Tracking Conflict Worldwide
Outlook for This Month January 2019
Conflict Risk Alerts
Trends for Last Month December 2018
In December, deadly clashes punctuated the weeks leading up to general elections in both DR Congo and Bangladesh, and disputes over the results could trigger more bloodshed in January. Nigeria suffered a high rate of insurgent attacks and a rise in violent crime in its northern regions ahead of elections in February-March. In Sudan and Togo, security forces clamped down on anti-government protests, and Burundi further isolated itself from its neighbours. In Nicaragua, the political situation remained tense amid growing government attacks on NGOs and journalists, and in Indonesia, a West Papua pro-independence armed group launched a deadly attack in Papua. In Yemen, a ceasefire agreement offered a glimmer of hope; new UN-led talks in January could lead to wider de-escalation, but if they fail the battle for Hodeida could resume. President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would withdraw its troops from Syria upset a fragile balance of forces in the north east, and in Libya, tensions rose after ISIS attacked the foreign ministry. Sri Lanka’s President Sirisena reappointed the deposed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, signalling an end to the constitutional and political crisis that had shaken the country.
Trends and Outlook
At long last, DR Congo went to the polls. Voting day itself – delayed for another week till 30 December – was mostly calm. But the preceding weeks saw violence mount, with opposition supporters clashing with security forces or partisans of the ruling coalition. The risk of violence will be high in coming weeks, as losers may dispute results. In particular, the electoral commission’s decision to postpone voting in some areas afflicted by Ebola and ethnic violence until March, after a new president has taken office, disenfranchises 1.25 million potential voters, many opposition supporters. We have warned it’s a dangerous move. The electoral commission should reverse its decision and organise voting in the affected areas after a week or two at most to ensure those votes count.
Resurgent violence in northern Nigeria, among other factors, makes conditions for general elections in February and March particularly combustible. While Boko Haram kept up a high tempo of attacks against civilians and military in the north east, criminal violence accelerated in Zamfara state in the north west, where bandit attacks left at least 97 dead. Burundi marched ahead on its isolationist trajectory, with the national assembly rejecting the African Union’s calls for political restraint and relations deteriorating with both Uganda and Rwanda.
Sudan’s prolonged economic crisis fuelled a new wave of protests, to which security forces responded with force, reportedly leaving dozens dead. The protests and their political fallout could amount to a serious challenge to President Bashir’s rule – which in turn could stir further instability in South Sudan. In Togo, too, security forces clamped down on protests in the run-up to legislative polls, boycotted by the opposition. The death of at least four protesters could make resolving the standoff between the government and opposition even harder.
As we had warned, violence between supporters of rival political parties ahead of and on the day of Bangladesh’s general elections left hundreds injured and dozens killed. The opposition claimed the election commission was biased, and accused security forces of being complicit in attacks on their leaders and supporters – a charge denied by the ruling Awami League. With the opposition now rejecting the ruling coalition’s landslide victory, claiming widespread fraud, we fear more violence.
Fighting spiked in Indonesia, where the West Papua National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for killing at least seventeen state contractor employees working on a major highway construction project in Nduga district, Papua province, on 2 December. More people were killed and hundreds of civilians reportedly fled as the military launched a hunt for the suspects. The attack came a day after police arrested hundreds of people taking part in demonstrations marking the 57th anniversary of West Papua’s declaration of independence.
The political situation remains tense in Nicaragua, where President Ortega’s government displayed increasingly repressive tendencies, targeting human rights NGOs, journalists and members of the opposition. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concluded the government had installed a “regime of terror”. To prevent more unrest, we have called on outside powers, especially from Latin America, the U.S., EU and Vatican, to press Ortega to implement agreed electoral reforms and ensure due process for arrested protesters.
After multiple false starts, UN-led negotiations between Yemen’s warring parties concluded with a ceasefire in Hodeida governorate, which could open the way to wider de-escalation in January and a negotiated end to the conflict in 2019. But if the talks fail or implementation falters, rival forces could resume the battle for Hodeida port and city with catastrophic humanitarian implications.
U.S. President Trump’s decision to pull his forces from Syria put that conflict firmly on our list of conflicts to watch in 2019. The announcement upset the delicate balance of forces and, further down the line, raises the odds of a bloody conflict involving Turkey, its Syrian allies, Syrian Kurds, and the Assad regime; and potentially gives the Islamic State a new lease on life by fuelling the chaos on which it thrives. Meanwhile, in Libya, Islamic State’s attack on the foreign ministry in Tripoli underscored the hazardous security environment hampering reunification of rival state institutions.
Sri Lanka’s constitutional and political crisis ended as President Sirisena reappointed deposed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to office, bowing to two Supreme Court rulings blocking his attempt to install former President Rajapaksa as prime minister and call early general elections. While fearing the political blockages that led to the attempted constitutional coup remain in place, observers hailed Wickremesinghe’s re-appointment as a victory for the rule of law and parliamentary democracy.
Suspected jihadist militants continued attacks against security forces and civilians in north and east amid reports of killings of civilians by security forces, and insecurity persisted in west. In Sahel region in north, suspected Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants 4 Dec attacked gendarmerie checkpoint on Dori-Seytanga axis, three gendarmes wounded; suspected members of jihadist group Ansarul Islam 10 Dec destroyed school in Firguindi in intimidation campaign against educational facilities. Mostly Fulani local NGO Kisal late Nov reported security forces were suspected of committing serious abuses against civilians in Sahel region, including killing 38 civilians in three villages in Boulgou province mid Nov and allegedly killing seven civilians in Niafo village, Soum province 22 Nov. In Boucle du Mouhoun region in north west, suspected members of jihadist group Macina Liberation Front, member of coalition Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM), killed two policemen near Goïalé 6 Dec and allegedly abducted two councilmen in Kwaremenguel and Gani 3 Dec. Also in Boucle du Mouhoun region, JNIM 27 Dec claimed responsibility for 25 Dec attack near Toeni that killed ten gendarmes. In North region, suspected Ansarul Islam militants 3 Dec abducted councilman in Banh. In East region, suspected ISGS militants 14 Dec attacked police station in Nadiagou and 15 Dec killed municipal councillor in Pepembougou. Govt 31 Dec imposed state of emergency in violence-affected provinces in seven regions: Hauts-Bassins, Boucle du Mouhoun, Cascades, North, Sahel, East and Centre-East. In south west, unidentified assailants 7 Dec attacked credit union in Péni, Hauts-Bassins region, four civilians wounded; 11 Dec attacked police station in Bouroum-Bouroum, South West region, no casualties reported. President Kaboré 17-18 Dec met French President Macron in Paris; Macron agreed to new military framework for security cooperation, reportedly saying he was ready to send more trainers, military advisers and equipment.
Intercommunal and jihadist violence continued in centre and Ménaka region in east and govt blocked protests over electoral calendar. In centre, tit-for-tat attacks continued largely by Dogon and Bambara militias, known as Dozo, against Fulani civilians and, less so, by Fulani-dominated jihadist groups against Dogon and Bambara civilians. Army reported one soldier killed in “terrorist” attack near Bankass, Mopti region 5 Dec; Fulani self-defence group said four of its members killed in attack. Arrest of three Dozo accused of murder in Bankass near Burkina Faso border 17 Dec sparked public anger and alleged violence against Fulani. In Ménaka region in east, suspected Fulani combatants affiliated with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) 12 Dec attacked campsites in Tinabaw, killing 47 Tuareg Daousak. After rumours spread of planned retaliation by Daousak militia, many fled to Niger 16 Dec. After French and Malian authorities late Nov reported killing of Amadou Kouffa, leader of jihadist group Macina Liberation Front, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Abdelmalek Droukdel 11 Dec indicated Kouffa was alive. Authorities 6 Dec said they had dismantled jihadist cell in Koutiala town in south near border with Burkina Faso. French airstrike night of 19-20 Dec killed at least five suspected jihadists in south east near Niger border. In capital Bamako, governor 4 Dec banned gatherings in several areas. Security forces 8 and 15 Dec repressed opposition protests in Bamako seeking to denounce bad governance and extension of MPs’ mandate until June 2019 due to postponement of legislative election. Over 50 organisations early Dec denounced govt-proposed Law of National Understanding which is envisaged in 2015 peace agreement, arguing that it would allow impunity. Parliament 13 Dec delayed vote on draft law, requesting additional information from govt.
Suspected jihadist groups continued attacks in south east near border with Nigeria and in west near borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. In south east, suspected members of Boko Haram (BH) 5 Dec killed three Fulani herdsmen near Ngalewa village, Diffa region; presumed members of BH faction Islamic State West Africa Province 14 Dec ambushed civilian convoy between N’Guigmi and Kabelawa, Diffa region, killing state official and two other civilians. In south west, armed assailants 15 Dec kidnapped traditional chief in Torodi area, Tillabery region, and headed toward Burkina Faso border; security forces supported by local population launched operation to rescue him, four assailants reportedly killed, along with one gendarme and one civilian. Traditional chief’s fate remained unclear. Army 17 Dec killed two suspected members of Islamic State in Greater Sahara near Tin Tadangawi, Tillabery region. French force Barkhane and army 29 Dec raided jihadist camp near Tongo Tongo, Tillabery region allegedly killing fifteen militants. UN refugee agency 13 Dec said violence along western borders with Mali and Burkina Faso had displaced 52,000 in 2018. Colonel and two senior officers reportedly arrested 15 Dec in capital Niamey for allegedly plotting coup.
Parliament and protesters rejected African Union’s call for restraint, as relations between President Nkurunziza and Ugandan President Museveni – mediator of Burundian crisis – deteriorated and tensions with neighbouring Rwanda continued to rise. Govt pursued legal proceedings relating to assassination of first elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, in Oct 1993: four retired Tutsi army officers arrested late Nov and attorney general 30 Nov issued international arrest warrants for seventeen people including former President Pierre Buyoya, now African Union (AU) representative in Mali. AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki 1 Dec called for restraint on all sides. National Assembly 5 Dec rejected Faki’s statement, calling on international organisations to stop interfering in internal affairs. Demonstrators in capital Bujumbura protested against Faki’s remarks and called for arrest of Buyoya and other suspects. Following Nkurunziza’s refusal to attend East African Community (EAC) heads of state summit planned for 30 Nov, Nkurunziza 4 Dec wrote to EAC president and mediator of Burundian crisis, Ugandan President Museveni, criticising final report of facilitator, former Tanzanian President Mkapa, and demanding extraordinary summit to find solution to “open conflict between Burundi and Rwanda”. Museveni replied urging Nkurunziza to discuss with opposition in exile. EAC summit re-scheduled to 27 Dec but again postponed, possibly to margins of Jan AU summit. Govt 21 Dec decided to make Gitega in centre political capital instead of Bujumbura in west. In southern Rwanda, unidentified assailants 15 Dec set fire to three vehicles in Nyamagabe district which borders Burundi, killing at least two civilians; Rwandan army said it pursued attackers into forest bordering Burundi.
