CrisisWatch is a monthly early warning bulletin designed to provide a regular update on the state of the most significant situations of conflict around the world.
Jihadist insurgents in Pakistan unleashed a new wave of attacks in February prompting the government to launch a deadly crackdown, while the military’s targeting of alleged Taliban camps across the border in Afghanistan escalated tensions between Islamabad and Kabul. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict saw intensified fighting along the Line of Contact (LoC). North Korea’s announcement of another missile test and the assassination of its leader’s estranged half-brother drew international condemnation. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), old security threats re-emerged and in the Central African Republic (CAR) fighting between rebel factions spiked and could worsen in March.
Central African RepublicDemocratic Republic of CongoKorean PeninsulaAfghanistanPakistanNagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan)
Central African Republic
In Pakistan, jihadist networks, which the military claimed had been disrupted in recent counter-terrorism operations, renewed attacks on state, sectarian and other targets, including a suicide bombing at one of the country’s most prominent Sufi shrines in Sehwan Sharif, Sindh province on 16 February that killed at least 88 people and injured more than 200. The military vowed revenge and accused “hostile powers” of directing the attacks and using sanctuaries in Afghanistan. It enforced an indefinite closure of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and shelled targets in Afghanistan that it claimed were Pakistani Taliban camps, particularly in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. As well as escalating tensions with Afghanistan, these attacks dampened hopes that Pakistan will help bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table.
On 22 February, Pakistan’s military announced a new nationwide counter-terrorism operation, named Radd-ul-Fasaad (End to Chaos), with a particular focus on Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province. However, as Crisis Group has argued, over-reliance on a heavy-handed militarised response to security problems can undermine the rule of law and fuel alienation, and thus be counterproductive. The government must address the drivers of instability including political and economic exclusion and governance failures, and restore the rule of law.
Exchanges of fire between Azerbaijani and Armenian forces along the LoC around Nagorno-Karabakh intensified, producing the deadliest six weeks for both sides since the April 2016 escalation. Azerbaijan reported six of its soldiers killed during an exchange of fire on the southern section of the LoC on 25 February, the most serious incident this year. At least eight Armenian soldiers have been reported killed in mortar and sniper attacks since the start of 2017. As Crisis Group argued in our Watch List 2017, increasingly frequent and intense incidents at the LoC, stalled negotiations to resolve the conflict, and growing military capacity and distrust on both sides, all heighten the risk of fighting breaking out on a deadlier scale. Both sides need to implement the mid-2016 agreements reached under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group and publicly commit to a full-fledged settlement process. Leaders need to cease all forms of violence along the LoC and their shared international border, stop fuelling pro-war public sentiment and explain to their constituencies the benefits of peace and what concessions are needed.
North Korea announced it had successfully tested a new medium- to long-range missile on 12 February, in a further violation of UN sanctions. The next day, leader Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother was assassinated, reportedly with a highly toxic nerve agent, at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur international airport. His killing is believed to have been commissioned by North Korean agents. South Korean intelligence reported a further purge in Pyongyang at the end of the month with the execution of at least five senior officials from the Ministry of State Security.
Old security threats re-emerged in DRC amid heightened uncertainty over the country’s political future. Security forces clashed with followers of the decades-old Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK) politico-religious movement in the western province of Kongo Central and, in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest its leader, police in the capital Kinshasa stormed his home, killing four supporters. In the east, as ethnic violence continued, the army clashed with a group of M23 rebels, reportedly killing sixteen. The rebel movement was roundly defeated in 2013 but its members, since then living in camps in Uganda and Rwanda, have recently been slipping back across the border. Meanwhile, in Kasai Central province in the centre of the country, at least 100 people were killed in clashes between soldiers and the Kamwina Nsapu militia.
In CAR, fighting escalated between rival factions which had previously been fighting side by side in the Seleka rebel alliance. One group repelled an attempt by others to take over Bambari, the country’s second biggest town, and militiamen clashed in several other areas in the centre and east, including gold mining zones. A UN attack helicopter fired on rebels as they approached Bambari to prevent more bloodshed. The situation remains febrile and the alignment of communities behind opposed groups could fuel further deterioration in March.
East African Community (EAC) mediator former Tanzanian President Mkapa convened fourth session of inter-Burundian dialogue in Arusha, Tanzania 16-19 Feb but govt boycotted citing “irregularities” including that some invitees were sought for role in “disrupting Burundi’s security”; main opposition coalition CNARED (National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Agreement, Restoration of the Rule of Law) and representatives of ruling party CNDD-FDD and other pro-govt parties attended; govt 17 Feb asked Tanzania to arrest some opposition attendees. After talks three CNARED members switched support to govt and returned to Burundi. Rotation of Burundian troops in AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) began mid-Feb even though EU, AU and govt had not yet agreed on how to resume payment of soldiers. Insecurity persisted: unidentified assailants attacked civilians and police on four occasions in western regions bordering DRC 5-14 Feb.
Boko Haram (BH) continued attacks on civilians and military in Far North region as govt continued to take hard-line stance against protests by Anglophone minority in North West and South West regions. In Mayo Sava department, Far North, two BH suicide bombings in Kerawa 3 Feb killed only bombers and suicide bombing in Amchidé 22 Feb killed two civilians; BH fought with army in Garkara 5 Feb, six soldiers injured; vigilante community defence force killed one BH in Warawake 6 Feb; army clashed with BH in Guebero 9 Feb, killing two BH members. BH 26 Feb killed civilian in Waza, Logone and Chari department and one vigilante in Kouyapé, Mayo Sava department. Army vehicle detonated landmine in Gouzda Vreket, Mayo Tsanaga department 16 Feb, three soldiers killed. Some ten CPDM ruling party senators and MPs 15 Feb called on President Biya to release leaders of Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CACSC) arrested in response to protests by Anglophone minority; call unheeded. CACSC, formerly main federalist movement, 16 Feb changed its goal to secession of North West and South West regions. Residents in both regions widely heeded call for general strike 27 Feb to protest marginalisation of Anglophones.
Fighting among ex-Seleka factions escalated in centre and east with further deterioration likely in March. Nourredine Adam’s ex-Seleka faction Popular Front for the Central African Renaissance (FPRC) and allied groups, supported by Sudanese and Chadian mercenaries, 11 Feb launched unsuccessful offensive to retake Bambari (centre) from Ali Darassa’s ex-Seleka faction, Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC). Ex-Seleka factions continued to fight each other around gold mines near Bambari, in Bria (east), Ippy (east) and Kaga Bandoro (centre). UN mission (MINUSCA) helicopter 11 Feb fired on vehicles advancing on Bambari from Ippy after they crossed UN-designated “red line” killing four FPRC fighters including Gen Zoundeko, former Seleka chief of staff; MINUSCA helicopter 26 Feb “dispersed” some 40 FPRC fighters in same area. Following talks with MINUSCA aimed at ending violence, UPC leader Ali Darassa reportedly left Bambari 21 Feb allegedly for Maloum 63km away; in following days Gen Gaëtan of anti-balaka and Gen Tarzan of ex-Seleka faction Patriotic Rally for the Renewal of Central Africa (RPRC) reportedly left Bambari. Country’s main international partners (G5) – UN, AU, EU, Economic Community of Central African States and International Organization of La Francophonie – 19 Feb condemned upsurge of violence in Ouaka and Haute-Kotto prefectures and demanded immediate ceasefire. Govt 15 Feb appointed Toussaint Muntazini Mukimapa from DRC as prosecutor of Special Criminal Court to prosecute those responsible for war crimes since 2003. Defence Minister Yaketé 25 Feb condemned threat by soldiers to mutiny in protest against forced retirement.
President Déby discussed fight against jihadists with UN delegation led by Executive Director of Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate Jean-Paul Laborde, Special Rep for West Africa Mohamed Ibn Chambas and acting head of Central Africa regional office François Louncény Fall 15 Feb, amid concerns that instability in Libya could spill over into Chad; former Minister Hassan Soukaya Youssouf mid-Feb said closure of border with Libya and military checkpoints negatively impacting livelihoods. Heads of state of G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad) in Bamako 6-7 Feb pledged to create joint task force to fight terrorism. In continued standoff between govt and unions over working conditions, govt failed to meet 13 Feb deadline to address major unions’ demands; govt late Feb introduced new austerity measures prompting unions to call for strike to resume 6 March. Déby 2 Feb postponed legislative elections initially scheduled for 2016 sine die citing economic problems; 6 Feb reshuffled govt. French minister for development and Francophonie in N’Djamena 14 Feb signed two funding agreements together worth €20mn.
As insecurity persisted in multiple areas, politico-religious movement in Kongo Central province and M23 rebels in east re-emerged. Death 1 Feb of Etienne Tshisekedi, leader of opposition party Union of Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) and main opposition coalition Rassemblement, led to suspension of talks between ruling majority and opposition on implementation of 31 Dec 2016 agreement on arrangements until elections. Disagreement focused on PM nomination procedure: Rassemblement claimed Etienne Tshisekedi, in letter delivered to Kabila 20 Feb, proposed his son Felix for PM, while Kabila argued to Catholic Church (CENCO) that future Rassemblement leader should present him with list of candidates. Electoral commission (CENI) by late Feb had registered 15mn voters, having covered about half of national territory. In east, security situation remained volatile due to recurring ethnic violence and re-emergence of M23 rebels. In N Kivu province, ethnic Nande Mai Mai Mazembe militias attacked Hutu villages including Kikuku village 3 Feb, killing nine people, and Kyaghala village 18 Feb, killing at least 25; authorities 7 Feb arrested self-proclaimed leader of Mai Mai Corps du Christ militia in Butembo. Army clashed with M23 rebels 20-22 Feb close to Bunagana, Rutshuru territory, N Kivu, claimed it killed sixteen rebels; Ugandan army 23 Feb said it was holding 44 M23 rebels who fled clashes in camp at Kisoro in SW. In Ituri province, Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI) militiamen attacked army position in Kaswara village, killing two soldiers. In Kasai Central province in centre, army clashed with Kamwina Nsapu militia 9 and 13 Feb in Tshimbulu village, Dibaya territory, killing 101 rebels; Kamwina Nsapu followers 16 Feb burnt down govt buildings and authorities’ private properties in Tshitadi village, near Kazumba town. In south, fighting between Pygmy and Bantu militias continued: Bantu militia 5 Feb attacked Mondé village, Tanganyika province, killing 30. In west, following clashes late Jan between security forces and Bundu Dia Mayala (BDM) and Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK) politico-religious movements in Kongo Central province, security forces 13 Feb raided home of BDM leader MP Ne Mwando Nsemi in Kinshasa, killing at least four BDM followers but failing to arrest Nsemi; standoff at residence continued end-month.
