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.


As comedian eyes presidency, Ukraine braces for uncertain future

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a policy debate with his rival, Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (unseen), at the National Sports Complex Olimpiyskiy stadium in Kiev, Ukraine April 19, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 42 min 11 sec ago
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As comedian eyes presidency, Ukraine braces for uncertain future

  • Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comic actor, is best known for his TV portrayal of a schoolteacher who becomes Ukrainian president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral

KIEV, Ukraine: A comedian who plays the role of Ukraine’s president on television is set to take on the job for real, pushing out the man who currently holds the office, according to public opinion surveys ahead of Sunday’s election.
Saturday was a so-called “day of quiet,” on which electioneering is forbidden, a respite from a campaign of heated statements and unexpected moments.
Dismayed by endemic corruption, a struggling economy and a five-year fight against Russia-backed insurgents in the country’s east, Ukrainian voters appear poised to strongly rebuke incumbent Petro Poroshenko and replace him with Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Despite never having held political office, Zelenskiy could get more than twice as many votes as Poroshenko, polls suggest.
Since Zelenskiy and Poroshenko advanced to Sunday’s runoff in the first round three weeks ago, the campaign has been marked by jockeying for dominance, including a dispute over holding a debate that left Poroshenko standing next to an empty lectern bearing his opponent’s name and Zelenskiy’s challenge for both of the candidates to undergo drug testing.
Zelenskiy has run his campaign mostly on social media and has eschewed media interviews; Poroshenko has called him a “virtual candidate.” Poroshenko in turn was criticized for a video linked to his campaign that showed Zelenskiy being run over by a truck.
The two finally held an actual debate on Friday evening, just hours before campaigning was to end. They harshly criticized each other and engaged in the melodrama of both kneeling to ask forgiveness of those who lost relatives in the eastern fighting.
In an unexpected move less than 10 hours before polls were to open, a Kiev court heard a suit demanding that Zelenskiy’s registration as a candidate be canceled. The court rejected the case, which was filed by the head of an organization that conducts election observation and claimed that Zelenskiy committed bribery by offering tickets to the Friday debate.
Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comic actor, is best known for his TV portrayal of a schoolteacher who becomes Ukrainian president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral. The name of the show, “Servant of the People,” became the name of his party when he announced his candidacy in January.
Like his TV character, the real-life Zelenskiy has focused his campaign strongly on corruption. Although criticized as having a vague platform, Zelenskiy has made specific proposals, including removing immunity for the president, parliament members and judges, and a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of corruption. He also calls for a tax amnesty under which someone holding hidden assets would declare them, be taxed at 5% and face no other measures.
He supports Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO, but only if the country were to approve this in a referendum.
Zelenskiy has proposed that direct talks with Russia are necessary to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where fighting with Russia-backed separatist rebels has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014. The Kremlin denies involvement there and says it is an internal matter. Zelenskiy says Russia-annexed Crimea must be returned to Ukraine and compensation paid.
Zelenskiy’s image has been shadowed by his admission that he had commercial interests in Russia through a holding company, and by persistent speculation about links with oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who owns the television station that airs “Servant of the People.”
A Ukrainian court this week ruled that the nationalization of a bank once owned by Kolomoyskyi was illegal, leading to new concern about Zelenskiy’s possible ties to him.
Poroshenko, who entered politics after establishing a lucrative candy-making company, came to power with a pragmatic image in 2014 after mass protests drove the previous, Russia-friendly president to leave the country.
Five years later, critics denounce him for having done little to combat Ukraine’s endemic corruption. The war with Russia-backed separatists in the east grinds on with no clear strategy for ending it. And while his economic reforms may have pleased international lenders, they’ve left millions of Ukrainians wondering if they can find the money to pay their utility bills.
After his weak performance in the election’s first round, in which Zelenskiy got nearly twice as many votes, Poroshenko said he had taken voters’ criticism to heart. He has since made some strong moves, including the long-awaited creation of an anti-corruption court. He also ordered the dismissal of the governor of the corruption-plagued Odessa region, and fired the deputy head of foreign intelligence who reportedly has vast real estate holdings in Russia.
Poroshenko, 53, has positioned himself as a leader who will stand up to Russia. He has scored some significant goals for Ukraine’s national identity and its desire to move out of Russia’s influence.
He signed an association agreement with the European Union — which predecessor Viktor Yanukovych turned away from, setting off the 2014 protests. Ukrainians now can travel visa-free to the European Union, a significant perk. He has also pushed relentlessly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be recognized as self-standing rather than just a branch of the Russian church.