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Taiwan health insurance system one of the best in world

By Dr. Shih-Chung Chen

Dr Shih-Chung ChenTAIPEI, April 30: This year marks the 24th anniversary of Taiwan’s implementation of universal health coverage. Taiwan’s National Health Insurance (NHI) covers the full spectrum of essential and high-quality health services, from prevention and treatment to rehabilitation and palliative care.

In the 1960s, Taiwan’s progressive health sector began the process of incorporating laborers, farmers, and government employees into the health insurance system. It is now widely regarded as one of the best in the world. The NHI ranked 14th in the 2017 Global Access to Healthcare Index of The Economist, and ninth (9th) in the 2018 Health Care Efficiency Index of Bloomberg Finance.

The success of Taiwan’s NHI can be attributed to several key factors. First, it adopted a single-payer model with contributions from individuals, employers, and the government. A supplementary premium is also charged based on payers’ income levels.

Second, to control medical expenses, a budget payment system was adopted to set caps on healthcare costs paid by the government. Under these caps, Taiwan’s medical expenses accounted for only 6.4% of GDP in 2017, lower than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average. In the same year, the NHI’s administrative costs were kept under 1 percent of its total budget, and the public satisfaction rate was 86%.

Third, the NHI’s integrated preventive health care services and pay for performance programs have ensured a high quality of healthcare and encouraged continued improvement of health standards. Fourth, to reduce health inequalities, premium subsidies are provided to disadvantaged groups such as low-income households and the unemployed.

The provision of preventive and primary healthcare is the most cost-efficient approach to achieving universal health coverage. Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare has developed tools utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing to access the massive databases it has built over the past 24 years.

For instance, the MediCloud system was launched to enable healthcare providers to query patients’ medical records within the NHI system, while the PharmaCloud system provides prescription drug information to physicians and pharmacists.

Currently, through digital cloud tools, community-based primary care providers in Taiwan can retrieve test reports, including computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasounds, gastroscopies, colonoscopies and X-rays from secondary and tertiary institutions and receive prescription information.

These digital health technologies have enhanced care services in many ways. They have improved the quality of care and reduced costs, in terms of both time and money, by properly matching health services with the locations where these services are provided. They have also lowered the potential risks arising from repeated examinations. Related systems are patient-centered, meaning that they are organized around the complex needs and expectations of patients and communities, helping realize the concept of good hospitals in the community and good doctors in the neighborhood.

Taiwan has learned how to utilize its competitive advantages in information technology (IT) and medicine to deliver better care and enhance the health of the overall population. In response to the goals set by the Health Workforce 2030 of the World Health Organization (WHO), Taiwan has also provided scholarships for in-service programs and higher education to thousands of people, both Taiwanese and foreign nationals, in fields such as medicine, nursing, dentistry, healthcare administration and public health.

At a time when achieving universal health coverage has never been more urgent and important, Taiwan has actively sought to share its first-rate experience in healthcare reform. Regrettably, political obstruction has deprived Taiwan of the right to participate in and contribute to the World Health Assembly, WHO’s decision-making body.

In the past two years, WHO has denied Taiwanese delegates, who represent the 23.5 million citizens of a democratic and peaceful country, access to the assembly. Nevertheless, Taiwan remains committed to enhancing regional and global health cooperation, sharing its experience and capacity in healthcare reform with countries in need including India, and making universal health coverage a reality by 2030.

WHO should abide by its own principles of inclusiveness and universal participation and respond favorably to the widespread calls for Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Assembly and related technical meetings, mechanisms and activities. Taiwan is a worthy and reliable partner that can help countries around the world achieve the meaningful goal of universal health coverage by 2030.

@ Dr. Shih-Chung Chen is Minister of Health and Welfare, Taiwan

Fresh terror attacks threat real: US envoy to Lanka

COLOMBO, April 30: The U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka said on Tuesday that some of the Islamist militants involved in the Easter Sunday bombings on the island were likely still at large and could be planning fresh attacks.

Sri Lankan security forces also said they were maintaining a high level of alert amid intelligence reports that the militants were likely to strike before the start of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan.

“Tremendous progress has been made towards apprehending those plotters but I don’t think the story is over yet,” Ambassador Alaina Teplitz said in an interview. “We do believe that there is active planning under way (for more attacks).”

Scores of suspected Islamists have been arrested in the multi-ethnic island nation since April 21 suicide bomb attacks on hotels and churches that killed more than 250 people, including 42 foreign nationals.

“Security will stay tight for several days because military and police are still tracking down suspects,” a senior police intelligence official said.

Another government source said a document has been circulated among key security establishments instructing police and security forces across the country to remain on high alert because the militants were expected to try a strike before Ramadan.

Ramadan is scheduled to begin in Sri Lanka on May 6.

Teplitz said that the risk of more attacks remained real.

“We certainly have reason to believe that the active attack group has not been fully rendered inactive,” she said.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is assisting Sri Lankan authorities in the investigations but Teplitz declined to give more details.

The government has lifted a ban on social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and viber, a source at the president’s office said. The ban had been imposed immediately after the attacks to prevent the spread of rumours.

The government has also banned women from wearing face veils under an emergency law put in place after the Easter attacks.

Authorities suspect members of two previously little-known groups - National Thawheedh Jamaath (NTJ) and Jammiyathul Millathu Ibrahim - of carrying out the attacks, although the Islamic State extremist group has claimed responsibility.

Authorities believe Zahran Hashim, the founder of NTJ, was the mastermind and one of the nine suicide bombers.

In India, police said they had arrested a 29-year-old man in the southern state of Kerala, close to Sri Lanka, for planning similar attacks there. The man had been influenced by speeches made by Zahran, the government’s National Investigation Agency said in a statement.

Sri Lanka’s 22 million population is mostly Buddhist but includes minority Christians, Muslims and Hindus.

President Tsai calls businesses to invest in Taiwan

By Deepak Arora

TAIPEI, April 29: President Tsai Ing-wen has said that Taiwan’s business environment is going from strength to strength under a host of progressive policies aimed at bolstering the fundamentals of the national economy.

