Ramallah, Apr 14 (AP/UNB) — A new government for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority was sworn in Saturday, led by a veteran peace negotiator and harsh critic of Gaza's Hamas rulers.
President Mahmoud Abbas picked Mohammed Ishtayeh as prime minister, a move that deepens the internal Palestinian divide at a time when prospects for a peace deal with Israel are possibly at their lowest point ever.
A longtime adviser to Abbas and a senior member of his Fatah party, Ishtayeh and his 24-member cabinet took the oath of office at Abbas' headquarters in Ramallah.
Ishtayeh faces tremendous challenges, with the PA in a deep financial crisis following U.S. sanctions and Israel's withholding of $138 million in key tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Israel says the slashed sums were designated for families of Palestinian who carried out attacks against Israel.
The new cabinet replaces a technocratic government formed by Rami Hamdallah in 2014 after an agreement between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has run the Gaza Strip after ousting Fatah and evicting the PA in 2007. Despite enormous Egyptian efforts, the attempted unity government failed to reconcile the two groups.
Abbas' firing of Hamdallah and assigning Ishtayeh, a British-educated economist, to lead the next government reflects his frustration over the narrowing chances of an inter-Palestinian unity accord.
As peace talks with Israel ran aground years ago and the Trump administration will likely put forward a peace plan that the Palestinians say favors Israel, Abbas badly needed to garner power at home and extend his control back to Gaza, which Hamas governs separately.
But Hamas accused Abbas of acting unilaterally, saying in a statement Saturday that swearing in a "separatist" government "boosts the division between Gaza and the West Bank as a practical step to implement the 'deal of the century,'" the name the Palestinians use to refer to the undisclosed U.S. peace plan.
In a meeting with the new cabinet, Abbas, 83, called on them to continue "to fight the (Israeli) occupation with all legal means," referring to U.N. organizations, as well as through "peaceful popular resistance." He said Israel should bear the "consequences" if it did not withdraw from territories it occupied since the 1967 Mideast war.
Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. Middle East envoy, said he hoped the new government would receive support "to overcome internal divisions."
Last year, the Trump administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, triggering the Palestinian Authority to sever its ties with Washington.
The Palestinian leadership fears that Israel would retain major Jewish settlements in the West Bank and that the seat of the future Palestinian state would be in Gaza instead.
Ishtayeh's government, which controls those parts of the West Bank on which the PA has autonomy, doesn't feature significant changes from its predecessor. Five members, including those of foreign affairs, finance and the two premier deputies, retained their posts. Ishtayeh holds the interior and religious portfolios.
The Palestinian government runs day-to-day affairs while Abbas and the PLO's Central Committee, which he also heads, manage the political decision-making.
Ishtayeh, 61, holds a PhD in economic from University of Sussex and had been a minister in previous governments. He was also a member of the Palestinian negotiating team.
Pakistan, Apr 12 (AP/UNB) — A powerful bomb went off at an open-air market in the southwestern city of Quetta on Friday, killing at least 16 people and wounding several others, police and hospital officials said.
The bombing took place near a residential area where minority Shiite Muslims live, according to senior police chief Abdur Razzaq Cheema.
He said authorities transported the dead and wounded to hospitals, where some of the victims were listed in critical condition.
"Emergency has been declared at hospitals and it seems people from the Hazara community were the target," he said.
He said at least eight Shiites were among the dead. One paramilitary soldier and seven other people were also killed in the bombing, he said. TV footage showed several damaged shops and at least one vehicle of paramilitary security forces.
No group has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but outlawed Sunni extremist groups have claimed similar attacks in the past. Sunni extremists view Shiites as apostates deserving of death.
Jam Kamal Khan, the chief minister of Baluchistan province, condemned the bombing, saying "the enemy of humanity is behind this act of terrorism." He said he ordered authorities to provide best possible treatment to those wounded.
Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan, which also is the scene of a low-level insurgency by separatists demanding more autonomy and a greater share in the region's natural resources such as gas and oil.
New Delhi, Apr 11 (AP/UNB) — Polls opened Thursday in the first phase of India's general elections, seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.
A festive spirit prevailed as men and women in colorful clothes made their way to heavily guarded voting stations in large numbers.
In the world's largest democratic exercise, voters in 18 Indian states and two Union Territories are casting ballots on Thursday, the first day of a seven-phase election staggered over six weeks in the country of 1.3 billion people.
Modi supporters say the tea seller's son from Gujarat state has improved the nation's standing. But critics say his party's Hindu nationalism has aggravated religious tensions in India.
