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Comedian wins Ukrainian presidency by landslide

KIEV - Ukrainian comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has scored a landslide victory in the country's presidential election.
With nearly all ballots counted in the run-off vote, Mr Zelensky had taken more than 73% with incumbent Petro Poroshenko trailing far behind on 24%.
"I will never let you down," Mr Zelensky told celebrating supporters.
Russia says it wants him to show "sound judgement", "honesty" and "pragmatism" so that relations can improve. Russia backs separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The comments came from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in a Facebook post on Monday (in Russian).
He said he expected Mr Zelensky to "repeat familiar ideological formulas" that he used in the election campaign, adding: "I have no illusions on that score.
"At the same time, there is a chance to improve relations with our country."
Mr Poroshenko, who admitted defeat after the first exit polls were published, has said he will not be leaving politics.
He told voters that Mr Zelensky, 41, was too inexperienced to stand up to Russia effectively.
Mr Zelensky, a political novice, is best known for starring in a satirical television series Servant of the People, in which his character accidentally becomes Ukrainian president.(FA)

Ukraine to pick Zelensky as president

KIEV - Polls have opened in Ukraine's presidential runoff vote between anti-establishment political novice Volodymyr Zelensky and incumbent President Petro Poroshenko.
Sunday's election has about 35 million eligible voters, but several million in Russian-annexed Crimea and rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine are either unable or unwilling to cast their ballots.
The polling stations will close at 8pm (1700 GMT). An early count is expected overnight on Monday.
The opinion polls predict a humiliating defeat for Poroshenko, who came to power five years ago with a 55-percent support after deadly pro-West uprising removed his Russia-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovich in 2014.
He has been projecting himself as Ukraine's passionate commander-in-chief since the so-called Revolution of Dignity resulted in the war between Moscow-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and the Ukrainian army. The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people.
During the election campaign, Poroshenko told Ukrainians that Zelensky would fail to protect them from Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
But the majority of the population holds the incumbent responsible for the government's failure to tackle endemic corruption and the deteriorating living conditions.
More than 72 percent of voters are expected to support the comic, who has been playing a corruption-busting president on TV for the last three years.
In the first round of vote held on March 31, Zelensky came first among 39 presidential candidates with more than 30 percent of ballots - double of what Poroshenko secured.(FA)

French protesters set fire to motorbikes

PARIS - Clashes have broken out between Yellow Vest protesters and police in the French capital, Paris, as demonstrators took to the streets for a 23rd week of marches against economic inequality and President Emmanuel Macron's government.
Dozens of black-hooded demonstrators threw rocks at police and some set fire to motorbikes and rubbish cans along the march route on Saturday, prompting the police to use water cannon, stun grenades and tear gas.
Paris police said authorities detained 137 people by early afternoon and carried out spot checks on more than 14,000 people trying to enter the capital for the protests.
As of 12:00 GMT on Saturday, a total of 9,600 people were demonstrating across France, including 6,700 in the capital, the interior ministry said.
This is more than last week's protest, which drew 7,500 demonstrators, but represents only a fraction of the record 282,000 estimated on the first day of protests on November 17.
The demonstrations originally began over fuel price increases and high cost of living, but spiralled into a broader movement against Macron and his economic policies, which protesters say favour the wealthy and big business at the expense of ordinary workers.
The protest movement is largely peaceful, but some protesters have attacked monuments, shops and banks and clashed with police in previous weeks.(FA)

Turkey 'arrests' Kashoggi spies

ANKARA - Turkey has arrested two men suspected of spying for the United Arab Emirates and is investigating whether the suspects were linked to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to media reports.
The state-run Anadolu Agency, citing judicial sources on Friday, described the two men as "intelligence operatives" working on behalf of the UAE, and said they were "referred to a court on charges of political and military espionage".
The agency also released apparent surveillance images of the pair in the streets, as well as photographs of the two men taken following their arrest on Monday.
Reuters, citing a senior Turkish official, said one of the two men had arrived in Turkey in October 2018, days after Khashoggi was murdered inside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul.
The other had arrived later to help his colleague with the workload, the unnamed official told the news agency.
Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was killed by Saudi operatives, provoking an international outcry.
The CIA and some Western countries believe the crown prince, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, ordered the killing, an allegation Saudi officials deny.
"We are investigating whether the primary individual's arrival in Turkey was related to the Jamal Khashoggi murder," the Turkish official told Reuters, adding: "It is possible that there was an attempt to collect information about Arabs, including political dissidents, living in Turkey."
The men admitted they had recruited and paid informants, the official added.
Turkish officials also seized an encrypted computer at what the official told Reuters was the spy ring's base in Istanbul. 
The pro-government Sabah newspaper said the pair had contacted a number of people in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Diyarbakir, adding that one suspect had been in telephone contact with a person connected to the Khashoggi case.
A spokesperson for Turkey's interior ministry declined to comment on the arrests.
Al Jazeera's Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from Istanbul, said the two men were not citizens of the UAE.
"Sources tell Al Jazeera the men, who were under surveillance for six months, contacted Turkish analysts and also inquired about Qatar's investment in Turkey."
Doha and Ankara are close allies, while the UAE is part of a quartet of Arab nations that imposed a blockade on Qatar last year.
The UAE is a close ally of Saudi Arabia, which has indicted 11 people over Khashoggi's killing and is seeking the death penalty against five of them.
After first denying the murder, Riyadh eventually said Khashoggi died in a botched operation to return him to Saudi Arabia.
Turkey has been at the forefront of efforts to clear up the Khashoggi case, but has expressed frustration at an alleged lack of cooperation by Saudi officials.(FA)


