CrisisWatch is our global conflict tracker, a tool designed to help decision-makers prevent deadly violence by keeping them up-to-date with developments in over 70 conflicts and crises, identifying trends and alerting them to risks of escalation and opportunities to advance peace.
February saw a twofold deterioration in the Syrian conflict – the Assad regime stepped up its brutal bombardment of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, and regional and global powers increased their direct interventions in Syria, raising the risk of worse fighting in coming weeks. Elsewhere political polarisation between governments and opposition movements was rife. In Bangladesh, the conviction of opposition leader Khaleda Zia sparked protests, which could worsen if she is barred from participating in elections, while in the Maldives the government launched a crackdown on the judiciary and declared a state of emergency. In Venezuela, formal talks between the government and the opposition broke down, deepening the political impasse. In Guinea, alleged electoral fraud in local elections sparked opposition-led protests and violent clashes with security forces, while in Tanzania the killing of two opposition politicians highlighted shrinking political space. In Cameroon, deadly clashes between security forces and Anglophone separatists continued and could well worsen around senatorial elections planned for 25 March.
Our President Robert Malley's monthly column to accompany the CrisisWatch conflict tracker for February/March 2018 looks at how outside actors are now openly fighting over Syria, not for Syria. He also flags more bad news from Venezuela, and our upcoming report on what to do about it.
In February, the conflict in Syria grew yet more abysmal. First, the regime unleashed a horrifying bombardment on Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel-held area near Damascus, reportedly killing hundreds. Rebels also shelled parts of the capital under regime control, causing more deaths. With the UN’s and Russia’s efforts to organise ceasefires having scant effect and regime forces launching a ground offensive, the suffering is likely to continue. Second, outside actors – regional and global adversaries sucked into the conflict – directly confronted each other, significantly raising the risk of more damaging fighting among Syrian and non-Syrian forces in coming weeks. In the north west, Turkey pursued its fight against affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Afrin district; fighting there will likely intensify if it pushes closer toward the city itself. In the east, a strike by U.S. forces against pro-regime forces, killing scores of Russian mercenaries, could augur worse clashes along the Euphrates. Elsewhere, Israeli jets bombed Iranian targets in response to growing tensions on Syria’s southern border. As we have argued, to prevent a new phase in Syria’s war involving Israel, Russia should act as broker to bolster the de-escalation agreement that keeps Iran-backed forces away from Syria’s 1974 armistice line with Israel.
In Bangladesh, tensions between the ruling Awami League and main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) increased as BNP leader Khaleda Zia was found guilty of corruption charges and sentenced to five years in jail, prompting protests across the country. There are fears that the confrontation could worsen if Zia’s petition for bail is rejected and she is barred from contesting elections later this year. As we note in a new report, Bangladesh’s earlier political polarisation helped create conditions for a jihadist resurgence. Another violent election cycle, resulting from the Awami League’s marginalisation of the BNP – including Zia’s conviction in February – would again benefit the jihadist fringe. Rather than cracking down on political rivals, the government should be building political consensus on how to tackle Bangladesh’s security threats.
In the Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen defied the country’s Supreme Court after it overturned the prison sentence of exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed and ordered the release of other jailed opposition leaders, saying their trials had been “politically motivated”. The government arrested two Supreme Court judges and declared a state of emergency, which the UN’s human rights chief condemned as an “all-out assault on democracy”.
In Cameroon’s Southwest and Northwest regions, clashes between Anglophone separatists and security forces and attacks by both sides left at least 28 dead, including security forces, armed separatists and civilians. The confrontation, which started as protests by Anglophone teachers and lawyers, is rapidly morphing into an armed insurgency. In this fraught atmosphere, senatorial elections planned for 25 March could spark more violence. A direct dialogue between the government and Anglophone community leaders is critical to calm the crisis, particularly ahead of October presidential polls.
Local elections in Guinea, the first since 2005, triggered violence after the opposition accused President Condé and the ruling party of manipulating the vote. Anger over the polls and intensifying strike action led to clashes between opposition supporters and strikers on one side and security forces on the other that left at least ten people dead. In Tanzania, the killing of two opposition politicians marked a deterioration in a climate of rising political repression.
Formal talks aimed at ending the standoff between Venezuela’s government and opposition broke down on 7 February following the government’s unilateral announcement in January that it would hold early presidential elections in April. The Lima Group of fourteen nations that has been pushing for a solution to the Venezuela crisis expressed its “firm rejection” of the election plan, saying that the election would lack legitimacy and credibility without adequate guarantees.
In Sahel region in north attacks on security forces continued: unidentified assailants ambushed gendarme patrol in Baraboule district, Soum province 29 Jan and attacked police patrol from Déou district police station, Oudalan province 3 Feb; one assailant killed in gunfight. President Kaboré late Jan reshuffled cabinet, notably replacing Simon Compaoré with Clément Sawadogo as security minister. Trial of Generals Gilbert Diendéré and Djibrill Bassolé and 82 co-accused for involvement in Sept 2015 failed coup attempt opened 27 Feb. U.S. designated Ansarul Islam as terrorist group 20 Feb, blocking foreign assets under U.S. jurisdiction and prohibiting U.S. citizens from engaging in business with it. At summit in Brussels 23 Feb, donors increased pledges for G5 Sahel joint force to total of €414mn, with EU increasing its contribution from €50mn to €100mn.
In run-up to May referendum on constitutional changes that would allow President Nkurunziza to run in presidential elections until 2034, govt imprisoned opponents and incited violence: video on social media showed local official in Butihinda commune in north east calling on population to denounce “No” campaigners, promising their teeth would be broken. UN Secretary-General’s report 6 Feb criticised referendum for ignoring will of opposition; Burundian mission to UN called report violation of sovereignty and thousands demonstrated against it in Bujumbura 10 Feb incited by mayor. Registration for referendum and 2020 elections took place 8-17 Feb, some people reportedly forced to register; electoral commission 20 Feb said 5,000,742 people registered. After East African Community (EAC) summit 23 Feb, EAC facilitator of inter-Burundian talks, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, denied rumours that he would resign; Mkapa to continue EAC mediation, despite lack of dialogue between govt and opposition. UN refugee agency 6 Feb launched appeal to sustain the 430,000 Burundian refugees in neighbouring countries. UN Development Programme 20 Feb expected one in three Burundians to be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2018 (20% increase on 2017 number).
