Security Exchange News

Security Exchange Newsletter | November

04 December 2020
 


The November edition of InTouch Monthly covers the conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and the recent suicide bomb attacks in Afghanistan, which have occurred as the government and the Taliban continues peace talks. In the US, Joe Biden faces a number of significant challenges when he takes office in January, including how he can revive the Iran nuclear deal. This issue has been made more complicated by the assassination of Iran's nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, near Tehran.

AFRICA 

Ethiopia | At the start of November, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared a state of emergency in the northern region of Tigray. Ahmed made the decision in response to an attack on a military base that he blamed on the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF). Tensions were already high between the federal government and the TPLF after officials in the region proceeded with elections in defiance of the PM, who postponed general elections due to the outbreak of coronavirus in the country. In October the upper house of parliament voted to sever ties with the Tigray regional state assembly, while the TPLF rejected the appointment of a general from Abiy's government. Tigrayan politicians had led the ruling coalition which took power in Ethiopia in 1991 but they were side-lined when Abiy was appointed prime minister in 2018.

Following the attack on the army base, Abiy deployed troops to Tigray and the military conducted a series of airstrikes on TPLF positions. Federal troops captured the airport in Humera before advancing on the regional capital, Mekelle, which Abiy claimed to have fully controlled at the end of November. The TPLF responded to the campaign by carrying out strikes into the neighbouring region of Amhara and firing rockets into Eritrea, who it accused of deploying troops to fight alongside government forces. Communications were shutdown in Tigray, which has made it difficult to verify casualty figures. Thousands of people are estimated to have been killed, including around 600 civilians who were killed in a massacre in the town of Mai Kadra by militias linked to the TPLF. Abiy claims that no civilians were killed in the month-long offensive, despite allegations from the TPLF that civilians were targeted in government airstrikes. More than 40,000 people fled across the border to neighbouring Sudan, prompting the UN and aid agencies to warn of a humanitarian crisis. The TPLF, led by Debretsion Gebremichael, has vowed to continue fighting against the "invaders".

Nigeria | Insecurity continues to plague large parts of Nigeria, evident last month by multiple kidnappings and piracy attacks. On November 15 a group of nine students were abducted during an ambush on the Kaduna-Abuja highway. Bandits killed at least two people during the attack, which took place as students from the Department of French at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) were travelling to Lagos. The highway is often targeted by bandits and criminal groups and there have been multiple attacks on the route in recent years. The students were eventually released following the reported payment of a ransom of one million naira per student, well below the initial demand of N270m; however the following week a lecturer from ABU was kidnapped on the campus in Zaria state. The victim was seized from his house along with his wife and daughter, although they were released when the security forces pursued the kidnappers into the bush. A teacher was also kidnapped in the southern state of Delta in mid-November. The victim's family said they had received an N10m ransom demand. Other notable incidents were recorded in Ondo state, where a traditional ruler was abducted on the Owo-Ifon road, and the kidnapping of 25 people in Niger state.

There has also been a spike in piracy attacks off Nigeria and in the wider Gulf of Guinea. A product tanker was targeted around 160nm south of Benin in mid-November. An Italian navy frigate was deployed to assist the vessel, and crew members managed to retreat to the citadel. The incident took place two days before a product tanker came under fire 95nm south of Benin. While these attacks were unsuccessful, pirates did manage to kidnap crew members closer to Nigeria's coastline. Five Ghanaian crew members were abducted from a cargo vessel 35nm off the Agbano Terminals in the Niger Delta and 10 people were later kidnapped from a freighter near the Pennington FPSO. Earlier this week two people were captured by pirates from a passenger boat that was travelling from Port Harcourt to Bonny. Local residents condemned the security forces for failing to prevent attacks on civilians in the area.