Sri Lanka bombings kill 290

COLOMBO - A wave of bombings that killed 290 people in Sri Lanka on Sunday was carried out with the support of an international network, officials said.
The government has blamed a little-known local jihadist group, National Thowheed Jamath, although no-one has yet admitted carrying out the bombings.
Another 500 people were injured in the suicide attacks on churches and hotels.
Police arrested 24 people in a series of raids and the president's office declared a state of national emergency.
The emergency declaration, which comes into effect from midnight (19:30 GMT) on Monday, will give police and military extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders.
On Monday, another blast rocked a street near a church in the capital, Colombo. Police were attempting to defuse explosives in a vehicle used by the attackers when it blew up. It is not yet known if anyone was hurt.
Sri Lankan authorities were warned about a bomb threat from National Thowheed Jamath a full two weeks before the attacks, cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne said at a press conference.
He said that the warnings were not passed on to the Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, or his cabinet. Mr Wickremesinghe acknowledged that security services had been "aware of information" but had not acted on the information.
Mr Senaratne said that authorities believed the bombers had international support. "We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country," he said, adding: "There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded."
A later statement said President Maithripala Sirisena would ask for foreign help to track down the international links to the attackers.
"The intelligence reports [indicate] that foreign terrorist organisations are behind the local terrorists. Therefore, the president is to seek the assistance of the foreign countries," his office said.
A curfew is to be imposed from 20:00 (14:30 GMT) until 04:00 on Tuesday, the government said. A national day of mourning has been scheduled for Tuesday.
Sri Lanka's National Security Council said a "conditional state of emergency" from midnight would target "terrorism" and would not limit freedom of expression.
In another development, the US State Department issued revised travel advice urging greater caution, adding, "Terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Sri Lanka."(FA)

India top judge in sex scandal

NEW DELHI - India's most senior judge has been accused of sexual harassment by a former Supreme Court employee.
Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi called the accusations made by a 35-year-old junior court assistant "unbelievable" and said they were an attempt to stop him from hearing important cases.
Saying judicial independence was at stake, Gogoi, 64, called a special session of the apex court after the woman wrote to 22 Supreme Court judges on Friday, alleging he twice made sexual advances in the office of his official residence in October last year.
"He hugged me around the waist, and touched me all over my body with his arms and by pressing his body against mine, and did not let go," she wrote in an affidavit seen by the AFP news agency.
"He told me 'hold me', he did not let go of me despite the fact that I froze and tried to get out of his embrace by stiffening and moving my body away," the document said.
The woman claimed she was dismissed from her job and her family had been harassed after she rebuffed Gogoi's advances.
She also said she was summoned by Gogoi's wife who asked her to prostrate herself and rub her nose at her feet to seek forgiveness.
"I have taken this unusual and extraordinary step of sitting in court today because things have gone too far," Gogoi said.
"This is unbelievable. I don't think I should stoop low even to deny these allegations... there has to be a bigger force behind this."
The chief justice, who is to retire in November after a year as chief justice, said he was scheduled to hear many sensitive cases in coming days and that he would continue his work "without any fear".
"Why do you think a person decides to become a judge? Reputation is all that matters for a judge. If that is also under attack, what is left?"
Gogoi said the woman had a criminal background and that the media must act responsibly on reporting the allegations.
A New Delhi court is to hear a police application on Wednesday to cancel bail for the woman in a separate criminal investigation.
The woman, a married mother of one, has called on the Supreme Court to set up a "special inquiry committee" to look into her accusations.
The controversy came amid a mounting #MeToo movement in India that has seen several Bollywood directors, actors and media figures accused of sexual harassment.
A junior foreign minister was forced to resign last year after several women accused him of harassment.
The Supreme Court has 25 judges appointed by India's president, including the chief justice.(FA)

