US pressures allies to expel Russia’s Wagner mercenaries from Libya, Sudan

The United States has stepped up pressure on Middle East allies to expel the Wagner Group, a military contractor with close ties to Russia’s president, from chaos-stricken Libya and Sudan where it expanded in recent years, regional officials told The Associated Press.

The U.S. effort described by officials comes as the Biden administration is making a broad push against the mercenaries. The U.S. has slapped new sanctions on the Wagner Group in recent months over its expanding role in Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The group is owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Pentagon has described it as a surrogate for the Russian Defense Ministry. The Kremlin denies any connection.

The Biden administration has been working for months with regional powers Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to pressure military leaders in Sudan and Libya to end their ties with the group, according to more than a dozen Libyan, Sudanese and Egyptian officials. They asked for anonymity to speak freely and because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

“Wagner obsesses them (American officials),” said an Egyptian senior government official with direct knowledge of the talks. “It is at the top of every meeting.”

The group doesn’t announce its operations, but its presence is known from reports on the ground and other evidence. In Sudan, it was originally associated with former strongman Omar al-Bashir and now works with the military leaders who replaced him. In Libya, it’s associated with east Libya-based military commander Khalifa Hifter.

Wagner has deployed thousands of operatives in African and Middle Eastern countries including Mali, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Syria. Its aim in Africa, analysts say, is to support Russia’s interests amid rising global interest in the resource-rich continent. Rights experts working with the U.S. on Jan. 31 accused the group of committing possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali, where it is fighting alongside government forces.

“Wagner tends to target countries with natural resources that can be used for Moscow’s objectives – gold mines in Sudan, for example, where the resulting gold can be sold in ways that circumvent Western sanctions,” said Catrina Doxsee, an expert on Wagner at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Prigozhin did not respond to a request for comment sent to the press department of the Concord Group, of which he is an owner.

The group’s role in Libya and Sudan was central to recent talks between CIA director William Burns and officials in Egypt and Libya in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also discussed the group with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in a late-January trip to Cairo, Egyptian officials said. Weeks after the visits, Burns acknowledged in a Thursday speech at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., that after recent travel to Africa he was concerned about the Wagner’s growing influence in the continent.

“That is a deeply unhealthy development and we’re working very hard to counter it,” Burns said.

Burns and Blinken called on el-Sissi’s government to help convince Sudan’s ruling generals and Libya’s Hifter to end their dealings with the Wagner, an Egyptian official briefed on the talks said.

The group and its founder have been under U.S. sanctions since 2017, and the Biden administration in December announced new export restrictions to restrict its access to technology and supplies, designating it as a “significant transnational criminal organization.”

Sudan

Leaders in Sudan have received repeated U.S. messages about Wagner’s growing influence in recent months, via Egypt and Gulf states, said a senior Sudanese official.

Abbas Kamel, the director of Egypt’s Intelligence Directorate Agency, conveyed Western concerns in talks in Khartoum last month with the head of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the official said. Kamel urged Burhan to find a way to address Wagner’s “use of Sudan as a base” for operations in neighboring countries such as the Central African Republic, the official said.

Wagner started operating in Sudan in 2017, providing military training to intelligence and special forces, and to the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces, according to Sudanese officials and documents shared with The Associated Press.

The RSF, which grew out of the feared Janjaweed militias, is led by powerful general Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, who has close ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Dagalo has been sending troops to fight alongside the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s long-running civil war.

Wagner mercenaries are not operating in a combat role in Sudan, officials said. The group, which has dozens of operatives in the country, provides military and intelligence training, as well as surveillance and protection of sites and top officials.

Sudanese military leaders appear to have given Wagner control of gold mines in return. The documents show that the group has received mining rights through front companies with ties to Sudan’s powerful military and the RSF. Its activities are centered in gold-rich areas controlled by the RSF in Darfur, Blue Nile and other provinces, according to officials.

