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.


Food aid from Indonesia enters Gaza amid Israeli blockades

Updated 6 sec ago
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Food aid from Indonesia enters Gaza amid Israeli blockades

  • Aid convoys have been targeted by Israeli military, Indonesian volunteer says
  • Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are on the brink of famine

JAKARTA: Some trucks carrying humanitarian assistance from Indonesia have managed to enter Gaza, Indonesian volunteers confirmed, despite Israeli attacks on convoys and the blocking of critical aid.

Thousands of aid trucks have been waiting to enter Gaza on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, with the UN saying on Tuesday that convoys carrying humanitarian assistance have been targeted by Israeli attacks and prevented from reaching people in need.

Several trucks carrying wheat flour and food packages from the Indonesian NGO Medical Emergency Rescue Committee, or MER-C, are among the few that managed to enter Gaza recently, volunteers from the organization said.

The volunteers, Fikri Rofiul Haq and Reza Aldilla Kurniawan, chose to stay in Gaza when Israeli attacks on the besieged territory escalated in October. They were volunteering at the MER-C-funded Indonesia Hospital in northern Gaza. When the hospital was destroyed by the Israeli military, they sought safety in the southern part of the enclave.

“The aid delivery went through many obstacles, including a long authorization process and also lengthy inspection by Israeli officials, which have resulted in many of the food packages going bad,” Haq told Arab News on Wednesday.

Thousands of food packages were distributed last weekend in central and southern Gaza. MER-C volunteers steered clear from the enclave’s north as they feared being targeted by the Israeli military.

“All this aid from the Indonesian people through MER-C faces potential attacks by Israel,” Haq said. “Until this very second, Israeli forces continue to attack and they are attacking randomly — we never know when they might launch their assault.”

About 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s air and ground campaign in Gaza. The UN has warned that hundreds of thousands of people are now on the brink of famine as the enclave’s population relies on inadequate food aid to survive.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said on Monday that the number of food aid trucks entering Gaza had decreased by about one-third since the International Court of Justice ruled last month that Israel must do everything to prevent genocidal acts in the besieged territory, and take “immediate and effective measures” for aid provision.

“Israel continues to obstruct the provision of basic services and the entry and distribution within Gaza of fuel and lifesaving aid, acts of collective punishment that amount to war crimes and include the use of starvation of civilians as a weapon of war,” HRW said in a statement.


Prince Harry loses case against UK government over security

Updated 55 sec ago
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Prince Harry loses case against UK government over security

  • Lawyers for the government rejected claims that Harry was ‘singled out’ and treated ‘less favorably’
LONDON: Prince Harry lost a court challenge against the UK government on Wednesday over a decision to change the level of his personal security when he visits the country.
The youngest son of King Charles III launched legal action against the government after being told in February 2020 that he would no longer be given the “same degree” of publicly-funded protection when in Britain.
“The ‘bespoke’ process devised for the claimant in the decision of 28 February 2020 was, and is, legally sound,” High Court judge Peter Lane said in his 52-page judgment.
Harry sensationally left Britain in 2020 with his wife Meghan, eventually settling in California in the United States.
The prince told a hearing at London’s High Court in December that security concerns were preventing visits back to the United Kingdom.
“The UK is my home. The UK is central to the heritage of my children,” he told court in a written statement read out by his lawyers.
“That cannot happen if it’s not possible to keep them safe.
“I cannot put my wife in danger like that and, given my experiences in life, I am reluctant to unnecessarily put myself in harm’s way too,” he added.
Harry’s mother Princess Diana was killed in a high-speed car crash in Paris in 1997 as she tried to escape paparazzi photographers.
Lawyers for the government rejected claims that Harry was “singled out” and treated “less favorably” or that a proper risk analysis was not carried out.
James Eadie, for the interior ministry, told the court that it was decided Harry would not be provided the same level of protection as before because he had left life as a working royal and mostly lived abroad.
In May 2023, Harry lost a bid for a legal review of another government decision refusing him permission to pay for specialist UK police protection himself.
The interior ministry argued then that it was “not appropriate” for wealthy people to “buy” protective security when it had decided that it was not in the public interest for such taxpayer-funded protection.
London’s Metropolitan Police also opposed Harry’s offer on the grounds that it would be wrong to “place officers in harm’s way upon payment of a fee by a private individual.”
It is one of many legal cases launched by Harry.
Earlier this month, he settled a long-running lawsuit against Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN), whose journalists he accused of being linked to deceptive and unlawful methods, but vowed to continue his legal battles with several other UK media outlets.
Harry is one of seven high-profile people, including Elton John, bringing legal action against the publisher of the Daily Mail over allegations of unlawful information gathering.
He and actor Hugh Grant are also suing News Group Newspapers (NGN), part of Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire and publisher of The Sun and the now-defunct News Of The World tabloids, over similar claims.
However, Harry last month dropped his libel case against UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday over an article on his legal battles with the UK government.