Sri Lanka explosions kill 138

COLOMBO - Easter Day bomb blasts at three Sri Lankan churches and three luxury hotels have killed 138 people and wounded more than 400, hospital and police officials said, following a lull in major attacks since the end of the civil war 10 years ago.
In just one church, St. Sebastian’s in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo, more than 50 people had been killed, a police official told Reuters, with pictures showing bodies on the ground, blood on the pews and a destroyed roof.
Media reported 25 people were also killed in an attack on a church in Batticaloa in Eastern Province.
The three hotels hit were the Shangri-La Colombo, Kingsbury Hotel and Cinnamon Grand Colombo. It was unclear whether there were any casualties in the hotels.
Nine foreigners were among the dead, the officials said.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks in a country which was at war for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009 during which bomb blasts in the capital were common.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called a national security council meeting at his home for later in the day.
One of the explosions was at St Anthony’s Church in Kochcikade, Colombo.
“Our people are engaged in evacuating the casualties,” a source with the bomb squad said.
St. Sebastian’s church posted pictures of destruction inside the church on its Facebook page, showing blood on pews and the floor, and requested help from the public.
Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organisations.
This year, the NCEASL recorded 26 such incidents, including one in which Buddhist monks allegedly attempted to disrupt a Sunday worship service, with the last one reported on March 25.
Out of Sri Lanka’s total population of around 22 million, 70 percent are Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.6 percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.(FA)

Kabul attack kills seven

KABUL - Seven people were killed in an attack on the Afghan ministry of information in Kabul, officials said.
An explosion was heard at 11:40 local time (07:10 GMT) and sporadic gunfire continued for over six hours before officials declared the incident over.
A ministry source said one of the attackers got inside the building.
The attack comes a day after talks between Afghan officials and the Taliban were suspended, but the Taliban said they were not behind the assault.
Among the dead were four civilians and three police officers, while another eight civilians were wounded.
Although Kabul still sees fighting, this attack follows months of relative calm.
What's happening on the ground?
The attack happened in a busy area of central Kabul, near one of the city's most popular hotels, a couple of other ministries, and the presidential palace.
There were four attackers in total - all of whom were eventually shot dead by police officers.
The Serena Hotel, which is heavily fortified, is one of the few still used by foreign visitors.
At 18 storeys high, the information ministry building is believed to be one of the tallest in Kabul.
About 2,000 people were feared to have been stranded inside for hours, until they were eventually freed.
Footage broadcast on local TV showed a small cloud of smoke rising near the tower block, while people climbed out of the windows of one of the lower levels, AFP news agency reported.
Hundreds of civilians were evacuated from the building, the ministry said, but eight people were injured and taken to hospital.(FA)


Algeria arrests five billionaires

ALGIERS - Algerian authorities have arrested five billionaires as part of an anti-graft investigation, State TV reported.
Issad Rebrab, the founder and CEO of Cevital, Algeria’s biggest privately held company, was arrested on Monday alongside four brothers from the Kouninef family.  
Reda, Abdelkader, Karim and Tarek Kouninef are believed to be part of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's inner circle while Rebrab, owner of the critical Liberte newspaper, opposed the president's 2014  reelection. 
Rebrab however denied the arrest in a tweet shortly after the announcement was made, saying he voluntarily answered the police’s call to give evidence on a case involving industrial equipment authorities had seized from him in June 2018.
The move came after Algeria's army chief, Lieutenant General Gaid Salah, announced last week that members of the ruling elite in the major oil and natural gas-producing country, would be prosecuted for corruption.
An Algerian court has already summoned former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and current Finance Minister Mohamed Loukal, two close associates of Bouteflika, in a investigation into suspected misuse of public money, state TV said on Saturday.
Authorities also arrested prominent businessman Ali Haddad in early April.
One of the country's richest men, Haddad was caught trying to cross into neighbouring Tunisia with large sums of money.
Bouteflika stepped down two weeks ago after 20 years in power, bowing to pressure from the army and weeks of demonstrations by mainly younger Algerians seeking change.
Demonstrators in the North African country want a new generation of leaders to replace a ruling elite seen by many ordinary Algerians as out of touch and unable to jump-start a faltering economy hampered by cronyism.
Bouteflika has been replaced by Abdelkader Bensalah, head of the upper house of parliament, as interim president for 90 days until a presidential election is held on July 4.
Hundreds of thousands protested on Friday to demand the resignation of Bensalah, the ninth consecutive week of demonstrations.(FA)