Two companies have been sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury for acting as fronts for Wagner’s mining activities — Meroe Gold, a Sudanese gold mining firm, and its owner, the Russian-based M Invest firm. Prigozhin owns or controls both, according to the Treasury. Despite sanctions, Meroe Gold is still operating across Sudan.

The Russian mercenaries helped the paramilitary force consolidate its influence not only in the country’s far-flung regions, but also in the capital of Khartoum, where it helps run pro-RSF social media pages.

The main camp of Wagner mercenaries is in the contested village of Am Dafok on the borders between the Central African Republic and Sudan, according to the Darfur Bar Association, a legal group that focuses on human rights.

“Nobody can approach their areas,” said Gibreel Hassabu, a lawyer and member of the association.

Libya

In Libya, Burns held talks in Tripoli with Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, head of one of Libya’s two rival governments.

The CIA director also met with Hifter in eastern Libya, according to officials with Hifter’s forces. One official briefed on the meeting in al-Rajma military complex, the seat of Hifter’s command just outside Benghazi, said Wagner was the main issue discussed.

U.N. experts said Wagner mercenaries were deployed Libya since 2018, helping Hifter’s forces in their fight against Islamist militants in eastern Libya. The group was also involved in his failed offensive on Tripoli in April 2019.

The U.S. Africa Command, AFRICOM, estimated that some 2,000 Wagner mercenaries were in Libya between July-September 2020, before a cease-fire. The mercenaries were equipped with armored vehicles, air defense systems, fighter aircraft, and other equipment, which were supplied by Russia, according to the AFRICOM assessment. The report also said the Wagner group appeared to be receiving money from the UAE, a main foreign backer of Hifter.

Since the 2020 cease-fire, Wagner’s activities have centered around oil facilities in central Libya, and they have continued providing military training to Hifter forces, Libyan officials said. It is not clear how many Wagner mercenaries are still in Libya.

American officials have demanded that mercenaries be pulled out of oil facilities, another Libyan official said.

Hifter did not offer any commitments, but asked for assurances that Turkey and the Libyan militias it backed in western Libya will not initiate an attack on his forces in the coastal city of Sirte and other areas in central Libya.

Egypt, which has close ties with Hifter, has demanded that Wagner not be stationed close to its borders.

There is no evidence yet that the Biden administration’s pressure has yielded results in either Sudan or Libya, observers said.

Doxsee, the expert, said the U.S. and allies should resist promoting narratives that “Russia is bad and what we have to offer is good” and instead focus on offering better alternatives to Wagner.

“Ultimately, at the end of the day, Wagner is a business. If you can cut out the profit and you can reduce the business case for using Wagner, that’s what is going to make it a less appealing case,” she said.

(AP)

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Mpox is almost gone in the US, leaving lessons and mysteries in its wake | CNN



CNN
— 

The US public health emergency declaration for mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, ends Tuesday.

The outbreak, which once seemed to be spiraling out of control, has quietly wound down. The virus isn’t completely gone, but for more than a month, the average number of daily new cases reported to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has hovered in the single digits, plummeting from an August peak of about 450 cases a day.

Still, the US led the world in cases during the 2022-23 outbreak. More than 30,000 people in the US have been diagnosed with mpox, including 23 who died.

Cases are also down across Europe, the Western Pacific and Asia but still rising in some South American countries, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization.

It wasn’t always a given that we’d get here. When mpox went global in 2022, doctors had too few doses of a new and unproven vaccine, an untested treatment, a dearth of diagnostic testing and a difficult line to walk in their messaging, which needed to be geared to an at-risk population that has been stigmatized and ignored in public health crises before.

Experts say the outbreak has taught the world a lot about this infection, which had only occasionally been seen outside Africa.

But even with so much learned, there are lingering mysteries too – like where this virus comes from and why it suddenly began to spread from the Central and West African countries where it’s usually found to more than 100 other nations.

Before May 2022, when clusters of people with unusual rashes began appearing in clinics in the UK and Europe, the country reporting the most cases of mpox was the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC.

