Armed US Drones to Start Flying Over Niger

The United States and Niger have reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terror groups in the African nation, a U.S. official told VOA.

The agreement, finalized this week, is a major expansion of U.S. military’s efforts to counter terrorism in Africa. It is unclear whether the drones will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.

Until now, the U.S. has only been conducting airstrikes against terrorists on the continent operating inside Libya and Somalia. Officials say that arming drones based in Niger would expand the military’s ability to go after extremists in West Africa, where Nigeria-based Boko Haram, Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamic State fighters operate.

Pentagon spokeswoman Army Major Audricia Harris would not comment on the new permissions.

“The government of Niger and the U.S. stand firm in working together to prevent terrorist organizations from using the region as a safe haven. For operational security reasons, I will not comment on specific military authorities,” Harris told VOA.

The Pentagon has been trying to get the permission from the Nigerien government to arm drones long before a militant attack near the village of Tongo Tongo on October 4 killed four American soldiers, four Nigerien soldiers and a Nigerien interpreter.

A formal investigation into the deadly ambush in Niger is not expected to be completed until January, according to the U.S. military.

The military’s investigation team, led by Army Major Gen. Roger Cloutier, will travel to the U.S., Africa and Europe to collect information needed to determine what happened during the October 4 attack.

A group of 12 members of a U.S. Special Operations Task Force accompanied 30 Nigerien forces on a reconnaissance mission from the capital, Niamey, to an area near Tongo Tongo.

Members of the team had just completed a meeting with local leaders and were walking back to their vehicles when they were attacked, U.S. officials told VOA.

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Troika: Warring Parties Must End Hostilities Ahead of Revitalization Forum

Members of the “Troika” (Norway, United Kingdom and United States) released a statement Thursday saying all parties in South Sudan must end hostilities as a sign of their commitment to the High Level Revitalization Forum (HLRF), which is aimed at implementing a 2015 peace deal that has all but collapsed.

The forum, organized by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), is set to begin in two weeks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Klem Ryan, the coordinator for the U.N. Panel of Experts on South Sudan, says amid the ongoing fighting is a “deep disagreement among parties” on the high-level revitalization forum (HLRF), which he calls “a last chance” to achieve peace in South Sudan.

“The neutral observers are engaging with this as a last chance. Most people have mentioned that to us; some have said it formally on record but many are talking about it behind the scenes as the last chance for an agreed settlement but there isn’t at this point as it was communicated to us a very clear sense of what would happen if the HLRF fails,” said Ryan. “So I think there is a lot of anxiety and anticipation come December or January if the targets haven’t been met.”

U.N. discusses South Sudan situation

The U.N. Security council met last Tuesday in New York to discuss the situation in South Sudan.

In its statement, the Troika said it remains “appalled by the dire economic, security, human rights and humanitarian crisis being inflicted” on the South Sudanese people as a result of the nearly four-year conflict, which it blames on the political leaders of South Sudan.

 

The Troika, which recently traveled to South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya to try to drum up support for the upcoming forum, said all parties have a responsibility to the citizens of South Sudan “to participate constructively and to be open to real compromise.”

The Troika’s statement called on the government “in particular” to end its pursuit of “military victory” and make good on its promise to end obstruction to humanitarian assistance. It also called on the armed opposition to do the same.

Changes should include new timeline

 

Policy analyst Abraham Awolich with the Juba-based Sudd Institute said in a new report the forum should address factors that led to the collapse of the original deal if there’s ever going to be peace in South Sudan.

“You cannot say that you need to revitalize the peace agreement without renegotiating the agreement itself because there are provisions that are absolute and there are provisions that do not make sense anymore,” Awolich told South Sudan in Focus.

Those changes include a realistic timeline for implementing the peace deal, and altering security arrangements and transitional justice mechanisms, which Awolich said may have “negatively affected” efforts to restore stability in the country.

Renegotiation rejected

The administration of President Salva Kiir rejected any renegotiation of the peace agreement in recent talks with the heads of IGAD, which mediated previous peace talks between the warring parties.

A recent document circulated by IGAD offers a roadmap for the revitalization process, but it does not mention renegotiation of the agreement.

