Syria’s Assad wins 4th term with 95% of vote, in election the West calls fraudulent
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won a fourth term in office with 95.1% of the votes in an election that will extend his rule over a country ruined by war but which opponents and the West say was marked by fraud.
Assad’s government says the election on Wednesday shows Syria is functioning normally despite the decade-old conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million people – about half the population – from their homes.
Head of parliament Hammouda Sabbagh announced the results at a news conference on Thursday, saying voter turnout was around 78%, with more than 14 million Syrians taking part.
The election went ahead despite a U.N.-led peace process that had called for voting under international supervision that would help pave the way for a new constitution and a political settlement.
The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, Britain and the United States said in a statement criticising Assad ahead of the election that the vote would not be free or fair. Turkey, an Assad adversary, has also said the election was illegitimate.
The win delivers Assad, 55, seven more years in power and lengthens his family’s rule to nearly six decades. His father, Hafez al-Assad, led Syria for 30 years until his death in 2000.
Assad’s years as president have been defined by the conflict that began in 2011 with peaceful protests before spiralling into a multi-sided conflict that has fractured the Middle Eastern country and drawn in foreign friends and enemies.
“Thank you to all Syrians for their high sense of nationalism and their notable participation. … For the future of Syria’s children and its youth, let’s start from tomorrow our campaign of work to build hope and build Syria,” Assad wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page.
Assad’s biggest challenge, now that he has regained control of around 70% of the country, will be an economy in decline.
Tightening U.S. sanctions, neighbouring Lebanon’s financial collapse, the COVID-19 pandemic hitting remittances from Syrians abroad and the inability of allies Russia and Iran to provide enough relief, mean prospects for recovery look poor.
Rallies with thousands of people waving Syrian flags and holding pictures of Assad while singing and dancing took place all day Thursday in celebration of the election.
Officials have told Reuters privately that authorities organised the large rallies in recent days to encourage voting, and the security apparatus that underpins Assad’s Alawite minority-dominated rule had instructed state employees to vote.
The vote was boycotted by the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces who administer an autonomous oil-rich region in the northeast and in northwestern Idlib region, the last existing rebel enclave, where people denounced the election in large demonstrations on Wednesday.
Assad was running against two obscure candidates, former deputy Cabinet minister Abdallah Saloum Abdallah and Mahmoud Ahmed Marei, head of a small, officially sanctioned opposition party.
Marei got 3.3% of the vote, while Saloum received 1.5%, Sabbagh said.
IMF approves $15.6 billion loan program for Ukraine
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said its executive board had approved a four-year $15.6 billion loan program for Ukraine, part of a global $115 billion package to support the country’s economy as it battles Russia’s 13-month-old invasion.
A $2.6 billion U.S. military aid package that could include air surveillance radars, anti-tank rockets and fuel trucks for Ukraine’s fight against Russia is expected to be announced as soon as Monday, three U.S. officials said on Friday.
A senior Ukrainian official ruled out any ceasefire in Russia’s war on his country that would involve Russian forces remaining on territory they now occupy in Ukraine, Reuters reported.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia faced “existential threats” to its security and development from “unfriendly states” as he presented President Vladimir Putin with an updated foreign policy doctrine.
U.S. Secretary of State Blinken will push back on Russia’s attempts to “weaponize energy” and rally support for a Ukrainian counteroffensive when he meets NATO foreign ministers in Brussels next week, an official said.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Russia, which has decided to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, could if necessary put intercontinental nuclear missiles there too.
At least six Russian missiles hit the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv late on Thursday, and officials are gathering details about damage and casualties, the regional governor said.
The advance of Russian soldiers on the outskirts of the eastern frontline town of Bakhmut “has been halted – or nearly halted”, the director of the Ukrainian defense publication Defense Express said.
Reuters could not verify battlefield reports.
Russia said on Friday that if the United States threatened Moscow over its arrest of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, it would “reap the whirlwind”, the state-owned news agency RIA reported.
A Nobel prize-winning Russian journalist said he did not believe that arrested American reporter Evan Gershkovich was a spy, adding he hoped diplomacy could bring about his quick release.
Russia might put strategic nukes in Belarus, leader says
Russian strategic nuclear weapons might be deployed in Belarus along with part of Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Friday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced last week that his country intended to deploy tactical, comparatively short-range and small-yield nuclear weapons in Belarus, AP reported.
The strategic nuclear weapons such as missile-borne warheads that Lukashenko mentioned during his state-of-the nation address would pose an even greater threat, if Moscow moves them to the territory of its neighbor and ally.
Belarus was a staging ground for amassing Russian troops before the invasion of Ukraine a little over 13 months ago. Lukashenko, the only person to have served as president since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, delivered his annual address amid escalating tensions over the conflict in Ukraine.
Both he and Putin have alleged that Western powers want to ruin Russia and Belarus.
“Putin and I will decide and introduce here, if necessary, strategic weapons, and they must understand this, the scoundrels abroad, who today are trying to blow us up from inside and outside,” the Belarusian leader said. “We will stop at nothing to protect our countries, our state and their peoples.”
Earlier in the address, Lukashenko called for a cease-fire in Ukraine.
A truce must be announced without any preconditions, and all movement of troops and weapons must be halted, he said.
Belarus and Russia have intensified their cooperation since the start of the Ukraine war. The Russian military has used its troops and missiles stationed in Belarus, although no Belarusian troops have participated in the fighting.
Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan all relinquished nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the so-called Budapest Memorandum that accompanied giving up the weapons, Russia, the United States and Britain agreed to respect the territorial integrity of those countries.
Ukraine has repeatedly complained that Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the 2022 invasion violate that agreement.
Lukashenko said Friday that he did not want to lose his country’s nuclear weapons but was pressured into doing so by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Fire on Philippine ferry kills 29, including children; 225 rescued
Philippine rescuers searched the smouldering ruins of a burnt-out ferry on Thursday for any survivors or more victims of a fire that swept through the inter-island vessel killing 29 people, including a 6-month old baby, Reuters quoted authorities said.
Investigators have yet to identify the cause of the fire that started at about 11 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Wednesday off the southern island of Basilan, when many passengers were asleep in air-conditioned cabins on the ferry’s lower deck.
“I thought I was dreaming but when I opened my eyes it was dark and we were surrounded by smoke,” Mina Nani, 46, a passenger on the MV Lady Mary Joy 3, told DZRH radio.
She said she survived by jumping off the vessel and sharing a floatation device with another passenger until they were rescued.
There were conflicting figures of the number of people on the ferry, which officials said was not overloaded. The coast guard said 225 people including 36 crew were rescued, read the report.
Eleven people, including three children, drowned after jumping off the burning ship, while 18 died in the blaze on board, Governor Hadjiman Hataman Salliman told DZRH.
“We have yet to explore the entire ship because it’s still hot,” Salliman said of the beached vessel.
Commodore Rejard Marfe, coast guard chief in the Mindanao region, told Reuters there was “chaos” after the spreading fire roused people from their sleep and the 18 victims found onboard were “totally burnt”.
The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands, has a poor record for maritime safety, with vessels often overcrowded and many ageing ships in use, Reuters reported.
In May, at least seven people died in a fire on a high-speed ferry carrying 134 people.
In 1987, about 5,000 people died in the world’s worst peacetime shipping disaster, when an overloaded passenger ferry Dona Paz collided with an oil tanker off Mindoro Island south of the capital, Manila.
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