Chad’s Interim Leader Deby Confirms Plan to Run for President

N’DJAMENA, CHAD — Chad’s interim President Mahamat Idriss Deby said Saturday he plans to run in this year’s long-awaited presidential race.  

Deby’s confirmation came at the end of a chaotic week in which opposition politician Yaya Dillo was shot and killed in the capital, N’Djamena. 

Dillo’s death on Wednesday in disputed circumstances has further exposed divisions in the ruling elite at a politically sensitive time as the Central African country prepares for the promised return to democratic rule via the ballot box. 

The Chadian government has said Dillo was killed in an exchange of gunfire with security forces and has accused members of his party of also attacking the internal security agency. 

On Friday, the government confirmed that Deby’s uncle, General Saleh Deby Itno, had been arrested in the wake of Wednesday’s events. 

Itno had recently defected to Dillo’s opposition Socialist Party Without Borders, or PSF. 

“He has now been charged by the public prosecutor, and his life is in no danger,” government spokesperson Abderaman Koulamallah said, without specifying what charges Itno faces. 

Chadian rebel group the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, or FACT, and the CNRD opposition party have described Dillo’s death as an assassination. 

The URT opposition party said Dillo “democratically opposed the dangerous trajectory of the military transition in Chad.” 

In a statement on Saturday, the URT said recent events were “a dangerous and deliberate move to muzzle the political opposition.” 

Addressing supporters and state officials, Deby announced his candidacy for the May-June election in a speech that made no reference to Dillo’s killing or his uncle’s arrest. 

“It is … with a mixture of honor, humility, responsibility and gratitude that I accept this nomination,” he said. 

Deby initially promised an 18-month transition to elections after he seized power in 2021, when his long-ruling father was killed in clashes with rebels. 

But his government later adopted resolutions that postponed elections until 2024 and allowed him to run for president. 

The electoral delay triggered protests that were violently quelled by security forces with around 50 civilians killed. 

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Namibia’s Call for Sanctions Against Israel Draws Mixed Responses

WINDHOEK, NAMIBIA — Reactions have been mixed on Namibia’s call last month for an international boycott of Israeli goods and companies in response to Israeli policies and practices in the Palestinian territories.

If implemented, such a boycott could harm Namibia’s economy, as Israel is a key trading partner with the nation’s diamond mining industry.

Diamonds are Namibia’s largest export earner, bringing in at least 10% of the country’s gross domestic product. Trade figures from 2022 show Namibia exported $59 million worth of goods annually to Israel, mostly diamonds. The same year, Namibia imported $3.8 million in goods from Israel, mainly diamond-polishing equipment.

A Namibian businessman involved in the diamond trade, who did not want to use his name so that he could speak candidly about the industry, questioned the efficacy of such sanctions.

“You have to … ask, ‘[Does] that business directly support or in any way affect the support of IDF or that regime in what they are currently doing?’” he said, referring to the Israeli Defense Forces. “I mean, where do you even start to find that type of connection.”

Some analysts express concern over the impact of international sanctions against Israel on African nations.

Benji Shulman, director of public policy at the South African Zionist Federation, a pro-Israel umbrella organization, said African nations derive many benefits from trade with Israel.

“If Namibia were to follow a path [of sanctions], it would only hurt Africans who stand to benefit from Israeli innovations in water, health care, agriculture and technologies,” Shulman said.

Political analyst Rakkel Andreas said Namibia could rely on other buyers for its diamonds.

“I do not necessarily see Namibian diamonds not getting other buyers just because Israeli companies can no longer buy diamonds from Namibia,” Andreas said.

“I think there is no country that has ever supported the issue of sanctions on another country and not considered its own national interests and counted the cost,” she said. “If that’s the cost Namibia should carry in order for Palestine to be free, for the war to end … for the carnage to end, then so be it.”

The call for sanctions came at a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. Namibia is among 52 countries that sought a nonbinding advisory opinion on the legal consequences of Israeli policies and practices in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. 

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Sudan’s Rival Factions Wage War While World Ignores Civilian Plight, UN Says

GENEVA — A United Nations report finds nearly 11 months of conflict in Sudan has resulted in mass killings, displacement, destruction of property and rampant human rights violations that have caused immeasurable harm and distress to millions of people, whose plight has been all but forgotten by the rest of the world.

“The crisis in Sudan is a tragedy that appears to have slipped into the fog of global amnesia,” Volker Turk, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said during an interactive dialogue on the situation in Sudan at the U.N. Human Rights Council on Friday.

Turk presented a blistering and bleak assessment of life in Sudan since rival generals of the Sudanese Armed Forces and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces plunged the country into “a ruthless, senseless conflict” on April 15.

“They have manufactured a climate of sheer terror, forcing millions to flee,” he said. “And they have consistently acted with impunity and a distinct lack of accountability for the multiple violations that have been committed.”

He said the report highlights a range of gross violations and abuses committed by Sudan’s warring parties, noting that “many of these violations may amount to war crimes or other atrocity crimes.”

Since the war began, the United Nations reports, at least 14,600 people have been killed and 26,000 others injured. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, reports the war has uprooted 8.1 million people from their homes — 6.3 million within Sudan and 1.8 million as refugees in five neighboring countries — making Sudan the largest displacement crisis in the world.

“Sudan is today facing one of the direst humanitarian crises in the world as a direct result of the armed conflict that started on 15 April,” said Hanna Serwaa Tetteh, U.N. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, adding that “18 million people face acute hunger and 25 million need humanitarian assistance.”

“The Sudanese population is bearing the brunt of a conflict at the heart of the military and security apparatus, that is, between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces,” she said.

