The Associated Press reports: Chad’s military chief announced late Saturday that his troops deployed in northern Mali had killed Moktar Belmoktar, the terrorist who orchestrated the attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria that left 36 foreigners dead.
The French military, which is leading the offensive against al-Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, said they could not immediately confirm the information.
Local officials in Kidal, the northern town that is being used as the base for the military operation, cast doubt on the assertion, saying Chadian officials are attempting to score a PR victory to make up for the significant losses they have suffered in recent days.
Known as the “one-eyed,” Belmoktar’s profile soared after the mid-January attack and mass hostage-taking on a huge Algerian gas plant. His purported death comes a day after Chad’s president said his troops had killed Abou Zeid, the other main al-Qaida commander operating in northern Mali.
If both deaths are confirmed, it would mean that the international intervention in Mali had succeeded in decapitating two of the pillars of al-Qaida in the Sahara.
Bruce Riedel writes: While [Algeria's President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika is the public face of the government, real power still resides with the generals. They avoid the public limelight and are known in Algiers as “le pouvoir,” the power behind the scenes. In the shadowy world of “le pouvoir,” the most powerful man is probably the head of the secret police or mukhabarat. The head of Algerian intelligence, the DRS, Mohammad Mediene, has a long track record of eradicating terrorist groups using extreme methods. KGB-trained and rarely photographed, the 73-year-old Mediene has run Algerian intelligence since 1990 and is known for his professionalism and determination. He is also known by his nickname, ‘the god of Algiers,’ because his power is so pervasive and unaccountable. Born in 1939, he served in the French colonial army before defecting to the nationalist revolt when it began in the 1950s. Mediene is now the longest serving head of intelligence in the world. And probably the most ruthless.
His deputy, Bashir Tartag, commanded the actual assault on the terrorists in the desert facility. His nickname is “le bombardier” and he is also known for his support for the so called eradicationist school of counter-terrorism. But the DRS is also known for its tactic of infiltrating terrorist groups, creating “false flag” terrorists and trying to control them. Rumors have associated the DRS in the past with the Malian warlord Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar al Dine AQIM’s ally in Mali, and even with Mukhtar Belmukhtar, the al-Qaeda terrorist who engineered the attack on the natural gas plant. The Algerians hope is that they can influence these groups to stay away from Algerian targets. The tactic originates with KGB and was developed by the DRS in the 1990s. It had success in dividing the jihadists then. This year is failed disastrously in Mali when the terrorists took events into their hands. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: As the Algerian hostage siege continues and the death toll after an army assault remains uncertain, the military’s swift intervention with force appeared to be in keeping with its tough approach to insurgent operations in the wake of Algeria’s brutal civil war.
The military-dominated regime in Algiers – which remains in place despite the Arab spring that toppled leaderships elsewhere in north Africa – is the biggest defence powerhouse in the region, with a well-equipped and extensive army.
Algeria had 10 years of bloody internal conflict in the 1990s which saw up to 200,000 deaths, and the Algiers generals maintain their tradition of a no-negotiation, take-no-prisoners approach to insurgent assaults. The unprecedented gas field hostage-taking struck at the heart of Algeria’s economic power – its hydrocarbon sites – which meant high stakes for the regime.
Faced with the return of major terrorist operations on its home turf, Algiers seemed likely to want to send a stark message to its own population, that dramatic hostage-taking would be met with a dramatic response.
The Algerian communications minister, Mohamed Said Belaid, said during the siege: “This is an attack of multinational terrorists against the Algerian people and the Algerian state. The objective is clear: to destabilise Algeria.” He said that faced with hostage-takers who wanted “to destroy the national economy” and the state, “there would be no negotiations, or blackmail” and that Algeria would be “relentless in the fight against terrorists”.
It remains unclear which Algerian units led Thursday’s first military assault on the gas field where foreign and Algerian hostages were being held by Islamist groups and where scores are feared dead following the army’s operation. There was no confirmation whether the assault was led by ground troops, special forces or specialised counter-terrorism units who harked back to the days of Algeria’s now disbanded so-called Ninja units in the 1990s, which fought Islamists and were trained by the Soviet-era Russian military.
“I knew it would end in a bloodbath,” Charles Pellegrini, former head of the anti-terrorist cell at the Elysée, told Le Parisien. “Trained in Russia in the Soviet era, the senior ranks of the Algerian army never negotiate with terrorists and always deal with these types of situations Russian-style.” [Continue reading...]