Uganda | Political tensions are increasing ahead of presidential elections in January. The main opposition candidate Is Bobi Wine, a musician turned politician whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi. A long-time critic of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, Wine has been arrested on multiple occasions by the Ugandan security services. After he was detained and charged with incitement to violence back in August 2018, Wine alleged that he had been tortured. He was arrested again last month while campaigning in the Luuka district. Officials accused him of breaching coronavirus restrictions, while his supporters took to the streets and blocked roads in the capital, Kampala. Protests continued for several days and at least 45 people were killed across the country. Activists claimed that plainclothes officers had opened fire on demonstrators. Multiple unverified videos were posted on social media during the unrest which claimed to show protesters coming under fire. Uganda police spokesman responded by saying that several officers were being investigated for "allegedly conducting themselves unprofessionally" during the protests.

Wine was released after several days, but he was targeted by police again as he was heading to a campaign venue in the Kayunga district earlier this week. A music producer for Wine was shot and wounded by a rubber bullet, while several other staff members were also wounded during the incident. In response, Wine briefly announced that he was suspending his campaign because his life was in danger, although on Thursday he said he was heading to Kibuku, Budaka and Manafwa to resume his campaign. Further unrest is highly likely in the weeks leading up to the vote.


AMERICAS

Venezuela | Venezuela is holding its parliamentary elections as President Nicolas Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) attempt to regain control of the opposition-dominated National Assembly (AN). Leader of the opposition Juan Guaido has already urged parties in the opposition to boycott the vote based on allegations of irregularities in the process after the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) – the TSE is often accused of being controlled by Maduro - nominated new members of the National Electoral Commission (CNE). Guaido, who is recognised as Venezuela’s interim president by the US and most European countries, has accused President Maduro of forcefully attempting to seize control of parliament. The AN is the only public body that is not controlled by either the PSUV or its allied parties. Despite Guaido’s request to boycott the vote, some opposition parties will take part in the election. Initially, the influential politician Henrique Capriles of the Justice First (PJ) said that he would participate but he later retracted this statement after calling for the vote to be postponed. On the side of President Maduro are smaller parties that are known for traditionally siding with the Chavismo. In the run-up to the elections, the TSJ imposed significant restrictions on the leadership of left-wing parties. In August, the TSJ suspended the leadership of the Tupamaro Party to replace it with a PSUV-led adhoc board. A similar move happened a month later against the PJ but the decision was revoked. In order to promote voter participation, the government recently relaxed coronavirus measures nationwide.

In addition to the opposition’s plan to boycott the vote, the international community is also closely watching developments. The European Union (EU), which recognises Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president has refused to send observers to monitor the vote. After failed attempts to postpone the vote, the EU foreign policy head Josep Borrell said: “As the elections are not going to be postponed, the European Union cannot even consider sending an election observer mission.” Leaders in Latin America also announced their support for the opposition. Chile’s Foreign Minister Andres Allamand said that Chile will not recognise the results of the vote and said that Guaido will remain as the rightful president. In Argentina, leftist President Alberto Fernandez has not commented on the issue so far. In November, the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution that imposes demands for the electoral process to be recognised – Venezuela withdrew from the OAS in 2019. Meanwhile, the US has also stepped up pressure despite Donald Trump leaving office in January. A series of economic sanctions have been imposed against international companies and individuals accused of aiding the Maduro administration. US criticism intensified after six former executives of the US-based company Citgo – a subsidiary of the state-owned PDVSA – were jailed for corruption.

US | Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is already preparing to take office in January 2021 after winning November’s presidential election. Biden has secured 306 electoral college votes against President Donald Trump, who secured 232. Biden has also won the popular vote with nearly 81 million votes against 74 million of the outgoing president. The Electoral College is expected to meet on 14 December to formalise Biden’s victory. Although he is already working alongside his VP, Kamala Harris, as president-elect, President Trump has filed a number of lawsuits claiming multiple fraud allegations. Most of the lawsuits have already been dismissed, with Attorney General William Barr stating that investigations so far have shown no evidence of fraud. Barr’s announcement was made after a probe led by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Initially, President Trump said that he would not concede but eventually said that he would leave his post after a final Electoral College vote. Despite not yet formally conceding, President Trump acknowledged Biden’s victory and unlocked federal funds to allow the upcoming administration to prepare before the inauguration. Biden has already nominated several key cabinet positions filled with political allies dating back to his time as a senator and Barack Obama’s VP. They include seats in the departments of the treasury, homeland security and state. Biden’s victory marks a major turn in US politics, but he will have to work with a potential Republican-controlled Senate to pass key legislation. An outright Republican majority in the Senate will depend on the results of the runoffs in Georgia in early-January, where two senatorial seats will be up for grabs – in order to secure a majority, Republicans only need to win one of the races to achieve 51 seats.

