The siege that has continued for over a week in the city of Zamboanga, on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, appears to reaching a conclusion following some dramatic developments in the past 24 hours.
Last week, forces of a rebel faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) arrived by boat in the city with the intent of raising their flag above the town hall. Clashes began with security forces that saw the rebels occupy numerous civilian districts in the town. A robust response from the authorities saw security forces rapidly surround and besiege the rebels, and a naval blockade was put in place to prevent MNLF reinforcements from arriving. The siege has brought the city of one million to a standstill. Reports indicate many of the MNLF fighters were lured into the operation with financial inducements for a supposedly peaceful rally, and were surprised to be given guns and forced to fight.
The incident has been complicated by the presence of large numbers of civilians in the areas occupied by the MNLF, who began to be used as hostages and human shields by the group. Over 100 civilians have been held captive by the group over the past week; though there was originally some ambiguity about how many were actually being held hostage, and how many were trapped by the fighting.
The government began a major assault to take back ground from the rebels, which involved the usage of helicopters, over the weekend. As of today, the military says it has taken back 70% of the areas held by the rebels. Television reports showed exhausted hostages being taken away from the front line after their week long ordeal. A military spokesman said that at least 123 civilians had been rescued in the operation so far, but it remains unknown how many civilians remain captives of the MNLF.
In a late development, the Zamboanga police chief Jose Chiquito Malayo and his two escorts were seized as they attempted to negotiate with some of the rebels. Malayo was released six hours later on condition that the cornered rebels were granted safe passage to a military camp where they could formally surrender. 10 rebels gave themselves up after this, however an estimated 50 rebels remain entrenched and sporadic fighting continues in the city. The death toll is now approach 100, with at least 86 insurgents, 9 members of the security forces and 3 civilians confirmed dead since the siege began on September 9th. While the siege has been on-going, there has not been much related terrorist activity throughout the rest of Mindanao – two small bombs in Davao city yesterday wounded 5 people, but it is not known who the perpetrators are and whether it relates to the siege in Zamboanga.
Mindanao has been scarred for decades by separatism and insurgency, which successive peace deals have failed to solve. Despite the establishment of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARRM), factions of the MNLF are unhappy about being side-lined in the on-going peace process between the government and another insurgent group (and splinter faction of the MNLF), the MILF, which has itself spawned splinter factions vowing to continue their campaign for independence.
Witnesses have reported that two Islamists from the United States and the United Kingdom have been killed in a shootout in Somali after falling out with al-Shabaab. Reports have indicated that Alabama-born Omar Hammami, better known as al-Amriki, along with Osama al-Britani, a British citizen of Pakistani origin, are said to have died in an early-morning attack on a village located just south-west of the capital city, Mogadishu. One of al-Amriki’s fighters has indicated that the two men were overpowered by al-Shabaab militants who attacked a village near the town of Dinsor. He further noted that the militants had taken away the bodies of the two Westerners. According to the fighter, another of their allies, Khadap al-Masari, originally from Egypt, surrendered while two other extremists, including one foreigner, have also been reportedly killed in the battle however their identities have not been released. According to sources, the two militants left al-Shabaab after they fell out with the group’s top leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. The two men are also believed to be allies of veteran Somali Islamist, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Awyes, who split from the militant group in June of this year. Reports have indicated that since the split, al-Shabaab militants have been hunting down and killing any allies of Awyes. In June of this year, militants loyal to Godane killed two of their own top commanders; many believe that this prompted al-Amriki and al-Britani to flee and go into hiding. Awyes is currently in the custody of the UN-backed government. So far, there have been no comments or confirmations of the two militants‘ deaths from the Somali government, however local residents, along with a senior source within al-Shabaab, have confirmed that the two men are dead. Al-Amriki was one of the most prominent foreigners fighting in Somalia. In March of this year, the US State Department offered a US $5m (£3.1m) reward for any information that would lead to his capture and conviction. He grew up in the town of Daphne in the state of Alabama, and was supposedly radicalized after a visit to Syria as a teenager. Over the years, he became an adherent of stricter Islam and moved to Somalia in 2006 where he joined al-Shabaab and became one of the militant group’s senior officials. There is minimal information about al-Britani. While officials in the UK have previously stated that they have been aware of the Briton’s presence in Somalia for some time, they have not confirmed his death.
