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Europe

HAMBURG, Germany - A Turkish family in the northern German city of Hamburg received a letter allegedly containing the coronavirus, with a message by the sender saying that they hope the family contracts the virus.

The incident came just after German police announced they don't believe the perpetrator of the terrorist attacks in Hanau was a far-right extremist.

Önder Koca received the letter Tuesday from an unidentified sender.

“I have a surprise for you. I have coronavirus and I coughed on this letter and licked it several times. I will not leave the world alone,” the sender said, adding that their final mission was to leave a foreigner-free Germany for their children and grandchildren.

“Die, die slowly. Leave Germany to the Germans. I wish bad things to happen to you, I hope the virus spreads among your family,” the anonymous sender said.

The letters ends by saying, “greetings to victory and Hitler.”

Lawyer Ender Demir from Istanbul Kültür University’s Faculty of Law said the German government needs to identify the sender and that German courts can impose a jail term of up to five years for the racist remarks and using prohibited symbols. Article 86a of the German Strafgesetzbuch (Criminal Code) outlaws the "use of symbols of unconstitutional organizations.”

Demir noted that if German authorities detect coronavirus on the letter, the perpetrator can also be charged with attempted murder.

He continued by saying that German authorities do not take enough action against racist crimes.

“The letter has anti-Turkish and xenophobic remarks against human dignity... Unfortunately, there has recently been an increase in such acts in Germany,” Demir told Demirören News Agency (DHA).

The Turkish minority in Germany has frequently been targeted in far-right attacks, while officials fail to take concrete action to prevent such violence.

Some 871 offenses targeted the Muslim community in Germany last year, according to a report by Germany's New Newspaper of Osnabrück.

Germany has been recording anti-Muslim crimes since 2017. The total number of cases in 2019 has not been officially announced but in 2018 there were 910, including 48 attacks on mosques alone. That year was a little lower than the number in 2017: 1,095 crimes. More than 90% were attributed to politically motivated crimes by the far-right. While the overall number of crimes has decreased, violent assaults have increased, according to news agency Die Tageszeitung. In 2017, authorities reported 56 anti-Muslim assaults resulting in 38 injuries. In 2018, there were 74 offenses and 52 injuries – including two attempted murders.

Every other day, throughout 2019, a mosque, a Muslim institution or a religious representative in Germany was targeted in an anti-Muslim attack, an inquiry by the Left Party recently showed. The figure was collated by the German Interior Ministry under the scope of the new "Attack Catalog," listing anti-Muslim attacks on cultural associations, cemeteries, mosques, religious institutions, representatives, symbols and other places of worship since January 2019. The catalog only contains a portion of all the crimes against Islam but has a broader scope than only listing the attacks on mosques.

The latest violent anti-Muslim attacks took place in the town of Hanau on Feb. 19. Tobias Rathjen, a terrorist allegedly harboring racist views, gunned down nine people of immigrant backgrounds, including five Turkish nationals, before killing himself. The Hanau attack ignited the debate over the seriousness of far-right terror threats that are often ignored by authorities. It was one of the worst acts of terrorism with alleged racist motives in recent memory.

In a speech following the attack, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer acknowledged the crime as a "terrorist attack," while noting that it was the "third right-wing terrorist attack in just a few months." "Danger from right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, and racism is very high in Germany," he said. Seehofer also dismissed references to the assailant's psychological state as being responsible for the killings. "The racist motivation for this crime is in my view incontestable and cannot be relativized by anything," he said.

Germany is home to 81 million people and the second-largest Muslim population in Western Europe after France.

Of the country’s nearly 4.7 million Muslims, at least 3 million are of Turkish origin.

Racist attacks targeting Muslims or immigrants increasingly make headlines as white supremacists become more efficient in an age where their ideals, or at least parts of them, are going mainstream. A large, unified group harboring a racist agenda against Muslims and immigrants does not exist at present, but copycat attacks apparently inspire more to take up arms.

The tolerant political climate under the pretext of freedom of speech has helped far-right sympathizers with violent tendencies expand their support.

Facing ballooning far-right extremism, Germany has been shaken by more than 100 bomb and death threats that were sent to lawyers, politicians and institutions last year by German neo-Nazi groups, local media reported, revealing the threat of a growing presence in the country.

The extremist group known as "Reichsburger" is considered a terrorist organization in Germany, where its members procure arms and ammunition. Reichsburger members do not recognize the modern German state as legitimate, citing technicalities about the fall of the Nazi Third Reich in May 1945. The Reichsbürgers have no leadership or "cells," but are loosely associated with each other only by some of their common ideas.

In October, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government outlawed the sale of guns to members of extremist groups monitored by security agencies and obliged online platforms to inform police about hate content. Those measures followed the killing of a pro-immigration German politician in June and an attack four months later on a synagogue and a kebab shop in Halle by an anti-Semitic gunman, who livestreamed his actions.

 

 

Germany hopes Bayer malaria drug could treat Covid-19

BERLIN - Germany is hoping that a malaria drug called Resochin (chloroquine phosphate) from pharmaceutical company Bayer could be used to treat severe cases of Covid-19.

In an interview with Bild newspaper (link in German), federal health minister Jens Spahn said that there "are early indications that certain medications seem to help," and that there were ongoing studies in Germany into what drugs could potentially work in treating coronavirus, "including with this old malaria drug."

He added that more studies are needed as all drugs have side effects. However, he expects an effective drug to treat COVID-19 to come on the market much earlier than a vaccine.

While tests into the effectiveness of malaria drugs against Covid-19 are still ongoing, the US Food and Drug Administration issued emergency approval to distribute millions of doses to hospitals on Sunday 30 March.

The Department of Health and Human Services in the US said it was taking 30 million doses of hydroxychloroquine sulfate donated by Novartis (NVS), and 1 million doses of chloroquine phosphate donated by Bayer.

"I would be the happiest health minister in the world if we had a vaccine in three or six months," Spahn told Bild. "But I'm also realistic, and have had enough advice from experts to know that it can take 12 months."

Germany's death toll from Covid-19 passed 1,100 on Friday, with 84,794 confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

German chancellor Angela Merkel, who was self-quarantining and having tests after coming into contact with a doctor who later tested positive for coronavirus, returned to work today. She had been working from her apartment in the centre of Berlin since 22 March.


Harvest workers


The government, which has earmarked an aid package of €750bn (£656bn, $810bn ) in loans, grants, and other financial aid for firms and the economy, has now agreed to allow 40,000 seasonal workers to enter the country for the harvest.

Most of Germany's borders were closed in March to all but essential cargo. However, farmers warned that fruit and vegetables – including the much-prized white asparagus, which will soon need picking — were in danger of wasting in the fields. Normally around 300,000 seasonal workers come to Germany every year, many from neighbouring Poland.

The seasonal workers will be required to arrive in Germany by plane, and the farmers hiring them will need to ensure they are kept apart from the rest of the harvesting crews for 14 days, and remain in the employers' accommodation.

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BRUSSELS - North Macedonia has officially become NATO's 30th member, the military alliance says.

North Macedonia became NATO's newest member with the presentation of its "instrument of accession" to the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C., NATO said in a statement from its headquarters in Brussels.

North Macedonia was granted a protocol on accession to NATO membership in February 2019 after a 2017 agreement with Greece that changed the former Yugoslav republic's name from Macedonia, resolving a decades-long dispute between Skopje and Athens.

Since then, all NATO-member parliaments have voted to ratify the country's membership, and Macedonian President Stevo Pendarovski on March 20 signed the final accession document for the country's entry into the alliance.

