El Salvador Vote Could Strengthen President’s Rule

Sunday’s legislative and local elections in El Salvador are seen as a referendum on whether to break the congressional deadlock that has tied the hands of upstart populist President Nayib Bukele.  El Salvador’s established political parties — the conservative National Republican Alliance party and the leftist Farabundo Marti Liberation Front — are trying to retain their hold on congress and other key positions, a continuation of their control since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992.Anger with the parties that ruled El Salvador for nearly three decades swept the youthful Bukele into office in 2019, and frustration remains.  “I’ve come to vote for a change, to get rid of the corrupt ones and so our president can make a new country,” said Estela Jiménez, who arrived early at a polling place wearing a T-shirt with an “N” for Nayib.Bukele, 39, has blamed congress for blocking his efforts in everything from controlling crime to managing the coronavirus pandemic. His New Ideas party was favored in polls to pick up congressional seats and municipal councils.While popular with voters tired of the scandals associated with the two old-guard parties, Bukele has shown an authoritarian streak. Two years ago, Bukele sent heavily armed soldiers to surround the congress during a standoff over security funding, earning rebukes internationally.Bukele’s party complained Sunday that the country’s electoral tribunal had not issued the ID cards needed for the party’s poll watchers to participate.”This always happens. Now they say there are problems because the Supreme Electoral Council hasn’t allowed the New Ideas people in. I hope they solve this so I can vote, I’m not going to leave here without voting,” said Esteban Castellón, who was among the first in line to vote at a polling place in San Salvador, the capital.A total of 5.3 million eligible voters were electing all 84 seats in the unicameral Legislative Assembly, along with 262 municipal councils. Most polling places opened at 7 a.m., though some were delayed by as much as an hour and will close at 5 p.m. (2300 GMT).The conservative party known as ARENA holds 37 of the 84 seats in congress and controls 138 of the 262 municipal councils, while the leftist FMLN holds 23 congressional seats and 64 townships.With a majority in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele’s party would not only be able to advance the president’s agenda, but also name justices to the Supreme Court — another Bukele obstacle — as well as magistrates to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the attorney general, the prosecutor for the defense of human rights and others. Essentially his party could replace his loudest critics.Eduardo Escobar, executive director of the nongovernmental organization Citizen Action, said that if New Ideas wins a congressional majority, El Salvador would lose “that brake on the exercise of power from the legislature when legality or constitutionality is exceeded, (and) that brakes any attempted abuse, any arbitrary act that the executive wants to commit.””It would deepen the authoritarianism of the government Bukele leads,” Escobar said, though he acknowledged that Bukele’s popularity remains at stratospheric levels and the rejection of the traditional parties is nearly as high.  New Ideas’ popularity is because “in the 30 years of government under these parties, the people have not seen improvements in their lives,” said Escobar.

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Nigeria: Parents Anxiously Await Return of 300 Abducted Girls

Nigerian parents waited anxiously Sunday outside the school their daughters were taken from, amid rumors of their release and heavy security.The 317 schoolgirls, ages 12-16, were kidnapped Friday from the Government Girls Science Secondary School in the town of Jangebe by armed men.The state government has called the rumors a “falsehood.” Nigeria’s army has been working through the weekend alongside Zamfara state police in a search and rescue operation.Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said his priority is ensuring the safe return of all hostages. Buhari urged state governments Friday not to negotiate with bandits by paying ransom with money or vehicles.Hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls were infamously kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram in 2014. Known as the Chibok girls, they were taken from their boarding school. In the seven years since, many of the 276 girls have escaped, been rescued or released, but more than 100 remain missing. Since then, Nigeria has seen several such kidnappings. As recently as Saturday, 24 students were released after having been abducted February 17 from the neighboring nation of Niger.The U.N. condemned the abduction over the weekend, calling it a “heinous violation of human rights.”“The girls must be released to their families immediately & unconditionally,” Secretary General Antonio Guterres wrote on Twitter.I am appalled by the abduction of more than 300 girls during an attack on a secondary school in Nigeria today.Attacks on schools are a heinous violation of human rights.The girls must be released to their families immediately & unconditionally.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) February 26, 2021Kidnappings have been carried out by Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa, but other militant groups with unclear motivations have also adopted the practice as a way to raise money. Boko Haram opposes Western education and has frequently targeted schools.