Meanwhile some 160 Somali religious scholars have issued a fatwa, denouncing al-Shabaab, stating that the militant group has no place in Islam. This is the first time that Somali leaders have pronounced a fatwa against the military group, which continues to control many rural areas throughout the country despite being pushed out of key cities over the past two years. The announcement was made at a conference in Mogadishu on the phenomenon of extremism where the scholars stated that they condemned al-Shabaab’s use of violence. The fatwa also comes at a time when residents of central Somalia indicated that al-Shabaab militants executed a young man in the town of Bula Burte and performed a double amputation on another in front of a crowd of several hundred. One of the aims of the conference was to issue Islamic opinion on whether the group had legitimacy or not, with the final fatwa concluding that it is not an Islamic movement. Sheikh Hassan Jaamai, an Islamic scholar, stated shortly after the conclusion of the conference that “it’s like a gang that comes together to kill Somalis…without any legitimate reason or justification.” Sheikh Abdikani, a participant from the Gulf, stated that “the only thing they want is to create chaos in the country so that they can survive,” it is believed the Sheik was referring to two bomb attacks carried out on a restaurant in central Mogadishu that killed fifteen people on the opening day of the conference. Al-Shabaab has since confirmed responsibility for the attacks. Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud opened the government-organized conference, which drew Somali scholars, elders and imams from both within the country and abroad. At the end of the four-day conference, the seven points of the religious edict included:
- “Al-Shabaab has strayed from the correct path of Islam, leading the Somali people onto the wrong path. The ideology they are spreading is a danger to the Islamic religion and the existence of the Somali society.”
- “The Somali government is an Islamic administration; it is forbidden to fight against it or regard its members as infidels.”
- “Al-Shabaab, an extremist group, must alone to God and must cease its erroneous ideology and criminal actions.”
- “It is forbidden to join, sympathize or give any kind of support to al-Shabaab.”
- “It is a religious duty to refuse shelter to al-Shabaab members, who must be handed over to Somali institutions responsible for security.”
- “It is a taboo to negotiate on behalf of al-Shabaab members in custody or release them from jail.”
- “Somali officials have a religious duty to protect the Somali people from the atrocities of al-Shabaab. The Somali public also has an obligation to assist the government in its security operations against al-Shabaab.”
On Thursday, Mali’s military confirmed that two Malian soldiers were wounded as the army exchanged fire with “bandits” during security operations that were being carried out near the Mauritanian border. While this exchange of fire effectively marks the first time that separatist Tuareg rebels and forces from the Malian government have clashed since the two sides signed a peace accord in June of this year, government sources have rejected claims that the MNLA was involved. Meanwhile Mali’s newly formed government announced earlier this week that it will be carrying out a “compete inventory” of the existing mining contracts in a bid to maintain only those contracts that are in the country’s best interests.
Clashes Between Tuareg Rebels and Malian Forces
According to army spokesman Souleymane Maiga, as part of a week-long “operation to secure people and property,” the troops had been on patrol around the market town of Lere when they encountered gunmen on Wednesday, adding that “there was an exchange of gunfire…two of our soldiers were very slightly injured and we arrested a dozen armed bandits.” While media reports have stated that the fighters were from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group that has agreed to be confined to camps as part of a peace accord signed with the government, Maiga has rejected the claims, instead stating that “we were not faced with MNLA fighters, we were confronted by armed bandits who were preventing people going about their daily lives.” The army spokesman added that the security operations would continue until the end of the week.
The MNLA and the transitional government reached an agreement in June of this year, which effectively allowed Malian troops to enter the rebel bastion of Kidal ahead of the nationwide presidential elections which eventually saw former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita elected President. The accord also allowed for the release of fighters who were detained during a Tuareg uprising last year and outlines that talks between the new administration and Tuareg rebels, pertaining to autonomy for a large part of northern Mali, will occur within the next two months. Tuareg leaders however have warned that if the current president fails to reach a negotiated solution, then the MNLA will not hesitate in taking up arms again. If it is proven that MNLA rebels are behind this latest attack, then it will demonstrate that despite the signed agreement, and desires to reconcile the country, their remains a great rift between the new Malian government and the Tuareg rebels.
