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The 200th edition of Crisis Group’s monthly conflict tracker highlights deteriorations in March in seventeen countries, including fresh tit-for-tat attacks in Iraq between Iran-backed militants and the U.S. In Chad, Boko Haram's deadliest attack on security forces to date left nearly 100 soldiers killed. Amid ongoing jihadist violence in Burkina Faso’s north, deadly attacks on civilians by security forces and self-defence groups increased, targeting the Fulani community in particular. In Afghanistan, the Taliban resumed their intense military pressure on security forces in rural areas, ending a spell of reduced violence in February.
CrisisWatch notes improvements in two situations. In Syria’s Idlib province, a Russia-Turkey ceasefire agreement froze the regime’s offensive toward Idlib city, halting much of the fighting, and after long delays EU leaders gave the green light for North Macedonia to start formal accession talks.
Looking ahead to April, we warn that violence could intensify in Yemen as warring parties prepare to battle for control of Marib governorate. At the same time, the UN’s proposed ceasefire gives all parties an opportunity to de-escalate. With COVID-19 threatening to compound an already dire humanitarian crisis, conflict parties can demonstrate with a ceasefire their commitment to the people they purport to represent.
In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, our President Robert Malley warns of the potential damage that the COVID-19 pandemic could inflict upon the international humanitarian and conflict management systems.
Amid ongoing jihadist violence in north, security forces, Koglweogo community defence groups and volunteers stepped up attacks against civilians, especially targeting ethnic Fulani, whom they accuse of supporting jihadists, killing over 100; and jihadist attacks against security forces and civilians continued to spread southward. In north, suspected Koglweogo 2 March killed nineteen Fulani civilians in Cisse village, Soum province. Security forces 6 March reportedly killed 32 civilians in Mansila area, Yagha province. Suspected Koglweogo 8 March killed 43 Fulani in Dinguila and Barga villages, Yatenga province. Suspected soldiers 9 March killed ten Fulani civilians in Gountouwa-Oola village, Oudalan province. Jihadist attacks persisted in Sahel, North and Centre-North regions. In Sahel region in north, suspected Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) militants 1 March killed seven Tuareg civilians in Beiga village, Oudalan province; suspected Jihadist Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) roadside bombing 8 March also killed two civilians between Petalkoulerou and Baraboulé towns, Soum province. In North region, suspected explosive device from JNIM 3 March killed four soldiers between Banh and Koumbri villages, Loroum province; and suspected jihadists 18 March killed four civilian volunteers supporting security forces in Robolo village. In Centre-North region, civilian volunteers fighting alongside security forces 6 March repelled suspected ISWAP attack on Namssiguia village, Bam province, killing three; suspected jihadists 14 March attacked Namisguima military camp, Sanmatenga province, killing soldier, one militant also killed; unidentified assailants 28 March killed sixteen civilians in Moméné village, Bam province. France 5 March authorised extradition of François Compaoré, brother of former President Blaise Compaoré; François was arrested in Paris in 2017 after Burkinabè authorities issued international arrest warrant on charges of involvement in 1998 murder of journalist Norbert Zongo. In response to COVID-19, govt 20 March closed borders and imposed curfew.
Violence marred first round of legislative elections, leaving several dead and opposition leader missing, while jihadists stepped up attacks in north. Following govt’s call for dialogue in Feb, jihadist coalition Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) 8 March announced willingness to enter talks on condition that French forces and UN mission (MINUSMA) withdraw from Mali. JNIM 19 March attacked Tarkint military outpost in northern Gao region, killing 29 soldiers. Explosive device 24 March killed two soldiers in Mopti region in centre. Amid ongoing intercommunal violence in centre, suspected Fulani militiamen 15 March attacked Sogou Yoguem village in Koro area, Mopti region, clashed with Dogon militiamen (Dozos), leaving four dead; Dozos and alleged Fulani militiamen 16 March clashed in Danialy village in Bandiagara area, also Mopti region, seven killed. After campaign for legislative elections started 8 March, PM Cissé 19 March said first and second rounds would take place as planned 29 March and 19 April in spite of COVID-19 outbreak. Main opposition coalition Front for the Salvation of Democracy and civil society platform Anw Ko Mali Dron 7-8 March raised concerns over lack of credibility of electoral list, exclusion of eleven constituencies from poll and insecurity in north and centre. Suspected Katiba Macina militants 25 March abducted opposition leader Soumaila Cissé and eleven members of his team while they were campaigning in Cissé’s home district of Niafunké, Timbuktu region. Vote 29 March was marred by low turnout and violence: notably, explosive device killed nine civilians near N’gorkou in Timbuktu region, and armed individuals reportedly ransacked polling station in Boni area.
Jihadist attacks continued in west and south east, while crackdown on civil society protest left three dead in capital Niamey. In Tillabery region (west) near Mali and Burkina Faso, suspected Islamic State (ISIS) militants 9 March killed son of former President Ali Saïbou near Ouallam city; 12 March killed nine national guards near Ayorou city; suspected ISIS or jihadist coalition Group to Support Islam and Muslims militants same day attacked forest guard station near Tamou town, sixteen forest guards reportedly missing. In Diffa region (south east) near Nigeria, Boko Haram (BH) 7 March attacked Chetima military camp, killing at least eight soldiers; suspected BH militants also targeted civilians in Gueskérou commune, including ten abducted 5 March (released next day), four more residents abducted 7 March (including village chief), and fourteen reportedly killed in five villages night of 12-13 March; army 15 March repelled BH attack on Toumour military post (also Diffa region), killing 50 militants. After defence ministry audit late-Feb revealed large-scale embezzlement of public funds involving figures close to President Issoufou, judiciary 9 March went on strike to demand release of full audit report and criminal prosecutions against those involved, and civil society 15 March demonstrated in Niamey against govt’s handling of case despite bans on gatherings due to COVID-19; security forces cracked down on protesters, leaving three dead and arresting a dozen. Security forces 5 March arrested blogger Mamane Kaka Touda over accusations of “disturbing public order” after he reported suspected COVID-19 case in Niamey hospital; Touda was released 26 March after court gave him three-month suspended sentence. In response to COVID-19, govt 19 March closed land borders and banned commercial international flights for two-week renewable period; Issoufou late March pardoned 1,540 prisoners “to reduce prison numbers”, including opposition figure Hama Amadou.
Electoral Commission (CENI) moved ahead with preparations of May general elections despite COVID-19 pandemic, and authorities and ruling party’s youth wing continued to harass opposition supporters. CENI 10 March approved six candidates for May presidential election including ruling party CNDD-FDD candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye and main opposition party National Congress for Freedom (CNL) candidate Agathon Rwasa. CENI rejected four candidacies including opposition Kira Burundi coalition candidate and former President Domitien Ndayizeye; Kira Burundi 12 March contested CENI’s decision before Constitutional Court, which reinstated Ndayizeye 19 March. Govt 20 March ruled out postponing May elections on account of COVID-19. UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi 9 March highlighted deteriorating political, security and economic situation in briefing to UN Human Rights Council, expressing concern over impunity of crimes against opposition supporters notably by Imbonerakure, youth wing of CNDD-FDD. Suspected members of Imbonerakure 16 March killed local CNL leader in Migera locality, Bujumbura Rural province; 28 March attacked household of CNL supporter in Ruyigi province. Police reportedly arrested two CNL members in Bubanza and Mwaro provinces 23 March and two others in Muyinga province 29 March. Military police 4-5 March arrested 36 returning Burundian soldiers from African Union Mission in Somalia on charges of rape and theft. Defence and security officials 11 March met with counterparts from DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda in Goma, DRC, to discuss stabilisation efforts in eastern DRC. In attempt to stop spread of COVID-19, govt 15 March closed border with Rwanda until further notice and 21 March suspended all flights in and out of economic capital Bujumbura international airport.
In Anglophone South West and North West regions, hostilities continued between military and Anglophone separatists with both sides reportedly also attacking civilians, while Boko Haram (BH) continued to target civilians in Far North. In early March, several clashes in Anglophone regions between govt forces and separatists reportedly left at least seventeen separatists, four soldiers and several civilians dead. Army stepped up operations in week leading up to 22 March re-run of legislative elections in eleven constituencies, claiming to have killed 24 separatists across both regions. Polling marred by low turnout and violence in North West region capital Bamenda, that reportedly left two dead. Local witnesses continued to accuse troops of killing civilians, which govt denied. Ambush by suspected separatists in Bui area, North West, 28 March killed twelve including soldier and local officials. Separatists also made incursion into predominantly francophone West region 7 March, killing eight including four security personnel in Galim town. To allow testing for COVID-19, one separatist group Southern Cameroon Defence Forces 26 March announced two-week ceasefire starting 29 March. Supporters of main opposition party Movement for the Renaissance of Cameroon (MRC) captured armed gendarmerie officer in plain clothes during MRC rally in Garoua city, North region 13 March; party 16 March accused him of trying to assassinate party leader Maurice Kamto. In Far North region, BH continued to target civilians. Notably, insurgents 2 March killed two civilians in Kouyape area, 3 March kidnapped and beheaded local leader in Yamgazawa village, and 22 March killed four in Tourou village.
Fighting continued in provinces, especially in north east between armed groups and ethnic communities, reportedly leaving dozens dead. In north east, ethnic Runga faction of Popular Front for the Central African Renaissance (FPRC) clashed with Gula armed group Patriotic Rally for the Renewal of Central Africa (RPRC) in Ndélé town, Bamingui-Bangoran prefecture 2-11 March, fighting reportedly left around 40 dead including at least twenty civilians. Unidentified armed group ambushed UN mission (MINUSCA) near Ndélé 15 March injuring peacekeeper; MINUSCA reportedly killed two assailants. Violence erupted again in area end month following RPRC attack on Runga-majority village near Ndélé 25 March. In Vakaga prefecture also in north east, ethnic Kara armed group Movement of Central African Liberators for Justice (MLCJ) 3 March clashed with ethnic Sara elements of FPRC, one MLCJ fighter killed. Leader of Fulani-dominated armed group Union for Peace in the Central African Republic 18-19 March convened representatives of ex-Seleka armed groups in Bria, Haute-Kotto prefecture in centre-east; participants 19 March signed agreement to prevent fighting in Vakaga prefecture spilling south into neighbouring Haute-Kotto. In north west, anti-balaka combatants 4 March killed three Fulani herders in clashes in Ngatoua village and another Fulani in Gbakaya village, both in Ouham prefecture. In south west, armed group Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) 4 March killed two civilians. In centre, suspected anti-balaka 15 March killed UN peacekeeper in Ouaka prefecture. In capital Bangui, authorities 28 March arrested twenty former anti-balaka who had been integrated into national armed forces over fears of potential coup.
