The President's Take
On the first working day of every month, Crisis Group refreshes CrisisWatch, our early-warning tool providing regular updates on the most significant conflicts around the world. It’s one of our most popular features because it is an inestimable resource for all who care about conflict and want to know both the dangers that lurk and the opportunities that arise. Beginning this month, I will add a brief commentary of my own.
This time, I am highlighting two conflict situations: the Korean peninsula, where the potential for a catastrophe of untold proportions comes hand-in-hand with a rare chance for de-escalation; and Israel-Palestine, where a conflict that remains dormant until it inevitably flares up was made more dangerous by the U.S. president’s pronouncements.
As to the former: North and South Korea have agreed to resume contacts in the context of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics; Pyongyang put some of its more provocative actions on the back burner; and Washington postponed its military exercises. These steps should be built upon to avoid an outcome as absurd as it would be tragic: having the U.S. risk a nuclear war in order to avoid one.
As to the latter: for some time now, one of President Abbas’s chief functions has been to maintain as many illusions as possible amid widespread Palestinian disillusionment – with the peace process, the U.S., non-violence, and the two-state solution. Through his actions and words, President Trump has been systematically stripping away even the pretense of an illusion. The danger is that he reap what he has sowed.
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January saw violence rise in Afghanistan, likely to continue in February as conflict parties compete to gain the upper hand ahead of spring offensives. Clashes look set to escalate in north-west Syria, with the regime ramping up its push against rebels and Turkey launching an assault on Kurdish-held Afrin. In Yemen, southern separatists fought government forces, their erstwhile allies, to take control of Aden city in the south. In West Africa, both Mali and Niger experienced a rise in jihadist violence, in Nigeria deadly attacks between herders and farmers spiralled, and Equatorial Guinea said it had thwarted an attempted coup. In the Horn of Africa, Somaliland troops clashed with neighbouring Puntland’s forces and both sides looked to be preparing for more hostilities. In Colombia, peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army were suspended following a spate of guerrilla attacks. The Venezuelan government’s announcement of early elections sparked a crisis of confidence in talks with the opposition. Meanwhile, peace talks between North and South Korea provide an opportunity for de-escalation, however the threat of war on the peninsula is higher now than at any time in recent history.
With peace talks stalled, Afghanistan experienced a rise in deadly attacks by all armed actors, at a tempo and intensity that could persist as conflict parties try to gain the upper hand ahead of spring offensives. The Afghan National Security Forces claimed to have killed about 2,000 Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) fighters since late December, while attacks by the Taliban and the IS-KP have left scores dead. In one incident in Kabul claimed by the Taliban, a bomb in an ambulance killed more than 100. Recognising that Afghanistan risks facing escalating violence in 2018, Crisis Group has stressed that diplomatic channels should be preserved and a political settlement pursued.
In Syria’s north west, Turkey’s air and land offensive against Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” (YPG) in Afrin, and regime advances against rebels in Hama and Idlib provinces, marked a severe escalation and paved the way for worse fighting in February. As we warned, Turkey’s offensive among a hostile population and in difficult territory could easily become a prolonged fight against a gritty insurgency, further strain its alliance with the YPG’s main backer, the U.S., and provoke Kurdish attacks at home. A deal would serve both sides better. In Yemen’s port city of Aden, southern separatists – nominally allied with the government in its fight against Huthi rebels – routed government forces from much of the city; dozens died in the fighting.
Suspected jihadist gunmen and suicide bombers in Mali upped deadly attacks against the military and French Barkhane forces, especially in Ménaka region in the east. In neighbouring Niger, Boko Haram militants increased attacks against the army in the south east, killing at least ten soldiers. To confront these rural insurgencies in the Sahel, in tandem with military efforts, authorities and foreign partners should promote local mediation and peacebuilding initiatives and, where possible, try to engage militant leaders. Nigeria’s expanding conflict between herding and farming communities spiralled in January with at least 200 killed across five states. Also in West Africa, Equatorial Guinea said it had foiled a coup attempt; 39 mercenaries were arrested in southern Cameroon.
Tensions between Somaliland and Puntland state in Somalia turned violent when on 8 January Somaliland troops seized the town of Tukaraq in the disputed Sool region, pushing out Puntland forces. With fighters exchanging fire on 28 January and both sides reportedly mobilising more manpower, February could see further hostilities.
In Colombia, amid a climate of mistrust at the negotiating table and a general atmosphere of public scepticism and apathy, peace talks between the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group were suspended on 29 January following a spate of guerrilla attacks. In Venezuela, the government’s announcement that it will hold early elections “before 30 April”, in defiance of ongoing talks with the opposition, sparked a crisis of confidence in the talks, greatly reducing the prospects of a viable agreement to resolve the political standoff.
In Kosovo, the murder of moderate Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic in Mitrovica on 16 January triggered shock and condemnation within Kosovo and by the U.S., EU and others in the international community, who called for all sides to remain calm, exercise restraint and avoid dangerous rhetoric.
North and South Korea conducted multiple rounds of peace talks in January and agreed to conduct several joint activities in the coming months. This came after Seoul responded positively to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s offer of immediate and unconditional talks with South Korea in his annual New Year’s address. As Crisis Group reports state, the thaw in relations offers an opportunity to dial down tensions and reduce the immediate risk of conflict through some form of de-escalatory deal between the U.S. and North Korea. Nevertheless, the threat of catastrophic war on the peninsula is higher now than at any time in recent history, and escalation could quickly resume after the Olympics.
23 civil society organisations early Jan launched “Teshwa Ute’’ (stop) campaign against referendum set for May on constitutional changes that would allow President Nkurunziza to run in presidential elections until 2034; Forum for Strengthening Civil Society 16 Jan reported that authorities had arrested 60 people opposed to constitutional change in Jan. Opposition groups in exile and in Burundi agreed in Kenyan capital Nairobi 27-28 Jan to work together against constitutional referendum. Opposition MPs and unions continued to protest against forced contributions toward 2020 elections. Guerrilla group National Forces of Liberation fighting against govt from bases along Burundi-DR Congo border 5 Jan suffered internal coup; Major General Felix Ntahonkiriye announced he was new chief of armed movement and Oscar Havyarimana became president of political branch. UN Human Rights Council 18 Jan said govt’s violations of human rights since Nkurunziza’s July 2015 re-election included torture, forced disappearances, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings. Almost 7,000 Congolese fled from South Kivu to Burundi late Jan due to fighting between army and Mai Mai militants.
Anglophone separatists maintained attacks and clashed with security forces in Southwest and Northwest regions, and Boko Haram (BH) kept up deadly attacks in Far North with rise in monthly death toll. Separatists killed two military officers in Southwest 14 Jan and another next day in Northwest. Anglophone armed separatist group Tigers of Ambazonia 14-18 Jan raided schools in Buea, Kumba and Limbe, and launched attacks in Mbonge, Kombone, Kwa Kwa, Nake and Bole, all Southwest region, clashing with security forces; several separatists and military killed. In retaliation, security forces killed civilians and burnt homes in Southwest and in Kumbo, Northwest, forcing thousands to flee. Nigerian aid official late Jan said Nigeria was hosting at least 43,000 Anglophone Cameroonians; Nigerian National Commission for Refugees reported 30,000, while UN Refugee Agency had registered by 24 Jan 11,651 Cameroonians seeking asylum in Nigeria. Unidentified men 18 Jan killed forest guard in Ikiliwindi, Southwest. Separatist groups, including Tigers and Ambazonia Defense Forces, clashed with army several more times, in Mbengwi and Mulang both Northwest and Ekombe and Ekok both Southwest 20-26 Jan, several separatists and at least one soldier killed. Some 80 soldiers crossed into Cross River state, Nigeria 30 Jan searching for separatists. Nigeria 5 Jan arrested ten separatist leaders in Nigerian capital, Abuja; in response Anglophone activists protested at Nigerian embassies in U.S., South Africa, UK and Belgium 10-19 Jan. 47 separatists, including president of Interim Govt of Ambazonia, extradited from Nigeria to Cameroon 26 Jan. Marking rise in monthly death toll, BH killed at least 27 people in Far North, including four people in suicide bombings in Amchide 11-16 Jan, with other attacks in Kolofata, Mayo Moskota, Mayo Tsanaga and Waza areas. Two Cameroonian soldiers killed 4 Jan while taking part in Nigerian army’s Operation Deep Punch 2 in Sambisa forest, Nigeria. Equatorial Guinea govt 3 Jan said it had thwarted attempted coup late Dec; some 39 mercenaries from Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan reportedly arrested in southern Cameroon near Equatorial Guinea border 27 Dec.
High levels of violence involving armed groups continued, especially in north west. Clashes between armed groups National Movement for the Liberation of the Central African Republic (MNLC) and Revolution and Justice (RJ) intensified in Ouham Pende province in north west; UN mission (MINUSCA) late Jan deployed Cameroonian troops and Bangladeshi Special Forces to create zone free of armed groups 10km around Paoua, Ouham Pende province, govt troops deployed in support 25 Jan. President Touadéra visited Paoua 19 Jan. Govt and MINUSCA 18 Jan rejected nomination by ex-Seleka faction Popular Front for the Central African Renaissance (FPRC) of some members to join police and gendarmerie in Bria in centre. Court 22 Jan condemned former anti-balaka leader known as General Andilo to life in prison, first conviction since crisis began in 2013. UN investigation team 24 Jan submitted report to UN Secretary-General pointing out MINUSCA’s shortfalls in civil-military planning, training and understanding of protection of civilians. Having obtained from UN Security Council exception to arms embargo in Dec, Russia delivered weapons to equip EU-trained army soldiers 26 Jan.
Clashes continued early Jan between illegal gold miners and local communities in Tibesti region in far north. Govt launched operation Zero Loss to boost customs revenue collection 10 Jan; to combat dishonest financial practices govt created force comprising 500 members of presidential guard led by President Déby’s son. Strikes continued to protest govt’s austerity measures, including hikes in income tax and prices of fuel, electricity and telephone calls; in response govt 25 Jan cut internet service and deployed security forces in capital N’Djamena. Déby 28 Jan slightly reshuffled govt: Ahmat Mahamat Bachir returned as security minister and Mahamat Moctar Ali became civil service minister. Following meeting of foreign ministers of G5 Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania) and French defence ministry in Paris 15 Jan, Malian FM announced launch of second G5 Sahel operation. Déby elected chairperson of African Peer Review Mechanism 28 Jan.
