World roundup: May 1-2 2021

Stories from Kyrgyzstan, Chad, El Salvador, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

April 30, 1803: US representatives Robert Livingston and James Monroe and French representative François Barbé-Marbois sign the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in Paris. The treaty ceded France’s vast Louisiana Territory in North America to the United States, roughly doubling the young nation’s size, in return for $15 million. Livingston and Monroe intended to negotiate the purchase of the port city of New Orleans and were prepared to pay up to $10 million just for the one city. But Napoleon decided to sell the entire territory because he needed a large chunk of land in North America less than he needed peaceable relations with the US and money for his inevitable war with Britain. Most of the Louisiana Territory wasn’t really Napoleon’s to sell, as it still belonged to indigenous tribes, but in purchasing it the US bought the “right” to acquire that land by whatever means it chose.

April 30, 1975: The North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong capture Saigon, bringing the Vietnam War to a close. The North Vietnamese had begun their assault on the city the day before, when the remaining US personnel in Saigon began an evacuation known as “Operation Frequent Wind” that cleared out the US embassy and moved some 7000 US and Vietnamese nationals out of the country in the largest helicopter evacuation in history. The North Vietnamese government, which wasn’t really the “North” Vietnamese government anymore, renamed Saigon Hồ Chí Minh City, and this date is commemorated annually in Vietnam as Reunification Day.

May 1, 1707: The Acts of Union, separately passed by the English and Scottish parliaments, go into effect, merging the two kingdoms into the newly christened Great Britain. The Scottish Stuart dynasty had been ruling both kingdoms since James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I as James I of England, but the crowns had been held in personal union only. The Acts of Union made it a legal union and thereby completed the Scottish takeover of England. Or at least that’s how I like to think about it.

May 1, 1977: The Taksim Square Massacre

May 2, 1611: This is allegedly the date upon which English printer Robert Barker produced the very first edition of the King James Version of the Bible. I say “allegedly” because it’s the date you most often find cited for the KJV’s publication but as far as I know there’s nothing but tradition backing it up. Regardless, the KJV proved to be a monumental achievement that not only stands as probably the most important vernacular (meaning I’m excluding the Latin Vulgate) translation of the Bible but also a fundamental text in the development of the English language. So it’s probably worth commemorating.

May 2, 2011: Not long after midnight (local time), according to the official narrative, a team of US personnel raids a house in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad, in the process killing al-Qaeda boss Osama bin Laden. There have been more than a few alternative theories offered about bin Laden’s death, in large part to try to explain how America’s Most Wanted Man was able to spend years living in the Pakistani equivalent of West Point without our good pals in Islamabad ever finding out and/or letting us know. The official story has relevance regardless, since it’s the version of events most people believe. Anyway, the good news is that we all lived happily every after.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for May 2:

  • 153,480,005 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (+680,160 since yesterday)

  • 3,216,148 reported fatalities (+9960 since yesterday)

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

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 22,898 confirmed coronavirus cases (+80)

  • 1603 reported fatalities (+5)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a wide-ranging amnesty and clemency decree on Sunday covering financial crimes, some drug offenses, and kidnapping (the kind of that doesn’t end in murder), among other things. Assad issues these decrees periodically and there’s no obvious reason for this one, but it does come a few days before the end of Ramadan and a few weeks before a presidential election that Assad will of course win, but in which he would like to see a decent turnout. The decree also provides a general amnesty for military deserters, provided they turn themselves in to authorities within a few months. In theory of course this would make them available to be re-enlisted by a Syrian military that is worn down by years of conflict.

TURKEY

  • 4,875,388 confirmed cases (+25,980)

  • 40,844 reported fatalities (+340)

Turkish authorities say they’ve arrested an allegedly senior Islamic State commander who goes by the name “Basim” in Istanbul while attempting to travel on a fake passport. “Basim,” apparently an Afghan national is alleged to have been in charge of training fighters in Iraq and Syria and was a member either of IS’s Shura council or its military council (or both), the reporting is a little unclear.

