CrisisWatch is our global conflict tracker, a tool designed to help decision-makers prevent deadly violence by keeping them up-to-date with developments in over 70 conflicts and crises, identifying trends and alerting them to risks of escalation and opportunities to advance peace.
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In January, Venezuela’s crisis took a dangerous new turn, while peace talks between the Colombian government and ELN guerrilla group fell apart. In Yemen, fighting eased off in Hodeida but the situation remains fragile, while violence between rival armed groups rocked Libya’s capital Tripoli and jihadists took Syria’s Idlib. Al-Shabaab carried out a deadly attack in Kenya’s capital, and looming offensives threatened South Sudan’s peace process. Burkina Faso saw another rise in attacks by ethnic armed groups and suspected jihadists. Tensions ran high in several other African countries including Sudan, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire, while repression in Cameroon could stir more unrest. Election-related violence rose ahead of Nigeria’s polls, and Guatemala’s government stepped up attacks on anti-corruption institutions. In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, a deadly attack by ethnic insurgents provoked a military counteroffensive, and militant attacks rose in Thailand’s deep south. In good news, voters in southern Philippines approved a new governing entity intended to end decades of conflict, Macedonia and Greece took final steps to end their long-standing dispute, Lebanon formed a new national unity government, and tentative progress in U.S.-Taliban talks opened the possibility of a breakthrough in Afghanistan.
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In his introduction to this month's edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group's conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley sees uncertainities in Democratic Republic of Congo an
A dangerous new phase opened in Venezuela’s crisis as new opposition leader Juan Guaidó claimed the role of interim president in a head-on confrontation with President Maduro, backed by mass anti-government protests and support from the U.S. and most major regional players, with China and Russia among those backing Maduro. Much rides on whether or not the opposition succeeds in provoking splits in the military and government; failure could unleash greater repression and violence, and even outside military intervention. Whether or not Maduro is toppled, the least dangerous path out of the crisis is a negotiated solution leading to free elections, but it will require firm international support to create conditions for meaningful talks.
The Colombian government ended peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group after a car bomb attack in Bogotá killed 21 police, prompting fears of a return to open conflict and more violence along the border with Venezuela and Pacific Coast. A new military campaign against the ELN carries severe risks and needs to be accompanied by measures to safeguard the possibility of a return to talks. In Guatemala, the government stepped up its attacks on judicial institutions fighting corruption.
In Yemen, fighting eased off in Hodeida port city as the warring parties took initial steps to implement December’s Stockholm Agreement. February could see further progress, but without concerted international support, the battle for Hodeida could resume. Fighting between rival armed groups again rocked Libya’s capital Tripoli, and with Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army deploying in the south west, intent on purging it of terrorists and foreign armed groups, clashes could erupt there in coming weeks. In Syria, jihadists took control of Idlib in the north west straining the Russia-Turkey deal which has helped hold off a government assault on the densely populated area, while a rise in Israeli airstrikes on Iranian and Iran-allied targets in the south west triggered a worrying retaliation.
In Africa, Burkina Faso saw a further rise in attacks by ethnic armed groups and suspected jihadists. Facing both mounting insurgency and social protests, the government should better support its overstretched troops to guard against further instability. Meanwhile, Somali jihadist group Al-Shabaab launched a terror attack in Kenya’s capital, killing 21 civilians and stirring memories of its 2013 attack on the Westgate shopping centre.
Ahead of Nigeria’s polls this month, Boko Haram upped attacks in the north east and election-related violence began to climb. To avert a bloody crisis, security forces must remain impartial and politicians must keep their pledges to campaign peacefully and challenge results lawfully. Sudan’s security forces responded with greater brutality to continued protests calling for President Bashir’s exit. Influential foreign governments should seek to improve prospects for a peaceful transition by creating incentives for Bashir to step down. While South Sudan’s fragile peace deal between the government and main rebels is holding, a military build-up in the south points to looming offensives against rebels who refused to sign the September agreement.
Elsewhere on the continent, Zimbabwe’s security forces forcefully broke up opposition protests, Ethiopia’s military carried out airstrikes against ethnic Oromo rebels, Gabon’s security forces quickly stopped an attempted coup, and old tensions rekindled in Côte d’Ivoire after the International Criminal Court acquitted – but has not yet released – former President Laurent Gbagbo. A government crackdown on opposition protests in Cameroon could unleash further frustration and unrest, while violence rose in the Anglophone west.
In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, a deadly attack by the Arakan Army on four police stations provoked a military counteroffensive, further complicating efforts to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh and jeopardising the country’s broader peace process. We call on all sides, with China’s support, to seek a negotiated solution to avoid further inflaming ethnic tensions. Violence also escalated in Thailand’s deep south, where separatist militants stepped up attacks and clashed with security forces.
Voters in Mindanao in the southern Philippines overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new, more autonomous entity to govern the region, representing the culmination of efforts to implement the 2014 peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – although a deadly bomb attack on a cathedral days later was a reminder of the danger posed by potential spoilers. In other good news, Macedonia and Greece took final steps to implement their June 2018 agreement ending a 27-year dispute over the name of Macedonia, and Lebanon formed a new national unity government, ending nearly nine months of deadlock. Lastly, reports that the U.S. and Taliban have agreed in principle on some elements of a framework for a deal on Afghanistan provided hope of a possible breakthrough in what is today the deadliest conflict in the world.
Jihadist attacks provoked rise in intercommunal violence in north, attacks by communal armed groups and suspected jihadists rose in south west, and suspected jihadists maintained insurgency in east. In north, suspected Islamist militants 1 Jan killed seven civilians in Yirgou village, Centre-North region, including local Mossi chief; Mossi community accused Fulanis of complicity with Islamist assailants and subsequent attacks left 39 Fulanis dead. President Kaboré and three ministers 5 Jan visited Yirgou and urged dialogue. Suspected Islamist militants attacked Gasseliki village, Sahel region 10 and 15 Jan, killing twelve civilians in first attack and seven in second. Unidentified gunmen 27 Jan attacked market in Sikiré village, Sahel region, at least ten civilians killed. Unidentified gunmen 28 Jan attacked military base in Nassoumbou, Sahel region, at least four soldiers killed. Canadian geologist kidnapped 15 Jan at gold mine near border with Niger in north east found dead next day in Beiga, Oudalan province, Sahel region. In south west, Dozo hunters of Dogon community 7 Jan clashed with suspected Islamist militants in Trimbio, South West region, at least one militant injured. Police 12 Jan clashed with villagers of Nafona, Cascades region over land dispute, one woman and two policemen killed. Suspected Islamist militants night of 14-15 Jan attacked police station in Yendéré, Cascades region in south west on border with Côte d’Ivoire, at least one civilian injured. Security minister 16 Jan said Canadian Edith Blais and Italian Luca Tacchetto who disappeared 15 Dec near Bobo-Dioulasso, Hauts-Bassins region in south west had been kidnapped. In west, police 18 Jan clashed with youths in Orodara town, Hauts-Bassins region after young man was shot dead, five other people killed. In east, unidentified gunmen 30 Jan attacked Kompienbiga military base, East region, at least one injured. Fulani NGO Kisal continued to report alleged extrajudicial killings by military, including killing of seven civilians between Tanwalbougou and Piega, East region 15 Jan and killing five civilians in Pama area, East region same day. National Assembly 11 Jan extended state of emergency in fourteen provinces in north by six months. PM Paul Kaba Thieba 18 Jan resigned along with cabinet, no official reason given. Kaboré next day appointed former Health Minister Christophe Dabiré as PM. With armed forces struggling to stop rise in jihadist attacks, Kaboré 10 Jan replaced army chief of staff.
Ethnic violence continued in centre raising pressure on govt to act, military and French forces pursued counter-terror operations in centre and ethnic violence continued in east. In centre, suspected Dogon militiamen (Dozos) 1 Jan stormed Koulogon village in Mopti region, killing 37 Fulani civilians they accused of supporting jihadist militants. President Keïta 4 Jan visited Koulogon and said crime would be punished. MPs 7 Jan urged PM Maïga to take action to stop conflict. France 2 Jan pressed govt to “take strong action” to stop violence. Fulani activists accused Dozos of genocide against Fulanis, while some in govt accused Fulani activists of not doing enough “to demarcate” themselves from jihadists. Also in centre, unidentified gunmen 18 Jan attacked Djéri village in Mopti region, two villagers reportedly killed including local imam. Roadside bomb 25 Jan killed two Sri Lankan peacekeepers and injured six others near Douentza, Mopti region. French and Malian forces continued counter-terror operations in Mopti region, killing about twenty suspected jihadists and arresting five 4-9 Jan in Serma forest; killing fifteen suspected jihadists 10 Jan in Dialloubé. Unidentified assailants 21 Jan attacked Toye, Ségou region in centre, killing one; govt said thirteen assailants also killed. Roadside bomb 28 Jan killed gendarme and injured two others in Toyé, Ségou region. In north, attack on camp of UN mission (MINUSMA) in Aguelhoc, Kidal region 20 Jan claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) left ten Chadian peacekeepers dead and 25 others wounded. Unidentified assailants 29 Jan attacked military base in Tarkint, Gao region in north, two soldiers killed. In Ménaka region in east, clashes continued between Fulani armed groups close to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and, on the other side, mainly ethnic Dossaak Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) and Self-Defence Group of Imrad Tuareg and Allies (GATIA), both allied with French forces. Notably, suspected Fulani militants 15 Jan attacked MSA post, killing at least 34, including many Dossaak civilians. Main workers’ union National Union of Workers of Mali (UNTM)’s nationwide strike 9-11 Jan partially paralysed both public and private sectors.
Security forces continued to counter threats in south east and south near Nigerian and in south west near border with Burkina Faso. In Lake Chad area in south east, govt said week-long operation ending 3 Jan involving 700 troops and air support killed 287 “presumed members of Boko Haram”. Boko Haram militants 28 Jan attacked town of Bosso, Diffa region in south east, killing at least four. In border area of Maradi in south, joint operation with Nigeria against “group of extremist-infiltrated bandits” reportedly left five Nigerien and five Nigerian soldiers dead 1 Jan. In south west near border with Burkina Faso, unidentified armed men 3 Jan attacked security post in Torodi region, killing National Guard and wounding another.
Fighting again flared between military and rebels in eastern DRC and coalition of opposition parties in exile continued to collapse. Seventeen people reportedly killed in Kaberagure, Uvira territory in eastern DRC near Burundian border 16 Jan in fighting between, on one side, rebels including from RED-TABARA and National Liberation Forces (FNL) groups backed by local Mai-Mai militants and, on other, army and ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth wing backed by different Mai-Mai militants. Grenade attack in bar in capital Bujumbura 27 Jan wounded at least eight people. Govt 8 Jan confirmed its refusal to dialogue with opposition politicians it accuses of orchestrating 2015 coup attempt and asked member states of regional bloc East African Community to extradite them to Burundi. Four opposition parties and former first VP Frederic Bamvuginyumvira withdrew from coalition of opposition parties in exile CNARED Giriteka throughout month blaming coalition’s presidency for diverting from platform’s main mission, namely reestablishment of 2005 constitution and 2000 Arusha peace agreement. Ahead of 2020 general elections, leaders of nineteen parties (33 are recognised by law) analysed draft law amending electoral code in Gitega 4 Jan; opposition parties not invited. Some politicians criticised limited time available and called meeting “façade”. Proposed amendments roughly tripled presidential candidates’ deposit and stipulated that independent parliamentary candidates would have to win at least 40% of votes in their constituencies to be elected. Govt 3 Jan said 84 of 130 foreign NGOs previously operating in country had registered before 31 Dec deadline and fulfilled new conditions including ethnic quota for staff; some NGOs that reject conditions began to leave.
