Von der Leyen tipped for nod, as EU leaders haggle over top jobs

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrives for a meeting of the EPP party ahead of an EU summit in Brussels, Monday, June 17, 2024. The 27 leaders of the European Union will gather in Brussels on Monday to take stock of the surprise European election results and begin the fraught process of dividing up the bloc’s top jobs, but they will be playing their usual political game with a deck of reshuffled cards. (AP)
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrives for a meeting of the EPP party ahead of an EU summit in Brussels, Monday, June 17, 2024. The 27 leaders of the European Union will gather in Brussels on Monday to take stock of the surprise European election results and begin the fraught process of dividing up the bloc’s top jobs, but they will be playing their usual political game with a deck of reshuffled cards. (AP)
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Updated 17 June 2024
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Von der Leyen tipped for nod, as EU leaders haggle over top jobs

Von der Leyen tipped for nod, as EU leaders haggle over top jobs
  • Leaders were aiming to forge the contours of a deal on who takes the EU’s top three jobs

BRUSSELS: EU leaders meeting in Brussels Monday appeared increasingly to line up behind Ursula von der Leyen for a new term heading the powerful European Commission — but a push from her conservative camp for a bigger slice of the bloc’s top jobs threatened to drag out the horse-trading.
Far-right gains in EU-wide elections in early June, which triggered snap polls and political upheaval in France, had seemed to focus minds around the positions helming the bloc — negotiated with an eye to geographic and political balance.
Leaders were aiming to forge the contours of a deal on who takes the EU’s top three jobs — heading the commission, chairing summits, and stewarding the bloc’s diplomacy — before making a formal choice at a summit on June 27-28.
“I am sure we can find an agreement in the shortest possible time,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said as he arrived for the evening talks.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte echoed that, saying there seemed to be an “increasing amount of consensus” around the post of commission chief in particular.
But hopes of a quick agreement floundered after diplomats said leaders from von der Leyen’s center-right European People’s Party (EPP) made a surprise bid to split another of the top jobs.
The other roles to be decided are: president of the European Council, which represents member states and is currently filled by Charles Michel; and the “high representative” — the EU’s foreign policy chief — currently Josep Borrell.
The EPP was the biggest winner in the June 6-9 EU Parliament elections, cementing the German conservative’s bid for five more years leading the executive body of the world’s second-largest economy.
The second-biggest group in parliament, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), had their sights set on the Council position, with Antonio Costa, Portugal’s 62-year-old former prime minister, seen as the frontrunner.
But Costa has a cloud hanging over him after he became embroiled in a corruption probe that forced his resignation, even if the case has since appeared to come apart.
Diplomats said EPP leaders suggested the council chief role should be split, with the socialists getting it for 2.5 years and the conservatives getting it for the rest of the five years.
“They are playing hardball,” said a European diplomat.
The high representative position, meanwhile, could go to Kaja Kallas, 46, current premier of Estonia and an outspoken Kremlin critic — in a strong signal to the EU’s east.
The bloc’s biggest eastern power Poland announced ahead of the talks that it was backing Kallas for the role.
A fourth job in play is that of European Parliament president, which is decided by the legislature, not the leaders.
It is likely to return to the incumbent, the EPP’s Roberta Metsola, 45, for another two-and-a-half-year term — but could form part of a swap deal with the socialists to oil the wheels.
To secure the nod from EU leaders, von der Leyen, 65, needs support from a “qualified majority” of 15 out of 27 countries, covering at least 65 percent of the bloc’s population.
A dozen leaders come from her EPP political grouping, but she also needs to win over Macron, from the centrist Renew Europe group, and Scholz of the S&D.
Both leaders of the French-German axis at the heart of the European Union have emerged weakened after being beaten by far-right parties in the EU Parliament elections.
Most spectacularly, in France the National Rally (RN) of Marine Le Pen trounced the party of the president, who now faces the prospect of the RN’s leader — the 28-year-old TikTok-friendly Jordan Bardella — potentially becoming his prime minister.
Conversely, the elections strengthened the hand of Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, who diplomats suggest may want to let the dust settle in the new EU parliament — where her far-right party’s grouping gained seats and may yet gain more — and negotiate accordingly.
If, as expected, von der Leyen ultimately pockets enough leaders’ votes, she can set about choosing her commissioners — drawn from each of the EU member countries, with consideration for gender balance and political affiliation.
But she will have one more hurdle to pass: The new European Parliament has to approve leaders’ picks and proposed commissioners.
Most lawmakers from the EPP, which holds 190 seats in the incoming 720-seat parliament, will endorse von der Leyen, but she will need support from elsewhere to secure a majority.
That would likely come from the other mainstream political families, the S&D and Renew, or from the Greens — but von der Leyen has also been covering her bases by courting Meloni on the hard right.


