Tracking Conflict Worldwide
March saw ethnic violence in central Mali rise in scale and frequency, risking escalation in April, and jihadist attacks intensified in Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad. Fighting flared in Yemen’s north and south as de-escalation in Hodeida stalled, jeopardising peace efforts. Retaliatory strikes between Israel and Hamas pushed both sides closer to war. In Myanmar, an ethnic Rakhine armed group ramped up attacks on security forces, and in New Zealand, a far-right extremist killed 50 Muslim worshippers in a terror attack. In Algeria, millions took to the streets as a risky transition got underway. Protests erupted in Comoros following disputed presidential elections; surged in the North Caucasus’s Ingushetia; and continued in Sudan despite hardened repression. Tensions between Uganda and Rwanda rose over Uganda’s alleged harassment of Rwandans, and Venezuela’s people faced nationwide blackouts amid heightened political polarisation. In a positive development in negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh, a much anticipated summit saw Armenia and Azerbaijan commit to strengthen the ceasefire, improve communications and implement humanitarian projects.
In Mali, hostilities between ethnic communities spiralled – at least 173 men, women and children were killed – raising the risk of reprisals in the weeks ahead. Tensions between the Dogon and Fulani over access to land and political positions have deep roots, but the fight against jihadists, with whom Dogons suspect Fulanis collaborate, has unleashed unprecedented violence. To help avert a cycle of killing, the government should disarm ethnic militias and take steps to end impunity for past crimes.
Jihadist violence rose in Burkina Faso where radical militants upped attacks on both security forces and civilians, especially in the east and north. While in south west Chad, the Boko Haram faction known as Islamic State West Africa Province launched a bold attack on a military position killing 23 soldiers, an unusually high toll.
Palestinian militants in Gaza fired several rounds of rockets into Israel, injuring Israeli civilians and provoking retaliatory strikes on over 100 targets in Gaza. Israeli forces pushed back Palestinian protesters at the border, killing four. The escalation comes at a sensitive time as Israel prepares for elections in April. To prevent a war that neither side wants, both should return to implementing measures outlined in their November ceasefire agreement, and do more to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
In Yemen, fighting escalated in the north between Huthi rebels and Hajour tribesmen and in the southern city of Taiz between nominally allied pro-government groups. Meanwhile, the process aimed at de-escalation in Hodeida port city initiated by the December Stockholm Agreement seemed to founder, raising the risk that fighting resumes in April.
In Myanmar, the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgency group, stepped up attacks against security forces across broad areas of Rakhine State and southern Chin State, despite vows by the military and government to crush the insurgency. We fear that serious escalation on the security and political front will greatly complicate efforts to bring peace and stability in the region and further undermines the prospects for repatriation of one million Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh.
In an unprecedented terror attack in New Zealand, a far-right extremist shot dead 50 Muslim worshippers, including four women and four children, at two mosques in Christchurch on 15 March.
Algeria’s long stagnant politics entered a potentially volatile new phase. Under pressure from millions of protesters across the country, 82-year-old President Bouteflika – in power since 1999 – decided not to run for a fifth term. The army and ruling party called on the constitutional council to rule him unfit for office, a move that would kick-start a political transition. But protesters demand more, a wholesale change in the ruling elite. To avoid violence, we have argued that any change should take place gradually and in line with the constitution.
In Sudan, nationwide protests calling for President Bashir to step down entered their fourth month, but Bashir dug in. Though he stepped aside as head of the ruling party, he showed no sign of intending to leave power as his regime upped arrests of activists and opposition members. On the Comoros Islands, a far-from-credible election saw President Assoumani claim a fourth term in office. The result sparked protests in the capital, moved the opposition to try to replace him with a transitional council and triggered fighting between loyal and dissident security forces. With tensions still running high, April could see more confrontation.
Tensions between Uganda and neighbouring Rwanda continued to rise. Objecting to Uganda’s alleged harassment of Rwandans and harbouring of dissidents, Rwanda further curbed trade across their common border.
In Venezuela, a massive electricity grid failure on 7 March left around 90 per cent of the country without power for days, affecting hospitals, cutting off water supplies to major cities and causing communications to break down. Heralding a new and more critical phase of the protracted political crisis, the blackouts are an illustration of how, absent negotiations and compromises for all involved, Venezuela’s prospects are extremely grim.
In Russia’s North Caucasusregion, thousands took to the streets in the Ingushetian capital Magas and in Nazran in late March against last September’s controversial border demarcation agreement between Ingushetia and neighbouring Chechnya, prompting concerns over stability in the region. In a positive development, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held their first official summit on Nagorno-Karabakh at the end of March, where they committed to strengthen the ceasefire, improve communications and implement humanitarian projects. While much more needs to happen to reach peace, including a greater focus on the needs of populations, recent steps are giving rise to cautious hope in diplomacy.
Suspected jihadist militants increased attacks against security forces and civilians, especially in East, Sahel, North and Centre-North regions, and NGOs’ accusations of security forces’ abuses against civilians intensified pressure on govt. Suspected jihadists 9 March attacked police station in Koumbri, North region, killing police officer; 11 March abducted two teachers in Koutougou area, Sahel region and later killed them; 13 March killed one gendarme in Tougouri, Centre-North region; next day killed two Dozo vigilantes in Louta area, Boucle du Mouhoun region; 28 March killed four gendarmes in Barani, Boucle du Mouhoun region. In East region, security forces’ vehicle 16 March detonated mine in Kabonga, Kompienga province, killing police officer and soldier; roadside bomb 17 March killed three soldiers in same area. Authorities imposed curfew in East region 7 March. Army 9 March launched new security operation “Otapuanu” in East and Centre-East regions. In Sahel region, unidentified gunmen 21 March kidnapped two civilians, including mayor of Markoye village in Oudalan province. Unidentified assailants 30 March attacked police station in Niangoloko area, Cascades region in west near border with Côte d’Ivoire; three civilians and two assailants reportedly killed. Govt 16 March said it was holding over 700 terrorists in high security prisons. Burkinabé Movement for Human and People’s Rights (MBDHP) 14 March accused military of summary executing at least 60 people in operation early Feb in Kain and Banh districts, Yatenga and Loroum provinces of North region. NGO Human Rights Watch 22 March echoed MBDHP allegations, estimating 115 extrajudicial killed by security forces between April 2018 and January 2019. Constitutional commission 14 March confirmed referendum would be held on constitutional reform that would set presidential term limit of two five-year terms, increase PM’s powers, abolish death penalty, and establish constitutional court which could remove president under certain conditions; although referendum initially scheduled for 24 March, was subsequently delayed sine die.
Communal violence intensified in centre raising risk of escalation in April, and suspected jihadists carried out more deadly attacks in north and centre, as govt tried to win support for constitutional reform. In centre, violence between ethnic Fulani herders on one side and Dogon and Bambara farmers on other in Mopti region left at least 173 dead: clash in Tan Coulle village 2 March left three Dozos (Dogon militants) dead; Dozos reportedly killed four Fulanis in Wendou village same day; at least 160 killed 23 March in attack reportedly by Dozos against Fulani villages of Ogossagou and Welingara, most deadly attack since crisis erupted in 2012; in suspected revenge attacks, armed assailants 25-26 March attacked two Dogon villages in Bankass circle, reportedly killing at least six. In response to Ogossagou attack, President Keita 24 March replaced army chief of staff and commander of land forces and officially disbanded Dogon self-defence group. Jihadist coalition Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM) 17 March attacked military camp in Dioura, Mopti region in centre, killing 23 soldiers; Keita 22 March blamed lack of military discipline. Attack sparked protests against military and politicians. Protesters 21 March prevented army chief giving his condolences to families in Nioro, Sahel region. Women-led demonstrations 22 March blocked access to military camp in Ségou region in centre. In Timbuktu region in north, unidentified assailants reportedly carried out three attacks against public transport along Timbuktu-Goundam axis 1-3 March, no casualties reported. Religious leaders 10 March and opposition platform Coalition of Patriotic Forces 14 March called on PM Maïga to step down. Govt continued talks with opposition and civil society to build support for constitutional reform process, which seeks to create new regions and restore state authority in north while recognising some groups’ claims for greater autonomy. Community meetings took place in provincial cities to appease tensions or discuss constitutional reform process, including in Mopti 9 March and Gao in north 12 March.
Boko Haram (BH) attacks and military operations continued in south east. Military 8-9 March repelled BH attack on outskirts of Gueskérou, Diffa region, 38 BH militants and seven military killed. BH 21 March attacked Gueskérou village, eight civilians killed. BH 23 March attacked four villages in Diffa region, at least fourteen civilians killed. BH suicide bombers and gunmen 26 March staged coordinated attack on Nguigmi, Diffa region, killing at least ten. PM Brigi Rafini 14 March presided over peace forum in Foulatari, Diffa region, and met with local administrative, customary and religious leaders. Govt in March lifted ban on cultivating peppers and trading in fish in Diffa region, in place on and off since 2015 to avoid BH using these activities to finance insurgency. Coalition of local NGOs 16 March protested in capital Niamey against Western support to armed forces that aims to contain jihadist violence and migration flows across Sahel, and 2019 budget, which they deem too costly to the poor. Ruling Nigerien Party for Democracy and Socialism (PNDS-Tarayya) 31 March elected Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum as its candidate in 2021 presidential election. Adviser to parliamentary speaker arrested in Guinea-Bissau mid-March in connection with 9 March seizure by security forces of almost 800kg of cocaine near Safim, country’s biggest ever seizure.
Govt and ruling party continued to repress opposition. Mayor of capital Bujumbura 2 March banned opening of national HQ of new opposition party National Congress for Freedom (CNL) in Bujumbura, planned for next day, citing “security reasons”; allowed opening 10 March at which representatives of opposition, ruling party and international community attended. In Matana commune, Bururi province, police detained for one day seventeen CNL members travelling to opening. Soldiers and police 11 March barricaded off area around CNL national HQ. Ruling party youth wing Imbonerakure arrested and/or beat at least twelve CNL members in Bubanza, Ngozi and Cibitoke provinces 6-16 March. A dozen bodies found late Feb in Lake Rweru that separates Burundi and Rwanda; local authorities said bodies had floated down river that comes from Rwanda, Rwanda denied responsibility. Four bodies found in two rivers in Cibitoke province 19 March. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights closed its office in Burundi at govt’s request 5 March, following govt’s suspension of cooperation with it in Oct 2016 accusing it of “complicity with … Burundi’s enemies”. After govt refused to withdraw more than 400 of the 1,000 troops African Union (AU) demanded it withdraw from AU Mission in Somalia in Feb, army spokesman 15 March conceded that 600 more troops would return to Burundi soon.