Authorities ramped up repression of opposition heightening risk of worse unrest in Feb, violence rose in Anglophone areas and Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram (BH) faction continued attacks in Far North. Security forces forcibly dispersed opposition protests in several cities 27-28 Jan called by opposition leader Maurice Kamto to protest allegedly rigged elections in Oct and express solidarity with Anglophones; security forces reportedly used live rounds against protestors in Douala, injuring at least six, and arrested some 200. Authorities arrested Kamto and senior members of his party in Douala 28 Jan triggering protest, which security forces dispersed. More intense violence in Anglophone regions in west left over 90 people dead, including civilians, separatists and security forces. Anglophone separatists 3 Jan cut off fingers of six Cameroon Development Corporation staff in Tiko, Southwest; same day burnt house of Anglophone politician, soon-to-be-appointed PM, Dion Ngute in Ekondo Titi, Southwest; same day attacked gendarmes in Brakah in Francophone West region. Separatists 16 Jan temporarily abducted 36 civilians in Ediki, Southwest; same day killed soldier in Ngouh, Northwest and 17 Jan beheaded two soldiers in Northwest. In Bamenda, Northwest, suspected separatists killed at least six military 18-27 Jan and policeman 28 Jan. Military reportedly killed at least 68 suspected separatists in Southwest and Northwest 4-28 Jan, separatists claimed at least fourteen were civilians. In Far North, BH attacked five villages in Kolofata, Mayo-Sava department 4-11 Jan killing two civilians; killed two civilians in Ldengla and Talla-Made, Mayo Tsanaga 12 and 17 Jan; about 50 militants attacked Achigachia, Mayo Tsanaga 17 Jan, injured nine civilians. BH 23 Jan killed four civilians in Satomi, Mayo Tsanaga, and Meri, Diamare department; and attacked Gossi and Toufou, 25 Jan, Mayo Tsanaga, burning 200 houses. BH killed three people in Kordi and Goumouldi, both Mayo Sava 31 Jan. Shekau faction said it would spare some villages if inhabitants agreed to disband vigilante groups and host logistical bases. Criminal groups based in neighbouring Central African Republic continued to launch attacks in Adamawa, North and East regions. President Biya 4 Jan established new govt, appointing sixteen new members, maintaining 50; reshuffle saw promotion of hardliners, including new Anglophone PM Dion Ngute.
Peace talks between govt and armed groups began in Sudanese capital Khartoum late month, but armed groups continued attacks in rural areas. Following joint high-level African Union (AU)-United Nations mission to capital Bangui 8-10 Jan to revive African Initiative for Peace and Reconciliation in CAR, AU-led talks between govt and fourteen armed groups opened in Khartoum 24 Jan; negotiations due to conclude 2 Feb. Armed groups 31 Jan suspended their participation in talks for two days to press govt to accept their demands including for general amnesty and creation of national unity govt with rebel representatives. Ex-Seleka armed group Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) 10 and 25 Jan attacked Bambari 400km north east of Bangui targeting police station; Portuguese troops of UN mission (MINUSCA) repelled UPC fighters; fighting left several people dead and several dozen wounded. Ex-Seleka armed group Popular Front for the Central African Renaissance (FPRC) withdrew from Bakouma in south east night of 15-16 Jan after fighting anti-balaka militiamen 31 Dec; over a dozen killed in fighting. PM Sarandji 28 Jan led rally in capital Bangui and reiterated govt’s call for lifting of UN arms embargo. UN Security Council 31 Jan agreed to review arms embargo by end Sept if CAR makes progress, including on security sector reform.
In Tibesti region in north, situation remained tense between govt forces, local armed groups and communities. In Miski area, amid signs of temporary truce between govt forces and ethnic Tebu self-defence groups, soldiers withdrew in Dec, but regrouped 100km from Miski and continued to block access in Jan. In Kouri Bougoudi area, new fighting reportedly erupted 12 Jan between on one side army and Libya-based Sudanese fighters and on other Libya-based Chadian rebel group Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic (CCMSR) and gold miners; a dozen people killed. Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) 16 Jan deployed to Sebha in south west Libya and said it would “rid the south of terrorists and foreign armed groups”. Tripoli-based Attorney General 3 Jan issued arrest warrants for fourteen Chadian rebels; some living in Paris and Doha, others already arrested. Tripoli authorities 3 Jan said they had arrested CCMSR “Defence Minister” Mohamad Taher Cheick who, according to his group, disappeared three months before. Amid protests and growing calls for Sudanese President Bashir to step down, Sudanese deputy president Ousman Mohamed Youssouf Kibir led govt delegation to N’Djamena 29-30 Jan to exchange views with President Déby and govt. Ceremony held in N’Djamena 28 Jan in honour of ten Chadian UN peacekeepers killed 20 Jan in Aguelhok, northern Mali; 54 of 181 peacekeepers killed in Mali since UN mission launched in 2013 are Chadian. Following Déby’s visit to Israel in Nov, Israeli PM Netanyahu visited capital N’Djamena 20 Jan to renew diplomatic ties, cut since 1972; leaders signed agreements including on military and intelligence support.
Opposition candidate in late Dec polls, Félix Tshisekedi, installed as president 24 Jan in first peaceful transfer of power in country’s history amid strong concerns of vote rigging; and UN reported at least 535 people killed in ethnic violence in west mid-Dec. Electoral commission (CENI) published provisional results 10 Jan declaring Tshisekedi winner with small margin ahead of opposition Lamuka alliance’s candidate Martin Fayulu and ruling coalition’s candidate Ramani Shadary in third place. Amid strong concerns of vote rigging constitutional court 19 Jan confirmed Tshisekedi winner; Fayulu declared himself president. Southern African Development Community (SADC) and other African countries including Egypt, incoming AU chair, took lead in welcoming decision; others, including EU, took note. Former President Kabila’s coalition, Common Front for Congo (FCC), won majorities in national assembly (335 of 485 seats) and in most of 26 provincial assemblies. While security situation remained largely calm, results triggered protests in Kikwit, Kwilu province, Fayulu stronghold, and less so in Kisangani, Mbandaka, Goma and Kinshasa. Police 21 Jan dispersed small Fayulu-led rally in Kinshasa. Govt shut down SMS and mobile internet services 31 Dec-19 Jan, until just before confirmation of results. UN late Jan said at least 535 people were killed in clashes between Banunu and Batende communities in four villages in Yumbi territory, Mai-Ndombe province in west 16-18 Dec; some 465 houses and buildings reportedly burned down or pillaged, estimated 16,000 fled across border into Republic of Congo. UN 29 Jan said violence appeared to have been started by dispute over burial of local chief. In South Kivu, Burundian army backed by Burundian ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth wing and local Mai-Mai militants 16 Jan launched operations in Kaberagure, Uvira territory against Burundian rebels including from RED-TABARA and National Liberation Forces (FNL) groups backed by local Mai-Mai militants; seventeen people reportedly killed. In North Kivu, army 19 Jan clashed with splinter group of Rwandan Hutu rebels Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) near Katale, Masisi territory; army clashed with Allied Democratic Forces rebels in Mapobu, near Beni 21 Jan. In Ituri province, army 22 Jan reported killing of leader and six members of Simba armed group and ethnic Lendu militia attacked army position. Govt 28 Jan said it had extradited to Rwanda two FDLR members.
Small group of soldiers 7 Jan took over state radio station and broadcast statement saying they were seizing power “to restore democracy” and calling on people to “rise up” while President Bongo was still recuperating in Morocco following stroke late Oct. Govt a few hours later said situation was “under control”, said two coup plotters had been killed and eight others arrested. Bongo 12 Jan named new PM as part of regular govt renewal following Oct legislative elections, 15 Jan returned from Morocco and swore in new govt largely identical to previous one, and same day returned to Morocco to continue recovery.
DR Congo 28 Jan said it had extradited to Rwanda two members of DRC-based Rwandan rebel group Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR).
President Afwerki and Ethiopian PM Abiy 7 Jan reopened border crossing between Humera in Ethiopia and Oum Hajer in Eritrea as part of ongoing reconciliation. Kenyan President Kenyatta 24 Jan visited Eritrea for first time since 1999. Sudan 31 Jan reopened border with Eritrea, shut for a year to combat trafficking of weapons and foodstuffs.
Govt airstrikes against Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) rebels marked escalation in intra-Oromo power struggle. Military 12-13 Jan carried out airstrikes in western Oromia region targeting members of rebel group Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), reportedly killing seven civilians. Govt denied airstrikes but said security forces conducted “stabilising operation” following request from Oromia regional govt. Despite ceasefire agreement 24 Jan between Oromia regional govt and OLF, with OLF fighters agreeing to encamp, disarm, demobilise and reintegrate, OLF gunmen 28 Jan killed two farmers in Amaro district. In north east, after clashes between ethnic Afars and Issa Somali left a dozen dead in Dec, demonstrators 13-18 Jan blocked main road to Djibouti to protest surging ethnic violence. President Afwerki and Ethiopian PM Abiy 7 Jan reopened border crossing between Humera in Ethiopia and Oum Hajer in Eritrea as part of ongoing reconciliation.
Al-Shabaab carried out terror attacks in capital Nairobi. Six Al-Shabaab gunmen (at least three of Kenyan origin) 15 Jan attacked hotel and office complex in Westlands area of Nairobi, detonating suicide bomb in hotel foyer and holding civilians captive inside. Seventeen-hour siege ended with security forces killing remaining assailants. 21 civilians killed and at least 30 injured during attack. Suspected Al-Shabaab bombing in central Nairobi 26 Jan also injured two people. Police removed box left at same location 28 Jan. In Garissa county in north, six unidentified armed men attacked road construction site in Shimbirey along Garissa-Madogashe road, police repelled assailants, guard and wife sustained gunshot wounds.
Federal govt expelled UN envoy to Somalia and Al-Shabaab continued attacks on Somali and international forces. Govt 2 Jan expelled UN Special Representative for Somalia Nicholas Haysom accusing him of undermining Somalia’s sovereignty; Haysom had publicly questioned legal basis for arrest of South West state’s presidential candidate and former Al-Shabaab deputy leader Mukhtar Robow in Dec. UN said it would replace Haysom. Al-Shabaab 15 Jan attacked Ethiopian forces in African Union mission in Somalia (AMISOM) near Bur Hakaba in Bay region of South West state; casualties undisclosed. Al-Shaabab 19 Jan overran Somali army base in Sanjuni village, near port city Kismayo in south east, later claiming it killed 40 Somali forces; in response U.S. same day carried out airstrike on Al-Shabaab militants, killing 52. U.S. 23 Jan carried out two more airstrikes near Jilib, Middle Juba region in south east, casualties undisclosed. Suspected Al-Shabaab car bombing near petroleum ministry in capital Mogadishu 29 Jan killed at least two. U.S. airstrike near Shebeeley, Hiraan region 30 Jan killed 24 militants. Al-Shabaab militants 15 Jan launched terror attack in Kenyan capital Nairobi (see Kenya). Former federal planning minister Said Abdullahi Deni elected president of semi-autonomous Puntland 8 Jan.
