Terrorism & Security
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With the world’s newest country slipping further into violent chaos, the United Nations sought to bolster peacekeeping forces in South Sudan as the United States and other nations tried to evacuate foreign citizens.
The violence broke out earlier this week when a military commander defected, sparking a rebellion in Bor, a town north of the capital of Juba. Experts, however, said tensions had already been running high between ethnic Dinkas and Nuers, due to a decision by President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, to fire Vice President Riek Machar over the summer. Mr. Machar, a Nuer, has become the rallying point of an anti-government rebellion.
With growing reports of reprisal and ethnically motivated attacks, the violence threatens to escalate into full-scale civil war. Witnesses on the ground said that government security forces had executed dozens of ethnic Nuers in a region north of Juba, BBC reports.
An estimated 100,000 people have been forced to flee parts of the country as rebels have seized major towns, including some areas in the critical oil-producing region in the north. A spokesman for the South Sudanese military, Phillip Aguer, told CNN that Bentiu, the capital of the oil state Unity, was under rebel control.
Revenues from oil exports are crucial to impoverished South Sudan, as the country struggles to build a coherent, functioning state two years after declaring independence from Sudan.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed to the Security Council today to reassign around 5,500 troops from other UN missions in Africa to South Sudan to help protect civilians, the BBC reports. He also asked for attack helicopters, three transport helicopters, and one military transport plane. The Security Council will meet this afternoon to vote on the resolution.
"Those responsible at the senior level will be held personally accountable and face the consequences, even if they claim they had no knowledge of the attacks," Mr. Ban said.
The US, meanwhile, moved around 150 Marines from Spain to a base in the Red Sea nation of Djibouti to prepare for the evacuation of more US citizens and other foreign nationals. A similar mission over the weekend was aborted when US aircraft came under fire from the ground, wounding four military personnel. The US State Department has called on US citizens to leave the country.
"The United States and the United Nations, which has the lead for securing Bor airport in South Sudan, took steps to ensure fighting factions were aware these flights were a humanitarian mission," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
"The US government is doing everything possible to ensure the safety and security of United States citizens in South Sudan. We are working with our allies around the world to connect with and evacuate US citizens as quickly and safely as possible," she said.
Experts say that despite billions of dollars in international aid and efforts by organizations from around the world, South Sudan risks turning into a failed state.
According to Reuters, the two men — President Kiir and Machar — long had a problematic relationship, with Machar making no secret of his ambitions to become president.
In the year before Machar’s dismissal, the two men's relationship in office was defined by "miscommunication or mistrust or silence,” a former government official, Jok Madut Jok, told Reuters.
Control of the oil fields is also vital to Sudan, which lost the fields when the south became independent, but relies on fees from oil going through its pipeline to the Red Sea. The two countries nearly came to war last year over disputes about borders, transit fees, and other issues.
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By most accounts, hundreds have been killed in the offensive, which has been going on for more than a week now. Civilian targets such as schools, hospitals, and markets have reportedly been targeted.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based Syrian opposition group, said at least 65 were killed when "explosive-laden barrel bombs" were dropped on a market area Sunday, making it the deadliest day of the offensive, according to the Associated Press.
The use of barrel bombs is a particularly lethal development. They contain "hundreds of pounds of explosives and shrapnel that include metal shards and iron nails," according to a New York Times report from Dec. 16, one of the early days of the operation. Human rights groups have described them as "a particularly insidious weapon that kills indiscriminately." CNN reports that the bombs "can level entire buildings with one hit."
Barrel bombs have been used by Assad’s forces for more than a year, but they‘ve become much more powerful and sophisticated over that time, according to Eliot Higgins, an influential British blogger who uses social media to glean information about weapons used in the conflict.
“They were pretty much simple pipe bombs, the early ones, and the problem they had is that they would fall through the sky and the fuse would burn out too soon and they would explode in midair — they weren’t terribly effective,” he said in a phone interview. “These new types are four to five times bigger than the original ones. They’re absolutely massive.”
