Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed today that Canadian troops were in harm’s way when Iranian ballistic missiles slammed into a military base in northern Iraq early Wednesday, but he declined to condone — or criticize — the U.S. actions which precipitated the strike.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa after a separate deadly air crash in Tehran claimed the lives of 63 Canadians, the prime minister said Canada condemns the Iranian attack on the base.
“I am relieved, as are all Canadians, that all personnel deployed in Iraq are safe,” Trudeau said.
He expressed admiration for the professionalism of the soldiers under fire but also repeatedly emphasized the importance of staying the course in the ongoing effort to eradicate the remnants of the Islamic State.
That message, according to government insiders, was the main focus of Canada’s diplomatic efforts Wednesday, conducted through a flurry of telephone calls to world leaders.
Drone strike was Washington’s call: Trudeau
Keeping the anti-Islamic State coalition together and focused has taken precedence over pressing the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump for evidence justifying the American drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad.
“It was a threat assessment the U.S. made,” said Trudeau. “It was a threat assessment the U.S. was tasked with making and made.”
The Trump administration has insisted since Friday’s drone strike that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to American lives — but the language it’s used to support that claim has changed over the last few days, with more emphasis being placed on the general’s role in creating mayhem and bloodshed in the region with the secretive Quod Force branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
In some respects, Trudeau’s remarks mirror the careful language being used by other world leaders — including NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who on Monday deflected questions about whether the allies were troubled by the extraordinary decision to kill Soleimani.
NATO ambassadors were given a briefing by the U.S. State Department and military members on Monday, and apparently were given a sense of the intelligence the Americans were acting on when they ordered the drone strike. Trudeau did not say today whether Canada was convinced by that briefing, or whether he brought up the subject in a telephone call with President Trump on Wednesday.
‘It opens the Pandora’s Box’
Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau and a University of Ottawa professor, said Democrats in the U.S. have been doing a good job of demanding an explanation for the killing. He also emphasized the extraordinary nature of the United States targeting a foreign official for death, in legal and foreign policy terms.
“It opens the Pandora’s Box and it might be one of the longer term consequences,” said Paris, noting that it’s largely unprecedented for a western country to kill an adversary’s general outside of a state of war.
The focus of U.S. allies, including Canada, appears to be “stabilizing this situation, which is explosive,” he said.
Trudeau said Canada is prepared to continue the “extremely important” anti-ISIS NATO training mission in Iraq.
“NATO has a significant role in the training mission that we’re moving forward with — but there are always going to be more reflections on what are the next steps to take, given the current circumstances,” the prime minister said.
Keeping the anti-ISIS mission alive
Canada has about 500 troops in Iraq, some of whom were moved out earlier this week as a precaution. Military assistance operations and most activities outside of heavily fortified compounds have been suspended until the security situation improves.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said today he could not state when, or if, the assistance might resume.
Paris said it’s vital that both the NATO training mission and the more direct U.S.-led military coalition hunting ISIS holdouts resume their work.
“We have a clear interest in sustaining those missions and building up the capacity of the Iraqi government to hold the country together and to be countering any revival of ISIS,” said Paris.
Less than two years after the American troops left Iraq following the 2003 invasion, the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the threat from ISIS.
“It was not only horrifying in terms of ISIS’s actions, but it threatened our security,” said Paris. “Canada [and] the rest of our allies have a very clear interest in preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State.”
Former top Canadian commander Tom Lawson, who first ordered special forces into Iraq, said that given the current tension between Iran and the U.S. — and even within the Iraqi government in Baghdad — restarting both missions could be tough.
“It’s difficult to see a scenario that has [Canadian troops] return happily to supporting the Kurds in the north, and just as tough to figure out what kind of scenario could return the NATO mission out of Baghdad,” the retired general told CBC’s Power and Politics Wednesday night.
U.N. plane aborts landing as air strike hits Ethiopia’s Tigray
An Ethiopian government air strike on the capital of the northern Tigray region on Friday forced a U.N. aid flight to abort a landing there, the United Nations said.
In neighboring Amhara region, people were fleeing intensified fighting.
Humanitarian sources and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which controls the area, said a university in the regional capital Mekelle was hit by the air strike.
Government spokesman Legesse Tulu said a former military base occupied by TPLF fighters was targeted, and he denied the university was hit.
Reuters was not able to independently confirm either account. TPLF-controlled Tigrai TV reported that 11 civilians were wounded in the air strike. It was at least the fourth day this week that Mekelle had been attacked.
The United Nations suspended all flights to Mekelle after a U.N. plane with 11 passengers had to abort landing on Friday.
The flight from Addis Ababa had been cleared by federal authorities but was told by the Mekelle airport control tower to abort the landing, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said
“This is the first time that we had a flight turn around, at least to my knowledge, in the recent past in Ethiopia because of air strikes on the ground,” senior U.N. aid official Gemma Connell, who heads U.N. humanitarian operations in southern and eastern Africa, told reporters in New York on Friday.
The passengers were aid workers traveling to a region where some 7 million people, including 5 million in Tigray, need humanitarian help, she said.
The flight safely returned to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, Dujarric said.
‘THE WHOLE CITY IS PANICKING’
The two sides have been fighting for almost a year in a conflict that has killed thousands of people and displaced more than two million amid a power struggle between the TPLF and the central government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa.
The TPLF dominated the Horn of Africa country’s ruling party for decades before Abiy, who is not a Tigrayan, took office in 2018.
The government has stepped up air strikes on the Tigray capital as fighting has escalated in Amhara, a neighbouring region where the TPLF has seized territory that the government and allied armed Amhara armed groups are trying to recover.