The time is ripe for businesses to invest in Taiwan and take advantage of its advanced infrastructure development, comprehensive intellectual property rights protection, high-caliber human resources and world-leading industrial clusters, Tsai said.

Tsai made the remarks during the groundbreaking ceremony for an R&D facility operated by U.S.-based Super Micro Computer Inc. in Taoyuan City, northern Taiwan.

According to Tsai, the NT$2 billion (US$64.73 million) center is a vote of confidence by Supermicro in Taiwan’s economic outlook. It also augurs well for the success of the high-tech outfit’s plans to invest an additional NT$8 billion in Taiwan and create 2,000 quality jobs for locals, she said.

Tsai said the government has Taiwan on the development fast track via a multipronged approach centered on promoting regulatory easing and industrial innovation, as well as transforming key economic structures.

At the same time, Tsai said, no effort is being spared in cementing connections with Asia-Pacific partners so as to create a better balanced foreign trade portfolio. This will lead to more opportunities for homegrown talents in a variety of emerging industries while supporting further industrial growth, she added.

Government efforts in this regard over the past three years have earned global recognition, Tsai said, citing Taiwan’s 13th ranking in the 2018 Global Competitiveness Report by Geneva-based World Economic Forum and 2019 Doing Business report by Washington-headquartered World Bank.

Equally impressive is the NT$536.5 billion in major investment projects recorded last year, representing an annual increase of 31 percent and a new high in recent years, Tsai added.

It is hoped more foreign firms will follow the example of Supermicro, Tsai said, by capitalizing on Taiwan’s pivotal position in the Asia-Pacific and robust economic climate.

Sri Lanka attack to avenge Syria ouster: IS chief Baghdadi in first video in 5 years

COLOMBO, April 29: In a major development, the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group has praised the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka and apparently called them revenge for the fall of Baghouz, Syria - the last territory that the extremist group held in West Asia.

The US-based SITE Intelligence Group said the acknowledgement of the Sri Lanka attack by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came during his first propaganda video in five years.

The 18-minute video released on Monday by Islamic State’s al-Furqan media arm suggests Baghdadi filmed the video prior to the Sri Lanka attack.

It is his first video appearance since he delivered a sermon at al-Nuri mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, declaring himself the “caliph” of the territory IS held. The Easter bombings in Sri Lanka killed over 250 people.

Earlier in the day, Sri Lankan security officials warned that militants behind the suicide bombings are still planning imminent attacks and could be “dressed in military uniforms”.

The militants were targeting five locations for attacks on Sunday or Monday, security sources said. Also, female bombers posing as devotees may have been planning to attack Sri Lanka’s Buddhist temples, a media report said on Monday.

Tsai meets US senators, vows to deepen security partnership

By Deepak Arora

TAIPEI, April 28: President Tsai Ing-wen met with a U.S. delegation led by Sens. Chris Coons and Maggie Hassan at the Presidential Office in Taipei City, pledging to deepen the robust security partnership between the two sides.

Strong security collaboration is underscored by U.S. support for enhancing Taiwan’s national defense capabilities through such measures as regular arms sales, Tsai said. This cooperation is crucial to regional peace and stability and in the shared interests of all members of the Indo-Pacific community, she added.

As the two sides mark the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA40), the president expressed gratitude for firm bipartisan backing of Taiwan in the U.S. Congress.

Evidence of this support is provided by the introduction of the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019, Tsai said. This proposed legislation is targeted at cementing ties in areas spanning security and trade, as well as bolstering Taiwan’s international participation.

According to Tsai, Taiwan is willing and able to expand its contributions to the global community, and looks forward to boosting the Taiwan-U.S. partnership based on the solid foundation built over the past four decades.

Echoing the president’s remarks, Coons said that the purpose of the delegation’s visit is to reinforce strong relations consistent with the TRA. Discussions during the group’s stay in country are expected to span issues like the Taiwan-U.S. economic partnership and regional security, he added.

Noting that this marked her first visit to East Asia, Hassan said that she was delighted to conclude her multicounty trip in the vibrant city of Taipei and witness firsthand Taiwan’s economic strength and entrepreneurial spirit.

Over 270 die in Indonesia counting ballot papers by hand during elections

JAKARTA, April 28: Ten days after Indonesia held the world’s biggest single-day elections, more than 270 election staff have died, mostly of fatigue-related illneses caused by long hours of work counting millions of ballot papers by hand, an official said on Sunday.

The April 17 elections were the first time the country of 260 million people combined the presidential vote with national and regional parliamentary ones, with an aim to cut costs.

Voting was largely peaceful and was estimated to have drawn 80 percent of the total 193 million voters, who each had to punch up to five ballot papers in over 800,000 polling stations.

But conducting the eight-hour vote in a country that stretches more than 5,000 km (3,000 miles) from its western to eastern tips proven to be both a Herculean logistical feat and deadly for officials, who had to count ballot papers by hand.

As of Saturday night, 272 election officials had died, mostly from overwork-related illnesses, while 1,878 others had fallen ill, said Arief Priyo Susanto, spokesman of the General Elections Commission (KPU).

The Health Ministry issued a circular letter on April 23 urging health facilities to give utmost care for sick election staff, while the Finance Ministry is working on compensation for families of the deceased, Susanto added.

The KPU has come under fire due to the rising death toll.

“The KPU is not prudent in managing the workload of staff,” said Ahmad Muzani, deputy chairman of the campaign of opposition presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, reported by news website Kumparan.com.

Prabowo, who independent pollsters said was the loser of the 2019 polls based on quick counts, had alleged widespread cheating and his campaign claimed some officials punched ballots in favour of incumbent President Joko Widodo. Widodo’s security minister said the allegations were baseless.

Both candidates have declared victory, though quick counts suggested Widodo won the election by around 9-10 percentage points.

The KPU will conclude vote counting and announce winners of the presidential and parliamentary elections on May 22.

Lanka police chief resigns over Easter bombings: Prez Sirisena

COLOMBO, April 26: Sri Lanka’s top police official, Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara, has resigned over failures that led to the deadly Easter bomb attacks, the country’s president said Friday.

“The IGP has resigned. He has sent his resignation to the acting defence secretary. I’ll nominate a new IGP soon,” President Maithripala Sirisena told reporters.