In Southwest and Northwest regions, security forces continued to clash with Anglophone separatists and attack civilians; separatists could intensify attacks around senatorial elections planned for 25 March. Security forces killed civilians and burnt houses in Bole Bakundu, Southwest 1 Feb. In clashes and attacks in Northwest 1-8 Feb three security personnel and nine others killed. Separatists killed three gendarmes in Kembong, Southwest and abducted local official in Batibo, Northwest 11 Feb. Incidents involving security forces left three people dead: one in Banga Bakundu, Southwest 14 Feb, one in Angie, Northwest 14 Feb and one in Ndongo, Southwest 17 Feb. Separatist armed group Tigers of Ambazonia 16 Feb killed one gendarme in Kumba and another in Bebensi 18 Feb, both Southwest. Marines killed four armed men in Mundemba, Southwest 20 Feb. One gendarme killed in Munyengue, Southwest 24 Feb. Security forces killed armed separatist and several civilians in Ebonji, Southwest 25 Feb. Separatist armed group Ambazonia Defence Forces abducted local official in Batibo, Northwest 25 Feb. Soldiers in pursuit of separatists crossed into Cross River state, Nigeria 26 Feb, reportedly killing at least one civilian there. New separatist armed groups formed: Banso Resistance Army and Donga Mantung Liberation Force. Separatist Interim Govt of Ambazonia Governing Council 19 Feb warned against holding senatorial elections, planned for 25 March, in Northwest and Southwest. EU, U.S., France and Equatorial Guinea called for dialogue to end violence and UK minister visited 13-14 Feb urging de-escalation. In Far North, Boko Haram (BH) continued attacks: militants killed military officer in Limani 1 Feb and 25 other people in multiple places 3-24 Feb. Security forces killed BH suicide bomber, while another detonated explosives killing only himself in Kordo, near Kolofata 11 Feb. President Biya 7 Feb scheduled senatorial elections for 25 March; opposition Mouvement pour la Renaissance du Cameroun (MRC) 19 Feb decided to boycott on grounds that most councillors and mayors who will vote belong to ruling party. Main opposition party Social Democratic Front 24 Feb elected MP Joshua Osih as candidate for presidential elections later in 2018.
In north west, attacks by armed groups in villages between Paoua and Boguila left several people dead early Feb and ex-Seleka factions attacked village between Paoua and Pende early Feb. Ex-Seleka faction National Movement for the Liberation of the Central African Republic released 110 captives in Bémankoura near Paoua 19 Feb. Unidentified assailants shot dead six education workers (two women and four men) en route to Markounda on border with Chad 25 Feb. In capital Bangui, clashes between armed groups from majority Muslim PK5 neighbourhood 22-23 Feb left at least three people dead. 101 former rebels integrated into security forces 7 Feb. Bangui criminal court late Feb sentenced eleven ex-Seleka militiamen to forced labour in perpetuity for charges including rebellion. Facilitation Panel of African Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation led by African Union held third round of consultations in Bangui 16 Feb, including with fourteen rebel leaders.
Alleged Boko Haram (BH) militants ambushed army patrol near Nigerian border 21 Feb killing two soldiers, first reported BH attack in Chad since May 2017. Public Security Minister Ahmat Bachir 6 Feb suspended for two months ten parties that tried to organise protest march; of which five reinstated following appeals. At summit in Brussels 23 Feb, donors increased pledges for G5 Sahel joint force to total of €414mn, with EU increasing its contribution from €50mn to €100mn. Following talks in Doha 20 Feb, govt and Qatar said they had resumed diplomatic relations, broken off in Aug 2017.
Crackdown by security forces on anti-govt protests led by Catholic Church-affiliated Comité Laïc de Coordination 25 Feb left two people dead, one in Kinshasa and one in Mbandaka, capital of Equateur province in north west. Platform of protestant churches (ECC) 19 Feb reaffirmed support for elections and electoral commission. Catholic bishops concluded congress 15-17 Feb expressing concerns over violent repression of protests and increased insecurity, while demanding full implementation of Dec 2016 Saint Sylvester agreement and international certification of new electronic voting machines. Conflict between Hema and Lendu communities escalated in Dungu area, Ituri province leaving 60 to 100 people dead in 2018 and forcing some 27,000 people to flee to Uganda mid-Feb; govt and UN mission (MONUSCO) reinforced their presence in area. Security forces repelled attack by alleged Kamuina Nsapu militants in Lombelu, Kasai Central province in centre 26 Feb, clash reportedly left one soldier and fourteen others dead. Army 19 Feb captured camp of armed group Allied Democratic Forces and killed one commander in Beni area, North Kivu. Clashes between ethnic Hutu on one side and Nande and Hundu groups on other left sixteen civilians and seven militiamen dead in Rutshuru territory, North Kivu 25-28 Feb. Army 15 Feb reported killing 48 members of armed group Mai Mai Yakutumba in South Kivu province, forcing some combatants to flee to Burundi and recapturing large areas since launch of new offensive late Jan. After alleged bandits killed three people in separate incidents in Bukavu, South Kivu 15 Feb, residents next day launched large-scale protests against authorities for failing to counter growing insecurity. Rwanda requested investigation into incursion into Rwandan territory by Congolese army 13 Feb, during which three Congolese soldiers killed. Tanzanian authorities 2 Feb arrested and extradited to DRC self-proclaimed General John Tshibangu who threatened Congolese govt with armed uprising. Regional bloc Southern African Development Community 3 Feb said it would open liaison office in Kinshasa.
Court dissolved main opposition party Citizens for Innovation for “undermining state security” 26 Feb and sentenced 21 out of 147 party supporters accused of “rebellion” to more than 30 years in prison.
PM Desalegn 15 Feb said he would resign from post and leadership of ruling coalition to ease reforms, but would stay in power until successor identified; amid anti-govt protests, govt 16 Feb reimposed state of emergency, in place from Oct 2016 to Aug 2017. Following govt’s early Jan announcement that it would pardon some political prisoners, attorney general 8 Feb announced pardon of 746 prisoners, mostly detained during 2015-2016 unrest in Oromia and Amhara regions. Anti-govt protesters in several towns in Oromia mid-Feb demanded release of more opposition leaders. Oromo politician Bekele Gerba and several others released 13 Feb. Ethnic Oromo party Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), member of ruling coalition, 21 Feb elected former army intelligence officer Abiy Ahmed as its leader, signalling intention to nominate him for PM. Somali regional govt 22 Feb said it had released 1,500 more prisoners.
Govt 8 Feb rejoined Commonwealth almost five years after former President Jammeh withdrew.
After opposition accused ruling party of fraud in 4 Feb local polls, opposition supporters and strikers clashed with security forces throughout month, at least ten killed. Local elections held for first time since 2005 4 Feb. Opposition next day accused President Condé and his supporters of fraud. In following days, opposition supporters clashed with Condé loyalists and security forces in several places including capital Conakry: young man killed in clashes in Kindia 5 Feb, five children killed in fire started during fighting in Dinguiraye 6 Feb. After teachers resumed strike 12 Feb, clashes between students and security forces in Conakry left two youths and one gendarme dead 12 and 19 Feb respectively. Electoral commission announced results 24 Feb with ruling party Rally for the Guinean People (RPG) winning majority; opposition disputed results. During general strike 26 Feb called by opposition, teachers and Guinea General Union of Workers (UGTG), opposition supporters clashed again with security forces, one protestor killed. Talks between govt and teachers’ union began 28 Feb, to continue 1 March.
