UPDATES: French troops for Sahel, Libya chaos, bombs in Algeria, S. Sudan pains, Burundi jitters

'I've seen the situation in some other emergencies, but this is one of the worst' - Foura Sassou Madi, MSF emergency coordinator.

France ends Mali offensive, redeploys to Sahel

France said Sunday its military offensive that freed northern Mali from the grip of Islamists would be replaced by an operation spanning the wider, largely lawless Sahel region to combat extremist violence.

The so-called Serval offensive kicked off in January last year when French troops came to the help of Malian soldiers to rid the country’s vast desert north from Islamists and Tuareg rebels who seized control after a coup.

France had initially planned to put an end to Serval and redeploy troops to the Sahel region in May but a fresh bout of clashes between rebels and the army in the flashpoint northern town of Kidal forced Paris to delay the pull-out.

The new operation, codenamed Barkhan, will kick off in the coming days and is being implemented in partnership with five countries in the Sahel-Sahara region.


Islamist militia attacks rivals at main Libya airport

Heavy fighting raged on Sunday around Libya’s main international airport as Islamist militia attacked liberal rivals in their Tripoli bastion, in an intensifying power struggle after a controversial June election.

The exchanges with heavy weapons halted flights and came as foreign ministers from the North African nation’s neighbours were to meet in Tunisia to consider how to aid violence-wracked Libya.

The assault on the Zintan group by rival Islamist militants also came after the UN pulled staff from Libya citing security reasons, and as the United States warned of further escalation.

Sunday’s clashes came just hours after the United States warned that the conflict could become “widespread” unless a new parliament is seated quickly and a new constitution drafted.

Last Sunday, Libya’s electoral commission scrapped the election results from 24 polling stations, citing fraud, and said final results would be announced on July 20.

Commentators say liberals will fill most seats in the new parliament, unlike in the former assembly which was dominated by Islamists.


Bomb kills seven Algerian troops

A roadside bomb has killed three Algerian soldiers and four auxiliaries in the west of the North African country, the defence ministry said on Sunday.

Saturday’s blast struck in the Sidi Bel-Abbes region 440 kilometres (275 miles) west of the capital, the ministry said.

The attack was the deadliest since an April ambush claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the restive Kabylie region that killed 11 soldiers.


Misery stalks South Sudan refugees in camps

Nyayoul Gach was first driven from her home in South Sudan because of violence, but escaped into Ethiopia because of hunger, unable to feed her five children who were rapidly wasting away.

Now in the caked mud settlements of western Ethiopia, she faces further misery: hunger and disease stalk the crowded camps, and she wonders whether her life is better than the one she fled in war-ravaged South Sudan.

“I’m really worried about my family because I’m here wondering what to do for survival,” she said, clutching her wailing baby who has malaria.

The civil war, which started as a political feud between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, has already displaced more than 1.5 million people like Gach, and the numbers are expected to grow as famine sets in.

Aid agencies say $1 billion (735 million euros) is needed to feed and care for the mushrooming refugee population, already underserved in the rapidly growing camps.

Emergency teams in Ethiopia are scrambling to care for up to 1,000 refugees who stream into the country daily amid persistent funding shortfalls. A new camp that opened in May is already full, and the UN refugee agency said additional settlements are desperately needed.

Malnourishment and malaria prey on the vulnerable, with severe malnutrition at five percent and malaria rapidly increasing as the rainy season sets in.

“I’ve seen the situation in some other emergencies, but this is one of the worst,” said Doctors Without Borders (MSF) emergency coordinator Foura Sassou Madi.


Burundi youth wing spark fears of looming poll violence

Burundian opposition activist Jean-Claude Bikorimana pulls down his shirt to show a scar on his chest, the result, he says, of an attack by the ruling party’s youth wing.

The 26-year-old farmer said he was among some 50 supporters of opposition party the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD) who were attacked by 150 “Imbonerakure” armed with clubs and stones as they were playing sports.

Police arrested two of the Imbonerakure—the local name for the youth wing of Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party—but quickly released them without charge, he said. Six opposition activists, however, were imprisoned after the incident, he added.

Burundi’s opposition and rights groups say political violence has been increasing as the central African country, which emerged from 13 years of civil war in 2006, gears up for presidential elections next year.

President Pierre Nkurunziza is widely expected to campaign for a third successive term in office and navigate past a two-term limit enshrined in the constitution.

Curfews have been imposed and opposition activists targeted with fines, arrests and sometimes fatal beatings to stop campaigning.

In March, authorities in Bujumbura banned jogging in groups of two of more on the grounds that opposition parties were using them as an excuse to organise “uprisings”.

Burundi’s last elections in 2010 were boycotted by most opposition parties, with the exception of Nkurunziza’s ruling Hutu majority CNDD-FDD party and the main Tutsi party, Uprona.

Uprona pulled out of the governing coalition earlier this year, plunging the country into a political crisis and raising fears of renewed ethnic tensions.

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