Release Our Brothers Boko Haram Tells Nigeria, Cameroun

Northern Islamic militant group, Boko Haram has released a video of a French family of seven kidnapped last month in Cameroun.

A man in this video who resembles past images of the person previously identified as Abubakar Shekau says in Arabic that the kidnapping of the French family was carried out because of the arrest of Boko Haram members of their family members in Nigeria and Cameroun.

“God sent us the French hostages …,” he says in what is called a message to the presidents of Nigeria, Cameroun and France.

In his words: “the proof that we are holding them is that our brothers and sisters were captured in Nigeria and Cameroun … We seek no money but the release of our brothers.”

Al Qaeda Calls for New Recruits To Fight France

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has appealed for new recruits from North African Arab countries in its fight against what it said was France’s Crusader campaign in Mali, a U.S.-based intelligence monitoring website reported on Sunday.

SITE said the appeal was posted on websites used by AQIM on Saturday, urging Islamist militants being pursued by their governments to join its fighters battling French-led forces in Mali or Algeria.

France launched a ground and air operation in Mali in January to break Islamist rebels’ hold on the region, saying the militants posed a risk to the security of West Africa and Europe.

“The front of the Islamic Maghreb today is in direst need of the support of the sons of Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, and Mauritania, to thwart the attack of Crusader France and defeat its agents in the region, and empower the Islamic project,” AQIM said, according to a translation of the statement emailed by SITE.

However, AQIM also said that if Islamist youths in North Africa could have a greater impact in their own countries, they should stay to fight secularism and push for the imposition of sharia-based rule.

France’s offensive has wrested northern Mali from Islamist occupation and killed scores of fighters. Other rebels have retreated into mountain caves and desert hiding places stocked with arms and supplies.

The Algerian army in January killed at least 32 al-Qaeda- linked militants in an assault to end a siege at a desert gas plant in which 23 hostages were killed, many of them foreigners.

France Says 15 Militants Killed Overnight In Mali Fighting

Around 15 Islamist militants were killed by French and Chadian troops in fighting overnight in northern Mali’s Ametetai valley, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday.

He said some 1,600 French and Chadian troops operating in the area continued to search for Islamist rebels.

France is still not in a position, however, to confirm reports that the military operation has killed two key al Qaeda commanders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Le Drian told BFM TV.

Shown a photograph published in French media of a partly shrouded corpse said to be Belmokhtar’s, Le Drian said it would be good news if it was the jihadist leader but that he was not convinced by the image.

“Our forces fought terrorist groups last night, still in the same area, the Ametetai valley region, where there is a strong concentration of them. Around 15 militants were killed,” Le Drian said.

“It’s not over yet as after the Ametetai valley there are other valleys … Given the ferocity of the fighting over the past fortnight, we can see there is a hideout there.”

Three French soldiers and dozens of Islamists have been killed in a seven-week campaign that has driven al Qaeda-linked fighters who took over northern Mali last April back into mountain and desert redoubts, where they are being hunted by hundreds of French, Chadian and Malian troops.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has pledged to avenge the French assault, which Paris says it launched due to fears that its former colony could become a launch pad for wider Islamist attacks.

Asked about the risks of the fighting to a French family taken hostage in Cameroon last month by Islamist militants and taken into Nigeria, Le Drian said France had information on the whereabouts of the three adults and four children, and everything indicated they were still alive.

“I think if the hostages had been killed, their captors would have let it be known,” he said. “We are using all the means we can to get them freed.”

Islamists Kill French Soldier In Northern Mali

France said on Sunday a third French soldier had been killed in fierce fighting with Islamist rebels in northern Mali but could not confirm Chad’s report that its troops had killed the al Qaeda commander behind January’s mass hostage-taking in Algeria.

A whirlwind seven-week campaign has driven al Qaeda-linked fighters who took over northern Mali last April into mountain and desert redoubts, where they are being hunted by hundreds of French, Chadian and Malian troops.

