How Niger’s military coup threatens efforts to root out Islamist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel

Special How Niger’s military coup threatens efforts to root out Islamist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel
Supporters of the Nigerien defense forces attacked the headquarters of the political party of deposed President Mohamed Bazoum in Niamey on Thursday. (AFP)
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Updated 02 August 2023

How Niger’s military coup threatens efforts to root out Islamist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel

How Niger’s military coup threatens efforts to root out Islamist insurgency in Africa’s Sahel
  • Experts say Niger is at risk of becoming a breeding ground for terrorist recruitment following July 26 coup
  • Daesh and Al-Qaeda affiliates have most to gain from chaos in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, say analysts

JUBA, South Sudan: Niger has become the third nation in the troubled Sahel region in as many years to suffer a military coup, causing concern among Western leaders and neighboring states over the repercussions for the ongoing fight against Islamist insurgency.

President Mohamed Bazoum, who is currently confined to his official residence in the capital, Niamey, was toppled on July 26 by his own presidential guard. The head of the elite force, Gen. Abdourahamane Tiani, has declared himself the new leader.

Coming in the wake of similar military takeovers in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali, the US and former colonial power France have demanded Bazoum’s reinstatement, acknowledging his key role in the fight against extremism.

The African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, have likewise insisted on the need to restore stability to effectively confront the extremist threat, indicating neighboring states might consider using force to reinstate Bazoum.

General Abdourahmane Tiani, who was declared as the new head of state of Niger by leaders of a coup, arrives to meet with ministers in Niamey, Niger. (Reuters)

Niger’s strategic position in the Sahel region, bordered by countries experiencing violent extremism, makes it an important ally in the international fight against Islamist insurgency. Before the coup, Niger actively participated in regional counterterrorism initiatives.

However, the coup and its potential disruption to governance and security could jeopardize these vital partnerships and impede the progress of regional security efforts.

Aneliese Bernard, director of the Washington D.C.-based risk advisory group Strategic Stabilization Advisors, says similar coups in the region show that extremist groups have the most to gain from these episodes of instability.

“History has shown that groups like the Islamic State Sahel Province and Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin have successfully capitalized on governance and security vacuums left by states consumed with internal political issues and this has allowed them to expand their influence in Mali and Burkina Faso following recent coups,” Bernard told Arab News.

JNIM and ISSP are two rival radical groups operating in the region. It is not uncommon for individuals to switch sides between these groups, which further complicates the security situation in the region.

JNIM operates in neighboring Mali, with activities extending across West Africa, having pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.

Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin in Burkina Faso. (Supplied)

ISSP, meanwhile, operates as the Sahelian affiliate of Daesh and has also been involved in attacks across the region.

According to Bernard, the coup has destabilized the governance and security apparatus in Niger’s southwestern Tillaberi region, close to the triple frontier with Burkina Faso and Mali, where the ISSP is active.

“In such situations, JNIM and ISSP might seize the opportunity to exploit the absence of state authority and promote themselves as alternatives to governance and security,” she said.

“By championing the perception that neglected and marginalized communities in the periphery are left without support from the government, these jihadist groups have managed to infiltrate remote communities successfully.”

One targeted group is the Fulani people, an ethnic minority in the region, accused by authorities of harboring terrorist sympathies. Due to their status as a discriminated minority, extremist groups have found some success recruiting among their ranks.

Virginie Baudais, director of the Sahel and West Africa Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says the possibility of Western aid being suspended as a result of the coup raises questions about how Niger’s security forces will handle the Islamist threat.

“Armed groups have consistently targeted defense and security forces in the region, making it essential for the international community to realign its priorities and support,” Baudais told Arab News.


• President Mohamed Bazoum was toppled by his own presidential guard on July 26.

• The coup follows similar military takeovers in neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali.

• Experts say radical groups like JNIM and ISSP have the most to gain from coups.

“However, while the situation has continued to deteriorate, people do not feel protected by international troops. That is why they support their armed forces in the fight against terrorism, but support for the coup perpetrators is not unanimous.”

Alex Nkosi, a Malawian policy specialist based in the West African country of Togo, likewise highlights the potential for divisions within Niger’s military ranks.

“The coup could invoke divisions within the military because not all soldiers support the military indulgence in politics,” Nkosi told Arab News. He is also doubtful Niger’s armed forces will have the means to go it alone against the extremist groups.

