The first cases of the Ebola virus have been confirmed in Liberia, after spreading from neighboring Guinea, where the deadly virus has already killed eighty-four people. Meanwhile in Mali, officials are on high alert after three suspected cases were reported near the border area with Guinea.
Fears Virus Has Spread to Mali
Officials in Mali on Thursday indicated that they had detected three suspected victims of the Ebola virus, the deadly disease that has killed 84 people in Guinea. Speaking to reporters in Bamako, Mali’s Health Minister Ousmane Kone stated that “three suspected cases of hemorrhagic fever have been detected in the country. Samples have been taken and sent abroad for analysis.” The Health Minister added that pending results from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where the samples were sent, the patients were isolated and were receiving appropriate medication. A statement issued by the government has indicated that the patients’ condition was currently improving and that the results of the tests will be made public as soon as they are known.
Ebola Outbreak Confirmed in Liberia
Seven new patients has brought the total suspected Ebola cases in Liberia to fourteen. Since reporting its first case of the hemorrhagic fever last month, six people have died, however officials in Liberia indicated Thursday that the first suspected Ebola case is now thought to be unconnected to the ongoing epidemic in neighboring Guinea, noting that the case may have originated separately within its borders.
According to Liberia’s chief medical officer Bernice Dahn, “we have a case in Tapeta where a hunter who has not had any contact with anyone coming from Guinea got sick,” adding “he was rushed to the hospital and died 30 minutes later. He never had any interaction with someone suspected to be a carrier of the virus and he has never gone to Guinea. This is an isolated case.” If confirmed, the case in the eastern town of Tapeta would mark a worrying development in the fight against Ebola, as cases so far have been attributed to people returning with the infection from neighboring Guinea, where 84 people have died. Tapeta, a small town in the eastern country of Nimba, is located 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in southern Guinea. It is also at least a five-hour drive and much further from the border than other suspected cases.
Of the six deaths, two were laboratory-confirmed Ebola cases – a woman who died in hospital in the northern county of Lofa and her sister who visited her. The sister was allowed to return home to Monrovia before being hospitalized in the nearby Firestone Hospital. Local authorities had isolated her and were monitoring her, her family and others with whom she may have had contact however Mr Dahn has since indicated that “…after being confirmed Ebola virus positive, the lady died this morning.” He added that “we are now keeping surveillance on 44 people who have been in contact with the cases reported.” The fruit bat, which is thought to be the host of the highly contagious Ebola virus, is a delicacy in the region that straddles Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with experts suspecting huntsmen to be the source of the outbreak.
The outbreak in Guinea had initially centered in the country’s remote south-eastern Forest Region of Nzerekore, where it took officials six weeks to identify the disease, effectively allowing it to spread over the borders and into the more populous regions of the country. The first symptoms experienced were of a feverish sickness and they were observed on February 9. The mysterious disease claimed at least 23 lives, out of a total of 36, before officials were able to identify it. Since then, the outbreak has continued to spread, with officials confirming last week that it had spread to the capital, Conakry, which is a sprawling city of two million.
On Sunday, Guinea’s Health Ministry indicated that the country was now dealing with 122 “suspicious cases” of viral hemorrhagic fever, including at least 80 deaths. However not all of the cases have been confirmed as the Ebola virus. Medical Charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has since stated that the Ebola outbreak in Guinea is “unprecedented,” adding that the spread of the disease across the country made it very difficult to control. Guinea is now facing a battle to contain the outbreak after cases were reported in areas that are hundreds of kilometers apart.
Over the past weekend, there has been a growing concern that the outbreak of the deadly virus may spread throughout West Africa. According to Tarik Jasarevic, spokesman for the WHO, up to 400 people are identified as potential Ebola contacts in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Fears of the virus spreading further into West Africa prompted officials in Senegal to close the country’s normally busy border with Guinea. Senegal’s Health Minister Awa Maria Coll-Seck confirmed Monday that the government had decided to close its border with Guinea after receiving confirmation that the virus had reached the country’s capital city Conakry. According to Ms Coll-Seck, Senegal has also “…closed all weekly markets, known as luma, in the south. And we’re having some discussions with religious leaders regarding big religious events.”
Officials in Sierra Leone also reported last week some suspected cases of the Ebola virus however these have not yet been confirmed.
The Ebola virus, which is one of the world’s most virulent diseases, was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1976. The DRC has since had eight outbreaks of the disease, with the most recent epidemic, which occurred in the DRC between May and November 2012, infecting 62 people and leaving 34 dead. Although there have been previous outbreaks amongst humans in Uganda, the Republic of Congo and Gabon, the disease had never before been detected in people in West Africa. There have also been fears that the disease could one day be used in a biological weapons attack as, according to researches, the virus multiplies quickly, overwhelming the immune system’s ability to fight the infection.