There, cases have been steadily building since the 1970s, according to a study in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

In the DRC, people in rural villages depend on wild animals for meat. Many mpox infections there are thought to be the result of contact with an animal to which the virus has adapted; this animal host is not known but is assumed to be a rodent.

For years, experts who studied African outbreaks observed a phenomenon known as stuttering chains of transmission: “infections that managed to transmit themselves or be transmitted from person to person to a limited degree, a certain number of links in that chain of transmission, and then suddenly just aren’t able to sustain themselves in humans,” said Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

Informally, scientists kept track, and Morse says that for years, the record for links in a mpox chain was about four.

“Traditionally, it always burned itself out,” he said.

Then the chains started getting longer.

In 2017, Nigeria – which hadn’t had a confirmed case of mpox in more than four decades – suddenly saw a resurgence of the virus, with more than 200 cases reported that year.

“People have speculated maybe it was a change in the virus that allowed it to be made better-adapted to humans,” Morse said.

From 2018 through 2021, eight cases of mpox were reported outside Africa. All were in men ages 30 to 50, and all had traveled from Nigeria. Three reported that the rashes had started in their groin area. One went on to infect a health care provider. Another infected two family members.

This Nigerian outbreak helped experts realize that mpox could efficiently spread between people.

It also hinted that the infection could be sexually transmitted, but investigators couldn’t confirm this route of spread, possibly because of the stigma involved in sharing information about sexual contact.

In early May 2022, health officials in the UK began reporting confirmed cases of mpox. One of the people had recently traveled to Nigeria, but others had not, indicating that it was spreading in the community.

Later, other countries would report cases that had started even earlier, in April.

Investigators concluded that mpox had been silently spreading before they caught up to it.

In early summer, as US case numbers began to grow, the public health response bore some uncomfortable similarities to the early days of Covid-19. People with suspicious rashes complained that it was too hard to get tested because a limited supply was being rationed. Because the virus had so rarely appeared outside certain countries in Africa, most doctors weren’t sure how to recognize mpox or how to test for it and didn’t understand all its routes of spread.

A new vaccine was available, and the government had placed orders for it, but most of those doses weren’t in the United States. Beyond that, its efficacy against mpox had been studied only in animals, so no one knew whether it would actually work in humans.

There was an experimental treatment, Tpoxx, but it too was unproven, and doctors could get it only after filling out reams of paperwork required by the government for compassionate use.

Some just gave up.

“Tpoxx was hard to get,” said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a clinical professor of public health at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

“I was scrambling to find places that could prescribe it because my own institution just became a bureaucratic nightmare. So I basically would be referring people for treatment outside my own institution to be able to get monkeypox treatment,” he said.

Finally, in August, the federal government declared a public health emergency. This allowed federal agencies to access pots of money set aside for emergencies. It also allows the government to shift funds from one purpose to another to help cover costs of the response – and it helped raise awareness among doctors that mpox was something to watch for.

The government also set up a task force led by Robert Fenton, a logistics expert from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, director of the CDC’s Division of HIV and AIDS Research.

Daskalakis is openly gay and sex-positive, right down to his Instagram account, which mixes suit-and-tie shots from White House briefings with photos revealing his many tattoos.

“Dr. Daskalakis … really walks on water in most of the gay community, and then [Fenton is] a logistics expert, and I think that combination of leadership was the right answer,” Klausner said.

Early on, after the CDC identified men who have sex with men as being at highest risk of infection, officials warned of close physical contact, the kind that often happens with sexual activity. They also noted that people could be infected through contact with contaminated surfaces like sheets or towels.

But they stopped short of calling it a sexually transmitted infection, a move that some saw as calculated.

“In this outbreak, in this time and context to Europe, United States and Australia, was definitely sexually transmitted,” said Klausner, who points out that many men got rashes on their genitals and that infectious virus was cultured in semen.

