The President's Take
On the first working day of every month, Crisis Group refreshes CrisisWatch, our early-warning tool providing regular updates on the most significant conflicts around the world. It’s one of our most popular features because it is an inestimable resource for all who care about conflict and want to know both the dangers that lurk and the opportunities that arise. Beginning this month, I will add a brief commentary of my own.
This time, I am highlighting two conflict situations: the Korean peninsula, where the potential for a catastrophe of untold proportions comes hand-in-hand with a rare chance for de-escalation; and Israel-Palestine, where a conflict that remains dormant until it inevitably flares up was made more dangerous by the U.S. president’s pronouncements.
As to the former: North and South Korea have agreed to resume contacts in the context of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics; Pyongyang put some of its more provocative actions on the back burner; and Washington postponed its military exercises. These steps should be built upon to avoid an outcome as absurd as it would be tragic: having the U.S. risk a nuclear war in order to avoid one.
As to the latter: for some time now, one of President Abbas’s chief functions has been to maintain as many illusions as possible amid widespread Palestinian disillusionment – with the peace process, the U.S., non-violence, and the two-state solution. Through his actions and words, President Trump has been systematically stripping away even the pretense of an illusion. The danger is that he reap what he has sowed.
President & CEO
Amid global geopolitical uncertainties, fighting intensified in Libya over oil installations and in the capital Tripoli, where clashes could flare up in April, while in Yemen an assault on Hodeida city by the Saudi-led coalition and allied Yemeni forces looks imminent. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), violence spiked in Kasai Central province and uncertainty grew over talks to establish interim governing arrangements. Ethnic fighting worsened in Kenya driven partly by drought. Macedonia and Paraguay witnessed heightened political tensions, while Venezuela’s political standoff took another dangerous turn.
Democratic Republic of CongoKenyaMacedoniaBelarusVenezuelaParaguayLibya
In Libya, the Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB), a coalition comprising mostly fighters from Benghazi opposed to strongman General Khalifa Haftar and including members of jihadist group Ansar Sharia, took over key oil terminals at Sidra and Ras Lanuf in early March. But by mid-month General Haftar’s Libyan National Army had taken them back and pushed the BDB back to Jufra to the south west. Meanwhile, in Tripoli in the west, rival armed factions clashed in several neighbourhoods and fighting could escalate if forces from Misrata step in to confront local groups. As Crisis Group warned, fighting over oil facilities risks reducing oil exports at a time when the country is in dire need of cash flow. It also threatens to undermine efforts to knit back together the western and eastern halves of Libya around the internationally recognised Government of National Accord. Making agreements on who is in charge of securing oil fields and terminals will be a crucial first step to stabilise the frail economy. In Yemen, intense fighting continued on several fronts between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and allied Yemeni forces on one side and Huthi rebels alongside supporters of former President Saleh on the other. There is a risk of yet worse violence in April as an offensive by the Saudi-led coalition on the Red Sea port city of Hodeida looks imminent.
In DRC, violence involving the Kamuina Nsapu militia in Kasai Central province spiked. Militants clashed with government forces and allegedly decapitated 39 police officers caught in an ambush. Three people who went missing early March, including two UN experts investigating the violence, were found dead two weeks later. Meanwhile, after a new round of talks between the ruling majority and opposition failed to reach agreement on critical aspects of governing arrangements until national elections, the Catholic Church withdrew from its mediating role. The presidency said talks would continue, but without the religious leaders their chances of achieving a consensual way forward are still more uncertain. In Kenya, ethnic conflicts and raids by herders rose in the north where drought is heightening tensions over resources. Borana raiders attacked Samburu herders on the border between Isiolo and Samburu counties, leaving ten people dead, while Pokot bandits in Baringo county killed ten. In Laikipia county, thousands of herders continued to drive their livestock onto private ranches in search of pasture and armed herders shot dead a ranch director.
Macedonia’s political crisis deepened on 1 March after President Ivanov refused to hand opposition Social Democrat party leader Zoran Zaev a mandate to form a new government, despite his majority support in parliament. Ivanov claimed that Zaev’s acceptance of demands from ethnic Albanian parties – including a new law extending the use of Albanian as a second official language – in return for their support could “destroy” the country. Zaev accused Ivanov of pushing Macedonia into a “constitutional and national crisis”, while EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini urged the country’s political leaders not to “turn this into an inter-ethnic confrontation that would ruin the country and probably spread further”.
In Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenka’s government cracked down on protesters calling on it to scrap a controversial tax on people working less than six months a year. Hundreds of people were detained as protests continued during the month.
In Latin America, violent protests broke out in Paraguay’s capital Asunción on 31 March, with protesters storming and setting fire to the parliament building, after senators voted to approve a bill amending the constitution to lift the one-term limit on the presidency. Opponents say the bill, which would allow President Cartes to run for re-election next year, would weaken democratic institutions.
Tensions spiralled in Venezuela at the end of the month after the pro-government Supreme Court assumed the legislative powers of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, claiming it was in contempt of court for failing to suspend three legislators accused of electoral fraud. The opposition accused the court of attempting to impose a dictatorship, and Venezuela’s neighbours rushed to condemn the move. The Supreme Court reversed its decision on 1 April following a public request by President Maduro’s government, prompting observers to speculate about internal divisions within the regime. The episode came amid acrimonious debate within the Organization of American States over whether to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter and suspend Venezuela’s membership. As we have repeatedly warned, given the seriousness of the political and humanitarian situation, the region – including the U.S. – needs to sustain pressure on the government to find a solution to the political standoff.
Main opposition coalition CNARED (National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Agreement, Restoration of the Rule of Law) late Feb elected Charles Nditije as president. UNSC 9 March considered new UNSG report that says govt’s planned constitutional review to scrap presidential two-term limit would threaten regional security; govt rejected report. East African Community (EAC) mediator former Tanzanian President Mkapa 9 March told UNSC that he could not bring together irreconcilable positions of govt and opposition. Police colonel found dead in capital Bujumbura 20 March. Security services 29 March in Bujumbura arrested several students leading strike to protest govt’s scrapping of scholarships. Unidentified gunmen 12 March attacked Kabuga village, Rusizi district in western Rwanda killing two people before allegedly crossing into Burundi; Burundian army 13 March said no armed groups seen crossing between countries. Govt 26 March accused Rwanda of wanting to “export” genocide to Burundi.
Boko Haram (BH) slightly increased operations in Far North and tensions between govt and Anglophone minority remained high. Dozens of BH fighters 1 March reportedly entered Waza national park, Logone-et-Chari department with heavy weapons. BH 9 March attacked Goulouzouvini near Waza killing one person. Vigilantes 11 March repelled BH at Zamga, Mayo Moskota area, killing six, one vigilante killed. In Fotokol area in Far North BH 17 March attacked military at Soueram, three BH killed; vigilantes same day repelled BH at Sanda-Wadjiri, killing two; five BH suicide bombers 5-19 March at Boudoua, Magdemé and Kolofata only killed themselves or were shot before detonating explosives. Vigilante groups from Zamga and Ashigashia near Cameroon-Nigeria border 16 March launched joint operation against BH camp between Zeleved, Mayo Tsanaga department and Atagara, near Gwoza in Nigeria killing eighteen BH, one vigilante killed. In minority Anglophone regions, North West and South West, general strikes and school closures continued in protest against govt marginalisation. Trial of 25 Anglophone leaders and activists opened 23 March in Yaoundé, adjourned till April.
Fighting between ex-Seleka factions continued in centre and east, and ex-Seleka clashed with anti-balaka militias in north. In east, Ali Darassa’s ex-Seleka faction Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) reportedly involved in killings on Ippy-Ndassima axis early March; Noureddine Adam’s ex-Seleka faction Popular Front for the Central African Renaissance (FPRC) and allied militias clashed with UPC in Bakouma 20 March. Unidentified armed assailants reportedly killed some 50 civilians in Bambari region in centre 21-24 March. Unidentified assailants reportedly launched attack in Bria in east 24 March killing three civilians. Clashes between ex-Seleka faction Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC) and anti-balaka militias resumed in Kaga Bandoro in north mid-March. Anti-balaka targeted Fulani herdsmen for perceived links with ex-Seleka and for their livestock; anti-balaka 11 March killed several cattle breeders near Sibut in centre and stole cattle. Following Feb departure of armed group chiefs from Bambari in centre, UN mission (MINUSCA) early March asked remaining fighters to make city “weapons free”. President Touadéra visited Bambari 12 March with World Bank official and promised to bring back state authority, investment and justice. FPRC and Maxime Mokom’s anti-balaka group mid-month joined national committee on disarmament. UNSC 13 March held informal dialogue with African Union (AU) Representative in CAR on AU-led mediation initiative. Touadéra 16 March briefed UNSC on security situation, called for strong political support and resources to maintain robust peacekeeping mission.
Following Jan closure of northern border with Libya to prevent jihadists and rebels crossing into Chad, govt 3 March announced partial reopening at Wour crossing point for humanitarian and economic reasons; cross-border trade and free movement in north remained disrupted. In continued standoff between govt and unions over working conditions, parties signed compromise agreement 6 March; unions suspended strike for additional month to foster further talks on outstanding issues. French mining company employee kidnapped 23 March south of Abéché in east, allegedly taken to Sudan.
Violent incidents between Kamuina Nsapu militia and govt forces intensified in Kasai Central province in central DRC while withdrawal of Catholic Church (CENCO) from mediating negotiations between ruling majority and opposition over political arrangements until elections increased uncertainty. Main opposition coalition Rassemblement 3 March chose Felix Tshisekedi, son of former coalition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, as new leader, making him their candidate for PM position according to terms of Dec 2016 agreement between ruling majority and opposition. EU 7 March threatened to place sanctions on political or military leaders who block agreement’s implementation or commit human rights violations. In CENCO-mediated talks 16-27 March ruling majority and opposition failed to agree on selection procedure for next PM, on who will hold presidency of Dec agreement’s follow-up body, and implementation timeline. CENCO 27 March relinquished mediating role citing parties’ reluctance to compromise; presidency next day said talks would continue. Police 28 March fired shots and tear gas to break up protests in Kinshasa, while tensions also rose in several other cities. Kamuina Nsapu militants 10 March vandalised Catholic school and convent in Kananga. Militants fought govt forces 11 March in Mwene-Ditu town, Lomami province, two soldiers and eighteen militants killed. Six people, including two UN experts, disappeared 12 March near Tshimbulu town; bodies of three including two UN experts found 27 March. Parliamentary delegation including interior and security minister visited area 12-17 March and met family of late traditional ruler known as Kamuina Nsapu to defuse tensions, 17 March govt announced concessions including measures relating to burial of Kamuina Nsapu, detainees and procedure to select new chief. Army 18 March arrested seven soldiers allegedly linked to videos posted online in Feb reportedly showing govt forces violently repressing Kamuina Nsapu fighters. Govt 19 March said 60 militants had surrendered in Kananga. Kamuina Nsapu 24 March ambushed police convoy between Tshikapa and Kananga and allegedly decapitated 39 officers. In N Kivu province, violence hindered voter registration as armed groups attacked registration centres in Nyamilima, Birundele and Nyanzale villages, reportedly killing three police. Ugandan army 9 March said it arrested 40 members of Congolese rebel group M23 as they crossed from DRC into Uganda. In Kinshasa, after two-week standoff, security forces 3 March arrested MP Ne Mwando Nsemi, leader of Bundu Dia Kongo politico-religious movement. UNSG Guterres 10 March asked UNSC to increase MONUSCO police by 320 to protect civilians in cities vulnerable to electoral violence. UNSC 31 March extended MONUSCO’s mandate for additional year but reduced military and police authorised to deploy from 22,016 to 18,316.
