British Navy warship sails near Beijing-claimed South China Sea islands — sources

Military vehicles are seen in the loading dock of the HMS Albion after the ship’s arrival at Harumi Pier in Tokyo on August 3. (Reuters)
Updated 06 September 2018
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British Navy warship sails near Beijing-claimed South China Sea islands — sources

  • HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, passed by the Paracel Islands in recent days
  • Both Britain and the US say they conduct FONOP operations throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies

LONDON: A British Royal Navy warship sailed close to islands claimed by China in the South China Sea as it headed toward Vietnam, asserting “freedom of navigation” rights and challenging Beijing’s “excessive claims” in the region, two sources said.
HMS Albion, a 22,000-ton amphibious warship carrying a contingent of Royal Marines, passed by the Paracel Islands in recent days, said the sources, who were familiar with the matter but who asked not to be identified.
The Albion was on its way to Ho Chi Minh City, where it docked on Monday following a deployment in and around Japan.
One of the sources said Beijing dispatched a frigate and two helicopters to challenge the British vessel, but both sides remained calm during the encounter.
The other source the Albion did not enter the territorial seas around any features in the hotly disputed region but demonstrated that Britain does not recognize excessive maritime claims around the Paracel Islands. Twelve nautical miles is an internationally recognized territorial limit.
The Paracels are occupied entirely by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
A spokesman for the Royal Navy said: “HMS Albion exercised her rights for freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.”
Neither China’s Foreign nor Defense Ministries immediately responded to a request for comment.
China’s claims in the South China Sea, through which some $3 trillion of shipborne trade passes each year, are contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Britain does not have any territorial claims in the area.
While the US Navy has conducted Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the same area in the past, this British challenge to China’s growing control of the strategic waterway comes after the US has said it would like to see more international participation in such actions.
Both Britain and the US say they conduct FONOP operations throughout the world, including in areas claimed by allies.
The British Navy has previously sailed close to the disputed Spratly Islands, further south in the South China Sea, several times in recent years but not within the 12-nautical mile limit, regional diplomatic sources have said.
Singapore-based South China Sea expert Ian Storey said Britain had strong traditional interests in defending freedom of navigation but regular deployments in the South China Sea would be constrained due to limited numbers of warships and onerous demands in other parts of the world.
“The UK’s actions will please Washington as the Trump administration has grumbled that US allies have been remiss in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” said Storey, of Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute.
“But China will be displeased as it suggests that US allies are responding to Washington’s appeals... It might also nudge other US allies to make similar moves.”
FONOPs, which are largely symbolic, have so far not persuaded Beijing to curtail its South China Sea activities, which have included extensive reclamation of reefs and islands and the construction of runways, hangars and missile systems.
Beijing says it is entitled to build on its territories and says the facilities are for civilian use and necessary self-defense purposes. China blames Washington for militarizing the region with its freedom of navigation patrols.
Foreign aircraft and vessels in the region are routinely challenged by Chinese naval ships and monitoring stations on the fortified islands, sources have said previously. In April, warships from Australia — which like Britain is a close US ally — had what Canberra described as a close “encounter” with Chinese naval vessels in the contested sea.
The Albion is one of three Royal Navy ships deployed to Asia this year, along with HMS Argyll and HMS Sutherland.


Boko Haram displaced feel forgotten amid Nigeria election fever

Updated 22 min 13 sec ago
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Boko Haram displaced feel forgotten amid Nigeria election fever

  • More than 27,000 people died and 1.8 million displaced since the start of Boko Haram conflict in 2009
  • Malkohi residents say they will support President Muhammadu Buhari because he helped curtail the extremists’ power

MALKOHI, Nigeria: Idriss Abdullahi was once a successful businessman and a husband to four wives, until the day he fled his home when Boko Haram insurgents advanced across northeastern Nigeria.
Five years on he lives beside dull farmland in a tented camp in Malkohi village, near the Adamawa state capital Yola, and tries to make a living selling firewood.
But the earnings are so meager he has had to divorce one of his wives.
“Even an animal lives better than me,” he told AFP in the camp he shares with 2,800 of his neighbors from the Borno state town of Gwoza, which the insurgents sacked in 2014.
More than 27,000 people have been killed since the Boko Haram conflict began in 2009 and some 1.8 million others are still displaced.
President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015 on a pledge to end the insurgency, which at its peak saw the extremists control an area the size of Belgium.
In Abdullahi’s hometown, the wild-eyed leader of the extremists, Abubakar Shekau, declared an Islamic caliphate.
An offensive involving Nigerian troops and foreign mercenaries pushed them back. But in recent months there have been signs of resurgence.
Despite that, residents of Malkohi say they’re ready to support Buhari at Saturday’s rescheduled vote — even if they can’t return to Gwoza to do so.
“It’s not that we actually love him,” Abdullahi said of the president. “It’s that he saved our lives from Boko Haram.”
Shortly after taking office, Buhari declared Boko Haram “technically defeated,” apparently fulfilling the promise that was seen as a key to his victory.
But in February last year, the group seized 110 schoolgirls from Dapchi, in an echo of the 2014 abduction of more than 200 from Chibok that brought world attention to the conflict.
Malkohi itself hasn’t been spared; the group in 2015 bombed a government-organized camp across the road from the informal settlement where the former Gwoza residents stay.
An Islamic State-allied faction has in recent months overrun military bases, seizing equipment and weapons, and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee for their lives.
Nigeria’s election commission has been forced to set up special measures for them to vote: in Borno, some 400,000 displaced people will vote at 10 centers.
Several others have been created in Adamawa.
The main opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, has seized on the insecurity and claimed Buhari has failed in his core duty of keeping Nigerians safe.
But from their homes in Adamawa — Abubakar’s home state — Malkohi residents say they feel more forgotten than under attack.
“Up to now, hospitals have not been provided. Before, [aid groups] gave us drugs, but now we don’t receive any,” said Fanta Ali, a housewife at the camp.
The Malkohi camp today is made up of rows of shacks separated by dirt paths, on which barefoot children and turkeys strut.
The makeshift homes are constructed from tarpaulin donated by aid agencies who also built a water tower for the settlement.
Many Malkohi residents were prosperous in Gwoza but without money to start businesses they now rely on manual labor to get by.
“Seriously, I’m suffering,” said Abdulrahman Hassen, once a merchant and chair of a professional association who now farms for a living.
Returning to Gwoza, where Boko Haram remains strong, is still a distant prospect. Helping people go home will be on the next president’s to-do list.
The displaced say they’re made to feel like outsiders in Adamawa, and local residents call them thieves for farming the land around the camp.
Gwoza was badly damaged when it was retaken in 2015, and cellphone reception is so weak residents climb trees to get a signal, said Yunussa Takda, a youth leader in Malkohi.
Meanwhile, the town’s outlying villages are still unsafe.
“Under Buhari, we’ve seen that a lot of our villages that have been taken by Boko Haram haven’t been recovered,” he said. “Maybe if he’s given a second chance, we can go home.”
Umaru Ibrahim Bakare lost track of his pregnant wife and then three-year-old daughter in the chaos of Boko Haram’s initial attack on the town, and has been looking for them ever since.
He made an unsuccessful trip to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, aiming to find his family.
He remains hopeful after the Red Cross connected a friend with three children he’d lost when fleeing Boko Haram.
“We must vote Muhammadu Buhari to finish what he’s started and defeat the insurgency,” he said.