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Voting under way in Belarus as protests rattle Lukashenko




Belarus is voting in an election pitting President Alexander Lukashenko against a former teacher who emerged from obscurity to lead the biggest challenge in years against the man once dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”.

As he cast his ballot in the election, Lukashenko on Sunday said he would make sure there is no civil-war-like 

situation in Belarus, calling the situation “stable”. “I guarantee it,” he said.

Lukashenko, 65, is almost certain to win a sixth consecutive term, but could face a new wave of protests amid anger over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the economy, and his human rights record.

A former Soviet collective farm manager, Lukashenko has ruled the country of 9.5 million since 1994.

Crackdown on opposition

An ongoing crackdown on the opposition could hurt Lukashenko’s attempts to mend fences with the West, amid fraying ties with traditional ally Russia, which has tried to press Belarus into a closer economic and political union.

He faces a surprise rival in Svetlana Tikhanouskaya, a 37-year-old former English teacher who entered the race after her husband, an anti-government blogger who intended to run, was jailed.

“I really want the election to be honest, because if the authorities have nothing to fear, if all the people are for Alexander Grigoryevich [Lukashenko], then we will agree with that,” Tikhanovskaya said as she cast her ballot in the capital, Minsk.

Her rallies have drawn some of the biggest crowds since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have been detained in a widening crackdown.

Authorities barred her husband, popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, from running and then jailed him.

Tikhanovskaya’s campaign office on Sunday said one of her key allies, Veronika Tsepkalo, had left the country for Russia out of concern for her safety.

Tsepkalo, whose ex-diplomat husband Valery Tsepkalo was barred from standing in the election, had backed Tikhanovskaya in the campaign and her husband had already fled to Moscow fearing arrest.

Foreign observers have not judged an election to be free and fair in Belarus for a quarter of a century.

Despite an election commission ban on the opposition holding an alternative vote count, Tikhanouskaya urged her supporters to monitor polling stations.

“We are in the majority, and we don’t need blood on the city streets,” she said on Saturday. “Let’s defend our right to choose together.”

Portraying himself as a guarantor of stability, Lukashenko says the opposition protesters are in cahoots with foreign backers, including a group of 33 suspected Russian mercenaries detained in July and accused of plotting “acts of terrorism”.

Analysts said their detention could be used as a pretext for a sharper crackdown after the vote.

“Lukashenko [had] made it clear that he intends to retain his power at any cost. The question remains what the price will be,” said political analyst Alexander Klaskovsky.

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State Dept watchdog: US admin blocked review of Saudi arms deal




Watchdog fired by Trump tells Congress he was looking into Mike Pompeo’s approval of an $8bn arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

A former independent watchdog at the United States State Department who was fired by President Donald Trump has said top department officials tried to bully him and dissuade his office from conducting a review of a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Former Inspector General Steve Linick told Congress last week that two senior officials sought to block an inquiry into the arms deal, according to a transcript of the interview made public on Wednesday by Democrats leading an investigation into his dismissal.

Linick, who had been inspector general since 2013, was looking into previously reported allegations that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife may have misused government staff to run personal errands and several other matters. Trump abruptly fired him late on May 15 with what Linick said was no warning or cited cause.

“I was in a state of shock because I had no advance notice of anything like that,” Linick said, recalling his reaction when he was informed of Trump’s decision. “I had no indication whatsoever.”

A ‘bad actor’

Shortly after the transcript was released, Pompeo called Linick a “bad actor” who had been acting inappropriately and not in the best interests of the State Department.

Pompeo did not address the allegations of attempted bullying. He stood by his recommendation that Trump fire Linick, one of several inspectors general whom the president has recently dismissed.

Linick said he had opened a review of last year’s $8bn arms sale to Saudi Arabia at the request of legislators who claimed Pompeo had inappropriately circumvented Congress to approve the deal. Linick said the State Department’s top management officer Brian Bulatao, and legal adviser Marik String tried to stop him.

Bulatao “said that we shouldn’t be doing the work because it was a policy matter not within the IG’s jurisdiction”, Linick said, adding that both Bulatao and String “were of the same mind” on the matter.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo takes a question from a reporter during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC [File: Andrew Harnik/AP Photo]

Linick said in the interview that he believed the Saudi review, which is continuing, was appropriate because it looked at whether proper procedures and regulations were followed. He said he had requested an interview with Pompeo on the matter but had never received a response. Linick acknowledged that Pompeo did respond in writing to questions.

“All I can say is it’s ongoing and their report is ongoing,” he said of the Saudi arms sale review.

Alleged leak

Linick testified that he repeatedly clashed with Bulatao, a former business associate and close friend of Pompeo, over other issues as well. “I would say that sometimes the relationship was professional; at other times, he tried to bully me,” he said.

Pompeo, Bulatao and others have said Linick was dismissed in part because of inappropriate actions but also because of the alleged leak of one of his office’s reports into accusations of political reprisals by Trump appointees against career State Department officials.

Linick denied his office was responsible for the leak. He said an investigation into the alleged leak by the Defense Department inspector general cleared him and his office.

Linick’s office has been highly critical of such retaliation but had also criticized Democratic officials during the Obama administration, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

At a State Department news conference, Pompeo questioned the validity of the leak investigation and said he and others still had questions about the origin of information that was critical of the administration’s top envoy for Iran, Brian Hook.

