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Lithuania votes: Centre-right opposition edges towards win with coalition talks expected

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Opposition conservative party Homeland Union claimed victory on Monday in the first round of Lithuania’s general election.

Obtaining 23 seats in the country’s 141-seat parliament, the centre-right opposition appears on track to win the vote, defeating the ruling four-party coalition.

The Farmers and Greens Union, which forms the backbone of the Baltic nation’s current coalition government, finished second with 16 seats outright and many fewer candidates making it into the second round of voting, which is to be held on October 25.

Two liberal parties — the Freedom Party and the Liberal Movement — considered likely allies in a future centre-right coalition, claimed a total of 14 seats. The centre-left Labour party won nine seats and the Social Democrats got eight. Six parties will be represented in the Seimas parliament, according to initial results.

Three candidates in single-member constituencies claimed victory in the first round of voting including the former finance minister and one of the Homeland Union’s leaders, Ingrida Simonyte, a former candidate for president who oversaw drastic austerity cuts during the global financial crisis. She looks increasing likely to be the country’s next prime minister.

Under Lithuania’s election system, the remaining 68 lawmakers will be elected in a proportional vote on October 25.

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As polls closed at 7 pm CEST on Sunday, Lithuania’s Central Electoral Commission said that initial voter turnout stood at 47.16 per cent, which is three percentage points lower than in the 2016 election.

A recent surge in COVID-19 cases, soaring virus-related unemployment and economic challenges are the major issues that have sparked criticism of the current coalition government.

President Gitanas Nauseda cast his vote with his wife Diana at a polling station in Vilnius, the capital, and told reporters he hoped for better mutual understanding and cooperation with the new Parliament.

“I wish the next five or several years to be splendid for Lithuania. We have all the opportunities for that,” said Nauseda, who assumed the head of state’s post in this European Union and NATO member last year.

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He said what the country needed following the election was “a clear vision and strategy.”

The recent sharp rise in coronavirus infections in Lithuania and new restrictions to fight the spread of COVID-19 may affect turnout among the country’s 2.4 million registered voters. Some 7.3 per cent cast their ballots in early voting, according to the Central Electoral Commission.

The second round of voting has been set for October 25 in constituencies where no candidate gets a majority.

Many Lithuanians complain that the government did not do enough to help companies during the nation’s coronavirus lockdown, as the unemployment rate jumped from 9 per cent in February to more than 14 per cent in October. Others say the strict health regulations focused on fighting the virus left thousands of other patients without proper access to health services.

Marius Sulga, a 44-year-old teacher from Lithuania’s second-largest city, Kaunas, said he voted for one of the opposition parties.

“I’m tired with all of these regulations, restrictions and limitations that came with this Cabinet long before the pandemic period,” Sulga said. “It is just not the kind of Lithuania that we dreamed about when we broke away from (the Soviet) occupation decades ago.“

Supporters of the ruling coalition say this coastal Baltic country has suffered relatively lightly in the pandemic. So far Lithuania has seen 5,963 confirmed coronavirus cases and just over 100 deaths.

Marija Kazlauskiene, a 75-year-old retiree, said she prefers the ruling coalition.

“They have done a tremendous job in saving the country from this virus — just look at those other poor countries in the EU. Lithuania has managed to avoid all of that suffering,” she said after casting her ballot in downtown Vilnius.

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Nagorno-Karabakh: Armenia and Azerbaijan approve ceasefire

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Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed a temporary ceasefire in the conflict in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the agreement just before 03:00 local time (01:00 BST), following 10 hours of talks in Moscow.

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The two countries will now begin “substantive” talks, he said.

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More than 300 people have died and thousands displaced since the latest violence in the long-running conflict broke out on 27 September.

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The hostilities will be halted from midday (08:00 GMT) on Saturday, to allow an exchange of prisoners and the recovery of dead bodies.

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Nagorno-Karabakh is run by ethnic Armenians although it is officially part of Azerbaijan.

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The two former Soviet republics have blamed each other for the latest outbreak of violence – the worst in decades.

Russia has a military base in Armenia and both are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) alliance.

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However, Moscow also has good relations with Azerbaijan.

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What’s the latest on the ground?

