen labels him a puppet of the borderless financial and political elite at a time when many workers feel like globalization roadkill.

Le Pen's campaign is unusual in its own ways. She has broadened her support base far beyond the xenophobic old guard associated with her National Front party when her father Jean-Marie was in charge. Today the people stumping for Le Pen votes at farmers' markets and university campuses include the children of immigrants, academics, gays and former communists. She is also campaigning in her own name — not that of her party, a clear bid to distance herself from its past stigma.

Macron's team wants to puncture the heterogeneous image of Le Pen's campaign, and paints her as a closed-minded nationalist with a dangerous populist vision. "It's a fight between two different kinds of societies, for France and for Europe," Haim said. "We are going to show the French people — and hopefully the world — that we are fighting for something bigger than us."

Haim worked 25 years as a journalist in Washington before deciding to join politics in December — out of fear of seeing a French Donald Trump rise to power on a populist wave. "Of course we feel the Trump effect," Haim said. "The Marine Le Pen people watched very carefully what Donald Trump was doing."

Since Macron won the first-round vote, Haim and other members of his team have been shuttling non-stop around France, from a factory in Macron's northern hometown of Amiens to the site of a Nazi massacre to a farm in Usseau in central France. His campaign headquarters in southern Paris includes a nap room, though it's used more for storing spare shoes than rest.

Macron's team starts their day about 7 a.m. and goes until 1 a.m., huddling around laptops in a low-profile office building. A crucial part of the operation is the "riposte desk," assigned with tracking Macron's public statements and the social media reaction. For each hostile tweet, Macron's team tries to counter.

National Front activists and their supporters have a head start here — they've been using social networks for years to build their following outside France's traditional media. Macron's team is increasingly cautious about language, avoiding English words in public statements or anything that smacks of elitism. That's especially important because his campaign team is exceptionally international — more than half have lived abroad, unlike most French voters.

Le Pen is much better at speaking the language of the people, yet her headquarters is on one of Paris' most elite streets — the same one as the presidential Elysee Palace. In contrast to Macron's campaign, she never envisions losing, saying "When I am president," not "if."

For both campaigns, security is increasingly important, especially since an Islamic State-claimed attack in Paris earlier this month. With sniffer dogs, pat downs and layers of bodyguards, it's tougher to enter a campaign event for either candidate now than it was to follow Nicolas Sarkozy's presidential campaign in 2012 — and he was president at the time.

With concerns about Russian meddling a running theme in the French race, three key figures in Macron's security team are Russian-speakers — his cybersecurity chief, his towering bodyguard and his security strategist.

The campaign team also includes a large number of political novices, coming from technical, financial or cultural backgrounds, and their campaign inexperience sometimes shows. Macron is trying to learn from recent electoral blows, such as when Le Pen upstaged him last week at a Whirlpool factory in Amiens that is threatened with closure.

Macron "is trying to understand what is happening to French society," Haim said. On Saturday, Macron snaked slowly through the open-air market of Poitiers, absorbing a string of complaints from farmers about European aid and competition. Macron remained somewhat stiff but patient, listening to lengthy laments then laying out his plans. He made no generous promises but defended his vision of a simplified yet stringent state and a unified Europe.

When a baker refused to shake Macron's hand, he took it in stride, moving on to a flower seller happy to seek his autograph. His staffers buzzed around taking names of his interlocutors, and minutes later in Macron's convoy afterward, they shared lessons learned on the rough road of political life. They've come a long way since a year ago, when Macron launched a vague political movement.

"Everybody was telling him it's going to be impossible, you're crazy. It could not happen in France," Haim said. "He looked at them and said, 'Trust me, I'm going to do it.'" And a year later, thanks also to a series of electoral surprises that hurt his rivals, Macron won the first-round vote and is now a step away from the French presidency.

Angela Charlton, AP's chief of bureau for France, the Benelux countries and North Africa, has covered France since 2006. This story was based on two days up close on the campaign trail with Emmanuel Macron and months of following both his campaign and that of his competitor, the far-right Marine Le Pen.

Sylvie Corbet and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.

Nepal's top judge suspended after impeachment motion filed

May 01, 2017

KATHMANDU, Nepal (AP) — Nepal's first female Supreme Court chief justice was suspended after an impeachment motion was filed in Parliament accusing her of bias and interfering with executive powers. Sushila Karki, who held one of the highest positions ever held by a woman in Nepal, was suspended automatically after the motion signed by nearly half the members in Parliament was registered, Supreme Court spokesman Mahendra Nath Upadhaya said Monday.

Deputy Prime Minister Bimalendra Nidhi resigned in protest of the impeachment motion, an absence likely to cause problems because crucial municipal and district elections are planned in two weeks. Nidhi was also the home minister tasked with arranging security for the polls.

Nidhi handed in his resignation because he disagrees with the motion filed against the chief justice that would bring further distance between the legislature and judiciary, his press adviser Ramjee Dahal said.

There was no discussion on the issue within the party, Dahal said. Nidhi is from the Nepali Congress party, one of the two ruling parties whose members signed the motion. Karki was accused of interfering with executive powers and issuing biased decisions. The motion cited the court's order overturning the government's appointment of the police chief.

The motion, filed late Sunday, would have to first be debated in Parliament and then would require two-thirds of votes in the 601-seat Parliament for it to be approved. Karki was known for zero tolerance against corruption. She was appointed chief justice in April 2016 and was due to retire next month.