UN peacekeepers begin withdrawing from east DR Congo

Above, military vehicles belonging to the United Nations Organization Mission for the Stabilization of the Congo at their base in Kamanyola, Democratic Republic of Congo on Feb. 28, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 28 February 2024

UN peacekeepers begin withdrawing from east DR Congo

  • The DR Congo demanded the withdrawal despite UN concerns about rampant violence in the east of the country

KAMANYOLA, DR Congo:  The United Nations kicked off Wednesday the withdrawal of MONUSCO peacekeeping forces from the Democratic Republic of Congo by handing over a first UN base to national police, an AFP team saw.

During an official ceremony at the Kamanyola base, close to the Rwandan and Burundian borders, the flags of the United Nations and Pakistan, the countries of origin of the peacekeepers in charge, were replaced by those of the DRC.

The DR Congo demanded the withdrawal despite UN concerns about rampant violence in the east of the country.

Kinshasa considers the UN force to be ineffective in protecting civilians from the armed groups and militias that have plagued the east of the vast country for three decades.

The UN Security Council voted in December to accede to Kinshasa’s demand for a gradual pullout by the MONUSCO mission, which arrived in 1999.

The UN force currently fields around 13,500 soldiers and 2,000 police across the three eastern provinces of Ituri, South Kivu and North Kivu.

The “disengagement plan” is due to take place in three phases with completion depending on regular assessments.

The first base to be handed over is at Kamanyola, on the border with Burundi.

Phase one is to see the departure of military peacekeepers from South Kivu by the end of April and civilian staff by June 30.

Before May, the UN force is to leave its 14 bases in the province and hand them over to DRC security forces.

In Kamanyola, with a population of about 100,000, opinions appeared divided on the eve of the first step in the pullout.

Ombeni Ntaboba, head of a local youth council, said he was not too concerned.

Every evening, he said, “we see them out in their armored vehicles around the Ruzizi plain,” where armed groups operate along the border.

“But the level of insecurity is still the same, with armed robberies and kidnappings.”

“We salute the Congolese government’s decision,” said Mibonda Shingire, a rights activist, who admitted fearing the impact on the local economy because of the many people employed by MONUSCO.

Others, like Joe Wendo, said they were worried about a “security vacuum” once the Pakistani troops deployed to Kamanyola have gone.

“Their presence at least protected us from the Rwandan invaders,” he said.

The withdrawal comes with North Kivu facing the resurgent Tutsi-led M23 rebels who have seized swathes of territory.

Intense fighting resumed last month around the city of Goma, North Kivu’s capital.

But local people shout down the UN troops more than they praise them.

And MONUSCO has recently felt the need to point out that it “supports Congo’s armed forces... defends its positions... facilitates secure passage for civilians.”

“The departure of the MONUSCO blue helmets concerns us, at a time when the country is at war with the rebels backed by our Rwandan neighbors,” said Beatrice Tubatunziye, who leads a development association in Kamanyola.

She said she wanted to believe that Congolese forces “will quickly be able to fill the void.”

Kinshasa, the United Nations and Western countries say Rwanda supports M23 in a bid to control vast mineral resources in the region, an allegation Kigali denies.

The United Nations has insisted the DRC security forces must be reinforced and take care of civilians at the same time as MONUSCO pulls out.

Around six million people have been displaced by the fighting in DRC.

After South Kivu, the second and third pullout phases will cover Ituri and North Kivu, with regular assessments of progress.

DRC Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula has made it clear he wants the withdrawal completed by the end of this year, though the UN Security Council has not fixed a date.

Trump ‘wants to take America back to 1800s’ on abortion: VP Harris

Updated 4 sec ago

Trump ‘wants to take America back to 1800s’ on abortion: VP Harris

  • Harris spoke after an Arizona supreme court ruling rendered all pregnancy terminations illegal with no exceptions for rape or incest
  • “Donald Trump is the architect of this health care crisis,” Harris told supporters, warning that the worse was to come if he is back in power

TUCSON, Ariozona: Democrats came out swinging at Donald Trump on the divisive issue of abortion on Friday, blaming him for unpopular restrictions they said are turning back the clock on women’s rights ahead of November’s presidential election.