For undermining efforts to implement Oct 2016 Conakry agreement, regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) 6 Feb applied sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on nineteen politicians and businessmen loyal to President Vaz: eight of fifteen dissident members of African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), six MPs from opposition Social Renovation Party (PRS) and five others close to him, including his son Emerson Goudiaby Vaz. Thousands of Vaz supporters protested against sanctions in capital Bissau 18 Feb.
Govt continued crackdown on opposition after opposition leader Raila Odinga staged his own swearing-in ceremony as “people’s president” 30 Jan. High Court 1 Feb overturned govt’s shutdown of some private television channels that covered ceremony; two resumed broadcasting 5 Feb, two others 8 Feb. Police 2 Feb arrested opposition lawyer Miguna Miguna, who played prominent role in ceremony; authorities 6 Feb charged Miguna with treason, sparking clashes between opposition supporters and police in Kisumu in west, one bystander killed. Same day High Court ordered govt to stop proceedings against Miguna until authorities had brought him to Nairobi court; govt same day deported Miguna, describing him as “prohibited immigrant” due to his dual Kenyan-Canadian citizenship. High Court 15 Feb revoked Miguna’s deportation, declaring it illegal; decision on whether Miguna can return expected in March. Authorities 3 Feb arrested opposition MP George Aladwa. Govt prevented two prominent Odinga supporters, senator and financier, from leaving country 19 Feb; allowed them to travel next day. Human Rights Watch 25 Feb reported that police and armed gangs killed at least 37 people Sept-Nov 2017 around 26 Oct presidential election rerun.
Inter-ethnic attacks continued in north and centre: armed men attacked ethnic Doosaak village in Gao region in north 2 Feb, killing four people and abducting three others; after ethnic Dogon hunters killed ethnic Fulani herder in dispute over well late Jan, armed men attacked Tonou village, Mopti region in centre 10 Feb, killing three Dogon. Civilian vehicle triggered improvised mine in Mopti region between Dera and Konna 9 Feb, six people killed. French Barkhane force pursued search and kill strategy against jihadist groups: strike in Ménaka region in east 8 Feb fatally wounded Sidiham Ag Tahama, lieutenant of Ansar Dine’s leader Iyad Ag Ghaly; strike near Algerian border 13 Feb killed another of his lieutenants and 24 alleged combatants. Two French soldiers killed near Indelimane in north east 21 Feb when their armoured vehicle triggered mine, claimed 23 Feb by jihadist coalition Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM). Six Malian soldiers and four UN peacekeepers killed when their vehicles triggered improvised mines in Mopti region 27 and 28 Feb respectively. Opposition party and families accused army of abducting seven civilians at Nangarabakan, Ségou region 21 Feb and later killing them; govt acknowledged civilians had been killed and said it had launched investigation. At summit in Brussels 23 Feb, donors increased pledges for G5 Sahel joint force to total of €414mn, with EU increasing its contribution from €50mn to €100mn.
As result of ongoing talks between govt and armed opposition group Renamo and conceding to its demands for greater powers in central provinces, President Nyusi 7 Feb said he would propose constitutional changes enabling political parties that win provincial parliamentary elections to select regional governors, for approval by president. In second face-to-face meeting since Dec 2016 truce, Nyusi and Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama at Namadjiwa, 40km from Gorongosa in centre 19 Feb discussed disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of Renamo members and incorporation of its officers into armed forces.
In south east, armed men abducted chief of Assaga village, less than 10km from Diffa. At summit of G5 Sahel (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania) in Niamey 6 Feb, President Issoufou took over presidency from Malian President Keita for one year and Nigerien Maman Sidikou took over as secretary general. At summit in Brussels 23 Feb, donors increased pledges for G5 Sahel joint force to total of €414mn, with EU increasing its contribution from €50mn to €100mn. Media outlets including radio stations, newspapers and TV channels suspended broadcasting 5 Feb to denounce govt pressure on journalists, including tighter financial scrutiny.
Boko Haram (BH) insurgents abducted over 100 female students from school in Yobe state as military continued counter-insurgency operations in north east and herder-farmer violence continued, mostly in Benue and Adamawa states. Military 14 Feb said it had killed 186 insurgents since mid-Dec and taken “total control” of former BH stronghold Sambisa forest; 26 Feb said Nigerian and Cameroonian forces killed 35 militants and rescued 906 civilian hostages in joint operation along common border. BH continued attacks: three suicide bombers struck market in Konduga near Borno state capital, Maiduguri 16 Feb, killing at least 21 people; insurgents raided girls’ school in Dapchi town, Yobe state 19 Feb, 110 girls missing, apparently abducted. Two soldiers died from wounds inflicted by BH suicide bombers in Sambisa forest 27 Feb. Federal High Court 16 Feb released 475 people held, some since 2010, on suspicion of involvement with BH, for rehabilitation by state govts. Govt 19 Feb said 205 people convicted for BH involvement, jailed for between three and 60 years. To suppress herder-farmer violence and rural banditry, army 15 Feb launched Operation Ayem Akpatuma (“Cat Race”) to run until 31 March in six states (Benue, Taraba, Kogi, Nasarawa, Kaduna and Niger) but violence continued: Benue state Governor Ortom 26 Feb said herders invaded Guma area previous week, killing over 60 people; herders 27 Feb attacked Gwamba village near Numan, Adamawa state, killing at least seven people; troops responded, killing ten herders. Violence flared in north-west and north-central zones: bandits 14 Feb attacked Birane village, Zamfara state, killing over 40 people; Christian and Muslim youth 26 Feb clashed in Kasuwan Magani community, Kaduna state, at least twelve killed.
Army 15 Feb said it had killed three Congolese soldiers during 13 Feb skirmish along shared border; both sides blamed each other for instigating clash. Police 23 Feb said they had killed five Congolese refugees since 20 Feb during protests by refugees against UN’s cuts in food rations in Kiziba refugee camp in west; UN 26 Feb said police had killed eleven refugees and urged govt investigation.
