UN in ‘unprecedented’ 6-month withdrawal of nearly 13,000 peacekeepers from Mali

Troops of the Malian army patrol the ancient town of Djenne in central Mali. (AFP file photo)
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Updated 29 August 2023
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UN in ‘unprecedented’ 6-month withdrawal of nearly 13,000 peacekeepers from Mali

  • Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky made no mention of Wagner but said, “Russia will continue to provide Mali and other interested African partners with comprehensive assistance on a bilateral, equal and mutually respectful basis”

UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations is in the throes of what Secretary-General António Guterres calls an “unprecedented” six-month exit from Mali on orders of the West African nation’s military junta, which has brought in mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group to help fight an Islamic insurgency.
The UN special envoy for Mali, El-Ghassim Wane, laid out the scale of the operation to the UN Security Council on Monday: All 12,947 UN peacekeepers and police must be sent home, their 12 camps and one temporary base handed over to the government, and 1,786 civilian staff terminated by the Dec. 31 deadline.
Mali’s UN Ambassador Issa Konfourou said the government is cooperating with the UN peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, but it will not extend the deadline.
The United Nations also needs to move out approximately 5,500 sea containers of equipment and 4,000 vehicles that belong to the UN and the countries that contributed personnel to MINUSMA, the fourth largest of the UN’s dozen peacekeeping operations, Wane said.
That process has begun but will continue during a “liquidation” period that will begin on Jan. 1, 2024 and last for 18 months, with the UN keeping police in the three hubs in the capital, Bamako, Gao and Timbuktu where the equipment is being gathered.
Mali has been in turmoil since a 2012 military coup which was followed by rebels in the north forming a Daesh two months later.
The extremist rebels were forced from power in the north with the help of a French-led military operation, but they moved from the arid north to more populated central Mali in 2015 and remain active.
In August 2020, Mali’s president was overthrown in a coup that included an army colonel who carried out a second coup and was sworn in as president in June 2021. He developed ties to Russia’s military and the Wagner group whose head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was reportedly killed in a plane crash on a flight from Moscow last week.
The UN deployed peacekeepers in 2013 and MINUSMA has become the most dangerous UN mission in the world, with more than 300 personnel killed.
In a 13-page letter to Security Council members circulated Monday, Guterres said “the timeline, scope and complexity of the mission’s withdrawal are unprecedented.”
He said the landlocked country’s “vast terrain, the hostile operating environment in certain regions and its climates render the mission’s withdrawal within a six-month time frame extremely challenging.”
Guterres said the logistics of moving troops and equipment is further constrained by the presence of “terrorist armed groups” and the recent military takeover of Niger, a key transit country.
UN experts said in a report last week that Islamic State extremists have almost doubled the territory they control in Mali in less than a year, and that their Al-Qaeda-linked rivals are also capitalizing on the deadlock and perceived weakness of armed groups that signed a 2015 peace agreement.
UN envoy Wane told the Security Council that the first phase of the withdrawal focused on closing the smallest and furthest outposts – Menaka, Ber, Goundam and the temporary base in Ogossagou — which was completed on Aug. 25.
The withdrawal from Ber took place two days early because of clashes at the camp, and UN convoys leaving the camp were attacked, with no casualties.
Mali’s Konfourou said “armed terrorist groups took hostile action to prevent the Malian security and armed forces from occupying the camp” at Ber.
France’s deputy UN ambassador Nathalie Broadhurst told the council the clashes in Ber occurred “with the participation of Wagner mercenaries” and were a serious violation of a cease-fire and the 2015 peace agreement.
US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield also expressed alarm at the resumption of hostilities in northern Mali, including at Ber.
“Additionally, MINUSMA’s withdrawal limits the ability of the international community to protect civilians from the predations of Wagner, whose activities contribute to greater insecurity in the country,” she said.
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky made no mention of Wagner but said, “Russia will continue to provide Mali and other interested African partners with comprehensive assistance on a bilateral, equal and mutually respectful basis.”
UN envoy Wane said the second and final phase of the troop withdrawal starting Sept.1 “will be incredibly difficult” because of the long distances that convoys evacuating troops and equipment need to travel, including through hostile areas — 563 kilometers in the case of the Tessalit camp.
Wane stressed that the withdrawal is taking place as the 2015 peace agreement between the government, a pro-government militia and a coalition of groups seeking autonomy in Mali’s north is paralyzed.
“That agreement is the cornerstone of Mali’s long-term stabilization,” he said.

