Jerusalem, Apr 18 (AP/UNB) — Israel's president on Wednesday formally nominated Benjamin Netanyahu for a fourth consecutive term as prime minister, officially launching a process that is expected to result in a new government dominated by religious and nationalist parties in the coming weeks.
In one of the president's few non-ceremonial roles, President Reuven Rivlin tasked Netanyahu with assembling a governing coalition within 42 days.
The move was widely expected after Netanyahu's Likud party and its right-wing allies captured a majority of seats in parliamentary elections last week.
In a joint appearance after the two leaders signed and presented the official nomination, Rivlin called on Netanyahu to "heal the wounds and rifts" laid bare in Israeli society by the bruising election campaign.
Netanyahu said he was "moved" to accept his fifth nomination as prime minister "as though it's the first time, and in a certain way, even more than the first time."
He said he would "do everything to earn the trust that the citizens of Israel have bestowed on me."
In a post-election ritual, Rivlin hosted consultations with party leaders this week to hear their recommendations for who should serve as the next prime minister.
Netanyahu's nationalist and religious allies all lobbied for Netanyahu to continue as prime minister. The last one to hold out, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the hawkish Yisrael Beitenu party, formally confirmed his support for Netanyahu late Monday.
Netanyahu's right-wing bloc — made up of Kulanu, the Union of Right Wing Parties, Yisrael Beitenu and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism — now commands a 65-55 majority in the 120-seat parliament.
In the coming weeks, Netanyahu will have to negotiate coalition deals with his partners, who will jockey for powerful Cabinet posts with large and influential budgets.
If Netanyahu fails to form a coalition within 42 days, Benny Gantz, leader of the rival centrist Blue and White party, would be given a shot at assembling a government.
But that doesn't appear to be in the cards. "We will establish a right-wing government as soon as possible, likely within a month," said Yonatan Ulrich, a spokesman for the prime minister.
In a matter of months, Netanyahu will officially become Israel's longest-serving prime minister, surpassing David Ben-Gurion, the country's founding father.
Paris, Apr 18 (AP/UNB) — Bells of cathedrals across France rang in a moving tribute Wednesday to Notre Dame as firefighters and experts continued to keep the beloved but weakened landmark under close surveillance.
From Sacre Coeur in Paris to the cities of Strasbourg in the east and Rouen in the west, the architectural treasures of France solemnly marked the inferno, two days after it ravaged the gothic cathedral, widely regarded as the soul of France.
"I just arrived for the first ring of the bells and immediately there was an emotion. Incredible, indescribable, I just can't explain it," said Nadia Pascassio-Comte, in Strasbourg. "It was beautiful and sad at the same time. I had tears in my eyes at one point, and I think that this solidarity is magical, it really unites a lot of people."
At Saint Sulpice church, the second-largest house of worship in Paris, French first lady Brigitte Macron attended a special service for the annual blessing of the oils during Holy Week, ahead of Easter Sunday.
Meanwhile, restoration specialists questioned President Emmanuel Macron's ambitious five-year reconstruction timeline for Notre Dame, with some suggesting it could take more than three times that amount of time to rebuild the 850-year-old architectural treasure.
Even Prime Minister Edouard Philippe acknowledged Wednesday that it would be difficult.
"This is obviously an immense challenge, a historic responsibility," Philippe said after a Cabinet meeting focused on the restoration.
Prominent French conservation architect Pierluigi Pericolo told Inrocks magazine the restoration work could take "no less than 15 years. ... It's a colossal task."
Pericolo, who worked on the restoration of the 19th-century St.-Donatien Basilica, which was badly damaged in a 2015 blaze in the French city of Nantes, said it could take two to five years just to check the stability of Notre Dame, which dominates the Paris skyline.
"It's a fundamental step, and very complex, because it's difficult to send workers into a monument whose vaulted ceilings are swollen with water," Pericolo told France-Info. "The end of the fire doesn't mean the edifice is totally saved. The stone can deteriorate when it is exposed to high temperatures and change its mineral composition and fracture inside."