Sirisena’s nominee has to be confirmed by a constitutional council.

The resignation comes after the country’s top defence ministry official, defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando resigned on Thursday.

Sri Lanka releases pictures of 6 suspects, including 3 women, as police intensifies search ops

COLOMBO, April 26: Sri Lanka Thursday released photographs of six suspects, including three women, wanted for their involvement in the deadly Easter attacks that killed nearly 250 people as police intensified search and arrested 16 people, taking the number of those under custody to 76.

Nine suicide bombers, believed to be the members of local Islamist extremist group called National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ), carried out a series of devastating blasts that tore through three churches and three luxury hotels on Easter Sunday.

Police Thursday night released the names and pictures of three men and three women and sought information regarding them from the public.

Earlier, officials said that with the arrest of 16 more people on Wednesday, the total number of suspects under police custody has risen to 76.

The arrested people were being interrogated at length by the investigation sleuths in connection with the bombings.

Many of the arrested people have suspected links to the NTJ, the group blamed for the bombings. However, the NTJ has not claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks and identified suicide bombers who carried out the devastating blasts.

Authorities have deployed thousands of troops to help police carry out search operations.

Over 5,000 army personnel have been deployed around the country.

“During the last 24 hours, there have been no major incidents. We have deployed over 6,300 troops. This includes 1,000 from the Airforce and 600 from the Navy,” military spokesman Brigadier Sumith Atapattu said.

Meanwhile, a minor explosion happened behind the magistrate’s court at Pugoda, the western province town, 40 Kms north of Colombo.

The police said that the explosion occurred in a garbage dump and that there were no injuries. A probe has been launched to ascertain the cause.

Search operations of suspected properties, arrests and detention of people and to place road blocks for such operations have been facilitated by the newly-enforced emergency regulations.

The regulations were adopted without a vote in Parliament on Wednesday. The curfew will be imposed at 10 PM.

Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the head of the local catholic church, has asked all churches to stop masses until the situation improved, his office said.

On Wednesday, the Sri Lankan government admitted that “major” intelligence lapses led to the horrific coordinated attacks.

Sri Lanka’s defence secretary resigns following suicide bomb attacks

COLOMBO, April 25: Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando told Reuters on Thursday that he had resigned, taking responsibility for the suicide bomber attacks on the country last Sunday.

He said that while there had been no failure on his own part, he was taking responsibility for failures of some institutions he headed as the secretary of defence.

He said that security agencies were actively responding to intelligence they had about the possibility of attacks before they were launched.

“We were working on that. All those agencies were working on that,” he said.

The Easter Sunday bombings on churches and luxury hotels killed at least 359 people and wounded about 500.

Sri Lanka bombings death toll rises to 359; More suspects arrested

COLOMBO, April 24: Police say the death toll in the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka has risen to 359 and more suspects have been arrested.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara also said Wednesday morning that 18 suspects were arrested overnight, raising the total detained to 58.

The prime minister warned on Tuesday that several suspects armed with explosives were still at large.

Another top government official said the suicide bombings at the churches, hotels and other sites were carried out by Islamic fundamentalists in apparent retaliation for the New Zealand mosque massacre last month.

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka attacks and released images that purported to show the attackers. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that investigators were still determining the extent of the bombers’ foreign links.

ISIS claims responsibility for Sri Lanka bombings that killed 321

COLOMBO, April 23: Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the terrorist blasts in Sri Lanka, as investigations into Sunday’s coordinated attacks that killed 321 people intensify.

The group’s Amaq News sent a tweet citing a ‘security source’ as saying the attacks were the work of ‘fighters of the Islamic State.’

Interpol has joined the investigation to help identify potential international connections, with attention also focused on a second extremist group known as Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen.

In a special session of the parliament today, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene said investigators were probing links between the local jihadist group National Thowheed Jamath and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen. He noted the Easter Sunday bombings could have been retaliation for the terrorist attacks on two New Zealand mosques last month.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe vowed that Sri Lanka would not allow the attacks to lead to another war, referring to the three-decade civil war that ended in 2009.

‘The intelligence agencies have reported that there were international organizations behind these acts of local terrorists,’ President Maithripala Sirisena said in a statement. ‘Hence, it has been decided to seek international assistance for investigations.’

The government said other nations had shared intelligence ahead of the blasts. Seven suicide bombers carried out the Easter Sunday assault on churches and luxury hotels, targeting Christians and foreign tourists, it said.

Over 40 suspects were in custody, national police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera said Tuesday.

An internal police memo dated April 11 warned a group called National Thowheed Jamath planned to bomb Catholic churches and the Indian High Commission, cabinet minister Harin Fernando tweeted soon after the attack. Wickremesinghe said authorities had received warnings but “not enough attention had been paid.”

‘There had been several warnings from foreign intelligence agencies about the impending attacks,’ Sri Lanka’s Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said at press conference in Colombo on Monday. ‘Persons named in intelligence reports are among those arrested. Some named in the reports had died during attacks. We are now investigating international support for the group and their other links.’

A special emergency parliament session was held Tuesday, with the country’s leaders still deeply divided after six months of political infighting that’s left the economy struggling.

Last October, former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa was suddenly appointed prime minister by President Maithripala Sirisena, leading to a constitutional crisis. Wickremesinghe, the deposed prime minister, was reinstated in December after a Supreme Court decision.

Sri Lanka confirmed that 31 foreigners who died in the attacks had been identified -- including citizens of India, Portugal, France, Turkey, Australia, Japan, the U.K. and U.S. -- and said 14 foreigners were still unaccounted for. Most were targeted at the Shangri-La, Kingsbury and Cinnamon Grand hotels in the capital.

President Trump called Wickremesinghe to pledge U.S. support “in bringing the perpetrators to justice,” White House said in a statement overnight.

Chinese citizens were warned against traveling to Sri Lanka, the embassy said in a statement on its website.

Billionaire fashion tycoon Anders Holch Povlsen, Denmark’s wealthiest man, lost three of his four children, the Press Association reported, citing Jesper Stubkier, communications manager for Holch Povlsen’s wholesale fashion business Bestseller.

