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Sri Lanka protesters call for new government a day after clashes kill eight

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holding the Sri Lankan national flag is silhouetted during the protest against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, near the Presidential Secretariat, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 15, 2022

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By Alasdair Pal and Uditha Jayasinghe

COLOMBO (Reuters) -Protesters and a key trade group in Sri Lanka called for a new government to take control of the crisis-hit country on Tuesday as the president called for calm a day after clashes killed eight people, pushing his brother to quit as prime minister.

Sri Lanka has been suffering its worst economic crisis in history, with a severe shortage of foreign exchange stalling the essential of imports, including drugs and fuel.

For months, its tottering economy has been largely supported by India, which has provided assistance of more than $3.5 billion as the country began much-delayed talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package and also sought help from China.

China and India have long jostled for influence over Sri Lanka, a strategically-located island located off the southern tip of India with a population of 22 million people.

But the public’s patience ran out on Monday after ruling party supporters attacked an anti-government protest camp in the commercial capital Colombo, triggering a bout of deadly clashes that has left over 200 people injured.

Hours after the violence erupted, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned in the hope of forming a unity government and the police imposed a nationwide curfew until 7 a.m. on Wednesday. The country’s entire cabinet also stepped down.

Protesters angered by persistent shortages of fuel, cooking gas and electricity defied the curfew to attack government figures, setting ablaze homes, shops and businesses belonging to ruling party lawmakers and provincial politicians.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former prime minister’s younger brother, urged for an end to the violence and his government outlined broad powers for the military and police to detain and question people without arrest warrants.

“All efforts will be made to restore political stability through consensus, within constitutional mandate & to resolve economic crisis,” the president said in a tweet.

The country’s defence ministry also ordered troops to shoot at any persons damaging public property or threatening lives.

But protesters continued rallying for the president to quit, including at the “Gota Go Gama” tent village that was attacked by ruling party supporters on Tuesday.

“Now the whole island is supporting us,” said Lahiru Fernando, 36, who has been camped at the anti-government protest site for weeks. “They kicked the wrong generation.”

Some experts said that if the president decides to step down in the face of growing pressure, the constitution outlines provisions for parliament to vote in a new leader.

“So, there will not be a power vacuum. There are also provisions for parliamentarians to appoint an interim government,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank.

The Joint Apparel Association Forum, which represents the Sri Lanka’s economically vital apparel industry, appealed for political stability in Sri Lanka, where the government imposed a state of emergency late last week.

“It is critical that a new government be appointed urgently to fill the current political vacuum,” the forum said in a statement.

DAY OF VIOLENCE

The attacks on government figures came in apparent reprisal for an incident just hours before the prime minister’s resignation.

The prime minister spoke to hundreds of supporters gathered at his official residence on Monday following reports that he was considering stepping down.

After his remarks, many of them, armed with iron bars, stormed a camp of those protesting against the government, beating them and setting fire to their tents.

Police fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse the skirmishers, after having initially done little to hold back the government supporters, according to Reuters witnesses.

Thousands streamed into the streets in celebration after Rajapaksa’s resignation, but the mood quickly became tense.

Protesters attempted to tear down the gates of Temple Trees, his residence in the centre of Colombo, where broken glass and discarded footwear littered the surrounding streets on Tuesday, after some of the night’s worst clashes.

Military troops patrolled the area, where eight torched vehicles lay partially submerged in a lake. Discarded files and smashed equipment littered the ransacked offices of government officials.

In all, a police statement said 38 houses and 47 vehicles were set on fire across the country.

World

California church shooter was motivated by hate, politics

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© Reuters. The Geneva Presbyterian Church is seen after a deadly shooting, in Laguna Woods, California, U.S. May 15, 2022. REUTERS/David Swanson

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By Sharon Bernstein and Andrew Hay

(Reuters) -The man who killed a doctor and injured five others at a California Taiwanese church shooting at the weekend was a U.S. citizen born in China who hated Taiwan and drove from Las Vegas armed with guns, chains and numerous Molotov cocktails, authorities said on Monday.

