Africa: South African police break up anti-immigrant protest in Pretoria; Morocco officially announces immediate unilateral withdrawal from Guerguerat area of Western Sahara.
Americas: US president announces significant increase in defence spending while cutting state department budget; Four million people in Santiago left without water after rainstorms and landslides contaminate Maipo River.
Asia-Pacific: Abu Sayyaf militant group beheads German hostage in Philippines; Prospective members of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership meet in Japan for five days of talks.
Europe and Central Asia: German authorities close mosque linked to Christmas market truck attacker; Kyrgyzstan’s opposition leader detained for allegedly accepting bribe from Russian investor.
Middle East and North Africa: First visit of a Saudi foreign minister to Iraq since 1990 takes place; Egyptian Coptic Christian families flee from North Sinai after series of attacks.
South African police used stun grenades, rubber bullets and water cannon to separate anti-immigration protestors and foreign nationals during protests in the country’s capital, Pretoria, on 24 February. Police arrested 136 people after several hundred protesters marched on the foreign ministry demanding the deportation of foreigners, while at the same time a counter-protest gathered to demonstrate against a recent increase in attacks against non-nationals. The South Africa president, Jacob Zuma, condemned the violence and said that South Africans should not blame foreign nationals for all crime. South Africa’s current unemployment rate is over 25%, and this has been increasingly blamed on foreigners who some claim have taken jobs from locals. Anti-foreigner sentiment is unlikely to diminish unless the government takes significant steps to address populist rhetoric that scapegoats migrants.
Morocco has officially announced its immediate unilateral withdrawal from the remote Guerguerat area of Western Sahara after a conversation between the UN security general, Antonio Guterres, and Morocco’s King Mohammed VI on 24 February. Morocco increased tensions last year after it moved troops into the area in breach of the UN-backed ceasefire. The disputed Western Sahara was first annexed by Morocco in 1975. A truce between Morocco and the Sahrawi national liberation movement Polisario Front was brokered in 1991, but there has not yet been a referendum on independence for the region. Morocco’s unilateral withdrawal from Guerguerat and its recent re-joining of the African Union – which it left over to the regional body’s recognition of Western Sahara – may suggest Rabat is shifting it policy towards Western Sahara.
The US president, Donald Trump, has announced plans to increase defence spending by 9% to just over $650 billion (£524 billion). This will be funded by cuts to foreign assistance and environmental agencies. The military spending is expected to focus on shipbuilding, new aircraft and improving the security of international waterways and trade routes. In contrast to the defence budget increase, the US state department budget is expected to be cut by 30%, though this may be blocked by Congress. Perhaps surprisingly, the medicare and social security budgets will remain the same. This is one of the largest proposed increases in defence spending in US history. Congress still needs to approve the budget, which will probably involve numerous rounds of negotiations; however, the president’s intent is clear: the United States will favour military rather than diplomatic responses to international crises.US president's intent is clear: the United States will follow military over diplomatic responses to international crisesClick To Tweet
The Chilean government has announced that more than four million people (60% of households) in the country’s capital, Santiago, have had their water supply cut off after rainstorms and landslides contaminated a major river, the Maipo. The government has also closed restaurants, businesses and schools. The water company, Aguas Andinas, is unsure when it will be able to restart the supply. In the meantime, the government is providing water tanks for cut-off residents, though supermarkets have reported fights over bottled water, which is now in short supply. While the government is likely to be able to meet demand for potable water in the short term, there is likely to be panic and civil unrest if the supply runs out in the next few days and the water supply is not turned back on.
The Abu Sayyaf militant group beheaded a German hostage on 26 February. The group had demanded 30 million Peso (£483,000) for his release. The group murdered Jurgen Kantner and posted a video of his beheading when the payment has not received. Kantner’s yacht was found drifting off the southern Philippines on 7 November 2016 after he had been abducted and his partner, Sabine Merz, killed while resisting capture. Abu Sayyaf has frequently used kidnap for ransom to fund its violent insurgency, particularly since it pledged allegiance to Islamic State in 2014. The group is thought to be still holding at least 19 foreigners and seven Filipinos hostage. Kantner and Merz had previously been kidnapped and held for 52 days in Somalia in 2008 before the German government paid a substantial ransom for their release.