High Commissioner Turk said the war in Sudan was not being waged with just the use of fighter jets, drones, tanks and other heavy artillery.

“Sexual violence as a weapon of war, including rape, has been a defining and despicable characteristic of this crisis since the beginning,” he said, underscoring that his office has documented 60 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence, involving at least 120 victims across the country, mostly women and girls.

“These figures are sadly a vast underrepresentation of the reality. Men in RSF uniform and armed men affiliated with the RSF were reported to be responsible for 81% of the documented incidents,” said Turk.

He expressed concern about a rise in ethnically motivated killings, the fate of thousands of civilians held by both parties and their affiliates in arbitrary detention, and the conscription of child soldiers.

“My office has recently received reports of the RSF recruiting hundreds of children as fighters in Darfur and the SAF doing likewise in eastern Sudan,” he said.

He said he has received troubling reports of civilians themselves mobilizing under the new Popular Armed Resistance movement. “There are real fears this may result in the formation of an armed civil militia with no defined control, increasing the chances of Sudan sliding into a spiral of protracted civil war.”

These concerns were echoed by Special Envoy Tetteh, who said, “The most serious risk threatening Sudan is a de facto partition between the territories controlled by RSF and SAF.

“The international community should avert this risk of a de facto partition by supporting and facilitating a Sudanese-owned and Sudanese-led process addressing the root causes of the conflict,” she said, emphasizing the impossibility of two competing military forces co-existing.

Sudan’s minister of justice was clearly annoyed that the U.N. report seemed to equate the actions of the Sudanese Armed Forces with those of the Rapid Support Forces.

Justice Minister Moawia Osman Mohamed Khair Mohamed Ahmed said the SAF did not instigate the conflict but responded to an attack by rebels against a sovereign state.

“This was a conspiracy that took the national army off-guard,” he said. “This militia tried to take over the power by launching a full-scaled armed attack against the country using looting and burning of buildings.”

He accused the RSF of committing multiple atrocities across the country, saying that what they have done in Darfur “is beyond words.”

Ahmed said his government has started an investigation of crimes allegedly committed by the rebel forces, “particularly related to crimes of genocide, crimes of war, crimes against humanity and other crimes related to killings, rape and robbery.”

He appealed for international help to reinforce Sudan‘s “serious legal procedure in order to achieve justice and provide redress to the victims through the national mechanisms and international mechanisms.”

High Commissioner Turk said the international community also has a critical role to play to alleviate the suffering endured by the people of Sudan.

“Decades of turmoil and repression in Sudan preceded this crisis,” he said, “but nothing has prepared the people of Sudan for the level of suffering they face today.

“The fighting parties must agree to return to peace, without delay. The future of the people of Sudan depends on it.”

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As DR Congo Seeks to Expand Drilling, Some Worry Pollution Will Worsen

MOANDA, DR Congo — The oil drills that loom down the road from Adore Ngaka’s home remind him daily of everything he’s lost. The extraction in his village in western Congo has polluted the soil, withered his crops and forced the family to burn through savings to survive, he said.

Pointing to a stunted ear of corn in his garden, the 27-year-old farmer says it’s about half the size he got before oil operations expanded nearly a decade ago in his village of Tshiende.

“It’s bringing us to poverty,” he said.

Congo, a mineral-rich nation in central Africa, is thought to have significant oil reserves, too. Drilling has so far been confined to a small territory on the Atlantic Ocean and offshore, but that’s expected to change if the government successfully auctions 30 oil and gas blocks spread around the country. Leaders say economic growth is essential for their impoverished people, but some communities, rights groups and environmental watchdogs warn that expanded drilling will harm the landscape and human health.

Since the French-British hydrocarbon company, Perenco, began drilling in Moanda territory in 2000, residents say pollution has worsened, with spills and leaks degrading the soil and flaring — the intentional burning of natural gas near drilling sites — fouling the air they breathe. And the Congolese government exerts little oversight, they say.

Perenco said it abides by international standards in its extraction methods, that they don’t pose any health risks and that any pollution has been minor. The company also said it offered to support a power plant that would make use of the natural gas and thus reduce flaring. The government did not respond to questions about the proposed plant.

Congo’s minister overseeing oil and gas, Didier Budimbu, said the government is committed to protecting the environment.

Congo is home to most of the Congo Basin rainforest, the world’s second-biggest, and most of the world’s largest tropical peatland, made up of partially decomposed wetlands plant material. Together, both capture huge amounts of carbon dioxide — about 1.5 billion tons a year, or about 3% of global emissions. More than a dozen of the plots up for auction overlap with protected areas in peatlands and rainforests, including the Virunga National Park, which is home to some of the world’s rarest gorillas.

The government said the 27 oil blocks available have an estimated 22 billion barrels. Environmental groups say that auctioning more land to drill would have consequences both in Congo and abroad.

“Any new oil and gas project, anywhere in the world, is fueling the climate and nature crisis that we’re in,” said Mbong Akiy Fokwa Tsafak, program director for Greenpeace Africa. She said Perenco’s operations have done nothing to mitigate poverty and instead degraded the ecosystem and burdened the lives of communities.

Environmental activists said Congo has strong potential to instead develop renewable energy, including solar, as well as small-scale hydropower. It’s the world’s largest producer of cobalt, a key component for batteries in electric vehicles and other products essential to the global energy transition, although cobalt mining comes with its own environmental and human risks.

Budimbu said now is not the time to move away from fossil fuels when the country is still reliant on them. He said fossil fuel dependency will be phased out in the long term.