On top of the major political challenges, Biden will have to deal with when he takes office in January, his administration will also face the challenge of preparing to immunise the population once a Covid-19 vaccine is approved for use there. The US is among the worst-hit countries affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with the number of cases, deaths, and hospitalisations still on the rise. The US has already surpassed 13 million cases, with the death toll nearing 300,000. Concerns intensified as the country reported its highest numbers of people hospitalised ahead of the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. That increase has also highlighted the challenge to deal with the pandemic during both autumn and winter months when other illnesses are usually on the rise. With optimistic news coming from the development of vaccines, several laboratories have already requested authorisation from the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA). Among them include the US-based Moderna – which claims a vaccine efficiency of higher than 94 percent - and the Pfizer/BioNTech – claimed to have up to 95 percent efficiency. The latter has already been approved for use in the UK. In total, the US has secured more than a billion vaccine doses from six major laboratories, with more than half of them from the UK-based AstraZeneca, which is developing the vaccine with the University of Oxford. Other agreements were made with Novavax, Sanofi-GSK, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech – the US has currently secured up to 100 million doses from each of those laboratories.

Guatemala | A wave of demonstrations has been reported across Guatemala after the government announced its new 2021 budget. A political crisis is feared to be brewing in the country with increasing pressure on President Alejandro Giammattei to step down from office. Protests began in late-November after Congress approved the legislation. Despite being considered the largest ever budget to be approved, it would incur significant cuts to education, public health services, judiciary systems and social aid (including food subsidies). Controversy emerged after a large chunk of funds was allocated to the ministry of communications, which oversees major public projects. Protests turned violent in Guatemala City where demonstrators set parts of the Congress building on fire. Over the course of several days, protesters launched large-scale demonstrations and clashed with the police. Despite President Giammattei announcing the withdrawal of the budget and ordered lawmakers to redraft the proposal, civil unrest persisted across Guatemala. Criticism of the government’s behaviour mostly concerns allegations of corruption and a lack of political transparency. For years, high-level politicians have been implicated in major corruption scandals related to the political sector and organised crime. Former President Jimmy Morales was previously accused of widespread corruption, but he managed to evade prison and the investigations with the support of the parliament controlled by his party, the National Convergence Front (FCN). Similar anti-corruption protests were previously reported in Guatemala when parliament approved controversial legislation on penal system reforms that would reduce sentences on hundreds of crimes.

Widespread government corruption is just another challenge that President Giammattei faces. When he took office, he proceeded with implemented his predecessor’s plan to expel the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). With the coronavirus pandemic significantly affecting the country, Guatemala has reported one of the highest rates of infections in Central America. It has already surpassed 100,000 cases and 4,000 deaths. The pandemic has also had a huge economic impact on the country, especially on Guatemala’s informal workforce. With increasing uncertainty, President Giammattei was forced to request emergency assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In June, the IMF Executive Board approved the country’s request for $594m to assist with social and economic programmes in Guatemala. In addition to corruption and the coronavirus pandemic, Guatemala has suffered a major impact during one of the busiest Atlantic Hurricane seasons in history. In November, most of the country was heavily affected after hurricanes Eta and Iota battered Central America. In Guatemala alone, it is estimated that more than 150 people were killed. In Central America, estimates have shown that both storms caused an estimated $5.5bn worth of damage. As the hurricane season came to an end, President Giammattei asked the US government to allow temporary humanitarian protection of Guatemalan citizens already in the US. In previous months, the US stepped up the number of deportation flights despite risks related to the coronavirus.