"North Macedonia is now part of the NATO family, a family of 30 nations and almost 1 billion people. A family based on the certainty that, no matter what challenges we face, we are all stronger and safer together," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Pendarovski said his country could not appropriately mark the event given the current coronavirus pandemic.

"But this is a historic success that after three decades of independence finally confirms Macedonian security and guarantees our future," he said. "Congratulations to all of you! We deserve it!"

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the country's membership "will support greater integration, democratic reform, trade, security, and stability across the region."

It also reaffirms that NATO's door remains open "to those countries willing and able to make the reforms necessary to meet NATO's high standards, and to accept the responsibilities as well as benefits of membership," Pompeo added.

North Macedonia's flag is to be raised alongside those of the other 29 member states at NATO headquarters in Brussels and at two other commands simultaneously on March 30.

After resolving its name dispute with its neighbor, Greece has also agreed to drop objections to North Macedonia's eventual European Union membership.

The country came closer to joining the bloc on March 26 when EU leaders gave it the green light to begin membership talks.

 

MOSCOW - President Putin of Russia said he would support legislation to let him run for two more terms. That could keep him in power until 2036.

Citing the need for stability, the Russian leader said he should be allowed to seek two more terms, if the Constitutional Court agrees.

The proposal, unexpectedly floated by a lawmaker at a session of Russia’s lower house of Parliament, would allow Mr. Putin — who is 67 years old and was first elected president in 2000 — to remain in power until at least 2036.

After lawmakers voiced support for the idea, Mr. Putin arrived in person at the State Duma to say he agreed with it, in what appeared to be a tightly choreographed course of events. Mr. Putin said he believed he should have the right to run again for the sake of Russia’s stability, even though future presidents should continue to be bound by a two-term limit.

It appeared that under the proposal endorsed by Mr. Putin, the limit of two six-year terms would be reset for him if he were to run again when his current term ends in 2024.

The president is the guarantor “of the security of our state, of its internal stability — its internal, evolutionary stability,” Mr. Putin said. “And I mean evolutionary. We’ve had enough revolutions.”

Currently, the Russian Constitution bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. This would mean that Mr. Putin — who served as president from 2000 to 2008, as prime minister from 2008 to 2012, and again as president since 2012 — would need to step down when his current term ends in 2024.

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Mediterranean

By Lefteris Papadimas

KASTANIES/LESBOS, Greece - Greece has repulsed nearly 35,000 migrants trying to cross onto its territory illegally since Turkey opened its border nearly a week ago, government sources said on Thursday, as it prepares to deport hundreds of others who made it through.

Thousands of migrants have made for Greece since Ankara said on Feb. 28 that it would let migrants cross its borders into Europe, reneging on a commitment to hold them on its territory under a 2016 deal with the European Union.

Hundreds have made it into Greece, many by sea to Lesbos and other Greek islands. Ankara and Athens are accusing each other of using excessive force in the border area, where migrants have clashed with security forces in recent days.

The situation at the Kastanies border crossing, where Greek and Turkish riot police both used tear gas on Wednesday, was calm on Thursday morning. Migrants huddled in tents and makeshift camps on the Turkish side of the border.

Greek border guards rebuffed nearly 7,000 attempts in the last 24 hours alone, taking the total since Feb. 29 to 34,778 and the number of arrests of those who got through to 244, the Greek government sources said.

Migrants who arrived in Greece illegally after March 1 will be transferred to the northern city of Serres and deported back to their own countries, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said late on Wednesday.

“Our aim is to return them to their countries,” he told the Athens News Agency.


CRITICISM


Mitarachi also said migrants who entered the country prior to Jan. 1, 2019 and living on the islands would be transferred to the mainland in the coming days.

Greece announced on March 1 that it would not accept any new asylum applications for a month following the build-up of migrants at the border. This has triggered criticism from human rights agencies.

Turkey accused Greek forces of shooting dead one migrant and wounding five others, a charge strongly denied by Greece, which said Turkish police were using tear gas to help the migrants illegally cross onto its territory.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who visited the land border with Greece on Thursday, said late on Wednesday that Ankara was preparing a case in the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of migrants.

Turkey’s change in policy toward the migrants on its soil came after at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by Russian-backed Syrian government forces in an air strike in Syria.

The Aegean Sea separating Greece and Turkey remained choppy on Thursday and there were no further sightings of dinghies carrying migrants to Lesbos and other Greek islands from the nearby Turkish coast.

Lesbos already hosts more than 20,000 asylum seekers, many of them living in filthy conditions in overcrowded camps

Greece and the EU accuse Turkey of deliberately goading the migrants to cross the border as a way of pressuring Brussels into offering more money or supporting Ankara’s geopolitical aims in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and faces another influx from an upsurge in fighting in northwest Syria, says it cannot take in any more and complains that EU aid falls well short of what is needed for the refugees.

 

 

GENEVA - Refugees became political pawns between the EU, Greece, and Turkey this week, but there was also a timely reminder of what can happen when people feel compelled to attempt ever more dangerous journeys. The UN’s migration agency, IOM, announced that the drowning of 91 people last month and other recent fatalities had taken the toll in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 above 20,000. The rise in deaths has slowed in recent years, but the death rate per crossing has been increasing, as riskier trips are attempted and as search and rescue efforts have been curtailed – by right-wing governments and, latterly, the coronavirus. This week, The New Humanitarian revamped its migration coverage, breaking it down into five sub-themes: Why people move; Risky journeys; Shifting responses; Life in limbo; and Going home. Do take a look and send us some feedback, or, even better, some story ideas. We’re always open to suggestions on how to humanise those at the heart of displacement crises, who are too often politicised or reduced to statistics.

 

 

Impunity persists for violations in Occupied Palestinian Territories, UN Human Rights Council

GENEVA - Justice is still absent for Palestinian demonstrators shot by Israeli soldiers during weekly protests in Gaza, the UN Human Rights Council heard on Wednesday.

“Impunity continues to prevail,” the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in a report on accountability for alleged violations of international law in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) since 2008, including during large-scale protests beginning in March 2018 along the Gaza-Israel fence.

According to the report, which is produced annually at the Council’s request, and was presented today by UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ilze Brands Kehris, Israeli security forces killed 131 Palestinians throughout the OPT from November 2018 to October 2019: 103 men, five women and 23 children.

Over the same timeline, 11 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, including one girl.


Persistent lack of accountability


Suggesting a lack of accountability for the killing and injuring of civilians, the report highlights the killing of double-amputee Ibrahim Abu Thoryah on 15 December 2017.

A double amputee in a wheelchair, Abu Thoryah was shot dead with live ammunition to the head.

According to media reports, the Israeli military contacted Palestinian officials to obtain the bullet that had hit Mr. Thoryah, but their request was denied.

They then concluded that there was no evidence that the man had been killed by direct Israeli fire.

“There was no indication that Mr. Abu Thoryah had posed an imminent threat of death or serious injury at the moment he was killed,” the report states. “His physical disability must have been clearly visible to the person who shot him, in the front of the head, some 15 to 20 metres from the fence.”

Questioning the efficacy of the accountability system in place by the Israeli military despite its assertion that allegations of misconduct are investigated effectively and thoroughly, the report says that 19 months after the start of the Great March of Return, the Israeli military system had delivered only one sentence in relation to “possible unlawful acts” by Israeli security forces.

“The persisting lack of accountability for possible unlawful acts committed against Palestinians perpetuates a cycle of impunity that facilitates the occurrence of further violations,” the report states.

While noting that Israeli soldiers had used live ammunition against protesters, paramedics and journalists covering the demonstrations, Commissioners highlighted that little was done by the Great March organisers to keep children out of harm’s way.

