Philippines, Mar 31 (AP/UNB) — Philippine police say 14 suspected communist rebels have been killed after they opened fire during raids but rights groups countered the men were farmers and the latest victim of extrajudicial killings.
Regional police chief Debold Sinas says police backed by army troops were to conduct court-authorized home searches Saturday in three towns in Negros Oriental province when the 14 violently fought back. Fifteen others were arrested while six escaped in the anti-insurgency and criminality sweep.
Human rights and farmers' groups on Sunday condemned the killings of the men they said were farmers, including two village chiefs, and called for an independent investigation.
They say six farmers were killed and more than 50 others arrested in similar police raids in December in the central region.
London, Mar 31 (AP/UNB) — The U.K. may be forced to create a national unity government to end the impasse over Britain leaving the European Union, as Prime Minister Theresa May clings to the Brexit divorce agreement that Parliament has rejected three times, a senior Conservative suggested Saturday.
Former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan's comments came a day after the House of Commons rebuffed the prime minister's call for lawmakers to "put aside self and party," sending her Brexit deal to its latest defeat. The rejection leaves the U.K. facing the stark prospect of a chaotic departure from the EU in just two weeks — unless squabbling politicians can put aside their differences and engineer a long delay in the process of leaving the bloc.
The British Parliament will vote Monday on a variety of Brexit alternatives in an attempt to find an idea that can command a majority. But May's government is considering a fourth vote on her deal, bolstered by their success in narrowing her margin of defeat to 58 votes Friday from 230 votes in January.
"If the government refused and Theresa May felt she could not implement what Parliament had identified as a way of leaving the EU, then I think we would have to think very hard about whether a cross-party coalition ... could do that in order to make sure that the U.K. does leave the EU in an orderly fashion," Morgan told the BBC.
Britain has in the past had national unity governments in times of national crisis, such as World War II. But critics point out that such coalitions were forged when there was a single goal — such as defeating Nazi Germany. It is unclear now how Britain's political parties would agree to cooperate on an issue like Brexit, which has split the country and its two major political parties, May's ruling Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party.
As a result of Friday's vote, the U.K. is now scheduled to leave the EU on April 12, regardless of whether the two sides have reached an agreement to cushion the impact. That has led to concerns about crippling tariffs, border gridlock and shortages of food and medicines.
EU officials have suggested, however, they may agree to a lengthy delay to Britain's departure from the bloc if U.K. politicians agree on a plan.
The House of Commons on Wednesday began the process of debating alternatives to the prime minister's deal but rejected all eight proposals they considered. Two ideas, a customs union with the EU and a second referendum on any deal, achieved significant support. Lawmakers are expected to hold a second round of votes Monday on Brexit proposals.
Hilary Benn, a Labour Party lawmaker who chairs Parliament's Brexit committee, dismissed criticism that the parliamentary process was a failure because it didn't deliver a majority in the first round of voting. Benn said he hopes the latest defeat for May's deal will "concentrate minds" and help build a clear majority for one of the Brexit options.
"Since it took 2 3/4 years for the government to get what it had negotiated defeated three times, it's a little bit harsh on Parliament, when it started the process last Wednesday, for not having immediately solved the problem in 24 hours," Benn said. "So I think a little bit more time is a perfectly reasonable thing to provide as we try and find a way forward."
While Benn and Morgan are pushing for compromise, others are demanding that the Conservative-led government not cave in.
Some hard-line Conservative Party lawmakers have written to May insisting that she not agree to a Brexit extension beyond May 22, which would force the U.K. to take part in the May 23-26 European Parliament elections, The Sun newspaper reported. The letter, signed by 170 members of the prime minister's party, called on May to bring her deal back to Parliament for a fourth vote, with the threat of a general election if it is rejected again, the newspaper said.
Brandon Lewis, a Cabinet member and chairman of the Conservative Party, said he was aware of the letter, though he had not seen the final text or the signatures.
"We should be doing everything we can to leave the European Union in good order as quickly as we can, as we said in our manifesto and as we've said to Parliament," Lewis said. "I think the deal is the right way to do that."