Al-Shabaab continued to clash with govt forces and troops from African Union mission (AMISOM) in Lower Shabelle region, kept up targeted killings in capital Mogadishu and intensified attacks in Puntland in north east. In Lower Shabelle, Al-Shabaab attacked and claimed to have temporarily captured from govt forces Afgoye town, about 30km from Mogadishu 10 Feb. Army and AMISOM recaptured from Al-Shabaab Awdheegle town, about 60km from Mogadishu 11 Feb, but withdrew next day. In Mogadishu, Al-Shabaab militants killed two army officers 14 Feb. Twin car bombings claimed by Al-Shabaab targeted presidential palace and hotel in Mogadishu 23 Feb, killing at least 38. Exchange of fire between AMISOM and Somali army troops at checkpoint in Mogadishu same day left three Somali soldiers dead; both forces blamed each other for incident. In Puntland, militants attacked police station in Bosaso 6 Feb, injuring four officers. At meeting of National Security Council 6 Feb, federal govt and regional states announced joint committee on integrating regional state forces into Somali National Army and agreed on roadmap for Federal Policing Model and temporary resource-sharing agreement. Federal govt 19 Feb appointed new heads of police and national intelligence, posts vacant since President Farmajo sacked predecessors following 28 Oct lorry bomb in Mogadishu. Reacting to VAT hikes announced by federal govt 18 Feb, businessmen launched boycott of Mogadishu’s port and called for strike in Bakara Market, country’s largest. U.S. said it conducted three airstrikes against Al-Shabaab: one near Jilib, Middle Juba region 19 Feb killing three militants, one near Jamaame, Lower Juba region 21 Feb killing four militants, and another near Jilib 26 Feb killing two militants.
Standoff continued between Somaliland and Puntland forces following 8 Jan clash over disputed border.
Relenting to pressure from ruling party African National Congress (ANC), President Zuma resigned 14 Feb. Next day parliament elected ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa to presidency. Ramaphosa introduced interim cabinet 26 Feb, replacing many Zuma loyalists.
At close of peace talks 5-16 Feb, regional bloc International Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and African Union threatened punitive actions against parties violating Dec cessation of hostilities; Troika (Norway, UK and U.S.) 19 Feb called on all parties to observe ceasefire. U.S. 2 Feb announced unilateral arms embargo on S Sudan. During talks IGAD proposed draft power-sharing agreement between current transitional govt and opposition forces that would create four deputy vice president positions, expand parliament and grant 51% representation in certain state institutions to transitional govt (including opposition currently in govt) and 49% to other opposition groups. Govt criticised proposal saying four deputy vice presidents was unworkable. After fighting near govt-held Nasir town in north east 12 Feb, opposition walked out of talks for one day. Rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar said clashes between its members and govt forces in Yei River state in south 26 Feb left rebel commander dead; govt said clashes between rival opposition groups.
Govt and rebel faction Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu met for talks in Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa 1-2 Feb, first since Oct 2016, but failed to secure cessation of hostilities agreement, hitting deadlock over humanitarian access to Two Areas (S Kordofan and Blue Nile states). SPLM-N al-Hilu 30 Jan extended its unilateral ceasefire for four months in Two Areas ahead of talks. Rival SPLM-N faction led by Malik Agar protested exclusion from talks. Protests against bread price rises continued, mainly in Khartoum; after EU and U.S. embassies condemned harsh govt crackdown, govt 19 Feb released 80 detained protesters, though hundreds remained imprisoned. Govt delegation met Egyptian counterparts in Cairo 8 Feb further de-escalating tensions between countries which flared late Dec-early Jan and agreeing to curb hostile media campaigns, set up mechanisms for high-level dialogue and reaffirm commitment to principles agreed March 2015 regarding dispute over Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Amid rising political repression, unidentified attackers killed two opposition politicians. Unidentified assailants abducted official of main opposition party Chadema and party supporter in Dar es Salaam on coast 12 Feb; official found dead 14 Feb and kidnappers released party supporter with injuries. Some 100 civil society groups 21 Feb signed statement alleging “unprecedented” rights abuses, including “attacks, torture and forced disappearances” of activists, journalists and politicians. Unidentified attackers killed with machetes Chadema councillor at his home in Morogoro, about 200km west of Dar es Salaam 22 Feb; Chadema deputy secretary general described killing as “political assassination” part of assault on opposition “by the government … and the police”. Court 26 Feb sentenced two Chadema politicians to five months in prison for criticising President Magufuli.
After delays and another opposition protest 3 Feb, talks between govt and opposition coalition took place in capital Lomé 19 Feb facilitated by Ghanaian President Akufo-Addo. During talks, govt and opposition said they would suspend protests and, as confidence-building measure, govt said it would release 45 of 92 people detained for involvement in political demonstrations; 41 released by 23 Feb. Talks resumed briefly 23 Feb but made little progress, and were adjourned again for at least two weeks.
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of opposition party Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) died of cancer 14 Feb aged 65. MDC-T national executive council next day chose Nelson Chamisa, one of three party vice presidents, to be acting president for twelve months; other vice presidents challenging Chamisa’s leadership, Thokozani Khupe and Elias Mudzuri, did not attend meeting. MDC-T consultative meeting 23 Feb chose Chamisa, former leader of MDC-T youth wing, as presidential candidate in 2018 elections, other senior leaders criticised Chamisa for unconstitutional power grab. MDC-T youth militia known as “Order of the Vanguard”, allegedly Chamisa supporters, assaulted MDC-T leaders at Tsvangirai’s funeral 20 Feb. After policemen shot dead three people in Harare 22 Feb, they used teargas to disperse crowds of protestors who set fire to vehicles. Police arrested 61 students and used teargas and water cannon to disperse protestors at Bulawayo’s National University of Science and Technology 26 Feb.
Unusually intense winter violence by all sides continued. In west, Taliban continued encroachment on Farah provincial capital, reportedly capturing four checkpoints and killing 35 police 19 Feb; over twenty others killed in nearby district 24 Feb. Taliban activities increased in northern Faryab and southern Helmand provinces. Two suicide attacks carried out in Helmand’s Nad Ali district and Lashkarga 24 Feb; in Greshk district, four national intelligence operatives gunned down sixteen colleagues 11 Feb. BBC 30 Jan reported Taliban had active presence in 70% of Afghanistan; govt denied. U.S. and Afghan forces (ANSF) operations and air strikes continued, reportedly killing at least twenty villagers in Kandahar’s Band-i Timor district 31 Jan-1 Feb. U.S. military dropped 24 guided bombs in four days against Taliban and small Chinese militant group in Badakhshan province early Feb. Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) claimed suicide attack on intel centre in Kabul that killed two people 24 Feb. UN mission 15 Feb released report citing 10,453 civilian casualties in 2017, including 3,438 deaths: 9% less than 2016, but with marked rise in casualties from suicide attacks and airstrikes. 42% of casualties attributed to Taliban, 20% to govt forces, 2% to international forces. Taliban in open letter 14 Feb appealed to U.S. public and politicians to pressure their govt into ending war, saying they were ready for negotiations. Opening international peace conference in Kabul 28 Feb, President Ghani said govt willing to recognise Taliban as legitimate political party and proposed starting talks without preconditions, reviewing constitution as part of a roadmap to peace. Discord within National Unity Govt continued, while row brewed over rollout of new ID cards. Defiant Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Nur 11 Feb announced massive anti-govt rallies before cancelling them later. Samangan Governor Abdul Karim Khadam 18 Feb announced he would also defy govt order dismissing him, before agreeing to step down next day.
