UK Conservatives lose London strongholds, in blow to Johnson

UK Conservatives lose London strongholds, in blow to Johnson
Britain’s governing Conservatives suffered local election losses in their few London strongholds. (File/AFP)
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Updated 06 May 2022

UK Conservatives lose London strongholds, in blow to Johnson

UK Conservatives lose London strongholds, in blow to Johnson
  • Britain’s governing Conservatives suffered local election losses in their few London strongholds
  • The Conservatives tried to shrug off their losses as midterm blues

LONDON: Britain’s governing Conservatives suffered local election losses in their few London strongholds, according to results announced Friday that will pile more pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson amid ethics scandals and a worsening economic picture.
Voting held Thursday for thousands of seats on more than 200 local councils decided who will oversee garbage collection and the filling of potholes, but were also an important barometer of public opinion ahead of the next national election, which must be held by 2024.
The main opposition Labour Party, which has been out of power nationally since 2010, won control of Wandsworth, Barnet and Westminster, three London boroughs long held by the Conservatives.
Johnson’s party also lost ground to the centrist Liberal Democrats in the Conservatives’ southern England heartlands, where many middle-class voters are opposed to Brexit — a cause Johnson championed — and dismayed by rule-breaking and sexual misconduct allegations swirling around Johnson and other senior Tories.
The election also comes after months of turmoil for Johnson, in which he became the first prime minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law in office. He was fined 50 pounds ($62) by police for attending his own surprise birthday party in June 2020 when lockdown rules barred social gatherings.
“The issue of ‘partygate’ kept coming up as a reason why many Conservative supporters were staying at home or were switching to a protest vote this time,” said Conservative lawmaker David Simmonds.
Johnson has apologized, but denies knowingly breaking the rules. He faces the possibility of more fines over other parties — police are investigating a dozen gatherings — and a parliamentary investigation into whether he misled lawmakers about his behavior.
The Conservatives tried to shrug off their losses as midterm blues.
“We had a tough night in some parts of the country,” Johnson said. “But on the other hand in other parts of the country you are still seeing Conservatives going forward and making quite remarkable gains in places that haven’t voted Conservative for a long time, if ever.”
With results from about half of England announced Friday morning, Labour had not made big gains outside of the capital, especially in working-class northern England — areas that Johnson successfully wooed in the 2019 general election with promises to improve local economies and opportunities after Britain’s exit from the European Union.
John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, said the results showed that London is “very much a one-party Labour fiefdom.”
“But outside of London … this isn’t quite the degree of progress they might have anticipated.”
Labour’s national campaign coordinator, Shabana Mahmood, argued that the results showed Labour was building a solid foundation to regain power after four successive national election defeats.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the election was “a big turning point for us.” .
“We’ve changed Labour, and now we’re seeing the results of that,” he said.
Under Starmer’s hard-left predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, fighting between Labour’s left-wing and more centrist wings roiled the party, which suffered its worst election defeat in more than 80 years to Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019.
Voting results were still to come Friday from the rest of England, and all of Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, voters are electing a new 90-seat Assembly, with polls suggesting the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein could win the largest number of seats and the post of first minister, in what would be a historic first.
Across the UK, election campaigns were dominated by increasing prices for food and fuel, which have sent household bills soaring.
Opposition parties are demanding the government do more to ease the cost-of-living crunch — driven by the war in Ukraine, COVID-19 pandemic disruption and economic aftershocks from Britain’s exit from the European Union. Both left-of-center Labour and the centrist Liberal Democrats advocate a windfall tax on energy companies, which have reported record profits amid rocketing oil and gas prices.
Johnson’s Conservative government argues taxing big firms like Shell and BP would deter much-needed investment in renewable energy that’s key to meeting Britain’s climate commitments.
The prime minister also faces discontent within his own party, and the election losses could convince some Conservatives to try to replace Johnson with a less tarnished leader.
Party Chairman Oliver Dowden acknowledged there had been “challenging headlines for the past few months.”
But he said “Labour are certainly not on the path to power and I believe that Boris Johnson does have the leadership skills, in particular the energy and the dynamism that we need during this difficult period of time.”


Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones

Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones
Updated 8 sec ago

Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones

Along Ukraine-Belarus border, a war of nerves — and drones
BELARUS BORDER, Ukraine: The reconnaissance drones fly several times a day from Ukrainian positions deep inside the thick forest that marches across the border into Belarus, a close Russian ally, scouring sky and land for signs of trouble on the other side.
Ukrainian units are monitoring the 1,000-kilometer (650-mile) frontier of marsh and woodland for a possible surprise offensive from the north, a repeat of the unsuccessful Russian thrust toward Kyiv at the start of the war nearly a year ago.
This time the Ukrainians are taking no chances. Since the summer they have been reinforcing defenses, building and expanding trenches and laying mines in the forest ahead of the springtime offensive military officials expect. Residents of villages in the region that were temporarily occupied last year are horrified by the prospect of it all starting again.
“We’re listening out for every small sound and noise. This isn’t a way to live,” said Valentina Matveva, 64, from the village of Ripke. “When you’re in constant fear, that’s not life.”
Concerns of a renewed military push were stirred in January after Russia and Belarus held joint air force drills, one month after a rare visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Minsk.
Military experts and Western intelligence have played down the possibility of a renewed northern offensive. The British Defense Ministry tweeted on Jan. 11 that Russian aircraft and existing Russian troops in Belarus, though numerous, are “unlikely to constitute a credible offensive force.”
Belarusian officials attribute the troop deployment along the border to “strategic deterrence” according to local reports. The country’s authoritarian president, Alexander Lukashenko, has insisted he will not send troops to Ukraine.
But Ukrainian commanders are wary, remembering how Russia used Belarus as a launching pad in early 2022.
“We continuously monitor the enemy from the ground and observe the movement of troops, if they are moving, how many troops, and where they are moving,” the area’s army intelligence unit head said during a press tour this week a few kilometers from the border. The officer only identified himself by his first name, Oleksandr, citing security reasons.
Unlike the east with its devastating artillery duels, here in the north it’s largely a war of quadcopters.
Oleksandr said the Belarusians and Russians are “constantly monitoring our guard changes, trying to find our military’s positions.”
At times, Oleksandr’s unit detects enemy reconnaissance drones and shoots them down using anti-drone rifles. Or an enemy drone detects a Ukrainian one and tails it, at which point the Ukrainians try to capture and add it to their stock.
“We got four of their drones this way recently, and they took two of ours,” Oleksandr said.
He says the reconnaissance missions have revealed no sign of worrying activity — yet. “They have a reinforcement section, and the patrol has been strengthened, but we do not observe a significant accumulation of troops from our section,” he said.
Ukraine’s Lt. Gen. Oleksii Pavlyuk, who is responsible for Kyiv province, was quoted in local reports as saying his country was preparing for a possible fresh attack through Belarus. “We’ve created a group on the border with Belarus, which is ready to meet the enemy with dignity,” he was quoted as saying.
Ukrainian officials argue that no one can know how Moscow will move in the coming months, and that a state of alert is necessary along the border.
“The (fortifications) were made to prevent re-infiltration,” said Oleksandr, “Whether it will happen or not, we must always be ready.”
Ukrainian soldiers armed with machine guns stand in five-foot-deep trenches dug into the forest floor and reinforced with planks.
A local villager briskly cycles past. Memories here are still fresh from the temporary occupation when Russian troops attempted to lay siege to the main city of Chernihiv. They withdrew on April 3 as Moscow switched its focus to Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
But despite the Russian-Belarusian drills, there’s also hope.
“The first time they invaded, we didn’t have the weapons and the army (at the border),” said Hanna Pokheelko, 66, from the village of Koluchivka. “But this time we do.”
Attack or no attack, Olena, from the village of Novi Yarylovychi, fears the border situation means she may never see her mother, brother and two sisters living just 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) away in a village inside Belarus.
“I can’t believe they are so close and I can’t see them,” said the 63-year old, who is a Belarusian by birth but married into a Ukrainian family and who didn’t give her full name out of concerns for her family.