Security forces 17 March clashed with suspected Ninja militants in operation near Renéville village, Pool region, killing fifteen. Govt 18 March claimed group planned to carry out attacks along railway between capital Brazzaville and Pool.
Ethiopian govt 1 March said security forces had prevented twenty members of Eritrea-based rebel Benishangul Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM) from attacking Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) 28 Feb; reportedly killed thirteen BPLM. Ethiopian govt 2 March accused Eritrea of training, arming and directing BPLM rebels, Asmara denied involvement. Following early March visit to Eritrea by Egyptian govt delegation, FM 19 March met Egyptian counterpart in Cairo, agreed to cooperate in counter-piracy operations in Red Sea.
Govt 1 March said security forces had prevented twenty members of Eritrea-based rebel Benishangul Gumuz People’s Liberation Movement (BPLM) from attacking Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) 28 Feb; reportedly killed thirteen BPLM, said seven escaped to Sudan where they were arrested and handed over to Ethiopia. Govt 2 March accused Eritrea of supporting BPLM rebels, Asmara denied involvement. Four ethnic Oromo parties 19 March demanded involvement in resolving dispute over city administration and compensation for displacement of Oromos from Addis Ababa over last 25 years. Court 28 March sentenced sixteen members of outlawed Oromo Liberation Front to four to thirteen years in prison for trying to create separate state in Oromia region. Parliament 30 March extended state of emergency begun in Oct for four months. Gunmen from S Sudan 12-13 March reportedly killed 28 people and abducted 43 children in Gambella region in west.
Ethnic conflicts and raids by herders spiked in north. Borana raiders 20 March attacked Samburu herders at Kom area on border between Isiolo and Samburu counties, ten people killed. Fighting in Baringo county continued: after three Pokot women killed 16 March, Pokot bandits same day attacked Illchamus community in Makutani area, ten people killed, govt deployed police and army. Police 25 March shot dead four armed Pokot who tried to block burial of ten killed in bandit attacks. As drought forces thousands of herders into private ranches in Laikipia county in search of pasture, armed herders 5 March killed ranch director; army deployed to improve security. Security forces 27 March shot dead about 100 cattle in efforts to drive herders out of Laikipia area, Pokot warriors 29 March burnt down safari lodge in neighbouring ranch and shot at owners.
Federal parliament approved Hassan Ali Kheyre, former oil company director, as new PM 1 March. Al-Shabaab continued to attack Somali and AU mission (AMISOM) troops and civilians in capital Mogadishu and rural areas. In Mogadishu, suspected Al-Shabaab 9 March assassinated local official; Al-Shabaab claimed 13 March car bombing outside hotel that killed at least thirteen and attacked defence ministry 21 March, injuring at least two civilians. Unclaimed car bombing 24 March killed at least one. National Intelligence and Security Agency forces 16 March killed senior Al-Shabaab commander. Elsewhere, militants 4 March claimed bombing of AMISOM convoy that killed at least three soldiers near Burhakaba town in south. Suspected Al-Shabaab launched grenade attack outside military courthouse in Bosaso, Puntland 5 March, injuring five civilians; 8 March set off radio controlled bomb in Galkayo, Mudug region that killed MP. Al-Shabaab attacked AMISOM base in Gedo region 9 March, claimed to have killed several Ethiopian soldiers; killed three soldiers 23 March in raid on military barracks in Barawe port city in south. Suspected Al-Shabaab killed Red Cross worker in Bardhere town, Gedo region 21 March. Group suffered setbacks: Kenyan and Somali troops 2 March overran Al-Shabaab base in Afmadow, Lower Juba, allegedly killing 57 militants. Senior Al-Shabaab commander Hussein Salad Mukhtar 7 March surrendered in Baidoa, Bay region. Kenyan forces 26 March launched assault on Al-Shabaab bases in Badhadhe district in south, reportedly killing 31 militants. In Puntland, soldiers temporarily took control of federal parliament late Feb and seized checkpoint in Garowe 8 March, protesting unpaid wages and poor working conditions. Pirates 14 March seized tanker off coast in first hijacking of large vessel in region since 2012; released vessel 16 March. UN and aid agencies called for global response in face of looming famine across Somalia.
Govt 19 March granted UAE permission to build naval base in Berbera town.
President Kiir advanced National Dialogue process, umbrella for local negotiations; 10 March pardoned former Wau state governor and deputy arrested June 2016. Govt 3 March increased price of visa for foreign workers including aid workers from $100 to $10,000; some donors suspended funding for govt until it reverses decision; govt halted move and formed review committee. Former army deputy chief of staff Lt. Gen. Thomas Cirillo Swaka, who resigned in Feb, 6 March formed new rebel group, National Salvation Front/Army, and was joined by some members of existing rebel groups including former VP Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO). SPLA-IO kidnapped two foreign oil workers 8 March and another 18 March in former Upper Nile state in attempt to force company to leave; all three released 30 March in Khartoum but SPLA-IO 31 March said it would try to stop oil production. Unidentified attackers killed six aid workers north of Juba 26 March. Gunmen from S Sudan 12-13 March reportedly killed 28 people and abducted 43 children in Gambella region in western Ethiopia.
As goodwill gesture rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) 4 March released to govt 130 prisoners from S Kordofan; release mediated by Ugandan and S Sudan govt officials. Govt praised move, President Bashir 7 March pardoned 259 members of Darfuri rebel group Justice and Equality Movement and commuted 44 death sentences. SPLM-N 18 March announced resignation of Deputy Chairman Abdelaziz Al-Hilu, who cited his disagreements with lead negotiator and Chairman Yassir Arman over group’s position on autonomy for S Kordofan in post-conflict settlement. Bashir 1 March said first VP Bakri Hasan Saleh would become PM in new govt expected in April, first PM since 1989.
Unidentified assailants 17 March shot dead Assistant Inspector General of Police and two police guards in Kampala. President Museveni helped mediate Sudanese rebels’ release of 130 prisoners (see Sudan). Army 9 March said it arrested 40 members of Congolese rebel group M23 who escaped military camps in Uganda in Feb as they crossed back from DRC into Uganda with firearms. Govt and UNHCR 23 March appealed for international support for over 800,000 S Sudanese refugees in Uganda. U.S. army 24 March said its operations supporting Ugandan pursuit of Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in CAR and DRC are “coming to an end”.
Separatist rebel faction Front for the Liberation of Cabinda Enclave-Armed Forces of Cabinda (FLEC-FAC) early March said it had attacked govt forces (FAA) 28 Feb at Munenga killing eight FAA, and on 1 March at Chinganga killing two FAA. Luanda court sentenced eight out of 35 accused members of opposition party National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) to between four and ten years in prison for plotting coup against President dos Santos.
Parliament 1 March passed vote of no confidence in govt of PM Mosisili, prompting King Letsie III to dissolve parliament 7 March and call legislative elections. Voter registration closed 19 March for 3 June vote.
Switzerland 1 March announced it would co-chair contact group also comprising U.S. (co-chair), Botswana, China, Norway, UK and EU, to support new phase of talks between govt and armed opposition Renamo and provide two specialists to advise parties. Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama 3 March extended ceasefire for two months. Talks resumed 6 March.
President Zuma 31 March replaced five cabinet ministers and nine deputy ministers; Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and other high-ranking members of ruling African National Congress criticised move, particularly sacking of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Opposition parties same day requested parliament speaker to hold “no confidence” vote on Zuma.
Supporters of opposition coalition National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA) 22 March protested in Harare accusing Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) of bias, calling for its dissolution and creation of independent tripartite election body run by AU, UN and Southern African Development Community (SADC). NERA 30 March reaffirmed call for ZEC’s disbandment. Rival factions of ruling ZANU-PF party 5 March clashed in Bulawayo ahead of provincial coordinating committee meeting. Two senior ZANU-PF women’s league members accused of corruption, fanning factionalism and undermining First Lady Grace Mugabe 30 March. Opposition and NGOs accused ZANU-PF members, traditional leaders and war veterans of violence and intimidation during month in Mwenezi East ahead of 8 April by-election.
Insecurity continued to worsen in Sahel region in north: in Soum province, teachers 1 March left schools in Diguel to demand better security; unidentified assailants attacked school in Kourfayel 3 March, teacher and one other killed; attackers 14 March burned down school in Baraboulé. Armed men 3-4 March threatened schools in neighbouring Bam province in Centre-North region. Sahel region governor 6 March banned vehicle traffic along border with Mali from 5pm to 6am daily for security reasons. Military 23 March killed Harouna Dicko, member of jihadist group Ansarul Islam, and arrested eighteen others in Petega, Soum province. At ruling party Movement of People for Progress (MPP) congress 11-12 March, assembly speaker Salif Diallo elected party president. Army 24 March said emir of jihadist group al-Murabitun Malian Ould Nouiny, known as El Hassan, was behind Jan 2016 Ouagadougou terror attacks.
Murder of student 7 March in Bouaké in centre prompted protests against insecurity next day. Former First Lady Simone Gbagbo acquitted in trial for crimes against humanity 28 March.
Govt 10 March said it would investigate finances of ex-President Jammeh including his personal use of charity bank account. Trial of former intelligence agents allegedly involved in beating to death opposition activist Solo Sandeng in April 2016 adjourned 20 March for re-examination of body. Govt 23 March said it would set up Truth and Reconciliation Commission within six months to look into crimes committed under Jammeh. Seven parties of ruling coalition decided early March to run separately in 6 April parliamentary elections; campaigning started 15 March. Govt end-March requested extradition of former interior minister, Ousman Sonko, from Switzerland. During President Barrow’s visit to Paris mid-March, France agreed to train security forces.
Court decision against opposition member sparked protest in Guéckédou in south 14 March; during protest police reportedly killed two by-standers. Senegal 12 March extradited former head of presidential guard Abubakar “Toumba” Diakite to Guinea to face trial for Sept 2009 stadium massacre that left over 150 dead; court 14 March indicted him.