Fighting between main parties reduced as they began to implement Sept 2018 peace deal, but clashes rose in south west between signatories on one side and non-signatory armed group on other, raising risk of escalation in Feb. Peace monitors reported reduction in violence between main signatories of Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan – govt forces and main rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) – including in former hotspots, Wau in north west and Bentiu in north. But monitors 22 Jan said they were still barred access to some areas including Luri training site near Yei in south west, where security forces detained and beat monitors in Dec; govt has not yet held anyone responsible. Amid delays in reaching Pre-Transitional Period security benchmarks, parties 13 Jan agreed to launch pilot project to canton and train 3,000-strong joint unit in Kajo-Keji county, Yei River state in south, but plan faces opposition from local authorities and parties did not agree on unit’s mandate or funding source. Fighting erupted 9 Jan between SPLA-IO and non-signatory armed group National Salvation Front (NAS) led by Thomas Cirillo in Kozi county, Maridi state in south west. Further clashes broke out between army and NAS near Yei 19-20 Jan, leaving three soldiers dead. NAS 21 Jan said it had lost control of positions in stronghold Mukaya, north of Yei. Ugandan forces briefly deployed to Yei 17 Jan in violation of UN Security Council arms embargo; Ugandan deployment appeared linked to govt offensives against NAS. Intercommunal violence and banditry continued: cattle raid in Padiek county, Bieh state in north east 7 Jan left one dead and 105 people reportedly killed in cattle raids in Tonj state, centre-west 14 Jan. Ambush in Jonglei state in centre 8 Jan left five people dead and another in Duachan area, Akobo state 19 Jan killed at least four people. In support of Sudan, govt 7 Jan ordered Al Watan newspaper to stop publishing articles on protests in Sudan.
Security services responded with greater brutality to continued protests across country calling for President Bashir to step down. Security services 6 Jan arrested a number of prominent academics from Khartoum University. Despite Bashir’s 9 Jan speech blaming rebels from Darfur and outside powers for unrest, further protests reported 13 Jan in Khartoum North, Wad Medani, capital of Gezira state and Nyala, main city in South Darfur and 22 Jan in Khartoum and Omdurman. Security forces reportedly used live rounds and tear gas to disperse protests and targeted medical practitioners providing care to injured protesters. Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors 20 Jan called for general strike after security forces killed one doctor 17 Jan and carried out repeated attacks on hospitals. Authorities 25, 26 and 28 Jan arrested six journalists covering protests. After intelligence chief 29 Jan ordered release all detained in recent incidents, authorities released 186 protestors. Army 30 Jan said it would not let state collapse. Human rights groups claim at least 40 killed and 2,000 detained. Govt 31 Jan reopened border with Eritrea, shut for a year to combat trafficking of weapons and foodstuffs.
Riots erupted late Dec in Bidi Bidi refugee camp in West Nile region after Word Food Programme (WFP) decided to change location of food distribution points increasing their distance from camp residents; army deployed to contain unrest, WFP 3 Jan reverted its decision. After armed South Sudanese men suspected to be army soldiers hoisted South Sudan flag 6km south of Uganda-South Sudan border, Ugandan govt 14 Jan reportedly issued them 72-hour ultimatum threatening military intervention. Mediation initiated between Lamwo district local govt and South Sudan counterpart to resolve persistent disputes over border demarcation. Police 6 Jan blocked annual concert of singer-turned-opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, known as Bobi Wine.
Following victory of former President Andry Rajoelina in Dec presidential run-off elections, thousands of supporters of his opponent former President Marc Ravalomanana 2 Jan protested alleged voting fraud in capital Antananarivo; police fired tear gas to disperse them. High Constitutional Court 8 Jan confirmed Rajoelina as winner, rejecting Ravalomanana’s appeal for cancellation of results. Rajoelina sworn in as president 19 Jan.
Ahead of May presidential and parliamentary elections, suspected youth members of ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 20 Jan assaulted members of newly formed opposition party United Transformation Movement (UTM) and forced some members, including one woman, to undress in Mangochi; 23 Jan beat up member of opposition Malawi Congress Party (MPC) in Blantyre. President Mutharika 23 Jan condemned political violence, including acts aimed at humiliating women in political arena and urged police to stamp down on any DPP “rogue elements”. UN 25 Jan welcomed statement, but expressed concerns that no perpetrator had been held accountable in past year and called on govt to step up efforts to protect victims. Six main political parties, including DPP, 26 Jan issued joint communiqué calling police to bring culprits to justice.
Suspected Islamist militants continued attacks in Cabo Delgado province in far north. Militants 6 Jan attacked minibus in Nangade district, killing driver and six passengers and attacked another vehicle in Palma town 12 Jan, killing fifteen. Assailants 10 Jan beheaded four people in Manila village in Mocimboa da Praia district and same day killed man in neighbouring Palma district. Govt 9 Jan said it had recently destroyed eight militant training camps, giving no further details. Some 200 residents of Palma town demonstrated 13 Jan, demanding that construction of liquefied natural gas plants on coast be suspended until attacks stop. Police 5 Jan arrested and detained journalist covering displacement of people due to attacks. Former armed opposition movement Renamo 17 Jan elected former guerrilla commander and MP Ossufo Momade as leader; Momade same day said Renamo was committed to peace.
Amid economic crisis, authorities violently repressed mass protests triggered by rise in fuel price. President Mnangagwa 12 Jan announced 200% hike in fuel price in response to fuel shortages and currency crisis. In response, trade unions 13 Jan called for general strike 14-16 Jan, to which civil society groups leant support. Widespread anti-govt demonstrations took place 14-15 Jan concentrated in and around main opposition strongholds of capital Harare, Bulawayo and other cities but also in many small towns nationwide. Security forces including military and paramilitary forces violently repressed protests. Human Rights NGO Forum 18 Jan reported some twelve deaths, 78 gunshot injuries, 242 cases of assault and almost 500 arbitrary arrests and detentions. During unrest some protestors engaged in looting and unidentified men burnt down office of opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in Harare. Govt 14 and 18 Jan shut down internet. Govt accused MDC, trade unions and civil society of orchestrating protests to undermine govt and install MDC’s leader Nelson Chamisa as president. UN human rights office 18 Jan denounced security forces’ “excessive use of force” against protesters. Govt 20 Jan described crackdown as “just a foretaste of things to come” and said it would hold opposition “fully accountable”. Civil servants 25 Jan held another general strike to protest low salaries following failure of 23 Jan salary renegotiations with govt. Mnangagwa 20 Jan broke off foreign tour to attend to crisis and 22 Jan said “misconduct by our security forces is unacceptable” and would be investigated. South African President Ramaphosa 22 Jan called for lifting of U.S., EU and others’ sanctions on govt, while MDC same day demanded regional bloc Southern African Development Community, African Union and international community to intervene to stop harassment of civilians and party members.
International Criminal Court (ICC) 15 Jan acquitted former President Gbagbo and co-defendant youth leader Charles Blé Goudé, rekindling divisions, especially between northerners and pro-Gbagbo westerners. Gbagbo supporters 15 Jan took to streets in Gagnoa in west and Yopougon municipality in economic capital Abidjan welcoming acquittal and demanding his return. Opponents of Gbagbo 17 Jan protested against his release in northern city of Korhogo and Bouaké in centre in heart of former rebellion. ICC appeals chamber 21 Jan ruled that Gbagbo and Blé Goudé would stay in detention in the Hague as judges considered prosecution’s appeal and scheduled hearing on appeal to start 1 Feb. Govt made contradictory statements on Gbagbo’s possible return if he is released: spokesman said decision up to Gbagbo but another govt official said he might be arrested if he returned. Head of opposition Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and former President Henri Konan Bédié continued to build opposition coalition against President Ouattara ahead of 2020 presidential election. Bédié started negotiations with Gbagbo about possible alliance. Secretary General of Gbagbo’s party, Ivorian Popular Front (FPI), 9 Jan denied any formal agreement between Bédié and Gbagbo. Parliamentary speaker Guillaume Soro signalled closer alignment with Bédié and opposition to Ouattara: in speech in Ferkessédougou in north 3 Jan, Soro accused ruling coalition Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) of sowing division between regions and called for inclusive governance. Authorities 15 Jan arrested Soro’s closest collaborator and historic figure of rebellion MP Alain Lobognon despite his parliamentary immunity for “spreading false news” and “incitement to hatred”. Parliamentary session, in which Soro faced up against presidential party members, maintained Lobognon’s immunity, but he remained in detention. Lobognon 21 Jan said he was going on hunger strike. RHDP held congress in Abidjan 26 Jan to transform coalition of parties into single party, Ouattara said RHDP would elect its presidential candidate in 2020.
Govt and teachers’ union 10 Jan signed deal to end strike that has been ongoing on and off for a year; govt pledged to raise teachers’ pay by 40% as agreed in 2017 but only partially implemented since then; talks toward establishing base monthly salary of 8mn Guinean francs ($880) planned for May. Classes in primary and secondary schools resumed 14 Jan for first time in three months.
24 parties registered candidates ahead of 10 March legislative elections.
Ahead of Feb-March polls, election-related violence rose, heightening risk of worse incidents in coming weeks, resurgent Boko Haram (BH) faction increased attacks in north east, and criminal violence in north west killed dozens. Election-related violence comprised over a dozen serious incidents, including attacks by thugs on campaign offices, vehicles and rallies. Notably, thugs 12 Jan attacked home of Senate President and member of main opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) in Ilorin, Kwara state, wounding at least eleven; supporters of ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and rival Allied Peoples’ Movement (APM) fought in Abeokuta, Ogun state 31 Jan, ten people wounded. President Buhari 25 Jan suspended chief justice who faced charges of declaring assets fraudulently; tension rose sharply as opposition and others protested move as threat to electoral justice. BH increased attacks in Borno and Yobe states, most thought perpetrated by faction Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). In Borno state, BH 14 Jan attacked Rann briefly overrunning military base, reportedly killing fourteen people, including three soldiers. BH 17 Jan attacked military post in Kamuya village, six soldiers and unspecified number of insurgents killed. Military 19 Jan repelled attacks on Baga and Kajeri, killing ten insurgents. BH reportedly attacked several military bases late Jan, including in Ajiri 24 Jan, killing three soldiers. Air force 29 Jan bombed BH camp at Limberi. In Yobe state, army repelled BH attack on base in Buni-Yadi 20 Jan, killing several insurgents; four soldiers reportedly killed. In north west, violence involving bandits, communities and security forces continued in Zamfara, Sokoto and Katsina states, over 120 people killed. In Zamfara state, air force 3 Jan attacked bandits in Doumbourou hills, reportedly killing group’s leaders and others; army 20 Jan killed 58 bandits, rescued 75 captives in Dumburum and Gando forests, two soldiers and two vigilantes killed; gunmen 26 Jan kidnapped seven men in Birnin Magaji; 28 Jan kidnapped thirteen women in Majema. In Sokoto state, about 75 gunmen 13 Jan attacked three villages in Rabah area, killing at least 26 people. Army reported 21 bandits killed, 89 captives freed in Zamfara and Katsina states 22-29 Jan, said bandits killed eleven civilians and one vigilante in same period. Katsina state governor 2 Jan said state was “under serious siege”. To curb herder-farmer violence in Middle Belt, federal and state govts 17 Jan approved national plan to confine livestock to ranches and grazing reserves within next ten years. Niger Delta remained fragile: new armed group claimed responsibility for blowing up pipeline in oilfield in Bayelsa state 4 Jan.
