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The Arctic Route to Europe

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Although it may seem a strange route and unnecessarily long detour to access Europe via Russia and the border to northern Norway, it has its advantages. The convenience of this route is that it bypasses a lot of the strict border controls of the normal routes. The route has been used by Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and other nationalities, and it’s not just refugees fleeing from war or oppression. It is also used by those who are, like so many, looking for better jobs and living conditions. Rather than defying the border fences of and strictly controlled crossings of southern and eastern Europe, not to mention the dangers of the Mediterranean crossing, some seem to prefer the so called ‘arctic route’ to Europe. Many of the migrants come much underdressed though and face tough challenges in the tough, northern climate. Whether or not this route has been easier than the more frequented travel routes to Europe is hard to say.

After flying via Moscow to Murmansk migrants must first try make their way from there, some 136 miles north, past barren tundra, an area of Russian military bases and heavily armed checkpoints, to the small mining town of Nickel. There, refugees face yet another challenge: Russian law bans foot traffic at the border and Norway fines drivers for carrying migrants across because it is considered human trafficking. Because of this migrants have taken to crossing the border by bicycle. The legal twist has prompted a brisk trade in used bicycles throughout Russia’s Northwest — any size or condition is accepted. Entrepreneurial Russian smugglers have made business of this, and even arrange package deals of minivans and bicycles.

News of this arctic route has spread and the fact that the crossing is actually possible has led to an increase in migrants coming this way. The small town of Nickel has seen the stream of people coming north and a lone hotel there has become a key stopover point before heading for the border. Syrians, Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, Iraqis and others have filled the hotel’s 30 rooms some nights and yet more migrants are left to seek refuge in a nearby student dormitory. Norwegian authorities have been relatively welcoming and offered temporary refugee status to the migrants. But the growing wave is testing the limits of Norwegian hospitality and as the weeks have gone by, the influx has grown larger than what can be handled. In Kirkenes, a small Norwegian town just across the border, mayor Rune Rafaelson, has said local police estimate 10,800 migrants may arrive by year’s end — in effect doubling the entire region’s population. Rafaelson is one of a growing number of Norwegian politicians who suspects that the Kremlin is driving the current influx, as neighbouring Finland – a non-NATO member that has warmer relations with Russia —faces no similar migrant surge. Storskog border crossing has seen more than 4,000 refugees arrive so far this year, the majority of them riding bicycles. Norway has started building new refugee accommodation at the airport in the nearby town of Kirkenes, where the refugees can stay before being flown south. While the number of asylum- seekers remains small compared with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean, their number is steadily rising, and with more than 1000 migrants per week, it has changed the hospitable attitude of the Norwegians.
With the tension between Norway and Russia the issue has since taken on a diplomatic dimension. The arctic route has been known among the migrants as a safe route to Europe, and relatively easy with the checkpoints as the Russians don’t bother anyone who wants to cross over to Norway, but it will be far less safe as the weather steadily gets colder. Besides this, Norway, like so many other countries in Europa, is not interested in taking on more refugees than it can handle. Authorities long refrained from closing this crossing point as it would possibly provoke the Russian government, but now have to consider it an alternative. That Russia allows asylum-seekers to cross the highly-militarised region is sometimes seen by Norwegian commentators and media as a bid by Moscow to destabilise its smaller neighbour. Some suggest it is a provocation, punishing Oslo for adopting European sanctions regarding the Ukraine conflict, or creating divisions in Norway. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg has said, earlier in November, that closing the border will not solve any problems but the government has sent warnings to asylum seekers that they risk being sent back, not just to Russia, from where they crossed into the country, but all the way to their home countries. It has been under discussion in the last couple of weeks that the border crossing of Storskog might be closed under the seldom used “Law on Access to Certain Areas”, which was brought in by the parliament right before the German invasion in April 1940. This would partly be to control the influx and partly a diplomatic reaction towards Russia.

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Peace commitment signed between FARC and Colombian government

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Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has signed a breakthrough peace commitment with the leaders of the country’s largest rebel group, FARC, and in so doing has laid the groundwork for a possible end to Latin America’s longest running armed conflict.