Mr. Higgins said that the barrel bombs may have been improvised in order to allow regime forces to use cargo helicopters in battle, one of several ways they have changed tactics during Syria's civil war.
The rebels have long used improvised weapons, given their limited resources, but the regime's turn to "do-it-yourself" weapons is much more recent, CBC reports. Ole Solvang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said that the use of barrel bombs may be an effort to avoid depleting its stock of conventional weapons.
“Over the last year or so the Syrian air force has been conducting attacks daily all over Syria,” Mr. Solvang said. “It’s difficult to say how many bombs they have. They must start getting concerned at some point they would be running out.”
Barrel bombs are inaccurate weapons, making them particularly dangerous to civilians. In the case of the Aleppo bombings, Ole said his organization has been struggling to determine whether the raids targeted opposition military targets, or whether Assad forces were indiscriminately bombing neighbourhoods controlled by opposition forces to terrorize residents.
"So far, I have to say it looks like there government is just dropping bombs all over the place,” he said.
The relentless air offensive has renewed calls for world powers to impose a no-fly zone on Syria, a proposal that first appeared in the early days of the anti-government uprising but never gained traction because of Russian opposition, The New York Times reports.
The main Syrian exile opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, on Sunday issued a statement saying, “A no-fly zone, backed by the Western powers, is the only means to prevent the Assad regime from slaughtering the Syrian people.” The group said that global powers had a responsibility to prevent the international deal to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons — reached in the fall after the United States threatened to strike the government after accusing it of using chemical weapons — “from offering Assad a license to kill.”
“The attacks today targeted marketplaces, schools where displaced families had taken refuge, and apartment buildings,” the statement said. “The regime continues to use the pretext of countering ‘terrorists,’ while employing weapons of mass slaughter.”
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The attack on the UN compound happened in the town of Akobo, in Jonglei state, and prompted the group to send four helicopters to rescue staff. The assault underscored the vulnerability of South Sudan's larger population, as more than 20,000 civilians have fled to UN compounds across the country, reports Bloomberg. In the past week, up to 500 people have been killed, and the South Sudanese government had to cede control of the town of Bor, the capital of Jonglei, to rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Marchar.
President Salva Kiir has accused Mr. Machar, a rival who was fired from his job in July, of staging a coup. Ethnic violence has been a particular concern: President Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group; Marchar, who is being hunted by security forces, is from the Nuer ethnic group.
US President Barack Obama said the country “stands at the precipice," and deployed 45 troops to help quell the fighting that erupted this week in the capital, Juba. The US and Britain began evacuating their citizens because of the growing instability.
UN head Ban Ki-moon has called for urgent political dialogue, and Reuters reported that Kiir has said he is willing to participate. Regional mediators, who helped in the aftermath of Sudan's civil war, were set to meet with Kiir on Friday, the same time the UN Security Council is holding emergency talks.
But Machar, in an exclusive interview with Radio France International, called the president a “dictator who is tearing the country apart."
"I appeal to the SPLM and the SPLA to remove Salva Kiir from the leadership of the country," Machar said on Thursday. "He is tearing it apart and it is the right of the people, using their vanguard, which is the SPLM party and the SPLA, to remove someone who wants to make himself a dictator and somebody who mismanages issues of the state."
Some 2 million people died in a civil war in Sudan between 1983 and 2005. The peace that followed gave rise to South Sudan, which became the world's newest nation in 2011. President Obama said the recent fighting “threatens to plunge South Sudan back into the dark days of its past.”
According to Bloomberg News, South Sudan has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil reserves after Nigeria and Angola, citing the BP Statistical Review. While the flow of oil has not yet been affected, fighting has spread to crude-producing areas, Sudanese Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told the news agency by phone from Khartoum, Sudan’s capital.
