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France Elects Macron, Rejects Le Pen

Voters in France have elected pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron as the country’s new president, rejecting the anti-EU, anti-immigrant policies of nationalist Marine Le Pen. Preliminary results released immediately after polls closed Sunday showed Macron won 65 percent support compared to 34.5 percent for Le Pen. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Paris.

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Israel-Germany Row Shines Spotlight on Anti-Occupation Group

Former Israeli combat soldiers who were thrust into the center of a recent diplomatic row between Israel and Germany, say the sudden international spotlight has given them a bigger stage to speak out against Israel’s 50-year rule over millions of Palestinians.

Breaking the Silence is a group of ex-soldiers-turned-whistleblowers who view Israel’s open-ended occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state as an existential threat to their country.

Since 2004, the group has collected testimony from more than 1,100 fellow soldiers who describe the dark side of that rule, including seemingly routine mistreatment of Palestinian civilians stripped of basic rights. The veterans hope such accounts by former fighters will carry weight and spark public debate about the moral price of the occupation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top officials in his nationalist government have a starkly different view. They have branded Breaking the Silence as foreign-funded subversives who are trying to defame Israel and its military.

Most recently, Netanyahu even seemed willing to rattle Israel’s relationship with key European ally Germany to score points against Breaking the Silence, which has 16 paid staffers, several dozen volunteers and an annual budget of about $2 million.

Two weeks ago, he said he would not receive German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel if the visitor stuck to plans to meet with Breaking the Silence. Gabriel chose the soldiers instead. Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said that shunning visitors who meet with Breaking the Silence is now official policy.

The fallout continues this week. The dispute has cast a shadow over what would otherwise have been a routine Israel visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Media reports suggest Steinmeier will praise the group during a speech Sunday, but not meet with its representatives to avoid another spat with Netanyahu.

Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, said the recent attention has been a mixed blessing.

The focus on the diplomatic dust-up “diverts a lot of attention from the real issue, what goes on in the occupied territories,” he said in an interview at the group’s office, tucked away in an old walk-up in a grubby industrial area of Tel Aviv.

“On the other hand, it gives us more stages to speak about it,” said Shaul, citing more media attention and public speaking invitations that draw larger audiences.

Israelis have been bitterly divided over what to do with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands they captured in June 1967. Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after the war and retains overall control over the West Bank, with enclaves of Palestinian self-rule. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and has enforced a border blockade of the territory since it was seized by the Islamic militant Hamas two years later.

Many Israelis support the idea of Palestinian statehood in principle, but believe it’s not safe to cede war-won territories now. Fears were stoked by three Israel-Hamas wars since 2008 and an escalation of regional conflicts. Meanwhile, partition is increasingly difficult, with 600,000 Israelis already living on occupied lands and settlements expanding steadily.

Netanyahu has said he is willing to resume partition talks with the Palestinians, but gaps remain wide. A majority of his Cabinet ministers oppose a two-state solution and some even call for annexing parts of the West Bank, raising fears among some Israelis that their rule over disenfranchised Palestinians will become permanent.

Shaul said he and his comrades are the true patriots, not those clinging to occupied territories.

“I believe Jews have a right to self-determination in the Holy Land. But I refuse to accept that the only way I will be allowed to implement my right to self-determination is if I strip my neighbors, the Palestinians, of the exact same right I demand for myself,” he said. “A permanent occupation is the most anti-Zionist position one can ever have because it says we are doomed to live in a sin.”

The beginnings of Breaking the Silence go back to Hebron, the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city, where hundreds of troops guard roughly the same number of Jewish settlers in an Israeli-controlled center partly off limits to Palestinians.

Shaul, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home, spent more than a year of his compulsory three-year army service in Hebron at the height of an armed Palestinian uprising of bombings and shootings that erupted in 2000.

 

He became increasingly disillusioned with his army mission, which he felt was largely aimed at making Palestinians fear him and his comrades. He said that while his parents and grandparents fought against armies to defend Israel, “the stories I can tell you about is breaking into houses in the middle of the night to intimidate people and seeing children crying and peeing in their pants.”

In 2004, Shaul and dozens of members from his unit presented a photo exhibit about Hebron in Tel Aviv.