Ahead of Feb presidential elections, Constitutional Council 14 Jan confirmed two main opposition candidates barred from running; Karim Wade, son of former President Abdoulaye Wade, and former mayor of capital Dakar Khalifa Sall imprisoned for corruption in 2015 and 2018 respectively. Police 25 Jan blocked planned opposition march against Constitutional Council’s ruling.
Over 1,000 supporters of opposition coalition 26 Jan demonstrated in capital Lomé to protest Dec legislative elections results, denouncing “irregularities”.
Amid mounting international pressure on Beijing over Muslim camps in Xinjiang, China invited diplomats from twelve mostly-Muslim countries, and foreign media from six, on tightly managed tours in Xinjiang late Dec-mid-Jan including in Kashgar, Hotan and Karakax; EU delegation visited Urumqi and Kashgar 11-13 Jan. Senior Xinjiang official 6 Jan said China would welcome “unbiased” UN inspection visit, so long as officials “refrain from interfering in others’ internal affairs”. U.S. senators 17 Jan re-introduced Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which reiterates calls for sanctions under Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese officials affiliated with camps and would establish investigative positions in U.S. govt. 37 international NGOs 30 Jan called for UN Human Rights Council to adopt resolution condemning Chinese human rights violations at session opening late Feb. Kazakhstan 21 January raised concerns with Beijing over reports of ethnic Kazakhs being held under house arrest in Xinjiang after being freed from camps (see Kazakhstan).
Japan and China held security talks amid ongoing maritime tensions. Japan and China 26-27 Dec held first annual meeting of their Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism, established June 2018, in Beijing; reportedly discussed opening previously agreed-to hotline, but no new agreements announced. Countries expected to hold security dialogue 1 Feb. Addressing parliament 28 Jan, Japanese PM Abe said he will continue to improve relations with China but also wants to bolster defence capacity. Japanese media 6 Jan reported plans to add five new patrol boats to Japanese Coast Guard’s fleet, citing trespassing of Chinese vessels in Japanese waters around disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and illegal fishing by North Korean vessels in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Beijing 2 Jan said Chinese research ship which was seen sailing near Japan’s southernmost point, Okinotori island, 18 Dec, prompting Japanese protest, was conducting “marine scientific and research activities” on “high seas”. Beijing disputed Okinotori’s status as an island generating an EEZ. U.S. held joint naval drills with Japan off west coast of Kyushu in East China Sea 11-12 Jan, and flew two B-52 bombers over area 28 Jan.
North Korea and U.S. tentatively agreed to second summit in Feb, and held significant working-level talks with South Korean involvement to lay groundwork; however, optimism tempered by substantive differences between sides. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in annual televised address 1 Jan pushed to revive dialogue with U.S. and move forward on collaborative projects with South Korea; emphasized potential for progress in talks with both Washington and Seoul as long as existing agreements are implemented. Kim declared that North Korea is not currently building, testing, using, or proliferating nuclear weapons; also warned U.S. against “attempts to unilaterally enforce something upon us” (meaning unilateral denuclearisation) and “imposing sanctions and pressure”, and warned against restarting U.S.-ROK joint military exercises or U.S. deploying strategic military assets to South Korea. Kim visited China for fourth time 7-10 Jan, reportedly agreeing with President Xi to “push for continuous new development of China-DPRK relations”. North Korea’s senior representative in talks with U.S., Gen. Kim Yong-chol, arrived in Washington 17 Jan for first round of talks with Sec State Pompeo since Oct. U.S. VP Pence 20 Jan said U.S. will lay out expectations for North Korea to “take concrete steps to begin to make real the denuclearization that Kim Jong-un committed to”. U.S. representative to working-level talks Stephen Biegun met with North Korean delegation in Sweden 19-21 Jan to prepare for summit; South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy took part in trilateral discussions. South Korean conservatives began to express concerns over U.S. aims in North Korea dialogue: that U.S. may be seeking deal with Pyongyang centered on its inter-continental ballistic missile capacity and freezing its nuclear weapons program but accepting its possession of nuclear weapons at existing levels. Deliveries of humanitarian aid to North Korea began after UN granted sanctions waivers to several international NGOs.
Chinese President Xi renewed calls for reunification, while Taiwan’s allies and Western officials voiced support for Taipei. Taiwan President Tsai 1 Jan outlined conditions for improving relations with Beijing, including latter’s recognition of Taiwan and respect for its freedom and democracy. In 2 Jan “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” speech, Xi called for unification talks between Beijing and Taipei, citing mainland’s model with Hong Kong; also reiterated possibility of forceful reunification, calling Taiwan’s status non-negotiable. Tsai responded rejecting “one country, two systems” approach. U.S., Canadian, UK and French officials denounced Xi’s rhetoric; EU 3 Jan reaffirmed commitments to developing Taiwan relations and U.S. 10 Jan called on Beijing to “stop its coercion”. U.S. President Trump signed Asia Reassurance Initiative Act into law 31 Dec, containing section reaffirming U.S. commitments to Taiwan. Beijing 2 Jan said act “seriously violates the one-China principle” and “grossly interferes in China’s internal affairs”. Two U.S. warships sailed through Taiwan Strait 24 Jan; Taipei reported China flew military planes near southern Taiwan 22 and 24 Jan, prompting it to send aircraft and surveillance ships. Taiwan’s defence ministry 9 Jan outlined island’s military drills planned for 2019, incorporating tactics to defend against possible Chinese invasion, and held live fire drills 17 Jan.
Amid continued intense fighting, U.S. and Taliban late Jan agreed in principle on framework for deal that could lead to wider peace talks, with possible working level teams to flesh out framework in coming month. Earlier in month, amid reports of ordered U.S. troop reduction, U.S. VP Pence 3 Jan said no decision made but potential drawdown would be evaluated. Taliban backed out of planned talks with U.S. early Jan, blaming U.S. for changing original negotiation agenda from withdrawal timeline and counter-terrorism to include intra-Afghan talks, and accused U.S. of bad faith and using influential Islamic countries to pressure Taliban. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban resumed talks in Doha 20-26 Jan, coming to understanding in principle that foreign forces leave country and Taliban agree to prevent country from becoming platform for international terrorist groups; ceasefire and launch of talks between Taliban and Afghan govt discussed but not yet agreed. During talks, Taliban announced appointment of co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar as their chief negotiator. In televised address 28 Jan, Afghan President Ghani spoke of potential for country without international troops. Hostilities continued across country in spite of winter weather, including in provinces of Sar-i Pul, Kandahar, Baghlan, Faryab, Badghis, Balkh and Nangarhar; both Taliban and govt claimed to have inflicted heavy casualties. Newly-appointed Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid 29 Dec promised shift to more offensive stance. Taliban attacks included truck bomb in Kabul 14 Jan that killed four and wounded over 100. President Ghani 25 Jan said 45,000 members of security forces had died since 2014, highest number publicly cited to date. Electoral commission 14 Jan announced full preliminary results of Oct 2018 parliamentary election, claiming 3.6mn votes cast (about 10% of population); protests against alleged electoral fraud continued in several provinces. Ghani and several former heads of security agencies registered as candidates for 20 July presidential election; Ghani’s running mate, former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, is outspoken critic of negotiations with Taliban.
Allegations persisted of vote rigging in contentious 30 Dec general elections, in which incumbent PM Hasina’s ruling Awami League and allies won 288 of 300 parliamentary seats. Dispute threatened legitimacy of govt and prompted concerns of further unrest, although month saw relative calm as thousands of opposition leaders and activists remained in custody. EU, U.S. and UK 1 Jan expressed concerns about electoral irregularities and UN human rights office 4 Jan called on govt to hold those responsible for human rights abuses in run-up to vote accountable, and expressed concern about ongoing “physical attacks and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests, harassment, disappearances and filing of criminal cases” against opposition. Govt and electoral commission continued to reject all claims of rigging and intimidation. Anti-corruption NGO Transparency International Bangladesh 15 Jan highlighted “irregularities” in 47 of 50 constituencies it surveyed and recommended judicial enquiry; govt alleged NGO had links to opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Police 1 Jan arrested Dhaka Tribune newspaper journalist in Khulna (south) under controversial Digital Security Act for allegedly publishing “false information” about voting irregularities. BNP-led opposition alliance Jatiya Oikya Front (United National Front) – which won only seven seats – continued to reject election results with its leader Kamal Hossain 6 Jan calling for foreign mediation to bring about fresh election in meeting with diplomats from some 30 countries including U.S., UK, Canada, Russia and China in Dhaka. Parliament reconvened 30 Jan, with opposition boycotting session and demanding new elections within six months; hundreds took part in anti-govt demonstrations in Dhaka same day.
Maoists 5 Jan shot dead security guard and burnt several vehicles at construction site in Kandhamal district, Odisha state (east); police 15 Jan arrested seven men in connection with killing. Security forces 13 Jan killed Maoist commander Shahdev Rai, alias “Talada” in gunfight in Dumka district, Jharkhand state (east). Maoists rebels 15 Jan shot dead two civilians in Jamui district, Bihar state (north east), reportedly suspected of being police informers. Security forces 29 Jan claimed to have killed five militants in clash in West Singhbhum district, Jharkhand.
Militant violence continued in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), while uptick in cross-border shelling by Pakistani and Indian militaries fuelled bilateral tensions. In J&K, army 8 Jan reported it killed one militant during attack on army patrol in Pulwama district (south). Militants 11 Jan killed army major and one other soldier in bomb along Line of Control (LoC, dividing Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir) in Rajouri district (south west). Security forces 12 Jan killed two militants in Kulgram district (south); during funeral next day, eleven protesters were injured in clashes with security forces. Separatists 26 Jan held general strike on Indian Republic Day, while govt suspended mobile internet services. Clashes continued between Pakistani and Indian militaries across LoC leading to reciprocal accusations of ceasefire violations. In Pakistani-administered Kashmir (AJK), Pakistani military blamed India for cross-border shelling that killed civilian in Bhimber district (south) 7 Jan and another in Shahkot sector 9 Jan; meanwhile, India 15 Jan claimed Pakistani cross-border firing killed security force officer. Pakistani army 18 Jan claimed to have killed three Indian soldiers at border post while responding to Indian shelling, and earlier claimed to have shot down Indian spy drones along LoC 1 and 2 Jan; AJK PM Haider 2 Jan warned India was creating “warlike situation” along LoC. Pakistan FM Qureshi 6 Jan denied Indian media reports that Pakistani forces were working with militant group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba to carry out “surgical strike” on Indian posts along LoC. Inflammatory rhetoric added to tensions, with Pakistani foreign ministry early Jan warning India of risks of “strategic miscalculation”, while Indian army chief 15 Jan claimed Pakistan continued to support terrorists and said India would have “decisive success” if forced into war. Qureshi 29 Jan held phone call with separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq; Indian govt next day summoned Pakistani envoy to complain of “brazen attempt” to subvert Indian sovereignty.
