ATACORA, Benin: The insurgents pressured Zackari to join their movement, and he turned them down.
Now he’s frightened of their revenge. He has been on the run from the jihadi fighters for more than a year. They regularly call the 33-year-old, warning: “We haven’t forgotten about you.”
Groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group have been spreading for years from the vast arid expanse south of the Sahara Desert — the Sahel — into wealthier West African coastal states like Benin. Militants once were believed to want to use coastal nations like Benin, Togo and Ghana as bases for attacks on Sahel governments. Now militancy is taking root.
Benin has been the hardest hit. This year it had more than ten times the number of violent incidents involving jihadis than Togo did, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Attacks by jihadis against civilians in Benin nearly tripled from last year, from more than 30 to approximately 80. The overall number of incidents involving jihadi groups rose by more than 70 percent.
“There’s full expansion, regular preaching. They’re establishing cells, they have a lot of presence,” said Kars de Bruijne, senior research fellow and head of the Sahel program at the Clingendael Institute.
The jihadis’ activity in Benin is concentrated in the north of the country, where they try to recruit people or get them to be informants, creating division within local populations. Residents of one small town tucked behind lush hills and windy unpaved roads told The Associated Press last month that civilians can no longer move freely.
People in Materi live in constant fear because of the jihadi threat. The fighters are planting explosives and carrying out abductions in the area, instilling fear among the population while eroding state legitimacy. The government has imposed a curfew and a ban on gatherings.
“I can’t sleep at night, we’re not free to travel, to move,” Materi resident Florence Bati said. “People are too afraid.”
Kidnappings by jihadis in Benin surged from zero in 2021 to 33 this year, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, which analyzed the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project data and other sources. Explosions have also increased, residents say.
Several months ago, a woman was killed by an explosive while fetching wood, said locals. Women have stopped going into the forest, instead finding kindling closer to home, they said. In October, one aid group distributed portable ovens, which require less wood.
People are being displaced from their homes as attacks increase, sparking concerns of a humanitarian crisis.
In August, more than 12,000 people were displaced from their homes in the Atacora and neighboring Alibori departments, up from about 5,000 in March, according to the United Nations. Violence is also pushing people from their farms. The UN estimates that tens of thousands of people could face crisis levels of food insecurity.
The government is trying to stem the problem by reinforcing the military along the borders and recruiting thousands of soldiers. Locals in the north say they’ve seen a surge of soldiers but say the army is underequipped and sometimes responds hours late when called about an attack.
The government denies that.
The military is well-equipped, able to respond to the incursions that occur and is conducting advanced training while trying to acquire more ground and airborne resources, said Col. Faizou Gomina, commander of the Mirador operation, which is dedicated to fighting the jihadis.
Unlike neighboring Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, which are being overrun by violence, and which ousted French troops after undergoing military coups and seeing surging anti-French sentiment, Benin is still open to help from its former colonial power, which left in 1960. The French don’t have a permanent base in the country, but at the behest of Benin, its troops deployed in the region can participate in training programs with Beninese soldiers, French military spokesman Col. Pierre Gaudilliere said.
While Benin’s government is shoring up its borders, it’s also trying to conceal the scale of the crisis to maintain its image, say residents in the north. It’s cracked down on freedom of speech and arrested journalists who report on insecurity.
Local officials insist the problem doesn’t extend beyond the border with Burkina Faso.
“There is no terrorist, no movement, no organization, no group that has settled or tried to settle in our department,” said Robert Wimbo Kassa, the mayor of Materi.
An agricultural nation of 13 million people, Benin has invested billions of dollars in propping up culture and tourism and is building a $1.5 billion industrial zone 27 miles (45 kilometers) outside of the city of Cotonou aimed at creating 300,000 jobs by 2030.
The information gap has left people in other parts of the country unaware of the security issues in the north. People in Cotonou said that they didn’t know about the jihadi problem, believed it was fake news, or that it was a problem limited to neighboring countries.
Rights groups say the government’s attempts to control the information space, while arbitrarily arresting people believed to be working with the jihadis, is pushing people into the militants’ hands.
“The jihadists live with the populations, the citizens know them, but they refuse to denounce them because the government doesn’t encourage people to do so,” said Bertin Assogba, coordinator for Durable and Develop Reference, a local aid group focused on defending human rights.
The international community is trying to implement lessons from the Sahel by sensitizing people into not joining the jihadis, and organizing community dialogues with officials to foster trust. Diplomats and aid groups also say there’s been a rush of investment.
