TIME North Korea

North Korea Marathon Opens to Foreign Amateurs

The annual marathon in Pyongyang opened to recreational foreign runners for the first time on April 13, allowing another brief look into the Hermit Kingdom that typically remains off-limits to those born outside the country

Organizers of the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, recognized as a bronze-label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations and held for the past 27 years, told the Associated Press they opted to allow the new recreational runners in an effort to more boldly celebrate the birthday of their nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. Officials said the race, which typically has featured elite foreigners, included 225 amateurs and runners from 27 countries. The course, a largely flat path of four loops around the center of the city, had to be completed within four hours so roads could be reopened. A half marathon and a 10-kilometer run were also held as thousands of North Koreans lined the streets to cheer the participants.

TIME

Groups Seize Police Stations in Eastern Ukraine

UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CRISIS-POLITICS-SLAVYANSK
Armed pro-Russian activists guard a police station in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk after it was seized by a few dozen gunmen on April 12, 2014. Anatoliy Stepanov—AFP/Getty Images

At least two police stations in Ukraine's eastern region were taken as tensions continues to rise following Russia's annexation of Crimea

Hours after dozens of armed men seized a police station in a small town in eastern Ukraine, men dressed in the uniforms of Ukraine’s disbanded riot police reportedly began an occupation Saturday of another police headquarters in nearby Donetsk.

The first takeover occurred in Slovyansk, the Associated Press reports, just south of Donetsk. In Slovyansk, approximately 20 men sporting automatic rifles, balaclavas and ribbons that symbolize the Soviet Union’s victory in WWII were seen guarding the station’s entrance as another group of men was believed to be inside.

One of the masked men there, who identified himself to the AP only as “Sergei,” said the group has “only one demand: a referendum and joining Russia.”

Slovyansk’s police station was seized, he added, so the group could protect it from the radical nationalists in the western part of Ukraine. Pro-Russia protesters blame those groups for fomenting the unrest that has plagued the country since November, when President Viktor Yanukovych snubbed an E.U. association and trade deal in favor of closer ties with Russia. “We don’t want to be slaves of America and the West,” he said. “We want to live with Russia.”

The move comes nearly a week after protesters overran an administration building in Donetsk. They called for a secession referendum similar to Crimea, at first, but later reduced their wish to a vote on autonomy within Ukraine and the potential for a vote later on regarding whether to join Russia.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned Ukraine on Friday not to use force against the protesters, saying it would complicate the crisis-settling talks between the E.U., U.S., Russia and Ukraine that are set for next week.

Pro-Russia Ukrainians in parts of the country’s eastern region have been emboldened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea after residents there approved a referendum in March to cut ties with Kiev. The West labeled that vote illegitimate, imposing economic sanctions on Russia and the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin. But Russia hasn’t backed down. Instead, it has threatened to cut off Ukraine from energy supplies such as natural gas and nuclear fuel over price disputes.

[AP]

MORE: Is Moscow Behind Ukraine’s Unrest?

TIME

U.N. Authorizes Peacekeeping Mission to Central African Republic

African peacekeeping mission troops known as MISCA,  listen to U.S Ambassador to the U.N Samantha Power in Bangui, Central African Republic.
African peacekeeping-mission troops listen to U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power in Bangui, Central African Republic, April 9, 2014. Jerome Delay—AP

The Security Council has unanimously authorized a proposal to send nearly 12,000 peacekeepers and police officers to the dangerously destabilized country in mid-September, an effort to aid foreign forces already working to cap daily violence and restore order

The U.N. Security Council voted on Thursday to send thousands of peacekeepers and police into the Central African Republic, where a year of unprecedented violence has destabilized the chronically poor country to perhaps the worst point in its modern history.

The 15-member council unanimously authorized an almost 12,000-member force that will include 1,800 police officers, fold in about 5,200 African Union peacekeepers and support the 2,000 French troops already on the ground. Aid groups and human-rights organizations have warned for months that the increasingly grim situation would not improve without more security personnel.

Thousands of people have been killed since March 2013, when the predominantly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka toppled the government, installed its commander as President and began a campaign of looting, torture and killing that largely targeted Christians. Bands of self-defense vigilantes called anti-balaka, comprising mostly Christians and animists as well as former soldiers loyal to the ousted President, gradually rose up and have grown more violent in response.

In early December, attacks between the two sides in the capital, Bangui, left hundreds dead and resulted in rapid troop deployments by France and the African Union. But in the months afterward, following Séléka’s retreat and the President’s step-down, anti-balaka have retaliated so fiercely that a significant portion of the country’s Muslim population has fled or been killed.