Insecurity persisted in Anglophone west, Boko Haram (BH) continued attacks in Far North, and U.S. and EU increased diplomatic pressure on govt. In Anglophone west, fighting continued between separatist militants and security forces, as well as violence against civilians. At least 30 violent incidents left at least 26 civilians and seven members of security forces dead 11-20 March. Notably, fighting between militants and security forces in Donga-Mantung and Bui in Northwest region 11-17 March reportedly left a dozen civilians dead. Suspected separatists abducted fifteen members of University of Buea football team on Buea-Kumba road 20 March. Clashes between separatists and security forces in Limbe, Southwest region 25 March left one civilian dead. Soldiers 27 March reportedly killed three civilians in Widikum, Northwest. BH killed one civilian in Logone and Chari department and six in Mayo Sava 11-19 March. BH 24 March killed two civilians in Goulouzivini, Mayo Tsanaga; same day soldiers arrested seventeen BH combatants in Amchide, Mayo Sava; and next day BH burnt primary school of Zeleved, Mayo Tsanaga. U.S. Assistant Sec State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy 4 March called on govt to release opposition leader Maurice Kamto and find peaceful solution to Anglophone crisis, 17-19 March visited Cameroon. EU High Representative Federica Mogherini 5 March made same calls, first time at such high level. Govt 5 and 6 March criticised U.S. and EU positions. Catholic Nuncio 18 March handed over to President Biya letter from Pope Francis regarding Anglophone crisis.
Central African Republic
As security situation remained tense, implementation of Feb agreement between govt and fourteen armed groups stumbled on formation of new govt. PM Ngrebada 3 March revealed new govt, which reinstated most ministers from previous govt and included representatives of only six armed groups. Armed groups denounced what they saw as Ngrebada’s failure to respect peace deal; in protest five armed groups renounced govt appointments and two – Patriotic Movement for the Central African Republic (MPC) and Democratic Front of the Central African People (FDPC) – announced they would withdraw from agreement. In bid to save deal, AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smaïl Chergui 18 March held talks with all fourteen armed groups and govt in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Chergui 20 March said govt and armed groups had agreed that Ngrebada would form new govt offering increased number of ministries to armed groups. Second new govt, announced 22 March, included twelve armed group representatives, including FDPC leader Abdoulaye Miskine. Miskine later declined his post. President Touadéra 24 and 25 March appointed twelve members of armed groups to positions in PM’s office, three at ministerial level and nine at advisor level, latter including UPC leader Ali Darassa, Mahamat al-Khatim of Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC) and 3R leader Bi Sidi Souleymane; two armed group leaders thereby put in charge of mixed security units foreseen in Feb agreement and of demobilisation. Interior minister 25 March named two new prefects and five new sub-prefects, all from armed groups. No major outbreaks of violence, but security situation remained tense.
Boko Haram (BH) killed over twenty soldiers in single attack near Lake Chad in south west and govt closed border with Libya in bid to enhance security in north. Militants from BH faction known as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) night of 21-22 March attacked military position at Dangdala near Lake Chad killing 23 soldiers and taking equipment before departing toward Niger. President Déby 22 March replaced army Chief of Staff Brahim Mahamat Seid with former police chief Taher Erda and made several appointments or replacements in top-level leadership of army and in president’s office. While visiting Kouri Bougoudi gold mining area in north-western Tibesti region, Territorial Administration Minister Mahamat Abali Salah 3 March announced official closure of Chad-Libya border, planned disarmament of population in Tibesti region and ban on gold panning. Hundreds of militants reportedly defected or deserted from rebel coalition Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD) in March. Also in north west, Tebu traditional leaders gathered in Miski early March to listen to grievances of local residents with view to resolve conflict between govt and Tebu self-defence committee over access to gold mining sites. Authorities banned two demonstrations planned for 14 March, to protest shortages of butane gas and use of CFA Franc respectively.
Democratic Republic of Congo
President Tshisekedi struck deal with former President Kabila’s coalition on govt formation and took steps to open political space, as senatorial elections sparked protests and violence persisted in east and centre. Tshisekedi’s coalition and Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) alliance 6 March agreed Kabila will name “formateur” to appoint new govt. Tshisekedi 13 March pardoned some 700 political prisoners, released some and same day opposition leader Moïse Katumbi received passport, previously denied by Kabila govt. In 15 March senatorial election, FCC won 84 of 100 seats, triggering opposition protests in capital Kinshasa, Goma, Mbuji-Mayi and Lubumbashi. Consequently, electoral commission, national assembly, outgoing senate, prosecuting authority and presidency 17 March suspended senate’s appointment and postponed provincial governor elections sine die; FCC contested decision. Tshisekedi 29 March lifted suspension following investigation by court of cassation. Opposition electoral coalition Lamuka 24 March in Brussels said it would study possible transformation into political platform. Parliamentary and municipal polls, due Dec but delayed due to Ebola and insecurity, held 31 March in Beni and Butembo in North Kivu in east and Yumbi in Mai-Ndombe province in west. U.S. Assistant Sec State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy 13 and 15 March relayed U.S. support for Tshisekedi presidency; U.S. treasury 21 March imposed new sanctions on electoral commission leadership, constitutional court president and former national assembly speaker for reported involvement in corruption. After Belgium and DR Congo agreed late Feb to revive ties, including to increase flights between Kinshasa and Brussels, visa facility for Schengen area reopened 6 March after over a year. Violence persisted in east and centre, especially in Ituri, Tshopo, North Kivu, South Kivu, former Katanga provinces and Kasais. In Ituri, North and South Kivu, army clashed with Mai-Mai groups. In North Kivu, attacks continued to hamper Ebola response: militants 10 March attacked treatment centre in Butembo for second time, killing police officer. UN Security Council 29 March renewed mandate of UN stabilisation mission in Congo until 20 Dec.
President Bongo 23 March reportedly returned to Gabon following five-month stay in Morocco to recuperate after stroke late Oct. Opposition and civil society collective continued to call on authorities to recognise power vacuum and on people to peacefully take action if govt does not remedy situation. Collective 28 March initiated proceedings to mandate medical examination of Bongo; govt 29 March “invited” judicial authorities to take measures against people seeking to destabilise country.
Tensions between Rwanda and Uganda continued to rise after Rwanda restricted trade across shared border late Feb, closing two of three principal border crossings, at Katuna and Cyanika. FM Sezibera 14 March denied Uganda’s accusations that Rwanda had blocked exports from Uganda and established permit system for Rwandan traders exporting to Uganda; he reiterated that Uganda still needed to address its harassment of Rwandan citizens in Uganda through arbitrary arrests and irregular deportations, and its harbouring of Rwandan dissidents. A dozen bodies found late Feb on Burundian side of Lake Rweru that separates Burundi and Rwanda; local Burundian authorities said bodies had floated down river that comes from Rwanda, Rwanda denied responsibility.
President Afwerki 3 March hosted trilateral meeting of Kenyan and Ethiopian leaders to discuss regional and bilateral issues. President Afwerki and Ethiopian PM Abiy 4 March met South Sudanese President Kiir in South Sudan capital Juba to discuss country’s peace deal. Eritrean delegation 18 March met Somaliland President Bihi in Hargeisa, Somaliland, and agreed to step up bilateral relations.
PM Abiy undertook intense diplomacy to mediate regional tensions and boost ties with Gulf states and France. Abiy 6 March mediated talks between Kenyan President Kenyatta and Somali President Farmajo in Nairobi, Kenya, on dispute over maritime border; parties failed to agree on how to settle dispute. French President Macron visited Ethiopia and 12 March signed what he called “unprecedented defence cooperation agreement” providing for naval and air cooperation. Authorities 19 March postponed indefinitely pre-elections census scheduled for 7 April. In Oromia region, ethnic violence eased, but unidentified gunmen 19 March killed five miners, including two foreigners, near Nedjo.
Communal violence continued in north and Kenya and Somalia leaders met but failed to agree on how to settle maritime border dispute. Clashes between ethnic communities erupted in several counties in north: Meru and Borana communities 7 March clashed on disputed Isiolo and Meru counties border, leaving three dead; 13 March, clashes between Gabra and Borana communities in Marsabit county left three dead; 19 March clashes between two groups of armed herders from Samburu and Borana communities in Kom area, Isiolo county left three dead; 22-24 March clashes between Borana and Somali herders in Janju area at border between Garissa and Isiolo counties left three dead. In Turkana county, unidentified armed men 18 March killed two National Police Reservists, raising tensions between Turkana and West Pokot communities. President Kenyatta and Somalia President Farmajo 6 March held talks on disputed maritime border mediated by Ethiopian PM Abiy in Nairobi; leaders failed to agree on how to settle dispute, but Abiy said both sides agreed “to work towards peace”. Kenyatta met Abiy in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa 1 March to open Ethiopia-Kenya Trade and Investment Forum and held talks with Abiy and Eritrean President Afwerki in Eritrea 3 March to discuss regional and bilateral issues.
Al-Shabaab attacks continued in Mogadishu and rural areas, while govt stepped up diplomacy in bid to improve relations with neighbours and federal states. In Mogadishu, Al-Shabaab car bomb attack 7 March left four people dead; Al-Shabaab detonated suicide car bomb and stormed govt building 23 March, at least fifteen reported killed including assistant labour minister. Road side bomb same day killed three, including one soldier, at security checkpoint in Mogadishu. Car bomb 28 March exploded near restaurant and hotel, reportedly killing at least fifteen. In Middle Shabelle, Al-Shabaab land mine targeted African Union (AU) mission (AMISOM) military convoy in Balcad 16 March, no casualties. In Lower Shabelle, Al-Shabaab 27 March executed five, including three Kenyans, for allegedly spying for AMISOM and U.S. military and 31 March clashed with security forces backed by AU troops, after militants ambushed military checkpoint in Qoryoley; number of casualties unclear. U.S. continued airstrikes targeting Al-Shabaab: airstrike killed eight militants in Gambole area, Middle Shabelle state 8 March, according to local media; in Lower Shabelle state, airstrikes killed eight 11 March, two 12 March and three 18 March; and in Malayle, Jubaland state, airstrike killed three militants 13 March. NGO Amnesty International 20 March called on U.S. to investigate “credible evidence” its air strikes have killed numerous civilians. In Jubaland, PM Khayre 13 March met Jubaland’s state leader in Kismayo to discuss restoration of cooperation between federal govt and federal member state; parties agreed to end standoff. In Galmudug state, clan fighting erupted 18 March in Xeraale, leaving thirteen civilians dead. President Farmajo discussed strengthening regional peace and security with Ethiopian PM Abiy in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa 5 March and held talks with Kenyan President Kenyatta mediated by Abiy to restore diplomatic ties 6 March after dispute over maritime border escalated in Feb; parties failed to agree on how to settle dispute.
Somaliland President Bihi 18 March met Eritrean delegation in Hargeisa and agreed to step up bilateral relations.
As security situation remained tense, severe delays in implementation of Sept 2018 peace deal threatened to provoke its collapse and regional bloc Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) made efforts to bring on board non-signatory opposition groups. Head of UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) David Shearer 8 March briefed UN Security Council expressing concern with delayed implementation in three areas: delineation of internal state boundaries, creation of unified army and ensuring security of returning opposition leaders. IGAD Special Envoy Ismail Wais 12 March met leader of opposition group South Sudan United Front (SSUF/A) Paul Malong to discuss how he could join peace deal; in joint statement Malong expressed willingness to negotiate with govt. IGAD representatives met leader of rebel group National Salvation Front (NAS) Thomas Cirillo in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa 14 March, with no major breakthrough. Cattle raids and disputes over grazing lands in Epoto, east of capital Juba, left at least twenty dead 26-27 March. UN Security Council 15 March renewed mandate of UNMISS, including new language to enable peacekeepers to protect vulnerable returnees. President Kiir met Ethiopian PM Abiy and Eritrean President Afwerki 4 March in capital Juba to discuss peace deal.