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Militia Raids in Eastern DR Congo Kill 10 Civilians, Says Army 

Fighters thought to belong to the notorious Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) militia killed 10 civilians in two overnight attacks in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the army said Sunday.  ADF fighters decapitated eight villagers in the village of Boyo, in the northeast Ituri province, and shot dead two civilians in Kainama, army spokesman Lieutenant Jules Ngongo said.  Soldiers were in pursuit of the attackers, he added.   Local officials confirmed the two attacks, adding that houses were also burned in the violence.   Kainama lies at the extreme north of North Kivu province, where it borders with Ituri. It is just five kilometres (three miles) from Boyo. Both provinces sit on DR Congo’s eastern border with Uganda.   The ADF militia are Ugandan Islamic fighters who have made their base in eastern DR Congo since 1995.  While they have not launched raids into Uganda for several years, the militia has been blamed for the killings of more than 800 civilians over the past year in both North Kivu and South Kivu provinces.  While the army has conducted operations against them in the region since October 2019, they have not been able to put a stop to the massacres of civilians.  After a relative calm period in January, its fighters have stepped up attacks on civilians since February in Beni, North Kivu province, and Irumu, in Ituri. But they are just one of dozens of armed groups that have been operating in the mineral-rich border region of eastern DR Congo for decades now.  One recent report by analysts the Kivu Security Tracker estimated there were at least 122 armed groups active in DR Congo’s four eastern border provinces, from north to south: Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika. 

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‘Not a Good Idea:’ Experts Concerned about Pope Trip to Iraq 

Infectious disease experts are expressing concern about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Iraq, given a sharp rise in coronavirus infections there, a fragile health care system and the unavoidable likelihood that Iraqis will crowd to see him.No one wants to tell Francis to call it off, and the Iraqi government has every interest in showing off its relative stability by welcoming the first pope to the birthplace of Abraham. The March 5-8 trip is expected to provide a sorely-needed spiritual boost to Iraq’s beleaguered Christians while furthering the Vatican’s bridge-building efforts with the Muslim world.But from a purely epidemiological standpoint, as well as the public health message it sends, a papal trip to Iraq amid a global pandemic is not advisable, health experts say.Their concerns were reinforced with the news Sunday that the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, the main point person for the trip who would have escorted Francis to all his appointments, tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-isolating.In an email to The Associated Press, the embassy said Archbishop Mitja Leskovar’s symptoms were mild and that he was continuing to prepare for Francis’ visit.Beyond his case, experts note that wars, economic crises and an exodus of Iraqi professionals have devastated the country’s hospital system, while studies show most of Iraq’s new COVID-19 infections are the highly-contagious variant first identified in Britain.“I just don’t think it’s a good idea,” said Dr. Navid Madani, virologist and founding director of the Center for Science Health Education in the Middle East and North Africa at Harvard Medical School’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.The Iranian-born Madani co-authored an article in The Lancet last year on the region’s uneven response to COVID-19, noting that Iraq, Syria and Yemen were poorly placed to cope, given they are still struggling with extremist insurgencies and have 40 million people who need humanitarian aid.Christians volunteers decorate streets with the pictures of Pope Francis, ahead of his planned visit to to Iraq, in Qaraqosh, Iraq, Feb. 22, 2021.In a telephone interview, Madani said Middle Easterners are known for their hospitality, and cautioned that the enthusiasm among Iraqis of welcoming a peace-maker like Francis to a neglected, war-torn part of the world might lead to inadvertent violations of virus control measures.“This could potentially lead to unsafe or superspreading risks,” she said.Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious disease control expert at the University of Exeter College of Medicine, concurred.“It’s a perfect storm for generating lots of cases which you won’t be able to deal with,” he said.Organizers promise to enforce mask mandates, social distancing and crowd limits, as well as the possibility of increased testing sites, two Iraqi government officials said.The health care protocols are “critical but can be managed,” one government official told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.And the Vatican has taken its own precautions, with the 84-year-old pope, his 20-member Vatican entourage and the 70-plus journalists on the papal plane all vaccinated.But the Iraqis gathering in the north, center and south of the country to attend Francis’ indoor and outdoor Masses, hear his speeches and participate in his prayer meetings are not vaccinated.And that, scientists say, is the problem.“We are in the middle of a global pandemic. And it is important to get the correct messages out,” Pankhania said. “The correct messages are: the less interactions with fellow human beings, the better.”He questioned the optics of the Vatican delegation being inoculated while the Iraqis are not, and noted that Iraqis would only take such risks to go to those events because the pope was there.In words addressed to Vatican officials and the media, he said: “You are all protected from severe disease. So if you get infected, you’re not going to die. But the people coming to see you may get infected and may die.”“Is it wise under that circumstance for you to just turn up? And because you turn up, people turn up to see you and they get infected?” he asked.The World Health Organization was diplomatic when asked about the wisdom of a papal trip to Iraq, saying countries should evaluate the risk of an event against the infection situation, and then decide if it should be postponed. “It’s all about managing that risk,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19. “It’s about looking at the epidemiologic situation in the country and then making sure that if that event is to take place, that it can take place as safely as possible.”Francis has said he intends to go even if most Iraqis have to watch him on television to avoid infection. The important thing, he told Catholic News Service, is “they will see that the pope is there in their country.”Francis has frequently called for an equitable distribution of vaccines and respect for government health measures, though he tends to not wear face masks. Francis for months has eschewed even socially distanced public audiences at the Vatican to limit the chance of contagion.Dr. Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton’s Faculty of Medicine, said the number of new daily cases in Iraq is “increasing significantly at the moment” with the Health Ministry reporting around 4,000 a day, close to the height of its first wave in September.Head said for any trip to Iraq, there must be infection control practices in force, including mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing and good ventilation in indoor spaces.“Hopefully we will see proactive approaches to infection control in place during the pope’s visit to Baghdad,” he said.The Iraqi government imposed a modified lockdown and curfew in mid-February amid a new surge in cases, closing schools and mosques and leaving restaurants and cafes only open for takeout. But the government decided against a full shutdown because of the difficulty of enforcing it and the financial impact on Iraq’s battered economy, the Iraqi officials told AP.Many Iraqis remain lax in using masks and some doubt the severity of the virus.Madani, the Harvard virologist, urged trip organizers to let science and data guide their decision-making.A decision to reschedule or postpone the papal trip, or move it to a virtual format, would “be quite impactful from a global leadership standpoint” because “it would signal prioritizing the safety of Iraq’s public,” she said. 

