Voting starts in Russian presidential election

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 15th March 2024

Russians began voting on Friday in an election set to prolong President Vladimir Putin’s rule by six more years, as Kiev branded the vote a “farce” and launched a barrage of deadly attacks on border regions. Officials in Moscow warned against any protests during the March 15-17 presidential vote, after calls from the opposition for anti-Putin demonstrations on Sunday. The Kremlin says the vote will show that the country is fully behind his assault on Ukraine and polling stations have been set up in Russian-held territories. Ahead of the election, Kiev ramped up its aerial bombardment of Russian regions just across their shared border. And the Russian national guard said it was fighting off attacks from pro-Ukrainian militias in Kursk, the latest in a string of border clashes.

“I am convinced: you realise what a difficult period our country is going through, what complex challenges we are facing in almost all areas,” Putin said in an address to Russians on the eve of the vote. “And in order to continue to respond to them with dignity and successfully overcome difficulties, we need to continue to be united and self-confident.”

Polling stations opened in Russia’s easternmost Kamchatka peninsula at 8:00 am local time on Friday and are set to close at 8:00 pm (7pm Malta time) on Sunday in Kaliningrad –  a Russian exclave bordering Poland and Lithuania. Election victory will allow Putin to stay in the Kremlin until at least 2030, a longer spell in power than any Russian leader since Catherine the Great in the 18th century. He called on Russians to use the vote to show their unity behind his leadership. “We have already shown that we can be together, defending the freedom, sovereignty and security of Russia,” he said in a video message. “Today it is critically important not to stray from this path,” he said.

Early voting was already underway in occupied territories of Ukraine. The vote will also take place in Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014 – a move that most of the international community refuses to recognise. Ukraine’s foreign ministry on Thursday urged the international media and public figures “to refrain from referring to this farce as ‘elections’ in the language of democratic states”.

EU, NATO critical of Russian election

The European Union and NATO said Russia’s presidential election would be neither free nor fair, a day before polling stations open across the country. “We know, given the track record of how votes are being prepared and organised in Russia under the current Kremlin administration and regime, how this will look like,” EU spokesperson Peter Stano said. “It’s very difficult to foresee that this would be a free, fair and democratic election where the Russian people would really have a choice.” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that there was no viable opposition or freedom of press in Russia. “We know already that opposition politicians are in jail, some are killed, and many are in exile, and actually also some who tried to register as candidates have been denied that right,” he said.

Macron warns Europe Putin won’t stop with Ukraine

French President Emmanuel Macron called President Vladimir Putin’s Russia an adversary that would not stop in Ukraine if it defeated Kiv’s troops in the two-year-old conflict, urging Europeans to not be “weak” and to get ready to respond. Macron caused controversy last month after he said he could not rule out the deployment of ground troops in Ukraine in the future, with many leaders distancing themselves from that while others, especially in eastern Europe, expressed support. “If Russia wins this war, Europe’s credibility will be reduced to zero,” Macron said in a television interview mostly directed at a domestic audience, after French opposition leaders criticised his comments as bellicose. Macron said he “deeply” disagrees with the opposition leaders. “Today, deciding to abstain or vote against support to Ukraine, it’s not choosing peace, it’s choosing defeat,” he said. He said it was important for Europe not to draw red lines, which would signal weakness to the Kremlin and encourage it to push on with its invasion of Ukraine. He refused to give details on what a deployment to Ukraine might look like. “I don’t want to do so. I want Russia to stop this war and retreat from its positions and allow peace,” he said. “I’m not going to give visibility to someone who is not giving me any. This is a question for President Putin.”

Vice President of Russian energy company dies ‘suddenly’ of suicide

Russian news media reported on Thursday the sudden death of Vitaly Robertus, Vice President of the country’s oil and gas giant Lukoil, writing that the manager died from suicide in his office this week. Just before his death, local media wrote that Robertus had complained of suffering headaches and asking for medications before going to his office. He was later found hanged in the room. In March 2022, the board of the privately-owned company called for an end to the conflict in Ukraine. Robertus is the fourth Lukoil’s manager and the latest in a long list of tycoons and billionaires to suddenly die under mysterious circumstances since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Israelis deny shooting at people waiting for help

The Arabic-language spokesperson of the Israel Defence Forces, Avichay Adraee, has denied reports in the Arab and Palestinian media according to which the troops of the Jewish State opened fire last night on people waiting for aid in the city of Gaza, killing 21 people. “The latest reports that the IDF targeted dozens of Gaza residents on Thursday evening at a humanitarian aid distribution point are incorrect,” Adraee said in a statement posted on X. The Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry had said at least 21 people had died and 155 others were injured in a new massacre of civilians waiting for help by Jewish state forces near the Kuwait roundabout in the main city. Mohammed Ghurab, director of emergency services at a hospital in northern Gaza, told AFP there were “direct shots by the occupation forces” on people waiting for a food truck. An AFP journalist on the scene saw several bodies and people who had been shot.

