01. Russian video raises alarm: New IS damage in Syria’s Palmyra;
02. Gambia announces plans to stay in International Criminal Court;
03. Judge denies request to halt Dakota Access pipeline work;
04. Rights group says Pakistan has “forced” mass Afghan refugee returns;
05. Turkmenistan’s leader wins presidential election;
06. Malaysian aid ship to help Rohingyas arrives in Bangladesh;
07. Romania: Protests after Parliament oks anti-graft referendum;
08. Signs of hope at Oroville dam, after overflow sparked large evacuation Sunday;
09. Hamas names shadowy militant as new leader in Gaza;
10. Islamic State leadership targeted in air strike, Baghdadi fate unclear: Iraqi military;
11. Taliban suicide bomber strikes Pakistan rally, killing 13;
12. Ethnic clashes in central Mali kill at least 13;
Russian video raises alarm: New IS damage in Syria’s Palmyra
(AP) Russia on Monday released footage from one of its drones in Syria, revealing for the first time the latest destruction to the ruins of historic Palmyra since it was recaptured by Islamic State militants, as Syrian government forces pushed ahead on the ground in a new offensive to take the city back.
Syrian troops have advanced close to within 20 kilometers (12 miles) of the UNESCO heritage site for which Palmyra is famous and which has already suffered massive destruction at the hands of the Islamic State group.
The drone footage, released in Moscow, showed IS militants have badly damaged the facade of the Roman-era theater and the Tetrapylon — a set of four monuments with four columns each at the center of the colonnaded road leading to the theater.
The video appears to show that only two of the 16 columns remain standing.
The footage also recorded sustained truck movements around the archaeological site, suggesting the militants could be preparing for further demolitions by bringing in explosives, warned the Russian Defense Ministry. It said Russian warplanes last week carried out more than 90 sorties to provide air cover for the offensive.
The Islamic State group has destroyed ancient sites across its self-styled Islamic caliphate in territories it controls in Syria and Iraq, perceiving them as monuments to idolatry.
Palmyra, which once linked Persia, India and China with the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean, first fell to IS militants in May 2015, when they held it for 10 months.
During that time, the extremists destroyed ancient temples and eventually emptied the town of most of its residents, causing an international outcry.
The extremists were eventually driven out by Russian and Syrian government forces, but they seized the town again in December.
Gambia announces plans to stay in International Criminal Court
(Reuters) Gambia’s new government has told the United Nations it will remain in the International Criminal Court (ICC), state media reported on Monday, reversing the previous administration’s plan to withdraw from the tribunal.
Former president Yahya Jammeh announced in October that he would pull Gambia out of the ICC, accusing the world body of ignoring alleged war crimes of Western nations and seeking only to prosecute Africans.
“As a new government that has committed itself to the promotion of human rights … we reaffirm The Gambia’s commitment to the principles enshrined in the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court”
But President Adama Barrow, who defeated Jammeh in a December election, pledged during the campaign to undo Jammeh’s decision, restore human rights and repair the country’s badly-damaged foreign relations.
“As a new government that has committed itself to the promotion of human rights … we reaffirm The Gambia’s commitment to the principles enshrined in the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court,” said a statement read on state television and radio.
The announcement constitutes a rare victory of late for the embattled tribunal. South Africa and Burundi also signaled last year they would quit the ICC and African Union member states earlier this month endorsed an unspecified “strategy of collective withdrawal”.
Judge denies request to halt Dakota Access pipeline work
(AP) A federal judge on Monday refused to stop construction on the last stretch of the Dakota Access pipeline, which is progressing much faster than expected and could be operational in as little as 30 days.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ruled after an hourlong hearing that as long as oil isn’t flowing through the pipeline, there is no imminent harm to the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux tribes, which are suing to stop the project. But he said he’d consider the arguments more thoroughly at another hearing on Feb. 27.
That gives the tribes hope that they still might prevail, Cheyenne River Chairman Harold Frazier said.
“To put that pipeline in the ground would be irreparable harm for us in our culture,” he said.
The tribes requested the temporary injunction last week after Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners got federal permission to lay pipe under a Missouri River reservoir in North Dakota. That’s the last big section of the $3.8 billion pipeline, which would carry oil from North Dakota to Illinois.
