Eight Peacekeepers Killed In Attack On UN Base In Mali

Gunmen killed at least eight Chadian UN peacekeepers in an attack on one of their bases in northern Mali on Sunday, a source close to the MINUSMA force said.

“According to a new toll, still provisional, at least eight peacekeepers have been killed,” the source said.

The attack happened early on Sunday at the Aguelhok base 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Kidal and towards the border with Algeria, the source added.

A Malian security source spoke of at least six killed and 19 wounded, while a diplomat in northern Mali told AFP that several of the attackers were also killed.

An attack at the same base last April killed two peacekeepers and left several others wounded.

More than 13,000 peacekeepers are deployed in Mali as part of a UN mission that was established after Islamist militias seized northern Mali in 2012. The militias were pushed back by French troops in 2013.

A peace agreement signed in 2015 by the Bamako government and armed groups was aimed at restoring stability to Mali following a brief Islamist takeover in the north.

But the accord has failed to stop violence by Islamist militants, who have also staged attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger.

Earlier this month, both France and the United States criticised the authorities in Mali for their failure to stem the worsening violence.

AFP

Niger Republic: Issoufou Tightens Grip After Polls

Niger RepublicPresident Mahamadou Issoufou has reinforced his control over Niger Republic in the wake of a disputed election.

This comes a day after the incumbent president named loyalists to key cabinet positions while making no concessions to the opposition.

In line with what has been the practice, the government resigned earlier this month following his re-election in the March polls boycotted by the opposition, but President Issoufou immediately reappointed Prime Minister Brigi Raffini.

Mohamed Bazoum, head of the president’s Nigerian Party for Democracy and Socialism, was named Minister of the Interior.

Hassoumi Massaoudou, who previously served as Interior Minister, will take over the defence portfolio, an important supporting role for Issoufou, who is a crucial ally of the West in the fight against Islamist militants in the region.

Issoufou won a second five-year term with 92.5% of the vote in the March 20 run-off election.

His opponent, opposition leader Hama Amadou, had been in jail since November on charges related to baby-trafficking and was therefore unable to campaign, and the opposition called for a boycott of the polls.

Amadou, who claims innocence, insists the charges were part of a strategy to sideline him politically.

He was granted provisional release over a week after the election.

Russia Suspends All Flights To Egypt

Russia AirlineRussia’s President, Vladimir Putin, on Friday ordered the suspension of all Russian passenger flights to Egypt until the cause of a deadly plane crash at the weekend was established.

An Airbus A321, operated by a Russian carrier, crashed on Saturday over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. All 224 people on board were killed.

Putin’s decision followed decisions by Britain and others to suspend flights to and from Sharm al-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort where the downed Russian airliner originated, may be the first sign that Moscow is attaching credibility to the theory that Islamist militants somehow planted a bomb on the aircraft.

Guarantee Flight Safety

However, the Kremlin said the decision did not mean the crash was caused by a terrorist attack.

The Kremlin has said it is too early to say what caused the crash and that all theories, including the possibility of technical failure, should be examined by the official investigation. Egypt has also said it is too early to conclude a blast had brought down the plane.

Reuters reports that Putin acted after Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s FSB security service, recommended that Russia suspend all passenger flights to Egypt until it knew exactly what caused the crash.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that “he head of state agreed with these recommendations”.

He said the government would find a way to bring Russians back home and would open talks with Egyptian authorities to guarantee flight safety.

A Sinai-based group affiliated with Islamic State, the militants who have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria, has claimed responsibility for the crash, which, if confirmed, would make it the jihadist organization’s first attack on civil aviation.

Militants Attack Church And Police In Egypt

egypt-1Islamist militants hit Egypt’s two largest cities on Sunday with a bombing in Cairo and an attack on a church in Alexandria, leaving one policeman dead and seven people wounded, security sources said.

In a separate incident, the leader of a militant group that has targeted police and soldiers around the capital was killed in a fire-fight with security forces early on Sunday, the interior ministry said.

Egypt is facing an insurgency based in North Sinai that has killed hundreds of soldiers and police since the army toppled Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi, in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.

Most militant attacks have taken place in the Sinai Peninsula, a remote but strategic region bordering Gaza, Israel and the Suez Canal. Smaller-scale bombings have become increasingly common in Cairo and other cities.

A bomb explosion on a bridge leading to the upscale Cairo district of Zamalek, which hosts many embassies, killed one policeman, the interior ministry said. Two more officers and a civilian were injured.

According to the Interior Ministry and Security sources, the policeman was shot dead during an exchange of fire at an apartment in Giza, near Cairo.

The force of the bomb, which the sources said was planted in or near a car, injured several more people on the May15 Bridge.

On Saturday, two bombs exploded near a police station in the residential Imbaba district across the Nile River from Zamalek, causing no casualties.

Pope Francis Easter Message

Pope-FrancisPope Francis has prayed for an end to the torment of Christians, commemorating the students murdered by Islamist militants at Garissa University in Kenya.

Celebrating the third Easter of his pontificate, Pope Francis spoke from the central balcony in a drizzling St. Peter’s Square after saying a Mass for tens of thousands of people wearing plastic ponchos and holding umbrellas.