Gaza Strip, Mar 31 (AP/UNB) — Five rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel early Sunday, the Israeli military announced, following a day of mass protests that saw Israeli troops kill four Palestinians near the territory's border.
The rocket attack threatens to undermine Egyptian-mediated efforts to cement a deal that the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers hope will ease a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockage of the crowded territory.
No casualties were reported and no Palestinian group claimed responsibility for the rockets, though they appeared to be in retaliation for the deaths of the protesters.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied in the Gaza Strip on Saturday to mark the anniversary of their mass protests along the Israeli border.
Most demonstrators kept their distance from the border, though small crowds of activists approached the perimeter fence and threw stones and explosives toward Israeli troops on the other side. The forces responded with tear gas and opened fire, killing four Palestinians and wounding 64.
Hamas had pledged to keep the crowds a safe distance from the fence to avoid inflaming the political atmosphere during negotiations of a possible easing of the blockade.
Hamas officials say that Israel is offering a package of economic incentives in exchange for calm along the volatile border.
Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, said the group had received "positive signs" from the Egyptians. He added that the Egyptian team was to return to Israel on Sunday to continue the talks. "We will continue our marches until all our goals are achieved," he said.
Saturday's protest came at a sensitive time, with Israel and Hamas, bitter enemies that have fought three wars and dozens of smaller skirmishes, both having a strong interest in keeping things quiet.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking his fourth consecutive term in April 9 elections, but is facing a serious challenge from a group of ex-army chiefs who have criticized what they say is his failed Gaza policy. With a lack of alternatives, Netanyahu has been forced at times to rely on Hamas to maintain stability along Israel's volatile southern front.
In the final stretch of the campaign, Netanyahu needs to keep the Israel-Gaza frontier quiet, without seeming to make concessions to Hamas. Netanyahu took heavy criticism this week for what was seen as a soft response to renewed rocket fire out of Gaza.
Hamas, meanwhile, faces growing unrest in Gaza as a result of worsening conditions after more than a decade of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade. The two countries imposed the blockade in 2007 after Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel's destruction, seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
The blockade has helped drive unemployment over 50 percent, led to chronic power outages and made it extremely difficult for Gazans to travel out of the territory.
Earlier this month, Hamas violently suppressed several days of public protests, staged under the slogan "We want to live," over the dire conditions.
Speaking on the group's Al-Aqsa TV station, Hamas' top leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar, praised the protesters. "With this big turnout, our people say, 'We want to live!"
His use of the protesters' slogan appeared to be aimed at diverting the recent criticism of his group. Hamas blames the blockade and punitive measures by its West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for worsening the living conditions.
The fence protests, which began exactly a year ago, have been aimed in large part at breaking the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza, but haven't delivered major improvements.
Saturday's demonstrations were held at five rallying points along the border with Israel. Dozens of volunteers in fluorescent vests were deployed to restrain demonstrators, and cool rainy weather also appeared to affect enthusiasm.
But as the crowds swelled throughout the afternoon in response to Hamas' calls for a large turnout, dozens of protesters approached the fence, unfurling Palestinian flags and throwing rocks and explosives toward Israeli soldiers. The Israeli forces responded with tear gas and live fire.
The Israeli military estimated 40,000 Palestinians were gathered at the marches.
"The rioters are hurling rocks and setting tires on fire. In addition, a number of grenades and explosive devices have been hurled at the Gaza Strip security fence," it said in a statement.
In a statement, Prime Minister Netanyahu praised the army's preparation and performance in maintaining "calm."
Gaza's Health Ministry said that a 17-year-old protester died immediately after being shot in the face in east Gaza City. In the evening, the ministry said another 17-year-old died hours after being shot in the chest in a different protest location.
A third teenager, also aged 17, succumbed to his wounds and died in the late evening. A 21-year-old Palestinian also died around dawn after sustaining injuries in overnight protests before the main demonstration.
While bloodshed was not avoided, it was far less than previous high-profile protests. Over 60 people were killed during intense protests on May 14, the day the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
As Saturday's protest was winding down, organizers vowed to continue the marches and said they would gather again as usual next Friday.
