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May 07, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Women banged on pans and some stripped off their white shirts Saturday as they protested Venezuela’s socialist government in an event the opposition billed as a “women’s march against repression.” As they marched, local media carried a video showing people toppling a statue of the late President Hugo Chavez the day before in the western state of Zulia.

Thousands of women took over streets in major cities all around the South American country. Wearing the white shirts of the opponents of country’s increasingly embattled government, the women sang the national anthem and chanted, “Who are we? Venezuela! What do we want? Freedom!”

Some sported makeshift gear to protect against tear gas and rubber bullets. Others marched topless. One woman came in her wedding dress. As they have near-daily for five weeks, police in riot gear again took control of major roads in the capital city. Clashes between police and protesters have left some three dozen dead in the past month.

Local news media carried a video circulating on Twitter of the Chavez statue being pulled down. The media reported that students destroyed the statue as they vented their anger with the food shortages, inflation and spiraling crime that have come to define life here.

Several young men could be seen bashing the statue that depicted the socialist hero standing in a saluting pose, as onlookers hurled insults as the late president. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez on Friday denounced the protest movement, and said opposition “terrorists” were attempting a kind of nonconventional warfare.

The protest movement has drawn masses of people into the street nearly every day since March, and shows no sign of slowing. On Saturday, some of the women marchers approached soldiers in riot gear to offer them white roses and invite them to join the cause.

“What will you tell your kids later on?” one woman asked. In a call with the president of Peru, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. A statement from the White House’s Office of the Press Secretary said Trump underscored to President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski that “the United States will work together with Peru in seeking to improve democratic institutions and help the people of Venezuela.”

May 05, 2017

MINSK, Belarus (AP) — Leonid Androv, an electrician from Kiev, was drafted into the Ukrainian army and spent a year fighting Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine after the conflict broke out in 2014. Now, like many other Ukrainians, he is ready to accept that those lands are lost.

“The Russians are in charge there and they are methodically erasing everything Ukrainian. So why should I and impoverished Ukraine pay for the occupation?” said Androv, 43. Long unthinkable after years of fighting and about 10,000 deaths, Ukrainians increasingly are coming around to the idea of at least temporarily abandoning the region known as the Donbass, considering it to be de facto occupied by Russia.

This would effectively kill the Minsk peace agreement brokered by Germany and France, which aims to preserve a united Ukraine. The Minsk agreement is still firmly supported both by the West and Russia, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed at their meeting this week.

The 2015 agreement, which Ukraine signed as its troops were being driven back, has greatly reduced but not stopped the fighting, while attempts to fulfill its provisions for a political settlement have failed.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko still stands by Minsk. In recent months, however, his government has moved to isolate the east by blocking trade and shutting off supplies of electricity and gas, demonstrating that it now considers the industrial region to be Moscow’s problem.

Several factions in the Ukrainian parliament have introduced legislation that would designate those territories outside of Kiev’s control as “occupied.” “We should call a spade a spade and recognize the Russian occupation of Donbass,” said Yuriy Bereza, a co-author of the legislation. Bereza, who commanded one of the volunteer battalions that fought in the east, called it necessary to preserve the state.

The likelihood of the legislation coming up for a vote is low, given the government’s reluctance to formally acknowledge the loss of these territories. Almost half of Ukrainians, however, favor declaring the separatist-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to be occupied, according to a poll conducted by the Razumkov Center.

Under Minsk, the two regions are to remain part of Ukraine but with “special status.” They would have the right to hold their own elections. Those who fought against the Ukrainian army would receive amnesty.

These provisions have little popular support. The poll found that only 22 percent of Ukrainians were ready to grant the Donbass this “special status,” while 31 percent of respondents said they found it difficult to answer. The poll, conducted in January among 2,018 people across Ukraine, had a margin of error of 2.3 percentage points.

“It is obvious that Ukrainian society supports the isolation and blockade of the Donbass. And this is exactly what is dictating President Poroshenko’s behavior,” said Razumkov Center sociologist Andrei Bychenko. “If Poroshenko plans to seek a second term, he has to think about the mood of society, not about the expectations of the West.”

Poroshenko was elected after mass protests led to the ouster of Ukraine’s Russia-friendly president in early 2014 and put the country on a path toward closer integration with the West. While still speaking about a united Ukraine, Poroshenko’s government last month shut off electricity supplies to Luhansk over unpaid debts. Kiev already had stopped supplying gas to both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and in March, Poroshenko imposed a trade blockade on the regions beyond Kiev’s control.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters this was “one more step by Ukraine to rid itself of these territories.” Although Russia quickly annexed the Crimean Peninsula at the start of the conflict, Putin has made clear he has no interest in annexing eastern Ukraine.

