World roundup: April 29 2021

Stories from Yemen, India, Ethiopia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

April 28, 224: This is the date generally given for the Battle of Hormozdgan, which effectively ended Parthian rule over the Persian Empire and installed the Sasanian dynasty in its place. Then-Emperor Artabanus IV was responding to the rise of the Sasanids under Ardashir V, king of Pars. Ardashir’s smaller but better armed and better prepared force met the Parthians at Hormozdgan—the location of which remains unconfirmed but was probably near the Iranian town of Ram-Hormoz—and won a decisive victory, killing Artabanus in the process. Ardashir V of Pars soon became Ardashir I of Persia, and the Sasanians ruled the empire until the Arab invasion swept them aside in the 7th century.

Ardashir (presumably) had a massive and very impressive-looking relief of the victory carved on a rock face in his capital, Firuzabad, but since you can’t really make out the relief very well in photographs here is an illustration of it done by 19th century French Orientalist Eugène Flandin (Wikimedia Commons)

April 28, 1192: The newly elected king of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, is assassinated in the city of Tyre.

April 29, 1916: A British army besieged at Kut, in Iraq, surrenders to the Ottomans in what was the worst military disaster in British history to that point.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for April 29:

  • 151,113,014 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+891,337 since yesterday)

  • 3,178,655 reported fatalities (+15,124 since yesterday)

  • For vaccine data the New York Times has created a tracker here

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

  • 6294 confirmed coronavirus cases (+31)

  • 1222 reported fatalities (+6)

Writing for Responsible Statecraft, the University of London’s Gabriele vom Bruck offers a scathing assessment of the Obama administration’s decision to involve itself in a conflict it never really understood:

The Houthi conflict has its roots in local grievances, but the various attempts at making peace to date have failed to address them. The 2012 GCC-backed agreement in the wake of the Arab Spring denied the Houthis a stake in the new government, and their request to contribute 30,000 men into the national army was rejected outright. The U.N.-brokered Peace and National Partnership agreement of 2015 was intended to bring them into the political process, but, before the signing ceremony, MbS launched his air campaign – dubbed “Operation Decisive Storm” (a seemingly deliberate echo of George H.W. Bush’s 1991 “Operation Desert Storm”) — with the support of U.S. intelligence, inflight refuelling services, targeting information, and arms.

Washington was no doubt gratified that one of its allies was at last taking action for itself. However, following in America’s footsteps will not ameliorate entrenched enmities and conflicts that have their roots in local grievances. The six years of war in Yemen demonstrate the devastating consequences of the ambiguities of Obama’s attempt to step back while remaining militarily engaged.

LEBANON

  • 525,577 confirmed cases (+1336)

  • 7249 reported fatalities (+25)

The French government has apparently decided to begin sanctioning Lebanese individuals it deems responsible for the ongoing political disaster in Beirut. Without naming any names, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that French authorities will “put in place measures restricting access to French territory” for anyone allegedly involved in political obstruction and/or corruption. It’s not going further than that for now, but conceivably this does open the door to additional penalties down the road. Le Drian did not, to my knowledge, clarify under what authority France is entitled to take a step like this, but once a French colony always a French colony, I guess.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 838,407 confirmed cases (+84) in Israel, 295,601 confirmed cases (+1051) in Palestine

  • 6362 reported fatalities (+1) in Israel, 3231 reported fatalities (+25) in Palestine

The Israeli government announced on Thursday that it is reopening the fishing zone off the coast of Gaza. It had closed that zone off earlier this week in response to a heavy barrage of rocket fire over the weekend.

As expected, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on Thursday that he’s postponing the parliamentary election that had been scheduled to take place next month. Officially the reason is that the Israeli government refused permission to conduct voting in east Jerusalem. Unofficially, Abbas and his Fatah Party are probably glad to put off an election they were likely going to lose—which is why Fatah’s main rival, Hamas, is calling Abbas’s decision a “coup.” Still more unofficially, the Israeli government is probably also happy to see the election postponed, to the extent that it prevents a Hamas victory. I’m not saying the Israelis blocked voting in east Jerusalem specifically in order to prevent the whole election, but it is a nice side effect for them.

IRAN

  • 2,479,805 confirmed cases (+19,899)

  • 71,351 reported fatalities (+385)

The third round of talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal continued in Vienna on Tuesday. Over at her Substack, reporter Laura Rozen says that the pace of progress has slowed substantially compared with the first two sessions:

“Yes, but very slowly,” a diplomat at the talks said today (April 29), when asked if positions are moving closer.

