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Sri Lanka PM Tells Military to Do Whatever Necessary to Restore Order

Cassandra Sherman



Image source, Reuters

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has told the military to do “whatever is necessary to restore order” after protesters stormed his office on Wednesday.

Mr Wickremesinghe has been appointed acting president by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has fled the country.

But the decision to leave him in charge triggered further protests demanding that the prime minister must also go.

Sri Lanka has been suffering from its worst economic crisis in decades.

Many blame the Rajapaksa administration for the crisis and see Mr Wickremesinghe, who became prime minister in May, as part of the problem.

On Wednesday, for the second time in less than a week, protesters broke into a highly secure state building. This time it was the prime minister’s office.

Echoing earlier scenes over the weekend of the occupied president’s official residence, people in the prime minister’s office lounged on plush sofas snapping photos, while others stood on chairs and desks waving the Sri Lankan flag.

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In a television address, Mr Wickremesinghe called on protesters to leave his occupied office and other state buildings and co-operate with authorities.

“We can’t tear up our constitution. We can’t allow fascists to take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy,” he said.

But asked whether the prime minister’s statement was an indication that the army might take control, a human rights lawyer in Colombo, Bhavani Fonseka, told the BBC’s World at One that Sri Lanka “doesn’t have a history where military has played an active role in politics or government – unlike some of the other countries in the neighbourhood”.

“We have had a very robust democracy and it’s been elected representatives in that role. But we are also in an unprecedented situation, so anything is possible,” she added.

Outside the president’s office, the BBC’s Tessa Wong said armed soldiers stood by impassively watching the protesters celebrate inside the office.

And demonstrators ignored the prime minister’s calls for the office to be emptied.

“Our goal is for Gota to go home. And Ranil and other cabinet members to go home,” one protester at the prime minister’s office, Nixon Chandranathan, told the BBC. “We need truthful and honest leaders to build up Sri Lanka now.”

“We feel proud,” Satish Bee, a businessman who came to explore the compound after it was stormed told AFP. “There’s no proper governance in this country. It has never been good… The youngsters, they don’t want to continue like this.”

The continued unrest came as the news arrived that President Rajapaksa had fled to the Maldives.

The president went into hiding and pledged to resign after his official residence was stormed on Saturday.

The leader, who has enjoyed immunity from prosecution as president, is believed to have wanted to flee abroad before stepping down to avoid the possibility of arrest by the new administration.

He is, however, yet to submit a formal letter of resignation.

Sri Lanka: The basics

Sri Lanka is an island nation off southern India: It won independence from British rule in 1948. Three ethnic groups – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – make up 99% of the country’s 22 million population.One family of brothers has dominated for years: Mahinda Rajapaksa became a hero among the majority Sinhalese in 2009 when his government defeated Tamil separatist rebels after years of bitter and bloody civil war. His brother Gotabaya, who was defence secretary at the time, is the current president but says he is standing down. Presidential powers: The president is the head of state, government and the military in Sri Lanka but does share a lot of executive responsibilities with the prime minister, who heads up the ruling party in parliament. Now an economic crisis has led to fury on the streets: Soaring inflation has meant some foods, medication and fuel are in short supply, there are rolling blackouts and ordinary people have taken to the streets in anger with many blaming the Rajapaksa family and their government for the situation.

The president’s departure threatens a potential power vacuum in Sri Lanka, which needs a functioning government to help start digging it out of financial ruin.

Politicians from other parties have been talking about forming a new unity government but there is no sign they are near agreement yet. It’s also not clear if the public would accept what they come up with.

Picking a new leader will also have its difficulties.

In a press statement on Wednesday Mr Wickremesinghe’s team said he had asked the speaker of parliament to nominate a new prime minister “who is acceptable to both the government and opposition”.

Earlier on Monday, the main opposition leader Sajith Premadasa told the BBC he would be tilting for the presidency. But he – like Mr Wickremesinghe – lacks public support. There is also deep public suspicion of politicians in general.