Boko Haram (BH) launched deadliest attack on security forces to date; implementation of new rules in prison in attempt to halt spread of COVID-19 sparked prison mutiny in capital N’Djamena. In Lake Chad province in west, BH militants from faction reportedly loyal to Abubakar Shekau’s group (JAS) 23 March killed at least 98 soldiers on Boma peninsula in deadliest BH attack on govt forces. President Déby 24 March declared three days of national mourning and 29 March launched new counter-insurgency operation in Boma area. Following attack, govt redirected 500 soldiers it had planned to deploy by end of March to Niger-Mali-Burkina Faso border area in support of G5 Sahel forces to Lake Chad. In East, unidentified assailants 5 March attacked Kolkobodo village, Dar Sila province, killing six civilians. Provincial authorities 21 March installed Cherif Abdelhadi Mahadi as new Sultan of Ouaddaï in Ouaddaï province (east); Arab community leaders boycotted inauguration ceremony while locals protested appointment in provincial capital Abéché and demanded return of former sultan. Déby 1-3 March toured Borkou and Tibesti provinces in north in attempt to rebuild relations with local Tebu population, promised infrastructure investments and deployment of security forces to stabilise restive border regions. Prisoners 20 March attempted to break out of prison in N’Djamena following implementation of visitor restrictions to tackle spread of COVID-19; NGO Chadian Convention for the Defence of Human Rights said five prisoners died and 30 escaped.
Govt forces clashed with armed groups Cooperative for Development of Congo (CODECO) in north-eastern Ituri province and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in eastern North Kivu province, while President Tshisekedi and former President Kabila met to reduce tensions in ruling coalition. In Ituri, clashes between security forces and CODECO militants 1, 14, 25 March killed around 30 rebels and five soldiers in Djugu territory. Suspected CODECO fighters 15 March killed fifteen members of Hema community in several villages in Djugu territory; 30 March reportedly killed police officer and civilian in Kabakaba locality. Military 31 March killed at least six Maï-Maï militiamen in Ituri’s Mambasa territory. Justice officials 15 March released former Union of Congolese Patriots warlord Thomas Lubanga after completion of fourteen-year sentence for recruiting child soldiers during 1999-2003 Ituri war. Authorities 16 March released former leader of Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri (FRPI) after Feb peace agreement between FRPI and govt. In North Kivu, security forces 6 March clashed with armed group ADF in Beni territory; thirteen rebels and four soldiers reportedly killed. Military 20-24 March killed 62 militants and lost fourteen soldiers in further clashes with ADF in Beni. In Lualaba province in south, clashes between military and local Maï-Maï militia 28 March left over 30 rebels and one soldier dead. Defence and security officials met with counterparts from Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda 11 March in Goma to assess information sharing mechanisms to tackle regional insecurity in eastern DRC. Tshisekedi 12 March met Kabila to ease tensions in ruling coalition; both agreed to prioritise competence and morality over political affiliations in administrative appointments and to cease travel restrictions on officials from Kabila’s Common Front for Congo coalition. In response to spread of COVID-19, Tshisekedi 18 March suspended most international flights and banned gatherings; UN mission (MONUSCO) 19 March announced isolation of all peacekeepers arriving from COVID-19-affected countries and suspension of troop rotations.
Rwanda-Uganda tensions persisted after President Kagame and Ugandan President Museveni took steps to mend ties in Feb. Uganda in March expelled over 300 Rwandans for allegedly “spreading COVID-19” and Ugandan security forces 12 March arrested Ugandan presidential candidate and former security minister Henry Tumukunde on charges of treason for allegedly seeking to obtain support from Rwanda to remove current President Museveni from office. Defence and security officials 11 March met with counterparts from Burundi, DR Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Uganda in Goma, DRC, to assess information exchange mechanisms to help stabilise eastern DRC. Govt 22 March banned all “unnecessary movements” and closed all borders in attempt to combat spread of COVID-19.
Ethnic violence broke out in east, counter-insurgency operations continued in Oromia region, and electoral board postponed general elections set for Aug due to COVID-19 outbreak, while tensions with Egypt mounted over Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Blue Nile River. In Afar region in east, Oromo and Afar communities allegedly clashed in Awash area mid-March, leaving dozens dead; violence apparently sparked by state police attack against ethnic Oromo that left ten dead. In Oromia region, security forces continued to confront armed opposition faction Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), while govt 31 March ended internet shutdown that had been in place in since Jan. After Feb escalation over GERD dispute when govt said it would start filling dam in July with or without agreement with downstream countries and Egypt 29 Feb threatened to use “all available means” to protect its interests, Arab League 5 March adopted Egyptian-drafted resolution rejecting any move by Ethiopia to fill dam without agreement. Govt 6 March rejected resolution and praised Sudan for refusing to sign it. Army 12 March warned that any attack on dam would prompt retaliation. Sudan 15 March offered to mediate between Ethiopia and Egypt. Amid global spread of COVID-19, PM Abiy 23 March closed land borders and banned gatherings; electoral board 31 March postponed general elections planned for Aug.
Kenya-Somalia tensions flared early March before leaders took steps to de-escalate, Kenyan security forces continued to battle Al-Shabaab in north and east, and pushback against heavy enforcement of COVID-19 related measures turned deadly. After Mogadishu early Feb accused Kenya of harbouring former security minister of Somalia’s Jubaland state Abdirashid Janan, tensions escalated further 2 March when clashes erupted between Somali federal forces and Janan’s troops in Jubaland’s Bula Hawa town, Gedo region, and spilled over into neighbouring Mandera town in Kenya, reportedly killing at least one civilian. Local Kenyan police arrested a dozen Somali soldiers who had crossed border. President Kenyatta 4 March accused Somalia of violating country’s sovereignty. In 5 March call initiated by Somali President Farmajo, two presidents discussed measures to ease tensions including creation of joint committees to strengthen bilateral relations. Kenyan delegation 8 March visited Mogadishu, same day Farmajo accepted Kenyatta’s invitation to Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia summit in capital Nairobi aimed at defusing tensions; amid fears of COVID-19 outbreak, govt 13 March however postponed summit. In Garissa county in east, security forces 6 and 13 March killed at least eight Al-Shabaab militants. In turn, militants 13-14 March killed police officer between Alinjugur and Hagadera refugee camps; police vehicle also detonated roadside bomb leaving two officers dead in Welmarer area. Suspected Al-Shabaab roadside bombing 15 March left three civilians dead at Qorahindi. In Lamu county in east, armed forces 19 March raided Al-Shabaab camp in Boni forest leaving a dozen militants dead. In Mandera county in north east, Al-Shabaab 11 March ambushed several vehicles on Rhamu-Elwak road leaving at least four civilians and unknown number of soldiers dead. In Marsabit county near Ethiopian border in north, gunmen whom locals said were Ethiopian soldiers 12 March crossed into Kenya and killed five civilians in Sessi. Security forces’ heavy-handed enforcement of COVID-19 related curfew left at least three dead and dozens injured in several cities late March. Govt 31 March closed border with Ethiopia to stop spread of virus.
Clashes between federal troops and Jubaland state forces including on Kenyan soil raised Somalia-Kenya tensions before leaders took steps to de-escalate; security forces continued to fight Al-Shabaab, which launched attacks on several officials in Puntland in north. In Jubaland state’s Gedo region in south, standoff between federal govt troops and Jubaland forces continued and fighting erupted again 2 March in Bula Hawa town near Kenyan border reportedly leaving at least eleven civilians and combatants dead. Fighting spilled over into Kenya’s Mandera town prompting Nairobi to accuse Somalia of violating its sovereignty. President Farmajo 8 March agreed to meet Kenyan President Kenyatta at regional summit in bid to lower tensions, but Kenya 13 March postponed summit to focus on COVID-19. In south and centre, Al-Shabaab attacks in March left at least 22 security force members dead in Lower Shabelle, Middle Shabelle, Lower Juba, Hiraan, Bay and Gedo regions, while Al-Shabaab roadside bombing 25 March left five civilians dead in Lower Juba, and in Middle Juba, Al-Shabaab 31 March executed six civilians accused of spying. In capital Mogadishu, militants 1 and 18 March launched mortars at UN compound; Al-Shabaab suicide bombing 25 March left at least four dead. Meanwhile, security forces 5 March killed eight Al-Shabaab militants in Hiraan; 16 March took back Janaale town in Lower Shabelle from Al-Shabaab militants, number of casualties unknown; 21-29 March killed at least 37 militants in Lower Juba and Lower Shabelle. In Puntland state in north, Al-Shabaab militants 17-29 March reportedly killed three local officials. Local politicians and traditional elders 15-17 March convened in Puntland capital Garowe to assess acrimonious relationship between Puntland and federal govt. Puntland President Deni 17 March called for dialogue between federal govt and member states. Coalition of six opposition parties, Forum for National Parties, 5 March formed unified party headed by former President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
Unidentified assailants carried out targeted killings in disputed Sool region in east. Car bombing in Sool’s regional capital Lasanod 2 March killed region’s top judicial official; also in Lasanod unidentified gunmen 16 March shot and killed lead investigator of earlier bombing. Somalia, which does not recognise Somaliland’s claim to sovereignty, 19 March closed airspace over Somalia and Somaliland for international flights to curb spread of COVID-19; govt 21 March said Somalia does not have jurisdiction over its airspace. United Arab Emirates early March reportedly cancelled plans to establish naval base in coastal city of Berbera. Following EU mediation late Feb that had unlocked stalemate over long-delayed parliamentary and municipal elections, parliament 28 March rejected nominees to electoral body of opposition parties Wadani and Justice and Welfare Party (UCID); President Bihi and leaders of Wadani and UCID denounced parliament’s decision.
Intercommunal violence erupted in centre and east, President Kiir and former rebel leader turned VP Riek Machar made some progress in setting transitional govt in motion, while tensions persisted between govt and holdout rebel group in south despite truce. Intercommunal violence flared up late Feb-early March in centre and east, killing hundreds and displacing thousands by end of month. Notably, clashes between several communities reportedly left 41 dead in Lakes state mid-March and cattle raiders 20 March attacked camp in Tonj South county, Warrap state, leaving 51 dead. Following Feb agreement between Kiir, Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) and South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA) to form unity govt, Kiir 12 March unveiled cabinet of 35 ministers, of which he appointed twenty, Machar nine, and SSOA three. Three SPLA-IO senior generals 17 March defected to Kiir-aligned South Sudan People’s Defense Forces, citing discontent with Machar’s leadership, reportedly over appointment of his wife Angelina Teny and personal aide Puit Kang to key ministries; another SPLA-IO commander reportedly defected to Kiir 26 March. Amid growing power-vacuum at state level and rise in intercommunal violence, UN 9 March urged Kiir and Machar to resolve deadlock over appointment of governors and implement transitional security arrangements to shore up peace process. Rebel group National Salvation Front, which refused to be part of Sept 2018 peace agreement, 20 March accused govt of violating, in Central Equatoria region in south, truce brokered in Jan between govt and non-signatory armed groups. UN human rights body in South Sudan 9 March released report accusing govt officials and opposition leaders of widespread corruption and of having used child soldiers and starvation as tactic of war. In response to COVID-19, govt 13 March suspended flights from virus-affected countries; 24 March suspended all commercial flights, closed borders, and imposed night curfew; 27 March suspended training of unified army.