Macron received some support for his lofty five-year restoration goal from his presidential cultural heritage envoy, Stephane Bern, who said it was realistic to reopen Notre Dame to the public in time for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024. However, he did not indicate whether the reconstruction work would be completed by then.
Speaking after a meeting at the presidential palace about the monument's reconstruction, Bern said Macron didn't express his views regarding the rebuilding of the cathedral's lead roof, or whether the frame should be restored in wood like the destroyed one, or in metal or concrete. He also said France would hold an international architecture competition to determine whether the collapsed 19th-century spire would be rebuilt to the same design or a new one.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame's rector said he would close the cathedral for up to "five to six years," acknowledging that a segment of the structure may be gravely weakened.
According to a French government official, the building would have burned to the ground in a "chain-reaction collapse" had firefighters not moved as rapidly as they did to battle the blaze racing through the building.
The firefighters acted aggressively to protect wooden supports in the twin medieval bell towers from the flames, averting a bigger catastrophe, said José Vaz de Matos, a fire expert with France's Culture Ministry.
"If the fire reached this wooden structure, the bell tower would have been lost," de Matos said at a news conference. "From the moment we lose the war of the bell towers, we lose the cathedral, because it's a chain-reaction collapse."
An initial fire alert was sounded at 6:20 p.m., as a Mass was underway in the cathedral, but no fire was found. A second alarm went off at 6:43 p.m., and the blaze was discovered on the roof. No one was killed in the fire, after firefighters and church officials speedily evacuated those inside.
Firefighters acted as fast as they could to save the cathedral, said senior fire official Philippe Demay, denying that there was any delay in their response.
Despite extensive damage, many of the cathedral's treasures were saved, including Notre Dame's famous rose windows, although they are not out of danger.
Jean-Marc Fournier, chaplain of the Paris fire brigade, told Catholic broadcaster KTO that the trickiest part was reaching the person who held the security codes to open the safe containing the Crown of Thorns, regarded as Notre Dame's most sacred relic.
Paris Firefighters' spokesman Lt.-Col. Gabriel Plus said that even though they are in good condition, a "threat" continues to the gables, or support walls, because of the heavy stone statues perched on top of them.
"The roof no longer holds (the gables) up. They are holding up all by themselves," he said, adding that some statues must be removed to lessen the weight on the gables.
Scaffolding that had been erected for a renovation of the spire and roof must also be properly removed because of its weight and because it is now "crucially deformed," he added.
The Paris prosecutor's office said investigators have been able to access some parts of the building, although others remain too dangerous. No indication of a criminal act had been found so far, it said.
More than 40 people have already been questioned in the investigation, including workers at the five construction companies who were involved in renovating the church spire and roof. Police also took images of the destruction using drones, in case it is altered by wind or rain.
Nearly $1 billion has been pledged for the cathedral's restoration, coming from ordinary worshippers and wealthy magnates, including those who own L'Oreal, Chanel and Dior. Bern told broadcaster France-Info that 880 million euros ($995 million) has been raised since the fire.
Criticism already has surfaced in France from those who say the money could be better spent elsewhere, on smaller, struggling churches or on workers. Others have criticized the billionaires' donations because their pledges make them eligible for huge deductions in taxes.
Lisbon, Apr 18 (AP/UNB) — A tour bus carrying German tourists crashed on Portugal's Madeira Island on Wednesday, killing 29 people and injuring 28 others, local authorities said.
The bus, which was carrying 55 people, rolled down a steep hillside after veering off the road on a bend east of the capital, Funchal, and struck at least one house, local mayor Filipe Sousa told cable news channel SIC.
Local television showed bodies scattered over a rural hillside next to the Atlantic Ocean. Madeira, off northwestern Africa, is a popular vacation destination for Europeans due to its mild climate and lush, hilly landscape.
The dead included 18 women and 11 men, one of whom died later at a hospital, Sousa told public broadcaster RTP.
Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva said preliminary reports he had received indicated all the dead were German. But Tomasia Alves, head of the Funchal hospital, said not all the victims had been identified and refused to confirm the nationality of the dead.