 


UK PM Sunak to speak with Israel’s Netanyahu, seeking to avoid escalation

Updated 4 sec ago
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UK PM Sunak to speak with Israel’s Netanyahu, seeking to avoid escalation

  • “All sides must show restraint," Sunak says

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Monday he would soon speak with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on how to prevent escalation in the region after Iran’s drone and missile attack.
“I will also shortly be speaking to Prime Minister Netanyahu to express our solidarity with Israel in the face of this attack, and to discuss how we can prevent further escalation,” Sunak said in a statement to parliament.
“All sides must show restraint,” he added.
Last week Iran launched explosive drones and fired missiles at Israel in retaliation for what it called an Israeli strike on its Damascus consulate on April 1 that killed seven officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
British military jets helped shoot down the drones.


Four wounded in Sydney Assyrian church stabbing, man arrested

Updated 15 April 2024
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Four wounded in Sydney Assyrian church stabbing, man arrested

  • A member of the congregation at an Assyrian church rushed at the dais and slashed at the bishop, causing pandemonium.
  • Incident came two days after a man with a knife killed six at a shopping mall in the east of Sydney

SYDNEY: Four people are being treated for “non-life threatening injuries” after a stabbing at a live-streamed church service in Sydney on Monday, the latest knife attack to rock the city.
Australian police said they had arrested one man, after a member of the congregation at an Assyrian church rushed at the dais and slashed at the bishop, causing pandemonium.
Amid the panic and screams, several churchgoers rushed to safety while others tried to subdue the attacker.
The ambulance service told AFP that four men aged between 20 and 70 were being treated for injuries, including lacerations.
“The injured individuals suffered non-life threatening injuries and were treated by New South Wales Ambulance paramedics before being conveyed to hospital,” police added.
“A male was arrested and remains in police custody.”
The incident came two days after a man with a knife killed six at a shopping mall in the east of Sydney.
AFP verified video of Monday’s attack as being taken at the Christ the Good Shepherd Church in Sydney’s western suburb of Wakeley.
The neighborhood is a hub for Sydney’s small Christian Assyrian community, many of whom fled persecution and war in Iraq and Syria.
There were tense scenes outside the church after the attack, with hundreds of members of the local community trying to make their way past a phalanx of riot police to reach the suspect.
An AFP journalist at the scene saw projectiles being hurled, before police with riot shields and armor pushed the protesters away from the church.
“He has been removed from the church and taken to an undisclosed location,” police said.
They urged the public to avoid the area amid “a large police response.”
The Christ the Good Shepherd Church holds a bible session every Monday evening.
Police said they began to receive emergency calls from the scene “about 7.10 pm.”
Australians are still reeling from Saturday’s stabbing, which was carried out by a 40-year-old man with a history of mental illness.
In that attack, videos shared on social media showed unshaven itinerant Joel Cauchi pursuing mostly female victims as he rampaged through the vast, crowded Westfield shopping complex in Bondi Junction on Saturday afternoon.
A black ribbon was projected onto the Sydney Opera House on Monday as a mark of respect for the victims.


Indonesia, Malaysia warn of Middle East escalation, distraction from Israel’s war on Gaza

Updated 15 April 2024
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Indonesia, Malaysia warn of Middle East escalation, distraction from Israel’s war on Gaza

  • Drone and missile attack at the weekend was Iran’s first strike on Israel from Iranian territory
  • Indonesia and Malaysia are two of the staunchest, most vocal supporters of Palestine in Asia 

JAKARTA: Indonesia and Malaysia have warned of escalating tensions in the Middle East and Israel’s attempts to use them to deflect attention from its deadly war on Gaza.

Fears of a regional conflict have grown since an Israeli airstrike destroyed an Iranian Consulate building in Damascus earlier this month, killing 13 people, including two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders.  

In retaliation, Iran launched explosive drones and fired missiles at Israel late on Saturday — its first direct attack against the country from Iranian territory. 