Govt 3 Feb said it would release additional 11,352 of more than 23,000 people arrested since state of emergency imposed Oct 2016 in response to violent anti-govt protests, said it released some 9,800 in Dec. Govt held talks with Kenya in Nairobi 15-17 Feb to resolve dispute over Ethiopia’s use of water from rivers that feed Lake Turkana in Kenya (see Kenya). PM Desalegn and S Sudan President Kiir 24 Feb signed eight agreements to enhance economic cooperation and border security; Desalegn said Ethiopia building road to enable S Sudan to export oil.
Ethnic Pokot and Tugen clashed 17-25 Feb in Baringo county, over fifteen people killed; suspected armed Pokot 24 Feb killed local official from Ngorora in Baringo North. Tugen set up roadblocks and 25 Feb turned back Kenya Red Cross aid convoy on way to Kapedo and Lomelo areas in Turkana county, forcing organisation to suspend operations in Baringo county. Govt held talks with Ethiopia in Nairobi 15-17 Feb to resolve dispute over Ethiopia’s use of water from rivers that feed Lake Turkana in Kenya, on whose water local communities depend.
Parliament elected new president, former PM Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, as Al-Shabaab continued to launch attacks on national and international forces in capital Mogadishu and rural areas. Delayed electoral process concluded 8 Feb when Farmajo won four-year presidential term, beating incumbent Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud 184 votes to 97. Al-Shabaab senior official 18 Feb said group would target anyone who collaborates with new president. In Mogadishu, Al-Shabaab fired mortars on presidential palace 16 Feb, day of presidential handover, killing two children; suspected Al-Shabaab gunmen 16 Feb killed traditional elder; Al-Shabaab assassinated National Intelligence and Security Agency general 18 Feb; officials blamed Al-Shabaab for 19 Feb suicide bombing at central market that killed at least 39 people. In rural areas, Al-Shabaab 7 Feb ambushed AU mission (AMISOM) convoy near Mahaday town, Middle Shabelle region, claimed it killed several Burundian troops. Al-Shabaab attacked Somali National Army (SNA) checkpoint in El-Wak town, Gedo region 8 Feb, killing two soldiers; overran two SNA camps in Tihsile and Warmahan villages outside Mogadishu 12 Feb, killing at least two soldiers; reinforcements en route to villages hit by roadside blast same day near Walanweyn, Lower Shabelle region, four military personnel killed. In Galmudug state, Al-Shabaab clashed with SNA in Adaley village near Amara 14 Feb, at least seven people killed; group took control of Amara 15 Feb. Al-Shabaab attacked AMISOM convoy outside Mogadishu 18 Feb. In Puntland, pro-Islamic State militants 1 Feb beheaded three of five civilians abducted late Jan in Bosaso; abducted and beheaded five Puntland soldiers in Af Karin, SE of Qandala; claimed 8 Feb attack on hotel in Bosaso, two guards killed. In Galkayo, which straddles contested border between Puntland and Galmudug Interim Administration (GIA), skirmishes between militia from each side resumed 10 Feb. UN warned country is on brink of new famine due to persistent drought in north.
Parliament 12 Feb approved motion to grant United Arab Emirates permission to build naval base in Berbera town.
Clashes continued between ethnic Shilluk rebels under Johnson Olony, part of Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), and govt forces on west bank of Nile, former Upper Nile state. SPLA-IO’s unsuccessful offensives coinciding with AU summit late Jan generated tensions between Machar and his military leadership. SPLA-IO 22 Feb clashed with govt forces in Kuek area, northern former Upper Nile state and Yuai, former Jonglei state in east. Govt and UN 20 Feb declared famine in parts of Unity state in north centre, said nearly 100,000 people face starvation.
Killing of seven cattle herders from Hawazma tribe in S Kordofan state 10 Feb by unidentified gunmen reportedly led to clashes mid-Feb between govt forces and rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). SPLM-N 21 Feb claimed govt had started new dry season offensive in S Kordofan and violated its unilateral ceasefire, 22 Feb said clashes had stopped and reiterated commitment to ceasefire. Govt forces 21 Feb clashed with alleged people smugglers in Midessisa area, Kassala state, arrested three and freed 28 captives. President Bashir 22 Feb said that new PM position, whose creation was recommended by Oct 2016 National Dialogue (ND) conference, would be filled by member of ruling National Congress Party rather than, as previously agreed, opposition representative.
Police 16 Feb reportedly arrested four M23 rebels from DRC in Kisoro district and identified them as among 750 who in Jan escaped from Bihanga military camp in west. Army 23 Feb said it was holding 44 M23 rebels in camp at Kisoro in SW who fled following clashes with Congolese soldiers in DRC 20-22 Feb (see DRC).
President Nyusi and leader of Renamo armed opposition Afonso Dhlakama 3 Feb said internationally mediated talks had ended and new phase would begin soon; both sides subsequently named new representatives to conduct talks in two working groups on military issues and decentralisation respectively.
Protest movement leader Pastor Evans Mawarire arrested at Harare airport 1 Feb on return from U.S., charged with “subverting constitutional government”, released on bail 8 Feb. Opposition party Zimbabwe People First split 8 Feb when leader Joice Mujuru expelled seven members who later claimed to have expelled Mujuru. Authorities charged former ruling party ZANU-PF Mashonaland Central youth chairperson Godfrey Tsenengamu, ally of VP Mnangagwa, 23 Feb with “undermining the authority of the President”. Armed police beat people protesting against President Mugabe in Harare 25 Feb.
Insecurity in Sahel region in north continued. Municipal councillor from Nassoumbou town and his five-year-old son killed 4 Feb in Yorsala village, Loroum province, where they had fled following threats by alleged jihadists. Military 2 Feb found cache of weapons, food and petrol in Nassoumbou area. Assailants 27 Feb attacked police posts in villages of Tongomayel and Baraboule in Sahel region, injuring police officer. Attempt by Koglweogo civilian community defence group to operate in Solenzo, Banwa province in west 11 Feb raised tensions with traditional Dozo hunters. Heads of state of G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad) in Bamako 6-7 Feb pledged to create joint task force to fight terrorism. In limited govt reshuffle 20 Feb security and territorial administration ministry split into two; Security Minister Simon Compaoré kept security portfolio and Jean-Claude Bouda named defence minister.
Following mutinies in Jan, security forces continued to protest. Special Forces in Adiaké (90km east of Abidjan) 7-8 Feb left barracks and shot in air to demand inclusion in govt’s Jan deal with other mutineers, paralysing city and wounding two civilians; govt 9 Feb said no deal reached and that mutineers had apologised. Six journalists arrested 12 Feb for writing that all Special Forces each received FCFA 17mn (about €26,000), denied by govt; all six released 14 Feb but indicted for spreading false news and inciting revolt. Cocoa planters 15 Feb began open-ended strike to protest govt’s fixed price which impedes exports as it is higher than international market price; police dispersed their protest in Abidjan 16 Feb with tear gas, injured six. UN mission started withdrawal mid-Feb.
New President Adama Barrow 18 Feb said he had ordered release of 171 prisoners detained without trial and would make constitutional and legal reforms. Police said they arrested 51 people in western town Kafenda, stronghold of ex-President Jammeh, 18-19 Feb for harassing Barrow supporters. Finance minister 20 Feb accused former govt of embezzling more than $5mn in 2014, leaving economy “completely destroyed”. Barrow late Feb replaced head of armed forces Gen Ousman Badjie with Gen Masanneh Kinteh, removed intelligence agency chief Yankuba Badjie and head of national prison system David Colley as part of clear-out of senior officials from Jammeh’s administration. UN 10 Feb received govt’s notice reversing withdrawal from ICC. Barrow 14 Feb said during visit of UK FM Boris Johnson that country will rejoin Commonwealth within months. EU 9 Feb pledged aid worth €225mn. Electoral commission scheduled National Assembly elections for 6 April.
Main teachers’ unions 1 Feb went on strike to protest salary cuts till making deal with govt 20 Feb but internal differences remained. New protests erupted in following days; police clashed with protestors 20-21 Feb in several districts of capital, Conakry, at least seven protestors reportedly killed; schools reopened 22 Feb. President Condé late-Feb fired ministers of pre-university education, civil service and environment. Local and communal elections scheduled for Feb delayed due to disagreements on electoral process between govt and opposition; National Assembly 9 Feb began extraordinary session to overcome political deadlock, 23 Feb passed changes to electoral code to align it with Oct 2016 political agreement. Opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo 9 Feb warned that opposition parties would unite in challenging Condé if latter sought third term through constitutional reform.
PM Embalo 8 Feb accused mediator of political crisis, Guinean President Condé, of bias toward President Vaz and threatened to request ECOWAS regional bloc to provide new mediator. Permanent committee of National People’s Assembly (ANP) 23 Feb refused to consider govt’s program on grounds that PM Embalo’s govt was illegal because it did not conform with Oct 2016 Conakry agreement between ruling majority and opposition; several hundred protested next day demanding Vaz step down. In response to request by attorney general investigating corruption allegations, ANP board 10 Feb refused to lift parliamentary immunity of former PM Pereira. UNSC 23 Feb extended mandate of UN peacebuilding office (UNIOGBIS) for additional year.
