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]

TIME

Putin Signs Decree to Recognize Crimea as Independent

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs Russian government meeting at Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow
Alexei Druzhinin—RIA Novosti/Reuters

Russia's President recognized the breakaway Crimea region of Ukraine as an independent state, one more step to total annexation

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree recognizing Crimea as a sovereign state, one day after it overwhelmingly approved a referendum to secede from Ukraine, Russian news outlets reported on Monday, citing the Kremlin press service.

The decree, published on the Kremlin’s website, took effect immediately, Reuters reports. It says Moscow’s recognition of Crimea as independent is based on “the will of the people of Crimea.”

On Sunday, more than 93% of voters in Crimea, the autonomous southern peninsula in Ukraine, approved a contentious referendum to withdraw from Kiev’s government and pivot to Russia. Western powers had labeled the ballot illegitimate.

Putin’s move comes hours after Crimea’s parliament made a similar claim and one day before the President’s planned address to a joint session of Russian parliament about the rapidly unfolding situation.

On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama quickly responded to the vote by announcing a number of economic sanctions to be imposed on several aides in Putin’s inner circle and top political leaders in Crimea.

[Reuters]

MORE: U.S. Hits Putin Aides and Crimea Officials With New Sanctions

TIME

Canadian Freelance Photographer Killed in Syria

Ali Mustafa
Ali Mustafa, far right, stands for a portrait in Cairo in November 2011 as TIME photographed protesters, who it named Person of the Year Peter Hapak for TIME

Ali Mustafa, a Toronto-based freelance photographer and activist whose work has appeared in The Guardian, The Times and Radio Free Europe, was killed in Aleppo on Sunday while covering the civil war in Syria

A Canadian freelance photographer was killed in Aleppo on Sunday while covering the civil war in Syria, activists and a family member said, after a government attack on the northern city.

Ali Mustafa and seven others were killed after regime aircraft dropped barrel bombs on the opposition-held Hadariyeh area of Aleppo, reports AP. A military helicopter dropped one crude bomb, an activist said, then another after bystanders and journalists had gathered to survey the scene. The activist said Mustafa was mortally wounded by the second bomb.

Mustafa’s family reportedly learned of his death through social media after his Facebook page lit up with remembrances. In a public conversation on the page, his sister Justina Rosa Botelho asked for a picture of his body to confirm the news and provided her email. “Please show me,” she wrote. “So that I may call my mom.” A picture of a bloodied man who resembled Mustafa was later posted on the same page.

Less than two weeks ago, Mustafa had filed photographs of the aftermath of a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo to the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA). One picture, from Feb. 26, shows civilians looking for survivors at a destroyed building in the neighborhood of Kalase.

Mustafa’s photographs from Syria were frequently published online, recently by the Guardian, The Times and Radio Free Europe. In a lengthy interview last year, Toronto-based Mustafa explained why he was drawn to documenting the war in Syria after covering unrest around the Middle East. “I could not ignore this ongoing human tragedy any longer,” he said. “The only way I could truly get a sense of the reality on the ground was to go there to figure it out for myself.”

Patrick Witty, until recently TIME’s International Picture Editor, recalled meeting Mustafa in November 2011, when he and photographer Peter Hapak were in Cairo to make portraits of protesters, whom TIME named Person of the Year. “These kids were streaming into our makeshift studio, set up in a photographer friend’s apartment near Tahrir Square,” Witty said. “Some of their eyes were smudged with Maalox to counter the burning affect of tear gas.”

Ali Mustafa was photographed in Cairo in November 2011 as TIME made portraits of protesters, who it named Person of the Year. Peter Hapak for TIME

“After Peter made the portrait of Ali, he told me he was a photographer and offered to show me pictures he made of the protests. He pulled out his camera and started flipping through photos on the tiny screen on the back of the camera. We all gathered close around his camera and were in awe. His pictures were raw, filled with energy, very intense. I told him to keep in touch with me and he did. Occasionally, he’d send me protest photos from Cairo via email, along with a sweet note, and each time they were stronger and stronger,” Witty adds. “I didn’t know he was in Syria until today, when I found out he was killed. It’s so tragic. He had such a bright future ahead of him. My heart goes out to his family and friends.”