France’s defense ministry said 26-year-old Corporal Cedric Charenton was shot dead on Saturday during an assault on an Islamist hideout in the desolate Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near Algeria, the third French soldier killed in the campaign.

French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said some 15 Islamists were killed in some of the fiercest fighting during the campaign so far but that he could not confirm Chad’s claim that its troops had killed al Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar at a nearby camp in the remote Ametetai valley.

“We are facing a very fanatical adversary,” Burkhard said, noting the Islamists were armed with rocket and grenade-launchers as well as machine guns, AK47 assault rifles and heavy weapons. “They are fighting without giving ground.”

The death of Belmokhtar, nicknamed ‘the uncatchable’, has been reported several times in the past and analysts share caution shown by Paris in confirming his demise.

However, the latest report came a day after Chadian President Idriss Deby said Chadian forces had also killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, al Qaeda’s other senior field commander in the Sahara.

The killing of Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid, if confirmed, would eliminate al Qaeda’s leadership in Mali and raise questions over the fate of seven French hostages thought to be held by the group in northern Mali, an area the size of Texas.

Rudy Attalah, a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official focused on Africa and now head of risk analysis firm White Mountain research, was skeptical about Chad’s claim.

He said Belmokhtar had in the past carefully avoided operating in the same area as Abou Zeid and was known as an elusive operator who shifted through the desert in small, mobile groups of fighters.

“I don’t think they killed him at all,” Atallah said, adding Chad might be seeking to divert domestic attention from its 26 soldiers killed in the operation. “Deby is under a lot of pressure. Announcing these killings redeems his troops.”

An unidentified participant in militant website discussions said in a message posted on several jihadi forums that Belmoktar was “alive and well and leading the battles himself”, the U.S.-based SITE monitoring service reported on Sunday.

Belmokhtar would soon issue a statement himself, SITE reported the participant saying.

‘MR MARLBORO’

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has pledged to avenge the French assault on its fighters in Mali, which Paris said it launched due to fears its former colony could become a launch pad for wider al Qaeda attacks.

Belmokhtar, whose smuggling activities the Sahara earned him the nickname “Mr Marlboro”, became one of the world’s most wanted jihadis after masterminding the raid on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in which more than 60 people were killed, including dozens of foreign hostages.

Abou Zeid is regarded as one of AQIM’s most ruthless operators, responsible for the kidnapping of more than 20 Western hostages since 2008. He is believed to have killed British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.

France and Mali have said they could not confirm his death.

French radio RFI and Algerian daily El Khabar have reported that DNA tests were being conducted on members of Abou Zeid’s family to confirm whether a body recovered after fighting in Adrar des Ifoghas was indeed the Islamist leader.

Mali’s army, meanwhile, said it had killed 52 Islamist rebels in desert fighting some 70 km (45 miles) east of Gao, northern Mali’s largest town, with support from French helicopters and ground troops.

“There was a big fight with lots of enemy killed,” said Lieutenant Colonel Nema Sagara, the Malian army’s deputy commander in Gao. “Our troops went out to battle and they met them. There are no dead on the Malian side.”

Chad Says Al Qaeda Commander Killed In Mali, France Cautious

One of al Qaeda’s most feared commanders in Africa, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, has been killed by Chadian forces in northern Mali, Chad’s President Idriss Deby said on Friday.

French officials said they could not confirm the report.

“It was Chadian forces who killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid,” Deby told opposition politicians in the presence of journalists after a funeral ceremony for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting at the weekend.

Chadian soldiers with support from French special forces and fighter jets are hunting down pockets of al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the border region with Algeria after a seven-week French-led campaign broke Islamist domination of northern Mali.

The death of Abou Zeid, who has earned AQIM tens of millions of dollars with a spate of kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahara over the last five years, would be a significant but far from fatal blow to the group.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed mastermind of a mass hostage-taking at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria last month, remains at large. So does Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag Ghali, who was this week placed on the U.S. global terrorist list.

