Archive for January 21, 2013


January 14, 2013

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Despite a punishing bombardment by French warplanes, al-Qaida-linked insurgents grabbed more territory in Mali on Monday, seizing a strategic military camp that brought them far closer to the government’s seat of power.

Declaring France had “opened the gates of hell” with its assault, the rebels threatened retribution. “France … has fallen into a trap much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia,” said Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the rebel groups controlling the north, speaking on radio Europe 1.

French fighter jets have been pummeling the insurgents’ desert stronghold in the north since Friday, determined to shatter the Islamist domination of a region many fear could become a launch pad for terrorist attacks on the West and a base for coordination with al-Qaida in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

The Islamist fighters responded with a counter-offensive Monday, overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Segou, the administrative capital of central Mali, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

The French Embassy in Bamako immediately ordered the evacuation of the roughly 60 French nationals in the Segou region, said a French citizen who insisted on anonymity out of fear for her safety. France expanded its aerial bombing campaign, launching airstrikes for the first time in central Mali to combat the new threat. But the intense assault, including raids by gunship helicopters and Mirage fighter jets, failed to halt the advance of the rebels, who were only 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the capital, Bamako, in the far south.

The rebels “took Diabaly after fierce fighting and resistance from the Malian army, that couldn’t hold them back,” said Le Drian, the French defense minister. Mali’s military is in disarray and has let many towns fall with barely a shot fired since the insurgency in the West African nation began almost a year ago. While the al-Qaida-linked extremists control the north, they had been blocked in the narrow central part of the landlocked nation.

They appear to have now done a flanking move, opening a second front in the broad southern section of the country, knifing in from the west on government forces. In response to the insurgent advances, Mauritania, which lies to the northwest of Mali, put its military on high alert. To the south, the nation of Burkina Faso sent military reinforcements to its border and set up roadblocks. Even Algeria, which had earlier argued against a military intervention, was helping France by opening its air space to French Rafale jets.

Many of Mali’s neighbors, who had been pushing for a military intervention to flush out the jihadists, had argued that airstrikes by sophisticated Western aircraft would be no match for the mixture of rebel groups occupying northern Mali.

Leaders of ECOWAS, the regional body representing the 15 nations in western Africa, stressed that the north of Mali is mostly desert, and that it would be easy to pick off the convoys of rebel vehicles from the air since there is almost no ground cover.

Monday’s surprise assault and the downing of a French combat helicopter by rebel fire last week have given many pause. Just hours before Diabaly fell, a commander at the military post in Niono, the town immediately to the south, laughed on the phone, and confidently asserted that the Islamists would never take it.

By afternoon, the commander, who could not be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly, sounded almost desperate. “We feel truly threatened,” he said. He said the rebels approached Diabaly from the east, infiltrating the rice-growing region of Alatona, which until recently was the site of a large, U.S.-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation project.

French aircraft bombed a rebel convoy 25 miles (40 kilometers)) from Diabaly late Sunday, the commander said. “This morning we woke up and realized that the enemy was still there. They cut off the road to Diabaly. We are truly surprised — astonished,” he said.

It was unclear what happened to the Malian troops based at the military camp in Diabaly. The commander said that he had not been able to reach any of the officers at the base, raising fears they were massacred.

A French squadron of about 150 troops and armored vehicles stationed in neighboring Ivory Coast was headed to Bamako to help with the offensive in Segou, said Col. Thierry Burkhard, a spokesman for the French military in Paris. The troops were joining the 550 French forces already in Mali, said an African diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

The French national being evacuated from Segou said the email she received from the French Embassy indicated that small groups of rebel fighters were already heading to Segou, a drive that normally takes two to three hours.

Mali’s north, an area the size of France, was occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels last April following a coup in the capital. The international community has debated what to do, with most foreign powers backing a U.N. Security Council resolution in December that called for training the Malian armed forces before any military intervention was launched. Diplomats said no intervention could happen before September.

All that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south, one on the mostly east-west axis of Douentza to the garrison towns of Mopti and Sevare, and a second heading from a locality north of Diabaly toward Segou.

If either Segou or Mopti were to fall, many feared the Islamists could advance toward the capital. French President Francois Hollande authorized the airstrikes, which began Friday, initially concentrated in the north. France has sent in Mirage jets stationed in Chad that can carry 550-pound (250-kilogram) bombs.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday that the United States has “a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are,” including in Mali, adding that the U.S. is already providing intelligence-gathering assistance to the French in their assault on Islamist extremists.

Besides France and the U.S., 11 other nations have pledged troops or logistical support. Britain over the weekend authorized sending several C-17 transport planes to help France bring more troops. “Not a half hour goes by when we don’t see a French plane either taking off or landing,” said Napo Bah, a hotel worker in Sevare, the central town that is a launch pad for the operation. “It’s been a constant since last week, when they authorized the military operation.”