Tensions between ruling Awami League and opposition Bangladeshi National Party (BNP) increased as Dhaka court 8 Feb convicted BNP leader Khaleda Zia of corruption and sentenced her to five years’ prison, with fears that confrontation with govt could turn violent if Zia is denied bail in March and also barred from contesting next election. Prior to verdict, paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion late Jan-early Feb arrested several senior BNP figures. Authorities 6 Feb banned all rallies on day of verdict and 7 Feb prevented BNP supporters entering capital Dhaka; 9-10 Feb arrested over 300 BNP supporters across country amid largely peaceful protests. Seeking to overturn Zia’s conviction, BNP mid-Feb launched agitation plans including hunger strike and petitions, said it would not contest late 2018 general election unless Zia released and allowed to participate. Zia 20 Feb appealed verdict in high court and petitioned for bail; high court 22 Feb agreed to hear appeal against verdict; decision on bail petition pending. In separate graft case, court 26 Feb extended bail to Zia till 13 March. Govt 12 Feb issued warrants in two other graft cases against Zia. PM Hasina 31 Jan reiterated rejection of BNP demands to hold election under neutral caretaker govt; instead outlined framework for smaller “polls-time” govt (to govern during election period) with similar limited jurisdiction to previous neutral caretaker system, which was abolished in 2011. Chief election commissioner 2 February said national election would not be inclusive without BNP participation. Repatriation of Rohingya refugees, scheduled to start 23 Jan, remained stalled; state Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam 12 Feb said govt had signed deal to involve UN in repatriation process. Govt 29 Jan approved draft new Digital Security Act, which journalists and activists warned could be used to silence dissent, particularly as it retained provision banning online publication or transmission of material that may “prejudice” image of state, “deteriorate” law and order, or offend religious beliefs.
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 58 out of 62 Senate seats at 25 Feb election conducted by MPs and commune councillors, which members of dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) called a “sham”. National Assembly 14 Feb approved constitutional amendments and changes to criminal code, including lèse majesté law carrying punishment of up to five years’ prison and fine for insulting monarchy; justice minister said it will apply to media outlets carrying defamatory content and to journalists. Other amendments include requiring political parties to “place the country and nation’s interests first” and forbidding individuals from “undermining the country’s interest”. Senate approved changes 21 Feb. Bipartisan group of U.S. senators 8 Feb introduced Cambodia Accountability and Return on Investment (CARI) Act imposing conditions on assistance to Cambodia, expanding visa ban on officials, freezing assets of senior officials, and prohibiting debt relief, until “free and fair parliamentary elections have taken place” including “full and unimpeded participation” of dissolved opposition party. In 21 Feb speech, Hun Sen promised to pursue and beat up protesters if they burn effigies of him at March summit of ASEAN leaders in Sydney, Australia. Germany 22 Feb suspended preferential visas for private travel by members of Cambodia’s govt in response to its crackdown on opposition and civil society, and encouraged other EU member states to impose similar measures. EU Foreign Affairs Council 26 Feb expressed deep concern over “recent worrying political developments and the continuing deterioration of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, including the escalating repression of the opposition, media and civil society”.
Malaysia reported 10 Feb it had received extradition request from Beijing for eleven ethnic Uighur Chinese who were detained in Malaysia after escaping from a Thai jail in Nov. U.S. called on Malaysia to offer temporary protection to detainees, “who may be subject to torture or persecution if returned against their will”; Human Rights Watch called on Malaysia not to return Uighurs to China, citing threat of imprisonment and torture; Malaysian Bar Association warned that extradition would violate international law. Radio Free Asia reported 7 Feb authorities in Kashgar, southern Xinjiang, requiring unemployed Uighur men to attend political indoctrination classes. Human Rights Watch 27 Feb reported that authorities have deployed big data “predictive policing program” in Xinjiang and detained some individuals flagged as potential threats. Govt announced three-year poverty eradication plan focusing on 22 poorest counties in Xinjiang. In China’s north-west Gansu province, authorities in Linxia county reportedly banned Hui Muslim children from attending religious education during Chinese New Year.
Three Chinese coast guard ships 21 Feb patrolled waters near disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; Japan warned them to leave area.
Security forces clashed with Maoist rebels on several occasions, including 18 Feb clash that killed two soldiers and some twenty suspected Maoists in Sukma district, Chhattisgarh state.
Militants and Indian security forces clashed throughout month, including 10 Feb militant attack on army base in Indian-administered Kashmir killing at least five soldiers and one civilian. India 12 Feb claimed it had evidence attack was carried out by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad and threatened retaliation against Pakistan; Pakistan 13 Feb said “any Indian aggression” would be met with “equal and proportionate response”. Gunmen 13 Feb attacked police base in Srinagar (south); gunmen and one soldier killed in ensuing standoff. Suspected militants 25 Feb killed two policemen in separate incidents in Indian-administered Kashmir. India and Pakistan traded fire across Line of Control (LoC) on several occasions, including 19 Feb clash which Pakistan said killed one Pakistani civilian and two Indian soldiers. Pakistani PM Abbasi 21 Jan confirmed his govt plans to take control of anti-India group Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s (JuD, formerly Lashkar-e-Tayyaba) charity operations; Pakistani President Hussain 9 Feb approved expansion of banned terrorist groups list to include groups sanctioned by UN Security Council, including JuD and its Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation; Pakistani govt mid-Feb said it had seized hundreds of JuD properties and madrasas (see Pakistan).
Group of religious leaders, human rights activists, researchers and lawyers 20 Feb released joint statement expressing alarm over spate of violent attacks against places of worship around country, including 11 Feb sword attack on Catholic church that injured four people. Court 6 Feb sentenced terrorist Suryadi Mas’ud, alias Montilla Perez, to ten years’ jail for procuring firearms in Philippines and involvement in funding terrorism. Zainal Anshori, head of Islamic State (ISIS)-linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, sentenced for seven years 10 Feb by East Jakarta District Court for plans to smuggle weapons from southern Philippines; his group believed to be responsible for several terror plots in Indonesia including deadly Jan 2016 attack in Jakarta.
Pyongyang sent 47-strong sporting delegation of athletes and cheerleaders and delegation of senior officials to attend Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea, part of thawing of bilateral relations between Koreas. Delegation included Kim Jong-un’s sister Yo-jong and titular head of state Kim Yong-nam, highest ranking North Korean official ever to visit South. Start of games saw intense period of multilateral diplomacy: meeting with South Korean President Moon 8 Feb, Chinese Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng pledged Chinese diplomatic and practical support for inter-Korean dialogue; Moon 9 Feb met U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, during which they both reaffirmed policy of pressure plus engagement; same day met Kim Yong-nam at pre-games reception also attended by Pence, who ignored North Korean delegation. Moon 10 Feb hosted entire North Korean delegation at presidential residence, during which Kim Yo-jong delivered letter inviting Moon to attend inter-Korean summit in North Korea at unspecified time; Moon 17 Feb said it was too early to think about summit. Despite push by Moon for dialogue between North Korea and U.S., North Korean delegation 10 Feb reportedly cancelled meeting with Pence scheduled for same day because they were unhappy with Pence’s strong denunciation of North Korea’s human rights record and threats of further sanctions. U.S. 23 Feb announced largest round yet of sanctions against North Korea. Other inter-Korean exchanges included joint pop concerts and cheerleading and taekwondo performances; North and South marched under unified flag during 9 Feb Olympics opening ceremony and fielded joint ice hockey team. North Korean delegation 25 Feb returned to South Korea for closing ceremony, met Moon and said Pyongyang is open to talks with U.S.; U.S. said any talks must lead to Pyongyang ending its nuclear and missile programs. Observers expect resumption of joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises late March to put North-South rapprochement under strain.