For two years in a row, the Committee to Protect Journalists has grimly labeled Syria the world’s most deadly country for journalists, with 29 killed last year alone. There are also more journalists missing there—61 known abductions of locals and foreigners—than anywhere else in the world.

TIME

U.N. Warns Capital of Central African Republic Nearly Cleared of Muslims

Relatives sit near Aliou Abalaye, 4, as he lies sick on the floor near  Kilometre 12
Relatives sit near Aliou Abalaye, 4, as he lies sick on the floor near Kilometre 12 (PK12), in Bangui, Central African Republic, where internally displaced Muslims are stranded due to the ongoing sectarian violence, on March 6, 2014. SIEGFRIED MODOLA—REUTERS

The U.N. says less than one percent of the Muslims who once lived in Central African Republic's capital of Bangui remain after a year of political instability and intense street fighting devolved into an unprecedented inter-religious conflict

Fewer than 1,000 Muslims of the more than 130,000 who once lived in the ramshackle capital of Central African Republic remain, the United Nations warned on Friday, after weeks of targeted attacks by largely Christian militias spurred a Muslim exodus.

Human rights experts and aid groups are increasingly worried about the demographic shift nearly a year after the mostly Muslim rebel alliance Séléka toppled the government and began a campaign of looting and killing against Bangui’s Christian population. The attacks prompted the loose organization of Christians and animists into self-defense groups called anti-balaka and led to street fighting in December that left 1,000 dead in two days. Since then, with Séléka in retreat and thousands of foreign peacekeepers unable to rein in the violence, anti-balaka have staged an unprecedented revenge almost solely based on religion.

“The demography of C.A.R. is changing, from a situation where you had 130,00o to 145,000 Muslims in Bangui, to where you had around 10,000 in December,” Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, told a news conference in Geneva. “That number, we think, has now gone down to 900. So we have to act rapidly.”

Amos’ remarks—she also noted that 650,000 people remain displaced and the U.N. has received less than one-fifth of the $551 million in humanitarian assistance it appealed for in December—came one day after the Security Council began considering a proposal by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to deploy 12,000 peacekeepers to the former French colony. The African Union’s 6,000 peacekeepers and France’s 2,000 troops have struggled to contain the violence and protect civilians since being sent in after the December flare-up. If approved, Ban said it would take at least six months for the force to assemble and ship out.

(MORE: The Muslims of the Central African Republic Face a Deadly Purge)

Antonio Guterres, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, highlighted the plight of Muslims during the Security Council meeting. “Tens of thousands of them have left the country, the second refugee outflow of the current crisis, and most of those remaining are under permanent threat,” he said. “The demon of religious cleansing must be stopped—now.”

A Human Rights Watch report released the next day added weight to his statements with grim details from towns outside the capital. “We are seeing entire Muslim communities that have lived in the Central African Republic for generations fleeing their homes,” writes Peter Bouckaert, HRW’s emergencies director. Within the last week, 650 Muslims being safeguarded in a Catholic church were evacuated from Boali, leaving the town without any left. And the Muslim populations in Baoro and Yaloké, about 4,000 and 10,000 respectively, are now nonexistent. Elsewhere, Muslims who haven’t fled face “extreme” violence from anti-balaka or are unable to leave. “The depth of the suffering caused by anti-balaka violence is just unfathomable,” Bouckaert writes. “In a misguided attempt to avenge the destruction of the Séléka, anti-balaka forces are committing horrific abuses against residents simply because they are Muslim.”

