North Africa Theater
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.
French President François Hollande made what the New York Times called a "triumphant" visit to Timbuktu Feb. 2, "receiving a rapturous welcome from thousands of people who gathered in a dusty square next to a 14th century mosque to dance, play drums and chant, 'Vive la France!' The muezzin of the mosque, whose singing calls residents to pray five times a day, wore a scarf in the colors of the French flag around his neck, as he shouted, 'Vive Hollande!'" There is no point pretending this didn't happen, or that the jubilation is not authentic. But the Times account does not mention the sinister underside to northern Mali's liberaiton.
The US military is preparing to establish a drone base in "northwest Africa"—likely be located in Niger along the eastern border of Mali, where French forces are currently waging a campaign against jihadist rebels, anonymous officials told the New York Times Jan. 28. The base would supposedly facilitate intelligence gathering by unarmed surveillance drones on al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and related militant networks. If the plan is approved, up to 300 US military personnel and contractors could be sent to staff the base.
International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Jan. 28 warned the Malian government over reports of human rights abuses by Malian forces. In the statement, Bensouda urged Malian authorities to put an immediate stop to the alleged abuses and to investigate and prosecute those responsible. Bensouda announced last week that her office has launched an investigation into possible war crimes committed in Mali. Bensouda said, "I remind all parties to the on-going conflict in Mali that my Office has jurisdiction over all serious crimes committed within the territory of Mali, from January 2012 onwards. All those alleged to be responsible for serious crimes in Mali must be held accountable."
French-led forces have now apparently taken Timbuktu, a day after seizing its airport in a lightning advance against the jihadist militias that held northern Mail. Gao is also under the control of French and Malian troops, leaving only Kidal still in rebel hands among the major towns in Mali's desert north. The West African regional bloc ECOWAS has agreed to boost its troop committment for Mali to 5,700—now that (unless an insurgency is to follow) France has already done the bulk of the fighting. In very sad news, the jihadist forces upon fleeing Timbuktu for the desert, apparently torched the Ahmed Baba Institute—a library housing a priceless collection of centuries-old Islamic manuscripts. "They burned the Ahmed Baba Institute," Timbuktu's exiled Mayor Halle Ousmane Cisse said from Bamako. "It's a catastrophe—for Timbuktu and all humanity." (Middle East Online, DPA, NYT, Jan. 28)