Fighting continued in Anglophone regions in west between separatists and military, and among separatists; in Far North, Boko Haram (BH) continued attacks against civilians; and in Adamawa region in centre north, unidentified armed groups continued abductions. Hours after President Biya 30 Nov signed decree creating National Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Committee to encourage Anglophone and BH militants to surrender, separatists fired gunshots in Buea (Southwest) and Bambui and Bambili (both Northwest) to show their disapproval. Leader of armed group in Ndian (Southwest) 14 Dec promised to hand over weapons to govt and surrender. Separatists 1 Dec abducted traditional ruler of Nso (Northwest). Military 5 Dec killed five people in Meluf-Kumbo (Northwest). Civilian killed in fighting between separatists and military along Buea-Kumba road (Southwest) 7 Dec. Separatists 22 Dec attacked Bangourain, West region in Francophone zone, killing one. Suspected separatists beheaded soldier in Bamenda, capital of Northwest region 28 Dec. Security forces reportedly killed at least six separatists in Binka (Northwest) 28 Dec. Fighting between separatist groups Ambazonia Defence Forces and Southern Cameroon Defence Forces led to five deaths 16 Dec. UN Security Council 13 Dec officially discussed Anglophone conflict for first time; U.S. and UK ambassadors asked for release of Anglophone detainees, immediate talks between separatists and govt and access to Anglophone regions for UN agencies and human rights NGOs. UN renewed offer of mediation. Biya same day ordered release of 289 Anglophone detainees who had committed minor offences. Ten U.S. senators 7 Dec called for political solution to Anglophone conflict and urged U.S. govt to put sanctions on individuals found to have committed gross human rights violations. In Far North, BH continued attacks, intensifying suicide bombings in Mayo-Sava department. Three attacks in Mayo-Sava and one in Logone-et-Chari 6-15 Dec left five civilians dead. In Adamawa, hostage-takers continued abductions: armed men 22 Dec abducted and later killed two men in Maber (Djerem) and 24 Dec abducted traditional ruler of Yokotodou (Vina).
Central African Republic
Armed group violence continued at low ebb, two more leaders of armed groups arrested, while France and Russia continued to compete for influence. In centre, ex-Seleka faction Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) reportedly clashed with anti-balaka community defence group in Ippy 4 Dec, UPC next day denied involvement. In north, following residents’ request, army unit 6 Dec attempted to deploy in Bocaranga controlled by Fulani-dominated Retour, Réclamation et Réhabilitation (3R) armed group; 3R refused soldiers access to town, negotiations failed and troops withdrew. Police 8 Dec arrested ex-Seleka leader Didier Wangaï of UPC in Bambari in centre and transferred him to capital Bangui without disclosing charges. Anti-balaka leader Urbain Sami sentenced to twenty years’ labour 12 Dec on several counts, including complicity in murder. Former anti-balaka leader Patrice-Edouard Ngaïssona arrested in Paris 12 Dec on International Criminal Court arrest warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity from Sept 2013 to Dec 2014. Two main anti-balaka factions 13 Dec announced withdrawal from disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process. DDR for some 500 former combatants launched in Paoua in north west 17 Dec. Parliament 13 Dec ratified security pact between govt and Russia that envisages continued Russian training of CAR forces and Russian military assistance in case of foreign military aggression. FM Charles Armel Doubane, who had repeatedly expressed disapproval of growing Russian influence, dismissed 15 Dec. Following one-month extension in Nov, UN Security Council 12 Dec renewed mandate of UN mission (MINUSCA) for one year; resolution recognises Russia’s positive role via army training, but re-affirms primacy of African Union-led mediation effort. Russia and China abstained from vote. French armed forces minister Florence Parly in Bangui 10-11 Dec reaffirmed France’s support and delivered 1,400 weapons promised in Nov.
Fighting continued in Tibesti region in far north, bordering Libya and Niger, as military pursued operations against ethnic Tebu community defence force and rebel groups; ruling party early Dec described initiatives as law-and-order operations against criminals. Opposition MP 10 Dec requested govt answer parliamentary questions on matter, govt has not yet responded. Also in Tibesti region, in Kouri Bougoudi gold-mining zone clashes between Arabs and people from Ouaddaï region in east and others 27-29 Dec reportedly left twenty to 30 people dead. President Déby 5 Dec revoked soldiers’ salary cut, to take effect from 1 Jan and defence minister early Dec visited army positions in east and south east toward borders with Sudan and Central African Republic. Ahead of French President Macron’s visit 22-23 Dec, France 6 Dec signed two financing agreements, including €40mn for civil servants’ salaries in Dec and pension payments. Polish deputy defence minister conducted Poland’s first high-level visit to Chad 12 Dec and signed MoU pledging to contribute equipment to army. In south-west Libya, Chadian armed group 27 Dec attacked camp of forces loyal to Field Marshal Haftar, de facto commander in eastern Libya, near town of Traghen, reportedly killing one.
Democratic Republic of Congo
After rise in election-related violence and one-week additional postponement, general elections took place largely peacefully 30 Dec, disrupted in several places by logistical problems; opposition claims of fraud raise risk of violence when results are published in coming weeks. In run-up to vote, violent incidents occurred between opposition supporters and security forces or ruling coalition supporters in Mbuji-Mayi 1 Dec and Tshikapa 9 Dec (both Kasai province), in Kindu (Maniema) 9 Dec, in Lubumbashi (Haut-Katanga) 11 Dec and Kalemie (Tanganyika) 12 Dec, leaving up to eight people dead. Some violence was triggered by govt attempts to block rallies and movement of opposition presidential candidate Martin Fayulu; in other instances ruling coalition supporters were targeted. EU 10 Dec extended sanctions on ruling coalition’s presidential candidate Emmanuel Shadary and others until Dec 2019. Opposition Lamuka coalition 16 Dec reversed position saying it would accept use of voting machine, but insisted that electoral commission only take into account results from manual counting. Fire at electoral commission warehouse in capital Kinshasa 12-13 Dec destroyed much of election material for city, opposed politicians blamed each other. Electoral commission 26 Dec announced election would be delayed till March 2019 in four constituencies (Beni, Beni ville, Butembo ville, all in North Kivu province in east and Yumbi in Mai-Ndombe province in west) citing security problems and Ebola. After days of protests, citizens in Beni and Butembo organised mock elections 30 Dec to demonstrate decision unjustified. Several voting stations opened late 30 Dec due to lack of equipment or voter rolls and some voting machines encountered problems. Four people killed in dispute over alleged fraud in Walungu, South Kivu province in east 30 Dec. Main opposition candidates claimed widespread irregularities and some instances of fraud favouring Shadary. Armed group violence continued in North and South Kivu and Mai-Ndombe province. Most serious incidents included fighting between army and Mai Mai Yakutumba militia in Fizi territory, South Kivu that left four soldiers and fourteen rebels dead; Mai Mai Mazembe militia attacked Mbelu, North Kivu, at least one militant killed; Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia 9 Dec attacked Nalu in Beni, North Kivu killing at least ten civilians and 16 Dec attacked army in Beni. In Mai-Ndombe, clashes between Banunu and Batende communities 16-18 Dec left at least 45 dead.
With President Bongo still recuperating in Morocco following stroke late Oct, hundreds of opposition supporters 12 Dec marched in capital Libreville after political rally for opposition leader and former presidential candidate Jean Ping, who called for “confrontation” with govt; police dispersed protesters and arrested several. Opposition leaders 22 Dec requested medical commission to determine state of health of President Bongo and 31 Dec asked for two-year transition period with transitional president and govt. Constitutional Court 28 Dec confirmed results of Oct legislative elections; ruling party won majority, new govt to be formed in coming weeks.
Army clashed with Congo-based rebels in north west as tensions between govt and neighbouring Burundi continued to mount. Officials reported clashes in Rubavu district in north west bordering DR Congo between army and suspected members of rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), who crossed into country from DR Congo; army said it repelled suspected rebels 9 Dec, killing four; President Kagame 14 Dec said at least two soldiers and unknown number of rebels killed. Burundian President Nkurunziza 4 Dec wrote to East African Community President and Ugandan President Museveni demanding extraordinary summit to find solution to “open conflict between Burundi and Rwanda”. In south, unidentified assailants 15 Dec set fire to three vehicles in Nyamagabe district which borders Burundi, killing at least two civilians; Rwandan army said it pursued attackers into forest bordering Burundi.
French jihadist suspected of helping brothers who carried out killings at Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in 2015 arrested in Djibouti 16 Dec.
Govt 26 Dec reportedly restricted Ethiopians’ passage into Eritrea at Zalambessa-Serha and Rama-Kisad Adi-Quala border crossings, opened in Sept, without giving reasons. Unidentified assailant unsuccessfully tried to kill mining minister and former defence minister, General Sebhat Efrem, at his home in capital Asmara 19 Dec; attacker reportedly arrested. President Afwerki 13 Dec visited Somali capital Mogadishu for first time, as part of ongoing tripartite summits between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia; leaders discussed how to advance bilateral and regional cooperation.
In south, clashes between ethnic Oromo and Somali 13-14 Dec near Moyale on border with Kenya left at least 21 people dead and forced hundreds to flee into Kenya. Another faction of former rebel group Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) returned to Ethiopia from exile 29 Dec. Military court 15 Dec jailed 66 of 200 soldiers who marched on PM Abiy’s palace in Oct for between five and fourteen years, ruling they had broken military ethics. Parliament 25 Dec approved creation of reconciliation commission to counter intercommunal ethnic violence. Eritrea 26 Dec reportedly restricted Ethiopians’ passage into Eritrea at Zalambessa-Serha and Rama-Kisad Adi-Quala border crossings, opened in Sept, without giving reasons.
In north, Samburu and Turkana communities made retaliatory raids on each other 2-3 Dec in Baragoi, Samburu county. In north east, suspected Al-Shabaab member 25 Dec threw hand grenade at police officers manning Border Point 4, Mandera county, injuring four police officers. Chinese FM 29 Dec dismissed reports that China could seize Mombasa port over debt owed by govt.
Arrest of former Al-Shabaab leader and candidate in 19 Dec South West State presidential elections sparked deadly clashes between police and his supporters, and parliament speaker tried unsuccessfully to impeach President Farmajo. Somali police reportedly backed by Ethiopian forces in African Union mission (AMISOM) 13 Dec arrested popular former Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow; AMISOM 15 Dec denied involvement of its Ethiopian troops. Arrest led to clashes between Robow supporters and police in South West state capital, Baidoa 14-15 Dec, at least eleven protesters killed; tensions diminished by end month. Candidate backed by federal govt Abdiaziz Laftagareen won South West state’s presidential elections 19 Dec. Speaker of parliament Mohamed Mursal and opposition MPs 12 Dec introduced motion to impeach President Farmajo, motion dismissed as it failed to garner required 92 MPs’ signatures; fourteen MPs 13 Dec accused Mursal of forging their signatures. PM Khayre brokered agreement between pro-Farmajo camp and Mursal, who withdrew motion 20 Dec. In capital Mogadishu, Al-Shabaab attacked checkpoints near president’s residence Villa Somalia with twin car bombs 21 Dec killing twenty civilians including veteran and renowned journalist Awil Salaad. In Bay region, Al-Shabaab raid on military base 29 Dec triggered heavy fighting with regional troops, fourteen militants and eight soldiers reportedly killed. In middle Juba region, U.S.-backed Jubaland forces 30 Dec reportedly carried out series of operations against Al-Shabaab militants and training camp. U.S. airstrikes on Al-Shabaab strongholds continued; airstrikes in Gandarashe area 15-16 Dec killed 62 militants; airstrikes near Beled Amin South 19 Dec killed eleven militants. Eritrean President Afwerki 13 Dec visited Mogadishu for first time, as part of ongoing tripartite summits between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia; leaders discussed how to advance bilateral and regional cooperation.
Attacks on international observers mid-month violated Sept peace deal and new clashes between govt forces and rebel groups erupted in south. In violation of peace deal, Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), and Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities, international observer team Ceasefire and Transitional Security Arrangements and Verification Mechanism (CTSAMVM) reported attacks and detention of personnel from its Monitoring and Verification Team 18 Dec in govt forces’ Luri Training Centre. In south, clashes broke out 16 Dec in Central Equatoria between govt forces and armed opposition group National Salvation Front (NAS), which did not sign R-ARCSS; first major clashes between NAS and govt forces. Alleged former South Sudan National Movement for Change (SSNMC) members in presumed collaboration with South Sudan National Democratic Alliance (SSNDA) – non-signatory of R-ARCSS – 20 Dec carried out attacks in Yei River state, looting and abducting several civilians; NAS 26 Dec denied responsibility. More than twenty officers of main rebel group Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition (SPLA-IO), which signed R-ARCSS, 17 Dec flew to Juba to take part in pre-transitional committees and prepare formation of transitional govt. However, underlining delay in implementation of R-ARCSS, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix 18 Dec echoed R-ARCSS Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee’s concerns over failure to establish Independent Boundaries Commission and National Pre-Transitional Committee’s failure to reach quorum. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton 13 Dec announced U.S. would review its aid programs to South Sudan, as leadership “morally bankrupt”.