Rich in biodiversity, Moanda abuts the Mangrove National Park — the country’s only marine protected area. Perenco has been under scrutiny for years, with local researchers, aid groups and Congo’s Senate making multiple reports of pollution dating back more than a decade. Two civil society organizations, Sherpa and Friends of the Earth France, filed a lawsuit in 2022 accusing Perenco of pollution caused by the oil extraction; that suit is still pending.

During a rare visit by international media to the oil fields, including two villages near drilling, The Associated Press spoke with dozens of residents, local officials and rights organizations. Residents say drilling has inched closer to their homes and they have seen pipes break regularly, sending oil into the soil. They blame air and ground pollution for making it hard to cultivate crops and causing health problems such as skin rashes and respiratory infections.

They said Perenco has responded quickly to leaks and spills but failed to address root problems.

AP journalists visited drilling sites, some just a few hundred meters from homes, that had exposed and corroding pipes. They also saw at least four locations that were flaring natural gas, a technique that manages pressure by burning off the gas that is often used when it is impractical or unprofitable to collect. AP did not see any active spill sites.

Between 2012 and 2022 in Congo, Perenco flared more than 2 billion cubic meters of natural gas — a carbon footprint equivalent to that of about 20 million Congolese, according to the Environmental Investigative Forum, a global consortium of environmental investigative journalists. The group analyzed data from Skytruth, a group that uses satellite imagery to monitor threats to the planet’s natural resources.

Flaring of natural gas, which is mostly methane, emits carbon dioxide, methane and black soot and is damaging to health, according to the International Energy Agency.

In the village of Kinkazi, locals told AP that Perenco buried chemicals in a nearby pit for years and they seeped into the soil and water. They displayed photos of what they said were toxic chemicals before they were buried and took reporters to the site where they said they’d been discarded. It took the community four years of protests and strikes before Perenco disposed of the chemicals elsewhere, they said.

Most villagers were reluctant to allow their names to be used, saying they feared a backlash from a company that is a source of casual labor jobs. Minutes after AP reporters arrived in one village, a resident said he received a call from a Perenco employee asking the purpose of the meeting.

One who was willing to speak was Gertrude Tshonde, a farmer, who said Perenco began dumping chemicals near Kinkazi in 2018 after a nearby village refused to allow it.

“People from Tshiende called us and asked if we were letting them throw waste in our area,” Tshonde said. “They said the waste was not good because it spreads underground and destroys the soil.”

Tshonde said her farm was behind the pit where chemicals were being thrown and her cassava began to rot.

AP could not independently verify that chemicals had been buried at the site.

Perenco spokesperson Mark Antelme said the company doesn’t bury chemicals underground and that complaints about the site near Kinkazi were related to old dumping more than 20 years ago by a predecessor company. Antelme also said Perenco hasn’t moved operations closer to people’s homes. Instead, he said, some communities have gradually built closer to drilling sites.

Antelme also said the company’s flaring does not release methane into the atmosphere.

Perenco said it contributes significantly to Moanda and the country. It’s the sole energy provider in Moanda and invests about $250 million a year in education, road construction, training programs for medical staff and easier access to health care in isolated communities, the company said.

But residents say some of those benefits are overstated. A health clinic built by Perenco in one village has no medicine and few people can afford to pay to see the doctor, they said.

And when Perenco compensates for oil leak damages, locals say it’s not enough.

Tshonde, the farmer, said she was given about $200 when an oil spill doomed her mangoes, avocado and maize eight years ago. But her losses were more than twice that. Lasting damage to her land from Perenco’s operations has forced her to seek other means of income, such as cutting trees to sell as charcoal.

Many other farmers whose land has been degraded are doing the same, and tree cover is disappearing, she said.

Budimbu, the minister of hydrocarbons, said Congo’s laws prohibit drilling near homes and fields and oil operators are required to take the necessary measures to prevent and clean up oil pollution. But he didn’t specify what the government was doing in response to community complaints.

Congo has struggled to secure bidders since launching the auction in July 2022. Three companies — two American and

one Canadian — moved on three methane gas blocks in Lake Kivu, on the border with Rwanda. The government said in May that they were about to close those tenders, but did not respond to AP’s questions in January about whether those deals were finalized.

There are no known confirmed deals on the 27 oil blocks, and the deadline for expressions of interest has been extended through this year. Late last year, Perenco withdrew from bidding on two blocks in the province near where it currently operates. The company didn’t respond to questions from AP about why it withdrew, but Africa Intelligence reported that Perenco had found the blocks to have insufficient potential.

Perenco also didn’t respond when asked whether it was pursuing any other blocks.

Environmental experts say bidding may be slow because the country is a hard place to operate with rampant conflict, especially in the east where violence is surging and where some of the blocks are located.

Local advocacy groups say the government should fix problems with Perenco before bringing in other companies.

“We first need to see changes with the company we have here before we can trust other(s),” said Alphonse Khonde, the coordinator of the Group of Actors and Actions for Sustainable Development.

Congo also has a history of corruption. Little of its mineral wealth has trickled down in a country that is one of the world’s five poorest, with more than 60% of its 100 million people getting by on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.

And some groups have criticized what they see as lack of transparency on the process of offering blocks for auction, which amounts to “local communities being kept in the dark over plans to exploit their lands and resources,” said Joe Eisen, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK.

Some communities where the government has failed to provide jobs and basic services say they have few options but to gamble on allowing more drilling.

In Kimpozia village, near one of the areas up for auction, some 150 people live nestled in the forest without a school or hospital. Residents must hike steep hills and travel on motorbike for five hours to reach the nearest health clinic and walk several hours to school. Louis Wolombassa, the village chief, said the village needs road-building and other help.

