#Mauritania News in Brief 12 July 2012

large quantities of seized alcohol and drugs destroyed
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12 July 2012: A plane has crashed[fr] in Mauritania, plane crashed after a fuel leak caused it to burst into flames shortly after take-off. All 7 occupants, comprising military personnel and civilians, were killed. Elmohit reports [ar] that it was a regular shipment from the Kinross gold mine at Tasisast. Alakhbar news adds further details [ar], explaining that the plane encountered difficulties very shortly after take-off, and the pilot tried to return to Nouakchott airport, but flames engulfed the cockpit and the plane crashed in an uninhabited area near the province of Dar Naim. Hundreds rushed to the scene, including the Minister of Defence and the President, according to this report.
Mauritanian customs agent Mahgoub Ould Mohamed Salem was late for this morning’s gold run flight. This had happened once before and he was determined to be on time. But first his car wouldn’t start, then he got a lift but was held up by traffic.  Finally, he arrived at the airport too late, in time to see the plane take off.. and then crash moments later, killing all on board.

Kinross Gold Corp. said it chartered  the military plane, and confirmed that two pilots, two customs officials and three security personnel were killed in the crash. It said no Kinross personnel were on board, nor was the plane carrying any gold.

Kinross said the crash hasn’t affected normal operations at the mine, where last month mine-processing activities were temporarily halted as a result of a nearly week-long strike by workers. There is no information about any plans to mark the deaths by Kinross, although Mauritania will observe a period of national mourning, and an investigation has been promised in a statement from the Dept. of Defence.

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12 July 2012: A new strike action by MCM mining workers in Tasiast has been reported.
Workers decided to strike on Wednesday night after a meeting to discuss their situation, which has been a recurrent source of strikes for well over a year. Once again, employer MCM has failed to make good on promises made during workers’ protests.
Thursday morning the workers gathered at the entrance to the complex, forming a picket line to prevent or persuade other workers from entering.
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11 July 2012
Villagers in Bekmoun, Mauritania, who demanded [ar] resolution of agricultural land dispute, or threatened to take action themselves received a swift but vindictive response.
On Monday, villagers reported [ar] that a trench was dug across the road by the contractor working on agricultural land reclamation, SIMEX, effectively isolating the village. They say that this act was performed without warning or consultation.
Something like 3,000 head of cattle were stranded as a result, unable to return to their homesteads for feed and water – which is essential because of the severe drought conditions – and reports [ar] say dozens have already died.
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Deputy Under Secretary reported the destruction of 22 tons of liquor, 59 kg of hashish and large quantities of narcotic ans psychotropic substances on Wednesday morning, 11 July 2012, on the road between Nouakchott and Akjoujt.
Such events are routine in Mauritania, which is known to be criss-crossed with long-established smuggling routes for trafficking people as well as contraband and weapons. There have also been a couple of reports in recent months of the military and well-connected contacts being involved in smuggling operations.
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Chiefs of Staff from the military of Algeria, Niger and Mali [ar] met with Mauritanian counterparts in Nouakchott to discuss the ongoing situation there, and reported that they still had hope for a political solution to the crisis. This is significant, because Niger’s FM has stated previously [ar] that he believed military intervention was the only possible response. Mali’s southern neighbours, Burkina Faso,  Guinea, Ivory Coast and Senegal were not represented, perhaps because of their strong involvement in ECOWAS initiatives which are calling for a military solution. Independent journalists were barred from the meeting. There is growing concern in Mauritania about the prospect of a military intervention in Mali.
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The slow-burning scandal of mismanagement and corruption with the government’s “Hope 2012″ food assistance program – 50% funded by international donors – continues to smoulder. PM Laghdaf (pictured) managed to dodge being questioned in parliament, and lost no time issuing a glowing report on how great the programme is doing. Now the judiciary reportedly wants to question his advisor. Given that the judiciary has been compromised by president Aziz and can’t be considered independent, I assume this means the hapless assistant is the nominated fall-guy.
Meanwhile, an investigation into fraud allegations is being carried out, and several officials have been presented to the prosecutor already. The latest news [ar] has investigators complaining that the magistrate’s office in Aleg doesn’t have air conditioning.
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A spate of fatal road accidents has claimed the lives of at least six Mauritanians in the past week – including a child killed by a truck in a hit and run incident – and injured several more. These tragedies are felt deeply by the close-knit community, and have reinvigorated protests about the poor conditions of roads, lack of adequate lighting and signage, incompetent traffic policing and notoriously bad driving habits.
Roads in several areas have been adversely affected by flash floods; Tintaine residents lost part of their road surface last week and came out to protest.
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Another poor week for human rights in Mauritania, with 7 anti-slavery activists still behind bars, now allegedly facing charges of supporting terrorism, after the original case of apostasy was thrown out. A peaceful protest was attacked and 13 activists of the February 25 Movement arrested on Tuesday 10 July, as well as two journalists. Police moved to disperse the group soon after they had begun to gather outside the Constitutional Courthouse to protest the 34th anniversary of the military coup, and demand that the military relinquish its hold on the country. The Observatory of Human Rights has denounced [ar] the widespread use of violence against the civil population.
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While media reported the governments plans to introduce internet monitoring, Mauritania’s biggest operator, Mauritel, seems to have taken matters into its own hands, and introduced severe restrictions on internet access to specific websites, including the very popular FaceBook app. For the past 3 weeks or more, reports of intermittent service, inability to view images, and general connection problems have plagued internet users in the country, and there is a marked reduction in the volume of Facebook posts and web traffic. A website has been created [ar]to monitor and report on Mauritel’s repression.