The terrorist attack was a marked shift from the brutal conflict between the predominately Buddhist Sinhalese majority and mostly Hindu Tamil minority that fueled the civil war.

Catholics, split between the Sinhalese and Tamils, make up 6.5 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, according to the nation’s 2012 census. Buddhists account for 70 percent of the total, while Hindus and Muslims make up the rest.

In the early 1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -- known as the Tamil Tigers -- began fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The conflict, marked by the use of child soldiers and human-rights violations on both sides, killed more than 100,000 people before Rajapaksa’s government won a decisive victory in 2009.

Some people with explosives on the run, more attacks possible: Sri Lanka PM

COLOMBO, April 23: Sri Lanka’s prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Tuesday that some people with explosives were on the run and that more attacks are possible.

He said he believed the Easter day attacks had links to Islamic State, after the militant group claimed responsibility for the bombings in which more than 300 were killed.

Ranil Wickremesinghe told reporters that the government’s security agencies were monitoring Sri Lankans who had joined Islamic State and returned home.

“We will be following up on IS claims, we believe there may be links,” he said.

290 killed, 500 hurt in Lanka Easter blasts; Emergency imposed

COLOMBO, April 22: Sri Lanka said on Monday it was invoking emergency powers in the aftermath of devastating bomb attacks on hotels and churches, blamed on militants with foreign links, in which 290 people were killed and nearly 500 wounded.

The emergency law, which gives police and the military extensive powers to detain and interrogate suspects without court orders, will go into effect at midnight on Monday, the president’s office said.

Colombo, the seaside capital of the Indian Ocean island, was jittery on Monday. Police said 87 bomb detonators were found at the city’s main bus station, while an explosive went off near a church where scores were killed on Sunday when bomb squad officials were trying to defuse it.

'A night curfew will go into effect at 8 p.m., the government announced.

There was no claim of responsibility for the attack but suspicion was focusing on Islamist militants in the Buddhist-majority country.

Investigators said seven suicide bombers took part in the attacks while a government spokesman said an international network was involved.

Police had received a tip-off of a possible attack on churches by a little-known domestic Islamist group some 10 days ago, according to a document.

The intelligence report, dated April 11, said a foreign intelligence agency had warned authorities of possible attacks on churches by the leader of the group, the National Thawheed Jama’ut. It was not immediately clear what action, if any, was taken on the tip-off.

Police said 24 people had been arrested, all of whom were Sri Lankan, but they gave no more details.

International anti-terrorism experts said even if a local group had carried out the attacks, it was likely that al Qaeda or Islamic State were involved, given the level of sophistication.

Two of the suicide bombers blew themselves up at the luxury Shangri-La Hotel on Colombo’s seafront, said Ariyananda Welianga, a senior official at the government’s forensic division. The others targeted three churches and two other hotels.

A fourth hotel and a house in a suburb of the capital Colombo were also hit, but it was not immediately clear how those attacks were carried out.

“Still the investigations are going on,” Welianga said.

Ukraine leaps into unknown after comic elected president

KIEV, April 22: Ukraine leapt into the unknown Monday after comedian Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president on promises of change but with just a vague blueprint of what he might do as leader.

Zelensky, whose previous experience in the world of politics was playing the president on TV, trounced incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a stinging rebuke to the establishment fuelled by anger over war and social injustice.

Ukrainians looked to the future with hope and anxiety after the performer took 73 percent of the vote on Sunday, according to nearly complete official results.

The star of “Servant of the People”, a sitcom now in its third season, has vowed to pursue the pro-European course set out by his predecessor.

But Zelensky has also said he wants to improve ties with arch-enemy Russia.

On election night he appeared to taunt the Kremlin however, when he told people in fellow post-Soviet countries that “everything is possible.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday it was “too early to talk about President Putin congratulating Zelensky, or about the possibility of working together.”

Ties between Ukraine and Russia were shredded after a bloody uprising ousted a Kremlin-backed regime in 2014, prompting Moscow to annex Crimea and support insurgents in a conflict that has claimed around 13,000 lives.

On the streets of Kiev, many praised the elections as a fair and peaceful transfer of power after popular uprisings of 2004 and 2014.

Zelensky -- who at 41 is to be Ukraine’s youngest ever president -- has a vague progamme and it remained unclear who would fill top positions, including the role of prime minister.

He shunned traditional campaign rallies, instead performing comedy gigs, and implied he would use the same unorthodox style to run the country of 45 million that depends on international aid.

US President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron called the political novice to congratulate him, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged support.

In a joint letter to Zelensky on Monday, EU Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker expressed admiration for Ukrainians’ “strong attachment to democracy and the rule of law.”

“You will now truly be the Servant of the People,” British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt told Zelensky on Twitter.

European observers praised Ukraine’s election as “competitive and held with respect for fundamental freedoms” while regretting that the campaigns were thin on substance.

“The runoff was well-organised, despite operational challenges and a limited timeframe,” the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted.

The Kremlin said it respected the choice of the people but questioned the legitimacy of the polls, noting that “three million” Ukrainian citizens living in Russia could not vote there.

Kiev refused to open polling stations at its diplomatic missions in Russia.

Zelensky has said that among his top priorities are securing the release of Ukrainians being held prisoner by Russia and rebooting moribund Western-brokered peace talks.

But many doubt the political neophyte will be able to turn around the country and take on hugely influential oligarchs.

Questions have been raised over his close ties to self-exiled tycoon Igor Kolomoysky.

The outgoing president said he would not quit politics and stood ready to help his successor, despite a bitter campaign.

Poroshenko’s faction has the most seats in the legislature and new parliamentary polls are due in October.

The Ukrainian president has strong powers over defence, security and foreign policy but will need parliament backing to push through reforms.

290 killed, 500 hurt in Lanka Easter blasts, 24 suspects arrested

COLOMBO, April 22: The death toll from attacks on churches and luxury hotels across Sri Lanka rose significantly to 290, and about 500 people were also wounded, police said on Monday.

Five Indians were among those killed in the bombings in Sri Lanka, confirmed India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Monday.

At least 290 people were killed, among them dozens of foreigners.

Sri Lankan authorities have arrested 24 people from the minority Muslim community in connection with the multiple blasts that rocked the island nation on Sunday.