“We have asked for a more thorough investigation than Mr Linick asked for,” Pompeo said. “We’re determined to figure out how that information escaped to harm someone who works here.”

In addition to the Saudi arms deal and Pompeo’s use of government staff, Linick said that at the time of his removal, his office had open reviews into several other matters. They included issues related to the conduct of the former chief of protocol who was dismissed last year, the curtailment of visas for former Afghan and Iraqi translators who served with US forces, and a controversy over a rescinded Global Women of Courage award.

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UN says Libya’s warring parties engaged in ‘productive’ talks




Global body’s support mission in the country says two sides ‘fully’ engaged in talks aimed at ending fighting.

The United Nations has said Libya’s warring sides were “fully” engaged in military talks aimed at ending the fighting in the country, calling the virtual meetings “productive”.

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said on Wednesday that it had convened a meeting with a delegation from renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s eastern-based forces on June 3, and another on Tuesday with a delegation from the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.

“Both meetings – which were conducted virtually – were productive and enabled UNSMIL to discuss with the delegations the latest developments on the ground,” the mission said.

The North African country, a major oil producer, has been mired in turmoil since 2011, when longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in a NATO-backed uprising.

It is now split between two rival administrations: the GNA in Tripoli and the eastern-based House of Representatives allied with Haftar.

UNSMIL is pleased to announce that both, Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) delegations, are fully engaged in the third round of talks of the (5+5) Joint Military Commission (JMC).

— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) June 10, 2020

The latest round of talks came after the collapse of a 14-month offensive by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) to capture Tripoli and its retreat from most of its territory in northwest Libya following a series of military setbacks.

A GNA effort from Monday to push further east and capture the central city of Sirte, effectively wiping out all the LNA’s gains since the start of its Tripoli campaign in April 2019, was repulsed with air raids, an LNA military source was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Between June 5 and 8, the mission said it documented at least 19 civilian deaths, including those of three women and five children as well as 12 injuries in three locations outside Sirte as a result of heavy shelling.

The GNA is backed by Turkey while Haftar’s self-styled LNA is supported by the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Egypt. 

Separately, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday said his country has rejected a ceasefire proposal by Egypt, claiming the plan was aimed at saving Haftar.

“The ceasefire effort in Cairo was stillborn. If a ceasefire is to be signed, it should be done at a platform that brings everyone together,” Cavusoglu told the Hurriyet Daily News.

“The ceasefire call to save Haftar does not seem sincere or believable to us.”



Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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Ethiopian parliament allows PM Abiy to stay in office beyond term




The move comes after elections scheduled for August were postponed in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ethiopia’s parliament has approved allowing Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to stay in office beyond his mandate after elections planned for August were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The vote on Wednesday – 114 in favour, four against and one abstention – came two days after a leading opposition politician resigned as speaker in an apparent protest against the decision to delay the election.

“The House of Federation has approved a decision to extend the term of all assemblies until international health institutions have deemed the threat from coronavirus to be over,” the Ethiopian News Agency reported on Wednesday, referring to the upper house of parliament.

Lawmakers did not specify when the new elections would happen, however, their vote was an endorsement of recommendations by the Council of Constitutional Inquiry, an advisory body that had held public meetings to decide a way forward after the delay.

The body recommended for the “elections to be held nine to 12 months after the coronavirus is deemed not to be a public health concern”.

Ethiopia’s election board announced in March that it would be impossible to organise the vote on time because of the pandemic, in which 2,506 infections have been confirmed in the country with 35 deaths.

The circumstances meant that the election could not happen before legislators’ terms end in October.

The Ethiopian constitution does not clearly address the path forward in the unusual situation.

‘Endangers peace and stability’

Some opposition leaders have called for a caretaker or transitional government to guide the country to elections, a suggestion Abiy dismissed as unworkable during a question-and-answer session on Monday with legislators.

The move by the upper house also drew a rebuke from opposition leaders who have accused Abiy of using the pandemic to artificially extend his time in office, and analysts warned of possible protests and boycotts.

Other opposition politicians have demanded a more prominent role in resolving the impasse, arguing that consulting parliament is insufficient because most lawmakers support the governing party.

In anticipation of the extension, oppositions had been speaking out it in recent weeks.

On Monday, House of Federation speaker Keria Ibrahim, a top official of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), resigned from her position, saying she was “not willing to work with a group that violates the constitution and exercises dictatorship”. TPLF, a member of the ruling coalition, opposed the decision taken in March to delay the elections due to the pandemic. 

TPLF has threatened to hold its own elections in the Tigray region, home to one of Ethiopia’s most influential ethnic groups.

Abiy took power in Africa’s second-most populous country in 2018 and has since rolled out a series of reforms allowing greater freedoms in what had long been one of the continent’s most repressive states. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.

But the changes have made it possible for long-held grievances against decades of harsh rule to resurface, and emboldened regional power-brokers such as the TPLF to seek more power for their ethnic groups.

On Wednesday night, two major opposition parties with power bases in Abiy’s home Oromia region issued a joint statement rejecting Wednesday’s vote as “an illegal and illegitimate act”.  

The parties, the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front, also warned that it “endangers the peace and stability of the country”.   

“We would like to express our concern that large-scale mass uprisings which could transform into violence may arise, and this will not only take us back to square one, it will also be difficult to contain for a government already dealing with multiple socioeconomic and public health challenges,” the parties said.

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