Amid mounting anger over economic crisis, protests broke out in north east and swiftly spread to 28 cities and towns across country; security forces’ brutal response reportedly left up to 37 people dead. Protests began 19 Dec in town of Atbara in north east and quickly spread. Protesters called for President Bashir (in power since 1989) to step down and in several places set fire to local headquarters of ruling party. Intelligence services ordered internet shutdown and closed down a number of newspapers. Authorities from 22 Dec arrested two dozen opposition leaders, closed schools and universities to prevent students taking part. U.S., UK and Norway 24 Dec expressed concern over govt’s excessive use of force against demonstrators and UN Secretary-General Guterres 28 Dec called on govt to investigate deaths of protesters. Parliament 4 Dec backed constitutional amendment to extend presidential term limits, allowing President Bashir to run again in elections planned for 2020. Armed opposition groups Justice and Equality Movement and Sudan Liberation Movement-Minni Minnawi 10 Dec signed pre-negotiation agreement with govt to resume talks in Jan on basis of Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD). African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (led by former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki) 9-12 Dec convened in Addis Ababa to start consultation with Sudanese parties on revision of roadmap on adopting new constitution and on national elections scheduled for 2020; consultations suspended as they excluded political opposition groups, including Sudanese Congress Party. Senior security personnel met U.S. counterparts to increase cooperation, discussions included those on potential “five-point plan +1” to improve adherence to human rights. Bashir 16 Dec visited Syria for first time since March 2011. Bashir 18 Dec received Saudi delegation in Khartoum and pledged continued support to Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
After European Parliament’s 12 Dec resolution against govt’s democratic backsliding and continued crackdown on opposition figures, human rights defenders and gay people, EU late Dec announced freeze of €88mn annual aid to Tanzania. Decision followed World Bank’s suspension in Nov of €265mn loan for girls’ education after govt banned pregnant girls from attending school and from continuing education after they gave birth.
Interparty dialogue summit held 12 Dec produced no tangible results, with opposition parties boycotting event and President Museveni dismissing calls for talks about political transition. Popular musician-turned-opposition MP Robert Kyagulanyi, known as Bobi Wine, 15 Dec evaded arrest when police entered hotel where he was staying; police 26 Dec prevented one of his concerts taking place.
Crackdown on opposition continued. Court 17 Dec sentenced secretary general of opposition Juwa party, Ahmed el-Barwane, to seven years in prison for ordering attack on soldier during July referendum and sentenced another Juwa party MP, Tocha Johar, to twenty years in prison. Court 15 Dec sentenced four senior opposition figures to life in prison with forced labour and handed down jail terms to several others for allegedly plotting against state.
Electoral commission 27 Dec declared former President Andry Rajoelina winner of 19 Dec presidential run-off vote with 55.66% of vote, beating former President Marc Ravalomanana who garnered 44.34%. Ravalomanana’s team filed complaint with High Constitutional Court asking for cancellation of results, even though he had previously said he would accept results. Some 2,000 Ravalomanana supporters 29 Dec protested in capital Antananarivo, demanding recount.
Suspected Islamist militants continued attacks in Cabo Delgado province in far north. Assailants 18 Dec reportedly beheaded two civilians in Chitoyo village and same day killed two in Muidumbe district. Assailants 21 Dec attacked Chicomo village, Macomia District, burning down 103 homes. Local residents 7 Dec captured former soldier suspected of leading insurgent attacks, Mustafa Suale Machinga, and handed him over to authorities in Litingina village, Nangade district. Implementation of peace deal between govt and former armed opposition movement Renamo advanced with 13 Dec appointment of three senior Renamo officials to positions in military, namely as directors of operations, military information and communications.
President Mnangagwa 18 Dec released report by commission of inquiry into 1 Aug post-election violence that left six people dead: report held opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance responsible for inflammatory rhetoric which, it claims, led to protests and riots, and found police and military responsible for six deaths and injury of 35 protestors through excessive use of force. Report concluded Mnangagwa lawfully ordered deployment of troops who failed to submit to police authority. Mnangagwa 17 Dec promoted to full general military officer who commanded unit that responded to riots that day.
Likely main rivalry in 2020 presidential election continued to emerge between ruling coalition Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) led by President Ouattara and opposition Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) led by Henry Konan Bédié. Latter 17 Dec met with assembly speaker and RHDP critic Guillaume Soro. Oil and hydrocarbons minister and last PDCI figure in govt Thierry Tanoh dismissed 10 Dec. After Supreme Court late Nov annulled municipal elections in six communes and regional elections in two regions, new votes took place 16 Dec; incidents of violence were reported in Port-Bouët and Grand-Bassam communes. PDCI and RHDP filed complaints calling for annulment of vote in Grand-Bassam and Port-Bouët respectively. Clashes between RHDP and PDCI supporters erupted in Grand-Bassam 21 Dec over results, at least one person injured. President Ouattara 28 Dec shuffled military leadership, including replacing army chief of staff, head of special forces, superior commander of national gendarmerie and navy chief of staff.
Tension persisted between govt and opposition over results of municipal elections held in Feb, but violence decreased. Security forces 10 Dec and 13 Dec dispersed opposition protests in capital Conakry demanding better governance and justice for people killed in recent protests. President of opposition party Union of Republican Forces (UFR) Sidya Touré 11 Dec resigned as high representative of President Condé, saying he had not achieved his ends. Security forces 3-4 Dec used tear gas in Conakry to disperse students protesting against teachers’ strike and paralysis of education system. Students demonstrated again 18 Dec in Conakry. Villagers of Massala and Fanafanfakö in Siguiri area 16 Dec clashed over ownership of gold mine, at least eleven injured.
Public prosecutor 6 Dec suspended voter census ahead of 2019 legislative elections after platform of political parties made allegations of fraud; 13 Dec allowed census to continue “under monitoring” after West Africa regional organisation ECOWAS 13 Dec called for elections to be held by end of Jan and for date to be set before organisation’s next summit 22 Dec; govt 17 Dec said census would end 19 Dec; President Vaz 20 Dec announced legislatives elections would take place 10 March. Teachers’ unions 3 Dec launched new fifteen-day strike over unpaid salaries and poor working conditions; 18 Dec refused to sign memorandum negotiated with govt to end crisis.
Campaigning stepped up ahead of Feb-March 2019 general elections, as Boko Haram (BH) kept up high rate of attacks in north east and criminal violence rose in north west. Political parties, including President Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) and main challenger Atiku Abubakar’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP), 11-12 Dec committed to campaign peacefully, but political violence continued: gunmen 23 Dec killed local APC leader in Onne, Rivers state; 28 Dec killed councillor in Ado area, Ekiti state; thugs 29 Dec disrupted Buhari supporters’ meeting in Akoko Northeast area, Ondo state, injuring many. In north east, BH continued attacks in Lake Chad area in north of Borno state, and in neighbouring Yobe state to west. In Borno state, six attacks 7-16 Dec on civilians and military positions left at least one soldier dead; BH 26-28 Dec seized six towns in Kukawa area including HQ of Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) and navy and marine police bases; air force 29 Dec bombed insurgents near Baga causing unknown number of casualties. In Yobe state, BH 1 Dec attacked Buni Gari, destroying army’s tank base and killing at least eight soldiers; 29 Dec attacked Buni Gari town again. In north west, bandits stepped up attacks in Zamfara state, prompting several calls for state of emergency. Attacks on at least ten villages across state 10-22 Dec left at least 97 civilians dead. Army 14 Dec said it killed eight bandits in Dumburum forest. Ten troops, five Nigerian and five Nigerien, killed 29 Dec in joint Nigeria-Niger operation against criminal gangs in Doubouroum area, Zamfara state near border with Niger. In Middle Belt, herder-farmer tensions persisted: in six attacks across Benue, Plateau and Kaduna states 15-30 Dec, gunmen killed at least 37 people. In Niger Delta, militant groups threatened to resume violence. New group, War Against Niger Delta Exploitation, 25 Dec threatened to disrupt 2019 elections if federal govt failed to meet demands for region’s development. Coalition of four militant groups 30 Dec announced termination of two-year ceasefire citing govt’s failure to meet Pan Niger Delta Forum’s Nov 2016 demands. Criminal and ethnic violence reported in several states; notably, gunmen 18 Dec killed immediate past Chief of Defence Staff, retired Air Chief Marshal Alex Badeh near capital Abuja.
With mediation between govt and opposition coalition stalled, clashes between security forces and opposition protesters in run-up to contested 20 Dec legislative elections left at least four people dead. Following govt ban on opposition protests, protesters clashed with security forces in several places, with many opposition supporters injured by gunshot wounds in capital Lomé and northern city of Sokodé; at least four people killed in protest-related violence 8-13 Dec, including twelve-year-old boy. Govt 12 Dec confirmed 20 Dec election date. Coalition of fourteen opposition parties boycotted vote citing irregularities and called for overhaul of electoral commission. President Gnassingbé’s party won most seats, according to provisional results released 31 Dec. Repeated opposition protests since Sept 2017 have called for Gnassingbé to resign, while mediation by West African regional bloc ECOWAS, launched April 2018, to facilitate dialogue between govt and opposition has been continuously delayed due to disagreement between parties.
New York Times 16 Dec reported mounting evidence from satellite images, accounts from region and previously unreported official documents suggest system of forced labour from internment camps in Xinjiang, with growing number of detainees being sent to new factories built inside or near camps. Foreign ministry 17 Dec accused foreign media of making “many untrue reports” about “training centres”. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet 5 Dec reported she had requested direct access to Xinjiang region to verify “worrying reports” of re-education camps holding Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. German Commissioner for Human Rights and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation also expressed concern during month about reports of treatment of Uighurs; China repeated warnings for other countries not to interfere in its domestic issues. Responding to Indonesian govt expression of concern about alleged human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, Chinese embassy 20 Dec reiterated that China guaranteed religious freedom of all citizens, and that camps are to counter terrorism and religious extremism and provide vocational training.
Japanese govt 18 Dec approved revised National Defence Program Guidelines referencing concerns over China’s growing military capacity, and recognising “importance of strategic competition” with neighbour as it “challenge[s] the regional order”. Paving way for plans to remodel its helicopter carriers to carry aircraft, guidelines also emphasised improving cyber, space and electronic warfare capabilities. Five-year procurement plan also approved same day outlining $225bn defence spending to include an additional 105 F-35 fighter jets. Both China and South Korea urged Japan to keep to its pacifist constitution in separate statements made same day, while China’s foreign ministry stated being “strongly dissatisfied” with representations of China made in new guidelines. Tokyo 3 Dec protested Chinese drilling activities sighted mid-Nov in contested waters of East China Sea (ECS). Japanese fighter jets intercepted Chinese electronic warfare and surveillance planes flying through Tsushima Strait (connecting ECS and Sea of Japan) 26 Nov and near Okinawa 14 Dec; 27 Dec reportedly intercepted Chinese navy surveillance plane crossing ECS. Tokyo 25 Dec lodged official complaint accusing Chinese fishing boat of fleeing its territorial waters with Japanese inspectors on board in early Nov; China denied boat was fishing in Japanese waters.
