The World Heath Organization (WHO) on Thursday called for “drastic action” in order to fight the deadliest Ebola outbreak on record, and announced an 11-nation meeting to address the growing crisis.
As of Sunday 22 June, 635 cases of hemorrhagic fever, most confirmed to be Ebola, including 399 deaths, have been reported across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. This effectively makes the outbreak the largest ever “in terms of the number of cases and deaths as well as geographical spread.” A statement released by the UN agency stressed that “drastic action is needed,” and warned of the danger that the virus could jump to other countries. The WHO’s call for drastic action comes just days after medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) indicated that the virus was now “out of control.’
Since the deadly epidemic emerged in Guinea in January, WHO has deployed more than 150 experts in a bid to tackle the crisis. However despite its efforts, and the efforts of other medical charities, over the past three weeks there has been a “significant increase” in the number of cases and deaths reported each day. According to WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr Luis Sambo, the agency is now “gravely concerned by the on-going cross-border transmission into neighboring countries as well as the potential for further international spread,” adding “this is no longer a country specific outbreak but a sub-regional crisis that requires firm action by governments and partners.”
WHO’s top Ebola specials Pierre Formenty warned last week that the recent surge in cases had likely come in part because efforts to contain the virus had been relaxed too quickly after the outbreak appeared to have slowed down in April. In order to address the on going crisis, officials at the WHO announced Thursday that they will convene a meeting of the health ministers from 11 countries in Accra, Ghana on July 2 – 3 in order “to discuss the best way of tackling the crisis collectively as well as develop a comprehensive inter-country operation response plan.” Ministers from Guinea, where nearly 400 confirmed, suspected and probably cases have surfaced so far, including 280 deaths; and Liberia, which has 63 cases and 41 deaths, will take part in the meeting. Ministers from Sierra Leone will also be present. Additionally, neighboring countries, including Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal, and countries as far afield as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have also been invited. The meeting will also include a range of UN agencies and other aid organizations including MSF and the Red Cross as well as the Western African, British, EU and US centers for disease control.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, officials from the WHO announced that, at the request of the Sierra Leonean government, they were changing the way it reports fatalities from the Ebola outbreak in the country.
Previously, probable and suspected deaths from Ebola were included in the count however from now on, only laboratory confirmed cases will be reported. Therefore this reduces the death toll in Sierra Leone from 58 to 34 as of 24 June 2014. According to WHO spokeswoman Fadel Chaib, the way that deaths are reported in Guinea and Liberia, which are the other two countries affected by the deadly outbreak, will remain unchanged.
The change comes after Sierra Leone’s press had criticized the government for reporting lower death rates than those reported by the WHO. The changes however now bring the WHO figures inline with those released by the Sierra Leone government. The latest Ebola outbreak has now been named by international organizations as the worst Ebola epidemic ever with 635 cases and 399 fatalities occurring in dozens of sites across the three countries, including in major cities and remote areas. Officials from Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have described the outbreak as “out of control,” adding that it had reports of cases in more than 60 sites and that its resources were now stretched to the limit. In light of the on going outbreak, which has worsened in recent weeks, the European Commission announced Tuesday that it was committing an additional 500,000 euros in funding in order to combat the outbreak. This latest funding brings its total contribution to 1.9 million euros.
Military sources in Mali have confirmed that militants launched rockets during a night attack on the desert town of Timbuktu. None of the intended targets were hit. Over the past week, this is the second such to occur in northern Mali, resulting in heightened worry amongst officials as militants have vowed to carry out further attacks. The latest incidents come days after the Red Cross confirmed that a team of five aid workers was kidnapped.
A senior Malian army officer stationed in Timbuktu has confirmed that three rockets were fired on Sunday night by “terrorists,” adding “fortunately there were no casualties.” A source from the United Nations’ MINUSMA peacekeeping force also confirmed that attack, which came three days after a similar assault on the northern town of Gao. On 13 February, militants launched two rockets at a French army base in northern Mali. The attack occurred during a visit by France’s top military officer. The incident was later claimed by the militant group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is a splinter group of al-Qaeda’s regional branch. The militant group also warned that similar such attacks would continue to be carried out against the “enemies of Islam.”
Despite both incidents resulting in no casualties, the recent rise in attacks and incidents in northern Mali has nevertheless resulted in heightened concerns amongst local and international officials that security within the northern region continues to be unstable and may threaten the efforts made by the Malian government and international peacekeeping forces. The attacks also demonstrate MUJAO’s, and similar militant groups, continued capabilities to carry out terrorist attacks.
The latest incidents in northern Mali come days after a group of five Malian Red Cross aid workers went missing on Saturday in an area between Kidal and Gao. Last Tuesday, MUJAO’s leader confirmed that the militant group was responsible for the kidnapping, adding that the five Malians “are alive and in good health.” So far the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has not indicated whether a ransom demand has been made. The current whereabouts of the team are unknown.
