French soldiers lower flag after years in Mali’s Timbuktu

‘Le Hollande’ restaurant, named after former French PM Francois Hollande, Timbuktu, Mali, Dec. 7, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 14 December 2021
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French soldiers lower flag after years in Mali’s Timbuktu

  • The French were greeted as liberators when they entered Timbuktu in 2013 — PM Francois Hollande described the day French soldiers retook the city as ‘the best day of his political life’
  • Paris has said it remains militarily committed to Mali, and that it plans to refocus its energies on strengthening an international task force of special forces, known as Takuba

TIMBUKTU, Mali: French officers handed over the keys to a military base in the Malian city of Timbuktu on Tuesday, after a nearly nine-year deployment.

The ceremony took place near the city’s airport, with Malian army officers, officials from the local government and the United Nations attending.

The French flag was lowered and the Malian flag raised in its place on the base, where a force of about 150 soldiers have remained after Paris began withdrawing troops having liberated the city from extremists in 2013.

General Etienne du Peyroux, head of France’s Operation Barkhane anti-extremist campaign in Mali, shook hands with the new camp commander and offered him a large wooden key as a French military plane made a low flyover.

The highly symbolic departure comes after French forces already left bases in the northern towns Kidal and Tessalit this year, even though the extremist-driven violence in the Sahel state shows no signs of easing.

France “will be present in a different way,” said du Peyroux. “This is ultimately the aim of Operation Barkhane: to allow Mali to take its destiny into its own hands... but always in partnership.”

The new Malian commander did not speak.

It was in Timbuktu on February 2, 2013 that former French president Francois Hollande declared the start of France’s military intervention in the conflict-torn country.

Just a few days earlier, French legionnaires and Malian troops had liberated the northern desert city after an eight-month extremist occupation.

“Some people were overcome by emotion, women were crying, young people were shouting, I myself was overwhelmed,” said Yehia Tandina, a Timbuktu television journalist, recalling the day.

With the departure of French troops, there are now questions about the future of extremist activity as militants put down roots in the countryside.

Since 2013, Paris has deployed around 5,100 troops across the Sahel region — which includes Mali — aiming to support local governments and their poorly equipped forces fighting an ever-growing insurgency.

However, extremist attacks have grown more frequent. An insurgency that began in Mali has spilled over into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

French President Emmanuel Macron announced a major drawdown of French troops in June, however, after a military takeover in Mali in August 2020 that ousted the elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

France’s deployment in the Sahel is due to fall to about 3,000 troops by next year.

“For us, this is a page that is turning,” Captain Florian, former base commander, told reporters. “But the mission continues. My soldiers and I will continue our mission in Mali.”

The French were greeted as liberators when they entered Timbuktu in 2013.

Hollande also described the day French soldiers retook the city as “the best day of his political life.”

But after nearly nine years the extremists in the region are still active. Whether France’s military mission can be described as a success is a sensitive question.

Master Corporal Julien, a French soldier who was in Timbuktu in 2013 and returned for the handover, said: “We have to hope that things will get better for civilians.”

Outside the city, locals appear to have come to terms with the extremists, according to security officials and Western diplomats.

An acceptance of their legitimacy, at least among locals, may have also decreased violence.

“Where there is coexistence, there will certainly be fewer negative acts,” said Tandina, the journalist, noting improved security in the Timbuktu region.

According to the UN, militant attacks on civilians in Timbuktu and the surrounding area are at their lowest since 2015.

Still, Westerners cannot travel outside the city without an armed escort.

The central government, which is supported by the UN inside the city, is largely invisible in the countryside.

Most extremists in the region are affiliated to Al-Qaeda. In their propaganda, they boast that they control the territory and have won the hearts of locals.

Paris has said it remains militarily committed to Mali, and that it plans to refocus its energies on strengthening an international task force of special forces, known as Takuba.

Its troop reduction is occurring amid heightened tensions with Mali’s army-dominated government — first provoked after last year’s coup — as well as growing local opposition to the French presence across the region.