Sources close to Islamist militants and tribal elders had earlier said Abou Zeid, blamed for kidnapping at least 20 Westerners in the Sahara, was among 40 militants killed within the past few days in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

Algeria’s Ennahar television, which is well connected with Algerian security services, had reported his death on Thursday but there was no official confirmation.

A former smuggler turned jihadi, Algerian-born Abou Zeid is regarded as one of the most ruthless operators of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He is believed to have executed British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.

A trusted lieutenant of AQIM’s leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, Abou Zeid imposed a violent form of sharia law during Islamist domination of the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.

“The death of Abou Zeid has been confirmed by several of his supporters who have come back from the mountains,” said Ibrahim Oumar Toure, a mechanic in the northern Malian town of Kidal who worked with Islamist rebels and remains in contact with them.

Members of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group, who have been acting as scouts for French and Chadian forces, said Islamist prisoners seized during the fighting confirmed Abou Zeid and another militant leader had been killed.

However, French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said she could neither confirm nor deny the report, and French officials urged caution. An official MNLA spokesman said the group had no evidence to prove he was dead.

French radio RFI and Algerian daily El Khabar reported that DNA tests were being conducted on members of Abou Zeid’s family to confirm whether a body recovered by French troops after fighting in Adrar des Ifoghas was indeed the Islamist leader.

HOLLANDE SAYS OPERATION NEARS END

In a speech on Friday, French President Francois Hollande said the operation in Mali was in its final stage and he was not obliged to confirm Abou Zeid’s death.

“Terrorist groups have taken refuge and are hiding in an especially difficult zone,” he said. “Information is out there. I don’t have to confirm it because we must reach the end of the operation.”

A U.S. official and a Western diplomat, however, said the reports appeared to be credible.

According to local sources in Kidal, MNLA Tuareg rebels, who are working with French forces, had located Abou Zeid’s fighters and handed over the coordinates for French jets to strike.

“They were hidden in mountain caves and were building bombs for suicide attacks when they were killed,” Toure said.

Abou Zeid’s death will be of particular interest to the French government as he is believed to be holding at least four French citizens kidnapped from Niger in 2010.

After its success in dislodging al Qaeda fighters from northern Mali’s towns, France and its African allies have faced a mounting wave of suicide bombings and guerrilla-style raids by Islamists in northern Malian towns.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Geneva on Friday that a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace French troops in Mali should be discussed as soon as possible.

African Leaders Call For U.N. Mandate For Mali Mission

West African leaders on Thursday called for a regional military operation against al Qaeda-linked rebels in north Mali to be transformed into a U.N. peacekeeping mission as quickly as possible to secure desperately needed funding.

France sent troops into its former colony last month to drive out Islamist fighters, claiming their seizure of Mali’s north last year posed a threat to international security.

Paris hopes that from March it can start withdrawing its 4,000 troops but is awaiting the effective deployment of an African force (AFISMA), plagued by logistical and financing setbacks.

Meeting in Ivory Coast’s capital Yamoussoukro, presidents from West Africa’s regional bloc ECOWAS backed calls from France, the United States and Mali itself for the mission to receive a U.N. peacekeeping mandate.

“This shouldn’t distract from ongoing operations on the ground,” ECOWAS commission president Kadre Desire Ouedraogo told Reuters.

“It’s simply an indication that, once peace has returned, we need the support of the United Nations system both for logistical and financial support.”

Some two thirds of the 8,000 troops of the African-led mission (AFISMA) have deployed to Mali.

Many still lack the capacity to carry out combat operations and remain in southern Mali, leaving French forces and around 2,000 troops from Chad to secure northern towns and hunt down Islamist fighters hiding in desert and mountain redoubts.

After struggling for months to secure funding for its deployment, international donors pledged over $455 million for Mali at a meeting in Addis Ababa last month.

With the number of troops more than doubling since deployment plans were first hashed out last year, ECOWAS projects the cost of the mission at nearly $1 billion this year.

Transformation to a peacekeeping mission would ensure funding from the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations and facilitate the deployment of air assets essential for moving troops in Mali’s vast northern desert.

