Bangkok, Mar 24 (AP/UNB) — Nearly five years after a coup, Thailand voted Sunday in a long-delayed election setting a military-backed party against the populist political force the generals overthrew.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the blunt-speaking army chief who led the 2014 coup, is hoping to extend his hold on power after engineering a new political system that aims to stifle the influence of big political parties not aligned with the military.
Voting stations closed at 5 p.m. and meaningful results were expected within several hours, but the formation of a new government could take weeks of haggling.
About 51 million Thais were eligible to vote. Leaders of political parties opposed to military rule urged a high turnout as the only way to derail Prayuth's plans.
Prayuth was among the first to vote in Bangkok, the capital, arriving in a black Mercedes after polling booths opened at 8 a.m.
"I hope everyone helps each other by going to vote today as it's everyone's right," he told reporters after voting. He played golf later in the morning before heading to an army base to await results.
The election is the latest chapter in a nearly two-decade struggle between conservative forces including the military and the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a tycoon who upended tradition-bound Thailand's politics with a populist political revolution.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 military coup and now lives in exile abroad to avoid a prison term, but parties allied with him have won every election since 2001. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who led the government that was ousted in 2014, also fled the country after what supporters said was a politically motivated corruption prosecution.
After the coup, political party gatherings were banned and pro-democracy activists and other dissenters were regularly arrested, interrogated and imprisoned. Just days before Sunday's election, the Thaksin-allied Pheu Thai party said the houses of party officials and its campaign canvassers in some provinces were searched by military personnel in an act of intimidation.
The party's leader, Sudarat Keyuraphan, said after voting in Bangkok's Ladprao district that she was confident of winning.
"I don't say it'll be a landslide. I don't know. Depends on the people. But I think we can win this election," she said.
Thailand's powerful King Maha Vajiralongkorn issued a statement on the eve of the election that said the role of leaders is to stop "bad people" from gaining power and causing chaos. It was also broadcast on Thai television stations minutes before voting started.
Invoking a speech by his father, the previous Thai king who died in 2016 after reigning for seven decades, Vajiralongkorn said not all citizens can be transformed into good people so leaders must be given support in ruling to create a peaceful nation.
He urged government officials, soldiers and civil servants to look after national security.
It was the monarch's second notable intervention in politics recently. Last month, he demanded his sister Princess Ubolratana Mahidol withdraw as a prime ministerial candidate for a small Thaksin-allied party within 24 hours of her announcement.
First-time voter Napasapan Wongchotipan said she hopes for positive changes after the election.
"I have no idea what the results will be like," she said. "But I do wish that the party that we will get, the party that wins the votes, will come in and improve our country."
Thais were voting for a 500-seat parliament that along with a 250-member junta-appointed Senate will decide the country's next prime minister. That setup means a military-backed figure such as Prayuth could become leader even while lacking a majority in parliament.
"The biggest challenge of this election is whether it will mark the beginning of a transitional democracy in Thailand. I hope to see that, but it seems to be a very dimmed hope," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"It might end up with the election being used as a façade for a new authoritarian ruler or we might end up with another round of conflicts and polarization," she said.
Political parties and their main leaders held their final major rallies on Friday evening in Bangkok.
Sudarat said Pheu Thai would fight to overcome constitutional hurdles erected against it by Prayuth's regime.
"In 2014, they took power with the barrel of a gun, by a coup," she said. "In 2019, they are trying to take away the people's power again through crooked regulations under the constitution."
When it seized power in 2014, the military said it was to end political unrest that had periodically turned violent and disrupted daily life and the economy. The claim has been one of the few selling points for the gruff Prayuth, who according to critics has overseen a period of growing inequality and economic hardship in Thailand.
"I want things to improve," Narate Wongthong said after voting. "We had too many conflicts in the past and I want to see lots of people come out and vote."
Mali, Mar 24 (AP/UNB) — Militia fighters descended on a village in central Mali before dawn Saturday, killing at least 115 people in the latest deadly attack blamed on an ethnic militia, local authorities said.
The massacre in the village of Ogossogou left the village chief and his grandchildren dead in the ethnic Peulh community, according to a local official who had received detailed accounts from the remote area.
The victims "included pregnant women, young children and the elderly," according to Abdoul Aziz Diallo, president of a Peulh group known as Tabital Pulaaku.
It was not immediately possible to independently corroborate the toll given by those in contact with survivors from the Peulh village. The U.N. mission in Mali confirmed reports of an attack but gave no figures.
Militants from a Dogon group known as Dan Na Ambassagou have been blamed for scores of attacks over the past year, according to Human Rights Watch. The umbrella group comprises a number of self-defense groups from the Dogon villages among others.