The military released video footage showing large crowds of protesters gathered near the fence and hurling objects.
In one scene, a group of activists went up to the fence and hurled stones at the other side. In another scene, a youth could be seen trying to pull apart barbed wire along the fence.
The army also said it caught two young Palestinian children who had tried to cross the border with a knife. The children were returned to Gaza through a border crossing.
Earlier on Saturday, Gaza health officials said Israeli troops shot and killed a 21-year-old Palestinian man near the perimeter fence, hours before the mass rally.
The army said about 200 Palestinians "rioted during the night along the fence" and that the army used riot dispersal means against them.
The marches near were initially organized by grassroots activists who were calling for a mass return to ancestral homes in what is now Israel.
Hamas quickly took the lead in the protests, using the gatherings to call for an easing of the blockade.
The border marches routinely ended in confrontations, with some of the Palestinian demonstrators burning tires, hurling fire bombs or setting off explosives and Israeli troops firing live rounds and tear gas.
According to a Gaza rights group and a count by The Associated Press, 196 Palestinians were killed in the demonstrations over the past year, including 41 minors, and thousands were wounded by live fire. An Israeli soldier was also killed in the context of the marches.
Israel says the army has been defending the border. The army accuses Hamas of using the large crowds as cover and encouraging demonstrators to hurl explosives, incendiary balloons and grenades across the border. But Israel has come under heavy international criticism for the large number of unarmed people who have been harmed.
Egypt has repeatedly tried to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, stepping up efforts in recent days after a Gaza rocket struck a house in central Israel earlier this week, injuring seven Israelis and threatening renewed escalation.
Slovakia, Mar 31 (AP/UNB) — An liberal environmental activist has been elected as the first female president of Slovakia.
Relative newcomer Zuzana Caputova had 58 percent of the vote with almost 95 percent of returns counted in Saturday's runoff election, topping European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, who had 42 percent.
Sefcovic conceded defeat and congratulated his rival.
"I'm extremely happy about the result," Caputova said. "It's an extremely strong mandate for me," she said.
"Zuzana, Zuzana," her supporters chanted.
Caputova, 45, has little experience in politics and attracted voters who are appalled by corruption and mainstream politics.
She only recently became vice chairman of the Progressive Slovakia, a party so new it has not had a chance to run in parliamentary elections. Caputova resigned from her party post after winning the first round of the presidential vote two weeks ago.
She becomes Slovakia's fifth president since the country gained independence after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
The president of the nation of 5.4 million people has the power to pick the prime minister, appoint Constitutional Court judges and veto laws. Parliament can override the veto with a simple majority, however. The government, led by the prime minister, possesses most executive powers.
A lawyer by profession, Caputova is a rising star of Slovak politics. She became known for leading a successful fight against a toxic waste dump in her hometown of Pezinok, for which she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016.
A divorced mother of two, she is in favor of gay rights and opposes a ban on abortion in this conservative Roman Catholic country.
She was also part of a campaign in 2017 that led to the annulment of pardons granted by former authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar.
Sefcovic, 52, is a career diplomat who was supported by the leftist Smer-Social Democracy party led by former populist Prime Minister Robert Fico, a major force in Slovak politics that was tarnished by corruption scandals. He campaigned on a traditional family values ticket.
Popular incumbent Andrej Kiska, who did not stand for a second term, backed Caputova in the vote.
The two had supported the massive anti-government street protests last year triggered by the slayings of an investigative reporter and his fiancee that that led to the fall of Fico's coalition government. Investigators have linked Jan Kuciak's death to his work probing possible widespread government corruption.
Fico's party has already suffered losses in local elections in November — the first votes since the largest demonstrations in the country since the anti-Communist Velvet Revolution of 1989.
Palm Beach, Mar 31(AP/UNB) — Taking drastic action over illegal immigration, President Donald Trump moved Saturday to cut direct aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, whose citizens are fleeing north and overwhelming U.S. resources at the southern border.
The State Department notified Congress that it would look to suspend 2017 and 2018 payments to the trio of nations, which have been home to some of the migrant caravans that have marched through Mexico to the U.S. border.