On Tuesday, officials in France vowed to continue their mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) after the death of two elite soldiers, which have highlighted the risks of a mission that aims to disarm rogue rebels who have plunged the country into chaos. The death of the two French soldiers came hours before French President Francois Hollande visited the country.
First French Losses
Antoine Le Quinio, 22, and Nicolas Vokaer, 23, both members of the 8th Parachute regiment that is based in Castres, south western France, died overnight Monday after being caught up in a fierce fire fight during a night patrol in the capital city of Bangui, where sectarian clashes last week killed hundreds. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed the first French losses, stating that they would have no impact on the tactics or the size of the 1,600-strong force that Paris has deployed in its former colony. Claude Bartolone, speaker of France’s National Assembly, told reporters that the soldiers “were injured and very quickly taken to the surgical unit, but unfortunately they could not be saved.”
The French troops, along with African peacekeepers, had launched an operation on Monday to forcibly disarm militiamen who claim to be part of a new national army. After last week’s clashes, in which the Red Cross has indicated that 394 people were killed in three days of fighting, tensions throughout the country remain high, with fear of continued violence. While the French army has indicated that it had restored some stability in the capital by Monday night, low-level violence continued on Tuesday.
Following a request from France, the United States announced on Monday that it would help fly African Union (AU) peacekeeping troops into the CAR. According to a spokesman for US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, US forces have been ordered “to begin transporting forces from Burundi to the Central African Republic.” US President Barack Obama has also called for calm and has asked the CAR’s transitional government to arrest those who are committing crimes.
Meanwhile President Francois Hollande arrived in Bangui on Tuesday after attending a memorial service for South African former president Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Upon his arrival, the French leader paid tribute to his country’s two fallen soldiers. During the short visit, the French President is expected to meet with Michel Djotodia, the country’s interim president.
Francois Hollande has defended France’s military intervention in the CAR, stating that it was necessary to avoid a bloodbath. Speaking in Bangui, the French leader stated, “it was time to act. In Bangui itself, nearly 400 people were killed. There was no time to procrastinate.”
France’s envoy to the United Nations announced on Tuesday that his country wants elections in the CAR to be held “as quickly as possible,” preferably by late 2014. Speaking at UN headquarters in New York, Ambassador Gerard Araud told reporters that “in light of political tensions on the ground, it would be preferable to have elections as quickly as possible, that is to say in the second half of 2014,” adding that “if the elections could take place in the second half of 2014, in the fall of 2014, that could be positive.” Currently, the CAR has a deadline to hold legislative and president
On Monday, one day after six Red Cross workers were kidnapped in northwestern Syria, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced that three of the six Red Cross Members, along with a Syrian Red Crescent volunteer were “released safe and sound” in Syria. While it is known that the four aid workers were released in Idlib province, near the Turkish border, the circumstances under which they were released have not been made public. The humanitarian organization added that it was waiting on information relating to the three remaining workers. While Syrian state television blamed, what it called, armed terrorists, which is a term that has been frequently used to describe anti-government rebels, It remains unclear who is responsible for the kidnappings however hardline Islamist rebels are known to operate in the area and may be responsible for this latest incident.
The news of the release of the four hostages comes at a time when Syrian rebels have been urged to agree to a local ceasefire in order to allow access to international inspectors, who are working to locate and destroy the government’s chemical weapons arsenal.
On Sunday, gunmen abducted six Red Cross workers along with a local volunteer of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent near Saraqeb, in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria. The team had been on their way back to Damascus after delivering medical supplies in Sarmin and Idlib. The news of the kidnapping was confirmed by officials at the ICRC. ICRC spokesman Ewan Watson stated that “we are calling for the immediate and unconditional release of this team which was delivering humanitarian assistance to those in need – and we do that on both sides of the front lines.” The humanitarian agency also indicated that it had no contact with the unidentified gunmen but it was appealing for the seven to be freed immediately. The nationalities and gender of the ICRC staff has not been revealed however it is believed that the group includes both local and international staff in which most are thought to be medical specialists.
Syrian state media had reported the kidnapping earlier that day, stating that gunmen had kidnapped the Red Cross workers after they opened fire on their vehicles. Quoting an unnamed official, state news agency SANA indicated that the workers were travelling in the Idlib area when gunmen blocked their path, shot at the convoy, seized them and took them to an undisclosed location. Although the ICRC spokesman was not able to confirm whether or not shots had been fired during the kidnapping, the ICRC has indicated that the team’s vehicles were missing.
Kidnappings, especially of aid workers and journalists, have become increasingly common in northern Syria. In August of this year, the ICRC indicated that the number of Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers who had lost their lives since the start of the conflict had risen to twenty-two. Although the rebels have captured a number of regions in the north, government forces continue to have some degree of control over the many urban centers that are located in the region. This has resulted in fighting which typically occurs on a daily basis. The conflict, which has been ongoing for two-and-a-half years, has claimed more than 100,000 lives and has driven more than 2.1 million citizens out of the country.