Boko Haram extends campaign to troubled Mali

At least 100 of Boko Haram guerrillas on Monday seized control of the town of Gao in Northern Mali, news agencies reportedly quoted Abu Sidibe, a Local Deputy Governor in the country to have said.

channels_television-boko_haram_members
Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria means “Western education is sinful,” is loosely modelled on the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

“There are a good 100 Boko Haram fighters in Gao. They are Nigerians and from Niger,” Mr Sidibe was quoted to have said.

“They’re not hiding. Some are even able to speak in the local tongue, explaining that they are Boko Haram,” he added.

The news was confirmed also by the Bamako security forces.

Militants from Boko Haram “were in a majority among those who attacked the Algerian consulate” in Gao on Thursday, a Malian security official said, adding that “they had black skin”.
Seven Algerian diplomats, including the consul, were taken hostage at the time.

Mali has been grappling with a separatist uprising in the north. It intensified after the coup by army officers on 22 March.

Seven people were killed today, including a girl of seven, in a new wave of attacks launched by the Boko Haram Islamic group.

In Dikwa, Yobe state, the terrorists killed a policeman, a civilian and a local politician during the night, as made known by the Nigerian army.

They attacked a police station, a bank, and a hotel but was forced back by the soldiers, as lieutenant-colonel Sagir Musa, the Joint Task Force of the Borno State spokesperson announced.

Three of the guerillas were killed, the others, though injured, managed to run away.

Here are some facts about Boko Haram

THE GROUP

* Boko Haram became active in about 2003 and is concentrated mainly in the northern Nigerian states of Yobe, Kano, Bauchi, Borno and Kaduna.

* Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria means “Western education is sinful,” is loosely modelled on the Taliban movement in Afghanistan.

* The group considers all who do not follow its strict ideology as infidels, whether they be Christian or Muslim. It demands the adoption of sharia, or Islamic law, across Nigeria.

* Boko Haram followers have prayed in their own mosques in cities including Maiduguri, Kano and Sokoto, and wear long beards and red or black headscarves.

* The group published an ultimatum in January 2012 giving Christians three days to leave northern Nigeria. Since then, attacks in northeastern Nigeria have killed many and hundreds of Christians have fled to the south. President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency on Dec. 31 in an effort to contain the violence.

* Human Rights Watch said in January that the sect had killed at least 935 people since 2009.

* Jonathan said the violent sect had supporters within his own government and the insecurity the group had created was worse than during the civil war that broke out in 1967 and killed more than a million people.

* In a recent success, Nigeria arrested the purported spokesman for Boko Haram on Feb. 1, known as Abu Qaqa.

* Abu Qaqa, a shadowy figure and purported spokesman for Boko Haram said on March 20 it had “closed all possible doors of negotiation” with a government of “unbelievers” that it cannot trust, and called on Muslims to join the fight against it.

MAJOR ATTACKS BY BOKO HARAM:

* In its first attack in Jan. 2004, it attacked a town in Yobe State before being forced to withdraw by security forces.

* In July 2009, Boko Haram staged attacks in the northeastern city of Bauchi after the arrest of some of its members, and clashed with police and the army in Maiduguri. About 800 people were killed in five days of fighting in the two cities. Later that month, sect leader Mohammed Yusuf was captured by Nigerian security forces and shot dead in police detention hours later.

* In early July 2010, Abubakar Shekau, a former deputy leader of the sect who was thought to have been killed by police in 2009, appeared in a video and claimed leadership.

* On Aug. 26, 2011 a suicide bomber struck the U.N. building in Abuja. At least 23 people were killed and 76 wounded. Boko Haram claimed responsibility on Aug. 29, demanding the release of prisoners and an end to a security crackdown aimed at preventing more bombings. It was the first known suicide bombing in Nigeria.

* An attack on St. Theresa’s Catholic church in Madalla on Abuja’s outskirts during a packed Christmas mass, was the deadliest of a series of Christmas attacks on Nigerian churches and other targets by the sect. At least 37 people were killed.

