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Nasim Amiri quit his job selling vegetables to take up arms to defend his local mosque in Kabul, one of the hundreds of civilians recruited to protect Shia religious sites ahead of a key Islamic holy day.

Shia across war-weary Afghanistan are bracing themselves for potential sectarian attacks as they prepare to commemorate Ashura which falls this weekend.

Taliban and Islamic State militants have repeatedly targeted the minority community in recent years and there are fears they will strike again.

Criticised for failing to protect Shia, who number around three million in Afghanistan, the government has taken the unprecedented step of training and arming over 400 civilians to help defend mosques in Kabul.

The move, criticised by some Muslim leaders as inadequate, highlights the impotence of Afghan security forces struggling to get the upper hand in the fight against the Taliban and other Islamist groups.

The plan may be expanded to more cities.

A boy displays religious flags ahead of Ashura along a roadside in Kabul. —AFP
A boy displays religious flags ahead of Ashura along a roadside in Kabul. —AFP

 

Amiri has spent decades living near Baqir ul Ulom mosque, which was attacked last year, and knows “almost every” worshipper who comes to pray in its cavernous halls.

“I will stand against any threats, I don't mind dying for my people,” said 43-year-old Amiri, wearing a traditional salwar kameez.

“We are not true Muslims if we don't go to the mosque during Muharram and for that we need security.” -

A policeman stands guard outside the Baqir-ul-Uloom mosque ahead of Ashura in Kabul. —AFP
A policeman stands guard outside the Baqir-ul-Uloom mosque ahead of Ashura in Kabul. —AFP

 

'People are afraid'

Ashura — the most important Shia observance — falls on the 10th day of Muharram, which is the mourning period for the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

In recent years the sacred day has been marred by deadly violence.

In 2011 a suicide bomber detonated his explosives in the middle of a crowd of worshippers at the main Shia shrine in Kabul on Ashura, killing 80 people, including women and children.

Almost a year to the day later Kabul police said they had arrested two Taliban insurgents with suicide vests who planned to attack Shia worshippers.

Last October gunmen entered the Karte Sakhi shrine near Kabul University and killed 18 people gathering to mark Ashura, an attack claimed by the Islamic State.

The following day at least 14 Shias were killed in a bombing at a mosque in northern Afghanistan. A few weeks later Baqui ul Ulom mosque was targeted when a massive suicide blast claimed by IS killed dozens of worshippers and badly damaged the building.

It took about eight months to repair the Shia mosque, one of the biggest in the Afghan capital, but the trauma suffered by the congregation has proved harder to heal.

“There are fewer worshippers nowadays compared to the time before the attack,” Mohammad Ali Arefi, the imam at the mosque, told AFP.

“Around a third of the people are afraid and don't show up at prayer time anymore.”

Shias across war-weary Afghanistan are bracing themselves for potential sectarian attacks as they prepare to commemorate Ashura which falls this weekend. —AFP
Shias across war-weary Afghanistan are bracing themselves for potential sectarian attacks as they prepare to commemorate Ashura which falls this weekend. —AFP

 

Tight security

Sayed Sadiq Hussaini, 80, who survived the massacre at Baqir ul Ulom, has continued to worship at the mosque in defiance of the threats.

“No one can stop me from coming to the mosque. I will be a martyr if I am killed in a mosque and while praying,” Hussaini told AFP.

The mosque has introduced tighter security this year including body searches and the deployment of five civilian guards along with the same number of police officers.

“We had no other choice but to arm our own people to protect our mosques because the security forces are too busy fighting,” said Siraj Danish, a member of the Baqir ul Ulom mosque council.

Arefi said he planned to restrict Ashura activities to the mosque and its grounds to reduce the possibility of attacks, instead of commemorating the event on the streets like previous years.

But the 67-year-old imam said he hoped the government would come up with a better plan to protect mosques than just giving weapons to civilians.

“I don't think arming five locals will bring a lot of changes to the security of the mosques,” Arefi said.

A man adjusts a scarf on a child ahead of Ashura along a roadside in Kabul. —AFP
A man adjusts a scarf on a child ahead of Ashura along a roadside in Kabul. —AFP

The Peninsula

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has ordered the border with Qatar be reopened to allow pilgrims to carry out their annual pilgrimage to Makkah, official SPA said in Riyadh.

