Gunmen kill dozens in Nigeria’s troubled north

Gunmen from a suspected criminal gang attacked a village market in northwest Nigeria's Sokoto's state killing dozens of people, the state government said Monday. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 18 October 2021

Gunmen kill dozens in Nigeria’s troubled north

  • Heavily armed gangs known locally as bandits have terrorised northwest and central Nigeria for years, raiding and looting villages
  • "We're not sure of the (death toll) figure. But it is 30 something," Sokoto's government spokesman Muhammad Bello said

ABUJA: Gunmen from a suspected criminal gang attacked a village market in northwest Nigeria’s Sokoto’s state killing dozens of people, the state government said Monday.
Heavily armed gangs known locally as bandits have terrorized northwest and central Nigeria for years, raiding and looting villages, but attacks have become even more violent in recent months.
“We’re not sure of the (death toll) figure. But it is 30 something,” Sokoto’s government spokesman Muhammad Bello said in a statement, adding that the attack occurred on Sunday evening in Goronyo district.
“It was a market day and there were many traders,” Bello told AFP by phone.
Police spokesman Sanusi Abubakar also confirmed that bandits attacked Goronyo late on Sunday.
“Our sercurity operatives are there to conduct investigations,” Abubakar added, without giving details.
Phone networks in the area have been suspended for weeks to disrupt the gangs’ operations, making information-gathering tricky.
A gang raided another village market on October 8, in Sabon Birni district near the border with Niger, killing 19 people.
Since last month, Nigerian troops have been conducting air and ground operations on bandit camps in neighboring Zamfara state.
Telecom services were also shut down in Zamfara, and parts of Kaduna and Katsina states.
Officials in Sokoto are worried that bandits are relocating to the state as a result of operations in Zamfara.
“We’re faced and bedevilled by many security challenges in our own area here, particularly banditry, kidnapping and other associated crimes,” wrote Bello, on behalf of the state governor.
Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, he said, had requested “the presence of more forces in the state and the deployment of more resources.”
Last month 17 Nigerian security personnel were killed when gunmen attacked their base in Sabon Birni, an assault the military blamed on Islamic State-aligned jihadists.
Bandits have no known ideological agenda, but concerns have grown of jihadist inroads in the region.
Violence has spiralled in recent months across the northwest, forcing thousands of already vulnerable people to flee their homes in a situation that aid agencies fear risks becoming a humanitarian crisis.
Since January 2020, about 50,000 people fled from their homes in the northwest alone, according to the International Organization for Migration.
And more than 80,000 additional people have fled to neighboring Niger over the past two years.
Increasingly, bandits have turned to mass kidnapping and have kidnapped hundreds of schoolchildren since December. Most have been freed or released after ransom but dozens are still being held.
The violence is just one challenge facing Nigeria’s security forces, who are also battling a 12-year jihadist insurgency in the northeast that has killed more than 40,000 people.


Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill

Updated 55 min 15 sec ago

Iran, Russia and China begin joint naval drill

  • Iran’s state TV said 11 of its vessels were joined by three Russian ships including a destroyer, and two Chinese vessels

TEHRAN: Iran, Russia and China on Friday began a joint naval drill in the Indian Ocean aimed at boosting marine security, state media reported.
Iran’s state TV said 11 of its vessels were joined by three Russian ships including a destroyer, and two Chinese vessels. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard will also participate with smaller ships and helicopters.
The report said the maneuvers would cover some 17,000 square kilometers, or 10,600 miles, in the Indian Ocean’s north, and include night fighting, rescue operations and firefighting drills.
This is the third joint naval drill between the countries since 2019. It coincided with a recent visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Russia that ended on Thursday.
“Improving bilateral relations between Tehran and Moscow will enhance security for the region and the international arena,” Raisi said upon returning from Russia on Friday, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Tehran has sought to step up military cooperation with Beijing and Moscow amid regional tensions with the United States. Visits to Iran by Russian and Chinese naval representatives have also increased in recent years.
Iran has been holding regular military drills in recent months, as attempts to revive its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers flounder.
Russia is also at loggerheads with the US and the West over its neighbor Ukraine, where it has sent some 100,000 troops that Washington, Kiev and their allies fear will be used to invade the country.
Russia on Thursday announced sweeping naval maneuvers in multiple areas involving the bulk of its naval potential — over 140 warships and more than 60 aircraft — to last through February. The exercises will be in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, the northeastern Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, in addition to the joint exercise with Iran in the Indian Ocean.