Ian Black writes: The slaughter in the Sahara has been a terrible shock for the foreign countries whose unfortunate nationals were involved. But no-one should have been surprised that the Algerian government adopted such an aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to the deadly drama at In Amenas. As one macabre joke put it: “What’s worse then being kidnapped by al-Qaida? Answer: being rescued by the Algerian army.”
Algeria’s modern history is steeped in blood. In nationalist historiography the long struggle for independence against the French colonial power came at the price of a “million martyrs.” Even if that figure is exaggerated it added to the aura of mythical sacrifice led by the FLN. The Kiplingesque title of the best history of the liberation war in English – “A Savage War of Peace” (by Alistair Horne) – captured that brilliantly.
Thirty years after winning its independence from France Algeria was plunged into another terrible conflict. That began in 1991 when the army stepped in to cancel the second round of parliamentary elections which an Islamist party was poised to win. Victory for the FIS, went the famous warning at the time – and which was accepted by western governments – would have meant “one man, one vote – once.” The awful result was years of carnage that saw another 100,000 dead. Brutal massacres by terrorists were matched by brutal massacres by the Algerian security forces, sometimes disguised as the terrorists they were fighting. [Continue reading...]
Al Arabya reports:
The Algerian interior ministry and security forces have been put on high alert in response to a call on Facebook for nationwide protests against President Abdul Aziz Boutefliqa and army generals seen as running the country behind the scenes on Saturday.
The government on Thursday held high-level meetings and ordered its security services to investigate the parties “inciting the youth” to protest against the regime, local media reported.
The interior minister, Dahou Ould Kablia, told the Ennahar daily newspaper on Thursday that “Zionist parties” were behind the Facebook call for an “Algerian revolution on Sept. 17, 2011.”
“Had it been people inside [the country], we would have exposed and arrested them, but the clues point us toward foreign parties in relation with the Zionist entity,” Ould Kablia said.
He said initial investigation showed that there was lack of popular support for the protest call, which he said was designed to “shake the domestic national order.”
“The choice of September 17 is no accident for the enemies of the Arab people,” Ould Kablia told the paper.
“The calls are failing to elicit any response and there won’t be any demonstrations or any trouble on this date,” he said.
But despite the government playing down the protest plans, National Police Director General Abdelghani Hamel has ordered all security services around the country be put on high alert, according the Moroccan online publication Hespress.
Brian Whitaker writes:
With three out of five countries now under new management along the north African coast, the spotlight is turning towards the remaining two: Algeria and Morocco.
In Morocco, where a new constitution was approved in July, the king’s promises of reform may succeed in staving off a mass revolt – at least for the time being. Morocco also recognised the national transitional council (NTC) in Libya with deft timing a week ago, declaring its support for “the legitimate aspirations of the brotherly Libyan people”.
That leaves Algeria out on a limb, increasingly identified with the forces of counter-revolution. Not only has it so far failed to recognise the Libyan NTC, but it is now openly providing refuge for members of the Gaddafi family.
Welcoming the Gaddafis, according to Algeria’s ambassador at the UN, was nothing more than a humanitarian gesture, in line with the traditions of desert hospitality – but we don’t have to look very far to see the politics behind it.
What happened to the Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan regimes could easily have been the fate of the Algerian regime, too. In January, as the Tunisian uprising gathered pace, Algeria also experienced widespread disturbances – and for very similar reasons. Regular protests were still continuing on a smaller scale at the end of March.
Egypt and Tunisia’s unfinished revolutions
It’s been just seven weeks since President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia, and just over three weeks since Hosni Mubarak was unceremoniously dumped from the presidency by the Egyptian military — but both countries have already unseated their interim prime ministers. Egypt’s Ahmed Shafiq on Wednesday followed last week’s decision by Tunisia’s Mohammed Ghannouchi to step down, heeding the will of those who had taken to the streets to oust the autocrats who had appointed them. The two countries have chosen different models for their transition to democracy: Tunisia has a civilian government supported by the military; in Egypt, a Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has taken charge and has suspended the constitution. But in both countries, the interim rulers face a crisis of legitimacy, with controversy surrounding some of the personalities now in charge and their transition plans contested by many of the same forces that took to the streets to demand political change. And at the same time, they must deal with the mountain of problems left behind by the dictators, from corruption and cronyism to collapsing state authority and anemic economic performance. (Issandr El Amrani)
Can the richest of all the Arab royal families stem the tide of reform?