This decision came upon the mediation of Qatar’s envoy H E Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassem Al Thani with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Crown Prince emphasised the “historical relations between Saudi and Qatari people, and between the Saudi leadership and the royal family in Qatar”, the statement added.

King Salman agreed to open the Salwa border crossing allowing all Qatari citizens who want to perform Haj. The King ordered that all Qatari citizens be allowed to cross without the required electronic passes used for pilgrims based on the recommendation of Sheikh Abdullah.

King Salman has ordered the transport of all Qatari pilgrims from King Fahad International Airport in Dammam as well as Al Ahsa International Airport be done free of charge and part of the King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud Program for Haj and Umrah.

In addition to that, King Salman ordered to send Saudi Arabian Airlines planes to Doha to transport all Qatari pilgrims directly to Jeddah and for all their costs to be covered at his expense.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, May 20, (Agencies): President Donald Trump, in the first stop of his maiden trip abroad, received a regal welcome Saturday in Saudi Arabia, feted by the wealthy kingdom as he aims to forge strong alliances to combat terrorism while pushing past the multiple controversies threatening to engulf his young administration.

Trump basked in the pageantry that began with an elaborate airport welcome ceremony punctuated by a military flyover and a handshake from Saudi King Salman.

He later was given a tour of one of Riyadh’s most opulent palaces and sat through an elaborate signing ceremony in which, one by one, the Saudis agreed to military deals with the US government and private businesses. And he largely kept a distance from reporters who were unable to ask about the tumult at home. “That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States,” Trump said after a late day meeting with the Saudi crown prince, his only utterances to the press by late in the day.

“Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.” Trump is the only American president to make Saudi Arabia, or any majority Muslim country, his first stop overseas – a choice designed in part to show respect to the region after more than a year of Trump’s harsh anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric. The visit kicked off an ambitious international debut for Trump. After two days of meetings here, Trump will travel to Israel, have an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican and meet with allies at a NATO summit in Brussels and the Group of 7 powerful nations in Sicily. Trump waved from the doorway after Air Force One touched down and before descending the staircase with First Lady Melania Trump.

The 81-year-old King Salman, who used a cane for support, was brought to the steps of the plane in a golf cart. The leaders exchanged pleasantries and Trump said it was “a great honor” to be there. Several jets then flew overhead leaving a red, white and blue trail. Soon after, Trump tweeted for the first time on international soil as president, writing that it was “great” to be in Saudi Arabia.

At a later ceremony at the grand Saudi Royal Court, the king placed the Collar of Abdulaziz Al Saud, the nation’s highest civilian honor, around Trump’s neck. The medal, given to Trump for his efforts to strengthen ties in the region, has also been bestowed on Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Cooperation
The king and Trump were overheard discussing natural resources and arms, and the king bemoaned the destruction caused by Syria’s civil war. Trump also agreed to a defense cooperation deal with the Saudis, pledging $110 billion effective immediately and up to $350 billion over 10 years, as well as some private sector agreements. The military package includes tanks, combat ships, missile defense systems, radar and communications, and cybersecurity technology. White House officials hope the trip, complete with images of the accompanying pomp and pageantry of a president abroad, will help Trump recalibrate after one of the most difficult stretches of his young presidency. Saudi’s ruling family grew deeply frustrated with Obama’s detente with Iran and his restrained approach on Syria. The king did not greet Obama at the airport as he did Saturday with Trump.

Motto
Billboards featuring images of Trump and the king and emblazoned with the motto “Together we prevail,” dotted Riyadh’s highways, and Trump’s hotel was bathed in red, white and blue lights and, at times, an image of the president’s face. The First Lady and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, both eschewed a headscarf. Trump had criticized former-lady Michelle Obama for not wearing a headscarf during a 2015 visit to the kingdom.

Ivanka’s presence dominated Arabic Twitter traffic, with the phrase “bint Trump” — Arabic for daughter of Trump — trending. On Sunday, he’ll deliver a speech on Islam and hold meetings with more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders, who are converging on Riyadh for a regional summit focused largely on combating the Islamic State and other extremist groups. White House aides view the address as a counter to Obama’s 2009 speech to the Muslim world, which Trump criticized as too apologetic for US actions in the region.