UAE engages with south Indian exporters to boost Gulf trade

Updated 35 min 48 sec ago
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UAE engages with south Indian exporters to boost Gulf trade

  • UAE-India CEPA Council promotes business ties under the preferential trade pact
  • Roundtable in Chennai involved businesses in the logistics, automotive, agriculture sectors

NEW DELHI: Representatives of the top UAE and Indian business bodies met with exporters in Chennai on Wednesday to boost trade between the Gulf region and India’s south.

Commercial relations between the two countries have reached historic highs since the implementation of the UAE-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in May 2022.

The economic partnership under CEPA is expected by both sides to increase the total value of bilateral trade in non-petroleum products to more than $100 billion and trade in services to $15 billion by 2030.

The meeting with exporters based in the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu was held by the UAE-India CEPA Council in collaboration with the Confederation of Indian Industry and the UAE Embassy.

“Featuring over 20 participants from diverse sectors such as logistics, automotives, agriculture and healthcare, the roundtable provided a valuable platform for business owners to discuss opportunities to benefit from the UAE-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, and the bilateral strategic partnership more broadly,” the UAE Embassy said in a statement.

Tamil Nadu, India’s second-largest exporter of software, after Karnataka, is also famous for its automobile and engineering industries. Manufacturing contributes 33 percent and agriculture 13 percent to its state gross domestic product.

“Among the various economic, trade and investment matters discussed at the roundtable, Col. Shubhransh Srivastav, vice president, corporate affairs, DP World, provided participants with an overview of the recently launched Bharat Mart, which is set to boost Indian SME exports to the UAE and the greater MENA region,” the UAE Embassy said.

Bharat Mart, a warehousing facility enabling Indian micro, small and medium enterprises to trade in Dubai, was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his state visit to the UAE earlier this month, and is expected to become operational by next year.

Ahmed Aljneibi, director of the UAE-India CEPA Council, told the Chennai audience that the CEPA was offering expansion due to preferential market access.

The access provided under the deal by the UAE on more than 97 percent of its tariff lines accounts for 99 percent of Indian exports to the UAE in value terms, mainly from labor-intensive sectors.

“The significant benefits afforded by the CEPA, including preferential market access and the facilitation of MSME expansion, underscore its role in catalyzing cooperation and strengthening cultural, political and economic ties between our nations,” Aljneibi said.

“We look forward to building upon this momentum and continuing to drive impactful initiatives that will further deepen the UAE-India economic partnership.”


UN peacekeepers begin withdrawing from east DR Congo

Updated 28 February 2024
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UN peacekeepers begin withdrawing from east DR Congo

  • The DR Congo demanded the withdrawal despite UN concerns about rampant violence in the east of the country

KAMANYOLA, DR Congo:  The United Nations kicked off Wednesday the withdrawal of MONUSCO peacekeeping forces from the Democratic Republic of Congo by handing over a first UN base to national police, an AFP team saw.

During an official ceremony at the Kamanyola base, close to the Rwandan and Burundian borders, the flags of the United Nations and Pakistan, the countries of origin of the peacekeepers in charge, were replaced by those of the DRC.

The DR Congo demanded the withdrawal despite UN concerns about rampant violence in the east of the country.

Kinshasa considers the UN force to be ineffective in protecting civilians from the armed groups and militias that have plagued the east of the vast country for three decades.