The increasing disconnect between Saudi subjects and their rulers, growing stresses in Saudi society, and troubles inside the ruling family all point to turbulence ahead.
Whereas 70% of Saudis are under the age of 30, and their median age is 19, the Saudi cabinet ministers average 65. Some senior princes have held their jobs as ministers or provincial governors for decades; one has governed the Northern Borders Province since 1956. Whereas 40% of Saudi youths have no jobs and nearly half of those in work take home less than 3,000 riyals ($830) a month, every prince (of whom there are probably 7,000-8,000) gets a monthly stipend ranging from a few thousand dollars up to $250,000, according to an estimate in a WikiLeaks cable.
In forums where Saudis are able to express discontent, anger is rising. Out of 1,600 asked in a recent web poll to rate the credibility of statements by Saudi officials, 90% ticked “untrustworthy”. (The Economist)
Egypt security building stormed
Egyptian protesters have stormed the headquarters of Egypt’s state security force in Alexandria, with several people suffering injuries in scuffles with riot police.
Around 1,000 people encircled the State Security Agency building late on Friday, demanding that the officers inside come out or they would storm the building.
Protesters then entered into the building and scuffled with riot police before military forces intervened and took control of the building.
Demonstrators said officers inside had been shredding and burning documents that may have proven past abuses. (Al Jazeera)
Continued disappearance of Iran opposition figures raises concerns of torture
Iranian officials should immediately end the illegal, incommunicado detention of four leading opposition figures: Mehdi Karroubi; Mir Hossein Mousavi; Fatemeh Karroubi; and Zahra Rahnavard, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said today.
The Campaign warns that the incommunicado nature of their eighteen day long detention in an undisclosed location increases the likelihood that the four are facing psychological and physical torture for the purposes of extracting false confessions.
“Arbitrary and incommunicado detention in unknown locations is often associated with torture and ill treatment, and even extrajudicial execution in Iran,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the Campaign’s spokesperson.
“Time and again opposition figures in Iran are detained without contact with their families or lawyers, only to undergo abuse and appear on TV weeks later confessing to baseless charges,” he said. (International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran)
Youths ‘attack Algerian protesters’
Anti-government protesters have been attacked in the Algerian capital and an attempt made to lynch a prominent opposition politician, local media have said.
The reports said that protests organised by the National Co-ordination for Democracy and Change (CNDC) in Algiers were violently suppressed on Saturday morning.
According to the the Algerian daily newspaper El Watan, a group of youths tried to lynch Said Sadi, the president of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD).
Dozens of youths wearing banners supporting Abdelaziz Bouteflicka, the Algerian president, forced Sadi to flee in his car after they threatened to kill him in the al-Madania neighbourhood of Algiers, the publication said. (Al Jazeera)
Qatari blogger detained
Amnesty International says a blogger and human rights activist has been detained incommunicado in Qatar and is at risk of torture or other ill-treatment.
The UK-based human rights group said Sultan al-Khalaifi was arrested on March 2 by around eight individuals in plain clothes, believed to be members of the security forces.
According to information received by Amnesty International, al-Khalaifi had told his wife earlier that day that state security had contacted him, asking him to report to them, but that he did not know why.
The reasons for his detentions and his whereabouts are unknown, Amnesty said in a statement on Friday, adding that it is believed he is being held in the custody of state security. (Al Jazeera)
Bahrain protesters encircle state compound
Tens of thousands of Bahraini opposition protesters encircled a sprawling government compound on Sunday, forcing the cancellation of a meeting of senior lawmakers and further escalating pressure on the ruling Al-Khalifa family to accept sweeping reforms.
Protesters began assembling before 9 a.m., taking up positions at each of the complex’s four gates and repeating opposition calls for the fall of the government. Behind the compound’s gates, hundreds of riot police stood guard, while police helicopters circled overhead.
The protest forced government ministers to abandon their weekly council meeting, where Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa coordinates policy with the heads of Bahrain’s top ministries. Opposition groups cite the resignation of the Prime Minister, who has been in his post for 41 years, as one of their top demands.
Opposition leaders said the demonstration expanded their strategy of escalating pressure on the ruling family by marching on politically sensitive locations across the capital.
“We are attacking peacefully all the institutions of state. This is really a regime change without overthrowing the monarchy,” said Ebrahim Sharif, a Sunni Muslim and former banker who heads the National Democratic Action Society, one of the groups tasked with unifying the opposition’s message. (Wall Street Journal)
Gaddafi fights for his future as up to 200 die in Benghazi
Libya was approaching a “tipping point” last night as widespread protests against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime were met with increasing violence from security forces.