Those who remain are located in the eastern region, where Séléka still holds clout, or are unable to leave several towns in the north or west without harm. The U.N. is now looking into how to safeguard them and may take part in the evacuation or relocation of some 19,000 people who it says desire a way out.

Thursday’s vote comes just days after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Bangui for the first time since the December flare-up. While he used the opportunity to acknowledge that foreign forces there are “under-resourced and overwhelmed,” he urged the Security Council to approve his proposal for more troops and detailed a laundry list of abuses committed over the past few months.

“Muslims and Christians have been placed in mortal danger simply because of who they are or what they believe. The security of the state has been replaced by a state of anarchy,” Ban said. “People have been lynched and decapitated. Sexual violence is on the rise. Gruesome acts have been committed while others cheered on the perpetrators. There has been total impunity — zero accountability. This must change.”

Ban’s trip coincided with the two-decade anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and preceded the few-hours stopover by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., on Wednesday. Power’s visit, her second since December, occurred as Chad had already begun to pull its 850 troops out of the African Union’s peacekeeping force over accusations they were responsible for the recent civilian deaths, leaving a security gap that French and Cameroonian forces were aiming to fill.

Power took to Twitter after the resolution passed on Thursday, calling the authorization a “critical step to help end horrific atrocities.”

TIME

U.N. Chief Visits the Central African Republic

CAFRICA-UN-FORCE
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon waves as he visits a camp for internally displaced persons in the Central African Republic on April 5, 2014 Miguel Medina—AFP/Getty Images

The quick visit on Saturday by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, during which he detailed atrocities that have divided the conflict-torn Central African Republic for months, came one day before he planned to mark two decades since the genocide in Rwanda

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited the Central African Republic on Saturday amid an uptick in deadly street violence in the capital, Bangui, pledging to focus global attention on the conflict that has killed untold thousands and pushed much of the country’s Muslims into neighboring countries.

The visit, which lasted just a few hours, was Ban’s first since street attacks in December left about a thousand dead, many at the hands of the mainly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka that seized power in a coup in early 2013. Thousands of foreign peacekeepers were sent to stabilize the chronically poor state, wracked by decades of corrupt governance, but the retreat of Séléka and step-down of the President resulted in a power grab by largely Christian militias called anti-balaka, who have heavily targeted the Muslim minority. Hundreds of thousands have since fled to Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ban traveled outside the secure area of the main airport, which is guarded by French troops and adjacent to a mass-displacement camp, to meet with interim President Catherine Samba-Panza and visit one of the capital’s last operational mosques. He also spoke to the transitional council tasked with preparing the country for elections by next February.

“There is a hole in the heart of Africa. Every day, I wake up thinking about your trials and troubles,” he said. “Everywhere, I have called on leaders to step up their efforts. Some say this is a forgotten crisis. I am here to help make sure the world does not forget.”

The U.N. chief forcefully spoke of hearing “horror stories” from those who have been uprooted, warned of food insecurity and the risk of malaria ahead of the rainy season and detailed atrocities that have gripped the landlocked, mineral-rich country for more than a year. “The security of the state has been replaced by a state of anarchy,” he said, mentioning a rise in sexual violence and instances of lynchings and decapitations. “There has been total impunity — zero accountability. This must change.”

Aid groups that frequently criticize the U.N. for not doing enough to stem the violence say words have little impact and more troops are needed to both restore order and help the government implement the rule of law. Former colonial power France has 2,000 soldiers on the ground, and the African Union has contributed 6,000 peacekeepers, but regional power broker Chad began pulling its contingent of 850 troops after being scolded for recent clashes that left about 30 civilians dead.

Ban commended foreign troops for their work but said they’re “underresourced and overwhelmed” given the enormity of their daily challenges. He applauded the E.U. for its impending deployment of the hundreds of peacekeepers it promised months ago and said he hopes the U.N. Security Council approves the 12,000-member peacekeeping and police force he recently proposed.

His visit came one day before he marks two decades since the genocide in Rwanda. “The international community failed the people of Rwanda 20 years ago, and we are at risk of not doing enough for the people of CAR today,” he told lawmakers. “It is your responsibility as leaders to ensure that there are no such anniversaries in this country.”