Pedro Calado, vice president of Madeira's regional government, said at a news conference that the injured, including the Portuguese driver and a local tour guide, were taken to a hospital. He did not say whether anyone who was not on the bus, including people on the roadside at the time of the accident, were among the victims.
No children were among the dead and injured, Alves said. She said at a news conference that two of the injured were Portuguese and the rest were foreign, but she declined to give further details.
The mayor said the bus was carrying a group of German tourists.
The German foreign ministry, in a tweet, expressed "great shock" at the accident. "We must unfortunately assume that victims are from Germany," it said.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in a tweet that he had sent condolences to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "I learned of this tragic accident in Madeira with deep sorrow," he said.
Merkel's spokesman said "terrible news is reaching us from Madeira." Steffen Seibert said on Twitter that "we are in deepest sorrow over all those who lost their lives in the bus crash." He added: "Our thoughts are with the injured."
Portugal's air force said it had three aircraft on standby in case any injured needed to be taken to hospitals on the Portuguese mainland, almost 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away. But Funchal hospital's clinical director, Dr. Pedro Freitas, said transfers were not necessary.
Madeira's regional government announced three days of mourning, when flags on public buildings are flown at half-staff.
Residents said the weather was fine at the time of the accident, which happened in daylight in the early evening.
Calado, the regional government's vice president, said the bus was five years old and had passed its mandatory inspections for roadworthiness.
Authorities said they were investigating the cause of the crash.
Lima, Apr 18 (AP/UNB) — Former Peruvian President Alan Garcia shot himself in the head and died Wednesday as officers waited to arrest him in a massive graft probe that has put the country's most prominent politicians behind bars and provoked a reckoning over corruption.
Authorities broke through a door at Garcia's mansion in a leafy, upscale neighborhood of the Peruvian capital after hearing gunfire. The 69-year-old former head of state was rushed to a hospital, where a team of doctors performed emergency surgery but could not save him.
"The president, upset over this situation, knowing his absolute innocence ... had this terrible accident," said his lawyer, Erasmo Reyna.
It was a shocking end for a man who twice ruled Peru — once in the 1980s and then again more than two decades later. In more recent years, he became ensnared in Latin America's biggest corruption scandal, a sweeping investigation of politicians' dealings with the Brazilian construction giant known as Odebrecht.
No country outside Brazil has gone as far in prosecuting politicians tied to Odebrecht, which admitted in a 2016 plea agreement that it paid nearly $800 million throughout Latin America in exchange for lucrative public-works contracts.
In Peru, politicians have described the accusations as a political witch hunt. Prosecutors and anti-corruption advocates insist the arrests show the South American nation is finally holding leaders accountable.
Several leaders called on Peruvians to set aside politics as the nation mourns the one-time populist firebrand whose second presidency helped usher in a commodities-led investment boom.
"It doesn't matter your political hue, Peru is in mourning," politician Gilbert Violeta wrote on Twitter. "This is a tragedy for our country."
Condolences poured in from throughout Latin America as leaders recalled a man who at his peak was called the John F. Kennedy of Latin America.
"With virtues and imperfections, he realized great changes that allowed Peru's economy to become one of the fastest-growing in Latin America and in the world," former Mexican President Felipe Calderon said.
Garcia was born into a middle-class family in the capital, the child of a politician father whose party became Garcia's own. He went on to a career marked by epic triumphs and devastating setbacks, a rollercoaster of a political life fueled by his charisma and capacity for reinvention.
Ultimately, though, the former president was an increasingly isolated figure. As investigators closed in, he argued that he was the victim of false testimony about taking bribes from Odebrecht during the construction of Lima's metro. He had not been formally charged.
In December, Garcia sought asylum in Uruguay's embassy, staying there for a little more than two weeks before his request was denied. Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez said there was no evidence to support Garcia's contention he was being political targeted.
He vowed to cooperate with any investigation and defended himself up to the day before his death.
"I am not mentioned in any document and in any evidence," he wrote Tuesday on Twitter. "They're left to SPECULATE or invent intermediaries. I never sold out and it's proven."