Hundreds of protesters in capital 11 March and several thousand 25 March demanded President Vaz step down to resolve political crisis.
Supreme Court 3 March approved Code of Conduct bill, signed into law by President Sirleaf in 2014, which could bar some candidates from contesting presidential election in Oct as it stipulates govt officials must resign at least two years before vote to be eligible candidates.
Partial establishment of interim authorities in north during month – key provision of June 2015 peace agreement – did little to decrease tensions as attacks on security forces continued in north and centre. Govt 2 March established interim authorities in Ménaka and Gao regions but mandate, budget and length of terms remained unclear. Violent protests by armed groups prevented establishment of interim authorities in Taoudenni and Timbuktu regions: Arab Movement of Azawad factions from ex-rebel Coalition of Azawad Movements (MAA-CMA) and from militia in favour of national unity (MAA-Platform) 5 March jointly confirmed they had taken checkpoints from govt armed forces (FAMA) in Timbuktu city after deadly skirmishes, rejecting interim president for Taoudenni region; 10 March yielded several checkpoints to FAMA and French Barkhane forces. CMA splinter group Congress for Justice in Azawad (CJA) 3 March mobilised forces around Timbuktu city to protest appointment of pro-CMA Berabish Arab as interim president of Timbuktu region. In video released 2 March leaders from jihadist groups Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Murabitun pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and announced merger into Group to Defend Islam and Muslims. New group 10 March reportedly claimed 5 March attack on FAMA outpost in Boulkessi, Mopti region in centre, in which eleven soldiers were killed; al-Qaeda central command 18 March acknowledged group’s creation. Unidentified gunmen 29 March attacked checkpoint in Boulkessi, reportedly killing two gendarmes and one civilian. Attacks targeting FAMA, UN mission MINUSMA and Barkhane forces and banditry remained high in several regions. Unidentified attackers fired mortar shells at MINUSMA and Barkhane camp in Amachach, Kidal region 5 March, no casualties reported. Six assailants 11 March stole arms and motorbikes from police station in Djenné, Mopti region before burning it down. FAMA clashed with alleged jihadists in Ansongo, Gao region 13 March, two civilians and two FAMA killed. Unidentified assailants same day burned down two schools in Taga and Koumaga, Mopti region. Fulani herders clashed with Bambara farmers 22 March near Diabaly, Ségou region, at least eight people killed. Group to Defend Islam and Muslims said it clashed with Bambara farmers and army 25 March in Macina, Ségou region and “killed or wounded dozens”. Govt 10 March accepted proposed amendments to constitution to align it with June 2015 peace agreement; national assembly to vote on amendments before July referendum. Conference of national understanding intended to foster reconciliation opened 27 March in Bamako; CMA 28 March decided to participate, political opposition remained absent.
In response to rise in cross-border attacks from Mali by suspected jihadists in previous months, govt 3 March declared state of emergency in some departments in Tillabéri and Tahoua regions in west. Unidentified gunmen 6 March killed at least five gendarmes in Wanzarbe village, Tillabéri region. During visit of UNSC delegation to Niger, President Issoufou 4 March advocated SC resolution endorsing planned counter-terrorism joint task force of G5 Sahel countries. Boko Haram (BH) attacks in SE continued to fall. Trials of about 1,000 suspected BH fighters began 2 March. Diffa region governor 1 March convened meeting to address intercommunal tensions following clashes between farmers and herders late Feb. Opposition supporters 4 March protested in capital Niamey against alleged govt corruption, poor living conditions and foreign military bases in country, called for release of “political prisoners”, including people arrested in connection with Dec 2015 alleged military coup plot. Govt 24 March released several people suspected of involvement in 2015 coup plot. Parliament 17 March voted to establish parliamentary commission of inquiry into alleged involvement of Finance Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou in possible embezzlement of $320mn linked to sale of uranium in 2011; commission started hearings 27 March.
Boko Haram (BH) continued attacks in Borno state in NE despite ongoing military operations, and communal violence broke out in south west and north central. Army mid-March raided BH camps in Kala Balge Local Govt Area (LGA), reported 455 hostages rescued and several insurgents killed. BH 15 March raided Magumeri, 50km NW of Maiduguri, five soldiers reportedly killed and three missing. BH attacked army post on Biu-Damboa road, 24 March, but were repelled. Three suicide bombers 3 March blew themselves up outside Maiduguri, no other casualties reported. Troops 11 March shot dead two female teenagers wearing explosive vests in Maiduguri. BH 14 March released video showing execution of three men accused of spying for military. Four female teenagers 15 March detonated explosive devices strapped to them near Mina Garage in Maiduguri killing themselves and two other people. Woman with her two children 18 March detonated explosives strapped to all three killing vigilante in Umarari village near Maiduguri. Five male suicide bombers struck displaced persons’ camp outside Maiduguri 22 March killing four people. Suspected BH raided Kalari village 25 March, killing three. BH factional leader Abubakar Shekau 17 March claimed responsibility for recent bombings in Maiduguri, vowed to create Islamic caliphate and establish Sharia law across West Africa. Suspected BH 30-31 March abducted 22 women and girls in two raids in north east. Army end-March killed BH member along Ajiri-Dikwa road. Suspected BH end-March attacked communities in Konduga LGA, reportedly kidnapping ten. In Niger Delta, then Acting President Yemi Osinbajo 2 March held talks with local leaders in Uyo, Akwa Ibom state, ordered oil companies to relocate HQs from Lagos to Niger Delta, as demanded by local groups. Communal clashes broke out in several states. Hausa and Yoruba people 8 March clashed in Ile-Ife, Osun state (SW), 46 killed and 81 injured. Suspected herdsmen 10 March attacked Mkgovur in Buruku LGA, Benue state (north central), killing ten. Unidentified gunmen 20 March stormed Zaki Biam in Ukum LGA, Benue state, killing about 30; also attacked Tse-Achia near Zaki Biam 24 March, killing three. Local authorities 20 March said clash between Fulani herdsmen and residents of Yaskira in Baruten LGA, Kwara state (north central) killed four. President Buhari 10 March returned from 50-day “medical vacation” in UK, said he would go back to UK “within some weeks” but did not identify sickness.
Increased show of force and security measures in Xinjiang following Feb attacks continued. Authorities on heightened alert after Islamic State (ISIS) released propaganda video apparently featuring ethnic Uighur Chinese late Feb, threatening attacks in China. Addressing national people’s congress 10 March, President Xi urged security forces to erect “Great Wall of Steel” around Xinjiang. Xinjiang lawmakers late March passed legislation widening rules aimed at combatting religious extremism, including ban on “abnormal” beards, wearing of veil in public places, taking effect 1 April. Law Institute of state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences 21 March published report warning that despite recorded decline in terrorist acts with tougher security, situation in Xinjiang could worsen due to growing links with foreign terror groups.
China 23 March warned U.S bomber it was flying illegally inside its East China Sea (ECS) air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and said U.S. should respect zone; U.S. rejected Chinese position, said flight operations in region would continue. U.S. and Japan early March conducted joint military exercises in ECS.
DPRK continued ballistic missile tests in violation of UNSC resolutions, with 6 March test from Dongchang-ri launch site of four ballistic missiles that landed in Sea of Japan within Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone; 18 March ground test of new high-thrust missile engine; and 22 March attempt at third missile launch that reportedly failed. DPRK 21 March said it is in final stages of preparing intercontinental ballistic missile test, is seeking “pre-emptive first strike capability”; ROK and U.S. military officials 24 March warned sixth nuclear test could happen “at any time”. U.S. and ROK 1 March began largest ever annual joint military exercises running to 30 April; Pyongyang said it would continue tests in response. U.S. Pacific Command 6 March began rolling out Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile and radar system to ROK’s Osan air base; UN Panel of Experts late Feb issued report criticising insufficient and inconsistent implementation of sanctions and documenting DPRK’s efforts to evade them. Unnamed U.S. officials mid-March told media Trump administration considering secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that enable DPRK’s weapons programs; Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security 17 March released study indicating China had allowed DPRK to import large quantities of mercury and lithium hydroxide in violation of sanctions. U.S. Sec State Tillerson 17 March said in Seoul that “strategic patience” policy was over and U.S. would not begin negotiations without prior denuclearisation, might make pre-emptive strike if DPRK elevated nuclear threat to unacceptable level. Visiting Beijing 28 Feb-4 March, DPRK Deputy FM reportedly discussed bilateral relations with senior Chinese officials including FM Wang Yi, first known high-level meeting since June 2016. During month Chinese FM Wang Yi and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General Xiao Qiang both called on DPRK to suspend nuclear weapon and missile tests while in parallel U.S. and ROK would halt military exercises; U.S. dismissed idea. Malaysia 31 March allowed body of Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of DPRK leader who was killed in Kuala Lumpur airport in Feb, to return to Pyongyang along with three suspected DPRK agents thought to have assassinated him, in return for nine Malaysians who had been prevented from leaving DPRK during episode.
China lodged complaint with Tokyo after senior Japanese official Jiro Akama visited Taipei to attend tourism promotion event, in highest-level meeting since severing of diplomatic ties; Beijing said visit contrary to Tokyo’s pledge to have only unofficial and local relations with Taipei. Anonymous U.S. officials mid-March told Reuters that U.S. is planning significant new arms package for Taiwan possibly including advanced rocket systems and anti-ship missiles.
Ahead of start of annual spring offensive, Taliban continued to carry out high profile attacks at greater frequency compared with same period in 2016. Taliban 1 March attacked two police districts in Kabul, one involving suicide vehicle bomb killing 23 people and injuring over 100; same day attacked National Directorate of Security killing one official and injuring eighteen. Gunmen 8 March stormed Kabul’s Mohammad Daud Khan military hospital in heavily guarded diplomatic enclave Wazir Akbar Khan, killing at least 50 and injuring over 100; Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) claimed attack but authorities questioned group’s capacity to carry out operation, suspect involvement of Haqqani network. Unclaimed explosion 13 March hit van carrying govt employees killing at least one. In Zabul province, Taliban insider attack 11 March left eight policemen dead. Suicide bomber 19 March wounded four police in Nesh district, Kandahar province; Afghan soldier opened fire on U.S. troops same day at Camp Shorab air base, Helmand province, wounding three. Taliban 23 March captured strategically important town of Sangin, Helmand province. Defence ministry claimed security forces killed more than 100 insurgents in operations 3-4 and 10-11 March. U.S. reported it killed al-Qaeda militant Qari Yasin, blamed for two high-profile attacks in Pakistan in 2008 and 2009, in 19 March airstrike in Paktika province. Officials 29 March said govt plans to double number of special forces, currently 17,000. Relations with Pakistan remained tense following Islamabad’s accusations that Afghanistan harboured terrorists responsible for string of deadly attacks in Feb; Afghanistan 11 March complained to UNSC about Pakistani territorial violations and cross-border artillery shelling. UK 15 March hosted bilateral talks that reportedly led to agreement on mechanism for cooperation against terrorism. Pakistani PM Sharif 20 March ordered immediate reopening of Torkham and Chamman border crossings, closed since mid Feb, on humanitarian grounds. Tensions within Jamiat-i Islami party escalated further as Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor continued negotiations with President Ghani over joining national govt; Noor 13 March announced end of his political support for Chief Executive Abdullah, accusing him of failing responsibilities of office.