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Britain and the United States are helping citizens to leave South Sudan this week, as violence that sparked from an alleged coup attempt in the capital on Sunday spread beyond Juba. Farther north today, armed forces reportedly lost control of the town of Bor to mutinous troops, deepening concern that warnings about civil war in the two-year-old nation could become a reality.
“The scenario many feared but dared not contemplate looks frighteningly possible: South Sudan, the world’s newest state (see map here), is now arguably on the cusp of a civil war,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) wrote in a press statement this week.
An estimated 500 people have been killed since fighting within the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) army broke out over the weekend in what the government calls an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, who was removed from his position in July. Mr. Machar denied the allegations on Wednesday.
Choul Laam, chief of staff for the secretary general of the ruling SPLM, countered the idea that violence started as a coup attempt against President Salva Kiir, saying the fighting broke out when the presidential guard tried to "disarm members of the guard who were from the minority Nuer tribe," reports the Associated Press.
President Kiir flushed his cabinet in July, including Machar, and observers worried it could lead to more widespread tensions. According to Al Jazeera:
Both men are former rebel fighters and senior figures in the governing Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which led South Sudan to independence after a civil war with Sudan that lasted 22 years. Earlier this month, Machar denounced “dictatorial” behaviour by Kiir, revealing the bitter divisions within the SPLM.
Rival Army units initiated the fighting, but the violence began targeting civilians of different ethnic groups, according to the ICG.
Kiir is a member of the Dinka ethnic group, which is the largest in South Sudan. Meanwhile, the Nuer group, to which Machar belongs, has accused the Dinka of “monopolizing everything from politics to the Army,” reports Al Jazeera.
In Bor, located about 125 miles north of Juba in the volatile state of Jonglei, "There was shooting last night .. .we don't have information on casualties or the displaced in the town, as operations are ongoing," army spokesman Philip Aguer told reporters. He added that soldiers had lost control of Bor to mutinous troops led by Gen. Peter Gadet Yaak.
“This is a political crisis, and urgently needs to be dealt with through political dialogue. There is a risk of this violence spreading to other states, and we have already seen some signs of this,” said UN Secretary General Ban ki-moon.
Kiir has donned military fatigues instead of his trademark suit and black cowboy hat this week, which observers fear could be sending a message that he is siding with one fighting faction over the other.
"By calling Machar a traitor, [Kiir] makes it very, very difficult for Machar to figure out a way to survive under the current government," Eric Reeves, a Sudan analyst at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., told The Wall Street Journal. Kiir’s rhetoric has “ratcheted up tensions," according to Mr. Reeves.
“The blurred lines between ... institutions, senior political figures and ethnic communities– as well as wide-scale arms proliferation—make the current situation particularly volatile,” the ICG said in a statement this week.
When oil-rich South Sudan gained its independence, former deputy culture minister, Jok Madut Jok, likened it to a “four-legged animal” in an interview with Al Jazeera. But South Sudan’s “legs are broken,” Mr. Jok said, acknowledging potential problems ahead.
"The first leg for any government is a disciplined military. We have problems with the way our military functions today. That's a broken leg. We have civil society, right now it is very weak. The third leg is delivery of services. It is hard to deliver security.…The fourth leg is political unity. We had political unity in the days leading up to the referendum [which led to independence]. Since the referendum, we have been having difficulties uniting our ranks. So right now the animal is standing on four crooked legs. If we do not fix these legs, the future is going to be very, very difficult."
A group of East African politicians is scheduled to travel to South Sudan today to serve as mediators, reports The New York Times.
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China confirmed today that one of their naval vessels and a US warship nearly collided earlier this month in the South China Sea, in what analysts say is one of the most significant US-China military encounters in the region in years.
A Chinese naval ship “conducting normal patrols encountered a U.S. military vessel in the South China Sea,” a statement posted on the Chinese Ministry of National Defense today read. “Throughout the encounter, the Chinese naval ship handled the situation properly in strict accordance with operating regulations.”