The UN Security Council voted in December to accede to Kinshasa’s demand for a gradual pullout by the MONUSCO mission, which arrived in 1999.

The UN force currently fields around 13,500 soldiers and 2,000 police across the three eastern provinces of Ituri, South Kivu and North Kivu.

The “disengagement plan” is due to take place in three phases with completion depending on regular assessments.

The first base to be handed over is at Kamanyola, on the border with Burundi.

Phase one is to see the departure of military peacekeepers from South Kivu by the end of April and civilian staff by June 30.

Before May, the UN force is to leave its 14 bases in the province and hand them over to DRC security forces.

In Kamanyola, with a population of about 100,000, opinions appeared divided on the eve of the first step in the pullout.

Ombeni Ntaboba, head of a local youth council, said he was not too concerned.

Every evening, he said, “we see them out in their armored vehicles around the Ruzizi plain,” where armed groups operate along the border.

“But the level of insecurity is still the same, with armed robberies and kidnappings.”

“We salute the Congolese government’s decision,” said Mibonda Shingire, a rights activist, who admitted fearing the impact on the local economy because of the many people employed by MONUSCO.

Others, like Joe Wendo, said they were worried about a “security vacuum” once the Pakistani troops deployed to Kamanyola have gone.

“Their presence at least protected us from the Rwandan invaders,” he said.

The withdrawal comes with North Kivu facing the resurgent Tutsi-led M23 rebels who have seized swathes of territory.

Intense fighting resumed last month around the city of Goma, North Kivu’s capital.

But local people shout down the UN troops more than they praise them.

And MONUSCO has recently felt the need to point out that it “supports Congo’s armed forces... defends its positions... facilitates secure passage for civilians.”

“The departure of the MONUSCO blue helmets concerns us, at a time when the country is at war with the rebels backed by our Rwandan neighbors,” said Beatrice Tubatunziye, who leads a development association in Kamanyola.

She said she wanted to believe that Congolese forces “will quickly be able to fill the void.”

Kinshasa, the United Nations and Western countries say Rwanda supports M23 in a bid to control vast mineral resources in the region, an allegation Kigali denies.

The United Nations has insisted the DRC security forces must be reinforced and take care of civilians at the same time as MONUSCO pulls out.

Around six million people have been displaced by the fighting in DRC.

After South Kivu, the second and third pullout phases will cover Ituri and North Kivu, with regular assessments of progress.

DRC Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula has made it clear he wants the withdrawal completed by the end of this year, though the UN Security Council has not fixed a date.


Pope Francis taken to Rome hospital, ANSA reports

Updated 42 min 12 sec ago
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Pope Francis taken to Rome hospital, ANSA reports

  • The 87-year-old pontiff, who has had a number of health issues recently, canceled appointments on Saturday and Monday

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis, who has been suffering from influenza, has been taken to a hospital in Rome for a check-up, Italian news agency ANSA reported on Wednesday.
The 87-year-old pontiff had earlier skipped a reading at his Wednesday weekly audience, delegating the task to an aide and telling the faithful he was still not well.
The pope, who has had a number of health issues recently, had cancelled appointments on Saturday and on Monday due to what the Vatican called a mild flu.
On Sunday, he addressed crowds in St Peter's Square as normal, to deliver his Angelus message.
"Dear brothers and sisters, I still have a bit of a cold", Francis said at the audience on Wednesday, announcing that someone else would read his catechesis on envy and vainglory, two of the seven deadly sins.
The reading was about one page long.
The pope did speak at the end of his audience, his voice sounding hoarse and coughing a bit, to greet some of the faithful and issue calls for peace, as is customary.
In December, the pope was forced to cancel a planned trip to a COP28 climate meeting in Dubai because of the effects of influenza and lung inflammation.
In January, he was unable to complete a speech owing to "a touch of bronchitis". Later in the month he said he was doing better despite "some aches and pains".
As a young man in his native Argentina, Francis had part of a lung removed.
The pope also has difficulty walking, and regularly uses a wheelchair or a cane. On Wednesday, he arrived at his indoor audience in a wheelchair.