Two French reporters are killed in an attack that bears the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
IT WAS brutal and perhaps unexpected. Two French journalists in the northern Malian town of Kidal, an unlovely settlement on the southern flank of the Sahara, were seized by gunmen as they left a meeting with an ethnic Tuareg separatist on November 2nd, driven into the desert and executed. French troops found their corpses hours later. Although jihadists hiding out in the desert have launched a spate of attacks in recent weeks, these have tended to be opportunistic—a mortar attack here, a suicide bombing there. The abduction of the reporters in broad daylight in the centre of town required proper intelligence and planning. Several hundred UN peacekeepers based moments away knew nothing about it until it was far too late. Read the rest of this entry »
EVERY morning a bus caked in dust pulls into Bamako bringing the latest rumours of war. Looking dazed and dehydrated after 24 hours on the road, Mohammad Maiga explains how Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants have turned his native Gao, northern Mali’s most populous town, into a ghost town. “Everyone is leaving,” says Mr Maiga. “There’s no food, no supplies.” Blackouts last all day. Banks and offices have been pillaged by rampant rebels. Read the rest of this entry »
Within 24 hours Mali’s stable democracy has reached the brink of civil war, reports Julius Cavendish in Bamako
Mali was on the brink of civil war last night after mutinous soldiers led by a cadre of young officers seized the capital, Bamako, but failed to corner President Touré, who regrouped outside the city with a crack unit of paratroopers.
The renegade soldiers, angered by the Government’s failure to arm them to fight Tuareg rebels, stormed the presidential palace overnight, arresting senior members of the Cabinet.
Some troops fuelled by alcohol then went on a rampage, looting the palace, which bestrides limestone cliffs overlooking the centre of Bamako, and carting off flat-screen televisions, computer monitors and photocopiers. Read the rest of this entry »
Gunmen stormed a Kabul guesthouse popular with UN workers Wednesday in what the Taliban called the first of more attacks ahead of Afghanistan’s Nov. 7 runoff election.
Taliban gunmen stormed a private guesthouse in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in a bloody predawn attack Wednesday that killed six United Nations staff and signaled a clear intent to disrupt the upcoming presidential runoff.
The United States embassy in Kabul confirmed that at least one of the dead was an American.
The raid, which appeared to be coordinated with rocket attacks on the presidential palace and the luxury Serena Hotel popular with foreigners, was the worst attack the UN has faced in Afghanistan and, like assaults on aid workers elsewhere could prompt some to leave the country.
The Taliban said the attack was the start of a campaign to wreck a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 7.
Before dawn three militants disguised as police and wearing suicide vests sealed off the road outside the Bekhtar Guesthouse in central Kabul before shooting their way past a security guard. Once inside, they threw grenades and, by some accounts, dragged guests from their beds before killing them. At least one detonated his vest before security forces recaptured the building following a two-hour siege.
Eyewitnesses said that some terrified guests fled over the roof of a next-door building; others were injured jumping from balconies as flames engulfed part of the building. Twelve people were killed in total, with nine more said to be in serious condition.
Attack could scare off aid workers
Kai Eide, the UN head of mission in Afghanistan, said the attack would not deter the organization from its mission but that there would be a review of security measures. A truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Bagdad in 2003 killed 22 people and prompted the organization to pull out of Iraq for several years. Although UN workers have occasionally been targeted in Afghanistan before, Wednesday’s attack had the highest death toll so far.
The attack could have a heavy impact on aid agencies in the country, with security analysts warning that some may pack up altogether while others will definitely scale back their operations. Aid workers due to arrive in the country to help with the second round of voting have been advised to delay their flights.
“I think there’s going to be a bit of an exodus,” says one analyst who asked not to be named.
Aid workers are softer targets than the coalition bases, embassies and government ministries that the Taliban has concentrate its attacks on in the capital up til now.
President Hamid Karzai ordered an urgent overhaul of security around international aid institutions.
Deadliest month since 2001
The attack came as the loss of eight more American soldiers on Tuesday brought total troop casualties this month to 54, making October the deadliest month of the war for US forces since it began in 2001. The casualty rate has shot up sharply since July when thousands of additional US troops were deployed to some of the most volatile parts of the country.