Awolich criticized the peace deal for not being citizen-based. The Troika said it “strongly supports” calls by South Sudanese citizens for the forum to be inclusive, reflecting the interests of all parties, “including young people and women.”

Awolich told VOA that measures must be put in place to popularize the agreement among the people so they will embrace it.

“The national dialogue becomes very important here as an area where people of South Sudan will have to search their souls on how to move their country forward in an environment of peace and cease-fire,” said Awolich.

‘Clear political will’ needed

He said the revitalization process should focus on security arrangements, power sharing and transitional justice, the same three areas the Troika mentions in its statement that are in need of amendments since the agreement no longer reflects “the reality of conditions in South Sudan.”

“What is needed here is a clear political will from the side of the government to say our interest here is to bring peace to our country and we are willing to take every measure to make sure there is peace and stability in the country,” said Awolich.

“Without that,” he added, not much can be achieved.

Awolich said the government is going to have to make “a lot of sacrifices.”

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More Than 400 US Marines Leaving Syria

More than 400 U.S. Marines who helped recapture the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State are leaving the country, according to the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the militant group.

“We’re drawing down combat forces where it makes sense, but still continuing our efforts to help Syrian and Iraqi partners maintain security,” U.S. Brigadier General Jonathan Braga said in a coalition statement.

Working with ‘partner forces’

“Our remaining forces will continue to work by, with, and through partner forces to defeat remaining ISIS, prevent a re-emergence of ISIS, and set conditions for international governments and NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) to help local citizens recover from the horrors of ISIS’ short-lived rule,” Braga added, using an alternative name for Islamic State.

The Pentagon has said officially there are 503 troops in Syria but U.S. officials said, as of last week, the number was closer to 2,000.

The Marines and their artillery were deployed to Syria in March, joining an alliance of Kurdish and Arab troops and the Syrian Democratic Forces. They recaptured Raqqa from IS in October after an intense offensive that was bolstered by coalition artillery and aerial attacks.

US troop number unsure

The international coalition continues to provide support in nearby Deir Ezzor province while Syrian government forces, backed by the Russian military, conducts a separate campaign in the same region.

It was not immediately clear how many U.S. troops will remain in Syria. Most are special operations troops that are training and advising local partner forces and providing continued artillery support against IS. 

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AU: Between 400,000 and 700,000 African Migrants in Libya

Between 400,000 and 700,000 African migrants are living in camps in Libya, often under “inhuman” conditions, the chairman of the African Union Commission said Thursday at the close of a summit of European and African leaders.

Moussa Faki Mahamat stressed the urgency of removing the thousands of migrants, including women and children, from the camps as he addressed the summit where migration was a top issue after recent footage of a migrant slave auction in Libya drew global horror and condemnation.

At least 3,800 migrants in one camp in Tripoli need to be removed as soon as possible, Mahamat said. Most of them come from West Africa.

“That’s just one camp,” he said. “The Libyan government has told us there are 42,” and some contain an even larger number of migrants.

The International Organization for Migration says more than 423,000 migrants had been identified in the chaotic North African country as of last month. The majority are men from impoverished countries across sub-Saharan Africa.

In a communique Thursday, the European and African leaders agreed to “accelerate exponentially” efforts to repatriate the migrants and vowed to combat the crimes committed against them.

The leaders also pledged to do more to help the migrants stranded in squalid detention centers in Libya, the main jumping-off point for desperate people setting out in unseaworthy boats in search of better lives in Europe.

French President Emmanuel Macron said leaders from EU and African countries, including Libya, and the United Nations were discussing going after human traffickers with “concrete, military and police actions on the ground to trace back these networks.”

“These smugglers are deeply linked to many terrorist networks and feed, sometimes finance, sometimes are the same as those who make war with us and who kill people every day in much of northern Africa,” Macron told French broadcasters France 24 and RFI.

Some African nations are working to bring their citizens home.

 

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said Wednesday that all Nigerians stranded in Libya and other parts of the world will be brought home and “rehabilitated,” calling it appalling that “some Nigerians were being sold like goats for few dollars in Libya.”

