Macron, Le Pen prepare for tense election duel
French President Emmanuel Macron will face the far right’s Marine Le Pen in a presidential run-off on April 24 after winning the first round on Sunday. With more than 90 per cent of the vote counted, projections showed Macron scoring between 28 and 29%, with Le Pen on 22-24%. Some 48.7 million voters were called to the polls but more than 26.2% abstained. Final results are expected later today, while four new polls on Sunday night suggesting a tight second round between them. One suggested Macron had a razor-thin winning margin of 51 versus 49%, but the average of them indicated a Macron victory by around 53% to 47%. The outcome of the two-stage election will have major implications for the EU, which Le Pen says she wants to radically reform. She has also said she wants to pull out of the joint military command of the US-led Nato military alliance. On the other hand, Macron said: “I want a France that places itself in a strong Europe, that continues to form alliances with the world’s democracies to defend itself. Not a France which, once out of Europe, would only have the international alliance of populists and xenophobes as allies. That’s not us.”
Di Maio asks EU to take immediate action against gas prices
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has called on the EU to “establish a maximum ceiling” on the price of gas and announced that the Draghi government was asking for such a measure. He said families and businesses were unable to cope with increases of 200% on their electricity bills. Later today, he would be with Prime Minister Mario Draghi in Algeria to sign a gas agreement “that would allow us to face any Russian blackmail”. Immediate was Moscow’s reply: Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova wrotes on Telegram, “It is not Russia that blackmails the European Union with gas supplies (which in spite of everything, are going very well). It is the European Union that blackmails Russia with sanctions, threats of new restrictions and by supplying all kinds of weapons to Ukraine”.
1,200 bodies found near Kyiv as east braces for onslaught
Ukraine said Sunday it had found more than 1,200 bodies in the Kyiv region, the scene of atrocities allegedly committed during the Russian occupation last month, as residents in the country’s east braced – or fled – ahead of an expected massive offensive. Heavy bombardments hammered Ukraine through the weekend, adding to mounting casualties six weeks into Russia’s invasion of its neighbour. At around 4:30 am this morning, sirens signalling possible air attacks, began to sound over almost the entire Ukrainian territory.
‘We will also take Kyiv’ – Kadyrov
Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Russian republic of Chechnya and commander of the Chechen militias engaged in the war in Ukraine, has warned of an offensive, not only on Mariupol, but also on other places, cities and villages. In a video posted on his Telegram channel, he said, “First we will completely liberate Luhansk and Donetsk, and then we will take Kyiv and all the other cities.”
In other developments…
- Shelling claimed two lives in northeast Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, on Sunday morning, regional governor Oleg Sinegoubov said, the day after 10 civilians, including a child, died in bombing southeast of the city, according to authorities. “The Russian army continues to wage war on civilians due to a lack of victories at the front,” Sinegoubov said on Telegram.
- Satellite images show the presence of a Russian military convoy east of Kharkiv. The images show a military convoy about 12 km long – made up of armed vehicles, trucks with artillery trailers and support equipment – moving south through the town of Velkyi Burluk, east of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine.
- In Dnipro, a large industrial city of a million inhabitants, a rain of Russian missiles nearly destroyed the local airport, causing an uncertain number of casualties, local authorities said. It had already been struck on March 15.
- President Volodymyr Zelensky again condemned atrocities against civilians, and after speaking with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said they had agreed “that all perpetrators of war crimes must be identified and punished”.
- Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova said the country was examining the alleged culpability of 500 leading Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, for thousands of war crimes.
- And White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan pledged the US would “work with the international community to make sure there’s accountability” for what he called “mass atrocities”.
- Launching his own diplomatic initiative, Austrian Chancellor Nehammer said he would meet Putin today in a move his spokesman insisted was coordinated with “Berlin, Brussels and… Zelensky”. Austria is a member of the European Union, but not of NATO. Nehammer will be the first European leader to visit the Kremlin since the invasion began on February 24.
- The UN on Sunday said 4,232 civilian casualties had been recorded in Ukraine to date, with 1,793 killed and 2,439 injured. Ukraine’s prosecutor Venediktova said 1,222 bodies had been found in the region around Kyiv alone so far.
- The war is taking a heavy toll on the region’s economy as well. The World Bank on Sunday issued a dire forecast, saying Ukraine’s economy would collapse by 45.1% this year – a much bleaker outlook than it predicted even a month ago – while Russia would see an 11.2% decline in GDP.
- In a bid to shore up international resolve against Moscow, US President Joe Biden is to hold virtual talks on Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, just weeks after saying India had been “shaky” in its response to the invasion. A US spokesperson said the two leaders would consult on ways to offset the “destabilising impact (of the war) on global food supply and commodity markets”.
- At the same time, EU foreign ministers are to meet Monday to discuss a sixth round of sanctions, even as divisions over a ban on Russia gas and oil imports threaten to blunt their impact.
- A Russian defence ministry statement, meanwhile, said the Kyiv authorities and their western allies were continuing to stage “monstrous and merciless” provocations and murder civilians in the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic in the southeast.
- As the war raged on in Ukraine and the massacres continued, Pope Francis called for an Easter ceasefire to pave the way for peace, denouncing a war where “defenceless civilians” suffered “heinous massacres and atrocious cruelty”.
- On the other hand, Russian Patriarch Kirill, a close ally of President Putin, has invited supporters to unite to fight “Moscow’s internal and external enemies”. Kirill, whose church has about 150 million followers, has repeatedly supported the military operation in Ukraine in his sermons.
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck engaged again
Eighteen years after their ‘first time’, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are engaged again after, to the delight of fans, the two stars last year rekindled their story of love. It was Jennifer who shared her announcement with a video clip in which she admires what appears to be the engagement ring: a large green stone, her favourite colour. Lopez, who is 52, and Affleck, three years younger, were engaged for the first time in November 2002, after starring together in the film “Gigli”, a 2003 American romantic comedy crime film. However, the following year, literally at on the eve of the wedding, the wedding was cancelled, officially due to “too much media attention”. In January 2004 the two broke up. The couple “Bennifer”, as they are nicknamed, have five children, she two with ex-husband Marc Anthony while the Oscar winner for “Argo” and ex-wife Jennifer Garner have had three.