Sudan military warns protesters

KHARTOUM - Sudan's military government has told protesters to take down their road blocks in the capital, Khartoum.
Demonstrators have been manning barricades leading to the military HQ, which has been the focus of the protests that helped lead to the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir.
On Sunday, protest leaders said they had ended contact with the military council that removed the president.
They accused it of being composed of "remnants" of Mr Bashir's regime.
The military says it is committed to handing over power and will consider a joint military-civilian council.
But it insisted that it was responsible for security in the country.
"It can't continue like this," said the head of the military council, Lt Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan.
It was not clear if the protesters would respond to the call.(FA)

Cash hoard at Sudan al-Bashir's home

KHARTOUM - A large hoard of cash has been found at the home of Sudan's ousted president Omar al-Bashir and he is now being investigated for money laundering, prosecutors say.
Security services found euros, dollars and Sudanese pounds totalling more than $130m (£100m).
The ex-leader was placed under house arrest after months of protests led to his removal.
Reports say Mr Bashir is now being held at the Kobar high-security prison.
A source in Sudan's judiciary told Reuters news agency that suitcases loaded with more than $351,000, €6m ($6.7m; £5.2m) and five billion Sudanese pounds ($105m) were found at Mr Bashir's home.
The source also confirmed Mr Bashir was under investigation, telling Reuters prosecutors would "question the former president in Kobar prison".
A picture carried by the Netherlands-based media outlet Radio Dabanga shows men in army uniforms standing over what appears to be several sacks full of cash.(FA)

South Africa church collapses killing 13

PRETORIA - At least 13 people have died and many were injured when a wall collapsed in South Africa at the start of an Easter service at a Pentecostal church.
Emergency services said that 29 people were rushed to hospital after the collapse in the coastal province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Local officials have blamed the tragedy on heavy rainfall in the area around eMpangeni on Thursday night.
Local reports said some people had been sleeping when the brick wall fell.
The wall at the front of the Pentecostal Holiness Church collapsed at the start of what had been planned as a weekend-long service to commemorate the Christian festival of Easter.
On Friday, a special prayer service was held in a large tent in front of the church, reports the eNCA TV station.
President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the church last year and some of the congregants reportedly asked for his support to build a new church.
Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant is a member of the church and was planning to attend the Good Friday service there.
She has arrived at the scene and said: "Even at this difficult time, we still need to trust in God."(FA)

Mali PM resigns

BAMAKO - The prime minister of Mali and his entire government have resigned, following an upsurge of violence in the country.
On Wednesday, a motion of no confidence was submitted as MPs blamed Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga for failing to handle the unrest.
Last month, scores of herders were killed by a rival ethnic group.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a statement that he accepted Mr Maiga and his ministers' resignation.
"A prime minister will be named very soon and a new government will be put in place after consultations with all political forces," the statement said.
Mali has been struggling to control violence since al-Qaeda-linked Islamist extremists gripped the desert north of the country in 2012.
Despite an ongoing military drive and a 2015 peace agreement, jihadists still dominate areas huge areas of the country, having migrated from the north to the more heavily populated centre of the country.
The government has come under increasing pressure over its inability to restore stability, particularly after the massacre of 160 Fulani herders in the Mopti region.
Armed with guns and machetes, the attackers appeared to be members of the Dogon ethnic group, which has a long history of tension with the nomadic Fulani people.
The country was shocked by the killings and tens of thousands of people protested on the streets of the capital Bamako on April 5.
The president said in a televised address on Tuesday that he had "heard the anger".(FA)


Record murders in Mexico

MEXICO CITY - Violence in Mexico has hit new heights in the first quarter of 2019, with 8,493 murders recorded from January to March, according to official figures.
The Executive Secretariat of the Public Security National System revealed that the number represents a 9.6 percent rise on the same period in 2018.
Last year was considered the most violent in Mexico's history, with more than 33,500 murders - the highest number since records began in 1997.
The new record contradicts claims by leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador that murders have not increased during his presidency, which began in December.
At a Navy event Sunday, Lopez Obrador defended the creation of a National Guard, his key strategy to fight the wave of violence that has engulfed Mexico since the government declared war on the country's powerful drug cartels in 2006.
"What concerns us the most is guaranteeing public safety," he said. "That is why a reform of the constitution was proposed so that the army and the navy can help us."
The National Guard is due to take over policing duties given to the military.
Mexico has recorded nearly 250,000 murders since deploying the army, including last year's record as the newly fragmented cartels battle the military and each other, with widespread collateral damage.
Lopez Obrador was a long-time critic of the deployment and vowed to end it, but since he assumed office it has continued.(FA)