IRAQ

  • 1,074,930 confirmed cases (+4564)

  • 15,536 reported fatalities (+38)

A series of apparent IS attacks beginning late Friday and continuing overnight into Saturday left at least 18 people dead in Iraq, mostly military personnel. The attacks took place across Iraq, with the largest involving the ambush of a military convoy just north of Baghdad and others taking place in Diyala province, in the western Iraqi desert, and in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region.

On Sunday, somebody fired two rockets at the US-occupied airbase at Baghdad’s international airport. There were no casualties.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 838,554 confirmed cases (+73) in Israel, 297,638 confirmed cases (+512) in Palestine

  • 6366 reported fatalities (+3) in Israel, 3272 reported fatalities (+15) in Palestine

Israeli soldiers shot and killed a 60 year old Palestinian woman who allegedly tried to carry out a knife attack in the West Bank on Sunday. Sounds very simple and believable. Elsewhere, Palestinian gunmen wounded at least two Israelis in an apparent drive by shooting at an intersection near the Tapuah settlement.

In east Jerusalem, meanwhile, Israeli authorities are attempting to forcibly remove at least six Palestinian families from the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood to make way for Israeli settlers. Another seven families may be forced out of their homes by August 1, which would bring the total number of people displaced in this grab to 58. Settler organizations have been pursuing an extended legal case against several Palestinian families who relocated to Sheikh Jarrah in the 1950s after having been displaced from their homes during the 1948 formation of Israel and subsequent Arab-Israeli War. They claim that the neighborhood was originally owned by Jewish families and Israeli courts have generally supported that claim.

IRAN

  • 2,534,855 confirmed cases (+18,698)

  • 72,484 reported fatalities (+394)

There’s been a day-long controversy over reports from Iranian state media that the United States, United Kingdom, and Iran have negotiated a major prisoner swap. According to those reports, UK and Iranian officials agreed on a deal that would see dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe freed from Iranian prison in return for a large debt payment from the UK, while the US-Iranian end of the arrangement would see each country exchange four prisoners and the US authorize the release of some $7 billion in Iranian money that US sanctions have frozen in banks in other countries. The only problem with these reports is that the US and UK governments quickly denied them, and they were followed by a denial from Iran’s United Nations mission. In past US-Iran prisoner swaps the negotiations have generally been kept out of the public eye, and the story may have been leaked to Iranian media in an attempt to scuttle a potential deal. A prisoner swap now could provide a political boost to moderates ahead of next month’s Iranian presidential election, and there are certainly factions within Iran that would prefer not to see that happen.

Along those same lines, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif apologized on Sunday for comments he made in a candid archival interview whose contents were recently leaked to Iranian media. In that interview, Zarif seemed to criticize the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and specifically former Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, for trying to “dominate” Iranian foreign policy. He was particularly lambasted for the comments about Soleimani, which were the focus of his apology. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sharply criticized Zarif’s remarks in a speech on Sunday, though he didn’t specifically mention Zarif by name. It would not be terribly surprising if Zarif were to resign at this point, although he only has a few more months in office anyway. He’s offered his resignation in the past but it’s been refused. Certainly if he had any plan to jump into the presidential race, and to be clear there’s no indication he is or was intending to do so, that’s probably out now.

ASIA

KYRGYZSTAN

  • 96,060 confirmed cases (+308)

  • 1619 reported fatalities (+7)

The Kyrgyz and Tajik governments announced on Saturday that they’d reached a new ceasefire, shortly after reports of renewed fighting in an area of their border where residents and border guards engaged in a deadly clash on Thursday. The death toll from that clash at last count stood at 49, 34 on the Kyrgyz side and 15 on the Tajik side. That ceasefire appears to be holding, though Kyrgyz authorities at least say they’re pursuing legal cases against a number of Tajik nationals for their involvement in the incident and tensions clearly remain high. That’s understandable, considering this was arguably the most serious skirmish the two countries have yet fought over their poorly demarcated border in the roughly 30 years since the Soviet Union dissolved. Details are emerging very slowly, but what they suggest is a more destructive battle than initial reporting might have indicated, with civilians on both sides suffering considerable property damage and displacement.