Nigeria’s government said on Twitter that 242 Nigerian migrants returned home from Libya on Tuesday and that more than 4,000 stranded there have “safely retuned home” this year.

Ivory Coast’s government in the past week repatriated 316 citizens stranded in Libya.

Europe has struggled to slow the flow of tens of thousands of Africans making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. European countries are trying to discourage the stream of migrants with development aid and other means, including funds to tighten border controls. But many Africans feel pressured to make the journey, risking death and abuse, saying high unemployment and climate change leave them little choice.

At least 3,000 drown or go missing annually in attempts to cross the Mediterranean, but with Africa’s population forecast to rise significantly in coming decades many more are likely to take the risk.

To focus efforts, the EU, the African Union and the United Nations also announced that they would set up a special task force to help protect migrants, notably those detained in conflict-torn Libya.

 

Details of its work must be fleshed out, but the main aim is to “save and protect lives of migrants and refugees along the routes and in particular inside Libya.”

The task force, which will work closely with Libyan authorities, will also try to speed up the process of returning willing migrants to their home countries and finding new homes for those fleeing violence or conflict and who need international protection.

Associated Press writer Lorne Cook contributed.

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Tensions Rise in Turkey Over Syrian Refugees

Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, and three million of them are Syrians. Most live in towns and cities across the country. But this year, a series of clashes between Turks and Syrians could be a sign that for some Turks, patience is running out.

 

Earlier this year, Istanbul witnessed unprecedented violence against Syrian refugees after they were blamed for the death of a Turkish youth.

 

In Istanbul’s Esenler district, which is home to about a half million people, almost one-fifth are Syrian refugees. It is one of the poorest areas of the city. Local elected representatives like Mustafa Guven are on the front line of coping with the strains of a large refugee population. Guven says the recent clashes are a worrying sign.

 

“The people of the Republic of Turkey are not monsters. They help Syrians as much as they can; they share their bread with them. Those Syrians who don’t appreciate this are in the wrong. Of course, we see disputes and conflicts among the youth. But Syrians should be quieter. They are in a foreign country after all – a country that gave them refuge. They should keep a lower profile and be more grateful, but they don’t have this sensitivity,” said Guven.

In the Ali tea shop, it’s not hard to sense the growing unease among local Turks. Sipping his hot tea, Ozan, a hairdresser, who owns a salon, is quick to vent his frustrations.

 

“Our patience is running out and our point of view has changed. Over the last five years, a large number of people have migrated here, and their number is constantly growing. Our state has already spent over $30 billion on the Syrians. There is no financial contribution from Europe either,” said Ozan.

The Nasim barber shop is popular among Syrians. All but one who work here are from Syria. Esenler has been good to shop owner Mahmoud Al Aian. He arrived from Syria when he was 19. Five years later, he has three businesses: a barber shop, a restaurant, and a clothing company. Al Aian is keen to play down tensions.

 

Al Aian said, “The Turks won’t come to attack Syrians. I mean we haven’t seen anything like this where we are. No such things happen here. If anything happens, you call the police of the Turkish government and they immediately come and solve it.”

 

Turkish authorities appear to be increasingly concerned about the tensions. In some areas of Istanbul, as in other parts of the country, signs in Arabic touting businesses belonging to Syrians have been removed in a bid to lower their profile. The move comes as the Turkish media continue to devote a great deal of coverage to issues involving Syrian refugees. A recent study found that Syrians are the main targets of hate speech, second only to Jewish people, in the Turkish media.

Professor Ahmet Icduygu, an expert on migration and refugees at Istanbul’s Koc University, says Turkey is facing a growing problem over the presence of the refugees.

 

“There is a kind of tension growing in Turkey and there’s already debate, like in other Western countries, that they are taking our jobs, they are getting privileges such as, for instance, Syrian students can go directly to university, etc. I think we can hear more and more events of unfortunate kinds of attacks on the migrants, some tensions growing, increasing discrimination, xenophobia increasing, those kinds of things,” Icduygu said.     

Opposition parties are set to make the government’s Syria refugee policy a key issue in the months ahead.

 

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UN: Hundreds in Syria’s Ghouta Could Die for Lack of Medical Aid

A senior U.N. official warns many of the hundreds of critically wounded and ill people trapped in the besieged Syrian area of East Ghouta, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, could die without urgent medical treatment.