* On Jan. 20, 2012 coordinated bomb and gun attacks on security forces in the northern city of Kano killed at least 186 people in the group’s most deadly attack.

* On Feb. 26 a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into a church in Jos, killing two people. Reprisals soon followed and Christian youths killed at least 10 people in Jos days later.

* On Easter Sunday a bomber tried to drive a car packed with explosives into a church compound in northern Kaduna during an Easter Sunday service. However the car was stopped and the driver turned back. The bomb exploded by a large group of motorbike taxi riders, the police and witnesses said. At least 36 people were killed and 13 critically injured.

Ousted Malian president hands in resignation

President Amadou Toumani Toure of Mali has formally resigned as part of a deal with coup leaders to end the crisis gripping the West African state.

International mediator Djibril Bassole, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, confirmed a letter of resignation had been submitted.

The resignation paves the way for the coup leaders to step aside and the parliamentary speaker to take over.

Mali has been grappling with a separatist uprising in the north.

It intensified after the coup by army officers on 22 March.

Sanctions lifted

Mr Bassole, who represents the West African regional bloc Ecowas, met Mr Toure in the Malian capital, Bamako.

“We have just received the formal letter of resignation from President Amadou Toumani Toure,” he told reporters.

“We will now contact the competent authorities so that the vacancy of the presidency would be established and so that they take the appropriate measures.”

Under the agreement, the Malian parliamentary speaker, Dioncounda Traore, will take over as interim president and govern with a transitional administration until elections are held.

Once he has been sworn in, Mr Traore has 40 days to organise this poll, the deal stipulates.

Mr Traore, who has been in Burkina Faso since the coup was launched, said as he left for Bamako: “I am leaving for Mali with my heart full of hope.

“My country has known enormous difficulties, but I am leaving with the hope the people of Mali will come together to face this adversity head-on.”

Ecowas has lifted sanctions it imposed after the coup and an amnesty has been agreed for the coup leaders.

The coup, led by Capt Amadou Sanogo, took place amid accusations from the army that the government had not done enough to supress the insurrection in the north.

 

Pope appeals for peace in Nigeria and other troubled countries

Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday appealed for peace in the world’s trouble spots during his Easter message, but one of the holiest days for Christians was marred by fresh violence in Nigeria and Syria.

Pope Benedict XVI gives the Urbi and Orbi blessing at the end of the Easter Mass in St. Peter's Square at the the Vatican Sunday, April 8, 2012.

Speaking before a crowd of 100,000 in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square, the pope called for an end to the bloodshed in Syria where fighting continues to claim lives.

“Particularly in Syria, may there be an end to bloodshed and an immediate commitment to the path of respect, dialogue and reconciliation, as called for by the international community,” he said.

The pontiff also voiced hope that the thousands of refugees fleeing the crisis were given help to relieve “their dreadful sufferings.”

Pope Benedict XVI’s comments came as UN peace envoy Kofi Annan said he was shocked at the “unacceptable” escalation of violence in Syria, where 130 people were killed on Saturday in one of the bloodiest days since protests against President Bashar al Assad’s regime erupted in March last year.

At least 11 more people were killed on Sunday as Mr Assad’s regime insisted it would not pull out from cities in Syria unless there were written guarantees from rebels.

Turning to Iraq, the pope encouraged people to “spare no effort in pursuing the path of stability and development,” while also urging Israel and the Palestinians to “courageously take up a new the peace process.”

He also called for peace and stability to return to Mali after a military coup last month and condemned the “savage terrorist attacks” on Christian churches in Nigeria.

“To Nigeria, which in recent times has experienced savage terrorist attacks, may the joy of Easter grant the strength needed to take up anew the building of a society which is peaceful and respectful of the religious freedom of its citizens,” the pope said.

His words came as at least 20 people were killed in northern Nigeria after a car bombing outside a Christian church while an Easter service was being held inside.

Mali rebels declare independence in north

Mali’s desert Tuaregs proclaimed independence for what they call the state of Azawad on Friday after capturing key towns this week in an advance that caught the newly-installed junta off guard.