On 27 February, members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) began five days of talks in Kobe, Japan. The RCEP is a proposed free trade agreement between the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the six states that ASEAN has existing free trade agreements with, including China, India and Japan. The talks are the first since the isolationist US president, Donald Trump, withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which includes many of the members of RCEP, but excludes China. Since the United States abandoned TPP, China has been putting increasing pressure on its neighbours to form closer economic ties. In 2016, the prospective members of the RCEP accounted for 30% percent of global GDP, and the grouping could become the world’s largest free trade bloc. As such, it offers China a way of further countering already-waning US influence in Asia.Members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership account for 30% of global GDP, and grouping could be world's largest trade blocClick To Tweet
Europe and Central Asia
On 28 February, German police searched 15 apartments and two commercial premises in Berlin linked to the mosque used by Anis Amri. Amri killed 12 people and injured 50 when he drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin on 19 December 2016. Police believe that the Fussilet 33 mosque that Amri regularly visited recruited fighters for Islamic State in Syria. Authorities were finally able to close the mosque on 21 February after several attempts to do so since 2015. The next day, Germany’s domestic security agency, the BfV, said that the number of radical Islamists in the country had increased considerably from about 100 in 2013 to around 1,600 today. The head of the BfV, Hans-Georg Maassen, said that the agency considered 570 of these individuals to be dangerous. On 23 February, police arrested a former neo-Nazi convert to Islam identified only as ‘Sascha L’ for gathering chemicals and electrical components capable of making an explosive device. The suspect later admitted he planned to target police officers or soldiers.
The leader of Kyrgyzstan’s only parliamentary opposition party, Ata Meken Socialist Party, was detained after arriving in the country’s capital, Bishek, from Vienna on 26 February. Omurbek Tekebayev was detained on suspicion of receiving a $1 million bribe from a Russian investor, Leonid Mayevsky, in 2010. Tekebayev’s supporters argue that his arrest is politically motivated ahead of the presidential election scheduled for 19 November. Around 300 people gathered in Bishek to protest outside the State Committee for National Security (GKNB), and other demonstrations over the arrest have been held across the country. Under the country’s constitution, the incumbent president, Almazbek Atambayev, cannot run for re-election, but his supporters in parliament have recently pushed through a referendum on additional powers for the prime minister – a role that may fall to someone loyal to Atambayev. In the meantime, Tekebayev is likely to face corruption-related criminal charges.
Middle East and North Africa
On 25 February, Adel al-Jubeir became the first Saudi foreign minister to visit Iraq since 1990. His trip is also the first high-level Saudi visit to the country since the US-led invasion of 2003. Jubeir met with his counterpart, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. The meeting primarily focused on counter-extremism and counter-terrorism alongside trade and investment issues. The visit is expected to improve relations between the two countries after a disagreement in August 2016 over comments by the Saudi ambassador to Iraq about Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary units led to Iraq formally requesting his removal from the country. The ambassador, Thamer al-Sabhan, had only been in post since 2015, when the Saudi embassy reopened in Baghdad after 25 years. Iraq’s post-invasion relationship with Iran has strained its relationship with Saudi Arabia, though the recent visit of the Saudi foreign minister is likely to concern Tehran.
At least 90 Coptic Christian families have fled from the North Sinai after a series of attacks in February by suspected Islamist militants. The families have fled to Ismailia in the neighbouring governorate after at least seven Christian were killed in separate attacks across the city of El-Arish. Human rights activists have accused the Egyptian government of failing to provide adequate protection for Coptic Christians in the wake of the attacks. On 26 February, Islamic State militants released a video warning of attacks on Coptic Christians. The Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has ordered the military and police to protect all civilians in the North Sinai; however, it is unclear how many Christians now remain in the area.