Days after Arizona became the latest state to declare almost all abortions illegal, Vice President Kamala Harris told a rally the populist former president was the architect of the ban, and warned worse was to come if he wins the White House.
“Here’s what a second Trump term looks like: More bans, more suffering and less freedom,” Harris told supporters in Tucson.
“Just like he did in Arizona, he basically wants to take America back to the 1800s.
“But we are not going to let that happen because here’s the deal: This is 2024, not the 1800s. And we’re not going back.”
Harris was in the battleground southwestern state just days after its conservative supreme court rolled back reproductive rights to the Civil War era, saying an 1864 ban on abortion was valid.
The ruling, which rendered almost all pregnancy terminations illegal with no exceptions for rape or incest, made Arizona the latest state to severely limit the procedure.
It came after the US Supreme Court — with a conservative majority thanks to three Trump appointments — in 2022 overturned Roe v Wade, the decades-old federal guarantee of abortion rights.
While state-level bans are popular with the evangelical wing of the Republican Party and with some of their elected representatives, a majority of the electorate disapproves and has voted to enshrine rights even in conservative states like Kansas.
Harris’s speech was part of a Democrat strategy to pin the bans on Trump, as they seek to drive support for his November opponent Joe Biden.
In the wake of the Arizona court ruling this week, the party is splashing a huge sum of money on an advertising campaign in the must-win state — aimed at key Democratic target groups: young people, women and Latino voters.
They hope that this will help drive turnout and support for Biden, even as many polls show the 81-year-old trailing his populist predecessor.
“Overturning Roe was just the opening act of a larger strategy to take women’s rights and freedoms,” said Harris.
“Donald Trump hand-picked three members of the United States Supreme Court because he intended for them to overturn Roe, and as he intended they did.
“And now because of Donald Trump, more than 20 states in our nation have bans.
“Donald Trump is the architect of this health care crisis.”
Trump is on the back foot over the issue, stuck between crowing about his role in removing the nationwide right to abortion and urging states not to implement the kind of bans that are the obvious natural result.
On Friday he again proudly boasted of his achievement, and insisted state-level laws were working.
“We don’t need it any longer because we broke Roe v Wade,” he told reporters when asked if he would sign a national ban on abortion.
“We gave it back to the states and...(it’s) working the way it’s supposed to.”
But writing on his website earlier in the day, he urged Arizona to change its 160-year-old law.
“The Governor and the Arizona Legislature must use HEART, COMMON SENSE, and ACT IMMEDIATELY, to remedy what has happened,” he wrote.
“Remember, it is now up to the States and the Good Will of those that represent THE PEOPLE. We must ideally have the three Exceptions for Rape, Incest, and Life of the Mother.”
The message, which gave no indication of his preferred time limit on abortion, repeated untrue claims that his Democratic opponents support the execution of babies after birth.

Russian military trainers arrive in Niger as relations deteriorate with the US

Updated 27 min 12 sec ago

Russian military trainers arrive in Niger as relations deteriorate with the US

  • The US invested heavily in training Niger’s forces to beat back insurgencies by militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group
  • But relations between Niger and the US deteriorated under a military junta that ousted elected President Mohamed Bazoum last year

DAKAR, Senegal: Russian military trainers arrived this week in Niger to reinforce the country’s air defenses as the west African nation pulls away from close cooperation with the United States in counterterrorism efforts, turning instead to Russia for security.