“If they come and bring what we want, let them drill,” he said.

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Advocacy Groups Call for Halt to Shell’s Planned Exit from Nigeria

Abuja, Nigeria — Advocacy groups are calling on the Dutch oil giant Shell to halt its plans to divest assets from Nigeria’s Niger Delta region unless proper cleanup and decommissioning of its infrastructure is complete.

This week, a Netherlands-based nonprofit released a report accusing Shell of trying to avoid responsibility for oil spills. The Center for Research on Multinational Corporations’ report, entitled “Selling Out Nigeria — Shell’s Irresponsible Divestment,” said the Dutch oil giant’s divestment in Nigeria must be suspended until clean-up and decommissioning of assets are complete.

The group accused Shell of trying to avoid responsibility for decades of oil spills in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region that have polluted bodies of water and farmlands. It said Shell’s assertion that it cleaned up polluted oil spill sites is flawed and cannot be trusted.

Faith Nwadishi, founder of Center for Transparency Advocacy, agrees with the report.

“The contract that they have signed that talks about the issue of remediation, protection of the environment and all of those things have not been done,” said Nwadishi. “We should be looking at the contract and interpreting it accordingly — this is international best practice. This is what happens everywhere.”

Shell operations grew controversial

Shell pioneered Nigeria’s oil and gas explorations in 1937, but its operations have been subject to controversy and lawsuits from local communities.

Shell often blamed sabotage and vandalism by locals for busted pipelines, oil spills and environmental pollution.

In January, the company announced plans to sell its onshore operations to a local consortium of five companies for $2.4 billion.

Shell said the move would allow it to focus on more lucrative offshore businesses and that it was also proof that local companies are able to take on a larger share of Nigeria’s oil and gas industry.

But Nwadishi said if the pollution issue is not addressed, Shell’s exit could set a bad example for other multinationals operating in Nigeria.

“Once one person sets a precedent — especially the bad precedences — once they’re set, you see other people following up,” said Nwadishi. “When they do that, what it will mean is that they set a wrong template for other multinationals to do the same thing. And unfortunately, we have this judicial system that takes forever to take care of issues like that.”

Law mandates funding for cleanup

Under Nigerian law, Shell is expected to provide funding for cleanup and decommissioning of its infrastructure before exiting.

But the report says the implementation of the law is flawed and said there is no sign that Shell is trying to comply with the law.

The company has not commented on the report but recently released a list of eight cleanup operations it plans to carry out in Nigeria this year, all for spills of less than 100 barrels of oil.

Emmanuel Afimia, founder of Enermics Consulting, said Nigerian authorities must take the Shell divestment plan seriously.

“Nigeria should implement the following measures: establish a robust regulatory framework that holds multinational corporations accountable for the environmental damage caused by their operations; ensure that affected communities are consulted and involved in the cleanup process and that their concerns and needs are addressed,” said Afimia. “We need to monitor and evaluate the cleanup process regularly to ensure that it is being done properly and transparently.”

VOA asked Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency for comment on the Shell issue but has not received a response.

Before Shell can sell the assets in question, it must get approval from the Nigerian government. The government has not said whether it will authorize the sale.

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Rising Violence, Human Rights Violations Threaten Peace in South Sudan

GENEVA — U.N. investigators warn an alarming rise in violence and human rights violations threatens prospects for a durable peace in South Sudan and risks impeding free and fair elections in December, the first since the country gained its independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011.

Members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, which submitted its latest report Friday to the U.N. Human Rights Council, expressed hope that the government would live up to the commitments of the 2020 revitalized peace agreement.

The outlook is not promising. Commission members agree that much remains to be done before elections can go ahead later this year. While South Sudan is coming to the end of a political process, the commission notes that the drafting of a new, permanent constitution has not yet started.

Commission member Barney Afako told the council that entrenched impunity in South Sudan was fueling armed conflict, repression, corruption and human rights violations, including sexual violence. That, he noted, was hardly an environment in which free and fair elections could take place.

“Last April, we named senior officials responsible for serious crimes, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and sexual violence,” he said. All of them retain their positions, including the governor of Unity State (Joseph Monytuil) and the Koch County commissioner (Gordon Koang). These two individuals enjoy impunity and have continued to instigate serious violence and violations.”

The commission report paints a stark picture of a society where killings, sexual and gender-based crimes, and gross human rights violations against the civilian population go unpunished.

It says children are recruited into the army, and militias and armed cattle keepers encroach upon and grab the land of farmers, inflicting sexual violence and mass abductions on women and children.

The commission has documented cases of young girls and women who have been abducted and held as sexual slaves. Afako said many of the victims have testified to being regularly beaten, continuously raped and threatened with death.

“The scale, severity and violence associated with abductions is worsening. These attacks are well-planned,” he said. “Although authorities were often well aware of them, they claimed to be powerless to stop them. Instead, authorities have negotiated ransoms and encouraged families to pay off abductors. We believe this can only incentivize further abductions.”

He said impunity and lack of justice, accountability and protection institutions are root causes of violations, “including targeted killings, repression, torture and sexual violence against women and girls.”

The commission calls on South Sudan’s government to urgently establish transitional justice institutions and allow the country’s political process to operate meaningfully and legitimately.

Ruben Madol Arol, the South Sudanese minister of justice and constitutional affairs, called the commission report deplorable. He said the report does not consider the actions the government has taken to implement the renewable agreement and improve security in the country.

He bristled at the report’s description of widespread sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls in South Sudan, saying it “is misleading and meant to tarnish the image of the country.”