ASIA

Afghanistan | Over the weekend, a suicide bomber targeted an Afghan National Army (ANA) military base in a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attack. The attack killed 31 ANA soldiers and wounded a further 24 others. The attacker reportedly drove a military vehicle laden with explosives onto an army commando base in the outskirts of Ghazni city, where the VBIED was then detonated in a planned attack targeting the government security forces. No claim of responsibility has been made for the attack so far. According to Reuters, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the attack when contacted by the news agency. The attack came the same day another suicide bombing targeted the convoy of Zabul’s provincial council chief Attajan Haqbayat, killing at least three people and wounding 12 others, including children. Haqbayat reportedly survived the blast with minor injuries. No immediate claim of responsibility has been made.

The suicide bombings come amid an uptick in violent attacks in Afghanistan. In the last few months, there has been a noticeable spate of car bombings, despite ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Qatar, which recently reached a breakthrough agreement on procedural rules which will allow the fragile peace process to progress. Attacks in Kabul have resulted in more than 50 fatalities in recent weeks, including two attacks on educational institutions and a rocket attack. All three of these were claimed by the Islamic State (IS); however, the government have insisted the Taliban were responsible, despite the group denying any involvement.

Australia-China | Australia has demanded an apology from China for posting a fake picture on a government Twitter account which depicted an Australian soldier with a bloody knife next to an Afghan child who is holding a lamb. Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the picture as "truly repugnant, deeply offensive, utterly outrageous". The image appears to reference previous allegations that elite Australian soldiers used knives to kill two 14-year-old Afghan boys. A recent enquiry which was launched to investigate alleged war crimes found 25 soldiers guilty of murdering 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013; however, the report did not substantiate allegations of Afghan children being killed. Morrison stated that the investigation process was transparent.

The controversial image was posted online by China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhao, who claimed the recent report on alleged war crimes “fully exposed the hypocrisy of the human rights and freedom these Western countries are always chanting”. Australia has requested Twitter remove the post from its platform, describing it as "disinformation" and a “terrible slur on our defence forces”. Morrison also warned that the post diminished the Chinese government in the world’s eyes and that other countries would be carefully observing Beijing’s treatment of Australia. The development comes amid escalated political tensions between the two countries over a range of issues, including calls for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 and ongoing discussion over Beijing’s alleged interference in Australian affairs. Morrison acknowledged the recent strain on bilateral relations but insisted “this is not how you deal with it” – implying the image may have been part of a wider smear campaign against Australia. China, in response, has refused to issue an apology, instead blaming Australia for worsening bilateral ties and accusing Canberra of attempting to "deflect public attention" away from the enquiry into war crimes.

Over the last few months, economic measures have been taken by China against Australia, including trade stoppages and tariffs. Canberra claims the measures are in response to strained relations, describing them as “economic coercion”; however, Beijing has maintained the position that the measures have nothing to do with the escalating spat. China’s embassy in Australia has in return circulated a list of 14 policy areas they claim Australia has aggravated relations. Among the policy areas listed include Canberra’s decision to ban Chinese tech firm Huawei from its 5G tender and “incessant wanton interference in China’s Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan affairs,” both things many Western countries, including the UK and the US, have been accused of. Morrison has stated Canberra will not change its position on these issues and confirmed on Monday that Australia’s requests for bilateral meetings with Chinese ministers continue to go unanswered.

Papua New Guinea | A new political crisis is unfolding in Papua New Guinea. The government of Prime Minister James Marape, which was elected last year, has had a vote of no confidence brought against it by the opposition in parliament. The move was announced in a parliamentary session last month when dozens of government MPs defected to the opposition. The mass revolt came about due to various complaints against Marape’s government, including a failure to improve the country’s struggling economy. The opposition laid out plans to bring a vote of no confidence against the government in December. Every new government gets an 18-month grace period, which means they can’t be challenged through a vote of no confidence during that time. Marape’s grace period was set to expire at the end of November.

