Bulgaria votes for fifth time in two years under Ukraine shadow

Bulgaria votes for fifth time in two years under Ukraine shadow
Bulgaria's former Prime minister and leader of "We Continue the Change" party Kiril Petkov delivers a speech during an election rally in Sofia on March 30, 2023, ahead of the parliamentary elections. (AFP)
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Updated 02 April 2023
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Bulgaria votes for fifth time in two years under Ukraine shadow

Bulgaria votes for fifth time in two years under Ukraine shadow

SOFIA: Bulgarians vote on Sunday in their fifth general election in two years, a record in the European Union, amid deep divisions over the war in Ukraine.
Russia’s invasion of its neighbor has deepened the political crisis that has engulfed Bulgaria since 2020, the worst instability since the fall of Communism.
The poor Balkan nation of 6.5 million people is a member of the EU and NATO. But it is historically and culturally close to Russia.
The country witnessed massive anti-corruption rallies three years ago but, contrary to protesters’ hopes of a clean-up in public life, the demonstrations triggered a series of elections.
Conservative prime minister Boyko Borisov, whose decade in office was tainted by allegations of graft, lost power in 2021.
But the country’s political parties have struggled since to form stable coalitions, leading to a deeply fragmented parliament and series of interim governments.
“What if the results are the same as in previous legislative elections?” asked Silvia Radoeva, a 42-year-old care worker.
“It’s high time that politicians united to deal with everyday problems,” Radoeva told AFP, citing “crazy prices, poverty and deplorable medical care.”

“Faced with war and inflation, (Bulgarian) society is crying out for a solution,” Parvan Simeonov, a political analyst with Gallup International, told AFP.
The fight against corruption has taken a back seat, leaving many 2020 protesters disillusioned.
The main players in Sunday’s ballot are the same as in recent elections.
The latest polls put Borisov’s GERB party neck-and-neck with the reformist We Continue the Change (PP), led by Harvard-educated Kiril Petkov, who was briefly premier in 2022.
Both have around 25 percent support.
This time, the PP has joined forces with a small right-wing coalition called Democratic Bulgaria.
“We find the same pattern as in other central European countries — a former leader who clings on and the other parties who refuse to ally with him, without having much else in common,” said Lukas Macek, associate researcher at the Jacques Delors Institute for Central and Eastern Europe.
Macek sees no end to this “worrying spiral of elections” unless Borisov withdraws.

“I fear the influence of pro-Russian parties in the next parliament,” Ognian Peychev, a 60-year-old engineer, told AFP at a recent protest against the war in Ukraine.
The ultra-nationalist Vazrazhdane party, which defends the Kremlin’s war, stands to gain some 13 percent of the votes, according to polls, up from the 10 percent it won at the last general election in October.
The Socialist BSP, the successor of Bulgaria’s Communist Party, has also sided with Moscow and objects to sending weapons to Ukrainian forces.
Many in Bulgaria still look to the east, revering Russia as the country that ended five centuries of Ottoman rule in 1878.
“Both Petkov and Borisov are too aggressively critical of Russia,” said Mariana Valkova, a 62-year-old entrepreneur who used to work in what was then the Soviet Union.
“I’d rather there wasn’t a government and (President Rumen) Radev remained in charge.”
Pro-Russian Radev, who has appointed interim cabinets between the string of inconclusive elections, has denounced Petkov and his allies as “war mongers.”
He has also spoken out against sending arms to Ukraine.
At the same time, Bulgaria’s munitions factories have been running at full capacity making ammunition to be exported to Kyiv via third countries.
Polling stations opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) on Sunday.
The first exit polls are expected after polls close at 8:00 p.m. (1700 GMT).