Uncertainty continued on future of denuclearisation talks. U.S. President Trump 1 Dec said he hoped to hold second denuclearisation summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Jan or Feb 2019; U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said another summit necessary as North Koreans “have not lived up to the commitments so far” on dismantling nuclear weapons program as agreed at June 2018 summit in Singapore. U.S. 10 Dec announced new sanctions on three senior officials over alleged serious human rights abuses and issued further condemnation of North Korea’s abuses, “among the worst in the world”; Pyongyang 16 Dec warned sanctions could derail improved relations and block path to denuclearisation “forever”. Further, North Korean state media 20 Dec said denuclearisation of Korean peninsula includes “completely eliminating the U.S. nuclear threat to Korea”, in further indication of lack of agreement between negotiating sides over what denuclearisation would involve. Arriving in South Korea 19 Dec for visit aimed at getting denuclearisation negotiations back on track, U.S. Special Representative Stephen Biegun said U.S. plans to review its 2017 ban on U.S. citizens travelling to DPRK and other restrictions to help expedite humanitarian aid delivery to North Korea. U.S. and South Korea 21 Dec agreed ground-breaking ceremony for inter-Korean road and rail reconnection at Panmun Station near Kaesong to go ahead 26 Dec. In another confidence-building step, North and South Korean soldiers witnessed by media 12 Dec crossed border to conduct mutual inspections to verify dismantling of 22 guard posts in Demilitarised Zone (DMZ); South Korean President Moon called move “new milestone”. South Korean defence ministry 20 Dec in policy briefing said ongoing joint military exercises with U.S. should reduce in scale in 2019; govt’s defence acquisition agency 7 Dec said it plans to purchase dozens of U.S.-built ship-to-air missiles worth $300mn in ongoing effort to boost air defences against North Korea. North Korea 14 Dec expressed anger at South Korean military budget increase.
Defence ministry 3 Dec confirmed Chinese naval vessels had stepped up patrols in western part of Taiwan Strait in 2018, responding to report by Taipei-based China Times 2 Dec that “irregular” patrols have become “routine”. Defence ministry reported several Chinese military aircraft and vessels passed near island’s southern coast 18 Dec. European Parliament 12 Dec adopted resolution reiterating support for “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organisations”. U.S. Senate 19 Dec approved House amendments to 2018 Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, which includes support for regular U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and enhanced bilateral economic, political and security relations. Taiwan signed new agreements to boost economic cooperation with Philippines 29 Nov, Japan 30 Nov and India 18 Dec.
As momentum grew in U.S. negotiations with Taliban, intense hostilities on all sides continued despite winter conditions. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad 2 Dec started third trip to region, including meetings in Abu Dhabi 17-18 Dec with delegations from United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and separately with Taliban. Taliban reiterated refusal to meet Afghan govt delegation and demand for withdrawal of U.S. forces; U.S. requested a ceasefire. Khalilzad said discussions were “productive”, UAE announced another round of talks to “complete the Afghanistan reconciliation process”. Reports 20 Dec that U.S. President Trump ordered military to start withdrawing roughly 7,000 troops from Afghanistan in coming months in abrupt policy shift were contradicted by White House 28 Dec, saying no drawdown planned. Iranian security official visiting Kabul 26 Dec said Iran has been holding talks with Taliban on security issues in Afghanistan, with further talks taking place 30 Dec. Major Taliban attacks and govt offensives continued including in Farah province where Taliban overran police outpost outside provincial capital and seized Shib-e Kuh district; Ghazni; and Helmand, where powerful Taliban commander and Helmand province shadow governor Abdul Manan was killed in airstrike in Nawzad district 1 Dec. Taliban claimed responsibility for 11 Dec suicide bomb hitting govt convoy outside Kabul, killing at least four govt personnel and eight civilians; also continued to increase pressure on major highways. Militants stormed govt offices in Kabul 24 Dec, killing at least 43; Taliban denied responsibility. Month saw increase in U.S.-led airstrikes and night raids, contributing to high level of civilian fatalities. Afghan army reported it had killed Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) spokesman Sultan Aziz Azam in drone strike in Nangarhar 26 Dec. Political factions continued to contest preliminary results of Oct parliamentary elections; Independent Election Commission (IEC)’s ongoing announcement of results prompted demonstrations and complaints to Independent Electoral Complaints Commission, which 5 Dec decided to invalidate all Kabul votes due to technical problems and fraud allegations. IEC 30 Dec announced presidential election to be delayed three months until 20 July “to better prepare for the vote”.
Violent clashes between supporters of rival parties across country resulted in hundreds injured and some 30 people reported killed in run-up to and on day of vote 30 Dec, with fears that flawed polls could provoke more violence in coming weeks; election also marred by govt clampdown on media, and opposition claims of Election Commission (EC) bias and complicity of security agencies in attacks on their leaders and supporters. EC 8 Dec rejected Bangladesh National Party (BNP) leader and former PM Khaleda Zia’s appeal to stand in parliamentary polls. BNP-led opposition Jatiya Oikya Front (United National Front, UNF) 3 Dec alleged EC bias, citing rejection of 205 of its 900 nominees (EC denied); and 9 Dec alleged almost 2,000 supporters had been arrested on fictitious charges since Nov, accusing police of working on behalf of ruling Awami League (AL). AL 10 Dec accused BNP of attempting to subvert polls with help of Pakistan’s national intelligence agency. Govt 10 Dec arrested news website editor for “publishing anti-state, false and fabricated news” and blocked 58 websites; EU and several Western countries called on govt to ensure democratic and participatory election process. NGO Human Rights Watch 13 Dec reported opposition members and supporters “have been arrested, killed, or even disappeared”. Hundreds reported injured in pre-election violence, including day after campaigning began 10 Dec in several locations including in Sirajganj district (north-central) and cities of Netrokana (north) and Chattogram (south east), afterward spreading to other districts. Senior BNP party leader 17 Dec claimed two activists murdered 16 Dec in Dhaka and Chittagong. Ten people reportedly killed 24 Dec, troops deployed in 46 of 64 districts, navy given security responsibilities in remaining areas amid escalating violence; another two killed in clashes in Chittagong district 26 Dec. At least seventeen civilians and police reported killed in violence on polling day. PM Sheikh Hasina’s ruling coalition won 288 of 300 seats; opposition rejected results citing reports of widespread fraud, calling vote “farcical”, AL rejected allegations.
Suspected Maoist rebel killed 12 Dec in encounter with security forces in Bijapur district, Chhattisgarh state. Police reported suspected Maoists killed one person in Bihar state’s Aurangabad district 29 Dec.
With expiration of six-month governor’s rule in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) 19 Dec, Indian president same day Dec signed proclamation paving way for imposition of president’s rule, as recommended by J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik 17 Dec in wake of Nov dissolution of state assembly. Presidential rule can be imposed for two six-monthly terms if state elections are not held; governor’s rule had been imposed in June after collapse of People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-led coalition govt. Violence continued, including 9 Dec deaths of two teenage alleged militants – one of them fourteen, believed to be youngest militant killed in three decades of conflict – sparking major anti-India protests in northern town Hajin. Security forces 10 Dec killed three suspected militants on outskirts of J&K capital Srinagar. Security forces 15 Dec shot dead seven civilians protesting military operation same day in Pulwama district (south) in which three militants and one soldier killed; in response, demonstrations and shut-down strikes held 15-17 Dec in Srinagar and elsewhere in valley on call of Joint Resistance Leadership composed of separatist Kashmiri factions. In clashes in Pulwama district, military reported at least four militants killed in encounter 29 Dec, prompting local protesters to attack security forces. Indian defence spokesman said firing by Pakistani troops along Line of Control (LoC) 26 Dec killed one civilian in J&K’s Rajouri district; Pakistani officials reported firing by Indian troops 31 Dec killed one woman and injured nine civilians (Indian military denied).
Tensions within ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and between the party and its critics continued to escalate, while main opposition party Nepali Congress (NC) remained preoccupied with internal factionalism and unable to credibly pressure govt. Following several delays, NCP 15 Dec commenced first internal standing committee meeting since July to review govt performance thus far and address divisions within party; at meeting senior leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha issued sharp rebuke of govt – led by NCP’s PM KP Oli – for being interested solely in profiteering and blamed “crony capitalists” within leadership for enabling corruption; Shrestha also termed party’s leaders weak for marginalising critics. NC continued to be hamstrung by internal differences; NC’s long-awaited general convention 15-22 Dec highlighted divisions between party’s factions and ended with outcome document heavily criticising Oli-led govt. Oli 5 Dec issued warning to intellectuals criticising his govt; comments perceived as threatening by several civil society leaders. Concerns about mandate of two transitional justice mechanisms on truth and reconciliation and enforced disappearances grew, with their terms ending Feb 2019; govt yet to decide on extending term despite only fraction of total cases being investigated and amid calls for mechanisms to be restructured.
Govt appeared to launch crackdown on Sunni Barelvi hardline Labaik Ya Rasool Allah and its political front Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), but seemed unwilling to pursue criminal charges, instead filing scores of corruption charges against opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz parliamentarians, and continuing clampdown on dissent and media freedoms. Govt 1 Dec reported 3,164 TLP activists under preventative custody and claimed two TLP leaders had been detained on treason and terror charges though no formal charges pressed. Amid growing concern over repression of religious and other freedoms, authorities 2 Dec barred two parliamentarians and former leaders of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM, leading Pashtun rights group) from leaving country and detained them for three days. Police 8 Dec filed cases against two journalists covering PTM rally in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Dera Ismail Khan. EU, Australia, Canada, Japan, Norway and Switzerland 13 Dec stated concern about shrinking space for civil society, criticising closing down of eighteen international NGOs. U.S. Sec State Mike Pompeo 11 Dec announced U.S. late Nov had added Pakistan to list of “Countries of Particular Concern” for violations of religious freedom. U.S.-Pakistan relations appeared to improve around Afghanistan; President Trump 3 Dec wrote to PM Khan seeking “full support” for U.S.-led Afghan reconciliation process, reportedly suggested countries “explore opportunities to work together and renew partnership”; Khan 14 Dec confirmed Pakistan would facilitate talks between U.S. and Taliban, which took place 17 Dec. In ongoing militant violence, in Balochistan province (south west) Frontier Corps paramilitary officer was killed 5 Dec in landmine explosion, reportedly planted by militants, and six officers and four attackers were killed 14 Dec during attack in Kech district near Iranian border; Pakistan lodged protest with Iran; attack came two days after countries had signed MoU to improve border security (see Iran). Former leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement Ali Raza Abidi died after being shot by unknown assailants in Karachi 25 Dec. Authorities banned former President Zardari alongside 171 others from leaving country following allegations of money laundering.
Constitutional and political crisis ended as President Sirisena reappointed deposed PM Ranil Wickremesinghe to office 16 Dec, following Supreme Court rulings blocking Sirisena’s attempt to install former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM and call early general elections, in developments hailed as significant victory for rule of law and parliamentary democracy. Court of Appeal 3 Dec issued interim order blocking Rajapaksa and his ministers from holding office, following petition by 122 parliamentarians who had passed two no confidence motions against Rajapaksa in Nov (which Sirisena had refused to recognise). Wickremesinghe won 12 Dec confidence vote in parliament with 117-0 majority, after Rajapaksa supporters boycotted parliamentary session following 29 Nov vote to deny PM’s office funding. Supreme Court 13 Dec unanimously ruled Sirisena did not have power to dissolve parliament before it had completed its four-and-a-half year term, thus voiding Sirisena’s 9 Nov dissolution and call for snap elections. Supreme Court 14 Dec refused to overturn Court of Appeal’s 3 Dec interim order. Bowing to Supreme Court’s two rulings, Rajapaksa 15 Dec “resigned” disputed position as PM; week-long dispute between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe over ministerial portfolios delayed finalisation of new Wickremesinghe-led United National Front govt. At Wickremesinghe’s 16 Dec swearing-in as PM, Sirisena repeated attacks on Wickremesinghe’s honesty and suitability for role, while Rajapaksa in 15 Dec “resignation speech” vowed to “bring the forces opposed to the country down to their knees” and singled out Tamil National Alliance for criticism, cementing fears among observers that political blockages that led to attempted constitutional coup remain in place. Economic fallout of political turmoil and uncertainty continued, including decline in value of currency, suspension of several key foreign loans and grants; ratings agencies 4 Dec downgraded country’s credit. Buddhist-Muslim tensions rose following 26 Dec vandalism of several Buddha statues in Mawanella area; nine Muslim youth arrested in subsequent days.