Govt 28 Jan decided to extend terms of two transitional justice mechanisms on truth and reconciliation and on enforced disappearances by one year, days before their mandates were due to expire on 9 Feb; both mechanisms, formed in 2015, have made little progress on investigating over 65,000 conflict-era cases. UN and nine embassies including the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Australia, and the EU issued joint statement 24 Jan asking govt to clarify future of transitional justice process and to encourage greater public consultation especially with victims. Victims’ groups claim both mechanisms have failed to deliver and require restructuring; govt yet to address calls to amend transitional justice legislation to prohibit amnesty for perpetrators of serious human rights violations. Madhes (southern lowland)-based Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum-Nepal – member of ruling coalition – 5 Jan submitted 11-point memorandum to PM KP Oli calling for current session of parliament to pursue constitutional amendments related to federalism and proportional representation. Tensions between federal and newly-created provincial-level govts continued to increase following 14 Jan tabling of policing legislation in federal parliament; provincial officials claim legislation grants disproportionate authority to federal govt on managing provincial security, reflects distrust of local govt, and dilutes new federal structure.
Amid economic difficulties and ongoing insecurity, govt’s continued efforts to weaken political opponents prompted creation of formal opposition alliance. Opposition parties led by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) 15 Jan agreed to form alliance to challenge govt including joint strategy on legislative issues including extension of military courts, whose tenure expires in March. Alliance followed PM Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf govt late Dec-early Jan moves to target PML-N and PPP with investigations and court cases involving money laundering and corruption. Militant violence continued, including: in Balochistan province (south west), Pakistani Taliban claimed attack on paramilitary training centre in Loralai district that killed four personnel 1 Jan, and social worker organising protest in response to attack was killed 12 Jan; bomb blast in Peshawar (north) 5 Jan injured six. Govt 11 Jan announced arrest of five suspects reportedly involved in Nov attack on Chinese consulate in Karachi, alleging it had been prepared in Afghanistan with involvement of Indian intelligence. Govt continued to engage with U.S. around Afghanistan negotiation efforts; U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad 17-18 Jan visited Islamabad, meeting PM Khan and army chief. Amid economic downturn, talks with International Monetary Fund on potential bailout made little progress, and govt continued efforts to prevent Pakistan being blacklisted by Financial Action Task Force in Sept, presenting its action plan to counter terrorism financing and money laundering.
President Sirisena continued to undermine newly-reappointed PM Wickremesinghe and his United National Party govt, fuelling concerns over political uncertainty and volatility. Sirisena 17 Jan appointed commission of inquiry to investigate corruption and malpractice under national unity govt of 2015-2018; also in late Dec appointed loyalists as secretaries to most ministries and took control of police and govt printing press. Parliament speaker 8 Jan appointed former President Rajapaksa as opposition leader despite resistance from Tamil National Alliance, which argued that his United People’s Freedom Alliance cannot be considered opposition since Sirisena is its leader. Uncertainty continued over timing of and which parties and candidates will run in provincial, presidential and parliamentary elections due in 2019 and 2020. In sign of Sirisena’s growing closeness to military, army 9 Jan announced Sirisena had appointed Major General Shavendra Silva – whom a 2015 UN report implicated in human rights violations – as Army Chief of Staff. In brief revival of constitutional reform process, Wickremesinghe 11 Jan convened session of parliament and presented report on constitutional reform, proposing devolution of power within framework of a unitary state; no date fixed for debate on report, amid dim hopes that process will produce new constitution. Rajapaksa attacked report as instrument to divide the country and rejected need for new constitution. Economic uncertainty generated by political turmoil continued, with foreign reserves reported to have fallen by $1bn to $6.9bn during attempted constitutional coup, but govt continued re-engagement with donors and international financial institutions which had suspended assistance during political crisis. Police 18 Jan announced seizure of 100kg of explosives and 100 detonators following arrest of four Muslim men, reportedly part of newly formed radical group and among those arrested late-Dec for vandalising Buddhist statues in Mawanella town. On four-day state visit to Philippines, Sirisena 17 Jan praised President Duterte’s “war against crime and drugs” as “an example to whole world” and promised to replicate crackdown in Sri Lanka.
Clashes continued in Papua’s central Highlands region, including regencies of Nduga, Puncak, Puncak Jaya and Lanny Jaya, as military continued pursuit of West Papua Liberation Army following early Dec killing of at least sixteen road construction workers and a soldier. Military reported at least one separatist killed in 9 Jan clash, although United Liberation Movement for West Papua said military had targeted civilians and deceased was a civilian; military also reported one soldier killed in attack in Puncak Jaya 18 Jan. United Liberation Movement for West Papua claimed six civilians have been shot dead by military. Military reportedly raided and seized offices of pro-independence West Papua National Committee (KNPB) in Timika (south) 31 Dec and charged three KNPB members with subversion. Spokesperson for office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet late Jan said govt has agreed in principle to grant access to Papua. Ahead of April presidential election, President Widodo was accused of trying to win over religious conservatives after govt announced radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, linked to 2002 Bali bombings, would be granted unconditional release; following domestic criticism and call from Australia not to show leniency, Widodo said his release would be conditional on him pledging loyalty to state and its secular ideology.
Deadly attacks by ethnic Rakhine insurgent group Arakan Army (AA) prompted fears of escalating violence in Rakhine State, further complicating prospects for improved security and making Rohingya refugee repatriation even more unlikely. AA 4 Jan launched series of coordinated attacks on four Border Guard Police posts in Buthidaung township in northern Rakhine State on Myanmar’s Independence Day, killing thirteen police and injuring nine. Military regained control of posts later same day and launched major clearance operations to dislodge AA, including using large number of infantry troops; over 5,000 people displaced. AA, which operates both in north (Kachin and Shan states) and along western border (northern Rakhine and southern Chin states), also blamed for 1 Jan roadside bomb attack on Rakhine Chief Minister’s convoy near Mrauk-U, no injuries. Previously, deadly clashes between AA and Myanmar military had been intensifying since late Nov across several townships in northern Rakhine State and southern Chin State. Rohingya militant group ARSA believed to be responsible for ambush on Border Guard Police vehicle that injured six officers 16 Jan; also believed to be responsible for 17 Dec attacks in Maungdaw township, northern Rakhine. These would be first attacks by group since Jan 2018. Unilateral four-month ceasefire in Kachin and Shan State announced by military 21 Dec largely held, however some fighting continued in north, including between rival Shan armed groups in northern Shan State, causing several thousand villagers to flee. UN’s budget committee late Dec approved $28mn in funding for independent mechanism to prepare case files to standard required for any future criminal prosecution of individuals responsible for international crimes against Rohingya. Yangon High Court 11 Jan rejected appeal by two imprisoned Reuters journalists. Parliament 29 Jan approved ruling National League for Democracy party proposal to establish committee on constitutional amendment, against wishes of military; however, military has veto on changes to the charter, so none can be forced through.
Voters in Mindanao overwhelmingly ratified Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) in 21 Jan referendum, approving creation of new entity, Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Compared to prior autonomous region, BARMM will have expanded powers, larger territory, budget allocation and parliament; referendum represented culmination of efforts to implement 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between govt and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending over 40 years of armed conflict in Mindanao. Voting took place in Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, Cotabato City and Isabela City (which voted not to join new region), with turnout reported at over 85%. Election commission declared BOL ratified 25 Jan, with over 1.7mn people voting yes and some 255,000 against. Further vote to take place 6 Feb in adjacent areas including Lanao del Norte province and North Cotabato on whether they want to join BARMM. MILF chair Murad Ebrahim, expected to lead 80-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority that will govern BARMM until Oct 2022 national elections, welcomed result but warned of “huge challenge” of transforming from revolutionaries to administrators; region faces high poverty and threat of armed groups affiliated with Islamic State (ISIS). MILF negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said he hoped splinter groups would recognise popular will for peace. Two days after results announced, double bombing at cathedral in Jolo, Sulu province (which voted against BOL), killed at least 22 people and injured scores 27 Jan; ISIS claimed responsibility. Govt uncertain if it was suicide attack. Authorities believe bombing perpetrated by Ajang-Ajang gang, an Abu Sayyaf subgroup. Military launched ground assault and air strikes against militants in Sulu’s Patikul town. Two people killed in explosion at mosque in Zamboanga City 30 Jan. Attacks by armed groups and clashes with military continued, including encounter with Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Maguindanao 15 Jan which left four suspected rebels dead. Clashes also continued between military and Communist New People’s Army (NPA) rebels in different parts of country, killing several suspected rebels. Defence secretary early Jan announced new three-year deadline to end NPA insurgency.
U.S.-China tensions continued amid reports on China’s military capability build-up and first U.S. freedom of navigation operation of year. U.S. warship USS McCampbell 7 Jan sailed within 12 nautical miles of three disputed Paracel islands controlled by China but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam; Chinese military aircraft and ship reportedly warned it to leave and Beijing formally protested exercise; Chinese state media reported China had mobilised intermediate-range ballistic missiles. U.S. official reports released during month outlined China’s military build-up and expanding naval capabilities; Chinese state media also reported on shift, noting “transformational changes” to People’s Liberation Army, boosting size of navy and air force. Chinese state media reported tests of intercontinental ballistic missile with capacity to strike moving warships. President Trump signed Asia Reassurance Initiative Act into law 31 Dec, emphasising importance of strategic relations with regional partners; highlighting Chinese military assertiveness as cause for concern and referring to efforts to counter China’s strategic influence with $1.5bn authorised for initiative. While U.S. and China continued to exchange heated rhetoric, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations visiting China mid-Jan met with senior defence officials to discuss operational safety and risk reduction during maritime encounters. As ASEAN nations continued to raise concerns about South China Sea tensions and slow progress on Code of Conduct, statement following meeting of ASEAN FMs mid-month “took note of some concerns on the land reclamations and activities”. China late Jan reported it had opened maritime rescue centre on man-made island on disputed Fiery Cross Reef in Spratly Islands. Three Chinese naval ships paid goodwill visit to Manila 17-21 Jan.
Violence in deep south escalated since late Dec with militants attacking symbolic and soft targets, including, for first time in years, Buddhist monks. Militants 8 Jan lynched retired Buddhist teacher in Saba Yoi district, Songkhla, and used victim’s truck as vehicle-borne IED, wounding two soldiers; defence minister blamed main Malay-Muslim separatist organisation Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN). Bomb in Yarang district, Pattani, same day targeted teacher-protection unit, wounding police officer and twelve-year-old girl. Militants 10 Jan killed four Muslim defence volunteers outside school in Yarang district, Pattani. Gunmen shot dead imam in Rueso district, Narathiwat province 11 Jan. Two insurgents killed in gun battle with security forces in Yaring district, Pattani, 12 Jan; one ranger and eight-year-old girl wounded. Six militants on motorcycles attacked police station in Khok Poh district, Pattani province 13 Jan, killing police officer. Security forces 18 Jan killed insurgent suspect in Chanea district, Narathiwat. Insurgents same day detonated two bombs in Pattani, wounding five soldiers and two police. Also on 18 Jan, militants attacked Buddhist temple in Sungai Padi, killing two monks. Three police and three civilians wounded in 25 Jan bombing in Krong Pinang, Pattani. Chief of Thailand’s peace-dialogue delegation 4 Jan met with Malaysian facilitator to discuss new framework for talks with BRN. BRN released video and statement dated 4 Jan marking fifteen-year anniversary of renewed insurgency, saying peace possible only if govt is sincere. Chief of delegation 11 Jan said govt would study political decentralisation as possible component of resolution. Royal decree published 23 Jan ordered general election, which Election Commission announced will take place 24 March; announcements calmed rising tensions and some protests after junta mid-Jan said previously promised 24 Feb election would not take place.
