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Netanyahu, main challenger Gantz, both claim Israeli election victory

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JERUSALEM: Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz claimed victory in Israels election but exit polls and early results indicated on Wednesday the veteran right-wing leader was on course for a record fifth term. Updated exit polls on two of Israels three main TV channels a few hours after voting endedshowed Netanyahus Likud winning more parliamentary seats than Gantzs centrist Blue and White Party. A third survey put Blue and White a seat ahead of Likud.
Though neither party captured a ruling majority in the 120-member Knesset, according to the polls, the surveys put Netanyahu in a stronger position to form a coalition government with right-wing factions, key to an ultimate victory.
Netanyahus prospects of becoming Israels longest-serving prime minister appeared to improve as the night went on. Partial results with 40 percent of votes counted gave Likud 40 seats, 10 more than in the previous election in 2015, and Blue and White 35, according to Kan public television and the Ynet news site.
“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters, while cautioning that a “long night and possibly day” lay ahead awaiting official results.
Fireworks flared behind him as his wife Sara applauded and kissed him. “He`s a magician,” the crowd chanted.
Netanyahu said he had already begun talks with prospective coalition allies.
Netanyahu, in power consecutively since 2009, has been fighting for his political survival. The closely contested race was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on his character and record in the face of corruption allegations. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all three.
Rival Gantz, 59, earlier also claimed victory, citing preliminary exit polls that showed his party had won more seats than Likud.
“We are the victors,” said Gantz, a former military chief fighting his first election. “We want to thank Benjamin Netanyahu for his service to the nation.”
Political analysts cautioned it was too early to be certain of the outcome, with many hours to go before a final tally is in. Plus, Israeli exit polls have been wrong in the past.
Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Likud and Blue and White would have to learn the fate of smaller parties to know whether they had garnered enough support for a coalition.
“Netanyahu is more likely to establish another right-wing government, but we will have to wait and see,” he said.


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International

Sri Lanka bombings death toll rises to 359, 18 more suspects held overnight

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Colombo: 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 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.

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UN says over 250 killed, over 1,200 injured in Libya battle

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TRIPOLI: At least 264 people have been killed and over 1,200 wounded in weeks of fighting on the outskirts of Libya’s capital, the World Health Organisation said , as African leaders gathered in Cairo to discuss the crisis.
The agency called on Twitter for “a temporary cessation of hostilities, and for all parties to respect humanitarian law”.
Eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive on the capital on April 4, as his self-styled Libyan National Army pledged “to purge the west of terrorists and mercenaries”.
Forces loyal to the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, launched a counter-attack at the weekend.
The fighting has since eased somewhat as both sides appeared to be preparing for the next phase of the battle.
Fighting in Tripoli’s southern suburbs has so far displaced at least 35,000 people, UN humanitarian coordinator for Libya Maria do Valle Ribeiro said on Monday.
“Displacement is continuing at an increasing rate every day,” she said, warning that the figures were a conservative estimate.
The two sides have reached a near stalemate since armed groups backing the GNA launched their counter-attack on Saturday.
An AFP team on the ground at the weekend confirmed that GNA-aligned fighters had pushed the frontline back several kilometres in the southern district of Ain-Zara, around a dozen kilometres south of the city centre.
Another frontline is a little further southwest, around the districts of al-Swani and Qasr ben-Ghachir, around 30 kilometres from Tripoli, on a key road between the capital and the old international airport.
Occasional bursts of gunfire — and heavier projectiles — have been audible, sometimes resonating in the city centre.
“It is calm on most fronts,” Mustafa al-Mejii, a spokesman for GNA forces, said.
“Orders were given to forces on the perimeter of Tripoli airport to consolidate their positions,” he said.
Haftar’s force said on its official Facebook page it had received “significant” reinforcements, particularly in the west.
Valle Ribeiro said civilians were being displaced every day, while some had been trapped by fire including “heavy artillery and… shelling in some densely populated parts of the city”.
“Any country that has leverage should be using that leverage to ensure that civilians can be protected,” she said.
African leaders were due to meet in Cairo at the behest of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss the violence.

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Israel to name Golan settlement after Trump

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JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he plans to name a new settlement in the occupied Golan after US President Donald Trump in appreciation of his recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty there.
Netanyahu, who has been on a trip to the region with his family for the week-long Passover holiday, said in a video message that he would present a resolution to the government calling for a new settlement named after the US president.
“All Israelis were deeply moved when President Trump made his historic decision to recognise Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” he said.
Trump again broke with longstanding international consensus on March 25 when he recognised Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the part of the strategic plateau it seized from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.
The decision came only two weeks ahead of a tightly contested Israeli election, which saw Netanyahu win a fifth term in office.
Trump has shifted US policy sharply in Israel’s favour since taking office, most notably by recognising the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Israel annexed 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan it seized in 1981, a move never recognised by the international community.
Around 18,000 Syrians from the Druze sect — most of whom refuse to take Israeli citizenship — remain in the occupied Golan.
Some 20,000 Israeli settlers have moved there, spread over 33 settlements.

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