Malians, who originate from the north, pump their fists in the air during a meeting in Bamako

Nomadic Tuaregs have nurtured the dream of secession since Mali’s own independence from France in 1960 but have little international support for a move which neighbours fear could encourage other separatist movements elsewhere.

This week’s seizure of Mali’s north – a desert zone bigger than France – came with the help of arms and men spilling out of Libya’s conflict. It was backed by Islamists with ties to al Qaeda, triggering fears of the emergence of a new rogue state.

“The Executive Committee of the MNLA calls on the entire international community to immediately recognise, in a spirit of justice and peace, the independent state of Azawad,” Billal Ag Acherif, secretary-general of the Tuareg-led MNLA rebel group MNLA said on its www.mnlamov.net home page.

The statement, which listed decades of Tuareg grievances over their treatment by the distant southern capital Bamako, said the group recognised borders with neighbouring states and pledged to create a democratic state based on the principles of the United Nations charter.

It was datelined in the town of Gao, which along with the ancient trading post of Timbuktu and other northern towns fell to rebels in a matter of 72 hours this week as soldiers in Mali’s army either defected to the rebellion or fled.

The advance capitalised on confusion in Bamako after a March 22 coup by mid-ranking officers whose main goal had ironically been to beef up efforts to quash the rebellion.

Mali’s worried neighbours see the handover of power back to civilians as a precondition for moves to help stabilise the country and have imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions aimed at forcing junta leader Captain Amadou Sanogo to step down.

On Thursday a team of mediators said they were hopeful Sanogo would soon announce steps that would allow them to drop the sanctions on Africa’s third largest gold miner, which include the closure of borders and the suspension of its account at the regional central bank.

“We are going to do everything so that these sanctions are not only suspended but completely removed. We are getting there,” Burkina Faso Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole told Malian television after talks with Sanogo.

“I can assure you that the captain is aware and taking measures. He will soon make some announcements in that direction,” added Bassole, whose country represents the 15-state ECOWAS regional grouping as a mediator in the crisis.

There was no immediate response from the junta.

Separately, ECOWAS military planners prepared the mandate for a force of up to 3,000 soldiers which could be deployed in Mali with the dual aim of securing the return to constitutional order and halting any further rebel advance.

Ivory Coast General Soumaila Bakayoko said after the talks in the Ivorian economic capital Abidjan there was a “clear will” of all ECOWAS states to address the crisis in Mali, but gave no details on troop commitments or a deployment timetable.

Neighbours hit Mali junta with border shutdown

Mali’s neighbours agreed to shut their borders with the West African country on Monday as part of tough sanctions aimed at forcing the leaders of last month’s coup to step down.

Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of Mali's military junta, speaks during a news conference at his headquarters in Kati, outside Bamako

Leaders of the 15-member Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, also announced they would “activate” the region’s standby military force, though it was unclear when any troops would deploy and with what mandate.

The measures came as local Islamists who helped Tuareg separatists seize northern towns over the weekend began imposing sharia, or Islamic law, ransacking bars and banning Western clothes and music, residents said.

“All the diplomatic, economic, financial and other measures will be applied from today and will remain in place until constitutional order is re-established,” Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara said after a summit in Dakar, Senegal.

The closure of borders will suffocate the landlocked economy of Africa’s third biggest gold miner by cutting it off from the imported fuel on which it depends.

Mali will also be starved of funds from the regional BCEAO central bank, which manages the money supply in the West African zone, while individual members of the junta will face travel bans and asset freezes.

“We call on the armed groups to halt their advance towards the south,” Ouattara added. He said ECOWAS military chiefs would discuss later this week how to “activate” a standby ECOWAS force, but gave no detail on when and how it would be deployed.

In Mali, the junta reaffirmed that it was ready to consult with civilians over a transition of power but said the priority remained the fight against the rebels whose stated aim is to carve out a homeland in Mali northern desert region.

“The CNRDR (junta) would like to reiterate that the most important priority at the moment is Mali’s territorial integrity,” it said in a statement read on state television.