“If military aid and assistance from the US and France are suspended due to the coup, Niger’s security forces may face challenges in maintaining operational capabilities,” said Nkosi.

“The loss of resources, intelligence-sharing platforms, and training programs could therefore weaken their ability to confront well-armed and organized Islamist groups effectively. Niger may have to seek alternative sources of support or re-evaluate its strategies to address the security challenges independently.”

Those alternatives may include Russia’s Wagner Group — the private military contractor now based in Belarus since its abortive uprising against Russia’s military leadership in June this year.

French President Emmanuel Macron with Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum at the Elysee Palace in June. (AFP)

Wagner has been making significant inroads into Burkina Faso and Mali since their respective militaries took power, providing manpower and expertise in the fight against extremists. Given the pro-Russian sentiments among Niger’s coup leaders, it is perhaps only a matter of time before Wagner soldiers emerge from the shadows.

Against this backdrop, according to Wim Zwijneburg, humanitarian disarmament project leader for the Dutch peace organisation PAX, a pullout by French forces from Niger will likely also prompt a removal of MQ-9 Reapers by the Americans, who have drone bases in Agadez, 740 kilometers northeast of Niamey.

“Combat drones operated by the two countries have been instrumental in the monitoring of militant cross-border movement in the Sahel,” Zwijneburg told Arab News.

“A lack of these air assets for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions will mean less information available to track militant groups, including Daesh affiliates, in the region and to respond in a timely fashion.

“This may translate into a new wave of attacks if the national armies do not have alternatives to fill the vacuum. Though Niger recently stocked its own armed drone fleet with Turkish TB-2s, it is not clear if security forces have succeeded in integrating them fully into existing counterterrorism operations.”

Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst and consultant on African peace, security, and governance issues, says if the US and France are serious about combating the radical Islamist threat, Western nations will have to reassess their willingness to engage with military-led governments.

“The seriousness of the Islamist threat and other security challenges in the region might force them to engage with military leaders who now find themselves on the front line of the fight against terrorism,” he told Arab News.

Thousands protested in front of the French Embassy in Niamey. (AFP)

“However, this engagement also raises questions about the promotion of democratic principles and civilian rule, which are core values in Western democracies.”

Ultimately, bridging the difference of opinion between Western governments and African military leaders on approaches to governance will be essential for long-term stability and security of the region, said Hudson.

The cooperation of all parties concerned, including the international community, regional bodies and the local population, will also be critical to finding effective solutions to the complex challenges faced by countries in West Africa.

The military coup has implications for the future of regional cooperation, according to Fidel Amakye Owusu, an international relations and security analyst based in Ghana.

“Nigeria, which borders Niger to the north, has historically relied on close cooperation to address security concerns, particularly in the fight against extremism,” he told Arab News.

However, “the lack of democratic civilian rule might lead to uncertainties and challenges in coordinating intelligence sharing and joint operations against violent extremism,” said Owusu.

“As seen in Mali and Burkina Faso, where military takeovers have occurred, the transition to military rule does not necessarily translate into peace, stability or gains in the fight against extremism.”

Militants in Mali. (Social media)

This can be compounded by the inability of a weak and unstable government to deal with the root causes of socioeconomic challenges effectively.

In such circumstances, there might be limited resources and capacity to implement policies and programs that address unemployment, poverty and social inequality.

As a result, “this situation provides an opportunity for extremist groups to fill the void by offering financial incentives and ideological narratives that resonate with vulnerable populations,” said policy specialist Nkosi.

“There is indeed a risk of Niger becoming a breeding ground for terrorist recruitment if the situation is not effectively addressed.”

Seconding Nkosi’s opinion on the governance crisis, PAX’s Zwijneburg said: “If there is no meaningful attempt to address the grievances of minority groups, there will be enough fertile ground that militants groups will be able to exploit, where even the presence of combat drones won’t make a significant difference.”