Dozens of protesters were reported killed by sniper fire from security forces in Benghazi, Libya’s second city, yesterday when violence flared again as crowds clashed after funerals for people killed in fighting on Friday. “Dozens were killed. We are in the midst of a massacre here,” one eyewitness reported.
Clashes were reported in the town of al-Bayda, where dozens of civilians were said to have been killed and police stations came under attack. In all, the death toll was reported to have reached 120. Doctors from Aj Jala hospital in Benghazi confirmed 1,000 people had been injured. (The Independent)
Reports of intense Benghazi violence
Benghazi, about 1,000 km (600 miles) from Tripoli, has been the main focus of the demonstrations against Col Gaddafi’s 42-year rule.
Troops opened fire on people attending a funeral there on Saturday, killing 15, both the Associated Press news agency and al-Jazeera television said.
But an eyewitness told Reuters news agency that many more had actually died.
“Dozens were killed… not 15, dozens,” the unnamed eyewitness said, adding that he had helped take victims to a local hospital.
A Benghazi resident told the BBC that security forces inside a government compound had fired on protesters with mortars and 14.5mm machine guns – a heavy machine gun typically produced in the former USSR.
They were, he said, machine-gunning cars and people indiscriminately. “A lot [of people] have fallen down today,” he added. (BBC)
Libyan protesters risk ‘suicide’ by army hands
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is confronting the most serious challenge to his 42-year rule as leader of Libya by unleashing his army on unarmed protesters.
Unlike the rulers of neighbouring Egypt, Gaddafi has refused to countenance the politics of disobedience, despite growing international condemnation, and the death toll of demonstrators nearing 100.
The pro-government Al-Zahf al-Akhdar newspaper warned that the government would “violently and thunderously respond” to the protests, and said those opposing the regime risked “suicide”.
William Hague, the UK’s foreign secretary, condemned the violence as “unacceptable and horrifying”, even as the Libyan regime’s special forces, backed by African mercenaries, launched a dawn attack on a protest camp in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
Britain is scrambling to extricate itself from its recently cosy relationship with Gaddafi, initiated by then prime minister Tony Blair in 2004. That rapprochement saw Libya open its doors to British oil companies in exchange for becoming a new ally in the “war on terror” while Britain sold Gaddafi arms. (The Guardian)
Unrest encircles Saudis, stoking sense of unease
The Saudi and pan-Arab news media have been cautiously supportive of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, with a number of opinion articles welcoming the call for nonviolent change. That may change now that protests and violence have seized Bahrain, which lies just across a 15-mile causeway from the Saudi border. Bahrain is a far more threatening prospect, in part because of the sectarian dimensions of the protests. Bahrain’s restive population is mostly Shiite, and is adjacent to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, an important oil-producing area where the Shiite population has long complained of unfair treatment by the puritanical Saudi religious establishment. They feel a strong kinship with their co-religionists across the water.
“The Bahrain uprising may give more courage to the Shia in the Eastern Province to protest,” said one Saudi diplomat. “It might then escalate to the rest of the country.”
Most analysts say that is unlikely. Although Saudi Arabia shares many of the conditions that bred the democracy uprisings — including autocracy, corruption and a large population of educated young people without access to suitable jobs — its people are cushioned by oil wealth and culturally resistant to change.
Moreover, analysts tend to agree that Saudi Arabia would never allow the Bahraini monarchy to be overthrown. Ever since Bahrain began a harsh crackdown on protesters on Thursday, rumors have flown that Saudi Arabia provided military support or guidance; however, there is no evidence to support that. In recent days, the deputy governor of the Eastern Province, Saud bin Jalawi, spoke to Shiite religious leaders and urged them to suppress any rebellious sentiment, according to Saudi news media reports.
“Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends,” said Toby Jones, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University. “It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.” (New York Times)
How Mideast autocrats win friends and influence people in Washington
Shortly after 20 Shiite opposition leaders, including clerics and human rights activists, were arrested on the eve of elections in Bahrain last September, U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked about the situation, including allegations of police torture, “given the close relations between Bahrain and the United States.”
Crowley responded, “We are in touch with Bahraini authorities and have expressed our concern. At the same time, we have confidence as Bahrain evolves that you don’t have to make a choice between security and democracy, and that this is the message that we’re sending to the government.”
