Will #Mali’s new government herald arms or armies?

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In less time than it takes for an apartment pineapple to ripen, a new government of national unity has been formed in Mali in the latest effort to restore stability after the military coup in March. It follows 5 long months of political tug-of-war between the ready-meal interim government and the frozen-dinner coup leadership headed by Captain Sanogo. The Captain was persuaded to release his grip a little, after his palms were oiled with a palatial home and “former head of state” status – including a generous allowance. The cabinet has 31 ministers, including five from Sanogo’s camp. The head of the interim government, Cheick Modibo Diarra, stays on as prime minister. For now.

Early-stage pre-coup pineapple during US training

During this incubation period, interim President Dioncounda Traore was attacked, and spent several weeks recovering in Paris. No doubt he spent more of that time in the briefing room of  Boulevard Mortier  than in recovery. Shortly after Dioncounda returned to Mali, one of the former President’s elite Red Beret guards, Staff Sergeant Amadou Traore, was murdered in his barracks. That signal seems to have been received loud and clear; no further attacks on the interim president have been reported yet.

Last month, the regional bloc ECOWAS threatened to expel Mali unless a unity government was installed, according to the BBC. Yesterday, there were news reports of ECOWAS and Algeria [ar] barring military shipments to Mali. Meanwhile, Major General Suleiman Mahmoud al-Obeidi, Libya’s former Deputy Director of Military Intelligence and Chairman of the Republican Guard in Benghazi, reveals that, when there was a weapons amnesty and surrendering of arms in Libya last year, his unit alone boycotted the deal and instead their weapons passed to mercenaries from Egypt, for onward transfer to AQIM in Algeria and Mali. Doubly painful, as it was the ousted former president Touré, aka “ATT”, who said in February that they needed more military hardware to respond to the MNLA’s attacks, widely reported to be using massive fire-power brought back from Libya.

Weapons in 30 Days or Your Next Government Half Price

We need to wait to see if the formation of a new unity government defrosts the supply of arms, and whether they’ll be delivered by shipment or in person. Just last weekend, Al Jazeera Arabic reported a training exercise in Libya (irony alert) of 2,000 troops including 800 special forces from Great Britain, France, Spain and Italy, in preparation for an incursion into Malian territory. The training programme lasted from February to June. Here’s the video:

There are many competing theories about what is going on in Mali. One school of thought insists that the plan is, and always has been, to get the boots of foreign troops on the ground. However, just as with the reports of armed rebels severing someone’s hand as a punishment for stealing (and the victim later dying), and of their threat-or-promise to repeat the exercise with hundreds more after the Eid holiday, or even of the beheading* that UNHCR’s spokesperson Melissa Fleming claimed to have happened, there’s no way of knowing if the scenario portrayed in this video sheds light on the actual situation.

How can we figure Mali out? To butcher the old standard, “follow the ransom money” and we find food for thought. For example, fresh claims of Swiss support for the rebels appeared last week. This was denied by the MNLA as a rumour created by a Swiss journalist and promoted to a fact by a website in Mauritania, where the media has carved a niche for exclusive revelations about Mali.

I was anticipating more mention of Switzerland, after a Swiss woman was apparently taken hostage in Timbuctu by a private militia who planned to trade her to AQIM. The lady was reportedly “rescued” by Ansar Dine and released for an alleged 1 million Euro, in a deal where they demanded to liaise directly with the Swiss officials, rejecting the offer of a human rights NGO to mediate.  That event was soon followed by a spectacular betrayal of MNLA by Ansar Dine, who hijacked the uprising and forced the secular separatists into a retreat from which they have yet to emerge. Speculation about how the more radical supporters of religion achieved this feat includes the investment of ransom capital to buy supporters. There have been other kidnappings: three Westerners abducted nearly nine months ago by AQIM in Mali, seen today urging their governments to help free them in an Al-Jazeera television exclusive video, and the seven Algerian diplomatic staff taken from the embassy in Gao, three of whom were returned last month, shortly after the release of one Italian and two Spanish hostages. This last exchange was said to be accompanied by a few more million Euro and the release of two more prisoners – one assumed by some to be connected to the POLISARIO – who were being held in Mauritania for their part in the kidnapping of the three Europeans.

Within days Mauritania benefited from a capitulation by the EU (Note: the EU Africa team is led by a Spaniard) finally agreeing to their exorbitant new terms for renewing the fishing agreement, and an agreement from Spain to salvage the small aircraft “donated” to Mauritania in June last year to help in the fight against illegal immigrants, and which had remained, unairworthy and stranded on the tarmac, more or less the whole time.

This brings me to another stranded plane – the famous “Air Cocaine” Boeing jet from South America which landed/crashed just north of Gao in a village called Tarkint at the end of October 2009, and was reportedly torched by the smugglers after their cargo of drugs had been retrieved. The local mayor was known as an intermediary with AQIM for the release of kidnap victims.

The char grilled remains of “Air Cocaine” /JON SISTIAGA

“Air Cocaine” was registered in Saudi Arabia,  rented in Venezuela, and had made previous trips from Colombia  under a licence issued by Guinea Bissau, but which had expired at some point. The drug trafficking was said to be linked to AQIM, and this flight’s cargo could have been worth anything between 150 and 300 million Euro. Some of these details only became apparent much later, after WikiLeaks’ cables release, as the original investigation was handled by the intelligence services and shrouded in secrecy.  There were dozens of arrests, but few detentions or convictions in connection with this scandal. Then last week, we learned that the last two suspects, one French, one Spanish, had been released in Mali. The drug smuggling case against the Spaniard was thrown out.  This chap is a real charmer: a former Madrid policeman, until he was busted for trafficking, drugs, explosives, weapons, and counterfeit identity documents. He also had a suspended sentence in Mali connected to the gruesome murder [es] of a Colombian with a forged Ukrainian passport. He apparently plans to stay in Mali. One would hope he is short of alternatives but why leave Mali, when half the world is ready to come to you?

