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World roundup: April 23-24 2022
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, France, and more
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Happy Easter to those who are celebrating it!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 22, 1809: Napoleon’s army defeats the Austrians under Archduke Charles at the Battle of Eckmühl, in Bavaria. The victory is considered a turning point in the the 1809 War of the Fifth Coalition, because it blunted Austria’s invasion of Bavaria, which had caught the French leader somewhat by surprise, and allowed him to go on the offensive by invading Austria.
April 22, 1948: In one of the last major engagements before the civil war in Palestine turned into the Arab-Israeli War, the Jewish paramilitary organization Haganah captures the Arab sections of the port city of Haifa from the Palestinians. Haifa was one of six largely mixed cities the Haganah captured between the start of April and the middle of May—by the end of May, between voluntary flight and involuntary expulsions the number of Arabs living in those cities collectively dropped from an estimated 177,000 to an estimated 13,000.
April 23, 1817: Under their leader Miloš Obrenović, a group of Serbian rebels in the village of Takovo declare independence from the Ottoman Empire, setting off the Second Serbian Uprising. After a conflict that lasted until late July 1817, the rebels were able to win de facto independence from the Ottomans, who recognized their autonomous state as the “Principality of Serbia.” The Serbians finally gained full independence at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.
April 23, 1985: In what’s considered one of the most catastrophically bad business decisions of all time, the Coca-Cola Company introduces a new formula for its flagship beverage. Although the new formula had outperformed the old one in taste tests, the move was so overwhelmingly unpopular that the company revived the old formula a mere three months later, first as “Coca-Cola Classic” and later, after it had phased out the new formula, as just “Coca-Cola” again. The switch seemed so baffling that it spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories, ranging from a ploy to boost sales to a way to disguise changes in the original formula (a switch from sugar to high fructose corn syrup and/or the removal of its remaining coca components).
April 24, 1915: Ottoman authorities arrest a group of around 250 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul in what has come to be known as “Red Sunday.” They were forcibly deported to other parts of the empire and most were ultimately killed. The incident is considered a kind of “decapitation strike” against the empire’s Armenian community and is regarded as the first major event of the Armenian Genocide. April 24 is commemorated as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day within Armenia and by diaspora Armenians, as well as in countries that have recognized the genocide.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Omani government has managed to convince Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels to free 14 foreign nationals they’d been holding prisoner. Little seems to be known about most of them, but there is a UK national in the group named Luke Symons who reportedly traveled to Yemen in 2012 to marry a Yemeni woman and was detained in 2017 along with his wife and their son on allegations of spying. It’s unclear what, if anything, the Houthis are getting in return.
The long-awaited first commercial flight out of Sanaa in six years had to be indefinitely postponed on Sunday. According to Yemenia, Yemen’s national air carrier, the flight never got permission from Saudi Arabia, which is still blockading northern Yemeni airspace though it’s pledged to lighten up on that blockade under the current two-month ceasefire. The Yemeni government accused the Houthis of causing the postponement by attempting to place unapproved passengers on the flight. This could be viewed as only a minor inconvenience if it weren’t for the fact that there are untold numbers of people in northern Yemen who are hoping to use the resumption of commercial flights to go abroad to seek medical care.
Israeli authorities closed the Erez crossing, the only place where Palestinians in Gaza can pass through the fence line into Israel proper, on Sunday in response to recent rocket fire out of the enclave. Three rockets were fired out of Gaza on Friday and Saturday, marking four days in a row of sporadic incidents. The Israelis opted to forego their usual retaliatory airstrikes and shut the crossing instead. While less provocative, the main victims of this approach will be Gazans who work in Israel proper and who now won’t be able to get to their jobs. The Israelis will presumably maintain the closure until the rocket fire ceases.
If you’re in the market for used luxury goods, The Wall Street Journal says there are some highly motivated sellers in Saudi Arabia:
Saudi princes have sold more than $600 million worth of real estate, yachts and artwork in the U.S. and Europe since the kingdom’s de facto ruler tightened the purse strings of the ultrawealthy ruling family.