Leader of Canada’s House of Commons apologizes for honoring man who fought for Nazis

Leader of Canada’s House of Commons apologizes for honoring man who fought for Nazis
Updated 25 September 2023

Leader of Canada’s House of Commons apologizes for honoring man who fought for Nazis

Leader of Canada’s House of Commons apologizes for honoring man who fought for Nazis
  • Canadian lawmakers cheered and Zelensky raised his fist in acknowledgement as Hunka saluted from the gallery during two separate standing ovations

TORONTO: The speaker of Canada’s House of Commons apologized Sunday for recognizing a man who fought for a Nazi military unit during World War II.
Just after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered an address in the House of Commons on Friday, Canadian lawmakers gave 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka a standing ovation when Speaker Anthony Rota drew attention to him. Rota introduced Hunka as a war hero who fought for the First Ukrainian Division.
“In my remarks following the address of the President of Ukraine, I recognized an individual in the gallery. I have subsequently become aware of more information which causes me to regret my decision to do so,” Rota said in a statement.
He added that his fellow Parliament members and the Ukraine delegation were not aware of his plan to recognize Hunka. Rota noted Hunka is from his district.
“I particularly want to extend my deepest apologies to Jewish communities in Canada and around the world. I accept full responsibility for my action,” Rota said.
Hunka could not be immediately reached for comment.
Canadian lawmakers cheered and Zelensky raised his fist in acknowledgement as Hunka saluted from the gallery during two separate standing ovations. Rota called him a “Ukrainian hero and a Canadian hero, and we thank him for all his service.”
Zelensky was in Ottawa to bolster support from Western allies for Ukraine’s war against the Russian invasion.
Vladimir Putin has painted his enemies in Ukraine as “neo-Nazis,” even though Zelensky is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office said in a statement that Rota had apologized and accepted full responsibility for issuing the invitation to Hunka and for the recognition in Parliament.
“This was the right thing to do,” the statement said. “No advance notice was provided to the Prime Minister’s Office, nor the Ukrainian delegation, about the invitation or the recognition.”
The First Ukrainian Division was also known as the Waffen-SS Galicia Division or the SS 14th Waffen Division, a voluntary unit that was under the command of the Nazis.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies issued a statement Sunday saying the division “was responsible for the mass murder of innocent civilians with a level of brutality and malice that is unimaginable.”
“An apology is owed to every Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Second World War who fought the Nazis, and an explanation must be provided as to how this individual entered the hallowed halls of Canadian Parliament and received recognition from the Speaker of the House and a standing ovation,” the statement said.
B’nai Brith Canada’s CEO, Michael Mostyn, said it was outrageous that Parliament honored a former member of a Nazi unit, saying Ukrainian “ultra-nationalist ideologues” who volunteered for the Galicia Division “dreamed of an ethnically homogenous Ukrainian state and endorsed the idea of ethnic cleansing.”
“We understand an apology is forthcoming. We expect a meaningful apology. Parliament owes an apology to all Canadians for this outrage, and a detailed explanation as to how this could possibly have taken place at the center of Canadian democracy,” Mostyn said before Rota issued his statement.
Members of Parliament from all parties rose to applaud Hunka. A spokesperson for the Conservative party said the party was not aware of his history at the time.
“We find the reports of this individual’s history very troubling,” said Sebastian Skamski, adding that Trudeau’s Liberal party would have to explain why he was invited.

France’s troop pullout announcement warmly welcomed by Niger ruling junta

French Barkhane Air Force mechanics maintain a Mirage 2000 on the Niamey, Niger base on June 5, 2021. (AP)
French Barkhane Air Force mechanics maintain a Mirage 2000 on the Niamey, Niger base on June 5, 2021. (AP)
Updated 25 September 2023

France’s troop pullout announcement warmly welcomed by Niger ruling junta

French Barkhane Air Force mechanics maintain a Mirage 2000 on the Niamey, Niger base on June 5, 2021. (AP)
  • Niger’s military rulers describes pullout as “a new step toward sovereignty”
  • Macron said he still regards democratically elected president Mohammed Bazoum as Niger's leader

PARIS: France will pull its soldiers out of Niger following a July coup in the West African country, President Emmanuel Macron said on Sunday, dealing a huge blow to French influence and counter-insurgency operations in the Sahel region.

Macron said 1,500 troops would withdraw by the end of the year and that France, the former colonial power in Niger, refused to “be held hostage by the putchists.”

Niger’s military rulers welcomed the announcement as “a new step toward sovereignty.”

France’s exit, which comes after weeks of pressure from the junta and popular demonstrations, is likely to exacerbate Western concerns over Russia’s expanding influence in Africa. The Russian mercenary force Wagner already present in Niger’s neighbor Mali.