Pentagon officials said last week that on Dec. 5, the USS Cowpens was “lawfully operating” when it was forced to abruptly maneuver to avoid colliding with the Chinese ship.
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China’s defense ministry statement appeared to try and downplay the incident, reports The New York Times, by “refrain[ing] from alleging any improper conduct by the American warship and said that military relations between China and the United States ‘face a good opportunity for development.’ ”
A translation of the Defense Ministry statement provided by the New York Times reads:
Recently, a Chinese naval ship conducting normal patrols encountered a U.S. military vessel in the South China Sea. Throughout the encounter, the Chinese naval ship handled the situation properly in strict accordance with operating regulations. The defense departments of the two countries have also reported the relevant circumstances through normal operational channels and carried out effective communication. Some relevant media reports have not been in line with the facts. Sino-U.S. military relations face a good opportunity for development. Both sides are willing to strengthen communications, coordinate closely and make efforts toward safeguarding regional peace and stability.
A commentary published today in China’s official Xinhua news agency, however, took a more aggressive tone:
On Dec. 5, U.S. missile cruiser Cowpens, despite warnings from China's aircraft carrier task group, broke into the Chinese navy's drilling waters in the South China Sea, and almost collided with a Chinese warship nearby.
In fact, even before the navy training, Chinese maritime authorities have posted a navigation notice on its website, and the U.S. warship, which should have had the knowledge of what the Chinese were doing there, intentionally carried on with its surveillance of China's Liaoning aircraft carrier and triggered the confrontation.
While the Xinhua editorial also noted that Washington “has to understand” the right of China to grow its national defense capabilities, it also called for enhanced communication channels, saying that a lack of trust and military coordination are “weak links” between the two nations.
When US Navy officials confirmed the incident to The Christian Science Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent last week, they cautioned that "these sorts of standoffs with China happen with relative frequency in the Pacific and that, according to one Navy officer with knowledge of the event, it’s important not to 'overhype' the incident."
Other analysts told the Monitor that the incident carried a warning from the Chinese:
...[T]he recent run-in holds a larger message, analysts say. The chief one may be that the US will not be able to comfortably troll the waters of the western Pacific.
“The Chinese are trying to make it clear that, if the US wants to operate in these waters, then it should be prepared to be operating under a high state of tension,” says Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation. “If the US doesn’t want tension, then it’s very simple: leave.”
The confrontation, he adds, was “a deliberate effort to intimidate.”
Michael Swaine, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Monitor that the Chinese are most likely trying to increase their capacity to deter other forces, like the US and Japanese, "from being able to prevail in possible confrontations over Taiwan and other disputed territories."
The near sea miss comes at a period of heightened tensions in the region since China declared an air defense identification zone over disputed territory late last month. China and Japan have competing territorial claims in the East China Sea, and several Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam, Malaysia, and The Philippines have competing claims in the South China Sea.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first official trip to Vietnam, announced the US was giving an additional $32.5 million for members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to “protect their territorial waters and navigational freedom in the South China Sea, where four states have competing claims with China,” according to the Associated Press.
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Nearly six months after leaking allegations of spying by the National Security Agency, former contractor Edward Snowden has offered to help Brazil with its investigations into US spying there in exchange for asylum.
Mr. Snowden is currently living in Russia on a one-year temporary visa, after spending months in legal limbo in the Moscow airport. In an open letter to Brazil, published in the daily Folha de Sao Paulo and reprinted in English on Britain’s The Guardian website today, Snowden wrote about his motivations for leaking NSA surveillance activity and noted how he’s been impressed by Brazil and other governments’ reactions to alleged NSA actions.
Brazil pushed the United Nations for a “symbolic resolution which seeks to extend personal privacy rights to all people,” and has considered setting up its own fiber optic cables to Europe and other Latin American nations in order to bypass the US system, according to The Associated Press.