Votes of no confidence are not an unusual occurrence in Papua New Guinea politics, and when one is brought against the government, both the opposition and governing party typically retreat from parliament to set up camps  - usually in hotels, where all MPs will live until the vote takes place. The procedure allows both sides to keep track of numbers and plan their proceedings. When the opposition, using its swelled ranks from defecting government MPs, took control of the floor to adjourn parliament until December, it then followed established protocol and flew out of Port Moresby to set up camp on the other side of the country. However, in a surprising turn of events, the speaker of Parliament ruled their adjournment “incorrect”, as according to law, only a government minister can suspend parliament – meaning parliament was still in progress. The government’s remaining MPs then returned to session and with no opposition to oppose them, passed the government’s budget before suspending Parliament until April next year – effectively hitting pause on the vote of no confidence. In response to the sitting, opposition leader, Peter O’Neill, is taking the issue to the Supreme Court in an attempt to have the suspension ruled illegal.

Previous votes of no confidence have also ended up in the courts, with one incident in 2011 leading to a months-long power struggle between opposition leader Peter O’Neill and former leader Michael Somare. O’Neill eventually won the battle in a 2012 election, governing the country until last year’s election. The successive constitutional crises have prompted much discussion over how the country elects its Prime Minister and how the political system effectively enables the systematic ousting of governing parties. For now, the courts must work through the current political controversy. If the Opposition’s challenge against Marape’s government is successful, parliament could be back in session in December – if not, it will be back in April. Either way, a vote of no confidence remains possible, but the time between now and then could make all the difference in how long each side gets to bolster their numbers.


EUROPE

France | Protests against police brutality in France have become violent in recent years following incidents involving law enforcement and the public on the outskirts of Paris and other major cities. Far-right political parties, such as the National Front (FN), have exploited racial tensions and the current political environment to garner more support. However, despite the FN (under the leadership of Marine Le Pen) emerging as a major political force in 2017, voters decided to side with centrist President Emmanuel Macron. Since the last election, similar protests have taken place across France after the police were accused of exceeding their powers amid allegations of deliberately targeting black men in low-income Parisian suburbs. Tensions escalated after movements such as the Black Lives Matters (BLM) in the US-inspired calls for police reforms in France and the end of racial discrimination within the police. In June 2020, the death of George Floyd in the US caused shockwaves in France when demonstrators demanded justice for the death of Adam Traore, a black youth killed in police custody back in 2016. Daily demonstrations to promote police reforms exerted pressure on President Macron and then-Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. Meanwhile, police officers themselves staged protests against the new measures. Most recently, four police officers were charged and arrested after footage emerged of a police operation to detain a black musical producer at his own studio in central Paris. Initial reports suggested that the incident occurred after Michel Zecler was stopped on the streets of the capital for not wearing a face mask.

In addition to episodes of police brutality, France has also been targeted abroad through anti-French sentiment in the aftermath of a terrorist incident near Paris. In October, a schoolteacher was decapitated in the Parisian suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on press freedom. Caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad are widely perceived as highly offensive and a taboo topic in Islam. Samuel Paty was killed shortly after the class by an associate of a student. The incident sparked calls for press freedom guarantees which were widely supported by the government. Shortly after the incident, satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo also published a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad – further inflaming tensions. As a result of comments made by Macron defending the press’ right to publish such cartoons, anti-French sentiment has grown in several Muslim-majority countries with protests reported outside French embassies and consulates worldwide. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a boycott of French products, with similar demonstrations reported in Bangladesh, Qatar, Kuwait and Pakistan.

Despite defending free speech, the Macron administration has become caught up in another controversy after promoting a contested security law, which media organisations claim curbs press freedom. Despite coronavirus restrictions, thousands marched across major cities to protest against the bill, which was recently passed in the lower house of parliament. Article 24 of the law has proven particularly controversial, as it virtually forbids people from publishing pictures or footage of police officers with the intent to harm their ‘personal or physical integrity’. Rights organisations claim that the law hinders accountability of the police and risks enabling the abuse of power and police brutality. The bill has already been retracted and will be redrafted despite resistance from Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

Germany | Armed police were deployed to the western German city of Trier on Tuesday after a car ploughed into pedestrians near Roman Gate. Five people have died following the incident, including a nine-week-old baby girl and her father, while as many as 15 others have been injured. The scene was described as “horrible”, with witness reports detailing screams of panic as people were thrown in the air by the vehicle, which was travelling at a high speed through the city’s Brotstrasse and Simeonstrasse areas for approximately one kilometre, zigzagging and “hitting people at random” before being stopped by a police car.