When asked whether the State Department believes Bahraini government claims that those opposition figures were plotting a coup against the royal family, Crowley dismissed the allegation, saying, “I don’t know that we’re aware of any information along those lines…”
Bahrain’s state media covered the same press briefing with a slightly altered response from Crowley. Their headline read, “America: Bahrain evolves in security and democracy,” with an accompanying story reporting the “spokesman stressed that the United States has confidence that Bahrain is evolving in the fields of development, security and democracy.”
Control of the state media is not the only way the oil-rich island kingdom polishes its reputation. A month before the arrests, one of Washington’s most powerful lobbying firms began working for Bahrain.
Qorivs, a lobbying and public relations giant with a roster of high-profile clients from Intel and the Washington Post to Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea, began work under a subcontract with Britain’s Bell Pottinger. Among its goals: to position Bahrain as a key ally in the war on terror and as an advocate for peace in the Middle East. As part of its work, Qorvis pitched major media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times, reports O’Dwyer’s PR Daily. (Huffington Post)
Iran police fire tear gas at opposition rally in Tehran
Iranian police have fired tear gas at opposition demonstrators gathering in central Tehran in support of the protests in Egypt.
A BBC producer in the Iranian capital, who was affected by the gas, described central Tehran as “total chaos”.
He said “severe clashes” were taking place between protesters and police and there had been many arrests.
Iranian police have placed opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi under house arrest, his official website says.
Violence marks fourth day of Yemeni protests against president
Thousands of protesters gathered at Yemen’s Sanaa University for the fourth day, demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down, clashed with pro-government demonstrators who hurled stones and wielded clubs.
Protesters chanted “Down, down with Ali, long live Yemen” as police formed a human shield to keep crowds from spreading. Members of the Lawyers Syndicate joined the protest for the first time, calling “the people want the fall of the regime.” Dozens of pro-government demonstrators earlier pressed for dialogue between the government and opposition parties.
Tens of thousands of Yemenis, inspired by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, have rallied in recent weeks, demanding Saleh’s immediate resignation after 32 years in power. Saleh said on Feb. 2 he won’t seek to extend his term when it expires in 2013 and that his son would not succeed him as president.
Clashes in Bahrain before planned protest rally
Bahrain’s security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets Monday at thousands of anti-government protesters heeding calls to unite in a major rally and bring the Arab reform wave to the Gulf for the first time.
The punishing tactics by authorities underscored the sharply rising tensions in the tiny island kingdom — a strategic Western ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Riot police — some firing bird shot pellets — moved against marchers in various sites to prevent a mass gathering in the capital, Manama, that organizers intended as an homage to Egypt’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the popular revolt that drove Hosni Mubarak from power.
Bahrain’s protesters, however, claim they do not seek to overthrow the ruling monarchy but want greater political freedoms and sweeping changes in how the country is run.
Jack Brown writes:
Soon after the onset of protests which eventually toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, a wave of riots swept through Algeria as well, with many neighborhoods in the capital of Algiers and dozens of smaller cities overwhelmed by thousands of angry young men who closed down streets with burning tires, attacked police stations with rocks and paving stones, and set fire to public buildings. For Algerians a few years older than the rioters, these events recalled the uprising of October 1988, in which violent unrest upended the single-party state.
The disturbances of January 2011 were sparked by a sudden increase in commodity food prices, local journalists maintained, although much of the international press also linked them to a domino effect emanating from neighboring Tunisia. Both of these accounts are strikingly incomplete, however: Food price spikes were certainly one immediate cause of the Algerian unrest, but they were not the underlying reason that crowds of youths spontaneously decided to set upon policemen and other symbols of the state. Likewise, the theory of Tunisian contagion, while it may capture another contributing factor, ignores the national economic and political specificities that both triggered the Algerian rioting and determined its eventual course.
In Algeria, in contrast to (formerly) famously quiet Tunisia, rioting is anything but unprecedented. Local street violence is almost a regular occurrence, and appears to have become a primary means for the country’s deprived to express discontent with a state that otherwise would pay them little attention. In some cases, groups of disenfranchised Algerians show notable self-awareness about the role of rioting, warning about the possibility of turmoil and even calling press conferences to discuss plans to raise a ruckus in the streets if certain demands are not met. Despite the unusual salience of urban unrest in Algerian politics, the midwinter riots fizzled out without really shaking the state. A more detailed comparison with Tunisia’s protests is useful for understanding why.