“The Higher National Commission for the Great March of Return continued to provide buses to shuttle demonstrators, including children, from different places in the Gaza Strip to the five demarcated demonstration sites along the eastern border,” the report insists.

“Witnesses reported that only on very rare occasions were children prevented from boarding the buses, and then only when the children under the age of nine.”

 

 

THE UNITED NATIONS - Despite the loss of its last stronghold in Syria and the death of its leader, ISIL “remains at the centre of the transnational terrorism threat”, a senior UN official told the Security Council on Friday.

In presenting the latest UN report on ISIL, Vladimir Voronkov, head of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, urged the international community to remain united in fighting the group’s reach, which extends to Africa, Europe and Asia.

“ISIL has continued to seek resurgence and global relevance online and offline, aspiring to re-establish its capacity for complex international operations. ISIL’s regional affiliates continue pursuing a strategy of entrenchment in conflict zones by exploiting local grievances”, he said.

Thousands of foreigners travelled to Syria and Iraq to support ISIL, also known as Daesh, and its estimated that up to 27,000 are still alive. They will continue to pose threats in the short and long-term, Mr. Voronkov reported.

For example, European countries are concerned over the anticipated release this year of some 1,000 terrorism-related convicts, some of whom include returned former fighters.

“ISIL lost its last stronghold in the Syrian Arab Republic in March last year and has seen a change in leadership after the death of al- Baghdadi in October, but this report shows that the group remains at the centre of the transnational terrorism threat. We must stay vigilant and united in confronting this scourge.”

The Council also heard from Mona Freij, a civil society representative, who fled the Syrian city of Raqqa after ISIL fighters “armed to the teeth” stormed her house in September 2014.

She escaped after a neighbour diverted the fighters, but her family members were subsequently arrested, tortured and left traumatized.

Ms. Freij returned to Raqqa in 2017 after the “Daesh nightmare” had ended. “Women were deprived of education and they were in a very difficult situation,” she recalled.

“I found orphaned children…and they told me that they had been forced to join Daesh, and the women had to bear children by the fighters. If they refused the sexual advances of the fighters, they were punished. They could not put an end to their pregnancies. They were hostages who had to obey the orders of monsters. Even today, they have difficulty in proving who the fathers of the children are.”

Mr. Voronkov told the Council that the most pressing concern now is the situation of more than 100,000 people associated with ISIL, mainly women and children, currently in detention and displacement camps.


Appalling conditions forISIL-linked families


Michele Coninsx, Executive Director, Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, reported that they are living in appalling conditions, leaving them open to further radicalization.

She welcomed countries’ efforts to repatriate these women and children, and called on other nations to follow suit.

“ISIL has destroyed entire communities, uprooted families and brainwashed thousands by spreading its toxic and misguided ideology. Today the international community has an opportunity to prosecute the perpetrators, rehabilitate the victims and facilitate reconstruction and community development in places destroyed by ISIL violence”, she said.

“The repatriation of women and children will accelerate that process, and the prosecution of ISIL fighters and their affiliates, in accordance with international human rights will help bring closure to the victims. This is one of the defining counter-terrorism challenges of our time. Inaction now will only make our future counter-terrorism efforts harder.”

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North Africa

By Wydad El Jaouhari

LONDON - Libya's conflict has become an unsolvable impasse following a series of fights between the rival governments in Tripoli and Benghazi. In power for more than forty years, Muammar Gaddafi, a military officer, developed a regime of the masses implemented from the coup d’état of 1969, thus ending the parliament, the parties as well as the centralized administration. Gaddafi, the ultimate arbiter, held the reins of power in the country and quickly created a dictatorship system of fear and loyalty around his person.

The Arab Spring swept Tunisia and Egypt and Libya was also affected by the popular uprising in 2011. Gaddafi responded with violence to popular uprisings demanding more freedom and social justice. The rebellion eventually led to chaos and division between the warring factions and triggered an ongoing civil war.

Gaddafi’s downfall left a power vacuum occasioning the start of military and political turmoil that is still reverberating and tearing the country apart. The conflict has fuelled rivalry and ambitions of local tribes and other militia groups leading to an eruption of violent clashes throughout the country. In 2012 the attempt to stabilize the country through constitutional reforms and the democratic process became unsuccessful, prompting General Khalif Haftar to emerge as a military leader who wants to control the country from his base in Benghazi despite the fact the Tripoli government is recognised by the United Nations. Intense rivalry within tribal groups made the task of securing a meaningful agreement impossible. Faced with the inability of the new government to secure the country, on February 14, 2014, General Khalifa Haftar unleashed an unsuccessful attack on the elected government in Tripoli. This former Libyan military refugee in the United States for two years took command of the National Liberation Army (ANL) to liberate the South and quickly gain some sort of legitimacy thanks to the military assistance of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.

Since then, Libya has been divided into two camps, with a Parliament established in Tobruk in the East, under the control of Marshal Haftar's army, and the Government of National Unity (GNA) in the West based in the capital Tripoli, and recognized by the international community. The Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is still at loggerheads with Haftar despite several attempts at reconciliation to reach a political compromise. Oil has sustained the current conflicts and serves as a catalyst for internal interests and factions. General Haftar has secured major oil-producing regions and facilities but cannot sell it to the international markets without breaching the United Nations sanctions put in place.

Extensive geopolitical contests also continue to catalyze conflict in Libya. Foreign powers are divided into two camps, according to their political and economic interests. In the East, Marshal Haftar claims to be engaged in the fight against Islamic terrorism. He receives support from the UAE, Egypt and Russia. In the West, the UN-recognised government of El-Sarraj receives assistance from Turkey and Italy, two countries dependent on Libyan oil. Officially, the EU aligns itself with the positions of the UN while the United States has adopted an ambiguous position despite the fact that Haftar and El-Serrah were both received at the White House separately. China and South Korea are watching and ready to engage because of their economic interests in the country.

Special Forces have been accused of supporting Haftar's forces through training. Conflicting sides continue defying the U.N. arms embargo, and pressure to facilitate peace seems unsuccessful. The fearless onslaught on Libya's capital shows no signs of changing soon. Foreign support for both sides of the conflicting parties has failed to unlock the major underpinnings of the conflicts. The sporadic fighting since 2014 between factions has left thousands of people killed. Leaders seem to rule out compromising their ambitions for peace. For instance, Haftar continues to maintain that he can only pursue a political solution if armed groups providing support to the Tripoli government leave the capital. Both sides have considered external backing to turn the Tripoli government in their favour but the number of casualties keeps increasing

Currently, dialogue appears impossible between the two Libyan opponents who no longer speak to each other as both refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the other.

At the end of 2019, tension reached a dangerous level when Turkish troops set foot on Libyan soil in support of El-Sarraj. Haftar threatened to call on Egyptian forces to respond to the move. Recent attempts by Italy, Turkey, Russia and Egypt to bring El-Sarraj and Haftar together to accept a ceasefire, have failed twice.

More recently in February, the Libyan government of national unity (GNA) announced the suspension of its participation in the work of a joint military commission in Geneva, under the aegis of the UN, following repeated violations of the truce. A month later, after 3 years in office, the UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé resigned for health reasons. Despite leaving his post vacant, the emissary called on both sides to unify the Libyan institutions and encouraged the continuation of the inter-Libyan negotiation process, facilitated by the United Nations even though both sides announced the suspension of their participation in the peace talks.

At least one health worker was injured when the Al-Khandra General Hospital came under heavy shelling on Monday, damaging the fully-functioning 400-bed facility.

