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Ukrainian comic actor and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy casts his ballot at a polling station during a presidential election in Kiev, Ukraine March 31, 2019.

Ukrainians began voting on Sunday in an election expected to thrust a comedian with no prior political experience into the presidency of a country at war and hungry for change.


At stake is the leadership of a country on the frontline of the West’s standoff with Russia following the 2014 Maidan street protests and the annexation of Crimea.

Surveys make Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who plays a fictitious president in a TV series, the overwhelming favourite to defeat incumbent Petro Poroshenko, whose popularity has been dragged down by patchy efforts to tackle corruption and sliding living standards.

Both men – who traded insults and accusations in a rowdy debate in a soccer stadium in Kiev on Friday – have pledged to keep Ukraine on a pro-Western course.

But a victory for Zelenskiy in Sunday’s second-round runoff would nonetheless be a dramatic departure in a country where previous presidential elections since independence were won by experienced politicians including three former prime ministers.

Investors are seeking reassurances that whoever wins will accelerate reforms needed to attract foreign investment and keep the country in an International Monetary Fund programme that has supported Ukraine through war, recession and a currency plunge.

Zelenskiy’s unorthodox campaign relied heavily on quirky social media posts and comedy gigs instead of traditional rallies and leafletting.

He has also promised to fight corruption, a message that has resonated with Ukrainians who are fed up with politics as usual in a country of 42 million people that remains one of Europe’s poorest nearly three decades after winning independence from the Soviet Union.


An opinion poll by the KIIS research firm on Tuesday showed Zelenskiy with 72 percent of the vote and Poroshenko with 25 percent. Last week a different survey put them on 61 percent and 24 percent respectively.

NO CONFIDENCE IN GOVERNMENT

Zelenskiy’s rise comes at a time of a political upheaval in many parts of the world, from Brexit to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, the 5-Star Movement in Italy – also inspired by a comedian – and the rise of the far right there, in France and in Spain.

Just 9 percent of Ukrainians have confidence in their national government, the lowest of any electorate in the world, according to a Gallup poll published in March.

“I think the top election issue is frustration with the status quo,” said Mary O’Hagan, Ukraine Resident Senior Director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI).

Poroshenko was elected amid high hopes for change after the Maidan protests. O’Hagan says he inherited a difficult situation in 2014 and implemented many reforms but has not convinced voters that he is serious about tackling corruption.

“I think it is fair to say that public opinion has not regarded the current set-up as a sufficient step forward from what there was before, to justify the many sacrifices that people have made following the revolution, in terms of living standards, security, loss of life, displacement,” she said.

Zelenskiy remains something of an unknown quantity and faces scrutiny over his ties to a powerful oligarch who would like to see Poroshenko out of power.


Poroshenko has sought to portray his opponent as a buffoonish populist whose incompetence would leave Ukraine vulnerable to Russia. Ukrainian troops have battled Kremlin-backed separatist fighters since 2014 in a conflict in the eastern Donbass region that has killed 13,000 people despite a notional ceasefire.

Poroshenko secured visa-free travel for Ukrainians to European Union countries. He implemented some reforms, helped establish a national Orthodox Church independent from Moscow, and successfully lobbied the West to keep sanctions on Russia.

But critics say the pace of change has not matched the expectations of the protest movement. Poroshenko also did not keep to a pledge to end the war in the east within weeks.

“I’m just an ordinary person who has come to break the system. I’m the result of your mistakes and promises,” Zelenskiy said during the stadium debate.

Poroshenko has described his opponent as “giggling, inexperienced, weak, ideologically amorphous”. But he has struck a contrite tone since the first round of the election, apologising for mistakes and promising to be more transparent.


REUTERS
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Sri Lankan military officials stand guard in front of the St. Anthony's Shrine, Kochchikade church after an explosion in Colombo, Sri Lanka April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Easter Day bomb blasts at three Sri Lankan churches and three luxury hotels killed 138 people and wounded more than 400, hospital and police officials said, following a lull in major attacks since the end of the civil war 10 years ago.


More than 50 people were killed in St. Sebastian’s gothic-style Catholic church in Katuwapitiya, north of Colombo, a police official told Reuters, with pictures showing bodies on the ground, blood on the pews and a destroyed roof.

Media reported 25 people were also killed in an attack on an evangelical church in Batticaloa in Eastern Province.

The three hotels hit were the Shangri-La Colombo, Kingsbury Hotel in Colombo and the Cinnamon Grand Colombo. It was unclear whether there were any casualties in the hotels.

Nine foreigners were among the dead, the officials said.

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks in a country which was at war for decades with Tamil separatists until 2009 during which bomb blasts in the capital were common.

Christian groups say they have faced increasing intimidation from some extremist Buddhist monks in recent years. And last year, there were clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, with some hardline Buddhist groups accusing Muslims of forcing people to convert to Islam.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called a national security council meeting at his home for later in the day.


“I strongly condemn the cowardly attacks on our people today. I call upon all Sri Lankans during this tragic time to remain united and strong,” he said in a Tweet.

