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Landmine in East Ukraine Kills American OSCE Monitor

An American member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was killed and at last two others were injured Sunday when their car hit a mine near rebel-held Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

Austria’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the incident near the small village of Pryshyb.  Austria currently holds the OSCE’s rotating presidency.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz demanded a thorough investigation, adding that those responsible would be held accountable.

Alexander Hug, deputy chief of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), told journalists that a German and a Czech national were injured but have been treated at a local hospital in Ukraine’s eastern republic of Lugansk.

According to reports, the vehicle drove over a mine in territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic.

A rebel statement said the OSCE team was traveling along an unsafe road.  “We know that the mentioned crew deviated from the main route and moved along side roads, which is prohibited by the mandate of the OSCE SMM,” local media reported.

The incident marks the first loss of life for the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

The OSCE has 600 members in eastern Ukraine, the only independent monitoring mission in the destroyed industrial war zone.  It provides daily reports on the war and has angered insurgents for accusing them of being responsible for most truce agreement violations.

For the past three years tensions between Ukraine and separatists in the Russian-held eastern part of the country continue to increase, despite a 2015 ceasefire agreement that is repeatedly violated.

At least 9,750 people have been killed in the war in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.  More than 40 died during the first two months of this year, when hostilities in the conflict suddenly surged.

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Pope Likens Migrant Holding Centers to ‘Concentration Camps’

Pope Francis urged governments on Saturday to get migrants and refugees out of holding centers, saying many had become “concentration camps.”

During a visit to a Rome basilica, where he met migrants, Francis told of his trip to a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos last year.

He met a Muslim refugee from the Middle East there who told him how “terrorists came to our country.” Islamists had slit the throat of the man’s Christian wife because she refused to throw her crucifix on the ground.

“I don’t know if he managed to leave that concentration camp, because refugee camps, many of them, are of concentration [type] because of the great number of people left there inside them,” the pope said.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) later urged the pope “to reconsider his regrettable choice of words” for using the term concentration camp.

“The conditions in which migrants are currently living in some European countries may well be difficult, and deserve still greater international attention, but concentration camps they certainly are not,” the AJC’s head, David Harris, said in a statement.

“The Nazis and their allies erected and used concentration camps for slave labor and the extermination of millions of people during World War II. There is no comparison to the magnitude of that tragedy,” he said.

Francis praised countries helping refugees and thanked them for “bearing this extra burden, because it seems that international accords are more important than human rights.”

He did not elaborate but appeared to be referring to agreements that keep migrants from crossing borders, such as deals between the European Union (EU) and Libya and the EU and Turkey. Humanitarian groups have criticized both deals.

The pope urged people in northern Italy, home to an anti-immigrant party, to take more migrants, hoping that the generosity of southern Italy could “infect the north a bit.”

Noting that Italy had one of the world’s lowest birth rates, he said: “If we also close the door to migrants, this is called suicide.”

The basilica of St Bartholomew is a shine to Christians killed for their faith in the 20th and 21st centuries.

It contains a prayer book used by Father Jacques Hamel, the 85-year-old French priest killed by Islamist militants who stormed into a church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray last year, forced Hamel to his knees, and slit his throat while they chanted in Arabic. His sister Roselyne attended the service.

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Macron, Le Pen Head to Runoff in French Presidential Race

Preliminary results from France’s first round of presidential elections confirmed that centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and nationalist, anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen are heading into a runoff in two weeks, marking what analysts describe as a political earthquake in France.

 

It is the first time in the history of the modern French Republic that the presidency will be held by a member of a non-traditional party, highlighting a deep anti-establishment sentiment that ultimately could determine whether France remains a part of the EU or follows an independent path like that of post-Brexit Britain and the United States under Donald Trump.

 

According to projected results, Macron garnered 23.8 percent, and Le Pen won 21.7 percent.  The winner needs an absolute majority and that will be determined in a runoff on May 7th.

 

“In one year, we have entirely changed French politics,” Macron said at a victory rally Sunday night.