The transactions represent a radical change of fortune for senior princes who funneled windfalls from oil booms in the 1970s and 1980s into some of the world’s most exclusive markets. The vast sums of money were spent largely on hard-to-sell assets or drained by spending that reached $30 million a month for some royals with large staffs and lavish lifestyles, making them vulnerable to recent changes in government policy.
Now, some royal family members are selling assets abroad to generate cash after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 36-year-old de facto ruler, dried up many of the sources of money they had used to maintain their extraordinary spending habits, said people close to the princes conducting the sales.
The princes need cash to pay routine bills including for property maintenance, taxes, staff salaries and parking fees for their airplanes and boats, the people said. In some cases, the people said, they are also motivated by a desire to hold less ostentatious assets to avoid attracting the attention of Prince Mohammed, who has curtailed their privileges and access to state funds in the Al Saud family since his father took the throne in 2015. The Saudi government is aware of the sales.
Unspecified gunmen attacked a car carrying an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general named Hossein Almassi in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province on Saturday. One of Almassi’s bodyguards was killed but he appears to have emerged unscathed while the shooters were reportedly arrested. Sistan and Baluchistan is teeming with Sunni and/or Islamist militant groups as well as armed smuggling networks so there’s no shortage of possible suspects.
The Iranian and Saudi governments have reportedly started holding their rapprochement talks in Iraq again, a month (give or take) after Iranian officials announced they were suspending that process in response to the Saudi mass execution of dozens of people, many of whom are believed to have been Shiʿa. Iranian media reported on the new talks, the fifth such engagement and the first since September, on Saturday, without specifying exactly when they took place.
Another incidence of militant fire from over the border in Afghanistan left at least three Pakistani soldiers dead in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province early Saturday, according to the Pakistani military. The shelling targeted an army outpost, whose soldiers then returned fire and killed some unspecified number of militants. None of the details here can be confirmed. There’s been no claim of responsibility as far as I know, but Pakistani Taliban fighters routinely take shots at Pakistani security forces from inside Afghanistan. This state of affairs is generating an ever-increasing amount of tension between the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
Sri Lankan Finance Minister Ali Sabry has been in the US meeting with potential lenders, and it sounds like his trip is paying off. According to Reuters he’s gotten the World Bank to agree to upwards of $500 million in emergency funding, most or all of which would come from redirecting previously allocated Bank funds to immediate needs like paying for imports of food, fuel, and medicine. Sabry has also been in talks with the International Monetary Fund on restructuring Sri Lankan debt and with both the IMF and India on possible bridge loans. Sri Lanka has already suspended debt service payments and its economic crisis is feeding a political crisis, as protesters have been calling for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation.
The Chinese government is reportedly planning to increase coal production by 300 million tons this year, a 7 percent increase over 2021’s production, which in turn was a 5.7 percent increase over 2020’s production. Energy shortages, the war in Ukraine, and a sluggish economy have fueled (sorry) this decision, which is I guess good news for Chinese coal concerns and for Chinese folks who value a stable source of energy and don’t mind breathing soot. It’s not great news for the environment, but I’m sure that will all work itself out somehow.
The General Coordination for Refugees and Displaced in Darfur NGO says that at least 168 people were killed Sunday in an escalation of several days of inter-communal violence in West Darfur province. Fighting broke out on Thursday near the provincial capital, Geneina. The violence, which has been driven primarily by Arab Janjaweed militias, had claimed at least 10 lives prior to Sunday.
Fighters from Katibat Macina, one of the groups that is part of the Sahelian al-Qaeda network Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin, attacked three army outposts in central Mali on Sunday morning, killing a total of at least six soldiers and wounding 20 more. The Malian military and the United Nations’ Malian peacekeeping force responded to the attacks and may have killed some of the attackers, but details are spotty.