The growing prominence of Islamic extremists in central Mali since 2015 has unraveled relations between the Dogon and Peulh communities.
Members of the Dogon group accuse the Peulhs of supporting these jihadists linked to terror groups in the country's north and beyond. Peulhs have in turn accused the Dogon of supporting the Malian army in its effort to stamp out extremism.
In December, Human Rights Watch had warned that "militia killings of civilians in central and northern Mali are spiraling out of control." The group said that Dan Na Ambassagou and its leader had been linked to many of the atrocities and called for Malian authorities to prosecute the perpetrators.
Mali's Dogon country with its dramatic cliff landscapes and world renowned traditional art once drew tourists from Europe and beyond who hiked through the region's villages with local guides. The region, though, has been destabilized in recent years along with much of central Mali.
New Zealand, Mar 24 (AP/UNB) — Thousands of people have gathered in the New Zealand city of Christchurch to listen to prayers, songs and speeches at a vigil to remember the 50 people killed in a terrorist attack on two mosques.
One of those watching from a wheelchair was 21-year-old Mustafa Boztas, who was shot in the leg and liver during the March 15 attack at the Al Noor mosque.
Boztas says it was beautiful to see what the community had put together to show they care and that "we are all one."
Officials estimate up to 40,000 people attended the event on a sunny Sunday evening at Hagley Park. It was held on a stage that had been set up for a concert by Canadian singer Bryan Adams that was cancelled after the attacks.
Paris, Mar 24 (AP/UNB) — Scattered yellow vest protesters clashed with French police firing tear gas Saturday after a peaceful march through Paris, but tougher security measures and protest bans in high-risk neighborhoods prevented the kind of rioting that devastated the capital a week ago.
The 4-month-old movement drew bigger crowds Saturday than in recent weeks, despite heavy security and even though last weekend's violence dented overall support for the cause. The protesters want more help for struggling French workers and retirees and say President Emmanuel Macron favors the elite.
Thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully through Paris - their 19th straight weekend of protests - ending up at the Sacre-Coeur Cathedral overlooking the city from the historic Montmartre neighborhood.
Protesters sprayed yellow flares and unfurled a neon banner from atop the cathedral's white dome. In a relaxed mood, demonstrators and tourists alike took selfies as the march wound down.
Later, however, tensions erupted as small clusters of masked protesters set garbage cans on fire and threw projectiles as they moved toward Republique Plaza in eastern Paris. Helmeted riot police fired volleys of tear gas in response.
A police officer on the plaza suffered a heart problem, slumping to the ground before being hospitalized in what Paris police described as a "very serious" condition. Associated Press journalists at the scene saw no violence or incidents nearby when he collapsed.
At least 2,000 people have been injured in protest violence since the yellow vest movement began in November, and 11 people have been killed in protest-related road accidents.
Elsewhere in France on Saturday, small groups of demonstrators and police clashed in the southern French cities of Nice and Montpellier. Nice was placed under high security measures as Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to stay overnight on Sunday as part of his state visit to France.
Overall though, Saturday's protests were calmer than a week ago, when resurgent violence reminded France's government that they've failed to quell yellow vest anger. Luxury shops were looted and ransacked last weekend around the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris and some were set on fire by protesters.
This week, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner estimated that 40,500 people took part in protests around France, up from 32,300 a week ago. This week's protests were more spread out, with just 5,000 estimated in Paris compared to 10,000 last Saturday.
Some 233 people were arrested, including people trying to come to Paris to protest with baseball bats, slingshots and other potential weapons, Castaner said.
French authorities banned protests from the Champs-Elysees Avenue in Paris and the central neighborhoods of several other cities including Bordeaux, Toulouse, Marseille and Nice in the south, and Rouen in western France.
The Champs-Elysees was almost empty Saturday except for a huge police presence. Fear of more violence certainly kept tourists away, and police shut down the Champs-Elysees subway stations as a precaution.
The new Paris police chief, Didier Lallement, who took charge this week following the destruction wrought by last week's protests, said specific police units were created to react faster to any violence.
About 6,000 police officers were deployed in the capital Saturday and two drones helped monitor the demonstrations. French authorities also deployed soldiers to protect sensitive sites, allowing police to focus on maintaining order.
That decision prompted criticism from opposition leaders and some protesters.
"Since when do soldiers face a population? We are here in France. You would say that we are here in (North) Korea or in China. I never saw something like this," said Christelle Camus, a protester from a southern suburb of Paris.
Polls suggest last week's violence dampened public support for the yellow vests - but that a majority of French people still agree with the protesters' anger over France's tax system and Macron's leadership.
