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.


May Day: British leader’s respite won’t end Brexit mess

Updated 13 December 2018
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May Day: British leader’s respite won’t end Brexit mess

  • May was in Brussels on Thursday, imploring European Union leaders help her sell the UK-EU divorce bill to a skeptical British Parliament
  • Britain’s road out of the EU has been anything but smooth as Britain heads for the Brexit ramp and the way ahead still looks bumpy

LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May is safe, for now. She has survived a no-confidence vote engineered by her own Conservative Party, and can’t be challenged again for a year, but that has not brought Britain’s Brexit battle any closer to resolution.
May was in Brussels on Thursday, imploring European Union leaders help her sell the UK-EU divorce bill to a skeptical British Parliament.
UK lawmakers were supposed to approve the plan, painstakingly worked out by May and the European Union for Britain’s orderly departure from the 28-nation bloc, in a vote that had been scheduled for Tuesday, but May postponed it rather than face certain defeat.
With the EU insisting the withdrawal agreement can’t be reopened, May faces a struggle to win enough changes to assuage hostile British politicians.
Britain’s road out of the EU has been anything but smooth as Britain heads for the Brexit ramp and the way ahead still looks bumpy.
Britain joined the European Economic Community — now the EU — in 1973, but has long been an ambivalent member. The UK never adopted the euro as its currency, and British politicians have been cool to the bloc’s calls for ever-closer political union.
In 2013, then-Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership “to settle this European question” once and for all — and to silence the loud euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party which had long clamored for a membership vote.
Cameron was confident voters would choose to remain in the EU, but on June 23, 2016, they voted by 52 percent to 48 percent to leave. Cameron resigned, leaving his successor, May, to deliver on voters’ decision. Last year, May triggered the two-year countdown to departure for March 29, 2019.
Every divorce involves paperwork. Britain can leave without an agreement, a so-called no-deal Brexit — but it won’t be pretty. Departure will tear up thousands of laws and rules stitched together over more than four decades, covering every aspect of British life and the economy.
If Britain and the EU can’t agree to new rules, there could be chaos. Planes would lose permission to fly, British motorists would find their driver’s licenses invalid on the continent, medicine supplies could run short. British officials have warned of gridlock at ports, the need to charter vessels to bring in essential goods and shortages of imported foodstuffs.
The Bank of England has warned that a worst-case “no deal” Brexit would plunge Britain into its worst recession for decades.
With compromises on both sides, Britain and the EU managed to reach agreement on many contentious issues. But one has proved intractable: the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which will be the UK’s only land border with the EU after Brexit.
During Northern Ireland’s decades of violence, the border bristled with soldiers, customs posts, smugglers and paramilitaries. But since a 1998 peace accord, the border has become all but invisible. That’s helped by the fact that Britain and Ireland currently are both EU members, meaning goods and people can flow across the border with no need for customs checks.
Brexit could end all that, disrupting lives and businesses on both sides of the border and potentially undermining the peace process.
To avoid that, the withdrawal agreement includes a border guarantee, known as the “backstop.” It stipulates that if no other solution can be found, the UK will remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit to avoid the need for a hard border. Both sides hope the backstop will never be needed: The agreement gives them until 2022 to reach a permanent new trade deal that could render it unnecessary.
But pro-Brexit British politicians hate the backstop, because Britain can’t get out of it unilaterally; it can only be ended by mutual agreement. So potentially it could endure indefinitely, binding the UK to EU customs regulations, unable to make new trade deals around the world.
Pro-EU lawmakers hate it too, because it leaves Britain subject to rules it has no say in making — an inferior position to remaining in the bloc, they say.
Not much. May says she is seeking “legal and political assurances” at this week’s summit that will satisfy Parliament’s concerns about the backstop. But EU leaders are adamant they will not re-open the legally binding, 585-page withdrawal agreement.
But politics is also about theatrics, and the EU may well offer Britain some sort of wording — a note, an addendum or a codicil — that “clarifies” issues around the backstop. It is possible the spectacle of May under siege from her own party will encourage EU leaders to offer slightly more generous terms to try to keep the process on track.
The British government says it plans to bring the deal, with whatever changes May achieves, back to Parliament for a vote before Jan 21. If it passes, it still must be approved by the European Parliament, but that is not expected to be a problem.
If it fails, Britain is in uncharted waters. Possible outcomes include a no-deal Brexit, a postponed Brexit, a second referendum on Brexit, or a reversal of the decision to leave the EU. All those options have supporters in Parliament, but it’s not clear whether there’s a majority for any of them.
And if May’s plan falls, it’s possible she will too — via a no-confidence vote in Parliament that would trigger a national election. Then it would fall to her successor to try to sort out Britain’s Brexit mess.