TIME Middle East

U.N. Says 1 Million Syrian Refugees Are in Lebanon

The influx of Syrians, who now account for one-fourth of Lebanon's population, has immensely strained the nation’s political, economic and health care systems, reduced the quality of its infrastructure and pushed some schools past capacity

The Syrian civil war marked a grim milestone on Wednesday as the number of people who have fled into Lebanon and registered as refugees surpassed one million, according to the United Nations Refugees Agency.

The spiraling conflict that began in March 2011 has killed at least 150,000 people and uprooted more than nine million others. An estimated 1.6 million of them are spread between Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. But it is fragile Lebanon that has by far taken the brunt.

One-quarter of the country’s residents are now Syrian, according to the U.N. There were almost 18,000 refugees in Lebanon in April 2012, about 13 months after the demonstrations, but that swelled to nearly 356,000 as the revolution turned into civil war. Now the organization registers 2,500 refugees each day.

UNHCR
UNHCR

Lebanon’s generally open-door policy for Syrians has immensely strained the tiny country’s political and economic systems, as well as its overall stability. There’s less trade, tourism and investment. Many schools are at full capacity—520,000 of the million refugees are children, but of the 400,000 of them who are school-aged, only 90,000 are in classrooms—and its infrastructure is stretched thin.

Bombings along the border serve as a reminder that even those who leave Syria in search of safety or better opportunities aren’t guaranteed anything.

(MORE: Ordeal of a Dying Child Captures the Tragedy of Syria)

TIME Syria

Spanish Journalists Held Captive in Syria Are Freed

Syria Journalists
In this file photo taken on May 24, 2012, Spanish reporters Javier Espinosa, right, and Ricardo Garcia Vilanova, left, pose for a photo in Barcelona. The two Spanish journalists were freed after being held captive for six months in Syria by a rogue al-Qaida group. Joan Borras—AP

Veteran correspondent Javier Espinosa and award-winning photographer Ricardo García Vilanova, who were kidnapped by an extremist group while reporting in Syria six months ago, have been freed by their captors and are back home in Spain

Two Spanish journalists who were kidnapped in Syria six months ago and freed on Saturday are now back home in Spain, the daily newspaper El Mundo reports.

Veteran war correspondent Javier Espinosa and Ricardo García Vilanova, an award-winning freelance photographer, were released to the Turkish military near Tal Abyad, a Syrian town close to where the pair was abducted on Sept. 16.

Espinosa’s wife, Mónica García Prieto, posted a tweet on Saturday that read Felicidad pura, or “Pure happiness.” After his return, Espinosa said, “Thanks to those who made ​​it possible for us to come home.”

The journalists were originally abducted alongside several Free Syrian Army fighters and held at a detention facility in Raqqa by a brigade of the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The group, which released the fighters after less than two weeks, is thought to be holding dozens more aid workers, religious figures and journalists.

Fears that Espinosa was in trouble began when his Twitter followers noticed his account went silent on Sept. 15. Word of his capture began to spread quietly, but a media blackout was imposed until El Mundo went public in December.

Syria is the most dangerous location in the world for journalists, press freedom groups say. The Committee to Protect Journalists said at least 29 journalists were killed there in 2013 and another 61 were detained. About 30 journalists are still believed to be held throughout the country.

Some of the more high-profile cases included that of American journalists Austin Tice, who went missing in August 2012 while reporting near Damascus, and James Foley, kidnapped three months later as he was leaving Syria. Families of both reporters initially chose not to publicize their cases but have since initiated massive support and information-gathering campaigns.

The French government has also been working for months to secure the release of reporter Didier Francois and photographer Edouard Elias, who disappeared in June.

[El Mundo]

TIME

E.U. to Send Troops to Central African Republic

CENTRAFRICA-UNREST
The commander of the French Sangaris operation in Central Africa Francisco Soriano (C) speaks with two soldier in the PK4 district of Bangui on February 27, 2014. The EU has announced that its proposed contingent of troops will soon join African Union and French troops currently deployed in the country. Sia Kambou—AFP/Getty Images

The proposed deployment was authorized months ago but delayed as the bloc struggled to secure the troops and equipment it had pledged for the mission to the conflict-ravaged country. Up to 1,000 troops are expected to take part

The European Union announced on Saturday that its proposed contingent of troops for the conflict-torn Central African Republic is preparing to deploy after a delay in securing troops and equipment.

Up to 1,000 troops are expected to join the 6,000 African Union peacekeepers and 2,000 French troops who are struggling to stabilize the country. Those forces were dispatched after tit-for-tat attacks around the capital, Bangui, in December left an estimated 1,000 people dead.

