US Draws Eritrea Closer With Removal From Terror List

The United States has removed Eritrea from a list of countries uncooperative in the fight against terrorism, the latest in a series of diplomatic victories for the East African nation.

The U.S. State Department first placed Eritrea on a list of countries not cooperating fully with its anti-terrorism efforts in 2008. A year later, the country also faced U.N. sanctions for allegations that it supported al-Shabab, a terror group based in Somalia. 

Until Wednesday, Eritrea was the only African country on the list, and it found itself alongside such pariah nations as Syria, North Korea and Iran. But government officials have long denied supporting terror groups, and a U.N. monitoring group was, for many years, unable to find evidence that Eritrea was backing al-Shabab.

Eritrean Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel took to Twitter to praise the change:

Herman Cohen, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, hopes the U.S. will take this opportunity to forge closer ties with Eritrea. “We should see Eritrea as a friendly, crucial strategic country, and we should take advantage of it and give them assistance in the economic area because they are looking to modernize their economy,” he told VOA. 

Cohen also said the country’s location on the Red Sea, near Yemen and Gulf states, makes it an important military partner. “It’s very important to have military people there who can observe what is going on in that very volatile, crucial area,” Cohen said. “We used to have a military station in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. I think it would be wonderful now if we could restore that.”

The move is the latest thawing of hostilities between Eritrea and the rest of the world. Last year, Eritrea and Ethiopia announced an end to a 20-year dispute over their border, and the U.N. Security Council lifted sanctions on the country. And in March, a U.S. congressional delegation made the first such diplomatic visit to the country in 14 years. 

Awet Weldemichael, an associate professor of history and global development studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, said Eritrea’s removal from the list is a symbolic gesture, but U.N. sanctions, which lasted nearly a decade, had a more tangible impact on the country.

“[The sanctions were] consequential for Eritrea because [of] the restrictions on the use of the U.S. dollar and close scrutiny of its foreign transactions (that had previously been carried out in U.S. dollars) severely hampered the country’s foreign transactions, even for legitimate and peaceful purposes,” Weldemichael said in an email. 

Since 2015, Weldemichael said, Eritrea has allowed Saudi and United Arab Emirates forces to use an Eritrea naval and air base to launch strikes against rebel forces in Yemen. This too may have raised the country’s status as a valuable military partner in the eyes of the U.S., he added. 

“There is already serious and consequential cooperation going on by proxy,” he said of the U.S.-Eritrea partnership.

Eritrea remains a tightly controlled nation, without a democratically elected government and with severe restrictions on freedom of speech and religion. Thousands of young people have fled the country to avoid mandatory, indefinite military service.

But Cohen believes the country’s economy is improving, pointing to increased activity at the ports of Massawa and Assab, the potential for cross-border trade with Ethiopia, and the nation’s rich mineral wealth.

“Generally speaking, there is an upsurge of economic activity that’s going on now. More mining companies are coming into Eritrea,” Cohen said. “They have a very, very big mining potential. So now that the tensions have diminished and the hostility is diminished, I think things should really expand nicely.”

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South Sudan Reacts Angrily to Renewed UNSC Sanctions

South Sudan’s government is reacting angrily to the United Nations Security Council’s move to renew sanctions on that country for another year, including an arms embargo. A South Sudan official warned continuing sanctions would weaken the government and embolden holdout groups that refused to sign the revitalized peace deal.

After repeated failed attempts, the Security Council imposed sanctions on South Sudan last year following five years of fighting that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and massive displacement of civilians.

The council said the decision will pressure the government to implement the accord. 

South Sudan Information Minister Michael Makuei said Friday that the 10 Council members who voted in favor of the sanctions oppose peace in the country.

“These are people who do not want peace for South Sudan. The rebels are there, we have agreed but still there are rebels who are fighting the government and if you apply the arms embargo on the government of South Sudan, it means that you are actually paving the way for the rebels who have not signed the agreement,” Makuei told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.