Implementation of peace agreement in north inched forward and intercommunal fighting worsened in centre. Peace agreement signatories and international mediation 10 Feb issued joint statement identifying main contentious issues and setting new calendar for implementation, including plan to establish interim authorities in north 13-20 Feb. Govt 16 Feb appointed interim presidents of regional councils: two from main separatist rebel alliance Coalition of Azawad Movements (CMA) in Kidal and Timbuktu, and one from each of Platform coalition that favours national unity in Gao, from CMA splinter group Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) in Ménaka and from govt in Taoudenni. Pro-CMA Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) same day rejected appointment of interim authorities in Taoudenni. Govt 17 Feb appointed new governor of Kidal close to Platform but subsequent tensions delayed official instalment of interim authorities in Kidal until 28 Feb. Dissatisfied armed groups briefly occupied regional councils in Gao 27 Feb and Timbuktu 28 Feb. Army and armed group joint patrols, envisioned in peace agreement, started in Gao 23 Feb. Intercommunal violence rose in centre. Fulani and Bambara armed groups clashed near town of Ké-Macina, Ségou region 12 Feb killing at least 21, reportedly after unidentified gunmen killed trader 11 Feb in Ké-Macina. Govt forces (FAMA) 16 Feb said they had arrested four jihadists suspected of involvement in intercommunal clashes. Armed assailants continued to attack Malian, UN and French forces and civilians in several areas. Attacks on FAMA outposts near Andéranboukane, Ménaka region and Tongorongo, Mopti region 4 Feb killed several soldiers; IED 8 Feb killed soldier near Alafia, Timbuktu region. MINUSMA convoy 5 Feb triggered IED in Aguelhok, Kidal region, four injured. Unidentified gunmen 7 Feb kidnapped Colombian nun in Karangasso, Sikasso region. FAMA arrested twenty alleged jihadists and killed one person who resisted arrest 11 Feb in Dialoubé, Mopti region. French defence ministry 14 Feb said Barkhane forces had thwarted “terrorist attack” in Kidal region. Heads of state of G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad) in Bamako 6-7 Feb pledged to create joint task force to fight terrorism.
Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) regional force continued to prepare offensive against Boko Haram (BH) bases on Lake Chad islands in Niger and Nigeria. Security forces 3 Feb dismantled presumed BH cell in Baban Rafi, Maradi region in south centre. Heads of state of G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad) in Bamako, Mali’s capital 6-7 Feb pledged to create joint task force to fight terrorism. Following call of civil society groups and opposition parties, thousands 4 Feb protested in Niamey against govt’s alleged poor governance, high cost of living and presence of Western military bases. Suspected jihadists 22 Feb ambushed military patrol 200km N of Niamey near border with Mali killing sixteen soldiers; France 25 Feb said it would send counter-terror contingent to support armed forces.
Clashes between army and Boko Haram (BH) continued in NE. In Borno state, army killed several insurgents and seized arms including anti-aircraft guns 1 Feb around Damboa, three soldiers killed; BH 9 Feb ambushed military convoy near Mafa, killed seven soldiers and captured female soldier, army reportedly killed several insurgents; BH 22 Feb attacked army post in Gajiram, killed at least seven soldiers. In Yobe state, army 24 Feb repelled BH attack on Kumuya village, killed eighteen insurgents. BH 15 Feb shot at Nigerian Air Force (NAF) helicopter flying from Maiduguri to Gwoza, injuring airman; NAF said subsequent airstrike “neutralised” insurgents. BH also continued attacks on civilians: security forces repelled attacks by suicide bombers in Maiduguri 16 Feb, at least eleven killed including nine bombers and two civilians; BH attacked Yaza-Kumaza village, southern Borno state 19 Feb, killed at least four. Govt 10 Feb said Muslim Brotherhood, hitherto unknown BH affiliate group based in Lokoja, Kogi state in centre, was planning attacks on banks, arms depots and prisons in several cities. BH factional leader Shekau, in audio recording released 24 Feb, disclosed he had killed group’s spokesman Tasiu (aka Abu Zinnira), confirming earlier-reported internal disputes. Situation in Niger Delta remained fragile but stable. Acting President Yemi Osinbajo stepped up talks with delta ethnic and political leaders, led federal govt delegation visit to Bayelsa state 9 Feb and Rivers state 13 Feb; delta leaders encouraged govt to act. Communal violence continued in Kaduna state: at least 26 people killed when armed men attacked four villages in Kaura and Jema’a local govt areas 19-20 Feb. Also about twenty people reportedly killed mid-Feb in three-day clashes between residents of Oku Iboku, Akwa Ibom state and Ikot Offiong, Cross River state over long-running boundary dispute. President Buhari early Feb extended two-week medical leave in UK indefinitely.
Five people reported killed and ten injured by three assailants in knife attack in Pishan county, S Xinjiang 14 Feb; police shot suspects dead. Parades involving thousands of troops staged in Hotan 16 Feb, Kashgar 17 Feb and Urumqi 18 Feb, and in several cities 27 Feb. Police 21 Feb reported all vehicles in Xinjiang must be installed with satellite tracking devices. State media reported Xinjiang authorities offering rewards of up to 5mn yuan for information on terrorism.
China responded negatively to U.S. show of support for Japan during month. During visit to Japan U.S. Sec Defence Mattis 4 Feb reaffirmed commitment to defence treaty with Japan, reiterated that it covers disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands; also praised Japan’s increased military spending. China responded 4 Feb reaffirming its sovereignty over islands, accused U.S. of risking stability of region with its stance on islands. Three Chinese coast guard vessels sailed near disputed islands 6 Feb, fourth such patrol in 2017, prompting Japan to issue official protest. Japanese PM Abe visited U.S. 10-12 Feb; at joint press conference 12 Feb President Trump said U.S. “100%” behind “great ally” Japan; leaders issued joint statement confirming that Article 5 of U.S.-Japan security treaty covers disputed islands. Beijing 13 Feb expressed concern over statement, reaffirming that islands were China’s “inherent territory”. On sidelines of G20 meeting 17 Feb Chinese FM Wang Yi told Japanese counterpart Tokyo’s “negative” moves are preventing improvement in bilateral ties. Media 17 Feb reported undisclosed sources saying Japan plans to accelerate warship-building program to produce two additional frigates annually to patrol ECS. Japanese govt sources 26 Feb said Tokyo has doubled from two to four number of fighter jets it scrambles in response to incursions by foreign planes into its airspace.
New DPRK missile test and assassination of ruler’s estranged half-brother in Malaysia prompted widespread international condemnation. Pyongyang announced successful test of new medium- to long-range missile capable of carrying nuclear warhead 12 Feb, in further violation of UN sanctions. Kim Jong-nam, estranged half-brother of DPRK leader Kim Jong-un, murdered in Kuala Lumpur airport, Malaysia 13 Feb reportedly using highly toxic nerve agent. Malaysian police arrested two women directly involved, nationals of Vietnam and Indonesia, later arrested N Korean man, said four other N Korean suspects had fled country. U.S. Sec State Tillerson at first meeting with Chinese FM Wang 17 Feb urged China to “use all available tools” to moderate Pyongyang’s “destabilizing” behaviour. Chinese FM Wang 17 Feb supported resuming six-party talks; DPRK pulled out in 2009. China 18 Feb announced suspension of coal imports from DPRK until end 2017; later said year’s imports had already approached upper limits specified in Nov 2016 UNSC resolution. China 23 Feb denied reports it had increased troop presence on border with DPRK after Kim Jong-nam’s killing. U.S. denied visa for top DPRK envoy late Feb, reportedly forcing cancellation of planned track 1.5 talks with U.S. experts; Washington denied talks were scheduled. U.S. Sec Defense Jim Mattis, visiting Seoul 3 Feb, warned DPRK of “effective and overwhelming” response to attack on U.S. or allies, any use of nuclear weapons. South Korea 3 Feb reported DPRK’s minister of state security Kim Won-hong had been dismissed mid-Jan on charges of corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses. ROK 27 Feb reported Pyongyang had executed at least five Ministry of State Security senior officials.
Japan sent formal protest to Moscow 23 Feb after Russian defence minister said Russia plans to deploy additional forces to disputed Kuril islands/Northern Territories in 2017; earlier in month protested Russian move to name five uninhabited islands in archipelago.
Speaking with Chinese President Xi for first time 9 Feb, U.S. President Trump said that he would honour One China policy, in reverse of his previous actions and statements questioning doctrine, which had caused increased tensions in cross-straits relations and between U.S. and China. Move calmed fears among some Taiwanese of possible U.S.-China trade war with economic ramifications for Taiwan. U.S. official 16 Feb said uniformed Marine guards would be posted at American Institute in Taiwan once it is completed.
Tensions with Pakistan rose after Islamabad accused Afghanistan of harbouring terrorists responsible for series of deadly attacks in Pakistan including 16 Feb Islamic State (IS)-claimed Sufi shrine bombing in Sindh province (see Pakistan). Pakistani military 17 Feb shelled targets in Afghanistan it claimed were Pakistani Taliban camps, reportedly displacing at least 150 families in eastern Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, and enforced indefinite closure of shared border; also summoned Afghan diplomats and demanded immediate handover of over 76 terrorists allegedly hiding in Afghanistan. Kabul reportedly responded by summoning Pakistani ambassador and submitting list of 85 Afghan insurgent leaders and 32 training camps located in Pakistan. Afghan govt and U.S. military enhanced operations against so-called IS-Khorasan (IS-K) targets in east: NATO 2 Feb confirmed U.S. military had killed Qari Munib and Shahid Omar, two top IS-K leaders in Nangarhar. Insurgents continued to carry out high profile attacks, including 7 Feb suicide bombing outside Supreme Court that killed at least twenty people and injured 40; and 17 Feb attack against army outposts in Dih Bala district, Nangarhar province, which left at least eighteen soldiers dead and twelve injured, claimed by IS-K. ICRC temporarily suspended operations in Afghanistan after suspected IS-K 8 Feb killed six ICRC workers and kidnapped two in Shibergan town, Jowzjan province. Taliban claimed responsibility for blast killing five soldiers and seven civilians in Helmand provincial capital Lashkargah 11 Feb; and ambush killing ten police and civilian in Darzab district, Jowzjan province 25 Feb. Officials claimed 11 Feb U.S. airstrikes in Helmand’s Sangin district killed at least 60 Taliban and foiled plan for major offensive. NATO opened investigation into allegations that U.S. airstrikes killed at least 22 civilians 10 Feb. Russia 15 Feb hosted second Afghanistan peace conference in Moscow aimed at finding political settlement and containing IS-K: India, Pakistan, Iran, China and Afghanistan participated. Testifying before U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee 9 Feb, NATO and U.S. forces commander Gen John Nicholson said Russia and Iran supporting Taliban, trying to legitimise it by claiming it was fighting IS-K and aiming to undermine U.S. and NATO; also called for deployment of few thousand more troops to train and advise Afghan army.