US Senate defeats bid to stop F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkiye

US Senate defeats bid to stop F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkiye
Updated 5 sec ago
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US Senate defeats bid to stop F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkiye

US Senate defeats bid to stop F-16 fighter jet sale to Turkiye
  • Republican Senator Rand Paul sought to block the sale, saying it would embolden Turkiye for its “misbehavior"
  • Backers of the sale said it was important for Washington to keep its word to a NATO ally

WASHINGTON: The US Senate on Thursday soundly defeated an effort to stop the $23 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits to Turkiye, which President Joe Biden’s administration approved after Turkiye approved Sweden’s joining the NATO alliance.
As voting continued, the tally was 78 to 13 against a resolution of disapproval of the sale introduced by Republican Senator Rand Paul.
Before the vote, Paul criticized Turkiye’s government and said allowing the sale would embolden its “misbehavior.” Backers of the sale said it was important for Washington to keep its word to a NATO ally.
The Biden administration formally informed Congress on Jan. 26 of its intention to proceed with the sale of 40 Lockheed Martin F-16s and nearly 80 modernization kits to Turkiye, a day after Ankara fully completed ratification of the NATO membership of Sweden.
The sale had been held up for months over issues including Turkiye’s refusal to approve Sweden’s accession to the military alliance. Turkiye first asked to make the purchase in October 2021.
The US Arms Export Control Act gives Congress the right to stop a major weapons sale by passing a resolution of disapproval in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Although the law has been in effect for half a century, no such resolution has both passed Congress and survived a presidential veto.
Sweden and Finland applied to enter NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. While Finnish membership was sealed last year, Sweden’s bid had been held up by Turkiye and Hungary. All NATO members need to approve applications from countries seeking to join the alliance.


Fire in Bangladesh capital leaves at least 43 people dead

Fire in Bangladesh capital leaves at least 43 people dead
Updated 25 min 25 sec ago
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Fire in Bangladesh capital leaves at least 43 people dead

Fire in Bangladesh capital leaves at least 43 people dead
  • Firefighters said the fire began in a popular restaurant on the first floor of the mall in a busy commercial district at the heart of the capital

DHAKA: A fire at a six-story shopping mall in the Bangladeshi capital overnight killed at least 43 people and injured dozens of others, the health minister said Friday.
Health Minister Samanta Lal Sen said the fire broke out late Thursday in the building in Dhaka’s downtown area. Firefighters rescued survivors and pulled out bodies, and by early Friday, at least 43 people died and at least 22 others were being treated, he said.
Firefighters said the fire began in a popular restaurant on the first floor of the mall in a busy commercial district at the heart of the capital, and that many people were trapped by the fire.
The cause of the fire could not immediately be determined.
Sen said at least 33 people, including women and children, were declared dead at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital, while at least 10 others died after being taken to the Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn and Plastic Surgery.
More than a dozen firefighting units were deployed to douse the fire that broke out at the Green Cozy Cottage Shopping Mall, said Fire Service and Civil Defense Director General Brig. Gen. Md. Main Uddin.
At 75 people, including 42 who were unconscious, were rescued from the building, rescuers said.


At least 26 dead in migrant shipwreck off Senegal

At least 26 dead in migrant shipwreck off Senegal
Updated 29 February 2024
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At least 26 dead in migrant shipwreck off Senegal

At least 26 dead in migrant shipwreck off Senegal
  • The Saint-Louis estuary, where the Senegal River meets the Atlantic Ocean, is notorious for strong currents and areas of thick mud
  • Samb did not say how many people were missing from the vessel, which witnesses said could have been carrying more than 300 people

SAINT LOUIS, Senegal: At least 26 people seeking to reach Europe died after their loaded vessel sank off northern Senegal, the governor of the Saint-Louis region told AFP on Thursday.
Alioune Badara Samb said bodies had been found since Wednesday when the boat got into difficulty in a particularly dangerous part of the northern coast. He added that 21 people had been rescued.
The Saint-Louis estuary, where the Senegal River meets the Atlantic Ocean, is notorious for strong currents and areas of thick mud.
Samb did not say how many people were missing from the vessel, which witnesses said could have been carrying more than 300 people.
A number of survivors managed to reach shore and dispersed among locals on the sea banks, making it difficult to say exactly how many people were involved, he said.
Mamady Dianfo, a survivor from Casamance in the south, told AFP more than 300 people were on board when the boat left Senegal a week ago.
Another survivor, Alpha Balde, estimated there were more than 200 passengers.
Dianfo said the vessel reached Morocco further north up the coast but the captain then said he was lost and could no longer continue the journey.
“We asked him to take us back to Senegal,” he said.
President Macky Sall on Thursday expressed his “deep sadness” following the “tragic capsizing” in a message on X, formerly Twitter.
He added that the relevant authorities had been deployed to offer support and assistance.
Senegal’s coast is an increasingly common departure point for Africans fleeing poverty and unemployment and heading to the Canary Islands, their port of entry into Europe.
European Union border agency Frontex says Senegal and Morocco are the most common countries of origin for migrants arriving on the Spanish archipelago in the Atlantic.
Of the more than 6,600 migrants who died or went missing trying to reach Spain last year, the vast majority were lost on the treacherous Atlantic route, according to Spanish NGO Caminando Fronteras.