Western Sahara Under Mounting Pressure

Conflict is brewing in the Western Sahara. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS
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Heightened Security

“We’ve been building a lot of new walls lately,” says Polisario Front commander Ahmed Salem as he drives his 4 X 4 across Tindouf in Western Algeria. But the newly introduced security measures may not be enough to ensure the survival of the Western Sahrawis.

Salem Ahmed drives along the desert sand wall towards the entrance of Rabuni camp near Tindouf (about 700 km southeast of Moroccan capital Rabat). Rabuni is the nodal point for refugee camps in southern Algeria for the Sahrawis, as the local Western Sahara people are called.

Just a few yards from where an excavator that works day and night, we are waved in through a checkpoint manned by men in camouflage from the Polisario, which heads the Sahrawi independence movement. At only a few kilometres from the Mauritanian border, this sea of mud houses and corrugated iron roofs is “home” to over 200,000 individuals.

Western Sahara was the victim of a decolonisation process interrupted in 1976, when Spain – its former colonial power since the late 19th century- left that barren land in the hands of Morocco and Mauritania. After a ceasefire agreement in 1991, most of the territory which is greater than the size of Britain -including the entire Atlantic coastline – is under the control of Morocco. A small, largely uninhabited and economically useless desert portion remains under Polisario rule, strongly backed by Algeria.

This is where the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (RASD) declared its independence in 1976. Since then, the Polisario has won formal recognition for the RASD from 82 nations.

“We are totally dependent on international aid, especially from Spain. We cannot let a repeat incident, like the one that happened before, or we’ll die of hunger and thirst in the desert,” says Ahmed Salem. Spanish aid workers Ainhoa Fernandez, Enric Gonyalons and Italian Rosella Urru were abducted from Rabuni’s international camp on Oct. 22, last year.

Many suggest that the first and only kidnapping in the territory, under the Polisario Front’s control, could trigger a conflict that has remained frozen for 37 years.

The abduction was claimed by a hitherto unknown armed group, and through unusual channels. Ahmed Mohamed Ali, a worker at the centre who was handcuffed during the attack told IPS that the attackers “were not from the region and most likely of Touareg origin.” The Touareg are Berber people inhabiting the Saharan interior of North Africa.

Some observers fear that conflict is brewing in the Western Sahara. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Increasing Isolation

The decrease in the number of foreign visitors is evident after the kidnapping. Rabuni camp has a capacity for 200 visitors; usually now there are just half a dozen.

“Any attack on foreigners, whether it’s a kidnapping, a roadside bomb, or any kind of assault can lead, in the short term, to unpredictable consequences for the future of refugees. It is certainly the most vulnerable side of the Saharawi people,” says Andoni Berriotxoa, coordinator of a project to build water wells in Bir-Lehlu, administrative capital of the Sahrawi territories under Polisario control.

The newly introduced security measures may look draconian to many: night curfew for foreigners starting at seven; compulsory military escort for any journey by road, and a network of earth and sand walls in which the Algerian army also joins with watchtowers and radars.

The Moroccan media will soon broadcast that we are restricting visits for foreigners, but this is for their safety,” says Salem. This military engineer who graduated in Cuba adds that it is Morocco that has built the world’s longest military wall: a French-designed project, over 2,500 kilometres in length, crisscrossing Western Sahara.

“It’s true that the number of visitors has dropped dramatically in the last seven months,” Salem Sehir, a Polisario executive member and district governor tells IPS. “There’s a big fear over new attacks, but we cannot forget that the financial crisis in Spain is also behind the fewer numbers. The number of our kids visiting Spain in summer was cut by half. Spanish families simply cannot afford it any longer.”

