North Africa Theater
A Rabat military court on Feb. 17 handed prison sentences, including eight life terms, to a group of 24 Sahrawis accused of killing members of the security forces in Morocco-occupied Western Sahara in 2010. Four received 30-year terms, while 25th defendant was tried in absentia and given a life sentence. The charges, including "forming criminal gangs, and violence against the security forces leading to deaths and the mutilation of corpses," stemmed from violence surrounding the November 2010 eviciton of a protest encampment at Gdim Izik outside Laayoune, capital of the occupied territory. Amnesty International condemned the military trial as "flawed from the outset," and called for an investigation of claims that incriminating statements had been made under torture. (Reuters, Al Jazeera, Feb. 17)
Britain's The Telegraph on Feb. 13 reports on a document reportedly found by their reporter in the ruins of a Gendarmerie Nationale barracks outside Timbuktu that had been used by the jihadists and then destroyed in a French air-strike. The document, purportedly the notes from a March 18, 2012 leadership meeting of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), chaired by AQIM "prince" Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud, is said to lay bare AQIM's plan to consolidate control of northern Mali, stating: "We had to think of the necessity to draw a plan to command and control the jihad activities there at this critical moment and target all efforts to achieve the required goals." The supposed document is portrayed as especially expressing concerns over Ansar Dine, the faction that controlled Timbuktu, as too independent. An AP account claims their own reporter found the document, and identifies Wadoud as nom de guerre of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the AQIM top commander supposedly appointed by Osama bin Laden.
Tension remains high in Gao after a pitched battle over the weekend as French troops beat back an attempt by MUJAO fighters to retake the remote northern Malian city. Jihadist fighters succeeded succeeded in taking a custer of buildings in the center of town, including the former administrative building that had been used by MUJAO "Islamic police." After the builging was destroyed in a French helicopter assault, fighting ensued for hours over the ruins. French President Francois Hollande said his goal is that "not one space of Mali's territory be under the control of terrorists." A death toll could not immediately be established, but Col. Mamadou Sanake of the Malian army said, "Many Islamists were killed."
For days we have been wondering about the fate of Kidal, the last town in northern Mali that remains under rebel control. Unless you are paying close attention, you would not know that the rebels in Kidal are not jihadists—they are secular Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who took the town from the local jihadist faction, Ansar Dine, at the same time that combined French and Malian forces were driving the jihadists from Timbuktu and Gao last month. French-led forces reportedly captured Kidal's airport last week but have held back on entering the town itself—an implicit acknowledgement of the sensitive situation, a desire to avoid opening a new insurgency with the MNLA but also to stop short of allowing them a zone of control. Now the French military says it is 1,800 soldiers from Chad that have entered Kidal. An astute choice.
Thousands of people massed on Feb. 8 in Tunis for the funeral of slain opposition leader Chokri Belaid, with the city shut down in a general strike called by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). "With our blood and our souls we will sacrifice ourselves for the martyr," shouted the mourners, who included some prominent politicians. Chants also denouned the ruling Ennahda party as "assassins." Police fired tear-gas and warning shots as clashes erupted. Strikes and clashes were also reported in other cities, with police firing tear-gas on protesters in Sousse and the mining town of Gafsa. Two days of protests across the country have left scores injured and a police officer dead. (Middle East Online, Middle East Online, Al Jazeera, AFP, The Lede, Feb. 8)
The International Criminal Court on Feb. 7 ordered Libyan officials to hand over the former intelligence chief for Moammar Qaddafi and allow him to meet with his lawyer. The ex-spy chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, has been indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity stemming from the alleged murders and persecution of Libyan protesters during the Libya conflict and uprising in 2011. Despite the order, however, Libyan authorities continue to contend that the ICC is a court of last resort and that the transfer of al-Senussi is unnecessary given that Libya is prepared to try him in a domestic proceeding. Al-Senussi's lawyers contend, however, that the former intelligence chief will not receive fair treatment in any Libyan tribunal, thus making an international trial obligatory. If Libya refuses the extradition, the ICC may report the matter to the UN Security Council for investigation.
Tunisia's Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali announced that he will dissolve the Islamist-led administration and form a new "technocrat government" as protests rocked the country Feb. 6 following the slaying of opposition leader Chokri Belaid. The headquarters of the Ennahda party, which rules in a fractious coalition with secularists, was set ablaze as Belaid's body was taken by ambulance through Tunis from the hospital where he died. Police fired tear-gas on some 20,000 protesters at the Interior Ministry, who chanted for the fall of the government. Despite calls for calm from the administration, thousands also took to the streets in Mahdia, Sousse, Monastir and Sidi Bouzid—the cradle of the revolution, where police fired tear-gas and warning shots as protesters set cars and a police station on fire.
French warplanes on Feb. 2 carried out air-strikes in the remaining pocket of Mali's far north still under rebel control—but exactly which rebels remains unclear. The air-strikes apparently targeted rebel bases in Tessalit—a mountainous area near the Algerian border—and outside Kidal, the last major town still in rebel hands. (See map.) French forces claim to have captured Kidal's airport on Jan. 30, as prelude to taking the town, following the pattern in Timbuktu days earlier. But one day before that, the secular Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) claimed to have seized Kidal from jihadist forces. The MNLA have portrayed their advance into Kidal as part of a coordinated campaign against the "terrorists"; however, the fate of Kidal could be the test of whether there is any place for Tuareg autonomy in the new order.