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On Friday the Armenian defence ministry said fighting continued through the day, despite the talks being held in Moscow.

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On Thursday, Armenia accused Azerbaijan of deliberately shelling a historic cathedral in Nagorno-Karabakh. Pictures showed serious damage at the Holy Saviour Cathedral in Shusha city (known as Shushi in Armenian).

At the same time, Azerbaijan said that its second-largest city, Ganja, and the region of Goranboy had been shelled by Armenian forces, with at least one civilian killed.

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Speaking to the BBC earlier this week, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan warned of a “genocide” in the region, and said it was “Armenia, land of Armenians”.

The clashes have displaced half of Nagorno-Karabakh’s population – about 70,000 people – officials said.

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The region’s main city, Stepanakert, has suffered several days of shelling with residents sheltering in basements and much of the city left without power.

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Armenia and Azerbaijan went to war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 1988-94, eventually declaring a ceasefire. However, they never reached a settlement in the dispute.

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Coronavirus: Move on from Covid lockdown row, Varadkar urges

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Tánaiste (Irish Deputy Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar has said the Irish government and public health officials need to move on from a row about Covid-19 restrictions.

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On Sunday, the cabinet rejected a recommendation that the whole country should move to level 5 of its Living with Covid-19 plan.

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The measures would have been similar to the spring lockdown.

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Instead, ministers put the whole state on level 3.

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This means people are asked not to leave their county except for essential reasons and are encouraged to work from home wherever possible.

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One coronavirus-related death was recorded in the Republic on Thursday bringing the death toll to 1,817.

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A further 506 new cases of Covid-19 were also reported.

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On Monday, Mr Varadkar described the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) recommendation, which would have allowed schools and crèches to remain open as “a bolt out of the blue.”

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In the Dáil (lower house of parliament) on Thursday afternoon he said he was first informed of the recommendation on Sunday evening and in writing at 20:30 local time just 30 minutes before Irish broadcaster RTÉ reported what NPHET was proposing.

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It should not be about the government versus NPHET, Mr Varadkar told the Dáil, adding: “This is Ireland versus the virus.”

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Hospital capacity

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The tánaiste repeated his criticism that moving to level 5 had “not been thought through” including the implications of the Northern Ireland dimension in the shared goal of reducing the spread of the virus.

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Questioned by Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty, Mr Varadkar denied there was a lack of hospital capacity.

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The tánaiste said the government had added 800 hospital beds – 150 of which were being used by Covid-19 patients – and there were now an additional 60 ICU beds since the spring lockdown, bringing the total to 225, with 25 being used by Covid patients.

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He said the country would be able to cope if there was a surge in coronavirus cases and was in a better position to do so than some other countries whose health services “get a better press”.

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NPHET officials met on Thursday to discuss their concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in the Republic of Ireland.

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It said it remains deeply concerned about the rising levels, however did not recommend tightening restrictions.

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Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan said the situation had deteriorated further since Sunday.

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Georgia Urged to Guarantee Journalists’ Safety After Attacks on TV Crews

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Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling on Georgian authorities to guarantee the safety of journalists covering the parliamentary election campaign in the country after TV crews were attacked during clashes between pro-government and pro-opposition activists.

“We call on the leaders of the two parties to condemn these attacks and we urge the authorities to conduct an exhaustive and transparent investigation in order to identify those responsible,” the Paris-based watchdog said in a statement  on October 1, warning that the environment for journalists has “worsened” in the run-up to the October 31 vote.

RSF said at least five journalists covering the campaign were physically attacked in the southern town of Marneuli on September 29 during clashes between members of the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition United National Movement.

Jeyhun Muhamedali, one of four journalists with the opposition TV channel Mtavari Arkhi, was hospitalized with a head injury sustained during the violence, in which a camera and microphone were damaged, according to the group.

A camera operator with Georgia’s public broadcaster GPB was also attacked and his camera smashed.

Georgian police have launched an investigation into the violence and into the obstruction of journalists’ work.

“The state has an obligation to guarantee journalists’ safety. With four weeks to go to a high-stakes election, impunity for those responsible for violence must be combatted,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

The South Caucasus country is ranked 60th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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Georgia Urged to Guarantee Journalists’ Safety After Attacks on TV Crews

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Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling on Georgian authorities to guarantee the safety of journalists covering the parliamentary election campaign in the country after TV crews were attacked during clashes between pro-government and pro-opposition activists.