Eight apparently co-ordinated explosions targeted Easter worshippers and high end hotels popular with international guests.

An improvised bomb discovered at the main airport in Colombo was defused late Sunday, police said.

A nationwide curfew imposed on Sunday shortly after the blasts was lifted early Monday, with a steady stream of people and tuk tuks on the streets of Negombo.

There was still a heavy security presence at the city’s St Sebastien’s Church, the scene of one of the devastating blasts.

Sri Lanka’s small Christian minority -- just six percent of the 21 million-strong population -- has been targeted by violence in the past, but never to such brutal effect.

At least two of the explosions involved suicide bombers, including one who lined up at a hotel breakfast buffet before unleashing carnage.

Japan’s foreign ministry said one of its nationals was among the dead.

The churches targeted included the historic St Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, where the blast blew out much of the roof.

Bodies lay on the floor of the church, covered in patterned scarves and white sheets, some of them stained with blood.

Shattered roof tiles and shards of glass littered the floor, along with chunks of plaster blasted from the walls by the explosion.

Ukraine Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky Wins Presidential Election By Landslide

KIEV, April 21: Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky swept to victory in Ukraine's presidential election Sunday, an exit poll showed, as millions of voters weary of war and economic hardship rebuked the ruling elites and ushered in fresh uncertainty for their geopolitically pivotal nation.

Zelensky, a 41-year-old TV star with no political track record, won 73 percent of the vote in the runoff election, according to national exit poll results broadcast by Ukrainian television. President Petro Poroshenko, who was running for his second five-year term, received just 25 percent, according to the poll.

"To all Ukrainians, no matter where you are, I promise that I will never let you down," Zelensky said after the results came in. "Though I'm still not president, I can say as a Ukrainian citizen to all the countries of the former Soviet Union: Look at us. Everything is possible."

The comedian had been heavily favored going into the election, holding a decisive lead in the polls in recent weeks. His surge to the top of a crowded field of candidates in the presidential campaign's first round, and his apparent landslide win on Sunday, reflected the disdain with which many Ukrainians see their political establishment five years after their pro-Western revolution.

Zelensky's experience in politics amounts to playing the Ukrainian president on a popular sitcom. But amid a continuing war in eastern Ukraine, economic travails and popular revulsion over allegations of government corruption, Zelensky's anti-establishment, antiwar and reformist message captured the support of a wide cross-section of the country.

"I voted for Zelensky because everything he said is true," said Viktoriia Bengalska, a 45-year-old secretary in Kiev. "It's impossible to survive on this salary, prices have increased like crazy, and we were promised something totally different."

Zelensky's apparent victory is the latest in the global trend of political outsiders harnessing TV and social media to outmuscle the unpopular establishment. It is likely to reverberate in Russia and elsewhere across the former Soviet Union, where few other countries can claim a democratic system that would allow a comedian to unseat the sitting president. And it prompts questions about Ukraine's strategy in its conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin - with whom Zelensky has promised to negotiate while not detailing how.

"Zelensky doesn't have experience, and Putin is a very dangerous adversary," said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst in Kiev. "There's a lot of risk here."

Ukraine, a country of more than 40 million people, is pivotal to Putin's effort to maintain a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Putin annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula and backed separatists in eastern Ukraine after popular protests toppled a Moscow-friendly president in Kiev in 2014. A successful democracy in Ukraine - which shares deep historic, linguistic and cultural links with Russia - could also energize opposition within Russia to Putin's autocratic rule.

In Russia, both pro-Kremlin and independent news media broadcast live feeds of Friday's stadium debate between Poroshenko and Zelensky, a spectacle offering a striking contrast to the lack of a domestic challenge to Putin. "We want it like in Ukraine," said a headline in the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti.

Zelensky has said he will maintain Ukraine's pro-Western course, and he has pledged not to give away any territory in negotiations with Putin. But he has signaled greater flexibility than Poroshenko in potential negotiations over the war in eastern Ukraine, sparking optimism as well as concern that he could be outmatched by the Kremlin.

207 killed, 450 injured in Sri Lanka serial blasts; 8 suspects arrested

COLOMBO, April 21: At least 207 people were killed and hundreds more injured in eight blasts that rocked churches and hotels in and just outside Sri Lanka’s capital on Easter Sunday, officials said, pitching the South Asian island nation into the worst chaos it has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the blasts as a terrorist attack by religious extremists. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the violence could trigger instability in the country and its economy. He further added that eight suspects have been arrested in the connection with serial blasts.

Since the end of the nation’s 26-year civil war, in which the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from ethnic Sinhala Buddhist majority Sri Lanka, the country has seen sporadic ethnic and religious violence.

But the scale of Sunday’s bloodshed recalled the worst days of the war, when the Tigers and other rebels set off explosions at Sri Lanka’s Central Bank in downtown Colombo, a busy shopping mall, an important Buddhist temple and tourist hotels.

Wickremesinghe said his government would “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to take action against those responsible” for Sunday’s attacks, “regardless of their stature.”

The nearly simultaneous first six blasts Sunday morning toppled ceilings and blew out windows at a famous Catholic church in Colombo, the capital, and at three luxury hotels in the city. The other two occurred at St. Sebastian Catholic church in Negombo, a majority Catholic town north of Colombo where footage showed people dragging the injured out of blood-splattered pews, and at the Protestant Zion church in the eastern town of Batticaloa.

Three police officers were killed while conducting a search operation at a suspected safe house in Dematagoda, on the outskirts of Colombo, where the last of eight blasts took place.

After police moved into Dematagoda, at least two more blasts occurred, with the occupants of a safe house apparently blasting explosives to prevent arrest.

Shops were closed and streets deserted in Colombo even before the government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said 207 people were killed and 450 wounded in the blasts.

Two of the blasts were suspected to have been carried out by suicide bombers, a senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters. Worshippers and hotel guests were among the dead, the official said.

Sri Lanka’s foreign secretary, Ravinath Aryasinghe, said the bodies of 27 foreigners were recovered from the blast sites.

Countries around the world condemned the attacks, and Pope Francis added an appeal at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing to address the massacre.

