World update: September 5-6 2020

Stories from Sudan, the United Kingdom, Bolivia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 4, 476: Odoacer and his army depose Romulus Augustus (“Augustulus”) at Ravenna. This is the conventional date given for the final end of the Roman Empire in the west, though there were other claimants to the throne still kicking around and in any practical sense the western empire had been kaput for some time already.

September 4, 1839: Four British boats open fire on a group of Chinese junks enforcing a blockade on the English community in Hong Kong, killing two in what’s known as the Battle of Kowloon. This minor engagement sparked the First Opium War, which ended with Britain in control of Hong Kong and China forced to agree to major trade concessions.

September 4, 1912: The Albanian Revolt of 1912 ends

September 5, 1905: The Russo-Japanese War ends with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, negotiated with the mediation of Teddy Roosevelt (who won the Nobel Peace Prize as a result). The Russians were obliged to evacuate Manchuria, acknowledge Korea as within Japan’s sphere of influence, and turn over a couple of Pacific islands to Tokyo. The war marked Japan as a rising power and contributed to growing political discontent in Russia that wasn’t resolved until 1917.

Russian (far side) and Japanese negotiators discussing the treaty at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine (P. F. Collier & Son via Wikimedia Commons)

September 5, 1972: Members of the Palestinian terror group “Black September” kill two members of the Israeli delegation and take nine more hostage during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. A poorly handled rescue attempt at the Munich airport by West German police the following day ended with the nine hostages killed as well as five of the attackers and one police officer.

September 6, 1522: The Victoria arrives at the Spanish port of Sanlúcar as the first ship to successfully circumnavigate the earth. It had set out as one of five vessels in Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1519 and was the only ship to survive the journey. In that sense it fared better than its admiral, Magellan, who was killed after picking an ill-advised fight with a group of indigenous people in the Philippines. And its haul of spices in particular was worth more than the other four ships combined, so investors still came out ahead. The Victoria would fully complete its trip around the world two days later by returning to the port whence it departed, Seville.

September 6, 1955: The two-day Istanbul Pogrom begins with news reports that the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki (which happened to be the home where Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was born) had been bombed by Greek agents. A mob began attacking Greeks in Istanbul and then expanded its scope to include Armenians and Jews. Between 13 and 30 people are said to have been killed in the violence and the incident began a process of Greek emigration that played out over the next several years. In reality, the consulate was fine and the whole thing was a planned operation by Turkey’s two “Operation Gladio” organizations, the Tactical Mobilisation Group and Counter-Guerrilla. They were responding to the rise of Greek unionist sentiment (Enosis) in Cyprus and were likely also working on a longer-term project to “encourage” minority emigration and thereby “Turkify” Turkey.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for September 6:

  • 27,283,718 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (7,029,248 active, +231,553 since yesterday)

  • 887,305 reported fatalities (+4129 since yesterday)

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

  • 1987 confirmed coronavirus cases (+4)

  • 572 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Saudi media is reporting that the kingdom’s forces in Yemen intercepted at least one Houthi drone on Sunday. The reporting on this isn’t entirely clear to me and there may have been two drones. The Houthis are claiming they carried out an attack on Abha airport in southern Saudi Arabia, which would suggest they got past the kingdom’s air defenses, but there’s been no confirmation of that.

IRAQ

  • 260,370 confirmed cases (+3651)

  • 7512 reported fatalities (+90)

Three rockets hit Baghdad International Airport on Sunday, causing what appears to have been some minor material damage but no casualties. Rocket attacks, probably by Iranian-aligned militias, are up in Baghdad lately, but they have not caused casualties.

LEBANON

  • 20,426 confirmed cases (+415)

  • 191 reported fatalities (+4)

Rescue workers who believed several days ago that they had found signs of a survivor in the wreckage of Beirut’s massive seaport explosion last month have now concluded that those “signs” were actually caused by recovery workers on site. They have been unable to detect any signs of life in the wreckage for the past two days.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

  • 130,644 confirmed cases (+1708) in Israel, 26,127 confirmed cases (+552) in Palestine

  • 1019 reported fatalities (+12) in Israel, 181 reported fatalities (+4) in Palestine

Thousands of people turned out in Jerusalem again on Saturday evening to continue their weekly protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The protesters want Netanyahu gone due to his ongoing corruption trial and his mishandling of Israel’s pandemic response, which has now forced the imposition of regional lockdowns in areas hardest hit by the virus.

At +972 Magazine, B’Tselem’s Sarit Michaeli writes about a fascinating new technique being used by Israeli security forces in the West Bank:

After 15 years of documenting protests and clashes in the occupied West Bank as part of my work for Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, I thought that nothing about the Israeli military’s suppression of Palestinian demonstrations against the occupation could surprise me. Last Thursday, however, I was proved wrong.