“Please avoid propagating unverified reports and speculation. The government is taking immediate steps to contain this situation.”

President Maithripala Sirisena said he had ordered the police special task force and military to investigate who was behind the attacks and their agenda.

The military had been deployed, according to a military spokesman, and security stepped up at Colombo’s international airport.

ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS

One of the explosions was at St Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic Church in Kochcikade, Colombo, which is a tourist landmark.

St. Sebastian’s posted pictures of destruction inside the church on its Facebook page, showing blood on pews and the floor, and requested help from the public.

Last year, there were 86 verified incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which represents more than 200 churches and other Christian organisations.

This year, the NCEASL recorded 26 such incidents, including one in which Buddhist monks allegedly attempted to disrupt a Sunday worship service, with the last one reported on March 25.


Out of Sri Lanka‘s total population of around 22 million, 70 percent are Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim and 7.6 percent Christian, according to the country’s 2012 census.

In its 2018 report on Sri Lanka‘s human rights, the U.S. State Department noted that some Christian groups and churches reported they had been pressured to end worship meetings after authorities classified them as “unauthorized gatherings”.

The report also said Buddhist monks regularly tried to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship, citing unidentified sources.

Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, told local TV that the public should remain calm and asked authorities to bring those responsible for the attacks before the law. He also requested the public donate blood for the injured.

Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam announced that all schools would be closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Day after his death on the cross.
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Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp knows he is running out of time to fulfil his promise of winning silverware in his first four years in charge.


Klopp took over at Anfield in 2015 and said at his introductory press conference he needed to win a trophy quickly or his next job “may be in Switzerland”.

The Reds have a chance to deliver as they remain locked in a tight title race with Manchester City and have reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.

“A lot of people reminded me that when I first came here I signed a three-year contract and I said in four years if we’re sat here we probably would have won something,” Klopp said on the Liverpool website.

“It didn’t happen yet. Both sides, the club and myself, have a wonderful commitment that we really try everything to make the club as successful as possible. How long will it take? I have no clue.

“The position we are in now I am really happy with. Not that it is the final position where we want to be, but the awareness from outside the club, where we are, second time in the Champions League semi-final – that is really special.”

Liverpool will head to Cardiff on Sunday looking for a victory to go back to the top of the league after City’s victory over Tottenham on Saturday.

After facing Neil Warnock’s rejuvenated side, who gave themselves hope in the fight against relegation with a midweek win at Brighton, Klopp’s men host already-relegated Huddersfield on Friday night before heading to Barcelona.


It is crunch time in the season but Klopp denied the tension was getting to his team.

“We do not feel the pressure,” he said. “We see and feel it as an opportunity. We have these unbelievably strong opponents.

“We have to win all our games, which is difficult enough, and on the other side our opponent is Man City. That makes life not easy.

“In the Champions League, the situation is the same. We play Barcelona.

“There are not a lot of stronger teams in the world out there so how can we think we are halfway through? We are in it.

“That’s it. And if you are in it, you can win it and that is what we try.”

Sunday’s trip to Cardiff may not have the glamour of the upcoming semi-final with Barcelona, but goalkeeper Alisson Becker promised the players would not overlook it.


“Immediately after the game (against Porto) we were obviously really happy to have got through to the semi-finals,” he said.

“It’s a great achievement in the career of each individual player. But we have two simultaneous objectives – to win the Premier League and the Champions League, and our next challenge is Cardiff.

“I’m sure it will be a great challenge for us. We’re playing away and that’s always difficult in the Premier League.

“We’ll have to give 100 per cent on the pitch to get the desired victory.”



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Everton boss Marco Silva
Everton boss Marco Silva is convinced his side will show no ill-effects from their dismal defeat at Fulham when they face Manchester United to Goodison Park on Easter Sunday.


The mood of cautious optimism around Silva’s men after three straight wins quickly evaporated when they were made to look distinctly second best by the relegated Cottagers last week.

But Silva says his squad have learnt from the shock defeat and will look to build on their excellent recent home form in order to frustrate the top-four ambitions of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men.

Silva told a press conference: “They have worked like they normally do and it has been no different because we had a performance that was not good enough last week.

“We didn’t achieve the result we wanted, but the way we have worked during the week has been the normal way that we have been working since the first day of the season.

“Of course we have to react differently to the way we did in the last game, because to be honest that was not good enough for us.”

Everton’s preparations have been hit by confirmation that midfielder Andre Gomes will begin a three-match ban after admitting a charge of violent conduct arising from last week’s game.

Defender Yerry Mina is still absent after returning from international duty with a hamstring injury, but Morgan Schneiderlin should be available again after recovering from an ankle knock.


With Silva still having to do some convincing to sections of the Goodison Park crowd, he knows a strong end to the season is crucial, and has backed his side to guard against complacency.

“We expected and prepared to win (against Fulham), but maybe you are thinking it’s going to be easy because they’re relegated,” he said.

“They did better than us is the truth – they were better and stronger than us on that afternoon. It is up to us and if we are at our best level I am 100 per cent sure it will be tough for them.”


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