Labour routs Tories in local polls, demands UK election

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Saturday, 4th May 2024.

Britain’s Labour Party has urged beleaguered Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to call a general election, after making huge gains in polls. Labour, out of power since 2010 and trounced by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives at the last general election in 2019, won a host of local council seats and mayoral contests as well as the Blackpool South parliamentary seat on Friday. Labour leader Keir Starmer said the emphatic victories nationwide, which included winning a new mayoral post encompassing Sunak’s own northern English constituency, sent the prime minister a clear signal. “Voters in Blackpool South have sent a direct message to Rishi Sunak: make way, let’s have a general election,” he said after visiting Blackpool to congratulate the new MP there, Chris Webb.

Sunak must order a general election to be held by 28th January next year at the latest. He insisted voters will re-elect his Conservatives, as he sought solace in a Tory mayor winning a third term in Tees Valley, in northeast England, albeit with a vastly reduced majority. “Come a general election, (voters) are going to stick with us too,” Sunak said, as he celebrated the rare Conservative win, for Ben Houchen, on an otherwise dismal day of results. The embattled prime minister, in charge since October 2022, had earlier conceded results so far had been “disappointing” but noted many were still to be announced. “I am focused completely on the job at hand: that’s delivering for people across the country,” he told reporters.

For Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, it’s generally been a stellar set of results, though in some areas with large Muslim populations, such as Blackburn and Oldham in northwest England, the party’s candidates appear to have suffered as a result of the leadership’s strongly pro-Israel stance in the conflict in Gaza.

Thursday’s elections in large parts of England were important in themselves, with voters deciding who will run many aspects of their daily lives, such as garbage collection, road maintenance and local crime prevention, in the coming years. But with a general election looming, they are being viewed through a national prism. John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, told BBC radio the results so far indicate that the Conservatives are losing around half of the seats they are trying to defend. “We are probably looking at certainly one of the worst, if not the worst, Conservative performances in local government elections for the last 40 years,” he said. By mid-afternoon Friday, with around half of the 2,661 seats up for grabs counted, the Conservatives were down 213 while Labour was up 92. Other parties, such as the centrist Liberal Democrats and the Green Party also made gains.

One bright spot for the Conservatives was the result in Tees Valley, which prior to Brexit had been a traditional Labour stronghold. However, Houchen’s vote share was down nearly 20 percentage points at 54 per cent from 2021. Sunak struck a defiant note in Teesside as he congratulated Houchen on his victory, while admitting “disappointing” results elsewhere. “I’ve got a message for the Labour Party too, because they know that they have to win here in order to win a general election, they know that,” he said. “They assumed that Tees Valley would stroll back to them, but it didn’t.” Sunak will be hoping Andy Street will remain mayor of the West Midlands when that result is announced on Saturday. Also Saturday, Labour’s Sadiq Khan is expected to remain mayor of London, though there are some concerns being voiced that a low turnout may see him lose to Conservative opponent Susan Hall.

Israel said to give Hamas one week ultimatum

Israel has given Hamas one week to agree to the hostage deal on the table or it will launch its long-pledged offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah, The Wall Street Journal reports. Howe ver, the report doesn’t specify when the ultimatum was given, but quotes Egyptian officials speaking Friday, meaning Hamas would have until next Friday to agree to the deal. On the other hand, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been threatening to enter Rafah for months, claiming repeatedly during that period that an invasion was imminent. WSJ says Hamas will likely respond to the latest proposal with an updated offer of its own, rather than rejecting it outright.

‘Our delegation will be in Cairo tomorrow’ – Hamas

Hamas meanwhile Friday night confirmed, in a statement released on its website, the presence of its delegation in Cairo today, Saturday. “In light of the recent contacts with the brother mediators in Egypt and Qatar, the Hamas delegation will travel to Cairo tomorrow, Saturday, to complete the discussions” their note specifies. “We will go to Cairo to reach an agreement. We in the Hamas movement and the Palestinian resistance forces are determined to complete the agreement, so as to satisfy the demands of our people for the complete cessation of aggression, the withdrawal of the occupation forces, the return of the displaced, help for our people, the start of reconstruction and the conclusion of a serious exchange agreement”, the statement continues.

