Algerian military forces on Jan. 17 launched an assault on the Amenas gas complex in the interior Sahara, where Islamists were holding dozens of hostages. Nearly 50 were killed in the raid, including 35 hostages, according to the spokesman of the militant group—variously named as "Battalion of the Masked" or "Signatories for Blood"—in a call to the Mauritanian news agency ANI. An Algerian government official called the number "exaggerated." Veteran jihadist fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar AKA "Laaouar" or "Lawar" (the One-Eyed) claimed responsibility for attacking the complex, jointly operated by BP, Norway's Statoil and Algerian parastatal Sonatrach. Belmokhtar was until recently a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), but was pushed out of the group late last year in a factional split. He has been blamed for previous abductions and the killings of both Algerians and foreigners.
Amid sketchy and conflicting reports of how much territory the jihadists have gained in their southern thrust and to what extent last week's French air-strikes have halted it, BBC News tells us Jan. 16 that French ground forces are now engaged in the battle for the town of Diabaly, just 220 miles north of Mali's capital, Bamako. A convoy of 50 armored vehicles left Bamako overnight for Diabaly, seemingly a joint force of French and Malian troops. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: "Today, the ground forces are being deployed. Until now, we had made sure there were a few ground forces in Bamako to keep our people safe... Now French ground forces are heading up north."
France carried out air-strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali Jan. 11, helping government forces halt a drive southward by the militants who control the country's desert north. France also evidently has introduced ground forces, with President Francois Hollande saying French troops "have brought support this afternoon to Malian units to fight against terrorist elements." He added: "This operation will last as long as is necessary." Combined Malian and French forces turned back a rebel advance, retaking the town of Konna (Mopti region, see map) that had been seized by a mixed force of the militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJAO, apparently with fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Mali's government declared a nation-wide state of emergency as the counter-offensive was launched.
Islamist militants occupying Timbuktu in northern Mali destroyed remaining mausoleums in the ancient city using pick-axes Dec. 23, a leader of the group said. "Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu, Allah doesn't like it," Abou Dardar, head of Ansar Dine, told the AFP. "We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area." (Al Jazeera, Dec. 23) Three days earlier, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to approve an African-led intervention force to oust the Islamist forces from Mali's north. (The Real News, Dec. 20)
Mali's prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was forced to resign on state television Dec. 11 after junta troops arrested him for attempting to leave the country. President Dioncounda Traoré appeared on TV to appoint Django Cissoko, a French-educated university professor and presidential aide, as interim prime minister. Diarra's ouster was a show of force by a military that staged a coup in March, just as rebels were seizing the country's desert north. Following his arrest, Diarra was taken to a meeting with coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo, where he was accused both of failing to retake the north and of scheming to to disrupt talks now underway with the rebels.
The government of Mali is now confirmed to be holding direct talks with two of rebel groups that seized control in the country's north, in a bid to resolve the country's political crisis and head off foreign intervention. Top government officials gathered in neighboring Burkina Faso Dec. 4 for preliminary talks with delegates from the MNLA Tuareg separatist group and the radical Islamist organization Ansar Dine. But meanwhile in Washington DC, the chief of the Pentagon's Africa Command, Gen. Carter F. Ham, warned that rebel-controlled northern Mali has become a staging area for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). "As each day goes by, al-Qaeda and other organizations are strengthening their hold in northern Mali," Gen. Ham said in remarks at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There is a compelling need for the international community, led by Africans, to address that." (VOA, Dec. 4; NYT, Dec. 3)
Obama seemed to score a win in last night's debate by catching Mitt Romney in a lie, or at least an error, over the question of when the deadly attack on the consulate in Benghazi was deemed "terrorism." Obama's snappy come-back "Get the transcript" is already an Internet meme. Here's how the Associated Press "Debate Fact-check" calls it:
Mitt Romney wrongly claimed that it took 14 days for President Obama to brand the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya a terrorist act...
OBAMA: The day after [the] attack... "I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we're going to hunt down those who committed this crime."
Drug trafficking and violent crime in Central America and the Caribbean threaten the rule of law in those regions, according to a report released Sept. 27 by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report concluded that cocaine trafficking and the associated violence are the main source of the threat. The UNODC expressed concern that addressing drug trafficking and violence through the use of increasing police presence could further threaten the rule of law by eroding civil rights and displacing organized crime to neighboring nations. The report called on nations in the region to coordinate an international effort to reduce crime, strengthen infrastructure and gain public confidence in law enforcement. It also recommended that the UN provide supplementary law enforcement and advisers to assist the region in developing a strong rule of law.