Directorate-general of the UNESCO: The French Audrey Azoulay elected

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UNESCO's executive board today chose former French Culture Minister Audrey Azoulay to be the United Nations cultural agency's next leader over a Qatari candidate in an unusually heated race overshadowed by Mideast tensions. Azoulay received 31 votes, compared to 25 for Egyptian human rights activist Moushira Khattab.

The vote was a huge blow to Arab states, who had long wanted to lead the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. They note that UNESCO has had European, Asian, African and American chiefs, but never an Arab one since the organization was founded in 1945 following World War II to promote world peace through culture.

Azoulay, 45, came from behind after six rounds of voting to defeat Al-Kawari, also a former culture minister, after he failed to pick up support from other Gulf states that are part of a Saudi-led coalition blockading Qatar.

"UNESCO is going through a profound crisis", Azoulay told journalists on Friday after making it to the final vote.

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"Now more than ever UNESCO needs a project... which restores confidence and overcomes political divisions", the foreign ministry said in a statement reacting to the USA pullout.

The secret ballot vote was held in Paris on Friday afternoon by UNESCO's 58-member execute board.

The agency's inclusion of Palestine as a member state in 2011 complicated this push, as did Qatar's diplomatic dispute with Arab neighbors over accusations of sponsoring Islamic extremism.

French media reported that Qatar recently invited several members of the UNESCO executive board on an all-expenses-paid trip to Doha.

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Egypt's foreign ministry has demanded an inquiry into alleged "violations" during the UNESCO voting.

Paris - The French and Qatari candidates will contest the final round of the election for Director-General of UNESCO later Friday after Egypt's candidate was eliminated.

The victor must be confirmed by the UNESCO general conference next month and will replace outgoing Director-General Irina Bokova in January 2018.

The politically charged campaign to succeed UNESCO's outgoing chief Irina Bokova was overshadowed by Washington's announcement Thursday that it planned to withdraw from the body after years of tensions over decisions seen as critical of Israel. Bokova expressed "profound regret" at the USA decision and defended UNESCO's reputation. UNESCO says the USA now owes about $550 million in back payments.

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