 

Since then, the group has collected recorded testimony from hundreds of soldiers, including those who fought in recent Israel-Hamas wars. Some of the soldiers described an atmosphere in which the mission and safety of the troops trumped other considerations, such as the lives and property of Palestinians.

More than 100 soldiers have gone on the record, while the rest remain anonymous, for fear of repercussions, but are known to the group’s researchers who check their stories, Shaul said. The research department was able to flag four false testimonies by right-wing activists trying to undermine the group’s credibility, he said. All material is submitted to the military censor before publication to avoid inadvertent harm to Israel’s security, he added.

Critics allege that the group is hiding behind anonymous testimony to smear Israel soldiers and help Israel’s enemies press future war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court. They say the group, which does not call for a boycott of Israel, nonetheless feeds into what many Israelis believe is a global trend of unfairly singling out and delegitimizing Israel.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely recently said her office is urging European countries to stop funding what she called “anti-Israel organizations,” including Breaking the Silence. “We will ask our friends in the world to respect this red line and to stop contributing to this organization,'” she said.

Some of the group’s defenders in Israel said they believe it and other anti-occupation organizations are being targeted in an escalating government assault on Israel’s civil society.

Amos Oz, Israel’s most famous living author, has said the ex-soldiers play a critical role in Israel’s society, comparing them to biblical prophets who spoke uncomfortable truths. “Moral impulse is a matter of utmost existential importance,” Oz said in a November speech that media reports said would be cited by the German president.

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In Pictures: French Voters Select New President in Key Election

In a race dominated by the issues of jobs, immigration and security, the choice before voters in this second and final round Sunday is stark, with centrist, pro-EU former economy minister, Emmanuel Macron facing nationalist, anti-immigration crusader Marine Le Pen.

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50,000 Evacuated in German City after 5 WWII Bombs Uncovered

German authorities are evacuating around 50,000 people from their homes in the northern city of Hannover while five suspected aerial bombs from World War II are made safe for removal.

City officials say two suspected bombs were found at a construction site and three more nearby. Germany was heavily bombed by Allied planes during the war and such finds are common.

 

Leaflets in German, Polish, Turkish, English and Russian were delivered door-to-door to make sure everyone evacuated on Sunday. The city’s museums are open for free and the senior citizen’s agency organized an afternoon Scrabble and card-playing gathering so evacuated residents would have places to go.

Authorities say they hope people will be able to return to their homes by evening.

 

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Moscow Protest Marks Five Years Since Bolotnaya Crackdown

Thousands of Russian opposition activists held a rally in Moscow on May 6 to mark five years since the 2012 Bolotnaya Square antigovernment protest in Moscow.

Moscow authorities approved the rally on a section of Sakharov Avenue in the city center. But city authorities refused to allow an opposition march toward Bolotnaya Square itself.

Alec Luhn, a correspondent for The Guardian, tweeted that at least seven protesters were detained at Bolotnaya Square on May 6 after they held up placards with photographs of people who were jailed for taking part in the 2012 protest.

The latest May 6 protest in Moscow was named by the organizers: For Russia, Against Arbitrary Practices And Reprisals.

 

 

Participants chanted slogans like “Russia without Putin!” and “Putin is a thief!”

Organizers claimed as many as 10,000 protesters took to the streets for the anti-Putin rally. Independent observers estimated that about 3,000 people took part.

According to Russia’s Interior Ministry, about 1,000 people attended the rally, with participants listening to speeches and music.

“The police and Russian National Guard are ensuring public order and security,” the ministry said.

Sakharov Avenue was closed for traffic, while those entering the rally area had to walk through metal detectors.

Delay to protest

Meanwhile, the start of the demonstration was briefly delayed when municipal authorities and police tore down banners from a stage that had been set up for rally speakers.

Those banners contained slogans like “‘The Case Of May 6,” “Shame On Russia,” and “Enough With Kadyrov, Enough Despotism” — referring to Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Putin head of Russia’s Chechnya region.

Russian journalist Aleksandr Ryklin, a moderator of the rally, said municipal officials alleged that the banners were “subversive” and tore them down “because they believe that they contradict the purpose of our rally.”

