Central African Republic’s neighbors have agreed to increase the number of troops stationed there to help defend against rebels threatening to overthrow the government.
The Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) - which already has more than 500 peacekeepers in CAR - announced its decision overnight in Gabon’s capital Libreville, ahead of peace talks planned between the SELEKA rebels and the government in early January, Reuters reported.
The insurgency poses the biggest threat yet to President Francois Bozize’s nearly ten years in charge of the nation, which has remained poor since independence from France in 1960 despite rich deposits of uranium, gold and diamonds.
The ECCAS troops, mostly from Chad, are part of the MICOPAX (Mission for the consolidation of peace in Central African Republic) peacekeeping force, but have been unable to prevent a rebel advance to within 75 km (45 miles) of the capital Bangui since early December.
The SELEKA rebels have threatened to overthrow Bozize if he does not live up to a previous peace deal offering former fighters pay and jobs, but they have agreed to stay out of Bangui to allow for peace talks.
Officials in Bangui on Friday said rebels had agreed to send delegates to Libreville in early January. A rebel spokesman was not immediately available to comment.
Some clashes between government troops and rebel fighters were reported on the outskirts of Damara, 75 km north of Bangui, on Friday, and some residents of the capital were fleeing the city, fearing a fresh rebel push.
Bozize came to power in a rebellion in 2003 and has since won two elections. France conducted air strikes against rebels challenging him in 2006, but Paris has said it will not intervene militarily in the current conflict.
The United States said on Thursday it had closed its embassy in Bangui and evacuated its staff.
Macedonian Opposition Rallies to Demand Early Elections
Several thousand people rallied in front of the headquarters of Macedonia’s rightist ruling party on Saturday demanding the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and early elections.
The rally was the culmination of days of smaller countrywide protests provoked by an incident last week when the opposition was ejected from the parliament after a disagreement and a brawl over the size of next year’s budget, Reuters reported.
“We have already decided, we will go to the end, until we finally win and bring democracy back to this country” Branko Crvenkovski, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, told the cheering crowd.
Last week the government proposed a 148-billion-denari ($3.2 billion) budget for 2013 last month, forecasting a deficit of 3.5 percent of gross domestic product. It put growth next year at 2 percent of GDP.
But the left-wing opposition condemned the budget proposal as profligate at a time of austerity and demanded a cut equivalent to about $260 million. The government refused and the opposition then submitted about a thousand amendments to the draft before tensions flared on Monday.
The government pushed the budget vote with just over half of deputies present, prompting the opposition to initiate a campaign of civil disobedience.
At the rally, Crvenkovski said his party’s backers will maintain protests until the government steps down, paving the way for early elections organized by an independent body. Parliamentary elections in Macedonia are tentatively slated for 2015.
Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic, wants to join the European Union and NATO but it still faces opposition from neighboring Greece which says that its name is a territorial appropriation of the name of a northern Greek province.
The country is also facing tensions between its Macedonian Slav majority and ethnic Albanian minority.
Homeless, At-Risk Veterans Double in US
The number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are homeless or at risk of losing a roof over their heads has more than doubled in the past two years in US, according to government data.
Through the end of September, 26,531 of them were living on the streets, at risk of losing their homes, staying in temporary housing or receiving federal vouchers to pay rent, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports.
That’s up from 10,500 in 2010. The VA says the numbers could be higher because they include only the homeless the department is aware of.
The increase arrives as President Obama’s goal of ending homelessness for all veterans is showing some results.
The VA attributes the increase partly to more aggressive efforts to identify and assist this younger generation of veteran.
The department says effects of the two wars on them, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and a slow economic recovery have contributed to their homelessness.
The issue is particularly acute as the military continues to draw down its ranks. About 307,000 are likely to leave the military each of the next four years.
Obama vowed in 2009 to end veteran homelessness by 2015.
The numbers have declined, though not at a pace to meet the president’s goal. Using an annual one-night count, the tally has fallen from 76,329 in 2010 to 62,619 in 2012.
The VA insists it will meet the goal, particularly with a program instituted in 2011 that provides community non-profit groups with cash to help keep troubled veterans in housing or get them off the streets. Expenses can cover housing costs, health care, child care, transportation and training.
Anne Murphy, a Salvation Army program director in Los Angeles, says she has helped an Army veteran of multiple combat tours who was living out of a car with his family of six to get into a hotel, and the program will allow her to help get the family a permanent place to live.
Iraq and Afghanistan vets are different from other veterans, she says.
“They’re younger, much more savvy and they don’t necessarily like to ask for help,” Murphy says. “But there are a lot of them out there.”
Funding for the new program, known as the Supportive Services for Veterans Families, has grown from $60 million in 2011 to $100 million this year and $300 million next year — or about a $5,000 investment for every homeless veteran.
Vincent Kane, director of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans, says the program, operating through 151 community organizations in nearly every state, has had a marked effect.
About 22,000 veterans were assisted last year, most after the 2012 one-night count was done in February. They included 14,000 who were homeless and 3,035 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kane says.
“We believe this (Supportive Services) resource and partnership with our community providers is really going to help drive us to the goal of ending all (veteran) homelessness by the end of 2015,” Kane says.
