A populist, pro-Russia ex-premier looks headed for victory in Slovakia’s parliamentary elections

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Former Prime Minister Robert Fico arrives at his party's headquarters after polling stations closed for an early parliamentary election, in Bratislava, Slovakia, on Sept. 30, 2023. (AP)
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Progressive Slovakia party leader Michal Simecka speaks during a press conference at the party's headquarters during an early parliamentary election in Bratislava, Slovakia on September 30, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 01 October 2023
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A populist, pro-Russia ex-premier looks headed for victory in Slovakia’s parliamentary elections

  • Former PM Robert Fico and his leftist Smer party led with 23.7 percent of the vote
  • Pro-EU Progressive Slovakia party was a distant second with 15.6 percent

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia: A populist former prime minister who campaigned on a pro-Russian and anti-American message looked to be heading for victory in early parliamentary elections in Slovakia, according to preliminary results early Sunday.

With results from almost 88 percent of about 6,000 polling stations counted by the Slovak Statistics Office, former Prime Minister Robert Fico and his leftist Smer, or Direction, party led with 23.7  percent of the vote.
A liberal, pro-West newcomer, the Progressive Slovakia party, was a distant second with 15.6 percent of the votes cast Saturday.
With no party likely to win a majority of seats, a coalition government would need to be formed.
The left-wing Hlas (Voice) party, led by Fico’s former deputy in Smer, Peter Pellegrini, was in third with 15.4 percent. Pellegrini parted ways with Fico after Smer lost the previous election in 2020, but their possible reunion would boost Fico’s chances to form a government.
“It’s important for me that the new coalition would be formed by such parties that can agree on the priorities for Slovakia and ensure stability and calm,” Pellegrini said after voting in Bratislava.
The populist Ordinary People group was in fourth and the conservative Christian Democrats in fifth.
Two parties close to the 5 percent threshold needed for representation in the 150-seat National Council could be potential coalition partners for Fico — the ultranationalist Slovak National Party, an openly pro-Russian group, and the Republic movement, a far-right group led by former members of the openly neo-Nazi People’s Party Our Slovakia.
The pro-business Freedom and Solidarity party also could get seats.
Final results were expected to be announced later Sunday.
The election was a test for the small eastern European country’s support for neighboring Ukraine in its war with Russia, and a win by Fico could strain a fragile unity in the European Union and NATO.
Fico, 59, vowed to withdraw Slovakia’s military support for Ukraine in Russia’s war if his attempt to return to power succeeded.
Michal Simecka, a 39-year-old member of the European Parliament who leads the liberal Progressive Slovakia, campaigned promising to continue Slovakia’s support for Ukraine.
Fico, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2012 to 2018, opposes EU sanctions on Russia, questions whether Ukraine can force out the invading Russian troops and wants to block Ukraine from joining NATO.
He proposes that instead of sending arms to Kyiv, the EU and the US should use their influence to force Russia and Ukraine to strike a compromise peace deal. He has repeated Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unsupported claim that the Ukrainian government runs a Nazi state.
Fico also campaigned against immigration and LGBTQ+ rights and threatened to dismiss investigators from the National Criminal Agency and the special prosecutor who deal with corruption and other serious crimes.
Progressive Slovakia, which was formed in 2017, sees the country’s future as firmly tied to its existing membership in the EU and NATO.
The party also favors LGBTQ+ rights, a rarity among the major parties in a country that is a stronghold of conservative Roman Catholicism.
“Every single vote matters,” Simecka had said Saturday.
Popular among young people, the party won the 2019 European Parliament election in Slovakia in coalition with the Together party, gaining more than 20 percent of the vote. But it narrowly failed to win seats in the national parliament in 2020.


Man who fired shotgun outside New York synagogue cited events in the Mideast, federal agent says

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Man who fired shotgun outside New York synagogue cited events in the Mideast, federal agent says

  • Mufid Fawaz Alkhader was arrested a short distance away from the temple after laying down the shotgun, police said
  • Alkhader, an Iraqi-born US citizen, told investigators he felt affected by events in the Middle East

ALBANY, New York: A man who fired a shotgun into the air outside a synagogue in New York’s capital city is an Iraqi-born US citizen who told investigators he felt affected by events in the Middle East, a federal agent said in a court filing.