Second ship with Gaza aid being loaded in Cyprus

A second ship with food aid to Gaza is being loaded in Cyprus, a charity arranging the mission says, as the first ship in a pilot trial of maritime deliveries nears the Strip. World Central Kitchen (WCK) says it is loading a vessel at Larnaca port with 300 tons of food aid – including legumes, canned tuna, vegetables, rice and flour. “Our pallets should be screened and loaded by the end of the day Cyprus time,” WCK says in a statement, without specifying when the vessel would set sail. Cyprus is screening aid cargos on the island in a process including Israel to eliminate security checks at offloading destinations, officials say. A ship towing a barge carrying almost 200 tons of food aid for Gaza left Cyprus on Tuesday, charting a new route to deliver emergency supplies to a population humanitarian agencies say is at risk of starvation after more than five months of war.

I’m not considering resigning, says Pope

In an autobiography hitting bookshelves on March 19, Pope Francis shares his childhood memories during Argentina’s dictatorship, thoughts on his ministry as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and his belief that serving the most vulnerable is “what every man or woman of God should do”. Italian newspaper ‘Corriere della Sera’ releases several passages from Pope Francis’ autobiographical book entitled “Life. My Story in History”, written with Vatican journalist Fabio Marchese Ragona, set to be released next Tuesday by HarperCollins. In the released passages, the Pope clarified that were he to resign, he would not choose to be called “Pope Emeritus” but simply “Bishop Emeritus of Rome”. In that case, he would live in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore “to return to being a confessor and bring communion to the sick”. The Pope clarified this possible scenario in case of his resignation, which, however, he emphasised, “is a distant hypothesis” because there are no “so serious reasons” to consider this possibility, which he said he never considers, “despite moments of difficulty”. He added that the possibility remains remote, since the Pope “is in good health and, God willing, there are many projects still to be realised”.

Catalan amnesty Bill clears parliamentary hurdle

Spain’s lower house of parliament on Thursday approved an amnesty Bill for Catalan separatists, clearing a major hurdle for a law set to define Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s second term – and one that has led to protests and annoyed judges. Approval for the Bill is positive news for Sanchez after several political setbacks including a Covid face-mask scandal in recent weeks. The Bill was approved by 178 votes to 172. The legislation must still be cleared by the conservative-dominated Senate and the conservative People’s Party has said it will try to block it. But even if the upper house were to veto it, that veto could later be overridden by the lower house. The socialist-led minority coalition government hopes that securing consensus on the controversial Bill will help cement its alliance with the small parties it relies on to get legislation passed. Nonetheless, it decided on Wednesday not to send an already-delayed 2024 budget Bill to parliament after Catalonia unexpectedly called an election for May 12, amid fears the regional political dispute that prompted that move could spill over to the national congress and hurt its own support. In January, in a humiliating defeat for the Socialists, Junts – the Catalan party that sought the amnesty Bill in return for backing Sanchez’s new term last year – voted against it because it could not guarantee certain separatists, including self-exiled leader Carles Puigdemont, would be covered by it. Last week, after weeks of talks, the Socialists, Junts and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya party said they had reached a fresh deal.

Judge denies Trump motion to throw out classified files case

A US federal judge has denied a motion by Donald Trump’s lawyers to throw out a criminal case that accuses him of illegally holding onto classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago mansion. US District Judge Aileen denied the motion on Thursday hours after Trump’s legal team argued that the central charge was too vague. She ruled that the question “warrants serious consideration” but should not be decided at this point. The former president has pleaded not guilty to a 40-count indictment that accused him of retaining classified national security documents at his Palm Beach mansion after he left office in January 2021, and then obstructing US government efforts to retrieve the documents.

60 people feared dead from crossing in Mediterranean

At least 60 people are thought to have died during a small boat crossing in the Mediterranean Sea, according to survivors rescued by a humanitarian organisation. SOS Mediterranee said on Thursday its Ocean Viking vessel saved 25 people, who were found floating on a deflating rubber dinghy. Almost all of them were found to be in a serious condition, exhausted, dehydrated and with burns from fuel onboard the boat. A spokesman for the charity said the survivors were all male, 12 of them minors, and from Senegal, Mali and The Gambia. Accounts from some of those rescued said the boat, which had departed from Libya more than a week ago, initially set off with 85 people onboard, including some women.

EU agrees new firearm trade rules to curb trafficking

The European Union has reached provisional agreement on new rules to make legitimate trade in firearms more transparent in a bid to combat illegal trafficking and keep arms out of the hands of criminals. The new rules, agreed by lawmakers and the Belgian EU presidency, will replace a patchwork of different national rules, which have made it difficult to trade firearms and establish ownership. When the European Commission made its original proposal in October 2022, it pointed to data showing that there were some 35 million illicit firearms in the EU, some 56 per cent of all firearms and that 630,000 firearms were listed as stolen or lost. The new EU regulation is designed to increase traceability.

Tennis: bees stop the match at  Indian Wells

The quarter-final between Carlos Alcaraz and Alexander Zverev in Indian Wells was interrupted due to an invasion of bees on the pitch. The two players were forced to leave the court to escape the insects. In the images, now viral on the web, people are seen running away and the cameras covered by bees. According to some Spanish media reports, Alcaraz’s staff claimed that the player was stung on the forehead. When the match resumed, Alcaraz eliminated German Alexander Zverev (n.6) in the semi-final, winning 6-3 6-1. Alcaraz number 2 in the world will now be the challenger of Jannick Sinner (n.3) in the semi-final of the ATP 1000 tournament in Indian Wells, California.

Photo: AP Photo/picture alliance

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