Mali violence flares up on key election day

Malian soldiers patrol in the streets of Bamako on July 27, 2018, on the last day of campaigning before July 29 presidential election. (AFP)
Updated 29 July 2018
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Mali violence flares up on key election day

  • Eight million voters are enrolled with 23,000 polling stations opened
  • But insecurity is such that in some parts of the country the vote will simply not happen

BAMAKO: Malians went to the polls on Sunday for a crucial presidential election as attacks disrupted voting in areas already beset by deadly ethnic and extremist violence.
After a campaign marred by armed attacks, 23,000 polling stations opened at 0800 GMT and are scheduled to close at 1800 GMT.
“I have my voting card, I am going to vote for my country and for my favorite president,” said Moriba Camara, a 35-year-old teacher, in the Sebenicoro district of the capital Bamako.
Despite the deployment of 30,000 security personnel throughout the country, several incidents were reported in the north and center.
Preident Keita, 73, leads a crowded field of 24 candidates — just one of them a woman — bidding for the presidency which he has held since 2013. He also voted in Sebenicoro, surrounded by journalists and supporters.
His record on security has been a dominant theme, with opponents, including several former ministers, accusing him of incompetence.
The international community hopes the poll will strengthen a 2015 accord that Mali, a linchpin state in the troubled Sahel region, sees as the cornerstone for peace.
On the campaign trail, Keita — commonly known by his initials IBK — highlighted the achievements of the peace agreement between the government, government-allied groups and former Tuareg rebels to fight militants in the country’s north.
Despite the heavy security presence, polling stations and ballot boxes were burned by unidentified armed men.
Voting could not take place in the village of Lafia, in the northern Timbuktu region, after the ballot boxes were set on fire, according to local authorities.
“Overnight from Saturday to Sunday, armed men arrived at the town hall where the ballot boxes and electoral material were held,” a local official told AFP.
The source added the boxes were burned after militants fired shots into the sky. “One of them said God does not like elections.”
In central Dianke, in the Niafunke region where main opposition contender Soumaila Cisse voted in the morning, “two polling stations were burned this morning by armed men,” Oumar Sall, a local official, told AFP.
Violence has continued to hit in the lead-up to Sunday, despite the presence of 15,000 UN peacekeepers and 4,500 French troops and a heralded five-nation anti-terror force, the G5 Sahel. A state of emergency enters its fourth year in November.
More than 300 civilians have died in ethnic clashes this year, according to UN figures and an AFP toll.
Many deaths have occurred in the central region of Mopti, involving the Fulani nomadic herder community and Bambara and Dogon farmers.
Four days before polling day, armed men — described as Dogon hunters — killed 17 Fulani civilians in the village of Somena, Fulani representatives said Friday.
Militant violence, meanwhile, has spread from northern Mali to the center and south and spilled over into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, often inflaming communal conflicts.
The main Al-Qaeda-linked militant alliance made its presence felt on the final day of campaigning Friday, dubbing the election a “mirage” that would do nothing for the Malian people.
“These elections are nothing other than the pursuit of a mirage and our peoples will reap nothing but illusions, as they are used to doing,” said alliance leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Ag Ghaly, the key figure in the militants’ operation to take control of much of the north of the country in 2012, leads the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), formed from a merger of several militant groups.
Turnout — which has never gone above 50 percent in a presidential election-first round since the advent of democracy in 1992 — was low in the morning.
“The opening went well but there are not enough people yet,” said Oumar Camara, a polling station chief in Bamako, blaming morning rains and adding that “in the middle of the day people should come en masse to vote.”
The European Union, the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF) are fielding election observers.
Keita’s challengers are headed by Cisse, 68, a former finance and economy minister, who lost by a large margin in the second round of the 2013 election.
His team have warned of possible fraud, claiming that there are two electoral lists and hundreds of fake polling stations.
The first poll results are expected within 48 hours, with official outcome following on Friday at the latest.
If no candidate gains more than 50 percent of the vote in Sunday’s first round, a second round will take place on August 12.


Foreigners gather at India’s religious Kumbh Mela festival

Updated 1 min 45 sec ago
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Foreigners gather at India’s religious Kumbh Mela festival

  • Foreigners too are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers
  • A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday

ALLAHABAD, India: At the Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest religious event, millions of Indian Hindus are not the only people bathing in the sacred waters to wash away their sins.
Foreigners too are among the ascetics, saints, sadhus and spectators thronging the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers in northern India for what is billed as humanity’s biggest gathering.
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati grew up in a Jewish family in California but moved in 1996 to an ashram in Rishikesh — the town made famous internationally when the Beatles visited in 1968 — and changed her life and her name.
“I was on holiday with a backpack and when I got to Rishikesh, on the banks of the sacred Ganges, I had a very deep, very very powerful spiritual awakening experience which made me realize where I need to be, where I need to spend my life,” she said.
The 47-year-old is among the worshippers taking a dip at the Kumbh, which is expected to attract well over 100 million people over the next seven weeks.
“The reason we take a bath in the sacred waters is to achieve immortality ... immortality of the soul,” she said.
“It felt amazing, it always feels amazing... Normally only the body gets wet but here you actually feel like your inner self is getting wet, your heart, your soul is getting wet, your spirit... The depth of my being is being touched.”
A record 22.5 million people plunged into the waters on the first day of the Kumbh last Tuesday, according to local officials.
Nearly 30,000 police helped by drones buzzing overhead have been deployed to oversee crowds and prevent stampedes.
A vast tent city with restaurants, roads and marketplaces has sprung up along the river, with pilgrims camped out across a sprawling 45-square-kilometer (17-square-mile) zone.
Westerners who have immersed themselves in Hindu spirituality include Baba Rampuri, who claims to be the first foreigner to be initiated into India’s largest and most ancient order of yogis, the Naga Sannyasis of Juna Akhara.
The surgeon’s son — reportedly born William A. Gans — grew up in Beverly Hills and moved to India in 1970, and like Saraswati is active on Facebook and Twitter.
“I am not a great believer in modern technology, or the consumerist messages being sent out through the medium, but we have to make people aware that we exist,” he told the Indian Express.
Another is Sir James Mallinson, the dreadlocked fifth baronet of Walthamstow and British academic ordained as a mahant, or Hindu priest, in 2013. He also runs a paragliding firm in the Himalayas.
Many of the foreigners at the Kumbh are simple tourists though, keen to see the ash-smeared, pipe-smoking Naga sadhus, naked except for beads and flower garlands.
One ascetic has had his right arm raised for seven years. Another has been standing for eight months and aims to do so for another 43 months.