Christian Salazar Volkmann, the director of the field operations and technical cooperation division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the council that the government has made some “concrete progress on institutional electoral preparations.”

While some signs of openness with civil society were emerging, he said, they were insufficient to “create the necessary conducive environment” for the South Sudanese to fully exercise their democratic right to vote.

“Currently, the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, and association all remain severely restricted,” he said.

“Censorship, harassment, arbitrary arrests, and detention of journalists and dissenting voices continue in South Sudan. This impedes genuine public engagement in the electoral process,” he said.

Justice Minister Arol did not take all that criticism lightly. He threatened to end the mandate of the U.N. Human Rights Commission in South Sudan unless it accepts new conditions.

He said the commission must “share evidence and names of the individuals and entities accused of human rights violations” to the government.

He said the commission also must agree “to monitor and report human rights situations” and let the government handle all investigations.

“If these positions are accepted, the government will accept the extension of [the] mandate of the commission for a period of one year only,” he said.

Ninety-five nongovernmental and human rights organizations sent a letter early last week to council members and observer states urging the council to renew the commission’s mandate. They expressed concern about South Sudan’s human rights situation in view of the upcoming elections.

They noted that the commission’s critical role in that it “is the only mechanism tasked with collecting and preserving evidence of violations on international humanitarian and human rights law with a view to ensuring accountability.

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UN Experts: Sudan’s Paramilitary Forces May Have Committed War Crimes

UNITED NATIONS — Paramilitary forces and their allied militias fighting to take power in Sudan carried out widespread ethnic killings and rapes while taking control of much of western Darfur that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, United Nations experts said in a new report.

The report to the U.N. Security Council, obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, paints a horrifying picture of the brutality of the Arab-dominated Rapid Support Forces against Africans in Darfur. It also details how the RSF succeeded in gaining control of four out of Darfur’s five states, including through complex financial networks that involve dozens of companies.

Sudan plunged into chaos in April, when long-simmering tensions between its military led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary commanded by Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, broke out into street battles in the capital, Khartoum.

Fighting spread to other parts of the country, but in Sudan’s Darfur region it took on a different form: brutal attacks by the RSF on African civilians, especially the ethnic Masalit.

Two decades ago, Darfur became synonymous with genocide and war crimes, particularly by the notorious Janjaweed Arab militias against populations that identify as Central or East African. It seems that legacy has returned, with the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor Karim Khan saying in late January there are grounds to believe both sides are committing possible war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in Darfur.

The panel of experts said Darfur is experiencing “its worst violence since 2005.”

The ongoing conflict has caused a large-scale humanitarian crisis and displaced approximately 6.8 million people — 5.4 million within Sudan and 1.4 million who have fled to other countries, including approximately 555,000 to neighboring Chad, the experts said.

The RSF and rival Sudanese government forces have both used heavy artillery and shelling in highly populated areas, causing widespread destruction of critical water, sanitation, education and health care facilities.

In their 47-page report, the experts said the RSF and its militias targeted sites in Darfur where displaced people had found shelter, civilian neighborhoods and medical facilities.

According to intelligence sources, the panel said, in just one city — Geneina, the capital of West Darfur state near the Chad border — between 10,000 and 15,000 people were killed.

The experts said sexual violence by the RSF and its allied militia was widespread.

The panel said that, according to reliable sources from Geneina, women and girls as young as 14 years old were raped by RSF elements in a U.N. World Food Program storage facility that the paramilitary force controlled, in their homes, or when returning home to collect belongings after being displaced by the violence. Additionally, 16 girls were reportedly kidnapped by RSF soldiers and raped in an RSF house.

“Racial slurs toward the Masalit and non-Arab community formed part of the attacks,” the panel said. “Neighborhoods and homes were continuously attacked, looted, burned and destroyed,” especially those where Masalit and other African communities lived, and their people were harassed, assaulted, sexually abused, and at times executed.

The experts said prominent Masalit community members were singled out by the RSF, which had a list, and the group’s leaders were harassed and some executed. At least two lawyers, three prominent doctors and seven staff members, and human rights activists monitoring and reporting on the events were also killed, they said.

The RSF and its allied militias looted and destroyed all hospitals and medical storage facilities, which resulted in the collapse of health services and the deaths of 37 women with childbirth complications and 200 patients needing kidney dialysis, the panel said.

After the killing of the wali, or governor, of West Darfur in June, the report said, Masalit and African communities decided to seek protection at Ardamata, just outside Geneina. A convoy of thousands moved out at midnight but as they reached a bridge, RSF and allied militias indiscriminately opened fire, and survivors reported that an estimated 1,000 people were killed, they said.

The panel stressed that disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians — including torture, rapes and killings as well as destruction of critical civilian infrastructure — constitute war crimes under the 1949 Geneva conventions.

The RSF was formed out of Janjaweed fighters by Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir, who ruled the country for three decades, was overthrown during a popular uprising in 2019, and is wanted by the International Criminal Court for charges of genocide and other crimes during the conflict in Darfur in the 2000s.

According to the panel, the “RSF’s takeover of Darfur relied on three lines of support: the Arab allied communities, dynamic and complex financial networks, and new military supply lines running through Chad, Libya and South Sudan.”

While both the Sudanese military and RSF engaged in widespread recruitment drives across Darfur from late 2022, the RSF was more successful, the experts said. And it “invested large proceeds from its pre-war gold business in several industries, creating a network of as many as 50 companies.”

The RSF’s complex financial networks “enabled it to acquire weapons, pay salaries, fund media campaigns, lobby, and buy the support of other political and armed groups,” the experts said.