Pope Francis will travel to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Singapore in longest trip of papacy

Updated 4 sec ago
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Pope Francis will travel to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Singapore in longest trip of papacy

  • Pope Francis’ health has become a source of increasing concern and speculation
  • Pontiff wants to return to his native Argentina, but no plans or dates have been announced
VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis will visit Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and Singapore in September, the Vatican announced Friday, confirming the longest trip of Francis’ papacy that is sure to test his health, stamina and mobility.
The Vatican confirmed the Sept. 2-13 visit, saying the 87-year-old pope would visit Jakarta, Indonesia; Port Moresby and Vanimo, Papua New Guinea; Dili, East Timor; and Singapore. Further details will be announced later.
Francis’ health has become a source of increasing concern and speculation, even though the pontiff is able to carry on with a rigorous schedule of meetings at the Vatican and even excursions to local parishes.
Francis, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, had to cancel a planned visit to Dubai late last year after he came down with a bad case of bronchitis. He suffered from respiratory problems all winter and had to curtail his participation in Holy Week events to save his energy for Easter.
Francis has also been using a wheelchair for nearly two years because of bad knee ligaments, and has said that traveling has become increasingly more difficult.
And yet at 11 days, the trip would be the longest of Francis’ papacy, outpacing by a few days some of his long trips to the Americas early on in his 11-year papacy. It will bring the Argentine Jesuit to the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, as well as the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where the Catholic Church wields enormous influence.
In a statement announcing the visit, the Indonesian foreign ministry welcomed the visit and recalled that it had originally been scheduled for 2020 but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The visit of Pope Francis to Indonesia holds significant importance to the Indonesian people, not only for Catholics but also for all religious communities. The visit is also expected to strengthen the message of tolerance, unity and world peace,” the statement said.
Indonesia is home to roughly 242 million Muslims and 29 million Christians — 8.5 million of whom are Catholics — according to a 2022 report by the Religious Affairs Ministry.
East Timor, which today has a population of about 1.2 million people, is Southeast Asia’s only predominantly Christian nation with the exception of the Philippines. According to the 2015 census, 97.6 percent of East Timor’s population is Catholic.
The visit to East Timor will likely reignite attention over a clergy sex abuse scandal involving its revered independence hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The Vatican confirmed in 2022 that it had sanctioned Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo following allegations that he sexually abused boys there during the 1990s. Belo is believed to now be living in Portugal.
Francis will be the first pope to visit Papua New Guinea since St. John Paul II went there in 1984. The country, in a strategically important part of the South Pacific, has struggled with tribal violence and civil unrest.
John Paul also visited Singapore, in 1986. The country today is home to some 395,000 Catholics.
The Vatican has planned only one other papal trip this year — to Belgium to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s Catholic university. Francis has also said he wants to return to his native Argentina, but no plans or dates have been announced.

Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

Updated 12 April 2024
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Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

  • Establishing ties with Israel would be ‘political suicide’ for Indonesian leadership, analyst says
  • Israeli media reports claim Jakarta has begun OECD-brokered talks with Tel Aviv

JAKARTA: Jakarta has denied plans to establish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, following viral Israeli media reports claiming it was part of a deal to smooth Indonesia’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Indonesia is the first Southeast Asian nation to apply for the membership of the 38-nation forum. Accession talks began in February, but according to local Israeli media were objected to by Tel Aviv over the lack of diplomatic ties with Jakarta.

Countries need unanimous approval from all OECD members, including Israel, to join the bloc.

Citing anonymous sources, the Israeli media reports claimed that Indonesia had started OECD-brokered talks with Israel, which in exchange for recognition would agree to the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation joining the group.

However, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the claims.

“There are no plans to open diplomatic ties with Israel, especially in the wake of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. Indonesia’s stance has not changed, and we remain consistent in supporting Palestine’s independence within the framework of the two-state solution,” Lalu Muhamad Iqbal, the ministry’s spokesperson, told reporters late on Thursday.

“Indonesia will always be consistent and at the forefront of defending the rights of the Palestinian people.”

One of the staunchest supporters of Palestine, the Indonesian government has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of Israel’s deadly invasion of Gaza in October, Jakarta has also been vocal on the international stage, demanding an end to military support and weapons sales to Tel Aviv.

In January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on the UN Security Council to make no exceptions in upholding international law, and to bring Israel to account over mass killing and atrocities.

Israeli ground and air attacks have in the past six months have killed at least 33,400 Palestinian citizens, almost half of them children. Over 70,000 have been injured, mutilated or disabled by the strikes, while thousands remain missing under the rubble.

The Israeli military has also levelled large parts of Gaza, destroyed most of its civilian and medical infrastructure, and blocked water, food and aid supplies to the territory, bringing its more than 2 million inhabitants to the brink of famine.

Since the beginning of the onslaught, mass public protests in support of Palestine have taken place frequently in Indonesia, where people see Palestinian independence as mandated by their own constitution, which calls for the abolition of colonialism.