“The Kremlin has tried to push this cancerous tumor back into Ukraine, using Donetsk and Lugansk as a Trojan horse to manipulate Kiev,” said Russian political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky. “But the Ukrainian government has had enough sense not to let it happen.”

Putin, speaking to journalists Tuesday after talks with Merkel, responded angrily to a suggestion that perhaps it was time for a new peace agreement since the Donbass already had de facto separated from Ukraine.

“No one has severed these territories. They were severed by the Ukrainian government itself through all sorts of blockades,” Putin said. Russia was forced to support Donbass, he added, noting that it was “still supplying a significant amount of goods, including power, and providing coke for Ukrainian metallurgical plants.”

Putin and Merkel both said that despite the problems they saw no alternative to the Minsk agreement. Sergei Garmash is among the 2 million people who have left their homes in eastern Ukraine. He said there is almost nothing Ukrainian left in Donetsk, which now uses Russian rubles, receives only Russian television and survives thanks to Russian subsidies.

“Ukrainian politicians need to be brave and legally recognize this territory as occupied by Russia. This will force Moscow to pick up the bill. And the more expensive this adventure will be for the Kremlin, the sooner it will walk away,” said Garmash, 45, who now lives in Kiev.

Moscow sends humanitarian convoys to the Donbass every month and pays the salaries and pensions of people who live there. Russia also supports the separatist military operations, although the Kremlin continues to deny that it sends arms and troops.

Russia has been hurt economically by sanctions imposed by the West over the annexation of Crimea and support for the separatists. “Public opinion has swung sharply toward the isolation of Donbass, and for the Kiev government it is an opportune time to shift all the expenses of the ‘frozen conflict’ to Moscow,” said Vladimir Fesenko, head of the Penta Center of Political Studies in Ukraine.

“Of course the war in Donbass was incited by Russia to slow Ukraine’s move toward Europe,” Fesenko said. “But no Ukrainian politician can publicly give up on Crimea and Donbass and recognize them as part of Russia.”

Androv, the Kiev electrician, said the problem is that no one knows what to do with Donbass. Likening it to a suitcase with no handle, he said: “It’s too heavy to carry, but it’s a shame to throw it away.”

May 06, 2017

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The world’s oldest standing army has 40 new members after a Vatican Swiss Guard swearing-in ceremony. Each man took a loyalty oath Saturday evening in a ritual-rich ceremony in the St. Damaso courtyard of the Apostolic Palace. The May 6 date commemorates the day in 1527 when 147 guardsmen died while protecting Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome.

Earlier Saturday, Pope Francis told the Guards they’re called to “another sacrifice no less arduous” — serving the power of faith. The recruits, who enroll for at least two years, must be single, upstanding Swiss Catholic males younger than 30.

Wearing blue-and-gold uniforms and holding halberds — spear-like weapons — they are a tourist delight while standing guard at Vatican ceremonies. Their main duty is to protect the pope.

May 06, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Thousands of Poles marched through Warsaw on Saturday to protest the policies of the populist ruling party under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, describing them as attacks on the country’s democracy.

Speakers at the “March of Freedom” said the government under the conservative Law and Justice party has eroded the independence of Poland’s courts and other institutions to such an extent that the country would not be accepted into the European Union or NATO today if it didn’t already belong.

“We will not allow Kaczynski to take us out of Western Europe. Together we will defend freedom,” said Jacek Jaskowiak, the mayor of Poznan, a city in western Poland. The event was organized by the opposition Civic Platform party, but other opposition parties and the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a civic organization, also took part.

They are concerned about how Law and Justice has consolidated power since taking office in 2015. The party has eroded the independence of the courts and the public media in a way that has also alarmed the EU.

Kaczynski said Saturday that the protesters were misguided. “Freedom exists in Poland and only those who do not perceive reality can question that,” he said. City Hall, which is under the control of Civic Platform, estimated that 90,000 people took part in the protest. The police, under the government’s command, put the number at 12,000.

Either way, it was much smaller than the 240,000 who protested against the government in May 2016. Separately, a yearly pro-EU parade called the Schumann Parade also took place Saturday in Warsaw.

May 10, 2017

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s government on Wednesday lost a no-confidence vote, setting the scene for an early election following months of political deadlock over a border demarcation deal that critics say would mean a loss of territory for the tiny Balkan country.

