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Ebola Virus Death Toll Rises Above 200 in Guinea

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World health officials confirmed Wednesday that after a deadly spike in recent days, some 208 people have now died from the Ebola virus in Guinea.

World Health Organization (WHO) officials have reported that during the period between May 29 and June 1, at least 21 people died from the virus while 37 new cases of suspected Ebola were reported.  This brings the total number of cases in the West African country to 328.  Of these, 193 have been confirmed by laboratory tests.  Over this same period, three confirmed cases, and ten suspected cases, were recorded in neighbouring Sierra Leone.  Six people are believed to have died from the virus in Sierra Leone while ten have died in Liberia.

The latest spike in deaths in Guinea comes over a month after health officials in the country had reported a slow down in the spread of the deadly virus.  On 24 April, Guinea’s health ministry indicated in a statement that the situation was “more and more under control thanks to measures taken by the government and its partners.”  Officials are now reporting that more than half of the new deaths in Guinea occurred in the southern region of Gueckedou, which is where the outbreak is centred.  The region is located near the borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone and is known for its weekly market, which attracts traders from the region as well as from neighbouring countries.  Medical charities are also reporting that one of the reasons behind the sudden increase in cases is that some people are refusing to go to hospital to seek treatment, and instead prefer to seek help from traditional healers.  While the Ebola virus can kill up to 90% of those infected, people have a better chance of surviving if the virus is identified early and they receive proper medical attention.

Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Doctors Without Borders charity are currently in the region, where about 600 people are under observation after having possible contact with the Ebola virus.

The outbreak of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone has prompted iron ore company London Mining, to announce that a number of its “non-essential” staff have left the country in wake of the Ebola threat.  Officials at the British firm have also reported that they have restricted some travel to the area, noting that production at its Marampa mine is unaffected.  The firm is currently working with local and international agencies in order to monitor the health of all its employees.  While the company is one of two large extraction companies in Sierra Leone, it is the first to reveal that staff members have left the region in light of the threat.

Last French Hostage Appears in New AQIM Video

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A television station in Dubai has released a video of a French hostage kidnapped in Mali by al-Qaeda militants.  He is believed to be the last French hostage held worldwide.

The video, which aired Tuesday by Dubai-based Akhbar Al Aan television, depicts Serve Lazarevic, who was abducted in 2011.  During the video, Mr Lazarevic states “I take this opportunity today may 13 2014 to call on Francois Hollande, the president of France, to do everything to negotiate my release.”  He also states that he is “suffering from several health problems and from difficult environmental conditions.”  In the video, Mr Lazarevic, who is a dual French and Serbian national, is seen wearing a black turban and is accompanied by two masked gunmen.  French authorities have acknowledged the video, stating that it’s authenticity is currently being examined by French officials.

Mr Lazarevic, 50 years old, was kidnapped along with another Frenchman, Philippe Verdon, on 24 November 2011.  The two men were seized at gunpoint by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants at a small hotel in the town of Hombori, which is located in central Mali.  According to his relatives, Mr Lazarevic had been accompanying Mr Verdon on a business trip.  Mr Verdon was killed in July last year.  His body was discovered in northern Mali, with French prosecutors later indicating that he had been shot in the head.  At the time of his death, AQIM, which often takes Western hostages in a bid to gain ransom payments to fund their terrorist operations, indicated that it had killed Mr Verdon in retaliation for France’s intervention.  Mr Lazarevic is believed to be the last Frenchman held in captivity worldwide.  Another French hostage, Gilberto Rodrigues Leal, was killed in April 2014 after being held in captivity since 2012.  He was also kidnapped by al-Qaeda-linked militants in Mali.  Last October, following secret talks led by negotiators in Niger, four French hostages seized by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen in Niger were released.  One of the four hostages, Theirry Dol, later described spending almost a month with Mr Lazarevic before being freed, however the two men were not allowed to talk.  While reports indicated that a ransom payment was made for the release of the four hostages, the French government has denied these reports.

While French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius recently indicated that the French government was working discreetly to find Mr Lazarevic, Tuesday’s video is not only a proof of life but also a clear signal to France to begin serious negotiations.

France deployed troops to Mali in January 2013 after al-Qaeda-linked militants threatened to take over the capital city, Bamako.


Support Rallies Banned in Nigeria’s Capital

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Citing a security threat, Nigerian police have decided to ban public protests for the release of the kidnapped schoolgirls in the capital Abuja.

In a statement released Monday, Abuja police commissioner Joseph Mbu confirmed the decision, stating that public protests had “degenerated” and that the rallies were “now posing a serious security threat.”  The capital city has seen almost daily rallies, which have called for the Nigerian government to take firmer actions to rescue the more than 200 schoolgirls that were kidnapped by Islamist militants in the remote village of Chibok on 14 April.  The ban also comes a week after scuffles broke out between demonstrators organised under #BringBackOurGirls and a new government-sponsored group known as #ReleaseOurGirls.  The police commissioner has also been quoted as stating that “dangerous elements” could join the demonstrations and further jeopardize the security situation.

While the protests have increased over the past several weeks, with activists and campaign groups seeking to attain meetings with senior government officials, including the president himself, last Wednesday, the high-profile marches descended into violence after a number of young men attacked female protesters, throwing chairs, bottles and stones at them.  According to on the ground sources, some of the men involved in the incident were carrying posters in support of President Jonathan.  The identities of the men involved in the attack have not been released, however some sources have idicated that they may have links to the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).  No evidence connecting this however has been released.