Following large anti-govt demonstrations on first anniversary of Saint Sylvester agreement 31 Dec, protests against President Kabila’s rule organised in capital Kinshasa and other major cities 21 Jan by Comité Laïc de Coordination, activists affiliated to Catholic Church; repression by security forces reportedly left six people dead. Catholic Archbishop of Kinshasa 2 Jan denounced repression and 12 Jan held mass to commemorate victims. Electoral commission concluded voter registration 31 Jan, said 46mn voters registered, 12% more than expected. Suspected militia fighters 14 Jan killed four soldiers near Kananga airport in Central Kasai province. Kamuina Nsapu militia killed nine civilians in Bata Ishama and Kakenge villages, Kasai province 29-30 Jan. Congolese army 13 Jan launched new operations against armed group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in N Kivu in east and reported twenty military personnel killed in ADF attack 19 Jan. Ugandan President Museveni 14 Jan held meeting of East African chiefs of defence forces and representatives of DRC and South Africa to discuss conflict with ADF. Security forces intensified operations against Mai Mai militia in S Kivu causing almost 7,000 people to flee to Burundi and 1,200 to Tanzania late Jan.
Follow-up committee for 23 Dec ceasefire agreement between govt and rebels led by Pasteur Ntumi submitted its recommendations to govt 22 Jan, including arms collection in Pool region in south, return of state authorities and that Ntumi should remain free.
President Afwerki met Egyptian President Sisi in Cairo 9 Jan to enhance “strategic cooperation”. As tensions rose between Egypt and Sudan (see Sudan), Afwerki 15 Jan dismissed reports that Egyptian troops had deployed to Sawa military base in western Eritrea close to border with Sudan. Sudan 5 Jan said it had sent troops to Kassala region in eastern Sudan near border with Eritrea, and same day closed border.
Security forces 20 Jan opened fire on crowd chanting anti-govt slogans at religious festival in Weldiya, Amhara region; some twelve people reportedly killed, sparking further unrest in which protesters set fire to businesses associated with pro-regime figures. Protests continued in other parts of Amhara and in Oromia region. Security forces 25 Jan allegedly fired on crowd in Kobo, Amhara region, killing seven people. PM Desalegn 3 Jan said govt would close Maekelawi prison camp, allegedly used as torture facility, and reported to have said govt would pardon or annul cases of all jailed political figures; next day Desalegn’s office said he had been misquoted and that only “some” political prisoners would be pardoned. Prosecutor general 15 Jan said charges against 528 people arrested during anti-govt protests had been dropped, including prominent Oromo opposition leader Merera Gudina jailed since Dec 2016; Gudina released 17 Jan with 115 others. Oromia regional state 26 Jan announced pardon of 2,345 prisoners jailed during unrest in 2015 and 2016, of whom 1,568 had been convicted and sentenced. PM Desalegn met Egyptian President Sisi in Cairo 18 Jan on dispute over Nile waters and construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egypt sees as threat to its water supply; talks ended in stalemate as govt rejected Egyptian proposal that World Bank mediate, both sides played down reports of military tension. On sidelines of African Union summit, govt, Egypt and Sudan 29 Jan set one-month deadline for reaching agreement on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
President Kenyatta 26 Jan announced new cabinet; appointment of ruling party supporters to all key posts closed door to power sharing with opposition, one option touted to end confrontation between Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga. Odinga 30 Jan staged swearing-in ceremony in which he was declared “people’s president”, despite previously dropping plan due to reported govt threats that police would disrupt ceremony and arrest him; ceremony took place largely peacefully, tens of thousands attended and police stayed away. Other opposition leaders Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetang’ula did not attend. Govt took off air some television and radio stations intending to cover ceremony and others after they had done so. Interior minister 31 Jan described ceremony as “attempt to subvert or overthrow” govt and threatened arrests, including against journalists. Former VP and senior opposition figure Kalonzo Musyoka 31 Jan claimed unidentified assailants carried out failed “assassination attempt” against him at his home in Nairobi that day. Police 31 Jan arrested opposition MP who administered Odinga’s “swearing-in”. EU observer mission released its final report on electoral process in Brussels 10 Jan, claiming that govt refused to host mission in Nairobi and that govt had requested delay in publication; report concluded that election commission had performed better than in initial Aug poll, but said lack of public trust in institutions affected credibility of process and called for greater accountability; foreign ministry summoned EU ambassador to express displeasure with report. Al-Shabaab increased attacks mostly on security forces and mostly near border with Somalia and at coast: insurgents attacked police patrol in Mandera county in north 2 Jan killing five policemen; 100 militants 14 Jan temporarily took over Ishakani village, East Lamu to preach to inhabitants and warn them not to cooperate with security forces.
Clashes between govt forces and Al-Shabaab militants continued, increasing in frequency late Jan, including: govt forces attacked alleged Al-Shabaab-run school in Middle Shabelle region 18 Jan reportedly killing four children and teacher; Al-Shabaab attacked base of African Union mission (AMISOM) in Buloburde, Hiraan region 23 Jan, three militants reportedly killed; army and Al-Shabaab militants clashed in Bay region 29 Jan, seven militants and four soldiers reportedly killed. U.S. 1 Jan said it had killed at least seventeen Al-Shabaab militants in airstrikes late Dec. U.S. conducted further airstrikes throughout Jan; U.S. said 18 Jan airstrike killed four militants. Amid tensions between federal govt and Mogadishu Mayor Thabit Abdi Mohamed over latter’s alleged involvement in land-grab deals, district commissioners loyal to Thabit re-elected him as mayor for further two years in unofficial vote 20 Jan; in response President Farmajo 21 Jan replaced Thabit with then Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman “Yarisow”. Gunman killed Marine general in Mogadishu 18 Jan; colonel reportedly arrested for shooting.
Somaliland troops 8 Jan forcefully took control of Tukaraq town in Sool region from Puntland forces, region disputed between Somaliland and Puntland, and fighting could escalate in Feb. Somalia President Farmajo visited Puntland capital Garowe 8 Jan. Somaliland and Puntland reportedly assembled more forces in preparation for further potential conflict, prompting Ethiopia to begin mediation. Somaliland and Puntland forces exchanged gunfire in Tukaraq 28 Jan, no casualties reported. Reported clashes between two clans in El Afweyn district, Sanaag region 21 Jan, left some seventeen people dead.
Govt forces and rebels continued to violate 24 Dec Cessation of Hostilities (CoH); ceasefire monitors 15 Jan confirmed violations by govt and forces loyal to former VP Machar in Dec and Jan. U.S. Ambassador to UN Nikki Haley 24 Jan called govt “unfit partner” for peace and suggested arms embargo. UN Secretary-General 27 Jan questioned S Sudanese political elites’ commitment to peace, reaffirmed UN support for any punitive actions by regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and pointed out “contradictions” in regional and international approaches. IGAD 27 Jan confirmed its intent to ensure consequences for hindering CoH monitoring processes and for violating ceasefire. AU Chairperson Moussa Faki encouraged implementation of sanctions 28 Jan. President Kiir 7 Jan said former army chief Paul Malong was mobilising troops to fight govt, citing alleged recordings of Malong urging army officials to take up arms against govt; Malong denied authenticity of recordings.
Simmering tensions between Sudan and Egypt, mostly over disputed Halayeb border region and alleged Sudanese hosting of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, escalated after Turkish President Erdoğan visited Khartoum end Dec. During visit, it was reported that Sudan gave Saukin Island on Red Sea coast, site of historic Ottoman Port, to Turkey. This prompted speculation that Turkey intends to build naval base on island, which would further fuel competition for influence on Horn’s Red Sea coast between Saudi Arabia and its allies, including Egypt, and Qatar and its ally Turkey. Following reports that Egypt had deployed troops to Sawa military base in western Eritrea near border with Sudan 4 Jan (which Eritrean President Afwerki denied 15 Jan), Sudan same day recalled its ambassador to Egypt, and 5 Jan said it had deployed troops to Kassala region in east near border with Eritrea and reportedly closed border with Eritrea, but it remained unclear if Sudan took these measures in response to alleged Egyptian troop deployments. In apparent attempt to defuse diplomatic escalation, President Bashir and Egyptian President Sisi met in Addis Ababa on margins of African Union summit 27 Jan and pledged to establish joint ministerial committee to handle bilateral challenges. Govt’s late Dec release of 2018 budget, including cut in flour subsidy that tripled price of bread, triggered nationwide protests early Jan; security forces cracked down on protestors violently across country and arrested around 100 participants, including opposition Sudanese Congress Party leader Omar al-Digar, one protester reported killed.
Parliamentary spokesman 2 Jan said President Museveni had 27 Dec signed bill (passed by parliament 20 Dec) which removes presidential age limit, allowing him to run for sixth term in 2021. After opposition protests in parliament, Constitutional Court 3 Jan said it would review parliamentary speaker’s conduct during debates on bill, including decision to suspend six opposition MPs. Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) leader Kizza Besigye 11 Jan announced “Tubalemese” campaign, involving formation of alternative “people’s government” and boycott of companies owned by members of ruling National Resistance Movement. Following attack by suspected members of Ugandan armed group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in DRC 7 Dec that killed some fourteen Tanzanian peacekeepers and Ugandan military’s strikes on ADF bases late Dec, Museveni 14 Jan convened meeting of East African defence and military intelligence chiefs and representatives from DRC and South Africa to discuss ADF threat.
Regional bloc Southern African Development Community (SADC) 24 Jan briefed African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council on SADC Preventive Mission in Lesotho (SAPMIL) launched 2 Dec and requested AU and its partners to help meet $1.6mn shortfall in funding for first six months.
Suspected Islamist militants from group known locally as Al-Shabaab 13 Jan attacked govt building in Palma district, Cabo Delgado province near border with Tanzania in far north, killing five. Unidentified assailants 15 Jan attacked village in Nangade district, Cabo Delgado province, killing two people; locals blamed attack on same group.
President Mnangagwa 24 Jan said free and fair elections would be held before July, welcomed observers from EU, UN and Commonwealth and promised to respect result. Under pressure to respond to allegations around 1980s Gukuruhundi massacres, alleged killings of minority Ndebele by security forces, Mnangagwa 5 Jan enacted law to launch National Peace and Reconciliation Commission. About 30 senior police officers forced to retire 18 Jan, Mnangagwa next day overturned decision reinstating all but eleven. Govt 23 Jan ordered senior govt officials to declare assets over $100,000 by 28 Feb as part of anti-corruption drive.
Jihadist coalition Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) 6 Jan claimed 31 Dec ambush on gendarmerie patrol at Kombory, Boucle du Mouhoun region in north on Mali border, one gendarme killed. Unidentified assailants 5 Jan attacked Kelbo gendarmerie post, Soum province, Sahel region, one attacker killed. Authorities late Dec arrested former Security Minister Auguste Denise Barry and several members of his think-tank; accused Barry of planning protests alongside civil society organisations. Authorities arrested more people 8 Jan, including three civilians allegedly involved in “destabilisation” attempt.
Rival factions in military clashed twice in Bouaké in centre. Soldiers in artillery battalion who mutinied in 2017 clashed with members of elite unit, whom former accuse of being sent to spy on them, around military base at Sokoura, north of Bouaké in centre 5 Jan; one soldier reportedly killed. Rival factions clashed again in Bouaké 9 Jan. Govt responded by beefing up security in city.