People in the streets of the capital Bamako viewed the prospect of a trade embargo with dismay.

“It is a bit severe because the junta has not refused to step down. This is going to hurt ordinary Malians,” said 31-year-old Yaya Kane.

REBEL GAINS

The stated aim of the coup by disgruntled soldiers was to give the army more power to tackle the two-month-old rebellion, but it backfired by emboldening the rebels to make further gains in what is the latest security threat to a troubled region.

Residents in the ancient trading post of Timbuktu said local Ansar Dine Islamists, who seized the town alongside Tuareg separatists on Sunday, had now gained control of the town and said they would impose Islamic law.

In the northern city of Gao, locals said Islamists were ransacking bars and hotels serving alcohol. In Kidal, the third main town of the region, a resident said music had been barred from radio stations and Western-style clothes banned.

“Ansar Dine people have entered the town and they are saying that they are now in control,” a tourist guide in Timbuktu, who declined to be named for fear of reprisals, told Reuters. “They have said they will institute sharia.”

A local nurse said that the separatist Tuareg-led MNLA had mostly been in control on Sunday, but had since been pushed to the outskirts of town by the Islamists.

“There was a little fighting between the two. But the Ansar Dine were better armed than the MNLA,” said the nurse.

In Gao, 300 km (200 miles) further east, food, fuel and medicines were starting to run out. The region was already suffering shortages because of the failure of last year’s rains and fighting that began in mid-January.

The aid agency Oxfam said over 200,000 Malians had fled their homes since January, around half into neighbouring countries, and that the refugee crisis could worsen.

A resident in Gao said the town was currently under the joint control of Ansar Dine and the MNLA group, and that some rebels were ransacking the warehouses of aid agencies including U.N. World Food Programme and Oxfam.

“They have destroyed everything, including attacking the hospital where there were sick people,” said the resident, who also refused to be named.

“The religious guys – Ansar Dine – attacked the hotels and nightclubs, saying such places are against their religion.”

Mali coup leader seeks help as rebels take town

Mali’s junta leader appealed on Friday for outside help to secure the West African country after separatist Tuareg rebels took the strategic northern town of Kidal.

Captain Amadou Sanogo, leader of Mali's military junta, speaks during a news conference at his headquarters in Kati, outside Bamako

Arms spilling out of Libya from last year’s conflict have bolstered a northern rebellion in Mali. President Amadou Toumani Toure was facing rising unpopularity over his failure to halt the rebellion before he was toppled in last week’s coup.

But the putsch has if anything emboldened the rebels, while the coup leaders have been internationally condemned – including by neighbours which on Thursday gave them 72 hours to surrender power or see Mali’s borders and bank funding shut off.

“Our army needs the help of Mali’s friends to save the civilian population and Mali’s territorial integrity,” coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo told reporters at the barracks outside the capital Bamako serving as the country’s presidency.

The rebels, who began fighting for an independent north in January, have seized on the confusion to prepare offensives on the three regional centres in Mali’s remote north. Among their number are Ansar Edine, an Islamist group with loose personal ties to local al Qaeda militants and which promotes sharia law.

Claiming its most significant victory so far, the rebel MNLA group said on its website it had taken Kidal, a town of 25,000, after 48 hours of fighting.

“The MNLA will continue its advance on the two other regional capitals of Azawad,” it said of the northern desert territory it sees as its rightful homeland.

CRIES OF JOY

A junta statement confirmed the fall of Kidal.

“To preserve the life of the people of Kidal, the military command decided not to prolong the battle,” it said, adding that the rebels included MNLA, Ansar Edine and local al Qaeda men.

A military source in Kidal told Reuters soldiers abandoned positions in one camp so as to coordinate a counter-offensive.

“The rebels are going around town, telling people to go about their business as usual. They are all armed, in four-wheel drive vehicles. Women uttered cries of joy to greet them at the airport,” said Kidal resident Moussa Maiga by phone.

Mali’s neighbours on Thursday demanded the leaders begin handing back power to civilians by Monday or face a crippling closure of trade borders, diplomatic isolation and a freeze in funding from the regional central bank.