The protest movement which has brought Sri Lanka to the brink of change also does not have an obvious contender for the country’s leadership.

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Kabul Mosque Attack: ‘Many Casualties Feared’

Cassandra Sherman



A huge explosion has ripped through a mosque in the Afghan capital Kabul, police say.

The blast is thought to have occurred during evening prayers, killing at least three people and injuring dozens more, according to the NGO Emergency.

Khalid Zadran, the Taliban’s Kabul police spokesman, was quoted by local media as saying there had been an explosion in the city’s north-west.

Reports say the Siddiqi mosque’s imam was among the dead.

It is unclear who was behind the attack, which comes the week after a prominent pro-Taliban cleric was killed in a suicide bomb blast, also in Kabul. The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the earlier attack.

Security forces have arrived at the scene, in a northern Kabul neighbourhood, the spokesman added.

Italian NGO Emergency – which operates in Kabul – said three deaths have been recorded so far.

The NGO also tweeted to say it had received 27 people wounded in the blast, including children. “Five children [were] among them, including a seven-year-old,” it said.

A Taliban intelligence official told news agency Reuters that as many as 35 people may have been wounded or killed, and the toll could rise further.

Witnesses described hearing a powerful explosion which shattered windows in nearby buildings.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the explosion took place at a mosque among worshippers in the Khair Khana area of Kabul.

Intelligence teams were at the blast site and investigations are ongoing, they added.

A spokesman for the Taliban said it strongly condemned the attack.

IS focus seems to be widening

The mosque was crowded, the bomb powerful, and another cleric seems to have been in the sights of IS (Islamic State), the group which has emerged as the Taliban’s most potent enemy.

In the past month, three prominent religious leaders were targeted in Kabul and there were assassinations in other cities.

Last week it was Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani, known to be close to the Taliban. This time it’s Amir Muhammad Kabuli, said to be an adherent of the more moderate Sufi faith.

Video posted on social media showed a scene of carnage.

One religious student who was just outside the mosque told the BBC he saw the bodies of the dead and injured sprawled inside, including children attending evening prayers.

IS’s signature has been its devastating attacks on the minority Shia Hazara community. But their focus now seems to be widening just as the Taliban celebrate their one year in power – a takeover which ended one chapter of a long bloody war but only ushered in yet another.

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Liz Cheney: Trump Critic Blasts Republican ‘personality Cult’ After Defeat

Cassandra Sherman



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A leading Republican critic of Donald Trump says the party has “embraced his cult of personality” after she was ousted in a primary election.

Liz Cheney, 56, was defeated by the political newcomer and Trump-backed candidate Harriet Hageman in Wyoming.

She had faced an uphill battle to win re-election after joining the congressional committee investigating Mr Trump’s attempts to cling to power.

Ms Cheney – once a rising star in the party – also voted to impeach Mr Trump.

The primary election in the broadly conservative state highlighted the competing wings of the Republican Party – with more traditional conservatives facing off against Trump-backed candidates around the country ahead of mid-term elections in November.

The result means Ms Cheney, a three-term congresswoman and the eldest daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, will not contest her seat in the US House of Representatives which she has held since 2017.

It illustrated the continuing influence of Mr Trump, who has backed dozens of candidates ahead of the mid-term elections that will determine control of Congress as well as governorships and state legislatures.

And those candidates – who have mostly repeated his false claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election and defended him amid mounting legal troubles – have performed well.

“I think the Republican Party today is in very bad shape,” Ms Cheney told the Today programme on NBC. “The party… embraced Donald Trump [and] embraced his cult of personality.”

Ms Cheney won her primary in 2020 by a wide margin, and she told the programme that she believed she would have been successful once again had she repeated Mr Trump’s unfounded claims of voter fraud.

“That path would have required that I accept, that I embrace, that I perpetuate the Big Lie,” she said.