State television in Niger on Thursday broadcast footage of Russian military trainers arriving in the country aboard a plane equipped with military supplies. Two Russian trainers were filmed in front of the plane at night wearing military uniforms, caps and face coverings.
“We are here to train the Nigerien army to use the military equipment that is here,” one of the Russian trainers said in the broadcast, speaking in French. “We are here to develop military cooperation between Russia and Niger.”
Niger’s ruling military council, known as the CNSP, has yet to order American troops out, US officials have said. But the arrival of Russian forces makes it complicated for the US forces, along with diplomatic and civilian personnel, to remain in the country. It also throws into doubt the future of joint Niger-US counterinsurgency operations.
Until recently, Washington considered Niger a key partner and ally in a region swept by coups in recent years, investing millions of dollars in an air base in a desert area that served as the heart of American counterinsurgency operations in Africa’s sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel.
The US also invested heavily in training Niger’s forces to beat back insurgencies by militants linked to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group, which ravaged the country and its neighbors. But last summer, some of those elite US-trained forces took part in a coup that ousted the elected president. Since then, relations between Niger’s new leaders and Washington have deteriorated.
Following the visit last month of a US delegation led by the top US envoy to Africa, Molly Phee, the junta announced on state television that flights from the US-built air base were illegal and that it no longer recognized the American military presence in the country.
The junta criticized the US for warning Niger against cooperating with Russia and Iran, saying it was trying to force the African nation to choose between partners.
A senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing talks, said Washington was looking at options for revising military cooperation with Niger. While the path forward would not be easy, there was still hope for finding a formula that addressed concerns and interests on both sides, the official said.
The Russian plane had arrived on Wednesday night, the report by Niger’s state television said, and carried Russian military supplies to help Niger improve its air defenses. The broadcast said the arrival of Russian trainers followed a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Niger’s military leaders in March. Niger’s military leaders are seeking to diversify their partnerships and achieve greater sovereignty, the broadcast said.
“The arrival of a Russian air defense system can be viewed as part of the junta’s effort to reclaim sovereignty, this time over its airspace, and force the US and Russia to cooperate with each other in Niger,” said John Lechner, Africa analyst and author on the Wagner Group. But he added that, “Such cooperation is unlikely.”
He said the Niger government may be trying to compel the US forces to withdraw without explicitly pushing them out.
Since 2012, Niger and other neighbors in the region have been gripped by a worsening insurgency fought by groups linked to Al-Qaeda and Daesh militants.
As recently as December, some 600 US troops and hundreds more contractors were stationed in Niger, tasked with flying manned and unmanned surveillance operations and supporting local forces against jihadi groups.

Trump gives support to embattled Speaker Mike Johnson at pivotal Mar-a-Lago meet

Updated 13 April 2024

Trump gives support to embattled Speaker Mike Johnson at pivotal Mar-a-Lago meet

  • Trump flashed some criticism over efforts to oust the speaker calling it “unfortunate,” saying there are “much bigger problems” right now
  • Johnson and Trump underscored their alliance by pummeling President Joe Biden with alarmist language over what Republicans claim is a “migrant invasion”

PALM BEACH, Florida: Donald Trump offered a political lifeline Friday to House Speaker Mike Johnson, saying the beleaguered GOP leader is doing a “very good job,” and tamping down the far-right forces led by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene trying to oust him from office.

Trump and Johnson appeared side-by-side at the ex-president’s Mar-a-Lago club, a rite of passage for the new House leader as he hitches himself, and his GOP majority, to the indicted Republican Party leader ahead of the November election.
“I stand with the speaker,” Trump said at an evening press conference at his gilded private club.
Trump said he thinks Johnson, of Louisiana, is “doing a very good job – he’s doing about as good as you’re going to do.”
“We’re getting along very well with the speaker — and I get along very well with Marjorie,” Trump said.
But Trump flashed some criticism over efforts to oust the speaker calling it “unfortunate,” saying there are “much bigger problems” right now.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and House Speaker Mike Johnson are seen together at the US Capitol in Washington as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived to address a joint meeting of Congress on April 11, 2024. (REUTERS)