“It is being used as a weapon against the government of South Sudan so that it is weakened. Then definitely that is not acceptable because after all, not all the opposition groups have signed the agreement. Any arms embargo at this time is an anti-peace movement so that people go back into crisis again,” Makuei also said.

Makuei said the government of President Salva Kiir is implementing the agreement and has rights as a sovereign country to acquire its own arms.

“When you talk of arms embargo, you don’t just apply the arms embargo because you are fighting someone whether outside or inside but for your own protection and self-defense, you have the right to acquire arms as the government,” said Makuei.

Juba resident Bidal Peter said continuing the sanctions will save innocent lives.

“South Sudanese are killing themselves with the guns that are bought, especially the finances [funding given to South Sudan] which are supposed to help the people of South Sudan are going for weapons and people are dying,” Peter told South Sudan in Focus.

Five countries abstained from the vote, including three from Africa.

Aly Verjee, a researcher at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, said there clearly is a signal coming from the region. 

“No IGAD [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] country is publicly in favor of the arms embargo and the African members of the Security Council tend to follow the regional organization’s lead. They all cite the ongoing progress in the peace process but I think they ignored the symbolic value and the practical value of the sanctions regime,” Verjee told South Sudan in Focus.

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UN Habitat Assembly Calls for Innovations

Africa’s population is expected to more than double by 2050, meaning there will be an increasing need for housing on the continent. The United Nations is asking urban planners to come up with innovative solutions to the problem. At the U.N. Habitat Assembly, which ended Friday, VOA met two innovators who think they may have solutions to some of the urban challenges.

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Saudi King Salman Urges International Effort to Thwart Iran

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman opened an emergency summit of Gulf Arab leaders in the holy city of Mecca on Thursday with a call for the international community to use all means to confront Iran, but he also said the kingdom extends its hand for peace.

King Salman was speaking at the first of three high-level summits in Mecca that were hastily convened after a spike in tensions between Saudi Arabia and its rival Iran. That King Salman could bring regional leaders and heads of state to Mecca so rapidly reflects the kingdom’s weight in the region and its desire to project a unified Muslim and Arab position on Iran.

Tensions have also spiked between Tehran and Washington in recent weeks, with the U.S. sending an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. The crisis is rooted in last year’s decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Speaking at a gathering of the Gulf Cooperation Council, King Salman said the alleged sabotage of four oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a drone attack on a key Saudi oil pipeline earlier this month requires “serious efforts to protect the security and the gains” of the six energy-rich Arab nations.

Iran denies being involved in the attacks.

The king called on the international community to thwart Iran’s behaviors “and using all means to stop the Iranian regime from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, harboring global and regional terrorist entities and threatening international waterways.”

He added that Saudi Arabia remains committed to extending its hand for peace and prosperity of the region.

Attending Thursday night’s GCC summit were the leaders of Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as senior officials from the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar.

That meeting will be immediately followed with an emergency summit of the 22-nation Arab League, minus Syria whose membership remains suspended.

Putting forth a unified position on Iran, however, faces many obstacles. Within the once clubby GCC, there are major differences between countries regarding Iran. Oman, for example, has relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran and acts as a facilitator of talks.

Qatar, meanwhile, is facing a blockade by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt over its foreign policies. The diplomatic standoff has pushed Qatar closer to Iran.

Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani’s attended the Mecca summits on Thursday, marking the highest-level visit to Saudi Arabia by a Qatari official since the 2017 rift erupted.

As the Gulf leaders gathered to begin their meeting, Al Thani shook hands with his host, King Salman, but was not seen making any eye contact with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed or Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman very quickly shook the Qatari royal’s hand, but they did not appear to exchange words.

Washington has tried unsuccessfully to mediate an end to the diplomatic standoff between its Gulf Arab allies. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Thursday the U.S. welcomes Saudi efforts to discuss Iranian threats in the region.