Untold thousands have been killed and more than one-fifth of the country’s 4.6 million people has been uprooted since then. Largely Christian militias have brazenly retaliated against the disbanded Séléka coalition of mainly Muslim rebels, who toppled the state a year ago, for a vicious campaign of looting and murder against the Christian population. The militia groups, called anti-balaka, have forced an estimated 300,000 Muslims into neighboring countries and pushed aid groups and experts to warn of “ethnic cleansing.”

An E.U. release provided to TIME confirmed the decision came after a meeting in Brussels on Friday, when yet-to-be-named countries offered new support in the form of strategic airlifts and help in deploying the troops. A spokeswoman for Catherine Ashton, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, told Reuters that Major-General Philippe Ponties of France recommended the long-awaited launch “on the basis of significant progress.”

The use of force was authorized by the U.N. Security Council in January on the assumption that E.U. troops would “take all necessary measures” to aid troops already on the ground for an initial period of up to six months. The goal will be to make Bangui more secure before handing over control to the African Union.

Aid groups and regional experts have warned for months that there aren’t enough troops to restore order and that additional support is necessary, especially in the northwest region. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked the Security Council to authorize thousands more peacekeepers in a bid to bring stability, but that force would not deploy before the end of the summer. The E.U.’s move comes days after Amnesty International said it must “immediately” act on its plans amid a recent surge in deadly attacks in the capital.

TIME

Central African Republic Marks a Grim Anniversary of Chaos

An African Union (AU) soldier stands guard outside a home at the end of a funeral of two men killed by sectarian violence in the Muslim neighbourhood of Kilometre 5 (PK5) in the capital Bangui
An African Union soldier stands guard outside a home at the end of a funeral of two men killed in the Muslim neighborhood of PK-5, in Bangui, on March 23, 2014. Siegfried Modola—Reuters

The lawless state struggles for stability a year after Muslim rebels overthrew the government and began a nine-month campaign of terror prompting retaliation by Christian militias

The Central African Republic marked a grim anniversary on March 24, one year after mostly Muslim rebels seized power and began a reign of terror that prompted largely Christian militias to respond with unprecedented fury. The newest clashes between militiamen and foreign peacekeepers in the capital, Bangui, left at least nine people dead and underscored how the chronically poor state, ravaged by corrupt governance and continually propped up by international aid, faces its steepest climb yet to stability.

Aid groups and experts estimate that untold thousands have been killed since Séléka rebels forced out President François Bozizé after his decade of rule. More than half of the country’s 4.6 million people are in need of basic aid and one-fourth have been forced to flee their homes. “This is the worst year in the country’s history,” said Joanne Mariner, a senior crisis advisor with Amnesty International who frequently documents abuses around the country. “It’s an unhappy anniversary.”

Séléka, with Chadian and Sudanese militants in its ranks, fed up with the government’s shunning of the historically marginalized Muslim minority, scrapped a truce. The installation of rebel commander Michel Djotodia as the first Muslim president became a free pass for Séléka to commit atrocities against the majority Christian population. Then, Christians and animists, including soldiers from the country’s disorganized armed forces, formed into armed groups called anti-balaka to fight back, leading to two days of December street warfare that killed about a thousand people.

That carnage made rare international headlines and prompted former colonial ruler France and the African Union to send in thousands of peacekeepers to protect civilians and begin restoring order. Séléka couldn’t match the foreigners’ firepower and began to retreat from Bangui. However, with troops focused on protecting Christians, anti-balaka filled the power void and began attacking Muslims in the capital and northwest. Three months of retaliatory looting and killing, a purge classified as “ethnic cleansing” by experts, has pushed an estimated 300,000 Muslims into neighboring countries. It also calls into question the efficacy of Catherine Samba-Panza, the mayor of Bangui promoted two months ago to Interim President, who pledged to end the violence.

Lewis Mudge, a Rwanda-based researcher with the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, just returned from a 10-day trip to the C.A.R.’s southwestern region. He called it “a lawless zone” where the anti-balaka confidently roam and where the last remaining Muslims in the country are trying to get out.

“They’re using artisanal, homemade shotguns,” he said of the Christian vigilantes, deemed “terrorists” this week by the African Union after they killed a Congolese peacekeeper. “They wound people with these guns and they finish them off with machetes. It’s pretty savage,” he told TIME, and others have stronger weaponry. “Anti-balaka groups feel that they have complete impunity on roads, and at often times they do. These killings are happening with nobody around to watch them and to witness them and to record them.”