David Chou, 68, chained shut the doors where up to 40 people were attending a luncheon in honor of a former pastor of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Monday.

Barnes said that Chou’s violent assault at the Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, a community of mostly elderly residents, was motivated by his hatred of Taiwan and recent tensions between Taiwan and mainland China.

“This is a manifestation of the ugliest part of our humanity that exists in our country today,” Barnes said at a news conference on Monday, also referencing the weekend’s racially motivated mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.

The FBI said it was opening a hate crime investigation in the case.

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Steelworks defenders appear to signal end of Mariupol siege

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A local resident rides a bicycle past a charred armoured vehicle during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the separatist-controlled town of Volnovakha in the Donetsk region, Ukraine March 15, 2022. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko/File Photo

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By Natalia Zinets

KYIV/MARIUPOL, Ukraine (Reuters) – The Ukrainian unit holed up beneath the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol said on Monday its garrison was fulfilling orders to save the lives of troops, an apparent sign that the longest and bloodiest battle of the Ukraine war had come to an end.

Reuters saw about a dozen buses apparently carrying Ukrainian fighters leaving the plant on Monday. It was not possible to determine how many people were aboard. Some 600 fighters have been estimated to be inside the vast Soviet-era plant, including dozens of wounded.

“In order to save lives, the entire Mariupol garrison is implementing the approved decision of the Supreme Military Command and hopes for the support of the Ukrainian people,” the Azov Regiment said in a social media post.

It said the defenders of Mariupol, in the southeast, had held out for 82 days, buying time for the rest of Ukraine to battle Russian forces and secure Western arms needed to withstand Russia’s assault.

The steelworks was the last Ukrainian-held bastion in the once prosperous port, now in ruins after months of Russian siege that Ukraine says killed tens of thousands of people.

Since February, Mariupol’s devastation has become a symbol both of Ukraine’s ability to withstand Russia’s invasion, and of Russia’s willingness to destroy Ukrainian cities that hold out.

In a video accompanying the Azov Regiment statement, one of the unit’s senior commanders, Denys Prokopenko, said: “The main thing is to realise all the risks, is there a plan B, are you fully committed to that plan which must allow for fulfilling the assigned tasks and preserve the lives and health of personnel?”

“This is the highest level of overseeing troops. All the more so when your decision is endorsed by the highest military command.”

Prokopenko did not spell out what action the defenders were taking. The video was released hours after Russia said it had agreed to evacuate wounded Ukrainian soldiers to a medical facility in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk.

Apart from the steelworks, Mariupol is entirely in Russian hands after a siege which left residents huddled in basements with no food and water and streets littered with dead bodies.

Moscow denies having targeted civilians. The United Nations and Red Cross both estimate thousands of civilians died, with the true toll still uncounted.

The last defenders, including many who were wounded, had been holding out for weeks in bunkers and tunnels built to withstand nuclear war, deep beneath Azovstal, one of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe. Civilians were evacuated from inside the plant earlier this month.

“An agreement has been reached on the removal of the wounded,” Russia’s defence ministry said. “A humanitarian corridor has been opened through which wounded Ukrainian servicemen are being taken to a medical facility in Novoazovsk.”

Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar told Ukrainian television: “Any information can harm the processes that are taking place … Inasmuch as the process is under way, we can’t say what’s happening right now.”

Earlier, the wife of an Azov Battalion member had described conditions at the plant: “They are in hell. They receive new wounds every day. They are without legs or arms, exhausted, without medicines,” Natalia Zaritskaya said.

PUTIN CLIMBDOWN OVER NATO

Earlier on Monday, Vladimir Putin appeared to climb down from Russian threats to retaliate against Sweden and Finland for announcing plans to join NATO.