Mining Contracts to be Examined
Meanwhile earlier this week, Mali’s new government announced that it will be carrying out a “complete inventory” of the existing mining contracts, adding that it is ready to renegotiate any contracts that are not in the country’s best interests. In a brief interview after taking office, Mines Minister Boubou Cisse stated that “the government has decided to carry out a complete inventory of what exists – mining contracts, titles, licenses – be it in the mining or the oil sector,” adding that “if there are contracts which it is necessary to revise in the interests of Mali, we will start negotiations with the partners in question.” Mr. Cisse, a 39-year-old former World Bank economist, indicated that the inventory would be conducted under complete transparency and that its results would be made available to the public. He also noted that his ministry aims to increase the contribution of the mining sector in the national economy from around eight percent at present, to fifteen to twenty percent in the long term. Mali currently produces around fifty tonnes of gold a year. Randgold Resources and Anglogold Ashanti are amongst a number of international companies that operate in Mali. While no comments have been made pertaining to these specific mining companies, their contracts may be affected.
Following two car bombing attacks on 11 September, the Egyptian government has redoubled its efforts to eradicate the terrorist elements in the Sinai Peninsula, and stem the flow of radical ideologies in Nile Valley Egypt.
On 11 September, a car bomb was detonated at the Egyptian Military intelligence headquarters in Rafah, on the border of the Gaza Strip in North Sinai, killing nine and wounded several. Reports indicate that the car bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber following an attack by rocket propelled grenades. The two story-building which housed the Sinai branch of military intelligence collapsed, burying an unspecified number of troops. Among the wounded were ten soldiers and seven civilians, three of which were women.
A second attack occurred at an army checkpoint near the intelligence headquarters, targeting an armoured personnel carrier. The remains of both suicide bombers have been recovered. An unnamed authority has described the remains of the attackers as having “darker skin, implying they may have been of African origin,” and adding that the explosives were complicated and unlikely to be made by Sinai-based terrorist groups. However, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted on their website. The statement explains that the group had killed at least six soldiers and also claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt against Egypt’s interior minister last week in Cairo. The group vowed to conduct more attacks in revenge for the military operation against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on 14 August, and called on all Muslims in Egypt to stay away from military and interior ministry institutions.
Meanwhile, another militant group, Ansar Jerusalem, has claimed responsibility for three additional non-suicide attacks which targeted armoured vehicles with explosive devices. The group has also claimed attacks in the past on Israel, and has ties to militants in the Gaza Strip. In a two page statement, the group accused the Egyptian military of conducting a “dirty war, deputizing all anti-Islam forces in and outside Egypt, especially the Jews.”
Recent attacks have also included a thwarted attempt to detonate mortars on a railway between Suez and Ismailia, and the 19 August killing of 25 off-duty policemen who on their way home on leave from Sinai. The policemen were taken off of mini-buses and shot, with their hands tied behind their backs. The attacks have caused widespread outrage. Al-Nour party leader, Galal Murra, said in a press statement that all parties should work toward rescuing Sinai from a dark future. Members of the Dostor party vowed full support for military efforts to save Sinai from terrorism. Egypt’s top Sunni Islamic institution has called for an immediate move to provide security for the citizens and the state’s vital institutions, saying the government should “hit them with an iron hand to protect Sinai and Egyptian sovereignty.”
On 7 September, the Egyptian military began conducting offensive strikes in the Sinai. A spokesman for the military called it Egypt’s “largest military campaign against the terrorists in the Northern Sinai Peninsula” and vowed the operation would continue until the peninsula is “fully cleansed.” The offensive has unleashed helicopter gunships and tanks, as well as foot soldiers. The troops have targeted suspected militant hideouts and weapons caches, particularly in villages south of Rafah, and near Sheikh Zuweid. Authorities have also closed the Rafah border crossing to the Gaza Strip. War Colonel Ahmed Ali announced that since Saturday, the army has targeted 118 suspected terrorist bases, and destroyed three weapons caches and 33 vehicles with heavy guns placed on them. Officers have reported the capture of missile launchers and other weapons, as well as fuel storage sites. In the assault, dozens of militants have been killed and around 30 low- and mid-level operatives have been arrested. One officer and two soldiers have been killed in the operation.