“We call on the leaders of the two parties to condemn these attacks and we urge the authorities to conduct an exhaustive and transparent investigation in order to identify those responsible,” the Paris-based watchdog said in a statement  on October 1, warning that the environment for journalists has “worsened” in the run-up to the October 31 vote.

RSF said at least five journalists covering the campaign were physically attacked in the southern town of Marneuli on September 29 during clashes between members of the ruling Georgian Dream party and the opposition United National Movement.

Jeyhun Muhamedali, one of four journalists with the opposition TV channel Mtavari Arkhi, was hospitalized with a head injury sustained during the violence, in which a camera and microphone were damaged, according to the group.

A camera operator with Georgia’s public broadcaster GPB was also attacked and his camera smashed.

Georgian police have launched an investigation into the violence and into the obstruction of journalists’ work.

“The state has an obligation to guarantee journalists’ safety. With four weeks to go to a high-stakes election, impunity for those responsible for violence must be combatted,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.

The South Caucasus country is ranked 60th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

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France ready to airlift wounded journalists out of disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region

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President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that France is ready to airlift two journalists out of Nagorno Karabakh after they were badly wounded in fighting in the disputed region.

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Le Monde had earlier confirmed to AFP that a reporter and photographer working for the French daily had been injured in a bombing by Azerbaijan forces.

"Two French reporters were hurt at Martuni in the Artsakh region during the Azeri bombardment," the Armenian foreign ministry tweeted.

Two Armenian journalists were also hit in the shelling, according to Armenian authorities.

Armenia's ambassador to France told AFP that both French journalists "were badly injured and are now being operated on in the town's hospital.

"They were near the town hall when the area was bombarded," Hasmik Tolmajian added.

Macron told reporters in Brussels that a "medical aircraft was ready to go as we talk. We are doing everything to stabilise the wounded before they are evacuated."

The French leader said he was sending his "support to families of the wounded and all of the journalists at Le Monde."

Several journalists, including a team from AFP, were interviewing residents in Martuni and assessing damage from previous shelling when the bombing started. No one in the AFP team was hurt.

Regis Gente of RFI/France 24 said they were looking at a damaged house when a rocket hit, adding that the attack lasted about a minute.

Heavy fighting has been raging for four days after the long-running conflict over the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited.

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France ready to airlift wounded journalists out of disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region

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President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that France is ready to airlift two journalists out of Nagorno Karabakh after they were badly wounded in fighting in the disputed region.

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Le Monde had earlier confirmed to AFP that a reporter and photographer working for the French daily had been injured in a bombing by Azerbaijan forces.

"Two French reporters were hurt at Martuni in the Artsakh region during the Azeri bombardment," the Armenian foreign ministry tweeted.

Two Armenian journalists were also hit in the shelling, according to Armenian authorities.

Armenia's ambassador to France told AFP that both French journalists "were badly injured and are now being operated on in the town's hospital.

"They were near the town hall when the area was bombarded," Hasmik Tolmajian added.

Macron told reporters in Brussels that a "medical aircraft was ready to go as we talk. We are doing everything to stabilise the wounded before they are evacuated."

The French leader said he was sending his "support to families of the wounded and all of the journalists at Le Monde."

Several journalists, including a team from AFP, were interviewing residents in Martuni and assessing damage from previous shelling when the bombing started. No one in the AFP team was hurt.

Regis Gente of RFI/France 24 said they were looking at a damaged house when a rocket hit, adding that the attack lasted about a minute.

Heavy fighting has been raging for four days after the long-running conflict over the region between Armenia and Azerbaijan reignited.

TheRead More – Source

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EU leaders approve sanctions on Belarus officials after Cyprus drops veto threat

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European Union leaders agreed early Friday to impose sanctions on dozens of senior officials in Belarus accused of falsifying presidential election results and leading a crackdown on peaceful protesters, after unblocking a veto against the move by one of the EU’s smallest member countries.

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In an embarrassing standoff, Cyprus had insisted that its EU partners take action against Turkey for its energy exploration work in disputed waters off the Mediterranean island nation’s coast before it would agree to the Belarus sanctions.

