Tiny Djibouti aiming to become global military, shipping hub

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, last year. China built an electrified rail line linking the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa with Djibouti, as the former French colony aims to become a global shipping power. (Reuters)
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The sun sets in the port of Djibouti. The tiny Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti with less than 1 million inhabitants is of great geostrategic importance. (AP Photo)
Updated 09 April 2018
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Tiny Djibouti aiming to become global military, shipping hub

  • Djibouti, an arid Horn of Africa nation with less than 1 million inhabitants, also has become a military outpost for China, France, Italy and Japan.
  • On the chaotic streets of what has been called the “Singapore of Africa,” the jostling between the United States and China for influence is plainly seen.
Djibouti: Two fighter jets took off and roared over the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, a sprawling complex in this tiny African nation that is quickly becoming a strategic military and shipping outpost for the world.
Not far away, a massive US flag waved over transport planes parked in front of America’s only permanent military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier, home to about 4,000 personnel.
Djibouti, an arid Horn of Africa nation with less than 1 million inhabitants, also has become a military outpost for China, France, Italy and Japan, with that nation’s first overseas base since World War II. Other powers including Saudi Arabia have expressed interest in the key location across the Bab el-Mandeb strait from the Arabian Peninsula and on one of the world’s busiest shipping corridors.
On the chaotic streets of what has been called the “Singapore of Africa,” the jostling between the United States and China for influence is plainly seen.
Before his firing by President Donald Trump, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made a point of stopping in Djibouti on his Africa visit last month and noting its importance in the fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab extremist group in neighboring Somalia and the Daesh group in the region at large. The US carries out drone missions in Somalia and Yemen from Djibouti, but the military paused air operations last week after a jet crashed and a helicopter was damaged during a landing.
China’s first overseas military base, which was manned last year, is just a few miles from the US one. The head of the US Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, earlier this year predicted that “there will be more.”
China’s economic interest is strong as well, with Djibouti borrowing up to $957 million from the Export-Import Bank of China to finance several projects in recent years, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University. The Chinese built a new electrified rail line that links the capital of neighboring Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country and one of its strongest economies, with Djibouti as the nation aims to become a global shipping power.
“We sit on two of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. We are servicing the wider region, including some of the world’s fastest-growing economies,” the chairman of the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority, Aboubaker Omar Hadi, said in an interview during a recent visit by The Associated Press.
He called Djibouti, a largely Muslim nation, a model of stability in an otherwise volatile region. It is also one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with the World Bank projecting 7 percent growth this year.
The country made headlines earlier this year when it seized control of a container terminal run by the Dubai-based DP World, one of the world’s largest port operators, in a long-running legal dispute. If China takes over the terminal’s operations, the effects on supplying the US military base could be “significant,” the US Africa Command chief has warned.
That will not happen, Hadi’s office said: “Djibouti has no plan to give Doraleh Container Port to China.” It is now managed by a fully state-owned company controlled by the ports authority, it added.
Djibouti is currently investing $15 billion in local infrastructure projects that connect the region to global trade routes, including the expansion of ports, improved road and rail links and new airports, according to official figures provided to AP.
The country’s ports now have a total handling capacity of 18 million tons per year, officials said, and the new Doraleh Multipurpose Port, a $590 million joint project between the ports authority and China Merchants Port Holdings opened in May last year, is already working at full capacity. It is a separate entity from the Doraleh Container Port.
Now officials are pursuing a new project called the Djibouti International Free Trade Zone, expected to be the largest of its kind in Africa.
“Once complete it will span an area of 4,800 hectares (11,860 acres), following a total investment of more than $3.5 billion,” the ports authority chairman said. The first phase is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
Officials hope the ambitious infrastructure projects will not only raise Djibouti’s global image but also help it pay off significant debts.
During Tillerson’s visit, Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf acknowledged that Djibouti’s debt totals roughly 84 percent of its GDP, most of it to China. “The burden of debt is there, we are aware of it,” he said. “But let me tell you that it is so far manageable.”
One sign of investor confidence is whether China’s commercial banks begin lending to Djibouti as well, said Jyhjong Hwang, senior research assistant at the China-Africa Research Initiative.
Djibouti’s officials anticipate that the demand for their ports will grow as more African nations expand their economies. They also dismissed concerns about a recent deal by DP World, Ethiopia and Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Somaliland to develop and manage the Port of Berbera there, seen by some as another reason for Djibouti’s seizure of the container terminal from DP World.
“Competition will make the region more attractive. East Africa’s economies are growing fast, and there is a clear demand for Djibouti’s infrastructure to support this growth,” the ports authority chairman said.
Djibouti’s residents said local business is booming as a result of the growing international military and shipping interest, despite the country’s unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent, and construction sites and new roads dotted the city. Economic growth has attracted entrepreneurs from India, Yemen, Gulf nations and elsewhere.
“Our company provides a fleet of cars for the army bases and we are really benefiting from it,” said Nour Omar, one of Djibouti’s best-known businessmen and general manager of local import and distribution business BSH Holding. “We aim to expand our services following their demand.”