UN chief: World worse now due to COVID-19, climate, conflict

Updated 21 January 2022

UN chief: World worse now due to COVID-19, climate, conflict

  • ‘The secretary-general of the UN has no power. We can have influence. I can persuade. I can mediate, but I have no power’

UNITED NATIONS: As he starts his second term as UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres said Thursday the world is worse in many ways than it was five years ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and geopolitical tensions that have sparked conflicts everywhere — but unlike US President Joe Biden he thinks Russia will not invade Ukraine.
Guterres said in an interview that the appeal for peace he issued on his first day in the UN’s top job on Jan. 1, 2017 and his priorities in his first term of trying to prevent conflicts and tackle global inequalities, the COVID-19 crisis and a warming planet haven’t changed.
“The secretary-general of the UN has no power,” Guterres said. “We can have influence. I can persuade. I can mediate, but I have no power.”
Before he became UN chief, Guterres said he envisioned the post as being “a convener, a mediator, a bridge-builder and an honest broker to help find solutions that benefit everyone involved.”
He said Thursday these are things “I need to do every day.”
As an example, the secretary-general said this week he spoke to the African Union’s envoy Olusegun Obasanjo, twice with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, and once with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his attempt to get a cessation of hostilities in Ethiopia between the government and forces in the embattled Tigray region.
“I hope that we are in a situation in which it might become soon possible to have a cessation of hostilities and that is where I’m concentrating most of my efforts,” Guterres said.
As another example, Guterres said he has also been on the phone to try to get Mali’s military leaders who recently delayed elections scheduled for next month to 2026 to reduce the timetable. He said he spoke to Mali’s military ruler, President Assimi Goita, three presidents from the 15-nation West African regional group ECOWAS, Algeria’s prime minister and the African Union’s leader about “how to make sure that in Mali, there is an acceptable calendar for the transition to a civilian government.”
Guterres said he hopes Mali’s military leaders will understand that they need to accept “a reasonable period” before elections. The secretary-general believes voting should be held in “a relatively short amount of time,” and said: “All my efforts have been in creating conditions for bridging this divide and for allowing ECOWAS and the government of Mali to come to a solution with an acceptable delay for the elections.”
Guterres said the UN Security Council, which does have the power to uphold international peace and security including by imposing sanctions and ordering military action, is divided, especially its five veto-wielding permanent members. Russia and China are often at odds with the US, Britain and France on key issues, including Thursday on new sanctions against North Korea.
On the issue on every country’s front burner now — whether Russia, which has massed 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, will invade the former Soviet republic — Guterres said, “I do not think Russia will invade Ukraine, and I hope that my belief is correct.”
What makes him think Moscow won’t invade when Biden and others believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will send troops into Ukraine?
“Because I do not believe in a military solution for the problems that exists, and I think that the most rational way to solve those problems is through diplomacy and through engagement in serious dialogue,” Guterres said, stressing that an invasion would have “terrible consequences.”
The secretary-general said “we have been in contact, of course” with top officials in Russia, though the UN is not directly engaged in the Ukraine crisis.
Guterres is scheduled to deliver a speech to the 193 UN member nations in the General Assembly on Friday on his priorities for 2022.
He singled out three immediate priorities that “are worrying me enormously”: the lack of vaccinations in large parts of the world, especially in Africa; the need to reduce emissions by 45 percent in this decade to try to meet the international goal of trying to limit future global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit); and the “extremely unjust” financial situation in the world that favors rich countries.
Many developing countries have very few resources, high debts that are growing and they pay much higher interest rates than in Europe or North America, have no vaccines, and disproportionately “suffer the impacts of climate change,” Guterres said.
“We need a deep reform in our international financial system in order to make sure that there is more justice in the way resources are available to allow for the recovery (from COVID-19) to be possible everywhere,” he said.
On another major issue, Guterres stressed that the Afghan people can’t be collectively punished for “wrong things that are done by the Taliban,” so it is absolutely essential to massively increase humanitarian aid “because the Afghans are in a desperate situation with the risks of deaths by hunger” and disease in a frigid winter with COVID-19.
“More than half the population is in desperate need of humanitarian aid,” he said, and money needs to be injected into the economy to ensure Afghan banks operate and doctors, teachers, engineers and other workers are paid to prevent the country’s economic collapse.
The issue of recognition of the Taliban government is up to member states, Guterres said, but the UN has been pressing the Taliban, which took power in August as US-led NATO forces were departing after 20 years, to ensure human rights, especially women’s rights to work and girls’ education, and to make the government more inclusive and reflective of Afghanistan’s diverse population.
The secretary-general said he will be attending the Beijing Olympics in February “which is not a political act” but “to be present when all the world comes together for good — for a peaceful message.”


