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.


Philippine president wants to end anti-drug war in three years

Updated 21 March 2019
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Philippine president wants to end anti-drug war in three years

  • Philippines being investigated for extrajudicial killings
  • Anti-drug campaign signature policy of president

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday he wanted to finish his war on drugs in three years, defying an international probe into his controversial and deadly campaign to rid the country of narcotics.
Duterte, who came to power in 2016, has made a ‘war on drugs’ the hallmark of his administration. 
But it has been reported that 20,000 people have been killed in what rights groups call a wave of “state-sanctioned violence.”
The firebrand president remains unfazed by the condemnation, and the cases filed against him by the International Criminal Court (ICC) over his crackdown.
He insisted he would assume full responsibility for any consequences due to his decision to enforce the law, telling a military audience his goals.
“I’d like to finish this war, both (with the) Abu Sayyaf (a militant group) and also the communists, and the drug problem in about three years … we'd be able (to) ... reduce the activities of the illegal trade and fighting to the barest minimum.
“I’m not saying I am the only one capable (of achieving these goals) ... I assume full responsibility for all that would happen as a consequence of enforcing the law — whether against the criminals, the drug traffickers or the rebels who’d want to destroy government.”
Earlier this month, the Philippines withdrew from the ICC, citing the global body's interference in how the country was run as the reason.
On Tuesday, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that investigations into alleged extrajudicial killings in the Philippines would continue despite its exit.
But the government has said it will not cooperate with the ICC, and has even warned its personnel about entering the country for the investigation.
There are Filipinos who support Duterte’s campaign, however, and believe it works. Among them is former policeman Eric Advincula.
He said there had been an improvement in the situation since Duterte came to power. 
“For one, the peace and order situation has improved, like for example in villages near our place where there used to be rampant drug peddling,” he told Arab News. 
“The price of illegal drugs is now higher, an indication that the supply also went down. Also, it was easy to catch drug peddlers before because they were doing their trade openly. But now they are more careful, you can't easily locate them.”
Official data from the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency in February indicated that 5,176 ‘drug personalities’ were killed in the anti-drugs war between July 1, 2016 to Jan. 31, 2019.
More than 170,000 drug suspects have been arrested during a total of 119,841 anti-narcotics operations in the last two and a half years.