Month saw several attacks targeting security forces: suicide bomber detonated bomb at Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) barrack in Dhaka during Friday prayers 17 March. Police shot dead suspected militant attempting to cross security checkpoint on explosive-laden motorcycle in Dhaka 18 March. Man detonated bomb at police checkpoint near Dhaka airport 24 March in attack claimed by Islamic State (ISIS). Security forces 24 March began raid of militant hideout in Sylhet district, NE; six people killed including two police and dozens wounded in two bombs near hideout 25 March; another senior army officer later died of wounds; security forces 27 March killed four suspected militants in Sylhet raid, ending four-day standoff; up to eight people killed 30 March when suspected militants blew themselves up ending standoff with police in Nasirpur. Sufi spiritual leader and his attendant stabbed and shot dead at shrine in Dinajpur district 14 March. Crackdown continued against Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) and offshoot authorities referred to as “neo-JMB”, allegedly responsible for July 2016 Dhaka café attack. Counter-terrorism officials 1 March claimed to have arrested local “neo-JMB” commander who allegedly led syndicate that supplied grenades and arms used in attack; 2 March arrested spiritual leader believed to have inspired attack. Home ministry 5 March banned al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar-ul-Islam, allegedly responsible for murders of several secular bloggers. Ruling Awami League spokesperson 23 Feb claimed opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) had “turned into a terrorist organisation”, referring to late Jan Canadian court ruling that it was reasonable for immigration officer to define BNP as terrorist organisation in rejecting asylum request of BNP-affiliated Bangladeshi national; basis for decision was party’s use of hartals (strikes) that frequently resulted in violence. Supreme Court 12 March cleared way for lower court to continue trial of 2011 corruption case against BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia, upholding high court order that rejected her petition for stay on proceedings.
Four Maoists reported killed in clash with police in Bihar 8 March. Eleven police reported killed in suspected Maoist ambush on patrol in Sukma forest, Chhattisgarh state 11 March. Home minister warned of “heavy retaliation”. Two suspected Maoists killed by police in S Chhattisgarh 16 March; eight suspected Maoists reported killed and two police injured in clash in Dantewada district, Bastar region 18 March. Three suspected Maoists reported killed in intra-Maoist gunfight in Jharkhand 24 March.
Clashes and firing across Line of Control (LoC) continued, both sides accusing other of violating ceasefire. One Indian soldier killed 10 March; Pakistani army 18 March reported Indian fire killed one civilian and injured two children in Kotli district. In Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, security operations against alleged insurgents continued to spark protests, including gunfight in Tral town, Pulwama district 5 March in which two suspected insurgents and one policeman were killed. In Padgampora village, Pulwama district, Indian security forces 9 March killed two suspected militants in raid; allegedly used live ammunition during clashes with ensuing protests, killing one boy and injuring three. Police reported three Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) militants killed in 15 March Kupwara district security operation, one boy injured and one girl killed by stray bullets; subsequent clashes between security forces and protesters left one boy dead, protesters clashed with police in Srinagar next day. Police 29 March killed suspected militant in Budgam district; three civilians died in subsequent clashes with police. Militants 3 March threw grenade at police in Pulwama district, killing one civilian and injuring policeman. Separatist leaders Syed Ali Gilani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, both from All Parties Hurriyat Conference political alliance, and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front leader Muhammad Yasin Malik, urged Kashmiris to boycott early April Indian by-elections in central and S Kashmir and observe shutdown during polling. Police 16 March arrested the three leaders, allegedly to prevent them from holding joint press conference in Srinagar; arrests prompted anti-India protest at press conference venue; Kashmir Editor’s Guild 19 March claimed police assaulted journalists during protest. Indian and Pakistani military leaders spoke on phone 9 March: Pakistani military said it had “strongly rejected Indian concerns over the movement of terrorists along the LoC”, “asked India to look inward”. India and Pakistan resumed talks under 1960 Indus Water Treaty in Lahore 20-21 March, first such meeting since May 2015.
Preparations for 14 May local elections continued despite clashes and deaths in Tarai plains over unaddressed constitutional demands, boycott threats from disgruntled Madhesi parties and Election Commission concerns over lack of consensus between parties. Opposition Communist Party of Nepal (UML) launched electoral campaign across most of southern belt; four died and several injured in police firing after Madhesi coalition obstructed UML’s 6 March Saptari district campaign event. Several protestors shot above waist, reigniting criticism of govt response to 2015 Tarai constitutional protests. Madhesi coalition enforced strikes across several Tarai districts and 15 March withdrew support from govt. PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal 15 March proposed amending constitution to address most Madhesi demands but deferring decision on contentious provincial boundaries. Monarchist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) — opposed to proposed constitutional amendments — joined govt 9 March, further aggravating Madhesi coalition. RPP renewed calls for restoration of Hinduism as state religion. Govt decided to deploy 226,000 security personnel for election security; heavy security presence likely in eight Tarai districts categorised as “sensitive” due to potential disruptions. Foreign Ministry called on India to investigate 9 March killing of Nepali citizen in SW Kanchanpur district allegedly by Indian border security forces during dispute over construction on border.
Wave of terrorist attacks against civilians subsided, while Pakistani Taliban (TTP) struck military targets in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). TTP faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar 6 March attacked three border posts in Mohmand agency, leaving five soldiers dead; launched assault from Afghan soil against border post in Khyber agency 17 March, killing two soldiers. Security forces 22 March killed two militants, including senior TTP commander, in raid on militant hideout in Orakzai agency. U.S. drone strike 2 March killed two suspected Taliban in Sara Khwa area, Kurram agency. Car bombing outside mosque 31 March killed at least 24 people and injured scores in predominantly Shia Parachinar, Kurram agency. National Assembly 21 March passed 28th constitutional amendment renewing mandate for military courts to try civilians charged with terrorism, amid concerns over implications for rule of law and civilian authority despite govt accepting four of nine proposals by opposition Pakistan Peoples Party. Three men convicted by military courts system executed 15 March. Tensions with Afghanistan continued following Islamabad’s accusations that Kabul harboured terrorists responsible for wave of attacks in Feb. Govt reopened border crossings closed after 16 Feb Sehwan Sharif shrine bombing. UK 15 March hosted bilateral talks that reportedly led to agreement on mechanism for cooperation against terrorism. Balochistan assembly 4 March passed resolution protesting alleged racial profiling and harassment of ethnic Pashtuns in Punjab and Sindh; followed 27 Feb protest by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial assembly members against “racial policies” of Punjab govt and “victimisation” of Pashtuns in counter-terrorism crackdown. Govt 2 March approved in principle reforms for FATA including proposed merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in order to foster development in troubled region. Five FATA tribal elders 10 March filed petition against proposal, calling it illegal and unconstitutional, since it delays FATA’s incorporation into constitutional, legal and political mainstream and denies residents access to justice. Authorities 15 March commenced first national census in nineteen years.
UN human rights chief 3 March issued report on Sri Lanka’s implementation of Oct 2015 UN Human Rights Council (HRC) Resolution 30/1, criticised slow progress on post-war reconciliation and justice; repeated call for hybrid court and argument for specialised court to deal with system crimes, supported by international practitioners. President Sirisena 4 March said he had “backbone” to reject UN requests to invite foreign judges for investigation. HRC session 22-24 March passed resolution giving govt additional two years to fulfil its commitments; imposed no additional requirements that rights groups had called for. Tamil groups particularly angry, many calling for referral to International Criminal Court. Pro-reform civil society groups began campaigning in support of new constitution despite lack of agreement among negotiators. Ex-President Rajapaksa 13 March denounced govt plans for new constitution as “traitorous” and “anti-Sinhala”; FM 15 March criticised Rajapaksa’s text as deliberately inaccurate, defended govt’s plans for transitional justice and constitutional and legal reforms as in national interest, not product of international pressure. Police 20 March reported to court testimony from former army commander Sarath Fonseka alleging then-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa oversaw military death squad responsible for 2009 murder of editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and other attacks on journalists; Rajapaksa denies charges. Protests on land and disappearances continued throughout Tamil-majority north, adding to pressure on Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leadership. In Kepapilavu division, families remain camped outside army base built on their land, despite return of some 40 acres 4 March following direct appeal to president by TNA leader Sampanthan. TNA announced govt promise more land would be released over next few months. Following country visit by delegation, IMF 7 March reported “mixed” macroeconomic performance, with uptick in inflation and worrying fall in international currency reserves, uneven progress on implementing reforms; visit came amid severe drought causing rising food prices.
Ahead of second round of Jakarta gubernatorial election 19 April, blasphemy trial of incumbent candidate Chinese-descent Christian Basuki Tjahaka Purnama “Ahok” continued. Saudi Arabian King Salman met Ahok to show support during visit early March, did not meet his hard-line Islamic detractors. Amid rising tensions, President Widodo in 24 March speech urged tolerance. Thousands joined anti-Ahok protest in Jakarta 31 March; earlier in day, police arrested several hard-line protest leaders for suspected treason. Anti-terror police Densus 88 early March arrested nine men in Central Sulawesi province suspected of being members of new terrorist group with links to Islamic State (ISIS) and reportedly seized bomb-making material; 23 March killed one suspected terrorist and arrested three in Banten province, W Java. Group of seven Pacific island states 2 March requested UN Human Rights Council investigate alleged human rights abuses in Papua and West Papua provinces; govt rejected allegations.
Amid continued focus on crisis in Rakhine state, Kofi Annan-led Rakhine Commission 16 March released interim report with 29 recommendations covering issues from Rohingya citizenship, freedom of movement and birth registration to humanitarian and media access, and improving bilateral relations with Bangladesh. Govt released statement fully endorsing Commission’s recommendations and undertaking to quickly implement most; stated that a few would first require improvements in situation on ground. UN Human Rights Council (HRC) 24 March adopted resolution calling for international panel of experts to conduct “fact-finding mission” to Myanmar; falls short of international Commission of Inquiry many called for; govt said HRC move “not acceptable”. UNSC discussed Rakhine state crisis 17 March, Russia and China blocked press statement. Situation in N Rakhine remains largely unchanged: no further significant attacks by al-Yaqin, but continued killings of Rohingya with links to govt that may be work of group. Military operations largely over, far fewer reported abuses. A couple of thousand internally displaced persons returned to homes, estimated 20,000 remain in Maungdaw, 74,550 confirmed to have fled to Bangladesh. Domestic “investigation commission” looking into allegations of rights abuses visited Bangladesh. Al-Yaqin 28 March issued press release rebranding itself “Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army”, reaffirming no links to terrorist groups, assuring safety of civilians from all communities; also issued twenty-point demands, mostly relating to Rohingya civil and political rights. Ethnic peace process remained stalled: next “Panglong-21” peace process postponed until at least May; date, which armed groups will attend and what will be discussed unclear. Govt negotiators met with negotiating team of United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), umbrella group of many non-signatory groups) in Naypyitaw 1 March, reached ad referendum agreement in principle on nine points that UNFC has said are prerequisite for signing National Ceasefire Agreement; however, no agreement among UNFC leaders to endorse agreement. Fighting escalated 6 March when Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army attacked capital of Kokang Self-Administered Zone Laukkai, abducted over 250 workers, engaged in dozens of battles with military. Chinese authorities said at least 20,000 had arrived after 6 March attack.