PM Hamdok survived apparent assassination attempt, prompting govt to take additional steps to dismantle former regime, while violence flared up in Darfur in west. PM Hamdok 9 March survived unharmed car bomb attack against his convoy in capital Khartoum. Group calling itself Sudanese Islamic Youth Movement same day claimed responsibility but observers cast doubt on statement’s authenticity; govt 11 March said it had arrested Sudanese and foreign suspects. Govt 10 March said it would bring parts of former National Intelligence and Security Services, now General Intelligence Services, under interior ministry’s authority and grant additional powers to committee tasked with removing from power remnants of former President Bashir’s regime. Prosecutor 17 March issued arrest warrant for five people, including former FM Ali Karti, for their alleged role in 1989 coup. Following setback in negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over filling and operation of Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Blue Nile River in Feb, govt 4 March refused to endorse Egypt-sponsored Arab League resolution critical of Ethiopia, 8 March urged Egypt and Ethiopia to resume talks, and 15 March offered to mediate dispute. In talks in South Sudanese capital Juba, govt and rebel coalition Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) failed to meet self-imposed 7 March deadline to reach comprehensive peace deal, agreed to extend talks until 9 April. Govt and Darfuri SRF groups 18 March entered negotiations over security arrangements; South Sudanese mediators 25 March postponed talks until 1 April after Sudanese defence minister Jamal Omer died of heart attack. Criminal and ethnic violence flared up in Darfur early March, reportedly leaving over 22 people dead; notably, clashes between herders and unidentified gunmen 3 March left five dead near Nertiti village, Central Darfur and herders 9 March killed twelve in Dewana village, South Darfur. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, govt 16 March closed all borders, 24 March imposed night curfew. Holdout armed opposition faction Sudan Liberation Movement, led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur, 30 March accepted UN Sec-Gen Guterres’s call for worldwide ceasefire in response to COVID-19.
Court in former capital Dar es Salaam 10 March sentenced eight senior figures of main opposition party Chadema, including its chairman Freeman Mbowe and former Chadema sec gen, now ruling party member Vincent Mashinji, to pay $13,000 fines or serve five-month jail terms, after finding them guilty on several accounts including inciting sedition. Authorities 13 March released Mbowe and seven others after Chadema paid fines. PM Majaliwa 17 March banned public gatherings and political rallies for 30 days in attempt to curb spread of COVID-19. Defence and security officials 11 March met with counterparts from Burundi, DRC, Rwanda and Uganda in Goma, DRC, to assess information exchange mechanisms to help stabilise eastern Congo.
Ahead of 2021 general elections, President Museveni continued to use legal measures to suppress dissent and ward off key challengers, and Congolese gunmen launched cross-border raid in north west. Security forces 12 March arrested former intelligence chief and security minister Henry Tumukunde, who said 28 Feb he would run for president in 2021, for allegedly seeking Rwanda’s support to unseat Museveni; authorities 18 March charged Tumukunde with treason. Earlier in month, authorities 4 March placed journalist and filmmaker Moses Bwayo in custody pending bail hearing, after security forces arrested him late Feb on charges of unlawful assembly while he filmed documentary on musician-turned-opposition leader Bobi Wine, who plans to run for president in 2021. Police 14 March also detained Pastor Andrew Muwanguzi on charges of unlawful assembly for hosting Wine at his home in March 2019. Following petition filed by civil society groups and opposition in 2013, constitutional court 26 March overturned legislation granting police powers to prohibit public gatherings and protests. Gunmen, including Congolese militiamen, 6 March raided army post in north west at border with DR Congo (DRC), killing at least three soldiers. Defence and security officials 11 March met with counterparts from Burundi, DRC, Tanzania and Rwanda in Goma, DRC, to assess information exchange mechanisms to help stabilise eastern Congo. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, govt in March expelled over 300 Rwandans for allegedly spreading virus, 25 March suspended refugee arrivals for one month; Museveni 21 March closed borders and 30 March ordered fourteen-day lockdown.
President Mutharika took steps to strengthen his position ahead of presidential election rerun, while security forces continued to harass opposition. Supreme Court of Appeal 12 March dismissed electoral commission’s (MEC) request to suspend application of Constitutional Court’s 3 Feb ruling, which had ordered rerun of last year’s presidential election within 150 days, until appeal is heard. Mutharika 16 March rejected parliamentary committee recommendation that he fire MEC’s leadership; same day declined to sign Feb electoral law amendments passed by parliament which scheduled new poll for 19 May and required securing absolute majority of votes for winner to be elected. Parliament speaker 26 March referred Mutharika’s responses to Constitutional Court; leader of opposition United Transformation Movement (UTM) Saulos Chilima same day filed lawsuit against Mutharika over refusal to dismiss MEC’s leadership, sought injunction to suspend MEC commissioners. MEC 23 March set 2 July for vote rerun. Ahead of poll, opposition parties Malawi Congress Party (MCP), UTM and five others 19 March formed electoral coalition. Mutharika 17 March fired armed forces chief and his deputy and reshuffled army and air force leadership, allegedly in retaliation for protecting protesters during post-electoral demonstrations; 19 March appointed new cabinet after dissolving previous one 13 March. Authorities 8 March arrested two senior figures of NGO Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) and issued arrest warrant for NGO chairman Timothy Mtambo after HRDC called for protests against govt; Mtambo 10 March surrendered to police, who fired tear gas to disperse thousands of Mtambo supporters gathered outside police station in capital Lilongwe; court 12 March released all three activists on bail. Govt 23 March declared COVID-19 “national disaster” and banned public gatherings of more than 100 people, 27 March said it would suspend international flights from 1 April.
Suspected Islamist militants for first time mounted attacks against urban centres in far north reportedly leaving dozens of soldiers and police dead; tensions continued between govt and armed dissident faction of former rebel group, now opposition party Renamo, amid ongoing attacks on civilians in centre. In Cabo Delgado province in far north, attacks by Islamist militants spread for first time to urban centres late March. Notably, Islamic State (ISIS) 24 March claimed previous day attack on port town of Mocímboa da Praia, said dozens of soldiers and police killed; militants flying ISIS flag 25 March raided town of Quissanga, reportedly killing six soldiers and unknown number of civilians. Islamist violence persisted in rural areas, including: ISIS 3 March claimed attack same day on Mahate village, Quissanga district, that left twelve soldiers dead; militants 4 March killed four people in Nkonda village in Nangade district; 10 March attacked army outposts near Mueda and Nangade, killing at least twelve soldiers, and same day reportedly killed up to eleven soldiers in Nguia village, Quissanga district; 4-12 March raided four villages in Mocímboa da Praia district, number of casualties unknown. Renamo dissident faction, which calls itself Renamo Military Junta, continued attacks on civilians and govt forces on main axes in Sofala province in centre, leaving at least one civilian dead near Nharichonga, Nhamatanda district mid-March. Group’s leader Mariano Nhongo 19 March threatened war if govt refused to accede to his demands. Demobilisation and disarmament of Renamo forces continued to lag behind schedule as Aug 2020 deadline to dismantle all Renamo bases nears; Renamo leader Ossufo Momade 18 March blamed delay on “agenda issues”, said process would resume late March. In response to COVID-19, President Nyusi 30 March declared state of emergency, limiting internal movement and partially closing borders from 1 April.
Authorities continued to suppress opposition, which called off protests after govt introduced restrictions amid COVID-19 outbreak. Court 2 March held hearing for fifteen supporters of main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) charged for inciting violence over alleged clashes with police in Chitungwiza, 30km south of capital Harare, in Feb. President Mnangagwa 17 March declared COVID-19 outbreak “national disaster”, banning public gatherings of more than 100 people; authorities 23 March closed borders and 30 March imposed 21-day nationwide lockdown. MDC leader Nelson Chamisa 22 March suspended calls for anti-govt protests. Following months-long strike over wages, partially called off in Jan, nurses’ union and doctors’ association went on strike 25 March after govt failed to provide training and protective equipment for handling COVID-19 patients. South Africa 19 March said it would erect 40km fence at border with Zimbabwe within one month to stem irregular migration and spread of coronavirus. U.S. 2 March renewed sanctions against Zimbabwe for one year, 11 March froze assets of state security minister Owen Ncube and former presidential guard commander and current ambassador to Tanzania Anselem Sanyatwe and prohibited U.S.-based companies and individuals from transacting with them over alleged human rights violations during 2018 post-electoral demonstrations.
Ahead of presidential election scheduled for late Oct, President Ouattara ruled out third term and revised constitution, while controversy over composition of electoral commission continued. Ouattara 5 March said he would not seek re-election and “leave power to the younger generation”; main opposition parties, including former President Bédié’s Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and former President Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) welcomed withdrawal. Former national assembly speaker Guillaume Soro, who has declared intention to run for president, 7 March described move as political ploy designed to divert attention from “tinkering with constitution”. Ruling party Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) 12 March chose PM Amadou Gon Coulibaly as presidential candidate. Bédié faced increasing pressure from civil society and PDCI to withdraw from presidential race; his adviser Kouadio Konan Bertin 2 March said he would run for president should Bédié not declare his candidacy. Council of ministers 6 March adopted constitutional reform project. Opposition parliamentary groups including Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire-African Democratic Rally (PDCI-RDA), Vox Populi and Guillaume Soro’s Rally for Côte d’Ivoire (RACI) 12 March withdrew from parliamentary debates on constitutional reform project over concerns that changes including presidential appointment of VP, possibility to delay parliamentary elections, and replacement of existing Supreme Court with two judiciary organs whose heads would be chosen by president will concentrate power in president’s hands. Around 5,000 people attended opposition gathering against constitutional revision in capital Yamoussoukro 15 March. Congress 17 March adopted constitutional reform project with large majority; Ouattara next day said he would use reform to postpone legislative elections from Dec 2020 to April 2021. Presidency 19 March said urgent modifications to electoral code would be made by ordinance, due to restrictions on parliamentary meetings in context of COVID-19. Opposition continued to accuse electoral commission of pro-govt bias. PDCI 9 March turned down fourth seat in commission, calling for thorough reform of body.
Political tensions rose in lead-up to polls on constitutional reform, which could pave way for President Condé’s re-election, and peaked on voting day with crackdown on opposition protests leaving at least fourteen dead. On election day, protesters 22 March attacked polling stations and destroyed voting materials in opposition strongholds in capital Conakry, Kobéla, Dinguiraye and Konah; clashes between security forces and protesters reportedly left ten people dead in Conakry, and at least four in N’Zérékoré in south. Electoral commission 27 March said 91.59% voted in favour of new constitution. National Front for the Defence of the Constitution (FNDC), coalition of opposition parties and civil society groups opposed to constitutional referendum 28 March rejected results, while protesters in Labe torched cars and set up barricades. After Condé 28 Feb delayed legislative elections and constitutional referendum scheduled for 1 March by two weeks (without specifying date), opposition reiterated call to boycott votes. Supporters of FNDC demonstrated in several cities 5 March, defying ban on protest; security forces cracked down on protesters, reportedly killing one in Conakry. Security forces 6 March detained FNDC figures Ibrahima Diallo and Sékou Koundouno after they blamed authorities for hundreds of “kidnappings” and “arbitrary arrests” of FNDC members. Regional body Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) 11 March reported that electoral roll included 160,000 deceased people and over 2 out of 11 million registered voters lacked proof of identity, recommending their removal. Electoral commission 12 March postponed polls to 22 March, saying it would use extra time to address irregularities; opposition said delay was insufficient to achieve proper revision of electoral roll. Govt 15 March said it would welcome ECOWAS delegation to discuss issues related to electoral process; ECOWAS 17 March however cancelled mission due to COVID-19. Mutiny apparently broke out 20 March at Alpha Yaya Diallo military camp in Conakry, one officer reportedly killed and two soldiers arrested.