Trump will call for unity in the fight against radicalism in the Muslim world, casting the challenge as a “battle between good and evil” and urging Arab leaders to “drive out the terrorists from your places of worship,” according to a draft of the speech obtained by The Associated Press. The draft also notably did not contain the words “radical Islamic terror,” a phrase Trump repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton for not using during last year’s campaign.

Trump will use this visit to the Middle East to call for unity in the fight against radicalism in the Muslim world, casting the challenge as a “battle between good and evil” and urging Arab Euleaders to “drive out the terrorists from your places of worship,” according to a draft of the speech obtained by The Associated Press. Abandoning some of the harsh anti-Muslim rhetoric of his presidential campaign, the draft of the speech, slated to be delivered in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, envisions new partnerships with America’s traditional allies in the Middle East. It notably refrains from mentioning democracy and human rights — topics Arab leaders often view as US moralizing — in favor of the more limited goals of peace and stability.

“We are not here to lecture — to tell other peoples how to live, what to do or who to be. We are here instead to offer partnership in building a better future for us all,” the document said. Two different sources provided the AP with copies of the draft of his remarks, billed as a marquee speech of the trip. One version, obtained late Thursday, included edits with comments from an administration official, indicating it was still a work in progress. The White House confirmed the draft was authentic, but cautioned the president had not yet signed off on the final product.

“The president has not seen this draft,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said. “This is one of five drafts that have been written by various people. He continues to take input and is writing a final version.” The draft of the speech includes no mention of “radical Islamic terrorism” — a phrase that candidate Trump regularly criticized opponent Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama for shying away from. His speech calls terrorism a widespread problem plaguing everyone who loves peace. He positions himself as an “emissary for the American people, to deliver a message of friendship and hope,” according to the draft.

“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations. This is a battle between those who seek to obliterate human life and those who seek to protect it,” the text reads. “This is a battle between good and evil.” Saudi officials said they aimed to prepare new, streamlined rules covering direct investment by foreign firms within 12 months. Among the deals signed on Saturday, GE said it reached $15 billion of agreements involving almost $7 billion of goods and services from GE itself.

They ranged from the power and healthcare sectors to the oil and gas industry and mining. Jacobs Engineering will form a joint venture with Aramco to manage business projects in the kingdom, and McDermott International will transfer some of its ship fabrication facilities from Dubai to a new shipbuilding complex which Aramco will build within Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, one of the world’s biggest military spenders, is keen to develop a domestic arms industry rather than importing weapons, so several deals were in military industries.

Illegal migrants, who were rescued by the Libyan coastguard in the Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast, arrive at the naval base in the capital Tripoli on May 6. (AFP)

ROME, May 7, (AFP): Some 6,000 migrants hoping to head to Europe were rescued in the Mediterranean on Friday and Saturday in dozens of frantic operations coordinated by the Italian coastguard. Some 3,000 were picked up Saturday by the navy, coastguard, EU border agency Frontex and several NGOs, the coastguard said in a statement. Some of them have already been taken to shore in Italy while others, including 730 onboard a ship operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), were on their way. The Libyan coastguard told AFP it had picked up around 170 migrants off Tripoli on Saturday, but had failed to rescue others “due to a lack of means”.

The rescues came a day after around 3,000 others were found fl oating in rubber boats and on makeshift rafts after having left Libya, heading towards Italy. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) meanwhile said fishermen had rescued 371 migrants Friday off the coast of the Libyan town of Zuwara. Italy and Libya have moved to boost cooperation in recent months in order to cut the number of people risking their lives by attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing.

The Italian government said in a deal signed with Libya in February that it would offer manpower as well as technical assistance to the Libyan coastguard. Rome said this week that it had delivered two speedboats to Libya at the end of last month, with eight more due by the end of June. Some 37,000 people, many of them sub-Saharan Africans, have arrived in Italy from Libya since the start of the year — a figure some thirty percent higher than a year earlier, according to the Italian interior ministry. More than 4,500 migrants died or were missing and feared drowned in 2016, and another 1,000 have met the same fate this year.

Danger
Meanwhile, over 500 migrants who were trying to cross the Mediterranean in several small boats that were in danger of capsizing have been rescued at sea, a Spanish aid organization said Sunday. Proactiva Open Arms spokeswoman Laura Lanuza says the Golfo Azzurro, a former fishing trawler the group operates, plucked 514 migrants from over a dozen rubber and wooden boats during a 24-hour period from Saturday to Sunday morning. The people rescued were refugees fleeing the war in Syria and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa who had set sail from Libya, according to Lanuza.