“To put that pipeline in the ground would be irreparable harm for us in our culture”
The tribes say the pipeline would endanger their cultural sites and water supply. They added a religious freedom component to their case last week by arguing that clean water is necessary to practice the Sioux religion.
Energy Transfer Partners maintains that the pipeline is safe and disputes that cultural sites have been affected. But an encampment near the construction in southern North Dakota drew thousands of protesters last year in support of the tribes, leading to occasional clashes with law enforcement and more than 700 arrests.
Rights group says Pakistan has “forced” mass Afghan refugee returns
(Reuters) The number of Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan, already at the highest level in years, may increase this year if Pakistan maintains its forceful policies, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.
Last year, hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees left Pakistan, a 12-year-high that the rights group called the “world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times”.
Aid workers and Afghan officials worry that the returnees are coming back to a country in conflict and economic crisis, led by a government already struggling to maintain basic living standards.
Pakistan has provided millions of Afghans with refuge for decades, and police and officials deny reports that they are targeting Afghans, though officials have said they should go home.
Amid recent political tension between the uneasy neighbors, aid organizations have raised concerns over the treatment of Afghans in Pakistan.
In the second half of 2016, Pakistan “pushed out” nearly 365,000 of the country’s 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, as well as just over 200,000 of the estimated 1 million undocumented Afghans in Pakistan, the rights group said.
Turkmenistan’s leader wins presidential election
(AP) Turkmenistan’s incumbent president has won re-election in a widely anticipated landslide victory, election authorities said on Monday.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov garnered nearly 97.7 percent of the vote in the gas-rich Central Asian nation, Election Commission chairman Gulmurat Muradov told reporters. Muradov said the results from Sunday’s election are preliminary and that election authorities still have to count ballots cast in Turkmenistan’s embassies abroad.
The commission said turnout exceeded 97 percent of the electorate for the election, the first to feature candidates from non-government parties on the central Asian country’s ballot.
The eight other candidates in the race had all expressed support for Berdymukhamedov’s government, however.
Authorities in Turkmenistan have secured acceptance among the country’s 5 million people through a combination of authoritarianism and generous welfare subsidies, such as free household gas and salt.
Berdymukhamedov has been the overwhelmingly dominant figure in the former Soviet republic since late 2006, when he assumed power after the death of his eccentric predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov.
The country last year amended the constitution to extend the presidential term to seven years from five, and eliminated the age limit of 70, effectively allowing Berdymukhamedov to be president for life.
Under Berdymukhamedov, a law was adopted to allow non-government parties, although such parties are strictly vetted. The candidates nominally competing with Berdymukhamedov were allowed to meet with voters in theaters and cultural centers, but the encounters were not televised and no debates were held.
Malaysian aid ship to help Rohingyas arrives in Bangladesh
(Reuters) A Malaysian aid ship arrived in Bangladesh on Monday carrying aid for hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled from Myanmar, many citing abuses by the Myanmar security forces.
Nearly 70,000 Rohingya have fled from Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Bangladesh to escape a crackdown launched after nine policemen were killed in attacks on border posts on Oct. 9 that Myanmar blamed on Rohingya militants.
The U.N. human rights office said in a report this month Myanmar’s security forces had committed mass killings and gang rapes of Rohingya Muslims and burned their villages.
Myanmar has denied almost all allegations of human rights abuses, and says a lawful counterinsurgency campaign has been under way since the October attacks on the security posts.
The violence has dismayed and outraged some of Myanmar’s neighbors with mostly Muslim Malaysia being particularly vociferous in its criticism.
It has supported Muslim groups and aid organisations to arrange a shipment of more than 2,000 tonnes of aid for Rohingyas.
The ship’s first stop was in the Myanmar port city of Yangon, last week, where it unloaded 500 tonnes of supplies.
A representative of the mission on the ship said it would unload about 2,000 tonnes of food and emergency supplies in Bangladesh, though staff were not being allowed access.
The 70,000 new arrivals joined more than 200,000 Rohingya already in Bangladesh, many living in camps, who fled earlier crackdowns in Myanmar.
Rohingya have faced discrimination in Myanmar for generations. They are not classified as a distinct group under Myanmar’s citizenship laws and are regarded instead as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, entitled only to limited rights.
About 1.1 million Rohingya live in apartheid-like conditions in northwestern Myanmar.