“Gulf unity is essential in confronting Iran, to confronting their influence, to countering terrorism writ large, and, of course, to ensuring a prosperous future for the Gulf,” she said.

Another summit is expected on Friday, focusing largely on Palestinian statehood and independence. It will bring together leaders from the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia.

Upon their arrival at the airport in Saudi Arabia, leaders were shown Yemeni rebel military items, such as a destroyed drone, missiles and mortar shells used in the conflict with the Saudis. They were given a brief explanation of the weapons on display by Col. Turki al-Maliki, spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of helping arm the rebel Houthis and being behind the Houthi drone attack on a key Saudi oil pipeline earlier this month.

Earlier on Thursday, Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf urged Muslim nations to confront with “all means of force and firmness” the recent attacks.

An Iranian official was at the preparatory OIC meeting where al-Assaf spoke Thursday, but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not attend.

The summits coincide with the final days of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a time of intense worship when Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.

Saudi Arabia will seek to use to the optics of the Mecca gatherings to send a clear and powerful message to Iran, which itself is also a member of the OIC.

Among the heads of state gathered in Mecca are Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Sabah, and Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of Sudan’s ruling military council.

It marks the first international conference for Burhan since the ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir from power in April.

Also participating is Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, whose country has uneasy ties with Saudi Arabia, particularly after the killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year.

Al-Assaf’s comments on Iran appeared to mirror remarks made by President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, who warned Iran on Wednesday that any attacks in the Persian Gulf will draw a “very strong response” from the U.S.

Meanwhile, Trump said this week the U.S. wasn’t “looking to hurt Iran at all.” During a visit to Tokyo this week, Trump appeared to welcome negotiations with Iran.

“We’re not looking for regime change — I just want to make that clear,” Trump said. “We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”

Also on Wednesday, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said some 900 troops would be deployed to Qatar and Saudi Arabia to reinforce the tens of thousands already in the Middle East. Another 600 have had their deployment in the region extended.

It’s unclear how many of those troops would be sent to Saudi Arabia. Sending a large number of troops to Saudi Arabia could potentially spark a backlash from Muslims around the world because the country is also home to Islam’s two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.

Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida launched the Sept. 11 attacks, in part over America’s military presence in the kingdom.

The late King Abdullah refused to allow U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia for the Iraq invasion in 2003, though he permitted them during the first Gulf War in 1991.

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Protesters in Iran, Iraq Burn Israel, US Flags on ‘Quds Day’

Iranians in the capital Tehran set fire to effigies of U.S. President Donald Trump, while in the Iraqi capital, Iran-backed militiamen marched over a large Israeli flag as part of rallies Friday marking Quds, or Jerusalem Day. The annual protests come as the Trump administration tries to market its long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Held each year on the last Friday of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, Iran has marked Quds Day since the start of its 1979 Islamic Revolution by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Al-Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem, and Iran says the day is an occasion to express support for the Palestinians.

Israel views Iran as its archenemy in the Mideast. Iran does not recognize Israel and supports the militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

This year’s protests took place as the White House is promoting the June 25-26 meeting in the Gulf state of Bahrain as the first phase of its Mideast peace plan. That plan, whose specifics have yet to be released, supposedly includes large-scale investment and infrastructure work in the Palestinian territories, much of it funded by wealthy Arab countries.

The plan’s political vision has not been outlined, but glimpses of the plan suggest it sidelines or ignores the longstanding goal of independence and has already been rejected by Palestinian leaders and much of the Arab world.

Palestinian leaders say they won’t attend the summit in Bahrain. American officials say the Bahrain conference will not include the core political issues of the conflict: borders of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees or Israeli security demands.

As rallies began across the Iranian capital, demonstrators set fire to American and Israeli flags, as well as effigies of President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The rallies all headed to Tehran University, where the ceremony ended at Friday’s noon prayers. Similar rallies took place in 950 cities and towns across the country.

