CrisisWatch is our early warning and 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 dangerous escalation between India and Pakistan. In Yemen, the warring parties took a small step to cement a ceasefire in Hodeida, but a breakdown of talks could trigger new clashes. Fighting in Libya’s south intensified and could worsen, and Chad called in French airstrikes to halt a rebel advance. Al-Shabaab stepped up deadly attacks in Somalia, and in South Sudan a government offensive against rebels in the south is picking up steam. Sudan’s President al-Bashir took a harder line against persistent protests. Suspected jihadists stepped up attacks in Burkina Faso; violence escalated in Cameroon’s Anglophone region; and Angola’s separatists announced a return to arms. In Nigeria, election-related violence rose and could flare again around polls to elect governors in March, while there are growing concerns around Ukraine’s upcoming presidential vote. The confrontation hardened between Venezuelan President Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó. In Haiti, anti-government protests turned violent. U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated further in a worrying development for the future of arms control. On a positive note, Taliban and U.S. officials resumed talks on a deal for Afghanistan, negotiations aimed at ending the Western Sahara conflict are planned for March, and Nicaragua’s government resumed dialogue with opposition leaders, raising hopes for an end to the political crisis.
In his introduction to this month's edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley highlights the concerning crisis unfolding between Pakistan and India and sees indicators of escalation in Sudan.
In February, relations between India and Pakistan deteriorated dramatically after Pakistani-based militants drove a suicide car bomb into a convoy of Indian security forces in Kashmir, killing at least 40 security personnel in the deadliest terrorist attack there in over 30 years. Tensions spiked as both countries carried out airstrikes across the Line of Control that divides Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, while India carried out security sweeps and arrested scores of alleged militant sympathisers in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. While both sides have said they want to avoid further escalation, their armies continue to clash across the Line of Control. We call on both Pakistan and India to exercise restraint and rethink policies that have contributed to this conflagration.
Yemen’s warring parties moved an important inch forward in implementing the December Stockholm Agreement: the government and Huthis agreed to redeploy their forces from frontline positions in and around the Red Sea port of Hodeida. But they haven’t done so yet because they can’t agree on what should happen next. They may work it out, but equally talks could collapse, potentially triggering new violence. In Afghanistan, U.S. and Taliban negotiators resumed peace talks in Doha in meetings the U.S. described as productive, while Taliban representatives and a wide range of Afghan political figures met in Moscow in an unprecedented public meeting.
Libya’s south saw heavy fighting as strongman Khalifa Haftar’s forces continued to consolidate control. Worse could follow in coming weeks if his move sparks a tribal war or if groups in the north allied with the Tripoli-based government retaliate. In early February, Chadian rebels based in southern Libya launched an incursion into north east Chad, their sights set on overturning Déby’s regime. At the government’s request, French airstrikes halted their advance, but Déby’s call for help shows his army, often portrayed as strong, has its weaknesses.
Facing the longest wave of protests since independence, Sudan’s President al-Bashir declared a state of emergency, empowering the army. The decision signals his intent to confront protesters with violent repression and moves Sudan onto dangerous new ground. Western partners and Gulf states should urge Bashir to refrain from a bloody crackdown and step aside to make way for a broad-based transitional government that can usher in reforms.
Election-related violence rose around Nigeria’s polls leaving at least 40 dead, with a last-minute delay heightening tensions. President Buhari has won a second term, but his main challenger Atiku Abubakar rejected the result. With the political temperature still at boiling point, more violence could erupt around governorship polls set for 9 March. In Cameroon’s Anglophone west, over 100 separatists, security personnel and civilians were killed and Boko Haram upped attacks in the Far North. Separatist militants in Angola’s Cabinda exclave announced they would resume their armed struggle.
Al-Shabaab stepped up attacks in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu and rural areas, as more African Union troops pulled out. Despite an overall easing of South Sudan’s war, a government offensive against rebels in the south gained momentum and fighting could escalate in March. Security in Burkina Faso continued to deteriorate as suspected jihadists increased attacks on civilians and security forces, especially in the north and east.
Deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia took a worrying turn as Washington announced it was suspending its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, raising concerns about the future of arms control. As Ukraine prepares for presidential elections in late March, an increasingly contentious campaign marked by allegations of irregularities and warnings of Russian interference prompted concerns over potential disputes around the result.
Venezuela’s turmoil continued as the confrontation between President Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó – recognised by dozens of countries as the country’s interim president – hardened, and several people were killed in a standoff over deliveries of international humanitarian aid. We continue to call for all sides to give priority to genuine negotiations leading to free and fair elections. Violent anti-government protests swept Haiti, fuelled by anger over deteriorating economic conditions and a scandal involving embezzlement of public funds.
On a more hopeful note, after talks between Morocco and the Polisario Front independence movement resumed in December after six years, a second round planned for March presents an opportunity to move toward settling the contested status of Western Sahara. And in a welcome development in Nicaragua, President Ortega’s government agreed to resume the national dialogue with opposition leaders, giving hope for a route out of the country’s devastating political crisis.
Movement for secession of Cabinda exclave in west, Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC), and its armed wing, Armed Forces of Cabinda (FAC), 28 Feb announced resumption of armed struggle, claiming govt has turned its back on dialogue and stepped up violent repression. Throughout month police reportedly arrested 77 separatist militants and supporters of smaller Cabinda Independence Movement (MIC), including nine members of local church and its pastor who preaches for self-determination. Prosecutors 13 Feb summoned two MPs including former governor of capital Luanda over alleged corruption; first MPs to be investigated since President Lourenço began anti-corruption drive in 2017.
As attacks against civilians and security forces attributed to jihadists continued to rise, especially in Sahel region in north and East region, security forces stepped up response and President Kaboré reshuffled army leadership. Notably, suspected members of jihadist coalition Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) 3-4 Feb attacked Kain village, North region, reportedly killing fourteen civilians. Army 5 Feb said it killed 146 militants in air raids in Louroum and Yatenga provinces, North region and Sourou province, Boucle du Mouhoun region in north; local witnesses and NGO Human Rights Watch reported that 57 of 146 killed were civilians. JNIM 5 Feb attacked Oursi, Sahel region in north, killing five gendarmes; security forces said they repelled attack and killed 21 militants in counter-offensive. Military 19-20 Feb killed 29 suspected Islamist militants in Kompienbiga-Kabonga area, East region. Unidentified assailants 15 Feb killed Spanish priest and four customs officers in Nohao, Centre-East region, near border with Togo. After new govt was formed 24 Jan, Kaboré 7 Feb reshuffled army’s top command, notably Colonel Gilles Bationo appointed chief of land army and Colonel Major Oumarou Sawadogo as commander of Central Army Grouping. Former President Compaoré’s PM Kadré Désiré Ouedraogo 16 Jan announced his candidacy for 2020 presidential election. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said number of displaced persons in country reached 110,000 in Feb – nine times more than in Feb 2018 – and 1,025 schools were closed due to jihadist intimidation campaign. G5 Sahel summit in capital Ouagadougou 5 Feb marked start of Burkina Faso’s presidency of regional grouping; G5 Sahel leaders called for closer cooperation with UN, including assistance to G5 Sahel joint force.