Republika Srpska (RS) entity 9 Jan celebrated its annual “RS statehood day” which included parade by police, fire fighters, civil protection force and pro-Putin Russian motorbike club, attended by Serbian PM Brnabić and Russian ambassador to Bosnia. Bosniak and Bosnian Croat leaders again condemned celebration, which Constitutional Court banned in 2015 declaring it unconstitutional. Main Bosniak Party of Democratic Action 23 Jan said it would challenge name of RS, which it claims has been used to discriminate against non-Serbs, at constitutional court, in move criticised by Office of the High Representative, international overseer of implementation of 1995 peace agreement that ended the war as “irresponsible and counterproductive”.
International community increased pressure on govt to revoke controversial 100% customs tariff imposed on Serbian and Bosnian goods in Nov 2018 amid divisions on issue within Kosovo between President Thaçi, who wants to lift tariffs in return for progress on EU-facilitated normalisation talks with Serbia, and PM Haradinaj, who conditioned lifting of tariff on Serbian recognition of Kosovo, but faces opposition from his ruling coalition partner party. EU foreign policy chief Mogherini called for lifting of tariff in 8 Jan meeting with Kosovo’s new negotiating team for normalisation dialogue, while U.S. embassy 25 Jan issued statement calling for immediate suspension of tariff. Haradinaj 28 Jan laid out further conditions for revoking tariff including international conference backed by EU and U.S. to work out final agreement with Serbia, rejecting any redrawing of borders; and that any association of Serb municipalities in Kosovo should have no executive powers. Serbian President Vučić in letter to U.S. President Trump 31 Jan said Serbia would resume normalisation dialogue only after Kosovo revokes tariff. Russian President Putin 17 Jan criticised Kosovo’s move to form national army during visit to Serbia, also criticised role of Western countries in Balkans. New Kosovo Specialist Chambers, which was created in 2015, 14 Jan began work in The Hague, to try Kosovo war crimes committed 1998-2000.
Macedonia and Greece took final steps to implement June 2018 Prespa agreement resolving 27-year dispute over Macedonia’s name. Following several days of negotiation between PM Zaev and opponents to name change, Macedonian parliament 11 Jan passed four constitutional amendments (with 81 out of 120 votes) to change country name to Republic of North Macedonia, its final step in implementing June 2018 agreement, under which Athens would lift its opposition to Macedonia’s EU membership negotiations and NATO membership in return for Macedonian name change. Days later, Greek parliament 25 Jan voted to ratify Prespa agreement by 153 votes to 146. Zaev said “historical victory”, widely acclaimed by international partners including EU and NATO, would promote peace and progress in region, while Greek PM Tsipras called Macedonia “friend and ally” in efforts for regional security, stability and development. Greek govt 31 Jan said it would bring Macedonia's NATO accession agreement to parliament for ratification in coming days, upon which name change will take effect. Opposition to deal continued in both countries, with small protests outside Macedonian parliament and continued criticism over govt’s Dec changes to criminal code reducing punishments on cases at Special Prosecutor’s Office relating to 2015 wiretapping scandal, which some portrayed as move to secure sufficient support for deal. In Greece, defence minister resigned and PM survived confidence vote ahead of parliamentary vote, while estimated 60,000 joined protest against deal 20 Jan, with violence breaking out between police and some protesters. Separately, law extending official use of Albanian language across Macedonia entered into force 15 Jan.
PM Pashinyan reappointed PM 14 Jan after landslide victory in Dec snap parliamentary elections. Pashinyan announced planned structural change to cabinet with merger and abolition of several ministries; re-appointed most key ministers from his pre-election cabinet.
Case of jailed anti-corruption blogger Mehman Huseynov attracted international attention as several local journalists, opposition activists and human rights advocates joined him in hunger strike to protest what he alleges are trumped up charges against him. EU Parliament 17 Jan passed resolution calling for Huseynov’s immediate release, and thousands joined opposition-organised protest in Baku 19 Jan; authorities 22 Jan dropped new charges against Huseynov.
Breakaway region of Abkhazia 11 Jan imposed limits on crossing points with Georgian regions, while South Ossetia same day closed all crossing points with Georgian regions entirely, in both cases citing reason as spike in swine flu cases; eighteen people reportedly died in Georgian-controlled territory in Jan. Georgian govt protested decision and requested intervention from foreign allies, saying outbreak was at similar level to previous year. Move followed de facto leaderships’ repeated expressions of concern, highlighted again during Geneva talks in Dec, over “biological experiments” at U.S.-founded medical laboratory near Tblisi. Closure also comes in context of growing pressure on ethnic Georgians living in breakaways ahead of de facto elections in 2019, who are main users of crossings. Tens of ethnic Georgian residents of Abkhazia 23 Jan held rare protest in front of de facto Gali governor’s office demanding opening of crossing points and new documents and regulations for those who cross.
Armenia and Azerbaijan both issued unusually conciliatory statements following meeting of their foreign ministers in Paris 16 Jan for talks mediated by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group co-chairs. Azerbaijani foreign ministry stated “importance for building more understanding and confidence”, while Armenian foreign ministry spoke of need to build contact to help in “establishing broader mutual understanding and trust”. Co-chairs’ statement discussed need to launch work to prepare populations for peace, importance of possibly mutually beneficial economic initiatives, and plan to visit regional capitals to launch preparations for possible official summit of Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. Media on both sides speculated about agreement on major concessions, however both sides reiterated that no change to their core demands will be possible in the near future. Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders held unofficial face-to-face meeting while attending World Economic Forum in Davos late Jan, reportedly exchanging views on peace process. Situation in conflict zone remained calm with no fatalities reported in Dec and Jan, which in past three years has been deadliest period of year.
Amid ongoing security operations against militants, month saw continued tensions over land deal between Chechnya and Ingushetia and increased human rights violations. Despite 18 Jan submission to Kremlin of petition signed by more than 51,000 Ingush residents demanding cancellation of controversial Oct 2018 border deal, speakers of Chechen and Ingush parliaments 22 Jan held first meeting of new border commission and agreed to clarify “historical boundaries”. Russian LGBT Network human rights group 14 Jan reported that Chechen authorities have resumed large-scale arrests and torture of gay men and women with some 40 detained and two killed since Dec, sparking fears of renewed crackdown. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov oversaw return of 30 Russian children from Iraq 30 Dec, marking resumption of efforts to repatriate family members of insurgents fighting for Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria as part of broader deradicalisation strategy; the 30 children are out of total of 115 expected to be returned soon. In Dagestan, authorities 11 Jan reported law enforcers shot dead three suspected militants who attacked patrol post in Karabudakhkent district. In Ingushetia, gunfire on car of head of Ingush Centre for Combating Extremism in Sunzha district left one policeman dead. In Kabardino-Balkaria, four assailants reported killed in attack on police post 24 Jan, one policeman injured. Elsewhere in Russia, speculation grew that 31 Dec explosion in Magnitogorsk which killed 39 was work of ISIS despite official denials.
Tensions increased between Belarus and Russia late Dec/early Jan over Minsk’s demands that Moscow compensate budget losses caused by a change in Russian tax system for oil exports making them more expensive for Belarus, and Russia’s counter demands for faster integration under 1999 plan for Union State between the two countries. Tensions sparked speculation that Russia sought to “annex” Belarus; meanwhile President Lukashenka moved to thaw relations with U.S. by lifting limit on number of U.S. diplomats in country, although many observers downplayed likelihood that Moscow harbours plans for annexation.
Campaigning for presidential elections scheduled for 31 March kicked off following expiration of martial law late Dec, as low-level hostilities continued in Donbas and tensions with Russia continued over 25 Nov attack on Ukrainian vessels off Crimea. As of 16 Jan all 22 sailors and two security agents captured by Russian authorities during attack had their pre-trial detention periods extended to late April. Russian FM Lavrov 18 Jan said that Moscow had agreed to German and French offer to monitor traffic in Kerch Strait but questioned need for Kyiv’s approval; Ukrainian FM Klimkin said release of captured sailors should remain primary focus. Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed resolution 24 Jan supporting German and French monitoring proposal, calling on Russia to apply Geneva Conventions to Ukrainian captives. OSCE Chairman-in-Office Martin Saijdik 28 Jan spoke to Austrian newspaper about plans to implement 2014-2015 Minsk Agreements via local elections overseen jointly by OSCE and UN in areas currently held by Moscow-backed armed groups, along with formation of European agency for rebuilding Donbas; Saijdik suggested proposal should be subject to approval by Ukrainian and Russian parliaments. Ukrainian FM called plan “same old thing” but praised call for international oversight; de facto FM of so-called Donetsk People’s Republic termed it “attempt to sabotage the Minsk process”. Three civilians injured in Donbas conflict zone over month, while seven elderly people died waiting to cross Line of Separation in harsh weather conditions; at least three Ukrainian military members and seven armed group fighters killed, at least 28 injured. With over 100 religious communities leaving Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to join newly-formed Orthodox Church in Ukraine since mid-Dec, Kyiv passed legislation 28 Jan outlining procedures for congregations to switch allegiance and handle disputes over use of worship sites. Kyiv district court sentenced ex-President Viktor Yanukovych in absentia 24 Jan to thirteen years in prison on charges of committing state treason and colluding to wage war against Ukraine and undermine its territorial integrity.
Discussion on possible resumption of talks on reunification of island continued to evolve around different modes of governance. After meeting with UN Secretary-General Special Representative and Head of UN’s Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) Elizabeth Spehar 11 Jan, Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı said that nearest date that all parties will be ready for reunification talks would be in June, referring to municipal elections in Turkey in March and European Parliament elections in Republic of Cyprus late May. UN Security Council 30 Jan voted to extend UNFICYP mandate. Tensions over hydrocarbon explorations in Eastern Mediterranean continued.
Several incidents of suspected republican dissident violence reported, amid growing concerns over possible implications of UK’s scheduled 29 March departure from EU for arrangements on border with Republic of Ireland and Good Friday Agreement. Car bomb exploded outside courthouse in Londonderry 19 Jan, following earlier hijacking of vehicle; police arrested five men in connection with bomb, releasing four 21 Jan. Masked men 21 Jan hijacked two more vehicles in separate incidents in Londonderry, raising fears of further bombs. No group claimed responsibility for incidents but police blamed “new IRA” republican dissidents.