Govt 3 Jan said it had thwarted attempted coup 24 Dec; some 39 mercenaries from Chad, Central African Republic and Sudan reportedly arrested in southern Cameroon near border with Equatorial Guinea 27 Dec. Govt accused opposition parties of having links to coup and arrested 135 opponents during Jan. Authorities 30 Dec reportedly arrested ambassador to Chad, President Obiang 23 Jan fired ambassador citing “irregularities committed in the exercise of his functions”.
Authorities 21 Jan arrested two of former President Jammeh’s generals on their return to Gambia, having fled with Jammeh in Jan 2017; govt did not state charges.
PM Embalo resigned 13 Jan to facilitate dialogue to end political impasse, but President Vaz failed to meet 16 Jan deadline set in Dec by regional bloc Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) for him to conform with Oct 2016 Conakry agreement by naming consensus PM. Former FM Augusto Antonio Artur Da Silva sworn in as new PM 31 Jan.
George Weah sworn in as president 22 Jan. Ruling Unity Party 14 Jan said it had expelled several members including outgoing President Johnson Sirleaf, whom party leaders accuse of meddling in presidential elections.
Suspected jihadists increased attacks on national and international forces, especially in east and centre. Alleged jihadists attacked Self-Defence Group of Imrad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA), Platform coalition member, in Ménaka region in east 6 Jan, killing four. French Barkhane forces 10 Jan captured several people suspected to have links to jihadists. Suicide bomber in vehicle detonated explosives near Barkhane convoy near Indelimane, Ménaka region 11 Jan injuring three French soldiers; attack claimed by Islamic State branch in Sahel. Civilian vehicle triggered mine near Boni, Mopti region in centre 25 Jan, 26 people killed. Army said it had repelled attack at Youwarou, Mopti region 25 Jan, killing seven attackers. Alleged jihadists attacked military positions in Soumpi, Timbuktu region in north 27 Jan killing fourteen soldiers and in Ménaka, Ménaka region 28 Jan killing at least five soldiers. Govt 11 Jan said it would launch large military operation to secure centre. Delegation of ex-rebel Coalition of Azawad Movements (CMA) early Jan went to Washington and New York to argue their case with UN Security Council members; President Keita 12 Jan said trip was attempt to lead “parallel negotiations” outside framework of Algiers peace agreement. Agreement follow-up committee 17 Jan decided on new timeline for implementation. FMs of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in capital Bamako 8 Jan decided to create fund to channel donor funds for counter-terror operations. Following meeting of FMs of G5 Sahel countries (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania) and French defence ministry in Paris 15 Jan, Malian FM announced launch of second G5 Sahel operation, but kept details secret.
Suspected Boko Haram (BH) militants increased attacks in south east and insecurity persisted in west. In south east, suspected BH militants attacked army positions in Toumour, east of Diffa 17 Jan, reportedly killing at least seven soldiers, at least one civilian also killed. BH militants attacked National Guard outpost near Chetimari, about 20km from Diffa, at least two soldiers and several militants reportedly killed. Govt early Jan extended state of emergency for another three months and extended by unspecified period 31 Dec deadline for BH militants to surrender; 26 BH militants reportedly surrendered in Diffa 16 Jan. In west, armed men seen destroying communication posts in several places in Tillabery region mid-Jan; security forces claimed to have prevented assailants destroying communication posts in Banibangou area 17 Jan, killing up to fifteen. Civil society-led protests against 2018 finance law continued 14 Jan in Niamey, Zinder and Dosso.
Violence between herders and farmers escalated and military battled Boko Haram (BH) as group kept up attacks in north east. In spiralling herder-farmer violence, herders attacked farming communities in Logo and Guma areas of Benue state 1-7 Jan killing at least 73 people. Attacks between Fulani and Bachama groups in Lau area, Taraba state killed at least 55 people 6-8 Jan and six more 21 Jan. Suspected herders killed ten people in Birnin Gwari, Kaduna state 12 Jan and at least six people in Logo, Guma and Okpokwu areas of Benue state 16-17 Jan. Several attacks in Taraba state 16-17 Jan killed at least 29 people. Clashes and attacks in Bassa, Bokkos and Riyom areas of Plateau state 22-24 Jan killed at least ten people. Gunmen 30 Jan attacked Kadarko village, Nasarawa state killing seven people. Armed youths 31 Jan killed seven Fulani in Gboko, Benue state. Army 9 Jan said it killed at least 107 BH insurgents in north east of Borno state. In Borno state, BH killed 26 people in attacks in Kaje and near Ngala 8 and 15 Jan. In north of Adamawa state, BH killed twenty people in four attacks 15-26 Jan. Six suicide bombings during Jan mainly in Borno state killed at least 38 people including bombers. BH faction leader Shekau released video 2 Jan and two more 15 Jan insisting on group’s strength and showing female captives. In Niger Delta, militants beheaded soldier at Toru-Ndoro, Bayelsa state 5 Jan; when troops tried to arrest perpetrators 9 Jan, gunfight left four soldiers and several militants dead. Militant group Niger Delta Avengers 17 Jan said it would resume attacks on foreign oil companies. In suspected gang war in Rivers state, gunmen killed at least 21 people in Omoku 1 Jan; killed seven in Emohua 4 Jan and seven in Ajakaja 6 Jan. In Niger state, vigilantes killed ten suspected bandits in Rafi area 6 Jan. Security forces 5 Jan arrested ten Cameroonian Anglophone separatist leaders in Abuja, extradited them to Cameroon 26 Jan (see Cameroon).
Unidentified gunmen shot dead thirteen people 6 Jan near town of Borofaye in Casamance region in south, where separatists have been waging campaign for independence of Casamance region since early 1980s. Police 25 Jan arrested and charged 24 people for crime, including member of separatist Movement of Democratic Forces for Casamance.
Amid ongoing anti-govt protests, following meeting between opposition representatives and mediator Guinean President Condé in Conakry 15-16 Jan, Condé said he had proposed govt and opposition meet 23-26 Jan for dialogue and that he would send mission to present opposition demands to President Gnassingbé. Opposition representatives 17 Jan met mediator Ghanaian President Akufo-Addo in Accra.
Amid ongoing crackdown on “extremist” or “politically incorrect” views, Radio Free Asia 22 Jan reported some 120,000 ethnic Uighurs being detained in political re-education camps in Kashgar, Xinjiang, according to anonymous security official.
Four Chinese coast guard ships 7 Jan sailed through waters near disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, prompting warning by Japan’s coast guard. Japan 11 Jan said it had sighted Chinese frigate and submarine near Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands’ territorial waters; lodged formal protest, 15 Jan said China’s actions “unilaterally raises tensions”. U.S. 20 Jan announced its 2018 National Defense Strategy, which characterised China as strategic competitor reinforcing likelihood of continued tensions and potential for unintended clashes, particularly in the South China Sea (SCS) and East China Sea (ECS). Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono 27-28 Jan made first official visit to Beijing since 2016 and met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang; discussions focused on North Korea, ECS dispute, planned trilateral China-Japan-South Korea summit and plans to establish military hotline.
North and South Korea conducted multiple rounds of peace talks and agreed to conduct several joint activities in coming months, promoting route to de-escalation of tensions and reduced risk of conflict amid opportunity presented by North’s participation in Feb Winter Olympics; however observers cite likely purpose of Pyongyang’s outreach to drive wedge into international consensus, ROK-U.S. alliance and South Korean domestic politics, and risk of resumed escalation following Olympics. In annual televised New Year’s address 1 Jan, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued offer of immediate and unconditional talks with South Korea. South Korea responded with suggestion of 9 Jan meeting on its side of Military Demarcation Line, at which sides agreed North Korea would participate in Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South in Feb; also reopened cross-border military-to-military communications line to facilitate logistical discussions. Further talks 15 Jan resulted in agreement that North Korean cultural sector delegation would make two-day inspection trip to South, which took place 21-22 Jan. At 17 Jan talks, Pyongyang and Seoul agreed to march under one flag at Winter Olympics opening ceremony 9 Feb and compete together in several sports. South Korea and U.S. 4 Jan agreed to postpone joint military exercises until after Winter Olympics and Paralympics, which run until 18 March, though U.S. officials responded to inter-Korean talks with mixed messages: U.S. Ambassador to UN Nikki Haley 3 Jan dismissed prospects of dialogue, saying U.S. does not take talks “seriously” unless they make moves toward “ban” on North Korean nuclear weapons; National Security Advisor McMaster warned 5 Jan that purpose of Kim Jong-un’s outreach was to “drive a wedge” between Seoul and Washington, a widely shared view. In his 29 Jan State of the Union address, President Trump said “past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation” and that he would not repeat “mistakes of past administrations”. U.S. 24 Jan announced further sanctions on several entities, people and ships it said helped Pyongyang’s weapons program.
Head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Zhang Zhijun published article 31 Dec saying cross-strait relations will be “more complicated and grave” in 2018 and reiterated China will never tolerate independence activities or separatism movements. China’s Civil Aviation Administration 4 Jan said it will open four new commercial traffic routes to ease congestion over Taiwan Strait; Taipei complained it was not consulted and described move as threat to regional security. U.S. House of Representatives 9 Jan passed Taiwan Travel Act which, if approved by Senate and president, would encourage bilateral official visits. Taiwan 16 Jan said China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier had entered Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.
Jan saw increase in hostilities by all sides in disruption of usual winter lull in fighting, with tempo and intensity of violence seen as likely to continue in Feb as parties to conflict make push to gain upper hand ahead of spring offensives; also further major Taliban attacks on civilians in Kabul late Jan. Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) claimed to have killed about 2,000 Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) fighters since late Dec. Taliban laid siege to provincial capital of Farah (west). At least one U.S. soldier killed in fight against IS-KP 1 Jan and one wounded by insider attack claimed by Taliban 11 Jan in Nangarhar province. Eighteen members of pro-govt local militia killed by Taliban in relatively secure province Balkh (north) 18 Jan. Increased reports of civilian harm from operations by Afghan and U.S. forces, including report of ten civilians killed in Jawzjan province 5 Jan and seven civilians killed in Nangarhar province 11 Jan during operations by U.S. forces and ANSF. Taliban claimed two major attacks in Kabul: raid on Intercontinental Hotel 20-21 Jan in which at least 22 were killed, mostly foreigners; and bomb hidden in ambulance which killed more than 100 27 Jan. IS-KP claimed attack on office of humanitarian NGO Save the Children 24 Jan in which at least three people were killed. Eleven soldiers killed in raid on military academy in Kabul 29 Jan, claimed by IS-KP. U.S. President Trump 29 Jan condemned attacks and ruled out peace talks with Taliban in apparent reversal of previous strategy of pushing them closer to talks; however, Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan 30 Jan said Trump’s remarks did not reflect a policy shift. Ahead of Kabul Process conference scheduled 28 Feb, Govt’s High Peace Council stepped up public events advocating for peace. Standoff continued between central govt and Balkh governor Atta Noor, who continued to defy attempt by President Ghani to fire him; U.S. VP Pence 16 Jan called for peaceful transition of power in Balkh.