U.N. Special Envoy Jan Egeland said the United Nations has been waiting for two months for the Syrian government to give the green light to an emergency medical evacuation from East Ghouta. Over that time, he said the list of serious cases requiring urgent treatment has grown to 500.

“Not a single one of these have we been able to evacuate over those two months. Not a single one,” he said. “So, men with power are sitting with lists of children that are in urgent need of being evacuated. If not, they will, many of them die and we still do not have the green light.”

About 440,000 civilians are trapped in East Ghouta, which has been under siege by the government of Bashar al-Assad since 2013. The rebel-held territory is just 15 kilometers from Damascus, where Egeland said hospitals are ready to receive patients.

“Hospitals that could be actually within 45 minutes-drive from where the wounded children are dying,” he said. “These hospitals have the beds, the doctors — everything available. We are not able to do it. It is heartbreaking. It is intolerable. It will be a stain on our conscience for a very, very long time unless it can happen very soon.”

Egeland said nine patients on the critical list already have died, and those most in need of emergency medical care are women and children.

The U.N. envoy is appealing to the United States, Russia and other big power players to put pressure on the Syrian government to allow the U.N. life-saving medical operation to go ahead.

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OPEC Agrees Oil Cut Extension to End of 2018

OPEC agreed on Thursday to extend oil output cuts until the end of 2018 as it tries to finish clearing a global glut of crude while signalling it could exit the deal earlier if the market overheats.

Non-OPEC Russia, which this year reduced production significantly with OPEC for the first time, has been pushing for a clear message on how to exit the cuts so the market doesn’t flip into a deficit too soon, prices don’t rally too fast and rival U.S. shale firms don’t boost output further.

The producers’ current deal, under which they are cutting supply by about 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) in an effort to boost oil prices, expires in March.

Two OPEC delegates told Reuters the group had agreed to extend the cuts by nine months until the end of 2018, as largely anticipated by the market.

OPEC also decided to cap the output of Nigeria at around 1.8 million bpd but had yet to agree a cap for Libya. Both countries have been previously exempt from cuts due to unrest and lower-than-normal production.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries has yet to meet with non-OPEC producers led by Russia, with the meeting scheduled to begin after 1500 GMT.

Before the earlier, OPEC-only meeting started at the group’s headquarters in Vienna on Thursday, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said it was premature to talk about exiting the cuts at least for a couple of quarters and added that the group would examine progress at its next meeting in June.

“When we get to an exit, we are going to do it very gradually… to make sure we don’t shock the market,” he said.

The Iraqi, Iranian and Angolan oil ministers also said a review of the deal was possible in June in case the market became too tight.

International benchmark Brent crude rose more than 1 percent on Thursday to trade near $64 per barrel.

Capping Nigeria, Libya

With oil prices rising above $60, Russia has expressed concerns that such an extension could prompt a spike in crude production in the United States, which is not participating in the deal.

Russia needs much lower oil prices to balance its budget than OPEC’s leader Saudi Arabia, which is preparing a stock market listing for national energy champion Aramco next year and would hence benefit from pricier crude.

“Prices will be well supported in December with a large global stock draw. The market could surprise to the upside with even $70 per barrel for Brent not out of the question if there is an unexpected interruption in supply,” said Gary Ross, a veteran OPEC watcher and founder of Pira consultancy.

The production cuts have been in place since the start of 2017 and helped halve an excess of global oil stocks although those remain at 140 million barrels above the five-year average, according to OPEC.

Russia has signaled it wants to understand better how producers will exit from the cuts as it needs to provide guidance to its private and state energy companies.

“It is important… to work out a strategy which we will follow from April 2018,” Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Wednesday.

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British Fury as Trump Retweets Extreme Right Group’s Videos

British lawmakers have reacted with anger after U.S. President Donald Trump retweeted videos posted by an extreme right-wing anti-Muslim group. The tweets, originally posted by the deputy leader of the group Britain First, appear to show acts of violence carried out by Muslims, although doubt has been cast on the reliability of at least one of the videos. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

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