But after several hours of talks into the night, the leaders agreed on a strong statement of support for Cyprus, as well as for Greece, and a stern warning to Turkey that it could face punitive measures if it continues the undersea drilling work.

“We have decided today to implement the sanctions," European Council President Charles Michel told reporters after chairing the summit in Brussels. “It’s very important to do what we decided a few weeks ago,” and to send a signal that “we are credible.”

Michel said that a special written procedure would be launched on Friday to impose sanctions on about 40 Belarus officials.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko "is not on the current list. But we will follow the developments," Michel said. The leader once dubbed Europe’s last dictator could be added to the list at a later date, should he refuse to enter into talks with the opposition, EU diplomats have said.

Rejection of Belarus' official election results

The political row has tarnished the EU’s image. It is also unusual in that all 27 EU member countries, including Cyprus, reject the result of the Aug. 9 election that returned Lukashenko to power for a sixth term. They all want a new election and agree that sanctions should be slapped on several officials.

Ahead of the summit, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said “it is bad that we cannot make it work.”

Throughout Thursday evening, the leaders debated what approach to take in the EU’s increasingly tense ties with Turkey over its drilling in the Mediterranean Sea, its roles in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, and as a sometimes troublesome source of migrants trying to reach Europe.

In a summit statement, they agreed that if Turkey continues to react positively in talks with Cyprus and Greece the bloc will “launch a positive political EU-Turkey agenda” with trade and customs incentives, and they held out the prospect of more money and benefits for continued cooperation on migrant flows.

If not, the leaders warned, “the EU will use all the instruments and the options at its disposal,” to “defend its interests and those of its Member States.”

“It is now Turkey that has to prove that it wants to go the constructive road with us, and this is the offer tonight. But we are very clear that in the opposite case we have all necessary tools at our disposal,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Macron: 'Solidarity is non-negotiable'

French President Emmanuel Macron was staunch in his support for his European partners, saying that “solidarity is non-negotiable” when it comes to Cyprus, but also to Greece in its long-running dispute with Turkey.

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EU launches legal action against UK for breaching Brexit deal and international law

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The announcement comes after weeks of controversy since Boris Johnson's government revealed its plans to put in place legislation that would override a specific part of the Withdrawal Agreement called the Northern Ireland Protocol.Speaking in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, said that the EU had invited the UK to "remove the problematic parts of their draft internal market bill by the end of September." She said that the draft bill is "by its very nature a breach of the obligation of good faith laid down in the Withdrawal Agreement," adding that "it will be in full contradiction" of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The protocol was agreed in order to eliminate the need for border checks between the only land border shared by the EU and UK on the island of Ireland. Both sides fear that checks could lead to a hard border and the return of sectarian violence that Ireland and Northern Ireland hoped were a distant memory. Since the UK government has not pulled this legislation, the Commission has written a letter of formal notice to the UK government, the first step in an infringement procedure — something the EU commonly uses when parties breach agreements with the union. "The letter invites the UK government to send its observations within a month and besides this the Commission will continue to work hard towards full and timely implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. We stand by our commitments," von der Leyen concluded. The move, though dramatic, was expected in London. The government had previously admitted that its Internal Market Bill would breach the treaty and break international law in a "very specific and limited way." The government claims that the bill is a safety net to ensure seamless trade between the four nations of the United Kingdom in the event of a no deal Brexit at the end of this year and hopes it won't have to use the legislation. The backdrop to all of this is that trade talks between London and Brussels are entering their final phase. The last formal round of talks are talking place right now and an EU summit will take place on October 15, where negotiators hope a deal will be on the table for EU leaders to approve. Both sides say a deal is in sight, but are struggling to reach an agreement on some key issues, most notably around the UK's ability to use state aid in order to prop up BritRead More – Source

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Belarus and the EU: Europe mulls next steps after disputed election

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One of the pressing foreign policy issues facing the EU today involves one of its direct neighbours: Belarus. Belarusians are still protesting the disputed re-election of Alexander Lukashenko back in August – and reports of human rights violations by Belarusian authorities continue too. Major opposition figures are cRead More – Source

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