Fighting spiked day after crackdown on rallies marking anniversary of West Papuan independence with 2 Dec killing of nineteen state contractor employees working on major highway construction project in Nduga district, Papua province; West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) armed group claimed responsibility, saying it regarded guards as members of military. Military launched hunt for suspects and mission to retrieve bodies; 3 Dec reported that militants using military grade weapons as well as spears and arrows attacked military post, killing one soldier and injuring two. At least four civilians reported killed in crossfire during subsequent fighting, in addition to unspecified number of soldiers and TPNPB fighters; hundreds of civilians reported to have fled to mountains. TPNPB video said group would continue armed resistance until it achieves self-determination; Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs General Wiranto dismissed idea of entering talks with group govt called “criminals”. TPNPB also called for govt to allow foreign journalists and international aid organisations to access area. Amid concern over suffering of civilians who had fled fighting, Papuan Governor Lukas Enembe 20 Dec called on President Jokowi to withdraw troops, and said local authorities would establish task force to investigate killings. Govt denied report in Australian newspaper late Dec that military had used chemical weapon white phosphorus in operation. Earlier in month, over 500 people reportedly arrested as thousands of people joined rallies in urban areas in Papua and West Papua as well as other parts of Indonesia 1 Dec marking 57th anniversary of West Papuan declaration of independence from Dutch rule; over a dozen protesters reported injured in Surabaya on Java island after clashing with nationalist paramilitary forces. UN Human Rights Office spokesperson said violence by armed groups was “unacceptable”, also that it was “troubled by the crackdown over peaceful demonstrations and increasing reports of excessive use of force by security forces, harassment, arbitrary arrests and detentions in Papua”.
Tensions rose in northern Rakhine state, while ethnic conflict continued despite military’s unilateral ceasefire in Shan and Kachin states. In Rakhine state, discovery of bullet-ridden body of a policeman missing since being ambushed in Maungdaw township, and killing of two Buddhist men, prompted launch of military “clearance operations”; perpetrators unknown. Fears continued among Rohingya refugees in camps Bangladesh following Dhaka’s abortive attempt to repatriate almost 500 refugee families back to Rakhine state, compounded by fears over possible change in Bangladesh policy following its elections 30 Dec; Rohingya continued attempts to make dangerous boat trip across Bay of Bengal from camps in Bangladesh and from Rakhine state. International pressure on govt continued: U.S. House of Representatives 13 Dec passed resolution declaring military campaign against Rohingya a genocide, adding to growing momentum in EU and U.S. for new round of sanctions. EU 10 Dec decided to move ahead with more targeted sanctions on seven military and border guard officers; bloc scheduled to decide in Jan whether to formally begin process for revoking Myanmar’s trade preferences, amid ongoing concern over impact on hundreds of thousands of workers in garment industry. U.S. decided late-Nov to move ahead with sanctions against Myanmar related to trafficking in persons, requiring U.S. representatives to vote against any new support to govt by international financial institutions and placing significant restrictions on U.S. aid. Conflict between ethnic armed groups in Shan state continued amid fears it will further deteriorate in coming months, including between competing Shan factions. In surprise move, military 21 Dec announced four-month unilateral ceasefire against ethnic armed groups in Shan and Kachin states. Rakhine state not included in ceasefire, and month saw continuation of series of clashes there and in adjacent southern Chin state between Myanmar military and Arakan Army; military 6 Dec acknowledged several officers had been killed.
Month saw intense clashes between military and communist New People’s Army (NPA) amid announcement of new counter-insurgency task force, while govt extended martial law in Mindanao and preparations continued for plebiscite to implement 2014 Bangsamoro peace agreement. Congress 12 Dec approved by 235-28 extension of martial law in Mindanao for third time until end-2019. President Duterte appointed newly-retired army chief of staff Carlito Galvez Jr as new presidential peace adviser, fuelling concerns over possible militarisation of approach to peace. Duterte 4 Dec signed Executive Order creating National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict by addressing root causes including delivery of basic services and social development in affected areas; also includes “mechanism for localised peace engagements or negotiations”. Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founder José María Sison said move intended to “terminate and prevent the resumption of peace talks at the appropriate national level”. Govt rejected CPP’s unilateral temporary ceasefire around holidays. Fighting between military and NPA included suspected NPA attacks on security forces in Bicol region and Capiz, one civilian killed; NPA raid in Sibagat, Agusan del Sur, 19 Dec, kidnapping twelve soldiers; clash in Compostela Valley 27 Dec wounding eleven soldiers. Congressman Rodel Batocabe shot dead 22 Dec in eastern Albay province along with police escort, amid concerns over possible violence around 2019 elections; NPA denied involvement. Clashes continued with Abu Sayyaf, including near Sulu’s Patikul 7 and 13 Dec killing two soldiers and several suspected militants; Duterte 17 Dec activated new 11th Infantry Division in Jolo, Sulu, to combat Abu Sayyaf. Clashes also continued with Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, including reported attack on army camp in Ampatuan, Maguindanao province 4 Dec. Bombing at mall in Cotabato City 31 Dec killed two, wounded 34. Electoral commission 7 Dec opened campaign period for plebiscite on Bangsamoro Organic Law to take place on 21 Jan in ARMM, Cotabato City and Isabela City, and on 6 Feb in Lanao del Norte, North Cotabato and local govt units that petitioned to take part.
South China Sea
U.S. allies continued efforts to balance China’s Pacific influence, and South East Asian countries made further efforts to stake their claims. Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua late Nov confirmed rumours China is building its third aircraft carrier. Despite rising tensions between China and U.S. in recent months, statements following G-20 summit 1 Dec made no mention of South China Sea (SCS) disputes; meeting between U.S. and Chinese presidents at summit resulted in 90-day reprieve on U.S.-China trade frictions for continuing talks. Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative 10 Dec identified new Chinese construction on Bombay Reef in disputed Paracel Islands as likely part of a wider communication and surveillance system. Indonesia inaugurated military base on its Natuna Islands 18 Dec, Exclusive Economic Zone of which juts into waters claimed by China under its “nine-dash line”. U.S. Senate 19 Dec approved House amendments to 2018 Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, serving as policy framework for U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and reaffirming regional security commitments. Philippines Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana 20 Dec told press conference: “If we see Chinese actions that are not consistent with our national interest, we are going to protest China”, and: “We will still continue with our activities” in West Philippine Sea, where “we will patrol regularly … [and] continue strengthening our islands”; also said Philippines would upgrade troop housing on Pag-asa Island in disputed Spratly archipelago. Lorenzana also said defence ministry is seeking to review provisions of 1951 mutual defence treaty between Philippines and U.S. to expand its coverage to nine islands claimed by Manila in SCS, and strengthen bilateral alliance; said issue was raised in meeting between U.S. and Philippines officials in Nov. Australia, New Zealand, Japan and U.S. continued to step up engagement with Pacific nations in what are widely seen as efforts to balance Chinese influence, while European Parliament 12 Dec adopted resolution emphasising “critical importance” of Indo-Pacific security to EU interests, calling for peaceful resolution of disputes and refraining from unilateral attempts to change status quo. Senior U.S. defence official 28 Dec called on allies to boost military presence in SCS.
At meeting of ruling junta National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), National Legislative Assembly, cabinet, Constitution Drafting Committee and Election Commission 7 Dec with representatives from dozens of political parties to discuss upcoming general election, PM Prayuth affirmed vote will take place 24 Feb; two largest parties, Democrats and Pheu Thai, refused to participate on grounds that NCPO should not be involved in election procedures. NCPO 11 Dec partially lifted ban on political activities, allowing political parties to publicise their platforms. Opposition parties continued to question NCPO-appointed Electoral Commission’s impartiality and denounce flurry of govt cash handouts to important political constituencies and alleged govt intervention in redrawing of electoral boundaries seen as attempt to influence vote, denied by Prayuth. Amid ongoing insurgent violence in Deep South, roadside bomb killed one police officer and wounded five in Bacho, Narathiwat 24 Dec. Two bombs exploded on Samila Beach, Songkhla, 26 Dec, damaging two sculptures popular with tourists; also in Songkhla, two bombs damaged power poles while authorities disarmed four more explosive devices. Roadside bomb wounded four civilians in Si Sakhon district, Narathiwat 28 Dec. Insurgents attacked security outpost in Rangae district, causing no injuries, and authorities recovered six small bombs in Chanae and Tak Bai districts. On 29 Dec, three rangers wounded in ambush in Si Sakhon; assistant village headman killed in Mayo, Pattani; and four bombs exploded in Cho Airong, Rangae, Reusoh, and Si Sakhon districts, Narathiwat province, causing property damage.
Europe & Central Asia
Bosnia And Herzegovina
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) foreign ministers 5 Dec agreed to activate Bosnia’s Membership Action Plan – initially offered in 2010 but delayed due to unmet conditions – and invited govt to submit its first Annual National Program of reforms needed to bring it in line with NATO standards, despite ongoing opposition from Serb member of tripartite presidency Milorad Dodik to joining NATO. Central Election Commission 18 Dec adopted controversial decision to fix election law, enabling establishment of new govt in country’s Federation entity and adoption of budget, although Bosniak political parties said they would appeal against it at Constitutional Court. In Republika Srpska (RS) entity, months-long protests against RS govt, prompted by unsolved death of young man in March and increasingly decrying alleged police interference in case, corruption and weak rule of law, gained in momentum, with thousands rallying peacefully in capital Banja Luka 30 Dec demanding resignation of RS interior minister.
Tensions with Serbia spiked over Kosovo parliament’s 14 Dec approval of legislation transforming Kosovo Security Force (KSF) into a regular army, expanding its competences and doubling its size to 5,000. Kosovo Serb MPs boycotted session, said army would have no mandate in Serb-majority North Kosovo and that they would challenge vote at Constitutional Court. Serbian President Vučić called army “illegal”, said Pristina had “jeopardized peace and security”. NATO earlier called on Kosovo not to proceed with vote; NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg 17 Dec announced his “regret” over “ill-timed” decision, noting NATO would have to re-examine its engagement with KSF. EU and UN also expressed concern; Russia condemned move, while U.S. said it was “Kosovo’s sovereign right”. Serbia called urgent session of UN Security Council 17 Dec, at which Vučić called on UN to “curb” and “tame” Kosovo and take greater role in normalisation of relations. Tensions also continued over 100% customs tariffs Kosovo imposed in Nov, with Kosovo Serb MPs occupying parliament early Dec in protest. PM Haradinaj and FM Pacolli attended annual EU-Kosovo Stabilisation and Association Council in Brussels 17 Dec, where reportedly tense meeting saw discussions of tariff increase, and Kosovo expressed frustration over delays in EU visa liberalisation. EU foreign policy chief Mogherini convened meeting of five Western Balkan leaders 19 Dec, during which they expressed “strongest support” for Kosovo and Serbia normalising relations, while U.S. President Trump wrote to Thaçi and Vučić mid-month calling for them to reach “historic accord”. Pristina 28 Dec announced extension of 100% customs tariff on imports from Serbia and Bosnia to include internationally-branded goods; EU reiterated its condemnation of tariffs, while Vučić said there would be no normalisation talks until tariffs are withdrawn. Thaçi 26 Dec said “land swap never will be negotiated” as part of normalisation agreement.