Yacoub El Hillo, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Libya, said the attack not only violated international humanitarian law, but also defied calls for a global ceasefire amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It also showed ongoing disregard for a truce announced in mid-January between the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) led by commander Khalifa Haftar that began to lay siege to the capital Tripoli, a year ago.

As of March, a total of 27 health facilities in Libya have sustained damage to varying degrees due to the proximity of fighting, with 14 being forced to close and the remainder at risk of following suit as lines of conflict shift.

In a statement on 4 April, the first anniversary of the start of the LNA’s offensive to seize Tripoli, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said the country was in the midst of a needless conflict that has shattered hopes for a peaceful political transition through a UN-backed National Conference and subsequent elections.

“The conflict has since escalated into a dangerous and potentially endless proxy war fueled by cynical foreign powers that has now widened geographically, with civilians paying the highest price”, it said.

The humanitarian situation has deteriorated to unprecedented levels, it said, with UNSMIL documenting at least 356 civilian deaths and 329 injuries in the year to 31 March. Some 149,000 people in and around Tripoli have been forced to flee their homes since the offensive began; nearly 345,000 civilians remain in frontline area and an estimated 749,000 live in areas affected by fighting.

An estimated 893,000 are in need of humanitarian assistance, UNSMIL said, adding that it has received a growing number of reports of human rights violations, including hundreds of cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial executions by armed groups across Libya.

The conflict is taking a heavy toll on Libya’s already struggling economy. An oil blockade imposed on 17 January has results in more than $4 billion in financial losses, while funds that should be going into critical infrastructure are being redirected to the war effort.

“The influx of foreign fighters and advanced weapons systems into the country continues unabated and their use on the battlefield has directly lead to an intensification of the conflict,” UNSMIL said, pointing as well to a “flagrant disregard” of an embargo on arms shipments into Libya.

 

Algiers - Algerian protesters have called off their weekly anti-government demonstrations for the first time in more than a year to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

This would have been the 57th week in a row that Algerians came out onto the streets.

Authorities banned the demonstrations, but opposition activists also urged supporters to stay inside.

There have been at least 10 deaths and 90 confirmed virus cases in Algeria.

Imprisoned activist Karim Tabbou was among the protest leaders who told demonstrators to suspend their marches, according to Reuters news agency.

The protests began in February 2019 after the then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced he was going to seek a fifth term in office.

As the protests grew, the 82-year-old scrapped his plans and stood down from power.

But demonstrators continued to fill the streets every Friday, demanding the whole ruling regime stand down too and accusing them of widespread corruption.

Some weeks, tens of thousands of people filled the streets of the capital Algiers.

On Friday, Algiers' streets were empty – apart from police and journalists, Reuters reports.

 

ALGIERS - Thousands of Algerians defied the threat of coronavirus on Friday to march against the ruling elite, keeping up a campaign of weekly protests that have lasted for more than a year and convulsed national politics.

Algeria has confirmed 26 cases of the coronavirus and two deaths, and the prime minister this week urged citizens to reduce their demands on the government and lessen their street presence in view of the risks to public health.

In downtown Algiers, police wore face masks and a group of youngsters sold protective gear and liquid soap along with national flags, which many protesters have waved during demonstrations.

“It is against coronavirus,” said 25-year-old protester Ahmed Saci as he bought soap.

Those who marched on Friday said they remained committed to keeping their protest movement - known as Hirak, or ‘movement’ - in force until they achieve their demand of pushing the old ruling elite from power.

“I will continue. I will never stop until the system is defeated,” said Slimani Aissi, 22, on Didouche Mourad Boulevard in the city center.

However, the threat from the coronavirus persuaded some protesters to desist for now.

“Hirak as it is now does not comply with health measures to fight coronavirus... I suggest postponing it temporarily,” said Liess Merabet, a doctor and the leader of a labor union.

The government, which has publicly praised Hirak while using police tactics and arrests to put protesters under pressure, has banned spectators from sports events and closed schools and universities.

This week it also barred political and social gatherings, but it did not specify whether this measure would apply to the weekly mass protests.

By Lisa Schlein

GENEVA - U.N.-mediated political talks aimed at resolving the crisis in Libya have ended in disarray, with nothing accomplished except an agreement to meet again next month.

The talks got off to a shambolic start. Before the first round of Libyan political negotiations even began, members of opposition warring groups suspended their participation. U.N. envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame acknowledged that this caught him off guard.

"We were surprised the day the meeting was supposed to start that some people had to leave because they were asked to. However, those who stayed decided that the occasion was too rare and precious and therefore that the political track should start with those who stayed in Geneva," Salame said.

Libya has been in a state of crisis ever since rebel military commander Khalifa Haftar attacked Tripoli last April. The military assault on the capital and seat of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord has killed more than 1,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

The U.N. has been pursuing three parallel negotiations. The resolution of Libya's crisis hangs on the continuation and outcome of those military, economic and political tracks.

Salame said the economic-financial track is going well. But the military track is in trouble because the warring parties continue to violate a temporary cease-fire. That, he said, is having a serious effect on the political negotiations.

During the past week, he said, many areas have been hit by shelling, including the Tripoli airport.

"Many areas of the capital have been also shelled. It is clear that neither one of the three tracks can move positively while the cannon is doing what it is doing right now," he said.

Salame is calling on the two sides to respect the truce they had accepted last month during a summit in Berlin. He also is calling on countries of influence, including those that are intervening in Libyan affairs, to put pressure on those that violate the cease-fire and on those that violate the U.N. arms embargo on Libya.

A United Nations report names Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates as chief offenders.

 

Research Papers & Reports

Brian M. Perkins, Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 7, Jamestown Foundation, 06 April 2020

 

Northern Mozambique has witnessed a significant escalation of operations by Islamic State Central Africa Province (IS-CAP) in recent weeks, with the group claiming two substantial attacks over a span of just three days. The attacks, which took place in Mocimboa da Praia and Quissanga between March 23-25, demonstrated a notable, concerning tactical evolution as well as improved capabilities at a moment of particular vulnerability (Club of Mozambique, March 26).

The majority of attacks claimed by IS-CAP since its establishment in Mozambique, as well as those previously attributed to Ansar al-Sunna, have primarily consisted of hit-and-run style attacks conducted by small cells, often with rudimentary weapons. Past attacks have also either explicitly targeted civilians or demonstrated little regard for collateral damage with an increasing trend toward attacks on security forces.

The attacks in Mocimboa da Praia and Quissanga, however, were more sustained operations targeting entire cities. IS-CAP fighters overran security forces and seized control of Mocimboa da Praia, the capital of Cabo Delgado province, before attacking Quissanga, which is more than a hundred miles south. Unlike previous attacks, the fighters seemingly attempted to limit civilian casualties while attacking state institutions, looting banks and stores, and reportedly redistributing provisions to civilians (Daily Maverick, March 26). Rather than small cells armed with old rifles or machetes, the attacks were conducted by upwards of 40 fighters dressed in camo and equipped with automatic weapons and RPGs, a notable departure from most attacks over the past several years.

IS-CAP released a series of photographs as well as a rare video message claiming responsibility for the attacks, with the speaker brandishing an Islamic State (IS) flag and calling on fighters to come join them to establish Sharia rule in Mozambique (Club of Mozambique, March 26). Previously rare, claims of responsibility have grown more common and IS has increased coverage of activities in Mozambique (Twitter.com/emorier, March 26).

