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.

 


Sweden set to join NATO after Hungary approves bid

Updated 6 sec ago
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Sweden set to join NATO after Hungary approves bid

  • Every NATO member has to approve a new country however, and Hungary’s vote ended more than a year of delays that frustrated the other 31 nations as Ukraine battled Russian troops

STOCKHOLHM: Sweden on Monday cleared its final obstacle to joining NATO after Hungary’s parliament ratified the bid in what Sweden’s prime minister called a “historic day,” while other alliance members expressed relief at the move spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Sweden would make the alliance “stronger and safer” while the United States, the main alliance power, as well as Britain and Germany welcomed Sweden’s now imminent accession.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that having Sweden in NATO “strengthens our defense alliance and with it the security of Europe and the world.”
Russia’s invasion two years ago prompted Sweden and neighboring Finland to apply to join the trans-Atlantic bloc, ending their longstanding stance of non-alignment.
Every NATO member has to approve a new country however, and Hungary’s vote ended more than a year of delays that frustrated the other 31 nations as Ukraine battled Russian troops.
Finland joined in April last year, but Sweden’s bid was stalled by both Hungary and Turkiye, with Ankara approving Stockholm’s candidacy only last month.
Hungary then followed, with 188 parliament members voting in favor and six far-right deputies against.
“Today is a historic day... Sweden stands ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security,” Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on X.
Speaking about Russia’s potential reaction, Kristersson told a press conference: “The only thing we can expect with any certainty is that they don’t like Sweden becoming a member of NATO, nor Finland.”
Going forward, “Nordic countries will have a common defense for the first time in 500 years... we remain friends, and we become allies,” he said.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban had long stalled Sweden’s membership but told parliament that it would “strengthen Hungary’s security.”
Though repeatedly saying it supported Swedish membership in principle, Hungary kept prolonging the process, asking Stockholm to stop “vilifying” the Hungarian government.
After a meeting on Friday between the nationalist Orban and Kristersson in Budapest, the Hungarian leader announced that the two had clarified “our mutual good intentions.”
Hungary also signed a deal to acquire four Swedish-made fighter jets, expanding its fleet of 14 Jas-39 Gripen fighters.
Hungary’s president is expected to sign the law within days. Sweden, which has been militarily neutral for two centuries, will then be invited to accede to the Washington Treaty and officially become NATO’s 32nd member.
All Baltic nations except Russia will now be part of the alliance.
Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy, which currently presides the G7 group of industrialized democracies, said Sweden’s entry “reinforced NATO for the defense of peace and freedom on the European continent.”
Alongside its move into NATO, Sweden signed an accord in December that gives the United States access to 17 Swedish military bases.
The looming membership has been accompanied by a toughening of declarations by its leaders. General Per Micael Buden, commander-in-chief of the Swedish military, said in January that Swedish people “must mentally prepare for war.”
“It is the last piece of the puzzle in the NATO map for northern Europe,” said Robert Dalsjo, an analyst for the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI).
People in Sweden mainly cheered the approval.
Jimmy Dahllof, 35, said Sweden would be “safer... bringing us closer to our European neighbors.”
“I am very relieved because we have been waiting so long,” said Ingrid Lindskrog, a 73-year-old pensioner.
In Hungary’s delay, some experts saw a strategy to wring concessions from the European Union, which has frozen billions of euros in funds because of the nationalist government’s policies.
Others argued it underlined Orban’s closeness to the presidents of Russia and Turkiye.
For Mate Szalai, an analyst at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University, Orban was simply playing to his domestic audience.
“Orban wanted to go as far as he could without causing serious problems to the trans-Atlantic community while proving that Hungary is a power to be reckoned with,” he told AFP.
Many of his acts are intended to provoke Europe, Szalai added.
 

 


Biden hopes ceasefire, hostage deal to pause Israel-Hamas war can take effect by next Monday

US President Joe Biden walks to Marine One. (AFP)
Updated 32 min 30 sec ago
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Biden hopes ceasefire, hostage deal to pause Israel-Hamas war can take effect by next Monday

  • Israel has killed over 29,000 Palestinians, more than 70 percent of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry

NEW YORK: President Joe Biden said Monday that he hopes a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that would pause hostilities and allow for remaining hostages to be released can take effect by early next week.
Asked when he thought a ceasefire could begin, Biden said: “Well I hope by the beginning of the weekend. The end of the weekend. My national security adviser tells me that we’re close. We’re close. We’re not done yet. My hope is by next Monday we’ll have a ceasefire.”
Biden commented in New York after taping an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”
Negotiations are underway for a weekslong ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to allow for the release of hostages being held in Gaza by the militant group in return for Israel releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. The proposed six-week pause in fighting would also include allowing hundreds of trucks to deliver desperately needed aid into Gaza every day.
Negotiators face an unofficial deadline of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan around March 10, a period that often sees heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
Meanwhile, Israel has failed to comply with an order by the United Nations’ top court to provide urgently needed aid to desperate people in the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said Monday, a month after a landmark ruling in The Hague ordered Israel to moderate its war.
In a preliminary response to a South African petition accusing Israel of genocide, the UN’s top court ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in the tiny Palestinian enclave. It stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive that has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel denies the charges against it, saying it is fighting in self-defense.
Nearly five months into the war, preparations are underway for Israel to expand its ground operation into Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town along the border with Egypt, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought safety.
Early Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the army had presented to the War Cabinet its operational plan for Rafah as well as plans to evacuate civilians from the battle zones. It gave no further details.
The situation in Rafah has sparked global concern. Israel’s allies have warned that it must protect civilians in its battle against the Hamas militant group.
Also Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh submitted his government’s resignation, and President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to appoint technocrats in line with US demands for internal reform. The US has called for a revitalized Palestinian Authority to govern postwar Gaza ahead of eventual statehood — a scenario rejected by Israel.
In its Jan. 26 ruling, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to follow six provisional measures, including taking “immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to Gaza.
Israel also must submit a report on what it is doing to adhere to the measures within a month. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said late Monday that it has filed such a report. It declined to share it or discuss its contents.
Israel said 245 trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday. That’s less than half the amount that entered daily before the war.
Human Rights Watch, citing UN figures, noted a 30 percent drop in the daily average number of aid trucks entering Gaza in the weeks following the court’s ruling. It said that between Jan. 27 and Feb. 21, the daily average of trucks entering was 93, compared to 147 trucks a day in the three weeks before the ruling. The daily average dropped to 57, between Feb. 9 and 21, the figures showed.
The rights group said Israel was not adequately facilitating fuel deliveries to hard-hit northern Gaza and blamed Israel for blocking aid from reaching the north, where the World Food Program said last week it was forced to suspend aid deliveries.
“The Israeli government has simply ignored the court’s ruling, and in some ways even intensified its repression,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.
The Association of International Development Agencies, a coalition of over 70 humanitarian organizations working in Gaza and the West Bank, said almost no aid had reached areas in Gaza north of Rafah since the court’s ruling.
Israel denies it is restricting the entry of aid and has instead blamed humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza, saying large aid shipments sit idle on the Palestinian side of the main crossing. The UN says it can’t always reach the crossing because it is at times too dangerous.
In some cases, crowds of desperate Palestinians have surrounded delivery trucks and stripped them of supplies. The UN has called on Israel to open more crossings, including in the north, and to improve the process.
Netanyahu’s office said that the War Cabinet had approved a plan to deliver humanitarian aid safely into Gaza in a way that would “prevent the cases of looting.” It did not disclose further details.
The war, launched after Hamas-led militants rampaged across southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 people hostage, has caused vast devastation in Gaza.
Nearly 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry which does not distinguish in its count between fighters and noncombatants. Israel says it has killed 10,000 militants, without providing evidence.
Fighting has flattened large swaths of Gaza’s urban landscape, displacing about 80 percent of the territory’s 2.3 million people, who have crammed into increasingly smaller spaces looking for elusive safety.
The crisis has pushed a quarter of the population toward starvation and raised fears of imminent famine, especially in the northern part of Gaza, the first focus of Israel’s ground invasion. Starving residents have been forced to eat animal fodder and search for food in demolished buildings.
“I wish death for the children because I cannot get them bread. I cannot feed them. I cannot feed my own children!” Naim Abouseido yelled as he waited for aid in Gaza City. “What did we do to deserve this?”
Bushra Khalidi with UK aid organization Oxfam told The Associated Press that it had verified reports that children have died of starvation in the north in recent weeks, which she said indicated aid was not being scaled up despite the court ruling.
Aid groups say deliveries also continue to be hobbled by security issues. The French aid groups Médecins du Monde and Doctors Without Borders each said that their facilities were struck by Israeli forces in the weeks following the court order.

 


Macron says he can’t rule out sending French troops to Ukraine

Updated 27 February 2024
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Macron says he can’t rule out sending French troops to Ukraine

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that France could not rule out sending troops on the ground to Ukraine and that he would maintain a strategic ambiguity on the subject.

Speaking at a conference of 20 European leaders in Paris, Macron added that European countries agreed to work on sanctioning countries that were helping Russia bypass its existing Ukraine-related sanctions.


Greek frigate departs to join EU Red Sea mission

Greek frigate Hydra. (Photo/Wikipedia)
Updated 27 February 2024
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Greek frigate departs to join EU Red Sea mission

  • Many commercial shippers have diverted vessels following attacks by the Houthis who control much of Yemen and say they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinians as Israel and Hamas wage war in Gaza

ATHENS: Greece’s frigate Hydra departed for the Red Sea on Monday to participate in a mission to protect merchant ships from attacks by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi militia, a defense ministry official said.
Earlier on Monday, the Greek government approved the country’s participation in the European Union naval mission dubbed Eunavfor Aspides in the Red Sea.
Many commercial shippers have diverted vessels following attacks by the Houthis who control much of Yemen and say they are acting in solidarity with the Palestinians as Israel and Hamas wage war in Gaza.
Greece’s security council approved a proposal by Defense Minister Nikos Dendias for participation in the EU mission, government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said in a statement.
The government said it was important to join the mission as the Houthi attacks have disrupted Greek-owned commercial vessels’ activities at the country’s biggest port Piraeus and some container ships have stopped using it.
France, Italy and Germany are also taking part in the EU mission, under the code name “Aspides,” the Greek word for shields.
Participating countries will be mandated to protect commercial ships and intercept attacks, but not take part in strikes against the Houthis on land.
Several Greek-owned merchant ships have been hit off Yemen since November, suffering damages but no casualties.