At least 2,000 people have been killed since December and about a quarter of the country’s 4.6 million people have been uprooted. Whole towns in the north and west have been emptied or burned, and about 300,000 people have fled into neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon. More than half of the country’s population needs aid, the U.N. says, ahead of the rainy season that begins in April.

TIME

International Court Convicts Congo Rebel of War Crimes

Former Congolese warlord militiaman Germain Katanga sitting in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2009.
Former Congolese warlord militiaman Germain Katanga sitting in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2009. Michael Kooren—AFP/Getty Images

Former warlord Germain Katanga was convicted by the International Criminal Court of a crime against humanity and four war crimes for his involvement in a 2003 attack that left about 200 villagers dead in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The International Criminal Court found Congolese rebel leader Germain Katanga guilty of a crime against humanity and four war crimes on Friday, making him the second person to be convicted since the court was established in 2002.

The charges against Katanga, 35, stem from a massacre in the Democratic Republic of Congo more than a decade ago, when the Ituri region was years deep into fighting that started over the control of land and natural resources. The unrest later devolved into all-out war between ethnic groups that left an estimated 50,000 people dead.

Katanga, who was transferred to The Hague by Congolese authorities in 2007 and denied the charges, was tried over complicity in planning and leading an attack in Bogoro on Feb. 24, 2003, when at least 200 people were killed. He was found guilty of murder—the crime against humanity—as well as four other war crimes: murder, attacking a civilian population, destruction of property and pillaging.

The three-judge panel said Katanga, who was 24 at the time and thought to be the commander of the Patriotic Resistance Force of Ituri, helped to supply the weapons used in the early morning attack meant to “wipe out” Bogoro, strategically located near Uganda.

Nicknamed ‘Simba,’ or lion, he showed no emotion as judges convicted him as accessory in the attack. He was cleared of direct involvement as well as offenses like sexual slavery, rape and using child soldiers, even though young combatants were in Bogoro that day.

Judge Christine Van den Wyngaert of Belgium, in a dissent read by another judge, slammed the verdict, writing “the only thing I pretend to know is that we do not know enough to convict Germain Katanga of the charges against him.” She also claimed his right to a speedy trial was violated and Friday’s majority verdict was “unjustifiably late.”

TIME

U.N. Highlights Plight of Muslims in Central African Republic

People displaced by violence attempt to create a semblance of daily life, in a sprawling camp at Mpoko Airport, in Bangui, Jan. 2, 2014.
People displaced by violence attempt to create a semblance of daily life in a sprawling camp at M'Poko International Airport in Bangui on Jan. 2, 2014. Rebecca Blackwell—AP

The U.N. Security Council hears of the "cleansing" of Muslims in the west as it considers a proposal to send thousands more peacekeepers to protect civilians

Months of widespread violence has pushed tens of thousands of Muslims out of the Central African Republic and led to a “cleansing” in its western region, a United Nations official said Thursday as the Security Council mulled a proposal to send 12,000 additional peacekeepers into the spiraling conflict.

The mineral-rich, landlocked country has been in a constant state of upheaval since last March, when the predominantly Muslim rebel coalition Séléka toppled the government. In December, two days of carnage in the capital city of Bangui left almost 1,000 people dead and paved the way for the largely Christian militias called anti-balaka to exact a revenge that has included mass looting and public executions.

(MORE: The Muslims of the Central African Republic Face a Deadly Purge)

“Tens of thousands of them have left the country, the second refugee outflow of the current crisis, and most of those remaining are under permanent threat,” said Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Reuters reports. “The demon of religious cleansing must be stopped—now.”

Valerie Amos, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, said more than 650,000 people remain internally displaced and that 300,000 others have fled to neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon. At least 2,000 people have been killed since December.

Two thousand French troops and 6,000 peacekeepers from the African Union are currently on the ground; 1,000 more from the European Union will also be deployed. The force being considered by the Security Council was recently recommended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and, if approved, would not ship out within six months.

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