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Firefighters douse a fire that broke out in a four-story commercial building in Surat
Firefighters douse a fire that broke out in a four-story commercial building in Surat, in the western state of Gujarat, India, May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer NO ARCHIVES. NO RESALES.

May 24, 2019

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – At least 17 people were killed when a fire broke out in a four-story commercial building in the city of Surat in India’s western state of Gujarat on Friday, police said.

Television footage broadcast by private channel NDTV showed people jumping off the top floor of the Takshashila building or trying to escape by climbing down, as thick smoke billowed out.

Most of the dead were students who had been attending class at a tuition center housed in the building, according to the spokesman for the office of Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani.

“The fire started near the staircase, so they could not get down,” Joint Commissioner of Police Harikrishna Patel said, adding that all of the dead were aged below 20 years.

The blaze, likely caused due to an electrical short circuit, started between 3.45-4.00 pm local time and spread rapidly, Patel said.

Television footage showed people trying to grab a large banner on the side of the building as they plummeted down.

Rupani has ordered an inquiry into the incident and asked Mukesh Puri, principal secretary of the urban development department, to submit a report within three days, the spokesman for his office said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter he was thinking of the bereaved families.

“Extremely anguished by the fire tragedy in Surat,” Modi said. “May the injured recover quickly,” he said, adding he had instructed authorities to help those affected.

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui and Devjyot Ghoshal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani, Editing by William Maclean)

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Firefighters douse a fire that broke out in a four-story commercial building in Surat
Firefighters douse a fire that broke out in a four-story commercial building in Surat, in the western state of Gujarat, India, May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer NO ARCHIVES. NO RESALES.

May 24, 2019

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – At least 17 people were killed when a fire broke out in a four-story commercial building in the city of Surat in India’s western state of Gujarat on Friday, police said.

Television footage broadcast by private channel NDTV showed people jumping off the top floor of the Takshashila building or trying to escape by climbing down, as thick smoke billowed out.

Most of the dead were students who had been attending class at a tuition center housed in the building, according to the spokesman for the office of Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani.

“The fire started near the staircase, so they could not get down,” Joint Commissioner of Police Harikrishna Patel said, adding that all of the dead were aged below 20 years.

The blaze, likely caused due to an electrical short circuit, started between 3.45-4.00 pm local time and spread rapidly, Patel said.

Television footage showed people trying to grab a large banner on the side of the building as they plummeted down.

Rupani has ordered an inquiry into the incident and asked Mukesh Puri, principal secretary of the urban development department, to submit a report within three days, the spokesman for his office said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter he was thinking of the bereaved families.

“Extremely anguished by the fire tragedy in Surat,” Modi said. “May the injured recover quickly,” he said, adding he had instructed authorities to help those affected.

(Reporting by Zeba Siddiqui and Devjyot Ghoshal; Writing by Sanjeev Miglani, Editing by William Maclean)

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FILE PHOTO: A trekker stands in front of Mount Everest at Kala Patthar in Solukhumbu District
FILE PHOTO: A trekker stands in front of Mount Everest, which is 8,850 meters high (C), at Kala Patthar in Solukhumbu District May 7, 2014. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar/File Photo

May 24, 2019

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Three Indian climbers and one Nepali guide died on Mount Everest in the past couple of days, taking to seven the total number killed or missing on the world’s highest mountain in this year’s climbing season, Nepali officials said on Friday.

More than 120 climbers scaled Everest on Thursday, but some of them were caught in the crowd of people on the slopes, leading to exhaustion, dehydration and death, the officials said.

Hiking officials say between five and ten climbers die on Mount Everest in an average climbing year.

Two women from India were among those who died.

They were named as Anjali Sharad Kulkarni, 54, from the commercial capital of Mumbai, and 49-year-old Kalpana Das, from the eastern state of Odisha. Both died while descending from the summit, which is 8,850 meters (29,035 feet) high.

The Indian man who died, also while descending, was Nihal Ashpak Bagwan, 27, from India’s western city of Pune.

“Bagwan died of dehydration, exhaustion and tiredness after being caught in the jam of climbers,” said Keshab Paudel of the Peak Promotion hiking agency that handled the climber’s logistics.

“We don’t know for how long the jam lasted nor how many climbers were clogged by a single line near the summit,” Paudel said.

Lhakpa Sherpa of another agency, Arun Treks and Expeditions, said his client, Kulkarni, died of weakness while coming down to Camp IV on the South Col of Everest.

The deaths were confirmed by Mira Acharya, an official of Nepal’s tourism department.

Nepal has issued permits to 379 climbers on Mount Everest in the season, which ends this month.