In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Interim Prime Minister Andre Nzapayeke outlined the transitional government’s “two-pronged approach” to relieving chaos: dialogue with those responsible for the madness and the implementation of an effective and swift justice system. “We have to take concrete steps to arrest offenders, bring them to court and send them to jail,” he said. “It is only through the judiciary that we can restore the authority of the state in Central African Republic. It is the only way to restore confidence of the people in the state.”

How long it will take to embolden the crumbled political institutions is unclear. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has proposed sending in thousands more peacekeepers to aid the effort, but any force approved by the Security Council wouldn’t deploy before the end of summer. That bodes ill for a country that has driven out nearly all of its Muslims, the merchants and cattle herders responsible for its food production, ahead of the rainy season. “The worse the country gets,” said Mariner, “the more difficult it is going to be to put back together in any way.”

TIME central african republic

German Ex-Rapper Fighting in Syria Calls for Jihad in Central African Republic

A rapper-turned-jihadi fighting in Syria called on his brethren in Africa to enter Central African Republic -- which had been ravaged by months of sectarian violence -- and protect Muslims from deadly attacks

A new video by a foreign fighter thought to be in Syria is making the rounds on Twitter not because of what the man is asking of his followers, but because of where he wants them to go. Denis Cuspert, the German-Ghanaian ex-rapper known as ‘Deso Dogg’ who now goes by Abu Talha al-Almani, says the slaughter of Muslims in the Central African Republic by largely Christian militias should trigger a response from jihadis.

For much of the 18-minute video, Cuspert, known for inflammatory remarks in recent years, is sitting against a tree speaking in Arabic, English and German as grim scenes are superimposed on the screen. Cuspert claims he made the video after seeing footage from the Central African Republic, where months of attacks between Christians and Muslims have killed thousands, led to a Muslim exodus and spawned one of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises in decades. He directly calls on Boko Haram, the Islamist extremists wreaking havoc across northern Nigeria, to enter the country and “strengthen, enlarge and expand your battlefield.”

“I call you to support the brothers and sisters who get slaughtered and humiliated in Central Africa,” he says. “They get slaughtered, raped, eaten and maimed!” Later, he calls on mujahideen in Algeria, Libya, Mali, Somalia and elsewhere to come to their defense. “My brothers and sisters, the jihad in Central Africa has now started!”

Foreigners with guns in the Central African Republic are nothing new. Séléka, the disbanded Muslim rebel forces that unseated the government in Bangui last year, had numerous Chadians and Sudanese in their ranks. The chaos they unleashed, in part, prompted a backlash led by mainly Christian militias that has driven tens of thousands of Muslims out of the country—as French and African peacekeeping forces look on impotently. During a visit to the ravaged state this week, Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called the situation “dire” as inter-communal killings, now daily, remain at “a terrifying level.”

TIME

Russia’s Most Wanted Man Reported Dead

Doku Umarov
An undated photo of a man identified as Chechen separatist leader Doku Umarov Kavkazcenter.com—AP

Doku Umarov has been reported dead by a website seen as sympathetic to the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, but Russia hasn't yet confirmed its most wanted man has been taken out

A Chechen jihadist website appeared to confirm months of rumors on Tuesday that Doku Umarov, the feared Islamist warlord who threatened the Sochi Olympics last year, was dead.

Years of similar reports of the death of Russia’s most wanted man have been met with skepticism. But this report is being treated as more reliable because it comes from his sympathizers at the Kavkaz Center, which the Wall Street Journal called “the de facto mouthpiece for Islamist rebels fighting in Russia.”

The report did not elaborate on how, or when, Umarov died but it corresponded with the release of a YouTube video posted by a man calling himself Ali Abu Muhammed, who claimed to be his replacement. In the report, Umarov was labeled a “martyr” who had “given 20 years of his life to the Jihad.”

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov also announced the same report on his well known Instagram feed. If Umarov’s death is confirmed by Russian security services, this would be a major success for Russian President Vladimir Putin as he continues to stamp out the Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus.

The former Chechen rebel had aimed to establish a caliphate, and united several militant groups in Dagestan, Chechnya and other Caucasus provinces under his leadership. Caucasus Emirate has claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks over the last few years, including a bombing at a Moscow airport in 2010 and one on a city subway the following year.

He called on his followers last July to use “maximum force” to disrupt the Winter Olympics that were held in Sochi last month. No attacks took place during the Games, but Umarov’s group was widely believed to be behind two December blasts in the transportation hub of Volgograd, largely seen as a gateway to Sochi, which killed more than 30 people.

[Reuters]

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