Johannesburg, Feb 3 (AP/UNB) — A peace deal has been reached between the Central African Republic government and 14 armed groups after their first-ever direct dialogue aimed at ending years of conflict, the United Nations and African Union announced on Saturday.
The peace deal represents rare hope for the impoverished, landlocked nation where interreligious and intercommunal fighting has continued since 2013. Thousands of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced in a conflict that has sent two people to the International Criminal Court.
"I am determined to work with the president and his government to address the concerns of our brothers who took up arms," said Central African Republic's Cabinet director Firmin Ngrebada, according to the U.N.
The parties on Sunday will sign a draft of the agreement, which focuses on power-sharing and transitional justice, Sudan's state media reported, citing Sudan's chief negotiator Atta al-Manan. The final deal is expected to be signed on Wednesday. Talks began Jan. 24 in Khartoum.
"This is a great day for Central African Republic and all its people," said the AU commissioner for peace and security, Smail Chergui.
The fighting has carried the high risk of genocide, the U.N. has warned. The conflict began in 2013 when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the capital, Bangui. Largely Christian anti-Balaka militias fought back. Scores of mosques were burned. Priests and other religious leaders were killed. Many Muslims fled the country after mobs decapitated and dismembered some in the streets.
The vicious fighting in a country known more for coups than interreligious violence was so alarming that Pope Francis made a bold visit in 2015, removing his shoes and bowing his head at the Central Mosque in the last remaining Muslim neighborhood of the capital, Bangui.
"Together we say 'no' to hatred," the pope said.
The violence has never disappeared, intensifying and spreading last year after a period of relative peace as armed groups battled over lands rich in gold, diamonds and uranium.
After more than 40 people were killed in a rebel attack on a displaced persons camp in November, both the leader of the 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission and the country's prime minister both acknowledged shortcomings in the response. "I knew that we did not have all the necessary means to protect our people," the prime minister said.
In a grim report last year marking five years of the conflict, the U.N. children's agency said fighters often target civilians rather than each other, attacking health facilities and schools, mosques and churches and camps for displaced people. At least half of the more than 640,000 people displaced are children, it said, and thousands are thought to have joined the armed groups, often under pressure.
Last month the chief of Central African Republic's soccer federation appeared at the International Criminal Court for the first time since he was arrested last year in France on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Patrice-Edouard Ngaissona is accused of leading the anti-Balaka for at least a year early in the fighting.
In November a Central African Republic militia leader and lawmaker, Alfred Yekatom, made his first ICC appearance, accused of crimes including murder, torture and using child soldiers. He allegedly commanded some 3,000 fighters in a predominantly Christian militia in and around the capital early in the fighting. He was arrested last year after firing gunshots in parliament.
So far no Seleka fighters have been publicly targeted by the court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.
As the peace talks began last month, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned of "catastrophe" if no agreement was reached, saying repeated cycles of violence in one of the world's poorest nations had "pushed people(asterisk)s resistance to breaking point."
A majority of Central African Republic's 2.9 million people urgently need humanitarian support, the group said.
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council voted unanimously to extend an arms embargo on Central African Republic for a year but raised the possibility that it could be lifted earlier as the government has long urged.
Johannesburg, Feb 3 (AP/UNB) — The United States military says it has killed 13 members of the al-Shabab extremist group with an airstrike 30 miles (48 kilometers) outside Somalia's capital.
A U.S. Africa Command statement says Friday's strike occurred near Gandarshe in Lower Shabelle region. The statement says the al-Qaida-linked fighters have used Gandarshe as a staging area for bombings in the capital, Mogadishu.
A half-dozen U.S. airstrikes in December killed 62 al-Shabab fighters near Gandarshe as they were preparing to attack a Somali military base.
This is the 10th U.S. airstrike this year in Somalia. It carried out nearly 50 strikes last year in the Horn of Africa nation against al-Shabab, the deadliest Islamic extremist group in Africa.
A strike on Thursday killed 24 al-Shabab fighters in neighboring Hiran region.
