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Mali opposition leaders freed after days of anti-gov't protests

Protesters gather in front of Salam Mosque in Bamako where influential imam Mahmoud Dicko led a prayer dedicated to victims of the clashes [Michele Cattani/AFP]

Malian authorities have freed some 20 political opponents arrested by the security forces during a wave of deadly protests calling for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign.

Their release on Monday is an apparent bid by Keita to calm tensions sparked by the outcome of a long-delayed parliamentary poll, but whose underlying causes include discontent over his handling of armed groups in Mali. The 75-year-old has been in power since 2013.

Mali’s capital Bamako remains tense after a rally on Friday turned violent, with security forces reportedly firing live rounds and tear gas to disperse protesters, who blocked bridges, stormed the premises of the state broadcaster, and attacked the parliament building.

At least 11 people have died, and nearly 150 others have been wounded since Friday, according to a hospital official in Bamako, where the clashes continued over the weekend and Monday, with much of the tension focused in the opposition-supporting Badalabougou neighbourhood.

The well-off neighbourhood is a stronghold of influential imam Mahmoud Dicko, who has emerged as a leader of the worst civil unrest the country has seen in years.

The demonstrations are being driven by the M5-RFP, a disparate group of religious leaders, political and civil society members calling for “civil disobedience”, including non-payment of fines and blocking entry to state buildings.

On Monday, the M5-RFP said 20 people had been killed since Friday, but Mali’s health ministry confirmed 11 deaths.

The M5-RFP has rejected concessions offered by Keita as insufficient, including his offer to dissolve the constitutional court.

Monday’s clashes came after the UN mission in Mali, the African Union, West African regional bloc ECOWAS and the EU jointly criticised Malian authorities for their response to the protests.

The organisations “condemn the use of lethal force in the context of maintaining public order and invite all stakeholders to exercise restraint”, they said in a statement late on Sunday.

The former French colony has struggled to contain an armed rebellion that first emerged in the north in 2012 before spreading to the centre of the country and to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Return of alcohol ban stirs debate in South Africa

The return of a ban on alcohol sales has stirred debate among South Africans as the government steps up efforts to reduce pressure on hospitals amid a rapid increase in coronavirus infections.

President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a televised address on Sunday, blamed the resumption of alcohol sales last month for burdening hospitals and clinics with related injuries, violence and trauma.

He went on to outline preventive measures, including a nighttime curfew and mandatory mask-wearing when in public.

Ramaphosa also lambasted citizens who have continued to hold social gatherings, including parties and overcrowded funerals, saying they had contributed significantly to the rapid spread of the virus.

South Africa has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Africa and the ninth-highest tally globally, at 287,796.

It is now recording the fourth-largest daily increase in new infections worldwide, while its official coronavirus-related death toll stands at 4,172.

“South Africa has one of the lowest death rates compared to other countries – but it might not stay that way,” Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg, said.

“A quarter of those deaths were recorded in the last week alone, and estimates indicate there could be between 40,000 and 50,000 deaths in the months to come.”

At the end of March, Ramaphosa announced one of the toughest lockdowns anywhere in the world, banning anyone but essential workers from leaving home except to buy food or medicine. At the time, South Africa had recorded just 400 cases.

The country started slowly reopening parts of the economy from May and again in June, but infections have started to spike again.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said the government was avoiding taking responsibility for the crisis and shifting blame to the citizens.

“The argument that alcohol trauma is putting the system under pressure is simply an excuse and cover-up for this failure. Alcohol is the scapegoat, not the reason,” it said on Twitter.

Many also said the measures will have economic, as well as social implications.

“The speech delivered by the president will have a huge impact on the people of South Africa,” Nokwanda Zenzile, a student, told The Associated Press news agency.

“Because many people, especially women, were complaining about their safety that men will harass us due to their frustration of alcohol being banned,” the Johannesburg resident said.

Zbusiso Mkhwanazi, a South African entrepreneur, wrote on Twitter: “As much as I personally support the ban but those are still jobs lost. The focus is to now help brands think differently to salvage as much jobs as we can.”

Others, however, chimed in support for the government restrictions.

“We are in an intense time of difficulty, so our hospitals must not be full,” Douglas Ngobeni, another Johannesburg student, told AP.

“Let us be patient as a country. Alcohol does not go anywhere, because this thing of banning alcohol is being done merely for the fact that hospitals must not be full, so to accommodate the victims of the virus.”

According to health minister Zweli Mkhize, hospital admissions in the emergency and trauma units of South African hospitals increased by up to 60 percent when the ban on selling alcohol was lifted in June.


A countrywide curfew that went into effect on Monday mandates that people, excluding those travelling to or from work or seeking medical help, must not be on the roads between 9pm and 4am.