When authorities arrived Wednesday at Garcia's home, they met him on the staircase to the second floor. He asked for a moment to call his attorney, entered another room and closed the door behind him. Moments later, gunfire rang out. Police found him seated, bleeding profusely, Interior Minister Carlos Moran said.
Supporters who had gathered outside the hospital wept as word of his death spread. Some held each other in embrace. Others cried out. A line of officers in helmets and riot shields stood guard, keeping them at a distance.
His sudden death was sure to provoke reflection both over one of the most storied careers in Peruvian politics and the nation's battle against corruption.
Tall and handsome, Garcia was first swept into office on a wave of optimism in 1985 as Latin America's youngest president at age 36. He was hailed as "the president of hope."
Fed by state spending, wage increases and price controls, Garcia's policies initially created an artificial economic boom. But the state coffers were soon drained, credit dried up and investors fled. Labor strikes demanding wage increases in line with soaring inflation crippled production.
As Peru's economy collapsed, Maoist Shining Path guerrillas surged.
At one point, Garcia was so depressed by his plunging popularity that he did not appear in public for more than a month and reportedly offered the presidency to his blind 88-year-old vice president, Luis Alberto Sanchez.
Garcia backed the candidacy of an independent political unknown, Alberto Fujimori, in the second-round runoff of the 1990 presidential elections to prevent a win by novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a conservative rival.
Two years after leaving office, Garcia fled the country as Fujimori's new government pursued corruption charges against him.
He was accused, among other things, of taking kickbacks for a Lima electric railway contract and of depositing Peru's reserves in the notorious Bank of Credit and Commerce International, or BCCI, which was later shut down worldwide amid fraud allegations.
On the night of April 5, 1992, Fujimori dissolved Congress, suspended the Peruvian Constitution and sent troops to the home of Garcia, who had been warned of a plot to kill him.
"That was perhaps the first time I felt physical fear in my life, because I understood it was true there would be an attack and that we would die," Garcia later recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.
"I had two pistols with nine rounds each," he said, "and I shot all 18 bullets into the air as they were preparing to knock down the garage wall with a small tank and were coming over the walls."
The soldiers briefly retreated, Garcia said, and he fled by climbing over a neighbor's wall using a ladder. He was later smuggled out of the neighborhood in the trunk of a car and eventually made it to the Colombian Embassy, which granted him safe passage from Peru.
During his exile, he split time between Colombia, which gave him asylum, and Paris, where his wife and four children lived.
Garcia was reviled by most Peruvians, who initially tolerated, even lauded, Fujimori's iron-fisted rule, grateful to him for taming the rebel insurgencies and cleaning up an economic disaster.
But in 2000, Fujimori's autocratic government crumbled amid mushrooming corruption scandals, creating an opening for Garcia's political comeback. The charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence.
Garcia returned to his homeland in 2001 to seek re-election, casting himself as an elder statesman who had outgrown leftist ideas. He lost narrowly in a second round of voting to U.S.-trained economist Alejandro Toledo. Then he set his sights on the 2006 election.
He was widely viewed as the lesser of two evils when he defeated radical nationalist Ollanta Humala in a runoff. But he was determined to regain the trust of Peruvians, telling them, "I am more mature, and I would be an idiot if I were to commit the same mistakes."
His popularity rose as he implemented austerity measures in a nation beset by poverty. He slashed his own salary by more than half and issued decrees forcing lawmakers to reduce their pay by nearly 40 percent.
He also gained praise by launching programs to bring potable water to poor shantytowns and pledged to build roads, schools and health clinics in rural areas.
In their mourning, fellow politicians acknowledged his faults while urging others not to forget his achievements.
"Few times have a seen a person with such clear intelligence," Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno said. "Without a doubt, we are going to miss him."
London , Apr 17 (AP/UNB) — Notre Dame in Paris is not the first great cathedral to suffer a devastating fire, and it probably won't be the last.
In a sense, that is good news. A global army of experts and craftspeople can be called on for the long, complex process of restoring the gutted landmark.