While the exact level of IS involvement in the overall violence that has plagued northern Mozambique is still unclear, these recent attacks are evidence that the dedicated IS-CAP core has grown, both in size and capability. IS-CAP has evolved from its nascent phase of questionable claims of responsibility to overt displays of its involvement. At the same time, its fighters have seemingly improved their coordination as well as their access to more sophisticated weaponry than what had been used in the earlier days of the conflict. Similarly, the group has seemingly moved on to a growth phase in which it is leveraging its improved capabilities to launch more sustained operations that allow it to target and loot state institutions, while beginning a hearts and minds campaign in an attempt to gain further local traction. The video claim of responsibility also demonstrates the group’s efforts to draw in regional and global jihadists. Looking forward, these attacks demonstrate the weakness of the state and set a precedent that it is no longer the remote roadways and townships that are in danger, but also key cities where those who have been displaced by violence in rural areas have relocated. The group may yet prove to be strong enough to hold territory for prolonged periods of time, but its ability to enter a key location such as Mocimboa da Praia by sea and land and control it for hours before successfully withdrawing is a worrying trend of the group’s operational growth.

 

Geopolitics and the Greater Maghreb Security Complex in a Time of Financial Distress

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 7, Jamestown Foundation

By Dario Cristiani, April 6, 2020

 

Introduction


The first months of 2020 witnessed significant diplomatic activity between the Gulf and the Maghreb. However, the emerging global economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will likely affect some of these diplomatic dynamics. In January 2020, the Berlin conference on Libya offered an occasion for many countries to target Maghrebi partners. Germany largely ignored local actors: Morocco, Mauritania, and the Arab Maghreb Union were not invited. Taieb Baccouche, the Secretary-General of the Arab Maghreb Union openly criticized this European attitude, voicing the regional disappointment for this approach (Affari Internazionali, March 5). Tunisia was invited only the day before the conference, and the new President Kais Saied made an explicit reference to this late invitation when rejecting the offer (Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 18).

Among Gulf countries, the UAE was the sole country invited to the conference. This should not come as a surprise. The UAE is likely the most influential external actor in Libya these days and the only country with the ability to impose choices on Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the warlord dominating eastern Libya (see Terrorism Monitor, February 7).

In the immediate aftermath of the conference, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, flew to Morocco, where he owns a house, and met with the Moroccan King Mohammed VI (Twitter.com/forsan_uae, January 20). The picture of the meeting was widely shared online, but this did not change the complex nature of Emirati-Moroccan relations, which remain tense due to Rabat’s commitment to neutrality over the Qatar blockade. In March, Morocco recalled its ambassador and two consuls from the UAE. Notably, this decision came after Fouad Ali El Himma, one of the most influential Moroccan politicians and a close senior advisor to King Mohammed VI, toured the Gulf in late February, excluding the UAE from his visit (Le1 Maroc, March 11).

Emirati regional diplomatic activism continued in the following weeks. In essence, the UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan met his Algerian counterpart, Sabri Boukadoum, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad, and President Abdelmadjid Tebboune in Algiers in late January, with Libya being at the forefront of the talks (Algeria Press Service, January 27, Ashar Al-Awsat, January 28). A few days later, the Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani also went to the UAE for an official state visit.

The UAE’s recent diplomatic activity was matched by a renewed activism from Qatar as well. At the end of February, the emir of Qatar went to Tunisia, the regional country in which Doha likely has the most significant leverage (AnsaMedInfo, February 25). The UAE has been trying to deepen its role in Tunisia for years, but these ambitions have often been frustrated. The Qatari emir also went to Algeria and despite some ongoing problems—the most notable being the Ooredo issue—on more strategic and regional issues the countries seemed to be on the same page (The Arab Weekly, February 23, The Peninsula (Qatar), February 25)

This activism on both sides remains part of the broader confrontation, despite some feeble attempts to start settling issues regarding the 2017 blockade. This confrontation goes beyond the mere diplomatic sphere, as it embraces a much more comprehensive set of questions: it is a confrontation between models of governance, ideological approaches to the relationship between power and religion, and how to develop their global presence in the coming years


Mauritania as the UAE’s Key to the Region?


The diversified problems that the UAE face vis-à-vis Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia are likely the main reasons explaining why, over the past few months, Abu Dhabi has become even keener in deepening relations with Mauritania. Relations between the two countries were already good. Under previous President Mohammad Ould Abdul Aziz, Mauritania took several positions that were in line with Abu Dhabi’s feelings—a harsh stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood; and severing diplomatic ties with Qatar in the wake of the spat that led to the blockade in 2017 (GulfNews, September 24, 2018, Khaleej Times, June 7, Al-Araby, September 27, 2014). The situation did not change after the Mauritanian power transition.

The UAE’s greater engagement with Mauritania is becoming increasingly multidimensional and not only limited to political and security issues. The Emiratis announced the allocation of $2 billion towards investment and development projects. National media highlighted how this effort is particularly significant, as Mauritania’s GDP is worth $5 billion. As such, the UAE plan would represent no less than 40 percent of its entire economy (The National {Abu Dhabi}, February 9). Cooperation is also ongoing in areas like environmental and social issues (Mauritanian News Agency, February 19). In March, the UAE-led “Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies” organized the first consultative forum for scholars from Sahel countries in Nouakchott under the patronage of the Mauritanian presidency (Emirates News Agency, March 12). The two countries signed a memorandum regarding a mutual visa exemption (SaharaMedias, February 2). The UAE even helped Mauritania evacuate its citizens stuck in China as the coronavirus outbreak erupted. The two countries also coordinated a response to deal with this crisis (Al-Mashhad Al-Araby, March 4; Emirates News Agency, March 30).

Over the past years, Mauritania’s regional importance has indeed increased, partially as a result of growing economic investments, especially in the oil sector (Africa News, December 25, 2016). In the geostrategic context of the Maghreb-Sahel region, Mauritania can hardly be considered a crucial player, given its limited demographic and economic size. However, its position as a country in between the Maghreb and the Sahel—areas whose connections have been more and more important over the past few years—makes it an ideal target for diplomatic action by Abu Dhabi. A more substantial presence there can be used as a tool of influence in both regional blocs, but also vis-à-vis the other countries of the Maghreb in which, for one reason or another, Abu Dhabi struggles to exert influence.

The current Mauritanian president was the primary political architect behind the significant strengthening of relations between Mauritania and Western actors, namely France and NATO (The New Arab Weekly, November 4, 2018, NATO, May 29, 2018). As the UAE is increasingly close with France, as observable in the Libyan quagmire, deepening its ties with Mauritania can also serve as a means to become more involved in the Sahel. France could seek greater support from the UAE as it tries to step up its efforts in the region to make up for American disengagement from Africa and the increasing profile of globally connected local jihadist organizations in the region, both al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). Mauritania has also built up a reputation of being effective in coping with the jihadist threat. As it takes the leadership of the G5 Sahel, Nouakchott will become a major asset to UAE eyes.


Conclusions: Diplomatic Depth in a Time of Profound Financial Distress


This diplomatic activism will inevitably be affected by the looming economic crisis set to burden the world over the next several years. The impact of the ongoing global coronavirus crisis is set to be quite significant since the foreign policies of both the UAE and Qatar are directly in service to their economic well-being. In addition, for Gulf countries, the financial crisis will be even more significant given the ongoing price wars that are bringing the global demand for energy, already in freefall because of the coronavirus impact, to a total standstill. The economic crisis is also likely to shake the social fabric and economic foundations of Maghrebi countries, whose health systems are weak and socio-economic stability are already undermined by years of financial crisis. In Tunisia, a country whose democratic transition moved ahead despite years of economic troubles, people in historically marginalized areas of the capital, such as Mnihla, have already taken to the streets, and Algeria and Morocco are bracing to cope with the economic sequences of the pandemic (Tuniscope, March 30; Courrier International, March 27; Yabiladi, April 3; Tuniscope, March 30).