Parliament 3 Dec approved language of draft constitutional amendment to change country name to implement name deal with Greece; vote on whether to adopt amendment expected 15 Jan, requiring two thirds majority. Parliament 18 Dec approved controversial amnesty bill for some participants involved in April 2017 violent attack on parliament during country’s political crisis; bill initiated by opposition MPs who agreed to support name change deal with Greece; judge 25 Dec reported dozens of people including opposition MPs who have been charged or convicted had submitted pleas to be amnestied.
Snap parliamentary elections held 9 Dec resulted in PM Pashinyan’s My Step alliance receiving more than 70% of votes (88 out of 132 seats). Former ruling Republican party and Dashnaktsutyun party did not pass 5% threshold to enter parliament. Prosperous Armenia party won 26 seats and Bright Armenia eighteen seats. International Election Observation Mission reported elections “were held with respect for fundamental freedoms and enjoyed broad public trust” and with just minor problems; some local observers pointed to inaccuracies in voter lists affecting turnout numbers. Meeting with Russian President Putin in Russia 27 Dec, Pashinyan said Armenia “committed to further integration” with Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, of which Armenia’s rotating presidency begins 1 Jan. Russia 31 Dec announced 10% increase in natural gas price for Armenia.
Grassroot protests over past two months by around 100 relatives demanding compensation for soldiers who were killed or disappeared in Nagorno-Karabakh war in 1990s saw unusual show of support in social media and from some civil society groups criticising govt; one protestor arrested 11 Dec.
At swearing-in ceremony of newly-elected President Salome Zourabichvili in Telavi 16 Dec, thousands reportedly attempted to join rally called by defeated opposition candidate Grigol Vashadze but were prevented as police blocked some roads; in ensuing clashes eight police officers and several protestors reportedly injured, one former opposition MP arrested 17 Dec for attack on police vehicle. During 46th round of Geneva International Discussions (GID, main negotiation forum for Georgian conflicts since 2008) 11-12 Dec participants agreed to resume Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM, aimed at defusing tensions) in South Ossetian conflict zone after three-month break, with first meeting held 18 Dec, discussing recent detentions along boundary line and other security-related issues. UN, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), EU co-chairs urged participants of GID to resume IPRM meetings in Abkhazia conflict zone.
Armenia and Azerbaijan continued to exercise restraint along front lines, with no casualties or major attacks reported since end of Sept, when they established new direct communication channel to prevent and resolve incidents. Azerbaijani and Armenian foreign ministers met in reportedly positive meeting 6 Dec, confirmed readiness to continue efforts for restraint; expected to meet again in coming weeks to possibly start preparations for senior leaders’ talks. Azerbaijani and Armenian leaders again informally met on sidelines of an international summit 7 Dec in Russia, after which both tweeted readiness to engage in negotiations. Tensions continued to grow between new Armenian govt and de facto NK leadership after statement by ally of PM Pashinyan calling country’s April 2018 revolution more important than Armenian military victory in NK war in 1990s, prompting cascade of protest statements in NK. Pashinyan criticised reaction and called for resignation of all de facto officials involved; de facto NK defence minister announced his resignation soon after elections.
Amid ongoing security operations against militants, month saw continued tensions over late Sept border agreement between republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia. After Russia’s Constitutional Court 6 Dec ruled land deal legal, Central Electoral Commission same day rejected initiative for border referendum. Two suspected militants 12 Dec allegedly detonated grenade while police attempted to arrest them at shopping centre in Nazran, Ingushetia;two security personnel were injured and alleged attackers were killed; media and local civil society speculated at possible ulterior motive of attack, since one victim was reportedly an activist helping protesters against land deal. Sufi activist Ibragim Belkharoyev shot dead in Nazran 31 Dec. In Dagestan, National Anti-terrorism Committee 7 Dec said one suspected militant killed in counter-terrorism operation in Khasavyurt region. Authorities 13 Dec reported they had detained seven militants suspected of financially supporting Islamic State (ISIS) and Fath al-Sham (previously called Nusra Front)in Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Moscow region; six arrested, one put under house arrest. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) fact-finding report on human rights violations and abuses in Chechnya, commissioned in Nov and presented 20 Dec, found authorities in region have committed torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other “very serious” violations and abuses, with victims including members of LGBT community, rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and civil society; called on Russia to ensure Chechen authorities comply with domestic and international legislation and obligations.
Heightened tensions with Russia following late Nov confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian naval vessels continued, as did hostilities in Donbas despite new truce, while establishment of unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from Russia moved to final stages. U.S. Congress 11 Dec approved resolution condemning Russian use of force in 25 Nov incident in shared waters off Crimea. European Parliament 12 Dec adopted resolution condemning same incident, also called for increased sanctions against Russia if it does not release 24 Ukrainian sailors; encouraged Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to extend mandate of its Special Monitoring Mission for Ukraine to Azov Sea and Kerch Strait; and noted “concern” at Kyiv’s failure to disarm right-wing groups. NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg 13 Dec pledged support for Ukraine, including delivery of secure communications equipment. UN General Assembly 17 Dec passed resolution condemning militarisation of Crimea and surrounding waters. All 24 captured sailors declared themselves prisoners of war as of 27 Dec. Martial law imposed by govt in ten provinces 28 Nov expired 26 December as planned, although restrictions maintained on Russian males aged sixteen-60 entering country. Trilateral Contact Group for implementation of Minsk agreements pledged to renew ceasefire in Donbas beginning 29 Dec, but sides accused each other of violations; about twenty combatants reported killed, four civilians injured 1-31 December. UN announced national Humanitarian Response Plan, which targets Donbas civilians and IDPs, only 38% funded in 2018. Orthodox clergy held Unification Council 15 Dec and appointed head of new unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church; new head 29 Dec announced that Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople would officially grant canonical status to Ukrainian Orthodox Church 6 Jan. Law “on freedom of conscience and religious organisations”, requiring Russia-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to change its name to reflect its Moscow-based leadership, entered force 27 Dec. Russia’s Federal Security Service 28 Dec reported that it had completed 60-km fence dividing Crimea from mainland Ukraine to ward off “sabotage”, contraband, and illegal crossings. International Monetary Fund 18 Dec announced new $3.9bn loan agreement.
Prospects for resumption of talks on reunification of island still considered dim despite parties continuing to discuss “new paths forward” around different modes of governance: Greek Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades expressing support for “loose federation”, Turkish Cypriot leader Mustafa Akıncı for “federal” solution, and Ankara for “confederation” or “two-states within the EU” solution. UN special envoy Jane Holl Lute, visited the island 16-18 Dec to discuss terms of reference for way forward with Anastasiades and Akıncı. Tensions over hydrocarbon explorations continued.
President Erdoğan said Ankara would postpone planned military offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in north-eastern Syria following unexpected U.S. announcement of withdrawal of troops from Syria. Following series of statements by U.S. officials during month suggesting U.S. was determined to continue backing SDF in Syria, Erdoğan 12 Dec said Ankara would launch an offensive against SDF east of Euphrates River “within days”. Announcement initially prompted U.S. to voice “grave concern” over risks for U.S. military personnel; then on 19 Dec, U.S. President Trump unexpectedly announced full and rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, following call with Erdoğan during which they also agreed on sale of U.S. Patriot air defence system to Turkey. Erdoğan 21 Dec said Turkey would postpone the announced offensive against the SDF “for a while”; also said relations with U.S. now at “desired level”. Despite statement, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 23 Dec reported Turkish military build-up at front line of SDF-controlled town of Manbij; Syria’s military 28 Dec entered Manbij area amid calls from Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) for help against threat of attack by Turkey. In Turkey’s south east – likely due to harsh winter conditions – clashes between military and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) saw a downturn, while Turkish air raids against PKK in northern Iraq intensified. Turkish military carried out five major cross-border air raids against PKK in northern Iraq; Iraqi authorities 14 Dec summoned Turkish ambassador in Baghdad to protest airstrikes; Turkey 15 Dec said it remained determined to continue cross-border “anti-terror” operations against PKK in Iraq’s Sinjar region. Efforts for constructive engagement between EU and Turkey continued with EU foreign policy chief Mogherini’s late Nov visit to Ankara resulting in some progress toward visa liberalisation.
Astana court 1 Dec charged leader of unregistered Alash People’s Social Democratic Party, Syrym Abdirakhmanov, with distribution of false information, assaulting a public official, offending a public official, and obstructing justice. Came one day after Almaty district court 30 Nov sentenced opposition activist Aset Abishev to four years in jail on charges of supporting activities of banned Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DVK) movement.
Amid ongoing reports of harassment and detention of minorities in “re-education” camps in China’s Xinjiang province (see China), activists in Bishkek end Nov created Committee to Protect Kyrgyz People in China, and organised protests outside UN 5 Dec and Chinese embassy 20 Dec denouncing “persecution” of Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, and Uyghurs. Following persistent tension between President Jeenbekov and his predecessor Almazbek Atambayev, parliament 13 Dec approved on first reading bill eliminating immunity for ex-presidents; two more readings needed before Jeenbekov can sign it into law; Jeenbekov 19 Dec denied he was fighting with Atambayev. Authorities 10 Dec arrested former deputy PM Duishenbek Zilaliev on corruption charges.
In 10 Dec joint statement, embassies of UK, Germany, France, U.S., and EU delegation in Dushanbe expressed concern over govt’s blocking of online news and social media sites and urged govt to “provide for press freedom in accordance with Tajikistan’s international obligations”.
Latin America & Caribbean
Govt refused to reciprocate National Liberation Army (ELN) Christmas truce, fuelling fears it may abandon the currently-suspended peace process, while Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissident groups continued to strengthen and carry out violence across country. ELN 17 Dec announced unilateral truce 23 Dec-3 Jan; govt responded that armed forces would continue to operate throughout country, including against ELN; President Duque reiterated conditions to continue talks with ELN are release of kidnapping victims and end to criminal activities. ELN attack on road between Medellín, Antioquia province (north west) and Caribbean coast killed civilian 8 Dec. In continuing FARC dissident violence, 33rd front dissident group 10 Dec reportedly kidnapped ten Venezuelan refugee minors in town of La Gabarra, Catatumbo (north east); military 21 Dec killed alias “Guacho”, leader of dissident Oliver Sinisterra front, in operation near Ecuadoran border (south west). In other violence, unknown assailants 17 Dec shot and killed six people including teenage boy in Mapiripán, Meta (centre), in area where First front FARC dissident group and Puntilleros drug trafficking group both operate. Authorities 4 Dec killed Puntilleros commander alias “Puntilla” during operation in Medellín. Reports emerged that in early Oct, certain FARC dissident leaders and ELN mid-level commanders met in Venezuela to coordinate economic activities along Venezuelan border area and discuss political cooperation. Country’s largest drug trafficking group Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces (AGC) declared unilateral truce 8 Dec-10 Jan. Political killings of community activists continued, including murder of two indigenous leaders in Cauca 6-7 Dec. FM Carlos Holmes Trujillo 30 Dec announced govt had uncovered “credible” plot to assassinate President Duque, and had arrested three Venezuelans in connection with alleged plot earlier in Dec.
President Maduro’s planned swearing in for second term 10 Jan, following his disputed May 2018 election, prompted growing domestic and international opposition, with some regional govts including Colombia indicating they may close their embassies or break off relations. Peruvian FM Popolizio 7 Dec said his govt would propose to Lima Group that govts break relations with Venezuela on 10 Jan, although members split on plan; Venezuelan FM Arreaza accused Lima Group govts of corruption and human rights violations. Opposition parties in National Assembly (AN) reportedly agreed during month that Juan Guaidó of Voluntad Popular party would be elected as AN chair 5 Jan in potential consolidation of moderate majority leadership of AN. Two Russian nuclear-capable bombers 10 Dec landed at airport in Maiquetía, Vargas state for “training exercise”; defence minister Gen Vladimir Padrino López commented the two countries were “preparing to defend Venezuela”; official Russian news agency TASS indicated visit was intended to send message to U.S., which criticised visit. Maduro 17 Dec said civil militia had grown to 1.6mn members and its mission was to defend country against external aggression.