Meanwhile, demonstrators carried Russian flags, posters, and other banners.

Many participants wore badges and ribbons reading: “Five Years Since The Bolotnaya.”

 

 

An 81-year-old rally participant named Alla told RFE/RL that she is “worried sick” about the things happening in Russia since Putin came into power.

“I became anxious since the very beginning when Mr. Putin came to power and the first thing he did was to shut down [independent] NTV,” Alla said. “It was very scary. Then I remember [the sinking of] the Kursk submarine. Then I remember Beslan [school siege]. I remember everything. I am doing everything [I can] to have this government changed.”

Another protester, who identified herself as Tatyana, told RFE/RL that the longer Russians accept living in an “isolated country, the harder our life will be in the future.”

Once the demonstration was under way, Russian opposition activist and former State Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov told the crowd that Russia has become “internationally isolated” because of Putin’s policies.

“The country is in a deep economic and — actually — systemic crisis,” Gudkov said. “The system of our governance is good for nothing. The country is getting involved in ever new armed conflicts. We lost 42 million [people] during World War II. Do we want to risk our lives, the lives of our family members and loved ones, the future of our children again?”

Russian Yabloko Party leader Sergei Mitrokhin said “the main danger for Russia today is a weak, cowardly, and dangerous government.”

On May 6, 2012, several thousand Russians demonstrated on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow against Putin’s reelection, and there were clashes with police during the event.

Between 400 and 700 people were detained. Dozens have been prosecuted and many have spent time in pretrial detention or been sentenced to prison. Some remain behind bars.

Fearing persecution, several other people, who had not yet been officially accused, left Russia and were granted asylum in Spain, Sweden, Lithuania, Estonia, and Germany.

2012 protest

Participants in the 2012 protest blame police for the violence and say that the severity of the charges laid against demonstrators has been grossly disproportionate to their actions.

The reaction of Russian authorities after the 2012 demonstration also included a crackdown against the country’s opposition leaders.

Nikolai Kavkazsky, an opposition activist who was jailed after the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protest and only recently was released, told the Moscow rally on May 6 that “Kadyrov has been de facto waging genocide in Chechnya.”

“Should we allow this to happen, it will begin in other [Russian] regions as well, because Chechnya is a certain testing ground of totalitarianism,” Kavkazsky said. “Russia may be transformed into one big Chechnya in the future. I believe we must resist. We must help political prisoners. We need to stand up against all sorts of repression.”

This report contains information from Interfax, Reuters and Tass.

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US, Russian Generals Revive Agreement on Syrian Airspace

Top U.S. and Russian military officials say they have agreed to revive a previous agreement intended to prevent midair incidents by warplanes from the two countries flying over Syria.

Statements in Washington and Moscow on Saturday said General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, had spoken by telephone with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, and that they had agreed to fully restore the agreement on using Syrian airspace that had been in force from late 2015 through most of last year.

The two senior generals also discussed the recent Astana agreement, in which Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed on a Kremlin-proposed plan to reduce the violence in Syria through “de-escalation zones” — areas of the war-torn country where clashes between Syrian rebels and forces of the Damascus government have been particularly intense.

No U.S. participation

The United States had a representative at the talks in Kazakhstan but did not participate in the negotiations, largely because of Iran’s involvement.

A Pentagon spokesman in Washington said Gerasimov and Dunford “affirmed their commitment to de-conflicting operations in Syria,” and that they also agreed to remain in contact.

Russian authorities said the de-escalation zones in Syria went into effect at midnight Friday (2100 UTC), and that those zones were now closed to aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition. No details of how the zones will operate or how aircraft exclusions will be enforced have been announced, and other reports quoted Russian officials as saying full details of the plan would not be available for at least a month.

Syrian, Russian, Turkish and U.S.-led coalition aircraft sometimes operate in the same area in Syria, and it is uncertain whether American aviators will agree to abide by the airspace restrictions Russia has declared.

Pentagon officials told The Washington Post the de-escalation measures would not affect the U.S.-led campaign against militants from the Islamic State group.