Top Democrats increase pressure on Biden to step aside, US media reports

Top Democrats increase pressure on Biden to step aside, US media reports
Updated 8 sec ago
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Top Democrats increase pressure on Biden to step aside, US media reports

Top Democrats increase pressure on Biden to step aside, US media reports
  • US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among voices of dissent
  • Joe Biden has repeatedly rejected calls from Democrats to drop out of the presidential race

WASHINGTON: Top Democrats including US Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have increased pressure on President Joe Biden to withdraw from his reelection campaign over concerns he cannot defeat Republican challenger Donald Trump, US media reported on Wednesday.
Schumer told Biden in a meeting on Saturday it would be better for the country and the Democratic Party if he ended his reelection campaign, ABC News reported.
US House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries has expressed similar views directly to Biden, ABC News reported, citing a source familiar with the conversation.
CNN reported on Wednesday that Pelosi, too, has told Biden polling shows he cannot defeat Trump and that the president could destroy the Democrats’ chances of winning back control of the House of Representatives.
Pelosi spoke to Biden in a recent telephone call, CNN reported, citing four sources briefed on the call. None of the sources indicated Pelosi told Biden he should leave the race, CNN said.
Biden responded by telling Pelosi he has seen polling indicating he can win, according to one CNN source.
A Pelosi spokesperson told CNN that Pelosi has not spoken to Biden since Friday.
Earlier on Wednesday, Democratic US Representative Adam Schiff became the 20th congressional Democrat to publicly call for Biden to drop out of the race.
Schumer’s office responded to the report about his meeting with the president with a statement calling it “idle speculation” and said Schumer “conveyed the views of his caucus directly to President Biden on Saturday.”
Jeffries’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Reuters.
Biden has repeatedly rejected calls from Democrats to drop out of the race after his halting performance in a debate last month against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
“The President told both leaders he is the nominee of the party, he plans to win, and looks forward to working with both of them to pass his 100 days agenda to help working families,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement.


Malaysia’s 99-year-old ex-PM Mahathir in hospital: aide

Malaysia’s 99-year-old ex-PM Mahathir in hospital: aide
Updated 9 min 33 sec ago
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Malaysia’s 99-year-old ex-PM Mahathir in hospital: aide

Malaysia’s 99-year-old ex-PM Mahathir in hospital: aide
  • A two-time former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad turned 99 last week
  • He has suffered several heart problems in recent years and underwent bypass surgeries

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s nearly 100-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has been hospitalized for “continuous coughing,” his aide said Thursday.
“Mahathir is expected to be treated for the next few days,” Sufi Yusoff said, adding he had been admitted on Monday.
A two-time former prime minister, Mahathir turned 99 last week.
He has suffered several heart problems in recent years and underwent bypass surgeries.
He spent nearly three months in hospital earlier this year.
Born on July 10, 1925, Mahathir served as prime minister twice, first taking office as the country’s fourth national leader from 1981 until 2003.
He then served as prime minister for a second time at the age of 92 from 2018 to 2020.


