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  • Nigerian army 'crushes' Boko Haram in key stronghold


    Nigerian army 'crushes' Boko Haram in key stronghold

    Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Saturday claimed the military had routed Boko Haram in a key northeastern stronghold, a year after saying the Islamist militants had been "technically" defeated.

    A campaign lasting for months in the 1,300 square-kilometre (500 square-mile) forest in northeastern Borno state led to the "final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave in Sambisa Forest" on Thursday, Buhari said in a statement.

    The government in Abuja and the military have frequently claimed victories against the Islamic State group affiliate but access to the epicentre of the conflict in Borno state is strictly controlled.

    That has made independent verification of official statements about victories virtually impossible. Attacks have meanwhile continued, making claims of defeating Boko Haram questionable despite undoubted progress in pushing back the group.

    "The terrorists are on the run, and no longer have a place to hide. I urge you to maintain the tempo by pursuing them and bringing them to justice," Buhari said.

    The announcement came after Nigeria launched a barrage of land and air assaults in Borno state at the heart of the insurgency that has spread to three neighbouring countries -- Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

    While the counter-insurgency has clawed back some territory, Boko Haram has responded by stepping up guerrilla tactics, ambushing troops when it can and terrorising civilians when it cannot.

    Buhari's statement made no mention of the whereabouts of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram faction based in the forest.

    AFP/File /The Sambisa forest, covering an area of about 1,300 square kilometres (500 square miles), was a stronghold of the Boko Haram islamists

    Boko Haram, which last year pledged allegiance to IS, has been in the grips of a power struggle since late last year.

    Shekau led Boko Haram for several years, until the IS command said in August that he had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the 22-year-old son of the group's founder Mohammed Yusuf.

    Shekau says he is still in charge, however, as rival factions vie for control.

    - Chibok girls still missing -

    On Wednesday, a military commander said Nigerian troops had rescued 1,880 civilians from a Boko Haram redoubt in the restive northeast over the past week and arrested hundreds of insurgents.

    Buhari also said Saturday that "further efforts should be intensified to locate and free our remaining Chibok girls still in captivity", referring to more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014. To date only a few of them have been freed.

    Boko Haram seeks to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.

    The army's claim of recapturing Sambisa Forest brought a rare glimmer of hope for millions of people caught up in the devastating conflict.

    But Buhari has been keen to announce any positive news, with his government increasingly under fire for its handling of the economy, which is officially in recession.

    The humanitarian fallout from the conflict is also huge and aid agencies say it is too big for the country to handle on its own, heaping pressure on already overstretched resources.

    Buhari has previously claimed that Boko Haram had already been "technically defeated".

    His government has however struggled to stop attacks on soft targets such as markets, including the use of women and child suicide bombers.

    At least 20,000 people have been killed since the insurgency erupted in 2009. The fighting has also displaced some 2.6 million people, sparking a humanitarian crisis in the region.

    - 'Africa's largest crisis' -

    The United Nations said earlier this month a billion dollars are needed to help victims of Boko Haram and called the conflict "the largest crisis in Africa."

    It estimates that 14 million people will need outside help in 2017, particularly in Borno state, where villagers under siege have typically been forced to abandon their crops.

    "A projected 5.1 million people will face serious food shortages as the conflict and risk of unexploded improvised devices prevented farmers planting for a third year in a row, causing a major food crisis," the UN said on December 2.

    People freed from Boko Haram's grip by the army have generally been taken to camps where basic supplies are also scarce.

    The Nigerian presidency has since accused aid groups of exaggerating the food crisis.

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  • Berlin truck attack suspect killed in Italy shootout


    German prosecutors issued a Europe-wide wanted notice for 24-year-old Anis Amri, offering a 100,000-euro reward for information and warning he "could be violent and armed"

    Italian police on Friday shot dead the prime suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack, ending a frantic four-day hunt for Europe's most wanted man.

    But just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed relief that suspected attacker Anis Amri no longer posed a threat, she pledged a "comprehensive" analysis of how he was slipped through the net in the first place.

    Amri, a 24-year-old Tunisian, is believed to have hijacked a lorry and used it to mow down holiday revellers at the market on Monday, killing 12 and wounding dozens more.

    "We can be relieved at the end of this week that the acute danger is over," Merkel told reporters.

    AFP / Jean Michel CORNU, Simon MALFATTOBerlin attack suspect killed

    "However the danger of terrorism in general endures, as it has for several years. We all know that."