The Nepali guide fell sick and died on Friday, officials said without giving details. Another Nepali guide perished on nearby Mount Makalu, they said, also without providing more information.

A total of 17 climbers have died or are missing on different Himalayan peaks in Nepal, seven of them Indians, since the start of the climbing season in March.

On the Tibetan side of the mountain there have been additional casualties, though it wasn’t immediately clear how many.

A member of a Swiss team died at 8,600 m (28,215 ft) on the Tibetan side of the mountain on Thursday, according to Everest blogger Alan Arnette, who cited a Swiss operator, Kobler & Partner. The climber’s full name has not been released.

“The winds have returned, plus the routes are extremely crowded on both sides, due to few summit weather windows this spring,” Arnette said on his blog http://www.alanarnette.com/blog/2019/05/23/everest-2019-3-new-deaths-now-6-on-everest-15-overall.

(Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Martin Howell; Editing by Toby Chopra)

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LGBT activists gather for the ruling on whether to uphold or nullify law banning gay sex, outside the Milimani high Court in Nairobi
LGBT activists gather for the ruling on whether to uphold or nullify law banning gay sex, outside the Milimani high Court in Nairobi, Kenya May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

May 24, 2019

By John Ndiso

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Kenya’s high court on Friday upheld a law banning gay sex, keeping same sex relations punishable by 14 years in jail in the conservative East African nation.

Same-sex relationships are a crime in more than 70 countries around the world, almost half of them in Africa. South Africa is the only African nation to have legalized gay marriage.

“We hereby decline the relief sought and dismiss the combined petition,” Justice Roselyn Aburili told a packed courtroom in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, relaying the unanimous opinion of the three-justice panel.

“We find that the impugned sections are not unconstitutional, accordingly the combined petitions have no merit.”

Campaigners who filed the petition to decriminalize gay sex argued that the law violates Kenya’s progressive 2010 constitution, which guarantees equality, dignity and privacy for all citizens.

“We will appeal. We expect that the court of appeal will overturn this erroneous decision which in our view is very biased,” said Eric Gitari, one of the petitioners.

The justices, who began hearing the case last year, threw out the petition, saying the ban on gay sex dovetailed with broader, traditional moral values encapsulated in Kenya’s constitution.

Some gay rights activists wept outside the courtroom after the verdict while supporters of the ban clapped, congratulated each other and yelled “thank you” to the judges’ bench.

Aburili said the constitution still outlaws same-sex marriage but allowing gay sex would “open the door for same sex unions.”

“We cannot be another Sodom and Gomorrah,” Alfred Rotich, a Catholic bishop, told Reuters at the court after the verdict.

In September last year, India’s top court scrapped a similar colonial-era law that punished gay sex with up to 10 years in jail, raising hopes among activists worldwide, including in Africa, for similar reforms elsewhere.

Due to a lack of legal protection, rights campaigners in Kenya say sexual minorities are routinely abused, assaulted by mobs, raped by vigilantes or enslaved by criminals.

(Reporting by John Ndiso; Writing by Elias Biryabarema and Maggie Fick; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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FILE PHOTO: Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony following the talks with President of Congo Republic Denis Sassou Nguesso in Moscow
FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) attends a signing ceremony following talks with President of Congo Republic Denis Sassou Nguesso (L) at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 23, 2019. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina/File Photo

May 24, 2019

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is sending military specialists to Congo Republic to service Russian-made military hardware and equipment there, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday.

Congo borders Central African Republic (CAR), where Moscow has a U.N.-approved mission, and will become one of the few African countries with an officially confirmed presence of Russian military personnel on the ground.

In recent years Moscow has pushed for influence on the continent – where China has a major economic presence – by signing military cooperation deals with around 20 African countries.

Peskov, in a conference call with reporters, disregarded questions on how many military specialists Russia will send to Congo Republic and whether they are regular soldiers or private contractors working for the Russian government.

He said they are expected to service military hardware and munitions that had been supplied earlier.

“Much of this hardware can be still used if there is proper maintenance and these people, who are sent there, will service the munitions,” Peskov said.

The military deal was signed on Thursday after talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Congolese counterpart Denis Sassou Nguesso in the Kremlin.

Russia has donated hundreds of weapons and sent more than 200 trainers to Central African Republic earlier this year to bolster the government’s fight against militia groups after receiving an exemption from a United Nations arms embargo.