Search committee appointed late Jan to appoint next election commission 6 Feb sent President Hamid list of ten candidates, including suggestions from ruling Awami League (AL), opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and civil society groups. Hamid 6 Feb appointed new commission: new Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Hada, former senior bureaucrat and “freedom fighter” during 1971 liberation war. BNP-led 20-party opposition alliance described Hada as controversial, partisan, and unable to oversee free and fair national polls (due Jan 2019); Hada said he has no connection with any political party. Security forces 1 Feb announced arrest of four further suspects in July 2016 Gulshan café attack, 14 Feb shot dead suspected militant commander linked to attack. Five Islamists sentenced to death 28 Feb for Oct 2015 murder of Japanese citizen. Police 10 Feb arrested nine union organisers calling for higher minimum wage, bringing total number of known arrests since labour strikes in mid-Dec to 34 – most on vague and arbitrary grounds, including under draconian police Special Powers Act, many without warrants. Three-member Myanmar delegation of advisory commission on Rakhine State arrived in Dhaka 28 Jan to hold discussions with authorities on Rohingya issue, and visit shelters and slums in Cox’s Bazar where several thousand Rohingyas from Myanmar took shelter to escape security operations across border. FM 20 Feb called on international community to do more to stem flow of Myanmar Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh. Asian Centre for Human Rights NGO 20 Feb accused Bangladesh govt of pushing members of country’s Buddhist Jumma minority out of Chittagong Hill Tracts area to make way for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.
Maoist attacks and clashes between security forces and Maoists during month included: at least seven suspected Maoists killed in clash with police in Narayanpur district, Chhattisgarh 21 Feb; Maoist commander killed in clash with police in Bihar state 21 Feb. Eight police killed in landmine blast in Koraput district, Odisha state 1 Feb. Auditor General report found significant problems with govt development initiatives in areas affected by Maoist insurgency over past five years.
Deadly encounters between security forces and separatist militants continued in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, leaving at least ten alleged militants and nine soldiers dead. Police and security forces 4 Feb killed two suspected members of Hizbul Mujahideen near Sopore in north; claimed operation thwarted major terrorist attack. Gunfight between alleged Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) militants and security forces in Kulgam district in south 11-12 Feb left four alleged militants, two soldiers and two civilians dead; incident provoked major protests and clashes between demonstrators and security forces same day, one protester reported killed and at least 30 injured. Four Indian soldiers and four alleged militants killed in separate security raids 14 Feb. Alleged militants 23 Feb ambushed army patrol in Shopian, killing three soldiers and injuring five; one civilian killed by stray bullet. Indian army chief Bipin Rawat 17 Feb claimed those who obstruct or do not support anti-militancy operations will be considered “overground workers of terrorists”; remarks triggered violent protests throughout Jammu and Kashmir same day. Pakistani army accused India of violating ceasefire along LoC after three Pakistani soldiers were killed in 13 Feb exchange of fire in Bhimber district in south of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Govt 20 Feb announced first post-conflict local elections to be held 14 May despite unresolved disputes over amendments to 2015 constitution; last local polls held in 1997. After claiming PM Dahal should resign if govt fails to hold elections by June, opposition UML party welcomed announcement but continued to oppose endorsement of amendment bill registered in parliament Nov 2016 that partially addresses dissenting Madhesi parties’ demands. Coalition of Madhesi parties criticised govt for “betraying” assurances that constitution would be amended prior to election-date decision, unveiled month-long protests throughout Tarai plains. Coalition activists clashed 22 Feb with UML cadres in Dhanusha district during coalition-enforced eastern Tarai strike; coalition supporters clashed with police 26 Feb in Rautahat district while attempting to disrupt UML gathering. Coalition discussing withdrawing support from ruling coalition. Controversial activist and proponent of “independent Madhes” CK Raut arrested 2 Feb in Rupandehi district; seventeen Raut supporters arrested 18 Feb in ensuing clashes with police. Govt 9 Feb extended terms of two transitional justice mechanisms on truth and reconciliation and disappearances one year until Feb 2018; new complaint registration period began 15 Feb; over 61,000 total complaints already received by both bodies.
Wave of attacks on state, sectarian and other targets cast doubt over efficacy of military’s recent counter-terrorism operations against jihadist networks, while govt’s accusations that Afghanistan was harbouring attackers and launch of cross-border attacks on alleged sanctuaries of militants further exacerbated tensions with Kabul. Islamic State (IS) 16 Feb carried out suicide bombing at prominent Sufi shrine in Sehwan Sharif, Sindh province, killing at least 88 and injuring more than 200; security forces claimed to have killed over 100 alleged terrorists in security crackdown day after attack. Pakistani Taliban (TTP) faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar 14 Feb carried out suicide attack on protest outside Punjab Assembly in Lahore, killing at least fifteen including six police. At least six killed in 21 Feb suicide attack outside court in Charsadda, Kyber Pakhtunkhwa province. TTP claimed suicide bombing targeting administrative tribal HQ in Ghalanai in Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA)’s Mohmand agency 15 Feb killing five; one killed in suicide attack targeting judges in Peshawar same day. Several police and soldiers killed by IEDs in Balochistan’s Quetta and Awaran district and in S Waziristan mid-month. As terror attacks escalated military vowed revenge, accusing “hostile powers” of directing them. Govt 17 Feb accused Afghanistan of harbouring terrorist groups including IS, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and TTP, demanded arrest of over 76 terrorists allegedly hiding in Afghanistan and closed border indefinitely. Military carried out airstrikes in FATA and shelled alleged Pakistani militant positions in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. In “sweep operation” in Punjab 18-19 Feb law enforcement agencies reportedly arrested over 200, mostly Afghans. Punjab’s civil-military provincial Apex Committee 19 Feb agreed to requisition assistance of paramilitary Punjab Rangers to provide security. Govt launched new military-led nationwide counter-terrorism operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (End to Chaos) 22 Feb, with particular focus on Punjab.
President Sirisena continued to struggle to win support of his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on constitutional reform; requested Constitutional Assembly (CA) steering committee draft new, shorter version of its interim report containing key elements of new constitution. After meeting consultation task force on reconciliation mechanisms 30 Jan, Sirisena reportedly confirmed transitional justice will not be pursued until after completion of constitutional reforms process. FM 7 Feb argued new constitution would be “most potent weapon for non-recurrence” of conflict and will be prioritised over accountability. FM 28 Feb told UN Human Rights Council a draft law for “Truth-Seeking Commission” would be presented to cabinet within next two months. European Parliament’s international trade committee began consideration of European Commission’s recommendation to grant GSP+ trade benefits to Sri Lankan; decision due by mid-May. Govt took some potentially positive steps on repeal of controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), including Right to Information Act, which became operational 3 Feb, and formally gazetting draft law criminalising enforced disappearances 9 Feb. Police 18-19 Feb arrested five military intelligence officers for 2008 abduction and beating of journalist; later told court same hit squad responsible for 2009 murder of editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, with police reported to believe they acted under orders of then-defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Tamil majority north and east saw wave of protest, including demanding return of land built on by army in Kepapilavu and action on missing persons, and “Tamils, Rise” demonstration demanding inter alia federal constitution. Under increasing pressure, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader 23 Feb told parliament issues of land, detainees, missing persons and reparation needed to be addressed urgently if current peace to last.
Tense Jakarta governor election went to second round after neither of the two leading candidates – incumbent Basuki Tjahaka Purnama, Chinese-descent Christian backed by President Widodo and currently on trial for alleged blasphemy, and former Education Minister Anies Baswedan – won outright majority in 15 Feb vote. Next vote scheduled for April. Islamists who staged rallies against Purnama late 2016 protested again 21 Feb demanding he be suspended as mayor and convicted. Indonesia and Australia 26 Feb restored full military ties, partially suspended in Jan. Police shot dead man with alleged links to IS following small explosion in Bandung 27 Feb.
UN-OHCHR 3 Feb released report on human rights abuses by security forces in N Rakhine state following Oct attacks on police posts by al-Yaqin armed group. Report, which found “very likely commission of crimes against humanity” including mass killings and gang rapes, significantly increased momentum behind calls for international commission of inquiry, to be discussed at UN Human Rights Council session in March. 73,000 Rohingya now reported to have fled to Bangladesh since 9 Oct, 24,000 internally displaced. Having previously denied similar allegations, govt 8 Feb said it would investigate allegations, however, gave task to commission headed by VP-1 Myint Swe, whose credibility was undermined when it issued preliminary report in Jan finding no evidence of abuses. Military and police set up separate, internal investigations 9 and 11 Feb; military chief of general staff Gen Mya Tun Oo in 28 Feb press conference said military had so far not been able to substantiate OHCHR accusations of rape and other atrocities, denied general allegations of Rohingya persecution. New National Security Adviser 15 Feb told diplomats military “clearance operations” had now ended; humanitarian and media access remain restricted. Curfew restrictions in Maungdaw district since 2012 anti-Muslim violence, which had been tightened following Oct attacks, were relaxed 10 Feb. Speaking at Annual Union Day celebrations marking 70th anniversary of signing of Panglong Agreement on inclusion of ethnic borderlands in independent Burma 12 Feb, Aung San Suu Kyi focused on new “Panglong-21” peace process, urged ethnic armed groups to have “courage” and “self-confidence” to sign Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). Govt postponed next Panglong-21 peace conference from 28 Feb to late March, as preparatory meetings started late and with little apparent success in convincing any additional groups to sign NCA. Fighting in Kachin and N Shan states subsided since late-Jan as military has eased offensives against ethnic armed group positions. Motive and ultimate responsibility remained unclear in 29 Jan assassination of leading constitutional lawyer and ruling NLD party adviser Ko Ni.