If all cases in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali and Liberia are confirmed to be Ebola, this outbreak would be the most deadly epidemic since 187 people died in Luebo, in the Congo’s Kasai Orientale province in 2007.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), to date, no treatment or vaccine is available for Ebola, which kills between 25 and 90 percent of those who fall sick, depending on the strain of the virus. The Zaire strain of Ebola, which has a 90 percent death rate, is the one that has been detected in Guinea.
According to provisional results announced by the government on Tuesday, the party of Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, and its allies, have won the West African country’s parliamentary elections.
Minister of Territorial Administration Moussa Sinko Coulibaly announced on state television that the Rally for Mali (RPM) party, along with its junior partners, had secured 115 of the 147 seats in the national assembly following a second round of voting that occurred on Sunday. The minister further noted that the exact breakdown was still being worked out. The Union for the Republic of Democracy (URD), the party of beaten presidential candidate Soumaila Cisse, will have between 17 and 19 members in the new parliament, effectively allowing Cisse to become the leader of the opposition. While the official results will be confirmed by the country’s constitutional court in the coming days, it appears that the RPM party have made good on a promise to deliver “a comfortable majority” to smooth the path for reforms that the president plans to put in place in order to rebuild Mali’s stagnant economy and to ease the ethnic tensions that are still an issue in the northern region of the country. Turnout for the second round of voting reached 37.3 percent, a drop from the 38.6 percent that was achieved during the first round, which itself was deemed disappointing by local and international officials. The second round of parliamentary voting was Mali’s fourth nationwide ballot in less than five months, with some observers blaming voting fatigue for the low turnout. Despite a terrorist attack being carried out the day before the elections, there were no serious incidents reported during the ten hours of voting however many voters were believed to have stayed away because of the recent upsurge in rebel attacks against African troops tasked with election security alongside French and Malian soldiers. On Saturday, two Senegalese UN peacekeepers were killed, and seven others wounded, when a suicide bomber ploughed his explosives-laden car into a bank they were guarding in the northeastern town of Kidal. The elections mark the completion of Mali’s return to democracy after the country was upended by a coup last year. Louis Michel, the European Union’s chief election observer in Mali indicated on Monday that his team had positively evaluated 98 percent of the 705 polling stations observed during the election. He further noted that the “legal framework” for the polls “remains aligned with international standards for democratic elections.”
Meanwhile officials reported on Tuesday that militants had shelled a camp, where French troops and the United Nations MINUSMA peacekeeping force are stationed, in northern Mali. According to military sources, “two shells were fired Monday night by unidentified persons at the Kidal camp for French troops and MINUSMA,” adding that there was “no damage or casualties.” The attack was later confirmed by a French military source stationed in Mali who indicated that the shells passed safely over the camp, missing their targets. The attack comes amidst an upsurge in violence in Mali’s north.
Two United Nations peacekeepers have been killed in a car bomb blast in the northeastern Malian town of Kidal, overshadowing the second round of parliamentary elections that were held on Sunday.
On Sunday, Malians voted in the second round of parliamentary elections, which are intended to cap the nation’s return to democracy but which were overshadowed by the deaths of two UN peacekeepers in a militant attack that was carried out on Saturday.
Speaking shortly after casting his ballot in the capital city, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita stated, “this second round establishes the recovery on a foundation of legitimacy in this country. It will give us more strength, more power to say ‘Mali’ and that’s what Mali needs.”
In the first round of elections, which took place on 24 November, nineteen of the national assembly’s 147 seats were allocated, with voter turnout at 38.6 per cent, a drop of almost 13 percentage points from the first round of voting during the presidential elections. Shortly after the conclusion of the first round of parliamentary voting, Louis Michel, chief of the European Union (EU) observation mission, called on “all political actors” to turn out in the second round, adding that “in the specific context of Mali, voting is not only a right, it is a moral duty.”
While there were no serious incidents reported during the ten hours of voting, polling stations throughout the country were reporting turnout as low as fifteen per cent, as voters were scared away by a recent upsurge in rebel attacks against African troops tasked with election security alongside French and Malian soldiers.
Sources on the ground have indicated that polling stations in Bamako reported an estimated turnout of just fifteen per cent. In Koulikoro, located 50 kilometres (37 miles) southwest of Bamako, many residents indicated that they were not intending to participate as they were unimpressed with the candidates and feared Islamist violence. The second round of parliamentary elections is Mali’s fourth nationwide ballot since July, with some reports indicating that the low turnout may also be due to a lack of interest due to voting fatigue. In the north of Mali, voting took place without incident in the regions of Gao and Timbuktu, with seats in Kidal already decided in the first round. Maiga Seyma, the deputy mayor of Gao, indicated that turnout appeared to be good in its 88 polling stations and that the voting had opened in an atmosphere of calm.
The outcome of the election is expected to be announced by the government before the end of Friday, with the president’s Rally for Mali (RPM) party vowing to deliver “a comfortable majority” to smooth the path for reforms he plans to put in place in order to rebuild Mali’s stagnant economy and ease the simmering ethnic tensions in the north.
Explosion Overshadows Elections
A suicide attack on United Nations forces in northern Mali on Saturday killed two Senegalese soldiers in what a Malian jihadist leader said was retaliation for African countries’ support of a French army operation against Islamist militants.
The blast, which occurred when a suicide bomber ploughed his explosives-laden vehicle into the Malian Bank of Solidarity in Kidal, killed the two peacekeepers who were guarding the bank. A government statement indicated that the car “struck the main door of the bank, killing in addition to the suicide bomber two Senegalese soldiers of MINUSMA and injuring six other people.” The statement further noted that five sustained serious injuries – three peacekeepers and two Malian soldiers – who were later evacuated to Gao.
Sultan Ould Badi, a Malian jihadist linked to a number of armed groups, has indicated that the latest attack was in retaliation for African countries’ support of the French-led military operation against Islamist rebels in northern Mali. He further noted “we are going to respond all across Azawad and in other lands…with other operations against France’s crusades.” Badi, a member of northern Mali’s Arab and Tuareg minority groups, rose to prominence kidnapping European hostages in the region and selling them on to armed Islamist groups. He later joined AQIM and was close to one of the group’s top commanders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who was killed while fighting the French army in northern Mali in late February of this year. After Zeid’s death, Badi joined another al-Qaeda-linked group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), before launching his own small radical group. According to a Malian security source, Badi current acts as an intermediary between the various jihadist groups that operate in northern Mali.
Over the past week, the French army has been carrying out an operation against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militant north of Timbuktu. According to French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, nineteen militants have been killed.
Also on Saturday, Seyba Diarra, the right-hand man of coup leader Amadou Sanogo, was detained on charges of assassination. According to sources close to the investigation, Diarra had promised to “cooperate frankly” with investigators in order to shed light on a mass grave containing twenty-one bodies that was discovered on December 4 near the capital Bamako. The dead are believed to be “red berets” loyal to the president overthrown in the coup, Amadou Toumani Toure, The discovery of the mass grave came one week after Sanogo’s arrest and detention, after which about fifteen mainly military aides were also arrested. The government has since indicated that “for now,” Sanogo was charged with involvement in a kidnapping, however a source close to judge Yaya Karembe has stated that he faces charges including murder.
After nearly two months of fighting, French President François Hollande has announced that French troops are currently engaged in the final phase of fighting Islamist militants in the northern region of Mali. French officials have confirmed that over the past weekend, there has been an increase of fighting in the Ifoghas mountains where a number of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants are reportedly hiding. Fighting continued into Sunday when French warplanes targeted an Islamist base in Infara.
Speaking in Paris on Saturday, President Hollande indicated that Chadian troops had launched an attack on Friday which resulted in significant loss of life. According to the Chadian army, thirteen soldiers from Chad and some sixty-five militants were killed in clashes that occurred on Friday. This latest fighting, between the Islamist militants and ethnic Tuaregs, occurred in the In-Khalil area, which is situated near the northern border town of Tessalit. Security sources have confirmed that four members of the Arab Movement of the Azawad (MAA) were wounded on Sunday after French warplanes launched an attack on an Islamist base in Infara, which is located 30 km (19 miles) from the border of Algeria.
With airstrikes continuing throughout Mali, and especially in the northern mountainous regions of the country, it is likely that hit-and-run attacks may be staged in a number of towns over the coming weeks. In turn, with France slowly wrapping up its military intervention, and with operations being handed over to the African Union forces, militants may use this opportunity in order to clash with locals and army forces in a bid to exploit the fluid security situation. Furthermore, any militants who have fled the airstrikes in Mali may be regrouping in other countries and may attempt to stage hit-and-run attacks in neighbouring countries and/or in those African states that have provided troops for the intervention. The United States Embassy in Senegal has warned its citizens of a possible attack in the capital city of Dakar. Although no further information has been provided, any such attacks may be carried out by Islamist militants from Mali or may be indirectly linked to the Malian intervention.
Meanwhile in Algeria, the gas plant that was at the centre of a deadly hostage-taking last month has partially resumed production. Ever since al-Qaeda-linked gunmen stormed the plant and took hundreds of local and dozens of foreign workers hostage, the Tiguentourine plant has been closed. The hostage crisis ended after four days when the Algerian army stormed by complex. The incident left twenty-nine insurgents and at least thirty-seven hostages dead. Officials have indicated that the plant is now operating at about a third of capacity. Since the incident, the plant has increased its security, with armed guards being deployed in order to help protect Algeria’s remote desert energy installations.