 


Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of blocking aid to Palestinians in violation of a UN court order

Updated 27 February 2024
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Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of blocking aid to Palestinians in violation of a UN court order

  • Israel killed 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry
  • Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh submitted his government’s resignation, and President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to appoint technocrats in line with US demands for internal reform

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: Israel has failed to comply with an order by the United Nations’ top court to provide urgently needed aid to desperate people in the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch said Monday, a month after a landmark ruling in The Hague ordered Israel to moderate its war.
In a preliminary response to a South African petition accusing Israel of genocide, the UN’s top court ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent death, destruction and any acts of genocide in the tiny Palestinian enclave. It stopped short of ordering an end to the military offensive that has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel denies the charges against it, saying it is fighting in self-defense.

A donkey-pulled car passes in front of the Al-Faruq mosque, levelled by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on a foggy day on February 25, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)

Nearly five months into the war, preparations are underway for Israel to expand its ground operation into Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost town along the border with Egypt, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought safety.
Early Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the army had presented to the War Cabinet its operational plan for Rafah as well as plans to evacuate civilians from the battle zones. It gave no further details.
The situation in Rafah has sparked global concern. Israel’s allies have warned that it must protect civilians in its battle against the Hamas militant group.

Palestinians visit a cemetery, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, February 26, 2024. (REUTERS)

Also Monday, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh submitted his government’s resignation, and President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to appoint technocrats in line with US demands for internal reform. The US has called for a revitalized Palestinian Authority to govern postwar Gaza ahead of eventual statehood — a scenario rejected by Israel.
In its Jan. 26 ruling, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to follow six provisional measures, including taking “immediate and effective measures to enable the provision of urgently needed basic services and humanitarian assistance” to Gaza.
Israel also must submit a report on what it is doing to adhere to the measures within a month. The Israeli Foreign Ministry said late Monday that it has filed such a report. It declined to share it or discuss its contents.

People walk in front of the Al-Faruk mosque, levelled by Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 25, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)

Israel said 245 trucks of aid entered Gaza on Sunday. That’s less than half the amount that entered daily before the war.
Human Rights Watch, citing UN figures, noted a 30 percent drop in the daily average number of aid trucks entering Gaza in the weeks following the court’s ruling. It said that between Jan. 27 and Feb. 21, the daily average of trucks entering was 93, compared to 147 trucks a day in the three weeks before the ruling. The daily average dropped to 57, between Feb. 9 and 21, the figures showed.
The rights group said Israel was not adequately facilitating fuel deliveries to hard-hit northern Gaza and blamed Israel for blocking aid from reaching the north, where the World Food Program said last week it was forced to suspend aid deliveries.
“The Israeli government has simply ignored the court’s ruling, and in some ways even intensified its repression,” said Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.
The Association of International Development Agencies, a coalition of over 70 humanitarian organizations working in Gaza and the West Bank, said almost no aid had reached areas in Gaza north of Rafah since the court’s ruling.
Israel denies it is restricting the entry of aid and has instead blamed humanitarian organizations operating in Gaza, saying large aid shipments sit idle on the Palestinian side of the main crossing. The UN says it can’t always reach the crossing because it is at times too dangerous.
In some cases, crowds of desperate Palestinians have surrounded delivery trucks and stripped them of supplies. The UN has called on Israel to open more crossings, including in the north, and to improve the process.
Netanyahu’s office said that the War Cabinet had approved a plan to deliver humanitarian aid safely into Gaza in a way that would “prevent the cases of looting.” It did not disclose further details.
The war, launched after Hamas-led militants rampaged across southern Israel, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking roughly 250 people hostage, has caused vast devastation in Gaza.
Nearly 30,000 people have been killed in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry which does not distinguish in its count between fighters and noncombatants. Israel says it has killed 10,000 militants, without providing evidence.
Fighting has flattened large swaths of Gaza’s urban landscape, displacing about 80 percent of the territory’s 2.3 million people, who have crammed into increasingly smaller spaces looking for elusive safety.
The crisis has pushed a quarter of the population toward starvation and raised fears of imminent famine, especially in the northern part of Gaza, the first focus of Israel’s ground invasion. Starving residents have been forced to eat animal fodder and search for food in demolished buildings.
“I wish death for the children because I cannot get them bread. I cannot feed them. I cannot feed my own children!” Naim Abouseido yelled as he waited for aid in Gaza City. “What did we do to deserve this?”
Bushra Khalidi with UK aid organization Oxfam told The Associated Press that it had verified reports that children have died of starvation in the north in recent weeks, which she said indicated aid was not being scaled up despite the court ruling.
Aid groups say deliveries also continue to be hobbled by security issues. The French aid groups Médecins du Monde and Doctors Without Borders each said that their facilities were struck by Israeli forces in the weeks following the court order.