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Mali Attack Kills Five

File: UN Peacekeepers on patrol in Bamako, Mali. Taken April 14, 2015

Unidentified assailants killed five people in an attack on a civil defence post near the Malian capital Bamako late on Monday, a security ministry statement said on Tuesday.

The official statement did not say who was responsible for the attack, which occurred around 80 km from the capital, Bamako, in an area in southwestern Mali that has been relatively untouched by the Islamist insurgency ravaging central and northern regions.

Two members of the civil defense force and three civilians were killed in the attack, it said, without elaborating.

Mali has become rife with insurgents, many of which can operate openly in the rural areas where government forces are thin, despite their augmentation with Russian mercenary Wagner Group fighters.

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Somalia Hosts Anti - al-Shabab Talks

FILE: Somali authorities ended a deadly attack by al-Shabab at the Hayat Hotel in Mogadishu. At least 20 people were killed and many others wounded when gunmen from the Islamic extremist group stormed the building. Taken Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022.

Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on Wednesday hosted a summit of leaders from several neighboring countries to discuss the fight against Al-Shabab as a wide-ranging offensive against the militants gathers pace.

The meeting Somalia's capital has drawn leaders from three "brotherly neighboring countries."

President Mohamud posted pictures of the arrival of Kenya's William Ruto, Djibouti's Ismail Omar Guelleh and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

They are there to discuss a coordinated military offensive against the Al-Qaeda linked group, which has been waging an insurgency in the troubled Horn of Africa nation for more than 15 years.

Security was beefed up in the city with movement restrictions, military patrols and all commercial flights were suspended.

"The major roads and streets in the city are closed today and there is no civilian movement allowed," Abdulahi Hassan, a member of the national security agency, said.

After taking office in May last year, Mohamud declared an "all-out war" on the jihadists, rallying Somalis to help flush out members of the jihadist group he described as "bedbugs".

In recent months, the army and local clan militias have retaken chunks of territory from the militants in an operation backed by US air strikes and an African Union force known as ATMIS.

But the jihadists who were forced out of the capital by African Union troops in 2011 have frequently retaliated against the latest offensive with bloody strikes.

The meeting comes a day after defense ministers and security chiefs of the four countries met in Mogadishu to prepare for the summit.

"This collaboration is expected to lead to the quick liberation of the country from the Kharijites (renegades) who have been dealt heavy blows on the battlefield in the past few weeks," the Somali government said on Tuesday, using a government term for Al-Shabab.

Although forced out of Mogadishu and other main urban centers, Al-Shabab remains entrenched in the countryside from where they have carried out numerous attacks both in Somalia and in neighboring countries.

In the deadliest Al-Shabab attack since the offensive was launched last year, 121 people were killed in two car bomb explosions at the education ministry in Mogadishu in October.

The group has also been active recently across the border in eastern Kenya, which is a contributor to ATMIS.

The 20,000-strong African Union force, formerly known as AMISOM, has a more offensive remit than its predecessor.

The force is drawn from Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya, with troops deployed in southern and central Somalia.

Its goal is to gradually reduce troop numbers to zero by the end of 2024 with security to be assumed by Somalia's army and police.

Biden, Zelenskyy to Hold Weapons Talks

FILE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks after giving President Joe Biden a gift as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, in Washington.

US President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he will be discussing Ukraine's latest requests for advanced weaponry to defend against Russia with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"We're going to talk," Biden told reporters, speaking the morning after he answered with an emphatic "no" when asked at the White House whether he favored sending F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine.

The United States is by far the biggest supplier of weapons to Ukraine, where the Russian invasion is now approaching the one-year mark. A coalition of other Western countries is also sending arms, ranging from rifles to armored vehicles and artillery.

However, with Russia showing no sign of letting up in its pulverizing of neighbor Ukraine, Zelenskyy has been issuing calls for ever more powerful and sophisticated weapons.

Most recently, the United States and Germany agreed to send advanced tanks, following the earlier lead of Britain.

Now, Ukraine is pressuring for fighter jets and long-range missiles that could hit Russian targets far behind the front lines.

On Tuesday, Polish deputy defense minister Wojciech Skurkiewicz told AFP that Poland, a key player in the Western coalition, is not currently having "official discussions" on transferring any of its own F-16s to Ukraine.

Mali Insurgents Hold Strategy Meetings

FILE: Ansar Dine Islamist group leader Iyad Ag Ghaly (R) speaks next to Burkina Faso's then-Foreign Minister Djibrille Bassole (L) on August 7, 2012 at the Kidal airport, northern Mali.

A powerful Al-Qaeda-affiliated leader in the Sahel has been in secret talks with armed groups in northern Mali which, like him, are fighting Islamic State-backed militants, sources close to the talks said.

Iyad Ag Ghaly, an ethnic Tuareg, heads the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which has been battling the self-described Islamic State (IS) for influence in the Sahel.

Ghaly recently held secret talks in northern Mali, including meetings with leaders of armed groups which have been fighting bloody battles with IS jihadists, the sources said.

They confirmed the talks had taken place but did not comment on mounting speculation that the GSIM would join forces with these groups.

"I was received on an individual basis and alone by Iyad Ag Ghaly lkala in the Kidal region last week. Others went in small groups. He said the same thing to everyone, about uniting the sons of the Kidal region," a local leader told AFP, asking not to be identified.