Separately, U.S. officials reported multiple airstrikes targeting Islamic State positions in Syria and Iraq on Friday. A news release on the air assault said 18 strikes, consisting of 59 sorties by warplanes, were carried out. The strikes destroyed IS oil storage tanks, weapons systems, supply caches and a “factory” that assembled car bombs and truck bombs.

Russia, Turkey and Iran said they signed their Astana agreement on Thursday. It’s aimed at reducing bloodshed in Syria, where a six-year civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

The four areas set for de-escalation are parts of Syria where rebels not associated with IS terrorists control significant territory. Representatives of the Syrian rebels who attended the Astana talks said in a statement early Saturday that truce efforts should be extended throughout all of Syria.

The rebels said they would not be bound by the Russian-Turkish-Iranian declaration, since they had no part in negotiating it. However, reports from Syria itself on Saturday — gathered from activist groups, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and news reporters — indicated there was relative calm in many areas, with fewer airstrikes and less shelling than in recent days.

U.S. cautious

The U.S. State Department said this week that “the United States supports any effort that can genuinely de-escalate the violence in Syria, ensure unhindered humanitarian access, focus energies on the defeat of [Islamic State] and other terrorists, and create conditions for a credible political resolution of the conflict.”

However, a statement issued Thursday in Washington said U.S. diplomats would be cautious in assessing whether the Astana agreement could offer such hopes, “in light of the failures of past agreements.”

“We expect the [Damascus] regime to stop all attacks on civilians and opposition forces, something they have never done,” the U.S. statement said, adding that Washington expects Russia to ensure compliance by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government.

Iran’s involvement in the de-escalation effort together with Russia and Turkey is a particular concern, the U.S. statement noted: “Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.”

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Hundreds Rally to Support Reporter Alleging Assault by Hungarian Official

Several hundred people rallied Saturday outside an office of Hungary’s governing Fidesz party after a journalist said she had been assaulted at a party meeting by a government official.

Julia Halasz, a reporter with the 444.hu news site, said a meeting organizer took away her cellphone and dragged her down several flights of steps and out of a school by the arm while she was covering a Fidesz public forum.

Economy Minister Mihaly Varga and Defense Minister Istvan Simicsko spoke at Thursday’s forum promoting the government’s “Let’s Stop Brussels” campaign, which claims the European Union wants Hungary to raise taxes and energy prices and take in large numbers of migrants.

Halasz said Laszlo Szabo, who is also in charge of the government office arranging celebrations and remembrances, accused her of making a video during the forum, which she denied, and erased several photographs she took with her mobile phone.

Halasz reported the alleged assault to police, while Fidesz said it would file its own report, claiming libel.

Assertions by Fidesz

Fidesz denied her claims, saying she failed to follow press rules at the meeting, disrupted the forum and argued loudly with audience members.

“It’s very frightening that they attack me just because I work for a medium which the government can’t influence,” Halasz told The Associated Press. “I have witnesses who can corroborate that none of their accusations are true.”

Participants at Saturday’s rally in Budapest shouted slogans in support of press freedom.

Since Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s return to power in 2010, his allies have greatly increased their ownership of newspapers, broadcasters and online media, turning the outlets into unquestioning supporters of the government. Hungary’s state media is also under strict political control.

The government has “clearly turned public service media into a tool of government propaganda,” media analyst Agnes Urban said at the rally.

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Smog Tracker Highlights Pollution Hotspots

In Rome, residents concerned about air quality may soon be able to use a smog tracker to monitor pollution levels as they travel around the city. A device is being tested that indicates which parts of the city have good or bad air quality. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.

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Kosovo Border Crisis Deepens Into No-Confidence Vote

Opposition parties in Kosovo have filed a motion of no confidence in the government, potentially deepening an 18-month political crisis over legislation to draw a border with Montenegro that is needed to ease travel to the EU.

More than 40 deputies, including 12 from parties that are part of the ruling coalition and some independent MPs, signed the motion, which accuses the government of failing to meet its campaign pledges and creating public distrust.

Prime Minister Isa Mustafa, whose conservative LDK is the second-largest party in the 120-seat parliament, has enough votes to survive the no-confidence motion provided all or most coalition lawmakers support him. Parliament’s largest party, the center-right PDK, has yet to give its backing, however.

The parliament will debate the motion May 10.