East African Community (EAC) leaders pledged to consult further on next step to resolve political standoff between govt and opposition, govt refused to repatriate soldiers from African Union Mission in Somalia, and Congolese army fought Burundian rebels in eastern DR Congo. At EAC heads of state summit 1 Feb facilitator of inter-Burundian dialogue, former Tanzanian President Mkapa, delivered his final report; it denounced boycotts by govt and opposition in exile of different rounds, lack of EAC summit dedicated to crisis, unclear funding mechanisms and lack of coordination among regional and international stakeholders. EAC leaders pledged to consult internally to decide next step and designated presidents of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to head mediation. Govt 14 Feb approved creation of new party, National Congress for Freedom (CNL), by opposition leader Agathon Rwasa. Attorney General and police spokesman 15 Feb accused civil society activist in exile Pacifique Nininahazwe of instigating BBC documentary “Kamwe Kamwe – Inside Burundi’s Killing Machine” released Dec 2018 allegedly to incriminate authorities at International Criminal Court. During visit by Somali President Farmajo 18-19 Feb, Farmajo and President Nkurunziza called for heads of state summit of countries contributing troops to African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). As part of AMISOM drawdown, 1,000 of some 5,400 Burundian troops were supposed to leave Somalia by end-Feb; some 400 returned home 21-23 Feb, but govt refused to repatriate more, denouncing “injustice” of withdrawing only Burundian soldiers, claiming withdrawal would endanger remaining troops and threatening to repatriate all its troops. Following flare-up of fighting between Burundian military and Burundian rebels in eastern DR Congo in Jan, Burundian military 3 Feb reportedly began withdrawing from Congo. Congolese army 5 Feb reportedly launched offensive against Burundian rebel group RED-TABARA in South Kivu province, forcing latter to retreat within South Kivu.
Violence in Anglophone areas intensified, Boko Haram stepped up attacks in Far North, and govt continued to detain opposition leader Maurice Kamto. In Anglophone regions, violence escalated, partly because some separatist fighters imposed ten-day lockdown 5-14 Feb to prevent celebration of 11 Feb National Youth Day; violent incidents left over 100 civilians, separatists and military dead. Notably, soldiers 6 Feb reportedly shot fourteen civilians in Meme, Southwest; govt 10 Feb said six soldiers, 47 separatists and sixteen civilians killed in previous four days; unidentified assailants 11 Feb set fire to Kumba district hospital in Southwest; suspected separatists 16 Feb kidnapped 170 schoolchildren in Kumbo, Northwest, released them two days later after negotiations. Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram faction stepped up attacks in Mayo Sava and Mayo Tsanaga departments in Far North, killing at least seventeen civilians and three members of vigilante groups 2-14 Feb. Military court in capital Yaoundé 13 Feb charged opposition leader Maurice Kamto, arrested 28 Jan, and 130 of his supporters with rebellion, insurrection and “hostility against the fatherland”; civil society, international partners and rights groups called for Kamto’s immediate release, some opposition parties called for his release, others sought to take advantage of his detention.
After talks in Sudanese capital Khartoum, President Touadéra and fourteen armed groups signed peace agreement in capital Bangui 6 Feb, but violence continued in provinces. “The Political Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in the Central African Republic”, seventh peace deal since conflict erupted in 2012, aims at dissolution of armed groups and nationwide disarmament and envisages more inclusive govt comprising some armed group leaders. Govt agreed to advance decentralisation, including of responsibilities relating to natural resource management. Agreement foresees creation of mixed security units, comprising soldiers, armed group members and UN peacekeepers, and of Inclusive Commission to examine evidence and suggest to national Truth and Reconciliation Commission “viable judicial action”. In line with deal, govt resigned 22 Feb. Touadéra 25 Feb appointed Firmin Ngrebada, previously his private secretary, as new PM, replacing Simplice Sarandji. Ex-Seleka armed group Popular Front for the Central African Renaissance (FPRC) 21 Feb demanded several positions in new cabinet including defence and foreign affairs ministries. In south centre, anti-balaka militiamen clashed with fighters of ex-Seleka faction Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) near Kouango 24 Feb. According to leaked report by UN mission’s human rights section, Russian military instructors “allegedly tortured a CAR citizen”. Russian deputy ambassador to UN late Feb rejected accusations, which he said were intended “to harm Russian efforts in CAR”.
Govt requested French airstrikes to halt rebel advance in north east and Boko Haram continued attacks in Lake Chad region in west. At Chadian govt’s request, French air force 3-6 Feb carried out strikes on Union of Resistance Forces (UFR) rebels in north east halting advance of some 50 pick-ups from southern Libya toward capital N’Djamena; group led by Timan Erdimi, President Déby’s nephew and former chief of staff living in Qatar. Military 9 Feb said it had arrested over 250 rebels. Opposition and civil society criticised France’s intervention as proof of its unconditional support for Déby. Déby 15 Feb dismissed army battalion commander reportedly for refusing to take part in offensive against Tebu self-defence group in Miski, Tibesti region in north west. Déby 18 Feb replaced several high-ranking military personnel. Security forces 19 Feb arrested five foreign Boko Haram members in N’Djamena. In Lake Chad region in west, Boko Haram attacked three villages night of 19-20 Feb killing five people and kidnapping thirteen, and next night abducted seven people and stole some 200 cattle from Bohoma village. Some 500 Chadian troops, part of regional Multinational Joint Task Force, 22 Feb crossed into Cameroon to support Nigerian and Cameroonian troops in fight against Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.
Political landscape continued to shift ahead of 2020 presidential elections as former rebel leader Guillaume Soro resigned from position of parliamentary speaker and said he was open to meeting his former enemy, former President Laurent Gbagbo. President Ouattara 10 Feb said he had until July 2020 to announce whether he will run in presidential elections later that year. Guillaume Soro 8 Feb resigned from position of parliamentary speaker and said he was looking for “more comfortable chair to sit in”, fuelling speculation that he intends to run for president in 2020. Soro 15 Feb launched new movement, Political Committee, “to reflect on major issues of national interest” and work toward “promotion of democracy… consolidation of the rule of law” and “strengthening of republican values”. Soro same day said he was open to meeting former President Gbagbo. Belgium 4 Feb agreed to host Gbagbo after International Criminal Court (ICC) 1 Feb ordered his conditional release, pending possible appeal against his acquittal. Soro’s supporters 16 Feb transformed association into new party, Rassemblement pour la Côte d’Ivoire (RACI). Soro 23 Feb met head of opposition Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and former President Henri Konan Bédié in Daoukro, Tchologo area in north; Soro and Bédié said they would work together to build opposition coalition against President Ouattara ahead of 2020 election. Soro’s close collaborator, former minister and current MP Alain Lobognon, who was sentenced to one year in prison in Jan for “spreading false news and inciting hatred”, was freed 13 Feb after court of appeal revised sentence to six-month suspended prison sentence. In 11 Feb report, Amnesty International criticised violations of freedom of expression, saying arbitrary arrests and imprisonment, harassment of opposition, civil society and critical media were common practices.