Speaking from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica, Francis said, “I want to express my loving closeness to the Christian community, targeted while they were gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence.”

“I entrust to the Lord all those who were tragically killed and pray for the injured and all those who are suffering as a result of this dramatic event,” the pope added.

Sri Lanka, a small island nation at the southern tip of India, has a long history with Christianity. Christian tradition holds that St. Thomas the Apostle visited Sri Lanka and southern India in the decades after the death of Christ.

The majority of the island’s Christians are Roman Catholic.

St. Anthony’s Shrine and the three hotels where the blasts took place are frequented by foreign tourists.

Local TV showed damage at the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels.

The Shangri-La’s second-floor restaurant was gutted in the blast, with the ceiling and windows blown out. Loose wires hung and tables were overturned in the blackened space.

A police magistrate was at the hotel to inspect the bodies recovered from the restaurant. From outside the police cordon, three bodies could be seen covered in white sheets.

Alex Agieleson, who was near St. Anthony’s Shrine, said buildings shook with the blast, and that a number of injured people were carried away in ambulances.

The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called on Sri Lanka’s government to launch a “very impartial strong inquiry” and to punish those found responsible “mercilessly because only animals can behave like that.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemned the “devastating” attacks, and referred to the March 15 shootings at two mosques in her country’s city of Christchurch in which 50 people died.

“New Zealand condemns all acts of terrorism and our resolve has only been strengthened by the attack on our soil,” Ardern said. “New Zealand rejects all forms of extremism and stands for freedom of religion and the right to worship safely.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the blasts “an assault on all of humanity,” while Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced them as “cruel and cynical.”

British Prime Minister Teresa May said on Twitter, “We must stand together to make sure that no one should ever have to (practice) their faith in fear.”

Foreign tourists on the Classic Sri Lankan tour hurriedly took to their cellphones to text family and loved ones around the world that they were OK after the blasts.

The group was on a 15-day tour of the tropical island nation, seeing sites including huge Buddhist monuments, tea plantations, jungle eco-lodges and famed sandy beaches.

The tour started last week in Negombo, a majority Catholic town north of Colombo where one of the blasts hit a church. It was to end in Colombo, but tour operators said the group may change its itinerary and decide to skip Colombo in light of the attacks.

As the nearest major town to the country’s main airport, Negombo is a gateway for many travelers visiting Sri Lanka. Although not among the country’s top beach destinations, it is home to plenty of hotels and resorts popular with foreign visitors.

“Having experienced the open and welcoming Sri Lanka during my last week travelling through the country, I had a sense that the country was turning the corner, and in particular those in the tourism industry were hopeful for the future,” said Peter Kelson, 41, a technology manager from Sydney. “Apart from the tragedy of the immediate victims of the bombings, I worry that these terrible events will set the country back significantly.”

Sri Lankan security forces in 2009 defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who had fought to create an independent homeland for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils. The U.N. initially estimated the death toll from 26 years of fighting to be about 100,000 but a U.N. experts’ panel later said some 45,000 ethnic Tamils may have been killed in the last months of the fighting alone.

Government troops and the Tamil Tigers were both accused of grave human rights violations, which prompted local and international calls for investigations.

Fire devastates historic Notre Dame, some treasures saved

PARIS, April 16: Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames on Monday in a roaring blaze that devastated the Parisian landmark, one of France’s most visited places. Flames burst through the roof of the centuries-old cathedral and quickly engulfed the spire, which collapsed.

Notre Dame blaze has been put under control after nine hours of firefighting. “The fire is completely under control. It is partially extinguished, there are residual fires to put out.” Paris firefighters have spent hours battling the devastating blaze at Notre Dame, saving the main structure of the Gothic cathedral from total destruction.

Around 400 French firefighters faced a rapidly spreading fire at Notre Dame as they arrived on the scene Monday evening, but appeared to have prevented the complete destruction of the cathedral and managed to rescue some of its priceless artifacts by rushing inside, officials said.

The exact cause of the blaze was not known, but French media quoted the Paris fire brigade as saying the fire is “potentially linked” to a 6 million-euro ($6.8 million) renovation project on the church’s spire and its 250 tons of lead.

The inferno destroyed the roof of the 850-year-old UNESCO world heritage landmark, whose spectacular Gothic spire collapsed as orange flames and clouds of grey smoke billowed into the sky. The blaze then spread to one of its landmark rectangular towers. The 12th-century cathedral is home to incalculable works of art and is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, immortalized by Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Canada removes mention of Sikh extremism

Toronto/New Delhi, April 13: The Canadian government has bowed to domestic political compulsions and completely scrubbed all references to Sikh and Khalistani extremism in its 2018 report on terrorist threats, much to the chagrin of India.

Indian officials are aghast at the perceived capitulation to pressure from some community groups in Canada, and described the updated version of the “2018 Public Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada” as a “full retreat” by Ottawa.

The updated version was released on Friday, about 24 hours before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was scheduled to attend a Vasakhi parade, organised in Vancouver by the Khalsa Diwan Society, with national defence minister Harjit Sajjan.

The erasure of eight references to Sikh extremism and organisations and six references to Khalistan, the so-called homeland sought by some radical groups, came against the backdrop of reports that pressure groups in the Sikh community had threatened Canada’s ruling Liberal Party with dire consequences in an election year.

Officials from both countries familiar with developments acknowledged the new version of the report is the outcome of domestic political compulsions in Canada, especially efforts by political parties to woo the influential Indian and Sikh communities. The officials, who declined to be named as they weren’t authorised to speak to the media, acknowledged counter-terror and security cooperation at the level of officials is robust, but there is a gap as far as the higher level of Canada’s political leadership is concerned.

They traced the problem to several Indian-origin ministers in Canada.

“This is why we are seeing this dichotomy, of having cooperation at the level of officials that is not seen at the higher levels,” said an Indian official.

Sikh and Khalistani extremism figured in a meeting of the bilateral joint working group on counter-terrorism in Ottawa during March 26-27. A joint statement issued after the meeting said the two sides “discussed the reference for the first time to the threat from Khalistani extremism in Public Safety Canada’s 2018 annual report”.