Venezuela sells oil via Russia

CARACAS - President Nicolas Maduro is funnelling cash flow from Venezuelan oil sales through Russian state energy giant Rosneft as he seeks to evade US sanctions designed to remove him from power, according to sources and documents reviewed by Reuters news agency.
The sales are the latest sign of the growing dependence of Venezuela's cash-strapped government on Russia as the United States tightens a financial noose around Maduro.
With its economy reeling and a sharp decline in oil production, Venezuela was already struggling to finance imports and government spending before Washington imposed tough restrictions on state oil company PDVSA in January.
Oil accounts for more than 90 percent of exports from the OPEC nation and the lion's share of government revenues. Maduro has accused US President Donald Trump of waging economic war against Venezuela.
Since January, Maduro's administration has been in talks with allies in Moscow about ways to circumvent a ban on clients paying PDVSA in dollars, the sources said. Russia has publicly said the US sanctions are illegal and it would work with Venezuela to weather them.
Under the scheme uncovered by Reuters, Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA has started passing invoices from its oil sales to Rosneft.
The Russian energy giant pays PDVSA immediately at a discount to the sale price - avoiding the usual 30-to-90 day timeframe for completing oil transactions - and collects the full amount later from the buyer, according to the documents and sources.
"PDVSA is delivering its accounts receivable to Rosneft," said a source at the Venezuelan state firm with knowledge of the deals, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Major energy companies such as India's Reliance Industries Ltd - PDVSA's largest cash-paying client - have been asked to participate in the scheme by paying Rosneft for Venezuelan oil, the documents show.
Rosneft, which has heavily invested in Venezuela under President Vladimir Putin, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Venezuela's oil ministry, its information ministry and PDVSA did not respond to questions.
Asked about the transactions, a spokesperson for Reliance said it had made payments to Russia and Chinese companies for Venezuelan oil. The spokesperson said the payments were deducted from money owed by Venezuela to those countries, but did not provide further details.(FA)

Democrats to probe Trump 'obstruction'

WASHINGTON - Democrats have vowed to continue pursuing Donald Trump over allegations he obstructed justice, following the release of a report into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
They want Robert Mueller, the man who collated the report, to publicly testify before congress about the work he has done.
It comes after a redacted version of the document was released on Thursday.
Mr Trump's legal team has said it completely exonerates the president.
But while the report does say the president did not collude with the Russians, it did not come to a firm conclusion on the issue of obstruction of justice.
It also reveals several occasions when Mr Trump tried to hinder the investigation itself - including attempting to have Mr Mueller removed.
The 448-page redacted document is the result of a 22-month investigation by Mr Mueller, who was appointed to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Mr Mueller's report says he found no criminal conspiracy between Mr Trump's campaign and Russia, but could not reach a concrete legal conclusion on whether Mr Trump tried to obstruct the investigation.
"If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state," the report says. "Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgement.(FA)

US: Tensions over Mueller report

WASHINGTON - US attorney general William Barr has been accused of "waging a media campaign" for President Donald Trump ahead of the Mueller report's long-awaited release.

Democrat Jerry Nadler accused Mr Barr of failing to let "the facts speak for themselves" over his plans to hold a news conference before the release.

The 400-page report is the result of an investigation into alleged Russian interference during the 2016 election.

A summary, released by Mr Barr, reveals it clears Mr Trump of any collusion.

However, it does not go as far as to completely exonerate the president of obstruction of justice.

Both Mr Trump's supporters and detractors are now eagerly awaiting the full - albeit redacted - report's release.

It will be sent to Congress between 11:00 and midday local time (15:00 GMT and 16:00 GMT). It will be published online sometime after this.

Mr Barr is due to hold a news conference at 09:30.

The report contains the findings of a 22-month investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign back in 2016.

It was led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was chosen to run the investigation in 2017 following concerns from US intelligence agencies that Russia had tried to tip the election in Mr Trump's favour.

He also looked into whether Mr Trump obstructed justice when he asked for the inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn to end, and later fired FBI chief James Comey.

Mr Flynn has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia - one of six former Trump aides and 30 other people, including 12 Russians, charged in connection with the investigation.(FA)


Nicaragua crisis: One year in, more than 60,000 have fled, seeking refuge

GENEVA - Doctors, journalists, students and farmers are among more than 60,000 Nicaraguans who have fled the country in fear of their lives since anti-Government demonstrations began last April, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said on Tuesday.

Echoing concerns from the UN's human rights office, OHCHR, and others about the deteriorating situation in the Central American country, UNHCR said that families with young children are now taking extreme measures to cross the border.

"The kinds of reasons that people have been giving for fleeing are the fear of losing their lives, being attacked or kidnapped by paramilitary groups," spokesperson Elizabeth Throssell told journalists in Geneva.

According to OHCHR, hundreds of activists have been arrested in Nicaragua in recent months in protests, while some 300 people reportedly died between April and August last year alone, the Office said in a 2018 report.

Costa Rica's capacity, overstretched

She noted that of an estimated 62,000 people who had fled abroad, 55,500 had sought refuge in neighbouring Costa Rica.

