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Sri Lanka Update: Shootout between troops and militants left 15 dead.

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Source: Reuters

A gun battle between troops and suspected Islamist militants on Sri Lanka’s east coast left 15 dead, including six children, a military spokesman said on Saturday, six days after suicide bombers killed more than 250 people on the island.

The shootout at a safe house erupted on Friday in Sainthamaruthu in Ampara district, to the south of the Sri Lankan town of Batticaloa, site of one of the Easter Sunday blasts which have been claimed by Islamic State.

The government has said that the attacks on three churches and four hotels, most of which were in the capital Colombo, were carried out by nine well-educated Sri Lankans, eight of whom have been identified.

A police spokesman said three suspected suicide bombers were among the dead following Friday’s gun battle.

Authorities have warned there could be more attacks against religious centers following the bombings, which shattered the relative calm in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka since a conflict with mostly-Hindu ethnic Tamil separatists ended a decade ago.

President Maithripala Sirisena and the government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have faced criticism over the attacks about which there were repeated warnings from India.

Both have said intelligence was not shared with them, exposing rifts at the top of the government and raising questions about its ability to deal with the security crisis.

Two sources told Reuters on Saturday that Sri Lanka’s police chief had refused to accept Sirisena’s request to step down, in a further embarrassment for the president.

The U.S. State Department, warning that terrorist groups were continuing to plot attacks, urged citizens to reconsider travel to Sri Lanka and ordered the departure of all school-age family members of U.S. government employees. It also authorized non-emergency employees to leave.

Britain has also warned its nationals to avoid traveling to Sri Lanka unless absolutely necessary.

ISLAMIC STATE BANNERS

The east coast battle broke out when troops heading toward a suspected militant safe house were repulsed by three explosions and gunfire, military spokesman Sumith Atapattu said.

“Troops retaliated and raided the safe house where a large cache of explosives had been stored,” he said in a statement, adding that the militants were suspected members of the domestic Islamist group National Towheed Jama’at (NTJ), which has been blamed for last Sunday’s attacks.

Security personnel seen at the site of an overnight gun battle, between troops and suspected Islamist militants, on the east coast of Sri Lanka, in Kalmunai, April 27, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Bomb-making materials, dozens of gelignite sticks and thousands of ball bearings were found in a search of a separate house in the same area along with Islamic State banners and uniforms, the military said.

Police said on Friday they were trying to track down 140 people they believe have links with Islamic State, while Sri Lanka’s president said some Sri Lankan youths had been involved with it since 2013 and that there were drug trafficking links.

“Our efforts to eradicate the drugs menace from the country could have advanced the ISIS attack,” Sirisena said.

Nearly 10,000 soldiers have been deployed across the Indian Ocean island state to carry out searches and provide security for religious centers, the military said.

Authorities have so far focused their investigations on international links to two domestic groups they believe carried out the attacks, NTJ and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim.

They said they have detained at least 76 people, including foreigners from Syria and Egypt, with 20 arrested in the past 24 hours alone.

In a separate raid on a mosque in Colombo, a suspect was arrested and a haul of 40 swords and kris knives were seized from under the bed of the chief cleric, police said.

INTELLIGENCE FAILURE

Islamic State provided no evidence that it was behind Sunday’s blasts, which would be one of the worst attacks carried out by the group outside Iraq and Syria.

The group released a video showing eight men, all but one with their faces covered, under a black Islamic State flag and declaring their loyalty to its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi

Muslims were urged to pray at home on Friday after the State Intelligence Services warned of possible car bomb attacks, amid fears of retaliatory violence. Many have fled their homes amid bomb scares, lockdowns and security sweeps.

Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told reporters he had seen an internal security document warning of further attacks on churches and said there would be no Catholic masses this Sunday anywhere on the island.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million people include minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Until now, Christians had largely managed to avoid the worst of the island’s conflict and communal tensions.

Most of the victims of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings were Sri Lankans, although authorities said at least 40 foreigners were killed, many of them tourists sitting down to breakfast at top-end hotels when the bombers struck.

They included British, U.S., Australian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese nationals.


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24 Hours Across Africa

Erdogan congratulates rival over massive victory

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Source:Reuters- Turkey’s opposition has dealt President Tayyip Erdogan a stinging blow by winning control of Istanbul in a re-run mayoral election, breaking his aura of invincibility and delivering a message from voters unhappy over his policies.

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Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) secured 54.21% of votes, according to state-owned Anadolu news agency – a far wider victory margin than his narrow win three months ago.

The previous result was annulled after protests from Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party, which said there had been widespread voting irregularities. The decision to re-run the vote was criticized by Western allies and caused uproar among domestic opponents who said Turkey’s democracy was under threat.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of Imamoglu supporters celebrated in the streets of Istanbul after the former businessman triumphed over Erdogan’s handpicked candidate by almost 800,000 votes.

“In this city today, you have fixed democracy. Thank you Istanbul,” Imamoglu told supporters who made heart signs with their hands, in an expression of the inclusive election rhetoric that has been the hallmark of his campaigning.

“We came to embrace everyone,” Imamoglu said. “We will build democracy in this city, we will build justice. In this beautiful city, I promise, we will build the future.”