“We are adversaries, but today we advance in the same direction, the most noble direction of any society, which is peace,” said Mr. Santos, speaking from the Cuban capital, Havana, where negotiations between the government and the rebels have been taking place since November 2012.

In a joint statement issued on Wednesday, Santos and high ranking members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia said that they had overcome the last major obstacle to rapprochement by agreeing on a strategy for compensating victims and punishing those who had engaged in human rights abuses. The terms of this agreement stipulate that fighters who confess their crimes and promise never to take up arms against the state again will face up to eight years of restrictions to their liberty. Meanwhile, negotiators are still working on establishing a mechanism for allowing fighters to surrender their weapons and demobilise. If all goes well, a definitive peace deal is
expected to be signed in six months. However, Santos has also promised the Colombian people that they will be given an opportunity to voice their opinions in a national referendum and that any future deals with the rebel group must also pass through Congress.

Over the past three years, negotiations between the two sides have been marked by advances and setbacks. Before yesterday’s signing ceremony, both sides had already agreed to plans on political participation for former FARC guerrillas, on land reform and measures to combat drug trafficking. In a further gesture of goodwill, earlier in the year FARC also declared a unilateral ceasefire and agreed to help the Colombian government remove thousands of land mines planted by the rebel group. Yet in spite of all the progress being made, negotiators have so far been unable to resolve an issue which still has the potential to undermine any hope of lasting peace in the war-torn South American nation: how to adequately punish rebel fighters and commanders for atrocities committed since the first shots in the conflict were fired? Resolving this problem to the satisfaction of both
parties is likely to be foremost in the minds of negotiators as the countdown to the peace deal begins.

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Ukraine Situation Update (24 July 2015)

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Despite the Minsk II ceasefire agreement officially still being in full effect since mid-February, eastern Ukraine has had to cope with a new wave of violence that started in June and which increased in intensity in July, 2015. During the last week of June the foreign ministers of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met in an effort to revive high-end diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict between the governmental forces and the pro-Russian militants in eastern Ukraine. A statement released by the French foreign minister at the end of the meeting disclosed that the ministers agreed that a quick de-escalation of hostilities is imperative to allow the negotiation of a viable peace deal that would arrange a series of political, security, humanitarian and economic issues that arose with the creation of the rebel regions in eastern Ukraine.

However during July it was proved that the meeting did not succeed in decreasing the tensions between the two sides in Ukraine. The new violations were confirmed from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that warned on July 3 that a growing presence of heavy weaponry on the government controlled side of Donbass territory put governmental forces in violation of the terms of the demarcation line. It also noted the augmented movement and use of military equipment by the Ukrainian forces. According to OSCE Deputy Chief Monitor, Alexander Hug, the same processes were noted in the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, where there was an increase in military equipment around Komsomolskoe. OSCE also reported that it had documented shelling on the buffer-zone areas in eastern Ukraine.

However, the biggest part of the hostilities are taking place in Donetsk, where between July 11 and 17 six people died as a result of hostilities, and 13 people were wounded, among them 11 civilians and two soldiers. In addition to that, six people were reported missing and illegally detained during the same period. Donetsk’s ombudswoman, Darya Morozova, reported that the number of people detained by the Ukrainian side has reached 1,500. She added that while prisoner exchanges have been effected between Ukraine and the rebel forces of Donetsk and Lugansk peoples republics, Kiev has refused to include many of the political as well as military prisoners it is holding. The tension between the two sides intensified further since the new wave of violence in Donetsk resulted in civilians deaths and the destruction of the city’s infrastructure. The National Defence and Security Council of Ukraine said that the pro-Russian militants has concentrated heavy weaponry in three major points around Donetsk: in the village of Spartak, at the now-destroyed Donetsk airport, and in the Kievskiy district of the city. According to the Council the separatists used these points to launch heavy shelling of both Ukrainian positions and residential areas on July 19. The shelling resulted in the deaths of four civilians —including a 9-year-old girl— and four others were injured in Ukraine-controlled territory. Additionally, the Ukrainian military reported that in the last 24 hours one Ukrainian soldier has been killed and seven others have been wounded. Apart from the deaths, the shelling caused the destruction of at least four residential blocks in the city of Donetsk. The separatist group, the self-described Donetsk People’s Republic, confirmed that 19 buildings were damaged including a hospital. Further destruction had been caused on July 18 when another person died and three were injured in a massive fire in the central part of the city, without the official causes of the fire being disclosed. On July 19 and after the news of new shelling and the destruction in Donetsk, Eduard Basurin, a spokesman for the Donetsk People’s Republic, said the Republic had agreed to withdraw 100-millimeter weapons to locations 3 kilometres from the front line. The media quoted Basurin saying that the decisions was dictated under the ‘’unswerving desire and the will to establish peace in the Donbass’’.