Govt continued campaign against International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), fuelling political tensions. Foreign Ministry 17 Dec revoked visas and waived diplomatic immunity for eleven CICIG investigators working on corruption cases including those against President Morales for illicit electoral financing; govt gave ten investigators 72 hours to leave country; civil society groups responded demanding resignation of FM Jovel, and Constitutional Court 21 Dec ruled ministry should issue visas by 24 Dec. Ministry 24 Dec filed appeal, clarifying reasons behind its defiance of court’s ruling; CICIG 31 Dec announced govt had renewed visas for the investigators. CICIG chiefIván Velásquez 7 Dec accused political parties of sharing out posts in judicial system, 12 Dec expressed willingness to return to Guatemala in Jan. CICIG and attorney general continued anti-corruption efforts including several arrests on charges of illicit electoral financing 13 Dec. Thousands of Guatemalans continued journeying through Central America and Mexico to reach U.S. despite dangers along route; group of masked men 8 Dec attacked 45 Guatemalan migrants in Veracruz, Mexico, killing one,while two Guatemalan children died in U.S. Border Patrol custody 8 and 25 Dec, causing public outcry. U.S. President Trump 28 Dec threatened to cut “all aid” to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras unless they do more to stop migration.
UN-led National Dialogue process resumed 11 Dec, with ruling-National Party, opposition Liberal Party and representatives of former presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla reaching over 70 agreements regarding human rights, electoral reforms and accountability, among others; no consensus on amnesty for detainees from 2017 post-election protests or on referendum to approve presidential re-election. Political tension remained high following descent into violence of 27 Nov anti-govt march in capital as police fired tear gas to disperse opposition supporters marching on anniversary of 2017 election; masked protesters 6 Dec burned several buses in Tegucigalpa. Thousands of mostly Honduran migrants continued to wait at U.S-Mexico border to request asylum in U.S.; two Honduran teenagers reportedly murdered in Tijuana, Mexico 15 Dec. U.S. and Mexico 19 Dec announced $5.8bn in U.S. aid for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and $4.8bn for Mexico to stem illegal migration. Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador 1 Dec signed agreement for major development plan for Central America and southern Mexico aimed at slowing migration.Seven men found guilty 7 Dec of murdering environmentalist Berta Cáceres in 2016, in trial severely criticised by many human rights groups for lack of due process. U.S. President Trump 28 Dec threatened to cut “all aid” to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras unless they do more to stop migration.
Violence continued with 27 people killed over weekend of 1-2 Dec, however national police chief 9 Dec said 2018 homicide rate down 15% compared to 2017, at around 51 homicides per 100,000. Anti-gang operations continued with security forces arresting 631 alleged members in one day 11 Dec in Central El Salvador. In lead-up to Feb presidential elections, supporters of leading candidate Nayib Bukele 6 Dec broke into Electoral Supreme Court HQ following call from Bukele to denounce alleged fraud. Legislative Assembly 21 Dec elected new attorney general, ARENA party nominee Raul Melara, replacing incumbent Douglas Meléndez who had prosecuted and investigated two former presidents on corruption charges. U.S. President Trump 28 Dec threatened to cut “all aid” to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras unless they do more to stop migration.
President Ortega’s govt displayed increasingly repressive tendencies during month in face of growing international condemnation of govt crackdown on social protests, attacking civil society and media, while political situation remained tense. Govt stripped legal registration of nine NGOs including Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre (CENIDH), and 19 Dec expelled two missions from Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in moves condemned by international partners. Govt also increased repression on media and attacks on journalists including police 3 Dec seizing equipment from Radio Darío’s offices and on 13 Dec detaining four employees and confiscating computers and documents from newspaper and TV offices; police 15 Dec allegedly beat at least seven journalists demanding information about equipment seizures. In political sphere, opposition Blue and White National Unity (UNAB) late Nov called for resumption of national dialogue, echoed by Episcopal Conference and private sector groups; Ortega accused Church of siding with opposition. Court 17 Dec sentenced three campesino (peasant farmer) leaders and members of opposition to decades in jail for various charges including murder of four police, terrorism and organised crime; first such high-profile members of opposition Civic Alliance to be convicted and sentenced. Govt’s international standing continued to worsen; IACHR 6 Dec concluded “regime of terror” had been installed, while Organization of American States (OAS) 12 Dec expressed concern about ongoing repression and govt’s lack of willingness for dialogue. Luis Almagro 23 Dec backed IACHR experts’ report presented in Washington 21 Dec, alleging govt committed crimes against humanity in repression of protests; 27 Dec announced he would invoke Inter-American Democratic Charter, a process that could end in Nicaragua’s expulsion from OAS. With economic situation continuing to deteriorate, Jesuit Migrant Service 13 Dec reported some 80,000 Nicaraguans fled country since April.
President Moïse 14 Dec called for truce with opposition following anti-corruption protests and rioting in Nov demanding his resignation. Concerns over security mounted with reports of police struggling to deal with heavily armed gangs, emergence of paramilitary units with alleged ties to govt, and armed groups killing dozens.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) assumed office 1 Dec amid concerns that National Peace and Security Plan announced in Nov will cement militarisation of public security. AMLO started implementing new federal organisational structure that will increase centralisation and presidential control of security through central coordinating body, one of his campaign promises; but under pressure from state governors, AMLO 5 Dec handed them powers to coordinate security provision in each state, despite his campaign promise that he would personally be in charge of deciding over and overseeing day-to-day security operations. Govt 15 Dec announced 2019 federal budget, with focus on social and economic developments over security operations. Criminal violence continued unabated; in Michoacán (centre), armed groups affiliated with Jalisco Cartel New Generation (CJNG) mid-Dec began offensive against opposing alliance of armed groups. In neighbouring Jalisco state, CJNG members 3 Dec ambushed state police in Huerta, killing six. CJNG 6 Dec denied carrying out late Nov grenade attack on U.S. consulate in Guadalajara, Jalisco state. Violence also increased in Guanajuato (centre) and Puebla (centre-south), where CJNG competes over oil siphoning markets; twenty people killed in Guanajuato 4 Dec. Central American migrants continued to travel through Mexico in efforts to reach U.S. and apply for asylum; group of masked men 8 Dec attacked 45 Guatemalan migrants in Coatzocoalcos, Veracruz , killing one, while two Honduran teenagers were reportedly murdered in Tijuana on U.S. border 15 Dec. U.S. and Mexico 19 Dec jointly announced $5.8bn in U.S. aid for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and $4.8bn for Mexico to stem illegal migration. Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras 1 Dec signed agreement for major development plan for Central America and southern Mexico aimed at slowing migration.
Middle East & North Africa
In West Bank, Israeli army responded to multiple Palestinian attacks on Israeli settlers and army with mass raids and arrests; three Israelis and five Palestinians killed. In West Bank, Palestinian drive-by shooting near Israeli settlement of Ofra 9 Dec wounded seven including pregnant woman whose unborn baby later died; Israeli army 12 Dec shot dead suspected attacker and same day killed Palestinian suspected of attack in Oct. Israeli police 13 Dec killed Palestinian allegedly attempting to stab two Israeli policemen in East Jerusalem; Palestinians same day shot dead two Israeli soldiers outside Givat Asaf outpost; and Israeli army hours later killed Palestinian allegedly attempting to run over soldiers outside Bireh. Israel accused Hamas of masterminding attacks. In response, Israel closed entrances to city of Ramallah and carried out raids 14 Dec, arresting some 40 Palestinians and killing one. Throughout West Bank and Gaza Strip Palestinians protested against raids; Palestinian Authority (PA) heavily suppressed protests as it claimed Hamas had organised them. In Gaza, UN and Egyptian-mediated talks on ceasefire with Israel and reconciliation with PA continued. In accordance with ceasefire agreement, Qatar’s second tranche of $15mn distributed in Gaza 4 Dec for civil servants and poor families. Hamas claimed to have caught thirteen Palestinians alleged to have facilitated Israeli undercover operation that went awry in Nov; military tribunal 3 Dec sentenced six to death and seven to life imprisonment. Israeli govt 24 Dec dissolved ruling coalition and announced general elections to be held 9 April. UN General Assembly 6 Dec rejected U.S.-sponsored resolution seeking to condemn Hamas including “for inciting violence”. Israeli military 4 Dec began operations to find and destroy Hizbollah tunnels dug in Lebanon, some of which crossed into Israeli territory. Australia 15 Dec recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but said it would not relocate embassy until peace deal is achieved.
Hundreds demonstrated throughout Dec against austerity measures and high unemployment; clashes between police and protestors 13 Dec in capital Amman led to arrest of seventeen protestors.
Israel 4 Dec launched Operation Northern Shield to uncover and destroy tunnels allegedly dug by Hizbollah in Lebanon which cross into Israeli territory. UN mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) 17 Dec expressed “serious concern” as two of four confirmed tunnels crossed “Blue Line” border demarcation, violating UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Hizbollah 9 Dec asserted its missiles could hit anywhere in Israel. Israeli delegation 10 Dec visited Moscow and confirmed Israel will continue operations against arms transfers from Iran to Hizbollah via Syria. Prospects for govt formation improved when President Aoun 18 Dec reportedly agreed to appoint independent Sunni minister as part of his bloc in govt, which could satisfy Hizbollah’s demand that one minister represent independent Sunnis. New disputes over Sunni representative halted efforts to finalise deal, triggering protests 16-26 Dec across country with scuffles between demonstrators and soldiers. Syrian refugees continued to return from Lebanon to Syria through govt-run programs at Masnaa, al-Zamarani and Abboudieh border crossings in centre and north, including around 1,000 6 Dec.
U.S. President Trump 19 Dec announced all 2,000 U.S. troops would withdraw from Syria, citing defeat of Islamic State (ISIS) and need to save U.S. from “spending precious lives and trillions of dollars”. Announcement contradicted most of Trump’s senior aides and U.S. Syria strategy as formulated in recent weeks. Russian President Putin 20 Dec applauded decision, while Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – of which Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forms military backbone – denounced withdrawal, saying it will impact negatively campaign against terrorism. Trump 23 Dec signed executive order and same day tweeted that withdrawal would be “slow and highly coordinated”. Trump 31 Dec confirmed troops would be brought home slowly “while at the same time fighting [ISIS] remnants”. Before U.S. announcement, Turkish President Erdoğan 12 Dec said Turkey would launch offensive against YPG east of Euphrates River “within days” (see Turkey); Turkish-backed Syrian civilian and armed opposition voiced support for Turkish intervention. U.S. voiced “grave concern” over potential military incursion and risks for U.S. personnel.Erdoğan 17 Dec said 15 Dec phone conversation with Trump about possible incursion was positive, but that Turkish forces could still intervene “at any moment”. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 23 Dec reported Turkish military build-up at front line of SDF-controlled town of Manbij; Syria’s military 28 Dec entered Manbij area amid calls from YPG for help against threat of attack by Turkey. In north west, intermittent clashes and bombing continued on periphery of Idlib de-escalation zone, but Sept Russia-Turkey agreement covering area held. Following 24 Nov gas attack on Aleppo and Syrian army and Russian retaliatory airstrikes in de-escalation zone next day, U.S. State Department 7 Dec disputed Russian and Syrian govt claims that rebels launched chemical attack, saying it had “credible information that pro-regime forces likely used tear gas against civilians” in Aleppo. In south, after three months of fighting, anti-Islamic State (ISIS) coalition 5 Dec captured last remaining ISIS urban stronghold around Hajin. Some 2,500 ISIS fighters are thought to have withdrawn into desert further east toward Iraqi border. Following 28-29 Nov Astana talks at which parties failed to reach compromise on constitution drafting committee, foreign ministers of Iran, Russia and Turkey 18 Dec announced still-unformed constitutional committee would convene early 2019.