Snowden writes that many Brazilian senators have asked for his assistance in investigating suspected spying crimes by the NSA on Brazilian people. However, “until a country grants permanent political asylum, the US government will continue to interfere with my ability to speak," Snowden's letter read.
My act of conscience began with a statement: "I don't want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. That's not something I'm willing to support, it's not something I'm willing to build, and it's not something I'm willing to live under."
If Brazil hears only one thing from me, let it be this: when all of us band together against injustices and in defense of privacy and basic human rights, we can defend ourselves from even the most powerful systems.
[UPDATE: The Brazilian government has received no official request from Snowden since he arrived in Moscow in June, a foreign ministry spokesman said. Without a formal request, asylum will not be considered, the spokesman told Reuters.]
The open letter to Brazil was published the day after a US judge ruled that the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata was a likely violation of privacy and Fourth Amendment rights, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
“I cannot imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying and analyzing it without prior judicial approval,” US District Judge Richard Leon said in his 68-page opinion on the case.
Snowden’s release of NSA documents over months last summer and fall caused a global uproar, as each subsequent release seemed to implicate a new target country or leader. Multiple revelations of activity in Brazil led President Dilma Rousseff to cancel a coveted state visit to the US in October, according to a separate Monitor report.
In July, journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has worked closely with Snowden to release his findings, wrote that Brazil was a major Latin American target of the NSA.
In September, allegations were published that an NSA program intercepted President Rousseff's email and instant messages, and that the NSA also intercepted communications of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto about potential cabinet appointees during his presidential campaign. Allegations of US surveillance of the state-run oil company, Petrobras, which has made some of the world’s largest oil discoveries in recent years, had Brazilians up in arms, according to Reuters.
"Clearly, Petrobras is not a threat to the security of any country,” Rousseff said at the time, likening the alleged spying to industrial espionage.
Brazil, however, did admit to spying on diplomatic targets from the US and numerous other countries within its own borders, reports The New York Times. Rousseff’s government also launched a “big brother” style surveillance program at home in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup. This program doesn’t monitor cellphone conversations or messaging, but has a series of 560 cameras across Rio de Janeiro and includes the use of drones over event venues, reports the Monitor.
Snowden tapped into Brazilian fears and frustrations over NSA spying in his letter, citing examples of how anyone carrying a cellphone can be tracked, a mother’s message to her son can be logged for five years or more, and how website visits and what was done on the site can be documented by the NSA:
American Senators tell us that Brazil should not worry, because this is not "surveillance," it's "data collection." They say it is done to keep you safe. They’re wrong. There is a huge difference between legal programs, legitimate spying, legitimate law enforcement — where individuals are targeted based on a reasonable, individualized suspicion — and these programs of dragnet mass surveillance that put entire populations under an all-seeing eye and save copies forever. These programs were never about terrorism: they're about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation. They're about power.
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The South Sudan government has declared a curfew in the capital Juba after a night of gun battles between rival factions that the president has called "an attempted coup."
President Salva Kiir, dressed in military fatigues rather than his usual suit and cowboy hat, told reporters that he had ordered a curfew from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in response to last night's violence, in which soldiers loyal to his government clashed with "a group of soldiers allied to the former vice president Riek Machar," who was sacked in July.
According to various reports, fighting broke out last night at a barracks in Juba between two factions within the military, before spilling out into the streets of the capital. Middle East Online describes the clashes as involving heavy machine guns and mortar fire, and raged from around midnight until Monday morning, when calm was restored.
President Kiir told reporters that the violence "was an attempted coup," and that the "government is in full control of the security situation in Juba. The attackers fled and your forces are pursuing them."
Tensions have been high in South Sudan, the world's newest nation, since July, when Kiir sacked his entire cabinet, including Vice President Machar, in an unexpected purge. Though both Kiir and Machar are high-ranking officials in the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), they come from different, rival tribal groups: Kiir is from the Dinka community, South Sudan's largest ethnic group, while Machar is from the Nuer, the second-largest.