President Bashir hardened repression of continued nationwide protests calling for him to step down. Dozens of activists and senior members of opposition National Umma Party (NUP) arrested 10 March; emergency court sentenced NUP deputy chief Mariam al-Mahdi to a week in prison; appeals court 13 March released her. PM Mohammed Taher Eyla 13 March announced new cabinet; most new ministers belong to ruling National Congress Party (NCP). NCP 30 March suspended indefinitely its general convention planned for April at which party was to elect new chief after Bashir handed leadership to his deputy 1 March. State news service 17 March said govt had secured $300mn in loans to address economic crisis; $230mn from Arab Monetary Fund and $70mn Arab Trade Financing Programme, both based in United Arab Emirates. U.S. Congressional delegation in capital Khartoum 16 March held series of meetings with govt officials including head of National Intelligence and Security Services Salah Gosh, opposition, civil society, journalists and rights defenders; called for release of political prisoners. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov during his visit to Khartoum 17 March said Russia would stand by Bashir.
Tensions between Uganda and Rwanda continued to rise after Rwanda restricted trade across shared border late Feb, closing two of three principal border crossings, at Katuna and Cyanika. Rwanda 8 March reportedly destroyed all bridges crossing to Uganda at Katuna. Ugandan foreign ministry 13 March accused Rwanda of blocking exports from Uganda and establishing export permit system for Rwandan traders exporting to Uganda. Rwandan FM Sezibera 14 March denied accusations and reiterated that Uganda still needed to address its harassment of Rwandan citizens through arbitrary arrests and irregular deportations, and its harbouring of Rwandan dissidents.
Following Feb arrest of supporters of Cabinda Independence Movement (MIC), who seek independence for Cabinda exclave in west, police 13 March released a dozen activists but some 50 remained in detention and began hunger strike in protest. Delegation from main opposition party National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) visited Cabinda early March to assess situation, with UNITA leader Adalberto Costa Júnior 11 March criticising security forces for arbitrary arrests.
President Assoumani’s win in disputed presidential elections sparked protests, his attempted ouster by opposition candidates and clash between dissident and loyal security forces raising risk of greater confrontation in April. Assoumani won re-election in disputed presidential poll 24 March with 60.77% of vote; nearest rival Ahamadi Mahamoudou secured 14.62%. Observers including from African Union 25 March said voting process was tainted by many irregularities and lacked credibility or transparency; Supreme Court in Feb had barred six opposition candidates from standing, including main contender. Police 25 March fired tear gas to disperse those demonstrating against result in capital Moroni, leading to some dozen injuries, and briefly detained two opposition candidates. Interior Minister 26 March accused opposition of causing unrest and ordered mayor of Moroni to prohibit public gatherings without prior permission; opposition 26 March announced plans for civil disobedience campaign to demand re-run of vote. Opposition candidates 28 March announced creation of National Transitional Council, led by former army chief of staff Mohamed Soilihi, to take over from Assoumani, “resolve the post-election crisis, [and] ensure a peaceful transition”. Authorities reportedly arrested Soilihi soon after announcement. Same day, group of soldiers, jailed for involvement in attempted coup in 2018, broke out of prison and went to military base near Moroni seeking support; subsequent exchange of fire there between these renegade soldiers and other security forces left three dead, reportedly including leader of dissident soldiers, Major Fayssoil Abdoussalam.
Suspected Islamist militants continued attacks in Cabo Delgado province in far north. Militants 14-15 March killed some thirteen civilians in attacks in Mocimboa da Praia district, burning down 120 homes; 22-24 March carried out four attacks in Macomia, Ancuabe and Meluco districts, with reports of injuries but no deaths. NGO Amnesty International 5 March alleged police had denied food and medical treatment to journalist detained without charge since Jan while reporting on displacement of people due to attacks. President Nyusi 12 March denied assertion of former FM Pacheco that 400 officers from former armed opposition movement Renamo had been incorporated into armed forces, saying true number was fourteen. Tropical cyclone Idai hit 15 March, flooding much of central Mozambique and cutting off port city of Beira; over 700 reportedly killed and estimated 500,000 displaced; govt mounted humanitarian response amid reports of outbreaks of cholera and concerns that displacement could lead to widespread food insecurity.
Amid economic crisis and international criticism of political repression, govt continued to move toward reforms. President Mnangagwa 12 March said country would continue national dialogue started in Feb, in which main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and five smaller parties refused to participate. Govt early March reportedly established ministerial taskforce to accelerate political, electoral and legislative reforms. To address economic crisis, central bank 3 March announced govt had borrowed $985mn from African banks including Mozambique’s central bank and African Export and Import Bank. Govt and civil servants continued salary renegotiations as value of new currency known as Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) dollars further weakened against USD; govt mid-March offered to increase salaries for April-Dec 2019. NGO Human Rights Watch 12 March released report on security forces’ suppression of Jan protests detailing their “killings, rape, torture and other grave abuses”; report noted that although protests have ended, “security force crackdown continues”. Head of EU delegation 25 March said Jan crackdown soured EU-Zimbabwe relations and tainted country’s image in Europe. U.S. President Trump 4 March extended sanctions for another year, saying sanctions will remain in place until govt relaxes laws on media freedom and protests. Mnangagwa 17 March again called for lifting of sanctions against ruling ZANU-PF party, proposal supported by regional partners including South African President Ramaphosa.
Guillaume Soro, former rebel leader who resigned from post as parliamentary speaker in Feb, positioned himself as pivotal figure of opposition to President Ouattara ahead of 2020 presidential election. Following Soro’s late Feb meetings with opposition figures, including head of Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) and former President Henri Konan Bédié, former pro-Ouattara youth movement Alliance for Change (APC) 2 March formed political party under same name in support of Soro. Ouattara’s Rally of Republicans (RDR)’s former secretary general Amadou Soumahoro elected parliamentary speaker 7 March to replace Soro. Opposition boycotted session to contest 5 March revision of voting procedure. Twenty-four opposition parties, which call for reform of electoral commission to correct govt overrepresentation, 11 March proposed that commission presidency be entrusted to member of civil society and that institution be provided with administrative and financial autonomy. At trial of failed Sept 2015 coup in Burkina Faso 13 March, Burkinabé Defence Minister Chérif Sy said Soro had recognised authenticity of phone recordings on which Soro reportedly discussed plans for assassinations in support of putschists with former Burkinabé FM Djibrill Bassolé. Soro’s spokesperson 16 March denied accusations.
President Barrow reshuffled cabinet after months of tension with his party; 15 March sacked VP Ousainou Darboe and two ministers, appointed Health Minister Isatou Touray as new VP. New cabinet members sworn in 28 March.
Possible candidacy of President Condé in 2020 presidential election divided society. Opponents of third mandate disturbed gathering of Condé supporters 14 March in capital Conakry. Supporters of Condé demonstrating in Kankan in east 16 March confronted opponents chanting “no to third term”.
Legislative elections took place 10 March after four years of political stalemate. In provisional results published 13 March, ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) came first with 47 of 102 seats. PAIGC 12 March forged agreement to form govt with other parties which hold seven seats. Teachers’ unions 2 March ended public schools strike, saying govt had met demands, namely payment of salary arrears and publication of official status of teacher’s career. Classes resumed 6 March. Security forces 9 March seized almost 800kg of cocaine near Safim, country’s biggest ever seizure; arrested four men in connection with drugs, including adviser to Niger’s parliamentary speaker.
Three former Central Bank officials 4 March appeared at Monrovia City court, were charged with criminal conspiracy, economic sabotage and misuse of public money following probe into missing banknotes.
Elections-related tensions continued while ethnic and herder-farmer violence flared in north centre, banditry continued in north west and Boko Haram (BH) continued attacks in north east. Violence tainted 9 March governorship and state legislative elections; at least 27 killed on election day and four others during supplementary elections 23 March. President Buhari’s ruling party won in fifteen states, main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) won in thirteen; election suspended in Rivers state following disruptions. PDP’s presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar 18 March lodged legal challenge against Feb presidential result. In north centre, intercommunal and herder-farmer violence left at least 86 killed in Kaduna state and 26 in Benue. In intercommunal violence in Kaduna state, at least seven killed 2 March in Sabon Sara; seventeen killed 10 March in Ungwan Barde; 52 reportedly killed 11 March in Kajuru area; at least ten killed 16 March in Nandu-Gbok. In Benue state, armed attacks on farming villages left at least sixteen killed 2 March at Agagbe and ten killed 19 March in Tser Uorayev. In north east, BH continued attacks in Borno and Adamawa states, with Abubakar Shekau-led faction seemingly using more landmines and female suicide bombers. In Borno state, farmers’ vehicle 6 March detonated landmine outside state capital Maiduguri, at least five killed; BH 19 March killed four farmers near Lassa; landmines around Warabe village in Gwoza area 18 March killed eight; military truck 25 March detonated landmine in Gwoza area, at least thirteen soldiers killed; military mid-March caught 13-year-old girl in Maiduguri who said she was one of four female suicide bombers. In Adamawa state, female suicide bomber 10 March blew herself up in Madagali area. Military 8 and 11 March reportedly killed scores of BH fighters. In north west, banditry-related violence killed at least 95 people, notably in Anka and Shinkafi local govt areas (LGAs), Zamfara state 2 and 30 March; Isa LGA, Sokoto state 8 March; and Birnin Gwari LGA, Kaduna state 11-12 March.
Amid ongoing diplomatic efforts on both sides, Chinese FM Wang 8 March noted relations improving and both countries would work to “deepen mutually beneficial cooperation”. Beijing 28 March said Japanese restrictions on Chinese technology companies such as Huawei could damage relations. Military exercises and operations continued; Japan Air Force 20 March scrambled jets to intercept Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) electronic warfare and surveillance plane passing through East China Sea, and again 30 March to intercept PLA aircraft flying through Miyako Strait. Japanese island of Iejima 11-14 March hosted U.S. Marines training exercises (see South China Sea), while U.S. flew B-52 bombers in joint training exercise with Japan Air Force over East China Sea 19 March.
Uncertainty over denuclearisation talks continued following abrupt end of late Feb U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, also setting back inter-Korean ties. Observers blamed unrealistic expectations on both sides, while North Korean Vice FM Choe Son-hui 15 March told press conference in Pyongyang that U.S. President Trump had been prepared to consider sanctions relief with provisions to reapply them if Pyongyang violated commitments, but Sec State Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton blocked move; also said Pyongyang may rethink ban on nuclear and missile tests absent concessions from Washington. U.S. General Abrams told House Armed Services Committee that observed North Korean activities were “inconsistent with denuclearisation”. Following fraught discussions, South Korea and U.S. 8 March signed new one-year Special Measures Agreement, under which South Korea is to raise its annual cost-sharing contribution for U.S. Forces Korea to nearly $920mn, up from approximately $800 million during previous agreement; U.S. used opportunity to publicly reaffirm strength of alliance. Inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong thrown into turmoil as North Korean staff 22 March informed South Korea of intent to withdraw from operations, allegedly under direction of Kim Jong-un, leading to concerns of abandonment of key aspect of broader inter-Korean talks; however half of North Korean staff came to work 25 March, reportedly after Trump attempted to reverse sanctions on two Chinese entities accused of doing business with DPRK. Pyongyang 31 March said that 22 Feb break-in at its embassy in Spain was a “terrorist attack” and called for investigation, intimating the possibility of state-level involvement.