No one was injured by the gunfire Thursday afternoon outside Albany’s Temple Israel, but children attending preschool had to shelter in place while police searched the area.
Mufid Fawaz Alkhader, 28, was arrested a short distance away from the temple after laying down the shotgun, police said. He said “Free Palestine” when officers arrested him, according to Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins.
Federal prosecutors charged Alkhader with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person — a charge authorities said was related to his admitted use of marijuana. He could also face state charges. Hawkins said the episode was being investigated as a possible hate crime.
The episode happened on the first night of Hanukkah amid rising fears of antisemitism worldwide and fallout from Israel’s intensifying war in Gaza. Threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities have increased across the US during the war, which entered its third month on Friday.
Speaking from the synagogue on Friday during Shabbat services, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul condemned the shooting episode, saying her top priority is to ensure everyone has the ability to practice their religion safely.
“I wanted to come here tonight and recognize that the tranquility of this wonderful community has been upended,” she told worshippers. “All hate crimes must be condemned and not tolerated here.”
Alkhader, who lives in Schenectady, which is near Albany, waived his right to remain silent and spoke with law enforcement officers after his arrest, a task force officer with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said in a court filing.
The officer’s affidavit didn’t detail what Alkhader said about his motivation, but the officer wrote that he offered that “the events in the Middle East have impacted him.”
A person who answered the door at Alkhader’s address in Schenectady and identified himself as his father declined to be interviewed, but said his son was mentally ill.
After a brief appearance in federal court Friday morning, Alkhader was sent back to detention. He entered the court shackled and wearing a green jacket over his orange jail uniform. At times, he seemed to have difficulty following instructions from the judge.
“My English is limited,” he told the judge softly. He said he speaks Arabic.
Federal prosecutors and Alkhader’s public defender, Timothy Austin, declined to comment after the appearance. There was no date set for a preliminary hearing or a possible detention hearing.
FBI spokesperson Sarah Ruane praised the “swift coordination” between federal, state and local law enforcement.
Hank Greenberg, a member of Albany’s Temple Israel and spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York, decried what he called the “heartbreaking reality” that Jewish houses of worship need police protection.
“Even with this grieving and suffering and fear we’re experiencing,” he said, “at the same time we know we will endure and prevail as we have in the past.”


US secretary of state and Qatari prime minister discuss Gaza ceasefire, hostages and aid

Updated 09 December 2023
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US secretary of state and Qatari prime minister discuss Gaza ceasefire, hostages and aid

  • The officials pledged to continue to work together to ‘facilitate the safe return of all remaining hostages while sustaining humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza’

LONDON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday held talks with Qatari Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani about the latest developments in the Gaza crisis.

“The secretary expressed appreciation for Qatar’s critical efforts to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas and the recent humanitarian pause in Gaza,” said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller.

Both officials “reiterated the importance of preventing the conflict from spreading, and committed to continuing close coordination on ongoing efforts to facilitate the safe return of all remaining hostages while sustaining humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza,” he added.

Sheikh Mohammed said that Doha and its mediation partners remain committed to the continuing efforts to restore calm in Gaza, leading to a permanent ceasefire. But he added that the resumption of the Israeli bombardment of the territory following the end of the recent humanitarian pause is complicating mediation efforts and exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe in the besieged enclave.

He also stressed the need to open up sustainable humanitarian corridors to help deliver aid to Palestinians in Gaza, and to provide the necessary protection for relief convoys.

The prime minister reiterated his country’s condemnation of all forms of violence that involve the targeting of civilians, and said that the killing innocent civilians, especially women and children, and the practice of collective punishment are not acceptable in any circumstances.

The two officials also reaffirmed the strength and importance of the US-Qatar relationship, Miller added.

The meeting took place in Washington before Blinken met a delegation from a joint Arab League-Organization of Islamic Cooperation contact group, which was on a rare mission to the US in an effort to persuade the Biden administration to drop its opposition to a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The US subsequently vetoed the resolution during a vote at the UN in New York on Friday. The Arab-Islamic Ministerial Committee includes ministers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkiye.