“As far as expansion goes, including new members Finland and Sweden, Russia has no problems with these states – none. And so in this sense there is no immediate threat to Russia from an expansion to include these countries,” Putin said.

The comments appeared to mark a major shift in rhetoric, after years of casting NATO enlargement as a direct threat to Russia’s security, including citing it as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine itself.

Just hours before Putin spoke, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said Finland and Sweden were making a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences: “They should have no illusions that we will simply put up with it.”

Putin said NATO enlargement was being used by the United States in an “aggressive” way to aggravate an already difficult global security situation, and that Russia would respond if the alliance moves weapons or troops forward.

“The expansion of military infrastructure into this territory would certainly provoke our response. What that (response) will be – we will see what threats are created for us,” Putin said.

Finland and Sweden, both non-aligned throughout the Cold War, say they now want the protection offered by NATO’s treaty, under which an attack on any member is an attack on all.

“We are leaving one era behind us and entering a new one,” Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said, announcing plans to formally abandon militarily non-aligned status – a cornerstone of national identity for more than 200 years.

Kjell Engelbrekt, professor of political science at the Swedish Defence University, said Moscow now had few military options left to follow through on its previous “very assertive” rhetoric demanding the Nordics never join NATO.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had seen no indications Russia was moving troops or equipment closer to the border with Finland.

UKRAINE TROOPS REACH BORDER

Moscow calls its invasion a “special military operation” to rid Ukraine of fascists, an assertion Kyiv and its Western allies say is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war.

Now nearly three months old, it has so far been a military disaster for Moscow, with its troops forced out of the north and the environs of Kyiv in late March. A Ukrainian counterattack in recent days has driven Russian forces out of the area near Kharkiv, the biggest city in the east.

Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Monday troops had advanced all the way to the Russian border, about 40 km north of Kharkiv.

The successes near Kharkiv could let Ukraine attack supply lines for Russia’s own main offensive, grinding on further south in the Donbas region, where Moscow has been launching mass assaults for a month achieving only small gains.

In a video message, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed the achievement and thanked the troops: “I am very grateful to you from all Ukrainians, from everyone, from myself, from my family, my gratitude is unlimited.”

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New York congressional map deals blow to Democrats’ midterm hopes

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A “Vote” sign is pictured on election day in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., November 2, 2021. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – A court-appointed expert released a draft New York congressional district map on Monday that is far less favorable to Democrats than the original plan adopted by lawmakers, likely dealing a blow to the party’s prospects in November elections.

Democratic majorities in the state legislature in February passed a map that would likely have won the party 22 of the state’s 26 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. This would have partially countered new maps that favored Republicans in states such as Texas, Georgia and Florida as Democrats hope to maintain control of Congress in the elections.

But the state’s top court recently ruled that the New York plan violated an amendment to the state constitution, approved by voters in 2014, that banned manipulating district lines based on partisan considerations, a process known as gerrymandering.

As a result, the redistricting process landed in the hands of Jonathan Cervas, a court-appointed special master and a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University, who released his draft on Monday. A state court is expected to finalize it on Friday after allowing interested parties to submit comments.

The new map could make it difficult for Democrats to keep the 19 seats they currently control, according to political analysts, particularly given that the national political climate favors Republicans.

The plan could also create some awkward Democratic matchups. Longtime Democratic Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney saw their districts combined into a single seat in Manhattan, potentially forcing them into a primary battle.

Sean Patrick Maloney, who chairs the Democratic Party’s congressional campaign arm, said on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) he would run in a newly configured district currently held by Democratic Representative Mondaire Jones.

Michael Li, a redistricting expert at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, estimated that Democrats would likely win as few as 16 or 17 seats in a Republican-leaning cycle but could capture 21 or perhaps even 22 seats in a Democratic wave.

Republicans only need to flip five seats nationally in November to claim a majority in the House, which would enable them to block much of President Joe Biden’s agenda for the remaining two years of his first term.

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