Macron, a 39-year-old center-left former economy minister who is pro-EU, pro-business, led pre-election polls despite his previous association with unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande. The appeal of his year-old En Marche! (Onward!) movement lies mainly in France’s prosperous urban areas, where globalism has benefited many.

 

His challenge is to galvanize support of centrists and the left, including members of France’s fractured Socialist party, and convince voters he does not represent an extension of Hollande’s policies.

 

Macron will face Le Pen and her National Front party, whose strongholds are largely in formerly industrial areas of France where unemployment is high and so is disillusionment with the modern economic and social order.  Le Pen, who wants France out of the European Union, has succeeded in winning over large numbers of former leftists and centrists. Over the next two weeks, she hopes to draw from the right and the center, especially those who are most disillusioned with the status quo.  

 

“It is time to liberate the French people,” she told supporters at a rally Sunday.

Among the top contenders from 11 candidates was former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a center-right social conservative whose bid was damaged by allegations of creating fake jobs for close relatives.  Conceding defeat on Sunday, he endorsed Macron.

The vote happened amid tight security following a terrorist attack in Paris just days before the poll that observers thought would benefit Le Pen.

 

On Sunday, 50,000 police officers backed by 7,000 soldiers, including special forces, were deployed to the streets amid tensions following the attack claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group. The shooting along the iconic Champs-Elysees in the heart of Paris left one police officer dead and several other people injured.

 

In a tweet one day after the Champs Elysees shooting, U.S. President Trump said, “The people of France will not take much more of this.  Will have a big effect on presidential election!”

Analysts and voters interviewed saw this as the most unpredictable election since World War II.  One third of voters were undecided just days before the balloting.

In the last few weeks before the vote, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon surged in the polls and so did discussion of the previously obscure candidate in social media.

Among the ways his campaign lured young voters was through the release of a video game in which a player pretending to be Melenchon walks the streets and takes money from men in suits.  The player is shown in a battle against the rich and powerful.

Anger at the establishment is the sentiment driving voters in an election in which security, France’s lagging economy, its 10 percent unemployment rate, and Islamist extremism are issues on the minds of those on the left and on the right.

That, say analysts, is what influenced large numbers of people, including some of the middle and upper class residents of Paris, to vote for candidates of the extreme.  

“Some of them for the thrill of it.  It’s the principle, you know.  Like playing Russian roulette, but politically.  Some others it would be because they despise the elite of this country,” said Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst in Paris, told VOA.

 

Socialist President Francois Hollande announced he would not to run for reelection after his approval ratings sank to 4 percent, something analysts widely attribute to a string of terrorist attacks in France and a stagnation of economic growth during his tenure.  Hollande is the first incumbent president not to seek reelection in the history of modern France.

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French Vote in Pivotal Presidential Election

Polls are open across France in an election that is one of the closest watched in decades, with 11 candidates, ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left, vying for the French presidency.

Tight security is in place after a terrorist attack in Paris on Thursday, just days before the voting.

About 50,000 police officers backed by 7,000 soldiers, including special forces, were deployed to the streets for security amid tensions following the attack claimed by the Islamic State terrorist group. The shooting along the iconic Champs-Elysees in the heart of Paris left one police officer dead and several other people injured.

State of emergency, tight security

This is the first election to be held under a state of emergency called after the 2015 Paris attacks, and observers say last week’s shooting could bring out many voters who had otherwise planned to abstain.

In a tweet a day after the Champs Elysees shooting, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “The people of France will not take much more of this. Will have a big effect on presidential election!”

Despite predictions of low voter turnout, witnesses said lines formed at voting stations in Paris’ 15th arrondissement before opening hours and turnout was reported to be heavy at various polling stations across the country.

Pre-election polls show tight race

Leading in pre-election polls has been Emmanuel Macron, a center-left former economy minister who is pro-Europe and pro-business with close ties to unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande. His appeal lies mainly in France’s prosperous urban areas where globalism has benefited many.

