Reports are emerging of a clash between Russian forces and an Iran-backed militia in Syria—pointing to mounting tensions between the two most significant foreign powers backing the Assad regime. At least 11 were killed in the fighting in the city of Aleppo April 16. The clash began near a vegetable market in Khaldiya district, and quickly escalated to the use of heavy weaponry, with ground-to-air missiles fired on nearby areas within the city. At least some of the casualties are believed to be civilians. The militia was unnamed, but Tehran is backing numerous Shi'ite militias in Syria, many made up of volunteers from Iran and Iraq. The clash followed recent Israeli air-strikes on Iranian targets near Aleppo, and Tehran-backed factions apparently accused Russia of green-lighting Israel's attacks, or even coordinating with Tel Aviv on the strikes. (Syria Call, Middle East Monitor, Arab Weekly)
Venezuelan army troops reportedly opened fire on indigenous protesters who were blocking a road near the Brazilian border Feb. 23, leaving several dead. Opposition lawmaker Américo de Grazia, from the southern state of Bolívar, announced on his Twitter feed that morning that soliders opened fire as protesters, including many from the local Pemón indigenous group, contended with troops attempting to bar the passage of trucks filled with aid coming in from Brazilian territory. The first victim was said to be a Pemón woman who was on the scene as a food vendor. A second Pemón was slain shortly later, and another 14 wounded, de Grazia said. He added that several troops, including the commander on the scene, were subsequently taken captive by Pemón warriors and are being held at the nearby indigenous community of Kumarakapay. De Grazia tweeted later in the day that the 14 Pemón who had been taken to a nearby hospital after being shot also succumbed to their wounds.
Under pressure to address the ongoing wave of targeted assassinations in Colombia, President Iván Duque Jan. 30 for the first time spoke before the National Commission to Guarantee Security, formed by the previous government to address continuing violence in the country—which has only worsened since he took office last year. Duque said 4,000 people are now under the government's protection program for threatened citizens. But his office implied that the narco trade is entirely behind the growing violence. Interior Minister Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez told the meeting: "This great problem is derived from the 200,000 hectares of illicit crops that we have in Colombia." (Espectador, Jan. 30)
Numerous media sources are reporting that Vladimir Putin has dispatched a team of private mercenaries to Venezuela to help back up the besieged government of President Nicolás Maduro. Reuters cites claims that some 400 military contractors from the Wagner group have arrived in Caracas. Wagner PMC (Private Military Company) is a Russian firm already contracted by Moscow's Defense Ministry to provide personnel for the wars in Ukraine and in Syria. Moscow Times quotes Yevgeny Shabayev, ataman (commander) of the Khovrino Cossack paramilitary group, as saying that the mercenaries were flown to Havana on two chartered aircraft, where they were transfered to commerical flights to Caracas. Shabayev said Cossacks had been recruited for the force to serve as a kind of Praetorian Guard for Maduro. "Our people are there directly for his protection," he said. The Russian news site Lenta.ru cited Shabayev saying a "military conspiracy had been discovered in Maduro's inner circle, and therefore it was necessary to replace his personal security with loyal people."
Carlos Ruiz Massieu, head of the UN Mission in Colombia, warned President Iván Duque about the human rights situation in the country when they met at the Casa de Nariño presidential palace in Bogotá last week. Ruiz said he especially expressed convern about "the issue of the assassinations of social leaders and human rights defenders." (Nuevo Siglo, Jan. 15) Duque had days earlier announced a new plan of action to address the ongoing targeted assassinations, pledging: "We are going to strengthen all the instruments that the Public Force has at its disposition so that the leaders of armed groups, which are behind a large part of these homicides, are brought to justice." He spoke at Riohacha, La Guajira department, one of the areas hard hit by the ongoing killings. (Nuevo Siglo, Jan. 10)
Things are approaching a crisis point in the long battle of wills between Venezuela and the White House. Juan Guaidó, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, swore himself in as the country's "interim president" before a crowd of tens (by some accounts, hundreds) of thousands of supporters in Caracas on Jan. 23. Perhaps in an abortive move to pre-empt this, the SEBIN political police detained him on his way to a rally three days earlier, but later released him without charge. At his auto-inauguration, he declared President Nicolás Maduro's re-election last May illegitimate, and himself the only legitimate executive authority in the country. Donald Trump immediately announced that he is recognizing Guaidó—quickly joined by Canada and several Latin American governments.
Authorities in Ezidikhan, the self-declared Yazidi autonomous homeland in northern Iraq, appointed an Investigative Team on Genocide this week, pursuant to a law mandating establishment of the body passed by the Ezidikhan Governing Council last month. The team will primarily be looking at massacres and enslavement that targeted the Yazidi people when ISIS was in control of their territory from Augusr 2014 to November 2015. But the team will also examine possible crimes and complicity by the Iraqi national government, its allied paramilitary forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and foreign powers such as Turkey. The body is cooperating with the UN investigative team also working in the area, with an eye toward eventual establishment of an International Tribunal on Genocide for Yezidi and Neighboring Peoples (ITGYNP). But the Yazidi team's senior investigator, Abdul Qader al-Rawi, made clear: "Unlike the UN investigation, the Ezidikhan Investigative Team is not constrained by the Iraqi government’s claims for sovereign immunity." (Ezidikhan Public Information Bureau, Jan. 13)
A UN expert called Jan. 7 for the restoration of telecommunication services in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The internet continues to be shut down across the DRC in the wake of the Dec. 30 general elections. Authorities ordered closure of Internet and SMS services the day after the vote due to "fictitious results" circulating on social media. The results of the election have now been postponed and the shutdown extends past its original Jan. 6 end date. On that day, the head of the elections commission stated that just over half of the ballots have been counted. Both the opposition and ruling coalition said they were on track to win the election. Many citizens were not able to vote due to an Ebola outbreak, and the delay led to protests in the east of the country. The opposition has alleged irregularities and fraud, and there have been reports of militias forcing voters to vote for the ruling coalition. The election commission dismissed any problems as minor.