Following his inauguration late Jan, President Tshisekedi began to appoint staff and engage international partners and security slightly improved. Tshisekedi began to fill key positions in presidency while govt remained in place awaiting replacement. Former President Kabila’s alliance maintained majority in parliament. Tshisekedi met Kabila for talks 17 Feb. Tshisekedi 4 Feb visited military camp in capital Kinshasa, which houses units of republican guard. Tshisekedi 4-6 Feb visited Angola, Kenya and Congo-Brazzaville and 10-11 Feb attended African Union heads of state summit in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where he met UN Sec-Gen Guterres and EU foreign policy chief Mogherini; Tshisekedi 11 Feb expressed his wish that EU head of delegation – expelled in Dec 2018 – return to Kinshasa. Opposition leader Martin Fayulu, who according to official results came second in Dec presidential poll, continued to reject results and hold rallies; several parties have left his Lamuka alliance. Some members of foreign armed groups and local Mai-Mai groups in North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika provinces in east demobilised; 48 militants surrendered in South Kivu 3-17 Feb. In Kasai region, where Tshisekedi has strong base, 600 Kamuina Nsapu militants gave up their weapons saying they were satisfied with peaceful handover of power and three Kamuina Nsapu leaders and over 100 militants surrendered late Jan. Burundian military 3 Feb reportedly began withdrawing from Congo. Congolese army 5 Feb reportedly launched offensive against Burundian rebel group RED-TABARA in South Kivu province, forcing latter to retreat within South Kivu. Uganda 26 Feb repatriated 70 former members of Congolese rebel group M23 to Congo under voluntary repatriation program. Ebola epidemic in North Kivu and Ituri provinces continued: World Health Organization 26 Feb reported 872 cases (807 confirmed) and 548 deaths since outbreak in Aug 2018; new cases mostly reported in Katwa and Butembo health zones in North Kivu. Unidentified assailants 24 Feb partially burnt down Médecins Sans Frontières treatment centre forcing suspension of activities.
Following reopening of Eritrea-Ethiopia border in Sept 2018, President Afwerki and FM Osman Saleh 22 Feb met Ethiopian PM Abiy in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to assess Oct-Jan trial period for trade and transport relations and work toward deeper cooperation. Ethiopian ambassador in Eritrea 19 Feb said two countries were close to signing comprehensive cooperation agreement to institutionalise trade, immigration and transport links. EU 8 Feb announced €20mn program to build roads linking Eritrean ports and Ethiopian border.
Fighting eased between govt forces and rebel group Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in Oromia region; state media 14 Feb reported 1,000 former OLF rebels gave up their arms and entered rehabilitation camps. Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), armed group fighting for secession of Somali region in east which declared unilateral ceasefire in Aug 2018, 8 Feb signed agreement with Somali region to disarm and reintegrate ONLF members into security forces and civil service; PM Abiy 19 Feb held first official meeting with ONLF leadership in capital Addis Ababa. PM Abiy 22 Feb met Eritrean President Afwerki and FM Osman Saleh in Addis Ababa to discuss planned cooperation agreement to institutionalise trade, immigration and transport links.
Following 7 Jan failed coup attempt, President Bongo continued recuperating in Morocco from late Oct stroke; recovery reportedly expected to last six more months. Bongo 25 Feb briefly returned to Gabon for second time since Oct to chair cabinet meeting, but made no public appearances. Authorities 5 Feb released anti-govt activist Hervé Kinga, arrested in govt crackdown on opposition 31 Aug 2017, after judge dismissed charges of “propaganda aimed at disturbing public order” and “insulting president”.
Supporters of opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo who had gathered to welcome him back on return from foreign trip clashed with security forces in capital Conakry 16 Feb, about 30 injured. Diallo’s lawyers 20 Feb filed complaint against security forces for attempt on Diallo’s life. Results of communal elections continued to raise tensions; in Conakry court 7 Feb validated victory of ruling party Rally for the Guinean People’s (RPG) candidate for mayor of Matoto City after main opposition party Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG) filed complaint. In north, supporters of departing and new mayor, both RPG members, clashed in Norassoba, Kankan region 13 Feb, several reportedly injured. Several political parties including Union of Republican Forces (UFR) 22 Feb created alliance Convergence of the Democratic Opposition in attempt to counter political polarisation.
Strikes and protests continued in run-up to legislative elections in March. Journalists working for public media went on strike 1-4 Feb to denounce censorship and demand payment of salaries. Teachers’ union 5 Feb said authorities had failed to keep commitments made in Jan, threatened to resume strike. Angry at paralysis of schools, students protested in capital Bissau 8 Feb; protests turned violent, protestors looted shops, ruling party headquarters and minister’s house, security forces arrested eight. Govt 8 Feb said funds needed to pay teachers’ Dec and Jan salaries were available, but teachers resumed strike 14 Feb. Campaigning for 10 March legislative elections started 16 Feb. UN Security Council representatives visited country 15-16 Feb, urged President Vaz, PM Gomes, political party leaders and electoral commission officials to work for free, fair and peaceful legislative and subsequent presidential elections.
Maritime border dispute between Kenya and Somalia flared and intercommunal violence continued in northern Rift Valley province. Kenya 16 Feb claimed Somalia had auctioned offshore oil blocks in disputed maritime area at 7 Feb London conference, summoned its envoy to Somalia back to Kenya and expelled Somali ambassador; Somalia denied accusation and said it would not offer any blocks in disputed area for exploration until International Court of Justice had ruled on border dispute. In north west in northern part of Rift Valley province, intercommunal violence continued. Gunfight between Turkana and Pokot communities near Kainuk 17 Feb left at least six dead, calm returned after security forces deployed on border between Turkana and West Pokot counties. In Baringo South sub-county, suspected Pokot raiders 21 Feb attacked ethnic Ilchamus inhabitants of Kapindasum village, killing five.
Two central bank officials including son of ex-president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Charles Sirleaf, were detained 28 Feb in connection with $104mn intended for central bank that allegedly went missing.