The Sudan Tribune writes that a senior military official said the fighting was a direct result of tribal divides.
“The fighting was sparked off after forces predominantly from one ethnic group were deployed under the directive of Maj. Gen Marial Cinduong Yol, the commander of the presidential guard force”.
The military source, however, claimed the firing started when the ammunition store manager refused to hand over store keys as demanded by the presidential guard commander.
"You know our situation. We are living in a tribal country. This firing had been extended to Bilpam because each group has comrades there. Guns shots remains heard at the moment", the senior official told Sudan Tribune in an exclusive interview on Monday.
Though no official casualties have been released, the Tribune say witnesses put the death toll at around 21 people.
South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told The Associated Press that several politicians had been arrested, though he did not say if Machar was among those detained. A military spokesman also told the AP that the South Sudan army was "in full control of the military situation" in Juba.
An Associated Press reporter saw heavily armed soldiers patrolling the streets of Juba Monday amid the gunfire emerging from Juba's main army barracks. The streets were largely empty of civilians, with most Juba residents staying indoors. EgyptAir reported that it had cancelled its flight to Juba on Monday, saying the airport there was closed.
The BBC adds that several hundred people, mostly women and children, had taken refuge at local UN facilities. "We hope the security situation in Juba will quickly normalise to enable the civilians to return very soon to their residential areas. To that end, [the UN mission in South Sudan] calls on all parties to show continued calm and restraint," the mission said in a statement.
The US embassy in Juba warned that it had "reports from multiple reliable sources of ongoing security incidents and sporadic gunfire in multiple locations," and could not confirm that the fighting had ceased, notes AP. The embassy said in a statement that it "recommends that all U.S. citizens exercise extra caution at all times. The U.S. Embassy will continue to closely monitor the security environment in South Sudan, with particular attention to Juba city and its immediate surroundings, and will advise U.S. citizens further if the security situation changes."
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Ukraine President Victor Yanukovych might finally be backtracking from his decision not to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, leading to three weeks of intense protesting that threatens to topple his government.
Have threats of sanctions from the United States – which many consider belated – weighed in his calculus?
On Thursday morning, the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that Mr. Yanukovych might be moving towards signing the association agreement, which he rejected under pressure from Moscow last month, causing an outcry on the streets of the capital Kiev. “Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement,” Ms. Ashton said Thursday.
That announcement comes less than a day after the US warned that the Ukraine government's tough-fisted policies against protesters could lead to trade sanctions. Riot police converged on thousands of protesters in the capital's Independence Square Wednesday, provoking outrage from the international community.
"We are considering policy options ... sanctions are included but I am not going to outline specifics," said US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. “There is a range of options that we are open to, but we are not at that point at this stage.”
Those threats came after uncharacteristically harsh words from US Secretary of State John Kerry, who spoke of his "disgust" at the decision by Ukraine's authorities to "meet the peaceful protest ... with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity."
Agence France-Presse writes that US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also phoned his Ukrainian peer, Pavlo Lebedev, earlier to warn against using military force "in any fashion.” The Pentagon said in a statement that Mr. Hagel "underlined the potential damage of any involvement by the military in breaking up the demonstrations.”
He also warned Mr. Lebedev "not to use the armed forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion.”
The US response, until now, had been characterized as “low key,” according to a piece earlier this month in the Washington Post.
While Mr. Kerry condemned the violent state response in Ukraine that began in early December, the US had appeared not to take a strong stance. “Asked why his response has not been more forceful,” the Post noted Dec. 3, “Kerry said that Ukraine should be free to make its own choices but that the choice should be a true reflection of national will.”
That might have something to do with Washington's delicate relationship with Russia at the moment. The two have recently helped forge deals on chemical weapons elimination in Syria and nuclear power in Iran.