That day, residents of Kufr Qaddum, who since 2011 have been protesting weekly against the closure of the main entrance to their village, posted photos of camouflaged improvised explosive devices that Israeli forces had placed at spots where protesters gather.

I found it hard to believe that soldiers on duty had snuck into the outskirts of a Palestinian village close to its built-up area, where they know villagers roam and children play, and planted IEDs made from military stun grenades the day before a protest. They had been placed in such a way that any contact would cause them to explode.

Yet this is precisely what had happened last Thursday. The first device exploded after it was discovered by a 7-year-old who luckily did not touch it. Wasim Shteiwi, a relative who was summoned to the area and examined the device, was wounded lightly from the blast. The military admitted planting the devices, in response to a query from Haaretz reporters Hagar Shezaf and Yaniv Kubovich.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 38,398 confirmed cases (+74)

  • 1412 reported fatalities (+3)

The Taliban has reportedly sent its negotiating team to Doha, which certainly seems like a positive sign as far as the potential for peace talks with the Afghan government in the near future. Kabul is sending a team to Doha as well, though its arrival date is not entirely clear as the two sides only just came to a final accord over prisoners a couple of days ago. Afghan authorities have released all but seven of the 5000 prisoners the Taliban wanted released as a precondition to talks. Those remaining seven are viewed as especially problematic by several foreign governments since they all participated in “insider attacks” in which international forces were killed. They’re bringing those seven prisoners with them to Doha, whenever they arrive. There are apparently still “logistical” issues to work out before the talks can start.

The Afghan delegation says its first goal will be to establish a ceasefire, partly for the obvious reasons and partly as a show of good faith by the Taliban. It’s unclear how that’s going to be received by the Taliban, which may be reluctant to stop fighting and give up the negotiating leverage it gains from territorial expansion.

INDIA

  • 4,202,562 confirmed cases (+91,723)

  • 71,687 reported fatalities (+1008)

Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe held the highest-level meeting between their two countries yet on Saturday to try to settle their ongoing border dispute. It didn’t go well, and the reason I know this is because after the meeting each issued a statement blaming the other for the dispute. This certainly corresponds with reports that both countries have been substantially beefing up their border forces over the past few weeks, not just in the western region where they clashed violently back in June but also in the equally disputed eastern border area between Tibet and northeastern India.

SRI LANKA

  • 3123 confirmed cases (+2)

  • 12 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The fire that’s been raging for several days aboard a supertanker off the coast of Sri Lanka has reportedly been extinguished. Presumably that means its estimated 270,000 metric tons of crude are no longer in danger of spillage, but crews are apparently continuing to douse the ship with water to prevent a reignition.

CHINA

  • 85,122 confirmed cases (+10) on the mainland, 4879 confirmed cases (+21) in Hong Kong

  • 4634 reported fatalities (unchanged) on the mainland, 94 reported fatalities (unchanged) in Hong Kong

Hong Kong police arrested 289 people who were among a group protesting Sunday against the regional government’s decision to postpone a planned legislative election for a year. Hong Kong executive Carrie Lam put off the vote, which was to have started Sunday, citing the pandemic, but pro-democracy activists accuse her of using the health crisis to justify scuttling an election in which they were likely to do well.

AFRICA

SUDAN

  • 13,437 confirmed cases (+30)

  • 833 reported fatalities (+1)

The Sudanese government and the Sudan Revolutionary Front rebel umbrella group are planning to hold a formal signing in Juba on October 2 for the peace deal they negotiated last month. That deal doesn’t involve a faction of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, but he and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok announced their own agreement in Ethiopia on Friday.

Since the announcement of that agreement I’ve seen a fair amount of excited coverage, including in some decent sources, about how the Sudanese government has “separated church and state” or the like. This seems overblown to me. The agreement Hamdok and Hilu reached on Friday was an agreement to reopen negotiations on ending Hilu’s rebellion. It did include the language “the state shall not establish an official religion. No citizen shall be discriminated against based on their religion,” which is nice but is an expression of intent, not a binding legal change.

Hilu’s main demand has been that Sudan become a “secular” state, so it makes sense he’d have insisted on some nod in that direction. But again this was a joint statement with a rebel leader, nothing more. Declaring that Sudan no longer has an official religion is the kind of thing that has to be in a new constitution. Hamdok, as the civilian half of a joint civilian-military interim government, doesn’t have the authority to make a change that big. Even if he has the military’s support, which is not necessarily a given, it’s not clear that the government would have the authority to make such a change since it’s only an interim caretaker government.