Results of 24 Nov parliamentary election released, first such election since govt dissolved opposition groups al-Wefaq in 2016 and Waad in 2017. Younger candidates and women gained significantly, as did newcomers; few incumbents chose to run. High Court 31 Dec upheld five-year jail sentence against human rights activist Nabeel Rajab convicted in Feb over social media posts accusing prison service of torture.
UN Sec-Gen Guterres 6 Dec issued sixth report on implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that endorsed 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), noting Iran continued to adhere to deal’s commitments in “face of considerable challenges”. Guterres also applauded efforts to protect economic freedoms for “legitimate business” (likely referring to EU’s unrealised Special Purpose Vehicle) but report highlighted possible Iranian weapons transfers to proxies and seven Iranian ballistic missile tests in 2018. U.S.-Iran tensions continued: U.S. Sec State Pompeo 1 Dec reported and condemned Iran’s test same day of medium range ballistic missile and 12 Dec pledged to continue “building coalition of responsible nations” confronting Iranian “ballistic missile activity”; Iran responded that U.S. had breached UNSCR 2231, Iran was not responsible for arms transfers and missile tests did not break resolution. Israeli PM Netanyahu 16 Dec hinted Israeli intelligence operations inside Iran were continuing. Insecurity in Iran’s border areas persisted as Baluchi jihadist group Ansar al-Furqan killed two and injured more than two dozen in suicide attack in city of Chabahar in south near Pakistan border 6 Dec; FM Zarif claimed perpetrators were “foreign-backed”. Govt and Pakistan 13 Dec signed MoU to enhance border security. Iranian official visiting Afghan capital Kabul 26 Dec said Iran had been holding talks with Taliban on security issues in Afghanistan; govt 31 Dec said it had held talks with Taliban representatives in Tehran previous day.
In govt formation process following May 2018 legislative elections, rival political blocs continued to contest remaining empty cabinet posts, especially interior and defence. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr late Nov denounced Iran’s support for former National Security Adviser Faleh al-Fayyad for interior minister. MPs aligned to Sadr and former PM Abadi boycotted parliamentary session to vote in remaining ministers 4 Dec, preventing Fayyad’s election. Parliament 24 Dec approved Shaima Khalil as education minister and Nawfal Moussa as migration minister, leaving three seats unfilled. In Kurdistan, dominant party Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) 3 Dec appointed KDP head Massoud Barzani’s son and nephew as Kurdish PM and president respectively. KDP 13 Dec announced willingness to reopen road connecting Dohuk, Dohuk province (north) and Sinjar, Nineveh province (north west) to help enable displaced Yazidis to return home. Islamic State (ISIS)-related insecurity continued; bombing in Youssef Bek village, Diyala province (east) killed two policemen 11 Dec and bombing in Ramadi, Anbar province (west) killed policeman 15 Dec. Govt 12 Dec claimed its airstrike against ISIS camp in Syria killed 44 militants. In north west, ISIS-claimed car bombing killed three people in Tal Afar, Nineveh province 25 Dec. In far north, Turkey continued operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) with airstrikes killing eight militants 13 Dec and six more 16 Dec. U.S. 20 Dec granted Iraq 90-day extension of its exemption from U.S. sanctions on Iran-related trade, allowing Iraq to continue importing Iranian electricity and gas while it finds alternative sources.
In further steps toward asserting independence from Saudi-led regional bloc, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani did not attend 9 Dec Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh. Hosting Turkish and Iranian FMs at Doha forum 15-16 Dec, FM Thani said regional alliance “must be reshaped”. Qatar 3 Dec withdrew from Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Following killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi consulate in Istanbul in Oct, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) continued efforts to restore international credibility amid accusations he orchestrated murder. U.S. Senate 13 Dec passed resolution blaming MBS for murder; govt rejected Senate’s move and “accusations”. Senate also passed resolution calling for end to U.S. military support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen (see Yemen). Govt 20 Dec announced creation of three departments to increase oversight of intelligence operations. King Salman 27 Dec shuffled cabinet replacing key posts including FM and national security adviser. Economic impact of fallout from murder and MBS’s policies continued; investment bank JP Morgan estimated Saudi investors had pulled out $90bn from country in 2018, roughly 10% of GDP.
At UN-led peace consultations in Sweden, govt and Huthis agreed to redeploy forces from Hodeida city and port, and wider Red Sea trade corridor. If ceasefire in Hodeida governorate holds, further talks planned for Jan could open path to wider de-escalation, but if it fails or implementation falters, rival forces could restart battle for Hodeida port and city. Consultations led by UN special envoy Martin Griffiths 6-13 Dec culminated in Stockholm Agreement comprising agreement on Hodeida city and Hodeida, Salif and Ras Issa ports; agreement for prisoner exchange; and statement of understanding on city of Taiz. Texts said parties made deals for humanitarian purposes only and are not to be seen as part of broader political process. Hodeida and ports agreement includes ceasefire; redeployment of all forces from city and ports to agreed-upon locations within 21 days of start of ceasefire; and agreement for revenue from ports to flow to Hodeida branch of Central Bank. Parties agreed to reconvene in Jan in yet to be agreed location to discuss framework for political negotiations. Ceasefire in Hodeida governorate took effect 18 Dec and held with mostly minor violations till end-month. UN Security Council 21 Dec passed UK-drafted resolution that calls on all parties to uphold Stockholm Agreement; on UN to oversee implementation; and on parties to keep working with UN envoy Griffiths to stabilise economy and reopen Sanaa airport. Resolution approves 30-day deployment of UN team to monitor ceasefire in Hodeida region. UN source and Huthis 29 Dec said Huthi forces had begun redeploying from Hodeida port as per Stockholm Agreement. Redeployment Coordination Committee including govt and Huthi representatives will oversee ceasefire and demilitarisation, and report weekly to UN Security Council. In largely symbolic move, U.S. Senate 13 Dec passed bill that, if enacted, would end all U.S. military support for Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. New U.S. House of Representatives will consider legislation in 2019.
Political positioning continued ahead of 2019 presidential election. Islamist party Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) 3 Dec called for postponement of election to allow time to find consensual successor to President Bouteflika and start political and economic reforms needed to tackle country’s problems, sparking national debate about possibility of delaying vote. Ruling coalition continued to publicly support Bouteflika’s bid for fifth term, but behind the scenes struggle continued between most credible candidates to succeed him. Thousands demonstrated in Bejaia 11 Dec, 220km east of capital Algiers, calling for release of blogger Merzoug Touati, jailed since Jan 2017 on charges of sharing intelligence with foreign country and calling for unblocking of five industrial projects undertaken by prominent businessman and Bouteflika critic Issad Rebrab.
Anger against govt grew within Coptic Christian community after attacks Nov-Dec. Police guard outside church 12 Dec shot and killed two Copts in Minya city, 250km south of capital Cairo. Thousands of Copts 13 Dec attended burial and protested what they perceived as lack of security across Minya province. Govt credited military with return of security to Sinai Peninsula, but instability continued. Military 12 Dec said armed forces had killed at least 27 suspected Islamist militants in North Sinai and along border with Libya, without specifying time period. Authorities said two roadside bombs 17 Dec hit police convoy west of Rafah town, North Sinai, killing two conscripts. Govt 23 Dec said security forces had killed fourteen suspected Islamist militants in shootouts in Arish city. Roadside bomb 28 Dec hit bus in Giza’s Haram district south west of Cairo, at least four killed including three Vietnamese tourists and their Egyptian guide. Govt 29 Dec said security forces killed 30 suspected Islamist militants in raids in Giza and ten others in Sinai same day, reportedly in response to Giza bombing previous day. Italian prosecutors 29 Nov accused seven Egyptian security officials of involvement in arrest, torture and killing of Italian student Giulio Regeni in Cairo in early 2016. Regional military exercises carried out at base on North Coast 10-14 Dec bringing together Sudan, Niger and Burkina Faso, and regional partners such as Jordan. Sudanese ambassador to Russia 7 Dec said Egypt and Sudan would create joint military force to target terrorists and weapons smuggling along Libya-Sudan-Egypt borders; Egypt did not confirm.
Tensions rose in capital Tripoli following 25 Dec Islamic State (ISIS) attack on foreign affairs ministry that killed at least six people including three assailants and injured 21. Infighting between Tripoli-based militias also continued: Tripoli militia leaders known as al-Aweinat and Salah al-Marghani killed in Tripoli 26 Nov and 15 Dec respectively. Wrangling among west and east-based politicians continued to stall political process. Referendum law and two constitutional amendments, passed by Tobruk-based parliament House of Representatives (HoR) in east late Nov, supposed to pave way for referendum on draft constitution and selection of new Presidency Council, angered politicians in Tripoli-based High State Council (HSC) in west and provoked criticism regarding alleged substantive and procedural flaws. Police and security officers from rival west and east-based govts 29 Dec met in eastern city of Benghazi in effort to unite security forces. Fezzan Rage, youth protest movement demanding better services in impoverished Fezzan region in south, backed by Petroleum Facilities Guards militia nominally loyal to PM Serraj’s govt, forced closure of country’s largest oil field Sharara 8 Dec. Internationally recognised Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC) 16 Dec declared force majeure on Sharara’s operations. PM Serraj 19 Dec visited oil field to negotiate with protesters, but NOC said oil field would remain closed until new security arrangements are set up. Chadian armed group 27 Dec attacked camp of forces loyal to Field Marshal Haftar, de facto commander in east, near town of Traghen in south west, reportedly killing one and injuring thirteen others.
Anti-slavery campaigner and new MP Biram Dah Abeid in custody since early Aug released 31 Dec after authorities withdrew charges of slander.
Two women, one Danish and one Norwegian, were found dead 17 Dec near Imlil village in Atlas Mountains south of Marrakech, one had been beheaded. Security forces arrested one suspect 18 Dec and three others 20 Dec. Govt 20 Dec said it suspected terrorist motive. Danish intelligence services 20 Dec said they had authenticated video circulating on social media that appeared to show murder of one of the women.
As rivalry persisted between President Essebsi and PM Chahed, Essebsi tried to destabilise Islamist party An-Nahda, which has supported Chahed. Essebsi 29 Nov asked National Security Council – which includes PM and defence and interior ministers – to investigate An-Nahda’s alleged involvement in killings of two leftist politicians in 2013. Secretary general of Essebsi’s party Nida Tounes, Slim Riahi, 23 Nov lodged complaint against Chahed, accusing him of preparing coup; however military tribunal 10 Dec refused to hear case in absence of plaintiff. Chahed mid-Dec visited Saudi Arabia, met with King Salman, 15 Dec said Saudi Arabia had pledged financial aid worth about $830mn, including $500mn budget support. Protests erupted in interior. Leftist activists 14 Dec launched movement called gilets rouges, inspired by gilets jaunesprotests in France. Militants allegedly linked to Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate Jund al-Khilafa 14 Dec robbed bank in Sbiba city in west, taking equivalent of $100,000, then killed in his home Khaled Zoghlani, brother of soldier killed in similar circumstances in 2016. Govt 19 Dec said security forces had arrested all eight members of terrorist cell dubbed Jihad and Tawhid Battalion that had allegedly been planning attacks in central Sidi Bouzid province. National Guard 19 Dec reportedly killed Aymen Ben Younes Jendoubi, leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s local splinter group Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade, near Sakiet Sidi Youssef, Kef province in north. Leading figure in expat community from Côte d’Ivoire, Falikou Coulibaly, who had spoken out against racist violence, stabbed to death in capital Tunis 23 Dec. After posting online video in which he expressed frustration at economic problems and unfulfilled promises of 2011 revolution and called for revolt, journalist Abderrazak Zorgui set himself on fire and died 24 Dec in Kasserine in centre. Anti-govt protesters sympathetic to Zorgui’s complaints clashed with police for three consecutive nights in Kasserine and other cities; eighteen protesters arrested.