According to NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg, NATO ships are being deployed to the Aegean sea in a bid to deter people-smugglers taking migrants from Turkey to Greece. The announcement follows a request from Turkey, Greece and Germany at a defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
MR Stoltenberg has disclosed that the mission would not be about “stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” adding that instead, NATO will contribute “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking.” He further disclosed that the decision was made in order to help Greece and Turkey “manage a human tragedy in a better way then we have managed to do so far.” Earlier, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter commented that targeting the “criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people” would have the greatest humanitarian impact.
NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2, which is under German command, will lead the operation in co-operation with Greek and Turkish authorities. According to the United Nations refugee agency, almost 75,000 migrants and refugees have already arrived in Greece by sea in 2016.
Over the past several years, Greece has been increasingly strained by the tens of thousands of migrants reaching its shores. Perhaps more than ever before, Greece could potentially be close to the breaking point. Starting in Sweden and Denmark, governments across Europe have imposed new border restrictions, inadvertently creating a chain-reaction. In mid and late-January, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia announced new restrictions on migrants. Several governments, including Austria, are developing plans to cap the total number of migrants. Almost all the countries recently imposing border restrictions are focusing on original country of origin. The asylum process will increasingly prioritize migrants from conflict areas, particularly Syria. Over this past fall and winter, Macedonia has repeatedly closed important crossings at the Greek border with no warning. One closure on 21 January, for example, resulted in a backlog that took multiple days to clear. When such closures occur, many migrants are left without adequate food or shelter, creating a stressful situation that often results in violence.
The Wall Street Journal has quoted a confidential Bank of Greece report, which estimates the Greek Government could spend 600 million Euros in 2016 assisting migrants. The migrant-related costs could potentially reach 0.3% of Greece’s Gross Domestic Product. The operation of migrant reception centres could constitute 35% of the total cost, followed by search and rescue efforts 26%. Since the beginning of January, the UNHCR has reported that over 74,000 migrants have reached Greece alone. Over the course of 2015, over 821,000 migrants reached Greece, the vast majority doing so in small boats. Greek officials and international observers are expressing concerns that Greece will have to support tens of thousands more migrants in 2016 if border restrictions further north remain in effect. The European Agenda on Migration had been intended to ease the migrant-related pressures faced by the Italian and Greek governments. However, the European Commission announced on 10 February that only 218 migrants had been relocated from Greece. Only 15 European Member-States agreed to participate, providing a total of 1081 places (far below the 66,400 target).
As spring starts to approach, the total number of migrants attempting to reach Europe is anticipated to increase once again. As the European Union struggles to develop a coordinated approach, Greece will remain at the forefront of the migration crisis. Even with European Union and NATO support, it may well be unable to sustain tens of thousands more migrants, especially if many of them cannot travel further into Europe.
Afghan security forces have launched a major counter-offensive to take back Kunduz, a day after Taliban insurgents seized control of the northern city. The insurgents reportedly launched a surprise dawn attack on the city on Monday and by evening had succeeded in capturing the provincial police headquarters and the governors compound. After driving Afghan forces back to an airport on the outskirts of Kunduz, the insurgents raised their white standard over the city’s central square and freed hundreds of Taliban fighters imprisoned in a nearby gaol. It is the second time this year that the Taliban have attacked Kunduz, a strategically important city defended almost entirely by Afghan forces since 2013, when security for the region was transferred to them by NATO. it is also the first time in fourteen years that the Taliban have managed to gain control of a major urban centre.
Ayoub Salangi, Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister, has announced that security forces are ready to retake the city. Heavy fighting has since been reported, with Afghan soldiers reclaiming strategic parts of the city. In support of these efforts, US forces have also conducted an air strike against entrenched Taliban positions. Casualties on both sides are believed to be high but precise numbers have yet to be disclosed.
In a message issued earlier today, the Taliban’s new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour said that President Ashraf Ghani’s unity government should admit defeat. “These conquests are result of almighty Allah’s support and the mujahideen (fighters) sacrifices,” he said. “Therefore, officials in Kabul have to admit their defeat with courage.” The Taliban leader’s comments coincided with the first anniversary of Ghani’s administration, which is likely to experience further setbacks as it attempts to revive the stalled peace negotiations.
A strategically important transport hub connecting Kabul in the south, Mazar-e-Sharif in the west and Tajikistan to the north, Kunduz was a key Taliban stronghold before the 2001 invasion. It is considered a gateway to the north and a known transit point for opium and heroin smuggling to Central Asia.
On Tuesday, United States President Barack Obama arrived in Brussels for scheduled talks with leaders of the European Union and NATO, which will focus on Ukraine and other transatlantic issues.