Efforts to repatriate Rohingya refugees to Myanmar stalled amid continued concerns from rights groups and UN that refugees would be returned forcibly and without adequate safety guarantees. Rohingya leaders at main Kutupalong refugee camp mid-Jan drew up a list of demands for Myanmar to meet before beginning repatriation process, including citizenship for Rohingyas and military accountability for alleged killings, looting and rape. 23 January Bangladesh police arrested three Rohingya refugees attempting to organise protest against any forced repatriation. First meeting of Bangladesh-Myanmar Joint Working Committee for repatriation 15 Jan reached agreement to repatriate some 655,500 Rohingya refugees “preferably within two years”, starting 23 Jan; amid concerns voiced by rights groups, Bangladesh’s refugee and repatriation commissioner 22 Jan said repatriation process had been postponed, citing lack of preparation and concerns refugees are unwilling to return. Small numbers of Rohingya reportedly continue to enter Bangladesh. Bangladesh National Party (BNP) chief Khaleda Zia 2 Jan said BNP would contest 2019 general election, but reiterated calls previously rejected by govt that poll be held under interim non-partisan administration. North South University teacher Mubashar Hasan, one of most prominent enforced disappearance cases, released 22 Dec after 44 days in captivity, reportedly at hands of security agencies; Hassan’s liberation prompted renewed domestic and international attention on issue. Security forces 12 Jan killed three Islamist suspected militants during raid in Dhaka.
Clashes between security forces and suspected Maoist rebels in Chhattisgarh state included: 5 Jan clash in which security forces killed two suspected Maoist rebels in Bastar district; 15 Jan clash that killed one alleged Maoist; 24 Jan rebel ambush which killed four policemen; and clash in Sukma district 27 Jan in which two suspected Maoists were killed.
Periodic exchanges of fire across international border and Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan occurred throughout month, increasing in frequency mid-to-late Jan after Pakistan 15 Jan accused India of killing four of its soldiers and said it had killed three Indian soldiers in retaliation. Bomb placed by suspected militants 6 Jan killed four policemen in Srinagar. Indian security forces and militants clashed throughout month, including on 15 Jan, when Indian forces said they killed five Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militants attempting to infiltrate across LoC; during 24 Jan clash, police killed two suspected militants and seventeen-year-old civilian man in Indian-administered Jammu. Security forces 27 Jan fired on anti-India protestors in Shopian district of Indian-administered Kashmir, killing two and triggering further protests. Tensions continued over detained alleged Indian spy Kulbuhshan Jhadav following 25 Dec meeting between Jhadav and his wife and mother in Islamabad, after which Pakistan released video statement by Jhadav reiterating confession that he had been working for Indian intelligence; India said Jhadav’s statement was made under duress, repeated demands for consular access to Jhadav.
Despite completion of federal, provincial, and local elections, transfer of power from Nepali Congress (NC) to leftist alliance between UML and CPN (Maoist Centre) continues to be delayed with country’s new decentralised governing bodies taking shape; new provincial assemblies sworn in 21 Jan; parties preparing for 7 Feb elections for upper house of federal parliament. PM Sher Bahadur Deuba continues to be criticised by leftist of alliance for unwillingness to step down. Govt’s 17 Jan declaration of temporary headquarters of all seven provinces led to protests in several areas; clashes between demonstrators and police in former regional headquarter cities resulted in over 25 injured; UML Chairman KP Oli vowed to reverse this and other decisions made by NC-led govt during transition period. UML and CPN (Maoist Centre) continued to discuss merger and power-sharing deals; 28 Jan decided four of seven provinces would be led by UML and two by CPN (Maoist Centre); deal criticised as disproportionate by some Maoist leaders who also demand Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal assume leadership of new unified party.
Relations with U.S. deteriorated further after President Trump 1 Jan prompted diplomat spat tweeting that U.S. had “foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit”, including providing safe haven to Afghan militants. Foreign ministry summoned U.S. ambassador to formally protest Trump’s remarks; govt 2 Jan issued statement describing tweet as “completely incomprehensible” and reiterating Pakistan’s commitment to Afghan peace process. U.S. 4 Jan said it had suspended security assistance to Pakistan, including Coalition Support Fund support and Foreign Military Financing, until govt takes “decisive action” against militant groups. FM Khawaja Asif described U.S. as “friend who always betrays”; demonstrators early Jan staged anti-U.S. protests amid opposition calls for retaliation. Govt 24 Jan claimed U.S. drone strike in Kurram agency, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), targeted Afghan refugee camp; denied by U.S.. Balochistan chief minister and ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) member Sanaullah Zehri resigned 9 Jan ahead of no-confidence vote tabled by PML-N dissidents and provincial cabinet, reportedly at military’s behest in bid to damage PML-N’s electoral prospects; replaced by Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-e-Azam’s (PML-Q) Mir Abdul Qudoos Bizenjo. Ambush of paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) convoy in Kech district, Balochistan (west), 15 Jan killed at least five FC soldiers. Unclaimed roadside bomb 30 Jan killed six members of family in Kurram agency. Multiple attacks on police targets throughout month in Balochistan provincial capital Quetta, including 9 Jan suicide bombing on police vehicle which killed seven people, mostly police; claimed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Karachi police 13 Jan killed South Waziristan resident Naqeebullah Mehsud and three other terror suspects in apparently staged “encounter”, prompting major protests and calls for police accountability; police inquiry suspended superintendent involved and submitted report to Supreme Court confirming encounter was faked; court ordered arrest of superindendent, now in hiding. Amid ongoing crackdown by security agencies on journalists, academics and social/political activists, two students were briefly abducted in Karachi early Jan, while on 10 Jan journalist who previously reported threats from security services escaped kidnapping attempt in Islamabad.
Relations between President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and coalition partner United National Party (UNP) deteriorated further following Sirisena attacks on UNP economic management and alleged corruption, in moves widely seen as timed to boost SLFP support in 10 Feb local govt polls. In televised national address, Sirisena 3 Jan presented findings of Presidential Commission report investigating irregularities in bond sales at Central Bank; recommended civil and criminal action against those implicated, including former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran and then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, both close to PM Ranil Wickremasinghe and UNP. Special parliamentary session called by President Sirisena to debate report 10 Jan saw physical clashes between joint opposition and UNP members. Responding to request by Sirisena, Supreme Court 15 Jan clarified Sirisena’s current presidential term is five years, not six, in line with nineteenth constitutional amendment introduced shortly after Sirisena assumed office. Sirisena 20 Jan promised to assume control over economic policy from UNP, appealed 27 Jan to SLFP members now aligned with former President Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) to back Sirisena to form govt without UNP. EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission 18 Jan issued statement calling for urgent repeal of Prevention of Terrorism Act and prompt action on commitments to UN Human Rights Council on transitional justice and reconciliation.
Former leader of now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy, 13 Jan issued statement announcing establishment of Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM), which will organise opposition to govt of PM Hun Sen. Statement called for fair elections and release from prison of Kem Sokha, last leader of CNRP, arrested in Sept 2017. State officials suggested CNRM was tantamount to rebel group; interior ministry 16 Jan said it was founded by “illegal rebels” and warned that those joining group could face legal action. Hun Sen celebrated 33 years in power on 14 Jan; on 16 Jan appointed his son-in-law, Dy Vichea, to post of deputy national police chief.
Govt 3 Jan launched new cyber security agency as part of efforts against online religious extremism and “fake news” on social media; also added some 600 additional personnel to its counter-terrorism police (Detachment 88) in bid to crack down on Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired groups. FM Retno Marsudi 3 Jan met Philippine President Duterte in Davao, southern Philippines, to discuss maritime security plan and possible joint education program to “spread” Islamic values to counter extremism.
Islamic State (ISIS) video uploaded 30 Dec featured Malaysian Muhammad Aqif Heusen Rahizat, aka Abu Sufyan Malayzi, and Singaporean, Abu Akil Al Singapuri, urging others to launch attacks in their home countries if they cannot join ISIS in Syria. Police 22 Jan arrested two men believed to have links with ISIS, with one aiming to kill Buddhist monks as retaliation for violence suffered by Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Media 28 Jan reported authorities uncovered ISIS plot to launch attacks through members working as security guards.
Deadly crackdown on Buddhist Rakhine protesters in Rakhine state further exacerbated tensions and complicated political situation, while attempts to begin repatriation of Rohingya refugees continued to face obstacles. Police 16 Jan fired live rounds on Buddhist Rakhine anti-govt demonstrators outside Mrauk-U town in Rakhine state, leaving at least seven demonstrators dead and several more seriously injured. Arakan Army armed group condemned crackdown and threatened to take action against police who fired on crowd. Observers fear incident creates further obstacles to repatriation of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh, could hinder govt’s ability to push through unpopular recommendations of Kofi Annan advisory commission that would improve Rohingya rights. Govt 18 Jan arrested prominent Rakhine political leader MP Aye Maung for unlawful association, further inflaming local sentiment. First meeting of Bangladesh-Myanmar Joint Working Committee for repatriation 15 Jan agreed practical arrangements for some 688,000 Rohingya refugees, to commence 23 Jan with up to 1,500 returnees per week, and be completed “preferably within two years”. Rights groups and UN continued to voice concern over conditions for return, lack of guarantees for safety; with no refugees having volunteered to return, Bangladesh 22 Jan announced indefinite delay in repatriation (see also Bangladesh). Humanitarian access to northern Rakhine continues to be heavily restricted. U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson 24 Jan announced resignation from govt’s international advisory panel on Rohingya crisis following trip to country and heated meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, calling panel “whitewash” of crisis; govt rejected his concerns, claimed he had “personal agenda”. Military 10 Jan released findings of internal investigation into mass grave in Maungdaw township, finding that ten Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) suspects had been detained by military unit, killed by soldiers and villagers and buried in mass grave 2 Sep 2017; indicated those responsible would be prosecuted. ARSA militants ambushed army vehicle in northern Maungdaw township 5 Jan, followed by reported firefight with soldiers. Clashes between govt forces and ethnic armed groups continued in Kachin state and northern Shan state in north east, particularly involving govt air power and heavy artillery around Kachin Independence Organisation’s Laiza headquarters.