Macedonia, Feb 3 (AP/UNB) — Macedonia will sign an accession protocol with NATO on Wednesday under its new name North Macedonia after parliaments in the tiny Balkan country and its southern neighbor Greece ratified a historic name change deal.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced Saturday on Twitter that "on February 6 we will write history: NATO Allies will sign the accession protocol with the future Republic of North Macedonia together with (Macedonian) foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov." The ceremony will take place at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Greece had blocked Macedonia from joining NATO for three decades because of the name dispute, saying that Macedonia's name implied territorial claims toward Greece's northern province.
Macedonia expects Greece to be the first NATO member to ratify the accession protocol. It will then start calling itself by its new name.
The Greek parliament is expected to ratify the accession protocol by Thursday at the earliest or Feb. 11 at the latest. All 29 NATO members must ratify in order for Macedonia to join the alliance as its 30th member. This is expected to happen by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020.
Venezuela, Feb 3(AP/UNB) — Venezuela's opposition leader called on more members of the military to abandon the country's socialist government following Saturday's defection of a high-ranking general, while President Nicolas Maduro proposed holding early National Assembly elections that could potentially oust his challenger.
Maduro's call for early legislative voting is likely to intensify his standoff with rival Juan Guaido, who heads the opposition-controlled National Assembly and is demanding a new presidential election. Guaido declared himself Venezuela's legitimate ruler on Jan. 23, and has the support of Washington and most South American nations.
Speaking from behind a podium decorated with Venezuela's presidential seal, Guaido told supporters he would keep his opposition movement in the streets until Maduro stopped "usurping" the presidency and agreed to a presidential election overseen by international observers. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Venezuelans joined opposition protests against Maduro in Caracas and other cities.
Guaido called on "blocks" of the military to defect from Maduro's administration and "get on the side of the Venezuelan people."
"We don't just want you to stop shooting at protesters," Guaido said in a hoarse voice. "We want you to be part of the reconstruction of Venezuela."
He said that in the coming days, the opposition would try to move humanitarian aid into the country by land and sea along three border points, including the Colombian city of Cucuta. He described the move as a "test" for Venezuela's armed forces, which will have to choose if they allow the much needed aid to pass, or if they instead obey the orders of Maduro's government.
Maduro also dug in his heels, insisting he was the only president of Venezuela and describing Saturday's anti-government protests as part of a U.S.-led coup attempt.
"I agree that the legislative power of the country be re-legitimized and that we hold free elections with guarantees, and the people choose a new National Assembly," Maduro said at a pro-government demonstration in Caracas.
The opposition controls the National Assembly while government supporters control the more-powerful Constituent Assembly, so calls for a vote to replace the former and not the latter was seen as a move against Guaido.
The socialist leader also had words for the administration of President Donald Trump which recently imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports in an effort to undermine Maduro's main source of income and weaken his grip on power.
"Do you think you are the emperor of the world?" he asked Trump. "Do you think Venezuela is going to give up and obey your orders? We will not surrender."
The standoff comes amid what appears to be growing dissension among the ranks of Venezuela's powerful military.
Earlier Saturday, a Venezuelan air force general defected from Maduro's administration and called on his compatriots to participate in protests against the socialist leader's rule.
Gen. Francisco Yanez is the first high ranking officer to leave Maduro's government since Jan. 23, when Guaido declared himself the country's legitimate leader by invoking two articles of the Venezuelan constitution that he argues give him the right to assume presidential powers. He considers Maduro's election win fraudulent.
In a YouTube video, Yanez described Maduro as a dictator and referred to Guaido as his president. He didn't say if he was still in Venezuela or had left the country.
The officer confirmed in a phone call with The Associated Press, from a Colombian number, the veracity of his declaration and said he would not provide further statements until given authorization by "the commander-in-chief of the legal armed force, which is President Juan Guaido."
The military controls some of Venezuela's key assets including the state run oil company, and until now, its top brass has helped Maduro to survive rounds of mass protests in 2014 and 2017 by jailing activists and repressing protesters.