The visit was arranged as a joint announcement on new House legislation to require proof of citizenship for voting, but the trip itself is significant for both. Johnson needed Trump to temper hard-line threats to evict him from office. And Trump benefits from the imprimatur of official Washington dashing to Florida to embrace his comeback bid for the White House and his tangled election lies.
“It is the symbolism,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative commentator and frequent Trump critic.
“There was a time when the Speaker of the House of Representatives was a dominant figure in American politics,” he said. “Look where we are now, where he comes hat in hand to Mar-a-Lago.”
While the moment captured the fragility of the speaker’s grip on the gavel, just six months on the job, it also put on display his evolving grasp of Trump-era politics as the Republicans in Congress align with the “Make America Great Again” movement powering the former president’s re-election bid.
Johnson and Trump underscored their alliance Friday by using similar wording to describe one part of their campaign strategy — pummeling President Joe Biden with alarmist language over what Republicans claim is a “migrant invasion.”
By linking the surge of migrants coming to the US with the upcoming election, Trump and Johnson raised the specter of noncitizens from voting — even though it’s already a federal felony for a noncitizen to cast a ballot in a federal election and exceedingly rare.
Trump called America a “dumping ground” for migrants coming to the US, and revived pressure on Biden to “close the border.”
The speaker nodded along. “It could, if there are enough votes, affect the presidential election,” warned Johnson, who had played a key role in challenging the 2020 election that Trump lost to Biden, previewing potential 2024 arguments.
In fact, Trump had made similar claims of illegal voting in 2016 but the commission he appointed to investigate the issue disbanded without identifying a single case. A previous voter crackdown risked striking actual citizens from the voting rolls.
Ahead of the meeting, the Trump campaign sent a background paper that echoed language from the racist great replacement conspiracy theory to suggest that Biden and Democrats are engaging in what Trump’s campaign called “a willful and brazen attempt to import millions of new voters.”
Some liberal cities like San Francisco have begun to allow noncitizens to vote in a few local elections. But there’s no evidence of significant numbers of immigrants violating federal law by casting illegal ballots.
In the Trump era, the sojourns by Republican leaders to his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, have become defining moments, amplifying the lopsided partnership as the former president commandeers the party in sometimes humiliating displays of power.
Such was the case when Kevin McCarthy, then the House GOP leader, trekked to Mar-a-Lago after having been critical of the defeated president after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. A cheery photo was posted afterward, a sign of their mending relationship.
Johnson proposed the idea of coming to Mar-a-Lago weeks before Greene filed her motion to vacate him from the speaker’s office, just as another group of hard-liners had previously ousted McCarthy. The visit comes days before the former president’s criminal trial on hush money charges gets underway next week in New York City.
The speaker’s own political future depends on support — or at least not opposition — from the “Make America Great Again” Republicans who are aligned with Trump but creating much of the House dysfunction that has brought work there to a halt.
Johnson commands the narrowest majority in modern times and a single quip from the former president can derail legislation. He was once a Trump skeptic, but the two men now talk frequently.
“I think it’s an emerging relationship,” said Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, who served as interior secretary in the Trump administration.
Even still, Trump urged Republicans this week to “kill” a national security surveillance bill that Johnson had personally worked to pass, contributing to a sudden defeat that sent the House spiraling. The legislation was approved Friday in a do-over but only after Johnson provided his own vote before departing for Florida.
“I can’t imagine President Trump being very happy about that,” said Greene.
Johnson understands he needs Trump’s backing to conduct almost any business in the House — including his next big priority, providing US aid to Ukraine to fight Russia’s invasion.
In a daring move, the speaker is working both sides to help Ukraine, talking directly to the White House on the national security package that is at risk of collapse with Trump’s opposition. Greene is warning of a snap vote to oust Johnson from leadership if he allows any US assistance to flow to the overseas ally.
“We’re looking at it,” Trump said about the national security package.
On the issue of election integrity, though, Johnson is leading his House GOP majority to embrace Trump’s lies about a stolen 2020 election and laying the groundwork for 2024 challenges.
Trump continues to insist the 2020 election was marred by fraud, even though no evidence has emerged in the last four years to support his claims and every state in the nation certified their results as valid.
As he runs to reclaim the White House, Trump has essentially taken over the Republican National Committee, turning the campaign apparatus toward his priorities. He supported Michael Whatley to lead the RNC, which created a new “Election Integrity Division” and says it is working to hire thousands of lawyers across the country.
Tired of the infighting and wary of another dragged-out brawl like the monthlong slugfest last year to replace McCarthy, few Republicans are backing Greene’s effort to remove Johnson, for now.
But if Trump signals otherwise, that could all change.