Klausner believes vague descriptions about how the virus spread were intentional, in order to garner resources needed for the response.

“People felt that if they called it an STD from the get-go, it was going to create stigma, and because of the stigma of the type of sex that was occurring – oral sex, anal sex, anal sex between same-sex male partners – there may not have been the same kind of federal response,” Klausner said. “So it was actually a political calculation to garner the resources necessary to have a substantial response to be vague about how it spread.”

This ambiguity created room for misinformation and confusion, said Tony Hoang, executive director of Equality California, a nonprofit advocacy group for LGBTQ civil rights.

“I think there was a balancing dance of not wanting to create stigma, in terms of who is actually the highest rates of transmission without being forthright,” Hoang said.

Hoang’s group launched its own public information campaign, combining information from the CDC on HIV and mpox. The messaging stressed that sex was the risky behavior and made sure to explain that light brushes or touches weren’t likely to pass the infection, he said.

Klausner thinks the CDC could have done better on messaging.

“By giving vague, nonspecific information and making comments like ‘everyone’s potentially at risk’ or ‘there’s possible spread through sharing a bed, clothing or close dancing’ … that kind of dilutes the message, and people who engage in risk behavior that does put them at risk get confused, and they say ‘well, maybe this isn’t really a route of spread,’ ” he said.

In July and August, when the US was reporting hundreds of new mpox cases each day, health officials were worried that the virus might be here to stay.

“There were concerns that there would be ongoing transmission and that ongoing transmission would become endemic in the United States like other STIs: gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis. We have not seen that occur,” said Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention.

“We are now seeing three to four cases a day in the United States, and it continues to decline. And we see the possibility of getting to zero as real,” he said.

At the peak of the outbreak, officials scrambled to vaccinate the population at highest risk – men who have sex with men – in the hopes of limiting both severity of infections and transmission. But no one was sure whether this strategy would work.

The Jynneos vaccine was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2019 to prevent monkeypox and smallpox in people at high risk of those infections.

At that time, the plan was to bank it in the Strategic National Stockpile as a countermeasure in case smallpox was weaponized. The approval for mpox, a virus closely related to smallpox, was tacked on because the US had seen a limited outbreak of these infections in 2003, tied to the importation of exotic rodents as pets.

Jynneos had passed safety tests in humans. In lab studies, it protected primates and mice from mpox infections. But researchers only learn how effective vaccines are during infectious disease outbreaks, and Jynneos has never been put through its paces during an outbreak.

“We were left, when this started, with that great unknown: Does this vaccine work? And is it safe in large numbers?” Mermin said.

Beyond those uncertainties, there wasn’t enough to go around, and infectious disease experts feared that a shortage of the vaccine might thwart any effort to stop the outbreak.

So public health officials announced a change in strategy: Instead of injecting a full dose under the skin, or subcutaneously, they would inject just one-fifth of that dose between the skin’s upper layers, or intradermally.

An early study in the trials of the vaccine had suggested that intradermal dosing could be effective, but it was a risk. Again, no one was sure this dose-sparing strategy would work.

Ultimately, all of these gambles appear to have paid off.

Early studies of vaccine effectiveness show that the Jynneos vaccine protected men from mpox infections. According to CDC data, people who were unvaccinated were almost 10 times as likely to be diagnosed with the infection as those who got the recommended two doses.

Men who had two doses were about 69% less likely, and men with a single dose were about 37% less likely, to have an mpox infection that needed medical attention compared with those who were unvaccinated, according to the CDC.

Mermin says studies have since showed that the vaccine worked well no matter if was given into the skin or under the skin – another win.

Still, the vaccine is almost certainly not the entire reason cases have plunged, simply because not enough people have gotten it. The CDC estimates that 2 million people in the United States are eligible for mpox vaccination. Mermin says that about 700,000 have had a first dose – about 36% of the eligible population.

So it’s unlikely that vaccination was the only reason for the steep decline in cases. CDC modeling suggests that behavior change may have played a substantial role, too.