A close second has been Marine Le Pen, who wants to end most immigration to France, especially from Muslim countries. She also wants France to leave the European Union. Her strongholds are largely in formerly industrial areas of France where unemployment is high and so is disillusionment with the modern economic and social order.

Another top contender is Francois Fillon, who favors cuts in public spending and pushing for deep reforms in the EU.

Last-minute decisions

Analysts and voters interviewed see this as the most unpredictable election since World War II. One-third of voters were undecided days before the balloting.

In the last few weeks before the vote, far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon surged in the polls and so did discussion of the previously obscure candidate in social media.

Among the ways his campaign lured young voters was through the release of a video game in which a player pretending to be Melenchon walks the streets and takes money from men in suits. The player is shown in a battle against the rich and powerful.

Anger at the establishment is the sentiment driving voters in an election in which security, France’s lagging economy, its 10-percent unemployment rate, and Islamist extremism are issues on the minds of those on the left and on the right.

That, analysts say, is what is driving large numbers of people, including some of the middle and upper class residents of Paris, to vote for candidates of the extreme, like Le Pen and Melenchon. 

“Some of them for the thrill of it. It’s the principle, you know. Like playing Russian roulette, but politically.Some others it would be because they despise the elite of this country,” said Thomas Guénolé, a political analyst in Paris, told VOA.

The top two winners of Sunday’s poll will face off in a runoff election May 7th.

Polls close at 1800 UTC.

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Polls Show May’s Conservatives With Once-in-Generation Popularity

Britain’s Theresa May appeared on course to win a crushing election victory in June after opinion polls put support for her ruling Conservative party around 50 percent, twice that of the opposition Labor party.

May’s decision to call a June 8 election stunned her political rivals this week and a string of polls released late Saturday suggested the gamble had paid off, with one from ComRes showing the party of Margaret Thatcher enjoying levels of support not seen since 1991.

May, appointed prime minister in the turmoil that followed Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last June, said she needed the election to secure her own mandate and strengthen her hand for the Brexit negotiations ahead.

She is also looking to capitalize on the disarray swirling around the Labor party, which has been riven with internal division over its leader Jeremy Corbyn. Voters also appear to be switching from the anti-EU UKIP party, which helped campaign for Brexit, to May’s Conservatives, which will likely deliver it.

Gaining in Scotland

In two other polls, May’s Conservatives also gained ground in Scotland at the expense of the Scottish National Party, potentially weakening the nationalists’ demand for another independence referendum.

May has warned her party not to take victory for granted, a message that was echoed by pollsters Saturday.

“While no political party could ever object to breaching the 50 percent barrier for the first time this century, this spectacular headline result masks a real danger for the Tories,” said ComRes Chairman Andrew Hawkins.

“The fact that 6 in 10 voters believe Labor cannot win under Corbyn’s leadership bring with it the threat of complacency among Tory (Conservative) voters who may be tempted to sit at home on June 8th and let others deliver the result they expect.”

According to polls by Opinium, ComRes and YouGov, May’s Conservatives held a lead of 19 to 25 percentage points, with the party’s support ranging from 45 percent to 50 percent.

Labor-like policies

Having repeatedly denied that she would call an election, May is now also poised to announce a raft of policy proposals more commonly associated with the left-leaning Labor party, according to the Sunday Times.

The newspaper said the Conservatives would pledge to protect workers’ rights and cap more household energy prices in a bid to help those hit by rising inflation and muted wage growth.

If the polls are correct, the Conservatives could secure a once-in-a-generation victory that will realign the British political landscape. According to the polls, Labor has lost its reputation as the party that would best protect the National Health Service — once its strongest claim.

The improved Conservative fortunes across the country have also spread to Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party, or SNP, has stepped up calls for a second independence referendum.

According to an analysis for the Times, the Conservatives are on course to win 12 seats in Scotland while Labor will be wiped from its former political stronghold. Currently, the Conservatives hold one of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British parliament. The SNP holds 54.