“This Sunday, we celebrate a new step toward the sovereignty of Niger,” said a statement from the country’s military rulers, who seized power in late July by overthrowing President Mohamed Bazoum on July 26.

“The French troops and the ambassador of France will leave Nigerien soil by the end of the year.”

The statement, read out on national television, added: “This is a historic moment, which speaks to the determination and will of the Nigerien people.”

Earlier Sunday, before Macron’s announcement, the body regulating aviation safety in Africa (ASECNA), announced that Niger’s military rulers had banned “French aircraft” from flying over the country’s airspace.

The French president has refused to recognize the junta as Niger’s legitimate authority but said Paris would coordinate troop withdraw with the coup leaders.“We will consult with the putschists because we want things to be orderly,” Macron said in an interview with France’s TF1 and France 2 television stations.

France’s ambassador was also being pulled out and would return to the country in the next few hours, Macron added.

French influence over its former colonies has waned in West Africa in recent years, just as popular vitriol has grown. Its forces have been kicked out of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso since coups in those countries, reducing its role in a region-wide fight against deadly Islamist insurgencies.

Until the coup, Niger had remained a key security partner of France and the United States, which have used it as a base to fight an Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa’s wider Sahel region.

Russia's expanding presence

France’s military base in Niger’s capital, Niamey, had become the epicenter of anti-French protests since the July 26 coup.

Groups have regularly gathered on the street outside to call for the exit of troops stationed in the capital. On one Saturday this month, tens of thousands rallied against France, slitting the throat of a goat dressed in French colors and carrying coffins draped in French flags.

Pro-coup demonstrators in Niamey have waved Russian flags, adding to Western countries’ fears that Niger could follow Mali’s lead and replace their troops with Wagner fighters.

Before his death in a plane crash last month, Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin spoke in a social media clip of making Russia greater on all continents and Africa more free. Wagner’s future has been unclear since his demise.

Wagner is also active in Central African Republic and Libya. Western nations say it is also present in Sudan, though it denies this. Russian President Vladimir Putin has called for a return to constitutional order in Niger.

French nuclear power plants source a small amount — less than 10 percent — of their uranium from Niger, with France’s state-owned Orano operating a mine in Niger’s north.

Macron said he still regarded democratically elected President Mohammed Bazoum, currently held prisoner by the coup leaders, as Niger’s legitimate leader and had informed him of his decision.


Nagorno-Karabakh exodus grows amid ‘ethnic cleansing’ fears

Nagorno-Karabakh exodus grows amid ‘ethnic cleansing’ fears
Updated 25 September 2023

Nagorno-Karabakh exodus grows amid ‘ethnic cleansing’ fears

Nagorno-Karabakh exodus grows amid ‘ethnic cleansing’ fears
  • PM Pashinyan signals major shift away from Russia
  • 120,000 Armenians ‘preparing to flee’

Fears of ethnic cleansing and repression will force more than 120,000 ethnic Armenians to flee Nagorno-Karabakh and head to Armenia, the leadership of the breakaway region said on Sunday.

“Our people do not want to live as part of Azerbaijan,” said David Babayan, an adviser to Samvel Shahramanyan, president of the self-styled Republic of Artsakh. He added that “99.9 percent prefer to leave our historic lands.”

Babayan’s remarks came as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said the Karabakh Armenians were likely to leave the region, and that Armenia was ready to take them in following defeat last week at the hands of Azerbaijan.

“The fate of our poor people will go down in history as a disgrace, and a shame for the Armenian people and for the whole civilized world,” Babayan said. “Those responsible for our fate will one day have to answer for their sins.”

The Armenians of Karabakh — a territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but previously beyond Baku’s control — were forced to declare a ceasefire on Sept. 20 after a lightning 24-hour military operation by the much larger Azerbaijani military.
Azerbaijan said it will guarantee their rights and integrate the region, but the Armenians say they fear repression.


This week’s lightning operation could mark a historic geopolitical shift, with Azerbaijan victorious over the separatists and Armenia publicly distancing itself from its traditional ally Russia.

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said that his former Soviet republic’s current foreign security alliances were ‘ineffective’ and ‘insufficient.’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Armenia of ‘adding fuel to the fire’ with its public rhetoric.

Hundreds of refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh have begun arriving in Armenia, local officials said.