At the same time, these issues create problems and potential for more engagement. Maghrebi countries will need money to support their economies. Gulf countries might need to reduce their external commitment, however, depending on the extent of the impact, and the length, of the ongoing crisis. So far, in the theater in which the UAE is more active, Libya, economic hardship has not turned into lesser engagement, at least yet. Mauritania will remain at the forefront of UAE efforts to become more relevant in both the Maghreb and the Sahel. That said, the impact on the external projection of the Emirates might be significant. Paradoxically, the fact that Qatar had to adapt to the blockade since 2017 made it more resilient to sudden economic and logistic shocks. This aspect might also play a role in determining the efficiency of its external engagement in the coming months, as it needs less time to adapt to its foreign projection to a more challenging domestic economic environment.

 

 

 

The coronavirus: A geopolitical earthquake


By Javi López, European Council on Foreign Relations, 2 April 2020


2020 is shaping up to be one of the most difficult years since the end of the second world war. As unexpected as it is disruptive, the global pandemic has huge social, economic, and political consequences. Today, states are fighting a threat that is growing exponentially and puts most of their citizens at risk. This is a global war against an invisible enemy.

The coronavirus crisis will undoubtedly be a defining moment in contemporary history. We will have to change our way of living as we knew it for a considerable time. We will close factories, ground planes, and empty office skyscrapers, while closing borders and enduring long waits in supermarkets, overcrowded hospitals, and many online meetings. We will suffer a significant loss of life, while social customs such as hugging or shaking hands will temporarily disappear from our habits. There is no doubt that we will eventually overcome this crisis, but its effects could be as relevant as those of a concentrated blend of 9/11, the Great Recession, and the Ebola epidemic. After we return to some form of normality, many geopolitical divisions will have grown and we will all be left with a deep sense of vertigo.

The covid-19 crisis is holding up a mirror to Western countries – making us realise that the perception we have of ourselves might be distorted. The crisis will be a huge test: our effectiveness in managing it could alternately accelerate or slow the de-Westernisation of the world. In any case, it will challenge globalisation and rearrange the world order.

Europe, currently the epicentre of the pandemic, is addressing the crisis in a state of fragility. Its usual divisions are more evident than ever and its relatively old population is at particularly high risk from covid-19. However, one should never underestimate the old continent. Europe has the tools to reaffirm and reposition itself in the world in the face of this crisis. Our states are powerful public policy machines; we have the best universal healthcare systems on the planet; and we have built the greatest framework of supranational action the world has ever known: the European Union. A global pandemic requires a capacity for resistance, coordination, and public action – all areas in which we have proven skills.

The old nation states of the continent are waking up, slowly but ruthlessly launching huge fiscal stimulus packages. For its part, the European Central Bank, after a shaky and eventful start, has decided to fulfil its role by implementing a comprehensive asset-purchase plan that will safeguard public debt and provide liquidity. Now, there is a pressing need for a stimulus at the community level and real European fiscal instruments. We risk becoming caught up in ordoliberal obsessions that will bring to light, once again, the deficiencies in the institutional design of the single currency. In this, let’s hope that we can apply the lessons of the long and painful recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis.

Transatlantic relations have also suffered a new blow in the crisis. With President Donald Trump in denial about the seriousness of the crisis until recently, and his unilateral ban on commercial flights with the EU, the United States has once more revealed its aggressive isolationism. And we must watch closely as events unfold within the superpower: the US lacks a universal healthcare system, has a highly volatile labour market, and is run by an administration that displays deep incompetence seasoned with a persistent contempt for scientists and other experts. And all this is occurring in an election year. Nonetheless, the US does have an invaluable asset: the proactive attitude of the Federal Reserve and the dollar’s global strength. We will see.

China, however, seems intent on embodying some of the values with which the West has historically identified itself: solidarity and cooperation. China’s decision to send medical staff and equipment to Europe to fight the coronavirus was not only an act of solidarity, but a geopolitical exercise: the country has extended a helping hand to a West that is facing serious problems. This is not mere altruism; it is a demonstration of China’s will to play the role of ascending hegemon and capitalise on the growing void left by the US.

The Asian powerhouse is determined to gain new centrality in a global system traditionally organised around the Atlantic alliance. This presents a huge challenge to the global order, as the Chinese model is in tension with our democratic vision of governance. Yet the crisis could open the door to a new relationship between Europe and China. Wouldn’t this demonstrate the strategic autonomy demanded from the EU?

At the same time, globalisation is under strain and whatever comes next will almost certainly adjust the global market-orientated rationale that we’ve seen to date. This crisis will redraw the borders between the state and the market in democracies, probably pushing us towards a certain level of industrial relocation to protect supply and production lines, and emphasising national initiatives to the detriment of international coordination. But could it conversely push us towards greater governance through international institutions, in the face of the obvious risks to humanity as a whole?

The coronavirus has put us on the ropes. However, we must continue advocating for a rules-based, open, and connected world, while preserving multilateralism, pursuing truly supportive and responsible globalisation, and establishing control and compensation mechanisms that create a joint response to emergencies. The way in which we escape this crisis will largely determine our ability to face the next one.


This article first appeared in Política Exterior on 20 March 2020

 

 

CRISIS GROUP, 7 April 2020

Disease has long been a daily concern at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria for families of ISIS militants, but now each death raises anxiety about COVID-19. With repatriations on hold, the UN and other international bodies must step up medical and humanitarian aid.

 

When someone dies at al-Hol, a detention camp in north-eastern Syria that holds mostly women and children related to ISIS militants, the blame turns rapidly to COVID-19. Fears are mounting about the illness, even though there are no confirmed cases, and even though untimely death is already common, due to harsh living conditions and other infectious diseases that kill dozens of people on average each month.

Scary rumours started spreading in al-Hol early in March, when a three-year-old child and a seventy-five-year old woman, both Russian citizens, died. It was definitely COVID-19, some women maintained. Others said the child had died of tuberculosis and the woman of a heart attack. As camp authorities instructed residents to stay in their tents and shops in the camp’s market began to shut, women started stockpiling food and water. When guards dug a perimeter trench, one frightened woman blurted out that they were readying mass graves. A deep disquiet arose as well in Roj, a smaller detention camp close to the Iraqi border. Women in both camps began calling and texting relatives abroad if they felt sick, frantically recounting their symptoms. “We’re having conversations about how we expect to die here”, one wrote.

Crisis Group has been unable to visit the camps under present conditions. But from telephone calls and WhatsApp/Telegram messages with camp residents and their relatives as well as with UN officials and humanitarian organisation staffers, a vivid sense of panic emerges.

As in all displacement camps in Iraq and Syria, people live without clean water, adequate food or reliable medical services – much less soap, hand sanitisers or protective gear. Al-Hol and Roj hold 66,000 and 4,000 women and children, respectively, most of them relatives of ISIS militants but some former affiliates of the group themselves. The majority are either Syrians or Iraqis, with the numbers roughly split, and around 13,500 are from other countries. Their hazy legal status as neither combatants nor civilians, and the stigma attached to them, discourages some UN aid bodies from providing any service at all. It also puts doctors and guards in the position of looking after women whom they view as unrepentant ISIS militants.