Pope Francis in his message, said “We ask Jesus, the Victor over death, to lighten the sufferings of our many brothers and sisters who are persecuted for His name, and of all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence – and there are many”.

Attacks on Christians in Africa and the Middle East have been the unattractive backdrop of all Holy Week ceremonies leading up to Easter.

He commemorated the students massacred by Islamist militants at Garissa University in Kenya.

In Libya, where Islamic State (IS) militants beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians last February, he called for peace and also for an end to “the present absurd bloodshed and all barbarous acts of violence”.

He further prayed for peace in Iraq and Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, and Nigeria, where Boko Haram had also launched attacks on Christian churches.

“We ask for peace and freedom for the many men and women subject to old and new forms of enslavement on the part of criminal individuals and groups.

“Peace and liberty for the victims of drug dealers, who are often allied with the powers who ought to defend peace and harmony in the human family.

“We ask peace for this world subjected to arms dealers, who make their money from the blood of men and women,” he said.

Just about the only positive part in the pope’s address was a reference to the deal reached in Switzerland last week between Iran and the international community on a framework for a nuclear accord.

Referencing the deal reached in Switzerland last week between Iran and the international community on a framework for a nuclear accord, Pope Francis said “In hope we entrust to the merciful Lord the framework recently agreed to in Lausanne, that it may be a definitive step towards a more secure and fraternal world”.

Saudi King Abdullahi Dies At 90

saudi kingIt’s a sad day in Saudi Arabia as they mourn the death of their king, Abdullahi, who died on Friday.

Salman, his brother has now become king as stated by the royal court in the world’s top oil exporter and birthplace of Islam said in an official statement.

Abdullahi, who is said to have been born 1924, had ruled Saudi Arabia as the king since 2005, but had run the country as de facto regent for a decade before his predecessor King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke.

According to the state television, “His Highness Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and all members of the family and the nation mourn the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who passed away at exactly 1a.m. this morning”.

King Salman has named his half-brother Muqrin as heir to the throne, rapidly moving to forestall any fears of succession.

American President Barack Obama also expressed condolences and saluted the late king’s commitment to close   ties saying, “As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions,” Obama said in a statement.

“One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.”

In contrast, radical Sunni Islamist militants who want the kingdom’s destruction rejoiced on Twitter and on hardline online forums, with some praying that God make the death of a man they see as a “tyrant” the beginning of the end for Saudi Arabia.

Abdullah pushed cautious changes in the conservative Islamic kingdom including increased women’s rights and economic deregulation, but made no moves towards democracy.

According to Jamal Khashoggi, the head of a news station owned by Saudi’s prince, Salam will continue with Abdullah’s reforms. He also added that King Abdullahi was not conservative in person, but he values the opinion of the conservative constituency of the country.

Militant Raid kills 14 Tunisian Soldiers

tunisian soldierA Militant attack near the Algerian border, has killed at least 14 Tunisian soldiers with 20 others injured, the defence ministry says.

Tunisia’s Tap News Agency reported that the soldiers were attacked “by terrorist group” on Wednesday evening as they were breaking their fast as part of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan.

Gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades and rifles, raided two checkpoints near Mount Chaambi. This is the heaviest death toll registered by the army since Tunisians independence in 1956.

The Tunisian army has been waging a crackdown on militants operating in the mountainous region over the past year.

Islamist militants, including fighters linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), are believed to be hiding out in the border region.

A group called the Okba Ben Nafaa Brigade has reportedly said it carried out the attack in a post on its Facebook page.

The Tunisian President,  Moncef Marzouki, has declared three days of mourning starting on Thursday, Tunisian TV reports.

Eight soldiers were killed in an attack in the Mount Chaambi district in July 2013, days before the assassination of secular politician Mohamed Brahmi.

Austria To Quit U.N.’s Golan Force Over Syria Violence

Austria said on Thursday it would pull out of a U.N. force on the Golan Heights after battles between Syrian troops and rebels there, in a blow to a mission that has kept the Israeli-Syrian war front quiet for 40 years.

Israel, anxious for the international mission to remain in place, worried that the Golan could become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by Islamist militants fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“While appreciating Austria’s longtime contribution and commitment to peacekeeping in the Middle East, we nevertheless regret this decision and hope that it will not be conducive to further escalation in the region,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

But the departure of the Austrians, who make up about 380 of the 1,000-member United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), threatens the whole operation.

“Austria has been a backbone of the mission, and their withdrawal will impact the mission’s operational capacity,” said U.N. spokeswoman Josephine Guerrero.

“The members of the Security Council expressed their deep concern at the risk that all military activities in the area of separation conducted by any actor pose to the long-held ceasefire and the local population,” the U.N. council said in a statement.

The Security Council will meet on Friday to discuss the Austrian withdrawal. British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the council president this month, said peacekeeping officials were meeting with contributing countries to see whether any states would be willing to offer troops to replace the Austrians.

“We consider UNDOF to be an extremely important mission,” Lyall Grant said. “We support it and we want it to continue.”