President Tsai 21-28 March travelled to Palau, Nauru and Marshall Islands – three of Taiwan’s seventeen remaining diplomatic allies – to “deepen ties and friendly relations”, making stopover in Hawaii in sign of warming U.S.-Taiwan ties. American Institute in Taiwan 19 March announced new annual U.S.-Taiwan dialogue focused on increasing cooperation, with senior U.S. State Department officials to attend first iteration Sept 2019. Tsai 19 March announced govt had made request to U.S. to buy F-16 Viper fighter jets. U.S. navy 24 March sailed two ships through Taiwan Strait in third freedom of navigation operation in 2019, prompting Chinese formal complaint. Pro-independence former PM Lai Ching-te 18 March announced he would challenge Tsai for nomination for ruling Democratic Progressive Party for presidential elections in 2020, saying Taiwan did not want to be “second Hong Kong or Tibet”.
Amid major Taliban attacks on security forces and continued political tensions, negotiations between U.S. and Taliban saw some progress, but Taliban’s rejection of govt involvement remains major sticking point. U.S. and Taliban negotiations in Doha 25 Feb-12 March concluded with U.S. envoy Khalilzad and Taliban representatives agreeing “in draft” on U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban assurances to prevent country from becoming platform for international terrorism. U.S. said key obstacle was Taliban demand of three-to-six month withdrawal window, with U.S. suggesting three years. Taliban continued to reject engagement with Kabul, while govt also rejected negotiation formats not controlled by itself. President Ghani 8 March refused to participate in talks not led by govt, including “Moscow track” involving former President Karzai, and 11 March delayed national consultative meeting to 29 April. “Moscow track” meeting remains scheduled for mid-April, involving Taliban and major anti-Taliban factions. Tensions between Kabul and Washington increased with Afghan National Security Advisor Mohib 14 March accusing Khalilzad of delegitimising govt. Hostilities continued, with major Taliban attacks including on Afghan Army HQ in Washir district, Helmand province, killing 50 soldiers 1 March; and in Badghis province 11-16 March, killing twenty and capturing over 100 govt forces. Afghan and U.S. night raids and airstrikes reportedly killed at least 24 civilians in Nangarhar and Ghazni provinces 8-12 March; Ghani 13 March issued orders to abort or wait out operations in case of civilian presence; U.S. airstrike 23 March killed fourteen civilians after insider attack in Kunduz province. UN 24 Feb reported 3,804 conflict-related civilian deaths in 2018. Islamic State-Khorasan Province launched two attacks on urban centres, killing sixteen civilians near Jalalabad 6 March, and eleven Shiite Hazaras gathering in Kabul 7 March. Political tensions continued: Ghani 3 March appointed new commissioners and secretaries for Independent Election Commission and Electoral Complaints Commission; authorities 20 March announced another delay to presidential and provincial elections to 28 Sept, despite govt mandate ending late May. In Mazar-i-Sharif, clashes over appointment of new police chief killed at least one 14 March.
Political tensions continued in aftermath of Dec 2018 general election and around local elections 10-24 March marred by deadly violence. Seven people shot dead and over a dozen injured in attack on election officials in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Chattogram division (south east) during first phase of polling 10 March; police blamed supporters of local candidate who had boycotted polls. Ahead of 18 March second phase, supporters of two rival Awami League candidates 16 March clashed in Joypurhat district, Rajshahi division (north), killing two. Sporadic violence and allegations of vote rigging in third phase 24 March; post-poll violence 25 March included killing of supporter of independent candidate Pirojpur district; Awami League activists reportedly attacked houses of Hindu community supporting independent candidate Jhenidah district. Main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – who continue to contest Dec election result – and other opposition groups boycotted polls. U.S. 13 March released report on human rights in Bangladesh in 2018, highlighted enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and “widespread impunity for security forces” alongside restrictions on assembly; FM Abulkalam Abdul Momin 18 March rejected report as one-sided. Hundreds of students 20 March demonstrated in Dhaka after a student was killed by speeding bus, following similar protests in 2018.
Security forces 7 March claimed to have killed three Maoist rebels in Jharkhand state (east) and same day killed a Maoist leader in gunfight in Wayanad district, Kerala state (south west). Police 16 March claimed to have killed two Maoist rebels in Visakhapatnam district, Andhra Pradesh state (south east). Suspected Maoist IED blast 18 March killed one member of security forces in Dantewada district, Chhattisgarh state (east).
Despite reduction in India-Pakistan tensions, cross-Line of Control (LoC, dividing Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir) clashes continued, along with Indian security forces’ repression of separatists within Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). In what it called “goodwill gesture”, Pakistan 1 March released captured Indian pilot whose plane it had shot down 27 Feb, while Pakistan and India High Commissioners returned to their posts 9 March. In first major diplomatic encounter since escalation, delegations from both countries met in Indian border village 14 March to discuss technical modalities of Kartarpur corridor facilitating Indian Sikh pilgrims visiting Pakistan-based religious site; Indian Foreign Ministry said meeting did not represent resumption of bilateral dialogue. Cross-LoC clashes between Pakistan and Indian militaries continued; Pakistan claimed Indian fire killed one civilian 1 March and two soldiers 2 March; India 24 March claimed one Indian soldier killed in cross-LoC clash. Pakistani navy 5 March claimed to have prevented Indian submarine entering Pakistani waters. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton 11 March called for “meaningful steps” against Jaish-e-Muhammad militant group that carried out Feb terror attack in J&K, and “other terrorist groups operating from Pakistan”. China 13 March placed “technical hold” on UN Security Council resolution proposing to list Jaish chief Masood Azhar as global terrorist. Inside J&K, security forces continued sweeping operations against suspected militants and detained scores of separatist leaders and supporters, particularly targeting Jamaat-i-Islami, which it banned 28 Feb; govt 22 March banned separatist Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front. Police 19 March announced teacher arrested as part of “terror case investigation” had died in custody, leading to large demonstrations in Pulwama district (south) and clashes with security forces. Security forces 29 March claimed to have killed two Jaish “terrorists” and four militants in Budgam, Shopian (west) and Kupwara (north west) districts. Govt 10 March excluded J&K from general elections scheduled to begin 11 April on security grounds; Kashmiri leaders criticised move as extending central govt’s control over state.
Govt intensified response to Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) following multiple IED and arson attacks by party since Feb including 8 March bombing at a foreign employment agency official’s Kathmandu residence (no injuries). Several CPN leaders and cadres arrested following cabinet 12 March ban on party’s activities; concerns growing about CPN reportedly possessing conflict-era weapons. Govt softened decision on ban following calls by both ruling Nepal Communist Party and opposition Nepali Congress leaders for dialogue. CPN 25 Mar announced protests against govt crackdown. Madhesi activist and leader of Alliance for Independent Madhes (AIM) CK Raut – arrested various times for controversial secessionist campaign – joined mainstream politics, launched Janamat Party following 8 March agreement with govt that withdrew all cases against AIM cadres in exchange for Raut’s commitment to respect Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Tensions between provincial and federal govts escalated with plan by Province 2 to appoint district-level administrators in parallel to federally appointed officials. Several provincial chief ministers threatened to legally challenge proposed legislation on federal control over provincial security and perpetuation of administrative structures not recognised by 2015 constitution; province leaders claim retaining outdated structures undermines transition to decentralised federal model central to new constitutional project.
Authorities continued crackdown on militant groups in response to international pressure, following Feb attacks in Kashmir by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad and subsequent military escalation with India (see Kashmir). PM Khan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) govt 4 March promulgated “UN Security Council (Freezing and Seizure) Order”, to streamline procedure for implementation of UN Security Council sanctions against individuals blacklisted by Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is due to review govt’s performance again in June. Interior Secretary 5 March ordered preventive detention of 44 members of proscribed anti-India groups pending investigation, including Jaish leader Masood Azhar’s son Hamad Azhar and brother Mufti Abdur Rauf, both mentioned in Indian dossier on Pulwama attack, given to Pakistan on 28 February. Following 4 March meeting by National Security Council, Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial govts 7 March took over administration of mosques and madrassas affiliated with suspected terrorist groups and seized some assets including hospitals. However, authorities did not arrest Jaish leader Masood Azhar, who was excluded from UN Security Council Resolution 1267 list due to Chinese veto 14 March. Govt responded strongly when opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bhutto Zardari questioned its anti-terrorism actions 13 March and demanded dismissal of three govt ministers with ties to proscribed groups, provoking Railways Minister Rashid to issue apparent threat against him. In Balochistan province (south west), Sunni militant and Baloch nationalists increased attacks: three police officers injured in bomb blast in capital Quetta 11 March; two civilians killed in bomb blast in Panjgur town 14 March; in Dera Murad Jamali area, bomb on passenger train killed four 16 March; in Ziarat district, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants 20 March killed six paramilitary officers in attack on guard post. Security forces 21 March rescued four hostages in clashes with Jaish al-Adl militants, part of fourteen Iranian border guards kidnapped 16 Oct.
Month dominated by political manoeuvring ahead of Nov presidential elections, while UN Human Rights Council passed resolution giving Sri Lanka two additional years to fulfil its commitments on reconciliation and accountability. Former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa continued campaign to be nominated as presidential candidate for Sri Lanka People’s Front, amid uncertainty over degree of support from his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, possible bid for a second term by President Sirisena as nominee of Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and increased lobbying by leftist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna for constitutional amendment abolishing executive presidency. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet 8 March called on Human Rights Council to maintain Sri Lanka on its agenda, noting slow progress in govt’s commitments to transitional justice and addressing impunity, and arguing that “lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed” to anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and to late 2018 constitutional crisis. Human Rights Council 21 March passed new resolution to “roll over” Sri Lanka’s commitments on reconciliation and accountability, giving it two more years to fulfil pledges it made in 2015. Even as Sri Lanka co-sponsored resolution, FM Tilak Marapana 20 March challenged aspects of High Commissioner’s report to council and rejected key aspects of 2015 resolution, including foreign judges in special court to investigate and try alleged war crimes. Reflecting deep divisions in govt following failed 2018 constitutional coup, Sirisena 27 March rejected resolution as “betrayal” of military and Sri Lankan people, claimed he was not informed and did not approve of its contents.
Violence continued in Papua’s Nduga regency, site of Dec 2018 killing by separatist rebels of sixteen road construction workers and subsequent security operations. Military 7 March reported three soldiers and seven to ten rebels killed as estimated 70 members of “armed criminal group” with military-grade weapons as well as spears ambushed group of 25 soldiers in Nduga area; West Papua National Liberation Army reported at least five soldiers killed, accused military of burning houses and interrogating villagers, sparking violence. Military 5 March said 600 soldiers to be deployed to finish building trans-Papua highway. Thousands of villagers reportedly remain displaced. West Papua National Committee spokesperson 13 March told session of UN Human Rights Council that military was targeting indigenous Papuans and committing human rights violations; govt spokesperson blamed separatist rebels for displacements. Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) provincial leader jailed for ten years 18 March for role in May 2018 Surabaya bombings which killed 28. Ahead of 17 April presidential and legislative elections, presidential challenger Prabowo Subianto claimed massive irregularities in voter roll, raising questions over credibility of result.