Trump gunman Thomas Crooks leaves behind pile of mysteries

Trump gunman Thomas Crooks leaves behind pile of mysteries
Updated 48 min 43 sec ago
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Trump gunman Thomas Crooks leaves behind pile of mysteries

Trump gunman Thomas Crooks leaves behind pile of mysteries
  • An FBI review of Crooks’ phone found he had searched for images of both President Joe Biden and Trump, and other famous figures in the days before the shooting, New York Times reports

BUTLER, Pennsylvania: Thomas Crooks was pacing next to a warehouse building outside the Butler Farm Show grounds as a crowd gathered for one of former President Donald Trump’s signature outdoor rallies.
Crooks had already been flagged as suspicious by law enforcement. By the time two police officers walked over to check him out, he was on the roof, belly crawling.
“He’s got a gun,” a bystander yelled.
One officer hoisted the other to the lip of the roof. As the officer pulled his head over the edge, a long-haired young man wearing glasses turned toward him, wielding an AR-15 -style rifle. The officer dropped back to the ground, the Butler County sheriff told Reuters.
Crooks, an introverted 20-year-old computer whiz who had just earned a spot at a college engineering program, turned back to his target about 400 feet away. He squeezed off several shots at Trump, clipping the former president’s ear, killing an audience member and wounding two others before Secret Service snipers on a nearby building killed him with counterfire.
This account of the first assassination attempt to injure a US president since 1981 is based on interviews with more than two dozen people, including law enforcement officials, Crooks’ school associates and witnesses who attended the rally, along with public records and news accounts.
Crooks fired his rifle at approximately 6:10 pm, according to a Reuters photographer at the rally. Trump winced and grabbed his right ear. Secret Service agents tackled the former president and some supporters dived for cover. A bullet hit what appeared to be the hydraulic line of a forklift that held a bank of speakers to the right side of the stage. Fluid spewed across the crowd and the lift’s arm collapsed. To the left, screams erupted where a spectator had been fatally shot.

As Secret Service agents tackled the former president, some supporters scrambled for safety. Others grabbed children and hustled toward the gates.
“The audience wasn’t like what you’d expect out of a crowd that just experienced something like this,” said Saurabh Sharma, a Trump supporter sitting near the front. “Everyone was really quiet. There were a few women crying. They were, you know, saying, ‘I can’t believe they tried to kill him’.”
Four days after the assassination attempt, a coherent picture of the moments before the shooting was emerging. But Crooks’ ideology and reasons for pulling the trigger remained a mystery.
A review of Crooks’ phone by the Federal Bureau of Investigation found he had searched for images of both President Joe Biden and Trump, as well as other famous figures, in the days before the shooting, the New York Times reported on Wednesday, citing US lawmakers briefed on the law enforcement investigation.
Crooks had been searching for the dates of Trump’s public appearances and of the Democratic National Convention, the report said. He had also looked up “major depressive disorder” on his phone, the Times said. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the report.
The shooting comes amid a years-long rise of political violence and threats in the US When that violence turns deadly, it has been more likely to be perpetrated by people on the American right, according to a Reuters analysis published last year. But the ideological motivation behind Saturday’s attack remains unclear.