National Assembly 1 Feb passed law enabling President Rajoelina, elected in Dec, to legislate by decree until election of new parliament on grounds that existing parliament’s mandate would end 5 Feb; date of parliamentary polls not yet fixed. Parliament 5 Feb confirmed law in final session. Opposition MPs close to former President Ravalomanana, defeated in Dec polls, denounced break in separation of powers.
While jihadist and intercommunal violence continued in centre and north, govt and ruling coalition increased consultations with opposition aimed at facilitating reforms and elections scheduled in 2019. In rare move, President Keïta 14 Feb spoke on phone with main opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé; call followed meetings between leaders of ruling coalition Together for Mali (EPM) and opposition coalition Front for the Salvation of Democracy (FSD), including 12 Feb meeting, to discuss constitutional revision, electoral and redistricting reforms, and legislative and district elections in 2019. Two prominent Muslim leaders, president of High Islamic Council Mahmoud Dicko and Chérif of Nioro Bouyé Haidara, 10 Feb held rally of estimated 60,000 people in capital Bamako to denounce govt’s mishandling of violence in centre; protesters demanded PM Maïga resign. In centre, French Barkhane airstrike in Dialloubé, Mopti region 13 Feb killed around ten suspected jihadists and allowed armed forces to free two NGO workers. Barkhane and Malian forces 23 Feb killed fifteen suspected members of Islamist group Katiba Macina near Dialloubé. Former prefect of Ténenkou, Mopti region, abducted in May 2018 by Katiba Macina jihadists, freed 18 Feb in unclear circumstances. Unidentified assailants 26 Feb killed man in Diankabou town, Mopti region, and booby-trapped his body, bomb killed seventeen civilians. Suspected Islamist militants 24 Feb attacked Koulikoro military camp outside Bamako where EU training mission is based, security forces repelled assailants, killing several. In north, two factions of pro-national unity Platform coalition clashed in Gao early Feb, four killed. Under pressure from other parts of country and international actors, ex-rebel Coalition of Azawad Movements (CMA) 18 Feb withdrew regulations on social and political life introduced 30 Jan in Kidal region. In east, army killed mayor of Andéramboukane 4 Feb in Ménaka region, allegedly after his vehicle refused to stop at checkpoint. Govt and armed groups took small steps to implement Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) element of 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement; govt 6 Feb said 5,000 combatants in centre had registered for DDR, and 600 demobilised combatants and eighteen high-ranking rebel officers had been selected to join security forces. Army 11 Feb said 420 officers who deserted during or after 2012 crisis had accepted to rejoin army, as provided for in peace deal.
Suspected Islamist militants continued attacks in Cabo Delgado province in far north. Suspected militants 1 Feb beheaded four people in Nangade district; 8 Feb reportedly hacked seven men to death and abducted four women in Piqueue village, Macomia district; 21 Feb carried out two attacks on workers of oil and gas company Anadarko on road between Mocimboa da Praia and Afungi, killing one; 23 Feb killed six people in Macomia district. U.S. late Jan said it was ready “to increase cooperation” to assist fight against militants. Following attack on Anadarko workers, govt deployed Special Forces to Cabo Delgado province. Govt 20 Feb detained journalist reporting on insurgency; next day, NGO Human Rights Watch report alleged widespread intimidation, detention and prosecution of journalists covering attacks in Cabo Delgado by security forces. Authorities 14-18 Feb arrested at least six people in connection with govt’s attempt to hide $2bn debt including son of former President Guebuza, in power when govt made debt deals, and former head of intelligence. Leader of former armed opposition movement Renamo, Ossufo Momade, elected in Jan, sacked party secretary and other officials 15 Feb. Momade and President Nyusi resumed talks 27 Feb to review progress in integration of Renamo cadres into police and army.
Violence continued to plague several border areas. In south east near Nigeria and Chad, Boko Haram (BH) attacks continued in Diffa region: suspected BH militants 1 Feb killed six in Bagué Djaradi village in reported settling of scores between rival BH factions; BH militants 15 Feb attacked military barracks in Chétimari, killing seven soldiers; two female BH militants 17 Feb blew themselves up in refugee camp near Bosso, killing four civilians; suspected BH militants 22 Feb attacked Garin-Amadou village near Bosso, at least four killed and seven missing. In Dosso region in south bordering Nigeria, unidentified assailants 13 Feb attacked security forces near Dogondoutchi, killing two gendarmes and one civilian. In Agadez region in north east near Libya, 121 members of Tebu rebel Movement for Justice and Rehabilitation of Niger (MJRN) 3 Feb surrendered to army at Madama after leaving southern Libya. MJRN 8 Feb denied any defections and said those who surrendered were economic migrants. Unidentified assailants ambushed and killed commander of military base of Dirkou, Agadez region on his way back from capital Niamey between Agadez and Dirkou in north 18 Feb. Ahead of 2021 presidential election, ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS-Tarayya) 10 Feb chose Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum as its candidate to succeed President Issoufou, who according to constitution cannot run since he will have completed second term. Issoufou dismissed Finance Minister and PNDS Secretary General Hassoumi Massaoudou from govt 1 Feb without giving reason.
Election-related violence rose around delayed polls raising risk of further escalation around governorship polls set for 9 March, ethnic violence spiked in north centre and Boko Haram (BH) continued attacks in north east. Election-related violence rose in run-up to and on day of presidential and federal legislative elections 23 Feb. Clashes involving thugs and supporters of political parties, especially President Buhari’s ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and main challenger Atiku Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP), escalated; over 40 killed in election-related violence, including about twenty in Rivers and Akwa Ibom states in south east on election day. Electoral commission 27 Feb said Buhari had won presidential poll with 56% of vote; Atiku rejected result. In north centre, ethnic violence flared in Kaduna state. Governor 19 Feb said attacks on mainly Fulani hamlets in Kajuru area left 130 dead; ethnic Adara said governor, a Fulani, had inflated figures to trigger Fulani attacks on Adara or lower voter turnout; gunmen 26 Feb stormed four villages of ethnic Adara in same area, killing 29. In Benue state, gunmen killed seventeen in Agatu area 20 Feb. In north east, both Boko Haram (BH) factions continued to attack military and civilians in Borno and Yobe states. Notably, in Yobe state, army 4 Feb repelled attempt by BH faction known as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) to enter Kanama town, several insurgents reportedly killed. Three BH suicide bombers 16 Feb attacked mosque in Borno state capital Maiduguri, killing eleven people including themselves. Suspected members of Shekau’s BH faction 18 Feb killed at least fourteen in Koshebe forest near Maiduguri. Air force strike 24 Feb killed several ISWAP fighters at hideout in Kolloram near Lake Chad, northern Borno state. In north west, banditry and intercommunal violence continued, mostly in Zamfara state, but also Sokoto, Katsina and Niger leaving at least 90 dead. Notably, bandits 19 Feb stormed Danjibga village, Zamfara state, clashed with civilian vigilantes, seven residents and at least 59 bandits reportedly killed; bandits 25 Feb attacked three villages in Sokoto state, sixteen reportedly killed.