Saturday's marchers held signs demanding more say for citizens in public policy.
"We come to protest in a calm manner. We have the right to express ourselves, to say that we want to live (decently)," said Celine Dutry, who came to Paris to protest from the northern city of Amiens - Macron's hometown. "We are not jealous of the rich."
The protests started in November to oppose fuel tax hikes but have expanded into a broader rejection of Macron's economic policies, which protesters say favor businesses and the wealthy over ordinary French workers. Macron countered by dropping the fuel tax hike and holding months of discussions with the public on France's stagnant wages, high taxes and high unemployment.
The yellow vest movement was named after the fluorescent garments that French motorists must carry in their vehicles for emergencies.
Albuquerque, Mar 24 (AP/UNB) — It wasn't long after the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan and World War II ended that the United States began to realize it had to do something with the waste that was being generated by defense-related nuclear research and bomb-making that would continue through the Cold War — and indefinitely.
Tainted with plutonium and other elements, the waste — gloves, clothing, tools and other materials — couldn't be left just anywhere, so it was decided that a repository would be dug deep into the desert in southeastern New Mexico.
What is the waste isolation pilot plant?
WIPP is the United States' only permanent underground repository licensed to take what is known as transuranic waste, or waste generated by the nation's nuclear weapons program that's contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium. There are a few other commercial facilities in the U.S. that accept low-level waste, but none involves hoisting the waste to such depths.
Carved out of an ancient salt formation about half a mile (0.8 kilometers) deep, the subterranean landfill is located outside of Carlsbad, New Mexico, a once sparsely populated area that is now home to a major oil and gas boom.
Following years of research, Congress initially mandated the construction of the repository as a research and development project. It's far beyond the experimental stage after 20 years of operation and more than 12,380 shipments.
Packaged in drums, special boxes and other containers, the waste is placed inside a series of rooms that have been excavated out of the salt layer. Some waste has to be handled remotely and is placed in holes bored into the walls. When the rooms are full, they are sealed off.
Why new mexico?
In the 1950s, some of the world's top scientific minds began to weigh the options for what to do with this waste. They concluded deep geologic repositories would be the best way to deal with materials that would take a very long time to decay.
Initial efforts focused on an abandoned salt mine in central Kansas. Technical issues prompted a search for a more suitable site. The focus turned to New Mexico, where evaporation of the ancient Permian Sea eons ago had left behind a thick bed of salt.
Scientists say the benefit of salt is it's nearly impermeable. And since the layer in southeastern New Mexico is so old and expansive, they consider it more stable.
Is wipp safe?
Government officials and nuclear experts say yes. Watchdog groups that monitor the federal government's nuclear weapons programs have other opinions and often cite safety lapses and instances over the decades in which radioactive materials have been mishandled.
Their best evidence is a 2014 radiation release that forced the closure of the repository for nearly three years and led to sweeping policy changes. The release was the result of waste being inappropriately packaged at Los Alamos National Laboratory — the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
Scientists, though, say disposing of the waste in the salt bed will keep it isolated from groundwater sources and the surface. The idea is the salt naturally creeps, healing its own fractures and filling in voids, so the waste will eventually be entombed.
Critics say the creeping of the salt isn't always a gentle process, as the repository has documented numerous instances in which chunks of the ceiling have fallen in areas that haven't been maintained.
Where does the waste come from?
More than a dozen national laboratories and government sites across the country package up waste and ship it to WIPP.
The first shipment — two boxes from Los Alamos — arrived with much fanfare in the pre-dawn hours of March 26, 1999. Residents lined the streets in Carlsbad and waved flags as the truck rolled through. At the repository, hundreds of employees waited at the main gate for a moment some thought would never come.
Idaho National Laboratory has sent more than 6,200 shipments to WIPP, followed by the Rocky Flats site outside of Denver. Waste also has come from the Hanford Site in Washington state and the Savannah River complex in South Carolina.
Officials say more than 14 million miles (22.5 million kilometers) have been traveled by the transport trucks, with only some minor fender-benders.
What's being done to modernize wipp?
Managers and workers at WIPP say they're still dealing with the effects of the 2014 release. Due to contamination of some of the underground disposal areas, workers have to wear protective suits and respirators. Adequate ventilation also is an issue.
The price tag for installing a new ventilation system, sinking new shafts and making other improvements totals more than $500 million.
Managers say the work is necessary and no different than someone sprucing up a 30-year-old home. Some of the earliest underground passages constructed at WIPP date back to 1983.
Officials are also looking at replacing some of the equipment used for mining the salt and moving the waste. Options include more efficient diesel engines or electric-powered vehicles.