Washington, Dec 18 (AP/UNB) — A spate of American airstrikes against Islamic extremists in Somalia is the latest in a dramatic uptick in U.S. attacks in the Horn of Africa nation since President Donald Trump took office.
The weekend strikes, which killed 62 people, targeted al-Shabab militants who want to establish their own version of repressive Shariah law in Somalia. A Somali intelligence officer told The Associated Press that the strikes on Gandarshe, a town along the Indian Ocean coast, were aimed at foiling a planned extremist attack.
The U.S. conducted 17 airstrikes in Somalia between 2007 and 2015, according to Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal who has tracked airstrikes in several countries for more than a decade. But those numbers have sharply escalated in recent years.
In 2016, the last year of Barack Obama's presidency, the U.S. launched 15 strikes in Somalia. That number rose to 31 in 2017 and at least 45 this year.
Al-Shabab once controlled large swathes of Somalia, including much of the capital, Mogadishu. African Union forces have succeeded in pushing the extremists from most major cities, however the group continues to be active in Somalia's rural areas and still launches suicide car bomb attacks in the capital. Last year, a massive truck bomb killed more than 500 people.
There are between 3,000 and 7,000 al-Shabab militants in Somalia, along with up to 250 Islamic State group members.
The U.S. is targeting training camps and other sites to reduce al-Shabab's the military capacity, said Roggio, who predicts the airstrikes in Somalia will continue at the current pace or increase.
"They are effective in keeping al-Shabab at bay, but not effective at defeating them — dealing them a decisive blow," Roggio said.
The weekend strikes were aimed at al-Shabab fighters who were preparing a major attack on a Somali government military base in the Lower Shabelle region, said the intelligence official, who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter. The official said the airstrikes hit both a military camp and battle vehicles in Gandarshe. Al-Shabab has long used the historic town southwest of Mogadishu, as a place to organize and launch attacks, including car bombs that hit the capital.
The U.S. military said Monday it carried out four strikes on Dec. 15 in which 34 people were killed and two more on Dec. 16 which killed 28. No civilians were injured or killed in the attacks, U.S. military officials said.
The strikes were carried out in close coordination with Somalia's government and were "conducted to prevent al-Shabab from using remote areas as a safe haven to plot, direct, inspire and recruit for future attacks," said the U.S. military statement.
The strikes are part of the Trump administration's strategy in Africa that addresses three core U.S. interests on the continent: advancing trade and commercial ties, making sure that money spent on U.S. aid is not wasteful and combating violence and Islamic extremism.
After decades of the U.S. largely leaving Somalis to work out their own problems, the Trump administration with its focus on counterterror operations has grown the number of U.S. military personnel in the country to an estimated 500. Two U.S. service members have been killed in Somalia since Trump took office, the first such deaths since 1993.
United Nations, Dec 4 (AP/UNB) — More than 150 women and girls have sought treatment in the past 12 days for rape and other acts of sexual violence near Bentiu, the second-largest city in South Sudan, U.N. officials said Monday.
A joint statement from the U.N. humanitarian chief and the heads of the U.N. children's agency and the U.N. population agency condemned the "abhorrent attacks."
They said that "the assailants have been described as armed men, many in uniform."
A U.N. statement said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the attacks. "These horrific acts are a distressing reminder of how, despite recent recommitments by South Sudan's leaders to a cessation of hostilities and a revitalized peace agreement, the security situation for civilians remains dire, especially for women and children," the statement said.
Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and U.N. Population Fund Executive Director Natalia Kanem called on authorities "to publicly denounce the attacks and ensure that those responsible for these crimes face justice."
In the first half of 2018, they said, some 2,300 cases of gender-based violence were reported to medical and aid groups in South Sudan, the vast majority perpetrated against women and girls and over 20 percent against children.
"The actual number of cases is far higher, as gender-based violence continues to be severely under-reported," the U.N. officials said.
"Humanitarian workers are providing critical, life-saving assistance and services to the survivors of the attacks," they said. "We call on the authorities to ensure the protection and safety of both civilians and aid workers, to ensure that further such horrendous violations are prevented and that assistance reaches those in need."
Humanitarian workers have warned of higher rates of sexual assault as growing numbers of desperate people try to reach aid.
Doctors Without Borders said Saturday the "dramatic increase" in sexual violence occurred as the women and girls walked to a food distribution site in Bentiu in Unity state.
They were robbed of clothing and shoes, and even their ration cards for food distribution were seized and destroyed, the group said.
Ruth Okello, a midwife with Doctors Without Borders who treated some of the survivors, called what happened "indescribable" and said those targeted include pregnant and elderly women and girls as young as 10.
Before the latest attacks, the medical charity said its Bentiu clinic treated 104 survivors of sexual assault in the first 10 months of this year.
There were high hopes that South Sudan would have peace and stability after its independence from neighboring Sudan in 2011. But it plunged into ethnic violence in December 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, started battling those loyal to Riek Machar, his former vice president who is a Nuer.
Sexual violence has been widespread in the country's civil war.
A peace deal signed in August 2015 didn't stop the fighting, and neither did cessation of hostilities agreement in December 2017 and a declaration on June 27. A Sept. 12 power-sharing agreement signed in neighboring Sudan has so far been fraught with delays, missed deadlines and continued fighting in parts of the country.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and forced over 4 million to flee their homes — more than 1.8 million of them leaving the country in what has become one of the world's fastest-growing refugee crises.
A U.N. panel of experts circulated a report last week saying that the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan and U.N. human rights experts recently "corroborated accounts by victims and witnesses of women and girls as young as 12 years having been abducted by opposition forces and paraded for commanders to choose as 'wives'."