While no further details pertaining to the ban have been released, some protest organizers have questioned the legitimacy of the decision, stating that the move may have been politically motivated in a bid to quiet those not content with the government’s reaction to the mass kidnapping.

Families and supporters of the missing girls have been critical of President Goodluck Jonathan’s response to the kidnappings, accusing him of being slow to reach and indifferent to their plight.  In the weeks since the April 14 kidnappings, Nigeria has been forced to accept international help, including from the United States, in a bid to locate the missing girls.

Two Priests and Nun Released in Cameroon

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Officials have confirmed the release of two Italian priests and a Canadian nun, seized by gunmen in Cameroon in April.

A security source confirmed Sunday that two Italian priests and a Canadian nun, kidnapped by suspected Boko Haram militants in Cameroon two months ago, have been freed.  The Cameroonian security source indicated that the hostages were “freed overnight, at about 2 in the morning.  Our soldiers picked them up from a village close to Amchide,” which is located in the northern region of the country.  A military source has indicated that the three, who were kidnapped near the border with Nigeria in April, were released as part of a prisoner exchange with a fee being paid, noting, “it was not easy.  The kidnappers changed the rendezvous place repeatedly,” adding that the heavily-armed hostage-takers had sent a “motorbike to find us.”  The hostages were flown out of Maroua airport on board a military aircraft on Sunday morning, headed for the capital city.

Italy’s minister for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini confirmed their release, stating it was a moment of “great joy.”  He also congratulated the Cameroonian authorities for “a well-run operation.”  The Vatican also responded to the news of the release on Sunday morning, with Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi stating “the Pope, who has followed these dramatic events from the start, was immediately informed….Our thoughts remain with all the other innocent people who are still being held captive, the victims of unacceptable kidnappings in different regions and conflicts.”  The priests, named as Giampaolo Mart and Giantonio Allegri from Italy, and Canadian nun Gilberte Bussier, were kidnapped on April 4 from the small parish of Tchere in the northern district of Maroua, which is located 800 kilometres (500 miles) north of Yaoundé.  While there was no initial claim of responsibility, Cameroonian security forces blamed Nigeria’s Boko Haram for the kidnapping.  The three are believed to have been taken over the border shortly after being kidnapped, with a military source indicating that Cameroonian negotiators had spent a week in Nigeria discussing their release.

According to sources, the two priests had been working on improving water supplies and fighting the spread of HIV Aids, a well as their religious duties.  One of the priests had been in Cameroon for more than six years while the other had arrived about a year before the abduction.

Militants in the region have in the past kidnapped a number of Westerners in a bid to fund their uprising.  In two separate incidents last year, Boko Haram militants kidnapped a priest as well as seven members of a French family in northern Cameroon.

UN Chief Condemns Attack on Church in Central African Republic

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On Thursday, the United Nations Secretary-General condemned Wednesday’s attack on a Catholic Church in the Central African Republic’s capital city, Bangui, where at least fifteen people, including a priest, were killed.

Wednesday’s attack on the Notre Dame de Fatima church was a rare large-scale assault on a Christian community in Bangui, with local officials reporting that at least fifteen people, including a priest at the church, were killed.   According to eyewitnesses, Muslim rebels stormed the church, launching grenades and spraying civilians with gunfire.  A police officer and military source have indicated that the violence erupted during the afternoon hours at the compound of the Notre Dame de Fatima Church, where several thousands of displayed people have sought refuge.  The church is located in central Bangui in a neighbourhood where both Christians and Muslims reside.  Archbishop Dieudonne Mzapalainga confirmed that a 76-year-old priest, Paul-Emile Nzale, was killed in the violence.  Witnesses later reported that exchanges of gunfire continued into Wednesday night, mostly near a mainly Muslim neighbourhood of Bangui, where helicopters were seen flying over the area.  With fears escalating that this new bloodshed will spark reprisal attacks on the city’s few remaining Muslims, barricades have been set up in a number of areas.  The attack on the compound at the church is the largest and most brazen attack that has been blamed on Muslim fighters since their Seleka coalition was ousted from power nearly five months ago.  Wednesday’s incident also marked a rare attack on a house of worship, as Catholic churches have served as sanctuaries for both Christian and Muslim civilians.

On Thursday, the situation remained tense throughout Bangui after residents and officials reported that a group of Christian youth destroyed one of the last mosques in the capital city.  A French helicopter was seen patrolling the skies of Bangui while foreign peacekeepers patrolled the streets, firing warning shots in a bid to prevent further hostilities.  Thousands of people also marched in another area of Bangui, shouting slogans against the peacekeeping forces they say have failed to protect them.

Ousmane Abakar, a spokesman for Bangui’s small remaining Muslim community, denounced Wednesday’s attack on the church and has denied that the local Muslim population was to blame.  Speaking to reporters, Mr Abakar stated “for six months we have been the ones subjected to violence and the destruction of our mosques, including the one ruined in the Lakouanga neighbourhood this morning.”

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also strongly condemned the recent attacks and has encouraged the transitional authority to do “everything within its means to prevent further violence in the capital and throughout the country.”  According to Mr Ban’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, the Secretary-General has also called on authorities to take “concrete measures to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable,” and has appealed to international forces in the CAR “to take all necessary measures in support of these efforts.”

Over the past few months, tens of thousands of Muslims have fled the capital city in a mass exodus following scores of attacks by Christian militia fighters who have blamed them for supporting the Seleka rebel regime, which was ousted from power in January.