Following informal Norwegian-mediated talks in the Netherlands, govt and Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front (CPP-NPA-NDF) 11 March agreed to restore ceasefires and resume peace talks suspended early Feb. President Duterte 19 March affirmed conditions for talks, set for 2-6 April; NPA must agree to bilateral ceasefire, stop demanding army leave areas they claim, release police and military hostages and stop collecting “revolutionary taxes”. Violence continued, including four police and one soldier killed by NPA 8 March in Davao del Sur; eight rebels and two soldiers reported killed in 30 March clash in Quezon province. NDF 31 March said they would not restore unilateral ceasefire by end-month as previously planned, following govt refusal to reciprocate. Expanded Bangsamoro Transition Commission, which includes Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) representatives and other Mindanao stakeholders, 6 March held first plenary session in Cotabato to revise Bangsamoro Basic Law, make it more inclusive. Govt and MILF 21 March signed Terms of Reference for implementing panels for Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro and extended mandate for International Monitoring Team. Military reported 21 Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) killed in clashes with security forces in Maguindanao 13-16 March, said BIFF were sheltering foreign terrorists; BIFF denied claims. Clashes between military and Abu Sayyaf group continued; military 1 March reportedly killed five believed responsible for late Feb killing of German hostage. Duterte 9 March urged Muslim area mayors to help fight Abu Sayyaf, threatened to impose martial law if they did not. Police 21 March said Islamic State (ISIS)-linked Maute Group were present in capital region Metro Manila, claimed interception of IED intended for terrorist attack in Quezon City; army said it had not detected presence of group in capital.
Despite relative lull in incidents and statements, competition over disputed features and water in SCS continued, as did Chinese construction on features it controls. In disputed Paracel islands, satellite images from 6 March indicated China clearing land, possibly preparing for harbour on North Island. Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative 27 March reported satellite imagery showing China has completed over twenty structures apparently designed to house long-range surface-to-air missiles, plus radar antennae, on three islands in Spratly archipelago. China early March denied reported plans to build monitoring station on disputed Scarborough Shoal; Philippine President Duterte 23 March said Beijing had given “word of honour” it would not build there. Chinese Premier Li 23 March said China’s new facilities and defensive equipment don’t constitute militarisation. China and ASEAN member states reportedly completed draft framework for Code of Conduct for SCS. Philippine President Duterte 6 March reportedly rejected U.S. plans to build facilities at Bautista air base, previously used to launch U.S.-Philippines joint exercises; later said he agreed to allow Chinese surveying vessels into area around Benham Rise, in reversal of statement by defence minister; 23 March accused U.S. of taking provocative stance on SCS. Japan 22 March launched second large helicopter carrier Kaga, further extending its naval force projection capacity; other carrier Izumo reportedly scheduled to patrol through SCS before joining joint exercise with U.S. and Indian ships in July. U.S. observers expressed concern over China’s draft new Maritime Traffic Safety Law that would tighten control over territorial waters.
UN Human Rights Committee monitoring compliance with International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Geneva 14 March questioned Thai delegation on dictatorial powers of interim constitution’s Article 44 and lèse-majesté law; expressed concern over issues including freedoms of expression and assembly. Constitution Drafting Committee, now charged with drafting organic laws, early March suggested election may not be held until Sept/Oct 2018. Govt’s siege of Buddhist temple Wat Dhammakaya ended 11 March after 23 days, without arrest of temple’s former abbot Dhammachayo on charges of money laundering. Police and soldiers 18 March raided house north of Bangkok, allegedly belonging to Red Shirt activist Wutthiphong “Kotee” Kotchammakhun, in exile since 2014 coup, discovered cache of weapons; nine Red Shirts arrested in central and NE regions on suspicion of plotting terrorism, with many seeing arrests as politically motivated. Soldier 17 March shot dead Lahu activist Chaiyapoom Pasae near checkpoint in Chiang Mai province (north), prompting demands for investigation. Army says killing was in self-defence. Secretary of Thai dialogue team 16 March gave briefing on late Feb agreement with MARA Patani (umbrella group of five Malay-Muslim separatist groups in exile) to establish five safety zones, or ceasefire areas, in three southernmost provinces before year-end: said agreement would allow up three killings in each district per month before sanctions would be introduced; assessment team including state officials, MARA Patani representatives and local residents will be formed for each safety zone and help determine who is responsible for any violence; govt expects agreement on which five districts will be designated safety zones by mid-April. Main insurgent group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) not participating in dialogue. Soon after announcement of agreement, series of attacks took place killing eleven people, including Buddhist couple killed in Thepa district, Songkhla province, 1 March; Buddhist deputy village headman and three of his family killed by gunmen 2 March in Reusoh district, Narathiwat. Govt 16 March extended the Emergency Decree in southernmost provinces for 45th consecutive time since 2005.
International Court of Justice 9 March rejected Feb request for review of its 2007 ruling which cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for 1995 Srebrenica genocide, saying request had not come from Bosnian state. Bosnian Serb party National Democratic Movement 13 March said it would file criminal complaint against Bosniak member of presidency and legal counsel who submitted request to ICJ. Appeal hearing opened 20 March for six Bosnian Croat wartime leaders convicted by Hague Tribunal in 2013 of committing war crimes in joint criminal enterprise led by Croatian wartime leadership, link refuted by Croatia.
President Thaci 7 March submitted bill to parliament speaker proposing changes to Law on Kosovo Security Force (KSF) that would broaden its powers and responsibilities without need for approval from Kosovo Serb MPs. Kosovo Serb MPs late March ended six-month boycott of parliament, citing in part need to oppose transformation of KSF. NATO Sec Gen Stoltenberg expressed “serious concern” about move to transform KSF into an army without constitutional changes or obtaining consent from all communities in Kosovo. Reopening of newly-renovated bridge across Ibar river in Mitrovica delayed until May, reportedly due to ethnic tensions. France again postponed extradition hearing of former PM Ramush Haradinaj, wanted in Serbia on war crimes charges; thousands protested in Pristina 4 March calling for his release. Retrial began late March of prominent Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanović, sentenced by EULEX judges Jan 2016 to nine years’ jail for war crimes. Politician and lawyer Azem Vllasi wounded by gunman in Pristina 20 March; “People’s Eye” organisation 22 March claimed responsibility.
Political crisis deepened as President Ivanov 1 March refused to give opposition Social Democratic Union (SDSM) party leader Zoran Zaev mandate to form govt, despite Zaev’s claim to have formed majority in parliament, saying that ethnic Albanian parties’ conditions for supporting Zaev could “destroy” country. Zaev called Ivanov’s refusal to award him mandate “coup”, said Ivanov “has pushed Macedonia into a constitutional and national crisis”. EU foreign policy chief Mogherini visited Macedonia 2 March in bid to resolve crisis, reportedly urged Ivanov to give Zaev mandate; U.S. and OSCE expressed similar concerns, while Moscow voiced support for Ivanov and former ruling party Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO DPMNE). Main ethnic Albanian party DUI 4 March said it would join govt led by Zaev. Zaev 10 March presented platform in detail in attempt to allay Ivanov’s concerns, said it would “strictly abide” by terms of constitution. Former PM Gruevski continued to call for fresh election; his supporters continued daily protests. Mogherini 6 March urged political leaders not to “turn this into an inter-ethnic confrontation that would ruin the country and probably spread further”. Four masked people threw Molotov cocktail at Albanian museum in Bitola 7 March. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn 21 March visited Skopje in effort to help resolve crisis. Parliament convened 27 March to elect new speaker; VMRO DPMNE MPs attempted to prevent vote with filibuster.
As campaigning began for 2 April parliamentary elections, local NGOs alleged incidents of electoral violations, including use of state resources, officials campaigning for ruling party. Former top commander in Nagorno-Karabakh Samvel Babayan and two others arrested 22 March on suspicion of smuggling weapons; opposition claimed arrests politically motivated. 16 March death of Artur Sarkisian, NK war veteran sentenced for role in July 2016 siege of Yerevan police station and who was released after 6 March after staging hunger strike, provoked several days of protest demanding investigation.
Court 3 March sentenced blogger Mehman Huseynov, known for investigating corruption, to two years’ jail for libel over allegations he made that police beat him; Huseynov said verdict politically motivated. Azerbaijan quit Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) following its suspension over concerns about its treatment of civil society and govt critics. Parliament 10 March passed bill tightening rules for internet use.
Breakaway republic Abkhazia held election for 35-seat de facto parliament in two rounds 12 and 26 March, in vote criticised by Tbilisi, EU and U.S. as illegal. Victors included former leader Aleksandr Ankvab; several govt figures lost seats, one seat still to be decided in repeat elections. During campaign one candidate reportedly shot and another had car set on fire; perpetrators unknown. Ahead of 9 April de facto presidential election in breakaway republic South Ossetia (SO), former SO leader Eduard Kokoity failed to receive registration, prompting hundreds of protesters to march in his support in Tskhinvali; Kokoity 30 March announced he would cease street rallies and support Anatoliy Bibilov candidacy. Russian President Putin 14 March gave approval for agreement allowing some SO troops to serve with Russian armed forces. Local civil society organisations and activists protested 2 March court-ordered transfer of popular independent Rustavi-2 TV channel to new owners loyal to current govt. Crisis resolved after unprecedented urgent ruling of European Court of Human Rights next day to suspend enforcement of court order and investigate case. EU visa-liberalisation deal for Georgia entered into force 28 March. UN Human Rights Council 17 March adopted resolution on Georgia demanding immediate access to Abkhazia and SO for UN rights chief and other international and regional human rights mechanisms. UNSC 29 March discussed situation in Abkhazia and SO. During 39th round of Geneva international discussions 29 March, participants continued talks over non-use of force agreement and humanitarian problems in conflict regions; next round scheduled June.