However, a decision by the U.N. Security Council remains weeks, if not months, away. France’s U.N. envoy said on Wednesday that the Security Council would ask Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to report by end-March on the possibility of creating a peacekeeping force.

Despite the rapid French advance which has seen the Islamists’ former urban strongholds rapidly retaken, security on the ground in Mali remains tenuous, amid a mounting wave of guerilla raids on towns and suicide attacks.

French and Chadian forces are currently hunting die-hard Islamists holed up in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains. Algerian television reported on Thursday that French troops there had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a leading al Qaeda field commander.

Euro Zone Economy Falls Deeper Into Recession

The euro zone slipped deeper into recession in the last three months of 2012 after its largest economies, Germany and France, shrank markedly at the end of the year.

It marked the currency bloc’s first full year in which no quarter produced growth, extending back to 1995.

Economic output in the 17-country region fell by 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter, the EU’s statistics office Eurostat said on Thursday, following a 0.1 percent drop in output in the third quarter.

The drop was the steepest since the first quarter of 2009 and more severe than the average forecast of a 0.4 percent drop in a Reuters poll of 61 economists.

For the year as a whole, gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 0.5 percent.

Within the zone, only Estonia and Slovakia grew in the last quarter of the year, although there are no figures available yet for Ireland, Greece, Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia.

The big economies set the tone.

Germany contracted by 0.6 percent on the quarter, official data showed, marking its worst performance since the global financial crisis was raging in 2009.

France’s 0.3 percent fall was also slightly worse than expectations.

Worryingly for Berlin, it was export performance – the motor of its economy – that did most of the damage although economists expect it to bounce back quickly.

“In the final quarter of 2012 exports of goods declined significantly more than imports of goods,” the German Statistics Office said in a statement.

The euro hit a session low against the dollar after the weaker than forecast German reading and dropped again after the release of full euro zone figures.

Back revisions to the French figures showed its output fell by 0.1 percent in each of the first and second quarters of 2012, meaning the country has already experienced one bout of recession in the last twelve months.

While the European Central Bank’s pledge to do whatever it takes to save the euro has taken the heat out of the bloc’s debt crisis, even its stronger members are gripped by an economic malaise that could push debt-cutting drives off track.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that weak growth was putting his government’s deficit goal for 2013 out of reach.

Economists say the euro zone may also shrink in the first quarter of 2013 although more resilient Germany is expected to rebound.

“The chances that the (German) economy will return to growth at the beginning of this year are very good. The early indicators are all pointing upwards,” said Andrea Rees, chief German economist at UniCredit.

“The question is how strong the first quarter will be. We expect growth of 0.3 percent but it could be more.”

Dutch GDP dropped 0.2 percent over the quarter, keeping it in recession, while the Austrian economy shrank at the same rate.

WEAK PERIPHERY

For the more embattled members of the currency bloc, matters are of course worse.

Italy suffered its sixth successive quarterly fall in GDP – this time by a sharp 0.9 percent – putting it into a longer slump than it suffered in 2008/2009.

Its recession has been deepened by austerity measures that outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti introduced to stave off a debt crisis.

With an election due on February 24/25, all sides in a three-way race between Monti’s centrist bloc, Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left coalition and Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right are pledging to cut taxes to try to kickstart economic growth.

Spain, the euro zone’s fourth largest economy, released figures two weeks ago which showed it remained deep in recession after a 0.7 percent contraction in the fourth quarter.

Madrid is also pressing on with harsh austerity measures to cut its debt but may be given more time to meet its deficit targets by the European Commission if its economy worsens further.

There are signs that countries like Spain are starting to benefit from harsh internal devaluations – marked by wage falls and job losses aimed at making companies leaner and more productive.

The ECB predicts the euro zone will pick up later in the year although its currency, if it keeps strengthening, could quickly snuff out any of those hard-won competitive advantages for its high debt members.

More recent data for January have already suggested some upturn in the first months of 2013, in the bloc’s stronger members at least, and if improvement comes it is likely to be seen in Germany first.