Sikh and Khalistani extremism had figured for the first time in the report issued by Public Safety Canada in December 2018. The original report said Canada continues to face threats from “individuals inspired to commit violence based on other forms of extremism, including from...Sikh (Khalistani) extremists”. It added attacks by Khalistanis in Canada were extremely limited, but “some Canadians continue to support these extremist groups, including through financing”.

The updated report has a note which states that while “outlining a threat, it must be clearly linked to an ideology rather than a community”. It adds: “The Government will carefully select terminology that focuses on the intent or ideology. For example, as a first step, the Government will use the term: Extremists who support violent means to establish an independent state within India; rather than terminology that unintentionally impugns an entire religion.”

However, references to other religious groups remain in the amended report, including to Sunni and Shia extremism. The changes are restricted to the section originally titled Sikh/Khalistani extremism, now called “Extremists who Support Violent Means to Establish an Independent State Within India”.

Those who campaigned for deleting references to Sikh and Khalistani extremism reacted with satisfaction.

Sukhminder Singh Hansra, who is openly pro-Khalistan and heads a chapter of Shiromani Akali Dal (Amritsar), said he thanked the Canadian Sikh community for raising its “collective voice against the derogatory words” in the report. “As a result, the government of Canada realised their mistake and eliminated the words ‘Sikh (Khalistani)’. Though I express satisfaction over the change, concern remains under what circumstances did the Trudeau government include these defamatory, derogatory and hurtful words in the report...as they do not reflect Canadian values,” he said.

The officials cited above said matters hadn’t been helped by the lack of high-level visits between the two sides, especially after Trudeau’s controversial trip to India in February 2018. Despite the impact of that visit, New Delhi has been determined to push forward the bilateral relationship, Indian officials said.

Canada’s leadership appears to be “treading a fine line” as, on one hand, it wants to maintain ties with a growing economy such as India but, on the other hand, some sections continue wooing Khalistanis, who make up a minor segment of the overall Sikh community, Indian officials said. India has also pointed to the presence of Canadian leaders at “pro-Khalistan events” but the other side “has not been forthcoming” on this issue, the officials added.

Kim gains more power in N Korea leadership shuffle

SEOUL, April 12: North Korea has replaced its long-serving head of state with a close aide to leader Kim Jong Un, promoting a man who was placed on a US sanctions list last year for alleged human rights abuses, state media said Friday.

The move came as part of a top-ranking reshuffle that analysts said further cemented Kim’s already unshakeable grip on power.

Kim also acquired a new title, and now becomes “the supreme representative of all the Korean people” -- a newly-created role that observers say makes him more like a modern national leader, on a par with other country’s presidents and prime ministers.

Kim Yong Nam, the now-91-year-old who held the position of the North’s head of state -- an almost entirely ceremonial role -- for almost 20 years, was replaced by Choe Ryong Hae, the state-run KCNA said.

As the new president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Choe is technically head of state, although real power in North Korea is wielded by Kim and his immediate family.

The reshuffle comes at a time of heightened diplomatic activity that has seen Kim Jong Un hold landmark summits with the leaders of the US, China and South Korea.

Born in 1950, Choe is considered Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man -- frequently referred to as the regime’s “virtual number two official”, having been key to the party’s hierarchy since the 1980s.

Some reports have even suggested that one of Choe’s sons is married to Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong.

Choe is also one of the three North Korean officials placed under sanctions by the US last year over human rights abuse allegations.

Analysts said, however, the existing strictures on Choe will have little impact on his future diplomatic endeavours, as long as its nuclear dialogue with the US continues.

“Kim Yong Chol, the North’s top nuclear negotiator, also has been sanctioned by Washington since 2010,” said Ahn Chan-il, the president of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul.

“But he visited Washington without a problem earlier this year. Washington will always make exceptions -- as long as Pyongyang has something to offer.”

Kim’s new job adds to a growing list of titles he has accrued since he took power after the 2011 death of his father.

Analysts say it may also indicate a change in the country’s constitution that concentrates more authority in the young leader.

“If Pyongyang indeed revised its constitution, then it just means Kim Jong Un now has more power than ever,” said analyst Ahn.

“If that’s the case, Kim will be the one who will be officially representing Pyongyang both at home and abroad”.

Unlike his father, Kim Jong-Il, the young Kim has increasingly greeted foreign heads of state and visiting dignatories, performing the functions of a modern head of state.

Jeong Young-tae, an analyst at the Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says the new title is part of Pyongyang’s efforts to “secularise” Kim and his power.

“Kim Jong Un wants to re-brand North Korea as a ‘normal’ socialist country in the world stage,” he said.

“The new title ‘representative’ is a break from some of his previous titles that are redolent of a religious cult.”

Bombing at open-air market in Pakistan’s Quetta kills 16

QUETTA, April 12: At least 16 people were killed and 30 wounded in a bomb blast Friday at a fruit market in Pakistan’s southwestern city of Quetta, said officials.

Mohsin Butt, provincial police chief for Balochistan, gave the death toll and said eight ethnic Shia Hazaras were among the victims, along with one security official and workers from the market.

The Hazara, whose Central Asian features make them easily recognisable, are a soft target for Sunni militants who consider them heretics.

Senior police official Abdul Razaq Cheema said the blast had taken place in the Hazarganji neighbourhood of Quetta, Balochistan’s capital.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

But Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, is Pakistan’s largest and poorest province, rife with ethnic, sectarian and separatist insurgencies.

Hazara make up roughly 500,000 of Quetta’s population of 2.3 million. They are so frequently targeted that police chief Butt said the victims in Friday’s blast were given police protection every time they visited the fruit market.

“The same happened today, there were police and FC (Frontier Constabulary) guarding them when the blast occurred,” he said.

Police are investigating what kind of blast it was, he added.

Violence in Pakistan has dropped significantly since the country’s deadliest-ever militant attack, an assault on a school in the northwestern city of Peshawar in 2014 that killed more than 150 people, most of them children.

Israeli PM Netanyahu wins record fifth term in office: Report

JERUSALEM, April 10: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won the Israeli national election, securing a record fifth term in office, TV Channel 12 said on Wednesday.

With 96 percent of the votes counted, Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud won 37 of Knesset seats, against 36 for centrist Blue and White, headed by Netanyahu’s rival, former general Benny Gantz.