In previous, smaller sweeps, a significant number of foreign militants were detained, reinforcing the widely-held belief that since 2011, the Sinai has become a safe haven for militants from around the region to train and develop tactics for actions in the area. There are at least six known militant groups comprised of up to 5,000 members in Sinai. The vast desert and mountain region has rugged, harsh terrain, making it difficult to search. Many of the militants operating in Sinai are among those who escaped from Egyptian prisons during the 2011 uprisings, in which approximately 1,000 prisoners were set free.
The military assault has caused conflicting emotions among local residents. On the eve of the offensive, the Egyptian army deactivated all communication facilities in the region, including land line telephones, mobile phones and the internet. This loss of communication, coupled with accusations of military personnel targeting homes and arresting innocent people, has caused frustration. Officials targeted approximately 40 homes in the village of al-Mahdiya, seeking a wanted militant who is known to be in the area. While no one was killed in the search, villagers were “terrorised” by the destruction of property. Some fear that the military’s heavy-handed actions will result in open war with Bedouin tribes in the region; still others support the military efforts.
Ansar Jerusalem is attempting to use the unease to its advantage. In the 11 September statement, they declared that the military had killed civilians, set fire to homes, torched private cars, bombed mosques and stolen possessions, adding that Israeli drones were backing the offensive.
Meanwhile, in Nile Valley Egypt, Minister of Religious Endowments, Mohammad Mokhtar Gomaa has barred nearly 55,000 unlicensed clerics throughout Egypt from preaching in mosques. Gomaa explained that the clerics lack licenses to preach, and are considered a fundamentalist threat to Egypt’s security. The ban will target unlicensed mosques and random praying areas in hopes of delivering moderate messages and preventing radicalised ideologies from affecting the nation.
Finally, Egyptian Minister of Civil Aviation, Abdel Aziz Fadel, has released a press release reassuring that Cairo International Airport is safe following a tip of a possible bomb attack on the plane from Cairo to London on 7 September. An anonymous caller reported to state security that two passengers on the EgyptAir flight were suicide-bombers. The flight’s passengers were de-boarded and searched, and luggage was taken off the plane to be checked by sniffer dogs.
Fadel states that the Cairo airport, as well as those in Sharm el-Sheikh and Borg el-Arab, is equipped with sophisticated equipment to detect explosives, and identify the content of passengers’ luggage, and has a staff of efficient security forces from the Ministry of Interior. The equipment will soon be provided to Hurghada airport as well.
Mali’s first post-war Prime Minster began to form a new government as both France and the United States pledged their support and gave an early vote of confidence to the new administration. Oumar Tatm Ly, who was named as head of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s government last week, will be taking over the role from interim premier Diango Cissoko. The newly appointed Prime MInister will be expected to deliver the promises put forth by the President, which include reuniting a deeply divided nation and cracking down on corruption. Following the selection of the new Prime Minister, Mali’s new administration received a significant boost on Friday when the US State Department indicated that Washington would resume development aid to Mali, which had been suspended after the ex-president was ousted in a coup last year. A statement released by the State Department indicated that the transition means “a democratically elected government has taken office in Mali,” adding that Washington would continue to assess the situation prior to renewing military assistance. US support of the new administration came shortly after French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius welcomed Ly’s appointment. In a statement released by his office, Mr. Fabius stated that “alongside President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the competence of Oumar Tatam Ly will be a valuable asset in confronting the challenges facing Mali and the Sahel,” adding that “as Mali opens a new page, it can count on France, which will be its partner, ally and friend.” The newly appointed Prime Minister has spent most of the last two decades as a central bank functionary and is therefore expected to rely on advisers who have greater political experience. He will also be responsible for selecting colleagues for a cabinet that has been charged with returning stability to a country that was upended by a military coup and Islamist insurgency last year. While Mr. Ly began consultations with potential ministers immediately after being appointed to the post on Thursday, officials have not indicated who was in consideration for the major portfolios. Born in Paris, France, Mr. Ly quickly became a promising academic, gaining degrees in history and economics from a number of prestigious French universities, including the Sorbonne, and ESSEC, which is one of Europe’s top business schools. He began his career at the World Bank before moving via the general secretariat of the president of Mali to the Central Bank of West African States in 1994. He rose to become national director for Mali and then adviser to the governor. While he has never held high public office, Mr. Ly comes from a family that has been deeply involved in West African politics and is considered to be a close confidante of the current president.