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Archive for June, 2017

Portugal awaits foreign help to fight deadly wildfires

June 19, 2017

LISBON, Portugal (AP) — More than 1,500 firefighters in Portugal are still battling to control major wildfires in the central region of the country, where one blaze killed 62 people. Reinforcements are due to arrive Monday, including more water-dropping planes from Spain, France and Italy as part of a European Union cooperation program.

Portugal is observing three days of national mourning after 62 people were killed in a wildfire Saturday night around the town of Pedrogao Grande, which is by far the deadliest on record. Just over 1,000 firefighters are still attending that blaze about 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Lisbon.

Scorching weather, with temperatures surpassing 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), as well as strong winds and dry woodland after weeks with little rain are fueling the blazes.

Maduro says helicopter fired on Venezuela’s Supreme Court

June 28, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro said a stolen police helicopter fired on Venezuela’s Supreme Court Tuesday in what he called a thwarted “terrorist attack” aimed at ousting him from power.

The confusing exchange, which is bound to ratchet up tensions in a country already paralyzed by months of deadly anti-government protests, took place as Maduro was speaking live on state television. He later said the helicopter had fired on the court with grenades, one of which didn’t go off, helping avoid any loss of life. The nation’s air defense system was immediately activated.

Adding to the intrigue, pictures of a blue police helicopter carrying an anti-government banner appeared on social media around the same time as a video in which an alleged police pilot, identified as Oscar Perez, called for a rebellion against Maduro’s “tyranny” as part of a coalition of members of the country’s security forces. Authorities said they were still searching for the man.

“We have two choices: be judged tomorrow by our conscience and the people or begin today to free ourselves from this corrupt government,” the man said while reading from a statement with four people dressed in military fatigues, ski masks and carrying what looked like assault rifles standing behind him.

Maduro sounded alternately calm and angry as he told the audience about what had happened in the airspace just beyond the presidential palace where they were gathered. “It could’ve caused a tragedy with several dozen dead and injured,” he said.

Later, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas read a statement from the government accusing the helicopter of firing 15 shots against the Interior Ministry as a reception was taking place for 80 people celebrating national journalist’s day. It then flew a short distance to the court, which was in session, and launched what he said were four Israeli-made grenades of “Colombian origin,” two of them against national guardsmen protecting the building.

The pro-government president of the high court said there were no injuries from the attack and that the area was still being surveyed for damages. Villegas said security forces were being deployed to apprehend Perez as well as recover the heisted German-built Bolkow helicopter. Photos of the pilot standing in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter were displayed on state TV to further bolster the government’s case that he was taking instructions from the CIA and the U.S. Embassy

Meanwhile many of Maduro’s opponents took to social media to accuse the president of orchestrating an elaborate ruse to justify a crackdown against Venezuelans seeking to block his plans to rewrite the constitution. Venezuela has been roiled by anti-government protests the past three months that have left at least 75 people dead and hundreds injured.

Maduro said one of the pilots involved in the alleged attack used to fly for his former Interior Minister, Miguel Rodriguez Torres, who he accused of working for the CIA. Rodriguez Torres, who has been leading a campaign against by Maduro made up of leftist supporters of the late Hugo Chavez, immediately dismissed the accusation as baseless.

As the drama was unfolding outside the courtroom, inside magistrates were busy issuing a number of rulings further hemming in the opposition. One dismissed a challenge against Maduro’s plans for a constitutional assembly by chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz, a longtime loyalist who broke with the government over the issue. Another broadened the powers of the nation’s Ombudsman, giving him the authority to carry out criminal investigations that until now had been the exclusive prerogative of Ortega’s office.

The helicopter incident capped a volatile 24 hours that began with widespread looting in the coastal city of Maracay on Monday night and continued Tuesday when opposition lawmakers got into a heated scuffle with security forces assigned to protect the National Assembly.

At least 68 supermarkets, pharmacies and liquor stores were looted and several government offices burned following anti-government protests in Maracay, which is about a 90 minute drive from Caracas. Maduro condemned the violence but with a stern warning to his opponents that’s likely to only further inflame an already tense situation.

“We will never surrender. And what we couldn’t accomplish through votes we will with weapons,” he said. On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers got into fisticuffs with national guardsmen as they tried to enter the National Assembly. In a video circulating on social media, the commander of a national guard unit protecting the legislature aggressively shoved National Assembly President Julio Borges as he’s walking away from a heated discussion.

At nightfall, a few dozen people were still gathered inside the neoclassical building as pro-government supporters stood outside threatening violence.

Venezuelan protesters, security forces clash at air base

June 25, 2017

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Young protesters broke down a metal fence guarding an air base in Caracas on Saturday before being repelled by security forces firing tear gas in another day of anti-government protests in Venezuela’s capital.

Demonstrators threw stones, and some protesters were injured. The clashes took place after a peaceful mass demonstration next to La Carlota base where a 22-year-old protester was killed this week when a national guardsman shot him in the chest at close range with rubber bullets.

Protesters also fought with security forces outside the base Friday, and activists burned some vehicles during the confrontation. President Nicolas Maduro said in an address to troops Saturday that he had managed to break up a U.S.-backed plot to oust him. Like his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, Maduro frequently accuses the U.S. of trying to topple Venezuela’s socialist administration.