Additionally, a wealthy businessman from Tilemsi in the Gao region - Mohamed Ould Awaynat - who had been sentenced to one year in prison for his part in the trafficking scandal, was reportedly released in January this year, in an alleged deal with the Malian government. In exchange for his freedom, he is said to have paid to recruit and train northern fighters to boost the ranks of the army against the MNLA. They do say money makes the world go around. If you add massive cash flows from drug trafficking it begins to spin put of control. That is certainly what appears the be the case in Mali.

All these rebel groups in Mali seem like just so many finger puppets. But to which “invisible hand” do the fingers belong?

If you enjoy bizarre details – and you’ve got this far, so I should take that as given – then you might be further entertained by the fact that the article in the previous link, by Andy Morgan in Think Africa Press, was posted on FaceBook in a now lifeless MNLA group, requiring 14 comments to post in its entirety. The comment poster uses the name Ghazi Agizul and, although his bio says he’s a proud Amazigh from Tunisia, I found it odd that “Ghazi” used a translation tool to render the English original into French, which should be a natural language for him. That he didn’t post a link to Google Translate or use a Note instead of 14+ comments is not mysterious, only irritating. If it transpired that Andy Morgan and Ghazi Agizul were one and the same person, that would be interesting. It would also raise many general questions about the clandestine online and offline activities of certain people who present themselves publicly as working in the media, but that is a whole other story. Going back to the article itself, it’s too lengthy to analyse in depth but there are some factual errors, which always has the effect of eroding credibility. For example,  Mr Morgan claims to have spent years in northern Mali, yet placed Kati near Timbuktu. I wouldn’t blame him if the article was simply too long for him to cope with when it got to proof-reading.

Also in the WikiLeaked cable, we learn of another incident involving a plane:  US military making a “hard landing” 65 miles from Bamako, and receiving assistance. ATT was happy to help because “he knew the United States was coming to help Mali”. Sadly, nothing could be done to help the three US military and their three civilian companions who died in a vehicle accident in April this year. Will the US be coming to help again; will they feel they no longer need an invite?

Short of the IAEA declaring that there are nuclear weapons hidden in the barren wastelands of northern Mali, I wonder how many more UN agencies or NGOs can enter the fray, wringing their collective hands over the many unverified domestic dramas that they claim are engulfing this most coveted of would-be war zones, declaring every incident a war crime, and clamouring at the gates to be allowed in to rescue Mali from itself and the horrors of Sharia law’s unjust desserts.

As ATT noted in February, with a prescience we have yet to fully to appreciate: “There are many rumors. If we are not careful, we’ll fall into the hands of those who are attacking Mali and who want to oppose the government.”

*I assume Ms Fleming meant to say “stoning” – but there is no solid evidence of that having happened, either. If she did witness a beheading, I’d have liked her to verify in reply to my question, especially since her bio includes the phrase “Tweets highlight the stories of human suffering and resilience I witness every day.” [my emphasis].

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Message from 3 Western hostages in #Mali. Better late than never

AQIM hostage Sjaak Rijke, Netherlands
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I wonder how long Mauritanian Arabic news website Sahara Medias had this video before they uploaded it to YouTube? The hostages were kidnapped in Timbuktu last  November, they hold letters with a date written in big, visible writing on each envelope saying “23 01 2012″ but the video was only released on 13 July 2012, just at the same time 7 Algerian diplomats are released.

Mali hostages say treated well in first message

Three hostages kidnapped by al Qaeda militants in northern Mali last year said they were in good health and being treated well in their first video message seen by Reuters on Friday.

The three men from South Africa, the Netherlands and Sweden were seized on November 25 by gunmen who killed a fourth person as the group walked along a street in the northern Mali town of Timbuktu.

The kidnapping happened weeks before a mix of secular and Islamist rebels, some with links to al Qaeda, took up arms against Mali’s government. The insurgents later took advantage of the chaos surrounding a March coup to take control of the country’s desert north.

In the 53-second film posted on video sharing website YouTube, the Dutch citizen appeared alone inside what looked like a mud hut and spoke first. He held an envelope with the date “29.01.2012″ written on it.

AQIM hostage Sjaak Rijke, Netherlands

“I am Sjaak Rijke. I am from the Netherlands. I am with al-Qaeda and I’m being treated well. I received this letter from the Netherlands today,” he said in the video.

The film then cut to the South African and the Swedish men, in an outside location, surrounded by four gunmen armed with AK-47s. The two held separate envelopes marked “28.01.2012″.

AQIM hostages Stephen Malcolm of South Africa and Sweden’s Johan Gustafsson

“My name is Stephen Malcolm. I’m with al Qaeda. Today I received this letter from my country. I’m in good health and they are treating me well,” the South African said next in the video. Sweden’s Johan Gustafsson made a similar statement.

All three men spoke in front of a flag similar to one used by Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine which, along with al Qaeda faction MUJWA, now control two-thirds of Mali’s desert north, territory that includes Timbuktu.

Al Qaeda in North Africa said in December it carried out the kidnapping. It has also said it was holding six Frenchmen, two abducted from their hotel in the northern Mali town of Hombori two days before the Timbuktu kidnapping.

Another four were kidnapped in September 2010 in neighbouring Niger. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Thursday the six were alive, but had been separated.