Bangladesh says the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for generations and are not Bangladeshis, and it faces a huge burden looking after the refugees.
Romania: Protests after Parliament oks anti-graft referendum
(AP) Romania’s Parliament agreed Monday to hold a referendum on public support for fighting official corruption, a move that failed to appease anti-government protesters who demonstrated in the capital and other Romanian cities.
All 310 lawmakers present voted in favor of the referendum proposed by President Klaus Iohannis, a strong supporter of the country’s anti-graft drive.
It was not clear what question will be presented to voters, but the referendum was seen as a way to bolster support for the ongoing fight against corruption.
Romania has seen its biggest anti-government protests since the end of communism in the nearly two weeks since the center-left government issued a decree diluting anti-corruption laws.
Premier Sorin Grindeanu withdrew the decree, but nightly demonstrations have continued to draw large crowds demanding resignation of the government that assumed power last month.
Late Monday, hundreds of people assembled outside the government offices in Bucharest’s Victory Square, braving subzero temperatures for the 14th consecutive night of protests. Some waved Romanian flags and chanted “Resignation!” to the beat of drums.
Signs of hope at Oroville dam, after overflow sparked large evacuation Sunday
(NPR) The area around a huge dam at California’s second-largest reservoir is in a state of emergency, with some 180,000 residents ordered to evacuate the area Sunday out of fears that part of Oroville Dam could fail. A glimmer of hope arrived late Sunday night, when officials said water had finally stopped pouring over the dam’s emergency spillway.
The secondary spillway was in use because the main spillway had developed a huge hole, stressed by the need to release water accumulated from California’s wet winter — and brought to a new crisis point by last week’s heavy rains.
Residents of the area some 70 miles north of Sacramento were placed under evacuation orders around 4:30 p.m. Sunday, after the reservoir rose to a record level — more than a foot above what’s considered “full” — and its main spillway struggled to provide relief and its auxiliary spillway was seen at risk of failing. At the time, officials said that dangerous flooding could be just hours away.
Even as the evacuation orders were issued, officials had reason to hope that Lake Oroville would soon begin to recede, due to a drop in the amount of runoff water entering the lake and a dry weather forecast. But the reservoir’s infrastructure was struggling to cope.
Overnight, evacuation centers and shelters were still being outfitted with beds and blankets. Gov. Jerry Brown issued an emergency order last night to help with the process, which saw shelters erected at fairgrounds to handle the thousands of people leaving Oroville and other downstream areas.
While the waters are receding and dry weather is expected for Monday and Tuesday, the region in Northern California could get another round of rain later this week, when forecasts are calling for several days of rain.
The Oroville Dam incident has sparked questions about how to repair the dam’s spillways — and whether other structures in California and beyond are similarly vulnerable. After the main spillway developed a 200-foot hole, the auxiliary spillway also began to erode, sparking Sunday’s evacuation.
Hamas names shadowy militant as new leader in Gaza
(AP) Hamas has named a shadowy militant commander as its new leader in the Gaza Strip, an official media outlet confirmed on Monday, placing one of the Islamic militant group’s most hard-line figures in charge of its core power base.
The appointment of Yehiya Sinwar, who was freed by Israel in a 2011 prisoner swap after two decades behind bars, solidifies the takeover of Gaza operations by the armed wing of the group from civilian leaders. The military wing, which controls thousands of fighters and a vast arsenal of rockets, has battled Israel in three wars since Hamas seized Gaza a decade ago.
Sinwar’s selection was reported by Hamas’ Al-Resala news site. A Hamas official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing the group’s secretive election process, also confirmed the appointment.
Sinwar replaces Ismail Haniyeh, who served as the prime minister of Hamas’ government following the 2007 takeover of Gaza and remains a top figure in the movement. Haniyeh is now expected to take over as Hamas’ supreme leader, replacing Khaled Mashaal, who lives in exile.
Khalil al-Haya, another political hard-liner, was elected as Sinwar’s deputy.
“He is interested in stability, the rebuilding of Gaza and easing the blockade”
Sinwar, who is in his mid-50s, comes from the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis and was a founder of Hamas’ military wing in the 1980s. Hamas is sworn to Israel’s destruction and has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings, shootings and other attacks. It is considered a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and the European Union.