Number of incidents along the Line of Contact (LoC) down on previous month, though mortar strikes and use of grenade launchers continued. Azerbaijan 11 March reported one soldier dead; Armenian side 28 March reported one of its soldiers killed, another on 31 March. After weeks of increasing tensions, military on both sides appeared to relax amid Novruz Bayrami holidays in Azerbaijan and preparation for April parliamentary elections in Armenia. OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs toured region 11-28 March, while OSCE monitors 1 and 15 March conducted trips to conflict zone. NK-based military 22-25 March conducted exercises led by Armenia and de facto leadership. Armenian President Sargsyan visited Paris 8 March, while Azerbaijani FM met with his counterpart in Moscow same day: French President Hollande also called for mechanisms to investigate the incidents, which would help “prevent the incidents and punish the acts that are against peace”; Russian FM continued to propose his formula for NK peace settlement, discussed since late 2015 but opposed by both sides, involving control of certain areas in NK conflict zone being transferred from Armenian to Azerbaijani side in exchange for agreed status for rest of breakaway region.
Low intensity armed conflict continued and several Counter Terrorist Operations introduced in Ingushetia and Dagestan. Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Ingushetia’s Malgobek district reportedly came under fire from rocket-propelled grenade 16-17 March, no casualties. In Dagestan, police 27 Feb shot dead local resident of Buinakskiy district after he opened fire on policemen who found weapons and ammunition cache; three unidentified persons 11 March opened fire on highway police patrol in Khasavyurt district, injuring one policeman. National Anti-Terror Committee reported four suspected militants with alleged links to Islamic State (ISIS) detained in Derbent 5 March. In Chechnya, eight attackers opened fire on National Guard servicemen at military checkpoint in Naursky district 24 March; six servicemen and six attackers killed, independent forensic experts claim subsequent examination of attackers’ bodies suggests they were apprehended alive and shot at point-blank range. Police conducted mass arrests throughout Chechnya following attack, which was claimed by ISIS. Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta 13 March reported over 200 people, many teenagers, released from illegal captivity in Chechnya after being detained following clashes in Dec and Jan. Several detainees suspected of having links to ISIS, majority reportedly detained for discussing events in Syria; most were members of private messaging chats or students of madrasas/other religious institutions. Novaya Gazeta also reported increase in underage youth suspected of joining insurgency and sympathising with ISIS in Chechnya. Kabardino-Balkaria court handed down jail sentences to two men 13 March for attempting to leave for Syria to join jihadist group; man detained in Ingushetia 21 March returning from fighting with ISIS in Syria; Chechen resident arrested at Turkish border 23 March trying to cross into Syria.
Anti-govt protests which began in Feb over controversial tax on people working less than six months per year gained momentum, with thousands taking to streets in capital and elsewhere. President Lukashenka said tax, introduced in 2015, was needed to fight “social parasitism”; 9 March announced tax collection would be suspended until 2018, however protests continued. More than 150 people reportedly arrested 1-20 March, including opposition politicians and journalists; dozens handed jail sentences of up to fifteen days. U.S., UN and EU March called for release of those detained, expressed concern for freedom of association and assembly. Lukashenka 20 March called opposition figures “fifth column” supported by West, next day said twenty militants planning “armed provocation” had been detained. Authorities reportedly detained hundreds of people during protests in Minsk 25 and 26 March, many reportedly beaten by police. Opposition leader Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu arrested in Brest (west) 24 March.
In response to rail blockade on east imposed by Ukrainian nationalist activists since late Jan, Russian-backed separatists 1 March began seizing control of enterprises in their territory. Govt 13-14 March attempted to break up blockade, prompting heavy criticism from politicians and activists; 15 March suspended transportation links with separatist-held areas, formalising blockade in order to prevent “destabilising” of situation by activists; said suspension to remain until separatists return control over enterprises and comply with Feb 2015 Minsk agreement. Russia called on Kyiv to cancel blockade to avert “humanitarian catastrophe”. As power shortages continued, Central Bank warned blockade could cut economic growth for 2017 by almost half; IMF 19 March postponed planned $1bn loan disbursement, citing need to assess impact of blockade. OSCE reported continued ceasefire violations, 24 March reported govt and separatist forces had moved closer to each other in several places along front line, increasing risk of flare-ups. President Poroshenko 30 March announced ceasefire and weapons pull-back to start 1 April. Ukraine 31 March reported top regional security officer killed in car bomb in Mariupol, SE. Reuters 24 March reported Russia deploying dozens of tanks near border with Ukraine. Amid ongoing pressure on govt to tackle corruption, Kyiv court 7 March ordered pretrial detention of tax and customs service chief Roman Nasirov pending investigation into allegations he defrauded state of $74mn. EU 16 March agreed to transfer €600mn loan to govt; 13 March extended sanctions against dozens of Russian individuals and entities. U.S. 16 March reaffirmed its condemnation of Russia’s seizure of Crimea and commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Former Russian lawmaker Denis Voronenkov, vocal govt critic who fled to Ukraine in Oct 2016, shot dead in central Kyiv 23 March; Poroshenko called killing “act of state terrorism” by Russia, Moscow denied involvement. Kyiv also said it suspected Russian/separatist involvement in fire at munitions depot in NE 23 March. Ukraine 6 March launched case against Russia at International Court of Justice over Moscow's support for separatists in E Ukraine and Crimea.
Amid impasse in negotiations, UN Special Envoy Eide 15 March met Greek Cypriot President Anastasiades and Turkish Cypriot leader Akıncı to try and restart talks; sides agreed to joint dinner 2 April. Anastasiades 7 March blamed Turkey for recent lack of progress in talks, referring to Turkish military presence on island and Turkey’s 16 April constitutional referendum; reiterated demand for withdrawal of Turkish troops from island while acknowledging that “complete and immediate withdrawal of the Turkish troops is not possible”. Greek Cypriot and Israeli armed forces 20-22 March conducted military drill in Cyprus; Greek Cypriot govt reportedly filed complaint with UN after Turkey 19 March conducted military drill in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone, days after Greek Cypriot govt designated new area for gas exploration.
Security forces continued crackdown on Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency in SE, launching large scale operations involving 7,000 soldiers and curfews in Diyarbakır’s Lice district and Bingöl 5 March; ten security force members, at least eleven PKK militants and two civilians reported killed during month. Govt denounced “biased” UN report released 10 March condemning rights violations by security forces and use of counter-terrorism legislation to remove democratically elected officials of Democratic People’s Party (HDP)/Democratic Regions Party (DBP) from office, among other concerns. Ahead of 16 April constitutional referendum set to increase presidential powers, crackdown on alleged members of state-christened FETÖ/PDY it blames for July 2016 coup attempt continued; govt 6 March reported it had arrested 920 suspects previous week. EU-Turkey relations deteriorated further as Ankara increased anti-Western rhetoric and rowed with several EU countries, particularly Netherlands and Germany, over issues including cancellation of appearances by Turkish ministers at referendum campaign rallies in their countries. Ankara 15 March warned it may cancel EU-Turkey refugee deal, accused EU of “wasting time” on visa liberalisation; later said Turkey may hold referendum on EU accession bid. Following Turkey’s 23 Feb capture of Syrian town al-Bab from Islamic State (ISIS), FM Cavuşoğlu 9 March announced Manbij was next target for Turkish troops and rebel allies (see Syria). PM Yıldırım 29 March announced end of “successful” Euphrates Shield military operation in N Syria, said may launch follow-up operation; Turkish troops remain in Syrian areas they secured. Visiting U.S. Sec State Tillerson 30 March met with president and PM in attempt to revitalise relations.
Parliament 6 March approved new constitutional amendments transferring 40 presidential powers to govt and parliament. Parliament will appoint members of govt; president will remain arbiter of all branches of power, appoint governors and maintain foreign policy, national security and military. President Nazarbayev 10 March signed amendments into law, day after they were approved by Constitutional Council.
Protests continued over 26 Feb arrest of opposition Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev on allegations of fraud and corruption; Tekebayev’s supporters say his arrest politically motivated to prevent him running in Nov presidential election. Ata-Meken said he was arrested to suppress evidence linking President Atambayev to cargo of plane which crashed outside Bishkek in Jan; Atambayev rejected allegations he was linked to plane, accused RFE/RL and Zanoza.kg independent news website of slander in reporting of Tekebayev’s arrest. Perceived intimidation of media and threat to arrest former editor of major newspaper prompted protests in support of free speech. Ata-Meken 5 March named Tekebayev its candidate for Nov election. State Committee for National Security (GKNB) 14 March reported former prosecutor-general and Ata-Meken MP Aida Salyanova suspected of illegally prolonging licence of lawyer with alleged links to son of former President Bakiyev; Salyanova rejected accusations, was ordered not to leave country pending investigation. GKNB 27 March reported it had also charged leading Ata-Meken figure Almambet Shykmamatov with corruption. Police 25 March detained former MP Sadyr Japarov upon his return to country after three years’ exile, charged with taking govt official hostage in 2013; same day arrested 68 people and fired warning shots to disperse crowd as hundreds rallied in his support.
Late Feb report by International Center for Counter-terrorism stated Tajikistan source of greatest number of Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bombers by nationality: 27 Tajiks carried out suicide attacks on behalf of ISIS from Dec 2015 to Nov 2016. Supreme Court 15 March added two years to 23-year prison sentence of human rights lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov for allegedly insulting govt official; Yorov, who had previously defended members of banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, was sentenced Oct 2016 for issuing public calls for overthrow of govt and inciting unrest. Tajik forces conducted separate joint exercises with U.S. and Russian troops late month.
President Mirziyoyev in first official foreign visit 6-7 March met with Turkmen counterpart; reportedly signed agreement on strategic partnership, discussed regional security issues including Afghanistan; countries also agreed cooperation on energy and transportation. Mirziyoyev 23 March met with his Kazakh counterpart, hailed recent increase in trade between the two countries. Jamshid Karimov, late president’s nephew, released 1 March from psychiatric clinic where he was held for a decade after criticising govt; human rights defender and reporter on child and forced labour in cotton fields Elena Urlaeva detained same day under unknown charge and forcibly admitted to a psychiatric facility. Following mid-March visit to Uzbekistan, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said it will resume lending to country, which previously stopped in 2007.