United States Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who visited Chad in September, called the report’s findings “horrific” and expressed “deep disappointment” that the U.N. Security Council and the international community have paid such little attention to the allegations.

“The people of Sudan feel that they have been forgotten,” she said.

In light of the humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan and the broader region, Thomas-Greenfield demanded that the Sudanese military lift its prohibition on cross-border assistance from Chad and facilitate cross-line assistance from the east. She also demanded in a statement Wednesday that the RSF halt the looting of humanitarian warehouses and that both parties stop harassing humanitarian aid workers.

“The council must act urgently to alleviate human suffering, hold perpetrators to account, and bring the conflict in Sudan to an end,” the U.S. ambassador said. “Time is running out.”

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Freedom House: Civil Liberties Decline Globally for 18th Year

washington — Civil liberties declined globally for the 18th consecutive year in 2023, with conflict and flawed elections the biggest factors, a new report has found.  

Political rights and civil liberties deteriorated for more than one-fifth of the population, the non-profit group Freedom House found. And only one-fifth of the 210 countries and territories the research group analyzed was found to be “free.” 

Released on Thursday, the Freedom in the World report assesses political rights and civil liberties, then ranks countries or territories as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.”  

Researchers looked at issues including how effectively governments work, political pluralism, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and whether marginalized groups are given full rights.  

Much of the decline in 2023 is attributed to cases of election manipulation, according to report co-author Cathryn Grothe. The report found electoral issues in almost half of the countries designated as being in decline.  

“While the findings of the report are certainly grim, they are coming at an especially important moment in time,” said Grothe, noting 2024 will be a critical year with national elections scheduled in about 40 countries.  

Report finds manipulation, intimidation

Grothe told VOA her group’s research found widespread election manipulation and intimidation before, during and after elections.  

She noted that “billions of people around the world are going to be heading to the polls.”  

The report highlighted Cambodia, Guatemala, Poland, Turkey and Zimbabwe as places that experienced attempts to control, hinder or interfere with elections. 

And in Ecuador, Nigeria, and Taiwan, elections were disrupted by either violence or interference by foreign regimes.  

In Guatemala, however, attempts to block a peaceful transfer of power failed. Bernardo Arevalo assumed office in early 2024 after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that Congress must accept his inauguration, despite its previous refusal to acknowledge elected members.  

Group watches US races

The United States — which Freedom House ranks as free — is among the countries holding significant elections.  

Grothe said that Freedom House is paying attention to issues in the U.S., including congressional dysfunction such as delayed appropriations bills and internal disputes over the speakership of the House of Representatives.  

Freedom House is also watching closely for intimidation and threats of violence as tools of political influence in the U.S, especially during the last few months before the election.  

Reports of threats against elected officials and local election administrators have “proliferated “in recent years, Grothe said. 

“When a democracy such as the U.S., those with kind of large influence on the world stage grow weaker internally, it makes it a lot more difficult to counter this kind of global authoritarianism,” said Grothe. “It makes it very imperative that we at home in the United States need to address our own domestic shortcomings.” 

The Freedom House report includes several recommendations, including calls for governments and other actors in civil society to “immediately” and “publicly” condemn manipulation efforts, coups and refusals to honor electoral outcomes.

“Democracies need to commit to free and fair elections, both at home and need to stand up for the same abroad,” said Grothe. 

The biggest decline in freedom was registered in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed territory which sparked conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

The region saw an overall 40-point reduction. The decline follows a mass displacement of over 100,000 ethnic Armenians amid fighting in September 2023. 

The second-largest point reduction came in Niger, where military forces ousted the government in July 2023.  

Conflict resulted in major declines in other areas too. Russia’s war in Ukraine continues to affect basic rights for those in occupied parts of Ukraine and brings a rise in repression inside Russia. The report also notes the effect on civilians of the Israel-Hamas conflict and Myanmar military rule. 

Other countries saw improvements. Fiji gained seven points due to a “smooth” transfer of power after elections in 2022. And Nepal is recognized in the report for amendments to its Citizenship Act, which allowed 400,000 stateless people born in the country to receive citizenship.  

While the past year faced obstacles, Grothe said there are “beacons of hope” in the countries pushing back against those declines.  

“It’s important to remember that people in every sort of political environment, from the most-free countries to the most repressive, are continuing to fight to uphold their rights, their dignity and this offers some kind of level of hope even in these very kind of discouraging times.” 

She added that the report should serve as a reminder of the stakes for democracy and as a call to reverse the decline of global freedoms.  

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Gang Violence Flares Up in Haiti as Prime Minister Visits Kenya

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A wave of panic swept through downtown Port-au-Prince on Thursday, with an outburst of violence marked by heavy gunfire and improvised barricades. A gang leader took responsibility saying it was a demonstration against the authorities.  

The violent events took place on the same day Haiti’s Prime Minister Ariel Henry arrived in Kenya for talks on the deployment of a multinational security mission in the country backed by the United Nations. 

By midday, most institutions and businesses in the city had closed and thousands of people commuted home in public transit or walked to seek shelter, according to local witnesses.  

Haitian airline Sunrise Airways halted flights, a company spokesperson said, adding shootouts near the capital’s airport had put people in danger.  

Special police units were deployed throughout the city to respond to the violent events, a police spokesperson told a local radio station.  

“We have chosen to take our destiny in our own hands. The battle we are waging will not only topple the Ariel [Henry] government. It is a battle that will change the whole system,” said former cop and gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, also known as Barbecue, in a video shared on social media. 

Henry, who came to power after the assassination of the country’s last president in 2021, had pledged to step down by early February, but later said security must first be re-established in order to ensure free and fair elections. 