Three of Machar's commanders in charge of forces committing the offenses have been identified, the panel said. They were not named.
Port-Au-Prince, Nov 22 (AP/UNB) — A Haitian government car went out of control into a group of people on Wednesday, killing at least six and further inflaming unrest in a capital wracked by violent protests.
Police spokesman Michel-Ange Louis-Jeune told The Associated Press that one of the car's wheels had come off. Protesters later set fire to the car, which remained on the scene in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Louis-Jeune said he didn't know how many people died, but an AP journalist on the scene counted the bodies of four men and two women on the ground.
The deaths come as Haiti faces a fourth day of protests to demand that President Jovenel Moise resign for not investigating allegations of corruption in the previous government over Petrocaribe, a Venezuelan subsidized energy program.
At least nine people have died in the protests, not including those hit by the car. The ninth death was reported on Wednesday. Police spokesman Frantz Lerebours told the AP that authorities discovered the body of a young man while clearing street barricades in the southern department of Nippes.
Schools and government offices remained closed on Wednesday, as did many banks and grocery stores. However, hundreds of people stood outside one bank that opened in the neighborhood of Petionville, and public buses were running again.
Government trucks also cleared many streets blocked by barricades of tires, although some remained burning in parts of the capital.
Juba, Nov 22 (AP/UNB) — Five hundred cows, two luxury cars, $10,000, two bikes, a boat and a few cell phones made up the final price in a heated bidding war for a child bride in South Sudan that went viral after the auction was pointed out on Facebook. It is the largest dowry ever paid in the civil war-torn country, the government said.
The highest bidder was a man three times the 17-year-old's age. At least four other men in Eastern Lakes state competed, said Philips Anyang Ngong, a human rights lawyer who tried to stop the bidding last month. Among the bidders was the state's deputy governor.
"She has been reduced to a mere commodity," Ngong told The Associated Press, calling it "the biggest test of child abuse, trafficking and auctioning of a human being." Everyone involved should be held accountable, he said.
Earlier this month, Nyalong became the man's ninth wife. Photos posted on Facebook show her sitting beside the groom, wearing a lavish dress and staring despondently at the floor. The AP is using only her first name to protect her identity. The groom did not respond to requests for comment.
South Sudan has a deeply rooted cultural practice of paying dowries for brides, usually in the form of cows. It also has a long history of child marriage. Even though that practice is now illegal, 40 percent of girls still marry before age 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The practice "threatens girls' lives" and limits prospects for their future, said Dr. Mary Otieno, the agency's country representative.
The bidding war has caused local and international outrage. It took several days for Facebook to remove the post that first pointed out the auction, and after it was taken down other posts "glorifying" the situation remained, George Otim, country director for Plan International South Sudan, told the AP.
"This barbaric use of technology is reminiscent of latter-day slave markets. That a girl could be sold for marriage on the world's biggest social networking site in this day and age is beyond belief," he said. The auction was discussed, not carried out, on the site.
Facebook did not reply to a request for comment.
While South Sudan's government condemns the practice of child marriage it says it can't regulate communities' cultural norms, especially in remote areas.
"You can't call it bidding as if it was an auction. It's not bidding. If you see it with European eyes you'll call it an auction," government spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny told the AP. "You have to see it with an African eye, as it's a tradition that goes back thousands of years. There's no word for it in English."
Some local lawmakers and activists disagree. In a statement released this week, the National Alliance for Women Lawyers in South Sudan called upon officials to comply with the government's plan to end child marriage by 2030. Ending the practice includes putting a stop to the auctioning of girls.
South Sudan's anti-human trafficking chief called the case reminiscent of others he has seen across the country, in which girls are forced or tricked into marriage after being told they are going to live with relatives and go to school instead.
"It is clear that some human trafficking practices are hidden in our culture," John Mading said.
In other cases, some girls who grow up in the South Sudanese diaspora are brought back to the country and forced to marry. The AP spoke with several people who know girls who arrived for what they thought was a vacation, only to have their passports taken away and forced into marriage by their families.
"Some families want children to marry in their countries and in their ethnic communities, but most do it if the kids are misbehaving," said Esther Ikere Eluzai, undersecretary for South Sudan's ministry of gender.
Port-Au-Prince, Nov 20 (AP/UNB) — One police officer was killed and three people were wounded in Haiti on Monday amid a second day of countrywide protests over allegations of government corruption.
Two of the wounded were foreigners who were hurt by gunfire.
One of those was a 29-year-old French woman who was riding with her boyfriend and a Haitian-American tourist from the Port-au-Prince airport to a popular beach club about two hours away.
Her name is Marion Bobin, 29, said her boyfriend, Francis Eugene, who explained the incident to The Associated Press.
Eugene, 27, said the Haitian-American tourist and the driver were also wounded.
He said a group of armed men tried to stop an airport shuttle operated by the club about a half-hour before it arrived at its destination and opened fire when it refused to stop.
It wasn't immediately clear how seriously the tourists and driver were hurt.
Haitian police said earlier in the day that one of their officers had been killed by a street gang in the capital.
Police spokesman Gary Derosier told the AP that the officer was riding in a motorcycle taxi that was stopped at a roadblock run by a street gang, who fatally shot him and burned his body in an alley.
Schools were closed and most other activities around the country were stopped Monday, a day after six died in clashes between protesters and police.
Demonstrators were calling for the president to resign for not investigating allegations of corruption in the previous government over a Venezuelan subsidized energy program, Petrocaribe.