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Taliban Warn Turning Away from Afghan Peace Deal ‘Doomed to Failure’ 

The Taliban demanded Sunday that the United States and its foreign military allies leave Afghanistan by May 1, in line with a peace agreement the insurgent group signed with Washington a year ago, warning any attempt to change the path “is already doomed to failure.” 
  
In a statement released to journalists and on its website marking the first anniversary of the February 2020 accord sealed in Doha, Qatar, the Taliban claimed they have fully adhered to, and remain committed to, the understanding aimed at ending two decades of Afghan war. It called on Washington to honor its part of what the group described as a “historic” deal. FILE – In this Feb. 29, 2020, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban group’s top political leader sign a peace agreement between Taliban and US officials in Doha, Qatar.  
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is currently reviewing the deal his predecessor, former President Donald Trump, sealed with the Afghan insurgency and deciding whether to pull the remaining 2,500 American soldiers from Afghanistan to close America’s longest war. NATO-led U.S. allies have fewer than 10,000 troops left in the country. 
  
The U.S. review process has stemmed from widespread allegations the Taliban have not lived up to their commitments, including those of cutting ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist groups that threaten the U.S. and the security of its allies. 
  
“The Doha agreement has created a practical framework for bringing peace and security to Afghanistan. If any other pathway is pursued as a replacement, then it is already doomed to failure,” the Taliban statement warned. 
  
It said that Washington has committed itself in the agreement that within 14 months of signing, all U.S.-led international forces and their nondiplomatic personnel, private contractors, advisers, trainers and service providers will withdraw from Afghanistan. 
  
“In line with this agreement, a large part of foreign forces specifically American forces have withdrawn from our country, while the rest must also withdraw within the specified date,” the statement stressed. 
  
The Taliban said Qatar and the United Nations Security Council, along with all other countries and international observers that attended the Doha signing ceremony, “have an obligation in the complete implementation of the agreement that must be fulfilled.” 
  
The insurgents, under the deal, agreed to stop attacking international forces in Afghanistan and to open direct peace talks with representatives of the U.S.-backed Afghan government to try to negotiate a political settlement to the country’s long conflict.  
Washington acknowledges the U.S. military has not suffered any casualties since signing the Doha agreement. Before then, the Afghan military mission had claimed the lives of more than 2,400 American soldiers and injured thousands of others. 
  