Special committees in both upper and lower chambers of Congress continued deliberations on Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) drafted by Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), which aims to create new autonomous government in southern Philippines in line with the signed peace agreements. Senate BBL sub-committee visited Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) administrative office in Sultan Kudarat and conducted public hearings in Cotabato City and Marawi City 25-26 Jan. House of Representatives sub-committee 31 Jan conducted first public hearing ahead of Feb visit to Mindanao. President Duterte 12 Jan assured BBL will be passed before charter change and shift to federal system of govt; Congress’ target is March 2018. However, Duterte 27 Jan expressed that BBL’s constitutional issues can be resolved under a federalism arrangement; observers fear prospects for a BBL consistent with Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) are dim. Series of attacks by Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) that started 25 Dec forced hundreds of indigenous people Maguindanao to flee their homes. Authorities blamed BIFF for IED on national highway in Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao 14 Jan. Six soldiers injured 20 Jan in clash with suspected Maute gunmen in Masiu town, Lanao Del Sur. MILF and Moro National Liberation Front 6 Jan organised Biwang Bangsamoro Unified Coordinating Council, joint action group opposed to Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired groups reportedly operating in central Mindanao. Military 19 Jan verified reports that Malaysian Amin Baco, son-in-law of late ISIS emir Isnilon Hapilon, still alive and hiding in Patikul, Sulu, under protection of Abu Sayyaf leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan. Spanish national accused of being Abu Sayyaf sympathiser was arrested Basilan 20 Jan. Police 23 Jan reported some 2,000 families fled Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao after two MILF commanders fought over overlapping land claims. Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Thailand 25 Jan launched intelligence-sharing initiative “Our Eyes” to respond to ISIS and cross-border security threats.
U.S. 9 Jan said it intended to conduct more Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in South China Sea (SCS) in light of China’s continuing “provocative militarisation”. U.S. Navy 17 Jan conducted first FONOP of 2018, sailing within twelve nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Dao) near Philippines; despite making no prior claim to area around shoal, China 20 Jan condemned manoeuvre as violation of its sovereignty and security interests; incident downplayed by Philippines, which claims reef. U.S. 20 Jan announced its 2018 National Defense Strategy, which characterises China as strategic competitor reinforcing likelihood of continued tensions and potential for unintended clashes, particularly in SCS and East China Sea; and described focus on modernisation and readiness to defeat a single major power. China 20 Jan responded negatively, saying it seeks “global partnership, not global dominance”. South China Morning Post 31 Dec reported China’s launch of underwater surveillance network to support navigation and targeting for submarines along its “Maritime Silk Road” trade route, which passes through SCS; 22 Jan reported that China has deployed acoustic seabed sensors near U.S. military base at Guam since 2016; also reported that China has started construction on third aircraft carrier. Philippines 8 Jan said it would lodge diplomatic protest with China after Chinese state television 30 Dec broadcast rare aerial footage of disputed Fiery Cross Reef showing its transformation into airbase; said structures on reef include hospital, radar and airport; reported hundreds of soldiers stationed there. Cooperation efforts continued, with Philippines 15 Jan announcing that research institutes financed by Manila and Beijing will conduct joint project at Benham Rise.
Scandal surrounding Deputy PM and Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwan, concerning his undeclared and unexplained possession of 25 luxury watches, continued to damage National Order for Peace and Order (NCPO), galvanising activists and others opposed to military rule. Prominent conservatives, including former NCPO minister, called for Prawit to resign. National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) 24 Jan declared Prawit not required to declare assets he does not own; NACC chairman (a former Prawit aide) same day recused himself from investigation. National Legislative Assembly (NLA) 25 Jan unanimously passed election bill that will delay general election by additional 90 days. Earliest election will be Feb 2019; NCPO had earlier promised poll in Nov 2018. Delay prompted further criticism from politicians. PM General Prayuth Chan-ocha 4 Jan told media he is a politician, not a soldier, which many took as indication of his intention to retain power after election. Public criticism of military rule continued to grow. Coalition of pro-democracy groups joined under banner of “People’s Network” 15 Jan to demand repeal of regime orders, and criticised laws passed by NLA. Members of network scuffled with police as they attempted to begin 450km march from Bangkok to Khon Kaen in north east. Administrative Court 26 Jan ordered police to allow march to proceed, in ruling likely to encourage more protests; govt 31 Jan charged eight activists with violating ban on public gatherings. New Democracy Movement and supporters 27 Jan staged protest against election delay and NCPO in Bangkok. In southern insurgency, security forces 5 Jan rounded up 25 suspected militants in Pattani and Yala, 20 in connection with attack on bus in Yala 17 Dec. Violent incidents included: IED wounded six rangers on patrol in Pattani’s Nong Chik district 10 Jan; gunmen 10 Jan killed three relatives of former defence volunteer in Thung Yang Daeng district, Pattani; three people killed by bomb at market in Yala’s Muang district 22 Jan.
Republika Srpska (RS) entity marked controversial “Statehood Day” 9 Jan with largest celebration to date, including parade of almost 2,000 people including police; speaking at celebration, RS President Dodik called for more autonomy. RS’s Statehood Day has previously been condemned by Bosnian state, U.S. and EU; Serbian defence and interior ministers attended event. Georgia lodged protest with Bosnia after de facto leader of its breakaway republic South Ossetia, Antoly Bibilov, also attended and signed cooperation agreement with RS; Bosnian foreign ministry said it had not received official announcement of visit. Russian embassy and Dodik’s office dismissed 12 Jan report of Russian-trained Bosnian Serb paramilitary units being formed.
Murder of moderate Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, shot dead in front of his party office by unknown attackers in northern Mitrovica 16 Jan, greeted with shock and condemnation within Kosovo and internationally. PM Haradinaj next day suggested involvement of external forces, rejected Serb demand to participate in investigation. Serbian President Vučić called murder a terrorist act and visited Mitrovica 20 Jan in attempt to reduce tensions; said Pristina and Belgrade agreed to share information on investigation. U.S. ambassador called on all sides to “avoid dangerous rhetoric and remain calm”; NATO called for restraint. Murder prompted suspension of 16 Jan session of EU-mediated dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, intended to discuss proposal for creation of Association of Serb Majority Municipalities in Kosovo. In Pristina, politicians continued attempts to block new special court at The Hague to prosecute alleged war crimes by members of Kosovo Liberation Army during 1998-1999 war, despite repeated condemnation from Western countries and warnings of impact on relations; U.S. ambassador 17 Jan said MPs supporting initiative would “be subject to specific and harsh consequences should the initiative succeed”. MPs 17 Jan tried to get parliament to vote to revoke law approving court; 22 Jan decided to send draft law to govt.
Month saw increasing momentum to resolve longstanding dispute with Greece over country’s name, which has held back Macedonia’s progress on joining NATO and EU. Greek and Macedonian FMs met in Thessaloniki 11 Jan, reportedly agreed to take more active part in UN-mediated efforts to resolve dispute. Negotiators met in New York 17 Jan; media reported several name suggestions put forward for negotiation; UN mediator Matthew Nimetz said proposals not new, but being proposed in new context. Estimated 90,000 Greeks protested in Thessaloniki 21 Jan rejecting any formulation including word “Macedonia”. Meeting on sidelines of World Economic Forum in Davos 24 Jan – first direct meeting between PMs in seven years – Greek and Macedonian PMs agreed to intensify talks, announced mutual concessions intended to show good faith, including Macedonia renaming Alexander the Great airport and highway, and Greece to allow closer Macedonian cooperation with EU and regional initiatives; also said foreign ministers will take over negotiations. Greek PM Tsipras 27 Jan said he was ready to accept “composite name” including “Macedonia”. UN 29 Jan said talks had produced positive momentum. Nimetz visited Greek and Macedonian capitals 30 Jan-1 Feb to discuss effort to resolve dispute. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg made first visit to Macedonia 17 Jan, said NATO would invite Macedonia to join as soon as name dispute is resolved. Parliament 11 Jan passed Albanian language law extending Albanian as official language across whole country, honouring pledge by PM Zaev during agreement on coalition with Albanian parties. President Ivanov 17 Jan vetoed law, claiming it violates constitution, however it is expected to be adopted through parliament in second vote.
Ruling party 19 Jan officially announced candidacy of Armen Sarkissian, a 64-year-old academic and former diplomat and businessman, for president, to be elected by electoral college consisting of national and municipal MPs (in line with 2015 constitutional amendments). Under new constitution, president to serve more symbolic role with PM effective ruler of country.
Belaqani District Court 12 Jan sentenced journalist Afgan Mukhtarli to six years’ prison after he was convicted of illegal crossing of state border, money smuggling, and disobedience to police. U.S. and EU called for his release, saying they were closely following ongoing investigation in Georgia into circumstances in which Mukhtarli was reportedly abducted before being transferred to Baku May 2017.
Street protests erupted in de facto republic Abkhazia 3 Jan following 25 Dec release from prison of ethnic Georgian former guerrilla leader from 1990s conflict, provoking political crisis. Abkhaz de facto president said he decided to pardon him as part of continued prisoner exchange with Tbilisi, but opposition called for special investigation; parliamentary commission started work on 3 Jan. Protests culminated 5 Jan with thousands refusing to leave streets; president agreed to hand case to de facto Constitutional Court, which would decide whether pardon violated local laws. Protesters dispersed only when opposition leaders promised to push for president’s resignation. Both opposition and de facto president spent subsequent fortnight at rallies and meetings to mobilise supporters. In mountainous Sunni Muslim-majority region Pankisi, special services late Dec started to conduct raids on houses; six young men arrested and sent to pre-trial detention for alleged support to Islamic State (ISIS). One suspect died from injuries during raid, prompting local protests and demand for investigation. Govt said it had proof a local group had direct links to Akhmed Chatayev, ISIS commander responsible for 2016 Istanbul airport attack, who died in late Nov police operation in Tbilisi. Tbilisi court 5 Jan sentenced former President Saakashvili in absentia to three years’ prison for abusing power in pardoning former interior ministry officials. De facto South Ossetia President Anatoly Bibilov 5 Jan visited Ukraine’s separatist Donbas region, reportedly signed two agreements on financial and military cooperation with separatist leadership; also visited Bosnia’s secessionist Serb-controlled Republika Srpska entity (see Bosnia). Foreign ministers of de facto Abkhazia and South Ossetia late Jan attended 50 year independence celebration of Nauru, only Pacific nation that recognised independence of Georgia’s breakaway regions.
Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers 18 Jan met in Poland, following earlier meeting in Oct 2017, but again failed to produce final deal on increasing number of Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE) observers in conflict zone; sides have in principle agreed on increase from six to thirteen observers, but disagree on modalities, including locations. OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs said sides would finalise issue as soon as possible. Baku expressed “welcome and support” for 16 Jan statement from UN Secretary-General Guterres on need to revitalise peace processes in post-Soviet conflicts; also welcomed Russian foreign minister’s 15 Jan call for step-by-step approach to resolving NK conflict, rather than through a single deal. In speech at Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Armenia’s President Sargsyan 24 Jan said his country already implemented all its international commitments and recognition of NK independence was only way to resolve conflict, called on international community to make Azerbaijan tone down its “unrealistic” demands. Foreign ministers discussed possibility of new international assessment mission to territories (last one was led by OSCE Minsk Group in 2010). Month saw overall security situation unchanged, though with slight increase in shootings reported by sides. One Armenian soldier reported killed 7 Jan by sniper, two more injured; Azerbaijan 19 Jan reported one soldier killed. Armenian side 20 Jan reported drone attack at its positions and on 25 Jan an attempt to “penetrate its positions” in southern location of LoC; Baku denied involvement. Armenian side 29 Jan reported one soldier killed in northern section of LoC. Azerbaijani President Aliyev late Dec signed 2018 state budget approving 3.7% increase in defence-related costs, up to $1.6bn, around half on procurement.
