Mali’s ‘Highway of Death’ highlights extremist peril

A German soldier from the parachutists detachment of the MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) search for IED (improvised explosive device) during a patrol on the route from Gao to Gossi, Mali on August 2, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 12 August 2018
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Mali’s ‘Highway of Death’ highlights extremist peril

  • The scorched, dusty north has been in the grip of an extremist uprising since 2012
  • Intervention by French troops drove the extremists out of key northern towns

DORO, Mali: “Hotspot ahead!“
The curt message comes over the radio, warning troops aboard the eight-vehicle UN peacekeeping convoy to check their weapons one more time and go on maximum alert.
A grim sight greets the Germans as their armored contingent approaches the village of Doro in the savannah south of Mali’s broiling desert: a line of burned-out fuel tankers, pickup trucks and military vehicles.
They have been destroyed by homemade bombs and armed raiders — a reminder of the extremist threat that hangs over northern Mali like a leaden pall.
The scorched, dusty north has been in the grip of an extremist uprising since 2012. The following year, intervention by French troops drove the extremists out of key northern towns, but the insurgency was displaced rather than crushed.
Conflict spread to the center of the vast Sahel state and spilled into Burkina Faso. But extremism is just one factor in a mosaic of violence that includes ethnic clashes and gangster activity.
The RN15 — the highway that leads from Gao, the main town in the north, and reaches down into Mopti, in the center — has seen dozens of attacks over the past three years.
A map used by the German paratroopers in the UN operation MINUSMA is studded with markers of attacks since 2016 between Gao and Doro: “IED,” or improvised explosive devices, “holdups,” “armed attacks” and “complex attacks,” or combined operations.
“This part is called the ‘Highway of Death’,” a UN official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Recently, there have been lots of bus holdups,” the official added. “The bandits rob all the passengers — they even order people to transfer them money with their mobile phones.”
Such incidents led road transporters to use the highway only in convoys on a dangerous stretch of 150 kilometers (about 95 miles), but that is still not sufficiently safe and UN forces decided to patrol, looking for IEDs.
“Today we want to collect data for the roadbook, because we have to know what are the vulnerable points of the road,” German Lt. Col. Mickael Weckbach told AFP.
The convoy rolled cautiously into Doro, where the main street doubles as the local market and sidestreets are a de-facto parking lot for camels. The village of mud huts also has a detachment of the Malian army.
Peasant farmers, stock breeders, traders and children mill around in a crush of buses and lorries, while the heavily-armed UN vehicles weave their way through.
As the convoy pulls out, highway watchfulness returns.
“We’re approaching a place where there have already been four attacks,” a slightly nervous observer warns on the radio.
“A motorbike’s coming with an AK,” adds a soldier riding atop one of the armored personnel carriers, referring to an AK47 assault rifle. But the two men on the bike, one wearing battledress, rode past the UN troops with a thumb’s-up.
“Was that a Malian soldier or a militiamen?” asks a sergeant manning a 12.7 mm machine gun.
The German UN convoy reaches the scene of the four past ambushes, but troops on the site order all the vehicles to back off while ordnance experts inspect a small bridge next to the crater left by a bomb blast.
Half an hour later, the specialists declare the route clear and the convoy moves on.
With the spread of unrest from the north of the country to central regions, an average of three explosive devices goes off each day in Mali, according to MINUSMA.
Finally, after 14 hours on the road, the German soldiers have found nothing abnormal, but they have gathered a quantity of data for analysis. The main threat during the mission came from the heat, which killed the engine of one of the vehicles. It had to be towed back to base.
“To be honest, we didn’t expect to find IEDs. But it’s also important to show our strength,” Weckbach said, summing up the patrol.


Kanye West meets Uganda’s president, gifts pair of sneakers

Updated 15 October 2018
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Kanye West meets Uganda’s president, gifts pair of sneakers

  • Museveni said he and the American rapper held “fruitful discussions”
  • Uganda’s presidency released photos of a hoodie-wearing West meeting Museveni at the State House and exchanging gifts

KAMPALA, Uganda: Kanye West has met with Uganda’s president during a visit to the East African nation and given the 74-year-old leader a pair of white sneakers.
President Yoweri Museveni said he and the American rapper held “fruitful discussions” on Monday about promoting tourism and arts.
West and his wife, reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, have been vacationing in a national park in Uganda. He is said to be recording music in a tent.
Uganda’s presidency released photos of a hoodie-wearing West meeting Museveni at the State House and exchanging gifts.
While excited tourism officials see the visit as an endorsement of the country’s tourism potential, some Ugandans wryly pointed out that Museveni cracked down on hoodies earlier this year when he announced that motorcycle riders could no longer wear them in a bid to fight rising crime.
The president, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, has been at the center of unrest in recent weeks as Uganda’s large youth population increasingly expresses frustration over unemployment and accuses Museveni of being out of touch.
Uganda’s government has been criticized over its treatment of a local pop star-turned-opposition lawmaker, Bobi Wine, who alleges torture by security forces. The government denies it.