Many high-ranking Iranian officials attending the rally in Tehran, including President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Both men derided the Trump administration’s so-called “Deal of the Century” peace plan, saying it would end in failure.

During the rally in Tehran, Zarif said: “It is unfortunate that some Arab leaders have this illusion that if they stand beside Netanyahu, they can reach their goals.” The remarks were carried by a Telegram channel affiliated with Iran’s state TV.

Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said police in the western province of Kordestan had blocked a terrorist operation ahead of the Quds Day rally in Sanandaj city. Three alleged militants were arrested, though the report did not specify where they were captured or their affiliation.

In Iraq, hundreds of Shiite militiamen held a military parade on Palestine Street in central Baghdad, some of them setting fire to Israeli and U.S. flags.

“The people in our region and the world are harassed by Trump’s and the United States’ polices, which are trying to dominate the will of the people. Today, there is a broad rejection of Trump’s decision to annex Jerusalem and consider it the capital of Israel,” said Moin al-Kazemi, leader of the Iranian-backed Badr movement.

The rally was organized by Iranian-backed militias collectively known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. Militiamen in uniform marched with yellow flags, escorted by Iraqi federal police cars. “We will pray in Quds,” read some of the banners.

In the Syrian capital Damascus, a few hundred Syrians and Palestinians marked Quds Day by marching from the Hamidiyeh bazar in the old city to the landmark Umayyad Mosque, some of them shouting anti-Israel slogans and waving Syrian and Palestinian flags.

“No to the deal of the century,” a banner read. “Our Palestinian people and the freemen of the Arab nation will thwart the deal of the century.”

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More Somali Refugees Return Home as Conditions in Yemen Worsen

A boat with 125 Somali refugees fleeing insecurity in Yemen arrived in the Somali port of Berbera Thursday. The voyage was organized by the U.N. refugee agency and partners in cooperation with authorities in Yemen and Somalia.

This is the 33rd departure of Somali refugees from Yemen since the U.N. refugee agency and humanitarian partners began the so-called Assisted Spontaneous Return program in 2017. To date, nearly 4,300 Somali refugees have returned home.

Yemen is still hosting a quarter-million Somali refugees, who fled there to escape conflict and drought in their country. The security they once found in Yemen has vanished. Four years of civil war in Yemen has turned that country into what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Refugees are feeling increasingly insecure and fearful for their lives as conditions in Yemen deteriorate.

U.N. refugee spokesman Babar Baloch says many refugees face hardship and lack access to basic services. He tells VOA they feel insecure and want to leave.

“With the conflict going on in Yemen … refugees have been targeted,” he said. “We just recently last week announced civilian casualties, including refugees. Life is becoming tough and as the situation inside Yemen is worsening, many of these refugees are coming forward to be helped to return home.”

Inside Yemen, Baloch says the UNHCR and partners help Somali refugees gather the documents they need, and provide transportation and financial support to facilitate their journey home.

When they arrive in Somalia, he says the returnees receive assistance to re-integrate into their communities and to help them get started in their new lives.

Baloch says it is up to the returnees where they want to go. Some go to home villages. Others find it is too unsafe and go to Mogadishu to see if they can start a new life.

He acknowledges that Somalia still has its own problems with conflict, instability and drought — the factors that drove many Somalis to Yemen in the first place.

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Al-Jazeera Says Sudan Shut Down Bureau Amid Sit-In Threat

The satellite news channel Al-Jazeera said Friday that Sudan shut down its bureau, just as the country’s military government warned that the Khartoum sit-in that helped bring about former ruler Omar al-Bashir’s ouster had “become a threat to the revolution.”

The threat against the sit-in comes as civilian forces and the military remain divided on how much power soldiers should have in a transitional government. The protesters demand “limited military representation” on the council but the ruling generals refuse to relinquish power.

 

It remains unclear whether the military will use recent clashes at the sit-in as an excuse to clear the demonstrations. However, protesters have threatened to launch a civil disobedience campaign over the ongoing deadlock.