Austria appeals for a pause in fighting for Ramadan

Austria appeals for a pause in fighting for Ramadan
Updated 29 February 2024
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Austria appeals for a pause in fighting for Ramadan

Austria appeals for a pause in fighting for Ramadan
  • FM Alexander Schallenberg said the Middle East has witnessed enough devastation and cruelty

BEIRUT: Austria’s foreign minister on Thursday urged Israel and Hezbollah against escalating the conflict along the volatile Israel-Lebanon border and expressed hope for a pause in the fighting in Gaza in time for the start of the holy month of Ramadan in March.

The Middle East has witnessed enough devastation and cruelty, said Alexander Schallenberg, speaking after meeting his Lebanese counterpart in Beirut.

Schallenberg said he came to Lebanon after visiting Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israeli airstrikes on Lebanese villages along the southern border killed two people and wounded 14 others in the village of Kafra on Wednesday night, National News Agency reported.

Meanwhile, an Israeli drone strike hit a truck near the western Syrian town of Qusair close to the Lebanese border on Thursday, killing a Hezbollah member, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, and a Hezbollah official said.

European and American officials have tried to ease the tensions in visits to Beirut, to avoid a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah, which has said it would not discuss any deals before the war in Gaza ends.


Aid groups appeal to EU to release urgent funds for UNRWA

Aid groups appeal to EU to release urgent funds for UNRWA
Updated 29 February 2024
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Aid groups appeal to EU to release urgent funds for UNRWA

Aid groups appeal to EU to release urgent funds for UNRWA

BRUSSELS: Humanitarian aid groups have appealed to the EU to release tens of millions of euros in funding due to the main UN agency that delivers most aid to people in the Gaza Strip as the organization teeters on the brink of financial collapse.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, was due to disburse €82 million ($89 million) to the UNRWA aid agency on Feb. 29. UNRWA said that it still had not received the payment as of Thursday morning.

“This is a moment of reckoning for the EU as a humanitarian leader and a critical donor for this crisis,” said Niamh Nic Carthaigh, from Plan International’s EU Liaison Office.

“Any further cuts to UNRWA funding would be an effective death sentence for civilians trapped in Gaza and the region who rely on the agency for their survival,” she said in a joint statement from 17 aid groups, including the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and Oxfam.

UNRWA is reeling from allegations that 12 of its 13,000 Gaza staff members participated in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel. The agency immediately fired the employees, but more than a dozen countries suspended funding worth about $450 million, almost half its budget for 2024.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini has described the payment due from the EU as “absolutely critical.”

The agency has been the leading supplier of food, water, and shelter during the war in Gaza. Lazzarini has warned that it may be forced to suspend its work soon.

Two UN investigations into Israel’s allegations against the agency are underway, but the European Commission — the third biggest donor to UNRWA after the US and Germany — has demanded a separate audit and wants to appoint experts to carry it out.

Asked on Thursday how the audit is evolving and when funds might be released, European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said that “work is ongoing.”

“The plight of the Palestinian people is of utmost concern to us. At the same time, we have set out several points that need to be agreed with UNRWA before we decide on the next payment, which is indeed foreseen for the end of the month,” Mamer said.

The war has driven 80 percent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million Palestinians from their homes, and UN officials say a quarter of the population is starving.

The European Commission acknowledged this week that no agency other than UNRWA is capable of helping Gaza’s people correctly and that Israel has provided no evidence to support its allegations against the agency’s staff. The agency provides Israel with a yearly staff list and has received no objections.

Despite this, it insists on “a review of all UNRWA staff” to confirm they had no role in the attacks. Of the UN agency’s 13,000 Gaza staff members, more than 3,000 continue working there.

Among the EU’s 27 member countries, several have unilaterally suspended funding. Germany said it “will temporarily not approve any new funds” until investigations are concluded. France, Italy, and the Netherlands have taken similar positions.