President Duterte 4 Feb announced govt withdrawal from peace talks with Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) insurgents, resumed since Aug 2016 with Norwegian facilitation. Move came amid increased clashes and as govt refused communist demand to released 400 imprisoned insurgents. Communist insurgents 1 Feb declared end to ceasefire and reportedly killed three unarmed soldiers; govt 3 Feb lifted its unilateral ceasefire. Senior military officer 26 Feb reported at least fourteen rebels killed in clashes following ceasefire collapse; seven govt soldiers also reported killed. Communists called for continuation of talks, 19 Feb offered to free six POWs; presidential palace 20 Feb listed ceasefire conditions communists needed to meet before Duterte would reopen talks, including, inter alia, end to extortion and ambushes on military personnel. Duterte early Feb named expanded 21-member Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) to draft new enabling law for proposed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, agreed in March 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro; BTC includes eleven MILF figures. Presidential adviser on peace process Jesus Dureza also said Bangsamoro Basic Law drafted under Aquino govt could be basis for new law; BTC, officially launched in Davao City 24 Feb, must submit draft to Congress by July. Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana 9 Feb said links between IS and Philippines militants “very strong”; senior military office 26 Feb said some 50 IS cells operating in Mindanao. Several Abu Sayyaf fighters reported killed in ongoing operations during month; Abu Sayyaf attacks and bombings also continued. FM Perfecto Yasay said Abu Sayyaf likely behind 19 Feb attack on Vietnamese cargo ship near Baguan island in which one crew member killed. Govt reported Abu Sayyaf beheaded German hostage in Sulu 26 Feb after ransom deadline lapsed.
New U.S. administration moderated previous statements signalling tougher stance on China in SCS and engaged in first contacts with Beijing and regional allies, dialling down tensions. President Trump spoke to Chinese President Xi 9 Feb agreed to honour “One China” policy. U.S. Sec State Tillerson’s controversial remarks at his confirmation hearing early Jan appeared toned down in written responses leaked early Feb. After meeting with Tillerson 17 Feb Chinese FM Wang said countries’ common interested far outweigh their differences. Tillerson reportedly affirmed importance of constructive bilateral relationship in conversation with China’s state councillor Yang Jiechi 22 Feb. During early Feb visit to South Korea and Japan, U.S. Sec Defence Jim Mattis emphasised commitment to allies, criticised Beijing for “shredding the trust of nations in the region”; also said focus should be on diplomacy, not “dramatic military moves”. Three Chinese warships conducted naval exercises in SCS 10-17 Feb; U.S. aircraft carrier strike group began “routine operations” in SCS 18 Feb, despite call by Beijing 15 Feb “not to take actions that challenge China’s sovereignty and security”. Beijing said it respects freedom of navigation and overflight but called for U.S. to respect sovereignty and security of countries in region and their efforts to maintain peace and stability. Philippines FM Perfecto Yasay reported meeting of ASEAN FMs 21 Feb had expressed “grave concerns” over China’s militarisation in SCS; after Chinese commerce minister subsequently cancelled planned trip to Philippines, President Duterte said Beijing had misunderstood Yasay’s remarks. U.S. officials 22 Feb told Reuters China has almost finished building over twenty structures on its artificial islands in SCS, apparently to house long range surface-to-air missiles; China said it has right to deploy defensive facilities on its territory. Reports apparently confirmed by satellite imagery showing facilities on three artificial islands in Spratly archipelago.
Draft constitution returned to king 18 Feb following amendment of provisions concerning royal prerogatives; king has 90 days to sign. National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) instituted national reconciliation process with appointment of four committees on national strategy, reform, reconciliation, and strategic administration 6 Feb, and series of meetings hosted by defence ministry to canvas views of politicians starting 14 Feb; major political parties expressed scepticism over process. PM Prayuth Chan-ocha 15 Feb invoked Article 44 of interim constitution, which grants him unreviewable authority in matters of national security, to declare Wat Dhammakaya temple in Pathumthani “controlled area”, part of efforts to arrest Buddhist monk Dhammachayo on charges of money laundering. Dhammachayo widely seen as sympathetic to exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and Red Shirt movement. Thai and Indonesian defence ministers met in Bangkok 2 Feb, reportedly discussed counter-terrorism intelligence cooperation. U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris launched annual combined military exercise Cobra Gold in Chonburi 14 Feb; most senior U.S. official to visit Thailand since May 2014 coup. In southern insurgency, suspected militants killed several people in attacks in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat during month. MARA Patani, umbrella group of five separatist groups in exile, issued statement 20 Feb in support of communities protesting against coal power plants in Krabi and Songkhla provinces. Member of Thai dialogue team 22 Feb said agreement reached with MARA Patani on establishment of safety zone, or limited ceasefire; main militant group BRN is not a party to MARA Patani.
Bosniak member of tripartite presidency Bakir Izetbegović 17 Feb said country will lodge appeal to ICJ to revise its 2007 ruling which exonerated Serbia of direct responsibility for 1995 Srebrenica genocide. Bosnian Serb member of presidency Mladen Ivanić warned such a move would exacerbate ethnic tensions, could provoke crisis; MPs from country’s two largest Serb parties 16 Feb boycotted parliament in protest. Ivanić and President of Republika Srpska (RS) entity Milorad Dodik met with Serbian PM Vučić and President Nikolić in Belgrade 22 Feb; Nikolić said Belgrade “will always stand by the Serbs in Bosnia”, Dodik called ICJ appeal “act of hatred” toward Serbs. Speaking day after official filing of request with ICJ 23 Feb, Ivanic spoke of “serious crisis” and said he will tell ICJ that presidency did not agree on move. RS National Assembly special session late month voted to “reject and strongly condemn” appeal bid, invited Serb representatives in state-level bodies to prevent decision-making. Russian ambassador 12 Feb said RS authorities “fully committed to implementing the Dayton agreement”, reiterated Russian support for Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
EU-brokered meeting between Kosovo and Serbian PMs and presidents in Brussels 1 Feb failed to calm tensions. EU foreign policy chief Mogherini reported “constructive engagement” with both sides reconfirming commitment to dialogue, however anonymous diplomatic sources said no results. NATO Sec Gen Jens Stoltenberg 3 Feb urged Pristina and Belgrade to ease tensions, move from rhetoric to dialogue and move forward normalisation process. Kosovo Serbs 5 Feb demolished unauthorised concrete wall they constructed in Dec 2016 dividing Mitrovica, following meeting previous day between local Kosovo Serb leaders and Pristina officials, facilitated by EU and U.S. officials, resulting in agreement to ease tensions. President Thaci 13 Feb announced new Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with alleged atrocities during 1998-99 war and improve relations between ethnic Serbs and Albanians. Govt-appointed commission 21 Feb found that 2015 border deal with Montenegro did not result in loss of Kosovo territory as claimed by opposition parties who refuse to ratify deal, thus blocking its ratification in parliament, which is a condition of EU visa liberalisation.
After failure of former ruling party VMRO DPMNE to form new govt by late Jan deadline following 11 Dec elections, President Ivanov 2 Feb said he would give mandate for forming new govt to party which can demonstrate proof of majority in parliament. VMRO DPMNE called for new elections, accused opposition of sacrificing national interest by making too many concessions to ethnic Albanian parties to win their support for coalition. Opposition Social Democratic Union (SDSM) leader Zoran Zaev 27 Feb claimed mandate to form govt after main ethnic Albanian party DUI and two other ethnic Albanian parties said they would back SDSM, giving him majority support in parliament; conditions for their support included passage of new language law extending use of Albanian as second official language throughout country. Former PM Gruevski 26 Feb said deal unconstitutional and jeopardised state interests. Protests led by VMRO DPMNE broke out in Skopje 27 Feb, drawing thousands and spreading to other towns next day; protesters criticising deal with Albanian parties and calling for protection of ethnic Macedonian interests. Two journalists covering protests in Skopje assaulted 28 Feb.
European Council President Donald Tusk 27 Feb announced conclusion of negotiations on EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. President Sargsyan 27 Feb visited EU and NATO institutions in Brussels. Central Elections Commission 17 Feb registered five political parties and three blocks for Parliamentary elections 2 April. OSCE/ODIHR 21 Feb started election observation mission in Armenia.
President Aliyev 21 Feb announced appointment of his wife Mehibran Aliyeva, deputy chair of ruling New Azerbaijan Party, as first VP. Belarus 7 Feb extradited Russian/Ukrainian/Israeli blogger charged with supporting NK independence and making public calls aimed to “destroy state’s unity”; case condemned by Amnesty International. Russia said it was “deeply disappointed” about extradition, Armenia said it represented “gross violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of speech and movement”. President Aliyev visited Brussels 6 Feb to discuss inter alia new cooperation agreement between Azerbaijan and EU; cancelled planned meeting with European parliament president. Two Azerbaijani nationals arrested 20 Feb for high treason, accused of collecting information about Azerbaijan’s strategic objects, secret service agents and military personnel. Authorities reportedly killed four alleged extremists and captured one during 31 Jan search operation.