Last year, the World Bank invested $450 million in a five-year project aimed at reaching some 4,600 border communities in northern Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana and Togo. It will be focused on preventing the spread of conflict by strengthening local institutions and economic opportunities. But residents say development projects take too much time to materialize.
In the meantime, militants are winning in the realm of public perception.
Jihadis enter impoverished villages promising to build roads and hospitals if they come to power, residents say.
“(The government) should hurry and bring infrastructure. It’s important because jihadists are around and their message is very clear: They want to change things,” said Raoufou Bandele, the coordinator for Action for Mutual Aid and Development, a local group. “Some families give their sons the blessing to go with the jihadists because of frustration with the government.”
Groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh take root on the coast of West Africa
Groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh take root on the coast of West Africa
- Attacks by jihadis against civilians in Benin nearly tripled from last year, from more than 30 to approximately 80. The overall number of incidents involving jihadi groups rose by more than 70 percent
ATACORA, Benin: The insurgents pressured Zackari to join their movement, and he turned them down.
Armenia, Azerbaijan to continue peace talks after Berlin meet
Armenia’s Ararat Mirzoyan and Azerbaijan’s Jeyhun Bayramov held two days of talks in Berlin hosted by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who hailed their “courageous steps” toward a peace agreement.
A German foreign ministry spokeswoman on Friday said the two countries had “a great interest in continuing to clarify outstanding issues together and to meet again for this purpose.”
The foreign ministries of Armenia and Azerbaijan had also said in a statement on Thursday that they wished to “continue negotiations on the open issues.”
The German spokeswoman hailed the agreement to pursue talks as “a very good sign” and said the two parties wanted to work “step by step” toward a peace agreement.
Armenia and Azerbaijan fought two wars, in the 1990s and in 2020, before Azerbaijani forces last September retook control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh in a lightning offensive that ended three decades of Armenian separatist rule over the enclave.
Tensions have remained high since the Azerbaijani operation that triggered the exodus to Armenia of most of the enclave’s entire ethnic-Armenian population of more than 100,000 people.
The dialogue in Berlin built on a surprise direct meeting between the two nations’ leaders on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month.
Under German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s mediation, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev agreed in Munich to push on with peace negotiations.
Manila cafe sheds light on Palestinian heritage in wake of destruction
- Cafe Habib is run by Palestinian national Mahmoud Habib and his Filipino-Iraqi wife Nadia
- Their menu is based on recipes from Habib’s mother in Gaza
Manila: Mahmoud and Nadia Habib opened their cafe in early 2023 to bring a piece of Palestine to the Philippines. Little did they know that the place would soon turn into a center of Gaza heritage and a hub of solidarity in Manila.
Located on Mabini Street, Cafe Habib is light, warm and informal with its white tables, grey sofas and ochre walls showing maps, photos and symbols of Palestinian heritage.
From the beginning, the husband — who is a native of Gaza — and the Filipino-Iraqi wife wanted their restaurant’s ambiance to make Filipinos feel as if they had stepped into a place in Palestine.
“We came up with the concept to create a special place where when customers come in, they will not think they are in the Philippines anymore. We wanted to spotlight Arab culture,” Mahmoud told Arab News.
For Nadia, it is also an attempt to “bring a piece of Palestine to the Philippines” to share its rich heritage, traditions, and flavors.
“The Palestinian-themed cafe became our platform to introduce the Filipino people to the beauty and depth of Palestinian culture. We believed that by immersing them in a unique and authentic experience, we could foster understanding and appreciation,” she said.
Their menu features authentic dishes such as falafel, shawarma, and the iconic Palestinian knafeh — crispy filo dough with cheese soaked in syrup and topped with pistachios — all based on recipes that have been in the Habib family for generations.
“These recipes all come from my mother,” Mahmoud said, adding that Nadia also learned to make them during their trips to his home in Gaza.
The last time they visited was in September, just two weeks before Israel launched its latest deadly onslaught that has since killed at least 30,000 people, wounded tens of thousands more, and displaced about 1.5 million.
They saw the destruction and hid from daily bombardment, only managing to return to Manila when Philippine authorities evacuated some of the Filipino-Palestinians from the besieged enclave in November.
Nadia was born and raised in the Philippines, while Mahmoud has been living in the country since 2013, when he arrived to study architecture at the National University.
Upon their return to Manila, they have been trying to reunite with Mahmoud’s family, but until now, it has been to no avail.
“I tried to bring them, but it is very hard,” he said.
It is their cafe, a reminder of Palestine, that keeps the couple strong and gives them space to spread awareness among Filipinos on what is happening in Gaza.