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Expatriates Cast Votes as France Prepares for Election Day

French expatriates in South America, Canada and the United States kicked off the voting Saturday in France’s presidential election, on the heels of several terror attacks that could affect the outcome.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and a former economy minister, independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, are the top contenders, followed by conservative former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

The candidates are vying to replace incumbent Francois Hollande, who announced earlier this year that he would not run for another term.

Campaigning ended earlier than expected Thursday when a French policeman was killed by a gunman on the Champs-Elysee, one of Paris’ most popular streets for shopping and tourism. Analysts have long said a last-minute event could swing the election outcome.

In November 2015, Paris terror attacks, in which 130 people were killed, happened just weeks before France held regional elections. The attacks are thought to have given a boost to Le Pen’s National Front party, which lost in the second round of voting and failed to win control of any region.

Some French critics of LePen told reporters they feared this week’s attack and others like it could push her campaign to a win, perhaps endangering France’s future in the European Union.

But national security is not the only issue that matters in this year’s election. France’s unemployment rate is about 10 percent, more than twice as high as that of its neighbor Germany, and the state of the economy is a constant worry.

The bulk of the first-round voting in France itself will come Sunday. Early results are expected around 9 p.m. Paris time.

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Giro d’Italia Champ Killed in Training Ride Accident

Michele Scarponi, the 2011 Giro d’Italia champion, has been killed in a road accident while training close to his home in Filottrano, his Astana team said Saturday.

Scarponi, 37, left home early on Saturday morning for a training ride and was hit by a van at a crossroads.

“This is a tragedy too big to be written,” Astana said in a statement.

“We left a great champion and a special guy, always smiling in every situation, he was … a landmark for everyone in the Astana Pro Team.”

Scarponi, who completed the Tour of the Alps on Friday, after winning a stage and finishing fourth overall, is survived by his wife and two children.

Scarponi, who started his professional career in 2002, got his best results in Italian races, winning three stages on the Giro before being handed the 2011 title after Alberto Contador was stripped of his victory in a retroactive doping ban.

He also had good results in the one-day races, finishing fourth on the Liege-Bastogne-Liege classic in 2003.

Scarponi was suspended for 18 months after being implicated in the Operation Puerto blood doping scandal in 2006.

After he returned from suspension, he won the Tirreno-Adriatico in 2009 and the Tour of Catalonia in 2011.

“We will miss this guy in the peleton, always with a smile,” Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet wrote on Twitter. 

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Billionaire Philanthropist Bill Gates Warns Against Cuts to Aid Budgets

The co-founder of Microsoft, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, has given a passionate defense of foreign aid and voiced fears that the political climate in the US and Britain could see aid budgets cut. In a speech in London this week, he warned that withdrawing aid would create a ‘leadership vacuum that others will fill.’ Henry Ridgwell reports.

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Russian Hacker Sentenced to 27 Years in Credit Card Scheme

The son of a Russian lawmaker was sentenced Friday by a U.S. federal court to 27 years in prison after being convicted of a cyber assault on thousands of U.S. businesses, marking the longest hacking-related sentence in the United States.

Roman Seleznev, 32, was found guilty last year by a jury in Seattle of perpetrating a scheme that prosecutors said involved hacking into point-of-sale computers to steal credit card numbers and caused $169 million in losses to U.S. firms.

The Russian government has maintained that his arrest in 2014 in the Maldives was illegal. It issued a statement Friday criticizing the sentence and said it believed Seleznev’s lawyer planned to appeal.

“We continue to believe that the arrest of the Russian citizen Roman Seleznev, who de facto was kidnapped on the territory of a third country, is unlawful,” the Russian Embassy in Washington said in a post on its Facebook page.

Seleznev is the son of Valery Seleznev, a member of the Russian parliament.

The sentence, imposed by Judge Richard A. Jones of the Western District of Washington, followed a decade-long investigation by the U.S. Secret Service.

In a handwritten statement provided by his lawyer, Seleznev said he believed the harsh sentence was a way for the United States government to send a message to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin.