Reuters reported earlier that Russian troops and contractors were on assignments in Egypt, Libya and Sudan, though only in the case of Sudan did Russian officials acknowledge the Russian presence.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova and Tom Balmforth; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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FILE PHOTO: Santiago Abascal, leader of far-right party VOX, attends the first session of parliament following a general election in Madrid
FILE PHOTO: Santiago Abascal, leader of far-right party VOX, attends the first session of parliament following a general election in Madrid, Spain, May 21, 2019. Bernat Armangue/File Photo

May 24, 2019

By Belén Carreño

MADRID (Reuters) – Attacks by the far-right Vox party on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights are testing years of political consensus on the issue in Spain, which in 2005 became only the third country in the world to allow same-sex marriage.

In the campaign for this Sunday’s local, regional and EU elections, Vox has pledged to curtail gay pride parades, heaped ridicule on diversity lessons it wants to scrap in schools and has even drawn parallels between homosexuality and bestiality.

The nationalist, anti-immigration Vox won about 10 percent of the votes in a national election last month to become the first far-right party with a significant number of lawmakers since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

It now hopes to enhance its clout in Sunday’s new batch of elections, and in its hunt for votes has shifted the focus of its attacks away from Catalonia’s independence drive and on to the LGBT community.

Since the 2005 approval of the same-sex marriage bill by the parties of the left, center-left and center-right, even the main conservative People’s Party (PP) which vehemently opposed it has changed tack, approving various bills in defense of LGBT rights. Some of its politicians have come out as gay and married their partners.

“Vox has broken the consensus,” said Ruben Lopez, head of the Observatory for anti-LGBTphobia in Madrid. “Those intolerant (of the LGBT community) had lacked a voice that would represent them. Vox is seizing those votes.”

Vox leader Santiago Abascal has said it supports same-sex civil unions but not marriage, and is against LGBT activism even though he said it has “many gays and lesbians” in its ranks. Vox’s one senator made his debut in the upper house of parliament in February by blocking a motion against homophobia in sport.

The Vox candidate for the Madrid regional leadership Rocio Monasterio said on Wednesday that school children as young as eight were being encouraged in class in publicly-funded schools “for boys to try being girls … and talk about zoophilia”, or a sexual interest in animals.

“Certain laws of ideological nature are … imposing gender ideology on our kids,” she said.

MADRID CANDIDATE: “PROBLEMS AND TRAFFIC JAMS”

Regional authorities said no classes of the sort described by Monasterio existed. LGBT rights group Arcopolis, which holds workshops at the region’s schools, said its brochures and classes are aimed at preventing hatred of LGBT people and suppression of one’s sexual orientation by schools and families.

A strong result for Vox at a regional level could place a question mark over educational programs such as Madrid’s that have been run by various regions over the past few years.

The Vox candidate for the Madrid city mayorship, Javier Ortega Smith, said earlier this month he would move the Madrid Gay Pride Parade to a park in the suburbs from the center “because they cause problems and traffic jams”, and make organizers pay to clean up afterwards.

LGBT activists called the comments insulting.

Its anti-LGBT and anti-feminism rhetoric puts Vox closer to the ruling right-wing parties in Poland than to most western European countries, such as France or Holland, where rightist populists have courted LGBT voters by saying they want to protect them from any threats from radical Islamists.

Whether Vox’s tactic pays off remains to be seen. But some have joined the party because of it.

Vicente Robisco, the mayor of a small village, says he left People’s Party for Vox. “Hearing in the news that PP supported kids studying the LGBT community at school made me take the decision right away,” Robisco, 79, told Reuters when asked why he had switched parties.

But some potential voters were less impressed.

“On this, I’m a little against it because I believe that you have to respect gays, lesbians and all this, everyone has the right to be free and decide how they want to be,” said Alejandra Parres, 35, who works in an investment firm, adding that the Gay Pride parade in central Madrid was good for tourism.

(Writing By Andrei Khalip, Editing by Ingrid Melander and William Maclean)

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Afghan security forces keep watch outside a mosque after a blast in Kabul
Afghan security forces keep watch outside a mosque after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

May 24, 2019

KABUL (Reuters) – A bomb exploded in a mosque in the Afghan capital, Kabul, during Friday prayers, officials said, killing three people including a senior preacher and wounding at least 20 men who had gathered for worship.

The preacher, Samiullah Raihan, was a supporter of the Western-backed Afghan government which Taliban militants are trying to bring down. He was also a member of the National Ulema Council, Afghanistan’s top Muslim clerical body.

Firdaws Faramarz, a police spokesman, said explosives were apparently placed near the altar of the Al-Taqwa mosque, a place used by the mosque leader to initiate the prayers.

The neighborhood where the bombing took place is dominated by Sunni Muslims. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack but the Taliban and Islamic State fighters regularly stage attacks in the capital.