LIBYA

  • 17,749 confirmed cases (+655)

  • 285 reported fatalities (+13)

Libya’s rival governments held a meeting in Morocco on Sunday to see if they could build on the ceasefires they mutually announced a couple of weeks ago. The purpose seems to have been setting out some preliminary parameters ahead of a higher-level meeting scheduled for Monday and Tuesday in Switzerland.

TUNISIA

  • 5041 confirmed cases (+265)

  • 93 reported fatalities (unchanged)

An apparent terrorist attack in the Tunisian coastal resort city of Sousse on Sunday left one police officer dead along with three attackers. The three attacked police with knives, wounding one officer in addition to the one they killed, then stole weapons and a police vehicle. They were then killed in a shootout with additional police. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack as yet.

MALI

  • 2842 confirmed cases (+9)

  • 127 reported fatalities (+1)

Two French soldiers operating in northeastern Mali’s Kidal province were killed and another wounded on Saturday when their vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. Also Saturday, Mali’s ruling military junta held talks with civilian political leaders and religious leaders on a potential transition back to civilian governance. If they produced any sort of outcome other than the discussions themselves I have yet to hear of it.

Meanwhile, former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta flew to Dubai on Saturday for medical treatment. He reportedly suffered a mini-stroke last week. The junta says he is obliged to return to Mali within three months, but we’ll see.

CHAD

  • 1039 confirmed cases (+5)

  • 79 reported fatalities (+2)

At least six Chadian soldiers have been killed over the past couple of days in two separate incidents. On Friday, three soldiers were killed when their vehicle came under fire in Tibesti province, near the Libyan border. Details about the attackers are sparse but they may have been rebels, smugglers, or bootleg gold miners. Then on Saturday, three more soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a landmine in the Lake Chad region. Either Boko Haram or the Islamic State’s West Africa Province were presumably responsible.

ETHIOPIA

  • 58,672 confirmed cases (+1206)

  • 918 reported fatalities (+21)

The upper house of Ethiopia’s parliament, the House of Federation, voted Saturday to declare a planned September 9 election in the country’s Tigray region “unconstitutional.” Leaders of the Tigray People's Liberation Front have organized their own election in place of a national general election that’s been postponed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, ostensibly due to the pandemic. They’re opposed to Ahmed’s efforts to minimize the role of ethnic identity in Ethiopian politics and withdrew from the country’s former ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, in December when Abiy converted it into a more traditional political organization known as the “Prosperity Party.” They’ve suggested that any effort on the government’s part to interfere with the election would be treated as a “declaration of war.”

SOMALIA

  • 3362 confirmed cases (+30)

  • 97 reported fatalities (unchanged)

At least 30 people were reportedly killed in fighting between residents of the village of Shabeelow, in central Somalia, and al-Shabab fighters on Friday. At least 14 villagers were among the dead, after villagers apparently decided to resist pressure from the jihadists to surrender their weapons and their livestock.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 1,025,505 confirmed cases (+5195)

  • 17,820 reported fatalities (+61)

Weekly protests are continuing in the eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk, where people are still angry over the ouster of their regional governor, Sergei Furgal, back in July. In the wake of the recent apparent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the demonstrations have reportedly taken on a more generalized pro-opposition orientation rather than being exclusively about Furgal.

BELARUS

  • 72,859 confirmed cases (+196)

  • 711 reported fatalities (+6)

Tens of thousands of people—one media outlet put the number over 100,000—gathered in Minsk on Sunday to reiterate their wish for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to get on with his life’s work. Protests also broke out in other cities, despite a large show of force from security forces and warnings of a heavy government crackdown. Those warnings seem to have gone mostly unfulfilled, though there were a considerable number of arrests, perhaps as many as 250 overall. Thousands of women and supporters of the LGBTQ community marched in Minsk on Saturday, with the open display by the latter in particular hinting at an emboldened protest movement.

SERBIA

  • 31,905 confirmed cases (+56)

  • 724 reported fatalities (+1)

In the light of day—or, I guess, the past two days—Friday’s allegedly big economic normalization agreement signed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovan Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at the White House seems, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be a little less than advertised. As it happens, the two leaders did not sign a bilateral agreement with one another, but rather what appears to have been two separate bilateral agreements between their countries and the United States. That seems considerably less promising, although I guess it could still be interpreted as a first step toward improving relations assuming the agreements actually stick. Just not a very big one. Both governments have reportedly agreed to stop arguing publicly over the issue of Kosovo’s international recognition, though again without an agreement between the two of them this seems like something that could be easily put aside later.