In an online survey of men who have sex with men conducted in August, half of participants indicated that they had reduced their number of partners and one-time sexual encounters, behaviors that could cut the growth of new infections by 20% to 30%.

If that’s the case, some experts worry that the US could see monkeypox flare up again as the weather warms.

“The party season was during the summer, during the height of the outbreak, and we’re in the dead of winter. So there’s a possibility that behavior change may not able to be sustained,” said Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health.

Although we’re clearly in a much better position than we were last summer, he says, public health officials shouldn’t make this a “mission accomplished” moment.

“Now, put your foot on the accelerator. Let’s get the rest of these cases,” Gonsalves said.

Mermin says that’s exactly what the CDC intends to do. It isn’t finished with the response but intends to switch to “a ground game.”

“So much of our work in the next few months will be setting up structures so that getting vaccinated is easy,” he said.

Nearly 40% of mpox cases in the United States were diagnosed in people who also had HIV, Mermin said. So the CDC is going to make sure Jynneos vaccines are available as a routine part of care at HIV clinics and STI clinics that offer pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, for HIV.

Mermin said officials are also going to continue to go to LGBTQ festivals and events to offer on-site vaccinations.

Additionally, they’re going to study people who’ve been vaccinated and infected to see whether they remain immune – something else that’s still a big unknown.

Experts say that’s just one of many questions that need a closer look. Another is just how long the virus had been spreading outside Africa before the world noticed.

“We’re starting to see some data that suggests that asymptomatic infection and transmission is possible, and that certainly will change how we how we think about this virus and and risk,” said Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA.

When researchers at a sexual health clinic in Belgium rescreened more than 200 nasal and oral swabs they had taken in May 2022 to test for the STIs chlamydia and gonorrhea, they found positive mpox cases that had gone undiagnosed. Three of the people reported no symptoms, while another reported a painful rash, which was misdiagnosed as herpes. Their study was published in the journal Nature Medicine.

“Mild and asymptomatic infections may have indeed delayed the detection of the outbreak,” study author Christophe Van Dijck of the Laboratory of Medical Microbiology at the University of Antwerp in Belgium said in an email to CNN.

While researchers tackle those pursuits, advocacy groups say they aren’t ready to relax.

Hoang says Equality California is pushing the CDC to address continuing racial disparities in mpox vaccination and treatment, particularly in rural areas.

He’s not worried that gay men will drop their guard now that the emergency has expired..

“We’ve learned that we have to take health into our own hands, and I do think that we will remain vigilant as a community for this outbreak and future outbreaks,” Hoang said.



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Italy plays on historic heartstrings with Algeria to boost critical energy ties

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hailed Algeria as Rome’s “most stable, strategic and long-standing” partner in North Africa as she wrapped up a two-day visit on Monday aimed at securing Italy’s energy supplies and promoting her plan for a “non-predatory” approach to investment on the continent.

Meloni, who leads Italy’s most right-wing government since World War II, was making her first bilateral visit abroad since her election last year, underscoring the importance given to Rome’s relationship with gas-rich Algeria at a time when European nations are racing to wean their economies off Russian gas.

Like all ranking visitors, Meloni began her trip by laying a wreath at the Monument of Martyrs, the hilltop memorial commemorating Algerians who died in the country’s struggle for independence from France. Her own country’s contribution to that struggle was the subject of a later stop in central Algiers, at a garden dedicated to Enrico Mattei, the legendary founder of the Italian energy company ENI, who championed – and bankrolled – Algeria’s independence fight in the 1950s and early 60s.

Meloni was accompanied by ENI’s current boss Matteo Descalzi, the chief architect of Italy’s ongoing pivot from Russian gas to Algerian gas. Their visit to the Mattei gardens was symbolic of a rapprochement dictated both by interest and historical affinity.


“In Algerian eyes, ENI is a lot more than a company. It’s a symbol of Italo-Algerian friendship and of a relationship that dates back to before independence,” said the Algerian political journalist Akram Kharief.