Two attacks on military bases in northern Burkina Faso’s Soum province Sunday morning left at least 15 people dead, nine of them soldiers. Another two dozen or more people were wounded in the incidents. It’s unclear who was responsible or whether these attacks were coordinated with the ones in Mali.
Nigerian authorities are looking for suspects after a bootleg oil refinery in Imo state exploded late Friday, killing potentially 100 or more people. I gather that recovery is still ongoing but there were more than 100 people working in the facility and most or all of them appear to be either confirmed dead or missing. It’s possible the blast was the result of some sort of mishap, but police say they’re looking for two possible perpetrators, without going into detail as to their identities and/or affiliations.
A Friday evening explosion in eastern Nigeria’s Taraba state left at least 11 people wounded. This was the second bombing in Taraba in a matter of days, the first having been claimed by Islamic State West Africa Province in what appears to be a signal that the group is expanding out of its operational hub in Borno and Yobe states. ISWAP is also claiming responsibility for an attack on a police station in central Nigeria’s Kogi state on Saturday that left three police officers dead. Again this represents a significant expansion in terms of ISWAP’s territorial range.
In news from Russia:
Russian media is reporting that Ukrainian forces “shelled” a border village in Russia’s Belgorod oblast on Sunday. I put “shelled” in quotes because it sounds like this amounted to a single artillery shell landing in an open field, so it wasn’t exactly a heavy bombardment.
Turkish media reported Saturday that Ankara had closed its airspace to Russian military and civilian aircraft carrying military personnel bound for Syria. More to the point, it seems the Turks, who have been renewing permission for these overflights on a three-month basis, declined to proceed with April’s renewal. From the way Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is quoted as explaining this move, it sounds like it’s meant to spur some progress in Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, but at the moment I imagine Russia is more worried about ferrying military assets back from Syria than sending them to Syria.
Interestingly it seems the Biden administration has not seen fit to sanction Vladimir Putin’s girlfriend (um, I mean alleged girlfriend), gymnast Alina Kabaeva, with whom he’s believed to have had three children. It’s apparently considered the idea, particularly inasmuch as Putin is probably hiding some of his wealth by putting assets in her name, and at one point nearly did blacklist her. But according to the WSJ the administration believes that blacklisting Kabaeva would anger Putin so much as to be counterproductive from the standpoint of encouraging peace talks.
Russian ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov told Russian media on Sunday that the US government has “blockaded” his embassy—not literally, so much, although he did claim that “at some point even the exit from the embassy was blocked,” whatever that means. According to Antonov Russian consulates in Houston and New York City have been locked out of their bank accounts and Russian diplomatic staff have been receiving threats. It might not take much at this point to provoke a full US-Russia diplomatic breach, which Ukraine war aside would probably not be great from a world stability standpoint.
And in Ukraine:
Multiple Ukrainian cities have reported heavy Russian bombardments this weekend, despite the Orthodox Easter holiday. The Russian military acknowledged attacking 423 targets overnight, naturally identifying all of them as military. These included several alleged arms depots in Kharkiv and a “logistics terminal” in Odessa that allegedly housed weapons coming in from Europe and the US. Nevertheless there have been several reports of civilian casualties, including at least five in Odessa.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Kyiv on Sunday for a confab with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. They’re the first US officials to meet personally with Zelensky since the invasion started, and will be the highest ranking US officials to meet with him barring an unlikely trip to the war zone by President Joe Biden. Zelensky was expected to request more offensive weapons—tanks, artillery, etc.—and I would imagine Blinken and Austin will agree to provide it.
The Ukrainian government has requested a special round of peace talks outside the besieged Azovstal steel works in Mariupol, though it’s unclear to me whether these talks would be over the war in general or the situation in Mariupol specifically. It probably doesn’t matter, as there’s been no response from Russia to my knowledge. Ukrainian officials claim that the Russian military has resumed its assault on Azovstal despite announcing several days ago that it would stop attacking the plant, where Mariupol’s last defenders and an unknown number of civilians are holed up, and simply leave it surrounded. An evacuation of Mariupol that was planned for Sunday apparently fell through, with the Ukrainians blaming Russian forces for the failure.
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša and his far-right Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) appear to have lost Sunday’s parliamentary election to the environmentalist Freedom Movement alliance. Indeed, Janša has already conceded defeat. Pre-election polling suggested a close race, with Freedom Movement perhaps a slight favorite. But with almost all of the ballots counted Freedom Movement is ahead of SDS by the fairly comfortable margin of 34.34 percent to 23.83 percent. That could give Freedom Movement 40 seats in the 90 seat National Assembly. It seems likely the alliance will be able to attract the votes it needs to form a government, though the coalition formation process is only getting started so nothing is set in stone as yet.
In the election that drew most people’s attention on Sunday, incumbent Emmanuel Macron has defeated far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential runoff, taking somewhere around 58 percent of the vote to Le Pen’s 41-42 percent. The outcome is in line with pre-election polling, though Macron appears to have outdone his poll numbers a bit. Turnout was around 72 percent, low for a French runoff but consistent with the notion that people weren’t so much voting for the unpopular Macron as against the fascist. Le Pen can take some solace in the fact that she outdid the 34 percent she won in the 2017 runoff and in a trend line that suggests French voters might not continue opting for austere centrism over far right populism for very much longer.
Attention will now presumably turn to June’s parliamentary election, in which far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who nearly upset Le Pen in the first round earlier this month to put himself in the runoff against Macron, is campaigning openly to become prime minister. That would require his Unbowed France party to win a majority or to win enough seats to have a path to building a majority coalition. Both of those scenarios seem like long shots though to be fair I haven’t seen any polling as yet. A PM Mélenchon with the parliament to back him up would represent a serious roadblock to Macron’s “let’s see how many benefits can I cut before people start marching on the Élysée with pitchforks” agenda.
Former Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa says he’s been granted asylum by the Belgian government. As I noted on Friday, Ecuadorean authorities have asked Belgium to extradite Correa on possibly-spurious corruption charges on which he was convicted in absentia in 2020. That he’s been granted asylum suggests that the Belgian government may agree with his claim that those charges are politically motivated.
Finally, here’s TomDispatch editor Tom Engelhardt on the Ukraine war pulling apart a world that really needs to be coming together:
Yes, indeed, this strangely old-fashioned comedy of horrors is taking place in an all-too-new context, given a factor that wasn’t in anyone’s consciousness back then. Of course, I’m talking about climate change. I’m thinking about how the planet’s top scientists have repeatedly told us that, if fossil-fuel use isn’t cut back radically and soon, this planet will all-too-literally become a hell on Earth. And keep in mind that, even before the war in Ukraine began, global carbon dioxide emissions had rebounded from pandemic drops and hit a historic high.
And it could only get worse in the chaos of the Ukraine moment as gas prices soar, panic sets in, and all-too-little attention is paid to the dangers of overheating this planet. I mean, none of this should exactly be a secret, right? If, for instance, you happen to live in the American Southwest or West, parts of which are now experiencing the worst drought in at least 1,200 years and successive fire seasons beyond compare, you should know just what I mean. The worst of it is that such new realities, including, for instance, hurricane seasons to remember, are essentially the equivalent of movie previews. (And mind you, I’ve barely even mentioned the ongoing pandemic, which has already taken an estimated 15 million lives on this planet.)
It’s sadly obvious what should be happening: the great powers, also the great fossil-fuelizers (China, the United States, and Russia), should be working together to green energize our world fast. And yet here we are, fighting a new war in Europe launched by the head of a Saudi-style petro state in Moscow playing out his version of Cold War II with Washington and Beijing — oh, and in the process, ensuring the burning of yet more fossil fuels.