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Archive for April, 2016

Spain commemorates the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death

April 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death toll from Ecuador earthquake tops 650

April 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

Memories painful on Chernobyl’s 30th anniversary

April 26, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mock group becomes surprise election success in Serbian town

April 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jovana Gec and Amer Cohadzic contributed to this report.

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

April 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are 6.7 million voters in the election.

Jovana Gec and Amer Cohadzic contributed.

Poland buries remains of World War II resistance commander

April 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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