The rescue boat was filled to capacity and headed for an Italian port since the weather was turning bad, she said. The Golfo Azzurro was operating as part of an NGO rescue fleet coordinated by the Italian coast guard. Also on Sunday, Spain’s maritime rescue service said a rescue boat and helicopter worked together to save three migrants in a small vessel found 4 kilometers ( 2- miles) off the Spanish coast. Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in smugglers’ boats in hopes of a better life in Europe, but thousands die each year trying. Libya is one of the prime launching points.

On Saturday, a Spanish navy frigate rescued another 651 migrants off the coast of Libya. In related news, a Belgium-based group of refugee musicians has banded together in an orchestra that blends musical infl uences as diverse as their home countries from Syria to Tibet. The “Refugees for Refugees” project run by Belgian music school Muziekpublique aims to highlight the cultures of the refugees’ homelands and raise money for refugees with concerts and an album.

The orchestra’s 10 members — all Belgium-based refugees — are musicians from countries including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tibet. One of the musicians, Asad Qizilbash of Pakistan, was a well-known player of the sarod, a stringed instrument with roots in Afghanistan. But he fl ed his country in 2010 after militant groups vandalised his music school and threatened him. He was granted refugee status in Belgium in 2012.

File photo shows Palestinian women and a girl scuffle with an Israeli soldier trying to arrest a 12-year-old boy during a protest near the West Bank village of Nebi Saleh. Former Israeli combat soldiers who were thrust into the center of a diplomatic row between Israel and Germany, say the sudden international spotlight has given them a bigger platform to speak out against Israel’s 50-year occupation of Palestinians. (AP)

TEL AVIV, Israel, May 7, (Agencies): Former Israeli combat soldiers who were thrust into the center of a recent diplomatic row between Israel and Germany, say the sudden international spotlight has given them a bigger stage to speak out against Israel’s 50-year rule over millions of Palestinians.

Breaking the Silence is a group of ex-soldiers-turned-whistleblowers who view Israel’s open-ended occupation of lands sought for a Palestinian state as an existential threat to their country. Since 2004, the group has collected testimony from more than 1,100 fellow soldiers who describe the dark side of that rule, including seemingly routine mistreatment of Palestinian civilians stripped of basic rights.

The veterans hope such accounts by former fighters will carry weight and spark public debate about the moral price of the occupation. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top officials in his nationalist government have a starkly different view. They have branded Breaking the Silence as foreign-funded subversives who are trying to defame Israel and its military.

Shunning
Two weeks ago, he said he would not receive German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel if the visitor stuck to plans to meet with Breaking the Silence. Gabriel chose the soldiers instead. Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, said that shunning visitors who meet with Breaking the Silence is now official policy. The fallout continues this week. The dispute has cast a shadow over what would otherwise have been a routine Israel visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Yehuda Shaul, a co-founder of Breaking the Silence, said the recent attention has been a mixed blessing.

The focus on the diplomatic dust-up “diverts a lot of attention from the real issue, what goes on in the occupied territories,” he said in an interview at the group’s office, tucked away in an old walk-up in a grubby industrial area of Tel Aviv. Israelis have been bitterly divided over what to do with the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, lands they captured in June 1967. Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately after the war and retains overall control over the West Bank, with enclaves of Palestinian self-rule. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and has enforced a border blockade of the territory since it was seized by the Islamic militant Hamas two years later.

Many Israelis support the idea of Palestinian statehood in principle, but believe it’s not safe to cede war-won territories now. Fears were stoked by three Israel-Hamas wars since 2008 and an escalation of regional conflicts. Meanwhile, partition is increasingly difficult, with 600,000 Israelis already living on occupied lands and settlements expanding steadily. Netanyahu has said he is willing to resume partition talks with the Palestinians, but gaps remain wide.

A majority of his Cabinet ministers oppose a two-state solution and some even call for annexing parts of the West Bank, raising fears among some Israelis that their rule over disenfranchised Palestinians will become permanent. Shaul said he and his comrades are the true patriots, not those clinging to occupied territories. The beginnings of Breaking the Silence go back to Hebron, the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city, where hundreds of troops guard roughly the same number of Jewish settlers in an Israeli-controlled center partly off limits to Palestinians.

