Clashes as tens of thousands protest against austerity in Rome

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYoBv-Op11s]

Tens of thousands of people marched through Rome in a “No Monti Day” on Saturday, some throwing eggs and spraying graffiti to protest against austerity measures introduced by Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government.

Appointed in November when Italy risked being sucked into the euro zone debt crisis, Monti has pushed through painful austerity measures to cut the country’s massive debt, including tax hikes, spending cuts and a pension overhaul.

“We are here against Monti and his politics, the same politics as all over Europe, that brought Greece to its knees and that are destroying half of Europe, public schools, health care,” said demonstrator Giorgio Cremaschi.

Police were on alert for possible infiltration by extremists who turned past demonstrations violent. But while protesters threw eggs at bank windows and set off firecrackers, no major incidents were reported.

“United with a Europe that is rebelling. Let’s get rid of the Monti government,” read one of the banners held at the demonstration.

Unemployment in Italy has risen to its highest since monthly records began in 2004 and unions are locked in growing disputes with companies over plant closures and layoffs.

“It’s been years that there have been no investments, instead it’s all outsourced and privatized, we are here to say enough and we hope this voice will grow,” said another demonstrator, Caterina Fida.

Monti has defended the austerity measures, saying he believes his technocrat government will be remembered for having helped Italy pull itself out of a deep economic crisis without needing to resort to external aid.

In another demonstration in northern Italy, a small group of protesters scuffled with police near where Monti was addressing a rally on the theme of family values.

Reuters.

 

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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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Sole survivor tells of tragic incident off #Libya’s coast, 55 lives lost

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A year and a few months after the “left-to-die boat” case lead to international indignation, another dramatically similar incident reveals how, despite the changed geopolitical situation, migrants keep dying in the Mediterranean sea in appalling conditions.
Last year, in March 2011, 63 people who had left Tripoli in the attempt to reach the Southern shores of Italy, died after drifting for 14 days at sea. This incident occurred during the international military intervention in Libya and as such in meticulously surveyed waters. Several damning reports were released on the failures of a series of actors and a legal case was filed in France for non-assistance. Now, despite the fall of the Gaddafi regime and the end of the international intervention in Libya, Boats4People has learned during an interview conducted this morning in Zarzis, Southern Tunisia, about another tragic case that shows once again the dramatic effects of the European migration regime.
Abbas, an Eritrean national who is the only survivor of this incident, was found on Tuesday at 14:30 by a Tunisian fisherman 35 miles off the coasts of Zarzis. He was hanging onto the remains of the rubber dinghy with which he had left Tripoli around 14 days earlier with 56 people on board (20 Somalians, 2 Sudanese and 34 Eritreans), among which his older brother and two sisters. After approximately 26 hours of navigation, the boat, which was in very bad conditions, capsized and only Abbas managed to hold onto the boat, whose engine was nevertheless damaged after falling into the water. He drifted alone for fourteen days in the open sea, occasionally sighting in the distance other vessels. After finally rescued by a Tunisian fisherman yesterday, a patrol boat of the Tunisian “Garde National Maritime” was sent out and took him onboard at 15:30. He was brought to the hospital in Zarzis, where he received treatment for dehydration and extreme exhaustion.
Boats4People denounces once again the policy of border closure that oblige migrants to resort to dangerous means to cross the Mediterranean as well as the criminalization of assistance to migrants in distress at sea, which have de facto transformed the Mediterranean in a cemetery.
In collaboration with researchers of the Forensic Oceanography project at Goldsmiths College, Boats4People will keep inquiring to determine if any measure could have been taken to avert the tragic fate of the passengers of this boat.
Boats 4 People says a video of the interview will soon be made available, and offers more information on the incident, via near-real-time mapping platform WatchTheMed: https://watchthemed.crowdmap.com/reports/view/23

WatchTheMed

Hostage freed by #AQIM after 14 months captivity returns home to #Italy

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Maria Sandra Mariani, an Italian tourist who was abducted by al-Qaeda militants in the desert in Algeria last year, talks to reporters following her release

An Italian hostage kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria and released in Burkina Faso after 14 months in captivity in the Sahara desert returned to Italy on Wednesday, a day after her release in Burkina Faso.