Tensions rose between Rwanda and Uganda. After Ugandan govt deported senior employee of telecoms company MTN in Jan, countries continued to exchange mutual accusations of spying. Govt 27 Feb closed Katuna border crossing on Ugandan border for cargo trucks, and 28 Feb for private individuals in both directions; Revenue Authority 28 Feb said closure due to upgrading of border post, but Uganda questioned Rwanda’s motive and called on authorities to allow people to cross border.
Following 24 Feb presidential election, electoral commission 28 Feb declared President Sall winner with provisional result of 58.27% of vote. Runner-up Idrissa Seck conceded defeat. Tensions rose ahead of vote. Former President Abdoulaye Wade, father of barred candidate Karim Wade, 8 Feb called for boycott. In Tambacounda, 400km east of capital Dakar, clashes between President Sall’s supporters and those of opposition candidate Issa Sall 12 Feb left two dead; 24 people arrested, including twenty of Issa Sall’s bodyguards.
Al-Shabaab stepped up attacks in capital Mogadishu and rural areas, President Farmajo lobbied regional leaders to delay withdrawal of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) as Burundi refused to withdraw troops as planned, and maritime border dispute with Kenya flared. In Mogadishu, suspected Al-Shabaab detonated car bomb 4 Feb killing nine; killed Deputy Attorney General 20 Feb; opened fire on street cleaners 25 Feb killing nine; and 28 Feb launched suicide bomb and gun attack near hotel and judge’s residence, killing at least 29, militants continued to exchange fire with security forces 1 March. In Middle Shabelle region in south, roadside bomb targeting AMISOM convoy in Balcad 16 Feb reportedly killed two soldiers. Al-Shabaab 20 Feb attacked Balcad, heavy casualties reported. Al-Shabaab 17 Feb attacked bases of Djibouti AMISOM troops in Jalalaqsi in Lower Shabelle, Djibouti forces 18 Feb retaliated, casualties undisclosed. In Jubaland state in south, roadside bombs 20 Feb targeted Ethiopian AMISOM convoy in Baardheere, no casualties reported. U.S. conducted at least five airstrikes on Al-Shabaab in Lower Shabelle and Hiran regions, killing over 90 militants. Farmajo met Burundian President Nkurunziza in Burundian capital Bujumbura 19 Feb to discuss planned withdrawal of 1,000 of some 5,400 Burundian troops from AMISOM by end-Feb. Farmajo and Nkurunziza, both opposed to withdrawal, 19 Feb called for summit of leaders of AMISOM troop contributing countries to revisit security transition plan. Burundi withdrew some 400 soldiers 21-23 Feb but refused to repatriate more, denouncing “injustice” of withdrawing only Burundian soldiers, claiming withdrawal would endanger remaining troops and threatening to withdraw all its troops. Farmajo visited Djibouti 19 Feb to ask for delay in withdrawal of Djibouti troops. Maritime border dispute with Kenya flared: Kenya 16 Feb claimed Somalia had auctioned offshore oil blocks in disputed maritime area at 7 Feb London conference, summoned its envoy to Somalia back to Kenya and expelled Somali ambassador; Somalia denied accusation and said it would not offer any blocks in disputed area for exploration until International Court of Justice had ruled on border dispute.
Somaliland President Bihi 20 Feb met Ethiopian PM Abiy in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to discuss status of Somalia/Somaliland talks; Somali President Farmajo unable to attend, but welcomed meeting.
Amid overall continued de-escalation, govt forces pursued offensive against rebels in south, raising risk of more intense fighting in March. Govt forces continued offensive launched mid-Jan in Yei River and Amadi states, Equatoria region against rebel group National Salvation Front (NAS) led by Thomas Cirillo, which did not sign Sept 2018 peace deal. Fighting reported to have displaced thousands and govt forces accused of brutality against civilians. EU 18 Feb condemned violation of Dec 2017 Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) and of Sept 2018 peace deal, and called on all parties to immediately cease hostilities and step up efforts to come to political solution. IGAD Special Envoy for South Sudan Ismail Wais 25 Feb met NAS leader Thomas Cirillo and 26 Feb met leader of non-signatory opposition group People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) Hakim Dario in bid to halt violence. Acts of intercommunal violence and banditry continued across rural areas: armed group in Lon Mawei area of Tonj state in centre-west 7 Feb reportedly killed four herders, cattle raids in Eastern Lakes state in centre 8 Feb left eight people dead and raids 10-11 Feb in Padiek county, Bieh state in north east killed two. Pilot project to canton govt forces and rebels and train 3,000-strong joint unit in Yei River state in south agreed in Jan stalled for lack of funding.
In response to continued protests that began mid-Dec, President Bashir declared state of emergency giving freer rein to security forces and raising risk of more violent crackdown against protesters in March. Bashir 22 Feb declared state of emergency, dissolved cabinet and sacked all eighteen provincial governors to replace them with army and intelligence officials. Bashir’s announcement differed considerably from what intelligence chief Salah Gosh hours before said Bashir would say, namely that he would step down as head of ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and cease attempts to change constitution so that he could run for president again in 2020. Security forces 23 Feb stormed doctors’ complex, fired tear gas and detained several; dozens of other protest and opposition leaders detained 22-23 Feb. Authorities 25 Feb banned unlicensed gatherings and protests, 26 Feb established emergency prosecutors and courts across country; over 800 reportedly put on trial 28 Feb. Bashir 1 March handed leadership of ruling NCP to deputy head, Ahmed Mohamed Haroun, until party’s next general conference. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 14 Feb told media that, if there was a transition, U.S. hoped Sudanese people and not outsiders would lead it. Special Assistant to U.S. President Cyril Sartor 18 Feb met Sudanese officials as part of discussions on U.S.-Sudan dialogue and reportedly told officials that U.S. could propose resolution to UN Security Council to defer Bashir’s case at International Criminal Court, if he agreed to step down.
Parliament 29 Jan voted for amendment of law regulating political parties, granting new powers to govt-appointed registrar including enabling him to de-register parties and impose jail sentences of up to one year for unauthorised civic activities. Opposition leaders said new legislation prevented future challenges to President Magufuli and ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). Following 21 Feb arrest of Joseph Mbilinyi, leader of main opposition party Chadema, authorities 23 Feb detained MP Halima Mdee; authorities released both opposition members one day after their arrests. Chadema party accused govt of crackdown against critics.