Intensity of military’s security operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in south east remained low with few fatalities, while deadly Turkish air raids against PKK in northern Iraq prompted angry response by alleged PKK-sympathising Iraqi group. Major cross-border air raid in northern Iraq 20 Jan reportedly killed six; sources close to PKK claimed they were civilians, Turkish army said they were PKK militants. Hundreds of protesters 26 Jan stormed Turkish military base in Iraq’s Dohuk province; at least one killed and ten injured in clashes. Crackdown on individuals allegedly linked to PKK continued across Turkey. Authorities 12 Jan allowed imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to be visited by his brother Mehmet for first time in two and a half years. Hundreds of figures from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)’s municipal affiliate party remain imprisoned ahead of March municipal elections. Strains in Turkish-U.S. relationship continued following U.S. statements that its planned withdrawal from Syria was conditional on Turkish guarantee not to attack “Kurdish fighters” (see Syria). Ankara expressed anger at remarks, renewing threat to carry out military offensive in north east Syria and reiterating Turkey’s main goal to clear “terrorist groups”. President Erdoğan and U.S. President Trump 14 Jan discussed possible 20-mile “safe zone” in north east Syria; following 16 Jan Islamic State (ISIS)-claimed bomb in Manbij that killed sixteen including four U.S. soldiers, Erdoğan said Turkey would start military takeover of Manbij if U.S. did not protect its borders via safe zone. Erdoğan and Russian President Putin met in Moscow 23 Jan; agreed on closer military cooperation in Syria’s Idlib, however Putin reaffirmed Moscow’s support for dialogue between Damascus and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As alternative to U.S. safe zone, Putin also said 1998 Adana agreement between Turkey and Syria could serve as basis of Ankara’s efforts to secure its borders and “fight terrorism”. Inside Turkey, security forces 13 Jan conducted first crackdown against jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – which currently controls most of Idlib zone – targeting “civilian” cells in Adana, Istanbul and Ankara allegedly providing support to militants in Syria.
During 9 Jan address to nation, President Nazarbayev said 47 Kazakh citizens including 30 children had been evacuated from Syria, where they were “held hostage by terrorists”; security services say hundreds of citizens have joined militant groups in Syria since 2011. Foreign ministry statement 9 Jan confirmed media reports that China has allowed 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to renounce Chinese citizenship and leave for Kazakhstan, amid ongoing reports of mass Muslim internment camps (see China) and Kazakhs being released into house arrest.
Several hundred people 7 and 17 Jan protested in Bishkek against Chinese migrants, urged authorities to deport illegal Chinese migrants, and expressed support for ethnic Kyrgyz detained in Xinjiang re-education camps (see China). President Jeenbekov 11 Jan warned people “trying to disrupt Kyrgyz-Chinese partnership” could be prosecuted; 21 protesters fined for disrupting public order. Human Rights Watch annual report 17 Jan noted fewer attacks on media and free speech in first year of Jeenbekov’s presidency, but said other long-term rights concerns not addressed.
Human Rights Watch annual report 17 Jan noted negative trends in human rights in Tajikistan in 2018 with more repressive policies; urged Central Asian leaders seeking international investment to improve human rights.
President Berdymukhammedov 2 Jan appointed son Serdar deputy governor of south-central region of Ahal. Defence ministry source 14 Jan told media conscriptions commissions were instructed to register males younger than 50, reportedly linked to tense situation along border with Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch annual report 17 Jan noted negative trends in human rights in Turkmenistan in 2018 with more repressive policies.
During visit in Germany, President Mirziyoyev 21 Jan expressed hopes for closer ties and increased German investment in Uzbekistan. Human Rights Watch annual report 17 Jan noted improvements in Uzbekistan human rights situation in 2018, including govt’s release of some political prisoners, relaxing some restrictions on freedom of expression and increasing govt accountability; urged Central Asian leaders seeking international investment to improve human rights.
Peace talks between govt and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group fell apart following deadly ELN car bomb, leading to fears of open conflict and worsening violence along border with Venezuela and Pacific coast. Car bomb struck police academy in Bogotá 17 Jan, killing 21 police officers (as well as driver) and injuring over 60, third deadliest attack in city’s history and most deadly for fifteen years; President Duque next day announced reinstatement of arrest warrants against ELN delegation at peace talks in Havana, Cuba, effectively ending peace talks. ELN 21 Jan claimed responsibility for bomb, however hours later its leadership in Havana denied knowledge of the attack before it took place. Earlier in month, ELN increased rate of attacks following end of unilateral ceasefire 23 Dec-3 Jan, including shooting down helicopter that was transporting money in Norte de Santander province (north east) 13 Jan, stealing money and kidnapping crew. Following 21 Dec death of alias “Guacho”, leader of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissident group Oliver Sinisterra front, alias “The Gringo” took over as group leader. Dissident violence eased after main armed groups in Tumaco (south west) 13 Dec agreed truce after high levels of violence hindered narco-trafficking in area; two reported homicides in Tumaco since truce came into effect. Deadline for country’s largest drug trafficking group Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC) to state it was willing to surrender to govt ran out 9 Jan, although group respected unilateral ceasefire 8 Dec-10 Jan. Killings of community activists remained high with six murdered in first six days of Jan alone including Maritza Quiroz Leiva, Afro-Colombian leader and environmental activist, shot dead 6 Jan at her farm near Santa Marta, Magdalena department (north).
Country thrown into turmoil as new opposition leader claimed role of acting president, backed by mass anti-govt protests and with support from foreign partners including U.S., setting up confrontation with govt of President Maduro and prompting fears of violent escalation in coming days and weeks. Opposition-controlled National Assembly (NA) 5 Jan elected relative unknown Juan Guaidó of Voluntad Popular party as its new chairman, five days before Maduro was sworn in for second six-year term as president in ceremony boycotted by U.S., EU and many Latin American nations who question legitimacy of his May 2018 re-election. National security police 13 Jan briefly arrested Guaidó, in incident which govt attributed to rogue agents acting in partnership with parts of opposition. Amid growing opposition to Maduro, including dozens of small-scale protests against govt and rising prices in formerly pro-govt areas in Caracas 21 Jan, Guaidó 23 Jan declared himself “interim president”, citing Art. 233 of constitution, in move opposition hardliners and foreign supporters had been demanding. Hundreds of thousands protested across country against govt same day, with over 40 reportedly killed as security forces cracked down over succeeding days. U.S. immediately announced its recognition; Maduro accused U.S. of leading “coup attempt” and announced severing of diplomatic relations, ordering all U.S. diplomatic and consular staff to leave within 72 hours, though later backing down. International community divided with all major countries in the Americas except Mexico officially recognising Guaidó as acting president and many European countries saying they would follow unless free elections were called, but China, Turkey and Russia declaring support for Maduro. European parliament 30 Jan voted to recognise Guaidó as acting interim president. UN Security Council debated Venezuela 26 Jan without passing resolution. EU 31 Jan announced creation of international contact group “to help achieve a peaceful and democratic solution through fresh credible elections”. U.S. 28 Jan imposed sweeping oil sanctions, announcing it would divert any profits from Venezuelan oil sold in U.S. to accounts controlled by Guaidó and transfer control of U.S. refining network to interim govt; over half Venezuela’s oil income comes from U.S. sales.
Political turmoil worsened as govt intensified attacks on International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, which has been preparing case and possible charges against President Morales and others for illicit electoral financing) and against Constitutional Court (CC), which has been defending CICIG. After CC early Jan intervened to release CICIG official detained at airport on entering country, Morales 7 Jan announced end of agreement with UN on CICIG, giving representatives 24 hours to leave country. Lawyers and civil society filed multiple appeals with CC, which 8 Jan ruled against govt’s decision. CICIG chief Iván Velásquez – previously a target of govt anger for his work – 14 Jan stated he would resign if CICIG was allowed to function until planned end of its mandate in Sept. Foreign ministry 16 Jan defied CC ruling and withdrew diplomatic immunity and privileges from all CICIG staff, while CICIG was excluded from tribunal hearing case against Morales’ relatives 18 Jan. Thousands of protesters marched in Guatemala City 12 and 14 Jan in support of CICIG. Govt moves against CICIG caused international outcry: UN Sec-Gen Guterres rejected Morales’ 7 Jan decision, while regional and international partners and UN human rights office called on govt to respect democratic institutions and reverse decision. Govt also targeted CC, with Supreme Court of Justice 9 Jan beginning proceedings against three CC judges; Congress 17 Jan created committee to study whether to lift immunity of CC judges. Seven people were injured in bomb explosion in bus in Guatemala City 21 Jan; investigations pointed to gang extortion racket, for which suspected attacker is being tried.
Following end of UN-led National Dialogue process in Dec, Congress 11 Jan began debates on electoral reform and 25 Jan approved measures including creation and composition of Electoral Supreme Court; reformation of National Registry and establishment of second round for future elections. Political tensions high around 26 Jan anniversary of President Hernández’s swearing-in ceremony; new opposition platform Citizen Action Against Dictatorships 20-26 Jan held protests in fourteen departments to demand Hernández’s resignation, and in several cases were met by police repression. Eight mass killings 1-14 Jan left some 30 people dead across country, including in capital Tegucigalpa (centre) and Cortés and Yoro departments (north). Migrant “caravans” continued to set off on attempts to reach U.S. border, despite new U.S. legislation requiring asylum seekers wait in Mexico during processing of their applications; in apparent move to appease U.S., govt 2 Jan agreed to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Ahead of Feb presidential elections, gangs put pressure on govt by stepping up killings; national police chief 20 Jan announced 210 people had been murdered since 1 Jan, including spike of 61 murders 12-14 Jan mainly in eastern departments of San Miguel, La Unión and Usulután. National police chief 2 Jan announced 2018 homicide rate was 50.3 homicides per 100,000, down from 60.8 in 2017, although attorney general reported disappearances had increased by 10% in 2018 to 3,514 cases; still no institutionally agreed methodology to count disappearances. San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele continued to lead polls ahead of first round of presidential elections 3 Feb. Judge 19 Jan ordered detention of former President Funes for divulging secret document involving corruption case of former President Flores.
Govt shaken by series of defections of prominent allies, while repression of opposition and press continued, and clashes between security forces and armed groups re-emerged in south. Supreme Court judge 8 Jan resigned from court and ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party, accusing President Ortega and his wife and VP Rosario Murillo of pushing country to civil war with repression of protests; National Assembly 17 Jan announced another Supreme Court judge had resigned and 15 Jan approved resignation of head of banking industry regulatory body, reportedly for health reasons. National Assembly 28 Jan received social security reform bill that resembles the one which triggered crisis in April 2018. Repression continued with flawed trials of opposition protesters and harassment of press. Permanent Commission on Human Rights announced it had received 40 complaints for unjust detentions or harassment 1-8 Jan. Nicaraguan Association Pro Human Rights 9 Jan raised to 561 and 4,578 the number of total dead and injured in relation to crisis since April 2018. Committee Pro Liberation of Political Prisoners said 767 people in prison for protesting against govt. Security situation worsened in south with clashes between security forces and armed civilians: in Río San Juan department, two civilians reported killed 12 Jan in clash between military and members of criminal organisations; illegal armed group “Los Atabales” claimed responsibility for 17 Jan attack killing four police. Regional and international pressure on govt to ease repression and engage with dialogue continued, including from Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Mexico, and Catholic Church. Organization of American States (OAS) Permanent Council 11 Jan gathered to assess possibility of applying Democratic Charter, which could see Nicaragua expelled from OAS. U.S. 9 Jan announced it was seeking ways to block Nicaraguan trade access to U.S. market.
