Two Nigeria Churches Attacked; Worshippers Killed, Abducted

ABUJA, NIGERIA — Gunmen attacked two churches in rural northwestern Nigeria on Sunday, killing three people, witnesses and a state official said, weeks after a similar attack in the West African nation left 40 worshippers dead.

The attack in Kajuru area of Kaduna state targeted four villages, resulting in the abduction of an unspecified number of residents and the destruction of houses before the assailants escaped, locals said.

It wasn’t clear who was behind the attack on the Kaduna churches. Much of Nigeria has struggled with security issues, with Kaduna as one of the worst-hit states. At least 32 people were killed in the Kajuru area last week in an attack that lasted for hours across four villages.

Worshippers were attending the church service at the Maranatha Baptist Church and at St. Moses Catholic Church in Rubu community of Kaduna on Sunday morning when assailants “just came and surrounded the churches,” both located in the same area, said Usman Danladi, who lives nearby.

“Before they [worshippers] noticed, they were already terrorizing them; some began attacking inside the church, then others proceeded to other areas,” Danladi said. He added that “most of the victims kidnapped are from the Baptist [church], while the three killed were Catholics.”

The Kaduna state government confirmed the three deaths by bandits who “stormed the villages on motorcycles, beginning from Ungwan Fada, and moving into Ungwan Turawa, before Ungwan Makama and then Rubu. Security patrols are being conducted in the general area” as investigations proceed, according to Samuel Aruwan, Kaduna commissioner for security.

The Christian Association of Nigeria condemned Sunday’s attacks and said churches in Nigeria have become “targets” of armed groups.

“It is very unfortunate that when we are yet to come out of the mourning of those killed in Owo two Sundays ago, another one has happened in Kaduna,” Pastor Adebayo Oladeji, the association’s spokesman, told The Associated Press.

Many of the attacks targeting rural areas in Nigeria’s troubled northern region are similar. The motorcycle-riding gunmen often arrive in hundreds in areas where Nigeria’s security forces are outnumbered and outgunned. It usually takes months for the police to make arrests.

Authorities have identified the attackers as mostly young herdsmen from the Fulani tribe caught up in Nigeria’s pastoral conflict between host communities and herdsmen over limited access to water and land.

Source: Voice of America

Russia-West Tensions Inflame UN Debate on Mali Peacekeepers

UNITED NATIONS — Tensions between Russia and the West are aggravating talks about the future of one of the United Nations’ biggest and most perilous peacekeeping operations, the force sent to help Mali resist a decadelong Islamic extremist insurgency.

The U.N.’s mission in the West African nation is up for renewal this month, at a volatile time when extremist attacks are intensifying. Three U.N. peacekeepers have been killed this month alone. Mali’s economy is choking on sanctions imposed by neighboring countries after its military rulers postponed a promised election. France and the European Union are ending their own military operations in Mali amid souring relations with the governing junta.

U.N. Security Council members widely agree the peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, needs to continue. But a council debate this week was laced with friction over France’s future role in Mali and the presence of Russian military contractors.

“The situation has become very complex for negotiations,” said Rama Yade, senior director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

“The international context has a role, and Mali is part of the Russian game on the international stage,” she said.

The peacekeeping mission began in 2013, after France led a military intervention to oust extremist rebels who had taken over cities and major towns in northern Mali the year before. MINUSMA now counts roughly 12,000 troops, plus about 2,000 police and other officers. More than 270 peacekeepers have died.

France is leading negotiations on extending the mission’s mandate and is proposing to continue providing French aerial support. The U.N.’s top official for Mali, El-Ghassim Wane, said the force particularly needs the capabilities of attack helicopters.

But Mali strongly objects to a continued French air presence.

“We would call, therefore, for respect for our country’s sovereignty,” Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the council Monday.

Mali asked France, its onetime colonial ruler, for military help in 2013. The French military was credited with helping to boot the insurgents out of Timbuktu and other northern centers, but they regrouped elsewhere, began attacking the Malian army and its allies and pushed farther south. The government now controls only 10% of the north and 21% of the central region, according to a U.N. report this month.