Russian human rights NGO Memorial came under attack in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan, in what it claims is attempt to drive it out of region. Chechen security forces 9 Jan detained Memorial head Oyub Titiyev, on drugs charges he says were fabricated; court 11 Jan ordered him to be jailed for two months’ pre-trial detention. U.S., EU and human rights groups condemned detention and called for his release, with EU foreign policy chief Mogherini saying case “continues a worrying trend of arrests … attacks, intimidations and discrediting of independent journalists and human rights defenders” in region. Memorial reported police raided Titiyev home 10 Jan in search for his son and brother, forced his relatives to leave, and raided Memorial’s Grozny office 16, 18 and 19 Jan. Memorial 17 Jan reported that masked men had set fire to their office in Ingushetia capital Nazran overnight, and one of its cars was torched in Dagestani capital Makhachkala 22 Jan. In Ingushetia, authorities 11 Jan detained opposition activist Magomed Khazbiyev after his arrival from Chechnya, where he lived under local govt protection since 2015. In security incidents, Chechen authorities reported police officer fatally shot in Shalinsky district 3 Jan, suspected attacker killed in police operation next day. In Dagestan capital Makhachkala, security forces 5 and 12 Jan conducted raids near Salafi mosque, briefly detained several mosque-goers; rights defenders claim mosque-goers are regularly detained to put pressure on Salafi community. Imam Saigidakhmed Magomedov reported killed by unidentified men in Khasavyurt district 6 Jan. Militant suspected of recruiting for Islamic State (ISIS) reported killed during shootout with police in Kaspiysk, Dagestan 15 Jan.
Standoff between pro-EU govt led by PM Filip and pro-Russian President Dodon intensified. Constitutional Court 2 Jan temporarily suspended Dodon’s powers at govt’s request after Dodon blocked Filip’s cabinet reshuffle nominations, delegating presidential powers to parliamentary chair or PM. Dodon called ruling “shameful”. Court 5 Jan again ruled govt can pass law banning “media propaganda” from Russia without Dodon’s signature, after he twice refused to sign bill into law.
Following intense debate, parliament 18 Jan adopted bill 7163 which designates separatist-held parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions Russian-occupied territories; states Russia is military aggressor responsible for conflict-related damage; establishes criminal liability for people who have fought with separatists or worked in their administrations; grants president authority to use military to counter Russian aggression and reestablish sovereignty. Protesters for and against bill clashed near parliament ahead of vote. Viktor Medvedchuk, Ukraine’s envoy to Trilateral Contact Group (TCG, which oversees implementation of Minsk agreements) warned bill would “bury attempts at managing the situation in Donbas peacefully”; Kremlin again denied role in conflict. TCG 18 Jan discussed further hostage exchanges; negotiations continued 31 Jan. Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe (OSCE) deputy chief monitor for Ukraine Alexander Hug 23 Jan warned that both sides may be preparing for escalation. U.S. envoy Kurt Volker and Putin aide Vlad Surkov held fourth meeting 26 Jan on proposed UN peacekeeping force; discussed possible phased deployment, prisoner exchange, improving civilians’ freedom of movement. Meeting followed German FM 3 Jan statement that Germany and France would push for UN Security Council peacekeeping resolution. Violence increased slightly in conflict zone following end of holiday period 7 Jan, with daily ceasefire violations rising from well below 100 daily 23 Dec to roughly 250 daily on average 9-29 Jan; scores of heavy weapons reported on both sides of line. One civilian, thirteen Ukrainian servicemen and at least fourteen separatist fighters reported killed 19 Dec-19 Jan. New OSCE chief Angelino Alfano visited Kyiv and Donbas 30-31 Jan; Ukrainian foreign minister urged him to pursue unfettered access to separatist territory for OSCE monitors. Ukrainian military chief told NATO committee meeting that army will be able to operate U.S. Javelin anti-tank missiles by summer 2018. World Bank, International Monetary Fund and EU harshly criticised Poroshenko’s proposed legislation to set up Anti-Corruption Court, urged him to follow recommendation of Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, including call for international experts to play role in determining court’s composition.
In 7 Jan snap parliamentary elections in Turkish Cyprus, National Unity Party (UBP) of incumbent “Prime Minister” Hüseyin Özgürcün received 38% of vote (winning 21 seats out of 50); socialist Republican Turkish Party came second with 22%, and newly established People’s Party 17%. UBP expected to form coalition with two smaller right-wing parties. Overall, support to right-wing parties increased, arguably weakening Akıncı’s hand in pushing for bi-zonal bi-communal federal solution to Cyprus problem. Presidential elections held in Republic of Cyprus 28 Jan; incumbent President Anastasiades received 35% of vote and will face run-off with left-wing AKEL-backed candidate Stavros Malas in second round 4 Feb.
Following Dec snap regional election, new Catalan parliament held opening session 17 Jan, electing pro-independence Roger Torrent as speaker; 22 Jan proposed deposed former regional President Carles Puigdemont as president. Puigdemont, who remains in self-imposed exile in Belgium evading arrest warrant, said he could be sworn in remotely by video link or by proxy. Govt 26 Jan asked Constitutional Court to block Puigdemont’s candidacy; Constitutional Court next day ruled Puigdemont could only be sworn in if physically present in parliament with permission to attend from a judge. Puigdemont’s party Together for Catalonia asked Constitutional Court to lift ban, but court dismissed request; Torrent 30 Jan postponed swearing-in.
Turkish military 20 Jan launched “Olive Branch” land and air operation against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions in Afrin, north-western Syria, in conjunction with Turkey-backed Sunni rebel groups. Ankara cited need to maintain security of Turkey’s border provinces, prevent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) from reaching eastern Mediterranean and infiltrating Turkey, and counter what it called U.S. support for terrorist organisation. Move followed statement from U.S.-led coalition spokesperson 13 Jan that they were working with YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to set up new 30,000-strong border force, with Kurds serving in areas in northern Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson 18 Jan denied U.S. had any intention of building Syria-Turkey border security force. Ankara 30 Jan said five soldiers and 24 Turkey-backed rebels had been killed in fighting. Erdoğan vowed that Manbij would be next military target in northern Syria, citing broken promises over YPG withdrawal, and said Turkish military could continue east to Iraq (see Syria). Four YPG-attributed missile attacks hit residential border areas in Kilis province 21 Jan. Five civilians including one Syrian killed in cross-border YPG-attributed attacks on residential border areas in Hatay and Kilis since beginning of Afrin operation. Interior ministry 29 Jan announced 311 people had been detained for making terror propaganda on social media regarding Afrin operation; most of those charged had criticised operation or made anti-war comments. Security operations by the military in rural south east continued throughout month. Military also continued to carry out cross-border airstrikes targeting PKK positions in northern Iraq. Parliament 18 Jan voted to extend state of emergency for sixth three-month period.
Country held rotating chairmanship of UN Security Council in Jan, having joined for first time as non-permanent member for 2017-2018. During visit to U.S., President Nazarbayev 16 Jan met with President Trump, discussed situation in Afghanistan and U.S.-Kazakh political and economic ties. Nazarbayev promised to continue providing logistical support and access for Western troops fighting terrorism; also pledged support for the “C5+1” format involving foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states plus U.S.. Russian foreign minister 15 Jan criticised C5+1 format for trying to exclude Russia.
Former presidential candidate and opposition figure Omurbek Babanov 16 Jan officially resigned from parliament. Court 4 Jan found key Babanov ally Kanatbek Isaev guilty of corruption and sentenced him to twelve years’ prison. EU and Kyrgyzstan late Dec opened negotiations on new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement.
Uzbek PM Abdulla Aripov 10-11 Jan visited Dushanbe in preparation for historic milestone visit of Uzbek President Mirziyoyev planned early spring (see Uzbekistan). Aripov met President Rahmon, discussed trade, transit routes, export tariffs and security cooperation; signed deal allowing reciprocal visa-free travel for one month for their citizens. Countries also reached agreement on long-disputed Farkhad reservoir, territory around which will belong to Tajikistan, reservoir itself to Uzbekistan. Fifteen Tajik militants reported killed in airstrike in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province 15 Jan. Interior minister met with U.S. embassy official late Dec and agreed to exchange operational information and strengthen security cooperation; Tajikistan same day received Russian military equipment to enhance security on Afghan border.
Report of NGO International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) published 19 Jan illustrated dire economic and social situation, including rampant unemployment, price hikes and food shortages; described how govt limits information flow to country and oppresses local journalists.
PM Aripov 10-11 Jan visited Tajik capital Dushanbe in preparation for historic milestone visit to Tajikistan by President Mirziyoyev planned early spring, in effort to end tensions over disputed territories and water resources (see Tajikistan). FM Abdulaziz Kamilov 15 Jan met UN Secretary-General António Guterres in NY to discuss cooperation; 16 Jan met U.S. National Security Adviser, discussed bilateral security cooperation; 19 Jan announced Tashkent will hold high-level international conference on peace in Afghanistan in March under framework of Kabul Process. Russian foreign minister 15 Jan said Russia welcomes improved cooperation with Uzbekistan. Long-serving National Security Service chief Rustam Inoyatov replaced by former prosecutor general Ikhtiyor Abdullayev 31 Jan.
Peace talks between govt and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group suspended 29 Jan following spate of guerrilla attacks that killed seven policemen 28 Jan. Violence by ELN had increased after ceasefire between govt and ELN ended 9 Jan, with attacks on rise principally in eastern department Arauca, including oil pipeline bombings, kidnappings and killings of members of state forces. Ceasefire ended despite govt’s statements it was willing to extend it and negotiate a new one; ELN preferred to let it end and negotiate new version. Govt negotiating team 10 Jan returned from Ecuadorean capital Quito to Bogotá to consult President Santos; govt’s head negotiator 21 Jan returned to Quito to seek new ceasefire, but failed to do so. Military attacks intensified against ELN, including death of seven guerrillas in Valdivia, Antioquia (north west) 24 Jan. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissident groups continued attacks in different parts of country, including placing bomb and ambushing police vehicle in Mesetas, Meta (centre) 17 Jan. Dissidents also blamed for 27 Jan car bomb attack on police station in San Lorenzo, on Ecuadorean side of border with Colombia, wounding 28. Violence between dissident groups in Tumaco remained high; civil society sources reported twelve people killed in first three days of Jan; authorities 17 Jan detained two top dissident commanders in Tumaco, alias Pollo and El Tigre. Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), country’s main drug trafficking organisation, continued overall compliance with its 13 Dec unilateral ceasefire, however some observers attributed 29 Dec grenade attack on bar in Caucasia (north west) to group. Seven people killed in massacre in Yarumal, Antioquia (north west) 22 Jan, possibly due to conflicts between ELN and AGC. Four members of the AGC reported killed in clash with army in Córdoba (north west) 10 Jan. AGC faction led by Alias JJ reportedly stated it is now financed by Sinaloa Cartel, leading local authorities to believe group may split from AGC. President Santos 15 Jan swore in 31 out of 38 judges of Special Jurisdiction for Peace, transitional justice mechanism created under peace agreement.