Ms Hageman – who ran to be Wyoming governor in 2018 – was handpicked by the former president and has said she believes the election Mr Trump ultimately lost to President Joe Biden was “rigged”.

In her victory speech, she said the primary result showed Republicans will “hold our elected officials accountable for their actions” and “dislodge entrenched politicians”.

The 59-year-old spent decades as a trial lawyer, with a particular focus on defending the interests of the energy and mining sector while opposing environmental policies.

While she has since praised Mr Trump’s record as president, Ms Hageman described the former president as “racist and xenophobic” before the 2016 election.

“[I] heard and believed the lies the Democrats and Liz Cheney’s friends in the media were telling at the time,” she told the New York Times last year.

Image source, Reuters

Ms Cheney became a virtual outcast within her party over her criticism of Mr Trump. Only two of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach him after his supporters attacked the US Capitol last year have successfully maintained their places on the ticket for re-election.

Speaking to Today, Ms Cheney said it was “dangerous” to elect officials who questioned the result of that election and described it as a “red line” that she would continue to resist.

“I am absolutely going to continue this battle,” she said, before vowing to do “whatever it takes” to stop Mr Trump from returning to the White House.

There had been speculation in the lead-up to the primary that Ms Cheney was preparing to challenge Mr Trump for the Republican nomination in 2024. “[It] is something I’m thinking about and I’ll make a decision in the coming months,” she told Today.

Mr Trump earlier congratulated Ms Hageman on her victory in a post on his social media platform, Truth Social.

“Liz Cheney should be ashamed of herself, the way she acted, and her spiteful, sanctimonious words and actions towards others,” he wrote. “Now she can finally disappear into the depths of political oblivion.”

Elsewhere, Republican Sarah Palin – who is eyeing a political comeback – has advanced to November’s election in Alaska in the race to represent the state in the House of Representatives.

She rose to prominence as a vice-presidential candidate in 2008, and Mr Trump is her key ally and supporter.

In the state’s Senate race, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, 65, who has defied Mr Trump, is through to November’s poll.

But under new voting rules one of her opponents will be another Republican, Trump-backed Kelly Tshibaka, 42.

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North Korea Leader Kim Jong-un ‘suffered Fever’ During Covid Outbreak, Says Sister

Cassandra Sherman



Image source, Getty Images

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un suffered from “fever” during the Covid outbreak, his sister has said – in what appears to be the first suggestion he had the virus.

Sister Kim Yo-jong said her brother had been “seriously ill” but praised him for carrying on, state media reported.

Her comments came in a speech as the North Korean leader declared victory in the country’s battle against Covid.

Mr Kim ordered restrictions to be lifted and hailed the “miracle” of just 74 virus deaths.

Speaking on Wednesday at a meeting with health workers and scientists, he declared a “shining victory” over the virus and praised the “indomitable tenacity” of North Koreans, KCNA reported.

North Korea refers to “fever” rather than coronavirus patients due to a lack of testing equipment.

The secretive country announced its first Covid outbreak in May and has reported fever infections and deaths since. But there is widespread doubt over the data, especially the number of deaths.

In a speech reported by state news agency KCNA, Ms Kim praised her brother, saying: “Even though he was seriously ill with a high fever, he could not lie down for a moment thinking about the people he had to take care of until the end in the face of the anti-epidemic war.”

In her speech Ms Kim also blamed leaflets from South Korea for causing the outbreak in the North.

North Korea has not reported any new suspected cases since 29 July – but international observers say the country has limited testing.

KCNA claims there have been 4.8 million infections since late April, but only 74 deaths, which is a fatality rate of 0.002% – the lowest in the world.

Many experts find these statistics hard to believe. They say the country has one of the world’s worst healthcare systems with few intensive care units and no Covid treatment drugs or vaccines.

The country has not rolled out any vaccination programme during the pandemic, relying instead on lockdowns, homegrown treatments, and what Mr Kim has called the “advantageous Korean-style socialist system”.

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