AFGHANISTAN

  • 60,288 confirmed cases (+166)

  • 2642 reported fatalities (+5)

Afghan officials say their security forces killed more than 100 Taliban fighters in multiple battles across several provinces over the weekend, wounding at least 52 more. There’s been no comment from the Taliban and these claims should probably be taken with a grain of salt, especially insofar as those same Afghan officials aren’t talking about the number of casualties their own forces suffered. The US military says it conducted a “precision” airstrike in Kandahar province on Saturday after an airfield used by US forces came under “indirect fire.” It’s unclear who was responsible for that indirect fire but given that it took place in the closest thing the Taliban has to a home province chances are it was them. But whether that indicates they’ve decided to start attacking US military personnel now that the May 1 withdrawal deadline has passed is unclear.

INDIA

  • 19,919,715 confirmed cases (+370,059)

  • 218,945 reported fatalities (+3422)

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party appears to have won somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 seats in the West Bengal state legislative election that concluded on Thursday. That’s substantially fewer than the 130 or so seats early exit polling indicated the party had won, and it is technically a defeat in that BJP will be in the opposition in the new state assembly. But it’s also considerably more than the 35 seats the party controlled heading into this vote and really considerably more than the three seats it won in the last full state election in 2016. And the party lost to the All India Trinamool Congress, which is basically a Bengali regional party that has little standing nationally. So categorizing this result as a sign that BJP is losing any of its overall stature is probably misleading.

MYANMAR

  • 142,838 confirmed cases (+7)

  • 3209 reported fatalities (+0)

Fresh anti-junta protests on Sunday drew a sharp response from Myanmar security forces, who reportedly killed at least five people in demonstrations in at least four towns. The protests began on Saturday, marking three months since the the coup that installed the junta in power, and came amid odd reports of multiple explosions in the city of Yangon. None of those blasts seems to have been particularly large and there’s been no report of any casualties resulting from them.

NORTH KOREA

  • No confirmed cases

Accusing the Biden administration of trying to cover up “hostile acts,” the North Korean government reacted with outrage on Sunday to Friday’s reports that the administration was looking to restart diplomacy with Pyongyang on a less “all or nothing” basis than the Trump administration’s approach. It’s not that the North Koreans are opposed to the step-for-step approach the administration suggested it wants to pursue. It’s more that they seem to have been offended (or are pretending to have been offended) by language Joe Biden himself used in his “Don’t Call It A State Of The Union” Address to Congress on Wednesday. Biden characterized North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as “a serious threat to America's security and world security,” phrasing the North Korean Foreign Ministry deemed a “big blunder.” The ministry also says it’s taken offense to US rhetoric about North Korea’s human rights record. Whether this reflects genuine anger on Pyongyang’s part or is simply a way to stake out a position before it reengages with Washington remains to be seen.

AFRICA

NIGER

  • 5251 confirmed cases (+22)

  • 191 reported fatalities (+0)

Unknown attackers ambushed an army patrol in southwestern Niger’s Tahoua province on Saturday, killing at least 16 soldiers and wounding six more. There’s been no claim of responsibility. The Islamic State has an active affiliate in southwestern Niger but the region also sometimes sees spillover from the banditry that’s rampant across the border in northwestern Nigeria.