Tensions rose in Apaa region in north over boundary dispute between Amuru and Adjumani districts; after late Jan attacks between Acholi and Madi communities, security forces 9 Feb arrested several Acholi MPs during their peaceful protest in Gulu calling for resolution of conflict. Central Executive Committee of ruling party National Resistance Movement (NRM) 19 Feb endorsed President Museveni – in power for 33 years – as party’s candidate in next presidential elections in 2021; choice to be confirmed at party’s National Delegates’ Conference in Nov. Relations between Uganda and Rwanda deteriorated further: after govt deported Rwandan senior employee of telecoms company MTN in Jan, countries continued to exchange mutual accusations of spying. Rwanda 27 Feb closed Katuna border crossing for cargo trucks, and 28 Feb for private individuals in both directions; Rwanda’s Revenue Authority 28 Feb said closure due to upgrading of border post, but govt questioned Rwandan motive and called on authorities to allow people to cross border. Govt 26 Feb repatriated 70 former members of Congolese rebel group M23 to DR Congo under voluntary repatriation program.
In run-up to 13 Feb by-election in Sheseke in south west, supporters of President Lungu’s party Patriotic Front (PF) 8 Feb clashed with supporters of opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), leaving several injured and prompting police intervention.
Following security forces’ violent repression of mass protests in Jan, govt tried to engage opposition in dialogue while limited strikes and protests continued. President Mnangagwa 6 Feb invited leaders of twenty political parties, including opposition parties, that stood in general elections in 2018 to meeting in capital Harare to “begin process of national dialogue”; Nelson Chamisa, leader of main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), rejected invitation, saying he would only attend dialogue held by neutral entity. Church 7 Feb held meeting of govt and opposition representatives to reconcile political parties, which Mnangagwa missed despite saying he would attend; Chamisa attended along with diplomats, several cabinet ministers and business leaders. Govt 20 Feb announced it would introduce new currency known as Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) dollars to address economic crisis; trading of currency began 22 Feb. In continuing unrest, teachers 5 Feb began nationwide strike demanding increased salaries; with security forces and ruling ZANU-PF supporters reportedly intimidating some teachers to go back to work, strike suspended after one week. International condemnation of suppression continued: U.S. 12 Feb said it was concerned by human rights violations and called for national dialogue. EU 19 Feb resolved not to extend targeted sanctions against govt officials but warned it would review decision if situation deteriorated further. NGO Amnesty International 8 Feb released report on suppression of protests detailing security forces’ “lethal and excessive use of force” and alleging they had committed torture and rape; report claimed authorities had detained arbitrarily over 1,000 people since protests began mid-Jan. Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum 6 Feb reported 1,803 violations, including seventeen extra judicial killings. Mnangagwa 11 Feb said allegations of abuse were fabricated. In reshuffle of security forces, Mnangagwa 18 Feb retired four senior military officers close to VP Chiwenga.
Talks resumed between U.S. and Taliban and month also saw unprecedented talks between Taliban and Afghan political figures in Moscow, however political tensions continued over fallout of Oct 2018 parliamentary elections and upcoming July presidential polls. Following Jan agreement in principle on framework for peace deal, U.S. and Taliban officials resumed discussions in Doha 25-28 Feb; U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad described talks as productive. Taliban representatives and range of Afghan political figures – including former President Karzai and opposition leaders but excluding govt – held unprecedented meeting in Moscow 5-6 Feb, declaring support for talks in Doha, reform of institutions including security sector and withdrawal of foreign forces. Amid ongoing concerns over Taliban’s refusal to engage in negotiations with Kabul, and latter’s continued insistence that it should have ownership of dialogue, govt 11 Feb held first National Advisory Meeting on Peace in Kabul and announced national consultative meeting to be held 17-20 March, to include representatives from across Afghan society. Hostilities continued across country without significant changes in control of territory; Taliban attacked govt positions including near provincial capitals of Kunduz 4-5 Feb and Farah 14-15 Feb, while govt continued to claim arrest or killing of key insurgents. UN 24 Feb reported 3,804 civilians were killed in 2018, highest total since records began in 2009. Amid continued reports of U.S. troop reduction, acting U.S. Secretary of Defence 11 Feb said there were currently no plans for significant change in troop levels. Political tensions increased after President Ghani 12 Feb removed chair and members of Independent Election Commission and Electoral Complaints Commission, both criticised for problems with Oct 2018 parliamentary elections. Former National Security Advisor and current presidential candidate Hanif Atmar criticised move, which threatens presidential elections set for 20 July, and accused govt of “illegally cleaning govt offices of political opposition”.
Tensions continued over Dec general election results, with fears political violence could worsen amid planned local elections 10-18 March. Some 74 defeated candidates from Dec election – 66 of them from main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – challenged results before High Court’s electoral tribunal 14 Feb, alleging widespread electoral rigging including with intimidation and ballot box stuffing; with eight successful candidates from BNP-led opposition alliance Jatiya Oikya Front (United National Front) refusing to take parliamentary oath in protest, PM Hasina 12 Feb rejected allegations and called boycott “politically wrong”. BNP late Jan announced it would boycott March local elections, prompting concern over potential for increased violence between govt and opposition supporters. International concern over credibility of elections continued. Hundreds of religious hardliners 12 Feb protested planned religious convention of minority Ahmadiya sect in north and attacked Ahmadiyas, injuring seven. Intense fighting in Myanmar’s southern Chin State between military and Arakan Army caused several hundred to flee across border to Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, prompting Dhaka to send strongly worded letter to Myanmar 5 Feb expressing concern over security situation, possible new exodus, and impact on stability of area with long history of tensions between different communities (see Myanmar). Bangladesh FM told UN Security Council 28 Feb that it cannot accommodate any more refugees from Myanmar.
Japan and China continued efforts to improve security relations amid ongoing maritime tensions. Senior Japanese and Chinese officials met in Beijing 1-2 Feb for security dialogue, committing to deepening mutual trust and promote exchanges; reportedly also discussed plans for Chinese President Xi to visit Japan later in 2019. Japanese coast guard apprehended Chinese fishing boat captain suspected of violating fishing laws in Japanese waters 2 Feb. Japan also lodged new complaints with Beijing 7 Feb after Chinese oil drilling vessel was found still deployed in disputed waters of East China Sea (ECS), having previously been sighted nearby in Nov 2018. Japan again scrambled jets 23 Feb to intercept Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) electronic warfare and surveillance plane passing through Tsushima Strait, which connects Sea of Japan, East China Sea and Yellow Sea. U.S. 29 Jan approved sales of two Aegis Weapon Systems to Japan.
In Gadchiroli district, Maharashtra state (centre), suspected Maoist rebels shot dead two civilians 2 Feb and another 6 Feb, reportedly suspected of being police informers. Security forces claimed to have killed ten Maoists in clash in Bijapur district, Chhattisgarh state (east) 7 Feb, and three during gunfight in Gumla district, Jharkhand state (east) 23 Feb. Senior Maoist commander Oggu Satwaji alias “Sudhakar” surrendered to police in Telangana state (centre) 11 Feb.