At the same time, the first week of July, a Ukrainian group that supports the Ukrainian government published a video captured by drone aircraft and it was reported that it shows a Russian military encampment in eastern Ukraine. There have been many claims concerning the Russian army’s involvement in eastern Ukraine however Russia has denied any direct involvement. If the video is proved to be legit it would be the first tangible proof of Russian army’s involvement in eastern Ukraine fighting along the pro-Russian militants. The video was posted on YouTube by Dnipro-1, a volunteer defence force. It included English subtitles and claims the encampment is in the village of Solncevo, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region. The video points out T-72 tanks, construction equipment and large tents, raising questions about whether a headquarters has been established for command and control. However. the authenticity of the video is still under doubt and there have not been any official commends regarding the footage.

On top of these incidents, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, said that the threat of criminal violence has ‘’significantly risen’’ in Ukraine, describing the country awash with trafficked weapons. The crisis enables criminal to thrive and benefit from the instability. He said weapons were being trafficked from the conflict zone. With police resources focused on the east, “there will be an increase in grievous and especially life-threatening crimes” in other parts of Ukraine. Poroshenko and the government hope a new police force, which was trained by U.S. and Canadian forces, will help combat widespread corruption in Ukraine, which is on the brink of bankruptcy after years of economic mismanagement.

Violent incidents were reported in western Ukraine opening a new security crisis for the Ukrainian President. On July 11, two fighters of Ukraine’s Right Sector far-right paramilitary group were killed and four wounded in a shootout in Ukraine’s western town of Mukachevo. Earlier on in the day, Ukrainian media reported that one person was killed and nine injured in Mukachevo, after some unidentified people seized a local sport complex and exchanged gunfire with police. Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, said that three attackers were killed and three policemen and four civilians were injured in Mukachevo. The mayor of Mukachevo later added that a total of 10 people were injured during the shootout, including five civilians and five members of law enforcement agencies. Alexander Sachko, the head of the Right Sector group in the Zakarpattia region confirmed that the group’s members were involved in the incident and said that the local police opened fire on them without warning.

In the meantime, Kiev has also to handle protests taking place in the capital with the people protesting high housing and public utilities prices, which have skyrocketed 88 percent since last year worsening an already difficult period for the Ukrainian people. Utility rates, including water and heating prices, have grown three-fold in Ukraine due to a rise in the price of gas since April 1, 2015. Electricity prices are being increased in accordance with a five-stage program, due to be completed by March 1, 2017. Amid the tension, Kiev has suspended Russian gas purchases after a breakdown in talks aimed at keeping supplies running for three to six months. It will be the second time in less than a year that Russian fuel supplies have stopped running to Ukraine. Moscow hiked prices after Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February 2014.

In another wave of protests, about 1,000 Ukrainian pro-government fighters and far-right supporters have marched through the centre of the Ukrainian capital burning tyres and wearing balaclavas and demanding that the government ends the ceasefire accord and declare war on pro-Russian rebels in the east. Many in the rally were from volunteer battalions and were dressed in their battle fatigues. They said they had returned from fighting Russian forces and demanded an end to all diplomatic relations with Russia.

To the present the crisis in eastern Ukraine has resulted in over 6,400 people been killed since the start of Kiev’s anti-terror operation” and the seizure of large parts in eastern Ukraine by the rebels. A total of 1.35 million Ukrainians are now designated as internally displaced persons, according to UN estimates. Five months after the Minsk II ceasefire accord that was destined to be the base for a viable and peaceful solution in Ukraine, it seems that peace is as far away as ever.