Japan widens coronavirus restrictions as omicron surges in cities

Updated 21 January 2022

Japan widens coronavirus restrictions as omicron surges in cities

  • The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September
  • While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have gotten a booster shot

TOKYO: Restaurants and bars will close early in Tokyo and a dozen other areas across Japan beginning Friday as the country widens COVID-19 restrictions due to the omicron variant causing cases to surge to new highs in metropolitan areas.
The restraint, which is something of a pre-state of emergency, is the first since September and is scheduled to last through Feb. 13. With three other prefectures — Okinawa, Hiroshima and Yamaguchi — under similar measures since early January, the state of restraint now covers 16 areas, or one-third, of the country.
While many Japanese adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, few have gotten a booster shot, which has been a vital protection from the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The Health Ministry on Friday approved Pfizer vaccinations for children aged 5-11, who are increasingly vulnerable to infection.
Throughout the pandemic, Japan has resisted the use of lockdowns to limit the spread of the virus and has focused on requiring eateries to close early and not serve alcohol, and on urging the public to wear masks and practice social distancing, as the government seeks to minimize damage to the economy.
Under the latest measure, most eateries are asked to close by 8 or 9 p.m., while large events can allow full capacity if they have anti-virus plans. In Tokyo, certified eateries that stop serving alcohol can stay open until 9 p.m. while those serving alcohol must close an hour earlier.
Restaurants that close at 9 p.m. and don’t serve alcohol receive 30,000 yen ($263) per day in government compensation, while those that close at 8 p.m. get 25,000 yen ($220) per day.
Critics say the measures, which almost exclusively target bars and restaurants, make little sense and are unfair.
Mitsuru Saga, the manager of a Japanese-style “izakaya” restaurant in downtown Tokyo, said he chose to serve alcohol and close at 8 p.m. despite receiving less compensation from the government.
“We cannot make business without serving alcohol,” Saga said in an interview with Nippon Television. “It seems only eateries are targeted for restraints.”
After more than two years of repeated restraints and social distancing requests, Japanese are increasingly becoming less cooperative to such measures. People are back to commuting on packed trains and shopping at crowded stores.
Tokyo’s main train station of Shinagawa was packed as usual with commuters rushing to work Friday morning.
Japan briefly eased border controls in November but quickly reversed them to ban most foreign entrants when the omicron variant began spreading in other countries. Japan says it will stick to the stringent border policy through end of February as the country tries to reinforce medical systems and treatment.
The tough border controls have triggered criticism from foreign students and scholars who say the measures are not scientific.
Some experts question the effectiveness of placing restraints only on eateries, noting that infections in the three prefectures that have already been subjected to the measures for nearly two weeks show no signs of slowing.
Tokyo logged 8,638 new cases of coronavirus infection Thursday, exceeding the previous record of 7,377 set the day before.
At a Tokyo metropolitan government task force meeting, experts sounded the alarm at the fast-paced upsurge led by omicron.
Norio Ohmagari, Director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center of National Center for Global Health and an adviser to the Tokyo metropolitan government panel, said Tokyo’s daily new cases may exceed 18,000 within a week if the increase continues at the current pace.
Though only some of the soaring number of infected people are hospitalized and occupying less than one-third of available hospital beds in the Japanese capital, experts say the rapid upsurge of the cases could quickly overwhelm the medical systems once the infections further spread among the elderly population who are more likely to become seriously ill.
Surging infections have already begun to paralyze hospitals, schools and other sectors in some areas.
The ministry has trimmed the required self-isolation period from 14 days to 10 for those who come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, and to seven days for essential workers if they test negative.
While about 80 percent of Japanese have received their first two vaccine doses, the rollout of booster shots has been slow and has reached only 1.4 percent of the population so far.


