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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#Iran’s South American Connections

Touching reunion - Ahmadinejad with Chavez in Caracas
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Useful summary from Just the Facts following Ahmadinejad’s visit to Latin America last week helps to provide some of the detail for this post. His trip to attend the Rio+20 Summit in Brazil and solidify relationships in the region was a chance to assess how Iranian foreign policy is evolving in response to the changing political scene in Latin America. During his visit, Ahmadinejad made stops in Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela.

In his 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment (PDF), Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper noted that Iran continues to reach out to Latin America as a way to diminish its international isolation and bypass international sanctions. So far, Iranian relations with Latin America have only developed significantly with leftists governments that oppose U.S. leadership in the world, particularly Venezuela, Bolivia, and other ALBA members, as well as with Brazil.

Touching reunion – Ahmadinejad with Chavez in Caracas

The U.S. State Department reacted to the recent trip with characteristic rhetoric, saying Ahmadinejad was “looking for friends in wrong places.”

Bolivia

  • The relationship between Bolivia and Iran has been increasingly friendly over the past few years. In 2007, trade and energy agreements were signed between the two countries and then extended in 2010. Bolivian President Evo Morales was also publicly reported praising Iranian investment by FARS news agency in 2007 and stated that his country “relies very much on Iran’s aids.”
  • On this trip, Ahmadinejad was keen to highlight the similarities between the two countries. According to Ahmadinejad, both Iran and Bolivia have a colonial past and will progress by “work[ing] together against greedy governments, and states that want to stop others from developing, and from exercising freedom.” President Morales responded: “There is a permanent aggression against you, your government and the Iranian people, but I want to tell you that you are not alone because we are with you in your fight against imperialism.”
  • An agreement was reached between Ahmadinejad and Bolivian President Evo Morales for the Iranian military to train ten counter-narcotics intelligence officers as per a new Memorandum of Understanding (PDF) between the two countries.
  • The trip has also renewed multiple economic and agricultural agreements between the countries, including the construction of a cement factory and housing projects, among others, according to the Argentina Independent.
  • The head of Iran’s Red Crescent Society, Abolhasan Faqih, said that Iran’s Red Crescent Society recently inaugurated a new medical center in Bolivia.

Brazil

  • Under President Lula da Silva, the relationship between Iran and Brazil became cordial, as Time reports, with Ahmadinejad visiting the country in 2009 and Lula returning the visit in 2010, to facilitate nuclear talks without US or EU powers, according to the BBC.
  • This relationship has changed with President Dilma Rousseff’s election in Brazil, as she has distanced her country from Iran as CNN noted earlier this year. Rousseff has cited Iran’s poor human rights record as a reason for her distance, which runs contrary to her priorities for her own country.
  • President Ahmadinejad was in Brazil for two days to take part in the Rio+20 Summit, though he also hoped to use the opportunity to reinvigorate ties with the Brazilian government. However, after a series of snubs by the Brazilian government, the success of the trip has been deemed a failure back at home in Iran. According to the Daily Telegraph, many Iranians are angry with the way in which President Ahmadinejad was treated and one Iranian MP criticized him “for failing to abandon the trip when he saw that he, and by extension, Iran, was being treated disrespectfully.”
  • The Islamic Republic News Agency reported that Ahmadinejad’s time in Brazil was instead spent in meetings with Brazilian elites, a meeting with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and another with the former Brazilian President Lula da Silva, as well as addressing the Rio+20 Summit.

Venezuela

  • Venezuela has probably had the closest ties with Iran of any country in the region in recent years. Since 1999, President Hugo Chavez has visited Tehran 13 times.
  • This relationship seems stable; Ahmadinejad’s visit occurred one week after President Chavez confirmed that Venezuela was building unmanned drones with Iran’s help, as Reuters recently reported. Venezuelan-Iranian relations have most recently been demonstrated through reports that Iran has unrestricted access to a Venezuelan port, where Venezuelan workers are denied access. This has been reported in El Nuevo HeraldDie Welt and the Miami Herald, all citing confidential sources that allege the goal is to ultimately build a missile base, although at the moment it remains under a veil of secrecy.
  • Although the meeting does not appear to have produced any new agreements, in his opening remarks at the presidential palace in Venezuela, Ahmadinejad offered to “always stand by the Venezuelan nation and their brave president Hugo Chavez”. In addition, the two presidents focused their meeting on reviewing current agreements including their “mutual investment of about $5 billion in factories to make cement, satellites, food, tractors and bicycles.”