NIGERIA

  • 165,153 confirmed cases (+43)

  • 2063 reported fatalities (+0)

Speaking of which, one of the most prominent bandit leaders in northwestern Nigeria was apparently killed on Friday, along with four other members of his gang, in a clash with a rival gang in Zamfara state. The bandit, Awwalun Daudawa, had been particularly active in kidnapping and was responsible for abducting hundreds of students from Government Science Secondary School Kankara back in December. He’d also acted as an arms dealer for jihadists in northeastern Nigeria, arranging sales of the weapons they seized from Nigerian security forces to criminal gangs in the northwest. He had apparently worked out a deal to surrender his arms in return for amnesty back in February, but later reneged.

Islamic State fighters attacked two military bases in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state over the weekend (one late Saturday and the other early Sunday), killing at least eight people combined. The attackers reportedly driven off on Saturday but were more successful in their Sunday morning effort, overrunning the facility and making off with weapons and other equipment.

CHAD

  • 4828 confirmed cases (+4)

  • 170 reported fatalities (+0)

Chad’s ruling military junta unveiled a full transitional cabinet on Sunday, including several members of the country’s political opposition in ministerial posts. Despite its efforts to put a civilian face on what is still fundamentally a military government, probably to appease Western observers, there’s no indication that this transitional cabinet is going to have any real authority or that it won’t govern entirely at the behest of the junta. Responding to ongoing protests against the imposition of military rule and the passing of authority from former President Idriss Déby to his son, Mahamat, Chadian security forces wounded at least four people in the southern town of Sarh on Saturday.

The Chadian army also says it’s continuing to deal heavy damage to the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) group in the northern town of Nokou. The military claims it’s killed “hundreds” of FACT fighters in recent days, but based on previous estimates of the rebel group’s size (perhaps as many as 2000 fighters), these claims seem exaggerated. At that size, if Chadian forces had really killed “hundreds” of FACT’s fighters, it’s unlikely the group would still be able to put an army in the field.

ETHIOPIA

  • 258,384 confirmed cases (+322)

  • 3726 reported fatalities (+17)

At least 21 people were killed in two attacks in Ethiopia on Friday. The larger incident involved an attack on a bus in the Amhara region, which Ethiopian authorities apparently believe was carried out by the Oromo Liberation Front-Shene militia. Attackers removed 15 people from the bus and killed them. Another six people were killed and their bodies burned in an incident in the Bench Sheko zone of Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ region. The circumstances of the latter attack seem unclear. The Ethiopian government, meanwhile, announced that it’s adding OLF-Shene and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front to its list of terrorist groups. That designation will make it easier for authorities to arrest suspected supporters of both groups, though to be fair it’s not like the government has had much trouble rounding up Tigrayans accused of backing the TPLF.

SOMALIA

  • 13,915 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 713 reported fatalities (+0)

The Somali parliament voted unanimously on Saturday to rescind a previously passed measure extending President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s term for another two years. Mohamed called for this move in a speech earlier in the week announcing that he would commit to holding a new election as a way to walk Somalia back from the brink of what was starting to look like a new civil war. He’s agreed to put Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble in charge of organizing that election, though that’s likely to be easier said than done.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 29,965 confirmed cases (+61)

  • 768 reported fatalities (+0)

Unknown gunmen shot and killed Sheikh Ali Amin Uthman, the leader of the Muslim community in the eastern Congolese city of Beni, during evening prayers on Saturday. It’s very likely this attack was carried out by the Islamic State-affiliated Allied Democratic Forces militia, though as far as I know there’s been no claim of responsibility as yet. Suspected ADF fighters had already killed at least 19 people in the region in a series of attacks over the previous several days. The Congolese government on Friday declared a “state of siege” in Ituri and North Kivu provinces, in large part over the ADF’s ongoing campaign in that region. That declaration could presage a stronger military response, though Congolese authorities have tried that sort of thing before to little or even negative effect.