Top White House cyber aide says recent Iran hack on water system is call to tighten cybersecurity

Updated 09 December 2023
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Top White House cyber aide says recent Iran hack on water system is call to tighten cybersecurity

  • A recent global study by the cybersecurity firm Sophos found nearly two-thirds of health care organizations were hit by ransomware attacks in the year ending in March, double the rate from two years earlier but dipping slightly from 2022

WASHINGTON: A top White House national security official said recent cyberattacks by Iranian hackers on US water authorities — as well as a separate spate of ransomware attacks on the health care industry — should be seen as a call to action by utilities and industry to tighten cybersecurity.
Deputy national security adviser Anne Neuberger said in an interview on Friday that recent attacks on multiple American organizations by the Iranian hacker group “Cyber Av3ngers” were “unsophisticated” and had “minimal impact” on operations. But the attacks, Neuberger said, offered a fresh warning that American companies and operators of critical infrastructure “are facing persistent and capable cyberattacks from hostile countries and criminals” that are not going away.
“Some pretty basic practices would have made a big difference there,” said Neuberger, who serves as a top adviser to President Joe Biden on cyber and emerging technology issues. “We need to be locking our digital doors. There are significant criminal threats, as well as capable countries — but particularly criminal threats — that are costing our economy a lot.”
The hackers, who US and Israeli officials said are tied to Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, breached multiple organizations in several states including a small municipal water authority in the western Pennsylvania town of Aliquippa. The hackers said they were specifically targeting organizations that used programmable logic controllers made by the Israeli company Unitronics, commonly used by water and water treatment utilities.
Matthew Mottes, the chairman of the Municipal Water Authority of Aliquippa, which discovered it had been hacked on Nov. 25, said that federal officials had told him the same group also breached four other utilities and an aquarium.
The Aliquippa hack prompted workers to temporarily halt pumping in a remote station that regulates water pressure for two nearby towns, leading crews to switch to manual operation.
The hacks, which authorities said began on Nov. 22, come as already fraught tensions between the US and Iran have been heightened by the two-month-old Israel-Hamas war. The White House said that Tehran has supported Houthi rebels in Yemen who have carried out attacks on commercial vessels and have threatened US warships in the Red Sea.
Iran is the chief sponsor of both Hamas, the militant group which controls Gaza, as well as the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The US has said they have uncovered no information that Iran was directly involved in Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the massive retaliatory operation by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza. But the Biden administration is increasingly voicing concern about Iran attempting to broaden the Israeli-Hamas conflict through proxy groups and publicly warned Tehran about the Houthi rebels’ attacks.
“They’re the ones with their finger on the trigger,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters earlier this week. “But that gun — the weapons here are being supplied by Iran. And Iran, we believe, is the ultimate party responsible for this.”
Neuberger declined to comment on whether the recent cyberattack by the Iranian hacker group could portend more hacks by Tehran on US infrastructure and companies. Still, she said the moment underscored the need to step up cybersecurity efforts.
The Iranian “Cyber Av3ngers” attack came after a federal appeals court decision in October prompted the EPA to rescind a rule that would have obliged USpublic water systems to include cybersecurity testing in their regular federally mandated audits. The rollback was triggered by a federal appeals court decision in a case brought by Missouri, Arkansas and Iowa, and joined by a water utility trade group.
Neuberger said that measures spelled out in the scrapped rule to beef up cybersecurity for water systems could have “identified vulnerabilities that were targeted in recent weeks.”
The administration, earlier this year, unveiled a wide-ranging cybersecurity plan that called for bolstering protections on critical sectors and making software companies legally liable when their products don’t meet basic standards.
Neuberger also noted recent criminal ransomware attacks that have devastated health care systems, arguing those attacks spotlight the need for government and industry to take steps to tighten cybersecurity.
A recent attack targeting Ardent Health Services prompted the health care chain that operates 30 hospitals in six states to divert patients from some of its emergency rooms to other hospitals while postponing certain elective procedures. Ardent said it was forced to take its network offline after the Nov. 23 cyberattack.
A recent global study by the cybersecurity firm Sophos found nearly two-thirds of health care organizations were hit by ransomware attacks in the year ending in March, double the rate from two years earlier but dipping slightly from 2022.
“The president’s made it a priority. We’re pushing out actionable information. We’re pushing out advice,” Neuberger said. “And we really need the partnership of state and local governments and of companies who are operating critical services to take and implement that advice quickly.”
 