Efforts against violent extremism and Islamic State (ISIS) continued. Home affairs ministry 19 Feb ordered immigration department to conduct random checks at airports in Sabah to prevent potential terrorists from entering country, amid concerns that individuals linked to ISIS and from Philippine Abu Sayyaf terrorist group have been entering Sabah from Mindanao before flying to West Malaysia. In series of operations 25 Jan-6 Feb in Johor and Sabah, police arrested ten men and a woman for alleged ISIS links; seven Filipinos among those arrested, including two leading Abu Sayyaf figures, one accused of recruiting Malaysians and Indonesians to group.
Govt launched crackdown on opposition and judiciary after Supreme Court (SC) overturned prison sentence of exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed and ordered release of other jailed opposition leaders. SC 1 Feb ruled trials of Nasheed and other opposition leaders were “politically motivated” and in violation of constitution, ordered immediate release of those in prison and fresh trials; opposition welcomed ruling and staged demonstrations calling for resignation of President Yameen for alleged corruption. SC also nullified verdict which had stripped parliamentary seats from twelve MPs who defected from Yameen’s ruling party in July; their reinstatement would give opposition majority in parliament. Opposition supporters protested in following days after govt refused to release prisoners, sparking clashes with police in capital Malé. Yameen 5 Feb declared fifteen-day state of emergency, during which authorities arrested two SC judges, former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and others; govt said it had put down coup, while Nasheed urged India to intervene with military to free judges and political prisoners, and for U.S. to impose sanctions. India called for govt to respect SC verdict; China called on parties to resolve differences “through dialogue and negotiation”. Remaining SC judges 6 Feb reversed 1 Feb decision. UN 7 Feb described govt emergency rule as “all-out assault on democracy”. Thousands joined anti-govt protests across country 16 Feb, clashing with police. Parliament 20 Feb approved extension of state of emergency for 30 days in vote boycotted by opposition, who said vote was “illegal” due to lack of quorum; Supreme Court 26 Feb said extension valid. EU 26 Feb threatened “targeted measures” if situation does not improve.
Return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh remained stalled despite bilateral agreement on procedures; number of Rohingya refugees who have fled from Rakhine state to Bangladesh now stands at 688,000, with small numbers continuing to cross. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi 13 Feb told UN Security Council conditions “not yet conducive to voluntary repatriation” with causes of their flight not yet addressed, no substantive progress on addressing deepening exclusion and denial of rights rooted in lack of citizenship. Reuters 8 Feb released report that detained journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been working on at time of their Dec arrest: provides detailed reconstruction of extrajudicial execution of ten Rohingya villagers by soldiers, police and ethnic Rakhine villagers, and their burial in mass grave. Report prompted renewed calls from U.S. and UN for independent investigation into events in northern Rakhine. Govt spokesperson 11 Feb stated action would be taken against ten members of security forces, six villagers in connection with killings. Associated Press (AP) 1 Feb reported it had conducted detailed interviews with Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and identified five previously unreported massacres of Rohingya civilians in days after 25 Aug whose bodies had been buried by Myanmar soldiers in mass graves. Govt 2 Feb rejected claims; Rakhine state govt said it was planning to sue AP. Authorities 9 Feb charged prominent Rakhine figures Aye Maung and Wai Hin Aung, both arrested in Jan on charges of unlawful association and incitement, with high treason; sporadic protests across Rakhine state against their prosecution. Three small bombs exploded near govt buildings in state capital Sittwe 24 Feb; no fatalities. Canada announced sanctions 16 Feb against senior Myanmar officer for role in Rohingya crackdown. U.S. Senate committee unanimously passed sanctions bill on Myanmar 7 Feb. EU Foreign Affairs Council 26 Feb called for targeted restrictive measures against senior military officers and strengthening of existing arms embargo. Clashes continued between govt and Kachin Independence Organisation and Ta’ang National Liberation Army, while peace process remained moribund, despite signing of Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement by two additional groups 13 Feb.
UML Chairman KP Oli appointed prime minister 15 Feb following resignation of Sher Bahadur Deuba. Deuba resigned after completion of elections to upper house of parliament 7 Feb where Leftist Coalition of UML and CPN (Maoist Center) won 39 of 59 total seats. Following months of negotiations and some disagreements along ideological lines, UML and CPN agreed 19 Feb on framework for merger of two parties: new party to be named Communist Party of Nepal; Oli and CPN Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal to share prime ministership during parliament’s five-year term. With unified party falling ten seats short of two-thirds majority in lower house of parliament, UML in discussions with Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal (SSFN) to join govt; SSFN – a Madhesi-based party with sixteen parliamentary seats – demands amendments to constitution as precondition. Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Nepal 1-2 Feb, meeting with top leaders including Oli and Dahal in efforts to improve relations with Leftist Coalition prior to formation of new govt. China’s Vice Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Guo Yezhou visited Nepal 21 February and met with Oli and Dahal, expressed China’s readiness to work with new govt.
Fallout of 13 Jan extrajudicial killing by Karachi police of Naqeebullah Mehsud continued, with major sit-in by youth, civil society activists and supporters, mainly from Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in Islamabad, growing into broader movement for fundamental rights, particularly in FATA. Several hundred protesters convened in Islamabad 1 Feb protesting Mehsud’s killing, demanding superintendent allegedly involved be held responsible and wider investigation into extrajudicial killings in Karachi. Protest swelled in following days as hundreds more joined from around country; demands grew to include nationwide probe into extrajudicial killings, and in FATA recovery of missing persons, removal of landmines and end to coercive security measures. Sit-in ended 10 Feb after govt promised to hold accountable those involved in Mehsud’s murder. Following Jan diplomatic spat with U.S. over Pakistan’s alleged support for terrorist groups and visit by UN sanctions monitoring team to assess govt measures against terror groups, govt took several steps against militant groups: 9 Feb expanded list of banned terrorist groups to include groups sanctioned by UN Security Council, including anti-India group Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s (JuD, formerly Lashkar-e-Tayyaba) and its Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation; 13 Feb approved measures to freeze bank accounts of banned terrorist groups; mid-Feb reportedly seized hundreds of properties and madrasas owned by JuD. U.S. welcomed steps but said more action needed; after reviewing Pakistani measures 18-20 Feb, Financial Action Task Force decided against placing Pakistan on its non-compliance list, giving it three-month reprieve. U.S. drone strike 8 Feb in FATA’s North Waziristan killed at least three suspected Haqqani Network militants; drone strike near Afghan border 8 Feb killed Pakistani Taliban’s deputy leader, Khan Saeed Mehsud alias “Sajna”. Pakistani Taliban claimed suicide bombing 3 Feb near army base in Swat district (north) that killed eleven soldiers; and 14 Feb attack in Balochistan provincial capital Quetta that killed four Frontier Corps soldiers. Suicide bomb attack near Quetta 28 Feb killed at least four Frontier Corps soldiers. Army 15 Feb said it would deploy “contingent” to Saudi Arabia on “training and advice mission”.