Deadliest terror attack in over 30 years in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Indian and Pakistani airstrikes across Line of Control (LoC, dividing Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir), first since 1971 India-Pakistan war, led to spike in tensions between India and Pakistan and within J&K, with fears of further escalation. Pakistani-based Jaish-e-Muhammad 14 Feb launched suicide car bomb attack on convoy of Indian paramilitaries in Pulwama district, 30km from capital Srinagar, killing some 45 security personnel. Govt imposed curfew, sent thousands of paramilitary personnel to region, and detained some 200 opposition leaders and supporters of separatist parties. Security forces claimed to have killed two top Jaish-e-Muhammad in Pulwama 18 Feb, and three in Kulgam district 24 Feb; several members of security forces also killed during security operations. Separatists in J&K held strikes in protest at operations; New Delhi 17 Feb removed security protection from five separatist leaders, prompting fears that attack on separatist leadership could further destabilise region. Indian govt accused Pakistan of complicity in 14 Feb attack, with PM Modi warning of “befitting reply” and giving security forces “permission to take decisions about the timing, place and nature of their response”; Pakistan rejected role in attack; both sides withdrew diplomats. Pakistani PM Khan 19 Feb offered to cooperate in investigation but warned of immediate retaliation if attacked. Indian air force 26 Feb claimed to have carried out “pre-emptive” airstrikes on Jaish-e-Muhammad training camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, claiming to have killed “large number” of militants. Pakistan military denied Indian airstrikes had caused casualties and responded with airstrikes across LoC 27 Feb, claiming to have shot down two Indian planes in Pakistan airspace, and capturing pilot; India claimed to have shot down Pakistani fighter jet in Indian-Kashmir. China and EU urged both nations to show restraint, calling on Pakistan to end support for jihadist groups; U.S. warned further military action by both countries posed “unacceptably high” escalation risks. Supreme Court 22 Feb called on authorities to protect Kashmiris facing intimidation and attacks in Hindu-majority J&K and other northern Indian states. *This entry was corrected on 2 March 2019 to place Balakot in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, not Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as first reported by Pakistan.
Tensions continued in Papua province, while reports of terrorist activity highlighted concerns over return of foreign fighters elsewhere. In Papua, NGO Humanitarian Volunteers for Nduga 20 Feb said hundreds of students had fled fighting in Papua province’s Nduga district since Dec, although military continued to reject reports that it had fired on civilians during search for rebels suspected of Dec killing of road construction workers. Military reported that suspected separatists had opened fire on aircraft carrying military personnel and govt officials in Nduga 28 Jan, killing one soldier. Video of Papuan police threatening suspected petty thief with a snake early Feb provoked outrage; UN human rights officials 21 Feb called for independent probe into “alleged killings, unlawful arrests, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of indigenous Papuans” by police and military in West Papua and Papua provinces, noting concern over “culture of impunity and general lack of investigations into allegations of human rights violations”. Police apologised, said those involved being disciplined. Police 11 Feb announced that counter-terrorist unit Densus 88 early Jan arrested man at Jakarta airport suspected of intending to travel to Syria to join Islamic State (ISIS), having previously served jail term for helping 2002 Bali bomber. Police announced that govt had sent counter-terrorist unit to Philippines, whose govt claimed that attackers in 27 Jan bomb attack in Jolo, Philippines, were Indonesian couple, although Jakarta denied (see Philippines).
Second U.S.-DPRK summit on denuclearisation in Hanoi 27-28 Feb unexpectedly cut short on second day; U.S. President Trump told press conference that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s demand for U.S. to lift “all” sanctions was unacceptable, and Pyongyang’s offer to destroy only its main nuclear complex Yongbyon did not go far enough; said relationship between leaders was good; no commitment to hold another summit. North Korean foreign minister and vice minister held terse late-night press conference in Hanoi to deny some of Trump’s claims, especially request for full sanctions relief; state media mirrored Trump’s positive comments about summit atmosphere and leaders’ personal relations. In lead-up to summit, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun arrived in Pyongyang 5 Feb for talks on what the two sides might agree at summit, meeting with Special Representative for U.S. Affairs of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK Kim Hyok-chol 6-8 Feb. U.S. State Department reported they “discussed advancing Singapore summit commitments of complete denuclearisation, transforming U.S.-DPRK relations, and building a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula”. Further meetings held in Hanoi starting 19 February. U.S. and South Korea 5 Feb tentatively agreed revised Special Measures Agreement, one-year deal under which South Korea is to raise its annual cost-sharing contribution to nearly $1bn, up from approximately $800 million during previous five-year agreement. Gen. Robert Abrams, new commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told Senate Armed Services Committee hearing 13 Feb that North Korea remains a threat, saying “despite a reduction in tensions along the DMZ and a cessation of strategic provocations coupled with public statements of intent to denuclearize, little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea’s military capabilities”.
Deadly clashes between military and Rakhine and Rohingya armed groups continued in overlapping areas of northern Rakhine State, with both communities caught in crossfire, with fears conflict will escalate ahead of monsoon season in April/May. Rakhine State govt late-Jan granted permission to police and military to carry out household search operations in seven townships to search for members of Arakan Army; authorities have charged dozens of young men with unlawful association for having contacts with group. Intense fighting between military and Arakan Army in southern Chin State’s remote Paletwa township early Feb caused several hundred Rakhine and Chin villagers to flee across border to Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts, prompting Dhaka to send letter to Myanmar 5 Feb expressing concern over security situation and possible new exodus. Bangladesh FM told UN Security Council 28 Feb that it cannot accommodate any more refugees from Myanmar. Attempted IED attack on military convoy in Ann township 4 Feb, some distance from Arakan Army’s normal area of operations, prompted concerns over possible expansion of attacks to other parts of Rakhine State. Govt statements on destroying Arakan Army, and reports and photos of Rakhine civilian casualties, seen as likely to further alienate many Rakhine and harden their support for group. Indications continued that Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army militant group also becoming more active, with several small attacks in Maungdaw area in Jan and Feb bearing hallmarks of group. With ethnic peace process moribund, four Ethnic Armed Organisations constituting Northern Alliance – Arakan Army, Kachin Independence Organisation, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and Ta’ang National Liberation Army – said they offered military a ceasefire during meeting with govt’s National Reconciliation and Peace Centre in China 25 Feb. Parliament 19 Feb formed joint committee to amend 2008 military-drafted constitution ahead of 2020 elections, despite opposition from military MPs; committee began work 25 Feb; military has veto on any amendments.