Politically divided town

Crooks seemed to have a bright future, said two people who knew him at the Community College of Allegheny County, where he graduated in May with a two-year associate’s degree in engineering.
One college instructor told Reuters that she had gone back through his assignments this week, bewildered that the conscientious student who distinguished himself by going “above and beyond” could have turned murderous.
The instructor, who declined to be identified, said his homework responses were thoughtful and his emails polite. He excelled at an assignment to redesign a toy for people with disabilities. “He did a chess set for the blind. He 3D-printed it. He put the Braille on it. He talked to experts in the field,” she recalled. “He really took a lot of care.”
Crooks made less of an impression on classmates. Samuel Strotman, also enrolled in CCAC’s engineering program, took two online classes with Crooks. Strotman said Crooks never spoke in the lectures and had his camera turned off.
A college employee who knew Crooks said he was quiet but pleasant. “It’s just very, very, very unexpected,” the employee said. Crooks had seemed interested in pursuing a career in mechanical engineering, the employee said.
The college closed its engineering program on June 30. Crooks was planning to continue his engineering education at nearby Robert Morris University, that school confirmed.
Most recently, he worked as a dietary aide at a nursing home, where he “performed his job without concern,” the center said. The job was down the street from his home in Bethel Park, a middle-class suburb of Pittsburgh, where he had lived in a modest brick home with his parents and older sister.
At Bethel Park High School, where he graduated in 2022, he kept a low profile, according to classmates. One former classmate told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Crooks expressed conservative views in a history class where other students leaned liberal. Others said his views were never apparent. His photo was missing in his senior yearbook, with his name listed under “not pictured.” He enjoyed gaming and building computers, a classmate told Reuters.
Crooks’ town, Bethel Park, is divided almost down America’s political middle. In the 2020 election, Trump eked out a 65-vote margin in the borough of about 33,000 people, results show.
The political split showed up in the Crooks household. Thomas was a registered Republican. His father is a Libertarian and his mother is a Democrat, voter registration records show. Both are social workers. When Crooks was 17, he made a $15 donation to a political action committee earmarked for a Democratic turnout group, according to federal election data.
His school counselor Jim Knapp, who retired in 2022, said Crooks rarely came across his radar because he wasn’t a “needy type kid.” Knapp occasionally checked on him at lunch because he was sitting alone. “I’d say, ‘Do you want to sit with somebody?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I’m okay by myself,’” Knapp recalled.
Former high-school classmate Max Rich said Crooks was shy and “never seemed like the type” to commit such violence. He left virtually no digital footprint. He spent time on Discord, a gaming platform, but the company said it found “no evidence that it was used to plan this incident, promote violence, or discuss his political views.”
Crooks was a member of the local Clairton Sportsmen’s Club, a gun club. He was wearing a shirt advertising “Demolition Ranch,” a YouTube channel for firearms enthusiasts, when he was killed. After the shooting, Matt Carriker, a Texas veterinarian who runs the Demolition Ranch channel, posted a video on X saying he was “shocked and confused” to learn that Crooks was wearing his channel’s merchandise. “We keep politics out of it,” he said, adding that he did not know and had never met or communicated with Crooks.

Homemade bombs & ammunition

Crooks appeared to spend at least some time preparing for the Trump event. He bought ammunition on the day of the rally, stopping at a gun store in his hometown of Bethel Park to pick up 50 rounds, according to a joint bulletin issued this week by the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is leading the investigation.
He built three homemade bombs – two found in his car and another in his home, according to the bulletin, which was reviewed by Reuters. In the preceding months, the bulletin noted, Crooks had received “multiple packages, including some marked as possibly containing hazardous material.”

An Allegheny County Police Department Bomb Squad vehicle makes its way to the home of assassination suspect Thomas Matthew Crooks on July 14, 2024. Police said three homemade bombs were found – two in his car and another in his home. (Reuters)

At the rally, Crooks caught the attention of local law enforcement while pacing around the grounds before Trump took the stage. One officer called in a report of a suspicious person and snapped a photo that was distributed electronically to other officers at the scene, according to Butler County Sheriff Michael Slupe, a Trump backer who was seated near the front of the rally as a special guest.
As two Butler Township Police officers responded to the call, people in the crowd already had noticed a man on the roof. Some yelled that he had a gun, according to crowd-shot video reviewed by Reuters. Slupe told Reuters the officer who initially pulled himself onto the roof had no time to unholster his gun when Crooks turned on him, leaving him no option but to drop back to the ground.
Secret Service officials have said their agency is responsible for securing the area within the event’s security perimeter; the building used by Crooks was just outside it. But some former agency officials and other security experts have disputed that contention, arguing that buildings with a direct sight line and within firing range of the former president should have been swept and under constant surveillance by the service’s sniper teams.
Local officials have bristled at any suggestions that town or county law enforcement was responsible for securing the building.
“The Butler Township Police Department had no security detail for this event,” Butler Township commissioner Edward Natali wrote in a Tuesday post on Facebook, noting that the township had seven officers on site solely for traffic duty. Even though the officer who confronted Crooks on the roof had to fall back, he added, the encounter “most likely forced the shooter to hurry his shots.”


Russia set to resume trial of US reporter Evan Gershkovich

Russia set to resume trial of US reporter Evan Gershkovich
Updated 18 July 2024
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Russia set to resume trial of US reporter Evan Gershkovich

Russia set to resume trial of US reporter Evan Gershkovich

YEKATERINBURG, Russia: US reporter Evan Gershkovich is set to appear in a Russian court on Thursday for the second hearing of his trial for espionage, a charge that his employer and the White House have labelled a sham.

The 32-year-old became the first Western journalist in Russia to be charged with spying since the Soviet era when he was detained in March 2023 on a reporting trip to the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

He has spent almost 16 months in Russian detention and faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years if found guilty.

The trial is scheduled to resume behind closed doors in Yekaterinburg’s Sverdlovsk Regional Court at 11:00 am (0600 GMT), almost a month earlier than expected at the request of his defense team.

Moscow and Washington have both said they are open to exchanging the Wall Street Journal reporter in a deal, but neither side has given clues as to when this might be.

The Kremlin has provided no public evidence for the spying allegations against Gershkovich, saying only that he was caught “red-handed” and was working for the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Prosecutors accuse him of spying on Russian tank maker Uralvagonzavod.

Washington has said the claims are fabricated, and a United Nations expert panel declared in July that he was being held arbitrarily.

His last public appearance in court was on June 26, when he spoke only briefly to greet journalists and his head was fully shaven.

The Russian penitentiary service refused to disclose to AFP where he would be held after the proceedings or why his hair had been cut.

Raised in New Jersey and a fluent Russian speaker, Gershkovich had reported from Russia for six years.

He carried on visiting the country on journalistic trips even after dozens of other Western reporters left in the wake of Russia’s Ukraine offensive and the introduction of strict military censorship laws.

In 2017, he moved to the Russian capital to work for an English-language newspaper, The Moscow Times, where he produced some of the outlet’s biggest stories on a shoestring budget.

He then worked for AFP before becoming a Moscow correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, weeks before the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine.

In the role, he covered how the conflict affected ordinary Russians, including by speaking to the families of dead soldiers.

There has been a major campaign to release Gershkovich, who spent almost 15 months in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison following his arrest.

“He is managing the best way he can,” his mother, Ella Milman, told The Wall Street Journal in March.

Russia holds other American citizens in its jails, including marine Paul Whelan, in prison for more than five years on spying charges, and US-Russian journalist Alsu Kurmasheva, who was detained last year while visiting family.

The White House has warned US citizens still in the country to “depart immediately” due to the risk of wrongful arrest.


Kenya police patrol Haiti capital after more forces arrive

Kenya police patrol Haiti capital after more forces arrive
Updated 18 July 2024
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Kenya police patrol Haiti capital after more forces arrive

Kenya police patrol Haiti capital after more forces arrive

PORT-AU-PRINCE: Kenyan police patrolled Haiti’s capital in armored vehicles Wednesday, a day after the arrival of 200 additional personnel from the African country as part of a multinational security mission, local officials said.

The vehicles patrolled the area around the National Palace and other parts of Port-au-Prince with Kenyan forces and Haitian police on board, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and did not provide details about the objectives of the operation.

Several bangs were heard as the vehicles passed by, according to an AFP journalist, although it was unclear if they were shots fired by police or the armed gangs who control some 80 percent of the capital.

Kenya stepped up last year to lead the long-sought international force to help Haiti tackle its soaring insecurity.

The UN-approved mission, with an initial duration of one year, will total 2,500 personnel from countries also including Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, the Bahamas and Barbados.

Kenya has now sent around 400 personnel to Haiti — 200 on June 25 and 200 on Tuesday — with promises of another 600 in the coming weeks.

The United States has ruled out sending forces, but is contributing funding and logistical support to the mission.

Haiti has long been rocked by gang violence, but conditions sharply worsened at the end of February when armed groups launched coordinated attacks in Port-au-Prince, saying they wanted to overthrow then-prime minister Ariel Henry.

The violence in Port-au-Prince has affected food security and humanitarian aid access, with much of the city in the hands of gangs accused of abuses including murder, rape, looting and kidnappings.