Four people including baby freeze to death near US-Canada border

Updated 21 January 2022

Four people including baby freeze to death near US-Canada border

  • Crossing attempts have been down for a year because the border has been closed due to the pandemic, says MacLatchy

MONTREAL: Canadian authorities found the bodies of four people including a baby who apparently froze to death in a blizzard a few meters from the US border along a route used by migrants, officials said Thursday.
The temperature Wednesday when the bodies were found amid vast snowdrifts, taking into account the wind, was minus 35 degrees Celsius (minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit).
“At this very early stage of the investigation, it appears that they all died due to exposure to the cold weather,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said in a statement.
The bodies of two adults and a baby were found about 12 meters (yards) from the US border about 10 kilometers (six miles) from the town of Emerson in central Manitoba province.
The body of a fourth person who appeared to be a teenage boy was found later, police said.
Earlier in the day, border agents on the US side detained a group of people who had just crossed over and had baby items with them but no baby. This triggered a search on both sides of the border.
The first bodies were found after four hours of searching.
The US Department of Justice said Thursday they had arrested a man along the same route, charging him with human smuggling.
The 47-year-old Florida native was found driving a van with two undocumented Indian nationals inside less than one mile south of the Canadian border, the Department said, near where the group of migrants was arrested.
The nationalities of the deceased were not given, though the US Department of Justice said they were “tentatively identified” to be separated members of the same group that was arrested.
Manitoba Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy told an earlier press conference she considered these people “victims.”
“We’re very concerned that this attempted crossing may have been facilitated in some way and that these individuals including an infant were left on their own in the middle of a blizzard when the weather had hovered around minus 35 degrees Celsius, factoring the wind,” she said.
“These victims face not only the cold weather, but also endless fields, large snowdrifts, and complete darkness,” she added.
Police used snowmobiles and other all-terrain vehicles to search the area.
Emerson is along a route which migrants use to travel between the United States and Canada.
Crossing attempts have been down for a year because the border has been closed due to the pandemic, said MacLatchy.


US Democrats eye new strategy after failure of voting bill

Updated 21 January 2022

US Democrats eye new strategy after failure of voting bill

  • Biden conceded this week that updating the electoral bill may be Democrats’ best opportunity to pass voting legislation through a 50-50 Senate, where much of his agenda has stalled