In the meantime, Bloomberg reports that Russian officials in Washington this week are trying to boost trade with the US in an agreement package. “The overture from the Russian government comes during a time of tumultuous relations with the US. Friction has arisen over political unrest in Ukraine and Russia’s protection of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who acknowledged leaking classified US documents.”
“It is hard to imagine that Obama gives even a passing thought to Ukraine's drama, or many Republicans either, for that matter,” wrote John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN. “But there should be no mistaking that tectonic plates are being realigned in Europe, for better or worse. America's passivity and indifference will not make for a better outcome.”
But with the threat of sanctions, the tide might be turning. The EU has certainly been pushing to lure Ukraine to its side. Lady Ashton's announcement, following intense talks with Yanukovych, precedes a meeting in Brussels today, as Ukraine First Deputy Prime Minister Sergiy Arbuzov is expected to meet European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Stefan Fule.
The Irish Times writes that if Yanukovych does agree to sign the association agreement with the EU it would be an about-face.
But even before the news, anti-government protesters “were already claiming victory” after police backed away from a “showdown in Kiev's main square late Wednesday. The Times notes: “Squadrons of officers in helmets and carrying shields converged at about 1am on Independence Square, but thousands of protesters put up fierce resistance for hours, shoving back at police lines to keep them away from key sites. The Ukrainian chief of police then announced that there would be no attempt to break up the demonstrations.”
Ukrainian riot police withdrew from the main protester-occupied square in Kiev this morning, after a night of clashes failed to oust demonstrators from their encampment and the government buildings they were occupying.
The New York Times reports that by 11 a.m. local time, most Ukrainian security forces had left Independence Square and its surroundings. While it's unclear why they pulled back, it led to a "festive mood" in sharp contrast with overnight confrontations between police and protesters in the square. Anti-government demonstrators have been occupying the area since late last month, after President Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign an association agreement with the European Union.
Reuters reports that hundreds of police moved into the area last night, "flood[ing] roads to square and mov[ing] slowly into the main camp, bulldozing tents and barricades... Dozens of demonstrators and police were hurt in scuffles but several officers said they had orders not to use force."
The action appeared to stall as day broke, with temperatures in the snowbound capital stuck at minus 8 degrees Celsius (17 Fahrenheit). Some riot police left to cheers from lines of protesters holding them back. ...
Protesters hailed the police withdrawal on Wednesday.
"I sense a victory. We will hope that our president will understand this and do the right thing and resign," said Andriy Shchyur, a 25-year-old from the Western city of Lviv.
"We are seeing that truth does exist, that it is worth fighting for. It is a small victory, but these small victories will lead to big victories," said protester Serhiy Chorny.
Radio Free Europe reports in its live blog that "30 people have required medical attention and 15 people have required hospitalization, nine police officers and six protesters," as a result of the clashes. Injuries ranged from frostbite to broken bones and head injuries.
Both the EU and the US had top level diplomats on the scene – EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland are in Kiev – and both roundly condemned the riot police's actions last night. The Financial Times reports that Ms. Ashton said she regretted the use of force “to remove peaceful people from the centre of Kiev,” while US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed Washington's "disgust" with the Ukrainian actions.
“The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity,” he said in a statement.
“As church bells ring tonight amid the smoke in the streets of Kiev, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better.”
Radio Free Europe reports in its live blog of the situation in Kiev that Ms. Nuland, after a two-plus-hour "tough but realistic" meeting with President Yanukovych, said "We have made it absolutely clear to Yanukovych that actions such as those that occurred overnight are unacceptable in a democratic society."
Ukrainian Interior Minister Vitaly Zakharchenko issued a statement calling for calm, notes Reuters. "I want everyone to calm down. There will be no storming of the square. No one will violate your rights to protest peacefully, but do not ignore the rights ... of other citizens."