"I vote for the progress of my country," said businessman Manish Kumar. "And in our country, we want a prime minister like Narendra Modi," he said after casting his ballot in Ghaziabad district in Uttar Pradesh state.
Tapan Shome, an accountant, said he and his wife voted "to make India a good, prosperous country."
Thursday's voting is important for the BJP as it had won only 32 of 91 seats in the previous 2014 elections. It is seeking to improve its tally this time.
Modi came to power in 2014 and the party invoked its Hindu nationalist roots before the elections, with Modi at the forefront against the threat of Pakistan, India's Muslim-majority archrival. Hindus comprise about 80% of India's 1.3 billion people.
Even though India continues to be one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, the Modi-led government's performance on the economy has come under criticism.
The first item in the opposition Congress party's election manifesto describes a plan for creating jobs. It also promises an income subsidy program for the poorest families and for farmers.
Voting also began for two parliamentary seats in the Indian-controlled portion of disputed Kashmir amid tight security and a boycott call by Muslim separatists who say the polls are an illegitimate exercise. Armed police and paramilitary soldiers in riot gears guarded polling stations and nearby roads.
Shops, businesses and most schools were closed on Thursday in response to a strike called by separatist leaders who challenge India's sovereignty over Kashmir and seek right to self-determination for the entire territory as demanded by United Nations resolutions.
In the northern Baramulla area, many people said they came out to vote only against Modi's BJP, calling it an "anti-Muslim" and "anti-Kashmiri" party. They opposed the BJP's election manifesto, which promised to scrap decades-old special rights for the Kashmiris under India's Constitution. The special status prevents outsiders from buying property in the territory.
"I didn't want to vote but then there's an imminent threat by politicians like Modi who are up in arms against Kashmiris," said Abdul Qayoom, a voter in Baramulla town. "They've taken our rights, now they want to dispossess us from our land. We want to stop people like Modi."
The voting follows a sweeping crackdown with police arresting hundreds of Kashmiri leaders and activists. Authorities also banned the movement of civilian vehicles on a key highway to keep it open exclusively for military and paramilitary convoys two days a week during India's general election.
Some 900 million people are eligible to cast ballots at around a million polling stations across India. They will decide 543 seats in India's lower house of Parliament. Voting concludes on May 19 and counting is scheduled for May 23.
Bangkok, Apr 11 (AP/UNB) — A fire at one of Bangkok's biggest mall complexes spread smoke over the city's central commercial district, caused a large evacuation during the Wednesday evening rush and killed at least two people. Officials said 20 others were hurt.
The extent of the fire was small and flames were quickly extinguished, but it forced hundreds of people to evacuate the shopping mall in the CentralWorld complex, which includes a hotel, a convention center and an office tower. Firefighters with masks and oxygen tanks entered the building afterward to clear smoke from several floors.
Smoke was seen still coming from the building several hours later, but the skyline was clear after daybreak Thursday.
Bangkok Gov. Assawin Kwanmuang initially told reporters that three people died, one at the scene and two at a hospital. He later said that two people were confirmed dead, but did not explain the discrepancy. The city's Erawan Emergency Radio network said around midnight that 20 people had been injured.
The company that operates CentralWorld said in a statement that the two people who died were company employees.
Assawin said the fire was believed to have started in a document storage room in one of the buildings that is part of the complex.
Video posted on social media soon after the fire began showed a person jumping from one of the complex's buildings. Thai media reported that at least one of the people who died had jumped from a building.
Images showed large flames raging out of what appeared to be a rear portion of the complex.
Other video showed hundreds of evacuated shoppers filling a large open square next to the mall. Ambulances and other vehicles with their emergency lights on and trucks filled with firefighters could be seen.
In another video, a woman is seen directing shoppers out of the mall during the evacuation.
"I was in the mail and there was a burning smell and smoke started to come out," said Suthep Damgjiam, who was with a friend. "A fire alarm started to ring and there were announcements on the PA system telling people to evacuate. We came out. There was a lot of smoke, but we didn't see the fire itself."
CentralWorld posted on social media that the fire started around 5:40 p.m., it immediately began evacuating the building and that firefighters brought the blaze under control within half an hour.
The fire broke out during Bangkok's evening rush. Sirens wailed as emergency vehicles tried to move through the congested city's gridlocked traffic.
CentralWorld sits at a major intersection surrounded by shopping complexes, shrines and high-rise hotels popular with foreign tourists. It's near the main junction for Bangkok's elevated train lines, as well as the Erawan Shrine, which was the site of a deadly bombing in 2015.
The mall typically would have been busy with shoppers as well as diners headed to the many restaurants inside.
CentralWorld was among several Bangkok buildings set on fire by arsonists during mass anti-government protests in 2010 and it was closed for months for rebuilding.