"Some have received direct threats or have been persecuted; others fear for their lives because their communities have been a target of violence; or some, because their relatives are being sought," she said. "So, we do feel that it is overwhelmingly a refugee flow."

Latest information from the Costa Rican authorities indicates that at least 29,500 Nicaraguans have filed asylum applications to date. UNHCR has commended the country's open-door policy, but noted that capacity to shelter everyone remains overstretched, meaning that 26,000 others are waiting to have their claims formalized.

People 'hiding in trucks, amongst sacks, to escape'

"The people who are fleeing are coming from different parts of Nicaragua and they are travelling to the Costa Rican border, trying to avoid contact with the police and paramilitary groups," Ms. Throssell explained. "Some are travelling in trucks, hidden amongst sacks."

"Among those seeking asylum are students, former public officials, opposition figures, journalists, doctors, human rights defenders and farmers," she said. "A significant number arrive in need of healthcare, psychological support, shelter and food assistance."

Without a political solution to the crisis in Nicaragua, people are likely to continue to flee, UNHCR has warned.

Funds are urgently needed to strengthen the agency's humanitarian response to allow asylum-seekers in dire need of assistance to access aid, Ms. Throssell said, instead of having to resort to informal jobs to pay for somewhere to live, and food prices which are beyond their reach.

Bachelet warns authorities to refrain from violence on anniversary

With the anniversary of the protests looming later this week, the head of the UN rights office (OHCHR), Michelle Bachelet, said on Tuesday that the Nicaraguan Government needed to ensure its security forces give citizens to right to assemble peacefully, and express their views freely.

"I am concerned that the protests planned for later in the week may trigger another violent reaction," Ms. Bachelet said. "Violations over the past year include the criminalization and harassment of -- and attacks on -- student leaders, human rights defenders, journalists and others critical of the Government. The authorities have also resorted to media censorship, bans on demonstrations, and persistent use of excessive force and large-scale arbitrary arrests by the police," she added.

"Inevitably these actions, coupled with the lack of accountability for unlawful excesses by members of the security forces, have stoked rather than reduced the tensions in the country."

The UN human rights chief said she was also disturbed by reports of conditions faced by protesters who have been detained, noting that "severe conditions" in jails could amount to torture and ill-treatment.

She cited recent protests at La Modelo, a men's prison in Tipitapa, to the north-east of the capital Managua, where people were detained during the protests, who are being held alongside common criminals. The prisoners were reportedly violently repressed, through beatings, use of dogs and tear gas.

Australia & Pacific

Australian warships arrive China for parade

QINGDAO, China - Warships from India, Australia and several other nations arrived in the eastern Chinese port city of Qingdao on Sunday to attend a naval parade, part of a goodwill visit as China extends the hand of friendship despite regional tensions and suspicions.
China on Tuesday will mark 70 years since the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, where it will show off new warships including nuclear submarines and destroyers at a major review in the waters off Qingdao.
China says warships from about a dozen nations are also taking part - one diplomatic source with direct knowledge said it was 13 countries in total - and the PLA is putting its best foot forward to welcome them.
India, which has been at odds with China over their disputed land border and Beijing’s support for India’s regional rival Pakistan, has sent stealth guided-missile destroyer the “INS Kolkata” to take part, along with a supply ship.
“We bring to you one of the best ships that we have made. It is the pride of the nation and the navy, and we are very happy to be here,” Captain Aditya Hara told reporters on the dockside after disembarking from the ship in Qingdao.
A source familiar with the situation told Reuters the “Kolkata” had sailed through the Taiwan Strait to get to Qingdao, a sensitive waterway that separates China from self-ruled Taiwan, claimed by Beijing as sacred Chinese territory.
“We headed on a direct route and we are very happy that we were facilitated by the PLA Navy and they ensured that we had a safe passage to Qingdao,” Hara said, when asked if they had sailed via the Taiwan Strait.
Australia, a close U.S. ally, has sent the “HMAS Melbourne” guided-missile frigate to Qingdao, though officials declined to make the captain available for interview.
China and Australia have sparred over Australian suspicions of Chinese interference in the country’s politics and Australia’s banning of China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd from supplying equipment for its planned 5G broadband network.
Japan has also sent a destroyer to Qingdao, in the first visit of a Japanese navy ship to China since 2011, according to Japanese media.
Ties between China and Japan, the world’s second and third-largest economies, have been plagued by a long-running territorial dispute over a cluster of East China Sea islets and suspicion in China about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to amend Japan’s pacifist constitution.
But they have sought to improve relations more recently, with Abe visiting Beijing in October, when both countries pledged to forge closer ties and signed a broad range of agreements including a $30 billion currency swap pact.
The other countries taking part include China’s close friend Russia, and three countries which have sparred with China over competing claims in the disputed South China Sea: Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
Pakistan, a very close Chinese ally, is not on the list of countries officials have provided which are sending ships to the parade.(FA)

New Zealand PM Ardern's approval rating rises to highest since taking office

WELLINGTON - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who was praised at home and abroad for her handling of the Christchurch mosques shooting last month, received her highest approval rating since taking office in a widely watched poll on Monday.