FARC-govt peace process implementation continued on different fronts. Senate 14 March finally approved Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP), transitional justice mechanism to try those accused of committing war crimes. FARC early March handed over child fighters to Red Cross (ICRC) in Antioquia and Norte de Santander to enter special reintegration program. UN mission completed inventory of FARC weapons, registering some 14,000 weapons including 11,000 guns; by mid-month FARC had handed over at least 140 arms to UN. Govt and FARC met in Cartagena 26 March to finalise overarching implementation plan and take steps to move faster. FARC and govt also began implementing crop substitution programs by signing pre-agreements with regional authorities, community organisations and local leaders in areas including Guaviare and Caquetá. Former heads of govt of Spain and Uruguay appointed to international monitoring mechanism for peace accord. Military pressure continued on dissident FARC factions: army 10 March bombed camp belonging to First Front in rural area of Guaviare; alias “Mojoso”, leader of dissident group in Caquetá, handed himself into authorities 18 March with eight others. FARC dissident faction in Tumaco began demobilisation 27 March, however only 117 of anticipated 333 appeared. Violence against social leaders continued: two killed in Meta department 6 March, possibly by FARC deserters who left peace process; ICRC and UN Refugee Agency voiced concern over continuing violence and displacement. ELN guerrilla group continued to carry out violent attacks, fuelling doubts about its desire for peace, including burning buses of transportation company that apparently refused to honour extortion demands; reportedly killing five people in Chocó 26 March; and clashes with neo-paramilitary Gaitan Self-defence Forces (AGC or Gulf Clan) 25-26 March, also in Chocó. Several hundred people displaced by ELN-AGC clashes in west. Police 16 March killed alias “Ramiro Bigotes”, allegedly security chief for AGC leader Otoniel, in NW Córdoba. Tensions increased with Venezuela over border incursion by Venezuelan soldiers (see Venezuela).
Opposition accused pro-govt Supreme Court (TSJ) of imposing dictatorship after TSJ 29 March assumed legislative powers of opposition-controlled National Assembly (AN), raising fears of violent confrontation within Venezuela and defying calls by neighbouring countries to resolve political crisis through democratic means. TSJ’s ruling claimed AN in contempt of court for failing to suspend three MPs accused of electoral fraud; stripped deputies of immunity from prosecution. Regional powers strongly condemned move, several recalled ambassadors (Peru “definitively”) and U.S. criticised “rupture of democratic and constitutional norms” and “serious setback for democracy”. Move followed Organization of American States (OAS) Sec Gen Luis Almagro’s 14 March report calling for OAS to apply Inter-American Democratic Charter and suspend country’s membership if it fails to hold prompt elections, release political prisoners, restore autonomy of TSJ and electoral commission, and lift restrictions on AN. 14 March report said Venezuela in breach of every article of Democratic Charter, rule of law ceased to exist and humanitarian crisis on scale “unprecedented for the western hemisphere”. OAS Permanent Council had met 28 March in acrimonious session which ended without resolution; Venezuela’s attempt to block session backed by ten countries, including Bolivia and Nicaragua. After TSJ move Almagro called for emergency Council meeting 3 April. Mercosur also to meet in emergency session. But in response to 31 March declaration by Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega that “constitutional order” had broken down, govt convened National Security Council and “exhorted” TSJ to correct decision. Govt continued with controversial TSJ-ordered “re-legitimisation” of political parties; so far, four important opposition parties have apparently met conditions. Tensions also increased with Colombia, which 23 March called “unacceptable” incursion of some 70 Venezuelan soldiers, reportedly combatting criminal acts near border, into Colombian territory; Venezuela blamed change in path of river, withdrew troops. Faced with shortages of bread due to lack of flour, Maduro mid-March decreed any bakery not using 90% of its flour for bread would be taken over. Reports emerged of motor fuel shortages 22 March. Maduro 24 March said he had asked UN for help normalising supply and distribution of medicines.
Amid ongoing opposition from private sector and conservatives, package of constitutional reforms including modifications to justice system and official acknowledgement of indigenous judicial systems (Article 203) stalled in Congress. Ancestral and indigenous authorities 8 March announced they would accept withdrawal of Article 203 modification to ease way for other proposed reforms. U.S. made show of support for reforms and fight against corruption in response to conservative campaign against International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and attorney general’s office, with several senior officials and politicians visiting late Feb/early March, meeting with President Morales, CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana. Deadly fire in state-controlled home for young people killing 40 girls and riot in youth detention centre killing four guards prompted outrage and drew attention to serious defects in social services’ penitentiary system.
Congress late Feb approved “Strengthening and Effectiveness of Political Security” law to reform country’s penal code, launched by President Hernández in effort to give more power to security forces in fight against gang members by increasing prison sentences and changing definition of terrorism; reforms condemned as repressive by opposition and questioned by UN Human Rights Council. Member of Los Cachiros drug cartel testifying in U.S. court claimed former President Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014), Security Minister Julián Pacheco, and brother of President Hernández part of his criminal enterprise.
Increase in murders during month signalled possible reversal of 2016 trend of decreasing homicides, with 30 people reported killed in country in less than 24 hours on 15 March, most linked to gang violence according to police; included shootout between alleged MS-13 gang members and private security personnel from central market in San Salvador leaving six dead, reportedly linked to extortion payments. Judge 15 March reopened case into 1981 El Mozote massacre in which 1,000 civilians were killed, after Supreme Court in July 2016 overturned 1993 amnesty for crimes and human rights abuses committed during civil war; judge cited twenty military suspects, including former defence minister and high-ranking generals, to appear in court.
New PM Jack Guy Lafontant, previously sec gen of Party of Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Haiti (MODELH-PRDH), took office 21 March after Chamber of Deputies gave vote of confidence despite resistance of some deputies from president’s PHTK (Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale) party. Senate 15 March approved resolution demanding return of Senator of Grand’Anse Guy Philippe, currently awaiting trial in U.S. after being extradited on drug trafficking charges, and all other Haitians extradited to U.S.. Annual U.S. govt narcotics control strategy report highlighted corruption and money laundering in Haiti, weakness of judicial system. Transformation of UN Stabilization Mission, in Haiti since 2004 and supposed to end 15 April, continued to prompt debate: civil society organisations 14 March released international petition calling for MINUSTAH withdrawal; UNSG Guterres 19 March proposed additional mission for period of six months, to focus on strengthening Haitian National Police and judicial system, no military personnel; UNSC to vote mid-April. Govt 18 March expressed its opposition to renewal of UN human rights expert Gustavo Gallón’s mandate, citing need for Haiti to regain its independence. UN 6 March launched $2.72bn plan to improve disaster risk management in Haiti.
Vicious cycle of corruption, violence, militarisation and weakening civil institutions continued in Veracruz state as criminal organisations vie for control; main battle is between Jalisco New Generation Cartel, fragmented remnants of Zetas and weakened Sinaloa Cartel, on one hand, and armed forces and federal police on the other. Interior minister 28 Feb announced new deployments of Federal Police with support of Navy and Army; eleven corpses found with threatening message next day, coinciding with visit to state by President Peña Nieto. Investigation began 14 March of large mass grave in Colinas de Santa Fé outside Veracruz city, containing hundreds of bodies apparently of students; another mass grave with 47 skulls found in Alvarado 19 March. Four murders reported around state capital Xalapa 23 March. State prosecutor 12 March announced arrest of Flavino Ríos, former interim governor, who allegedly assisted escape of former governor Javier Duarte, currently fleeing corruption charges. National television 16 March aired social media video purportedly showing four municipal police in Culiacán, Sinaloa state, handing eight people to presumed members of organised crime group. Sinaloa governor 19 March acknowledged five high ranking Sinaloa cartel members had escaped from Culiacán prison with help from prison officials. March saw increase in reported disappearances, particularly in Jalisco. Attacks on press and human rights advocates continued: three journalists among those killed during month. Chiapas peasant organisations 6 March protested disappearance of activists and recent murder of thirteen-year-old Humberto Morales Sántiz. U.S. immigration lawyers confirmed exodus of indigenous activists and members of Rarámuri communities seeking asylum in U.S. to avoid death or forced recruitment threats by organised crime groups in Chihuahua. Chihuahua state prosecutor ordered arrest on corruption charges of former governor César Duarte, who allegedly escaped to Texas.
Violent protests broke out in capital Asunción 31 March after senators voted to approve bill amending constitution to lift one-term limit on presidency. Protesters stormed and set fire to parliament, one shot dead during police raid on opposition party HQ, dozens including three lawmakers and a senator injured. Opponents say bill, which was proposed by President Cartes and would allow him to run in 2018 elections, would weaken democratic institutions, some referring to it as “coup”. Bill still awaits approval in chamber of deputies.
Israeli soldiers 6 March killed youth activist Basel al-Araj, in hiding from Palestinian Authority (PA) in West Bank, sparking protests against suspected cooperation between PA and Israel. PA security forces 12 March assaulted people protesting against PA’s trial of six activists arrested in 2016, including deceased al-Araj. Rate of rockets launched from Gaza into Israel continued to rise: non-Hamas factions launched five rockets 1-18 March, Israel retaliated against Hamas positions. Hamas blamed Israel for killing of senior militant 24 March in Gaza, Israel declined to comment. U.S. President Trump 10 March invited Palestinian President Abbas to White House “soon” to discuss peace process. U.S. representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt 13-16 March made first visit to Israel and West Bank, meeting Abbas. Abbas met Egyptian President Sisi 20 March ahead of Arab League summit 29 March and upcoming Abbas and Sisi meetings with Trump. Summit closing statement 29 March said Arab League members would “work to relaunch serious Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations”. Talks between U.S. and Israel 20-23 March in Washington D.C. failed to produce agreement on restricting settlement building in occupied territories. UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) 15 March published report accusing Israel of imposing “apartheid regime” on Palestinians; following pressure from U.S. and Israel, UNSG Guterres withdrew report, ESCWA chief 17 March resigned in protest. UN envoy 24 March told UNSC Israel had not stopped building settlements as demanded in Dec 2016 SC resolution. Following PM Netanyahu’s Feb pledge to house Jewish families evicted from illegal settlement Amona, govt 30 March approved plan to build new settlement in West Bank at Emek Shilo, 25km north of Jerusalem, first new settlement in over twenty years; UN, EU, UK, France, Germany condemned move.
Amid escalating war of words between Hizbollah and Israel, Israeli army chief 19 March warned that Israel would target Lebanese state institutions in any war with Hizbollah; 21 March denied Israel was involved in killing Hizbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine in Syria in 2016, as previously reported in Lebanese media, and accused Hizbollah of ordering killing, denied by Hizbollah. Parliament speaker 23 March said Israeli bill claiming 860km2 contested maritime zone was “new attack on Lebanon’s sovereignty”. Several thousand protested in Beirut 19 March against proposed tax hikes intended to fund increase in public sector wages amid economic slowdown, and denouncing govt corruption. Fatah militants clashed with hard-line Islamists in Aïn el-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in south late Feb and 23 March when two people were reported killed.