Sources have indicated that the talks will focus on free trade deals and on lingering concerns caused by allegations of American spying on EU allies, however discussions on the crisis in Ukraine are likely to dominate the talks. On Tuesday, Mr Obama stated that Russia was acting “not out of strength, but out of weakness” in Ukraine, warning of the possibility of further sanctions against Russia if it encroached further into Ukraine. The US President, who is currently on an official tour in Europe, elaborated Wednesday, stating “energy is obliviously a central focus of our efforts,” and acknowledged that this “will have some impact on the global economy.” He also praised the EU for the steps it had already taken, along with the US, to penalise Russia. These have included visa bans and asset freezes against a number of Russian officials.
During a press conference held shortly after completing talks with EU leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, the three men spoke of the special relationship between the transatlantic partners, with Mr Obama stating “the world is safer and more just when Europe and American stand as one.” Mr Van Rompuy, the European Council president, called it a “crucial” relationship. Their talks at the headquarters of the 28-nation EU bloc also covered plans to finalise a transatlantic trade partnership, as well as efforts to tackle Iran’s nuclear programme and Syria’s chemical weapons.
Security has been heightened in the Belgian capital, with police cordoning off areas near the EU headquarters and Mr Obama’s hotel. Some extra 800 police officers have been deployed on Brussels streets for the duration of Mr Obama’s visit, which will last less than 24 hours. In total, Belgium has spent 10m euros (£8.35m) on increased security.
Russia Suspended from G8
As United States President Barack Obama continues his official visit in Europe, the President and other world leaders have decided to end Russia’s role in the group of leading industrialized nations. The move to suspend Russia’s membership in the G8 is just the latest direct response from major countries allied against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. An aide to British Prime Minister David Cameron also confirmed that a group summit, initially planned for June in Sochi, Russia, where the Winter Olympics were held, is now off.
A statement released by the White House Monday stated “international law prohibits the acquisition of part or all of another state’s territory through coercion or force,” adding “to do so violates the principles upon which the international system is built. We condemn the illegal referendum held in Crimea in violation of Ukraine’s constitution.” In response to Russia’s suspension from the G8, Russian Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov indicated Monday that the move would be no big deal. Speaking during a news conference, the foreign minister stated “G8 is an information organization that does not give out any membership cards and, by its definition, cannot remove anyone….All the economic and financial questions are decided in G20, and G8 has the purpose of existence as the forum of dialogue between the leading Western countries and Russia.” Lavrov added that Russia was “not attached to this format and we don’t see a great misfortune if it will not gather. Maybe, for a year or two, it will be an experiment for us to see how we live without it.” In a nod to political and economic reforms, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Italy added Russia to the group in 1998, effectively transforming it from the G7 to the G8.
Speaking shortly after attending a nuclear security summit with other world leaders in the Netherlands, President Obama stated that the United States and its allies in Europe are “united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far.”
International Concern Over Russian Troop Movement in Eastern Ukraine
The White House has warned that Russian forces gathering on the border with eastern Ukraine may be poised to invade as the government in Kiev indicated that the prospect of war with Moscow was continuing to grow after the annexation of Crimea.
On Monday, a close aide to US President Barack Obama indicated that the White House is “very concerned by the potential for escalation” after Russia massed its troops on the border with Ukraine. Speaking to journalists as leaders gathered in The Hague to discuss a response to the crisis, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes stated that the officials in the US “…are watching very closely, we believe that Russia stands an enormous amount to lose” from any escalation. The official statement from the White House comes as a US military officer confirmed Monday that Russian military presence continued to increase along Ukraine’s eastern border. The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, indicated “they’re still growing in numbers. They’re still in a hot state of readiness,,” however the officer did note that there was no sign that Russian forces were about to launch an invasion of eastern Ukraine,” adding “we haven’t seen anything to suggest anything is imminent….But if they chose to move, it would not take long.”
Even before Putin formally annexed Ukraine’s southern Crimea region last week, following a referendum, which has been condemned as illegal by Western government, thousands of Russian troops had held a military exercise near the border regions. With the annexation of Crimea, NATO officials are now concerned that Putin could have desires to take over Transnistria, a restive Russian-speaking region in western Moldova, also known as Trans-Dniester, where separatist leaders have demanded to be allowed to join Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Moldova’s President Nicolae Timofti warned Putin last week against considering the annexation of Transnistria.
Moscow however has denied any such plans despite President Vladimir Putin’s open ambition to resurrect vestiges of the Soviet empire and stamp his authority over eastern European nations that sought protection from the west following the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The Kremlin has also made it clear that it intends to “protect” compatriots in the Russifies south-eastern swaths of Ukraine that it says have been victimised by violent nationalists since last month’s rice to power of a pro-European team.