Randy Brown, a spokesman for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, says the group would like nothing better than to be driven out of business and is encouraged by the VA’s efforts.
15 Killed in Attack in North Nigeria
Gunmen suspected to belong to a radical sect attacked a village in northeast Nigeria, tying up men, women and children before slitting their throats, killing at least 15 in the troubled region’s latest attack, witnesses said on Saturday.
The assault happened early Friday morning in the village of Musari on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the city where the sect known as Boko Haram first launched its guerrilla campaign of shootings and car bombings against Nigeria’s weak central government. The gunmen shouted religious slogans and later ordered those there to be gathered up into a group, said Mshelia Inusa, a primary school teacher in the village.
“We heard some people chanting, ‘God is great, God is great’ amid sounds of banging on doors of houses at about 1 a.m.,” the teacher said. “A voice was heard ordering people to be slaughtered and also voices of children were heard screaming.”
Inusa said he and others later saw corpses with their hands tied behind their backs and their throats cut.
Later Friday morning, an ambulance arrived at the State Specialists Hospital in Maiduguri, accompanied by a group of military vehicles, a security guard said. Agitated soldiers ordered people away, but the guard said he counted at least 15 bodies being brought into the facility’s morgue.
The guard spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears of angering either the military or the sect.
Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, a military spokesman, later issued a statement saying only five people had been killed in the village during the attack. However, military and police officials routinely downplay casualty figures because they are under increasing pressure from their superiors to minimize the perceived effects of the ongoing attacks by Boko Haram.
Boko Haram, which speaks to journalists through conference calls at times of its choosing, could not be immediately reached for comment Saturday. However, the attack mirrored other assaults carried out by the group as it expands its operations outside of cities in the northeast into rural towns and villages, where the security presence remains light and contact with the outside world remains difficult as the sect has destroyed a number of mobile phone towers recently.
More than 780 people have been killed in Boko Haram attacks so far this year, according to an Associated Press count, making 2012 the worst year of violence attributed to the group. Boko Haram also has loose connections with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Somalia’s Al-Shabab, according to Western military officials and diplomats.
Karachi Blast Kills Six on Bus
A bomb went off on a bus in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi on Saturday killing six people and wounding 48, police and a hospital official said.
Pakistan’s commercial capital and biggest city has seen numerous militant attacks over the past 10 years and is also plagued by violence between rival ethnic-based factions, Reuters reported.
The bus sustained serious damage in the explosion and a subsequent fire. While police said the bomb had been planted on the bus, provincial official Sharfud Din Memon said it was left on a motor-bike and went off as the bus passed.
Eight of the wounded were in critical condition, said Seemi Jamali, a doctor at Jinnah Hospital.
Karachi has a long history of political, ethnic and sectarian violence. It is also believed to be home to many Taliban fighters who have fled US drone attacks and Pakistani army operations in the country’s northwest.
Meanwhile, authorities are investigating cough syrup believed to have killed 33 people in eastern Pakistan in the past three days, the second time in recent months that suspect medicine is thought to have caused multiple deaths. The deaths from the cough syrup occurred in Gujranwala and villages surrounding the city, said Abdul Jabbar Shaheen, the top administrative official in Gujranwala. Another 54 people are being treated at hospitals in the city who are also believed to have consumed the syrup.
Those involved are thought to be laborers or drug addicts who drank the syrup to get high, said Shaheen.
Chemical samples collected from the victims’ stomachs contained dextromethorphan, a synthetic morphine derivative used in cough syrup that can have mind-altering effects if consumed in large quantities, said Shaheen.
It is being investigated whether the people affected by the syrup in Gujranwala drank too much of it, or whether there was a problem with the medicine itself, he said.
Twenty-three people died in the nearby city of Lahore in November after drinking bad cough syrup sold under the brand name Tyno. They were also described at the time as people who consumed the drug to get high.
2 Dead in Moscow Plane Crash
A passenger airliner careered off the runway at Russia’s third-busiest airport on Saturday, broke into pieces and caught fire, killing two people.
There were conflicting reports as to how many people were aboard the Tu-204 belonging to Russian airline Red Wings in the accident at Vnukovo Airport, ranging from eight to 12, AP reported.
Emergency officials said several were in critical or serious condition. Interior Ministry spokesman Gennady Bogachev told the state TV news channel Vesti that two people were killed.
Vesti showed photos of the plane’s wreckage, with the cockpit clearly sheared off from the fuselage and a large chunk gashed out near the tail.
The crash occurred amid light snow, but other details were not immediately known. Initial reports said the plane crashed while landing, but later reports indicated it was trying to take off.
Prior to Saturday’s crash, there had been no fatal accidents reported for Tu-204s, which entered commercial service in 1995. The plane is a twin-engine midrange jet with a capacity of about 210 passengers.
Vnukovo, on the southern outskirts of Moscow, is one of the Russian capital’s three international airports.
The airport was closed after the crash and flights were rerouted to Moscow’s other airports, Sheremetyevo and Domodedovo.
Indian police charged six men with murder on Saturday, adding to accusations that they beat and gang-raped a woman on a New Delhi bus nearly two weeks ago in a case that shocked the country.