Political Stalemate

Back in Rabuni, Jatri Aduh, president of the Sahrawi Parliament and the Polisario leader in negotiations with Morocco, speaks of a conflict “that neither side is able to win.” The senior official openly admits his disappointment over the inaction of the former colonial power and of the UN, compounded by the unconditional support that Morocco gets from France.

“As a full member of the African Union, the RASD is committed to the security in the region and we will not spare any effort to implement it,” says the high-ranking official.

Aduh cannot hide his concern over the growing instability in the region, which is the only shelter for his entire people. In the inhospitable Algerian desert and halfway between the borders of Mali, Mauritania and the Western Sahara territory, this cluster of mud and corrugated iron houses lies on a crossroads for drug trafficking, and for Al-Qaeda fighters and Touareg rebels from Azawad – the newly self-proclaimed state in northern Mali.

“The challenges for the near future are so massive that we have even extended our hand to Morocco to liaise on common security issues. Unfortunately, we are still waiting for a response to our initiative.”

Norwegian Council for Africa.

#WesternSahara’s Overlooked Arab Spring

MESA Street Art project
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In the wake of the ongoing unrest across the Arab world, voices from the forgotten Western Sahara conflict claim their role in the so-called Arab Spring. DW talked to a Western Sahara independence activist.

Sidi Ahmed Talmidi, Western Sahara independence activist </p><p>

Sidi Ahmed Talmidi

Sidi Ahmed Talmidi was one of the nine-member group responsible for the negotiations with the Moroccan government during the events in Gdeim Izik camp in Western Sahara in October 2010 (Camp established to protest against ongoing discrimination, poverty and human rights abuses, some protesters also demanded independence for Western Sahara. The protests were initially peaceful, but turned violent following clashes between civilians and security forces – the ed.). Seven members of the original group are in prison and have recently started a hunger strike while they await trial. DW spoke to Talmidi, one of those still free, at the Sahrawi refugee camp in Western Algeria.

DW: What is the current situation in Western Sahara under Moroccan control?

Sidi Ahmed Talmidi: Morocco has turned the area into a massive prison. Nobody feels safe, not even inside their houses. People are constantly harassed, dragged out from home in the middle of the night and either taken to prison or even “disappeared.” Their corpses are often found brutally mutilated in the middle of the street. The last case happened four days ago when the body of a man called Hamdi Tarfany was found chopped into pieces in Laayoune, the administrative capital of the region.

It’s been like this since former colonial power Spain pulled out in 1975 and left us in the hands of the Moroccans who invaded our land. Rabat claims that we have the same living standards as in the rest of Morocco, and that we also enjoy a democratic system but that’s far from being true. These violations have been recognized by almost everybody, even the UN recognizes the Polisario Front (Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement – the ed.) as the legitimate representative of the Western Sahara people.

Morocco and the Polisario Front fought a war over the territory for 16 years until a UN-brokered cease-fire took effect in 1991. What have you achieved in those 21 years?

We laid down our weapons because we were promised a referendum. The MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, produced a census but Morocco has managed to block the lists until today. Basically, we have achieved absolutely nothing. Most of our people have turned into refugees in the middle of the Algerian desert – between 200,000 and 275,000 depending on the source – and we are struggling to survive. On the other hand, Rabat has obtained massive benefits in these two decades. They are exploiting our mineral and fishing resources thanks to France’s complicity and the UN inaction. The MINURSO staff are just getting paid by the UN to stay in a comfortable scenario for them. They have no mechanisms to monitor human rights in the area mainly due to the massive hurdle the French UN veto poses.

You were one the members of the negotiation group during the events in Gdeim Izik camp in October 2010. How do you remember those days?

On October 9 we set up a camp around 12 kilometers outside Laayoun because we wanted to conduct a peaceful demonstration and avoid frictions with the Moroccan settlers downtown. There were nine of us in the negotiations group. We wanted to remind the world that we have been a Moroccan colony for over 35 years so people would walk all the way to where we stayed to join us. After a month we were around 30,000 Sahrawis gathering at the camp.

We were asking for our most basic rights and protesting against the Moroccan government and monarchy. We have nothing against the Moroccan people, in fact, many of them are also facing very dire conditions under Rabat’s rule. On November 8, Moroccan police and special forces raided the camp in the most brutal way. There are no words to describe what we all witnessed that day; it’s hard to believe such things can happen in the 21st century. The day before the raid, the government publicly accused eight of us of kidnapping all those gathering at the camp. How could we possibly hold thousands captive?