Dozens of police vehicles were dispatched in response to the incident, which came at a time of year when a festive Christmas market would usually have filled the pedestrianised area. The incident came as Germany went into its second coronavirus lockdown, and bollards which would have usually been in place to protect the pedestrianised area in Trier had not been put up in the Christmas market’s absence – thereby allowing vehicular access to the area. The market had been cancelled amid the Covid-19 pandemic, but yesterday’s incident was nevertheless reminiscent of the 2016 Berlin truck attack, which targeted a Christmas market in the capital, leaving 12 dead and dozens injured.

Immediately following Tuesday’s incident, extensive investigations were launched to determine if the incident was politically or religiously motivated. The authorities have since confirmed that they are not working on the assumption the incident had links to terrorism. The driver has been identified in German media as Bernd W – a 51-year-old local man with no criminal record who is understood to have been driving under the influence. The prosecutor described the suspect as having consumed a significant amount of alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a Land Rover. Footage of the scene on social media shows the suspect being detained by multiple police officers. Police have been questioning the suspect, with initial indications suggesting psychiatric problems may have also played a factor, as it’s believed the suspect had no fixed address and had been living in the Land Rover, which had been borrowed from a friend. The suspect will likely face multiple charges, including manslaughter and driving under the influence.

UK | A new, stricter, Covid-19 tier system has come into force in England following the country’s second nationwide lockdown amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The new tiered system came into force just hours after being approved by MPs in a Commons vote, despite 55 Tory MPs voting against the plan. The return to the tiered system of coronavirus restrictions allegedly aims to safeguard the gains made from the second national lockdown, with more than 55 million in the strictest two tiers, where mixing with other households indoors is prohibited. In tier two, people aren’t allowed to mix with those outside their household or support bubble indoors, although they can socialise in groups of up to six outdoors. In tier three – the strictest tier – people aren’t allowed to mix with anyone outside their household or support bubble indoors, or at most outdoor venues. Non-essential businesses will be allowed to reopen, including hairdressers and clothing shops, while pubs and restaurants in tiers one and two will also be allowed to reopen, although in tier two alcohol can only be served with a “substantial meal”.

For the upcoming Christmas period, the government has issued specific guidance. Tiered restrictions will continue to apply for the next three weeks. From Wednesday 23 December to Sunday 27 December, up to three households can form a so-called ‘Christmas bubble’. Those forming temporary bubbles will be allowed to mix indoors in private homes and stay overnight. No travel restrictions will apply during the five-day period. People outside each other’s bubbles can still meet socially, but only in line with tier rules. From Monday 28 December, Christmas bubbles will no longer apply, and people should follow the guidelines for their tier. Tiered coronavirus restrictions will apply for New Year’s Eve. The change in rules for the Christmas period comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) special envoy, David Nabarro, has predicted a third wave is likely to hit much of Europe in early 2021. Nabarro claimed that a third wave will likely be fuelled by countries adopting incomplete or inconsistent pandemic responses during the second wave.

Meanwhile, the UK has become the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for widespread use. The UK has already ordered 40 million doses of the vaccine - enough to vaccinate 20 million people. The first 800,000 doses will be available from next week. The vaccine offers up to 95 percent protection against Covid-19. The first immunisations will be prioritised for those who need them most, such as the elderly in care homes, care home staff, those over the age of 80, and health and care professionals. Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested the news meant that “from spring, from Easter onwards, things are going to be better and we're going to have a summer next year that everybody can enjoy". Prime Minister Boris Johnson added: "It's the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again”. Despite news of the vaccine, people have been urged to remain vigilant and to continue following public health guidelines and coronavirus restrictions.