Following the attack, Indonesia and Malaysia called for restraint to prevent escalation in the Middle East. 

“Indonesia is deeply concerned over the escalation of the situation in the Middle East and calls on all parties to exercise restraint,” the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Sunday evening. 

“Indonesia urges the UN Security Council to act immediately to de-escalate tensions and continue working towards lasting peace in the Middle East, including by ending the illegal occupation of Palestine and various violations of international law by Israel.” 

Indonesia also called for a “just settlement” for Palestine through a two-state solution, which “will be the key to maintaining regional security,” the ministry said. 

Israel’s strike in Syria and Iran’s subsequent retaliation over the weekend took place against the backdrop of the onslaught on Gaza, which has killed over 33,700 Palestinians and displaced around 1.9 million 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 military operation in Gaza in October, Jakarta has also been vocal on the international stage, demanding an end to military support and weapons sales to Tel Aviv.

Neighboring Malaysia, also a vocal supporter of Palestine, warned that any further form of provocation or retaliation could ignite a regional conflict “that will not serve the region nor the Palestinian cause,” Foreign Minister Mohamad Hasan said in a statement. 

“The international community is also reminded not to lose sight of the objective of ensuring the freedom of the Palestinians and their rights to their own lands. Any distraction from this objective is what Israel wants, which is to deflect the global community’s attention from their nefarious, inhumane and unconscionable acts in Palestine,” he said. 

“Malaysia reiterates that the main objective is to find peace and a permanent solution to the plight of the Palestinian people and not widen the conflict.”


France hosts Sudan conference a year into ‘forgotten’ war

Updated 15 April 2024
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France hosts Sudan conference a year into ‘forgotten’ war

  • A total of $895 million had been pledged after separate announcements from France, Germany, the EU and the US
  • Aid workers say a year of war has led to a catastrophe, but the world has turned away from the country of 48 million

PARIS: France and its allies Monday sought to drum up hundreds of millions in aid for Sudan a year since its civil war erupted, sparking one of the world’s worst and most underfunded humanitarian crises.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed and 8.5 million more have been forced to flee their homes since fighting broke out on April 15 last year between rival generals.

Sudan is experiencing “one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent memory,” with more people displaced inside the country than anywhere else in the world and a fast-growing hunger crisis, the United Nations says.

At the international conference in Paris, France is seeking contributions from the international community, and attention to a crisis that officials say is being crowded out of the global conversation by ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

“For a year the Sudanese people have been the victims of a terrible war,” French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne said. Yet they had also suffered from “being forgotten” and “indifference.”

“This is the reason for our meetings today: to break the silence surrounding this conflict and mobilize the international community,” he said in opening remarks.

The conference, co-hosted by Germany and the European Union, was to include a ministerial meeting on political matters as well as a humanitarian meeting to raise funds for the crisis.

Aid workers say a year of war has led to a catastrophe, but the world has turned away from the country of 48 million as conflict rages between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Force.

Only five percent of the 3.8-billion-euro ($4.1 billion) target in the UN’s latest humanitarian appeal had been funded ahead of the conference this year, according to the French foreign ministry.

At its opening, a total of 840 million euros ($895 million) had been pledged after separate announcements from France, Germany, the European Union and the United States.

A diplomatic source, asking not to be named, said total donations could well top “a billion euros” by the end of the meeting.

On the fifth anniversary of a fire that ravaged the French capital’s Notre Dame cathedral, the charity Save the Children contrasted the lack of donations for Sudan with the international response to the Paris blaze.

“It is staggering that after a fire in which nobody died, donors from across the world were so moved to pledge funds to restore Notre Dame,” said its country director in Sudan, Arif Noor.

“Meanwhile, children in Sudan are left to fend for themselves as war rages around them, starvation and disease are on the increase and almost the entire country’s child population has been out of school for a year.”

Fourteen million children need humanitarian assistance to survive, Save the Children says.

Will Carter, Sudan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, earlier said civilians in Sudan were “enduring starvation, mass sexual violence, large-scale ethnic killing, and executions.”

“Millions more are displaced, and yet the world continues to look the other way.”