Such measures could further damage the interests of foreign miners in Africa’s third biggest gold producer. Uncertainty has already pushed their shares lower on Western stock exchanges.

While not responding directly to the ultimatum, Sanogo said the junta “understood the situation” of the 15-member West African ECOWAS bloc, but pleaded for them to look again at land-locked Mali’s plight and possible solutions.

“We are inviting ECOWAS to deepen its analysis of the situation in Mali and how Mali got here,” said Sanogo, who has previously described the entire political class around ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure as corrupt and incompetent.

Fragile neighbours such as Niger and Ivory Coast are concerned that a successful coup in Mali could encourage copy-cat moves on their soil. ECOWAS has threatened to use military force as a last resort to reverse the coup.

“By April 2, if the junta does not hand over power, ECOWAS will strictly apply the envisaged sanctions,” ECOWAS-member Benin’s Foreign Minister Nassirou Bako told Reuters.

ECOWAS says new Mali trip depends on security

Heads of state from the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) may try again to meet with Mali’s junta leaders on Friday if security permits, after protests scotched a planned visit on Thursday, an official told Reuters.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (R) and President of Benin Republic Boni Yayi.

“(The heads of state) are now likely to meet in Abidjan later today with the possibility they might return (to Mali) tomorrow if the conditions are auspicious,” the official said, asking not to be named.

He said Thursday’s visit to Mali by the presidents of Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger was canceled after pro-junta protests briefly spilled onto the airport runway.

Ivorian leader Alassane Ouattara “was in the Malian airspace, he turned back”, said a source at the Bamako airport. Burkinabe president Blaise Compaore was also no longer coming, said a security source.

The meeting between the junta leaders and the ECOWAS leaders was scheduled to hold in Bamako airport around noon on Thursday. The ECOWAS team was to also include the presidents of Benin, Liberia, Niger and Nigeria.

Speaking from an undisclosed location, Mali’s ousted leader Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown on March 22 by renegade soldiers unhappy with his handling of a Tuareg rebellion on Thursday said that he was safe in Bamako and not being held by the junta.

West African leaders have already warned that the region’s troops are on standby if the junta fails to engage in dialogue.

Ousted Mali leader confirms safety

Mali’s ousted leader Amadou Toumani Toure, whose whereabouts have been unknown since he was overthrown on March 22, told AFP he was safe in Bamako and not being held by the junta.

Ousted Mali leader, Amadou Toumani Toure

The president was chased out of power just five weeks before the end of his time in office ahead of elections on April 29 which have now been suspended by the junta and no fresh poll date fixed.

“I am indeed in Bamako, and thank God my family and I are doing well. What is important to know, is that I am not being held prisoner,” Toure said in a brief telephone conversation.

“I am obviously following what is happening, I wish with all my heart that peace and democracy triumph in Mali. I have nothing else to say for the moment.”

The fate of the 63-year-old Toure has raised concern in the past six days, since renegade soldiers forced him to flee as they fired on the presidency last week in a mutiny which led to a full-blown coup.

The mutineers denounced an “incompetent” government and said they had not been equipped to deal with a Tuareg-led insurrection in the north of the west African nation.

Members of his entourage said Toure was under protection of his elite paratrooper “Red Beret” guard and coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo said he was safe in a secret location, raising concerns he was being detained.

On Tuesday, France announced its ambassador Christian Rouyer had spoken to Toure who “reassured him over his fate.”

As Toure remained in hiding, the country was divided over the coup, with lawmakers and politicians demanding a return to constitutional order while others were sympathetic to the soldiers’ frustrations over the northern crisis.

Several thousand people marched in Bamako on Wednesday brandishing banners reading “Down with ATT”, “Down with France”, and “Down with the international community”, while shouting their support for Sanogo.

The putschists have been shunned by the international community and on Tuesday were suspended by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which followed the footsteps of the African Union.