Sinwar was sentenced to four life terms by Israel in 1988 for a series of offenses, including his role as mastermind of the abduction and killing of two Israeli soldiers. During his final years in prison, he was the leader of the hundreds of Hamas prisoners held by Israel.
Sinwar, who rejects any reconciliation with Israel, has quickly restored his power in the movement since his return to Gaza. He is widely believed to be behind last year’s unprecedented killing of another top Hamas commander in an internal power struggle.
Sinwar has rarely appeared in public since a 2014 war with Israel. Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a pro-Hamas analyst who runs a Gaza think tank, said he met Sinwar two months ago and got the impression that he is more interested in improving difficult conditions in Gaza than renewed conflict with Israel.
“He is interested in stability, the rebuilding of Gaza and easing the blockade,” al-Madhoun said. “I felt he is more with the truce rather than conflict.”
Sinwar has close ties to Qatar and Turkey, two of the few countries that have good relations with Hamas. Al-Madhoun said he also has good ties with Iran, a longtime backer of Hamas.
Islamic State leadership targeted in air strike, Baghdadi fate unclear: Iraqi military
(Reuters) The Iraqi airforce carried out a strike on a house where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was thought to be meeting other commanders, the Iraqi military said on Monday, without making clear whether he had been hit.
In a statement, it said Iraqi F-16s had targeted the house in western Iraq on Saturday. It published the names of 13 Islamic State commanders it said had been killed in the air strike, but the list did not include Baghdadi.
Three other Islamic State positions in western Iraq were targeted in the same wave of air strikes, killing 64 fighters, the statement said.
The military said Baghdadi moved last week in a convoy from Raqqa, in Syria, to the region of al-Qaim, on the Iraqi side of the border, to discuss with commanders “the collapse happening in Mosul and to chose a successor for him”.
Baghdadi, an Iraqi whose real name is Ibrahim al-Samarrai, has been reported wounded several times in the past. His last known public message goes back to November, when he called on Islamic State fighters to defend Mosul, their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.
Taliban suicide bomber strikes Pakistan rally, killing 13
(AP) A suicide bomber struck police escorting a protest rally in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on Monday, killing at least 13 people and wounding nearly 60 in an attack claimed by a breakaway Taliban faction.
The blast ripped through the crowd of hundreds of pharmacists, who were protesting new amendments to a law governing drug sales. Six police officers, including a former provincial counterterrorism chief, were among those killed, police said.
Sameer Ahmad, the Lahore deputy commissioner, said at least 13 people were killed and 58 wounded, including nine who were in critical condition.
A group called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed the attack in a text message, saying it was revenge for Pakistani military operations against Islamic militants in tribal regions along the Afghan border.
The group, which claimed a number of large attacks last year, is one of several splinter factions from the Pakistani Taliban, which has repeatedly targeted security forces and religious minorities. In recent years, Pakistan has launched several offensives against the Taliban and other Islamic militants in the tribal regions.
Ethnic clashes in central Mali kill at least 13
(Reuters) At least 13 people were killed in central Mali at the weekend in inter-ethnic clashes between Fulanis and Bambaras, the interior ministry said on Monday, escalating a conflict over resources in a region increasingly outside state control.
Other sources put the death toll much higher, including the head of a Fulani rights group who said that 45 people were killed and that fighting was still going on.
The Fulani, or Peul in French, are a cattle-herding people who have long co-existed peacefully with farmers from Mali’s largest ethnic group, the Bambaras, but economic pressures and Islamist militant infiltration have stoked tensions.
“Everyone who didn’t flee was assassinated”
The clashes began when a Bambara storekeeper was killed in a town near Macina, about 300 km (185 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, said Modibo Dicko, head of a group of associations that defend the rights of Fulanis.
Villagers took up arms the next day and burned down the huts of Fulanis they blamed for his death, he said.
The security ministry said that 13 people had been killed and a number of houses set on fire, but that calm had returned on Monday and security forces were patrolling the area.
But Dicko said at least 45 people were killed and that fighting continued on Monday, with over 100 families having fled by foot and on motorbikes.
“Everyone who didn’t flee was assassinated,” he said.
Kader Ba, a retired politician from Macina, said he had reports that 30 people were killed on Sunday and five on Monday, including at least two who were burned alive. Members of his family were among those killed.