Though neither party captured a ruling majority in the 120-member Knesset, the results, published eight hours after voting ended on Tuesday, put Netanyahu in a strong position to form a coalition government with right-wing factions.

MDP sweeps Maldives polls

MALE, April 8: The Maldivian Democratic Party led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih swept to a historic victory in Saturday’s parliamentary polls, winning 65 seats from the 87-member People’s Majlis.

The four parties that backed Solih in September’s presidential election contested separately after the MDP decided to stand alone. Coalition partner Jumhooree Party made a pact with former president Abdulla Yameen’s Progressive Party of Maldive-People’s National Congress alliance to support each other’s candidates.

Provisional results show the JP won five seats after fielding 41 candidates and the PPM and PNC together won eight seats after fielding 46 candidates.

Independent candidates won seven seats and the PPM’s former coalition partner Maldives Development Alliance won two seats.

The Elections Commission has so far announced provisional results for 40 constituencies with the rest to be announced Monday night.

After planning to start announcing results on Sunday night, EC chief Ahmed Shareef said the delay was caused by the need to check sheets and “further verify some issues.”

The EC hopes to announce official results by April 12.

The outgoing 18th parliament is due to end its final session this month and the MPs-elect will be sworn in on May 28.

Pak military admits F-16s were used against India

ISLAMABAD, April 1: After claiming for weeks that Islamabad had not used US-manufactured F-16 fighter jets in its attempted counter-strike against India, the Pakistan military appeared to change its stance on Monday and insisted that Islamabad had the right to use any fighter jet in its “legitimate self defence”.

Pakistan had so far claimed that its air force had only used the Chinese JF17 jets in its action against India, not the US-made F-16. It also claimed that its fighter jets shot down two IAF jets. India has contested Islamabad on both points.

Indian officials believe Islamabad had to tweak its stand in face of mounting evidence with New Delhi and Washington that had nailed Pakistan’s claims.

India had shared with the US including call signs associated with PAF F-16s and specific details of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air To Air Missile (AMRAAM) used by the intruding fighting falcons.

In a statement on Monday evening, the Pakistan military attempted a partial course correction to the narrative that it had been articulating since the February 27 aerial dogfight.

In this, the military’s Inter Services Public Relations statement on Monday said the JF17 jets of the Pakistan Air Force had carried out the 27 February strikes on Indian targets from within Pakistan airspace.

“Later when 2 Indian jets crossed LOC they were shot down by PAF. Whether it was F16 or JF17 which shot down 2 Indian aircrafts is immaterial. Even if F-16 have been used as at that point in time complete PAF was airborne including F16s, the fact remains that Pakistan Airforce shot down two Indian jets in self defence,” the Pak military’s ISPR statement said.

Pakistan’s denial on use of the F-16 fighters is linked to the condition imposed by the United States that the fighter jets will not be used in aggression against any other country, but only in the war against terror.

“Pakistan retains the right to use anything and everything in its legitimate self defence,” the statement said.

Turkey Prez Erdogan party loses Ankara, Istanbul in local elections

ANKARA, April 1: Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan suffered a severe setback on Sunday as his ruling AK Party lost control of the capital Ankara for the first time in a local election and he appeared to concede defeat in the country’s largest city, Istanbul.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics since coming to power 16 years ago and ruled his country with an ever tighter grip, campaigned relentlessly for two months ahead of Sunday’s vote, which he described as a “matter of survival” for Turkey.

But the president’s daily rallies and overwhelmingly supportive media coverage narrowly failed to win over the country’s capital or secure a clear result in Istanbul, as Turkey’s economic downturn weighed heavily on voters.

“The people have voted in favour of democracy, they have chosen democracy,” opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said, declaring that candidates for his secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) had taken Ankara and Istanbul from the AK Party and held their Aegean coastal stronghold of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city,

Defeat for Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party in Ankara was a significant blow for the president. Losing Istanbul, where he launched his political career and served as mayor in the 1990s, would be an even greater symbolic shock and a broader sign of dwindling support.

With 99.8 percent of ballot boxes opened in Ankara, CHP mayoral candidate Mansur Yavas had secured 50.9 percent, giving him a 3.8-percentage-point lead over his AKP rival. State-owned Anadolu Agency said the AKP would appeal in some districts of the capital.

In Istanbul, Turkish TV channels showed that AKP candidate and former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim had the narrowest of leads over his rival Ekrem Imamoglu – 4,000 votes out of 8 million counted – with 98.8 percent of ballot boxes opened.

Yildirim declared victory, but his claim was challenged by Imamoglu who said CHP data showed he had an unassailable lead.

In a speech to supporters in Ankara, Erdogan appeared to accept AKP defeat in Istanbul, although he maintained that most neighbourhoods in the city were held by his party. “Even if our people gave away the mayorship, they gave the districts to the AK Party,” he said.

The party would appeal results wherever needed, he added.

Erdogan pledged that Turkey would now focus on its troubled economy in the run-up to national elections in 2023. “We have a long period ahead where we will carry out economic reforms without compromising on the rules of the free-market economy,” he told reporters.

Turkey’s most prominent leader since the founder of the Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan’s support has been based on strong economic growth and backing from a core constituency of pious, conservative Muslim Turks.

A consummate campaigner, he has been the country’s most popular – although divisive – modern politician, tightening his hold on power in elections last year that ushered in an executive presidency, approved in a bitterly fought 2017 referendum.

But a currency crisis after last year’s election dragged the lira down by 30 percent and tipped the economy towards recession. With inflation close to 20 percent and unemployment rising, some voters appeared ready to punish the president.

Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo political risk advisers, said the AK Party had lost seven of the country’s 12 main cities, even without taking Istanbul into account.

“It’s a bad night for the AK Party,” he said. “They have done very poorly in all the economic powerhouses of country. For a party which portrays itself as pro-business, it’s a huge issue.”

The lira traded at 5.61 to the dollar after initial results came in, compared with 5.55 at Friday’s close and 5.65 in U.S. trading hours late on Friday.

The election was marred by violence, with two people killed in Malatya province and three others in the southern province of Gaziantep, Turkey’s electoral board said.

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