“The debt crisis has ebbed significantly and the global economy has turned up,” said Joerg Kraemer at Commerzbank. “Therefore all the important early indicators for Germany are pointing upwards. I expect noticeable economic growth again in the first quarter.”

 

Mali To Receive $18.4 Million Loan From IMF

The strife-torn West African nation, Mali, has been approved to receive an $18.4 million loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help stabilize its economy over the next 12 months, the IMF said on Monday.

The Fund said approval of the loan, under its Rapid Credit Facility, will not fulfill all the government’s needs but should send a signal that Mali’s economy is on the right path, prompting other donors to offer financial assistance.

The IMF first announced in November that it had agreed on a loan with Mali, subject to board approval.

“The disbursement … is designed to help Mali deal with urgent balance of payments need and catalyze financial support from Mali’s international partners, which is critical to Mali’s economic recovery,” the IMF said in a statement.

Other donors that often support Mali include the World Bank, the African Development Bank and France, the IMF said.

The facility is a quick-disbursing fund for poor countries recovering from natural disasters or conflict.

The United States and the European Union are backing a French-led intervention in Mali against al Qaeda-allied militants they fear could use the West African state’s desert north as a springboard for international attacks.

“Mali’s economy is traversing a particularly difficult period as a result of the 2011 drought, insurgent attacks in the north of the country and political instability in the wake of the military coup in March 2012,” the IMF said.

However, the IMF’s mission chief to the West African country, Christian Josz, said Mali is making an effort to improve its economy, which should expand by 4.5 percent this year after contracting in 2012, especially if the weather is favorable to crops.

“But of course there are many uncertainties,” he told reporters on Monday.

Mali received a $46 million IMF loan in 2011 but canceled it after soldiers toppled the president in March 2012 and al Qaeda-linked militants seized northern cities.

A leading producer of gold and cotton, Mali faces a budget shortfall, especially since the European Union and the United States suspended aid after the coup.

For 2013, Mali faces a budget shortfall of $110 million, but it will freeze spending unless it is able to plug the gap with development aid from donors, the IMF said.

Nigeria Moves Five Places Up In Newly Released FIFA Rankings

Nigeria moved up from 57th to the 52nd position on the latest FIFA rankings released today by world football governing body, FIFA.

Seen as a positive impact on the Super Eagles this time, Nigeria is now rated 10th in Africa as against the old rating of 16th position.

Cote d’Ivoire placed 14th is still the highest ranked African country while Japan placed 22nd, is Asia’s best team. The Ivoirians are also first in Africa while Algeria moved up five places to occupy Africa’s second spot and 19th in the world.

Mali are third on the Africa rankings after the West African nation dropped one place and are now ranked 28th in the world.

The Eagles have experienced a gradual renaissance under Coach Stephen Keshi, who steered the team to January’s Africa Cup of Nations. The Nigerian side defeated Liberia 8-3 aggregate in their final qualification game to book a ticket to South Africa.

World and European champions, Spain, remain top of the rankings despite their 1-1 draw with France while Germany retained second position.

But Argentina leapfrogged Portugal (4) to climb to third in the standings after they recorded victories over Uruguay (who fell out of the top 10) and Chile in the past month to move up one place.

Italy completes the top five, rising with three positions following wins against Armenia and Denmark.

Brazil; hosts of the 2014 World Cup are 18th in the standings.

Neymar inspires Brazil’s victory against Japan

Brazil’s new football sensation Neymar was on call twice for his home country as Brazil showed what it has always been known for against Japan to ensure Mano Meneze’s side ended their brief European tour with two wins from two encounters.

Last week, it was a serious demolishing for Iraq as Brazil pounded the Arabian side 6-0 in Sweden thanks the young lad Neymar. And today, he proved unstoppable as he became a threat in the defence of the Japanese side while Real Madrid star Kaka also got his name on the score sheet.