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Bombs Explode in Colombian Capital

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Two small bombs exploded in the offices of Porvenir, a private pension fund in Bogota, Columbia’s capital on Thursday, injuring eight people. Defence Secretary Luis Carlos Villegas has described the incidents as acts of terrorism, but has refrained from assigning blame to any particular group. No one has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the explosions, but there has been on-going speculation that the country’s largest rebel movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was behind the attack. Bogota’s police commander, General Humberto Guatibonza, has been unable to confirm or deny these allegations, saying only that investigators are still in the process of interviewing witnesses and examining footage captured on nearby security cameras.

The explosions have come at a time of increased tension between the government and the rebel group, who have recently launched a number of high profile attacks on Columbian infrastructure projects.  After implementing a unilateral ceasefire in December last year, 11 members of FARC were killed by government forces in an ambush in April, resulting in the resumption of hostilities. Since then, both sides have launched a series of attacks on one another, throwing into jeopardy the two and a half year long peace talks that have been taking place in Cuba. In addition to its suspected involvement in the Bogota bombings, FARC has, over the past few weeks, bombed several oil pipelines, causing thousands of litres of crude oil to run into nearby rivers, causing an environmental disaster that experts believe will take decades to resolve. Because of this, the Colombian government’s chief negotiator has said that unless FARC shows greater commitment to the peace process, the government may pull out altogether, thereby condemning the Colombian people to a bloody civil war with no foreseeable end.

In response, rebel commander Pastor Alape, a member of the FARC negotiating team in Cuba, said on Sunday that both sides needed to take steps to “deepen the de-escalation of the armed conflict.” He called on President Santos to make “strong gestures…to prove that (he) will become a president of peace.” FARC insists that the Colombian government should agreed to bilateral ceasefire, a move which, until recently, President Santos has entirely rejected. However, the government may be prepared to consider entering into such an agreement if FARC is ready to 1) accept judicial responsibility for any acts of violence perpetrated by its members and 2) renounce its illicit activities including extortion and the drug trade.

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Two Blasts Rock Central Nigerian City

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According to police officials, two blasts rocked the central Nigerian city of Jos on Sunday, in what is the latest unrest to occur in the region. Emergency services reported Monday that at least 44 people were killed in the twin bomb blasts, which comes after a wave of mass casualty attacks blamed on Boko Haram.

Plateau state police spokesman Abuh Emmanuel confirmed “…that there were two explosions in Jos this evening. One happened at the Bauchi motor park and the other at Yantaya, near the mosque.” He further indicated that he could not immediately state if there were any causalities, adding that police officers have been sent to the scene. On Monday, Mohammed Abdulsalam, from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) disclosed that “at the moment we have 44 dead bodies and 47 others injured from the scenes of the two attacks.”

Witnesses have reported that the first explosion went off around 9:14 PM (2014 GMT) at Bauchi road shopping complex, which is located near the Bauchi motor park and the University of Jos. It targeted the packed Shagalinku restaurant located in the shopping complex, which is popular with travellers from the northeast. One witnesses disclosed that the second explosion was heard four minutes later, adding that it occurred close to the popular Yantaya Mosque. The witness reported that a van and several other vehicles were seen transporting some of the dead and injured to the local hospital. Another witnesses, who was at the Yantaya mosque for the “Tafsir,” or Koran commentary session, reported that a number of attackers opened fire from outside at about 9:20 PM (2020 GMT), adding “they fired an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) at the mosque but it hit a metal bar on the facade and exploded…Many people were killed and injured from the shooting and the explosion.”

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Sunday’s bomb attacks in Jos, which is the capital of Plateau state. Boko Haram however has repeatedly attacked the city in the past. In February, at least seventeen people were killed when a twin blast hit a bus park in the city.

Sunday night’s twin blasts come just hours after a suicide attack on a church in the northeastern city of Potiskum on Sunday, which left five people dead, including the pastor, a woman and two children.

According to an unofficial count, Sunday’s bombings took the death toll from raids, explosions and suicide attacks to 267 this month along, and to 524 since Muhammadu Buhari became president on 29 May. While President Buhari has repeatedly vowed that he will crush the militant’s six-year insurgency, the rising death toll, coupled with increasing attacks and the military being unable to prevent them, the president is now under growing pressure to react quickly.

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