“If the government takes the opposite step by recognizing the state of Israel and tolerating colonialism and oppression, that will cause political suicide, given that such a thing would lead to political delegitimization and loss of public trust,” Airlangga Pribadi Kusman, a political science lecturer at Airlangga University in Surabaya, told Arab News.

“The current and future Indonesian government should continue its policy of supporting Palestinian independence as has been the commitment of previous governments.”


Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

Updated 12 April 2024
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Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

  • Establishing ties with Israel would mean ‘political suicide’ for Indonesian leadership
  • Israeli media reports claim Indonesia has started OECD-brokered talks with Tel Aviv

JAKARTA: Jakarta has denied plans to establish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, following viral Israeli media reports claiming it was part of a deal to smooth Indonesia’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation.

Indonesia is the first Southeast Asian nation to apply for the membership of the 38-nation forum. Accession talks began in February but, according to local Israeli media, were objected to by Tel Aviv over the lack of diplomatic ties with Jakarta.

Countries need unanimous approval from all OECD members, including Israel, to join the bloc.

Citing anonymous sources, the Israeli media reports claimed that Indonesia had started OECD-brokered talks with Israel, which in exchange for recognition would give its nod for the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation to join the group.

The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs debunked the claims.

“There are no plans to open diplomatic ties with Israel, especially in the wake of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. Indonesia’s stance has not changed, and we remain consistent in supporting Palestine’s independence within the framework of the two-state solution,” Lalu Muhamad Iqbal, the ministry’s spokesperson, told reporters Thursday evening.

“Indonesia will always be consistent and at the forefront of defending the rights of the Palestinian people.”

One of the staunchest supporters of Palestine, the Indonesian government has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of Israel’s deadly invasion of Gaza in October, it has also been vocal on the international stage, demanding a stop to military support and weapons sales to Tel Aviv.

In January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on the UN Security Council to make no exceptions in upholding international law and to bring Israel to accountability over mass killing and atrocities.

Israeli ground and air attacks have in the past six months killed at least 33,400 Palestinian citizens — nearly half of them children. Over 70,000 have been injured, mutilated and disabled by the strikes, while thousands of others remain missing under the rubble.

The Israeli military has also levelled large parts of Gaza, destroyed most of its civilian and medical infrastructure, and blocked water, food and aid supplies to the territory, bringing its more than 2 million inhabitants to the verge of famine.

Since the beginning of the onslaught, mass public protests in support of Palestine have been regular in Indonesia, where the people see Palestinian independence as mandated by their own constitution, which calls for the abolition of colonialism.

“If the government takes the opposite step by recognizing the state of Israel and tolerating colonialism and oppression, that will cause political suicide, given that such a thing would lead to political delegitimization and loss of public trust,” Dr. Airlangga Pribadi Kusman, political science lecturer at Airlangga University in Surabaya, told Arab News.

“The current and future Indonesian government should continue its policy of supporting Palestinian independence as has been the commitment of previous governments.”

 


EU, Britain and Spain to hold more talks on post-Brexit status of Gibraltar

Updated 12 April 2024
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EU, Britain and Spain to hold more talks on post-Brexit status of Gibraltar

  • The two ministers will hold talks with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in Brussels
  • All sides are eager to clinch a deal before European elections in June

MADRID: British and Spanish foreign ministers will meet Friday with a top European Commission official for another round of negotiations over the status of the disputed territory of Gibraltar following Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The two ministers will hold talks with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in Brussels. Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo will also attend.
Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said that while the meeting with his British counterpart David Cameron “may not be the final day,” he was optimistic of an agreement “as soon as possible.”
“These are complex, technical issues, and then we will have to draft a whole set of documents, but we are already close to reaching an agreement on the general political lines,” Albares told Spain’s Onda Cero radio on Thursday.
All sides are eager to clinch a deal before European elections in June.
Britain left the European Union in 2020 with the relationship between Gibraltar and the bloc unresolved. Talks on a deal to ensure people and goods can keep flowing over the Gibraltar-Spain border have made halting progress during 18 rounds of negotiations, but UK officials have recently expressed optimism about reaching a deal.
In Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum, 96 percent of voters in Gibraltar supported remaining in the EU. The tiny territory on Spain’s southern tip depends greatly on access to the EU market for its 34,000 inhabitants.
Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in 1713, but Spain has maintained its sovereignty claim ever since. Relations concerning the Rock, as it is popularly referred to in English, have had their ups and down over the centuries.
British Foreign Office Minister David Rutley said last month that “while negotiations have been technically and politically complex, significant progress has been made.”
A major sticking point has been who controls Gibraltar’s airport, which under the proposed free-movement deal would be an external border of the EU. The UK and Gibraltar have resisted Spain’s insistence that Spanish border officials be based at the airport, which is also home to a Royal Air Force base.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement Thursday that while it is “not expecting this meeting to reach a final agreement, getting senior political figures from the UK, European Commission, Spain and Gibraltar in one room is significant.”