Post-election standoff persisted between Umaro Sissoco Embaló, whom electoral commission declared winner of Dec 2019 presidential runoff vote, and ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea (PAIGC), which has been challenging results before Supreme Court. After PAIGC-controlled parliament late Feb swore in parliament’s President Cipriano Cassamá as interim president, Cassamá resigned 1 March, citing death threats. Regional body Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) 2 March asked armed forces to remain neutral following deployment late Feb of security forces aligned with Embaló in and around major institutions. Embaló 2 March named govt of PM Nuno Gomes Nabiam, who next day urged public servants to resume work; however incumbent PM Aristides Gomes, who refused to stand down, same day rejected order and asked civil servants to stay at home instead. Nabiam 8 March confirmed that his party rescinded their coalition agreement with PAIGC, but some of its MPs maintained support for PAIGC, blocking Nabiam’s ability to secure majority at Assembly. Same day, ECOWAS cancelled expert mediation mission due 9 March after Nabiam condemned “foreign interference” and called for departure of ECOWAS military mission in Bissau (ECOMIB) at its expected termination date end of March. By 11 March, ECOMIB had removed its troops, which were securing houses of Aristides Gomes, Cassama and Supreme Court judges. EU Foreign Policy Chief Borrell 12 March asked parties to prioritise dialogue and expressed support for ECOWAS mediation. Embaló embarked on diplomatic tour, meeting Senegalese, Nigerien and Nigerian presidents 9-13 March and securing their support. Backed by armed forces, Embaló and Nabiam progressively took over state bureaucracies throughout month, but controversy carried on. Nabiam 27 March proclaimed state of emergency amid COVID-19 pandemic, which critics denounced as step to stifle debate.
Boko Haram (BH) continued to target military in north east, while banditry-related violence persisted in north west leaving over 110 killed. In Borno state in north east, BH insurgents 4 March killed three soldiers in Damboa town near state capital Maiduguri, govt troops repelled attack killing nineteen insurgents; BH insurgents 15 March killed six soldiers in ambush in Banki area; air force 18 March targeted gathering of BH splinter group Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) leaders and fighters in Lake Chad area, killing several; military said counter-insurgency operation in Gorgi area killed more than 100 BH including top commander 21-23 March; 29 soldiers also killed; ISWAP militants 28 March ambushed vehicles near Maiduguri killing five. In Yobe state in north east, BH insurgents 23 March killed about 50 soldiers in ambush near Goneri village. In north west, security forces reported further indications of resurgence of long-dormant BH splinter Ansaru. Notably, military 17 March said joint police-air force operation in three villages in Kaduna state killed five Ansaru commanders and twelve bandits. Bandits continued attacks in Zamfara, Kaduna and Niger states, killing over 110 in March. In Zamfara state, bandits 8 March, attacked Yar Katsina village in Bungudu area, killing eight; 12 March stormed Katsira village in Gusau area, killing eleven vigilantes; 16 March stormed market in Birnin Tsaba village, Birnin Magaji area, killing two vigilantes; suspecting bandits were Fulani, villagers thereafter lynched three Fulani men; bandits 17 March killed sixteen in two villages in Maru area. In Kaduna state, hundreds of bandits 1 March attacked four villages in Igabi area, reportedly killing 51. In Niger state, bandits 22 March attacked security patrol team comprising soldiers, police and civil defence personnel in Shiroro area, killing 29. Air force 31 March attacked bandits’ camp in Pandogari area, Niger state, reportedly killing many.
Constitutional Court 3 March confirmed incumbent President Gnassingbé won Feb presidential election with 70.78% of vote. After main opposition leader and runner-up in presidential election Agbéyomé Kodjo disputed results and accused ruling Union for the Republic party of electoral fraud, parliament 16 March revoked Kodjo’s parliamentary immunity over accusations of inciting public disorder and threatening national security.
Amid COVID-19 spread, Japan 5 March said Chinese President Xi had postponed his planned April state visit to Japan. Japanese news sources 11 March reported Japanese navy built its first ocean surveillance ship since 1992, due to be deployed in 2021, in response to concerns over Chinese submarines’ activities close to and in Japanese waters, and with a view to monitoring North Korea over its development of sub-marine technology. Japanese warship and Chinese fishing boat 30 March collided in East China Sea; Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said one Chinese fisherman injured.
North Korea carried out missile tests and military exercises in demonstration of hard-line position announced Dec 2019, while diplomatic activity remained stalled amid COVID-19 pandemic. Pyongyang 2, 8, 21 and 29 March tested short-range ballistic missiles and used multiple-launch rocket systems; moves apparently aimed at reassuring population about North Korean-leader Kim Jong-un’s strength amid widely suspected COVID-19 epidemic inside country, by testing missiles without eliciting response from U.S.; in U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Defense Secretary Mark Esper 4 March said threat from DPRK ballistic missile capabilities “becoming increasingly complicated as they seek to modernize the full range of missile systems”, confirmed they would pose a threat to the U.S.; in joint statement, UK, Germany, France, Estonia and Belgium 5 March condemned 2 March missiles test, said launches “undermine regional security and stability”. UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet 10 March reported apparent “systematic human rights violations in detention centres” in DPRK, including “sexual violence against women and girls”, which may amount to “crimes against humanity”; said violations appear to be taking place under “direct authority of two Ministries, with likely involvement of higher authorities”. U.S. Justice Department 2 March indicted two Chinese nationals for laundering $100mn worth of cryptocurrency from stolen money by North Korean actors in 2018; U.S. attorney claimed Pyongyang continues to attack virtual currencies “as a means to bypass the sanctions imposed on it”. Think tank Centre for Advanced Studies 3 March released report claiming China and North Korea violated 2017 UN Security Council Resolution 2397 preventing DPRK from supplying, selling or transferring, directly or indirectly, “earth and stone”, said satellite imagery and shipping databases appear to show hundreds of vessels “dredging sand in Haeju Bay before transporting it to China” March-Aug 2019. U.S.-South Korea tensions continued over future agreement for sharing cost of maintaining 28,500 U.S. troops on Korean peninsula, with negotiators unable to make breakthrough in discussions 17-19 March in Los Angeles, U.S..
Tensions with China continued over military exercises and disruption to govt’s COVID-19 response. Defence Ministry reported 16 March that Chinese jets including J-11 fighters and KJ-500 airborne flew into waters off coast of south west Taiwan in night time exercises, coming close to Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone, with govt scrambling fighters in response. Following FM Joseph Wu 29 Feb accusing China of waging cyber “war” by using fake news in attempt to disrupt Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 spread, govt continued to protest Beijing’s apparent blocking of Taipei from accessing information from World Health Organization; U.S.-based chairman of American Institute in Taiwan 5 March told President Tsai Ing-wen U.S. would “redouble” efforts to “expand Taiwan’s participation on the global stage”. U.S. House of Representatives 4 March unanimously passed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act (TAIPEI Act), aimed at discouraging Taipei’s diplomatic allies from cutting ties with island in favour of relations with Beijing; U.S. Senate 11 March passed bill, and President Trump 26 March signed act into law.
Levels of violence in rural areas peaked again after Feb “reduction in violence” period did not extend into March, while intra-Afghan negotiations that could lead to a ceasefire were delayed. Following Feb U.S.-Taliban deal and end of reduced violence period, Taliban resumed intense military pressure on Afghan security forces in rural areas, including 19 March attack in Zabul province (south) that left over twenty Afghan security forces killed; Taliban carried out series of attacks in Balkh province (north), leading to repeated shut down and impact on northern highway; levels of violence in country highest in Kandahar province (south) in first part of March. Insurgents continued to refrain from major attacks in urban areas. Mass abductions reported in Maidan Wardak, Uruzgan, Kunduz and elsewhere. Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) resumed large-scale attacks in capital Kabul including 6 March attack on Shia mosque, targeting Hazara community, with gunmen killing at least 32 people; IS-KP claimed responsibility for five rockets fired 9 March at Presidential Palace during President Ghani’s inauguration ceremony, no major casualties reported, and 25 March attack on Sikh religious complex, killing 25. Domestic political crisis continued with establishment of parallel govts; following controversial 2019 presidential elections, Ghani (whom official results declared as winner in Feb) and his main opponent Abdullah Abdullah (who continued to claim results were fraudulent) 9 March held concurrent inauguration ceremonies in adjacent wings of Presidential Palace complex in Kabul; representatives of international community mostly attended Ghani’s inauguration, while northern and western Afghan powerbrokers joined Abdullah’s ceremony; both figures refrained from action that might escalate political crisis into armed conflict. Amid delay, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad conducted diplomatic efforts in attempt to broker compromise between Ghani and Abdullah; Sec State Pompeo 23 March visited Kabul, announcing US$1bn cut to aid amid deadlock and saying U.S. “deeply regrets” both sides inability to “agree on an inclusive govt”; days after, govt formation of an inclusive negotiating team and govt-Taliban dialogue on prisoners progressed, albeit still limited.
Security forces continued to arrest alleged members of banned militant groups while govt temporarily released imprisoned opposition Bangladeshi Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia. In capital Dhaka, counter-terrorism police 19 March arrested alleged second in command of Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) women’s branch, on charges of online recruitment; paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) 23 March detained three suspected JMB members; and RAB 30 March arrested suspected online financier of Ansar-al Islam (formerly Ansarullah Bangla Team). In Cox’s Bazar, RAB claimed seven Rohingya criminals killed in 2 March gunfight in Teknaf subdistrict; over 50 Rohingya refugees killed in shootouts with authorities in Bangladesh since influx began Aug 2017. Ahead of 17 March centenary celebration of birth of Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Islamist groups including Hefazat-e-Islam and Khilafat Andolon late-Feb held demonstrations in Dhaka, condemning killing of Muslims in clashes in India’s capital New Delhi over country’s new citizenship law and demanding PM Hasina cancel invitation to Indian PM Modi to attend celebrations; though govt rejected demands, India’s external affairs ministry 9 March said Modi’s visit was being “deferred” amid spread of COVID-19. Govt 25 March released BNP chief Zia from prison on “humanitarian grounds” for six months on condition she remains at home and does not leave country; hundreds of supporters greeted Zia upon release in Dhaka. Following UN Human Rights Chief Bachelet late-Feb speech at UN Human Rights Council calling for “reform of the Digital Security Act”, authorities continued to use controversial act to attack journalists; police 9 March lodged case under act against Daily Manabzamin newspaper editor Matiur Rahman Chowdhury and 31 other journalists.