“Speaking up about Palestine is a crucial aspect of our mission, as it lies at the core of why we established this cafe. If customers initiate a conversation about … Palestine, we wholeheartedly engage in the discussion,” Nadia said.
They also helped facilitate the efforts of Filipino peace activists who organized a Gaza solidarity march in November.
“They gave me more power. This shows that our voice goes out to the world, and everyone really has a huge heart,” Mahmoud said.
“I am proud of (this cafe). I am really happy because I’m showing people what Palestine is, who the Palestinian people are.”
Ex-government adviser urges UK PM to apologize to London mayor over Islamophobia
- Faith expert Colin Bloom calls remarks against Sadiq Khan by MP Lee Anderson ‘offensive’ and ‘disgusting’
- Rishi Sunak is ‘not showing the leadership the country needs’
LONDON: UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been urged by a former government advisor to apologize to London Mayor Sadiq Khan over comments made by a suspended Conservative MP.
Colin Bloom, who advised the governing Conservatives on faith matters, told the BBC that Lee Anderson’s remarks were “offensive” and “disgusting,” adding that Sunak is “not showing the leadership the country needs.”
Anderson was suspended last week for refusing to apologize after he said in a TV interview that Khan had “given away” London to Islamists who had “got control” of the mayor.
While admitting his words were “a little bit clumsy,” Anderson said he has received “lots of support privately in WhatsApp groups and messages” from Conservative colleagues. He denies that he or his words were racist or Islamophobic.
Bloom, a former executive director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship and director of Christians in Politics, was made a government advisor by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019.
Bloom told the BBC’s “Newsnight” program that the “vast majority” of British Muslims are “kind, decent, generous, peaceful people,” and that Anderson’s rhetoric and the muted government response to it are putting people at risk.
Bloom said Sunak needs to apologize to Khan and it is “clearly wrong” for Anderson to have equated the Muslim mayor with being a religious extremist.
Khan has publicly called on Sunak to denounce Anderson’s words as Islamophobic, but while admitting they were “wrong,” the prime minister has so far failed to do so.
A government spokesperson told “Newsnight” that Sunak is “clear there must be zero tolerance for any form of extremism, racism or hatred” in British politics.
Thousands attend as Navalny laid to rest in Moscow
- The anti-corruption campaigner, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, was buried after a brief candle-lit funeral service in a nearby church
- The casket was left open in accordance with Russian Orthodox tradition
MOSCOW: Late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was laid to rest on Friday in a Moscow cemetery where thousands of mourners had gathered, two weeks after he died in an Arctic prison.
The anti-corruption campaigner, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, was buried after a brief candle-lit funeral service in a nearby church.
The casket was left open in accordance with Russian Orthodox tradition but was quickly closed after the religious service where Navalny’s parents could be seen.
At the cemetery, Navalny’s coffin was lowered into the grave to the soundtrack of the film “Terminator 2” which his spokeswoman said was the 47-year-old’s favorite movie.
Navalny’s death has been condemned by Western leaders and his supporters have accused Putin of murder and of trying to prevent a dignified public burial.
The Kremlin, which has denied involvement and dismissed the accusations as “hysterical,” warned against “unauthorized” protests around the funeral.
“We won’t forget you!” and “Forgive us!” some mourners shouted, applauding as the coffin arrived for burial.
Thousands then filed past the grave to pay their last respects.
Nearby, a few hundred people could be heard shouting anti-war slogans.
His widow Yulia Navalnaya, who has promised to continue his activism, paid tribute on social media.
“I don’t know how to live without you, but I will try my best to make you up there happy for me and proud of me,” she wrote.
She thanked him for “love, for always supporting me, for making me laugh even from prison, for always thinking about me.”
Earlier this week she said she feared the funeral could be disrupted by arrests.
Some 400 mourners have been detained at Navalny memorials since his death, rights organization OVD-Info has said, and more detentions were feared at the funeral where a heavy police presence could be seen.
“Any unauthorized gatherings will be in violation of the law and those who participate in them will be held responsible,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to TASS news agency.
“What are they afraid of?” one mourner, Anna Stepanova, told AFP outside the church.
“They are so afraid themselves,” she said. “The people who came here, they are not scared. Alexei wasn’t either.”
“People like him shouldn’t be dying: honest and principled, willing to sacrifice themselves,” she added.
The French, German and US ambassadors were seen among mourners outside the church, as were some of Russia’s last free independent politicians.
Navalnaya has blamed Putin for her husband’s death, which has sparked outrage among Western leaders and within the opposition.
Western governments have been quick to hold the Kremlin responsible but have stopped short of making direct accusations of involvement.
Putin’s spokesman Peskov has criticized the accusations made by her and some Western leaders as “vulgar.”