The Armenian leaders of Karabakh said in a statement that all those made homeless by the Azerbaijani military operation and wanting to leave will be escorted to Armenia by Russian peacekeepers.


Azerbaijan-Armenia reconciliation possible if apology offered for past atrocities, Azerbaijan presidential adviser tells Arab News

Why Lebanese-Armenians feel the pull of the Nagorno-Karabakh war

Reporters near the village of Kornidzor on the Armenian border saw heavily laden cars pass into Armenia, with one of the drivers saying the vehicles were from Nagorno-Karabakh.

It was unclear when the bulk of the population will move down the Lachin corridor, which links the territory to Armenia.

Meanwhile, Armenia’s leader is facing calls to resign for failing to save Karabakh.

In an address to the nation on Sunday, Pashinyan said some humanitarian aid had arrived, but the Armenians of Karabakh still faced “the danger of ethnic cleansing.”

He added: “If proper conditions are not created for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to live in their homes and there are no effective protection mechanisms against ethnic cleansing, the likelihood is rising that the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh will see exile from their homeland as the only way to save their lives and identity.”

Pashinyan signaled a major foreign policy shift away from Russia, following Moscow’s refusal to enter the conflictHe said that the former Soviet republic’s current foreign security alliances were “ineffective” and “insufficient,” and added that Armenia could join the International Criminal Court.

Russian officials say Pashinyan is to blame for his own mishandling of the crisis, and have repeatedly said that Armenia, which borders Turkiye, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia, has few other friends in the region.

A humanitarian convoy for Nagorno-Karabakh moves along the Armenian side of the border near the town of Kornidzor. Tension was running high at the crossing on Sunday amid growing international concern. (AFP)

A mass exodus could change the delicate balance of power in the South Caucasus region.

Armenian authorities said that about 150 tons of humanitarian aid from Russia and another 65 tons of flour shipped by the International Committee of the Red Cross had arrived in the region.

With 2,000 peacekeepers in the region, Russia said that under the terms of the ceasefire six armored vehicles, more than 800 small arms, anti-tank weapons and portable air defense systems, as well as 22,000 ammunition rounds, had been handed in by Saturday.

Serb gunmen battle police in Kosovo monastery siege; four dead

Serb gunmen battle police in Kosovo monastery siege; four dead
Updated 25 September 2023

Serb gunmen battle police in Kosovo monastery siege; four dead

Serb gunmen battle police in Kosovo monastery siege; four dead
  • Ethnic Albanians form the vast majority of the 1.8 million population of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia

NORTH MITROVICA, Kosovo: Ethnic Serb gunmen in armored vehicles stormed a village in north Kosovo on Sunday, battling police and barricading themselves in a monastery in a resurgence of violence in the restive north that killed four people.
The siege centered on a Serbian Orthodox monastery near the village of Banjska in the Serb-majority region where monks and pilgrims hid inside a temple as a shootout raged.
One police officer and three of the attackers died, according to authorities in Kosovo and Serbia.
Ethnic Albanians form the vast majority of the 1.8 million population of Kosovo, a former province of Serbia.
But some 50,000 Serbs in the north have never accepted Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and still see Belgrade as their capital, more than two decades after a Kosovo Albanian guerrilla uprising against repressive Serbian rule.
A group of Kosovo Serbs positioned trucks on a bridge into the village, shooting at police who approached them, before the battle moved to the nearby monastery, according to accounts by both Kosovo police and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
The gunmen had left the monastery by night, the Serbian Orthodox Church said, though it was unclear where they went.
Vucic said the action was a rebellion against Kurti, who has refused to form an association of Serb municipalities in north Kosovo. “Serbia will never recognize independent Kosovo, you can kill us all,” he said. Two Serbs were seriously injured and a fourth among them may have died, Vucic said. He condemned the killing of the police officer and urged restraint from Kosovo Serbs.
The Serbian Orthodox Church’s diocese of Raska-Prizren, which includes Banjska, said men in an armored vehicle entered the monastery compound, forcing monks and visiting faithful to lock themselves inside the temple.
The Kosovo police later said they had entered the monastery and were checking for possible infiltrators among worshippers. Three of their personnel were also injured, as well as the fatality in their ranks, police said.
Kosovo’s Interior Minister Xhelal Svecla said police found a large number of heavy weapons, explosives and uniforms “that were enough for hundreds of other attackers,” indicating preparations for a massive assault.