Authorities continued arrests after Feb Hindu-Muslim violence in capital New Delhi, as govt 24 March introduced country-wide lockdown to combat spread of COVID-19 and Maoists perpetrated largest attack on security forces since 2017. Following major Hindu-Muslim violence which left at least 53 dead, police 1-2 March arrested over 40 people for spreading false rumours of further violent clashes on 1 March; authorities 9 March said Delhi Police had arrested nearly 2,200 people in connection to Feb violence and filed 690 cases. UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet 2 March submitted application to Supreme Court asking for UN Human Rights office to act as amicus curiae in petition submitted against controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA); govt 3 March rejected move, said “no foreign party has any locus standi on issues pertaining to India's sovereignty”. Govt 3 March summoned Iranian ambassador to lodge protest against Iranian FM Javad Zarif’s who previous day had condemned “the wave of organized violence against Indian Muslims”. Following 23 March lockdown to combat COVID-19 spread in New Delhi, police 24 March forcefully removed anti-CAA sit-in, which had been running since Dec, in Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood. Govt 24 March placed entire country under lockdown for 21 days to combat spread of COVID-19; in Gujarat state (west), police 29 March clashed with migrant labourers attempting to return home and defying lockdown measures, over 90 labourers detained. In deadliest Maoist attack on security forces since April 2017, more than 300 attackers 21 March launched ambush on police commandos in Sukma district, Chhattisgarh state (centre), leaving seventeen policemen killed, and another fifteen injured; officials claimed up to ten Maoists killed during attack; in rare gesture insurgents rebutted claim, published details of three killed. Also in Chhattisgarh, Maoists 14 March killed two security personnel in ambush in Bastar district. Police 4 March arrested two senior Maoist commanders in Maharashtra state (West), including suspected mastermind of deadly May 2019 attack on police commandos in Gadchiroli district, also wanted in 108 cases. In Odisha state (east), eight Maoists from Malkangiri district 18 March surrendered to authorities.
Tension and clashes between Indian and Pakistani forces along Line of Control (LoC, dividing Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir) continued, while new political party emerged within Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Islamabad claimed Indian forces 17 March killed Pakistani soldier in cross-LoC shelling. At South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation virtual summit to develop regional strategy against COVID-19 spread, Pakistani participant 16 March called for lifting of lockdown in J&K, with India’s external ministry spokesperson responding summit “not a political platform” and “Pakistan misused it”. Within J&K, new political party Jammu and Kashmir Apni (Our Own) launched in Srinagar 8 March; Apni headed by Altaf Bukhari, formerly with Mufti’s Peoples Democratic Party, whose head former Kashmir’s Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti is currently detained, also includes defectors from other major Kashmiri parties; Apni delegation led by Bukhari 14 March met PM Modi in New Delhi and declared support for Aug 2019 revoking of J&K special constitutional status, while Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah promised to revive J&K’s statehood in future. Leader of opposition in upper house of parliament 14 March met with Farooq Abdullah, former chief minister released previous day after charges under Public Safety Act were revoked, called on govt to release all Kashmiri political prisoners and dismissed Apni as creation of Indian intelligence agencies. Former Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah 24 March released after eight months in detention. Militant-related insecurity continued; militant attack in Baramulla district killed two including police officer 4 March; security forces 15 March killed four suspected Laskhar-e-Tayyaba and Hizbul Mujahideen militants during clash in Anantnag district; suspected militants 27 March shot dead civilian in Kulgam district.
COVID-19 fears dominated political discourse with Nepal Communist Party-led govt coming under criticism for sluggish preparedness and for not stemming spread of misinformation regarding coronavirus. Govt declared countrywide lockdown 24 March following second confirmed positive case – first one was in Jan; govt also closed borders with India and China 23 March, and banned all incoming flights starting 22 March. COVID-19 related measures introduced as local officials called for attention to lack of clear directives from federal govt, forcing them early March to issue separate directives for constituents to take precautions. NGO Human Rights Watch 31 Mar called out govt for denying migrant workers based in India right to return home, also drew attention to Nepali migrant labourers stranded in Gulf. As PM KP Oli underwent a second kidney transplant 4 March, concerns over his health further increased.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) govt continued to use corruption charges against opponents and attempted to position itself in key role in Afghan peace process. Govt targeting of opposition and critics through controversial anti-corruption National Accountability Bureau (NAB) remained issue of political concern; NAB 23 March arrested Mir Shakilur Rehman, owner and editor-in-chief of Jang-Geo media group, on charges related to real estate transaction; journalist unions held countrywide demonstrations, calling arrest attempt to silence media, while opposition parties Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam 18 March criticised decision and jointly filed petition against it and crackdown on Geo TV in Islamabad High Court. High courts granted bail to various top opposition leaders detained by NAB including former PML-N railways minister on 17 March, and former PML-N PM Abbasi on 25 March. Amid COVID-19 spread, PML-N president and parliamentary leader of opposition Shahbaz Sharif 18 March criticised govt for lack of preparedness in dealing with fast spreading of coronavirus. Internationally, govt welcomed U.S.-Taliban deal, claiming credit for success of negotiations and insisting on an active role in intra-Afghan negotiations; FM Qureshi 1 March acknowledged Afghan govt mistrust of Pakistan due to Islamabad’s longstanding support to Taliban but called on Kabul to talk to govt, said Pakistan had convinced Taliban to “put forward an authoritative delegation that has the capacity to implement” U.S.-Taliban deal; Qureshi 3 March called on Afghan President Ghani to “show magnanimity” and Taliban to “show flexibility” amid stalled negotiations over prisoner releases. Militant violence continued, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province: army colonel killed during operation against militants in Dera Ismail district 9 March, Pakistani Taliban killed four soldiers in North Waziristan tribal district 18 March, same day, militant attack on police station in Orakzai tribal district killed two officers.
Election Commission postponed April parliamentary elections in light of global COVID-19 pandemic, while govt introduced measures to tackle growing public health and economic crisis. Citing health risks associated with running an election amid COVID-19 spread, Election Commission 19 March postponed indefinitely planned 25 April parliamentary elections. Opposition leaders 25 March called for parliament to be reconvened until new election date set, contested authority of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to govern alone and reliance on ad hoc committees headed by military and Rajapaksa family members. Govt took series of measures to contain COVID-19, including border closures to internationals 18 March, quarantine of residents returning from overseas, widespread deployment of military, and rolling curfews across country to enforce “social distancing”. In 5 March media interview, Rajapaksa reiterated desire for stronger presidential powers, calling for “an environment where the President could function without an obstruction”. Govt 18 March signed $500mn ten-year loan from China to improve foreign currency reserves. Split in main opposition United National Party (UNP) confirmed 19 March when faction led by UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa submitted separate list of candidates for elections under newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). Three prominent Sinhalese nationalist monks 16 March formed new political party, Ape Jana Bala Pakshya (“Our People’s Power Party”) and submitted nominations for upcoming election, to campaign on explicitly Sinhalese nationalist and anti-Muslim platform. Govt 2 March criticised findings of Feb report by UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief; report highlighted ongoing insecurity faced by Muslim communities and need to end impunity for attacks on religious minorities. Attorney General (AG) 11 March wrote to presidential commission established to investigate alleged “political victimisation” by previous UNP-led govt against officials and supporters of the 2005-2015 Rajapaksa govt, AG argued commission has no authority to suspend or interfere with ongoing criminal cases. President 26 March pardoned former army Sgt Sunil Ratnayake, sentenced to death in 2015 for 2000 murder of eight Tamil civilians during civil war, one of few successful prosecutions of war-related atrocities.
Eight gunmen 30 March attacked a PT Freeport gold mine office in Timika, Papua province, killing one miner and wounding six others; separatist armed group, West Papua Liberation Army, same day claimed responsibility for attack. FM 31 March announced decision to suspend foreign arrivals to curb spread of COVID-19; govt same day declared state of emergency and intention to release about 30,000 prisoners who have served two-thirds of their sentences.
Major fighting between Arakan Army (AA) and military continued in Rakhine State as authorities 23 March designated group as “terrorist organisation”, further diminishing prospects of any negotiated settlement; meanwhile, security forces launched series of raids on illicit drugs trade in Northern Shan state. As military attempted to break AA blockade of Paletwa township, southern Chin State, and take control of strategic Kaladan river route linking Paletwa town with Kyauktaw town, AA from 10-11 March attacked major govt military base that overlooks the river in Rakhine state, killing dozens and capturing 36 troops from elite unit of 77th Light Infantry Division, including the battalion commander; civilians fleeing area left at least 20 villages deserted following air attacks. In first part of March, military launched series of raids on illicit narcotics production and storage facilities in Kaungkha area, Northern Shan state, dismantling three laboratories and seizing large quantity of precursor chemicals and manufactured drugs, worth a total of over US$200 million on local market; military 24 March raided Kaungkha Militia which controls the area (previously known as Kachin Defence Army and nominally under military command), seizing over 1000 weapons and detaining leaders.
Amid COVID-19 outbreak, ceasefire was declared between army and communist rebels, while violence continued in Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). President Duterte 18 March declared unilateral ceasefire with communist insurgency 19 March-15 April, ending all offensive operations; founding chairman of Communist Party of the Philippines, Jose Maria Sison, 23 March recommended to all communist rebels to declare unilateral truce in direct response to UN’s call for global ceasefire to address COVID-19 epidemic; New People’s Army rebels 24 March declared they would observe ceasefire until 15 April. Several clashes took place early March between govt and communist insurgents in Luzon killing three rebels and injuring one soldier; ambush on Negros Island injured four soldiers. Congress 24 March granted country-wide emergency powers to Duterte to fight COVID-19 spread. In the South, clashes 2-6 March between Dawlah Islamiyah Torayfie Group (DITG) of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and military left at least 14 BIFF members killed and four soldiers dead in Maguindanao province. Feud between warring commanders of Moro Islamic Liberation Front 14 March re-erupted in Datu Saudi-Ampatuan village, Maguindanao. Unknown gunmen 16 March killed Maguindanao town councillor. Following 4 March meeting on “state of return for residents of Marawi city” between Senate’s Special Committee on Marawi City Rehabilitation and President Duterte, latter ordered the Budget Department to hasten the release of funds and called for establishment of a second military camp in Marawi, also vowed to visit Marawi regularly and monitor progress; while decision to have new military camp not yet final, resumption of idea could trigger tensions among local population.
Following U.S. claim in late Feb that Chinese military warship fired military grade laser at U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft flying over Pacific Ocean, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang 6 March stated that U.S. statement do not “accord with reality”, accused U.S. plane of “long-period circling reconnaissance at low altitude despite repeated warnings from the Chinese side”. Chinese Communist Party newspaper 11 March said that Chinese military expelled a U.S. guided-missile destroyer “trespassing” into Chinese waters near Xisha (Paracel) Islands; U.S. warships also reportedly in South China Sea, including for expeditionary strike force drills, 12-13 and 15 March. During meeting in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, Chief of Staff of Japan’s Self-Defence Force General Koji Yamazaki and Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Defence Phan Van Giang 2 March agreed to bolster bilateral ties through promotion of existing cooperation mechanisms and strengthening of bilateral defence cooperation activities. U.S. Embassy in Hanoi 11 March announced second aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, apparent spread of virus on U.S. carriers signalled potential significant reduction in U.S. power-projection capabilities in Western Pacific; U.S. Navy reported 30 March that more than 40 sailors aboard the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for COVID-19, the carrier docked at Guam on 27 March following operations in South China Sea. Philippines 6 March sent note verbale to UN Secretary-General Guterres rejecting Malaysia’s Dec 2019 claims over Kalayaan Island Group and China’s Dec 2019 claims of “historic rights in the South China Sea”.
Student protests following Feb dissolution of opposition Future Forward Party (FFP) paused in the wake of concerns over COVID-19 spread, while Thai officials and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) representatives met for second round of formal peace dialogue on ending conflict in deep south. Hundreds of students 13 March marched, carrying signs critical of govt and calling for new constitution. Protesters have since halted political gatherings due to concerns about COVID-19. Election Commission 10 March announced filing of criminal charges against FFP party founder Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit for “applying to be an MP candidate knowing he was not qualified” based on his holding of shares in defunct fashion magazine when he ran in March 2019 general election. Former FFP executives Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Pannika Wanich, and MP Pita Limjaroenrat, leader of Move Forward Party, 16 March answered five charges related to Dec 2019 protest, including conspiring to hold gathering without notifying authorities. Thai officials and BRN representatives 2-3 March met for second round of formal peace dialogue in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur. Violence however continued in deep south: insurgents 7 March killed one police officer, wounded two in Sri Sakhon district, Narathiwat; gunmen 8 March killed assistant village headman in Yarang district, Pattani; military operation against militants 17-18 March left three militants dead after gunfight broke out on border between Pattani and Yala provinces, renewed clashes 18-19 March killed one militant and one soldier. Meanwhile, militants 17 March wounded 30 in vehicle-borne IED attack in front of Southern Border Provinces Administration Center in Yala town.
Following Dec non-binding referendum in which Bougainville electorate overwhelmingly voted for independence from Papua New Guinea (PNG), talks between Bougainville govt and national govt of PNG on what steps needed before referendum outcome negotiations can start progressed slowly. Talks on referendum consultation process took place in capital Port Moresby mid-March, resulting in decision for justice departments of both govts to work on clarification of term “ratification”. Meanwhile, at least nine people including three children reportedly killed in attack in Porgera valley on around 12 March; according to police, incident may be retaliatory attack for July 2019 deadly violence which resulted in dozens killed. UN in PNG 17 March condemned “massacre” and called “for immediate intervention to bring the perpetrators to justice”.
In response to COVID-19 outbreak, Federation entity and Republika Srpska (RS) 16 March separately declared state of disaster, enabling emergency measures to slow spread of virus; state-level PM Tegeltija 17 March declared nationwide state of emergency for coordination of emergency activities. State-level presidency 18 March adopted decision on engagement of domestic armed forces to assist civilian authorities in preventing spread of COVID-19 for 30 days. RS People’s Assembly 28 March voted to impose state of emergency but Bosniak delegates in Council of Peoples blocked decision.
New coalition govt collapsed as parliament passed no-confidence vote following divisions over response to COVID-19 outbreak and lifting of import tariff on goods from Serbia. COVID-19 response raised tensions after President Thaçi 17 March proposed state of emergency with “full and maximum mobilisation of the Kosovo Security Forces”; Serb minority party Lista Sprska objected, describing proposal as “silent occupation of Serb municipalities”. PM Kurti 18 March dismissed Internal Affairs Minister Agim Veliu (from coalition partner Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK) for creating “unnecessary cause of panic” on COVID-19 after Veliu insisted on state of emergency in TV interview. LDK leader Isa Mustafa 20 March said dismissal was unacceptable and that he had not been consulted, gave Kurti ultimatum to retract dismissal and remove import tariffs on Serbian goods by 25 March, or his party would file no-confidence motion against govt in parliament. LDK 25 March filed no-confidence motion, which passed 82 to 32; Thaçi to nominate new candidate for PM. Political tensions started to rise earlier in month over 100% tariff on imports from Serbia: Kurti 5 March sent letter to European Commission president announcing partial abolition of tariffs from 15 March. Thaçi 10 March urged Kurti to abolish tariffs to avoid jeopardising Kosovo-U.S. relations; U.S. 13 March announced suspension of $50mn aid program due to refusal to lift tariffs. PM Kurti 31 March said that govt would lift 100% tariff on all goods imported from Serbia as of 1 April.
EU leaders gave North Macedonia long-awaited green light to start formal EU accession talks and it joined NATO. Following French President Macron’s Feb announcement that France was ready to lift opposition to opening of EU accession negotiations, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi 2 March confirmed his recommendation that EU open talks with North Macedonia, stating govt had taken “significant steps to strengthen the independence of the judiciary”, including recent adoption of EU-sought Law on Prosecution. EU leaders 26 March gave approval for North Macedonia (and Albania) to start formal membership talks. President Pendarovski 20 March signed NATO accession agreement after Spain 17 March ratified accession protocol, final NATO member state to do so. Party leaders 17 March agreed to postpone 12 April elections over concerns about COVID-19, without setting new date for polls. Pendarovski 19 March declared state of emergency over outbreak.
In response to COVID-19 outbreak, govt 16 March declared state of emergency, closed borders to all foreign citizens and prevented Armenian citizens from leaving. Govt same day also postponed indefinitely referendum on constitutional changes due 5 April that could lead to dismissal of seven of nine Constitutional Court judges seen by PM Pashinyan to be maintaining ties to former leadership.
In response to COVID-19 outbreak, govt 24 March declared strict restrictions countrywide on mass events and use of public transport. Azerbaijani investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli released from prison 17 March and went to Germany; Mukhtarli was arrested in Georgia in 2017 and taken back to Azerbaijan, where in early 2018 he was sentenced to six years in prison for allegedly smuggling contraband.
Responding to COVID-19 outbreak, govt 18 March closed borders, prohibiting foreign citizens from entering country. Authorities 23 March declared lockdown in two regions in south west bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia, Marneuli and Bolnisi, after Marneuli official diagnosed with COVID-19. Breakaway region Abkhazia 5 March closed crossings with Georgia, joining other secessionist territory South Ossetia which closed crossings late Feb. Both regions declared emergency situation 27 March. Next day Russia closed its borders with both regions. Abkhazia 22 March held de facto presidential election despite early March hospitalisation of leading candidate and opposition leader Aslan Bzhania after brief visit to Moscow, and fears surrounding COVID-19 outbreak; Georgian govt same day criticised elections, saying they “fully contradict the fundamental norms and principles of international law” and violate Georgia’s sovereignty. Abkhaz election commission 23 March declared Bzhania winner with 56.5% of vote (voter turnout reported as 71.6%).
Ceasefire violations in conflict zone continued early March, and Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders exchanged harsh statements. Two Azerbaijani border guards killed 5 and 7 March near border areas of Gazakh region, two Armenian soldiers and one 14-year-old Armenian civilian wounded 30 March in same area, and one Armenian soldier killed 10 March in clash at Armenia’s border with Azerbaijan’s exclave of Nakhchivan. In opening session of new Azerbaijani parliament, President Aliyev 10 March reiterated traditional understanding of conflict’s origins and called on MPs to reinforce efforts to promote such views internationally; Armenia condemned remarks 13 March and questioned whether Baku was ready to proceed with peace process. De facto NK authorities held presidential and parliamentary elections 31 March as planned despite calls by many political forces in Armenia and civil society to postpone them due to COVID-19. By end-month 27 political parties had named their candidates for 33 parliamentary seats and fourteen people had stepped forward as presidential candidates. In attempt to prevent spread of coronavirus, NK closed its crossings, initially 20 March for all foreign citizens and one week later for all residents of Armenia except for those engaged in transporting goods, journalists and local poll observers.
Citing COVID-19 as factor, President Putin 10 March put his bid to reset presidential two-term limit, which would allow him to run again for president in 2024, to vote of Constitutional Court; Court 16 March approved bid. Kremlin refused permit for demonstration against changes, citing need to prevent spread of COVID-19. In North Caucasus’ Ingushetia republic, amid widespread discontent with Kremlin’s rule, at least ten clan leaders 22 March urged boycott of nationwide vote planned for April on Putin’s proposed constitutional reforms, citing anger over land transfer to Chechnya in 2018-2019, as well as historical grievances. Putin 25 March announced that vote on proposed constitutional changes scheduled for 22 April would be postponed indefinitely citing COVID-19.
Months-long oil supply contract dispute with Russia which began in Jan settled amid global crash of oil prices, and following expressions of support for Minsk from other countries including UK, Poland and U.S.. PM Rumas 11 March stated sudden global decline in oil prices had given Minsk more space in oil supply negotiations with Kremlin; Russia 23 March increased discount on prices as initially requested by Minsk, with Russian oil companies confirming they stood ready to restore supplies in full as soon as 1 April.
As fighting continued in Donbas and civilian cross-line movement ceased due to COVID-19 restrictions, creation of Minsk Trilateral Contact Group advisory council (which Kyiv said would give residents of conflict-affected areas opportunity to input into implementation of 2015 Minsk II agreements) led to split within ruling party, potentially derailing conflict-resolution process. In conflict zone, eleven govt soldiers reported killed and seven Russian-backed fighters killed according to unofficial data. Two civilians were killed in shelling, gunfire and landmine incidents per Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In unprecedented move, head and deputy head of Ukraine’s and Russia’s presidential administrations respectively 11 March signed working protocol for new advisory council within Minsk Trilateral Contact Group for Donbas negotiations; council will adopt non-binding recommendations on implementation of 2015 Minsk II agreements; OSCE, Russia, France and Germany will have consultative powers; representatives of non govt-controlled areas identified as “plenipotentiary”. Decision divided ruling party: 50 MPs from President Zelenskyy’s “Sluha Narodu” party signed appeal to retract agreement. Kyiv police say 1,000 protesters 14 March marched against what organisers called Zelensky’s “capitulation” to Russia. Amid spread of COVID-19, military 16 March stopped movement at all civilian entry-exit checkpoints at contact line in Donbas for two weeks, except permanent residents; Russia-backed fighters took same measures starting 21 March. Kyiv closed its state borders 27 March. Zelenskyy 4 March replaced his cabinet. Parliament 31 March passed laws forbidding past owners of insolvent banks from regaining assets; permitting sale of land, paving way for $8bn in credit from International Monetary Fund.
Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı 2 March criticised decision by Republic of Cyprus govt to close four of eight checkpoints on dividing line separating Republic of Cyprus from self-declared “Turkish Republic of North Cyprus” (“TRNC”) to combat spread of COVID-19. Pro-federalist activists 7 and 9 March staged protests on either side of closed border crossing leading to small-scale clashes between police, Greek and Turkish Cypriots and UN soldiers. “TRNC” officials 19 March said they had postponed “presidential” elections from 26 April to 11 Oct due to COVID-19; Akıncı to continue in caretaker capacity. Tensions between Turkey and Republic of Cyprus and Greece over gas drilling in eastern Mediterranean remained high: Turkey’s third drillship, dubbed Kanuni and newly acquired from UK, arrived in Turkey 15 March.
Police 18 March reported hospitalisation of two men following two “paramilitary-style” attacks in Creggan area of Londonderry and town of Ballymena.
President Erdoğan reached deal with Russian President Putin to cease hostilities in Syria’s Idlib province, and govt continued military operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in south east Turkey and northern Iraq. Erdoğan and Putin 5 March agreed temporary ceasefire deal to end hostilities in Syria’s Idlib province (see Syria). Protesters 15 March blocked joint Turkish-Russian patrol along M4 highway in Idlib province; Turkish and Russian media accused militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham of mobilising local population to obstruct patrol. Govt 19 March announced deaths of two Turkish soldiers in rocket attack by “radical groups” on M4 highway. In PKK conflict, military continued small-scale ground operations in south east Turkey and operations against PKK in northern Iraq. PKK 31 March attacked gas pipeline near Turkey’s border with Iran; Iran said attack halted flow of gas from Iran. Govt maintained efforts to criminalise pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP); authorities 9 March sentenced former HDP mayor of Diyarbakır to nine years imprisonment on PKK-related terrorism charges. Authorities 23 March dismissed eight HDP co-mayors. Turkey and EU engaged at highest level to resolve spat following Ankara’s decision to allow migrants to cross its borders to Greece. Govt sustained crackdown on individuals with suspected links to Islamic State (ISIS); police detained at least 28 people in March with alleged ties to ISIS, including Turkish and foreign nationals.
Visiting area affected by 7-8 Feb deadly ethnic clashes in Zhambyl region in south, in which eleven people were killed and dozens injured, President Tokayev 1 March blamed violence on “criminal groups” and called for perpetrators to be punished regardless of ethnicity; meeting with ethnic minority Dungan representatives, he promised state protection of their culture while urging them to take measures to lessen tensions with ethnic Kazakhs, including learning Kazakh language. Authorities late March detained 25 people for involvement in clashes, including ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and members of Dungan minority. According to govt 80 people briefly detained following continued protests 1 March over late Feb death in custody of civil rights activist Dulat Aghadil; rights activists said police detained 144. National Security Committee 26 March announced arrest of alleged Islamic State (ISIS)-affiliated terrorist suspected of plotting attack in capital Nur-Sultan. Govt mid-March introduced state of emergency and sealed off Nur-Sultan and Almaty city in attempt to limit spread of COVID-19.
Police and protesters clashed in capital Bishkek 2 March as hundreds gathered to demand release of jailed politician Sadyr Japarov; 24 police officers reported injured, 166 people detained including former lawmaker and rally organiser Kanybek Osmonaliev. Trial began 23 March of former President Atambayev and thirteen co-defendants for charges including murder, over clashes between security forces and Atambayev and his supporters at his compound in Aug 2019 that resulted in one killed and scores injured; trial adjourned until 30 March due to Atambayev’s poor health. Court 30 March announced postponement of trial after govt 24 March declared state of emergency in Bishkek and several other cities and regions to limit COVID-19 outbreak; not clear when trial will resume. Interior Ministry 30 March said police had detained 1,087 people for violating curfew imposed to contain COVID-19.
Ruling People’s Democratic Party won 1 March parliamentary elections with 50.4% of vote and 47 of 63 seats in parliament, while country’s only opposition party failed to meet 5% threshold to gain a seat; turnout reported at 86%; Radio Free Europe reported voting irregularities. Russia’s closure of its border with Tajikistan to stem spread of COVID-19, as well as wider closure of regional borders, raised concerns over economic impact of collapse in remittances from Tajik migrant workers in Russia.
Govt denied reports of COVID-19 cases at hospital near capital Ashgabat early March, but mid-month sealed off capital and restricted travel; reports of spike in food prices late month.
President Mirziyoyev 6 March signed decree abolishing state quota system for cotton production, long linked to labour abuses; Mirziyoyev also signed decrees loosening Soviet-era restrictions on internal migration and purchasing property in capital. Govt 9 March registered Uzbek NGO advocating for rights of prison inmates and U.S. humanitarian NGO Mercy Corps. Govt 7 March said it would take up observer role in Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union prior to deciding on possible membership. Supreme Court 18 March sentenced Gulnara Karimova, jailed daughter of former President Karimov, to additional thirteen years in prison for corruption and financial crimes. To limit spread of COVID-19, govt 23 March closed borders, and next day locked down capital Tashkent.
Authorities postponed general elections rerun due to disruptions caused by COVID-19 pandemic, while political tensions continued between interim President Áñez and Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party of former President Morales. After Áñez 21 March declared 14-day quarantine until 4 April in attempt to contain spread of coronavirus, Supreme Electoral Tribunal suspended presidential and legislative elections, originally scheduled for 3 May. Interim govt 17 March closed borders to non-residents and suspended all international flights in attempt to curb COVID-19 spread. MAS-dominated Legislative Assembly6 March passed motion of no-confidence against Defence Minister Luis Fernando López after he repeatedly refused to appear before chamber as part of parliamentary investigation into late 2019 post-electoral violence. Áñez dismissed López 9 March but swore him in again next day; MAS accused Áñez of “stepping on constitution”. Attorney General 6 March widened investigation against Morales over alleged terrorism to include fourteen MAS leaders.
Demonstrators returned to streets in early March to protest cost of living and inequality, but COVID-19 pandemic dampened marches and forced delay in plebiscite on constitutional reform. Demonstrations turned violent in capital Santiago and cities of Antofagasta, Temuco and Concepción 2 March, police detained 300 people. Thousands protested in Santiago’s Plaza Italia 6 March and reportedly clashed with police. Hundreds of thousands attended women’s march in Santiago and other major cities 8 March, echoing criticism of political system voiced since Oct 2019. About 70 unidentified armed individuals 9 March attacked police station in Lo Espejo near Santiago, no casualty reported and three assailants reportedly arrested. Amid coronavirus outbreak, President Piñera 18 March declared 90-day state of catastrophe; all political parties 19 March agreed to postpone plebiscite on whether to draft new constitution, originally scheduled for 26 April, to 25 Oct, and to hold second vote to elect members of constituent assembly on 11 April 2021 alongside municipal and regional elections; parliament 24 March approved new calendar.
Amid spread of COVID-19, govt closed border with Venezuela while National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas announced unilateral ceasefire. In response to coronavirus, govt 14 March increased military presence along official border crossings with Venezuela to prevent all entries, despite risk of pushing more refugees from Venezuela toward illegal crossings manned by armed groups. ELN 29 March announced unilateral ceasefire until 30 April as “humanitarian gesture”, urged govt to suspend military operations and reconsider dialogue with its negotiating team in Havana, Cuba. Prisoners in a Bogotá jail 21 March rioted over alleged lack of measures to prevent spread of virus; clashes with security forces left 23 inmates dead. Hundreds of day labourers 23 March protested across country against govt decision to impose three-week nationwide quarantine beginning 24 March. Supreme Court 5 March said it had opened investigation into allegations of vote-buying by President Duque’s Democratic Centre party during 2018 presidential elections. ELN conflict with other groups continued. In Chocó province (west), govt early March reported 61,000 people under severe threat in municipalities of Riosucio and Carmen del Darién amid ongoing violence between Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), one of country’s main drug trafficking groups, and ELN. In Norte de Santander province (north east), over 20,000 residents of municipalities of Hacarí, La Playa de Belén and Ábrego remained trapped in March as clashes between ELN and armed group linked to drug trade Ejército Popular de Liberación continued. U.S. increased pressure on govt to redouble efforts against coca cultivation, with President Trump urging Duque to use aerial spraying to destroy crops during meeting in Washington 2 March. In yearly report on Colombia released 4 March, UN human rights office raised concerns about escalating levels of violence, including 36 mass killings and 108 killings of human rights defenders and community leaders in 2019; govt disputed report’s findings.
Amid COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. charged President Maduro and several top aides with drug trafficking, opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for govt of national unity, but excluding Maduro, and Colombia closed its official border crossings with Venezuela. U.S. attorney general 26 March announced indictment of Maduro, Defence Minister Padrino López and others on drugs-related charges in major escalation of U.S. administration’s campaign to pressure Maduro to leave office. Venezuelan chief prosecutor within hours announced investigation into Guaidó in connection with arms shipment seized in Colombia two days earlier. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 31 March offered to lift sanctions in exchange for political transition; FM Jorge Arreaza immediately rejected proposal. Amid concerns over effect of coronavirus epidemic on country’s oil-dependent economy and weakened health care system, Maduro 13 March declared “state of alarm”, allowing him to restrict civil rights; govt subsequently deployed armed forces and militia members to curtail movement and suspended most international flights. International Monetary Fund (IMF) 17 March turned down Maduro’s request for $5bn to deal with COVID-19, citing lack of clarity over recognition of govt. COVID-19 spread limited opposition mobilisation; police 10 March fired tear gas to repel Guaidó’s supporters attempting to march on parliament building from which govt excluded Guaidó-aligned MPs in Jan; opposition later suspended planned demonstrations due to coronavirus. Guaidó 28 March proposed national emergency govt, excluding Maduro but with all political forces represented, to deal with epidemic. Humanitarian situation in Colombia-Venezuela border region remained dire. After Colombia 14 March closed official border crossings amid COVID-19 pandemic, VP Rodriguez described move as “grotesque irresponsibility”, accused Colombian govt of handing border control to “paramilitaries”. Previously unknown group “Venezuelan Patriot Command” claimed 7 March fire at electoral authority (CNE) warehouse in capital Caracas that destroyed voting machines for parliamentary elections due this year; CNE chairperson immediately insisted elections would go ahead; however COVID-19 emergency led to 16 March suspension of govt and opposition efforts to agree on composition of new CNE.
Govt’s anti-corruption drive continued while Constitutional Court overturned NGO decree that sparked concern over democratic backsliding. Court 2 March sentenced former president of Congress Pedro Muadi to 30 years in prison for heading criminal structure which handed out ghost jobs – salaries collected without work being performed; same day, court found 30 people, mostly former Congressional staff, guilty of using ghost jobs to launder money. President Giammattei 11 March said legal proceedings against companies over fiscal issues was “stupid persecution”, raising concern about his determination to pursue anti-corruption efforts. Constitutional Court (CC) 3 March ruled govt’s Feb decree allowing authorities to shut down NGOs on ground of disturbing public order as unconstitutional citing threats to human rights. Giammattei next day said bill would come into effect regardless of ruling but backed down 6 March after CC reiterated suspension of law and 9 March said he would present amendments in upcoming weeks so decree can enter into force. Amid regional concern over migration, govt 6 March said talks were ongoing with U.S. over implementation of July 2019 Asylum Cooperation Agreement signed by previous govt, which allows U.S. to transfer asylum seekers to Guatemala so they can apply there, including over responsibility for transfer costs. Guatemalan Institute for Migration 6 March said 823 people had arrived through scheme since Nov, with sixteen formally requesting asylum in Guatemala; govt 17 March blocked deportation flights from U.S. to prevent spread of COVID-19, after declaring state of emergency and closing borders for two weeks 16 March, but 19 March resumed reception of flights carrying Guatemalan deportees. Govt late March extended state of emergency and related curfew until 12 April.