“Major issues remain,” Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group, who consults frequently with the US and other negotiators, told me.

“After the second round, a lot depended on the reaction in Tehran to the US package on the sanctions the US wants to keep, the ones that are up for debate, and the ones they would be prepared to lift,” Vaez said. “The ongoing third round should clarify a lot of questions, but many difficult issues remain.

“It is hard to be very optimistic that a quick breakthrough is on the cards,” Vaez said. “But none of the obstacles appear insurmountable either.”

The main issue continues to be navigating the wall of sanctions the Trump administration imposed to determine how much the US will need to lift to get Iran to come back into compliance with the accord. Obviously the Iranians want all of those sanctions lifted, but the Biden administration doesn’t seem inclined to go that far.

ASIA

KYRGYZSTAN

  • 94,944 confirmed cases (+345)

  • 1598 reported fatalities (+6)

A skirmish between Kyrgyz and Tajik border guards as well as border residents on Thursday left at least six civilians dead and “dozens” of people wounded. Details are somewhat murky and accounts of what happened vary wildly between the Tajik and Kyrgyz versions, but it would appear that residents on either side of what has never been a well-demarcated border began brawling late on Wednesday near the Tajik exclave of Vorukh, possibly over access to a reservoir claimed by both countries. Border guards on both sides got involved, bringing guns and heavier weaponry to the party, and the casualties ensued. The two sides have managed to negotiate a ceasefire, but hundreds of people have been evacuated from the area, a Kyrgyz border outpost is reportedly on fire due to Tajik mortar fire, and a Tajik border outpost may be in Kyrgyz hands. Given that this incident took place along the one road that links northern Tajikistan proper to the Vorukh exclave, there are concerns in Kyrgyzstan that this ostensibly impromptu brawl may have been an intentional grab for territory.

PAKISTAN

  • 815,711 confirmed cases (+5480)

  • 17,680 reported fatalities (+150)

The Pakistani government on Thursday recalled its ambassador from Riyadh, though apparently not over a diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia. Pakistani officials say they’ve received “dozens” of complaints about how they’ve been treated by the country’s Riyadh embassy from Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia over the past several months. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has alleged that the embassy tried to “extort” money from those workers, though nobody in the Pakistani government has gone into any more detail than that about this case. The ambassador, Raja Ali Ejaz, and six Riyadh embassy workers are now under investigation.

INDIA

  • 18,754,984 confirmed cases (+386,888)

  • 208,313 reported fatalities (+3501)

At Jacobin, writer R. B. Moore says that Narendra Modi bears a hefty share of responsibility for India’s recent COVID crisis:

While these figures [deniers like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro] were pretending the pandemic didn’t exist, Modi was implementing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns. This early, proactive response was still marked by Modi’s preference for theatrics over detailed planning. He gave only four hours warning before imposing the lockdown, and roughly a hundred twenty million migrant workers suddenly found themselves out of work and far away from their village homes. He put in place precious few protections or supports for the country’s exceptionally mobile and extremely precarious working class. Migrant workers trying to return home — often traveling hundreds of miles on foot — found themselves targets of police violence and state apathy.

Besides all the unnecessary human suffering this caused, the lockdown did not even fulfill its main public health purpose. Public health experts noted at the time that while it was successful in temporarily slowing the spread of the virus, “the lockdown in itself became the solution rather than a time umbrella for strengthening public health services.” Modi started to believe his own hype as COVID numbers declined in the early months of this year, and the pronouncements of Modi and his government turned increasingly Trumpian. Meanwhile, the government did little to prepare for a potential second wave, even as information about potentially worrisome mutations appeared as early as October 2020.

That unearned confidence continued well after the second wave hit. As captured in a widely tweeted illustration, the BJP’s health minister declared on March 7 that the country was in the “end game” of COVID, and on April 17 Modi exclaimed at a rally that he had never seen such huge crowds. His Trump-like comments suggested the government’s real priorities: When it should have been focusing on the coming public health emergency, it was instead pouring all its energy into elections in West Bengal, a state where the BJP has never held power, but where its Hindu nationalist agenda is rapidly gaining ground.

On the…plus side? I guess? Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party does appear to have done very well in that West Bengal election, the last phase of which ended on Thursday. Exit polling suggests BJP may have won somewhere around 130 seats in the state legislature, up from a mere three in 2016. Good for them?