Residents in Dessie, a city in Amhara, told Reuters people were fleeing, a day after a TPLF spokesperson said its forces were within artillery range of the town.
“The whole city is panicking,” a resident said, adding that people who could were leaving. He said he could hear the sound of heavy gunfire on Thursday night and into the morning, and that the bus fare to Addis Ababa, about 385 km (240 miles) to the south, had increased more than six-fold.
There are now more than 500,000 displaced people in the Amhara region, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission told Reuters.
Seid Assefa, a local official working at a coordination centre for displaced people in Dessie, said 250 people had fled there this week from fighting in the Girana area to the north.
“We now have a total of 900 (displaced people) here and we finished our food stocks three days ago.”
Leul Mesfin, medical director of Dessie Hospital, told Reuters two girls and an adult had died this week at his facility of wounds from artillery fire in the town of Wuchale, which both the government and the TPLF have described as the scene of heavy fighting over the past week.
(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroomAdditional reporting and writing by Maggie Fick and Ayenat Mersie in Nairobi, additional reporting by Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by John Stonestreet, Peter Graff, Alex Richardson, William Maclean)
Nigerian state to shut camps for people displaced by insurgency
Nigeria‘s Borno state, the epicentre of an ongoing Islamist insurgency, will shut all camps that are holding thousands of internally displaced persons by the end of the year, its governor said on Friday, citing improved security in the state.
The conflict between the insurgents and Nigerian’s armed forces has also spread to Chad and Cameroon and has left about 300,000 dead and millions dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.
Borno, which shares a border with Niger, Cameroon and Chad has for more than a decade been the foremost outpost of an insurgency led by Islamist group Boko Haram and later its offshoot Islamic State for West Africa Province (ISWAP).
Speaking after a meeting with President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, Borno governor Babgana Zulum said security had improved in the state so much that those living in camps in the state capital Maiduguri could return home.
“So far so good, Borno State government has started well and arrangements have been concluded to ensure the closure of all internally displaced persons camps that are inside Maiduguri metropolis on or before 31st December, 2021,” Zulum said.
But humanitarian groups say most families are unwilling to return to their ancestral lands especially in the northern parts of Borno, which they deem unsafe.
Buhari has in the past months claimed his government was gaining ground on the insurgents. Last week the country’s top general said ISWAP leader Abu Musab al-Barnawi was dead, without giving details.
Zulum said Borno state authorities would continue to repatriate Nigerian refugees from a camp in Cameroon.
Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau died in May and Nigeria says hundreds of fighters loyal to the Islamist group have been surrendering to the government since then.
(Reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Writing by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by David Gregorio)
Exclusive-U.S. hopes to soon relocate Afghan pilots who fled to Tajikistan, official says
The United States hopes to soon relocate around 150 U.S.-trained Afghan Air Force pilots and other personnel detained in Tajikistan for more than two months after they flew there at the end of the Afghan war, a U.S. official said.
The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to offer a timeline for the transfer but said the United States wanted to move all of those held at the same time. The details of the U.S. plan have not been previously reported.
Reuters exclusively reported first-person accounts from 143 U.S.-trained Afghan personnel being held at a sanatorium in a mountainous, rural area outside of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, waiting for a U.S. flight out to a third country and eventual U.S. resettlement.
Speaking on smuggled cell phones kept hidden from guards, they say they have had their phones and identity documents confiscated.
There are also 13 Afghan personnel in Dushanbe, enjoying much more relaxed conditions, who told Reuters they are also awaiting a U.S. transfer. They flew into the country separately.
The Afghan personnel in Tajikistan represent the last major group of U.S.-trained pilots still believed to be in limbo after dozens of advanced military aircraft were flown across the Afghan border to Tajikistan and to Uzbekistan in August during the final moments of the war with the Taliban.
In September, a U.S.-brokered deal allowed a larger group of Afghan pilots and other military personnel to be flown out of Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates.
Two detained Afghan pilots in Tajikistan said their hopes were lifted in recent days after visits by officials from the U.S. embassy in Dushanbe.
Although they said they had not yet been given a date for their departure, the pilots said U.S. officials obtained the biometric data needed to complete the process of identifying the Afghans. That was the last step before departure for the Afghan pilots in Uzbekistan.
PREGNANT AFGHAN PILOT
U.S. lawmakers and military veterans who have advocated for the pilots have expressed deep frustration over the time it has taken for President Joe Biden’s administration to evacuate Afghan personnel.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was pressed on the matter in Congress last month, expressing concern at a hearing for the pilots and other personnel.
Reuters had previously reported U.S. difficulties gaining Tajik access to all of the Afghans, which include an Afghan Air Force pilot who is eight months pregnant.
In an interview with Reuters, the 29-year-old pilot had voiced her concerns to Reuters about the risks to her and her child at the remote sanatorium. She was subsequently moved to a maternity hospital.
“We are like prisoners here. Not even like refugees, not even like immigrants. We have no legal documents or way to buy something for ourselves,” she said.
The pregnant pilot would be included in the relocation from Tajikistan, the U.S. State Department official said.
Even before the Taliban’s takeover, the U.S.-trained, English-speaking pilots had become prime targets of the Taliban because of the damage they inflicted during the war. The Taliban tracked down the pilots and assassinated them off-base.
Afghanistan’s new rulers have said they will invite former military personnel to join the revamped security forces and that they will come to no harm.
Afghan pilots who spoke with Reuters say they believe they will be killed if they return to Afghanistan.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; editing by Grant McCool)
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