Looking visibly thinner, 54-year-old Maria Sandra Mariani was greeted by her son and sister at Ciampino airport in Rome. She was then taken to the prosecutor’s office and the foreign ministry for debriefings.

She is due back in her home town of San Casciano near Florence later.

“Maria Sandra Mariani is free. I have just informed her relatives. I join them in their great satisfaction and relief at this magnificent news,” Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi was quoted saying on Tuesday.

He also voiced gratitude for “all those who contributed to this result” and told reporters that Mariani had been held in “terrible conditions.”

Mariani spoke to her family after being freed and was quoted by Italian media as telling them: “I am in heaven, I am finally free!”

“I’ve thought of you a lot and I hug you all. I’m fine.”

She then boarded a plane that had been specially chartered by Italian authorities to take her from the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, to Rome where she was set to arrive in the early hours of Wednesday.

Her father started crying on hearing news of her release and lawmakers in the Italian parliament burst out in a round of applause, media reports said.

“It’s official. My daughter Maria Sandra is free and coming home soon,” her father, Lido, said at his home in San Casciano Val di Pesa south of Florence.

Mariani said he expected his daughter back in her home town on Wednesday.

A high-level security source in Burkina Faso earlier told AFP that Mariani had been taken to a hotel following her release and was in good health.

“She is well despite the shock of what she has experienced,” he said.

Mariani was travelling as a tourist with a driver and tour guide when she was kidnapped in a remote area of southern Algeria on February 2.

The driver and guide were later released and said they had been kidnapped by “14 men riding in two Toyota trucks”, a security source said at the time.

In an audio recording aired by Al-Arabiya television on February 18, Mariani’s voice was heard saying in halting French that she was “being held by the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Tarek ibn Zyad battalion”.

In July last year, AFP in Bamako in Mali viewed a video of the woman given to negotiators in which she did not speak but was shown in a veil and pink robes, sitting on the sand with her hands crossed and guns in the background.

Italian foreign ministry officials kept tight-lipped on the circumstances of the release. A spokesman told AFP: “There was diplomatic action and intelligence action. There are details we cannot divulge.”

The foreign ministry also vehemently denied reports in some media that a three-million-euro ($4.0-million) ransom had been paid.

The spokesman said Mariani had been moved across two or three countries during her captivity but could not say which country she was last held in.

Italy’s International Cooperation and Integration Minister Andrea Riccardi said he would travel to Burkina Faso on Friday to thank the government there.

“This is a happy ending to a very long captivity, which has put Maria Sandra and her relatives under a severe strain,” Riccardi said.

Burkina Faso neighbours Mali, where Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups have seized the northern half of the country in recent weeks. A Swiss woman was seized by Islamists in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu on Sunday.

Algeria’s foreign ministry said it was “delighted” by Mariani’s release.

“We are delighted by the liberation of the Italian national Maria Sandra Mariani and we ardently hope that other hostages held by various groups can be freed and returned to their families safe and sound,” the ministry said.

Rossella Urru

Another Italian national, aid worker Rossella Urru, was captured in Algeria along with two Spanish colleagues in October 2011 and is still being held.

A Malian source close to the mediators told AFP last month that they were being held by a group calling itself the “Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa” which had demanded a 30-million-euro ransom for them.

AFP.

#AQIM kidnap, hostage swap, but where is #Mauritania gendarme Ely?

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The story of gendarme Ely Ould Mokhtar has been full of holes and contradictions from the outset. For Al-Qaeda to take a soldier hostage is unusual enough. For it to happen in Mauritania, where Aziz has claimed to have eradicated the AQIM threat was unremarkable, knowing his passion for the politically fantastic, but as the details emerged it became increasingly perplexing.