Anti-Assad rebels briefly seized the crossing between Israel and Syria, sending U.N. staff scurrying to their shelters before Syrian soldiers managed to push them back and reassert their control of Quneitra.

The rebel attack appeared to be an attempt to regain some momentum after Assad’s forces, backed by well-trained Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, on Wednesday seized control of Qusair, a town on a vital supply route close to Lebanon.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Paski said: “We’ve been very clear about our concerns over regional instability caused by the crisis in Syria. This is of course another example of that, and we continue to call upon all parties to avoid any action that would jeopardize the long-held ceasefire between Israel and Syria.”

Meanwhile, Russia announced it has deployed a naval unit to the Mediterranean Sea in a move President Vladimir Putin said was to defend Russian security, as Moscow faces off with the West over its support for Assad’s government.

“This is a strategically important region and we have tasks to carry out there to provide for the national security of the Russian Federation,” Putin said.

Syrian government troops and their allies have won a string of successes in recent weeks, boosting Assad at a time when the United States and Russia are struggling to organize a peace conference aimed at ending the civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

Looking to ram home their victory, Assad’s troops have turned their fire on villages northeast of Qusair, where hundreds of rebels and civilians were holed up, prompting one group of activists to issue a desperate plea for rebel support.

“God has given us the strength to persevere, but until when only God knows. We beg you to move as quickly as possible to rescue us,” said a message posted on social networking sites.

Shortly afterwards, Syrian television announced that the army had “restored security and stability” to one of the villages in its sights – Debaa.

France, which earlier this week accused Assad of deploying nerve gas in the civil war, said on Wednesday the situation on the ground needed to be “rebalanced” after the fall of Qusair, but did not say how that could be achieved.

Russia said it was concerned that allegations of gas attacks might be used as a pretext for foreign intervention.

“I do not rule out that somebody wants to use it to state that a red line has been crossed and a foreign intervention is necessary,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow with his German and Finnish counterparts.

Quagmire

Western countries have shown little appetite for getting sucked into the Syrian conflict, but there is also a clear aversion to letting Assad, heavily backed by Shi’ite Iran and their Hezbollah associates, emerge victorious.

France and Britain last month pushed the European Union to drop its ban on arming the rebels, who are mainly Sunni Muslims. London and Paris have not yet said if they plan to arm the fighters. They wanted the ban lifted to apply pressure on Assad.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it was negotiating with Syria to reach areas surrounding Qusair to deliver medical assistance to the wounded. Humanitarian groups have estimated that up to 1,500 people might need help.

“Today the conflict is extremely fragmented, and this is one of the biggest operational challenges for the ICRC,” said Robert Mardini, the head of Red Cross operations in the Middle East.

Qusair lies along a corridor through the central province of Homs, linking the capital Damascus to the coastal heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Many rebels and civilians fled the town early on Wednesday, heading to the villages of Debaa, 5 kilometers (3 miles) northeast, and Buwayda, another 7 km in the same direction.

“We have a large number of civilians and wounded in Buwayda,” said activist Mohammed al-Qusair.

Russia, which has thrown its weight firmly behind Assad West, cautioned Damascus that the conflict could only be resolved through diplomacy.

“The undoubted military success of the government forces should not in our opinion be used by anyone to create the illusion about the possibility of solving all the problems faced by Syria by force,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

With sectarian divisions widening in the region, the leader of Sunni Islamist group Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged Syrians to unite against Assad and thwart what he called U.S. plans to set up a client state to safeguard Israel’s security.

Neighbouring Problems

The longer the civil war has continued, the more neighboring countries have felt the spillover.

Two men died after a gunfight with Lebanese soldiers near the Syrian border early Thursday, while the Turkish military said one Turkish soldier was wounded in a clash with gunmen who were part of a group of about 500 people trying to reach Turkey.

Israel, which has kept a wary eye on the Golan Heights, exchanging sporadic fire with assailants and warning of swift retaliation should its forces come under attack, said it expected the United Nations to maintain the monitoring mission.

Austria defended its decision to leave, saying it could no longer justify its troop presence.

“Freedom of movement in the area de facto no longer exists. The uncontrolled and immediate danger to Austrian soldiers has risen to an unacceptable level,” Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann and his deputy Michael Spindelegger said in a statement.

Japanese and Croatian troops also have left the UNDOF in recent months, while the Philippines has said it might leave after Syrian rebels held its peacekeepers captive.

Chad Pulls Out Of Mali Peacekeeping

[highlight]Chad, one of the countries involved in the recent peacekeeping mission in Mali, has started to pull out its troops from the country.[/highlight]

This comes after three Chadian soldiers were killed in a suicide attack in Mali on Friday.

However, chad president idriss Deby said his army does not have the skills to fight a shadowy, guerrilla-style of war.

Soldiers from Chad, France and other African countries have ousted Islamist militants from northern Mali’s towns since the invasion, but fighting continues in some remote parts of the Sahara Desert.

Chad’s 2,000 troops were seen as playing a crucial role in the fight because of their experience in desert warfare.

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.”