“This message the United States sent today is not the right way to show Vladimir Putin, Russia or any other government in this world how justice works in a democracy,” Seleznev wrote in the statement.

Prosecutors said that from October 2009 to October 2013, Seleznev stole credit card numbers from more than 500 U.S. businesses, transferred the data to servers in Virginia, Russia and the Ukraine and eventually sold the information on criminal “carding” websites.

Seleznev faces separate charges pending in federal courts in Nevada and Georgia.

A federal grand jury in Connecticut returned an eight-count indictment charging a Russian national who was arrested earlier this month with operating the Kelihos botnet, a global network of tens of thousands of infected computers, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday.

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After Shooting, France Turns to Weekend’s Presidential Vote

France began picking itself up Friday from another shooting claimed by the Islamic State group, with President Francois Hollande calling together the government’s security council and his would-be successors in the presidential election campaign treading carefully before voting this weekend.

One of the key questions was if, and how, the attack that killed one police officer and wounded three other people might impact voting intentions.

The risk for the main candidates was that misjudging the public mood, making an ill-perceived gesture or comment, could damage their chances. With polling just two days away, and campaigning banned starting at midnight Friday, they would have no time to recover before polls open Sunday. Candidates canceled or rescheduled final campaign events ahead of Sunday’s first-round vote in the two-stage election.

On the iconic avenue in the heart of Paris, municipal workers in white hygiene suits were out before dawn Friday to wash down the sidewalk where the assault took place, a scene now depressingly familiar after multiple attacks that have killed more than 230 people in France in little more than two years. Delivery trucks did their early morning rounds; everything would have seemed normal were it not for the row of TV trucks parked up along the boulevard that is a must-visit for tourists.

Hollande’s defense and security council meeting was part of government efforts to protect Sunday’s vote, taking place under heightened security, with more than 50,000 police and soldiers mobilized, and a state of emergency in place since 2015.

One dead, three wounded

The attacker emerged from a car and used an automatic weapon to shoot at officers outside a Marks & Spencer’s department store at the center of the Champs-Elysees, anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins said. Police shot and killed the gunman. One officer was killed and two seriously wounded. A female tourist also was wounded, Molins said.

The Islamic State group’s claim of responsibility just a few hours after the attack came unusually swiftly for the extremist group, which has been losing territory in Iraq and Syria.

In a statement from its Amaq news agency, the group gave a pseudonym for the shooter, Abu Yusuf al-Beljiki, indicating he was Belgian or had lived in Belgium. Belgian authorities said they had no information about the suspect.

Suburban home searched

Investigators searched a home early Friday in an eastern suburb of Paris believed linked to the attack. A police document obtained by The Associated Press identifies the address searched in the town of Chelles as the family home of Karim Cheurfi, a 39-year-old with a criminal record.

Police tape surrounded the quiet, middle-class neighborhood and worried neighbors expressed surprise at the searches. Archive reports by French newspaper Le Parisien say that Cheurfi was convicted of attacking a police officer in 2001.

Authorities are trying to determine whether “one or more people” might have helped the attacker, Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said.

The attacker had been flagged as an extremist, according to two police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the investigation.

The assault recalled two recent attacks on soldiers providing security at prominent locations around Paris: one at the Louvre museum in February and one at Orly airport last month.

Election impact

A French television station hosting an event with the 11 candidates running for president briefly interrupted its broadcast to report the shootings.

Conservative contender Francois Fillon, who has campaigned against “Islamic totalitarianism,” said on France 2 television that he was canceling his planned campaign stops Friday.

Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who campaigns against immigration and Islamic fundamentalism, took to Twitter to offer her sympathy for law enforcement officers “once again targeted.” She canceled a minor campaign stop, but scheduled another.

Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron offered his thoughts to the family of the dead officer.

Socialist Benoit Hamon tweeted his “full support” to police against terrorism.

The two top finishers in Sunday’s election will advance to a runoff May 7.