Seven soldiers fell victim to a cluster of roadside bombs in southern Afghanistan, while an eighth was killed in an explosion in another part of the country. Improvised explosive devices, the Taliban’s weapon of choice, are the largest single killer of foreign forces in the country. (Read here about how US troops are trying to counter the IED threat in Afghanistan.)
The rising number of casualties, the high-profile resignation of a highly regarded US Foreign Service officer, and the growing tensions over next week’s Afghan election runoff will intensify pressure on Barack Obama as he edges towards a crucial decision on whether to commit thousands more troops to Afghanistan.
Some Afghans say they are tired of the election’s toll on lives and business. A runoff between President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah is slated for Nov. 7.
No one on Chicken Street wants any more voting.
Instead of the usual brisk trade in carpets, silks, and gemstones, the popular strip of shops in Kabul is largely deserted. Afghans say their country’s political uncertainty is hurting business. For some shopkeepers sales have dropped by half.
Their disenchantment comes even as United Nationsand Afghan election officials make frantic preparations to hold another round of voting between President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, if they fail to reach a deal before Nov. 7, when the runoff is scheduled.
Among the daunting tasks: Replacing 200 of 380 district election chiefs implicated in fraud during the first round of voting with more reliable staff.
The scramble comes after Mr. Karzai, under pressure from Western officials, agreed Tuesday to accept the findings of a vote-rigging inquiry that triggered the runoff between the two leading candidates.
But although both men claim that more voters will turn out than last time – Dr. Abdullah said Wednesday that voters would “embrace” the prospect – many Afghans have little appetite for more polling.
Turnout estimates were as low as 5 percent for some areas particularly hard-hit by the insurgency during the first round, held Aug. 20.
Haji Abdul Hakim, a carpet dealer on Chicken Street, says he is angry about the failure of the Afghan government and the international community to bring the process to a swift end.
“Business is very slow,” he says. “Everyone is making a loss. Democracy? The original democracy is good but the United Nations doesn’t know about it. Everybody is angry. There are no jobs and winter is coming. Difficult, difficult, difficult.”
His view is characteristic of most interviewees – others derided the runoff for creating “the same problems all over again.”
Still, not everyone is unhappy with Tuesday’s announcement of a runoff election. In Shorobak, in southern Kandahar Province – where fraud was widespread first time around – tribal elder Haji Mohammad Brits says his community wants a runoff vote.
“We will go for a second round if it’s necessary,” he says. “The delay that happened in the result – it’s good because the people can see who did the fraud and they will know a lot of things about the fraud, the problems that happened.”
However, there are serious questions about how to organize another ballot in less than three weeks, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledging Tuesday it would be a “huge challenge.”
“We have learned very valuable but painful lessons from the first election. We must not repeat what they have done last time,” he said.
Ballot papers, indelible ink, and other election materials supplied by the UN are already in Kabul, ready to be flown to the provinces Thursday, according to UN spokesman Aleem Siddique.
But a major, and largely unanswered, question is how to avoid a repeat of the vote rigging that tarred the initial poll.
Independent Election Commission spokesman Mohammad Noor Mohammad admits this will be a “challenge” for election officials. “It will be something we respond to in coming days,” he says.
Of more immediate concern to potential voters is security. Durrani Shah, from Gereshk district inHelmand province in the south, says: “We did hard work and we lost lots of life and still no result of the election. We can’t go for the second time. We would be very happy to have the next government and to solve our problems.”
The United Nations is flying one of its top election experts into Kabul to help break Afghanistan’s political deadlock, as preparations get underway for a possible second round of voting.
Julius Cavendish In Kabul and Nick Meo
The arrival of Carlos Valenzuela in Kabul this weekend would be the most visible sign yet of increasingly desperate efforts by the international community to bring the drawn-out and contentious aftermath of last month’s election to a tidy end.
The UN hopes that he will be able to find a solution that makes it appear that foreigners are not influencing the result too much.
Mr Valenzuela has been given the job of ensuring a final certified result from the vote on August 20 is announced in time for a second round to take place if necessary. Read the rest of this entry »