A delegation of army chiefs arrived in Bamako Wednesday to prepare a venue for a mediation team of six heads of state led by regional strongman Blaise Compaore, president of Burkina Faso, expected to arrive Thursday.

In an interview with French international radio RFI, Burkinabe Foreign Minister Djibril Bassole said ECOWAS leaders were gunning for a transition government led by parliamentary speaker Dioncounda Traore.

West African leaders have warned that the region’s troops were on standby if the junta failed to engage in dialogue.

Jonathan, ECOWAS condemn coup in Mali

The Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan and the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) on Thursday condemned “in strong terms”  the reported coup d’etat by Malian rebel soldiers, who took over control of the country from the democratically-elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure.
Renegade Malian soldiers went on state television
Renegade Malian soldiers went on state television on Thursday morning to declare that they had suspended the nation’s constitution and seized power in a coup after the government failed to quell a nomad-led rebellion in the north.

The soldiers of the newly formed National Committee for the Restoration of Democracy and State (CNRDR), led by Amadou Konare, read out a brief statement stating that “the CNRDR … has decided to assume its responsibilities by putting an end to the incompetent regime of Amadou Toumani Toure.”

“We promise to hand power back to a democratically elected president as soon as the country is reunified and its integrity is no longer threatened,” said Mr Konare, flanked by about two dozen soldiers.

A nationwide curfew was subsequently declared “until further notice”.

The West-African country has struggled to contain a northern rebellion launched late last year by local Tuareg nomads in which dozens have been killed and nearly 200,000 civilians have fled their homes.

President Jonathan, who expressed displeasure and dismay over the action of the renegade troops, described the move as “an apparent setback to the consolidation of democracy in Mali in particular and the African continent in general.”

He warned the coup plotters to allow the on-going democratic process in the country to run its full course and not to do anything that would truncate the electoral process especially the presidential election slated for next month.

Also the ECOWAS Commission in a statement by the President, Désiré Kadré Ouedraogo, strongly condemned what it called the “misguided actions of the mutineers” and warned that it will not condone any recourse to violence as a means of seeking redress.

ECOWAS noted that it has been following the unfolding events in Bamako with dismay and mounting concern, following the mutiny by a section of the military at the Kati Barracks on the outskirts of the capital city.

The disturbances sparked by elements within the armed forces are all the more reprehensible, coming amidst the on-going regional and international efforts to seek a peaceful solution to the rebellion in the north of the country, and a day after a special ministerial session of the AU Peace and Security Council on the matter ended in Bamako.

ECOWAS reminds the military of its responsibility under the Constitution, and reiterate its policy of “Zero Tolerance” for any attempt to obtain or maintain power by unconstitutional means.

The sub-regional group warned that it will “respond appropriately to any attempts to further disturb the precarious security situation.”

France calls for talks to end Mali rebellion

Mali must negotiate with separatist Tuareg rebels to end renewed fighting in its northern desert, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Sunday during a visit to the West African state.

Nomadic Tuaregs seeking an autonomous desert homeland and bolstered by fighters and weapons from Libya’s war began attacking military garrisons in northern Mali last month, renewing a rebellion that had ended in 2009.

“There will be no military solution to these clashes, so the only path is dialogue that is as inclusive as possible to all who want to sit at the table,” he said, following a meeting with Mali President Amadou Toumani Toure.

He pledged France’s support in ending the fighting and said France was committed to helping Mali maintain its territorial integrity.

Scores of people have been killed in the fighting between Mali’s military, armed with helicopter gunships, and the Tuareg fighters, and the United Nations said more than 125,000 people have been forced from their homes.

The rebellion has complicated Mali’s efforts to fight al Qaeda operatives in the vast and lawless desert.

Recent fighting near Mali’s border with Mauritania killed 50 people, including 47 rebels, according to a hospital source working with the military’s medical service speaking to Reuters on Saturday. A rebel spokesman denied that, saying 30 soldiers were killed, along with only four rebels.

The fighting comes two months before Mali’s Apr. 29 presidential elections. President Toure, who is not standing in the polls, has said the vote will be held on time despite the fighting.