The mall is part of one of Thailand's best-known chains of shopping centers controlled by the Central Pattana property development company, which operates retail complexes across Thailand. It is a division of the family-owned Central Group holding company.
New Delhi, Apr 10 (AP/UNB) — New Delhi shop owner Ram Shankar Rai spends at least two hours a day going through political news and videos shared with him on social media.
Rai looked intently at a flurry of videos and photos on WhatsApp about an Indian airstrike in Pakistan, including pictures labeled as militants' corpses.
There was just one problem: The photos were not of militants but of casualties of a 2005 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Pakistan.
But the 50-year-old didn't see anything amiss. "It's news," he said. "How can it be fake?"
Before the world's largest democracy starts voting Thursday in a phased election carried out over six weeks, this attitude is posing a problem for election officials seeking to combat the spread of fake news among a population that experts say has proven highly susceptible to believing it.
Despite efforts by India's Election Commission to work with social media giants, urging them to tackle the spread of misinformation, at least one former top election official is warning that fake news could end up being the deciding factor in some constituencies with extremely tight races.
The election is already taking place in a charged atmosphere as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party seeks a second term by pushing policies that some say have increased religious tensions and undermined multiculturalism.
The opposition Congress party, which is also spending sizable sums of money on social media ads, is trying to revive its past glory and turn around a declining voter base.
Tackling fake news is a huge challenge in India, a nation with 1.14 billion cellphone connections, the most Facebook users in the world at 300 million, and another 240 million users of the messaging service WhatsApp. In such an environment, fake news can spread faster than regulators can act.
Watchdogs say in the run-up to the vote they've seen everything from manipulated pictures being picked up by mainstream news media, to misrepresented quotes sparking communal division, false news and hateful propaganda. And it looks like people are buying it.
Indian internet users, many of whom are relatively new to the web, may lack the awareness of knowing that "just because it's on a screen does not mean it's true," said Apar Gupta, who runs an advocacy group called the Internet Freedom Foundation.
India's problem with fake news isn't new, though, and it has already proven to have deadly consequences. In late 2018, at least 20 people were killed in mob attacks that were triggered by rumors on social media of strangers abducting children from villages.
Efforts by social media giants to combat fake news in the country were intensified after executives were called in by the Election Commission earlier this year and told to curb the spread of manipulative political information and adhere to the country's laws on election campaigning.
Social media companies followed that with a "Voluntary Code of Ethics" for the elections that they submitted to the government. It's essentially a best practices agreement that they will try to abide by the Election Commission's suggestions and rules, including prohibiting campaign advertisements for at least 48 hours before polling begins.
But at least two former Election Commission bosses said they don't believe enough is being done.
"The potential of mischief for subversion of the process of elections represented by social media is immense," said N. Gopalaswami, who was India's chief election commissioner from 2006 to 2009.
He said he was concerned fake news could play a huge role in very tight races.
Gupta said the Election Commission should have enforced accountability for political parties and social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, with penalties for violations.
"India has clearly not done enough," he said, adding that some of the responsibility lies with the social media platforms.
"The internet has grown up and is having to leave its parents' home and find a job," he said, suggesting that platforms should tune their search engine algorithms to weigh the credibility of sources more heavily than ads and viral content.
Digital platforms have been scrambling to devise strategies to tackle the spread of false information ahead of the election.
Facebook announced a variety of measures last month, from blocking fake accounts to employing third-party fact-checking organizations for the elections.
WhatsApp has introduced a fact-checking helpline, encouraging users to flag messages for verification. It also started re-circulating an old advertising video urging people to "share joy, not rumors." The video was first launched after the 2018 mob attacks.
But with new pages and accounts being created daily to push political content, it's a hefty task.
"It is an adversarial space," said Kaushik Iyer, a Facebook engineering manager who works on election integrity and safety.
"What that means is that we will always see adaptation. We will always see new threats emerge," he told The Associated Press in an interview at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
He said Facebook was getting better at tracking down the misrepresented and manipulated videos and audio that form a big chunk of fake content on their platform in India.
And for all its negatives, social media can also play a positive role in an election, especially for young voters who say it has enabled them to better understand candidates and engage with them.
"Rather than campaign rallies where we are just passive observers, social media is a better representation of our opinions," said Sarthak Singh Dalal, a history student at Delhi University.
Rai, the shop owner, said he has started to take a closer look at the social media content forwarded to him, trying to identify biases hidden in what he had just considered news.
"Obviously, we have to use a bit of sense," he said.
Associated Press writer Haven Daley in Menlo Park, California, contributed to this report.