As of now, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in either camp, though there are no testing kits, either. But with a key border crossing from Iraq, Faysh Khabour, closed because of the virus, cutting off aid supplies, and medical capacity in the region direly limited, the outlook is bleak. “They already have a hard time isolating tuberculosis cases, so forget social distancing”, Fabrizio Carboni, regional director for the Near and Middle East at the International Red Cross, told Crisis Group. “Should this virus hit places like al-Hol, or much of north east Syria, we risk being in a position where we are just going to watch people, the most vulnerable, die”.

Since the last ISIS strongholds in Syria fell in early 2019, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-led militia that partnered with the U.S.-led coalition, has largely been left to deal with tens of thousands of ISIS detainees and affiliated family members. Many of the detainees’ home countries refuse to take them back. In addition to al-Hol and Roj, which mostly house women and children, the SDF struggles to guard, care for and feed thousands of men and boys crammed into makeshift prisons. It receives some U.S. funding, but its resources are woefully lacking. The anti-ISIS coalition has been slow to deliver extra support – more training for guards and new equipment – that it promised for overseeing detainees. Humanitarian workers describe these sites as ridden with tuberculosis and perilously overcrowded, with one speaking of “dramatic mortality rates”.

On 30 March, ISIS detainees rioted and overran a prison in Hassakeh city, ripping off doors and taking control of one floor of the facility. It took nearly a day for the SDF to quell the uprising and determine that no one had escaped. The militants had been compelled to break out, SDF authorities later said, partly by fear of contracting the virus in such cramped quarters. The prospect that something similar could happen at al-Hol, where tensions flared regularly between militant women and camp guards even in pre-pandemic times, worries Western officials, as well as the Autonomous Administration of north-eastern Syria, the political entity that governs the SDF-protected region.

The strain of guarding so many detainees is overwhelming the Autonomous Administration. Badran Çiya Kurd, one of its senior officials, told Crisis Group that it must look after not just camps like al-Hol but also a native population of over five million (a recent UN estimate cites three million), as well as a million internally displaced Syrians. Following ISIS’s defeat, he said, the authorities inherited a fragile health system and destroyed infrastructure, the overhaul of which required massive international support just to meet the population’s basic needs, let alone ward off a pandemic. The camps, he continued, would be hardest hit, because of overcrowding and lack of facilities and preparedness: “Any spreading of the virus will lead to unprecedented catastrophe”. Much of the north east’s population relies on daily jobs to get by, forcing workers to choose between self-isolation measures and survival. The area has also suffered from Turkey cutting the water supply it controls from Allouk station, a step emanating from disputes between Ankara and the SDF over the exchange of water and electricity between regions the two respectively control. The water is now flowing again, but it has yet to reach civilians in a number of areas. The loss of the Yaroubia border crossing with Iraq earlier in the year (a January UN resolution failed to re-authorise its use), Çiya Kurd said, was now causing intense hardship, reducing the movement of humanitarian aid into the area, in a manner now compounded by the recent COVID-related closure of Faysh Khabour.

As camp managers struggled in late March to get a doctor into Roj, citing increasing demand for medics in the area, women took to selling each other goods at inflated prices as anxiety grew in both camps. Huddled on the dirt floor in her six square meters tent in with her four children, a 31-year-old French woman texted from al-Hol to her mother back home that she feared they’d had their last full meal for a while. A Syrian woman wrote that she felt ill, had no tent for shelter and worried about who would care for her two boys if she died. Another Syrian woman said a local NGO came to instruct women on how to wash their hands properly. But usually, she added, there isn’t enough water in al-Hol for regular hand washing. “We don’t understand what is going on, so people are scared”, she said. “It’s hard to breathe”, another woman in Roj said by text to Alexandra Bain, director of the Canada-based Families Against Violent Extremism, “and we have heavy coughs”. In exchanges Bain showed to Crisis Group, women in the camps, using shared phones, described “never-ending coughing”, fever and successive days without access to a doctor or basic pain medications.

The messages paint a picture of an area already acutely lacking in medical personnel and supplies, where need is greatest in hospitals and camps recede in priority, and where nervous doctors reprimand women for asking about the virus. Sometimes the messages are punctuated by asides (“Ahhh, my daughter just vomited”); sometimes by desperation (“some people here want to take their own lives”); and sometimes by resignation (“if corona hits here, we are done for”).

Though the majority of these camps’ inhabitants are children and women under 50, a great many may already suffer from pneumonia, chest infections and tuberculosis. These “co-morbidities”, says Will Turner, emergency operations manager at Médecins Sans Frontières, put the camp population in elevated peril from the coronavirus. The danger is highest in areas like the “foreigners’ annex”, where non-Syrians and non-Iraqis are housed. Due to difficult access negotiations between aid groups and camp authorities, the annex has received no direct medical services in months. Even trying to pass COVID-19 health advice into the annex is a challenge; the camp does not officially permit women detainees to have mobile phones and will not allow the distribution of flyers inside.

As of mid-March, at least two countries had active repatriation plans under way for the foreigners in the camps, one for a small number of detainees and the other for a significant number that – in a rare occurrence – included men. Getting to this stage typically requires ceaseless and multi-layered political wrangling – within home governments, and between those governments and north-eastern Syria’s governing authorities. But for now, COVID-19 has disrupted these plans. “This definitely means a halt to repatriations”, one Western official told Crisis Group. “[No one] can commit resources to repatriation now or for the foreseeable future”.

It is likely that COVID-19 will afflict the whole of the north east, indeed all of Syria, including regions under state control and the rebel-held pocket of Idlib. The authorities in the north east cannot be expected to bear the entire burden of this escalating and enormously trying humanitarian crisis. The majority of the population in al-Hol and Roj are children, and whether they are Iraqi, Syrian or of some other nationality, their well-being and that of their caregivers needs safeguarding.

The U.S. should push both the Iraqi authorities and the Autonomous Administration in the north east to agree to a regular, two-way humanitarian exemption to the temporary border closure at Faysh Khabour, so that aid groups working across the Iraqi border can maintain their activities and supply lines in both directions. To be persuasive to the Iraqi and SDF authorities alike, this request should be accompanied by delivery of humanitarian aid and COVID-19-relevant kits and equipment for the populations in Syria’s north east and Iraq proper, including other displaced persons camps. International bodies, in particular the UN, should make a major push to provide health education and test kits. The SDF, for its part, should continue to release as many Syrians from al-Hol as possible, reducing the camp’s congestion. But one border crossing is not enough: the UN Security Council should also consider immediately re-authorising the use of Yaroubia as a humanitarian access point into the north east. Waiting for the next resolution on the logistics of aid delivery into Syria, likely this summer, would result in a damaging delay. Moscow should reverse its earlier position and refrain from opposing the reopening of Yaroubia, as Damascus has not permitted the delivery of health supplies through its territory in a way that would compensate for its closing.

At no time in recent months have prospects for the men, women and children detained in these camps looked more uncertain. While the Autonomous Administration is seeking to step up the release of Syrian detainees at al-Hol, for Iraqis and other non-Syrians the chances of leaving do not look good. The painfully slow process of repatriation by home governments, already so fraught within states’ domestic politics, is now frozen, and it will take a monumental effort to make it a priority again anytime in the near future. Which is why women’s anxiety about the virus, together with the symptoms they are presently experiencing, merges with a more generalised panic about the future.

 

 

Africa

LONDON - South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and the Central African Republic (CAR) are amongst the unhappiest countries in the world, according to the UN’s World Happiness Index.

Only Afghanistan beats them to bottom place of the 153 countries listed.

Finland has been named the world's happiest country for the third year running.

Nordic countries make up four of the top five places with the authors saying the happiest places are those where people feel a sense of belonging, and trust their fellow citizens and institutions.