UN says Gaza rebuild could take 80 years, cost $50 billion

A report released by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that fully rebuilding Gaza could take decades and cost between $40 billion and $50 billion. “The scale of the destruction is huge and unprecedented… this is a mission that the global community has not dealt with since World War II,” Abdallah al-Dardari, the UNDP’s Regional Director for Arab States told a briefing in Jordan. In the best-case scenario, in which the war would end today and construction materials would be delivered five times as fast as following the last crisis in 2021, rebuilding efforts could be completed by 2040. However, assuming the pace of reconstruction follows the trend of several previous Gaza conflicts, the UNDP report said it would take “approximately 80 years to restore all the fully destroyed housing units”. At least 370,000 housing units in Gaza have been damaged, including 79,000 that have been destroyed completely, the report said. In 2014, after 51 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, there were 2.4 million tons of debris in Gaza, Al Dardari said. In the current conflict, there are already 37 million tons of debris that need to be cleared to make space for temporary shelters and other structures, he added. The rough estimate for the cost of the overall reconstruction of Gaza is between $40 billion and $50 billion.

‘Rafah offensive would lead to a bloodbath’ – WHO

WHO “is deeply concerned that a large-scale military operation in Rafah, Gaza Strip, could lead to a bloodbath and further weaken an already failing health system,” WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus writes on X.

Civilian deaths as Israelis attack cities in southern Lebanon

Israeli fighter jets launched an attack on the bases of the Lebanon-based Shiite organisation Hezbollah near the town of Bint Jbeil in the south of the country. Broadcaster Al Manar and Tass report attacks were also carried out in the villages of Aitaroun and Maroun El Ras where several houses were destroyed. They said 77 civilians were killed in the bombing attacks in southern Lebanon since the start of the war, while the Shiite militia has lost more than 300 fighters. In its Telegram channel, Hezbollah highlighted that its fighters have launched several attacks against Israeli troops in the last 24 hours.

IDF launches an attack in the Gaza Strip

Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have launched an attack on the central part of the Gaza Strip. According to the Al Mayadeen TV channel, some people were injured following the attack in Nuseirat

British jurists call for suspension of arms sales to Israel

More than 600 British jurists, including three retired judges from the UK Supreme Court, are calling on the government to suspend arms sales to Israel, piling pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after the deaths of three British aid workers in an Israeli strike. Britain is just one of a number of Israel’s longstanding allies whose governments are under growing pressure to halt weapons exports because of the toll of the six-month-old war in Gaza. In an open letter to Sunak, the lawyers and judges said the UK could be complicit in “grave breaches of international law” if it continues to ship weapons. Signatories, including former Supreme Court President Brenda Hale, said Britain is legally obliged to heed the International Court of Justice’s conclusion that there is a “plausible risk of genocide” in Gaza. Other allies of Israel are also facing calls to cut off the supply of weapons and to push for a cease-fire in the conflict.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Thursday that his country had stopped selling weapons to Israel, and urged other nations to do the same. Sanchez said Wednesday that his government has left “the door open” to diplomatic actions against Israel over its “insufficient” explanation of the aid workers’ deaths. In February, Canada announced it would stop future shipments, and the same month a Dutch court ordered the Netherlands to stop the export of F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel. The Dutch government said it would appeal. Other countries, including Israel’s two biggest arms suppliers – the United States and Germany – continue to allow weapons sales. Germany is one of Israel’s closest allies in Europe and, given memories of the Holocaust, treads carefully when criticising Israel. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz has increasingly voiced unease, asking Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at a meeting last month how any goal can “justify such terribly high costs”.

ICC demands end to threats against court amid Gaza war probe

The prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has appealed for an end to what it calls “intimidation of its staff”, saying such threats could constitute an offence against the “administration of justice” by the world’s permanent war crimes court. The Hague-based office of ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan said in a statement on Friday that all attempts to impede, intimidate or improperly influence its officials must cease immediately. While the prosecutor’s statement did not mention Israel, it was issued after Israeli and US officials had warned of consequences against the ICC if it issues arrest warrants over Israel’s war on Gaza. Over the past week, media reports have indicated that the ICC might issue arrest warrants for Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, over the country’s conduct in Gaza. The court may prosecute individuals for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The Israeli military has killed nearly 35,000 people in Gaza and destroyed large parts of the territory since the start of the war on October 7.