European Parliament 2 Feb voted to grant visa-free travel for Georgian citizens to EU, expected to enter into force later March after it was approved by EU Council 27 Feb. Residents of conflict regions can make use of visa free travel provided they apply for Georgian passports. Georgia and Russia 7 Feb discussed prospects for trade through Abkhazia and South Ossetia, with intention to implement 2011 agreement signed before Georgia gave Russia green light to join WTO. Former Abkhaz leader Alexander Ankvab returned to Abkhazia 13 Feb after two years of absence to run as candidate in de facto parliamentary elections 12 March. Perceived Russian interference ahead of April de facto presidential election in breakaway republic South Ossetia, including reported pressure from Russian envoy on local elections commission to issue public statement against former leader Eduard Kokoity, prompted anger among residents. De facto President Tibilov 6 Feb signed decree scheduling referendum to change name of entity to “Republic of South Ossetia – the State of Alania”. Georgian FM Mikheil Janelidze met U.S. counterpart Rex Tillerson in Washington DC 10 Feb, reported Tillerson expressed “full support” for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Exchange of fire intensified on different sections of Line of Contact (LoC), with reports of mortars and anti-tank guns on NE and Central sections, in deadliest month for both sides since April 2016 escalation. At least eight Armenian soldiers reported killed in mortar and sniper attacks 15 Jan-28 Feb. Azerbaijani side reported at least six casualties including six soldiers killed during 25 Feb exchange of fire on southern section of LoC, in most serious incident since start of 2017; OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs 26 Feb called on sides to cease movement of heavy military equipment and to allow collection of the dead. Escalation accompanied by calls within NK to escalate military response, comes amid signs of military build-up on both sides on central section of LoC. Armenian and Azerbaijani FMs met in Munich 17 Feb for talks mediated by OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs, intending to urge resumption of negotiations suspended in Dec. Final statement included warning that any use of force might lead to “devastating” results. FMs agreed on further meetings, no mention of presidential-level talks. One Azerbaijani soldier 1 Feb deserted to de facto NK. NK 20 Feb conducted de facto referendum on new constitution adopting presidential system, abolishing position of de facto PM and transferring some responsibilities to de facto parliament. De facto electoral commission reported 87.6% of voters supported change, turnout 76%. New constitution also permits current de facto President Bako Sahakyan, expected to finish his second term in July, to stay for three-year transitional period, allows him to run again in 2020. Azerbaijan and international community declared referendum illegal; Minsk Group co-chairs said referendum needed to improve public life in NK, but would not define final status. Azerbaijan 23 Feb added three members of European Parliament to its international wanted list for observing de facto referendum.
Counter Terrorist Operations (CTOs) conducted in Dagestani villages of Kvanada and Gimerso, Tsumadinsky district 31 Jan-4 Feb, and in Andi village 7-17 Feb; no casualties reported. Chair of National Anti-Terrorism Committee Andrei Przhezdomsky 31 Jan said special forces prevented over 40 planned terrorist attacks in 2016; also said number of Russian recruits to Islamic State (IS) in decline, terrorist activity in N Caucasus decreased. Authorities continue to prevent outflow of fighters from NC to IS; court in Krasnodar in south 14 Feb found three Dagestani men guilty of planning to join IS. Dagestan interior ministry 31 Jan claimed more than 1,200 persons from Dagestan have joined IS. Moscow court 14 Feb sentenced three men from North Caucasus to between three and fourteen years’ jail for having links with IS in Syria and plotting attack in Moscow. Russia continued to increase presence of North Caucasian troops in Syria, sending 300-strong military police battalion from Ingushetia 13 Feb to protect Russian air force military base in Khmeymim and maintain public order in Aleppo.
EU 27 Feb extended arms embargo on Belarus for another year, retained visa ban and asset freezes for four individuals.
Late Jan escalation in clashes along front line around Avdiivka in east continued early Feb, with at least 35 soldiers and civilians reported killed and scores wounded in period 29 Jan-6 Feb. Fighting subsided somewhat 4 Feb, permitting repairs to power lines and restoration of water supplies in area. Efforts continued to restore ceasefire with limited success; Ukrainian military 17 Feb reported three soldiers killed, ten injured previous day. Ukrainian, Russian, German and French FMs 18 Feb agreed to renewed ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons in east taking effect 20 Feb, however OSCE 21 Feb reported continued ceasefire violations, 22 Feb said neither side honouring commitments to withdraw heavy weapons; Ukrainian military 25 Feb said sixteen soldiers wounded in clashes over previous 24 hours. President Poroshenko accused Moscow of violating Feb 2015 Minsk accord after Russia 18 Feb announced it would recognise identification documents issued by separatist entities; France, Germany and EU also criticised Russia. Moscow defended move on humanitarian grounds, said it complied with international law. Poroshenko expressed confidence in continued U.S. support following contacts and statements from senior U.S. officials including 4 Feb phone call with President Trump; 2 Feb statement by U.S. ambassador to UN who affirmed U.S. sanctions against Russia to remain in place until it returns Crimea; and White House spokesperson’s 14 Feb statement that Trump expects Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine. European Commission President Juncker 11 Feb said EU will give Ukraine €600mn to support govt finances; European Parliament 13 Feb approved new rules to waive visa regime for Ukrainians. Kyiv 15 Feb declared partial state of emergency due to nationalist blockade of rail lines delivering coal from separatist entities in east since 25 Jan; clashes broke out in Kyiv 19 Feb between ultra-nationalist demonstrators and police over blockade; separatists 27 Feb threatened to seize Ukrainian-run businesses if blockade not lifted. Several thousand joined protests in Kyiv organised by right-wing parties including far-right Right Sector 22 Feb demanding reform, change of govt. UNICEF 17 Feb reported 1 million children in east in urgent need of humanitarian aid, doubling over past year.
Greek Cypriot parliament 10 Feb approved proposal by far-right National Popular Front Party (ELAM) for yearly celebration in schools of 1950 referendum which approved Union with Greece (“Enosis Day”). Greek Cypriot President Anastasiades 13 Feb said parliament’s approval of ELAM proposal, which he called “unfortunate”, did not constitute change of policy, should not undermine sincere Greek Cypriot intentions of reunification. Turkish Cypriot leader Akıncı 15 Feb demanded Enosis law be repealed. Russian ambassador to Cyprus early Feb attended seminar in Nicosia convened by hard-line Greek Cypriot politicians opposing deal, prompting concerns over Russian involvement in talks and criticism from Anastasiades. Meeting scheduled for early March cancelled, not clear when/if new round of talks will resume.
State security forces continued operations against Kurdish PKK insurgency in SE, though number of casualties and attacks again lower than previous month. Security forces detained 26 people after car bomb attack attributed to PKK 17 Feb that killed two in Viranşehir district, Şanlıurfa province; 18 Feb two alleged PKK militants killed in Nusaybin district, where Kurdish politicians protested lockdown in Koruköy village amid unconfirmed allegations on social media of torture of civilians by security forces. Unclaimed rocket attacks in Istanbul’s Fatih district 20 Feb targeted police station and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) office; no casualties reported. Number of arrested Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (HDP) MPs rose to thirteen. HDP 20 Feb filed complaint at European Court of Human Rights over Nov 2016 arrest and detention of co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ; Yüksekdağ stripped of seat in Parliament and Demirtaş sentenced to five months’ jail next day. President Erdoğan 10 Feb approved constitutional reform bill which would bring in presidential system, with referendum on change scheduled for 16 April. In ongoing purges following July 2016 coup attempt, govt 8 Feb dismissed 4,400 additional academics, security services, economy and foreign affairs ministry personnel. Security forces 5-6 Feb arrested over 800 alleged Islamic State (IS)-linked individuals in coordinated raids in at least 29 provinces. Ankara continued push into N Syria and offensive on Al-Bab (see Syria). Three Turkish soldiers killed in Russian airstrike near Al-Bab 9 Feb; Moscow said it was mistake and blamed poor coordination. Ankara continued to push new U.S. administration for Turkish role in Raqqa operation, condemning continued U.S. support to Kurdish YPG/PYD fighters. Tensions continue with Greece with series of standoffs over disputed islets in Aegean Sea.
Govt hosted further talks backed by Russia, Turkey and Iran on Syrian conflict during month. President Nazarbayev 30 Jan instructed National Security Committee and govt to create “Cyber Shield” to prevent dissemination of extremist propaganda on internet and social networks, prompting criticism from rights groups. Russian President Putin during late month tour of region met with President Nazarbayev 27 Feb, consolidating ties.
Several parties named their candidates for Nov presidential election including former PM Temir Sariev (Ak Shumkar party), former PM Omurbek Babanov (Republika – Ata-Jurt) and Bakyt Torobaev (Onuguu-Progress). Opposition Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev arrested 26 Feb upon arrival from Vienna, court 27 Feb ordered two-month custody while fraud and corruption investigation conducted; Ata-Meken supporters protested in Bishkek. President Atambayev met with European Council President Donald Tusk and EU foreign policy chief Mogherini in Brussels 17 Feb. Atambayev called on EU to invest in Kyrgyzstan’s democracy arguing it is under pressure. Russian President Putin visited Bishkek 28 Feb to discuss ties.
Interior Minister Ramazon Rakhimzoda 20 Jan said 36 terrorist attacks were prevented in Tajikistan in 2016; also said there are some 10,000-15,000 militants gathered along Tajik-Afghan border – higher than estimates from other analysts. Anti-corruption agency 27 Jan launched investigation into former Dushanbe mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidulloyev, accused of embezzling state funds; investigation reportedly opened at request of current mayor Rustam Emomali, son of President Rahmon, following complaints from city residents. Russian President Putin 27 Feb agreed with President Rahmon to jointly bolster Tajik-Afghan border security.
President Berdymukhamedov re-elected to third seven-year term 12 Feb with 97.69% of vote: turnout reported at 97.28%. Eight other candidates received less than 3% of vote between them. Amid worsening economic situation and shortages, reports emerged ahead of vote of officials forcing traders in Ashgabat to reduce prices. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders 10 Feb spoke out against “unprecedented crackdown” on independent journalists in country. OSCE sent first ever limited election observation mission.
President Mirziyoyev 8 Feb approved wide-ranging 2017-2021 development strategy promising political, judicial and economic reforms. Govt late Jan announced it will spend $2.6bn over five years to develop area around Aral Sea.