EUROPE

BULGARIA

  • 405,194 confirmed cases (+348)

  • 16,492 reported fatalities (+48)

Lucky duck voters in Bulgaria will get to go to the polls much earlier than planned, as talks on forming a new working government collapsed for good over the weekend. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s GERB party, which won last month’s election but lost seats overall and finished well short of a majority, tried and failed to form a coalition, even after Borissov himself offered to step aside as PM. The “There Is Such a People” party, led by celebrity Slavi Trifonov, then got a crack but was similarly unable to form a government. Bulgaria’s Socialist Party then made a real long shot bid at putting a government together, and its failure over the weekend has likely triggered a snap election, which will probably take place in July.

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

  • 2,893,655 confirmed cases (+15,909)

  • 74,700 reported fatalities (+485)

Colombians turned out by the thousands on Saturday to mark International Workers’ Day with a fourth straight day of protests against President Iván Duque’s proposed tax reforms. At least six people have been killed in those protests so far (estimates of the number killed vary widely and some claimed deaths are apparently still being investigated), and scores of people have been injured. Duque has dropped some of the reform effort’s most objectionable aspects, including proposed sales taxes on food and utilities, but the demonstrations show no sign of abating.

EL SALVADOR

  • 69,198 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 2132 reported fatalities (+8)

El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, controlled by President Nayib Bukele’s right wing coalition, voted on Sunday to can the country’s attorney general and five of the 15 judges on its Supreme Court—the five deemed most inhospitable to Bukele’s agenda, naturally. The moves have drawn pointed criticism from opposition parties and from the international community, including the United States and the Organization of American States, but Bukele’s hold on power at this point is almost total so there’s not much recourse to prevent him from consolidating it further.

UNITED STATES

  • 33,180,441 confirmed cases (+30,701)

  • 591,062 reported fatalities (+312)

Finally, TomDispatch publisher Tom Englehardt looks back on the US war that may be ending in Afghanistan and looks ahead to all the wars America may be fighting in the future:

Of course, even the ending of that never-ending Afghan War may prove exaggerated. In fact, let’s consider Afghanistan apart from the rest of this country’s war-making history for a moment. After all, if I had told you in 1978 that, of the 42 years to follow, the U.S. would be involved in war in a single country for 30 of them and asked you to identify it, I can guarantee that Afghanistan wouldn’t have been your pick. And yet so it’s been. From 1979 to 1989, there was the CIA-backed Islamist extremist war against the Soviet army there (to the tune of billions and billions of dollars). And yet the obvious lesson the Russians learned from that adventure, as their military limped home in defeat and the Soviet Union imploded not long after — that Afghanistan is indeed the “graveyard of empires” — clearly had no impact in Washington.

Or how do you explain the 19-plus years of warfare there that followed the 9/11 attacks, themselves committed by a small Islamist outfit, al-Qaeda, born as an American ally in that first Afghan War? Only recently, the invaluable Costs of War Project estimated that America’s second Afghan War has cost this country almost $2.3 trillion (not including the price of lifetime care for its vets) and has left at least 241,000 people dead, including 2,442 American service members. In 1978, after the disaster of the Vietnam War, had I assured you that such a never-ending failure of a conflict was in our future, you would undoubtedly have laughed in my face.

And yet, three decades later, the U.S. military high command still seems not faintly to have grasped the lesson that we “taught” the Russians and then experienced ourselves. As a result, according to recent reports, they have uniformly opposed President Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from that country by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, it’s not even clear that, by September 11, 2021, if the president’s proposal goes according to plan, that war will have truly ended. After all, the same military commanders and intelligence chiefs seem intent on organizing long-distance versions of that conflict or, as the New York Times put it, are determined to “fight from afar” there. They are evidently even considering establishing new bases in neighboring lands to do so.

America’s “forever wars” — once known as the Global War on Terror and, when the administration of George W. Bush launched it, proudly aimed at 60 countries — do seem to be slowly winding down. Unfortunately, other kinds of potential wars, especially new cold wars with China and Russia (involving new kinds of high-tech weaponry) only seem to be gearing up.