Arakan Army (AA) ramped up attacks across broad area of Rakhine State and southern Chin State, despite troop surge and vows by military and govt to crush insurgency. Over a dozen soldiers reportedly killed in clashes with AA in Paletwa township, southern Chin State 7 March; AA 9 March attacked police station in Ponnagyun, western Rakhine State, killing nine officers; same day reportedly occupied military tactical operations base in southern Chin State, capturing eleven prisoners and significant equipment; clashed on streets of Mrauk U town in west of Rakhine State 18 March. Six people killed in Buthidaung as army and AA clashed 21 March, shortly after peace talks in capital Naypyitaw with eight northern armed groups including AA. Court in Sittwe 19 March sentenced prominent Rakhine political leader and a co-accused to 20 years prison for high treason, in move seen as likely to fuel tensions. UN and local aid groups report nearly 20,000 civilians temporarily displaced in Rakhine State due to fighting in recent weeks; also reported that 95,000 people affected by govt restrictions on humanitarian aid to area. Govt 14 March announced new fourteen-member committee led by deputy upper house speaker (an ethnic Rakhine) tasked with bringing stability to Rakhine State and facilitating dialogue between govt, lawmakers and local people. Myanmar military 18 March announced appointment of three-member military “investigation court” to look into Aug 2017 ARSA attacks and security response. Bangladesh continued to move ahead with preparations to relocate some Rohingya refugees to camp on Bhasan Char, silt island 30km offshore. International Criminal Court prosecutor’s office visited Bangladesh 6-11 March as part of its preliminary examination of situation to determine whether to move ahead with formal investigation into alleged crimes against Rohingya.
Dozens of suspected militants and several soldiers reported killed and thousands of civilians displaced as army clashed with Islamic State (ISIS)-linked militants in Maguindanao, while govt announced end of peace talks with communist rebels. Several soldiers reported killed in attacks by Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) early March, with fighting escalating as military launched operations against group in Maguindanao 9 March; military 13 March said it had killed some 20 militants in air and ground assaults, including two BIFF leaders and Singaporean national belonging to Indonesian Jemaah Islamiya group; one soldier also killed. Two militants killed 14 March, one believed to be Abu Dar, senior Maute Group leader who escaped Marawi City siege in 2017; two soldiers killed. UN Humanitarian Agency reported over 35,000 fled fighting in Maguindanao, while clashes between military and Maute group in Lanao del Sur 11 and 14 March displaced almost 9,000. Military launched airstrikes and clashed with Abu Sayyaf group in Sulu and Basilan. Clashes continued with communist New People’s Army (NPA), including in eastern Mindanao and Northern Samar, and military reported mass NPA surrenders including in Negros Occidental and Mindanao; fourteen NPA reported killed in Negros Occidental 30 March. President Duterte 21 March announced permanent termination of dialogue with Communist Party of the Philippines, although govt said still open to localised peace talks with NPA rebels. Duterte 4 March approved executive order for implementation of final “normalisation” annex of Bangsamoro peace agreement, including, under security component, decommissioning and disarming of thousands of former MILF rebels and transformation of their camps; other components are development, confidence-building measures and transitional justice and reconciliation. Security officials 12 March warned first meeting of Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao regional peace and order council that Abu Sayyaf is still region’s top security threat, particularly in Sulu. Bangsamoro Transition Authority held inaugural session 29 March. Ahead of 13 May midterm poll, election commission 19 March declared Mindanao “category red” hotspot for risk of “election-related incidents” and “serious armed threats” by rebel groups.
South China Sea
U.S.-China tensions continued amid ongoing U.S. military exercises and Chinese and American diplomatic overtures to Philippines. U.S. flew B-52 bombers near contested islands in South China Sea (SCS) 4 and 14 March as part of its “continuous bomber presence mission” based in Guam. Following Jan reports that U.S. Marine Corps is developing conflict capabilities for taking “natural or man-made” island, U.S. Marines 11-14 March conducted training exercises on Japanese island of Iejima. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 1 March said U.S. would defend Philippines from “armed attack” on its ships or aircraft in SCS during meeting with Philippines President Duterte. Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana 4 March said current Philippines-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty was vague, risked “confusion and chaos” during crises and needed to be re-examined. Meeting in Beijing, Chinese and Philippines FMs 20 March agreed to finish negotiations for Code of Conduct for behaviour in SCS by 2021 during meeting in Beijing. Chinese vessel 6 March reportedly rammed and sunk Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters near Paracel Islands chain; Vietnamese govt 21 March submitted official protest to China, while China asserted sovereignty over Paracel Islands and said Vietnam should stop illegal fishing activities in area. Two former Philippine govt officials 21 March filed case at International Criminal Court against Chinese President Xi for mass island-building causing irreversible environmental damage in SCS and undermining “food and energy security” of surrounding states. Malaysia PM Mahathir 7 March said China should define “so-called ownership” of SCS so other countries can gain benefits, stressing importance of freedom of navigation.
24 March general election, widely criticised for irregularities, resulted in stand-off between junta and pro-democracy parties, while southern insurgent violence continued, including series of bombings outside conventional conflict zone. Pro-junta Phalang Pracharat Party exceeded expectations, gaining 8.4 million votes and 97 constituency seats, positioning it to lead a coalition govt with PM Prayuth Chan-ocha returning to premiership with electoral mandate. Pheu Thai Party (PT, pro-former PM Thaksin Shinawatra) won 7.9 million votes but most constituency seats (137). Seven pro-democracy parties united to form “democratic front” led by PT and 27 March announced they could form majority in lower house of parliament; final vote count to be reported 9 May together with calculation of party-list seats. King Maha Vajiralongkorn 30 March stripped Thaksin of royal decorations, which observers believe could influence political parties’ decisions on joining a coalition. More than 180 complaints of irregularities lodged with Election Commission (EC). EC halted vote counting on election night, and later twice posted – then removed – tallies marked by inconsistencies, casting doubt on EC’s competence and impartiality; protesters gathered in Bangkok 31 March to demand removal of election commissioners, while online petition demanding commissioners resign reached 830,000 signatures. In southern insurgency, Malay-Muslim militants on night of 9-10 March staged series of bombings in Satun and Phatthalung provinces, north of four southernmost provinces that constitute traditional insurgent area of operations; no casualties reported. Deadly attacks continue in deep south; in Narathiwat, attacks included clash between rangers and several militants in Reusoh district 2 March, one suspected insurgent killed; no casualties in gunbattle next day in nearby Dusongyor; roadside IED wounded ranger in Cho Airong district 11 March; militants 12 March attacked military outpost in Tak Bai, wounding two soldiers and civilian; and on 13 March threw pipebombs at police barracks in Yi-ngo district, again no casualties. Woman killed in IED targeting ranger patrol 14 March, Bacho district. Army officer wounded in ambush in Sungai Padi district, 30 March.
Europe & Central Asia
Bosnia And Herzegovina
Leaders of country’s three main nationalist parties agreed to talks to form new govt following Oct 2018 elections; during 28 March visit, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn urged members of tripartite presidency to form new govt quickly to resume reforms. Court in The Hague upheld genocide conviction of former Bosnian-Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadžić and extended his prison sentence to life.
U.S. and EU continued calls on Pristina to revoke 100% customs tariff on imports from Serbia, and for the two countries to resume normalisation talks; visiting U.S. envoy David Hale early month said U.S. and its Western allies would support any accord they reached, and called for end to “mutual provocations”. Parliament 7 March adopted eleven-point platform for negotiations with Serbia, stipulating need mutual recognition between countries and maintenance of current borders. Serbian President Vučić 8 March condemned platform, saying it was not compatible with the dialogue. EU Parliament 28 March voted again in favour of granting Kosovo citizens visa-free travel to bloc.
Skopje court 15 March sentenced sixteen people to jail for role in April 2017 attack on parliament, including former interior minister Mitko Cavkov, jailed for eighteen years for “terrorist endangerment of the constitutional order”.
PM Pashinyan 5 March met with European Council President Donald Tusk in Brussels for talks on EU-Armenia relations and Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, reportedly discussing comprehensive and enhanced partnership agreement and possible visa-free travel.
Following Feb reform announcement, President Aliyev made further progressive steps, 16 March pardoning 400 prisoners, including 51 political prisoners, ahead of Norouz new year holiday; EU welcomed step, saying it expected that “further similar steps will follow in future in line with Azerbaijan's international commitments”.
Crossings between Georgia and its breakaway regions reopened after two months closure as Russian border guards 15 March lifted all remaining restrictions, allowing regular movement of people and vehicles to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. News made public just hours before visit of foreign mediators of Geneva International Discussions (GID) to South Ossetia; co-chairs praised decision, but said closure “not justified” and asked for more coordination between conflict parties before any similar measures are introduced in future. Among those detained for trying to cross “illegally” was 29-year-old ethnic Georgian found dead at Russian military unit detention centre in eastern Abkhazia, where de facto officials said he committed suicide; Georgian officials launched investigation into case. NATO Sec Gen Jens Stoltenberg 25 March reiterated at joint NATO-Georgia military exercises near capital Tbilisi that “Georgia will become a member of NATO”; said alliance will not accept “that Russia or any other power can decide what members can do”.
Despite tensions between Armenian and Azerbaijani leaderships over Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) peace process early March, much-anticipated official summit 29 March resulted in commitment to strengthen ceasefire, improve communications and implement humanitarian projects. Armenian defence minister late Feb announced military strategy that would consider possible attacks at enemy positions rather than just self-defence, while Azerbaijani President Aliyev 14 March accused Yerevan of attempting to block Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group-led negotiation process after Armenia proposed discussion on inclusion of de facto NK leadership in negotiations. After Director of Armenia’s National Security Service during visit to NK conflict zone 27 Feb announced full support to local nationalist calls for continued development of Armenian settlements, Azerbaijan 11 March announced launch of large-scale military exercises close to NK conflict zone – first since Armenian PM Pashinyan took office in May 2018. Armenia 12 March convened first-ever joint Security Council meeting with NK leadership in de facto NK capital Stepanakert, during which Pashinyan reiterated support to existing negotiation format and framework, and stated that inclusion of de facto officials not a pre-condition, but necessary for a more effective peace process. Azerbaijan 26 March reported one soldier killed in exchange of fire in southern direction of Line of Contact (LoC) in NK conflict zone. First official summit between Pashinyan and Azerbaijani President Aliyev held in Vienna 29 March: both leaders assessed meeting positively and voiced readiness to continue talks. Minsk Group co-chairs released statement together with Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers which highlighted commitment of leaders “to strengthening the ceasefire and improving the mechanism for direct communication”; also mentioned agreement on “a number of measures in the humanitarian field”.