MIDDLE EAST

Iran | The assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has sparked outrage in Iran. He was targeted last Friday in the town Absard, just outside Tehran, although there have been conflicting reports in the country over how he died. Initially, it was reported that gunmen opened fire on his car, exchanging rounds with Fakhrizadeh's bodyguards. There were also reports of a car bomb exploding at the scene before security chief Ali Shamkhani said the attackers had "used electronic equipment" and that there was no-one present at the scene. Iran has accused Israel and an exiled opposition group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) of carrying out the killing and threatened revenge. "The enemies know, and I as a soldier tell them, that no crime, no terror and no stupid act will go unanswered by the Iranian people," said Defence Minister General Amir Hatami during a speech at Fakhrizadeh's funeral.

Israel has officially denied any involvement in the attack, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly named the scientist in 2018 following a raid in which Israeli special forces stole 5,000 top secret papers from a warehouse in Iran. "Remember that name, Fakhrizadeh," said Netanyahu during a press conference where he detailed Iran's nuclear weapon programme - Project Amad, which was officially shut down in 2003 but had continued in secret, according to Israel. There have been previous assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, all of which Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad, was suspected of orchestrating. Between 2010 and 2012 four scientist were killed and another wounded inside Iran.

The death of Fakhrizadeh has prompted much speculation about why he was killed and also how Iran will respond. The assassination comes after US President Donald Trump, who withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and has been a staunch ally of Israel, lost the US election. The incoming administration of Joe Biden could signal a shift in US policy in the Middle East and during his campaign, he said that he wanted to rejoin the nuclear deal, which was negotiated when he was vice-president to Barack Obama in 2015 and which Israel has always strongly rejected. The killing could make it significantly harder for the Biden administration to negotiate the US return to the agreement. There have also been reports in the US that President Trump had asked for military options to target Iranian nuclear sites before he leaves office. When Iranian Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport in January, Iran responded by launching missile attacks on US forces bases in Iraq. On this occasion, the Iranian government might want to avoid confrontation with the US, especially if it hopes that the new administration revokes the sanctions which have severely damaged its economy.

Iraq | Large crowds returned to the streets of Iraq last Friday. Thousands of supporters of Shia Muslim leader Muqtada al-Sadr gathered in Baghdad's Tahrir Square and the southern city of Nasiriya, leading to deadly clashes with anti-government protesters. At least four people were killed and more than 50 others wounded after shots were fired in Nasiriyah, with anti-government protest leaders accusing Sadr's supporters of attacking them. The Sadrist movement had organized the protests to renew calls for reforms ahead of federal elections next June. Muqtada al-Sadr said that he expects his party to make significant gains in the election and will push for the next prime minister to come from his movement. The rallies were also a demonstration of the significant political capital Sadr continues to have in Iraq.

It is also not the first time that Sadr's supporters have clashed with anti-government protests. The cleric initially supported the wave of largely secular youth-led protests that erupted in October 2019; however, earlier this year he withdrew his support. Sadrist enforcers stormed protest camps in Baghdad's Tahrir Square before the security forces moved in to clear them. Clashes between the two sides were reported in other towns and cities, including Najaf where seven people were killed and 150 wounded back in February. As Iraq heads towards elections next year, a key question will be whether the anti-government protest movement can recover its lost momentum.

Morocco | The Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara, ended the 30-year ceasefire with the Moroccan government last month. The group, which is backed by Algeria, claimed that Moroccan soldiers had attacked peaceful protesters in a buffer region near the Guerguerat border post. The Front had been holding a series of sit-in protests in the region since October before Morocco deployed troops to clear the main road connecting the territory to Mauritania. "The Polisario and its militias, who have infiltrated the zone since October 21, have been carrying out acts of banditry, blocking traffic and continually harassing MINURSO military observers," said the Moroccan government in a statement.

António Guterres, secretary-general of the UN, has warned against any violations of the ceasefire and called for talks between the two sides. The UN has a permanent mission in Western Sahara - Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) - and the body has been trying to arrange a self-determination referendum in the territory for years, but talks have failed to progress on voter eligibility. There have been reports of skirmishes between the two sides, but no casualties have been reported so far. Amnesty International has reiterated calls for the UN Security Council to add a human rights component to MINURSO to monitor potential abuses.