The motion noted that the parliament “very often … was not able to have a quorum to vote” because of disruptive actions inside and outside the building by opponents of the border legislation. These have included street riots, opposition deputies throwing teargas and the firing of a rocket-propelled grenade at parliament.

“The situation in Kosovo is not good, I am not happy, people are not happy,” said PDK leader Kadri Veseli, who is also the speaker of parliament. Veseli said he would discuss the motion with the prime minister.

Border law

The government dropped plans in September for a parliamentary vote on the bitterly contested law to establish a definitive border with Montenegro after lawmakers from Mustafa’s ethnic Serb coalition ally stayed away from the session.

A two-thirds majority would have been needed to force through the measure, which the European Union has said is crucial if Kosovars are to join their former Yugoslav neighbors in enjoying visa-free travel to the bloc.

Mustafa has said he will call a snap election if the border deal is not passed soon.

“We cannot continue with this situation, in one way or another the government will soon be brought down,” a senior government official told Reuters Friday.

Another source said an election was likely to be held in June, a year ahead of schedule.

Opposition parties say the border deal would see some 8,000 hectares of territory, mostly forested highland, transferred to Montenegro, although the government and others, including the United States, say this is not the case.

Kosovo, Serbia ties

The opposition also objects to an EU-brokered deal to improve ties with another neighbor, Serbia.

Kosovo broke with Serbia in 1999 after a NATO bombing campaign halted a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” directed against ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces trying to stamp out a two-year insurgency and declared independence in 2008.

It has been recognized by more than 100 countries, including Western powers, but not by Serbia and its ally Russia or several EU members such as Spain.

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Czech PM Drops Plan to Resign, Aims to Fire Finance Minister

Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka abruptly changed tack in his battle to remove Finance Minister Andrej Babis on Friday, taking back a pledge to resign and instead seeking only the dismissal of his main political rival.

The country is in political crisis over Babis, a billionaire who faces questions over past business practices but is also the most popular party leader before an election due in October.

The battle pits Sobotka’s center-left Social Democrats not only against Babis’s ANO party but also President Milos Zeman who took Babis’s side, something Sobotka said could be overstepping the constitutional powers of the presidency.

Babis has had good relations with Zeman and they both see Sobotka as their prime adversary.

The president’s spokesman, Jiri Ovcacek, tweeted: “A desperate prime minister is trying to pull the entire country into mud.”

He also indicated the stalemate is likely to drag on, telling a Czechoslovakia news website  that Zeman would consider the dismissal request only upon his return from a trip to China on May 18.

Making ‘a joke’ of the constitution

Earlier this week, Sobotka said he would resign along with his whole government as a way to dislodge Babis. But he changed his mind after Zeman indicated he would treat the resignation as Sobotka’s own, not the departure of the entire cabinet.

“In such a situation my resignation does not make any sense. The finance minister, burdened by extensive scandals, would remain in the government,” Sobotka told reporters. He accused the president of making “a joke” of the constitution.

Sobotka said Babis, worth $3.4 billion according to Forbes, had failed to clear suspicions he avoided tax by buying tax-free bonds from his chemicals and food conglomerate Agrofert.

He has also been under investigation over whether he manipulated ownership of a conference center to unfairly qualify for a 2 million euro subsidy meant for small businesses.

Babis says he did not break any laws. He transferred Agrofert, which owns two national newspapers, to a trust this year to comply with new conflict of interest legislation.

Dispute may end up in court

While a number of lawyers said the constitution implied that if the prime minister resigns the entire cabinet falls, some said it was possible to interpret it so that such a resignation, without a cabinet vote, might mean only the departure of the prime minister.

The constitution says the president dismisses ministers at the request of the prime minister, giving the head of state narrow room to maneuver.

Babis told Reuters the decision was in the president’s hands.

“If the president accepts this, then we will see what happens next. Of course it (Sobotka’s decision) is a breach of the coalition agreement,” Babis said.

If Zeman refuses to dismiss Babis, the dispute may end up at the constitutional court.

“There is no deadline, but otherwise (the constitution says that) the president dismisses a government member if the prime minister proposes it, there is no arbitrary power,” constitutional law professor Ales Gerloch told Reuters.