According to officials in the Ukraine, the Russians had roughly 30,000 troops near the border, including air and ground forces, air defence weapons, fighter jets, motorised vehicles, airborne units and cargo planes in order to move those troops.” An official also indicated that Russian forces were deployed along the main roads leading to the border but had not moved any closer to Ukraine in recent days. A second defence official noted that the Russians had more than enough troops in place in order to launch an operation in eastern Ukraine if it decided to. Officials in the United States have indicated that they are closely monitoring the situation.
Ukraine Orders Troops out of Crimea
On Monday, Ukraine ordered its outnumbered troops to withdraw from Crimea after the seizure of another military base.
Ukraine’s acting president Oleksandr Turchynov sombrely told lawmakers that both servicemen and their families would now be relocated to the mainland. In a national televised statement, the president indicated, “the national security and defence council has reached a decision, under instructions from the defence ministry, to conduct a redeployment of military units stationed in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.” He added, “the cabinet of ministers had instructions to resettle the families of soldiers as well as everyone else who today is forced to leave their homes under the pressure and aggression of the Russian army’s occupying forces.”
Crimea’s pro-Kremlin deputy premier Rustam Temirgaliyev indicated Monday “all Ukrainian soldiers had either switched to the Russian side or are leaving the territory of the Crimea.”
The assault by Russian troops and pro-Kremlin militias continued Monday with the fall of a Ukrainian naval base in the east Crimean port of Feodosia. Russia’s latest surprise assault came during the pre-dawn hours on Monday and involved both armoured personnel carriers and stun grenades. The Ukrainian defence ministry announced that Russian paratroopers were lowered onto the Feodosia naval base from four helicopters in a commando-style operation in which guns were fired in the air and stun grenades strewn across the facility. Less than two hours later, several military trucks were seen leaving the base with some Ukrainian marines whose hands had been tied. The base in Feodosia housed Ukraine’s only marine battalion. The country’s marine union indicated that it was home to an elite unit that was part of the navy.
Meanwhile on Monday, the Kremlin stamped its claim on Crimea with a symbolic visit by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, the first top Moscow official visit to Crimea since its March 16 independence referendum. In comments broadcast on Russian state television, Shoigu stated, “in the last days, a group of officers has been checking and making sure there is no interim stage or anarchy, making sure that the military hardware does not fall into not the best hands.
Heads of states in West Africa have called for the deployment of an international naval force that will aid in curbing the growing threat of piracy off the Gulf of Guinea. There are currently more pirate attacks occurring off the coast of West Africa than in the waters off Somalia, which used to be a piracy hotspot. Patrols by foreign warships, as part of the European Union’s and Nato’s anti-piracy operations, have reduced attacks by Somali pirates, with the last successful vessel hijacking occurring thirteen months ago. Piracy off Somalia decreased by 78% in 2012 when compared with 2011. With Somali piracy significantly on the decline, mainly due to increased patrolling of the waters coupled with the presence of security teams on board vessels transiting through the region and better practices by the ship’s captains and crew, leaders in West African states are increasingly looking into the possibilities of deploying international navies in order to manage the issue.
Speaking at a meeting of West and Central African leaders in Cameroon’s capital Yaounde, the Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara highlighted that the growing threat from piracy in the region resulted in a need for the issue to be tackled with “firmness.” He further indicated that “I urge the international community to show the same firmness in the Gulf of Guinea as displayed in the Gulf of Aden, where the presence of international naval forces has helped to drastically reduce acts of piracy.” Cameroon’s President Paul Biya also noted that it was vital to respond to the threat and to protect shipping routes and the economic interests of the region.
According to statistics released by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), for the first time, more pirate attacks were reported in the Gulf of Guinea than off the coast of Somalia, in which about 960 sailors were attacked in West Africa in 2012, compared with 851 that occurred in the waters off Somalia. However while attack numbers have sharply decreased in Somalia, at least 78 hostages are still being held captive by Somali pirates. Some of them have been held for long periods of time. A number of security sources have indicated that waters off the coast of Nigeria, which is Africa’s largest oil producer, have the highest risk of pirate activity in the region.
Although pirates in West Africa typically only steal fuel cargo and the crew members’ possessions, attacks in the region have been known to be extremely violent. IMB has reported that five of the 206 hostages kidnapped last year off vessels transiting through Western Africa have been killed. In sharp contrast, pirates in Somalia typically seize a vessel and its crew members and hold them until a hefty ransom is paid.