FARC completed its movements into cantonments 19 Feb, with 6,900 FARC fighters in 26 zones throughout country, many of which still lack infrastructure. Arms handover to begin 1 March, though public spat between UN mission, govt and FARC, as well as lack of progress, may lead to delays. Approval of new legislation to implement peace agreement continued, with law to create Special Jurisdiction for Peace presented to Congress and sent through required committees throughout Feb. Formal peace talks with ELN guerrilla group began 8 Feb. Govt and ELN 16 Feb announced they had decided to create two commissions at peace talks: one will discuss mechanisms for wider social participation in talks; second will discuss humanitarian issues, with aim of reducing effects of ELN conflict on population. ELN carried out attack 14 Feb along Bogotá-Villavicencio road which left four soldiers injured, and bombing in Bogotá 19 Feb which killed one policemen and wounded at least 25; allegedly carried out attack against governor’s motorcade in NE. Group also stated it would fill power vacuums left by FARC, supposedly at behest of communities and to prevent “paramilitary groups” from doing same. Social leaders continued to be killed at heightened levels, bringing total to at least thirteen in 2017, and 40 since Oct plebiscite. Govt’s coca eradication program met resistance; community in southern department Caquetá 2 Feb detained fourteen policemen to prevent them from eradicating, released next day; violent protests against eradication in SW town Tumaco continue. Some pre-agreements for coca substitution signed in Caquetá, Vichada and Putumayo.
After rejecting 21 Jan proposal by Vatican-sponsored dialogue facilitators to relaunch talks as plan for “democratic coexistence”, opposition MUD alliance 10 Feb reiterated that return to talks only possible if govt fulfilled its first round commitments; govt reiterated its commitment to dialogue. National Assembly President Julio Borges 10 Feb said MUD had declined proposal by Pope for two sides to meet at Vatican late Jan; papal nuncio said no formal request to reopen talks had been made. OAS Sec Gen Luis Almagro 8 Feb said OAS Permanent Council would not take further action until dialogue was declared over. Contacts continued behind scenes: MUD 10 Feb presented more detailed proposal for renewing talks; facilitators returned to Caracas mid-Feb but without apparently producing any breakthrough. Elections for state governors, due Dec 2016, on hold indefinitely, despite Oct 2016 promise by electoral authority (CNE) President Tibisay Lucena that they would be held mid-2017: CNE board member Tania D’Amelio 10 Feb said elections could not take place until political parties renewed their legal registration, as demanded by Supreme Court (TSJ). CNE 7 Feb required 59 of country’s 62 political parties to re-register by gathering signatures of 5% of voters in at least twelve states within fourteen hours using 390 fingerprint machines provided by CNE, to begin 4 March; many parties complained conditions impossible to fulfil. Ruling PSUV and MUD not required to re-register, however MUD facing possible ban over case before TSJ alleging it committed fraud in 2016 recall referendum process. MUD 17 Feb announced long-awaited internal restructuring, including expansion of its executive from four to nine parties, creating civil society consultative body. U.S. Treasury 13 Feb announced it was blacklisting VP Aissami as alleged drugs “kingpin”; govt condemned move as politically motivated persecution.
Three-pronged institutional crisis affecting judiciary, legislature and executive resulting from corruption scandals continued, together with heightened tensions between conservatives partially opposing constitutional reforms and activists in favour. Congress late Feb discussed proposals to reform constitution in five respects, including official recognition of indigenous legal systems and separation of administrative from judicial functions of Supreme Court; reforms would significantly bolster judiciary’s independence from political authorities. Critics of reforms decried international meddling in internal affairs, called for expulsion of International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) Commissioner Iván Velásquez, who 11 Feb complained about absence of “official voices” condemning attacks against CICIG. VP Cabrera 14 Feb attributed Jan increase in homicides and series of brutal acts of violence to destabilisation scheme against govt.
Speaking at his inauguration 7 Feb, President Moïse declared his goal of strengthening state institutions including Provisional Electoral Council. EU delegation met Moïse 7 Feb to discuss €35mn package to address post-Hurricane Matthew reconstruction; Canada same day pledged $91mn to health and welfare aid; govt and UN 13 Feb launched appeal for $291.5mn to cover humanitarian needs in 2017. UN Under Sec Gen for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous 13 Feb declared military component of MINUSTAH would soon end; Brazil 1 Feb announced it would withdraw completely from mission before 15 April. UNSG to submit recommendations for future of MINUSTAH to UNSC by 15 March. U.S. judge set trial on drug trafficking charges of Senator-elect Guy Philippe, arrested and extradited to U.S. in Jan, for 3 April; pleading not guilty, Philippe 14 Feb accused Senate President Youri Latortue and four Senators of involvement in his arrest.
Inter- and intra- criminal organisation killings intensified following Jan extradition of Joaquín “el Chapo” Guzmán to U.S.. Dámaso “El Licenciado” López and Guzmán’s sons Iván Archivaldo and Alfredo reportedly fighting to gain control of Sinaloa, while fighting continues between Sinaloa and Beltrán Leyva and other criminal organisations for control of Sinaloa illegal drug production and Pacific trafficking routes to U.S.. Over 200 murders reported since 1 Jan in Sinaloa alone. Marines 9 Feb killed twelve suspected members of Beltrán Leyva, including their reputed leader in Nayarit and parts of Jalisco. U.S. 12 Feb leaked information on growing power of Jalisco New Generation Cartel in battle to control trafficking through Ciudad Juárez and U.S. drugs trade. Defence Minister Salvador Cienfuegos 12 Feb announced more military deployments for Sinaloa security strategy, despite recent evidence showing military strategies increase violence rates. PRI deputies 13 Feb tried to fast-track new Internal Security Law to provide legal framework for military use of force and involvement in public security and prosecutorial activities; National Commission for Human Rights, scholars and civil society organisations 14 Feb made successful call for further discussion of bill. Official crime data showed 2016 violence involving organised criminal groups and federal operations fighting them reached levels comparable to worst years of govt’s “war” on drugs and crime launched in 2006. Human rights organisations 5 Feb denounced Marines’ alleged kidnapping of five members of community police force in indigenous town Santa María Ostula before handing them over to Knight Templars; two more kidnapped two days later, released in exchange for weapons. Attacks on press and human rights advocates continued; indigenous Choréachi community in Chihuahua 1 Feb revealed murder of indigenous rights defender Juan Ontiveros Ramos. FM Luis Videgaray voiced concerns to his visiting U.S. counterpart Rex Tillerson late Feb over new U.S. policies, including to expel to Mexico all illegal immigrants crossing border regardless of nationality.
U.S. President Trump at joint press conference with PM Netanyahu 15 Feb said he was open to both two-state and one-state solutions; Palestine Liberation Organization affirmed its support for two-state solution. Netanyahu supported 6 Feb passage of controversial “regularisation law” that gives legal immunity to settlements and outposts built on seized private Palestinian land in West Bank. Netanyahu 2 Feb promised govt would establish new settlement as compensation for dismantlement, in accordance with Supreme Court decision, of small unauthorised Amona settlement; dismantlement began 6 Feb, sparked limited violence. Following cancellation in Sept 2016 of municipal elections in West Bank and Gaza set for Oct, Palestinian Authority (PA) early Feb said it would hold them 13 May; Hamas rejected schedule saying municipal elections should come after implementation of Palestinian reconciliation agreements. Hamas 16 Feb at meeting with Central Elections Commission rejected recent changes to electoral law. Mahmoud Alloul appointed Fatah deputy leader 15 Feb. Internal Hamas elections continued in Gaza: Yehya Sinwar, a military wing leader, elected head of Gaza political bureau. Unidentified Salafi-jihadist group 6 Feb launched rocket from Gaza toward Ashkelon in Israel; Israel retaliated by striking many Hamas targets. Another rocket fired from Gaza at Israel 26 Feb. Islamic State (IS) claimed to have fired four rockets from Egypt 8 Feb on Eilat city in southern Israel, Israel’s missile defence system intercepted three and one landed in open area, causing no damage; said Israeli unmanned aircraft 18 Feb killed five IS fighters in Sinai; IS 20 Feb fired two more rockets into southern Israel.
Hizbollah and Israel exchanged threats mid-month: Hizbollah 16 Feb threatened to target Dimona nuclear reactor in Negev desert, Israel warned it would “hit all of Lebanon” in response to any such attack; President Aoun 18 Feb cautioned Israel’s actions would be met with appropriate response, Hizbollah 20 Feb reportedly said there would be no “red lines” in future confrontations. PM Hariri expressed disagreement after Aoun 12 Feb issued controversial statement characterising Hizbollah’s weaponry as complementary to army’s and needed to counter Israel; Hariri called weaponry illegitimate. Aoun met with Egyptian President Sisi in Cairo 13 Feb; leaders agreed to bolster anti-terrorism cooperation. U.S. 15 Feb issued travel advisory for its citizens to avoid Lebanon due to “threats of terrorism, armed clashes, kidnapping, and outbreaks of violence”. Authorities 10 Feb said they would waive $200 annual residency fee for Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR.
Ceasefire between regime and some armed opposition groups in place since 30 Dec nominally remained in effect but violence continued in several areas in run-up to Geneva talks late month. Following clashes between non-jihadist and Salafi-jihadist rebel groups late Jan, Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), new alliance dominated by Salafi-jihadist Fath al-Sham, early Feb took territory and materiel from rival rebels west of Aleppo. Turkey-backed rebels and pro-regime forces (both advancing toward al-Bab, NE of Aleppo) clashed early Feb. After lull since start of ceasefire, regime early Feb resumed airstrikes in parts of Homs and Idlib provinces and efforts to gain ground in Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus. Non-jihadist rebel umbrella group Ahrar al-Sham and allies mid-month launched raids in rural areas around Lattakia and Hama, and diverse rebel groups including Ahrar al-Sham, HTS and local factions 12 Feb launched offensive in Daraa city in south next to Jordan border. Islamic State (IS)-linked group 20 Feb expanded territory seizing several towns in south near borders with Israel and Jordan. Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and fellow members of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took territory around IS-held Raqqa in NE during month to cut IS supply lines in run-up to attack on city. Turkey-backed rebels 23 Feb took complete control of al-Bab in north from IS, 26 Feb clashed with govt forces south of al-Bab. UN-led talks between govt and opposition groups opened in Geneva 23 Feb, ongoing end-month. Gunmen and suicide bombers 25 Feb attacked two security services bases in Homs city killing at least 30, HTS claimed attacks; govt launched airstrikes on various rebel-held areas including al-Waer, last rebel enclave in Homs. Govt advances in north late month opened route between Aleppo and SDF-controlled Manbij. Russia and China 28 Feb vetoed UNSC resolution drafted by France, UK and U.S. to ban supply of helicopters to govt and blacklist Syrian military commanders over accusations of toxic gas attacks.