An estimated 1.8 million people have fled Sudan — many to neighboring Chad, now also suffering a humanitarian crisis — and 6.7 million have been internally displaced.

The ministerial meeting, behind closed doors, notably brings together representatives from Sudan’s neighbors, as well as from Gulf nations and western powers, including the United States and Britain, along with regional organizations and the United Nations.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock lamented that mediation efforts so far had failed to stem the conflict.

“We want to work toward better coordination,” she said.

Meanwhile, actors from Sudan’s civil society, including activists, unionists and journalists, were getting together to discuss “a possible peace process, and what happens after the war,” an official said.

Laetitia Bader, at NGO Human Rights Watch, said she hoped that the conference would deliver “a very tough message” to the belligerents, including threats of sanctions.

The warring parties had blocked access for humanitarian assistance, pillaged foreign financial aid and targeted humanitarian workers in attacks, she said.

“This conference is very important, but it should not become an excuse to turn the page and forget about Sudan, again,” she added.


World leaders urge Middle East tension de-escalation

Updated 15 April 2024
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World leaders urge Middle East tension de-escalation

  • Leaders urge restraint and rational decision-making to avoid further instability in the region

LONDON: World leaders, including President Emmanuel Macron, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, and the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, emphasized on Monday the need to prevent escalation in the Middle East following Iran’s failed attack on Israel.

They urged restraint and rational decision-making to avoid further instability in the region.

EU’s Borrell says Middle East on cliff edge

The European Union’s foreign policy chief said on Monday the Middle East stood “on the edge of the cliff” and called for de-escalation in the conflict between Israel and Iran.

Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night in response to a suspected Israeli attack on the Tehran’s consulate in Damascus that killed seven officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards including two senior commanders.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the April 1 airstrike on the consulate in Syria’s capital.

“We’re on the edge of the cliff and we have to move away from it,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told Spanish radio station Onda Cero. “We have to step on the brakes and reverse gear.”

Borrell said he expected a response from Israel to the unprecedented aerial attack by Iran but hoped it would not spark further escalation.

He said there was “profound division” within the Israel’s right-wing governing coalition between hardliners seeking fierce retaliation and a “more moderate and sensible” faction.

That faction advocates for retaliation, Borrell said, “but in a way that avoids a response to the response”.

Borrell, who spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian late on Sunday, said the EU needed to have the best possible relations with Iran despite the sanctions the bloc has imposed on the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear energy programme and other issues.

“It’s in everyone’s interest that Iran does not become a nuclear power and that the Middle East is pacified,” he said.

UK's Cameron urges Israel restraint after Iran attack

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron urged Israel not to retaliate after Iran’s drone and missile attack, saying it should “think with head as well as heart” because Tehran’s strike had been a near total failure.
The strike by more than 300 missiles and drones from Iran caused only modest damage in Israel as most were shot down by its Iron Dome defense system and with help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan. It followed a suspected Israeli airstrike on Iran’s embassy compound in Syria on April 1.
“I think they’re perfectly justified to think they should respond because they have been attacked, but we are urging them as friends to think with head as well as heart, to be smart as well as tough,” Cameron told BBC TV.
He said he was urging Israel not to escalate the tensions in the Middle East.
“In many ways this has been a double defeat for Iran. The attack was an almost total failure, and they revealed to the world that they are the malign influence in the region prepared to do this. So our hope is that there won’t be a retaliatory response,” he told Sky News.
Cameron said Britain would also work with allies to look at imposing more sanctions on Iran, and it urged Israel to return its focus on agreeing a ceasefire with Iran-backed Hamas in the Gaza war.
Macron says will do everything to avoid Middle East ‘conflagration’
President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that France would help do everything to avoid an escalation in the Middle East.
“We will do everything to avoid a conflagration that is to say an escalation,” he told the BFMTV news channel.
“For several years now we have had an air base in Jordan to fight terrorism,” he said.
“Jordanian airspace was violated... We made our planes take off and we intercepted what we had to intercept.”
Experts say Israel was able to neutralize most of the missiles and drones.
French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne on Sunday said he had asked the foreign ministry to summon the Iranian ambassador on Monday to express a “message of firmness.”