 

In a statement, Al-Jazeera said authorities shut down its Khartoum bureau and banned its journalists from reporting.

 

“The network sees this as an attack on media freedom, professional journalism, and the basic tenets of the right for people to know and understand the reality of what is happening in Sudan,” Al-Jazeera said in a statement early Friday.

 

There was no official acknowledgement of the closure from Sudan’s government.

 

The Qatar-funded satellite network has long drawn the ire of Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the four nations now locked in a nearly two-year boycott of Doha over a political dispute. They accuse its Arabic-language services of stirring dissent and backing Islamists, whom the nations largely see as a threat to their own governments.

 

Al-Jazeera long has maintained its network abides by “established global standards of professionalism.” Its English-language service rivals the BBC for its scope.

 

“Al Jazeera is committed to the truth and providing a venue for the multiple sides of any issue, story, or event and will not be intimidated by the Sudanese authorities,” the network said.

 

Islamists backed al-Bashir in the 1989 coup that brought him to power. The military announced in April the end of al-Bashir’s 30-year rule in Sudan after weeks of sit-ins and protests ground the country to a halt.

 

Many of the Gulf nations that long aided al-Bashir offered only tepid support before his ouster. That’s even as a Saudi-led coalition fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels relies on Sudanese ground forces.

 

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have since provided $3 billion in aid to shore up the military council. The UAE also has hosted Sudanese opposition and rebel groups for talks with the military on joining a transitional government.

 

Meanwhile, the large sit-in continues in Khartoum. The Sudanese Doctors’ Committee said Thursday that security forces killed a 20-year-old man near the sit-in. A day earlier, a gunfight between security forces also erupted near the sit-in, killing a female street vendor by mistake. The military said a drunken soldier had opened fire Wednesday, killing the woman and wounding two others, including a solider.

 

Speaking late Thursday night, Maj. Gen. Othman Hamed of Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces accused the sit-in of attracting prostitutes and hashish sellers. He also said demonstrators had thrown stones at soldiers.

 

The sit-in has become a hub for all kind of criminal acts, and has become unsafe place and has become a threat to the revolution and the revolutionaries, and is threat to the national security of the state,'' Hamed said.Therefore, we at the Rapid Support Forces in coordination with other security forces who are responsible to restore the safety of the citizens to carry out legal procedures to stop these violations and this behavior.”

 

He did not elaborate on what that would mean for peaceful demonstrators.

 

The Sudanese foreign ministry issued an alert to all foreign embassies as well as international organizations operating in Sudan asking their staff to avoid the sit-in premises in Khartoum and all protest sites across the country “for the sake of their own safety and security.”

 

The Rapid Support Forces has its roots in Sudan’s Janjaweed militias, which have been accused of genocide in the Darfur region. In 2003 and 2004, those militias torched villages, killing and raping civilians. Their rampaged killed some 300,000 people and saw 2.7 million forcibly displaced.

 

However, both the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces both refused earlier orders from al-Bashir to clear out the sit-in.

 

At the end of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, governments like Bahrain and Egypt used force to clear similar sit-ins.

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US Secretary of State Discusses Iran with German Officials

In his first visit to Germany as the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo is meeting Friday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.

Earlier, speaking to reporters at a joint press conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas after their meeting, Pompeo said that Washington would not stand in the way of INSTEX, a system Europeans are developing to protect companies from American sanctions if they deal with Iran.

The system is intended to process payment regarding legal businesses, from medicines to aid services and other goods, which are permitted under sanctions regimen.

INSTEX is not yet up and running, but Europeans hope to have it functioning by this summer.

Maas said that even though the U.S. had withdrawn from the Iran agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), its goal remained the same.

Pompeo’s stop in Berlin makes up for a visit that he abruptly called off in early May to fly to Iraq. It is the first of his four-nation European trip, during which he also will visit Switzerland and the Netherlands before joining President Donald Trump on his state visit to Britain.

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