WASHINGTON: Democrats were picking up the pieces Thursday following the collapse of their top-priority voting rights legislation, with some shifting their focus to a narrower bipartisan effort to repair laws Donald Trump exploited in his bid to overturn the 2020 election.
Though their bid to dramatically rewrite US election law failed during a high-stakes Senate floor showdown late Wednesday, Democrats insisted their brinksmanship has made the new effort possible, forcing Republicans to relent, even if just a little, and engage in bipartisan negotiations.
The nascent push is focused on the Electoral Count Act, an 1887 law that created the convoluted proces s for the certification of presidential election results by Congress. For more than 100 years, vulnerabilities in the law were an afterthought, until Trump’s unrelenting, false claims that voter fraud cost him the 2020 election culminated in a mob of his supporters storming the Capitol.
An overhaul of the Gilded Age statute could be Democrats’ best chance to address what they call an existential threat to American democracy from Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen election. But with serious talks only beginning in the Senate and dwindling time before this year’s midterm elections, reaching consensus could prove difficult.
“We know history is on the side of voting rights, and we know that forcing leaders to take stands will ultimately move the ball forward,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Thursday.
Just weeks ago, many Democrats were adamant that updating the Electoral Count Act was no substitute for their voting legislation. Updating the 1887 law, they pointed out, would do nothing to counter the Trump-inspired push in 19 states to make it more difficult to vote.
They still hold that position, but after the defeat of their marquee elections bill, they are running out of options. Meanwhile, Trump loyalists are girding for the next election, working to install sympathetic leaders in local election posts and, in some cases, backing political candidates who participated in the riot at the US Capitol.
Biden conceded this week that updating the electoral bill may be Democrats’ best opportunity to pass voting legislation through a 50-50 Senate, where much of his agenda has stalled.
“I predict to you they’ll get something done,” Biden told reporters Wednesday.
Any legislation would have to balance Democrats’ desire to halt what they view as a GOP plan to make it more difficult for Black Americans and other minorities to vote with Republican’s entrenched opposition to increased federal oversight of local elections.
“What other things could be put in there?” said South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “I want to deal with more than just counting the votes for the president. I want to be sure that we count the votes for everybody else. So voter nullification like they’re doing in Georgia, I think it can be addressed.”
Republicans involved in the effort to update the Electoral Count Act acknowledge that the bill would need a wider focus.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is holding bipartisan talks with Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Mitt Romney of Utah, as well as Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
“It’s such a needed thing,” said Manchin, who added that the narrower scope was “the first place” Democrats “should have started.”
Manchin and Sinema effectively tanked Democrats’ marquee bill Wednesday, joining Republicans in voting against a rule change that would have allowed the party’s voting legislation to pass with a simple majority.
Collins has proposed new protections for poll and elections workers, some of whom received chilling threats to their safety after the 2020 election. She has also called for more funding for local elections. Manchin wants harsh criminal penalties for those convicted of intimidating or threatening poll and election workers.
“It’s a heavy lift, but if we continue to get people to talk there’s a path,” said Tillis, who said tensions over the Democrats’ failed voting bill will need to cool before coalition building can seriously begin. “We are going to have to have more Republicans get on board because there are going to be protest votes.”
But at its core, many Republicans want any legislation to primarily focus on the Electoral Count Act.
“This is directly related to Jan. 6,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Thursday. “It needs fixing.”
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy on Thursday called it “an old piece of law, so you can always modernize it.”
The bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection is also working on a proposal.
As Trump’s legal appeals and efforts to pressure state and local officials ran out of steam, he began to focus on Mike Pence, who presided over the certification in Congress of the Electoral College results. Trump spent days in a futile bid trying to convince Pence that the vice president had the power to reject electors from battleground states that voted for Biden, even though the Constitution makes clear the vice president’s role in the joint session is largely ceremonial.
Separately, he encouraged Republican lawmakers to take advantage of the low threshold to lodge objections to the outcome. Even after rioters fought in brutal hand-to-hand combat with police as they lay siege to the Capital on Jan. 6, 147 Republican lawmakers later voted to object to Biden’s win.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, is working on a bill that would shore up several key vulnerabilities in the Electoral College process.
Any legislation should make clear the vice president holds only a ceremonial role, limit the scope of Congress’ involvement in the certification of the election and narrow the grounds for raising an objection to a state’s results, according to a summary provided by his office.
Civil rights activists don’t object to the revisions. But they question the value of the effort if Republican-controlled states can still enact voting restrictions.
“It doesn’t matter if your votes are properly counted if you cannot cast your vote in the first place,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who is also pastor at the church Martin Luther King Jr. once led.