The 1 NEWS Colmar Brunton political survey showed 51 percent of respondents said Ardern was their preferred prime minister, climbing seven percentage points from the last poll in February.

Its the first political survey since a lone gunman killed 50 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15.

Ratings for Ardern’s rival, opposition National Party leader Simon Bridges, dropped one percentage point to five percent.

Party vote results also showed Ardern’s Labour Party rising three percentage points to 48 percent while the National’s rating dropping to its lowest since September 2017, at 40 percent.

“All I know is that I’m doing my job to the best of my ability,” Ardern told 1News when asked about the poll result.

Since coming to power in 2017, Ardern’s coalition government has faced several challenges including weak business confidence, emboldened unions and a slowing economy. Her youth and global celebrity has also given critics doubt.

But the 38-year-old leader struck all the right notes in the hours after the Christchurch attack.

Ardern promptly labeled the mass killing as terrorism, and set about reassuring a nation that has been largely unscathed by the violence and fears that have afflicted other countries in the past two decades.

Picture of Ardern’s wearing a head scarf and comforting families affected by the massacre went viral on the social media, and garnered praises from Muslims around the world, as well as leaders of other nations.

She also successfully passed a contentious gun law within a month of the shooting, which banned semi-autmatic weapons.

Ardern burst into prominence after her coalition ended 10 years of National Party’s center right rule, promising more money for social services and by vowing to tighten foreign investment rules.

She rocketed to global celebrity as an inspiration for women after the unexpected election win, and she became only the second leader to give birth while in office since Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto.

The poll was taken from April 6 to April 10, and has a margin of error of 3.1 percent, the polling agency said.

Melbourne shooting kills one, injures three

MELBOURNE, Australia - One man has been killed and three others wounded in a shooting outside a popular nightclub in the Australian city of Melbourne.
Three security guards from the Love Machine venue and a man queuing outside were shot in the incident on Sunday.
"It would appear that shots have been discharged from a car in this area into a crowd standing outside," inspector Andrew Stamper told the media.
Police say there is no evidence to suggest the shooting is terror-related.
Mass shootings in Australia are rare. The country overhauled its gun laws after 35 people were shot dead in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996.
The country saw its worst incident since then last year when seven members of the same family died in a murder-suicide.
The man who died in the nightclub shooting has not been named, but local media report he is a 37-year-old security guard.
Police say the other men who were shot are aged 28, 29 and 50. The youngest is in a critical condition.
Victoria Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper described the injuries they sustained as "horrific".
"This is just a horrendous act. It's a busy nightclub, one of the main nightclubs in Melbourne in one of the main entertainment precincts in Melbourne," he told a news conference.
No arrests have yet been made, and police have appealed for witnesses to come forward.
Australian newspaper The Age said investigators are likely to examine links to a motorcycle gang.(FA)

New Zealand MPs vote to change gun laws

AUCKLAND - New Zealand's parliament has voted to ban all types of semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles following the Christchurch attacks.

The gun reform bill passed 119-1 after the final reading in parliament.

It is expected to become law within the next few days after receiving royal assent from the governor general.

PM Jacinda Ardern announced changes to the law after 50 people were killed last month by a suspected lone gunman at two mosques in Christchurch.

Australian Brenton Tarrant, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, faces 50 murder charges and 39 attempted murder charges.

"Six days after this attack, we are announcing a ban on all military style semi-automatics (MSSA) and assault rifles in New Zealand," Ms Ardern said in a news conference last month.

"Related parts used to convert these guns into MSSAs are also being banned, along with all high-capacity magazines."

An amnesty has been imposed so the owners of affected weapons can hand them in, followed by a buy-back scheme.