Going into statistics of Brazil’s opponents Japan was a better side as they proved to be another tough side but the Samba boys happen to be tougher and this can be deduced from Japan’s impressive win over France even Brazil became a very hard nut for the Japanese side to crack.

Paulinho gave the Brazilians the lead in the 12th minute with a strike from outside the area before Neymar, who also scored against Iraq, doubled the advantage from the penalty spot.

Neymar was fortunate to record his second goal of the afternoon after the ball deflected in off Atsuto Uchida, but the 20-year-old Santos star was credited with his 16th strike in 25 Brazil appearances.

Kaka, who had not scored for Brazil since 2010, added his second goal in five days to complete the scoring with 14 minutes left, but Neymar took the headlines once again.

Flamingoes crash out of FIFA U-17 women world cup losing to France on penalty

The first penalty shootout of the FIFA U-17 Women World Cup in Azerbaijan saw Marion Romanelli strike, the winning spot-kick for France as they beat Nigeria 5-3 to reach the semi-finals.

After an enthralling encounter, Sandie Toletti, Ugochi Emenayo and Declercq exchanged efforts before Sarah Nnodim blew her kick.

The pendulum of victory fell to the French with Romanelli tucking home the winner.

The game turned horrible for Nigeria when Captain Adelomon received only the second red card of the tournament for her second yellow of the match.

The loss means Nigeria has failed to scale the quarter-final hurdle for the second tournament running.

Reacting to the loss, Nigeria’s coach, Peter Dedevbo, stated that “France read us very well. We had our strategies, but they did not pay off. Sometimes football is like that. I am not happy, I have taken my team twice to the World Cup and we lost twice in the quarter-finals. I am not happy at all.”

Earlier before the Flamingoes match, Ri un Sim’s formidable scoring form continued, as a late brace from her saw Korea DPR’s record of always reaching the FIFA U-17 women’s World Cup semi-finals continued with a 2-1 win over Canada.

Canada began the game the brighter, with both Summer Clarke and Nichelle Prince getting in behind the Korean backline, but spurned both chances.

Ri un Sim got the opener in the 78th minute, and it was game over for Canada when she again hit target on 87 minutes.  Nichelle Prince’s goal in added time was too late to level scores.

 

Super Cup: Falcao slices Chelsea with a hat-trick

Radamel Falcao has stopped the new European Champions Chelsea’s chances of claiming a possible seven trophies this season as he cut it down to five after slicing the Blues’ with a remarkable first half hat-trick struck as the Champions League winners Chelsea fell 4-1 to Atletico Madrid claiming the UEFA Super Cup in Monaco today.

Roberto Di Matteo’s men lost 3-2 to Manchester City in the FA Community Shield on August 12th but still have to compete in the FIFA World Club Cup in addition to four other competitions, namely the Premier League, the Capital One Cup, the FA Cup, and the UEFA Champions League.

Former Atletico great but now Chelsea forward man Fernando Torres came face to face with former teammate Falcao who obviously outshone the Blues striker in a 45-minute spell.

The Colombia international beat the Chelsea defense for a chipped first goal towards the inside of the post in the seventh minute before curling in an incredible second goal with his left foot in the 19th.

He continued his unstoppable ways with a close-range header that beat Petr Cech but came off the post midway through the first half.

Towards the end of the period, though, he ensured there was no chance he would be denied a well-deserved third when he slid home clinically between the legs of Cech.

The Europa League winners was poised to lift the prestigious Super Cup trophy at the expense of a Chelsea side that is on track to lose the second of seven possible trophies this season.

Linked with a move to Stamford Bridge in the past, the Colombian striker showed just why the Blues had coveted him with a superb treble that put the result beyond doubt by the break.

Falcao had already hit the bar by the time he broke the deadlock after six minutes and he doubled his side’s advantage with a left-footed curling finish that left Peter Cech with no chance.

His third came when he rounded off fine a counter-attacking move just before the interval, meaning he had scored a hat-trick for the second time in six days.

Defender Miranda added a fourth on the hour and although Chelsea did get a goal back through Gary Cahill.