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM
Updated 41 min 1 sec ago

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM

IMF giving Pakistan tough time in ‘unimaginable’ economic crisis — PM
  • Local currency at record low after being in free fall
  • Foreign reserves down less than three weeks import cover

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Friday the International Monetary Fund was giving his country a tough time over unlocking stalled funding from a $6.5 billion bailout, at a time of “unimaginable” economic crisis.
Hours after his remarks, the Pakistani rupee hit a record low against the US dollar in a steep slide since last week.
Sharif made the comments in a meeting of civil and military leaders in the northwestern city of Peshawar he chaired to prepare a response to Monday’s mosque bombing that killed more than 100 people.
“Our economic situation is unimaginable,” the premier said. “As you know, the IMF mission is in Pakistan, and that’s giving us a tough time,” he said.
“You all know we are running short of resources,” Sharif said, adding Pakistan “at present was facing an economic crisis.”
IMF’s Pakistan representative did not immediately respond to Reuters request for comment.
Sharif made the remarks in the context of funds the country might need for any military or counter-terrorism response to the resurgent Islamist militancy.
FREE FALL
The IMF mission is visiting Pakistan to discuss fiscal consolidation measures the institution needs from Pakistan to clear a 9th review of its Extended Fund Facility, aimed at helping countries facing balance-of-payments crises.
Pakistan’s central bank reserves at present stand at $3.09 billion, the lowest since 1998 and not enough to cover the cost of three weeks of imports.
The IMF’s demands aimed at controlling the country’s budget deficit have led to Pakistan leaving its currency to market based exchange rates and hiking fuel prices.
The Pakistani rupee fell by 1.9 percent to a record low of 276.58 per dollar in the inter-bank market on Friday, according to the central bank.
The local currency has dropped 16.5 percent since the artificial cap was removed last week to leave the rupee’s value to be decided by a market-based exchange rate regime.
The rupee also shed 2.65 percent against the US dollar on the open market, according to the association of exchange companies.
Islamabad is in a $6.5 billion IMF program.
An IMF delegation is in Pakistan to restart talks stalled since November for $2.5 billion funds yet to be disbursed.
Still, despite the economic situation, Sharif said his country will do whatever possible to fight militancy.
“We will use all resources in our capacity to fight this menace,” he said.

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Man detained on French high-speed TGV after attack threat

Man detained on French high-speed TGV after attack threat
Updated 03 February 2023

Man detained on French high-speed TGV after attack threat

Man detained on French high-speed TGV after attack threat
  • The individual’s mental health was being investigated

BRUSSELS: A man was arrested after threatening to commit an attack while traveling on a high-speed TGV train in eastern France on Friday.
Police sources said the individual threatened to blow up himself or the train. There was no immediate suspicion that terrorism was a motive and the individual’s mental health was being investigated, they added.
“This morning, a police officer ... arrested a threatening individual on board a TGV in Moselle. Kudos to him!” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Twitter.
The officer was off duty at the time, the police sources said. Off-duty policeman are allowed in France to carry a firearm on trains as part of a “traveling to protect” government scheme.


21 dead in attack in South Sudan on eve of Pope’s visit

21 dead in attack in South Sudan on eve of Pope’s visit
Updated 03 February 2023

21 dead in attack in South Sudan on eve of Pope’s visit

21 dead in attack in South Sudan on eve of Pope’s visit
JUBA: At least 21 people have been killed in a cattle raid in South Sudan on the eve of a visit by Pope Francis to encourage peace in the conflict-ridden country, local authorities said.
Francis is scheduled to arrive on Friday for a three-day “pilgrimage of peace” with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The church leaders are seeking to promote reconciliation and forgiveness in a predominantly Christian country still burdened by chronic armed violence in the aftermath of a civil war.
On Thursday, armed herders killed 21 civilians in a reprisal attack on a rival cattle camp in Kajo-Keji County of Central Equatoria, the county commissioner’s office said.
“The commissioner of Kajo-Keji County condemns in the strongest terms possible the attack on the cattle camp and the massacre of the innocent civilians in the barbaric act of revenge,” its statement issued on Thursday said.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said he was “horrified” by the attack on the eve of his visit.
“It is a story too often heard across South Sudan. I again appeal for a different way: for South Sudan to come together for a just peace,” he posted on Twitter on Thursday.
South Sudan achieved independence from Muslim-majority Sudan in 2011 but soon after plunged into civil war that left 380,000 people dead.
The war formally ended in 2018 but the nation remains plagued by violence waged by well-armed local militias and rival ethnic groups.
This week, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the United States and other foreign missions raised concerns over signs that armed factions were preparing to fight again in Upper Nile.
The state in the country’s north has witnessed some of the most ferocious armed violence in South Sudan in recent months, with thousands of civilians seeking protection on UN bases.
“With the historic visit of His Holiness Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to South Sudan expected to take place this week, UNMISS appeals to national and community leaders to exercise restraint and commit to peace and dialogue,” it said in a statement.