The Taliban rejected terror link charges and allegations they have intensified the conflict as propaganda by some Afghan and “foreign actors” who the group said are attempting to disrupt the peace process. 
  
Edmund Fitton-Brown, coordinator of the United Nations monitoring team for Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Taliban, told an online event at the Middle East Institute on Thursday that the Taliban have failed to cut ties with al-Qaida.   
  
“As yet, we have not seen any evidence,” he said.   
  
The so-called intra-Afghan negotiations started in September, six months later than scheduled in the U.S.-Taliban deal because of a rift between the Afghan government and the Taliban over the release of 5,000 insurgent prisoners.  FILE – Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, bottom right, speaks at the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020.Kabul was unhappy with the Doha accord because it was kept out of it. 
  
Meanwhile, the United Nations has reported the Afghan violence has also intensified since the start of the talks, with civilians bearing the brunt of it. 
 
More than 3,000 civilians were killed and 5,800 were injured in Afghanistan in 2020, the U.N office in Kabul said last week. The annual report said civilian casualties rose 45% after the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations. 
  
Afghan leaders allege the Trump administration’s decision to leave Kabul out of the February 2020 agreement has only emboldened the Taliban to intensify military assaults and drag their feet in the peace talks.  
  
The insurgents dismiss Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government as an illegitimate entity they say stemmed from the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. 
  
Ghani’s special envoy for neighboring Pakistan, Mohammed Umer Daudzai, said Biden’s review of Afghan peace deal with the Taliban has ended the “unpredictability” that was plaguing the process from the outset about whether the arrangement will promote peace in Afghanistan.  
  
“Now with the Biden administration, we see an increase in predictability,” Daudzai told VOA in an interview.  
  
The Afghan presidential envoy said his government has left it entirely for Washington to decide whether they withdraw or leave some troops in Afghanistan while reviewing the document. 
  
“We don’t seek that Americans should get back into the war, should get involved in the war. What we are seeking from them is that the process of state building that they together with us started 19 years ago they continue with that,” said Daudzai. The Taliban say their deal with the U.S. required the release of another 7,500 insurgent prisoners from Afghan jails and the removal of names of top Taliban leaders from a U.N. sanctions list by now, but those terms have not been fulfilled by the opposing side. The insurgents also dismiss Kabul’s demand for a ceasefire, saying they have reduced battlefield attacks as part of the deal with Washington, but a complete cessation of hostilities, they insist, is linked to a political agreement the warring parties intend to reach in the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations.  

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US Report Documents Atrocities, Ethnic Cleansing in Tigray, NY Times Says

An internal U.S. government report obtained by The New York Times says that Ethiopia is conducting “a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing” under the cover of war in the Tigray region, an area largely controlled by Amhara militias in the northern part of the country.The Times says the report, written earlier in February, describes “in stark terms a land of looted houses and deserted villages where tens of thousands of people are unaccounted for.”According to the Times, the report finds that Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters from the neighboring Amhara region, who moved into Tigray in support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organized use of force and intimidation.”The report says some people fled into the bush or crossed illegally into Sudan, while others were rounded up and forcibly relocated to other parts of Tigray, according to the newspaper.U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement Saturday that the United States is “gravely concerned by reports of atrocities and the overall deteriorating situation in the Tigray.”The U.S. “has repeatedly engaged the Ethiopian government on the importance of ending the violence, ensuring unhindered humanitarian access to Tigray, and allowing a full, independent, international investigation into all reports of human rights violations, abuses, and atrocities,” Blinken said, adding that those responsible for them “must be held accountable.”Blinken called on the African Union, and regional and international partners to work with the U.S. to “address the crisis in Tigray, including through action at the UN and other relevant bodies.”Blinken also addressed the activity of Eritrean soldiers in Tigray.”The immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces and Amhara regional forces from Tigray are essential first steps,” Blinken said. “They should be accompanied by unilateral declarations of cessation of hostilities by all parties to the conflict and a commitment to permit unhindered delivery of assistance to those in Tigray.”The lead Republican in U.S. House of Representative Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, also issued a statement Saturday, urging the Biden administration “to take decisive action to hold those accountable for any atrocities committed” in the Tigray region.“This must be a high priority as the U.S. takes on the role of U.N. Security Council Chair next month,” McCaul said.The armed conflict in Tigray has taken thousands of people’s lives. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee their homes as a result. The region of more than 5 million people is facing shortages of food, water and medicine. 

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