Masks have also been declared mandatory, with all transport operators, employers, and owners of businesses and buildings now legally obliged to ensure everyone entering their businesses or premises is wearing a mask. Family visits and social activities remain banned.

Ramaphosa said current projections showed different provinces would reach the peak of infections between the end of July and late September.

Transparency concerns raised over India COVID-19 fund

The PM CARES fund, now valued at more than $1b, has run into controversy over issues of transparency and accountability [File: Anupam Nath/AP Photo]

Bejon Misra responded quickly to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal in March for donations to a new fund to strengthen the country’s fight against the coronavirus.

The next day, the 69-year-old retired management professor made a donation. “It was a generous contribution because Modi is the face of it,” Misra said.

Such trust in Modi is common in India, the prime minister enjoying a very high approval rating, despite coronavirus infections spiking in recent weeks.

India on Tuesday recorded more than 28,000 cases for the second consecutive day, taking the tally to 906,752, according to the country’s health ministry. More than 23,000 people have died from COVID-19.

So when the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund, or PM CARES, was launched days after India started a countrywide virus lockdown in March, donations began pouring in and have not stopped.

Retirees like Misra, industrialists, Bollywood stars and foreign companies have all pitched in. But the fund, now valued at more than $1bn, has run into controversy over issues of transparency and accountability.

PM office denies fund information

The Associated Press requested a list of donors and payments from Modi’s office under the Right to Information Law, which entitles citizens to access information from India’s often opaque bureaucracy. The request was denied.

Modi’s office, which manages PM CARES, has refused to disclose the information, arguing that even though it is administered by the Indian government, the fund is not a public authority and therefore is not subject to right-to-information laws.

As a result, there is little transparency about the money the fund is receiving and spending in the middle of India’s still-raging virus outbreak.

“It’s not a state secret, and the government must answer the questions that are being raised,” said Saket Gokhale, an independent activist who was one of the first to question the fund. “They are stonewalling.”

Legal experts are challenging the response by Modi’s office.

Surender Singh Hooda, a lawyer at India’s top court, filed a petition on June 5, arguing that the fund’s website must display details of the money received and how it is used.

Made with Flourish

The Delhi high court told Hooda to withdraw his petition and contact Modi’s office first, as required by law.
Modi’s office denied Hooda’s request for information.

“The money has been collected under the name of the prime minister, and millions of ordinary citizens have donated to it. The least we expect is some transparency,” Hooda said.

Modi is the fund’s chairman, while the powerful Home Minister Amit Shah, as well as the ministers of defence and finance sit on its board.

The ventilators ‘scam’

But unlike other government-administered funds, this is not audited by India’s Comptroller and Auditor General.

Instead, Modi appointed a private business consulting firm, SARC & Associates, to audit the fund 12 days after it donated $212,665 to it.

Sunil Kumar Gupta, head of SARC & Associates, has been a vocal supporter of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, appearing in photographs with Modi and top party leaders at various events.

Gupta also wrote a book in 2018 about “Make in India”, Modi’s project to increase manufacturing and domestic consumption of Indian-made products.

“On what merit was this private company, which is so close to Modi’s party, given the job to audit the fund?” asked Gokhale. “It’s shady, and the activities are very suspect.”

Gupta declined requests for comment.

Modi’s party colleagues have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing by the fund. Party spokesperson Nalin Kohli said it was “transparent” and was helping India fight the virus.

PM CARES has also run into other controversies.

India virus fund

After Modi’s office said it had spent $26m from the fund to buy 50,000 ventilators, two top hospitals in Mumbai and New Delhi described shortcomings in the products and concluded they were prone to failure.

The company that made the ventilators rejected the findings.

The main opposition Congress party called the ventilator purchase a scam.

About $13m from the fund was allocated for impoverished migrant workers, millions of whom were stranded without work or transportation home during the two-month countrywide lockdown. Many say the allocation came too late.

Modi’s party said the $13m was given to state governments to provide food, shelter, medical treatment and transportation for the migrants.

Former Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram, a Congress party member, was critical that the money did not directly “go to the hands of the migrant workers”.

Others see the fund as a thinly veiled marketing device for the prime minister.

Dam talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan end with no deal

Filling the GERD without a deal could sharply escalate tensions in the bitter dispute [File: Eduardo Soteras/AFP]

The latest round of negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the latter’s contentious dam on the Blue Nile has ended with no agreement, according to Egyptian and Sudanese officials.

“All of the efforts exerted to reach a solution didn’t come to any kind of result,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Monday in an interview with Egypt’s DMC TV channel.

The failure sank modest hopes the three countries could resolve their differences and sign an agreement on the dam’s operation before Ethiopia begins to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), set to be Africa’s largest.

Addis Ababa had previously pledged to start storing water in the dam’s vast reservoir at the start of the wet season in July, when rains flood the Blue Nile.

The bitter dispute pits Ethiopia’s desire to supply electricity to a significant portion of its population that lacks it and to become a major power exporter by selling its surplus, against downstream Egypt’s concern that the colossal dam will significantly curtail its water supply if filled too quickly.

Egypt, which is almost entirely dependent on the Nile for its fresh-water supplies, sees the project as a potentially existential threat. It is anxious to secure a legally binding deal that would guarantee minimum flows and a mechanism for resolving disputes before the dam starts operating.

For its part, Sudan stands to benefit from the project through access to cheap electricity and reduced flooding, but it has also raised fears over the dam’s operation, which could endanger its own smaller dams, depending on the amount of water discharged downstream daily.

Years of talks with a variety of mediators have failed to produce a solution, with the latest round – mediated by the African Union (AU) and observed by US and European officials – proving no different.

The three countries agreed they would send their reports to the AU president and reconvene in a week to determine next steps.

There was no immediate comment from Ethiopia on the talks.

Filling the GERD without a deal would sharply escalate tensions, with observers fearing it could push the countries to the brink of military conflict.

Shoukry warned that Egypt might be compelled to appeal again to the UN Security Council to intervene in the dispute, a prospect Ethiopia rejects, preferring that regional bodies such as the AU mediate.

“If there is something that threatens the regional security of Egypt and international security, it is the main responsibility of the Security Council to adopt procedures that will prevent this,” he said.

In a press conference on Monday, Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas outlined a series of sticking points.

While the parties were “keen to find a solution”, technical and legal disagreements persist over the filling and operation of the dam, he said. Most important, he said, are the unresolved questions of how much water Ethiopia will release downstream if a multi-year drought occurs, and how the countries will resolve any future disputes.

Hisham Kahin, a member of Sudan’s legal committee in the dam negotiations, said 70-80 percent of negotiations turned on the thorny question of whether an agreement would be legally binding.

Ethiopia, he said, fears a binding agreement will hinder its future development projects. Sudan and Egypt consider it critical.

In Pictures: China faces worst floods in 30 years

Floods across large swaths of central and eastern China have left more than 140 people dead, affecting 38 million others and destroying 28,000 homes, according to government tallies.

It is the worst floods in China in more than 30 years, as regions across the country brace for another “grim” week of torrential rain.

The coronavirus ground zero of Wuhan, through which the powerful Yangtze River winds, is on an expanding list of areas warily watching the rising waters.

The river hit its third-highest levels and is projected to increase through the week, according to state-controlled media.

As many as 33 rivers have reached record highs, while alerts have been issued on a total of 433 rivers, officials from the Chinese water resources ministry said.

The worst-hit provinces were Jiangxi, Hubei and Hunan in central China, Anhui, Zhejiang and Jiangsu in the country’s east, and the southwestern mega-city of Chongqing, authorities said.

Amid growing alarm, President Xi Jinping on Sunday called on authorities in affected areas to mobilise to help stricken residents, urging them to be “courageous”.

Ivory Coast creates northern military zone after deadly attack

Dozens of people, including the leader of the group who led the June 11 assault, were arrested before and after last month’s attack [File: Issouf Sanogo/AFP]

Ivory Coast has created a special military zone in the north of the country, the government said, less than a month after a deadly attack on a frontier post.

The pre-dawn killing of 14 army personnel on June 11 at Kafolo, along the country’s border with Burkina Faso, was the first assault by hardline fighters on Ivorian soil since March 2016 when a raid on the southeastern beach resort of Grand-Bassam left 19 people dead.

“Given the persistent insecurity at the borders between Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso due to the presence of armed terrorist groups in these neighbouring countries and following the attack,” the government has authorised “the creation of an operational zone”, a statement made at the end of a cabinet meeting on Monday said.

The zone will have a single central command for military operations.

“This northern operational zone will make it possible to move from the phase of border surveillance to a defensive posture… in order to prevent any infiltration of these armed groups onto national territory,” the statement said.

The attack at Kafolo has not been claimed, but authorities believe it was carried out by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), an organisation linked to al-Qaeda.

Dozens of people, including the leader of the group who led the June 11 assault, were arrested before and after last month’s attack.

It took place in the same area where Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso launched a groundbreaking joint operation to flush out fighters in May.

Ivory Coast shares a 550-km (340-mile) border with Burkina Faso, where violence has claimed nearly 1,000 lives and forced 860,000 people from their homes over the past five years.

A 2012 separatist movement in Mali sparked a multilayered conflict that has spilled across the borders of Niger and Burkina Faso in recent years.

The escalating violence involves an amorphous array of al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS)-affiliated groups and ethnic armed groups, as well as state, regional and international forces.