The explosion hit at a time when dozens of men had gathered for prayers. The death toll could rise, said a second official.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; Hameed Farzad, Writing by Rupam Jain, Editing by Nick Macfie)

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FILE PHOTO: Rahul Gandhi speaks after casting his vote during general elections in New Delhi
FILE PHOTO: Rahul Gandhi, president of India’s main opposition Congress party, speaks after casting his vote at a polling station in New Delhi, India, May 12, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/File Photo

May 24, 2019

By Mayank Bhardwaj

AMETHI, India (Reuters) – For many outsiders, Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi losing the seat his family has held for decades was the biggest shock of India’s election, which was won, as expected, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling alliance.

But for many voters in Amethi, a sleepy town in India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, it was no surprise.

They said that as Gandhi criss-crossed the country trying to stop Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from retaining power, he all but ignored the constituency that had elected a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty – including his father, mother and uncle – at all but two votes since 1980.

Many Amethi residents said they voted for Smriti Irani, a dogged minister in Modi’s cabinet, because they had very little access to Gandhi and demands for infrastructure such as flyovers were not met fast enough.

Meanwhile Irani, a former TV actress, practically camped out in the constituency she lost to Gandhi in the last election in 2014.

“Gandhi used to work for the development of Amethi, but in the past five years there was hardly any progress in the area,” Sidharth Pratap Singh, a college student told Reuters about the three-time Amethi lawmaker.

“After 2014, most projects announced by him failed to take off and voters gradually started drifting toward Irani.”

Although Gandhi won the second seat he contested in the southern state of Kerala, Congress lay decimated nationwide. It won only 52 seats, compared with the BJP’s tally of 303, according to official vote count.

Indian election rules allow candidates to contest from two seats in one election.

CAMPAIGN SHORTCOMINGS

In Uttar Pradesh, where millions of first time voters took part in Indian’s mammoth multi-week trip to the ballot box, many young people were looking for progress and change.

Balram Kashyap, another college student speaking to Reuters in and around a library in Amethi, pointed to narrow roads pitted with pot-holes and overflowing, open drains as some of the signs of the town’s poor infrastructure.

“The place desperately needs a flyover to ease traffic congestion,” he said. “Rahul Gandhi time and again assured us it would get built. But he couldn’t keep his word.”

Local Congress workers denied Amethi was ignored by Gandhi, saying he had spent about 35 days in his constituency since May 2014, when Modi first came to power.

But they admitted there were shortcomings in their campaign in Amethi, and the Congress chief of the area resigned on Friday, taking responsibility for the defeat.

“Other than falling short in projecting our work, we also failed to counter jingoistic sentiments and communal polarization – factors that helped the BJP take control of Amethi,” said Brajesh Tiwari, a local Congress worker.

Many analysts say Modi mainly rode a wave of nationalism after tension with old foe Pakistan shot up following a deadly militant attack in Kashmir in February. In response, Modi sent warplanes into Pakistan after that, leading to aerial clashes between the two countries.

“Amethi has been electing Rahul Gandhi for a long time, so it made perfect sense for young voters like us to give the BJP at least one chance,” said Sanjay Singh, who is in his final year of college.

(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj in AMETHI; Editing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Alison Williams)

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Men walk in front of Rixos hotel damaged by a rocket in Tripoli,
Men walk in front of Rixos hotel damaged by a rocket in Tripoli, Libya May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

May 24, 2019

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Rockets hit a luxury hotel in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, early on Friday in an attack the internationally recognized government blamed on eastern forces trying to capture the city.

The interior ministry published pictures of a damaged room at the Rixos hotel, where lawmakers opposing the offensive by troops loyal to Khalifa Haftar have been meeting.

No other information about the strike was immediately available.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army has been trying to take Tripoli since the beginning of April but it has been unable to breach southern defenses.

Fighting has been concentrated in southern suburbs but the Rixos is much closer to the city center, next to the former residence of Muammar Gaddafi, who was toppled in 2011.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Men walk in front of Rixos hotel damaged by a rocket in Tripoli,
Men walk in front of Rixos hotel damaged by a rocket in Tripoli, Libya May 24, 2019. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

May 24, 2019

TRIPOLI (Reuters) – Rockets hit a luxury hotel in Libya’s capital, Tripoli, early on Friday in an attack the internationally recognized government blamed on eastern forces trying to capture the city.

The interior ministry published pictures of a damaged room at the Rixos hotel, where lawmakers opposing the offensive by troops loyal to Khalifa Haftar have been meeting.

No other information about the strike was immediately available.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army has been trying to take Tripoli since the beginning of April but it has been unable to breach southern defenses.

Fighting has been concentrated in southern suburbs but the Rixos is much closer to the city center, next to the former residence of Muammar Gaddafi, who was toppled in 2011.

(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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