Morocco claims that 18 policemen died during the event but no Sahrawis whatsoever. The Polisario Front puts the Sahrawi death toll at 38 with hundreds more injured. What’s your stance?

I could give you a lot of names of protesters killed by the Moroccan police. Fourteen-year-old Nagam Gareh was killed inside a car that was carrying supplies for the protesters; Brahimd Daudi and Babi el Gargar were among those killed in the shooting… Nonetheless, it’s impossible to quantify the dead and injured as our people were even denied medical assistance in the hospitals. Besides, I have no clues on the whereabouts of many friends. A lot of people disappeared after the events.

Disinformation on our conflict is endemic so it came as no surprise when the media was denied access to Gdeim Izik. Even Al Jazeera was immediately expelled from Morocco after they started talking about the issue. We could say that the Arab Spring started in Morocco-controlled Western Sahara, and not in Tunisia. If we had achieved just a tiny percentage of the attention Tunisia or Egypt would get two months later, the political scenario might be significantly different today.

How can this conflict be unblocked?

The only hope for the Sahrawis is to get the UN to recognize that Morocco does not want to take any further step toward the peace plan. Time is on Morocco’s side so international pressure is mandatory to force Rabat to sit down and negotiate. However, Morocco’s refusal would mean to go back to war. Today I think that the only solution for Western Sahara is full independence, and not any sort of autonomy as Rabat has suggested. The latter would mean to continue under their occupation, hence being treated like animals. The majority of our people live like refugees in the middle of the desert because they cannot go back home. We are exhausted and we cannot cope with this situation any longer.

via ‘DW.DE | 18.06.2012.

MESA Street Art project

Interview: Karlos Zurutuza, Rabuni refugee camp, western Algeria. Editor: Rob Mudge

Gallery: Azawad Interim Council President Inauguration

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Supporters of an independent Azawad gathered in Mali on Friday, 15 June 2012 for the official inauguration of an interim president, MNLA Secretary-General, Bilal Ag Acherif.

Ag Cherif reiterated [fr] the aims of the council as listed in the Azawadi Declaration of Independence and announced initiatives to establish state institutions, and to develop a charter that defines the fundamental principles of a new constitution for Azawad. He again called on the international community to recognise the 28-member Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (Conseil de Transition de l’Etat de l’Azawad, CTEA).

A concerted lobbying effort for military intervention by members of ECOWAS and the African Union is still in progress, notably with the United Nations Security Council. Old enmities between key north African countries impact discussions, and force interested parties to perform an elaborate diplomatic dance of meetings followed by visits to share developments with estranged ones. A little like friends and family trying to maintain relationships with both sides of an acrimonious divorce, it all slows and complicates the process, while creating a breeding ground for intrigue. Countries that under normal circumstances might be expected to have a say – Libya, Egypt, Yemen – are to be excused, as they have enough on their respective domestic plates. Beyond Africa, France (its Foreign Minister more specifically) is still bullish, while the US is relying on “media diplomacy” for now. I’ve not noticed any official statements from Gulf states. Perhaps Iran will weigh in with an opinion on Azawad, and then the rhetoric can really begin to fly.

One thing all sides agree on is the worrying humanitarian situation of tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people as the “lean period” approaches. There is ample space at the borders with Algeria and Mauritania to create humanitarian corridors under an agreement not to resume hostilities. I am interested to see if anyone raises this idea, and whether this possibility also exists at the borders with Niger, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. I assume this would conflict with the agenda of the rebel groups, as they now enjoy relatively unrestricted access to and from neighbouring countries, and the pro-invasion crowd aren’t canvassing for suggestions. Therefore I don’t hold out much hope for a logical solution.

How the Arab World Uses Facebook and Twitter

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Social media has been often touted for the role it played in the popular uprisings that have spread across the Arab world since December 2010. Despite the buzz, you may be surprised that only 0.26% of the Egyptian population, 0.1% of the Tunisian population and 0.04% of the Syrian population are active on Twitter.

Of all the countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Twitter is most popular in Kuwait, where 8.6% of the population is active users, defined as those who tweet at least once per month. Facebook’s more popular throughout the region. In its most popular country, the U.A.E., some 36.18% of the population is on Facebook.

Khaled ElAhmad (who goes by the Internet alias Shusmo) created these two infographics, exploring Facebook and Twitter trends in the Arab world, using Visual.ly. His data comes from a Dubai School of Government report on Arab Social Media.

Take a look through the two infographics, which also show growth of the social networks by country and overall membership stats. Did you expect more people to be active social media users? How do you think your country’s habits compare? You can also check out infographics on how China and India do social networking.

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via How the Arab World Uses Facebook and Twitter [INFOGRAPHICS].