At least Israel is still coming out ahead, having agreed to mutually recognize Kosovo in return for Kosovo putting its embassy in Jerusalem. Serbia is also still apparently moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem by next summer, although video of the agreement signing event suggests that this particular aspect of the deal caught Vučić by surprise for some reason:

Did he not realize he’d agreed to move the embassy? Or did he not know there was a timetable for it? Or was this just an awkward moment with no real meaning behind it? So far I don’t think Vučić has offered any comment.

MONTENEGRO

  • 5553 confirmed cases (+131)

  • 108 reported fatalities (+1)

Thousands of people protested in Podgorica on Sunday against the political parties that won last weekend’s parliamentary election. The right wing For the Future of Montenegro coalition is expected to lead the country’s next government, ending the almost 30 year reign of the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro. That coalition includes a substantial pro-Serbia core and drew substantial support from the Serbian Orthodox Church. It would appear that fears the new government could steer Montenegro closer to Serbia motivated the protests, although they may also have been arranged by Montenegrin President and DPS leader Milo Đukanović.

UNITED KINGDOM

  • 347,152 confirmed cases (+2988)

  • 41,551 reported fatalities (+2)

Boris Johnson is apparently set to tell the European Union on Monday that if it and the UK can’t get a post-Brexit trade deal done by October 15, they shouldn’t bother trying to get one done at all. Given that the two sides have made almost no progress all year, it seems unlikely they could suddenly get to a deal in a bit over a month. But anything is possible. On the other hand, Johnson is also reportedly planning to unilaterally override parts of the UK-EU Brexit withdrawal deal pertaining to the status of Northern Ireland. This would remove parts of that deal that force the UK to impose customs checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country, but it would also probably crash the trade deal talks and could very well lead to a restoration of a hard Ireland-UK border, which is something everybody involved in Brexit negotiations has been trying to avoid.

AMERICAS

BOLIVIA

  • 120,241 confirmed cases (+661)

  • 5398 reported fatalities (+55)

The Center for Economic and Policy Research’s David Rosnick says that the Organization of American States based its conclusion that Bolivian President Evo Morales had rigged last August’s presidential election—a conclusion that became the basis of the coup that ousted Morales in November—on a “coding error”:

The OAS had alleged, the day after the vote, that the preliminary count contained an “inexplicable change in trend” of the preliminary results — drastically skewing in Morales’s favor. But its claim was dubious to begin with. As early as October 22, we began raising serious questions suggesting the “inexplicable change” was quite predictable.

The OAS would later support its allegation by claiming that the official count also contained a late break for Morales that “cannot be easily explained away” by Morales’s generally rural support specifically because the official count “data do not reflect the time the results were reported to the TSE [Tribunal Supremo Electoral].” This premise is entirely wrong; votes from the main cities were much more likely to be counted early, because the official count required hand delivery (rather than electronic transmission) of electoral materials to TSE offices.

Faulty reasoning aside, the OAS results were irreproducible.

Ten months later came the revelation that some of the OAS’s previously baffling conclusions are explained by a coding error. It had ordered the time stamps on the tally sheets alphabetically rather than chronologically — thus destroying its narrative of a sudden change in the official count.

While this is indeed a “coding error,” the OAS’s conclusion was not made in error. It was made by a right-wing organization that was looking for a way to undermine the left-wing Morales’s victory and grabbed at the first thing that could be spun as a legitimate objection.

UNITED STATES

  • 6,460,250 confirmed cases (+31,110)

  • 193,250 reported fatalities (+432)

Finally, the New York Times reports that Russian, Chinese, and Iranian (?) hackers are all trying to steal COVID-19 vaccine data from good, wholesome Western drug companies and research institutions. A story like this raises important philosophical questions about the morality of keeping this data confidential in the first place when this crisis has been crying out for a fully collaborative international effort to find a solution. But leaving that aside, and courtesy of journalist Adam Johnson, I think you’ll appreciate how the NYT deals with the awkward question of whether US spies are similarly attempting to pilfer other countries’ vaccine data:

American officials insist their own spy services’ efforts are defensive and that intelligence agencies have not been ordered to steal coronavirus research. But other current and former intelligence officials said the reality was not nearly so black and white. As American intelligence agencies try to find out what Russia, China and Iran may have stolen, they could encounter information on those countries’ research and collect it.

So the US is, as it turns out, probably trying to steal other countries’ vaccine data. But it’s different. When the Bad Guys spy, you see, that’s Bad. But when Americans spy, that’s just a good faith accident that’s really caused by the Bad Guys, because we wouldn’t even be doing that kind of thing if they hadn’t started it first. It’s all very simple and believable.