The work will face substantial challenges — starting immediately, with the urgent need to protect the inside of the 850-year-old cathedral from the elements, after its timber-beamed roof was consumed by flames .
The first priority is to put up a temporary metal or plastic roof to stop rain from getting in. Then, engineers and architects will begin to assess the damage.
Fortunately, Notre Dame is a thoroughly documented building. Over the years, historians and archeologists have made exhaustive plans and images, including minutely detailed, 3-D laser-scanned re-creations of the interior.
Duncan Wilson, chief executive of the conservation organization Historic England, said Tuesday that the cathedral will need to be made secure without disturbing the debris scattered inside, which may provide valuable information — and material — for restorers.
"The second challenge is actually salvaging the material," he said. "Some of that material may be reusable, and that's a painstaking exercise. It's like an archaeological excavation."
Despite fears at the height of the inferno that the whole cathedral would be lost, the structure appears intact. Its two rectangular towers still jut into the Paris skyline, and the great stone vault stands atop heavy walls supported by massive flying buttresses. An edifice built to last an eternity withstood its greatest test.
Tom Nickson, a senior lecturer in medieval art and architecture at London's Courtauld Institute, said the stone vault "acted as a kind of fire door between the highly flammable roof and the highly flammable interior" — just as the cathedral's medieval builders intended.
Now, careful checks will be needed to determine whether the stones of the vaulted ceiling have been weakened and cracked by the heat. If so, the whole vault may need to be torn down and re-erected.
The cathedral's exquisite stained-glass rose windows appear intact but are probably suffering "thermal shock" from intense heat followed by cold water, said Jenny Alexander, an expert on medieval art and architecture at the University of Warwick. That means the glass, set in lead, could have sagged or been weakened and will need minute examination.
Once the building has been stabilized and the damage assessed, restoration work can begin. It's likely to be an international effort.
"Structural engineers, stained-glass experts, stone experts are all going to be packing their bags and heading for Paris in the next few weeks," Alexander said.
One big decision will be whether to preserve the cathedral just as it was before the fire, or to take a more creative approach.
It's not always a straightforward choice. Notre Dame's spire, destroyed in Monday's blaze, was added to the Gothic cathedral during 19th-century renovations. Should it be rebuilt as it was, or replaced with a new design for the 21st century?
Financial and political considerations, as well as aesthetic ones, are likely to play a part in the decision.
Getting materials may also be a challenge. The cathedral roof was made from oak beams cut from centuries-old trees. Even in the 13th century, they were hard to come by. Nickson said there is probably no country in Europe with big enough trees today.
Alternatives could include a different type of structure made from smaller beams, or even a metal roof — though that would be unpopular with purists.
The restored building will have to reflect modern-day health and safety standards. But Eric Salmon, a former site manager at the Paris cathedral, said it is impossible to eliminate all risk.
"It is like a street accident. It can happen anywhere, anytime," said Salmon, who now serves as technical director at the Notre Dame cathedral in Strasbourg, France.
The roof of Strasbourg's Notre Dame was set ablaze during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. It took up to five years to restore the wooden structure. Nowadays the roof is split into three fire-resistant sections to make sure one blaze can't destroy it all. Smoke detectors are at regular intervals.
Still, Salmon said that what worked in Strasbourg may not be suitable for Paris. Each cathedral is unique.
"We are not going to modify an historic monument to respect the rules. The rules have to be adapted to the building," he said.
Experts agree the project will take years, if not decades. Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural organization, said restoring Notre Dame "will last a long time and cost a lot of money." A government appeal for funds has already raised hundreds of millions of euros (dollars) from French businesses.
But few doubt that Notre Dame will rise again.
"Cathedrals are stone phoenixes — reminders that out of adversity we may be reborn," said Emma Wells, a buildings archaeologist at the University of York.
"The silver lining, if we can call it that, is this allows for historians and archaeologists to come in and uncover more of its history than we ever knew before. It is a palimpsest of layers of history, and we can come in and understand the craft of our medieval forebears."