Ms Ardern said the buy-back could cost up to NZ$200m ($138m; £104m), but "that is the price that we must pay to ensure the safety of our communities".(FA)



Bahrain reinstates citizenship of 551

MANAMA - Bahrain's king has reinstated the citizenship of 551 people convicted by courts during a crackdown on dissent.
No reason was given for the decision and those affected were not named.
At least 990 Bahrainis have reportedly lost their citizenship through court decisions or executive orders since 2012. Most have been left effectively stateless, and some have been deported.
They have included many human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and religious scholars.
Last week, a court sentenced 139 men to between three years and life in prison, and stripped all but one of them of their citizenship, after finding them guilty of terrorism charges.
Prosecutors alleged that they set up a militant group linked to Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), detonated bombs and damaged property.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed alarm at the court decision, saying she had "serious concerns that the proceedings failed to comply with international fair trial standards".
A large number of the accused were reportedly tried in absentia, and 17 of those convicted were believed to be minors aged between 15 and 17, she added.
Ms Bachelet also warned that the revocation of nationality could have serious consequences for the human rights of the individuals concerned and their families in all aspects of their daily lives, including the denial of the right to health, education and freedom of movement.
"Under international law, revocation of nationality is prohibited if it does not serve a legitimate aim or is disproportionate," she said.
Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to a nationality" and "no-one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality".
The Sunni-ruled Gulf island has been wracked by unrest since security forces crushed pro-democracy protests led by the Shia majority community in 2011.
The authorities have accused Iran of backing militants who have carried out attacks on security forces. Iran has repeatedly denied the charge.(FA)

Arabs pledge $100m to Palestinians

CAIRO - The Arab League has pledged to pay $100m a month to the Palestinian Authority (PA) to plug the gap left when Israel blocked tax transfers earlier in the year.
"We confirm that Arab countries will support the Palestinian state's budget ... [to] resist the political and financial pressure it faces," the League said on Sunday following a meeting in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
Israel collects taxes on behalf of the PA but withheld $138m in transfers in February over Palestinian payments to political prisoners jailed for attacks against Israelis.
The PA sees the payments as a kind of welfare system for families who have lost a breadwinner.
The freeze came as the Palestinians face major budget cuts made last year after the United States slashed funding for the UN's Palestinian refugee programme, UNRWA, and for development programmes in the Palestinian territories.
The UN's World Food Programme also cut back services due to funding shortages. The funding reduction is a major setback for the PA, which faces constant budget shortfalls.
The Arab League's move comes as US President Donald Trump's administration prepares to unveil a much-touted "deal of the century" for peace between the Palestinians and Israel in the coming months.
The Palestinian leadership, which has boycotted Washington over a series of moves including recognising the city of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, says it can no longer trust the US as an honest broker.
Palestinian leaders perceive occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The status of Jerusalem has been a sticking point in the conflict, along with the illegal expansion of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
The Arab League said the deal "will not succeed in achieving long-lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East".(FA)

Saudi Arabia and Iran attend Iraq summit

BAGHDAD - A summit organised by Iraq brought together regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran on Saturday as part of a broader effort by Iraqi leaders to fashion the country's image as a friend among neighbours.
Scarred by more than three decades of war, Iraq is recasting itself as a mediator among neighbours who are often at odds over weighty issues, including the civil war in Syria and US sanctions against Iran.
The summit, hosted by Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi, brought together top legislators of Iraq's six neighbours: Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, and Kuwait.
"Today, Iraq is building a promising strategic partnership with all neighbouring countries without any reservations or favouring any party," said al-Halbousi.
The regional meeting follows months of high-profile diplomacy that has involved Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and President Barham Salih to engage with the neighbours.
"The stability of Iraq is necessary in the stability of the region and contributes its return with all its political and economic weight and creative human resources to its Arab and regional environment," a final declaration said.
It emphasised "the importance of supporting moderation and combating extremism in all its forms, especially as it is the people of the region who pay the price of extremism".
Abdul Mahdi made visits in quick succession to Iran and Saudi Arabia earlier this year, emphasising that Iraq would not favour one or the other in the rivalry between them.
Instead, Iraq is looking to expand trade with both as it looks to rebuild itself, 16 years after the 2003 US invasion plunged the country into civil war. The country is seeking billions of dollars in aid and investment - particularly in energy and electricity - for reconstruction.
Iraq is also spearheading a regional initiative to bring Syria - which was suspended in 2011 - back into the Arab League, with President Bashar al-Assad surviving a 2011 uprising against his rule.
While Iraq remains a close ally of the US in the Middle East, Iraqi leaders have made clear they will not be constrained by US policy objectives to isolate Iran and Syria.
"Iraq is coming back to the neighbourhood," President Salih told The Associated Press last month.(FA)

IS 'kills 35' in desert attacks

DAMASCUS - Islamic State militants have killed 35 Syrian pro-government forces in desert attacks in recent days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
The UK-based monitoring group says the militants attacked in Homs and Deir al-Zour provinces.
IS media has spoken about the alleged attacks, but Syrian officials have not confirmed them.
It comes weeks after reports some IS militants had fled into the desert from Baghuz - their last stronghold.
The area was declared "freed" by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on 23 March.
Although the declaration marked the last territorial victory over the group's caliphate, experts warn it does not mean the end of IS or its ideology.
Thousands of fighters and their families captured from Baghuz, including foreign nationals, remain in camps nearby.(FA)