Moscow wants aborted peace deal as basis for new Ukraine talks

Updated 13 April 2024

Moscow wants aborted peace deal as basis for new Ukraine talks

  • Deal included clauses demanding that Ukraine not join NATO, limit the size of its armed forces and grant a special status to eastern Ukraine
  • Putin says he is opposed to the peace conference to be hosted by Switzerland in June at Ukraine’s request

MOSCOW: An aborted 2022 peace deal between Russia and Ukraine could be the basis for new negotiations but there is no sign that Kyiv is ready for talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday.

President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Russia and Ukraine were on the verge of agreeing a deal to end hostilities at talks in Istanbul in April 2022, but that Ukraine backed away from it once Russian troops fell back from near Kyiv.
The deal is reported to have included clauses demanding that Ukraine adopt a geopolitically neutral status and not join NATO, limit the size of its armed forces and grant a special status to eastern Ukraine — all things which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made clear he opposes.
In remarks on Thursday, Putin again raised the subject of potential peace talks and said he was open to what he called realistic negotiations.
But he is opposed to the two-day high-level conference to be hosted by Switzerland in June at Ukraine’s request that seeks to achieve peace, saying it is pointless if Russia does not take part.
In Putin’s view, the meeting does not take new realities into account, including Moscow’s annexation of new territory in Ukraine.
Zelensky, meeting with students in western Ukraine on Friday, appeared to rule out using the 2022 talks as a basis for further discussions, saying the meetings at the time were not talks in a true sense.
The Ukrainian president said “no,” when asked whether the 2022 talks in Belarus and Turkiye had the potential to stop the war.
“Negotiations are when two sides want to come to an agreement. There are different aspects, but when there are two sides,” he said in a video posted on his website.
“But when one side in any case, regardless of the country or the city, gives you an ultimatum, that is not negotiations.”
A senior Ukrainian official has acknowledged that the two sides were close to an agreement in Turkiye in 2022 but said Kyiv took the proposal no further because it did not trust the Russian side to carry out any agreement.
Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said a lot had changed since 2022, including what he said was the addition to Russian territory of four new regions, a reference to the parts of Ukraine which Moscow has claimed as its own.
But Peskov said the aborted Istanbul deal could still be the basis for new talks and that Russia was ready for that. When asked if Moscow sensed any readiness from the Ukrainian side for talks however, Peskov said: “No, we don’t sense that.”
Ukraine says it wants all of its territory back, including Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and for every Russian soldier to leave its territory. It is trying to drive international talks on its stance which exclude Russia.

Austrian Airlines suspends flights to Tehran for six days

An Austrian Airlines Airbus A320 at tarmac of Vienna International Airport on December 21, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 13 April 2024

Austrian Airlines suspends flights to Tehran for six days

  • Earlier on Friday, Austria’s foreign ministry followed Germany in urging its citizens to leave Iran

BERLIN: Austrian Airlines, the last west European airline flying to Iran, said it was suspending all flights from Vienna to Tehran until April 18 in response to escalating tensions in the region.
Austria had continued flying for longer than its German parent Lufthansa since Vienna’s closer proximity to Tehran meant it could more easily abort flights or be forced to leave staff in Tehran overnight.
Earlier on Friday, Austria’s foreign ministry followed Germany in urging its citizens to leave Iran.
“Routes that pass through Iranian air space will also be modified,” Austrian Airlines said in a statement. “The safety of our passengers and crews have highest priority.”