Gang violence has flared in Haiti since the assassination of President Jovenel Moise. The U.N. estimates the conflict killed close to 5,000 people last year and has driven some 300,000 from their homes. 

Kenya has pledged to send 1,000 troops and Benin another 2,000 to help national police fight armed gangs. 

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UN Rights Experts: Eritrea Maintains Iron Grip Through Repression, Systematic Impunity

Geneva — Human rights experts warn Eritrea maintains an iron grip on its people through repression and widespread, systematic impunity for grave human rights violations.  

At the U.N. Human Rights Council Wednesday, the experts presented what they call “credible reports” of grave human rights violations by the Eritrean ruling elite.  

“The state of human rights in Eritrea continues to be dire with no signs of improvement,” said Ilze Brand-Kehris, assistant secretary general of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  

She said her office continues to receive credible reports of torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and restrictions of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.  

“Impunity persists for these egregious human rights violations,” she said.  

She accused the government of silencing dissenting voices through systematic repression and the detentions or enforced disappearance of “thousands of religious leaders, activists, journalists, and those evading mandatory and indefinite military service.”  

The U.N. special rapporteur on Eritrea, Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, told delegates on the council that there was no evidence the government has taken any steps “to prevent, investigate or redress the grave human rights violations” documented by a variety of monitoring groups.  

“The complete lack of action by Eritrean authorities over the last two decades to address their country’s troubling human rights situation is a matter of governmental policy.”  

He said, “The prevailing impunity has enabled the recurrence of human rights violations and silenced the victims. The identified practices and patterns of gross violations continue unabated.”  

In response to the criticisms of his country, the charge d’affaires of the permanent Mission of Eritrea in Geneva, Habtom Zerai Ghirmai, accused those testifying at the council of presenting baseless, unfounded allegations.  

He said Eritrea has been a victim of politicized and selective mandate for the last 12 years. Rather than being a violator of human rights, he said, “Our commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights lies at the heart of our nationhood, a nationhood that was realized after a long drawn armed struggle for the human rights of the Eritrean people.”

U.N. rapporteur Babiker said Eritreans have been stripped of their civic rights, noting that no elections have been held in over 30 years. “Eritreans do not have any avenues to participate in decision-making in their own country…No political groups are allowed to organize outside the ruling party, and independent media and civil society are not allowed to operate.”  

Additionally, he said no action has been taken to reform Eritrea’s compulsory national service. Because of the country’s indefinite military service, he said Eritreans continue to be subjected to gross and horrific abuse, including forced labor and sexual violence.  

“I routinely receive information regarding individuals who have been conscripted for the past 20 years, who have been deprived of their civic, social, and economic rights including the right to work, the right to life, family life, freedom of movement and the right to education. Further, severe, and collective punishments are inflicted on draft evaders, their families, and their communities,” he said.  

As of June 2023, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says Eritrea’s indefinite national service had driven an estimated 345,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers to flee the country. This out of a global number of more than 580,000 Eritreans who have sought safety abroad.  

“Eritrea suffers from an acute lack of rule of law with no independent judiciary or other accountability mechanisms,” observed Assistant Secretary-General Brands-Kehris, noting that Eritrea has not enacted any legal reforms that could foster the promotion and protection of human rights.  

“Impunity abounds for violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including those committed in the context of the Tigray conflict by Eritrean Defense Forces or EDF,” she said.  

Despite an agreement signed by Eritrea to withdraw its forces from Ethiopia, Brands-Kehris said, “Our office has credible information that the EDF remains in Tigray and continues to commit cross-border violations, namely abductions, rape, looting of property, arbitrary arrest and other violations of physical integrity,” she said.  

Civil Society Representative Hanna Petros Solomon has a harsh perspective of life under Eritrea’s repressive regime. “I am a child of heroes who served their country honorably and yet now languish in solitary confinement.”  

She said her father, Petros Solomon, played a prominent role during the struggle for independence and post-independent Eritrea, as did her mother, Aster Yohannes.  

“The last I have seen or heard of my father was the morning of September 18, 2001, 22 years ago. The last I have seen or heard of my mother was December 11, 2003, 20 years ago.  

“They have not committed any crime to warrant such punishment. They have not been convicted or sentenced in a court of law,” she said.  

“The U.N. considers it torture, inhuman and degrading to hold a prisoner in indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement for over 15 days,” she said. “My parents’ indefinite solitary confinement has now stretched to over two decades.”

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Chad Opposition Leader Yaya Dillo Killed in Shooting, Prosecutor Says

N’DJAMENA — Chadian opposition politician Yaya Dillo was killed on Wednesday during an exchange of fire with security forces, state prosecutor Oumar Mahamat Kedelaye said Thursday.

Heavy gunfire was heard Wednesday in the capital N’Djamena near the headquarters of Dillo’s opposition party, a Reuters witness said. Several people had been killed in earlier clashes near Chad’s internal security agency building.

The violence flared amid tensions ahead of a presidential election set for May and June that could return the Central African state to constitutional rule three years after the military seized power.

Calm had returned to the capital by Thursday morning and residents were going back to work, though internet access, which was blocked a day earlier, had still not been restored, the Reuters witness said.

On Wednesday, the headquarters of the opposition Socialist Party Without Borders, led by Dillo, were cordoned off by security forces. But accounts of the incidents given by the government and the party differed.

A government statement said the security agency was attacked by representatives of the party, resulting in several deaths.

Detailing a separate incident, the government said a member of the party, Ahmed Torabi, had carried out an assassination attempt against the president of the Supreme Court, Samir Adam Annour. Torabi was arrested, it said.