On the day of the funeral, Peskov said he had “nothing to say” to the family of the deceased.
Navalny shot to prominence through his anti-corruption campaigning, exposing what he said was rampant graft at the top of Putin’s administration.
Some mourners mentioned the huge influence Navalny had on their own political activism.
“Because of him I began to get involved in politics... He was the first public person that I listened to,” said 26-year-old Denis, a volunteer at a charity.
Navalny was arrested in January 2021 when he returned to Russia after being treated in Germany for a poisoning attack.
“Alexei was tortured for three years,” Navalnaya told lawmakers in Brussels.
“He was starved in a tiny stone cell, cut off from the outside world and denied visits, phone calls, and then even letters.”
“And then they killed him. Even after that, they abused his body,” she said.
His body was held in a morgue for eight days before being returned to the family, which Navalny’s team believed to be a bid to cover up responsibility for his death.
His family and his team have also accused authorities of trying to prevent a dignified public burial, fearing it could turn into a flashpoint for dissent.
Navalny’s team said local investigators had threatened to bury him on the prison grounds if his mother did not agree to a “secret” funeral.
Once the body was released, allies struggled to find a place that would agree to hold a funeral ceremony, as well as hearse drivers.
And a civil ceremony allowing the general public to pay their respects to the body — common in Russia — has not been allowed.
Navalnaya has vowed to continue his life’s work and urged to “fight more desperately, more fiercely than before.”
In the crowd near the church, some seemed to agree.
“A person has died, but his ideas will live on thanks to those who have gathered here,” said Alyona, a 22-year-old archaeologist who came to pay her respects.
Safety lapses blamed for Bangladesh fire as toll rises to 46
- Blaze made worse by numerous cooking gas cylinders stored haphazardly in stairwells and restaurant kitchens
DHAKA: Bangladesh firefighters said Friday that glaring safety lapses were responsible for a Dhaka restaurant blaze that killed 46 people, with more deaths likely among those rushed to hospital in critical condition.
Thursday night’s fire began at a popular biryani restaurant at the bottom of a seven-floor commercial property in the capital’s upscale Bailey Road neighborhood.
The entire building, home to several other eateries, was soon engulfed by flames that took fire crews two hours to bring under control.
Fire service operations director Rezaul Karim said the blaze had been made worse by numerous cooking gas cylinders stored haphazardly in stairwells and restaurant kitchens.
“People heard the explosions of several gas cylinders during the fire,” he said.
Main Uddin, the national fire services chief, said the building lacked safety measures.
“It did not have at least two staircases or a fire exit,” he said. “Most of the people died from suffocation.”
Fire officials earlier told reporters they suspected the inferno began when one of the gas cylinders accidentally caught fire.
Police inspector Bacchu Mia said that two more people had succumbed to their wounds on Friday while being treated in hospital.
“The death toll is now 46. Two people have died from injuries — one at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital and another at the Police Hospital,” he said.
Around 15 people remained in critical condition, he added.
At a hospital treating the wounded, 30-year-old Asif Pathan said that his cousin MinHajj Khan had been dining at the restaurant when the fire broke out and was killed.
“His friend escaped by jumping through the window, but MinHajj couldn’t,” Pathan said. “His body has turned into charcoal.”
Pathan said he was waiting for the hospital to conduct DNA tests to confirm the identity of his cousin’s body before it was released to his family.
Members of the public helped fire crews carry hoses and rescue survivors who clambered down the outside walls to safety as firefighters fought to bring the blaze under control.
“We were at the sixth floor when we first saw smoke racing through the staircase. A lot of people rushed upstairs,” Sohel, a restaurant manager who gave only his first name, said.
“We used a water pipe to climb down the building. Some of us were injured as they jumped.”
At one point at least 50 people were on the rooftop waiting to be rescued by fire cranes, Kamruzzaman Majumdar, an environmental science professor who was among the stranded, wrote in a Facebook post.
Police investigators were seen walking inside the gutted building and documenting the wreckage on Friday morning, hours after the government ordered an investigation into the fire’s origins.
Hundreds of anxious family members rushed to the nearby Dhaka Medical College Hospital overnight as ambulances brought the dead and injured to the clinic.
Explosions and fires are frequent in buildings and factories across Bangladesh, where safety standards are lax and corruption often allows them to be ignored.
Deadly blazes are typically sparked by gas cylinders, faulty air conditioners and bad electrical wiring.
Bangladesh’s worst fire took place in 2012, when a blaze ripped through a garment factory on Dhaka’s outskirts, killing at least 111 people and injuring more than 200 others.