MYANMAR

  • 142,800 confirmed cases (+10)

  • 3209 reported fatalities (+0)

Somebody fired several rockets at two airbases in the central Myanmar cities of Magway and Meiktila on Thursday, causing some damage but no casualties. There’s no indication as to responsibility, though given the state of popular sentiment about Myanmar’s ruling junta these days, there’s no shortage of suspects.

On Wednesday, in addition to airstrikes targeting the rebel Karen National Union in southeastern Myanmar, the junta also apparently undertook airstrikes against a second rebel army, the Kachin Independence Organization, in northern Myanmar. A number of Myanmar’s ethnic militias, including these two, have stepped up their activities since February’s coup.

AFRICA

BURKINA FASO

  • 13,309 confirmed cases (+23)

  • 157 reported fatalities (+0)

Burkinabé authorities are saying that at least 18 people were killed on Monday when unidentified militants attacked a town in northern Burkina Faso’s Séno province. It’s likely they were Islamic State fighters though as I say their identity is currently unknown.

NIGERIA

  • 165,055 confirmed cases (+62)

  • 2063 reported fatalities (+0)

Nigerian authorities are investigating a civilian massacre of their own. At least 19 members of the Fulani community were reportedly killed on Sunday in southeastern Nigeria’s Anambra state. The incident may conflate two of Nigeria’s myriad ongoing regional conflicts. Given the identities of the victims there’s little question these killings are tied to the longstanding state of violence that exists between farming and herding (the latter predominantly Fulani) communities across Nigeria. Given the location, it’s also possible that this attack was carried out by Biafran separatist fighters. The Indigenous People of Biafra militia is a predominantly Igbo group, and the Igbo are one of those farming communities that keep feuding with the Fulani.

Unknown attackers killed two Nigerian police officers in an ambush in Akwa Ibom state on Tuesday evening. Authorities seem to like IPOB for this attack, which is the latest in a string of recent incidents targeting government officials and security forces across southeastern Nigeria.

CHAD

  • 4810 confirmed cases (+21)

  • 170 reported fatalities (+0)

The Chadian army and the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) group battled one another in the town of Nokou on Thursday, not far from where FACT fighters apparently killed former President Idriss Déby last week. FACT is claiming that it seized control of the town, though that’s unconfirmed and government sources are denying it. Even if it is true, Nokou is still pretty far from N’Djamena (around 300 kilometers), suggesting that the rebel offensive hasn’t made much, if any, progress since Déby’s death. FACT is also claiming that its fighters shot down a Chadian military helicopter on Thursday, though again that’s unconfirmed.

ETHIOPIA

  • 256,418 confirmed cases (+1130)

  • 3658 reported fatalities (+19)

The government of Ethiopia’s Oromia region said on Thursday that at least 20 civilians were killed last week in an attack on the town of Limmu Kosa. It’s believed the attackers were from the Oromo Liberation Army or a splinter group of the Oromo Liberation Front, targeting Amhara civilians. The Oromo and Amhara communities have been engaged in heavy inter-communal violence in recent weeks. Most of that violence has occurred in predominantly Oromo towns in the Amhara region, but this incident took place in an Amhara town in the Oromia region.

Elsewhere, a new AP report reveals the extent of the Ethiopian government’s efforts to round up and imprison members of the Tigrayan ethnic group:

Ethiopia has swept up thousands of ethnic Tigrayans into detention centers across the country on accusations that they are traitors, often holding them for months and without charges, the AP has found.

The detentions, mainly but not exclusively of military personnel, are an apparent attempt to purge state institutions of the Tigrayans who once dominated them, as the government enters its sixth month of fighting in the Tigray region. Detainees, families and visitors spoke of hundreds or even more than 1,000 people in at least nine individual locations, including military bases and an agricultural college.

The government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed acknowledges that it has locked up a small number of high-level military officials from the Tigrayan minority. But the AP is reporting for the first time that the detentions are far more sweeping in scope and more arbitrary, extending even to priests and office workers, sometimes with ethnic profiling as the sole reason.

A military detainee told the AP he is being held with more than 400 other Tigrayans, and lawyers are not allowed to contact them. Even families can’t visit. The AP is not using his name for his safety but has seen his military ID.

“They can do what they want,” he said on a smuggled phone. “They might kill us….We are in their hands, and we have no choice but to pray.”