 


’Mud to our knees’: teen migrant misery in France’s Calais

Updated 09 December 2023
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’Mud to our knees’: teen migrant misery in France’s Calais

  • NGOs estimate around 1,000 people are currently living rough in and around Calais, the French port which has for years acted as a beacon for migrants hoping to stow away on trucks crossing the Channel by ferry or through an undersea railway tunnel

CALAIS, France: On the northern French coast, dozens of migrant teenagers are living in miserable conditions in the forest while waiting to try to cross the Channel in one of the small boats at the center of a heated immigration row in Britain.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is under mounting pressure from his ruling Conservatives to take a tougher stance on the flow of migrants across the Channel ahead of a general election that will be held by January 2025.
Sunak has promised to “stop the boats” but 29,000 people have crossed one of the world’s busiest shipping routes this year in the hope of starting a new life in Britain.
Although the numbers are down on a record 44,000 in 2022, there is little sign that the crossings will stop.
NGOs estimate around 1,000 people are currently living rough in and around Calais, the French port which has for years acted as a beacon for migrants hoping to stow away on trucks crossing the Channel by ferry or through an undersea railway tunnel.
Around 130 are unaccompanied minors, who fled war, conflict or grinding poverty in the hope of making a new beginning in Britain.
Khaled, a 17-year-old migrant from war-torn Sudan who arrived in Calais in early December on the last leg of an odyssey that took him through Libya, Tunisia and Italy, lives alone in a wood, behind a railway track.
His tent is sinking into the mud and his clothes, which are hung on branches, show no sign of drying in the wintry cold.
Every night he tries to climb on the back of a truck bound for Britain — but he’s had no luck so far.
Tighter surveillance in recent years of the rail and ferry terminals, which are fenced off with barbed wire and concrete walls, have pushed growing numbers of migrants to try their luck crossing the Channel.
Since 2018, over 100,000 people have set sail for Britain in crowded inflatable boats or small fishing vessels.
For some, the crossing has proved fatal with the deadliest disaster in November 2021 when 27 migrants drowned.
Khaled said he could not afford the “at least 800-1,000 euros” ($860-$1,080) people smugglers are demanding to take him to Britain by boat.
But Niamatullah, a 17-year-old Afghan who AFP met at a migrant support center in Calais run by the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity, is just waiting for the cold snap to pass before he tries his luck.
“Life is hard here, we’re in mud up to our knees and the police keep taking all our belongings,” he complained.

Complaints of police repression have been legion in Calais since 2016 when the authorities bulldozed a sprawling migrant tented camp dubbed the “Jungle” that housed more than 9,000 people at its peak.
Successive French governments have ordered the police to routinely dismantle any new settlements, leaving migrants regularly wandering the streets in search of a place to sleep, including teens.
The only dedicated hostel for unaccompanied minors in the wider Calais region has a maximum capacity of 30.
MSF psychologist Chloe Hannebrouw said the minors were suffering from “huge psychological stress” as well as a deep sense of disillusionment.
“There is a gulf between what they expected in Europe and the conditions they find themselves in, in Calais,” she said.
With no family members to look out for them, NGOs attempt to fill the gap.
In the seaside village of Loon-Plage near Calais, Jeanne Hogard, a social worker for the Red Cross, warns a 16-year-old Sudanese girl of the danger of taking to the sea.
“Do you know the emergency number to call? Do you have a GPS,” she asks rhetorically.
Such warnings fail to make much impact among migrants, many of whom feel their prospects are better in Britain, because they have contacts there and speak the language.
“I’m not afraid. We got this far, we’ll keep going,” Nasser, a Sudanese youth, told AFP.
 

 


US vetoes resolution calling for ceasefire in Gaza and backed by majority of Security Council

Updated 09 December 2023
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US vetoes resolution calling for ceasefire in Gaza and backed by majority of Security Council

  • Washington’s decision to block the resolution comes amid unprecedented international calls to end the violence and ease the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza
  • The US uses its veto power despite last-gasp talks between Arab ministers and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and a heartfelt plea from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres

NEW YORK CITY: The US on Friday blocked international calls for the UN Security Council to take action on the situation in Gaza by demanding a ceasefire. It vetoed a resolution for which 13 of the other 14 council members voted in favor, while the UK abstained.
Washington’s veto came amid unprecedented international calls to end the violence in Gaza, including a dramatic appeal by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who this week urged the council to demand a humanitarian ceasefire. Invoking the rarely used Article 99, one of the few powers granted to a secretary-general under the UN charter, he said a ceasefire is needed to help avert a humanitarian catastrophe that could have “potentially irreversible implications for Palestinians as a whole, and for peace and security in the region.”
Article 99 gives the secretary-general the power to bring to the attention of the Security Council “any matter which, in his opinion, may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”
Friday’s vote on the draft resolution, submitted by the UAE on behalf of the Arab Group of nations at the UN, also came as Arab ministers, led by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, met Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to convince Washington not to use its veto — a power it has as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council alongside the UK, Russia, France and China — to block adoption of the resolution.
The US veto came as no surprise, as the alternate permanent representative of the US to the UN, Robert Wood, told an earlier meeting of the council on Friday morning that his country did not support the calls for an immediate ceasefire, on the grounds that “this would only plant the seeds for the next war, because Hamas has no desire to see a durable peace, to see a two-state solution.”
It was the refusal of Hamas to release the young women it continues to hold hostage that resulted in the breakdown of the previous truce, he added, as he repeated the US position that “this council’s failure to condemn Hamas for its Oct. 7. terrorist attacks, including its acts of sexual violence and other unthinkable evils, is a serious moral failure.”
The resolution blocked on Friday called for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza and “the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages, as well as ensuring humanitarian access.”
It expressed “grave concern over the catastrophic humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the suffering of the Palestinian civilian population” and emphasized that “the Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations must be protected in accordance with international humanitarian law.”
Also on Friday morning, Guterres repeated his call for council members “to spare no effort to push for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, for the protection of civilians, and for the urgent delivery of lifesaving aid.” He added that the “eyes of the world — and the eyes of history — are watching. Time to act.”
The UN chief has warned there is a high risk of a total collapse of the humanitarian support system in Gaza, which could potentially result in “a complete breakdown of public order and increased pressure for mass displacement into Egypt.” He spoke of his fears that this could have devastating repercussions for the security of the entire region.
Guterres described apocalyptic scenes in Gaza. He said attacks by air, land and sea are so intense and widespread that “they have reportedly hit 339 education facilities, 26 hospitals, 56 healthcare facilities, 88 mosques and three churches.
“Over 60 percent of Gaza’s housing has reportedly been destroyed or damaged — some 300,000 houses and apartments. Some 85 percent of the population have been forced from their homes.”
Under such circumstances, the delivery of humanitarian aid “has become impossible,” he added, and the “people of Gaza are being told to move like human pinballs, ricocheting between ever- smaller slivers of the south without any of the basics for survival.”
Nowhere in Gaza is safe now, Guterres said.
“At least 88 UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) shelters have been hit, killing over 270 people and injuring over 900. Conditions in shelters are overcrowded and unsanitary. People nurse open wounds. Hundreds of people stand in line for hours to use one shower or toilet.”
He also warned of the “serious risk” of starvation and famine. According to the World Food Programme, 97 percent of households in Gaza do not have enough to eat and the agency’s own food supplies are running out.
Guterres also highlighted the collapse of the healthcare system in Gaza at a time when needs continue to rise, and the deaths of at least 286 health workers since the war began.
“Hospitals have suffered heavy bombardment,” he said. “Just 14 out of 36 are still functioning. Of these, three are providing basic first aid, while the others are delivering partial services.
“The unsanitary conditions in shelters and severe shortages of food and water are leading to increases in respiratory infections, scabies, jaundice and diarrhea.
“Everything I have just described represents an unprecedented situation that led to my unprecedented decision to invoke Article 99, urging the members of the Security Council to press to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, and appealing for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.”
Ahead of the vote, Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of Palestine to the UN, asked council members: “Are we supposed to pretend we don’t know (Israel’s) objective is the ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip?
“If you are against the destruction and displacement of the Palestinian people, you have to be in favor of an immediate ceasefire.
“Regardless of how good your intentions are, how genuine your efforts are, this is the moment of truth. This war is part of the assault to end the Palestinian people as a nation and to destroy the question of Palestine. If you do not share this objective, you must stand against the war.”
Israel’s permanent representative to the UN, Gilad Erdan, told council members: “Calling for a ceasefire sends a clear message that Hamas is forgiven for their deliberate atrocities.
“Hamas exploits Gazans as human shields in hopes that civilian casualties will rise and the UN will call for a ceasefire. Do we want to be the actors in this show that Hamas has carefully crafted?”
Blaming Hamas for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, Erdan said: “If this council wants to see a ceasefire, start by demanding it from Hamas, the party that broke the past two.”
The UAE’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, Mohammed Abushahab, told the council that the scale of the destruction in Gaza surpasses even the bombing of Dresden in 1945, during the Second World War.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the deliberate targeting of medical facilities, equipment and personnel,” he said.
China’s permanent representative to UN, Zhang Jun, whose country co-sponsored the Emirati resolution, said that it “reflects the universal core of the international community and represents the right direction for the restoration of peace.”
He added: “This human catastrophe is too great for words to describe … any waiting or delay means more death. At this juncture, only a ceasefire can avoid the headache of regional conflagration.”