Protests resumed in Ingushetia over Sept 2018 border agreement with Chechnya, raising concerns about possible threat to regional stability, while EU condemned human rights situation in region, and security operations continued. Ingush activists 20 March refiled petition to hold referendum on border deal with Chechnya to Ingushetia’s Central Electoral Commission; Ingush leader Ynus-Bek Yevkurov 20 March withdrew proposed legislation which would have cancelled need for new referendums on any regional border changes. Despite move, thousands gathered in Ingush capital Magas 26-27 March to protest deal and called for Yevkurov to resign. Several injured in clashes with security forces; demonstrators dispersed after police agreed to sanction new protest. Thousands of protesters also blocked highway at entrance of Nazran city 27 March. In Chechnya, Shali city court 18 March sentenced Oyub Titiyev, director of Chechnya office of Memorial human rights organisation, to four years in penal colony on drug charges; Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner called Titiyev’s conviction “latest example of the hostile and dangerous environment” for rights activists in Chechnya. Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture 11 March released statement condemning alleged widespread use of torture and ill-treatment of persons detained in Chechnya and urged Russia to conduct effective investigations in Chechnya and elsewhere in North Caucasus region. Security operations against militants continued; in Stavropol region, security forces 14 March killed two suspected militants in shoot-out in Shpakovsky district and arrested a third. In Dagestan, authorities 15 March reportedly detained two individuals suspected of financing Islamic State (ISIS) from Makhachkala and Kizilyurt districts, and 25 March detained three others from Khasavyurt district suspected of abetting woman in Nov 2018 suicide attack in Chechen capital Grozny. In Ingushetia, several gunmen 26 March injured three people, including Nazran mayor’s son, in shooting at Nazran town hall.
Police arrested at least a dozen opposition activists and prevented several hundred from holding unauthorised anti-govt rally in Minsk 25 March to mark 101st anniversary of independence from Russia.
Police and protestors clashed on one occasion and hostilities increased slightly in Donbas as Ukraine prepared for first round of presidential elections 31 March. Ceasefire violations increased in conflict zone, with Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) monitors recording average of just under 400 explosions per day compared with under 300 in Feb. Violations peaked in first week of March, fell precipitously following 8 March recommitment to ceasefire, then saw another spurt 19-21 March. SMM reported five civilian injuries, three from explosive device and two from shelling; armed groups reported two additional civilian deaths from shelling; three people reportedly died of natural causes while crossing line of separation. Ukrainian armed forces reported eleven combat deaths 21 Feb-31 March; Ukrainian unofficial sources reported 21 members of armed groups killed in same period. Ukrainian authorities unilaterally opened Zolote checkpoint 24 March, citing 2015 agreement within Normandy Four negotiation format, however no crossings transpired, and head of so-called Luhansk People’s Republic said crossing would remain closed until “coordinated decision” by both sides. Ahead of 31 March first round of presidential election, far-right National Corps party held three “days of rage” during month to call for arrest of former National Security Council deputy head and others recently alleged to have overseen corruption schemes in defence sector. Protestors clashed with police 9 March after reportedly attempting to storm campaign rally by President Poroshenko; police reported 22 officers were injured; subsequent protests largely peaceful. Exit polls showed Volodymyr Zelensky with commanding lead in first round, with Poroshenko in second place. In 20 March interview with The Hill, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko accused U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who denounced ongoing corruption in 5 March speech, of giving him a list of people who should be immune from prosecution; Yovanovitch denied claim.
Attempts continued to resume reunification talks. Turkish FM Çavuşoğlu 11 March met Turkish Cypriot “foreign affairs minister” counterpart Kudret Özersay to discuss recent developments; same day met with UN Special Envoy Jane Holl Lute, after which he tweeted “all options are on the table for a permanent solution in Cyprus”. ExxonMobil 28 Feb announced discovery of significant (more than double previous estimate) gas reserves in Block 10 of Republic of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), prompting analyst warnings of risk of increased tensions with Greece/ Republic of Cyprus and possibly U.S. if Turkish military moves to prevent exploration activities.
Northern Ireland (UK)
Amid growing concerns over possible security implications of UK’s departure from EU for arrangements on border with Republic of Ireland, police 5 March discovered three small parcel bombs at transport hubs in London and another next day at Glasgow University; police 12 March said republican dissident group New IRA claimed responsibility for sending five packages, with fifth package found in post office in Republic of Ireland 22 March. Police 7 March claimed to have uncovered “significant terrorist hide” containing mortar parts in County Armagh (south).
Operations against Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) continued in south east and in northern Iraq, authorities maintained crackdown on pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Kurdish movement sympathisers, and tensions increased with U.S. over Syria and Ankara’s purchase of Russian missile systems. In south east, security forces continued operations against PKK, with casualties remaining low. Turkish military cross-border air raids 3-6 March targeted PKK positions in northern Iraq’s Haftanin and Hakurk areas. Govt crackdown on HDP and its municipal affiliate continued ahead of 31 March municipal elections. Early results 31 March suggested President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost mayoral race in Ankara and Istanbul to opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), despite AKP’s electoral alliance securing 51.63% of national vote; pro-Kurdish HDP retained key strongholds in south east, including Diyarbakır, Mardin, and Van, while losing Şırnak, Ağrı, and Bitlis. Strains on U.S.-Turkey relations increased: following Washington’s 22 Feb announcement to maintain residual contingent of forces in support of Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, Erdoğan 4 March reiterated intention to conduct Turkish military operation to expel YPG from Syria’s north east. Following meetings with U.S. officials in Ankara, Erdoğan 6 March refused to cancel purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system and expressed interest in procuring anti-ballistic S-500 missiles from Moscow at later date; U.S. 9 March warned deal would undermine military cooperation within NATO and jeopardise delivery of F-35s and Patriot missiles to Turkey. Counterterrorism efforts against jihadist cells and foreign terrorist fighters continued; authorities 13 March arrested fourteen foreign nationals in Ankara and a Danish citizen in Bursa, all suspected Islamic State (ISIS) members.
In televised address 19 March, President Nazarbayev unexpectedly resigned after almost 30 years in office, retaining positions of head of ruling party Nur Otan and Security Council chairmanship. Senate chair Qasym-Jomart Toqayev sworn in next day as interim president until next presidential election due 2020, while Nazarbayev’s daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva replaced Tokayev as chair of Senate. Parliament 20 March approved proposal by Tokayev to rename capital Astana to Nur-Sultan, prompted some protests in capital and other cities; dozens arrested. EU Parliament 14 March urged govt to end human rights abuses “and all forms of political repression”.
Deadly clashes broke out in Ferghana Valley over Kyrgyz construction of new road in disputed area near Tajikistan exclave Vorukh 13-14 March, killing two Tajik citizens and wounding dozens of Tajik and Kyrgyz citizens; border reopened 18 March following talks. Amid ongoing tensions between President Jeenbekov and former President Atambayev, who remains leader of Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK, largest in parliament), SDPK 18 March announced it will join opposition, reflecting apparent split in party. During visit by Russian President Putin late March, leaders agreed to expand Russian military base in northern town Kant.
Deadly clashes broke out over new road in Tajikistan exclave in Kyrgyzstan Vorukh 13-14 March, killing two villagers (see Kyrgyzstan). Opposition activist Sharofiddin Gadoyev, who was reportedly kidnapped while visiting Moscow in Feb, then handed over to Tajik authorities and tortured, returned to the Netherlands early March following international pressure on Dushanbe; said he was pressured to back President Rahmon’s son Rustam in 2020 presidential election.
Along with Azerbaijan, Georgia and Romania, govt 4 March established new trade route to Romania, Black Sea-Caspian Sea International Transport Corridor. Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders March urged Turkmenistan to stop harassment of journalists following arrest of journalist Soltan Achilova 11 March. Amid signs of increasing economic difficulties, reports emerged late Feb that authorities were restricting internal travel from regions to capital Ashgabat.
U.S. charged Gulnara Karimova, daughter of late President Karimov, with conspiracy to violate U.S. foreign corruption laws over her alleged involvement in major international bribery scheme; came after Uzbek court ordered Karimova be transferred to prison for breaking terms of her five-year house arrest on corruption charges. Govt 25 March signed $10bn worth of cooperation agreements with United Arab Emirates on areas including investment, industry and infrastructure development and others.
Latin America & Caribbean
President Duque’s objections to Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP), transitional justice mechanism created under 2016 peace deal with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to handle cases deriving from govt-FARC conflict, fuelled concerns over impact on wider peace deal, while violence along Pacific Coast continued at high levels, particularly involving National Liberation Army (ELN). Duque in live televised address 10 March announced objections to six articles from law establishing SJP. Congress due to consider Duque objections and vote on them or modify SJP; observers voiced concerns that objections could lead to changes to SJP that would overload it with cases or undermine former FARC members’ confidence in transitional justice, and ultimately boost FARC dissident group recruitment. Opposition responded with speech and protests in Bogotá and other cities 18 March, attended by thousands. Constitutional Court announced it will review objections 20 June, regardless of outcome in Congress. In north east, ELN guerrilla group continued attacks on security forces including ambush on soldiers in Catatumbo 9 March, killing three soldiers and two civilians. ELN 8 March carried out numerous attacks in Arauca (east) to coincide with Duque’s visit to region, including improvised explosive devices (IED) that wounded five soldiers, attack on police station in town of Fortúl, and reportedly killing an engineer it had previously kidnapped. Fighting broke out 11 March between ELN and Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC, country’s main drug trafficking group) in Chocó (west), trapping indigenous tribes in their territory, blocking access to food and leading to death of five children from starvation. High levels of violence along Pacific coast continued as clashes between armed groups that began 28 Feb caused displacement of 150 families from Tumaco into Ecuador. Political killings of community activists continued; armed group known as “Accountants” 17 March reportedly killed Argemiro López, local community leader of coca substitution processes, in La Guayacana, Nariño (south west).
Govt and opposition maintained hardline stances amid ongoing international efforts to end political crisis, while nationwide electricity blackouts signalled devastating effects of failing to resolve it. Opposition leader and “interim President” Juan Guaidó, recognised by U.S. and allies, returned to Venezuela 4 March following regional tour, arriving at Caracas airport despite speculation he would be arrested. Police 21 March arrested Guaidó’s chief of staff Roberto Marrero, later charged in connection with alleged “terrorist plot”; U.S. Sec State Pompeo warned of “consequences”, although U.S. officials downplayed likelihood of military intervention. Massive electric grid failure 7 March left around 90% of country without power, with Caracas suffering blackout for two days and other areas for over a week; blackout led to cut-off in water supplies and communications, unknown number of deaths in hospitals as back-generators failed, and outbreaks of looting, particularly in Maracaibo city (north west). President Maduro’s govt blamed sabotage by U.S. and local allies, although experts reportedly blamed fire underneath power lines and faulty maintenance. Widespread and lengthy blackouts returned 25 March, which this time govt blamed on “sniper”, and again 29 March. Two Russian military planes landed 23 March, reportedly carrying military equipment and dozens of troops; Russia cited fulfilment of existing military contracts, but U.S. President Trump 27 March said Russia must “get out”. International Federation of the Red Cross 29 March said it had reached agreement with govt and opposition to begin mass aid relief mid-April. Amid increasing tensions with international actors backing Guaidó, govt 6 March declared German ambassador (who accompanied Guaidó on his return from airport in official vehicle) persona non grata, giving him 48 hours to leave. U.S. 14 March removed last diplomats from Venezuela and closed embassy; FM Arreaza said govt expelled them while Pompeo said their presence had been “constraint” on U.S. policy. International Contact Group, headed by EU and Uruguay, met at ministerial level in Quito, Ecuador 28 March, sent mission to Caracas mid-March primarily to discuss humanitarian assistance; Contact Group has given itself until May to determine whether mediated settlement is possible.
