Assad meets with Putin in surprise Sochi visit

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin on Thursday at his summer residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

A transcript of the meeting released by the Kremlin quoted Assad as saying that Syria is making progress in fighting “terrorism,” which “opens the door to the political process.”

Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Assad told the Russian leader of his decision to “send a delegation to the U.N.” to discuss reforming Syria’s constitution. The United Nations has hosted several rounds of peace talks in Geneva that have made no progress in ending the conflict.

A posting on the Syrian presidency’s Facebook page said the two leaders consulted on various issues of mutual interest and the latest political and military developments in Syria.

Russia has been a key ally of Assad throughout the seven-year Syrian civil war. Moscow launched an air campaign on behalf of Assad’s forces in 2015 that tipped the conflict in his favor.

Assad previously visited Russia and met with Putin in November 2017 and October 2015, and Putin traveled to Syria in December to announce a scaling back of the Russian military presence there.

— Associated Press

Graft probe linked to Najib gains momentum

Malaysia’s new government stepped up a corruption investigation into a state fund with a seven-hour police search of the home of former prime minister Najib Razak and the creation of a special committee to accelerate the probe.

Police searched Najib’s house from late Wednesday until early Thursday and raided a condominium in Kuala Lumpur occupied by his family as part of the investigation.

Police took several boxes from the house containing mainly personal belongings and did not find any incriminating documents, said Najib’s attorney.

New Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who won a stunning election victory last week that unseated Najib’s National Front coalition after 60 years in power, reopened the probe into the 1MDB state investment fund, which is also being investigated abroad. Najib started the fund in 2009, and U.S. investigators say at least $4.5 billion was stolen and laundered by his associates, some of it landing in his bank account.

The government said Thursday that it has set up a five-member panel to handle the 1MDB case.

Najib has denied wrongdoing, but the raids have fueled speculation that his arrest may be imminent.

— Associated Press

Vote could extend leader's term to 2034

Burundi’s president joined long lines of voters Thursday in a referendum that could extend his rule until 2034, despite widespread opposition and fears that the country’s years of deadly political turmoil will continue.

Pierre Nkurunziza had campaigned forcefully for constitutional changes that include extending the president’s term from five years to seven. As part of the changes, he would be able to seek two more terms when his current term expires in 2020.

Nkurunziza’s foes say he already has ruled longer than the constitution allows. More than 1,200 people have been killed in protests in this East African nation since he decided in 2015 to pursue a disputed third term.

It was not clear when the final results of Thursday’s vote would be announced.

Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, rose to power in 2005 after a peace deal ending a civil war in which about 300,000 people died. He was reelected in 2010.

Nkurunziza said in 2015 that he was eligible for a third term because lawmakers, not the general population, had chosen him for his first term.

— Associated Press

U.N. peacekeeper killed in Central African Republic: The United Nations said a peacekeeper from Mauritania was killed in an ambush in the Central African Republic, which has experienced deadly sectarian violence since 2013. Eight other Mauritanian peacekeepers were wounded in the attack by suspected anti-Balaka fighters. The U.N. mission in the country is one of the deadliest, with 63 peacekeepers killed as of the end of April.

Egypt's military kills 19, arrests 20 in Sinai: Egypt's security forces killed 19 militants and arrested 20 suspects as part of a continuing crackdown in Sinai, the military said. Security forces launched a large-scale operation in February to crush militants waging an insurgency that has killed hundreds over many years.

— From news services