At opening of parliament 14 Jan, PM Céant announced parliamentary elections to be held in Oct. President of Senate Joseph Lambert listed set of challenges that need to be resolved before elections, including establishment of a permanent electoral council, and strengthening capacity of national police. Fuel shortages continued with govt overdue on tens of millions of dollars in payments to U.S. energy suppliers; some citizens reportedly without electricity for two weeks following govt rationing. Gang-related insecurity continued; Associated Press 14 Jan reported mass killing in La Saline neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince in Nov 2018 that left some 21 dead was carried out by gangs in police uniform; gang leader and former policeman implicated in Nov attacks Grégory Antoine, alias “Ti Greg”, was assassinated 9 Jan in Carrefour Feuilles area of Port-au-Prince, reportedly by members of rival gang. With Haitians continuing to leave in large numbers and facing deportation risks abroad, court in New York 7-10 Jan heard challenge to U.S. govt decision to end Temporary Protected Status for some 50,000 Haitians in U.S.; decision expected in March.
Govt 9 Jan signed bill creating new 60,000-strong National Guard, main instrument of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s National Peace and Security Plan to fight crime and violence, which reached record levels in 2018. New force will be heavily reliant on military commanders and officers; civil society and experts early Jan decried plans, which they warn threaten to cement militarisation of public security, during audiences before Congress. Amid ongoing high rates of violence, National Public Security System 21 Jan announced 33,341 homicides in 2018, 15% increase on 2017 and highest figure since records began in 1997. Govt moved to curb oil siphoning, estimated to cause yearly govt losses of $3.3bn and fuel conflict between armed groups over its control and smuggling routes; govt late Dec deployed 7,000 officers, including military forces, to protect pipelines and shut worst affected ones, leading to gas shortages in eight states in north and centre of country, and take charge of facilities. Explosion at clandestine oil siphoning tap on pipeline in Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo state (centre) killed some 114 people and injured 81 others; govt promised to clamp down further on siphoning. State oil company 29 Jan said fuel theft reduced by 65% since army deployed in Dec. Focus on oil siphoning also highlighted collusion between criminal groups and employees of state oil company PEMEX, with soldiers 7 Jan uncovering large pipeline supplying oil directly to gangs in Salamanca, Guanajuato state (centre). U.S. 24 Jan began implementation of policy forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while applying for U.S. asylum; govt said it disagreed with U.S. “unilateral measure”.
Tensions rose temporarily between Hamas and Palestinian Authority (PA) mid-month and violence flared at Gaza-Israel fence. Tensions between Hamas and PA mounted after PA President Abbas 22 Dec upheld ruling of Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), PA’s parliament in which Hamas held majority. In Gaza, five assailants 4 Jan raided PA building; Hamas denied responsibility and arrested five suspects. PA 7 Jan withdrew its forces from Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, citing alleged Hamas crackdown on Fatah. Hamas denied accusation and said move undermined Gaza’s reconciliation with West Bank since Egypt had conditioned border opening on PA’s presence at Rafah. Israel same day said it would delay transfer of Qatar’s third $15mn tranche to Gaza. Following call by Palestinian protest leaders, some 13,000 demonstrated at Gaza-Israel border 11 Jan; Israeli fire killed one woman and injured 25. To defuse tensions, Egypt 13 Jan opened Rafah crossing in one direction, allowing Palestinians into Gaza, and Hamas 18 Jan reportedly took steps to restrain protests. Israeli fire injured four Palestinians 18 Jan and killed one 25 Jan. In West Bank, thousands protested 15 Jan against PA’s new social security law. Israeli army carried out raids in Ramallah throughout month leading to arrests and clashes with Palestinian protestors. Clashes erupted 26 Jan between Palestinian and Israeli civilians near Jewish settlement in West Bank, killing one Palestinian. Abbas 29 Jan accepted PM Hamdallah’s resignation to enact Fatah Central Committee decision to establish new govt. Standoff between Israeli police and Jordanian Waqf guards at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade triggered scuffle between police and hundreds of Palestinians 14 Jan; Jordanian mediation led to withdrawal of Israeli police, and sheikhs intervened to calm Muslim worshippers. Israel carried out airstrikes against installations it said Iran and pro-Iranian militias were using south of Syrian capital Damascus 25 Dec and 11, 20 and 21 Jan; latter, in response to missile fired at Golan Heights, targeted Iranian Al-Quds Force and reportedly killed twelve.
Foreign ministry 22 Jan announced it had appointed chargé d’affaires to Syria to work in embassy in Damascus after warming of ties.
PM Hariri 31 Jan announced formation of new national unity govt, ending nearly nine months of deadlock. Amid mounting economic pressure, opposed political forces reached compromise. Hizbollah allocated post of health minister, controlling fourth largest ministerial budget, in addition to two ministerial positions it held previously and Hizbollah’s Sunni allies allocated one ministry. New cabinet includes four women, two as ministers of interior and energy, up from one woman minister in previous cabinet. Govt expected to enact reforms to unlock $11bn in loans and grants pledged by international donors at 2018 Paris conference.
Jihadists took control of Idlib in north west straining Russia-Turkey deal holding off govt assault on opposition stronghold, rise in Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Iran-allied targets in south west provoked retaliation, and U.S. sought assurances from Turkey it would not attack Kurdish fighters in north east when U.S. troops pull out. In Idlib in north west, clashes between jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and rival rebel faction Nour al-Din al-Zinki erupted 1 Jan, with Turkish-backed rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham joining against HTS. HTS defeated Nour al-Din al-Zinki by 4 Jan and imposed civilian Salvation Govt, which it controls, in captured areas. HTS 10 Jan reached settlement with Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham, which conceded HTS authority. Turkish President Erdoğan and Russian President Putin in Moscow 23 Jan agreed on closer military cooperation in Idlib, but Putin reaffirmed Russia’s support for dialogue between Damascus and Kurds. In response to what govt called “terrorist violations” of truce in southern Idlib, army 29 Jan shelled Maarat al-Numan killing at least eleven civilians. Tensions rose in south: Israel carried out airstrikes against installations it said Iran and pro-Iranian militias were using south of Damascus 25 Dec and 11 and 20 Jan. In apparent retaliation, missile fired allegedly by Iranian forces 20 Jan at Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Israel responded with another airstrike 21 Jan targeting Iranian Al-Quds Force, reportedly killing twelve. Following President Trump’s announcement in Dec that U.S. troops would withdraw, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton 6 Jan conditioned withdrawal on Turkey guaranteeing it would not attack “Kurdish fighters”; Turkey condemned remarks. Turkey 13 Jan deployed tanks and armoured vehicles to districts on border with Syria. After Trump 13 Jan tweeted that U.S. “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit the Kurds”, he and Erdoğan 14 Jan had phone call on possible twenty-mile-wide “safe zone” in north east along Turkish border. Syrian Kurds and Syrian govt rejected Turkish control over potential “safe zone”. Turkey reportedly sought Russian permission to use Syrian airspace for possible operation in north east against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – backbone of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Russian FM Lavrov 16 Jan said northern territories should return to Syrian govt control. Kurds continued to explore political settlement with Syrian govt including integration of YPG into Syrian armed forces. Suicide attack claimed by Islamic State (ISIS) in Manbij 16 Jan killed sixteen, including four U.S. personnel. Another suicide attack targeting U.S. troops and Syrian partners in Hassakeh 21 Jan caused no casualties.
Highest court 28 Jan upheld life sentence for jailed leader of outlawed Shia opposition society al-Wefaq, Sheikh Ali Salman, accused of spying on behalf of Qatar during 2011 uprising.
As implementation of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) entered fourth year 16 Jan, deal’s future became increasingly uncertain. U.S. sanctions on Iran have significantly reduced its crude oil exports and dissuaded international companies from doing business there. Remaining JCPOA participants continued efforts to ease trade with Iran: European participants 31 Jan launched Special Purpose Vehicle to support trade with Iran, originally expected late 2018. Govt’s purported hand in series of assassinations and attempted attacks against Iranian political dissidents in several European countries further strained EU-Iran relations, leading EU 8 Jan to impose sanctions on unit of intelligence ministry and two Iranian individuals. U.S.-Iran tensions continued: U.S. Sec State Pompeo 10 Jan pledged to pursue American campaign “to stop Iran’s malevolent influence and actions” and 15 Jan protested Iranian launch of satellite, accusing govt of using it as cover for developing ballistic missile capabilities. Israel carried out airstrikes in southern Syria against installations it claimed Iran and pro-Iranian militias were using south of Damascus 25 Dec and 11, 20 and 21 Jan; latter strike targeted Al-Quds Force and Syrian air defences, twelve reported dead. Expediency Council – constitutional arbitrator between parliament and Guardian Council – 5 Jan approved second of four bills aimed at shoring up measures against money laundering and terrorism financing.
In surprise visit to U.S. military base at Ain al-Asad in Anbar province 27 Dec, President Trump confirmed continued U.S. military presence in Iraq despite planned withdrawal from Syria; some MPs criticised visit as violation of Iraqi sovereignty. As U.S. increased pressure on Iraq to stop importing gas from Iran, U.S. Sec State Pompeo 9 Jan met PM Mahdi and members of cabinet to discuss greater economic cooperation. Amid U.S. attempts to forge strategic alliance to confront Iran including the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt and Jordan, King Abdullah of Jordan visited 14 Jan to reassure Iraq of Jordanian cooperation. Iranian FM Zarif 13 Jan embarked on five-day visit to Iraq taking in Baghdad, Erbil and Suleimaniya, signalling continued commitment to Iranian presence in Iraq. In Kurdistan, two main parties, Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), from early Jan attempted to draft new agreement to forge power-sharing arrangement, but continued to disagree on redistribution of positions in new Kurdish cabinet, assignment of positions in Baghdad, and appointment of new Kirkuk governor. Suspected Islamic State (ISIS) attacks continued: in Tikrit, Salah al-Din province (north) car bombing killed two and injured six 8 Jan and two roadside bombs killed four policemen and wounded eleven 26 Jan, another blast killed two and injured a dozen in Al-Qaim, Anbar province (west) 11 Jan and another killed one soldier in Kirkuk (north) 23 Jan. FM Ali al-Hakim 30 Jan met Russian FM Lavrov in Moscow; Russia pledged to support Iraq in fighting ISIS and to reestablish security ties between two states. In far north, Turkey continued operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) conducting two major airstrikes 6 and 20 Jan killing seven and six civilians respectively. In response to raids, hundreds of protesters 26 Jan stormed Turkish military base in Dohuk province (north) and burnt Turkish military vehicles; clashes resulted in at least one killed and ten injured.
Afghan Taliban and U.S. officials held talks in capital Doha 21-26 Jan; Taliban said they expected new round of talks in Doha in Feb (see Afghanistan).
Govt 30 Jan said anti-corruption campaign launched Nov 2017 now ended; $100bn in assets recovered, settlements reached with 87 individuals, eight cases referred to public prosecutor and 56 charges yet to be resolved. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 14 Jan visited capital Riyadh, reportedly pressed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on status of investigation into killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Oct and secured govt’s verbal commitment to Yemen political process. UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths travelled to Riyadh 23-24 Jan to discuss implementation of Stockholm Agreement with Saudi authorities and Yemeni govt. U.S. lawmakers 30 Jan re-introduced bipartisan resolution to end U.S. support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen; two-thirds majority needed in both houses of Congress to overrule potential presidential veto (see Yemen).