Maduro praised Venezuela’s military for standing by the government and he warned that attempts are underway to try to sow further dissent. More than 70 people have been killed and hundreds injured in almost three months of demonstrations.

Colombia: Bombing at mall kills 3, including French woman

June 18, 2017

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A bomb rocked one of the busiest shopping centers in Colombia’s capital Saturday, killing three people, including a 23-year-old French woman, and injuring nine others. Witnesses told of being evacuated from movie theaters and stores after the blast in a second-floor women’s restroom at the upscale Centro Andino in the heart of Bogota’s tourist district. Ambulances and firetrucks rushed to the scene and the injured were taken to a hospital, where two later died.

Police said a bomb from an undetermined explosive had caused the destruction. Mayor Enrique Penalosa called it a “cowardly terrorist bombing,” and attention immediately focused on the National Liberation Army, which is the last rebel movement still active in Colombia. The group, known as the ELN, carried out a spate of recent attacks in Bogota, but leaders denied involvement in the latest bombing.

Penalosa said the French victim, identified as Julie Huynh, had been in Colombia the past six months volunteering at a school in a poor neighborhood. He said she was preparing to return to France in the coming days in the company of her mother, who was with her in Bogota.

The ELN, which is engaged in long-running peace talks with the government, rejected accusations it was behind the attack. “We ask for seriousness from people making unfounded and reckless accusations,” ELN negotiators at peace talks taking place in neighboring Ecuador said on Twitter. “This is the way people are trying to tear up the peace process.”

The ELN in February claimed responsibility for a bombing near Bogota’s bullring that killed one police officer and injured 20 other people. But the group said it doesn’t target civilians. Penalosa urged residents of Bogota’s wealthier districts to be on high alert but cautioned that there was no hint of other attacks being planned. Police said they were still trying to determine what the device that exploded was made of.

The government last year reached a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which was much bigger than the ELN. Some analysts attribute an uptick in violence in Colombian cities to the ELN’s desire to wrest concessions from the government at the negotiating table.

Bogota has seen dramatic improvement in security over the past decade as the country’s long-running conflict has wound down. But the capital remains vulnerable to attacks as residents have let down their guard

Still, the Andino shopping center would seem a difficult target. All vehicles entering the parking garage are screened by bomb-sniffing dogs and security guards are present throughout the mall. President Juan Manuel Santos was expected to visit the mall to personally oversee the investigation and in a message posted on Twitter he expressed his solidarity with the victims.

Serbia’s first gay PM- designate honored by nomination

June 16, 2017

VRNJACKA BANJA, Serbia (AP) — Serbia’s Prime Minister-designate Ana Brnabic says it is an honor to serve the country and thanked the president for trusting her. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic nominated Brnabic as the conservative country’s first openly gay prime minister, a move which infuriated nationalists.

Brnabic said Friday: “I’m proud and still too emotional from all of this.” Her government needs formal approval by Serbia’s parliament next week for her to become the first female head of government in Serbia.

Brnabic’s nomination is considered part of Vucic’s tactics to please the West amid strong pressure from Moscow to maintain influence in the region and keep Serbia away from Western integration. Pro-Russian opposition official Bosko Obradovic says U.S.-educated Brnabic is “a foreign agent” who was nominated to the position by the West.

Romania: president, political parties in talks over new PM

June 26, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania’s largest party has nominated a former economy minister to be the next prime minister. The nomination of 50-year-old Mihai Tudose was announced before President Klaus Iohannis and Liviu Dragnea, the powerful leader of Romania’s biggest party, the leftist Social Democratic Party.

Normally, as party leader, Dragnea would be prime minister, but in 2016 he was convicted of vote-rigging, which disqualifies him from holding the post. The Social Democrats withdrew support for Premier Sorin Grindeanu saying he had underperformed. He refused to resign and the party and its allies ousted Grindeanu’s government in a no-confidence vote last week.

Romania ruling party goes to Parliament to remove premier

June 18, 2017

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania’s ruling party plans to submit a vote of no-confidence against its own government Sunday after it withdrew its support for the prime minister. Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu has refused to quit, sparking a political crisis.

The center-left Social Democratic Party convened lawmakers to read out the motion against the government, a day earlier than scheduled, in its efforts to remove Grindeanu, accused of not implementing the party’s program. Parliament will vote Wednesday on whether to dismiss the government.

Grindeanu, in office since January, denies that he has underperformed. He claims the powerful party chairman, Liviu Dragnea, who can’t be prime minister because of a conviction in 2016 for vote rigging, wants to install a party loyalist as premier.

Ex-Prime Minister Victor Ponta, an ally of the prime minister, called for talks with Dragnea to resolve the crisis and avoid a no-confidence vote, which he called “an atomic war between the Social Democrats and the Social Democrats.”

Ponta said the party in-fighting would benefit President Klaus Iohannis, a political rival, who nominates a premier who is then approved by Parliament. The Social Democrats and their political allies need 233 votes out of a total of 465 seats to remove the government.

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