Yanez said in his video that "90 percent of the military" is against Maduro, but it is unclear how many will actively support the opposition.
Shortly after protests broke out against Maduro last week, Venezuela's most important regional military commanders and its defense minister issued a statement in support of Maduro, describing Guaido as a coup monger backed by Washington.
Venezuela's aerospace command of the armed forces shared a picture of Yanez on its Twitter account with the words "traitor" above it.
"We reject the declarations made by General Yanez who betrayed his oath of loyalty to our nation and chose to follow foreign plans," the command wrote.
On Saturday, Maduro said he was willing to sit down for talks with the opposition in an effort to promote national "harmony."
But that offer has been rejected by Guaido, who describes it as a ploy by the Maduro administration to buy time.
Previous talks between the government and opposition have failed to change electoral conditions in the South American country, and many political leaders have been forced into exile.
At a pro-Maduro rally, supporters blamed the opposition for undermining the Bolivarian Revolution with years of protests and seeking financial sanctions against the Venezuelan government.
Zeleyka Muskus, a 53-year-old tax collector from Caracas, said the opposition was responsible for the country's current economic woes, saying they have staged years of protests that have gotten people injured and killed.
"Chavez is the love of my life," she said, referring to late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Other public workers attending the pro-government demonstration said they had been forced to go there by their bosses.
Meanwhile, streams of marchers from middle-class and poor neighborhoods walked to another part of the capital and said they were demanding Maduro's resignation and a transitional government that would hold new presidential elections in the South American country.
Xiomara Espinoza, 59, said she felt a change of energy in the crowd, whose hopes for a transition in Venezuela have previously been dashed.
"We are around the corner from freedom," she said, banging on a pot and wearing a Venezuelan flag.
Beirut, Feb 3 (AP/UNB) — Nearly 30 children have died in eastern Syria over the past two months after making their way out of the last area controlled by the Islamic State group, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency said Friday.
Andrej Mahecic of UNHCR said in Geneva that malnourishment and hypothermia have been the principal causes of the 29 children's deaths. They are among some 10,000 people who have fled the area near the Iraqi border and reached the al-Hol tent settlement in Hassakeh, raising its population to more than 23,000, Mahecic said.
The evacuations from eastern Syria come during frigid winter weather in the desert region, with mostly women and children fleeing amid the fighting there.
The U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have captured wide areas from IS in recent months in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. The extremists are now besieged in a small pocket near Iraq's border. The fighting that began with an SDF offensive on Sept. 10 has left hundreds dead on both sides. The extremists now control only two villages.
As IS loses ground, thousands of people, many of them women and children, are fleeing and most of them are being taken to a tent settlement in the northeastern province of Hassakeh.
Syria's conflict, which began in March 2011, has impacted children heavily, many of whom have been killed or wounded. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, released a death toll for the conflict in December saying that among the half a million people killed over the past seven years, 20,819 were children or teenagers.
Mahecic said the children who have died since early December — including newborns — have died both during their journey and shortly after their arrival. Medical facilities in Hassakeh, where the most critical cases are referred to from the camp, are overstretched caring for acutely malnourished children.
He said UNHCR and partners have set up 24-hour response teams to receive the newly displaced people, quickly identify the most vulnerable cases and provide urgent assistance, especially to unaccompanied or separated children and those who require immediate medical assistance..
Mahecic said UNHCR and humanitarian partners are racing to meet the urgent needs of vulnerable civilians at al-Hol. He said families fleeing the IS-held enclave and surrounding areas have also told UNHCR "of a harrowing journey to safety."
"They travel at night with barely any belongings, often having to wade through mine fields and open fighting," he said.
Mahecic added that on reaching SDF positions they describe "being herded into open trucks and having to endure another arduous journey in winter weather northwards to al-Hol."
"Little or no assistance is provided en route to the hungry and cold people, the vast majority of whom are women and children," he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said many of those in al-Hol are Iraqi citizens. It added that the dead children include eight Iraqis killed by fire caused by "primitive" methods used for heating.