Teaching refugee women from Pakistan, other states to drive goes farther than destination

Updated 12 April 2024
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Teaching refugee women from Pakistan, other states to drive goes farther than destination

  • Students sign up for driving program through Ethaar, an Atlanta-area nonprofit organization that aids refugee families resettlement
  • US government gives refugee families up to 12 months of financial, medical assistance, so there is limited time to become autonomous

STONE MOUNTAIN: In a large, empty parking lot outside Atlanta, one car slowly careened around parking spaces. From the passenger seat, driving instructor Nancy Gobran peered over large sunglasses at her student, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee woman who was driving for one of the first times in her life.

“Turn the wheel and then accelerate,” Gobran, the owner of Safety Driving School, said softly in Arabic. Gripping the wheel tightly, the student cautiously rounded the corners of the parking lot for nearly an hour.

Gobran has been working for nearly five years with a program called Women Behind the Wheel, which offers 14 hours of free drivers’ education to mostly refugee and immigrant women. Many of the women who enroll come from countries that discourage women from driving or working outside their home.

It’s not a new concept, but Women Behind the Wheel is unique to Georgia. Similar programs exist across the country, such as Refugee Women Rising in Omaha, Nebraska, which offers driver’s education, seat belt safety and car seat installation help, and Driving Opportunity in Denver, which offers classroom and road instruction to refugee women.

“Helping a lot of refugees is not easy,” Gobran said. “At the beginning, it’s kind of awkward for some people for their first time being behind the wheel, but by the end of the program, they gained the benefit they’ve been looking for.”

Students sign up for the driving program through Ethaar, an Atlanta-area nonprofit organization that aids refugee families through their resettlement. Its name is an Arabic word meaning altruism and affection.

Ethaar co-founder Mona Megahed said she started Women Behind the Wheel to fill a glaring need many refugee families have that partially stem from cultural differences.

“We named it Women Behind the Wheel for a reason,” Megahed said. “We really wanted to empower our female clients. A lot of these women were struggling because they were fully dependent on their spouses.”

She noted some husbands held beliefs from their home countries that their wives shouldn’t drive or work.

“We quickly explained, well, you can’t really provide if you’re making minimum wage and you have six mouths to feed in addition to helping with your wife,” Megahed said. “So she also needs to kind of learn how to drive and find a job and get out there.”

The stress can be compounded for families in metro Atlanta, where many people rely on cars to get around. Most of the refugee families Ethaar works with settle in Clarkston, a suburb 15 miles (24 kilometers) northeast of Atlanta.

“Most of the time because of lack of access to transportation, it’s hard for them to get to their jobs,” said Sarah Karim, Ethaar’s executive director. “It’s hard for them to go study anywhere except for what is close by, and there aren’t that many options, unfortunately.”

Their clientele depends on the shifting global landscape and conflicts, Karim said.

“Lately, we’ve observed various nationalities among our clients, including families and individuals from Afghanistan, Burma, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Eritrea,” Karim said.

So far, there have been 230 graduates of the program, including a few men. The driving program typically has a three-to-four-month waitlist because of the demand. The US government gives refugee families up to 12 months of financial and medical assistance, so there is limited time to become autonomous.

“The point is for every refugee to reach self-sufficiency or self-reliance,” said Dorian Crosby, a Spelman College professor who is an expert in refugee migration.

“Learning how to drive and getting access to a license is critical to refugee women reaching that level of self-reliance,” Crosby said. “It’s not just to meet the government regulations of the cutoff, but they now can sustain themselves. It is also such an emotional boost.”

Instructors like Gobran are fluent in Arabic, which makes students more comfortable. She watched her client slowly gain confidence over her hourlong session. A smile crept across her face. A month later, her student passed her driving test.

“This is their new home, and they have to understand how this country works,” Gobran said. “It starts with the very little thing as driving to build a future.”