Senate completed its consultations on Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) while House of Representatives scheduled public hearings in Mindanao from 1-16 March; legislators hope BBL will be ready for voting before Congress goes on recess 24 March. BBL supporters asked legislators to approve a version of BBL that reflects 2014 peace agreements. Deputy Presidential Peace Adviser Nabil Tan 23 Feb reiterated that passage of BBL will provide current regional govt in Mindanao much-needed boost to prepare for when national govt shifts to federal system. Congress also continued to tackle planned shift from presidential to federal system of govt; President Duterte 25 Jan appointed top magistrates, lawyers, academics and former officials to consultative body on charter change, including Randolph Parcasio, lawyer of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and founding chairman Nur Misuari. Rehabilitation of Marawi city following 2017 siege continued to face challenges, with local NGOs and ethnic Maranao Muslim traditional leaders opposed to govt’s plan to construct second military camp near main battle area. Marawi residents called on govt to pay them reparation for destroyed properties and allow them to rebuild their own homes. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chairman Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim 20 Feb warned that ISIS-linked terrorists (including foreign nationals), with guns and cash looted from Marawi, could seize cities like Iligan and Cotabato; said MILF was battling pro-ISIS groups for influence in schools, and repeated his plea for govt to approve BBL immediately. Police 16 Feb arrested Fehmi Lassqued, Egyptian believed to be ISIS recruiter. Six Abu Sayyaf members killed in clash with govt troops in Basilan 24 Feb; authorities arrested Juromee Dongon, widow of slain Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir alias Marwan, during raid in Tubod, Lanao Del Norte 25 Feb. Military 25 Feb overran Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters camp in North Cotabato.
China’s continued militarisation of South China Sea (SCS) features drew further international concern. Official Chinese newspaper 2 Feb announced China’s South China Sea Fleet had signed deals with Chinese firms to upgrade communications systems in Paracel (Xisha) and Spratly (Nansha) archipelagos. Philippine newspaper 5 Feb published detailed photographs of Chinese-built structures in Spratly Islands and said China will soon have seven “military bastions” from which it can project power. China 7 Feb announced it had deployed advanced Su-35 fighter jets to SCS for first time. UK 13 Feb said Royal Navy frigate will conduct freedom of navigation operation in SCS in March. Philippine President Duterte 8 Feb banned all scientific research off country’s Pacific Coast, despite earlier allowing Chinese oceanographers access. In second planned series of bilateral consultations, Chinese and Philippine diplomats 13 Feb met in Philippine capital Manila to discuss marine environmental protection, fisheries, marine scientific research, and oil and gas; Philippines afterwards said China and ASEAN nations could hold next round of talks on Code of Conduct as early as March. Trump administration 9 Feb announced it was nominating Head of U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris as its ambassador to Australia; Harris 24 Jan warned China is “further militarising” its man-made SCS bases in attempt to “assert de facto sovereignty over disputed maritime features”.
Unexpectedly strong result for ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) in 10 Feb local elections threw ruling United National Party (UNP)-Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) coalition into turmoil, raising possibility of its collapse and badly damaging prospects for a new constitution and other reforms. SLPP won 44.6% of vote and large majority of local councils across country; PM Wickremesinghe’s UNP won 32.6%; and President Sirisena’s SLFP together with allies in United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 13.4%. Elections in Tamil areas, where conflict-affected groups continue to demand post-war reforms, saw significant losses for moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Sirisena responded to SLPP demands to call new elections with attempt to install new SLFP-led govt or UNP govt without Wickremesinghe as PM. Govt 25 Feb announced first stage of cabinet reshuffle, including PM taking over law and order portfolio. Election reportedly one of most peaceful and least corrupt in recent history, but outcome provoked increasingly violent rhetoric among both Sinhala political partisans and Tamil nationalists, as well as post-election violence principally by SLPP supporters against UNP/SLFP rivals. 26-27 Feb attack on mosque and Muslim shops in south-eastern town Ampara raised tensions further. UN human rights chief report 23 Feb criticised govt’s failure to make significant progress in fulfilling transitional justice commitments in Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1. President 28 Feb formally appointed commissioners to Office of Missing Persons after eighteen-month delay.
Chinese airlines 30 Jan cancelled 176 flights to Taiwan, which had been scheduled to meet Chinese New Year holiday demand, after Taiwanese authorities refused to approve them. Taipei 23 Feb appointed pro-independence politician Chen Ming-tong as China affairs minister to start “new phase” in relations with Beijing.
As violence continued in southern insurgency, Thai delegation in peace dialogue with MARA Patani (umbrella group of five Malay-Muslim separatist groups in exile) 15 Feb announced they had agreed on an unnamed district to serve as pilot safety zone, almost two years after announcing framework agreement establishing safety zones. Main militant group Barisan Revolusi Nasional Patani Melayu not party to dialogue. Violence continued in Southern insurgency, with incidents including: in Pattani, rubber tapper shot dead by gunmen in Mae Lan district 3 Feb; assistant village head shot dead in Muang district 5 Feb; assistant village headman and family member shot dead by gunmen in Mayo district 6 Feb; series of six bomb explosions wounded six people in Yaring district 10 Feb, followed by two bombs in Yarang district; three other bombs discovered and disarmed in Saiburi district. In Yala province, small roadside IED exploded near school in Yaha district, injuring defence volunteer, mother and young student 6 Feb; IED in Muang district 15 Feb wounded two defence volunteers. In Narathiwat province, two Muslim men shot dead in Si Sakhon district 13 Feb; four soldiers wounded by IED in Chanae district 17 Feb; rubber tapper shot dead in Yi-ngo district 17 Feb. Following Jan postponement of general election until early 2019 at earliest, protests against junta and demonstrations demanding general election in 2018 continued to grow in size and frequency, including several hundreds attending rallies in Bangkok 10 and 24 Feb. “We Walk” marchers, protected by late Jan Administrative Court ruling instructing police not to obstruct them, reached Khon Kaen in north east 17 Feb and staged rally calling for elections and end to military rule. Luxury watch scandal surrounding Deputy PM and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon continued to burden National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) govt.