Concerns about KP Oli-led govt’s curtailing of civil liberties continued to grow with two new bills proposed by govt in Feb – one imposing numerous restrictions on content shared via social networks and granting govt sweeping powers to block social media platforms not registered in Nepal; and another barring current and retired civil servants from expressing their opinions on any public or social platforms. Both draft bills were criticised for attempting to restrict freedom of speech, increase state surveillance, and silence dissent. Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) – led by hardline Maoist leader Netra Bikram Chand – claimed responsibility for series of attacks 22 Feb on telecommunications company; attacks included IED explosion in southern Kathmandu valley where one person was killed and two more injured; arson attacks also carried out on company’s telephone towers in several districts; attacks came amid reports of CPN growing in strength in some midwestern districts. Parliament 6 Feb formally endorsed legislation extending terms of two transitional justice bodies by one year; differences over future of transitional justice mechanisms reportedly contributing to tensions between the two leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party – PM Oli and former Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
Govt faced tensions with India and Iran following terrorist attacks blamed on Pakistani-based militants, while attacks also continued inside Pakistan. Pakistani-based Jaish-e-Muhammad 14 Feb killed some 45 Indian paramilitary troops in suicide attack in Kashmir, followed by Indian and Pakistani airstrikes across Line of Control (LoC, dividing Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir) (see Kashmir). Iranian Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl – reportedly based in Balochistan – killed 27 Iranian soldiers in 13 Feb suicide attack near border (see Iran); Iranian army 16 Feb accused Pakistan of providing Jaish al-Adl safe haven and warned Iran would retaliate if “Pakistan does not carry out its responsibilities”; relations with Teheran further strained as Saudi Crown Prince 17-18 Feb visited Islamabad, signing investment agreements worth some $20bn. Landmark Supreme Court ruling 6 Feb condemned Sunni hardline Labaik Ya Rasool Allah’s use of violence in Nov 2017 protests, called on federal and provincial govts to prosecute those who violate law, and emphasised constitutional bar on members of armed forces engaging in “any kind of political activity”. Leader of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (Pashtun protection movement, PTM) killed during demonstration in Loralai city, Balochistan (south west) 2 Feb, with PTM leaders alleging police had beaten him to death; police denied allegation, 6 Feb arrested PTM protesters in Islamabad. Attacks continued inside Pakistan including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan-claimed attack that killed four police in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (north west) 12 Feb. In coastal city Karachi, targeted attacks on politicians and sectarian violence increased including killing of Pak Sarzameen Party leader 19 Feb and murder of local leader of Sunni hardline group Sipah-e-Sahaba 4 Feb.
Month saw second phase of plebiscite on new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and appointment of interim regional govt, while military campaign against militant groups continued. Following Jan plebiscite in Mindanao creating BARMM, Lanao del Norte province and parts of Cotabato province 6 Feb held plebiscite on whether to join entity: 63 out 67 villages in North Cotabato voted to join, while majority-Christian Lanao del Norte province voted against allowing six municipalities, all with strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) presence and in favour of joining BARMM, to do so, raising concerns over potential tensions and exclusion of major MILF camp from BARMM area. Lanao del Norte hit by three explosions on eve of plebiscite, no casualties. Duterte 22 Feb led swearing in of 80 members of Bangsamoro Transitional Authority (BTA), 41 of them appointed by MILF and 39 by govt, with MILF chair Murad Ebrahim chief minister. Military continued campaigns against militant groups and pursuit of individuals suspected of involvement in 27 Jan Jolo church bomb attack, reporting some suspects killed and some surrendered. Interior minister 1 Feb said Indonesian couple carried out attack assisted by Islamic State (ISIS) and Abu Sayyaf, Jakarta denied. Three suspected Abu Sayyaf militants and five soldiers killed in 2 Feb clash in Sulu province’s Patikul town, reportedly involving around 100 Abu Sayyaf. In clash with Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao 3 Feb, military reported eight militants killed. Interior minister 7 Feb said Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan believed to be new Abu Sayyaf leader. Abu Sayyaf also continued to target civilians and threatened to kill three civilian hostages. Military continued campaign to end communist New People’s Army (NPA) insurgency, with several soldiers, police and NPA fighters reported killed in clashes during month. NPA also reportedly killed several civilians and freed some hostages. President Duterte again offered to reopen peace talks with Communist Party of the Philippines, in return for stopping attacks on security forces and taxation which govt terms extortion.
Marking second U.S. freedom of navigation operation of 2019 in South China Sea (SCS), U.S. warships sailed through disputed Spratly islands 11 Feb, passing within twelve nautical miles of Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef, administered by Philippines and China respectively; Beijing responded reiterating its “indisputable sovereignty” over islands and claimed its navy identified and expelled the warships. U.S. stealth aircraft conducted operations in Philippine and East China Seas 26 Jan-6 Feb; followed Jan reports that U.S. Marine Corps is developing conflict capabilities for taking “natural or man-made” island. China continued push for military combat readiness toward maritime forces, with Central Military Commission Vice-Chair 3 Feb calling for further development of Coast Guard. Media 21 Feb reported that China concluded previously unannounced drills in SCS over 34 days, involving naval, air and missile forces. U.S. and UK navies held joint maritime security and logistics training in SCS 18 Feb, their third naval collaboration in region in three months. Philippines defence minister 4 Feb said announced ramp for planned construction on Thitu Island in Spratlys will be completed early 2019. Using satellite imagery, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative 6 Feb reported increased numbers of suspected Chinese fishing militia, Coast Guard and navy vessels around island Dec and Jan. Indonesia 22 Feb outlined plans to build Integrated Marine and Fisheries Centre in its Natuna Islands and station naval patrol boats as part of effort to establish new fishing zone and assert sovereignty over area.
President Sirisena continued actions challenging democratic institutions and human rights provisions in advance of presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections set for late 2019-2020. Sirisena 6 Feb attacked National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in speech to parliament, accusing it of protecting only criminals’ rights and blaming alleged NHRC procedural delays for Jan death of two Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers in Mali; NHRC expressed “deep concern” at “unjust criticism”. Sirisena also alleged Constitutional Council bias following Council’s rejection of his nominees for judicial positions; charges repeated by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and supporters, in apparent campaign to weaken public support for 19th amendment, which re-established Constitutional Council and independent commissions such as NHRC, and set term, age and nationality limits on presidency. In bid to maintain support of Tamil National Alliance (TNA), following collapse of hopes for new TNA-backed constitution, PM Wickremesinghe 14-16 Feb visited Northern Province with ministers and TNA MPs, promising to expedite economic development initiatives. UK 11 Feb announced intention to present draft resolution “rolling over” terms of existing UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution for Sri Lanka, with UNHRC meeting starting 25 Feb; major protests 25 Feb by Tamil groups in northern province rejected extension of UNHRC process, called for international justice for wartime abuses. In 14 Feb Joint Commission meetings with Sri Lanka, EU reiterated “need to repeal and replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)” with new legislation “in line with international standards” and urged Sri Lanka to “maintain its moratorium on executions”.