Govt 23 Jan announced elections “before 30 April”, causing crisis in talks with opposition in Dominican Republic. Mexico immediately withdrew from mediation of talks, saying govt move demonstrated lack of seriousness. Govt said it was response to EU’s 22 Jan announcement of new sanctions on seven govt officials, including travel ban and asset freeze. Opposition split over whether to take part in elections and whether to resume talks, as proposed by govt. Supreme Court 26 Jan instructed electoral authority to cancel registration of opposition Democratic Unity (MUD) alliance, preventing it from standing in elections. Two other major parties required to gather signatures to re-register. Voluntad Popular party of Leopoldo López refused and is no longer registered. Govt-opposition talks resumed 29 Jan, without Voluntad Popular’s participation. Protests over food and looting continued, particularly in Calabozo, Guárico state (north), where military helicopters deployed after National Guard failed to contain looting 13 Jan; around 250 arrested. Govt 6 Jan ordered supermarkets to bring prices down to Nov level; lower prices led to panic-buying and empty shelves as shops refused to restock. Rash of hijacking of food trucks caused further disruption to food and other supplies, including in parts of north and north west. National Guard and armed civilians 15 Jan killed rebel police helicopter pilot Oscar Pérez and six others in El Junquito, near Caracas; Pérez, wanted since June, most recently led raid against National Guard installation 19 Dec stealing dozens of firearms.
Backlash in parts of political elite against anti-corruption fight continued to gather momentum. Congressman Álvaro Arzú Escobar, son of Guatemala City mayor and former President Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen, elected president of Congress 13 Jan; new legislative directive council received majority of votes from so-called “Pact of the Corrupt” deputies that in Sept 2017 authorised changes to penal code to prevent them from being prosecuted for corruption, later reversed by Constitutional Court. Arzú 14 January said new congressional authorities will not accept “others trying to decide for us”, and announced legislative agenda prioritising economic reactivation; critics perceive moves as detrimental to campaign against corruption, fear they may herald end to reforms to judiciary. Anti-corruption campaign also weakened by dismissal of Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa on 18 Jan as head of tax service. Ombudsman Jordán Rodas 17 Jan had filed request for legal protection for Foppa and tweeted his worries that “dark forces” were seeking to expel International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemala. With process underway to elect new attorney general, civil society groups and U.S. Ambassador Luis Arreaga expressed concern about need to prevent illicit influences over process. U.S. congressional Deputy Norma Torres mid-Jan proposed increased sanctions on Guatemalans who hinder CICIG’s and attorney general’s fight against corruption.
Opposition continued to stage peaceful demonstrations, roadblocks and violent protests ahead of 27 Jan swearing-in ceremony for President Hernández, victor in contentious elections 27 Nov. Opposition leader Salvador Nasralla 2 Jan announced “month of protests”; 12 Jan rally in capital Tegucigalpa was particularly violent, with clashes between protesters and security forces reportedly leaving some 200 people injured; UN human rights chief criticised indiscriminate use of tear gas by security forces, while other human rights groups denounced excessive use of force, torture and mistreatment of detainees. NGO Casa Alianza 9 Jan reported post-election violence had killed 34, wounded 200 and led to 80 arrests. Hernández 14 Jan renewed his invitation to dialogue with opposition, which reportedly accepted offer 16 Jan on condition that an international mediator be present. Hernández sworn in for second term 27 Jan amid clashes between protesters and security forces outside Tegucigalpa national stadium, where ceremony took place. Organization of American States (OAS) anti-impunity commission in Honduras MACCIH threatened to leave the country after Honduras Congress 17 Jan passed new law that would impede investigations into misuse of public funds and limited powers of attorney general’s office to investigate corruption cases. Judge 24 Jan applied new legislation to release five lawmakers accused of corruption. Head of MACCIH Juan Jiménez Mayor 25 Jan denounced that the law would block investigations into 60 legislators, including President of Congress Mauricio Oliva. Authorities 2 Jan announced 26% reduction in homicide rate in 2017 compared to previous year, amounting to 3,791 people murdered, equivalent to 42.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, fourth highest in Latin America and Caribbean (after Venezuela, El Salvador and Jamaica).
In annual evaluation of violence 2 Jan, police chief reported 25% reduction in homicides (totalling 3,954) in 2017 compared with 2016, covering nearly all regions; however violence reportedly increased in previously more stable northern municipalities, possibly pointing to rapid expansion by gangs in new areas. Relatively peaceful first half of year followed gangs’ Jan 2017 offer to disband and begin new dialogue process; spike in homicides in Sept and Oct coincided with tough security operations and jail transfers of gang leaders. Security minister 25 Jan advocated extension until 2019 of “extraordinary measures of security” plan approved in March 2016 reinforcing confinement conditions of gang leaders in jail. U.S. 8 Jan announced cancellation of Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for 195,000 Salvadorans in U.S. by Sept 2019, citing improved conditions in El Salvador, in significant setback for ruling FMLN govt ahead of local and legislative elections 4 March; observers fear it could undermine country’s security over long term. Supreme Court 8 Jan announced former President Antonio Saca to stand preliminary hearing for embezzlement of public funds 28 Feb. Legislative Assembly 5 Jan approved 2018 budget with $17.5mn less for security than previous year.
UN 11 Jan launched joint Multi-Year Humanitarian Response Plan requiring $252 million, day before eighth anniversary of 2010 earthquake. Dominican Republic 5 Jan announced it had intercepted or expelled over 110,000 Haitians seeking refuge in 2017, and had already prevented 3,200 from illegally entering in Jan. U.S. 18 Jan announced it would end guest worker program for Haitians, which gave them opportunity to obtain temporary work visa in U.S.; comes as additional blow following end of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for over 50,000 Haitians resident in U.S. by July 2019.
In north east, fight between two factions of Gulf Cartel paralysed city of Reynosa in Tamaulipas state from 22 Jan. Local media reported dozens of barricades and street blockages, plus armed confrontations between criminal groups, police and armed forces around city, leaving at least one soldier and six civilians dead 22-24 Jan, and leading President Peña Nieto to cancel planned visit 29 Jan. In north west, eighteen murders reported during first four days of Jan in Chihuahua state; attack by unidentified men against supposed members of Artistas Asesinos gangs left five dead and three wounded in Ciudad Juárez 20 Jan. In Elota, Sinaloa state, two police commanders kidnapped 5 Jan, later found dead. New mass graves found in Costa Rica (Sinaloa state) 13 Jan with undetermined number of corpses; three more with 32 corpses found in Nayarit state (west) 17 Jan; another found in Valle de la Trinidad, Baja California state (west), with remains of four people. Local journalist Carlos Domínguez Rodríguez murdered in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas state 13 Jan. Violence in Gulf state Veracruz (south) continued unabated, with five dismembered bodies found in Tlacotalpan 5 Jan attributed to Cartel Jalisco New Generation; and nine dismembered bodies found in Xalapa 14 Jan. In southern state Guerrero, authorities 7 Jan confirmed eleven people murdered during shootout between gunmen and community police in Acapulco; and human rights activists in Tlachinollan reported 30 police detained and three died in clashes between community police force and state police. Local media early Jan reported rumours of emergence of looting movement to protest inflation in several southern states, including Mexico state; senior official confirmed 113 people arrested 5 Jan. Media 3 Jan reported eleven politicians killed in Dec in seven states, mainly Guerrero and Jalisco (west). La Jornada newspaper 2 Jan reported that conflict which has forced some 5,000 indigenous persons from Chalchihuitán and Chenalhó, in southern state Chiapas, to flee in recent months following threats from armed groups related to land dispute, is escalating.
Fallout from U.S. President Trump’s 6 Dec announcement that U.S. recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital continued. Palestinian President Abbas 14 Jan reiterated Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) commitment to two-state solution, but said that PLO would not participate in U.S.-mediated talks and rejected Trump administration’s forthcoming peace plan. PLO Central Council 15 Jan declared 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords null and void. U.S. 16 Jan said it is withholding $65mn of its planned $125mn contribution to UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), first tranche of U.S. payments for 2018, and said agency must reform; U.S. 18 Jan froze further $45mn, pledged to UNRWA for emergency appeal in Dec. UNRWA 30 Jan said eleven countries had agreed to fast-track planned contributions to agency to cover funding gap, including seven which had already done so. Israeli parliament 2 Jan passed bill stipulating that govt would require support of two thirds of MPs to be able to relinquish any parts of Jerusalem to Palestinians; govt’s proposed provision, removed from draft bill due to lack of support in parliament, would have allowed govt to redraw Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries without parliamentary vote, including removing Arab neighbourhoods from city, consolidating Israeli control of city. In Gaza, living conditions deteriorated further as Palestinian Authority (PA) maintained punitive measures on enclave and rapprochement between rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, continued to stall; expectations remained low that PA will take full responsibility for Gaza’s administration 1 Feb as planned. Israeli troops 31 Jan killed Palestinian during clash in al-Mugheir village, West Bank. Israel and Jordan 18 Jan announced end to bilateral diplomatic crisis resulting from July 2017 killing of two Jordanians by Israeli guard at Israel’s embassy in Jordan and Israel agreed to pay compensation; dispute remained over whether Israel had apologised (or merely expressed regret) and whether it had committed to try guard (or merely continue internal review).
Israel and Jordan 18 Jan announced end to bilateral diplomatic crisis resulting from July 2017 killing of two Jordanians by Israeli guard at Israel’s embassy in Jordan and Israel agreed to pay compensation; dispute remained over whether Israel had apologised (or merely expressed regret) and whether it had committed to try guard (or merely continue internal review).
Car bombing slightly wounded Hamas member in Sidon in south 14 Jan; attack unclaimed but Hamas and Lebanese authorities blamed Israel; Turkish authorities arrested Lebanese national in Istanbul 19 Jan for alleged involvement, extradited 23 Jan. Dispute continued between President Aoun and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri over former’s attempt to promote retroactively some 200 army officers who served under him during civil war in late 1980s. Violent protests erupted across country 29 Jan in response to leaked video showing FM Jibran Bassil (Aoun’s son-in-law) calling speaker Berri “a thug”.