Political tensions continued over International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), particularly its role in corruption case involving family of President Morales, against whom CICIG has also been preparing possible charges over illicit electoral financing. Attorney general’s office 6 March appealed to Constitutional Court to overturn Appeal Court’s Feb ruling that removed CICIG as plaintiff in corruption case of Morales’ brother and son, amid govt’s attempts to ensure CICIG plays no further parts in national affairs. Inter-American Court of Human Rights 12 March publicly ordered govt to abandon controversial amnesty bill which would pardon crimes committed during 1960-1996 civil war, which also drew heavy criticism from other domestic and international actors. Group of lawmakers 13 March walked out during third and final reading of bill, forcing its suspension. Govt 12 March confirmed it had dismissed security head overseeing security for at-risk judges following concerns over his appointment in Jan and request from International Commission of Jurists. Regional focus on migration continued with Northern Triangle and U.S. govts 27 March signing agreement to deter international crime and curb irregular migration; however U.S. State Department 30 March announced end of aid to region, day after President Trump claimed Northern Triangle countries had “set up” migrant caravans.
In attempt to bolster public security, president’s chief of staff 7 March announced govt preparing bill to increase size of military police and seeking ways to strengthen National Police and National Anti-Gang Force. Following Dec agreements resulting from UN-led dialogue, and after president of Congress put forward motion in support of new National Electoral Council which would be responsible for all administrative, technical and logistical aspects of elections with aim of increasing transparency, Congress received draft bill from Supreme Electoral Tribunal 27 Feb. Experts from Organization of American States (OAS) 25 March arrived in country to provide technical support on reforms. Regional focus on migration continued with Northern Triangle and U.S. govts 27 March signing agreement to deter international crime and curb irregular migration; however U.S. State Department 30 March announced end of aid to region, day after President Trump claimed Northern Triangle countries had “set up” migrant caravans.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet 6 March criticised proposed National Reconciliation Law, which Legislative Assembly began discussing in Feb, warning that if it was approved it would grant amnesty to those who may be “responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity” during 1980-1992 civil war, violating victims’ right to justice and reparation. Homicide rate remained lower than in 2018, with police chief 23 March announcing 659 murders since beginning of year, down from 870 in same period in 2018. Regional focus on migration continued with Northern Triangle and U.S. govts 27 March signing agreement to deter international crime and curb irregular migration; U.S. State Department 30 March announced end of aid to region, day after President Trump claimed Northern Triangle countries had “set up” migrant caravans.
Despite progress in dialogue between govt and opposition, political situation remained tense as govt continued repression and faced further international isolation. Following 27 Feb resumption of govt talks with opposition Civic Alliance, parties 5 March agreed on roadmap for technical and procedural issues in negotiations, and agreed to invite Episcopal Conference (CEN) to act as witness, but CEN 8 March refused. On invitation of govt 14 March, Organization of American States (OAS) appointed Luis Ángel Rosadilla as special representative to explore possibilities for OAS to act as guarantor, conditioning Rosadilla’s participation on release of political prisoners. Govt 20 March agreed to release all political prisoners over three-month period, with International Committee of the Red Cross overseeing release, to restart negotiation with opposition. Opposition representative 29 March reported govt agreed to restore protest and press freedoms and disarm paramilitary groups. However repression continued as human rights defenders reported govt continued detaining opponents. Opposition Blue and White National Unity (UNAB) 16 March held unauthorised protests in Managua; police violently repressed demonstrations, wounding eight people, arresting more than 100 including two Civic Alliance negotiators, and harassing journalists covering protests, though detainees were released same day; UNAB 30 March said police had suppressed protest in Managua, with ten demonstrators detained and several injured. Govt’s international isolation increased; European Parliament 14 March adopted resolution calling on EU to impose targeted sanctions against govt officials and suspend country’s Association Agreement with EU, which gives Nicaragua preferential trade access. U.S. envoy Todd Robinson 18 March stated U.S. had not ruled out any options, including military action; U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo 27 March aired possibility of further sanctions. Economic conditions continued to deteriorate.
Political tensions remained high following Feb anti-govt demonstrations and unrest that left some 26 dead, with fears that ongoing calls to topple govt could lead to more violent protests. Opposition grouping Le Secteur Démocratique et Populaire 4 March held funeral in capital Port-au-Prince for four protesters killed during uprisings, leading to fresh protests and clashes with police who fired tear gas; further anti-govt protests 29 March. Amid executive paralysis, rising inflation and continued protests, parliament 18 March removed PM Céant in no-confidence vote; President Moïse 21 March named Jean-Michel Lapin as interim PM. In attempt to placate political tensions, Moïse late Feb announced national dialogue committee with mandate until May 2019, however, parts of opposition rejected initiative; several opposition parties proposed 36-month transition period including creation of constituent assembly to redraw constitution and creation of electoral council to promote electoral reforms and ensure free elections. Gang insecurity continued as violent clashes broke out between armed groups 13 March in La Saline neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, leaving six dead. UN Sec-Gen Guterres 1 March recommended creation of special political mission for Haiti once UN police force’s mandate ends Oct 2019.
Amid record levels of violence, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s National Peace and Security Plan to fight crime moved toward becoming law, though details on strategy and operations, transparency and accountability not yet announced. All state congresses by 14 March had given approval for constitutional reform that allows armed forces to remain active in public security for another five years and enables creation of National Guard, controversial main instrument of security plan; concerns remain over militarisation of public security. Criminal violence continued unabated, most prominently Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG), which continues to push for expansion and territorial consolidation in centre of country, and was blamed for two high-profile incidents during month: 9 March attack on night club in Salamanca, Guanajuato state (centre), killing fifteen, and discovery of 27 bodies in Guadalajara, Jalisco (west) 14 March. CJNG also in violent competition with other armed groups including Sinaloa Cartel over smuggling routes in Tijuana, Baja California state (north) and against multiple groups for control of extortion, trafficking and oil-siphoning in Veracruz state (Gulf coast). Mexican NGO 12 March released report detailing Tijuana as world’s deadliest city, with Acapulco in Guerrero state (south) in second place. Attacks on security forces continued; in Tierra Blanca (centre), CJNG 14 March ambushed state police, killing one officer, and attacked state police HQ with grenades. Migrants travelling through Mexico on way to U.S. continued to face risks, particular in border state Tamaulipas, where around 20 migrants were kidnapped from bus outside San Fernando 7 March. Federal govt subsequently announced it had dismissed 30 local agents of National Migratory Institute, acknowledging corruption. Journalist Santiago Barroso murdered in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora (north) 15 March, and journalist Omar Iván Camacho murdered in Salvador Alvarado, Sinaloa (north) 24 March, fifth killed in 2019.
Middle East & North Africa
Flare-up in strikes between Hamas and Israel threatened ceasefire and U.S. President Trump signed decree recognising Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, Israeli-occupied Syrian territories. Palestinian militants in Gaza fired rockets into Israel 14 and 25 March, both times provoking heavy Israeli strikes in Gaza. Meanwhile, Egypt continued to mediate between Israel and Hamas. In Gaza, residents protested 14 March against high cost of living and unemployment; Hamas violently cracked down on crowd, and blamed Palestinian Authority (PA) for instigating protests. Tens of thousands of Palestinians protested 30 March on first anniversary of Great March of Return protests; Israeli security forces shot dead four at border. Palestinians launched rockets from Gaza into Israel night of 30-31 March, Israel responded with tank fire. Israel 31 March expanded Palestinian fishing zone off Gaza and opened Erez and Kerem Shalom border crossings. In West Bank, Israeli security forces shot dead six Palestinians in five incidents, including one suspected of killing Israeli soldier and Rabbi near Ariel 17 March, and 27 March detained thirteen Palestinians for “suspected involvement in popular hostile activities”. Mohammed Shtayyeh 10 March appointed PM of PA; Hamas said new govt unconstitutional as not ratified by now dissolved Palestinian Legislative Council. PA same day announced emergency budget, following late Feb statement that it would not accept taxes collected by Israel on its behalf as long as Israel withheld taxes owed to families of, what PA called, martyrs. In Jerusalem, U.S. Consulate General – responsible for Palestinian affairs – 4 March closed with functions taken over by U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. U.S. President Trump 25 March signed decree recognising Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, overturning decades of U.S. policy and drawing global condemnation; UN said “status of Golan has not changed”. Israel 27 March carried out airstrike near Aleppo in northern Syria reportedly targeting Iranian weapons depot and killing several Iraqi and Iranian fighters.
U.S. Sec State Pompeo 21 March met PM Hariri in Beirut, stating “Lebanon faces a choice; bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future”. Following UK’s decision to classify Hizbollah in its entirety as “terrorist organisation” late Feb, Hizbollah 8 March called for donations as it claimed Western sanctions had put it under financial pressure; party leader warned other countries may follow UK’s example and U.S. sanctions may get tougher.
Turkey began patrols in Idlib in north west to help contain violence even as govt and Russia upped bombing there; Kurdish-led forces took Islamic State’s (ISIS) last holdout in east; and anti-govt protests erupted in Daraa in south. In north west, govt and Russian airstrikes 13-23 March killed 35 civilians and damaged Idlib prison, enabling dozens of ISIS and pro-govt prisoners to escape. Russian warplanes 10 March struck “White Helmets” first responders, killing two. Jihadist coalition Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other militants attacked govt forces in areas surrounding de-escalation zone. Turkey-backed rebels 9 March attacked govt positions in Hama governorate. Male suicide bomber 1 March killed seven civilians in Idlib city, prompting HTS to execute ten detained alleged ISIS members. Turkey 8 and 15 March launched first two patrols in demilitarised strip around de-escalation zone. Israel 27 March carried out airstrike near Aleppo, reportedly targeting Iranian weapons depot, killing several Iraqi and Iranian fighters. Regarding north east, U.S. 29 March said it would withdraw half of its 2,000 troops by early May, with further withdrawals dependent on developments. Turkish President Erdoğan 6 March reiterated demand for Turkish-controlled 30km-wide safe zone along Turkish border, refusing compromise with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Syrian govt 18 March insisted on full U.S. withdrawal and refused to concede any autonomy to YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). In east, SDF renewed assault on ISIS in Baghouz near Iraqi border; 23 March claimed “total elimination” of ISIS caliphate in Syria. In south, residents of Daraa 10 March protested against govt decision to erect statue of former President Hafez al-Assad, and suspected rebel sleeper cells continued attacks on pro-govt forces. U.S. President Trump 25 March signed decree recognising Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights, Syrian territories which Israel occupied in 1967, overturning decades of U.S. policy and drawing global condemnation; Syria called move “blatant attack” on its territorial integrity, UN said “status of Golan has not changed”.
International Atomic Energy Agency 6 March published quarterly report confirming Iran has continued to abide by terms of 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Special Trade and Finance Institute (STFI), Iranian sister organisation of Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), mechanism created by European JCPOA members in Jan to facilitate Iran’s purchases of humanitarian goods, formally registered in Iran 19 March. President Rouhani 11-13 March visited Iraq, first time as president, meeting senior Iraqi politicians, businessmen and religious leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Sistani. Iran and Iraq signed five memoranda of understanding to deepen economic and diplomatic ties. Iranian officials and counterparts from France, Germany, UK and Italy convened 18 March under Iran-E4 framework in Brussels to discuss regional issues, notably Yemen. Supreme Leader Khamenei 7 March appointed hardliner Ebrahim Raisi as new Chief Justice, to replace Sadeq Larijani, appointed as new chairman of Expediency Council – constitutional arbitrator between parliament and Guardian Council. U.S. 22 March issued sanctions designation against 31 individuals and entities linked to Iranian nuclear program; 26 March issued sanctions on additional companies and individuals in Iran, Turkey and United Arab Emirates for alleged sanctions evasion. Israel 27 March carried out airstrike near Aleppo in northern Syria reportedly targeting Iranian weapons depot and killing several Iraqi and Iranian fighters.