Amplified by conservative media, Trump has turned the caravans into the symbol of what he says are the dangers of illegal immigration — a central theme of his midterm campaigning last fall. With the special counsel's Russia probe seemingly behind him, Trump has revived his warnings of the caravans' presence.
Trump also has returned to a previous threat he never carried out — closing the border with Mexico. He brought up that possibility on Friday and revisited it in tweets Saturday, blaming Democrats and Mexico for problems at the border and beyond despite warnings that a closed border could create economic havoc on both sides.
"It would be so easy to fix our weak and very stupid Democrat inspired immigration laws," Trump tweeted Saturday. "In less than one hour, and then a vote, the problem would be solved. But the Dems don't care about the crime, they don't want any victory for Trump and the Republicans, even if good for USA!'
As far as Mexico's role, he tweeted: "Mexico must use its very strong immigration laws to stop the many thousands of people trying to get into the USA. Our detention areas are maxed out & we will take no more illegals. Next step is to close the Border! This will also help us with stopping the Drug flow from Mexico!"
When reporters asked Trump on Friday what closing the border could entail, he said "it could mean all trade" with Mexico and added, "We will close it for a long time."
Trump has been promising for more than two years to build a long, impenetrable wall along the border to stop illegal immigration, though Congress has been reluctant to provide the money he needs. In the meantime, he has repeatedly threatened to close the border, but this time, with a new group of migrants heading north , he gave a definite timetable and suggested a visit to the border within the next two weeks.
A substantial closure could have an especially heavy impact on cross-border communities from San Diego to South Texas, as well as supermarkets that sell Mexican produce, factories that rely on imported parts, and other businesses across the U.S.
The U.S. and Mexico trade about $1.7 billion in goods daily, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which said closing the border would be "an unmitigated economic debacle" that would threaten 5 million American jobs.
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke out Saturday against cutting off aid to Central America, declaring that "foreign assistance is not charity; it advances our strategic interests and funds initiatives that protect American citizens."
And a group of House Democrats visiting El Salvador denounced the administration's decision to cut aid to the region.
"As we visit El Salvador evaluating the importance of U.S. assistance to Central America to address the root causes of family and child migration, we are extremely disappointed to learn that President Trump intends to cut off aid to the region," said the statement from five lawmakers, including Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The President's approach is entirely counterproductive."
The Trump administration has threatened before to scale back or cut off U.S. assistance to Central America. Congress has not approved most of those proposed cuts, however, and a report this year by the Congressional Research Service said any change in that funding would depend on what Congress does.
Short of a widespread border shutdown, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said the U.S. might close designated ports of entry to re-deploy staff to help process parents and children. Ports of entry are official crossing points that are used by residents and commercial vehicles. Many people who cross the border illegally ultimately request asylum under U.S. law, which does not require asylum seekers to enter at an official crossing.
Border officials are also planning to more than quadruple the number of asylum seekers sent back over the border to wait out their immigration cases, said an administration official. The official said right now about 60 migrants per day are returned and officials are hoping to send as many as 300 per day. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about internal plans and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Friday his country was doing its part to fight migrant smuggling. Criminal networks charge thousands of dollars a person to move migrants through Mexico, increasingly in large groups toward remote sections of the border.
"We want to have a good relationship with the government of the United States," Lopez Obrador said. He added: "We are going to continue helping so that the migratory flow, those who pass through our country, do so according to the law, in an orderly way."
Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico's foreign relations secretary, tweeted that his country "doesn't act based on threats" and is "the best neighbor" the U.S. could have.
Alejandra Mier y Teran, executive director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce in San Diego, said the mere threat of border closures sends the wrong message to businesses in Mexico and may eventually scare companies into turning to Asia for their supply chains.
"I think the impact would be absolutely devastating on so many fronts," said Mier y Teran, whose members rely on the Otay Mesa crossing to bring televisions, medical devices and a wide range of products to the U.S. "In terms of a long-term effect, it's basically shooting yourself in your foot. It's sending out a message to other countries that, 'Don't come because our borders may not work at any time.' That is extremely scary and dangerous."