The researchers asked people around the world to assess their own levels of happiness, as well as taking account of factors such as national income and levels of corruption.

This year's report was compiled before the coronavirus pandemic.


Top five:


1) Finland
2 Denmark
3) Switzerland
4) Iceland
5) Norway


Bottom five:


149) Central African Republic
150) Rwanda
151) Zimbabwe
152) South Sudan
153) Afghanistan

 

By Jeff Seldin

WASHINGTON - Western-backed efforts to counter terror groups across Africa are falling short, increasing the chances one or more affiliates of Islamic State or al-Qaida could try to carve out their own caliphate on the continent, according to the latest assessment by a top U.S. commander.

The stark warning, shared with lawmakers Tuesday, builds on previous intelligence showing Africa-based groups have been growing more ambitious and more capable, with some increasingly bent on targeting the West.

"Western and international and African efforts there are not getting the job done," Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, told lawmakers regarding developments in West Africa and the Sahel.

"ISIS and al-Qaida are on the march," he said, using an acronym for Islamic State. "If ISIS can carve out a new caliphate, or al-Qaida can, they will do it."

U.S. officials warn that many of the IS and al-Qaida affiliates have already grown so strong that Africa Command has been forced to shift its strategy to trying to contain the groups rather than to degrade their capabilities.

Much of the attention has focused on the IS affiliates, buoyed by publicity from a steady stream of attacks on Nigerian government forces and others in the region.

"We're seeing increased activity by ISIS affiliates in West Africa, East Africa," State Department counterterrorism coordinator, Ambassador Nathan Sales, said late last month. "The ISIS brand lives on."

But military officials warn it is the increased activity by al-Qaida affiliates in West Africa that is their biggest cause for concern.

"They want to eventually establish a caliphate," Brig. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, commander of Special Operations Command Africa, recently told the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel.

"They're quietly establishing their connections," he said. "We've seen them intermarry into the local tribes. We've seen them become very entrenched in local politics and do this very quietly. But they know if they're too public about their intentions, or if they raise the flag over some city, that will draw the attention of the West."

Making matters more complicated, U.S. military and intelligence officials say they see an increasing willingness by al-Qaida and IS affiliates to collaborate.

One United Nations official said such cooperation was one of the factors behind a "devastating surge" that saw 4,000 civilians killed in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger last January.

There are also concerns in East Africa, where the U.S. has focused increased firepower on al-Shabab in Somalia.

"The (al-Shabab) threat has been higher in the last few months than it was eight months ago when I first got to AFRICOM," Townsend told reporters Tuesday after the hearing. "They aspire to attack Americans wherever they find us, to include the homeland."

However, some U.S. allies are pushing back, agreeing that while the long-term concerns are real, the immediate threat is overstated.

"In the short term, the Sahel region and the Horn of Africa are unlikely to replace the Middle East and Afghanistan as regions from which the main threat to Europe emanates," one European Union security official recently told VOA.

That type of sentiment may be making it more difficult for the U.S. to persuade some European partners to put more resources into the counterterror fight at a time when the Pentagon is looking at reducing its military footprint.

The U.S. has about 6,000 troops in Africa, but officials are in the middle of a review that could reduce that number by perhaps 10% or more over the next few years.

"The Sahel is principally a CT (counterterror) mission," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said during a trip to Europe last month. "I'm not looking to put more troops in that fight."

Instead, the U.S. and France, which has been leading the counterterror fight in West Africa with about 5,100 troops, have been pressuring other European countries to increase their military contributions.

"We're not a lead partner in any of that. We're a supporting player," Townsend told reporters. "We, the world, need to do something about that."

 

Somali troops clashed with forces from the country’s semi-autonomous Jubaland region this week in a flare-up of violence that is raising tensions with neighbouring countries and may play into the hands of the militant group al-Shabab. Tensions have been rising since August, when Jubaland’s incumbent president, Ahmed Madobe, won regional elections that Mogadishu described as “not free and fair”.

The central government wanted a loyalist candidate to win as it seeks greater control over Somalia's five regions ahead of upcoming national elections. Neighbouring Kenya, which has troops deployed as part of an African Union peace enforcement operation, is on the side of Madobe, who it sees as an ally against al-Shabab, while Ethiopia has aligned with Mogadishu.

On Wednesday, Kenya accused Somali troops of encroaching on its territory and destroying property during this week’s violence, while the US said last week that the clashes are a distraction in efforts against al-Shabab. An estimated 56,000 people have been uprooted, according to the UN.

Jubbaland borders Kenya and is one of five semi-autonomous states in Somalia.

Both Kenya and Ethiopia have troops in Somalia as part of an African Union-led peacekeeping force.

The AU peacekeepers, Somali federal government and local states are all supposed to be fighting the al Shabaab insurgency. Instead, some are fighting each other.

The United States warned last week the rivalries were distracting from the war on al Shabaab, which is linked to al Qaeda and has been battling central government since 2008.

Jubbaland is particularly important - it borders both Kenya and Ethiopia and is the breadbasket of Somalia while its capital Kismayo is a strategically important port. Kenya helped Madobe oust al Shabaab from Kismayo in 2012.

Hostilities escalated in Gedo region, Jubaland State, resulting in largescale displacement of civilians mainly from Belet Xaawo town and the nearby Belet Amin Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) settlements since February. As of 5 March 2020, an estimated 56,000 people (9,000 households) have been displaced from their homes according to the Regional Inter-Cluster Coordination Group (R-ICCG) in Gedo.

Belet Xaawo is one of biggest towns in Gedo region. It is strategically located on the Somali- Kenya border. Movement of goods and persons doing business between the two countries has spurred the growth of the town in recent years, which have been affected by closure of the border. Authorities estimate that the current population of Belet Xaawo is around 120,000 people (20,000 households) together with an estimated 18,000 IDPs (3,000 displaced households).

The new IDPs are an addition to 207,000 displaced people living in Gedo region.

AB/ 

 

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON - The United States has created a special envoy for Africa’s Sahel region, a State Department spokesman said on Friday, to counter rising violence from groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State which are expanding their foothold.

Envoy Peter Pham, started his new role earlier this week, the spokesman said. He has been serving as U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa since November 2018.

“Sahel is one of the places where the situation is getting worse in the continent,” the spokesman said.

Security has progressively worsened in the Sahel, an arid region of West Africa, just below the Sahara desert, with militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State strengthening their foothold across the region, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence.

Former colonial power France intervened in 2013 to drive back militants who had seized northern Mali the previous year. Fighters have since regrouped and spread. Over the past year, militants have stepped up attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

Particularly worrying for Europeans has been possible U.S. troop cuts. The Pentagon is considering withdrawing the personnel as part of a global troop review meant to free up more resources to address challenges from China’s military, after nearly two decades of prioritizing counter-terrorism operations around the world.

Such a potential move has alarmed France, which relies on U.S. intelligence and logistics for its 4,500-strong mission in the Sahel. The deaths of 13 French soldiers in a helicopter crash during a combat mission in Mali in November increased France’s determination to secure more support in the zone.

The U.S. currently has around 6,000 military personnel in Africa. Although some experts say a repositioning of forces is overdue, many U.S. officials share French concerns about relieving pressure on militants in Africa.

State Department’s latest counter terrorism report, which was published in November 2019, said attacks by militant groups in the region have been on the rise.

“In the Sahel, terrorist groups – including affiliates and adherents of al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as non-aligned groups – have expanded their operations in north and central Mali and the Tri-Border Region of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger,” the report said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in November warned that there was growing concern over Islamic State in West Africa and called on the global coalition against Islamic State to focus on Sahel.