Patience with the French military presence is waning, though, especially as extremist violence mounts. There have been a series of anti-French demonstrations in the capital, which some observers suggest have been promoted by the government and a Russian mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group.

Mali has grown closer to Russia in recent years as Moscow has looked to build alliances and gain sway in Africa — and both countries are at odds with the West. High-ranking Malian and Russian officials have been hit with European Union sanctions, sparked by Russia’s actions in Ukraine since 2014 and by Mali’s failure to hold elections that had been pledged for this past February.

Against that backdrop, Security Council members squared off over the Wagner Group’s presence in Mali. The Kremlin denies any connection to the company. But Western analysts say it’s a tool of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to gain influence in Africa.

The Wagner Group has committed serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations, according to allegations by the EU and human rights organizations. In Mali, Human Rights Watch has accused Russian fighters and Mali’s army of killing hundreds of mostly civilian men in the town of Moura; Mali said those killed were “terrorists.” The U.N. peacekeeping force is investigating, as is the Malian government.

The recent U.N. report on Mali remarked on “a significant surge” in reports of abuses committed by extremists and Malian forces, sometimes accompanied by “foreign security personnel.” It didn’t name names, but British deputy U.N. Ambassador James Kariuki said council members “are under no illusions – this is the Russian-backed Wagner Group.”

Mali says otherwise. While officials have said Russian soldiers are training the Malian military as part of a longstanding security partnership between the two governments, Diop insisted to the Security Council that “we don’t know anything about Wagner.”

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a TV interview in May that the Wagner Group was in Mali “on a commercial basis.”

Russian deputy U.N. Ambassador Anna Evstigneeva told the Security Council that African countries have every right to engage soldiers-for-hire. And she suggested they have every reason to, saying Mali’s security “continues to unravel” despite European military endeavors.

She blasted Western unease about Russia’s tightening ties to Mali as “neocolonialist approaches and double standards.”

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres plans a six-month review to consider ways to retool MINUSMA.

To Sadya Touré, a writer and the founder of a women’s organization called Mali Musso, told the council her country “should not be a battlefield between major powers. … People are the ones who are suffering the consequences of these tensions.”

Source: Voice of America

Witnesses Say More Than 200 Killed in Ethiopia Ethnic Attack

NAIROBI, KENYA — Witnesses in Ethiopia said Sunday that more than 200 people, mostly ethnic Amhara, had been killed in an attack in the country’s Oromia region, and they blamed a rebel group, which denied it.

It was one of the deadliest such attacks in recent memory as ethnic tensions continue in Africa’s second most populous country.

“I have counted 230 bodies. I am afraid this is the deadliest attack against civilians we have seen in our lifetime,” Abdul-Seid Tahir, a resident of Gimbi county, told The Associated Press after barely escaping the attack on Saturday. “We are burying them in mass graves, and we are still collecting bodies. Federal army units have now arrived, but we fear that the attacks could continue if they leave.”

Another witness, who gave only his first name, Shambel, over fears for his safety, said the local Amhara community was now desperately seeking to be relocated “before another round of mass killings happen.” He said ethnic Amhara who settled in the area about 30 years ago in resettlement programs were now being “killed like chickens.”

Both witnesses blamed the Oromo Liberation Army for the attacks. In a statement, the Oromia regional government also blamed the OLA, saying the rebels attacked “after being unable to resist the operations launched by [federal] security forces.”

An OLA spokesman, Odaa Tarbii, denied the allegations.

“The attack you are referring to was committed by the regime’s military and local militia as they retreated from their camp in Gimbi following our recent offensive,” he said in a message to the AP. “They escaped to an area called Tole, where they attacked the local population and destroyed their property as retaliation for their perceived support for the OLA. Our fighters had not even reached that area when the attacks took place.”

Ethiopia is experiencing widespread ethnic tensions in several regions, most of them over historical grievances and political tensions. The Amhara people, the second-largest ethnic group among Ethiopia’s more than 110 million people, have been targeted frequently in regions like Oromia.

The government-appointed Ethiopian Human Rights Commission on Sunday called on the federal government to find a “lasting solution” to the killing of civilians and protect them from such attacks.

Source: Voice of America