Fighting continued on multiple fronts, most intensely in east Damascus and near Hama in west, as talks failed to make progress. Rebels besieged by regime forces in al-Waer, last rebel bastion in Homs city, 13 March struck deal with regime allowing them to leave for north with light weapons and families; evacuation ongoing end-month. Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), rebel alliance dominated by Salafi-jihadist group Fath al-Sham, claimed 11 March twin suicide bombings in Damascus Old City that killed 74, reportedly including 43 Iraqi Shiite pilgrims and twenty members of pro-govt forces. Two as yet unclaimed suicide bombings struck Palace of Justice and restaurant in Damascus 15 March reportedly killing more than 30. U.S. airstrikes 16 March allegedly hit mosque west of Aleppo city, reportedly killing over 50 mostly civilians; Pentagon denied it destroyed mosque, said it targeted and hit al-Qaeda gathering across street. Rebels including Free Syrian Army (FSA) and HTS 19 March launched offensive to take territory in Jobar and Abbasiyin districts in E Damascus, however regime forces reportedly took back captured territory in following days. Rebels including HTS and FSA groups 21 March launched major offensive against regime-held areas near Hama city, capturing at least eleven villages and towns and advancing to within kilometres of city. Regime counter-attack supported by Russian warplanes, stalled advance. In run-up to offensive on Islamic State (ISIS) stronghold Raqqa, U.S. aircraft 21 March for first time airdropped members of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG)-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Tabqa, about 40km west of Raqqa; SDF 24 March reached ISIS-held Tabqa dam on Euphrates River. Turkey 29 March said it had ended Operation Euphrates Shield in north begun Aug 2016 aimed at pushing ISIS away from border and prevent YPG advance westwards across Euphrates, Turkish troops remained in captured territory. FSA groups late March pushed ISIS fighters out of sparsely populated areas in south east. Regime and some rebel groups took part in procedural talks 23 Feb-3 March in Geneva; rebels boycotted talks in Kazakh capital Astana mid-month citing regime ceasefire violations. Next round of talks in Geneva 24-31 March made no progress toward peace agreements. U.S. 30 March said priority was no longer “getting Assad out”.
Police 3 March said it had arrested 25 members of “terrorist cell” reportedly responsible for bombings in and around capital Manama in Feb including senior member of opposition group al-Wefaq Hassan Isa; 29 March two alleged members sentenced to death. In separate case, court sentenced three alleged terrorists to death 23 March. Justice ministry 6 March filed lawsuit to dissolve opposition group Waad accusing it of “supporting terrorism”; group accused govt of undermining opposition. Police 20 March charged former head of Waad, Ebrahim Sharif, with “inciting hatred” against govt.
Several fast-attack Revolutionary Guards’ vessels reportedly approached within 600 yards of U.S. navy ship in Persian Gulf 4 March, forcing it and three British ships accompanying it to change course; Revolutionary Guards claim U.S. ship entered Iran’s territorial waters. U.S. imposed sanctions on eleven companies or individuals from China, North Korea or UAE 24 March for transferring technology to Iran that could support its ballistic missile program. Iran 26 March imposed sanctions on fifteen U.S. companies because they had “violated human rights” and cooperated with Israel. Govt 28 March said Russia could use its military bases to launch airstrikes in Syria on “case by case basis”.
U.S.-backed govt forces and allied militias continued to make gains in campaign to retake western half of Mosul in north from Islamic State (ISIS). Govt forces 6 March said they had captured “al Hurriya” bridge that leads to ISIS-held city centre, and 12 March said they had retaken seventeen of 40 districts in western half from ISIS and surrounded remainder. Govt forces 14 March killed ISIS commander of Old City, Abdul Rahman al-Ansary, and 18 March captured two additional neighbourhoods al-Kur and al-Tawafa. ISIS fighters 20 March captured nine govt officers in western Mosul. U.S. airstrike in western Mosul 17 March reportedly killed over 150 civilians. Iraqi ambassador to UN 10 March denied reports by medical workers and World Health Organisation that ISIS had likely used chemical weapons in Mosul, said “really no evidence”. Govt airstrike 31 March reportedly killed several ISIS commanders in al-Qaim, W Anbar province, including Ayad al-Jumaili believed to be second-in-command. Unclaimed bombings 9 March killed at least 26 people in village 20km north of Tikrit in centre, 20 March killed 21 people in Baghdad’s Shiite Hay al-Amel suburb and 29 March killed seventeen people at police checkpoint in southern Baghdad. Intra-Kurdish tensions rose sharply in Sinjar in NW as relations between Turkey-backed Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iran-backed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) continued to deteriorate: KDP-trained Syrian peshmerga forces 3 March tried to expel PKK-affiliated Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) from Sinjar, seven people killed; 14 March killed one woman at anti-KDP protest organised by PKK-affiliated factions in neighbouring Khanasor district. In show of force against KDP, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party early March tried to seize KDP-affiliated North Gas Company refinery in NW. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr 24 March said he would call for boycott of elections unless electoral law is changed; provincial elections are planned for later in 2017.
Intense fighting continued along Red Sea coast as Saudi-led coalition and allied Yemeni forces tried to advance on Hodeida northwards from Mokha; offensive on city appears imminent. U.S. continued to increase support for Saudi-led coalition’s military efforts, is considering support for potential fight for Hodeida. Unidentified helicopter gunship reportedly fired on boat leaving Hodeida killing 42 Somali refugees 16 March; Saudi-led coalition denied responsibility, called on UN to take control of Hodeida port. Saudi-led coalition launched air and ground attacks on positions of Huthi rebels and allied supporters of former President Saleh in Nehm and Sirwah, strategic access points to rebel-held capital Sanaa. Huthi/Saleh forces increased rocket fire into Narjan province in Saudi Arabia, 18 March claimed to have launched long-range ballistic missile at military air base in Riyadh. Pro-Huthi court 25 March sentenced President Hadi and six officials to death for “high treason”. UN envoy began preparations to restart direct talks: 13 March met ambassadors from Quad (U.S., UK, UAE and Saudi Arabia) and Oman, 14 March said warring parties reluctant to talk. U.S. launched over 40 airstrikes against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in south and east 2-6 March killing some AQAP fighters. Yemeni troops 28 March reportedly captured senior AQAP leader Abu Ali al-Sayari in Hadramout governorate in SE, killed two and detained three others. Drone strike night of 30-31 March in Mozno, Abyan governorate killed three suspected AQAP members.
Army 6 March killed two suspected Islamist militants and arrested two others in Dellys, east of Algiers; 11 March killed two suspected Islamist militants and arrested two others in Bordj Bou Arreridj, also east of Algiers; 20 March arrested suspected Islamist militant in Bordj Badji Mokhtar in south; 25 March killed two suspected Islamist militants, including head of Algerian branch of Islamic State, al Ghoraba squadron, in Constantine province in east; suspected Islamist militant 23 March surrendered in Tamanrasset in south. Scheduled visit by Iranian President Rouhani postponed sine die, raising further concern about President Bouteflika’s health.
Islamic State (ISIS) Sinai Province (SP) claimed responsibility for killing army colonel 8 March and two police officers 9 March, both in al-Arish city, N Sinai. Army 23 March killed fifteen SP combatants and arrested another seven in raid in Sinai, ten soldiers and two police killed. Army 26 March killed five SP militants, including leading figure in N Sinai; 27 March killed eight suspected SP militants in N Sinai; gunmen same day opened fire on military checkpoint in Sheikh Zuweid, N Sinai, killing soldier. SP 28 March posted video on Telegram social media platform showing beheading of two men for “sorcery”. Militant group known as Hassm, reportedly Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, 8 March claimed it had killed Mohamed Zaini, whom Islamists accused of killing one of their own in 2013, outside his home in Damietta governorate, NE. Roadside bomb in central Sinai 20 March killed three civilians; explosive device same day blew up police vehicle in al-Arish city, injuring nine. Explosive devices 24 March killed one civilian in Cairo’s Maadi suburb; 26 March injured five officers on Cairo Ring Road, Hassm claimed attack. Former President Mubarak acquitted 2 March of ordering killing of over 300 protesters during 2011 uprising, final charge against him; released from military hospital 24 March. President Sisi 14 March approved release of 203 prisoners, mostly university students whom Sisi’s pardoning committee found to be unfairly imprisoned.
Fighting intensified over oil installations in Gulf of Sirte and in capital Tripoli where violence risks escalating in April between local forces and factions from Misrata. Armed coalition Benghazi Defence Brigade (BDB), comprising mostly fighters from Benghazi opposed to east-based strongman Gen Khalifa Haftar and including members of jihadist group Ansar Sharia, 3 March took over key oil terminals of Sidra and Ras Lanuf, ousting Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA). LNA re-took terminals and pushed BDB back to Jufra by 13 March. Eastern Tobruk-based parliament House of Representatives (HoR) condemned attack by BDB, which it considers terrorist group and which enjoys informal backing by some members of rival internationally-recognised Presidency Council (PC) in Tripoli. Several dozen HoR members 7 March voted to withdraw from UN-backed dialogue intended to bridge rift between PC and HoR, however votes insufficient to pass withdrawal from dialogue. Sidra oil terminal 25 March prepared to resume exports. Haftar’s LNA 18 March made advances in Benghazi, reportedly taking over Ganfuda neighbourhood from Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Shura Council coalition of Islamist militias. In several neighbourhoods in Tripoli rival armed groups clashed early March: fighting reported between pro- and anti-PC forces allied to rival Tripoli-based govt of Khalifa Ghwel; between Tripoli and Misratan militias, including pro-PC Misratan forces; and between pro- and anti-Haftar forces. Quartet (UN, EU, AU and Arab League) in Cairo 18 March underscored commitment to Dec 2015 Libyan Political Agreement.
National assembly 9 March passed constitutional amendment that would replace parliament’s upper house with regional councils; Senators 17 March rejected amendment. President Ould Abdel Aziz 22 March said amendment will be put to referendum “as quickly as possible” to overcome impasse.
King Mohammed VI 17 March dismissed incumbent PM Benkirane after five months of post-election deadlock over creation of new govt, and tasked Saad-Eddine El Othmani, former FM and head of Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD)’s parliamentary group, to form new govt. Othmani 21 March started negotiations, 25 March said agreement reached to form six-party coalition; new govt expected to take office early April. MP from Constitutional Union (UC) liberal party killed in Casablanca 7 March; suspect arrested next day. AU expressed “regret” that Morocco did not attend AU’s Peace and Security Council meeting on Western Sahara 20 March. Conference of African finance ministers due to start 27 March in Senegal co-hosted by AU and UN Economic Commission for Africa postponed 25 March after Morocco demanded exclusion of Western Sahara, AU member, but not UN member state.
Jihadist attack on police patrol in Kebili in south 12 March killed police officer and wounded another. Recordings posted online early March of president’s son Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who leads faction in Nida Tounes party, criticising fellow Nida Tounes member PM Youssef Chahed.
UN envoy Christopher Ross resigned early March having made little progress in resolving conflict since 2009; UNSG Guterres to appoint new envoy in April. AU expressed “regret” that Morocco did not attend AU’s Peace and Security Council meeting on Western Sahara 20 March. Conference of African finance ministers due to start 27 March in Senegal, co-hosted by AU and UN Economic Commission for Africa, postponed 25 March after Morocco demanded exclusion of Western Sahara, AU member, but not UN member state.