Iranian President Rouhani visited Iraq for first time as president and leading Kurdish parties agreed to share power in Kurdistan, as Islamic State (ISIS) kept up insurgency. Rouhani visited Iraq 11-13 March, meeting President Salih and PM Mahdi and signing MoUs for joint projects involving energy sector, trade and railway infrastructure. In Najaf, site of Shiite shrine, Rouhani met Shiite cleric Sistani, who insisted that Iraqi govt must take control of Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) Shiite militias, some of whose factions are considered loyal to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). U.S. Treasury 6 March blacklisted PMU faction Harakat al-Nujaba close to IRGC. U.S. 19 March granted govt new 90-day sanction waiver so it could continue importing energy from Iran. In Kurdistan, two leading parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), 4 March reached deal to speed up formation of regional govt, allocating high executive and security positions to KDP and making PUK junior partner. Parliament 27 March voted to sack Ninewa’s governor Nawfal Hammadi al-Sultan after at least 90 people killed in ferry accident in provincial capital Mosul. ISIS-related clashes continued: insurgents 6 March ambushed PMU on Mosul-Kirkuk road, killing six; in Mosul, car bomb killed two 8 March; in north Baghdad, militants 19 March killed three soldiers; security forces arrested five alleged ISIS members in east Mosul 20 March. After Syrian rebels Syrian Democratic Forces transferred some 400 suspected ISIS foreign fighters from Syria to Iraq, Iraqi authorities 15 March initiated court proceedings against fourteen French nationals. In north, Turkish air raids 3-6 March targeted Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) positions in Haftanin and Hakurk areas; Iraqi army 17-19 March clashed with PKK-backed Yezidi militias in Sinjar district, five militia members and two soldiers killed; talks late month between militias and army chief of staff eased fighting.
During Russian FM Lavrov’s tour of Gulf states, Lavrov 4 March discussed with FM Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani possible sale of Russian S-400 missile defence system to Doha, despite U.S. and Saudi opposition. Govt early March hosted further round of U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha (see Afghanistan).
International pressure on govt mounted due to its role in Yemen war and Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in Oct. Germany 6 March extended temporary ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia until end month, citing concerns over govt’s military conduct in Yemen; 28 March extended ban for six more months to 30 Sept. U.S. Senate 13 March adopted resolution aimed at ending U.S. support to Saudi-led coalition in Yemen; legislation U.S. President Trump has said he would veto. Interpol 14 March issued arrest warrants at Turkey’s request for twenty people allegedly involved in killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Oct; list includes two of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s close aides. Same day, Saudi human rights commission dismissed international investigation into killing saying govt had already taken necessary measures to resolve matter. Trial of ten female activists for allegedly conspiring with foreign entities began 13 March amid outcry in Western press, particularly amid reports that they had suffered torture and other forms of ill-treatment including sexual abuse. King Salman 27 March met Libyan commander of eastern military coalition Khalifa Haftar. Under pressure from Saudi Arabia, European govts 1 March blocked publication of EU blacklist of jurisdictions at high risk of being used for money laundering and terror financing, which includes Saudi Arabia.
Fighting escalated in Taiz and Hajja governorates and continued elsewhere, and implementation of Dec Stockholm Agreement stalled, raising risk that warring parties resume combat around Hodeida port and city. Govt and Huthis failed to redeploy forces away from front-line positions in and around Hodeida, as agreed in Feb, as both sides raised objections to redeployment plan; primary point of contention was composition of local security forces due to assume control of city and ports after redeployment. UK FM Hunt 3 March warned Stockholm process “could be dead within weeks” if sides did not stick to commitments. U.S. Envoy Matthew Tueller 21 March publicly blamed Huthis for delays in implementation and said weapons in non-state actors’ possession posed threat to “neighbouring countries”. Huthis 17 March said they had intelligence that Saudi-led coalition planned to escalate violence in Hodeida and that they were ready to strike capitals of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates if implementation of deal is breached. Other components of Stockholm Agreement also remained stalled, including prisoner exchange and talks over contested city of Taiz in south. Fighting escalated in Taiz in second part of month between nominally allied pro-govt Yemeni groups; medical facilities late March received two dead and 49 wounded in four days. After flaring in Feb, fighting intensified in Hajja governorate in north west between al-Hajour tribes and Huthis; UN 11 March reported 22 civilians killed in attacks in Hajja’s Kushar district, and Saudi-led coalition reported Huthi shelling of houses killed several tribesmen. Huthis prevailed in Kushar, allegedly killing several key local leaders. NGO Save the Children said missile 26 March struck petrol station near entrance to hospital it supports about 100km from Saada in north killing seven people, including four children; U.S. 28 March urged Saudi-led coalition to conduct transparent investigation into bombing. U.S. Senate 13 March adopted resolution aimed at ending U.S. support to Saudi-led coalition in Yemen; legislation President Trump has said he would veto. Germany 6 March extended temporary ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia until end month, citing concerns over Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen.
United Arab Emirates
During Russian FM Lavrov’s visit as part of 4-7 March Gulf tour, United Arab Emirates (UAE) govt and Lavrov discussed political transition in Syria. Govt end Feb announced it would deploy 5G mobile phone network in partnership with Chinese tech giant Huawei, despite U.S. lobbying against move.
Facing nationwide protests, President Bouteflika agreed not to run for fifth term, postponed elections indefinitely and promised reform; army and ruling party called on constitutional council to declare him unfit to rule and initiate transition, but some protesters rejected plan, demanding end of regime, heightening uncertainty and political volatility in coming weeks. While Bouteflika in hospital in Geneva, his campaign manager 3 March submitted Bouteflika’s candidacy for 18 April elections ahead of his term’s end 28 April. Bouteflika same day promised early elections if he won and reforms including constitutional referendum; protesters rejected promises. Following mass protests 8 March, Bouteflika 10 March returned to Algeria, 11 March postponed sine die presidential elections, withdrawing his candidacy, and said national conference would decide new date for elections. Same day, he replaced PM Ouyahia with Interior Minister Bedoui, and tasked him with appointing new govt. Several Bouteflika allies stepped down: Ali Haddad 28 March resigned as president of Business Leaders’ Forum (FCE), authorities 31 March arrested him after he tried to cross Tunisian border; former Agriculture Minister Sid Ahmed Ferroukhi resigned as MP for ruling party National Liberation Front (FLN) 4 March. Interim FLN leader Moab Bouchareb 20 March backed Bouteflika’s transition roadmap. Over ten million people took part in weekly protests after Friday prayers 15, 22 and 29 March, but opposition struggled to form united front. Loose opposition coalition National Coordination for Change (CNC) 18 March called for dissolution of parliament and urged Bouteflika to hand over power to temporary collective presidency when his term ends. Army Chief of Staff Gaïd Salah 26 March called on constitutional council to rule Bouteflika unfit for office; parliament would have to ratify council’s decision with two-thirds majority. Ruling FLN said it backed army’s initiative. Protesters called not just for Bouteflika’s resignation but also end of regime.
Parliament continued constitutional amendment process to extend presidential mandate and increase term limits amid ongoing repression of dissenting voices. Following 14 Feb vote to begin deliberation on constitution, parliament 20-28 March held hearings with religious, economic, social and political representatives to propose changes. Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee to draft constitutional articles according to proposed amendments and submit them to vote in parliament by mid-April, followed by national referendum. In Sinai, military 11 March reported 46 Islamic State (ISIS) militants and three soldiers killed, without disclosing dates or locations. In Cairo, prosecutors 25 March referred 28 people to court on charges of joining ISIS and al-Qaeda; 30 March sentenced 30 alleged ISIS members over plot to attack church. Repression intensified after protests over govt response to 28 Feb train crash: authorities 28 Feb-3 March arrested 70 people in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria and Beheira; 4 March released ten and 7 March charged 35 with terrorism and spreading false news. Human rights groups 13-16 March denounced police torture of two transgender activists. Exiled television commentator Moataz Matar 4 March accused authorities of abducting eight of his family members.
Fighting eased in south and UN renewed efforts to mediate agreement between head of eastern military coalition Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar and PM of Tripoli-based internationally-recognised Govt of National Accord (GNA) Faiez Serraj to form new unity govt and unify state institutions, including military. Following Haftar-Serraj meeting 27 Feb in United Arab Emirates under UN auspices, UN Envoy Ghassan Salamé early March shuttled between them or their advisors in Libya. To show support for potential Haftar-Serraj deal, French FM Le Drian visited Tripoli and Benghazi 18-19 March, and commander of U.S. Africa Command Thomas Waldhauser visited Tripoli 19 March. After months of delay, Salamé 20 March said National Conference, part of UN Action Plan, would take place mid-April in desert city of Ghaddames in west near borders with Algeria and Tunisia, but did not disclose agenda nor list of invitees. At meeting of Libya Quartet (League of Arab States, African Union (AU), EU and UN) in Tunis 30 March, AU President Moussa Faki announced national reconciliation conference would be held in Addis Ababa in July. Local elections took place in nine municipalities in country’s first voting for five years; turnout low at 38%, electoral commission said local elections would take place in about 60 other municipalities in coming weeks. Fighting eased in south as Haftar’s Libyan National Army consolidated control, following offensive launched in Jan, and oil production resumed in Sharara oil field, closed since Dec.
Ahead of presidential election planned for later this year, Defence Minister Mohamed El Ghazouani 1 March confirmed he would be ruling majority’s candidate. Leaders of opposition platform including National Forum for Democracy and Unity (FNDU) and Rally of Democratic Forces (RFD) 12 March failed to reach agreement on common candidate; 27 March called for dissolution of electoral commission and formation of new one with greater opposition representation. Former PM Sidi Mohamed Ould Boubacar 30 March said he would stand in presidential election as independent candidate, with support from opposition Islamist party Tewassoul.
Police 23 March fired water cannon to disperse some 15,000 teachers protesting low-wage temporary contracts outside parliament in capital Rabat in continuation of month-long protest movement; thousands demonstrated again next day. Govt took part in second round of talks with Western Sahara’s Polisario Front independence movement 21-22 March under UN auspices in Geneva, in presence of Algeria and Mauritania. UN envoy for Western Sahara Horst Köhler said parties had agreed to continue discussions, but there was “still a lot of work ahead”.
Political manoeuvring continued ahead of elections planned for late 2019. Electoral commission 6 March said legislative elections would take place 6 Oct and first round of presidential election 10 Nov. Several centrist politicians joined PM Chahed’s new political party. Authorities detained UN official tasked with investigating alleged violations of UN arms embargo on Libya in Tunis 26 March on suspicion of spying. UN late March asked Tunisia to free UN official, stressed he had diplomatic immunity.
Morocco and Polisario Front independence movement 21-22 March held second round of talks under UN auspices in Geneva, in presence of Algeria and Mauritania. UN envoy for Western Sahara Horst Köhler said parties had agreed to continue discussions, but there was “still a lot of work ahead”.