EUROPE

BULGARIA

  • 403,728 confirmed cases (+1237)

  • 16,368 reported fatalities (+90)

Just when you thought it was safe to be a European embassy worker again, the Bulgarian government on Thursday expelled another Russian diplomat. The Bulgarian government suspects that Moscow was behind four apparent bombings at various arms depots going back to 2011, as well as in the attempted poisoning of a Bulgarian arms dealer. Hence the expulsion. A Russian retaliation is no doubt forthcoming.

CZECH REPUBLIC

  • 1,628,536 confirmed cases (+2483)

  • 29,213 reported fatalities (+33)

Meanwhile, in the other country currently accusing Russia of blowing up its weapons warehouses, thousands of people took to the streets of Prague on Thursday to express outrage at their president, Miloš Zeman. The demonstrators, rallied by an anti-government group called “Million Moments for Democracy,” seem to believe that Zeman is a Russian puppet. He’s certainly cultivated a good relationship with Moscow over the course of his political career, though whether or not you think he’s Russia’s “puppet” is kind of a subjective thing. Zeman did offer some mild criticism of Russia over the weekend in response to allegations that GRU agents were responsible for explosions at two Czech arms depots back in 2014, but clearly that wasn’t enough to head off this demonstration.

CYPRUS

  • 65,233 confirmed cases (+668)

  • 308 reported fatalities (+2)

Wednesday saw the collapse of the United Nations’ “informal” Cyprus peace talks in Geneva, though the parties (Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom) have all apparently agreed to give it another “informal” try sometime later this year. This is not terribly surprising, after Turkish Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar made his big pitch for a “two-state solution” on Wednesday. That’s a non-starter for Greek Cypriots, who have historically insisted on a single federation.

AMERICAS

CHILE

  • 1,190,991 confirmed cases (+6720)

  • 26,247 reported fatalities (+174)

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera is not a popular man. New polling shows that a mere nine percent of Chileans approve of the job he’s doing, while somewhere in the neighborhood of three-quarters of the public disapproves. Apparently Piñera tried, and failed, to block a new drawdown of Chile’s pension system, the third such move to pull money from the country’s retirement funds to finance pandemic relief payouts. Piñera isn’t eligible to run in November’s general election, but his Chile Vamos coalition is presumably going to want to contend in both the presidential and parliamentary portions of that vote, and his dismal approval ratings are likely to be a drag on the coalition’s chances.

PERU

  • 1,791,998 confirmed cases (+8659)

  • 61,101 reported fatalities (+359)

In a bit of a shocker, leftist presidential candidate Pedro Castillo, the polling favorite to win June’s runoff against Keiko Fujimori, suspended his campaign on Thursday for health reasons. Castillo’s campaign didn’t go into any details but he’s apparently been told he needs to rest, so campaigning is out for the time being. There are unconfirmed reports that he had to be taken to the hospital due to some sort of respiratory event.

UNITED STATES

  • 33,044,068 confirmed cases (+59,269)

  • 589,207 reported fatalities (+870)

The US Senate on Thursday confirmed Joe Biden’s nominee to head the US Agency for International Development, former UN ambassador Samantha Power. I can’t wait to see how many wars she tries to start from her new, ostensibly non-military post.

Finally, Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh catalogues the public health outcry over the Biden administration’s stark inaction when it comes to the global effort to overcome COVID:

“Biden is starting out his tenure in the White House bringing despair to millions who will have to wait years for a vaccine,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. “We need to crush COVID now, not in 2022, 2023, or 2024. Right now, Biden is punting, relying on theatrics—pledging 60 million doses from AstraZeneca when billions are in need—rather than stepping up with a bold policy.”

Such a policy would entail rapid transfer of technical knowhow to India and other countries in need, along with production capability. These views are widely shared by other global health experts who say the pharmaceutical industry has less claim on intellectual property rights to vaccines than usual because billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars went into developing these vaccines quickly. The U.S. government, for example, funded 100 percent of Moderna’s vaccine project to get U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, reported Public Citizen, an advocacy group. Pfizer got a $1.95 billion government deal. 

“I am completely baffled by the massive gap in leadership on this issue,” said Matthew Kavanagh of Georgetown University’s Global Health Policy and Politics Initiative. “I would have thought this would have certainly been done in the first months, and here we are approaching the first 100 days. The world is waiting.”