Suicide bombers in deadly attack on Afghan ministry

Updated 20 April 2019
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Suicide bombers in deadly attack on Afghan ministry

  • At least 7 people were killed in the attack on the Afghan communications ministry in Kabul
  • The area around the building was sealed off by police as at least 3 attackers battled security forces for several hours

KABUL: Suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the communications ministry in central Kabul on Saturday, officials said, in a deadly, hours-long assault that destroyed weeks of relative calm in the capital.
The Taliban said it had “nothing to do” with the attack, which left some 2,000 people stranded in the tall office building for hours at the start of the Afghan work week.
No other group claimed immediate responsibility, but the Afghan branch of Daesh has previously carried out multiple deadly attacks in the capital.
“As a result of today’s explosion/attack in Kabul city, two people have been martyred (killed) and 6 others are wounded,” the health ministry spokesman wrote in a tweet, adding 3 of the injured were women.
In a statement, the interior ministry said four civilians and three soldiers had been killed, though unverified social media posts suggested the final toll could be higher.
AFP journalists heard one big blast around 11:40 am (0710 GMT), followed by sporadic gunfire for hours afterwards.
“The information that we have is four attackers have placed themselves near the communication ministry and are engaged in gunbattles with the Afghan security forces,” Amanduddin Shariati, a security official in Kabul told AFP.
By about 5:00 p.m. (1230 GMT), the interior ministry declared the assault over.
“Operations finished. All suicide bombers killed & more than 2000 civilians staff rescued,” the ministry said on Twitter.
Panicked workers inside the 18-story building, believed to be Kabul’s tallest, moved up to the top floor as gunmen and Afghan security officials battled lower down.
One woman said she had been in a group of about 30 people on the 10th floor when the assault started, then was told to move up to the 18th floor as gunfire increased. They were all eventually rescued by commandos.
“Women were screaming and children of the kindergarten were the first to be evacuated,” the woman, who did not want to be named, told AFP.
Afghan authorities gave conflicting reports during the incident. The information ministry initially said three suicide bombers had attacked a post office building at the ministry.
General Sayed Mohammad Roshan Dil, the Kabul police chief, said four attackers had been wearing police uniforms and had targeted a shrine near the ministry.
Footage on local television showed a small plume at the building, and people climbing out windows on a lower level.
The presidential palace said in a statement “the enemies of Afghanistan have conducted a terrorist attack.”
“Once again they have created fear and have killed or wounded a number of innocent countrymen,” the statement read.
The communication ministry is located in downtown Kabul, about two kilometers (1.25 miles) from the green zone, a heavily fortified compound for foreign embassies.
The area is the city’s main commercial zone and is home to a large hotel.
Aside from a grenade attack on a military vehicle last week and persistent crime, the capital has in recent weeks enjoyed a period of relative calm.
Last year however saw a string of attacks including one where a massive bomb concealed in an ambulance killed more than 100 people.
The attack comes a week after the Taliban announced their annual spring offensive and amid ongoing fighting across Afghanistan.
It illustrates the sprawling nature of Afghanistan’s conflict, and the obstacles to peace even if a deal is reached with the Taliban.
This week in the Qatari capital Doha, a summit planned between the Taliban and officials from across Afghanistan was scrapped at the last minute due to bickering over who should attend the conference.
The collapse comes at a critical time and amid continued bloodshed in Afghanistan, where the Taliban now control or influence about half of Afghanistan and 3,804 civilians were killed there last year, according to a UN tally.
Taliban officials are separately negotiating with the United States, which wants to forge a peace deal with the militants.