The head of the UN mission in Kosovo, Caroline Ziadeh, and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell condemned the violence.
Borrell talked with both Kurti and Vucic, according to his office.
NATO troops, along with members of the EU police force EULEX and Kosovo police, could be seen patrolling the road leading to Banjska, according to a Reuters reporter nearby.
Kosovo border police closed two crossings with Serbia.
Serbs in north Kosovo have long demanded the implementation of a EU-brokered 2013 deal for the creation of an association of autonomous municipalities in their area.
EU-sponsored talks on normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo stalled last week, with the bloc blaming Kurti for failing to set up the association.
Pristina sees the plan as a recipe for a mini-state within Kosovo, effectively partitioning the country along ethnic lines.
Serbia still formally deems Kosovo to be part of its territory, but denies suggestions of whipping up strife within its neighbor’s borders. Belgrade accuses Pristina of trampling on the rights of minority Serbs.
Unrest intensified when ethnic Albanian mayors took office in north Kosovo after April elections the Serbs boycotted.
Clashes in May
injured dozens of protesters and NATO alliance peacekeepers. NATO retains 3,700 troops in Kosovo, the remainder of an original 50,000-strong force deployed in 1999.
The area of north Kosovo where Serbs form a majority is in important ways a virtual extension of Serbia. Local administration and public servants, teachers, doctors and big infrastructure projects are paid for by Belgrade.

Pope blames weapons industry for Russia-Ukraine war and ‘martyrdom’ of Ukrainian people

Pope blames weapons industry for Russia-Ukraine war and ‘martyrdom’ of Ukrainian people
Updated 25 September 2023

Pope blames weapons industry for Russia-Ukraine war and ‘martyrdom’ of Ukrainian people

Pope blames weapons industry for Russia-Ukraine war and ‘martyrdom’ of Ukrainian people
  • Francis has long denounced the weapons industry as “merchants of death,” but he has also asserted the right of countries to defend themselves

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE: Pope Francis on Saturday labeled the weapons industry as being a key driver of the “martyrdom” of Ukraine’s people in Russia’s war, saying even the withholding of weapons now is going to continue their misery.
Francis appeared to refer to Poland’s recent announcement that it is no longer sending arms to Ukraine when he was asked about the war during brief remarks to reporters while returning home from Marseille, France.
Francis acknowledged he was frustrated that the Vatican’s diplomatic initiatives hadn’t borne much fruit. But he said behind the Russia-Ukraine conflict was also the weapons industry.
He described the paradox that was keeping Ukraine a “martyred people” — that at first many countries gave Ukraine weapons and now are taking them away. Francis has long denounced the weapons industry as “merchants of death,” but he has also asserted the right of countries to defend themselves.
“I’ve seen now that some countries are pulling back, and aren’t giving weapons,” he said.
“This will start a process where the martyrdom is the Ukrainian people, certainly. And this is bad.” It was an apparent reference to the announcement by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieck that Poland was no longer sending arms to Ukraine as part of a trade dispute.
“We cannot play with the martyrdom of the Ukrainian people,” Francis said. “We have to help resolve things in ways that are possible.”
“Not to make illusions that tomorrow the two leaders will go out together to eat, but to do whatever is possible,” he said.
In other comments, Francis spoke about his two-day visit to Marseille, where he exhorted Europe to be more welcoming to migrants.
Francis said he was heartened that there is greater consciousness about the plight of migrants 10 years after he made his first trip as pope to the Italian island of Lampedusa, ground zero in Europe’s migrant debate. But he said the “reign of terror” they endure at the hands of smugglers hasn’t gotten any better.
Francis recalled that when he became pope, “I didn’t even know where Lampedusa was.” The Sicilian island, which is closer to Africa than the Italian mainland, is the destination of choice for migrant smugglers and has seen frequent shipwrecks off its shores. Last week, the island was overwhelmed when nearly 7,000 migrants arrived in one day, more than the resident population.
Francis, who was elected pope in 2013, said he had heard some stories about the problems on Lampedusa in his first months as pope “and in prayer I heard ‘You need to go there.’”
The visit has come to epitomize the importance of the migrant issue for Francis, who has gone on to make some memorable gestures of solidarity, including in 2016 when he brought back a dozen Syrian Muslim migrants on his plane after visiting a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece.