Tillerson ends Africa trip vowing US backing against terror

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boards his plane to depart at the end of a five-country swing through Africa from Abuja, Nigeria. (AP)
Updated 12 March 2018

Tillerson ends Africa trip vowing US backing against terror

ABUJA: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brought his truncated maiden Africa trip to a close on Monday, promising the full backing of the United States to two countries on the frontline of the war on terror.
Washington's top diplomat has been on a five-country tour of east and west Africa but was forced to cut short his visit "due to demands in (his) schedule", the State Department said.
After stops in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya, which were overshadowed by US President Donald Trump's surprise announcement on talks with North Korea, he squeezed visits to Chad and Nigeria into just one day.
Before returning to Washington, Tillerson notably promised Nigeria support ranging from equipment to intelligence to help secure the swift release of 110 schoolgirls kidnapped last month by Boko Haram militants.
Tillerson slammed the mass abduction in northern Nigeria and promised Washington's "full support" in the country's fight against Boko Haram.
"The recent kidnapping of 110 schoolgirls is heartbreaking," Tillerson said on his arrival in the capital Abuja on the final leg of an African tour.
"Nigeria has the US in full support and we are actively working with our partners in what we can assist you in this fight."
The students were taken from their state-run school in Dapchi, in the northeastern state of Yobe, on February 19. Nothing has been heard from them since.
The abduction brought back painful memories of the kidnapping of 276 girls from Chibok in April 2014 that sparked global outrage and calls for their release, led by then-first lady Michelle Obama.
The Dapchi abduction has yet to garner such support.
Tillerson called it "heartbreaking" and added: "Nigeria has the United States' full support and we are actively working with our partners in what we can to assist you in this fight."
Washington was already "very engaged" with Nigeria and its neighbours "in supporting, equipping and training" as well as advising and providing information.
"I think that's the best way we can help the government of Nigeria secure the release these girls, which we hope will be done in a peaceful manner," he added.
"We hope something can be worked out and they (Boko Haram) can be persuaded to release these girls quickly. That's what we pray."
Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari benefitted at the polls in 2015 from his predecessor's handling of the aftermath of Chibok.
But Dapchi and persistent suicide bombings and raids in the northeast have raised questions about the extent of his repeated claim the militants are on the verge of defeat.
The United States has agreed to sell Nigeria 12 Super Tucano A-29 ground attack aircraft in a $593 million deal, which the country's foreign minister Geoffrey Onyeama said on Monday would be a "game-changer".
The Obama administration blocked the sale on human rights grounds.
Buhari's office said the president asked Tillerson for further support in terms of training and equipment, without elaborating.
It also said in a statement that Buhari had "chosen negotiation" to secure the return of the Dapchi schoolgirls rather than the use of military force.
"We are trying to be careful. It is better to get our daughters back alive," he was quoted as saying.
Buhari is expected to visit Yobe state this week.
Tillerson arrived in Abuja from N'Djamena, where he said Washington supported the fight by the so-called G5 Sahel countries against militants in the volatile Saharan region.
Chad was an "important partner" in fighting terrorism, Tillerson told a news conference.
Tillerson on Monday told the African nation's citizens they're welcome in the United States but it wasn't enough to overcome a Trump administration travel ban that Chad's top diplomat declared an injustice.
Tillerson's message of growing U.S. cooperation with Chad, a key counterterrorism partner, was overshadowed by palpable hurt and resentment over Chad's position on an inglorious list that includes North Korea, Iran and Venezuela. Tillerson, who became the most senior U.S. official to set foot in Chad, expressed hope the restrictions will be lifted.
"The placement of Chad in this list was an injustice done to Chad," Foreign Minister Mahamat Zene Cherif said. He said Chadian President Idriss Deby had "expressed his incomprehension" to Tillerson about the restrictions.
Chad last year was stunned to find itself on one of six Muslim-majority countries whose countries are affected by President Donald Trump's travel ban.
Questioned repeatedly by the local Chadian media about why it remains on the list, Tillerson said the visa restrictions were necessary "because of all the conflict that exists on Chad's borders," even as he gave the country credit for "many, many important positive steps" to comply. He said the United States later this month would prepare a report on Chad's progress that Trump would review in April.
"These steps I think are going to allow us to begin to normalize the travel relationship with Chad," Tillerson said. But, he added, "We have to wait for the final report."
The US military has a drone unit at the N'Djamena airport, Washington backs a multinational force fighting Boko Haram militants, helps train Chadian troops and provides military equipment to its armed forces, according to a Chadian military official.
Tillerson said he wanted "to ensure that the people of Chad understand they are welcome in the United States" and argued the country's inclusion on the list "has never harmed in any way whatsoever the cooperation between our two countries."
Progress had been made with dealing with what has been cited as the reason for including Chad on the list -- problems with its passports, which are not biometric.
He said steps were being taken "to allow us to begin to normalise the travel relationship with Chad".


Thailand’s lost baby dugong dies from shock, eating plastic

Updated 33 min 6 sec ago

Thailand’s lost baby dugong dies from shock, eating plastic

  • Marium, the female baby dugong had already lost her mother when she was initially found
  • Biologists tried saving her, but they believe she died of a combination of the plastic and shock

BANGKOK: An 8-month-old dugong nurtured by marine experts after it was found lost near a beach in southern Thailand has died of what biologists believe was a combination of shock and ingesting plastic waste, officials said Saturday.
The female dugong — a large ocean mammal — was named “Marium” and became a hit in Thailand after images of biologists embracing and feeding her with milk and seagrass spread across social media. Veterinarians and volunteers had set out in canoes to feed Marium up to 15 times a day while also giving her health checks.
Last week, she was found bruised after being chased and supposedly attacked by a male dugong during the mating season, said Jatuporn Buruspat, director-general of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources.
She was brought in for treatment in the artificial sea on Libong Island in Krabi province.
“We assume she wandered off too far from her natural habitat and was chased and eventually attacked by another male dugong, or dugongs, as they feel attracted to her,” Jatuporn said Saturday.
An autopsy showed a big amount of plastic waste in her intestine, which could also have played a part in her death as it led to gastritis and blood infection, he said.
“She must have thought these plastics were edible,” Jatuporn said.
The dugong is a species of marine mammal similar to the American manatee and can grow to about 3.4 meters (11 feet) in length. Its conservation status is listed as vulnerable.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-arcpha said Marium’s death saddens the whole nation and the world.
“Her death will remind Thais and people all over the world not to dispose trash into the oceans,” Varawut said at a news conference.