    The Islamic State jihadist group has claimed responsibility and released a video Friday in which Amri is shown pledging allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

    He had been missing since escaping immediately after the attack, but his time on the run was cut short thanks to a combination of luck and the quick reflexes of rookie Italian police officer Luca Scata.

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  • Gabon's Ping urges security forces to defect


    Libreville (AFP) - Gabon's opposition leader Jean Ping on Friday called on the police and army to join in his fight against the contested re-election of President Ali Bongo.

    Ping has repeatedly declared himself the winner of the August election, but Gabon's constitutional court has upheld Bongo's victory.

    "I join you in telling them (security forces): Join us in liberating Gabon", he told a crowd of supporters in Libreville, who refer to him as president-elect.

    He promised he would soon be sworn into office, and spoke a line from the presidential oath: "I swear to dedicate all my strength to the good of the Gabonese people..."

    Bongo has already been sworn in, taking his oath in September with a call for unity after the disputed election win that sparked deadly unrest and revealed deep divisions in the oil-rich country.

    His re-election, which was validated by the constitutional court, is contested by the opposition and the European Union.

    In its final tally, the court ruled Bongo had won 50.66 percent of the vote and Ping 47.24 percent, giving Bongo a paper thin lead to 11,000 votes over his opponent.

    "I will serve only one term and none of my children will be made ministers in the government under my authority. None of my descendants... will succeed me directly as president of the republic," Ping said on Friday.

    His comments were a direct attack on Ali Bongo who took over from his father Omar Bongo, who ruled for 41 years until his death in 2009.

    Ping said he wanted to "use all appropriate means to get back the victory stolen from us."

    "There are limits. If he crosses them, he will be arrested," government spokesman Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze said, referring to Ping.

    Gabon has large oil, mineral and tropical timber resources, and its per-capita national income is four times greater than that of most sub-Saharan nations.

    But about a third of its population of 1.8 million still live below the poverty line -- the result, say specialists, of inequality, poor governance and corruption.

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  • Gambia opposition says 'no court' can cancel Barrow's win


    Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - The Gambia's opposition coalition vowed Friday to ensure that president-elect Adama Barrow is sworn in in January, despite President Yahya Jammeh threatening to hold on to power unless the Supreme Court orders him to step down.

    Barrow "is confident that he has won an election and he is confident that there is no court on this earth that will deliver judgement to the contrary," opposition spokesman Halifa Sallah told reporters in the capital Banjul.

    "We will not speculate on what the court will do ... What we are telling the Gambian people is: 'Focus your mind on the fact that president-elect Adama Barrow won an election and he will be inaugurated in January 19," he added.

    Jammeh, who has been in power for 22 years, stunned observers by initially accepting his defeat in the December 1 vote by opposition candidate Barrow, but then flip-flopped a week later, rejecting the results and filing a court challenge.

    His stance has stoked international concerns about the future of the tiny west African country, with the UN joining African leaders in calling for him to step down.

    "Unless the court decides the case, there will be no inauguration (of Barrow) on the 19 January," Jammeh said in a lengthy television address this week, referring to his petition to the Supreme Court to overturn the election result.

    According to Sallah, Jammeh's statement showed he had no intention to relinquish power in January.

    He also recalled efforts by the west African bloc ECOWAS -- which have also come under fire by Jammeh -- to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

    Leaders of ECOWAS -- including Senegal, which surrounds the landlocked country save its coastal border -- said at the weekend they would attend Barrow's inauguration and "take all necessary actions to enforce the results", without spelling out what those measures might be.

    Under Jammeh's long rule, The Gambia has remained crushingly poor but enjoyed relative stability -- though rights groups and media watchdogs accuse him of cultivating a climate of fear and crushing dissent.

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  • Mali denies agreement on failed EU asylum seekers

    Bamako (AFP) - Mali's foreign minister on Monday denied an agreement had been reached with the European Union to take back migrants failing to get asylum.

    The Dutch foreign ministry signed a joint declaration on the EU's behalf on December 11 which it said would tackle "the root causes of illegal migration" and "enable the return from Europe of Malian migrants".

    But Abdoulaye Diop told a press conference: "At no point was there any question of signing an agreement that would allow the expulsion of countrymen (living) in Europe illegally."

    Mali "does not intend to put a price on its dignity even if the EU is a development partner."

    Expressing "astonishment" at learning via the media he had signed such a document, Diop said the visit of his Dutch counterpart Bert Koenders to Bamako had never been intended as the moment to make a deal.

    The number of migrants from African nations who risk their lives at sea in a desperate bid to reach Europe has increased considerably in recent years.

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