After Netanyahu talks, Macron warns of Iran nuclear ‘consequences’

After Netanyahu talks, Macron warns of Iran nuclear ‘consequences’
Updated 03 February 2023

After Netanyahu talks, Macron warns of Iran nuclear ‘consequences’

After Netanyahu talks, Macron warns of Iran nuclear ‘consequences’
  • Macron warned that Tehran continuing with the atomic project “would inevitably have consequences”

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday denounced the “headlong rush” of Iran’s nuclear program after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Paris to seek a stronger European stance against Tehran.
In a statement released after a dinner meeting in the Elysee Palace, Macron warned that Tehran continuing with the atomic project “would inevitably have consequences.”
Both leaders discussed ways to counter “the Iranian nuclear threat” and Netanyahu stressed the need for more “deterrence against Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” the Israeli embassy said.
Israel has long accused Iran of seeking a nuclear weapon but Tehran insists its nuclear program is aimed solely at generating energy.
Netanyahu hopes Iran’s role in supplying drones to Russian invaders in Ukraine, as well as its crackdown on protests at home, will prompt Western allies to drop any bid to revive a 2015 atomic program deal.
The prime minister has also said Israel is considering sending military aid to Ukraine, apparently dropping its more neutral stance over the conflict in the hope of securing a more confrontational Western position toward Tehran.
By “playing the Ukraine card,” Netanyahu hopes to “consolidate an anti-Iranian front” with the West, said David Khalfa at the Fondation Jean Jaures, a Paris-based think tank.
He hopes for “increased sanctions against Iran and the full addition of the Revolutionary Guards to the list” of sanctioned entities, a step France and Germany have so far resisted, Khalfa added.
During his meeting with Macron, Netanyahu urged “substantial sanctions to be imposed on the Iran regime and called for the Revolutionary Guards to be added to the European Union’s terror list,” the Israeli embassy said.
France agrees that “firmness” is needed in dealings with Iran, a diplomatic source told AFP earlier, saying the nuclear program had reached “a dangerous point” and highlighting Tehran’s role in the Ukraine war.
Siding with Ukraine is not without risk for Netanyahu, as Russian air defenses in neighboring Syria could be turned against Israeli aircraft during their occasional raids on Iranian interests there.
Iran also holds several foreign citizens who are considered political hostages by Western governments.
Netanyahu’s visit came after a weekend drone attack on a defense ministry facility in the Iranian city of Isfahan, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.
The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed officials, have said the attack was carried out by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, though this has not been confirmed by Israel.
Netanyahu’s visit came as violence intensified between Israelis and Palestinians with Israeli war planes striking the Gaza Strip early Thursday, drawing Palestinian rocket fire in retaliation.
Last Friday, a Palestinian gunman shot dead seven people outside a synagogue in an Israeli settler neighborhood of annexed east Jerusalem.
It was the deadliest attack targeting Israeli civilians in more than a decade, and came one day after an Israeli raid in the West Bank killed 10 Palestinians.
Macron on Thursday reiterated “the importance of avoiding any measure that could feed the cycle of violence” between Israelis and Palestinians, while offering “France’s complete solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism, the French presidency said.
Staying in France until Saturday, Netanyahu is also set to meet French business chiefs and leaders of the country’s Jewish community, the Israeli embassy said.
Judicial reforms planned by the prime minister’s latest coalition of right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties have raised the hackles of some business executives, notably in the financial sector, who have threatened to quit Israel.