Fighting intensified in north west as regime ramped up offensive against rebels and Turkey launched assault on area held by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) around Afrin, Aleppo province; violence looked set to escalate in Feb. After breakthrough north of Hama 28 Dec, regime made significant gains in rebel areas (mainly held by jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS) in north of Hama province and south east of Idlib province, areas due to come under control of regime and allies according to Sept de-escalation agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran. Islamic State (ISIS) exploited regime offensive, taking territory from HTS north east of Hama, and reportedly advancing into areas captured by regime. ISIS advances and counter-attacks by Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel coalition slowed regime offensive. U.S. 13 Jan described plan to create and train 30,000-strong “border security force” in areas controlled by U.S.-backed, Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to operate along borders with Turkey and Iraq; force criticised as “terror army” by Turkey, which sees YPG as Syrian off-shoot of Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militia in Turkey. U.S. Sec State Tillerson subsequently walked-back reference to “border security force” saying U.S. training efforts focused on countering ISIS, in line with new Syria policy announced 17 Jan aiming to stabilise areas captured from ISIS, achieve political transition and contain Iranian influence. Comments did little to assuage Ankara’s concerns; Turkey 19 Jan began bombing Kurdish-held area around Afrin and, with allied Syrian rebels, next day launched ground offensive there. Turkey 21 Jan said it intended to establish “secure zone” 30km deep from Turkish border in Afrin. Turkey 24 Jan threatened to extend offensive to Kurdish-controlled Manbij town, where U.S. forces are based. U.S. reiterated that its support for Kurdish forces within SDF alliance does not include defence of Afrin, where U.S. has no forces but Russia maintained small presence prior to Turkish attack. In capital Damascus, govt continued bombing rebel-held Eastern Ghouta; monitoring group 22 Jan accused govt of using chlorine gas in area. Latest rounds of UN-mediated talks in Vienna and Russian-backed talks in Sochi, Russia late Jan made little progress.
Court 15 Jan upheld two-year prison sentence passed in July against human rights activist Nabeel Rajab for “spreading false news”. Court 29 Jan upheld one-year prison sentence for Shia cleric Isa Qassim and confirmed decision to revoke his citizenship.
U.S. 12 Jan said it would continue to suspend nuclear-related sanctions on Iran, but said this would be last time unless Congress and European parties to 2015 nuclear deal met U.S. conditions regarding snap inspections of Iranian military sites, sunset clauses for nuclear restrictions and Iran’s ballistic missile program. FM Zarif met EU foreign policy chief Mogherini and E3 counterparts in Brussels 11 Jan; Mogherini said Europe remains committed to full implementation of nuclear deal. U.S. Treasury 12 Jan blacklisted fourteen Iran-related individuals and entities, including head of judiciary. Nationwide anti-govt protests that began 28 Dec subsided mid-Jan: some officials including President Rouhani and Supreme Leader Khamenei acknowledged protestors’ economic and political grievances, but latter claimed foreign powers including U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia had instigated protests. U.S. House of Representatives 9 Jan passed bill condemning crackdown on protests.
In run-up to May general election, ruling Dawa party 13 Jan said former PM Maliki and current PM Abadi, both Dawa members, would contest vote on separate lists. Abadi 14 Jan announced formation of “cross-sectarian” Victory Alliance coalition with support of several major Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMU) factions, including powerful Badr Organisation, but alliance next day collapsed as members traded accusations of corruption and sectarianism. Parliament 22 Jan confirmed parliamentary elections would take place 12 May, despite demands by some Sunni and Kurdish politicians that vote be delayed to allow return of displaced people; Supreme Court 21 Jan had ruled against any delay and Abadi insisted delay would be unconstitutional. Federal govt maintained pressure on Kurdish Regional Govt (KRG): Abadi 20 Jan reiterated demand that KRG relinquish its border crossings and airports in return for federal govt lifting restrictions on semi-autonomous territory, including international flight ban. Despite declaration of “final victory” over Islamic State (ISIS) early Dec, jihadists carried out frequent small-scale attacks against security forces throughout Jan in desert areas near border with Syria and around Hawija, Kirkuk governorate. Twin suicide bombings, claimed by ISIS, killed at least 38 people in central Baghdad 15 Jan. U.S. airstrike in support 0f army raid on suspected ISIS militants 27 Jan reportedly killed six police officers in Baghdadi town, Anbar province. Turkey 1 Feb said it had conducted several airstrikes against PKK militants in north 29 Jan, killing 49.
Jailed activist Sulaiman Bin Jassim began hunger strike 3 Jan to protest sentencing of himself and 66 others for allegedly storming parliament in 2011; all 67 acquitted Dec 2013, but retried Nov 2017.
Feeding tensions between govt and Saudi Arabia-led bloc comprising United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt, govt complained to UN 11 and 13 Jan that UAE aircraft had violated Qatari airspace 21 Dec and 3 Jan. UAE 15 Jan said Qatari fighter jets had that day “intercepted” two Emirati civilian planes en route to Bahrain. Qatari sheikh said in video released 14 Jan that Emirati Crown Prince was holding him in UAE capital, Abu Dhabi against his will; sheikh left UAE for Kuwait 17 Jan.
Saudi forces claimed to have intercepted three ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Huthi rebels toward civilian areas in Najran region in south west 5 Jan, toward military base in Jizan region in south 16 Jan, and toward airport in Najran region 20 Jan.
United Arab Emirates (UAE)-aligned southern separatists late Jan forcefully took control of Aden city in south from govt forces, dozens killed in clashes. UAE-aligned separatist Southern Transition Council (STC) 21 Jan accused Hadi govt of corruption and mismanagement and gave President Hadi until 28 Jan to replace cabinet; Hadi govt 27 Jan banned public gatherings in Aden; ignoring ban, STC held protests against govt 28 Jan resulting in clashes between STC forces and govt troops 28-30 Jan, STC forces reportedly took control of Aden 30 Jan, confining govt to al-Maasheeq palace, dozens killed. Following collapse in Dec of alliance between Huthi rebels and General People’s Congress (GPC), party of former President Saleh, Huthis 1 Jan reshuffled govt in capital Sanaa, replacing GPC supporters with Huthi loyalists. During visit of UN deputy special envoy to Sanaa 6-10 Jan, Huthis said they were open to UN-led talks but warned they would block shipping in Red Sea if Saudi-led coalition continued military push to Hodeidah port. Huthis mid-Jan released from prison several GPC politicians and prominent activist. GPC 7 Jan announced new president, Sadik Amin Abu Ras, who said GPC would continue to oppose “Saudi aggression”. Nephew of former President Saleh and former Special Forces commander, Tarik Saleh, whom GPC said Huthis killed in Dec, appeared in Shebwa province 11 Jan, then reportedly went to Aden in south to work with UAE forces in fight against Huthis. Saudi-led coalition’s military advances in Shebwa province in east, Jawf province in north and along Red Sea coast slowed in Jan. Saudi forces claimed to have intercepted three ballistic missiles fired by Huthis into Saudi Arabia toward civilian areas in Najran region in south west 5 Jan, toward military base in Jizan region in south 16 Jan, and toward airport in Najran region 20 Jan. To slow major depreciation of Yemeni riyal, Saudi Arabia 17 Jan pledged to put $2bn in Yemeni central bank.
After two months of general strike protesting against military and civil service working conditions, riot police violently dispersed strike by doctors at Mustapha Bacha Hospital in Algiers 4 Jan. Strike continued 7 Jan in Algiers and Constantine, and 10 Jan spread to hospitals in Oran and Annaba. Security forces killed eight armed men in Khenchela province, 700km east of Algiers 26 Jan.
Islamic State (ISIS) continued violence against Christians and govt maintained repression in run-up to presidential election, first round planned for 24-27 March. ISIS 3 Jan released video of execution of alleged Hamas collaborator. ISIS claimed responsibility for attack in Helwan district, southern Cairo 9 Jan: gunman killed two Christian shopkeepers then stormed church killing seven more Christians, attacker arrested. Authorities 13 Jan extended nationwide state of emergency for three months, under which curfew to be imposed in North Sinai, around Arish and Rafah on border with Gaza. Former PM and 2012 presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, reportedly detained in Dec, returned home 3 Jan and withdrew candidacy from presidential election 7 Jan. Former MP Mohamed Anwar Sadat 15 Jan said he would not run for presidency citing govt’s lack of transparency and stifling of media. Lt Gen Sami Anan, former armed forces chief of staff, 20 Jan announced he would run, detained 23 Jan and barred from running on grounds that he remained in active military service; unidentified assailants attacked leading member of Anan’s campaign 27 Jan. President Sisi announced his candidacy 20 Jan, after 508 of 596 MPs endorsed it. Rights lawyer Khaled Ali 24 Jan said he would not run citing unfair contest. Ghad party leader Mousa Mostafa Mousa 29 Jan said he would run as sole challenger. Following reports that Egypt had deployed troops to Sawa military base in western Eritrea near border with Sudan 4 Jan (which Eritrean President Afwerki denied 15 Jan), Sudan same day recalled its ambassador to Egypt, and early Jan deployed troops to Kassala region in east near border with Eritrea. Sisi met Ethiopian PM Desalegn in Cairo 18 Jan on dispute over construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egypt sees as threat to its water supply; talks ended in stalemate as Ethiopia rejected Egyptian proposal that World Bank mediate. On sidelines of African Union summit, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan 29 Jan set one-month deadline to reach agreement on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Armed groups aligned with UN-backed Govt of National Accord (GNA) clashed in Tripoli around Maitiga airport 15 Jan, at least twenty people killed and flights cancelled for five days; GNA subsequently said it would dissolve armed group known as 33rd Infantry Brigade, which attacked Maitiga. Unidentified attackers carried out double car bombing outside mosque in Benghazi in east 23 Jan killing at least 35. Next day video footage released appearing to show Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Mahmoud Warfalli (under International Criminal Court arrest warrant since Aug 2017) outside same mosque executing ten people dressed in blue prisoner uniforms. Unidentified attackers 3 Jan killed local education official who had declared interest in running in parliamentary elections in eastern town of al-Abiyar. Member of influential Awaghir tribe in eastern town of Suluq escaped targeted car bomb 6 Jan. Election commission 10 Jan said over 1.9mn people had registered to vote in elections planned for 2018. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, LNA head and de facto ruler in east, 7 Jan said Libya was not ready for democracy, and that he would “take action” if elections failed and if wider UN process did not deliver.
Govt’s 1 Jan implementation of new state budget, increasing cost of living, triggered three nights of rioting across country 8-11 Jan; young man died in clashes with police in Tebourba in north 8 Jan, over 800 people arrested. Special Forces in Sammama region in centre west 21 Jan killed Bilel Kobi, aide to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, on mission to reorganise AQIM’s Tunisian branch.
Adviser to EU Court of Justice 10 Jan said that EU’s fisheries deal with Morocco should be declared invalid because it includes Western Sahara.