New accusations of drug trafficking emerged against individuals close to President Hernández, while insecurity persisted. U.S. prosecutors alleged drug trafficker Geovanny Daniel Fuentes Ramírez – arrested 1 March in Miami on charges of importing drugs and weapons – in 2013 met with and gave money to President Hernández, then a Congressman, to secure military protection and access to commercial port for smuggling purposes; U.S. trial of Hernández’s cousin, detained in New York, U.S., since Feb, on drug trafficking charges continued while Hernández’s brother, found guilty of drug smuggling in Oct, remained in U.S. prison awaiting sentencing, due 15 April. Insecurity persisted: following late Feb killing of vice president of Taxi Drivers Association, taxi drivers 3 March protested against threats and extortion they face; unknown assailants 12 March killed representative of ruling National Party of Honduras in San José, Atlántida department. Amid regional concern over migration, caravan of around 100 migrants departed for U.S. 9 March, while another caravan of 500 people departed 12 March; govt 10 March suspended deportation flights from Mexico amid concerns over spread of COVID-19, though bus deportations and deportations from U.S. continued. In attempt to curb spread of coronavirus, govt 16 March closed borders and later implemented nationwide curfew into April, limiting rights such as freedom of expression. Anti-riot police 24-25 March dispersed several rallies and roadblocks sparked by lack of food.
Political focus remained on govt’s temporary deployment of military in and around Legislative Assembly (LA) in Feb, while COVID-19 pandemic sparked tensions. Prosecutors 9 March interviewed fifteen lawmakers regarding President Bukele’s recourse to army in Feb in bid to make LA approve loan for his security plan. Polls showed widespread support for Bukele’s move despite civil society and international condemnation, while his party remained well ahead in voting intentions for LA elections due in 2021. In anti-corruption efforts, legislative committee 4 March began considering whether to lift immunity of former LA head Norman Quijano over allegations of electoral fraud. Violence remained at historic lows with police reporting 2.3 daily homicides 1-25 March, compared with around 4 in late 2019; however, following 29 Feb-1 March killing of two soldiers, Bukele 2 March ordered state of emergency in prison system to prevent imprisoned gang leaders from communicating with other gang members; 10 March lifted measure citing need to prevent spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Amid epidemic, LA 14 March approved decrees declaring national emergency and state of exception, allowing govt to limit or force movement of citizens, and prohibiting mass gatherings for fifteen days, 29 March extended measures for another two weeks; civil society decried restrictions and filed five complaints with Supreme Court, which accepted to look into three. Hundreds of people 30 March lined in front of economy ministry offices in capital San Salvador to claim $300 welfare payment promised by Bukele following quarantine measures; govt closed offices, citing need to prevent spread of virus, prompting dozens to protests.
Political deadlock persisted while govt continued to harass opposition and U.S. increased pressure on President Ortega over human rights abuses. Papal nuncio Waldemar Sommertag – one facilitator of 2019 dialogue between govt and opposition Civic Alliance to resolve crisis that began 2018 – 3 March ruled out possibility of talks resuming soon, said priority was electoral reforms ahead of Nov 2021 presidential election. Following Feb launch of joint opposition platform “National Coalition”, Francisca Ramírez, peasant (campesino) leader in exile in Costa Rica, 9 March criticised coalition for not adequately representing social and student movements that were crucial to 2018 protests against govt. Harassment of opposition continued; govt supporters 3 March stormed poet and opposition figure Ernesto Cardenal’s funeral service in capital Managua, reportedly clashing with attendees and attacking journalists outside church. Media organisations Confidencial and CONNECTAS 2 March accused security forces, including military, of 30 extrajudicial killings of campesinoOct 2018-Dec 2019; security forces denied accusations. U.S. govt 5 March imposed sanctions on National Police force, including three commissioners, over accusations of human rights abuses; U.S. House of Representatives 9 March passed resolution calling on Ortega’s govt to comply with March 2019 agreements with Civic Alliance, halt repression and implement electoral reforms; resolution also urged U.S. administration and international community to hold Ortega govt accountable for human rights abuses, including through considering additional sanctions, and restrict access to foreign financing until it allows for free and fair elections. UN 10 March said over 100,000 Nicaraguans had sought refuge abroad since crisis started in 2018. Opposition criticised govt for failing to take action against COVID-19. Govt 14 March organised march in Managua in support of those affected.
Political standoff emerged after 2 March general elections, fuelling opposition protests which left at least one dead. Following vote, both incumbent President Granger’s Partnership for National Unity and Alliance for Change (APNU-AFC), relying on Afro-Guyanese community, and opposition leader Irfaan Ali’s People’s Progressive Party (PPP), supported by former President Jagdeo and Indo-Guyanese community claimed victory. Electoral commission 5 March released preliminary results giving APNU-AFC as winner; PPP same day accused electoral commission of altering results in country’s populous Region Four in favour of Granger and secured injunction against declaration of unverified results. In following days, sporadic violence pitting opposition supporters against security forces left at least one dead and several injured. Court 8 March blocked electoral commission from announcing final results and 11 March ordered recount of votes in Region Four. Without waiting for recount, electoral commission 13 March declared APNU-AFC as winner of Region Four. In joint statement, U.S., Canada, UK and EU 13 March said they would not recognise results; Organization of American States same day withdrew its observer mission, citing lack of transparency of electoral process. After both sides 15 March agreed to national recount overseen by regional bloc Caribbean Community (CARICOM), court issued temporary injunction blocking recount.
Political crisis continued as President Moïse, ruling by decree since mid-Jan, named new cabinet despite opposition’s objections, while opposition remained insistent on Moïse’s resignation. Moïse 2 March appointed environment minister and acting economy minister Joseph Jouthe as new PM, 4 March swore in new cabinet. Jouthe 4 March called for “truce” with opposition; next day, opposition platform Democratic and Popular Sector rejected truce, and other members of opposition criticised Jouthe’s “unilateral” appointment as discarding previous efforts to find common ground. After months of tensions within police over creation of union, including 9 March protests by policemen setting up roadblocks, forcibly closing public institutions and assaulting judge in Delmas commune near capital Port-au-Prince, govt 12 March allowed police to unionise. Amid local anger at kidnappings, which have spiked since Dec as gangs look for new sources of income, Boucan-Carré residents 1 March stormed police station, seized four suspected kidnappers and burnt them alive. UN 3 March called for $253mn to help 2.1mn vulnerable people. Amid fears COVID-19 outbreak could worsen dire humanitarian situation, govt 15 March closed borders and forbade flights from 66 countries, excluding the U.S..
Civil society staged large protests over femicides while criminal violence continued unabated. At least 100,000 people marched in capital Mexico City 8 March to demand end to violence against women; next day, women across country went on strike in observance of “day without women”, with some commercial establishments including banks shutting. Criminal violence continued in Guanajuato state (centre): cartel Santa Rosa de Lima 10 March clashed with state forces and blocked roads reportedly after authorities attempted to detain group’s leader José Antonio Yépez alias “El Marro”; President López Obrador next day denied effort to capture Yépez and said violence was triggered by early March arrests of group members; competition between Santa Rosa de Lima and Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG) over fuel siphoning and other illegal revenue streams continued. López Obrador met mother of former Sinaloa Cartel lead Joaquín Guzmán alias “El Chapo” in Badiraguato city, Sinaloa state 29 March, sparking outcry, with critics noting that president has not met with victims of drug cartels. U.S. authorities 11 March reported arrest of over 500 suspected CJNG operatives in U.S., lauding operation as success against cartel; however, observers noted previous mass detentions failed to curb flow of drugs into U.S. or violence in Mexico. Amid COVID-19 pandemic, govt 28 March called on citizens to stay at home, but govt’s reliance on voluntary measures apart from banning of gatherings of more than 50 people, and López Obrador’s continued travelling sparked controversy. Concerns increased over economic impact of coronavirus amid fall in global oil prices, with peso 9-13 March falling 8.3% to historical low against dollar and analysts voicing fears that state-owned oil company PEMEX may face economic blow.
As COVID-19 began to take hold in Israel, West Bank and Gaza, violence between Palestinians and Israeli forces continued at low ebb in West Bank and third set of elections in Israel failed to produce clear winner. In West Bank, Palestinian protesters clashed with Israeli forces 11 March near Beita following rumours that Israel intended to create new settlements; Israeli forces shot and killed Palestinian teenager. Palestinian Authority (PA) early March protested Israeli Defence Minister Bennett’s approval of “sovereignty road” between Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim settlement that enables Jewish settlement in E1 area. PA 6 March declared state of emergency following first reports of COVID-19 in West Bank. After Israel 13 March closed crossings into Palestinian territories, PA 18 March restricted movement across borders with Jordan and Egypt, as well as through checkpoints into Israel. U.S. 11 March changed description of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to “Arab residents” or “non-Israeli citizens” in human rights report. In Gaza, accidental explosion in Nuseirat refugee camp 5 March killed ten. Authorities in Gaza 22 March reported first COVID-19 cases. Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh 2 March met Russian FM Lavrov in Moscow, and Islamic Jihad’s leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah led delegation to Moscow following week. In Israel’s 2 March elections, PM Netanyahu fell short of securing majority in parliament. President Rivlin 16 March tasked Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz with forming new govt. Gantz split Blue and White party, leading half of it into negotiating national emergency govt, in which for eighteen months premiership would rotate between Netanyahu, who would go first, and Gantz. Govt 15 March postponed Netanyahu’s trial to 24 May citing COVID-19.
Govt’s measures to slow spread of COVID-19 dealt further blow to economy already in dire straits. To prevent spread of virus, govt 15 March declared state of mobilisation including closure of airport 18 March and of many businesses until 29 March and deployed army and riot police to enforce social distancing; 26 March extended measures till 12 April. Lebanese Lira continued to depreciate, 6 March surpassing 2,700 to the dollar on black market. PM Diyab 7 March declared Lebanon will default on foreign debt payment, deciding against payment of Eurobonds maturing 9 March. In televised speech, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah 13 March said it may approve assistance from International Monetary Fund on certain conditions, moderating previous statements by party representatives that indicated strong rejection. In defiance of instructions by Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni, Lebanese banks 16 March announced they would close until 29 March during nationwide mobilisation to contain COVID-19. By 30 March some banks opened branches for limited hours and for non-cash operations only, while others were receiving clients on appointment.