First we heard that there were only three gendarmes at the Adel Begrou outpost at the time of the attack, in December 2011, because the others were off playing football or something. Then there was a story saying one of the three who were supposed to be on guard was “in the bathroom” and the other “didn’t have his shoes on”. So apparently it fell upon poor Ely, as the only member of his squad to have the misfortune to be up, dressed and on duty, to be taken hostage. What utter garbage and nonsense, you might well think. But the life of a gendarme in a remote Mauritanian outpost is a far cry from Hollywood movie sets or Tom Clancy novel.

But then the video “ransom” demand arrived – from AQIM’s “Al Vourghan” brigade, led by Algerian national Yahya Abou El Houmam, or so we were told.

The video shows Ely in handcuffs, beret balanced precariously on his head, seated in front of a typically “Al Qaeda” style white on black banner that doesn’t quite cover the blue plastic tarp covering the backdrop – perhaps a store of animal feed, which would help to explain the flies buzzing around. The first thing that struck me was he had no signs of injury – a very encouraging sign but indicating that he had not put up much of a struggle, as one might expect of a gendarme. Then I realised that there were no AQIM fighters in the video. This is a departure the other recent ransom video or photographs released by AQIM showing their European hostages. The banner in is far better physical condition that the one we see in the still photograph below – complete with weapon-toting terrorists. The demands were unusual too: the release of “two prisoners” – no names were given, although they are surely all known; and that Ely must never return to his post as a gendarme.

hostages

Although the military claimed to be sending teams out in search of their comrade, government officials showed no interest in rescuing Ely, and the only attention they paid to the case at first was to pressure his family into staying quiet, away from the media. There was a very curious story immediately after Ely went missing, from a mining operation during an industrial action. Apparently, a group of soldiers appeared but told workers they were not there to break their strike, but were searching for a missing gendarme. Quite why AQIM would be hiding out with a hostage inside in a mining camp in Mauritania, instead of high-tailing it out of the country to Mali or even Senegal, I am not quite sure.

The usual type of trashy rumours flared and died about Ely’s case, some focusing on his family, which was very unpleasant. A second demand was supposedly issued  in January, giving the government 20 days to reach agreement or Ely would be killed. The time ticked on towards the deadline and eventually, the government saw fit to comment. Ely, they said, is as good as dead already. They had no intention of negotiating for his life and would not be releasing any prisoners.

Then in late February and early March we experienced a completely botched spiral of stories linking Ely to Rosella Urru, one of three European aid workers kidnapped from a refugee camp in Tindouf  in October 2011 – before Ely’s alleged abduction – and claiming their release. It was utter fabrication, but it did help to obscure the monumental cock-up by British and Nigerian forces that cost the lives of an English and an Italian held hostage in Nigeria since May 2011. The Italians were reported to be furious with the UK, well with Cameron in particular, for authorising the botched operation without consulting them. No one thought to mention the recent visit to Mauritania by Italian MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri, as part of a delegation from the EU Parliament, but I don’t like to omit any small coincidence. Only after this tragedy was revealed did the Ely story take on a new dimension, with the reported transfer of  a prisoner and then later a report that Ely had been released. But where are the photographs of his jubilant reunion with his pregnant wife and his long-suffering mother? And is he excused from returning to his life as a gendarme, as demanded by AQIM?

Instead, we are presented with this image on an obscure website, claiming to be the first picture of Ely since his release. But he appears to have been treated so well by his captors that he has actually reversed time and now appears younger and a little heavier. The image is an odd pose, just like the sort of photograph taken of a brand new recruit. Which is exactly what I suspect it to be: Ely’s ID photo from his initiation into the gendarmerie. So, where is Ely?

Kidnapped gendarme Ely Ould Mokhtar

"Before"

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"After"