Anonymous
More than 100 soldiers have gone on the record, while the rest remain anonymous, for fear of repercussions, but are known to the group’s researchers who check their stories, Shaul said. The research department was able to flag four false testimonies by rightwing activists trying to undermine the group’s credibility, he said. All material is submitted to the military censor before publication to avoid inadvertent harm to Israel’s security, he added. Critics allege that the group is hiding behind anonymous testimony to smear Israel soldiers and help Israel’s enemies press future war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court.

They say the group, which does not call for a boycott of Israel, nonetheless feeds into what many Israelis believe is a global trend of unfairly singling out and delegitimizing Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely recently said her office is urging European countries to stop funding what she called “anti-Israel organizations,” including Breaking the Silence.

“We will ask our friends in the world to respect this red line and to stop contributing to this organization,” she said. Some of the group’s defenders in Israel said they believe it and other anti- occupation organizations are being targeted in an escalating government assault on Israel’s civil society.

 

DUBAI, April 18, (Agencies): A Saudi helicopter came down during military operations in Yemen on Tuesday, killing 12 officers aboard, Saudi media reported, and a Yemeni defence ministry news website said the cause was friendly fire.

The death toll was one of the largest in a single incident involving Saudi forces since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen’s war in 2015 to try to roll back the dominant Houthi group and restore President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi to power. The official Saudi news agency SPA quoted a statement from the Saudi-led coalition as saying the Black Hawk came down in Marib province, east of the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa.

“As a result, four officers and eight non-commissioned officers from the Saudi armed forces were martyred,” it said, adding the possible cause of the crash was under investigation. But the Yemeni defence ministry’s 26 September news website quoted an officer in Yemen’s military high command as saying the helicopter was shot down 5 kms (3 miles) from its landing spot because of “a technical fault that caused a misreading of the air defence system, which resulted in the destruction of the plane before it landed”.

It provided no details on who fired at the helicopter. The Houthi-run Saba news agency said the helicopter crashed in an area known as al-Tadaween, northeast of the Marib provincial capital, and that 13 officers and soldiers had died. In September 2015, a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis at a coalition military base in Marib killed more than 60 soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The Saudi-led coalition has recently made gains against the Houthis in western Yemen but fighting on other fronts, including Marib, has been static, with little ground changing hands. The Houthis seized much of northern Yemen including Sanaa in a series of lightning military operations that began in 2014, eventually forcing Hadi to flee.

The coalition accuses Iran of trying to use the Houthis to expand its influence in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab countries. Iran denies this. The Houthis regard their move on Sanaa as a revolution against corruption. Washington wants a return “as quickly as possible” to UN-backed Yemen peace talks, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said as he began a Middle East tour Tuesday in Saudi Arabia. The United States provides limited military support to a Saudi-led coalition which for two years has been fighting in support of Yemen’s government against rebels supported by Iran.

On Wednesday, Mattis will meet the kingdom’s top leaders in Riyadh. Washington provides intelligence as well as aerial refuelling to coalition warplanes conducting air strikes in Yemen with American-supplied weapons.

Rights groups have repeatedly criticised the coalition bombing campaign in Yemen for causing civilian casualties. Asked by reporters about the chance of stepping up American support, Mattis did not reply and instead put the accent on a return to peace talks. “Our aim is that this crisis can be handed to a team of negotiators under the aegis of the United Nations that can try to find a political solution as quickly as possible,” he said as he flew to Riyadh. Seven ceasefires alongside peace efforts by the United Nations have so far failed to stop the fighting. It is necessary to end the “firing of missiles provided by Iran against Saudi Arabia” as well as “the death of innocent people in Yemen”, Mattis said. Yemen’s Houthi rebels allied with troops loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia. Rebels have also shot short-range rockets over the kingdom’s southern border, killing least 130 soldiers and civilians. Washington alleges that Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, has shipped missiles to Yemen but Tehran denies the charge.

A United Nations Panel of Experts in January reported that it “has not seen sufficient evidence to confirm any direct large-scale supply of arms” from Iran. Some in US President Donald Trump’s administration would like to increase American military support for the Saudi-led coalition to better counter Iranian ambitions in the region. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia regularly accuses the Shiite-majority Islamic republic of interference in the Middle East, and Mattis has called Iran the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism”. The UN estimates that more than 7,700 people have been killed over the past two years and more than 40,000 wounded in impoverished Yemen, continwhich faces a serious risk of famine. Riyadh has expressed optimism that Trump’s team will be more engaged in the region, particularly in containing Iran, compared with former president Barack Obama. In December, the Obama administration blocked a sale of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over civilian casualties in Yemen.