Demonstrators clashed with police 14 Feb, sixth anniversary of 2011 uprising. Security forces mid-Feb arrested twenty alleged terrorists in Shiite villages, triggering protests. Police 21 Feb allegedly killed man evading arrest, sparking protest in Nuwaidrat village, 15km south of Manama. Govt reported unclaimed bombings in and around Manama 5, 14, 23 Feb causing no casualties; 26 Feb said unclaimed blast injured five police. Court of Cassation 6 Feb reportedly denied appeal by main Shiite opposition group al-Wefaq against its dissolution for terrorism-related charges. Council of Representatives, parliament’s lower house, 21 Feb approved constitutional amendment that would allow govt to try civilians in military courts.
Then U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn 1 Feb accused Iran of “provocative” ballistic missile launch and attack against Saudi Arabian navy ship “by Iran-supported Houthi militants”. U.S. 3 Feb put sanctions on 25 people and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile tests. In response Tehran threatened sanctions on U.S. individuals and entities and 4 Feb held military drill. Navy 26 Feb launched drills in Persian Gulf; govt 27 Feb said it had successfully tested new marine cruise missile as part of drills. Govt 20 Feb summoned Turkish ambassador over Turkish president and PM’s comments that Iran was destabilising Middle East, said its patience “had limits”.
PM Abadi 19 Feb said U.S.-backed govt forces and allied militias starting campaign to retake western half of Mosul in north from Islamic State (IS). Fighting continued south of Mosul: govt forces 19 Feb said they had seized seventeen villages from IS around Mosul airport (30km south of Mosul), allegedly cutting one of IS’s supply and escape routes, between Mosul and Tal Afar (75km west); govt forces 23 Feb took Mosul airport and Ghazlani military base from IS, 24 Feb pushed into south-eastern districts. Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) 19 Feb pushed back IS SW of Tal Afar, seized several villages. IS claimed twin suicide bombings 10 Feb that killed fourteen in Zuhour district, eastern Mosul, retaken from IS over two months previously. Army 27 Feb said security forces had seized al-Jawsaq district in western half of Mosul and fourth bridge across Tigris River. One Kurdish soldier killed 25 Feb in unclaimed bombing of pipeline in Bai Hassan oil field near Kirkuk. IS claimed multiple bombings mid-Feb in Baghdad’s Shia districts: blasts in Bayaa district 14 and 16 Feb killed 58, suicide bomber 15 Feb killed fifteen near Sadr City district. Police 11 Feb crushed protests in Baghdad called by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to demand overhaul of election commission, which Sadr supporters believe would favour former PM Maliki in provincial elections scheduled for Sept; five protesters and two policemen reportedly killed. Unclaimed rocket attacks targeting Green Zone in Baghdad later same day caused no casualties. Unclaimed bombing in S Baghdad 27 Feb reportedly killed three civilians.
FM 21 Feb reportedly said govt is prepared to send ground troops to Syria to fight alongside U.S. Special Forces assisting rebel Syrian Democratic Forces. Govt 16 Feb said it had arrested eighteen people including fifteen Saudis from four Islamic State cells suspected of providing shelter to wanted militants and recruiting fighters in capital Riyadh and eastern and northern regions.
Saudi Arabia-led coalition continued offensive toward Hodeida from south and north along Red Sea coast. Saudi-led coalition forces around Midi north of Hodeida remained largely static while UAE-assisted Yemeni forces pushing northward made progress and mid-Feb appeared to have captured Mokha city, Taiz governorate. Huthi rebels and forces aligned with former President Saleh put up strong resistance, 22 Feb killed army’s second in command near Mokha. Huthi-Saleh forces increased raids across Yemeni-Saudi border and ballistic missile attacks into Saudi Arabia; 6 Feb said they had launched missile capable of striking Saudi capital Riyadh. U.S. increased in-flight refuelling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft and worked to reverse Obama administration’s decisions to limit weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Infighting plagued govt-controlled areas: supporters of UAE-aligned Salafi faction clashed repeatedly in Taiz city with Saudi-backed group aligned with Sunni Islamist party, Islah; President Hadi-aligned fighters 12 Feb tried, unsuccessfully, to forcibly take Aden airport from commander who had fallen out with president; during offensive UAE gunship exchanged fire with Hadi-aligned fighters.
Protests including against light austerity measures in 2017 budget continued. Police 15 Feb dispersed pharmacy and dental surgery students in central Algiers as they tried to protest for better training and employment. Relations with Saudi Arabia continued to thaw; eight MoUs on phosphates, mining and tourism signed at Algeria-Saudi Arabia business council in Algiers 15 Feb. Two French women arrested 1 Feb at Algerian husbands’ houses near Boumerdes in north for belonging to terrorist groups. Army 15 Feb said it had killed five “terrorists” in Bouira, 125km from Algiers. Army found two significant arms caches 24 Feb in Adrar governorate in south, near border with Mali and Niger. Govt 28 Feb said army same day “neutralised” nine suspected Islamist militants in Kabylie region in north, seizing weapons and ammunition. Islamic State claimed 26 Feb suicide bombing at police station in Constantine in north, two officers injured.
PM Sherif Ismail 14 Feb announced he had changed heads of nine ministries including investment and international cooperation (now merged), supply and international trade, legal and parliamentary affairs, planning, and agriculture. Govt 9 Feb shut down prominent NGO Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture for allegedly violating NGO law and its licence; centre filed lawsuit. In central Sinai, army 6 Feb killed fourteen suspected militants of Islamic State (IS)-affiliate Sinai Province (SP) and arrested ten others. IS reportedly claimed responsibility for firing rockets from Sinai into Israel 8 Feb; Israel’s missile defence system intercepted three and at least one landed in open area, causing no damage. Two other rockets fired from Egypt into southern Israel 20 Feb, no casualties reported. Israel 14 Feb said it had withdrawn its ambassador to Egypt several weeks previously out of safety concerns. IS (apparently central command rather than SP) 19 Feb released video vowing to target Coptic Christians. Security officials said suspected IS militants 22 Feb killed two Christians in N Sinai. Suspected Islamist militants 23 Feb gunned down Coptic Christian inside his home in al-Arish. Govt 26 Feb said it rehoused in four governorates 118 Coptic families who fled N Sinai after spate of killings there. Parliament 27 Feb stripped MP and Reform and Development Party chair Mohamed Anwar Sadat of parliamentary membership following investigations into accusations that he leaked confidential documents and forged MPs’ signatures. Pro-regime politicians 4 Feb initiated hostile takeover of second largest party in parliament Free Egyptians Party; party leader Essam Khalil unilaterally dissolved board of trustees, ousting party’s founder, telecom mogul Naguib Sawiris and expelling dozens of party members.
Algeria’s diplomatic initiative, launched mid-Jan to find common ground with Tunisia and Egypt on Libyan crisis, continued after FMs of three countries met in Tunis 19 Feb. Egypt was supposed to host meeting between UN-backed Tripoli-based PM Faez Serraj and east-based strongman Gen Khalifa Haftar mid-Feb, but instead Haftar and Serraj met separately with Gen Mahmoud Hegazy, Egyptian army chief of staff and Cairo’s point man on Libya. Serraj and Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni 2 Feb signed MoU aimed at stemming flow of migrants to Europe; Italy offered to train and equip security forces and coast guard, build migrant holding centres and help put in place technology to secure Libya’s southern border. Anti-Serraj factions in Tripoli said Serraj did not have authority to sign MoU and appealed against it in court. Military factions tied to Serraj’s rival Tripoli-based PM Khalifa Ghwel 9 Feb said they had created Libyan National Guard, umbrella force that explicitly challenges UN-backed Presidential Guard. Serraj-led Presidency Council 12 Feb declared Libyan National Guard illegal, but latter continued to patrol in Tripoli. Rival armed groups clashed in Tripoli 23-24 Feb after one accused other of kidnapping four members, nine people injured in eastern Abu Slim district; Govt of National Accord-brokered ceasefire went into force 25 Feb. Unidentified gunmen 20 Feb opened fire on convoy of Serraj and two allied high-level politicians in Tripoli, no casualty. Security chief of Benghazi in east Salah al-Hewidi, who refused to leave his post after being sacked, reportedly wounded in car bomb attack in Benghazi 22 Feb. Car bomb targeting military convoy 26 Feb exploded in Benghazi’s Al-Hawari district, reportedly killing two. Authorities in east 21 Feb temporarily froze their own 16 Feb directive barring women under 60 from travelling abroad without male guardian, 23 Feb imposed travel restrictions on all citizens under 45. UNICEF 28 Feb reported that women and children migrants trying to reach Europe had been abused and arbitrarily detained including in Libya.
Hundreds of migrants 17 Feb crossed border from Morocco into Ceuta, Spain’s North African enclave, after Moroccan govt said it would no longer control migration into enclave because of Dec 2016 European Court of Justice ruling on Morocco-EU trade agreement that said deal did not include Western Sahara. Interior ministry 9 Feb filed lawsuit against Independent Party (PI) Sec Gen Hamid Chabat following his accusations that “deep state” murdered two politicians.
As part of limited cabinet reshuffle, PM Youssef Chahed 25 Feb replaced Civil Service Minister Abid el-Briki, former UGTT labour union leader, with Khalil Ghariani, member of UTICA business association. UGTT denounced move as provocative, accused National Unity Govt of seeking to impose IMF-backed austerity measures, called for strikes.
Morocco’s deputy FM 5 Feb said Morocco would “never recognise” Western Sahara’s independence. Armed independence movement Polisario Front’s UN representative Ahmed Boukhari 14 Feb said Morocco must recognise Western Sahara’s independence or face sanctions or requests to leave AU, which Morocco rejoined in Jan and which recognises Saharawi people’s right to self-determination. Morocco 26 Feb unilaterally withdrew troops from Guerguerat region near Mauritania border after months-long standoff; Polisario troops remained.