At least 30,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since the insurgents began moving south last week, said U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey. __ AP writers Greg Keller and Jamey Keaten in Paris, and Lolita C. Baldor aboard a U.S. military aircraft, contributed to this report.

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January 18, 2013

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Authorities were working Friday to repair a dike that collapsed amid floods that swamped the Indonesian capital as the waters gradually receded from the main streets of the teeming city.

But more monsoon rains were expected over Jakarta later Friday into Saturday, raising the prospect of fresh flooding, said Fadli, an official at the country’s meteorology agency who goes by a single name.

Jakarta, a low-lying city on the sea, has long been prone to floods, but their scale has become worse over the last 10 years as infrastructure development has not kept pace with the city’s growth. Other Southeast Asian cities, Bangkok and Manila especially, have also proved vulnerable to widespread floods in recent years.

Authorities said the death toll had risen to 11, most electrocuted or drowned. Police were searching for at least three other people reported missing in the flooded basement of a building in central Jakarta.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, from the city’s disaster mitigation agency, said electricity supplies had been cut to several areas to prevent electrocutions. “Our focus now is to save more lives,” he said. While life slowly got back to normal downtown, tens of thousands remained affected by the waters elsewhere in the city of 14 million people. The police and army deployed rubber boats to help evacuate or bring supplies to people, said Jakarta Police Spokesman Col. Rikwanto.

Elsewhere, hundreds of soldiers used backhoes to attempt to repair a collapsed canal dike that let floodwater pour into parts of downtown Jakarta on Thursday after hours of rains caused rivers and canals to burst their banks.

At their peak, almost 250,000 people were affected by the floods, which covered about 30 percent of the city. They were the most widespread to hit the city since 2007, when almost 80 died and more than half of the city as affected.

Unlike in 2007, Jakarta’s downturn area was swamped this time around. Successive governments have done little to mitigate the threat of flooding, the latest made worse by heavy downpours Wednesday and Thursday that added pressure to rivers already swollen by a long monsoon season.

Deforestation in the hills to the south of the city, chaotic planning and the rubbish that clogs the hundreds of waterways that crisscross the city are some of the factors behind the floods. Corrupt city officials turn an eye to building violations and lack the skills and ability to build flood defenses.

Indrado, a resident in Central Jakarta, said the floods should cause a rethink. “We cannot only blame the government,” he said. “We the people also have to support it by not littering rivers.”

January 13, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinian protesters who pitched tents at a strategic West Bank site to protest plans to build a Jewish housing project there were evicted early Sunday, police said.

Palestinian activists erected tents in the area known as E-1 on Friday saying they wanted to “establish facts on the ground” to stop Israeli construction in the West Bank. The Palestinian activists were borrowing a phrase and a tactic, usually associated with Jewish settlers, who believe establishing communities means the territory will remain theirs once structures are built.

Palestinian activist Abdullah Abu Rahma said the protesters hoped to repitch their tents to continue their protest. “Today, we will see if we can return,” he said. Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police evicted about 100 protesters from the site early Sunday morning after a court decision authorizing their removal. He did not know which court had allowed the eviction.

Haaretz reported that the eviction was carried out despite a temporary High Court injunction preventing it. Rosenfeld said no arrests were made during the half hour operation and that no injuries were sustained on either side. He said the tents were not dismantled and that a decision on that would be made later in the day.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday evening ordered roads closed leading to the area and had the military declare a closed military zone and shut off access. Netanyahu’s office said that the state was petitioning the Supreme Court to rescind an earlier injunction blocking the evacuation.

Israel announced it is moving forward with the E-1 settlement after the U.N. recognized a de facto state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in November. Palestinians say E-1 would be a major blow to their statehood aspirations as it blocks east Jerusalem from its West Bank hinterland. Palestinians are demanding these areas, along with Gaza, for their future state.

Activists said they wanted to build a village called Bab al-Shams at the site. The construction plans drew unusually sharp criticism from some of Israel’s staunchest allies including the U.S. who strongly oppose the E- 1 project.

Israeli officials have said actual construction on the project may be years away if it ever gets off the ground, while Israeli critics have questioned whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu actually intends to develop E-1, or is pandering to hard-liners ahead of Israel’s Jan. 22 election.

In a separate incident Saturday, the Israeli military said soldiers shot at a Palestinian who “tried to infiltrate Israel” from the West Bank. The military said soldiers called on the man to stop, then fired warning shots in the air, and finally fired at his legs when he refused to stop.

Palestinian police said he later died of his wounds. It was the second shooting death on the borders with the Palestinian territories in two days. On Friday, Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip said a man was shot and killed near the coastal territory’s border fence. The Israeli military said he was part of a group that rushed the fence to damage it.