Kidal is a crossroads region in the north that is not under the control of the Malian state but by a coalition of predominantly Tuareg groups called the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA).

The source who met Ag Ghaly said "he paid tribute to the expected amalgamation" of the CMA's diverse groups, which could take place in February.

Ag Ghaly has been considered by many Malian commentators and officials as an unavoidable figure in efforts to end the country's prolonged crisis.

He was in contact with the government years ago, but the question of a dialogue between jihadists and the authorities has been off the political radar screen since the 2020 coup.

The recent meetings "aren't new," another leader in the north told AFP, saying that Ag Ghaly had always been in touch with powerful men in his region.

Ag Ghaly also met representatives of the civilian populations, telling them of his willingness to "defend sharia and protect them from the Malian army and Russian mercenaries," a local government official said.

The ruling junta has forged close ties with the Kremlin, bringing in operatives that France and others say are from the Wagner paramilitary group.

Ag Ghaly "wants to impose himself as the uncontested leader of the northern Sahel," said a foreign diplomat, saying the question was how the junta would respond to "this worrying new landscape."

It was the CMA which launched a fight for regional independence in 2012 that was joined by jihadists, and which they later fanned into their insurgency.

In 2015, the CMA signed a peace agreement with the Malian government and pro-state armed groups.

Somali Summit on al-Shabab Triggers Lockdown

FILE: Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud leads a demonstration at Banadir stadium, Mogadishu, Thursday Jan. 12, 2023. The government rally encouraged an uprising against the al-Shabab group amid a month long military offensive.

Somalia's capital Mogadishu was under tight security ahead of a regional summit Wednesday on the fight against the jihadist group Al-Shabab.

Defense ministers from Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya were in Mogadishu on Tuesday to prepare for the summit, the information ministry statement said.

Restrictions will be imposed on the movement of people in Mogadishu for the summit, the government said, while flights in and out of Mogadishu are being suspended, according to aviation workers.

"Only emergency aircraft and those transporting VIPs will be allowed during those two days," said Hassan Yare, an employee with a commercial flight company.

Leaders of some of the nations in an African Union force involved in a major offensive against the insurgents "will closely discuss ways to jointly confront the dangers" posed by Al-Shabaab in the region, the Somali government said.

"This collaboration is expected to lead to the quick liberation of the country from the Kharijites (renegades) who have been dealt heavy blows on the battlefield in the past few weeks," it said, using a government term for Al-Shabab.

The army and local clan militias backed by the AU force known as ATMIS have been waging an operation against Al-Shabab in recent months, which has seen them recapture swathes of territory and several strategic towns from the jihadists.

After taking office in May last year, President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud declared "all-out war" on the Al-Qaeda linked group, which has been waging an insurgency in the troubled Horn of Africa nation for more than 15 years.

Although Al-Shabab fighters were forced out of the capital by African Union troops in 2011, they still control parts of the countryside and have carried out numerous attacks both in Somalia and in neighboring countries.

And they have frequently retaliated against the latest offensive with bloody strikes in the capital and elsewhere.

The 20,000-strong African Union force, formerly known as AMISOM, has a more offensive stance and mission than its predecessor.

Its goal is to gradually reduce troop numbers to zero by the end of 2024 with security to be assumed by Somalia's army and police.

"Probe Mali War Crimes" - UN

FILE: Three Russian mercenaries, right, are shown on patrol in northern Mali. Russia analysts say the Wagner Group of mercenaries is key to Putin's ambitions to re-impose Russian influence on Africa, and wider, a global scale. Taken January, 2022.

UN rights experts called Tuesday for an immediate independent probe into abuses and possible war crimes committed in Mali by government forces and Russia's Wagner group.

The UN experts said on Tuesday they had conveyed their concerns directly to Mali's government.

"We are disturbed by the apparent increased outsourcing of traditional military functions to the so-called Wagner Group in various military operations, also encompassing operations defined as counter-terrorism," they said.

"Mali must exert the utmost vigilance in prohibiting the direct participation in hostilities of all private individuals operating on its territory," they insisted.

"The use of mercenaries, mercenary-like actors and private security and military companies only exacerbates the cycle of violence and impunity prevailing in the country."

The UN experts said that since 2021 they had received "persistent and alarming accounts" of violations committed by Malian armed forces and their allies in the Mopti area and elsewhere.

Among the abuses were "horrific executions, mass graves, acts of torture, rape and sexual violence, pillaging, arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances," they said.

The experts include members of the UN working group on the use of mercenaries, and the special rapporteurs on torture and on protecting rights while countering terrorism.

They said they were especially concerned about reports of mass executions last March at a village called Moura in central Mali.

Over several days, according to their information, "Malian forces, accompanied by military personnel believed to belong to the Wagner Group, executed several hundred people who had been rounded up."

Most of the victims were members of the Fulani, a minority, also called Peul, they said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) in April last year had sounded the alarm over the bloodshed at Moura.

The group said 300 civilians had been killed in "the worst single atrocity" recorded in Mali's long-running conflict.

Wagner, an infamous Russian mercenary group founded in 2014, has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East as well as Ukraine.

Earlier this month, the Uited States designated it a "transnational criminal organisation", putting it in league with Italian mafia groups and Japanese and Russian organised crime.

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