But while the backlash has spurred the government to reiterate its openness to resume trade talks with the EU, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov warned that Ukraine will need investment to do so. Reuters reports that Mr. Azarov said Ukraine, which faces a potential economic crisis as the political deadlock compounds its financial difficulties, will need 20 billion euros in aid before it can sign a deal with the EU. But he promised that talks with Russian officials, scheduled for Dec. 17, would not include discussion of joining Russia's customs union, a deal which protesters are adamantly opposed to.
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Two French soldiers were killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) today. Their deaths come less than a week after French troops mobilized there under the UN Security Council, highlighting the difficulty the troops face in a volatile country that some say is on the brink of a genocide.
“The president expresses his profound respect for the sacrifice of these two soldiers and renews his full confidence in the French forces committed – alongside African forces – to restoring security in the Central African Republic, to protecting the people and guaranteeing access to humanitarian aid,” the statement said.
Mr. Hollande is scheduled to visit the CAR, where an estimated 1,600 French troops have been deployed, on his way back from Nelson Mandela’s memorial in South Africa today.
Nearly 400 people were reported killed in and around Bangui before the French forces were deployed, according to Agence France-Presse. French troops have orders to disarm rebels and militias, and described the situation in Bangui as relatively calm on Monday night, shortly before the exchange of fire that led to the soldiers’ deaths.
The landlocked former French colony has become increasingly unstable since March, when the rebel group Seleka, a majority-Muslim group, ousted President François Bozizé. Former Seleka leader Michel Djotodia took over as president and then called for the disbanding of the rebel group. Since then, violence has spiked, according to The Christian Science Monitor:
Armed militia groups trawl through villages and towns pillaging, killing, and burning homes to the ground.
Although President Djotodia disbanded Séléka and incorporated its warlords into the country’s Army, former rebels have continued to wreak havoc and launch brutal attacks.
Christian militias, known as anti-balaka, or anti-machete, groups have formed in response, carrying out violence against CAR’s Muslim population.
" 'The resulting tit-for-tat spiral of violence [between Muslims and Christians] is creating the foundation of a religious conflict that will be very difficult to stop,' Lawrence D. Wohlers, the recently departed US ambassador to CAR, told Foreign Policy.
"Although it is the Christian population that has suffered the most until now, the Muslim population is a distinct minority and may suffer far more as Seleka's power declines.”
The sectarian violence has worried many regional watchers who fear they may be witnessing the sowing of “seeds of genocide,” reminiscent of the brutal conflict in Rwanda in 1990s, reports The New York Times:
Clearly, United Nations officials have been haunted by the sectarian tenor of the conflict. In a briefing to the Council, the deputy secretary general, Jan Eliasson, called it “a vicious cycle that could very easily turn into mass atrocities.”
Let no one say later that the world was not warned, he went on to tell reporters. “It is not as much a problem of early warning — we have had this warning for a long time,” Mr. Eliasson said. “The question now is timely response.”
The African Union has pledged to send 3,500 troops, but their deployment has been delayed due to need for transport.
The Financial Times reports that the early French causalities underscore “the difficulty facing French forces.” To put this in perspective, only seven French soldiers have been killed to date in Mali, where French troops deployed last year to stop an Islamist insurrection from overtaking the country.
France is concerned that a power vacuum in the CAR could attract organised Islamist groups to set up in the country and destabilise neighbouring states, prompting Mr Hollande to launch his second military intervention in Africa within a year. The CAR operation is on a smaller scale than the intervention in Mali in January to oust Islamist groups threatening to take over the country, also a former French colony.
The deaths could potentially complicate things for France, which has said its troops are not on the front lines. “[T]hese deaths suggest French troops are going beyond a support mission and are involved in direct combats. This could complicate Paris's objective of repatriating its troops before the summer, and hand over the peace keeping mission to a full-fledged U.N. force,” reports The Wall Street Journal.
According to UNICEF, upwards of 48,000 people have been displaced from CAR since the coup in March. That number is made up largely of women and children.