Cuba

  • The relationship between Venezuela and Cuba is such that Iran seeming benefits by association. The Associated Press reported that Venezuela’s state-owned oil company will join efforts to look for oil in deep waters off Cuba’s coast:
    • State-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, is next in line to drill after Malaysia’s Petronas completes its work, according to Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela’s oil minister and president of the company. He said Venezuela has budgeted an estimated $40 million for the project. Spanish oil company Repsol said last month that it would stop searching for oil off Cuba after hitting a dry well drilled at a cost of more than $100 million. “Repsol unfortunately didn’t have success in its well,” Ramirez said, “but that same platform is being used among all the companies that are participating there.”
  • ING bank has recently been forced to pay $619m as part of the deferred prosecution agreements reached with the Justice Department and the New York County District Attorney’s Office, for conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA), and for violating New York state laws by illegally moving billions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on behalf of sanctioned Cuban and Iranian entities.

Ecuador

  • Another country with close ties to Venezuela, and the smallest member of OPEC, Ecuador said on 23 May that it planned to buy about $400m in oil from Iran, despite US pressing for tighter sanctions.
  • Although not on Ahmadinejad’s itinerary – he visited in January, Ecuador received a visit from his deputy for international affairs, Vice-President Ali Saeedlou, at the end of May, reportedly to deliver a presidential invitation to the Non-Aligned Movement’s August summit in Tehran. Agence France Press says Saeedlou told reporters, after meeting with President Rafael Correa, that the two has also talked about increasing trade and technology exchanges.
  • In addition to the usual grandstanding we see whenever IAEA talks are in progress, Iran was perhaps attempting to exploit the relationship difficulties between Ecuador and the US following a diplomatic spat last year, in which ambassadors from both countries were expelled:  Saeedlou arrived on the same day the new US Ambassador resumed his post in Quito.

US expels #Venezuela diplomat over #Iran cyberespionage allegations

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Livia Acosta NogueraBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | intelNews.org |
The United States has ordered the immediate expulsion of the head of the Venezuelan consulate in Miami, over allegations that she helped coordinate a cyberattack against US government targets in 2008. The diplomat, Livia Acosta Noguera, was declared “persona non grata” (an unwelcome person) by the US Department of State last Friday, and was given 72 hours to leave the country. State Department officials refused to discuss the reasons for Acosta’s expulsion. But the BBC said that the expulsion order was prompted by a letter sent last month to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by four members of the US Congress. The letter’s authors reportedly raised concerns about a documentary aired in December by Univision, a US-based Spanish-language broadcaster, titled “The Iranian Threat”. According to reports, the documentary alleged that Acosta was part of a multinational team of diplomats from Venezuela, Iran and Cuba, who, while stationed in Mexico in 2008, helped orchestrate a cyberespionage operation against US targets. The alleged operation was aimed at computer servers belonging to the US government computer, including some at the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the White House. Computer servers at several nuclear power plants across the US were also reportedly targeted. The documentary exposé, which later appeared in print in US-based Spanish-language newspaper El Nuevo Herald, included allegations that Acosta is in fact a member of the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, Venezuela’s foremost external intelligence agency. The allegations were refuted by several diplomats, including the Iranian ambassador in Mexico; but the US State Department reportedly decided to order the Venezuelan diplomat’s expulsion after consulting with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. News agency UPI reported on Monday that Acosta appeared to have left the country by Sunday afternoon, and that the Venezuelan consulate in Miami was closed. The agency contacted the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, DC, about Acosta, and was told that a statement about the expulsion would be issued by the Venezuelan government in Caracas. But Venezuela had not published a statement as of late Monday night.

via US expels Venezuelan diplomat over cyberespionage allegations.

#Venezuela names defense minister accused by U.S. as drug kingpin

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General Henry Rangel Silva

General Henry Rangel Silva

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Friday named as defense minister General Henry Rangel Silva, who the United States has described as a “drug kingpin” linked to cocaine smuggling from neighboring Colombia.

The socialist Chavez, who calls the United States a decadent empire bent on exploiting developing countries, has repeatedly denied U.S. accusations that his government has turned a blind eye to drug trafficking.

“This good soldier, this humble soldier … this fighter for the people, today I publicly designate him as the new defense minister of the Republic,” Chavez said during a televised religious ceremony.

He is expected to shuffle his cabinet in the coming days to pave the way for several of his current ministers to run in regional elections later this year.

In 2008, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Rangel and another high-ranking officer of materially assisting the narcotics trafficking activities of Colombia’s FARC rebels. Both men deny any wrongdoing.

Venezuela, which shares a long, largely unpoliced border with Colombia, has become a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine on its way to consumer nations.

Chavez ended cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005 amid accusations that its agents were spying and violating Venezuelan sovereignty.

He says his government has invested millions of dollars on fighting drugs and points to extradition of accused druglords to Colombia and an increase in drug-related arrests as evidence of the country’s anti-narcotics efforts.

Diplomatic ties between Venezuela and the United States have been tense for years even though the South American nation still provides close to 10 percent of U.S. crude and fuel imports.

Washington in September accused four close Chavez allies of helping to provide arms to the guerrilla group FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a charge Venezuela dismissed as “abusive.”

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Brian Ellsworth for Reuters; Editing by Eric Walsh; photo: aporrea.org)