EU, NATO condemn ‘malicious’ Russian cyber attacks

The European Union and NATO have denounced Russia for launching cyber attacks against Germany and the Czech Republic. “The malicious cyber campaign shows Russia’s continuous pattern of irresponsible behaviour in cyberspace, by targeting democratic institutions, government entities and critical infrastructure providers across the EU and beyond,” Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, said in a statement on Friday on behalf of the 27 member states. “The EU will not tolerate such malicious behaviour, particularly activities that aim to degrade our critical infrastructure, weaken societal cohesion and influence democratic processes,” he added, referring to the June elections to the European Parliament. Using similarly critical language, NATO called on Moscow to abide by its “international obligations” and stressed the alliance would “employ the necessary capabilities in order to deter, defend against and counter the full spectrum of cyber threats”.

150,000 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine war – France

France estimates that 150,000 Russian soldiers have been killed sincde Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said in an interview published today. Speaking to Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe, Sejourne said Paris estimated total Russian casualties, including wounded, at 500,000 in the war, now in its third year. “Europe and its partners will remain united and determined, for as long as necessary. Russia’s military failure is already apparent. We estimate Russian military losses at 500,000, including 150,000 deaths,” he said. “All of this for what?” he asked. “This can be summed up in two words: ‘for nothing’,” he said. Russia has not disclosed information on its casualties.

We will not send soldiers to Ukraine – Tajani

“We have always said that we are not at war with Russia and therefore we will not send Italian soldiers to fight in Ukraine,” Italian Foreign Minister, Antonio Tajani said answering journalists on the statements of French President Emmanuel Macron. “We defend the right of Ukraine to be an independent state. But we are not, I repeat, at war with Russia. Our position is always this. We have never changed our mind. We defend freedom, independence, but we are working to build peace.” Meanwhile,  Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, receiving the President of the Swiss Confederation Viola Amherd at Palazzo Chigi, “guaranteed Italy’s commitment to the organisation in Switzerland of the high-level conference on peace in Ukraine, in line with international law and with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.

WHO urges countries to finalise pandemic accord

The head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Friday urged countries to agree to an accord to help fight future pandemics as negotiations approach a deadline this month. The new pact and a series of updates to existing rules on dealing with pandemics are intended to shore up the world’s defences against new pathogens after the Covid-19 pandemic killed millions of people. One of the main points of disagreement between wealthy countries and developing states is the vexed issue of sharing drugs and vaccines fairly to avoid a repeat of Covid-era failures.

Milei-Sanchez spat deepens

Spanish Transport Minister Oscar Puente’s allusions to Argentine President Javier Milei’s alleged consumption of “substances” have sparked a harsh rebuke from Buenos Aires. In a statement released late on Friday on behalf of the Office of the Argentine Presidency, not only are the “slanders and insults” of Minister Puente rejected, but the President of the Spanish Government himself, Pedro Sanchez, is invited “to deal with problems more important such as the corruption charges against his wife”. The statement continues by hoping for “swift action by justice for the good of the Kingdom of Spain” and stating that “the scandal undermines the stability of your nation and therefore also its relations with Argentina”. The note also concludes by criticising Sanchez’s alliance with separatist parties which would have “endangered the unity of the kingdom leading to the dissolution of Spain”.

39 killed, 70 still missing in Brazil rains

Heavy rains battering Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul have killed 39 people, local authorities have said, and the death toll is expected to rise as dozens still have not been accounted for. Rio Grande do Sul’s civil defence authority said 68 people were still missing and at least 24,000 had been displaced as the storms affected more than half of the 497 cities in the state, which borders Uruguay and Argentina.

‘Biden is like Obi Wan Kenobi’ – Luke Sky Walker

Mark Hamill, the actor who became famous for playing the role of Luke Sky Walker in the Star Wars saga, was a guest at the White House and revealed that he had renamed the president ‘Joe B Wan Kenobi’. The star was received in the Oval Office and even received a pair of Aviator sunglasses, the commander-in-chief’s favourite. The 72-year-old actor, a fierce critic of Donald Trump, said Biden told him to call him Joe and he replied that he would call him “Joe-B Wan Kenobi”, from the name of the Jedi Knight, mentor of Luke Sky Walker, played in the saga by Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor .

Photo: Newly elected Labour MP Chris Webb after winning the Blackpool South by-election (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

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