The opposition party’s general secretary told Reuters the deaths near the security agency occurred when soldiers opened fire at a group of party members.

He said Torabi had been shot dead on Tuesday and his body was deposited at the agency’s headquarters. On Wednesday morning, party members and Torabi’s relatives went to look for his body at the agency and soldiers shot at them, which resulted in multiple deaths, the general secretary said.

Chad’s Supreme Court in December approved the vote on a new constitution that critics say could help cement the power of junta leader Mahamat Idriss Deby.

Deby’s military government is one of several juntas currently ruling in West and Central Africa, where there have been eight coups since 2020, sparking concerns about a backslide from democracy in the region.

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ICC Awards $56 Million in Reparations to Victims of Convicted Ugandan Rebel Commander 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Judges at the International Criminal Court on Wednesday granted reparations of more than 52 million euros ($56 million) to thousands of victims of a convicted commander in the shadowy Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The nearly 50,000 victims covered by the order included former child soldiers and children born as a result of rapes and forced pregnancies.

Dominic Ongwen was convicted three years ago of 61 offenses, including murders, rapes, forced marriages and recruiting child soldiers in 2002-2005. An ICC appeals panel upheld his convictions and 25-year sentence in late 2022, setting the stage for an order for reparations.

“Tens of thousands of individuals suffered tremendous harm due to the unimaginable atrocities committed” as rebel fighters led by Ongwen attacked four camps for displaced people in northern Uganda, said Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.

“Similarly, over 100 women and girls and thousands of children, boys and girls under the age of 15 suffered profound, multifaceted harm as a result of being kidnapped. Many were later subjected to sexual and gender based crimes and/or forced to serve as LRA soldiers, being kept in captivity with cruel methods of physical and psychological coercion,” he added.

Ongwen was not in court for the reparations hearing. While he is considered liable for the reparations, the court ruled that he is indigent and said the reparations will be paid by a trust fund for victims set up by the court’s member states.

Schmitt urged “states, organizations, corporations and private individuals to support the trust funds for victims’ mission and efforts and contribute to its fundraising activities.”

He said victims would each receive 750 euros ($812) as a “symbolic award” while other reparations would come in the form of community-based rehabilitation programs.

Evidence at Ongwen’s trial established that female civilians captured by the LRA were turned into sex slaves and wives for fighters. The LRA made children into soldiers. Men, women and children were murdered in attacks on camps for internally displaced people.

“The chamber concludes that the direct victims of the attacks, the direct victims of sexual and gender based crimes and the children born out of those crimes, as well as the former child soldiers, suffered serious and long-lasting physical, moral and material harm,” Schmitt said.

The LRA began its attacks in Uganda in the 1980s, when one of the court’s most-wanted fugitives, Joseph Kony, sought to overthrow the government. After being pushed out of Uganda, the militia terrorized villages in Congo, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan.

Ongwen was among those abducted by the militia led by Kony. As a 9-year-old boy, he was transformed into a child soldier and later a senior commander responsible for attacks on camps for displaced civilians in northern Uganda in the early 2000s.

Defense lawyers portrayed him as a victim of LRA atrocities. But the judge who presided over his trial called Ongwen “a fully responsible adult” when he committed his crimes.

Activists welcomed his convictions for offenses against women, which included rape, forced pregnancy and sexual slavery.

Kony, whose whereabouts are unknown, faces 36 charges, including murder, torture, rape, persecution and enslavement. Prosecutors are seeking to hold a hearing into the evidence against him at the court in Kony’s absence.

The LRA leader was thrust into the global spotlight in 2012 when a video about his crimes went viral. Despite the attention and international efforts to capture him, he remains at large.

ICC cases against three other LRA leaders were terminated after confirmation that they had died before they could be arrested.

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Ghana Parliament Passes Stringent Anti-LGBTQ Law

ACCRA, Ghana — Ghana’s parliament passed legislation Wednesday that intensifies a crackdown on the rights of LGBTQ people and those promoting lesbian, gay or other non-conventional sexual or gender identities in the West African country.

Gay sex was already punishable by up to three years in prison. The bill now also imposes a prison sentence of up to five years for the “willful promotion, sponsorship, or support of LGBTQ+ activities.”

The bill is one of the harshest of its kind in Africa.

“My heart is broken and devastated at the moment, that’s all I can say for now” Angel Maxine, Ghana’s first openly transgender musician and LGBTQI+ activist, told Reuters, adding “My pronouns are she/ her/ hers.”

A coalition of Christian, Muslim, and Ghanaian traditional leaders sponsored the legislation.

Following the vote in parliament, the bill will be presented to President Nana Akufo-Addo after which he has seven days to assent or refuse to assent, according to Ghana’s constitution.

If he assents, the bill becomes law. Akufo-Addo, had avoided the heated debate over the bill, but said he’ll react once it is voted by parliament.

Winnie Byanyima, executive director of the United Nations AIDS agency UNAIDS, said in a statement that the bill would affect everyone if it became law, adding that punitive laws as embodied by the bill, are a barrier to ending AIDS and ultimately undermine everyone’s health.

“It will exacerbate fear and hatred, could incite violence against fellow Ghanaian citizens, and will negatively impact on free speech, freedom of movement and freedom of association,” Byanyima said in the statement.

“If it becomes law, it will obstruct access to life-saving services, undercut social protection, and jeopardize Ghana’s development success,” she said. 

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Planned Transnational Highway Would Connect 5 African Nations

West African nations are pushing for the construction of a major highway network connecting five countries from the Ivory Coast to Nigeria. The African Development Bank says the project will be an economic engine for all the countries involved. Senanu Tord reports from Accra, Ghana.

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