The High Electoral Board has yet to announce the formal results, but Erdogan has already congratulated Imamoglu for his victory and Imamoglu’s rival, Binali Yildirim, of the ruling AK Party wished him luck as mayor barely two hours after polls closed.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey since 2003, first as prime minister and then as president, becoming the country’s most dominant politician since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, nearly a century ago.

His AK Party has strong support among pious and conservative Turks and its stewardship of Turkey’s economy through a decade and a half of construction-fueled growth helped Erdogan win more than a dozen national and local elections.

But economic recession and a financial crisis have eroded that support, and Erdogan’s ever-tighter control over government has alarmed some voters.

Turkey’s lira tumbled after the decision to annul the March vote and is down 8% this year in part on election jitters. It firmed to 5.72 overnight from Friday’s close of 5.8140 but eased back to 5.7750 by 0500 GMT.

Imamoglu won support even in the traditionally pious Istanbul districts, once known as AK Party strongholds, ending the 25-year-long Islamist rule in the country’s largest city.

“This re-run (election) was one to put an end to the dictatorship,” said Gulcan Demirkaya, a 48-year-old housewife in Istanbul’s AKP-leaning Kagithane district. “God willing, I would like to see him as the president in five years’ time. The one-man rule should come to an end.”

The results are likely to trigger a new chapter in Turkish politics, with the country’s top three cities now held by the opposition, and could trigger cracks within Erdogan’s AK Party, while bringing the economic troubles more to the center.

“This is definitely going to have an impact on the future of Turkish politics given the margin of victory. It’s alarming sign for the AKP establishment,” said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels and former Turkish diplomat.

Analysts say the loss could set off a Cabinet reshuffle in Ankara and adjustments to foreign policy. It could even trigger a national election earlier than 2023 as scheduled, although the leader of the AKP’s nationalist ally played down that prospect.

“Turkey should now return to its real agenda, the election process should close,” MHP party leader Devlet Bahceli said. “Talking of an early election would be among the worst things that can be done to our country.”

The uncertainty over the fate of Istanbul and potential delays in broader economic reforms have kept financial markets on edge. Threats of sanctions by the United States if Erdogan goes ahead with plans to install Russian missile defenses have also weighed on the markets.


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24 Hours Across Africa

Czech: Protesters Call for PM Babis resignation.

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Source: Reuters, An estimated quarter of a million Czechs rallied in Prague on Sunday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, in the biggest show of public discontent since the 1989 Velvet Revolution which overthrew Communism.

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The rally in Letna park was the culmination of a series of demonstrations in recent weeks against Babis, who has faced investigations over alleged fraud and conflicts of interest, claims he vehemently denies.

Organizers said they believed that about 250,000 people had attended Sunday’s rally. Phone operator T-Mobile said its network usage analysis put the number of participants at over 258,000. A police spokesman declined to give an estimate.

The total population of the Czech Republic is 10.7 million.

Protesters carried banners saying “Resign”, “We’ve had enough”, “We won’t give up democracy”, and others waved Czech and EU flags. Many families brought children to the rally, which was peaceful as were other recent protests against both Babis and his justice minister.

Babis has said people have the right to protest but has firmly refused to step down. His populist ANO movement remains the most popular party, although its support has dipped slightly in the past two months to 27.5%, according to a poll by Kantar agency released on June 9.

Babis also has enough backing in parliament, where a no-confidence vote planned for Wednesday is likely to fail.

Police proposed in April that Babis, a billionaire businessman-turned-politician sometimes likened to U.S. President Donald Trump, should be formally charged for fraud in tapping a European Union subsidy a decade ago to build a hotel and conference center outside Prague. He denies any wrongdoing.

The appointment of a new justice minister just after the police announcement prompted rallies by demonstrators suspicious that Babis was trying to influence proceedings. Babis has also vigorously denied that claim.

“Our country has many problems and the government is not solving them. It is not solving them because the only worry of the prime minister is how to untangle himself from his personal problems,” said Mikulas Minar, a 26-year-old theology student who set up the Million Moments for Democracy, a civic group that organized the protests.

“It is unacceptable for our prime minister to be a person under criminal investigation,” he told the crowd from a giant rock festival-like stage.

No politicians were invited to address the rally, the organizers said.

Filip Rubas, who joined protests in 1989 against the then communist regime, said he turned out on Sunday to send a message to politicians that they will be held accountable.

“We think our leaders need to be reminded very strongly that they do not own our country, that they are not above the law (or constitution) and that there are still enough caring people who are not brainwashed by hateful propaganda,” said Rubas, 50.

He traveled to the rally with his wife and a group of friends from Brno, the country’s second city, 200 km (125 miles) from Prague.

Babis, 64, suffered another setback from leaked preliminary results of an audit by the European Commission, which determined he is in conflict of interest as the beneficiary of trust funds where he had transferred his chemicals, farming, media and food business, valued at $3.7 billion by Forbes.

Babis insists the audit, which said companies in the trust fund should not be eligible for EU development subsidies, is wrong and this would be proven in the final conclusions, expected late this year or early in 2020.


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