Ahead of its election of new PM 17 April, who under new constitution will effectively lead country, National Assembly 8 Feb passed in first hearing amendments to several laws, including: reviewed law on Security Council to guarantee PM’s exclusive responsibility for defence policy, and established new position of vice PM. Current President Sargsyan widely expected to be elected PM. Armen Sarkissian 16 Feb officially confirmed his candidacy for presidential elections in National Assembly 2 March; also widely expected to win. Speaking at Munich Security Conference 17 Feb Sargsyan confirmed his readiness to denounce 2009 Zurich Protocols by end of his current term early April; Protocols were signed by Armenia and Turkey as part of planned normalisation process supported by U.S. and Russia.
President Aliyev early Feb issued order bringing forward presidential elections from Oct to 11 April. Many of the thirteen candidates registered to run against incumbent Aliyev have already praised his candidacy.
EU 6 Feb launched new enlargement strategy for Western Balkans, calling on countries to “urgently redouble their efforts, address vital reforms and complete their political, economic and social transformation”. Said Bosnia could become a candidate for accession “with sustained effort and engagement”, will start considering its application on receipt of answers to its questionnaire, which Bosnian leaders delivered 28 Feb. Purchase by majority Serb entity Republika Srpska (RS) of 2,500 automatic rifles from Serbia for Bosnian Serb police, and planned opening early April of new police training centre, with some reports suggesting it would be staffed by Russian trainers, prompted expressions of concern among Bosnian and international officials. RS authorities said arms needed for defence against terrorist attacks. Bosniak deputy VP of RS, Ramiz Salkic, 13 Feb also expressed concern, suggested RS President Dodik attempting to establish “some kind of armed formations”; Dodik called remarks “notorious falsehoods”. Dodik 15 Feb confirmed he will run as candidate for elections to tripartite state-level presidency in elections due Oct; said he would work to reduce size of national army from 16,000 to 3,500. RS late Feb announced that elementary schools in entity will adopt unified curriculum with Serbia for four “national” subjects including language and history, prompting criticism from Bosniak politicians.
Month saw spat over gas explorations as Greek Cypriot energy minister 8 Feb announced Italian and French companies had discovered “extensive” pure gas reserves off Cyprus; Cypriot authorities accused Turkish navy 9 Feb and 23 Feb of blocking drilling ships. Ankara 11 Feb said it will not abandon Turkish and Turkish Cypriots’ rights over hydrocarbon reserves off Cyprus to unilateral Greek Cypriot actions. European Council President Donald Tusk 12 Feb called on Ankara to avoid threats, refrain from damaging relations. Greek Cypriot leader Anastasiades 21 Feb urged Turkey to lift blockade on offshore gas explorations activities and called for return to the negotiation table; 28 Feb said resumption of peace talks “impossible” at present due to Turkey’s and Turkish Cypriot side’s “violations of international law and unacceptable demands”. Following 7 Jan snap parliamentary elections, Turkish Cypriot leader Akıncı 2 Feb approved coalition formed by Republican Turkish Party (CTP), which came second, and three other parties. Incumbent Anastasiades won 4 Feb presidential elections in Republic of Cyprus for second five-year term after close run-off, winning 56% of vote in second round. UN Security Council 30 Jan renewed mandate of UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) for six months.
Ethnic-Georgian man reportedly died while in custody of de facto South Ossetian authorities 23 Feb, provoking outcry in Tbilisi. Deceased, 34-year-old internally displaced person from South Ossetia Archil Tatunashvili, was involved in cross-border trade along with two others who were also briefly detained; de facto govt accused group of espionage and planned sabotage ahead of 18 March Russian Presidential elections; Georgian govt and relatives denied. De facto officials voiced readiness to hand over body after post-mortem by Russian experts; relatives and political activists 26 Feb protested by briefly blocking two roads connecting South Caucasus to Russia, demanding handover of body. Co-chairs of Geneva talks (conflict settlement platform that allows Georgian, Russian, Abkhaz and Ossetian participants to discuss security and humanitarian issues since 2008 war between Russia and Georgia) expressed strong concern over Tatunashvili’s death and called for more intensive exchange of information between sides, including at 1 March Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism meeting in Ergneti. EU and foreign embassies in Georgia also voiced concern. Georgian parliament prepared special resolution condemning incident; some MPs discussed creation of “black list” of people involved in crimes against ethnic Georgians in breakaway regions to restrict their travel and access to Georgia-provided medical and social benefits. After latest round of Swiss-mediated Georgia-Russia talks on transit trade through South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia 2 Feb confirmed its intention to sign contract with Swiss private company that will conduct monitoring of customs at crossing points leading to breakaway regions, previously controlled by Russians and separatist de facto officials. Georgia already signed contact in Dec. Transit deal would clear way for launch of transit trade through South Ossetia, based on 2011 Customs Agreement; would represent first serious breakthrough in Georgia-Russia relations since 2008 war and Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; and potentially open opportunities for more communication through de facto regions, currently largely dependent on Russia.
Police arrested Kyrgyz MP Damirbek Asylbek-Uulu along with 35 others including border guards, customs officials and representatives of crime groups, during extensive anti-smuggling operation led by National Security Committee and Anti-corruption Bureau 15-16 Feb. Asylbek-Uulu, detained in Kazakhstan and charged with smuggling and being member of organised criminal group, denied charges; responding to request for clarification from Kyrgyz foreign minister, Astana confirmed MP’s arrest, adding he holds Kazakh and Kyrgyz passports.
EU 6 Feb launched new enlargement strategy for Western Balkans, calling on countries to “urgently redouble their efforts, address vital reforms and complete their political, economic and social transformation”. Said normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia “urgent and crucial” for both countries to progress on European path. EU-mediated normalisation talks between Kosovo and Serbia resumed late Feb. Kosovo and Montenegro 16 Feb announced agreement on process for resolving disputes over 2015 border demarcation agreement, which Kosovo still needs to ratify to gain visa-free travel to EU; announcement welcomed by EU, however parliament again postponed vote on ratifying deal 22 and 28 Feb. Kosovo celebrated ten years since declaration of independence 17 Feb; previous day, Barbados became 116th country to recognise Kosovo, while Serbian President Vučić said his country unlikely to support full recognition despite it being a condition for Serbia to join EU. President Thaci 1 Feb said law establishing new special court at The Hague to prosecute alleged war crimes by members of Kosovo Liberation Army during 1998-1999 war cannot be stopped, even though he is against it.
Security services detained 26-year-old man returning from Syria where he allegedly received “suicide training” with Islamic State (ISIS). MP Damirbek Asylbek-Uulu arrested in Kazakhstan mid-Feb, charged with smuggling (see Kazakhstan).