Prime Minister Isa Mustafa’s coalition government lost in a 78-34 vote, with three abstentions and five lawmakers not present. The outcome means that the government has collapsed about a year before an election was due.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci formally dissolved the parliament within hours of the vote. He has invited political parties to a consultation, and is now expected to set a date for a parliamentary election within 30 to 45 days. The existing Cabinet will continue to run the country until then.

Opposition parties have blamed Mustafa’s Cabinet for being unable to carry out its program and pass important laws. “The country is badly governed. The country needs a new government,” said Valdete Bajrami of the opposition Initiative for Kosovo party, which proposed the no-confidence motion.

The government has been hobbled by its inability to secure a parliamentary majority to back a border demarcation deal with neighboring Montenegro. The United States has pressed Kosovo to pass a border demarcation deal with neighboring Montenegro, which remains the last obstacle before the European Union accepts to let Kosovar citizens travel visa-free in its Schengen member countries.

The deal was signed in 2015, and Mustafa withdrew a draft ratification bill last year. The opposition has claimed that Kosovo would lose territory under the agreement, an accusation denied by the government and local and international experts.

Before the vote, Mustafa had argued that the consequence of a no-confidence vote would be “the country’s destabilization through creating a lack of trust in institutions, and an institutional vacuum.”

The 2 ½-year-old governing coalition was made up of Mustafa’s Democratic League of Kosovo, which holds the second-largest number of seats in the 120-seat parliament. The Democratic Party of Kosovo of Speaker Kadri Veseli currently has the most members in parliament.

The partnership was formed as a last resort when neither of two parties was able to form a Cabinet on its own after the 2014 parliamentary election. The no-confidence vote suggests a breakdown between the two governing partners. Speaker Veseli posted a tweet on Wednesday afternoon saying Kosovo needs a new beginning and the no-confidence vote would “open exciting new chapters of our history.”

Veseli posted a video message informally launching a parliamentary election campaign, blaming Mustafa for the no-confidence vote. Mustafa responded that his government and party prevented “state degradation and released it from crime claws.”

The United States embassy in Pristina pledged its continuing “steadfast support for Kosovo, its citizens, and its path to full Euro-Atlantic integration.” Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It is recognized by 114 countries, but not by Serbia.

Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

May 10, 2017

PRAGUE (AP) — Tens of thousands of people rallied on Wednesday in the Czech Republic’s capital and other major cities against President Milos Zeman and Finance Minister Andrej Babis. The protesters gathered at Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague demanded Babis’ firing and Zeman’s resignation in the latest development of the Czech political crisis.

The public demonstrations follow Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka asking the president last week to get rid of the finance minister over his unexplained business dealings, especially charges that he hadn’t properly explained suspicions that he avoided paying taxes.

Babis, one of the richest people in the country, has denied wrongdoing and refused to resign. He owned two major national newspapers, a radio and the Agrofert conglomerate of some 250 companies before he transferred them to a fund earlier this year after a new law limited the business activities of government ministers.

Zeman so far has refused to fire his ally, claiming the government’s three-party ruling coalition first would have to dissolve their coalition agreement. Sobotka’s left-wing Social Democrats are rivals of Babis’ ANO centrist movement in a parliamentary election scheduled for October. ANO is a favorite to win the most seats, paving the way for Babis to become the next prime minister.

Zeman invited the leaders of the coalition parties to discuss the political crisis late Wednesday. Meanwhile, the lower house of Parliament approved a resolution alleging that Babis had “repeatedly lied” to the public and “misused his media” empire to damage his opponents.

The vote on the resolution followed a long and heated debate over recordings recently posted on social media that appeared to capture Babis and a journalist from his newspaper planning a press campaign against his rivals, including the Social Democrats.

Babis said Wednesday he “made a huge mistake” by meeting with the man in the recordings, but claimed it was a provocation to discredit him. The journalist was fired. Babis is sometimes dubbed the “Czech Berlusconi,” a comparison to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who dominated Italian politics for many years.

May 12, 2017

ROME (AP) — Vandals have struck overnight at Rome’s largest cemetery, smashing and shattering some 70 headstones and memorial monuments. Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi decried the rampage at Verano Cemetery as a “vile deed.” Officials said Catholic and Jewish headstones were among the smashed monuments.

Glass frames of loved ones decorating graves were shattered, and flower vases toppled. Italian news reports said investigators suspect that a group of youths slipped into the cemetery when it was closed at night and vandalized the tombstones.

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