PARIS, April 18, (Agencies): French security services on Tuesday swooped on two men accused of plotting an attack just five days before the first round of the presidential election. The men were arrested in the southern city of Marseille by agents from France’s domestic intelligence agency. Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said the attack was to be carried out in the “next few days” by the two men, aged 23 and 29, who are known to be “radicalised”. He gave no further details on the nature of the plot. More than 230 people have been killed in terror attacks in France since January 2015. Candidates have been heavily guarded during the election campaign, but so far there have been few security scares. “Everything will be done to ensure security” for the election, Fekl said. The race was narrowing ahead of Sunday’s vote, with the pack closing behind frontrunners Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, while a quarter of voters remained undecided. For weeks, centrist former banker Macron and National Front (FN) leader Le Pen have been out in front but opinion polls now show there is a very real chance that any of the four leading candidates could reach the second-round runoff on May 7. Scandal-plagued conservative Francois Fillon and far-left firebrand Jean- Luc Melenchon have closed the gap substantially in the last two weeks.

Contest
“We have never seen a four-way contest like this in the first round of a presidential election,” Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute told AFP. “There has been a real tightening of the race with four candidates between 19 percent and 23 percent,” he added. Macron and Le Pen are tied on 22-23 percent, with Fillon improving to around 21 percent and Melenchon surging as high as 20 percent in some polls. With Le Pen expected to reach the second round, polls continue to indicate that whoever faces her will win, although after Brexit and Donald Trump’s US election win, no one is taking anything for granted. Meanwhile, Le Pen sought on Tuesday to turn the debate in the final week of France’s presidential election to immigration as she looked to reverse a dip in polls. Speaking to a rally in Paris on Monday she vowed to suspend all immigration with an immediate moratorium, shield voters from globalisation and strengthen security, subjects that have won her core backing and that she hopes can give her boost with about 30 percent of voters still undecided.

Moratorium
“For several weeks, we will need to assess the situation. The reality is that immigration is massive in our country and that migration flood that we are experiencing is not a fantasy,” Le Pen told RTL radio on Tuesday — fleshing out details of the moratorium announcement.

The measure has not been part of her programme, although she has put on record that she wants to limit annual immigration to just 10,000 people a year. “I will carry out this moratorium for the exact purpose of implementing this 10,000 figure,” she said. Until now, Le Pen has struggled to entice her opponents in the presidential race to debate her party’s trademark tough security and immigration stance. She, by contrast, has been put on the defensive over her position on leaving the euro zone, a proposal that lacks wide support. High noon on Sunday will bring the first hard sign of just how close France’s presidential race really is with the release of early turnout figures for the first round eight hours before expected results.

With indecision also a major factor, polls show the race is so tight between the top four candidates that each has a chance of making the two-person run-off vote — therefore presenting no fewer than six second round scenarios. Reuters research into past elections shows that the lower the firstround turnout, the greater the uncertainty about which two candidates will contest that run-off on May 7. Investors are poring over the arithmetic of past votes for clues about the likelihood of an unexpected result this time. Judging from history, turnout will be the key variable. In past elections, the higher the abstention rate in the first round of voting, the lower the hurdle candidates had to clear in order to qualify.

French bond yields have risen in recent months and equity investors have massively hedged positions in the options market to reduce exposure to the risk of a market-unsettling surprise vote. The Interior Ministry was to publish a first turnout estimate at midday (1000 GMT) on Sunday followed by an update at 5:00 PM, three hours before the last polling stations close at 8:00 PM. “This (closeness) creates a risk of surprise because it substantially lowers the vote required to make it to the second round,” Swiss fund managers Unigestion, with 23 billion euros ($24.5 billion) under management, said in a research note. In French presidential elections since 1965, the lowest scoring of the two candidates to qualify for the runoffs has had a vote of 25 percent on average. However, Le Pen’s father Jean- Marie, when he was head of the party she took over in 2011, qualified in 2002 with only 16.9 percent of the vote – a record low qualification level on a record abstention rate of 28 percent, proving polls at the time embarrassingly wrong.

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