“Algeria is always grateful to its allies. It has not forgotten that ENI was one of the very few companies not to flee during the country’s civil war (in the 1990s),” Kharief added. “As a result, the company enjoys privileged access to Algerian contracts and resources.”

Southern Europe’s gas hub

Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Algeria’s ample reserves of natural gas have played a key role in reducing Italy’s energy dependence on Moscow, which accounted for 40% of Rome’s gas imports prior to the war. Meloni’s trip to Algiers come on the heels of two visits by her predecessor Mario Draghi, who secured an Algerian pledge to rapidly ramp up gas exports.

Since then, Algeria has replaced Russia as Italy’s top energy supplier and Rome is pushing to further increase its energy imports from Algeria, hoping to act as a hub for supplies between Africa and northern Europe in the coming years. It also wants guarantees that Algeria can live up to its pledges, amid concerns that the country’s creaking energy infrastructure will prove unable to meet the surging demand.

“Gas flows from Algeria increased last year but not by as much as promised. They even dropped in January, forcing Italy to buy more gas coming from Russia,” said Francesco Sassi, a research fellow specialising in energy geopolitics at the Italian consultancy RIE. “Algeria needs huge investment to boost both its production and export capacities amid a steep increase in local consumption,” he added.

On Monday, ENI’s Descalzi signed a raft of agreements with Algeria’s energy giant Sonatrach aimed at increasing Algerian gas exports to Italy. The two companies also agreed to develop projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and possibly building a pipeline to transport hydrogen to Italy.

Announcing the deals at a joint press conference with Meloni, Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said the aim was for Italy to “become a platform for distribution of Algerian energy products in Europe”. He noted that trade between the two countries had already doubled from 8 billion dollars in 2021 to 16 billion in 2022.

Tebboune said his country wished “to enlarge cooperation (between Algeria and Italy) beyond energy”, pointing to Italy’s fabric of small and medium-sized companies as a model “to help Algeria get out of its dependence on hydrocarbons”.

Italian carmaker Fiat already plans to open to a factory in Algeria and Italy’s Confindustria industrial lobby agreed on Monday to pursue greater cooperation with Algerian business. The two sides also hailed an agreement between the Italian Space Agency and its Algerian counterpart to share knowledge and develop joint projects, while Rome offered its expertise to develop Algeria’s untapped potential in the tourism industry.

The ‘Mattei Plan’

The raft of deals and warm words exchanged during Meloni’s visit reflect a traditional affinity between Rome and Algiers, unburdened by the colonial legacy that plagues France’s relations with the North African country. They also underscore a convergence of interests between two countries that have sensed an opportunity in the energy crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine.

Zine Ghebouli, a scholar on Euro-Mediterranean cooperation and Algerian politics at the University of Glasgow, said Italy has “taken advantage of Europe’s gas crisis to position itself as an energy hub”, giving Rome a solid base to strengthen its clout in the Mediterranean region.

“The overall objective now is to move from energy cooperation to cooperation on the economy, defence and foreign policy,” he added, pointing to Italy’s search for stability in North Africa – and particularly in Libya – to stem the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

“Italy has shown positive signs regarding technology transfers, for instance. It will be interesting to see whether increased energy cooperation helps foster progress on other subjects too, including migration, and with other countries in the region, such as Tunisia,” Ghebouli said.

Since taking office just over three months ago, Meloni has repeatedly spoken of a “Mattei Plan” for Africa, named after the ENI founder who challenged Anglo-American oil majors over their exploitation of African resources – and whose death in a plane crash 60 years ago remains shrouded in mystery. She has touted the plan as a win-win partnership that will guarantee Europe’s energy security while addressing the root causes of migratory flows from Africa – namely poverty and jihadist unrest.

The approach “addresses what Meloni’s government sees a vital interest: to stem the flow of migrants,” said Kharief. “Italy has neither the coercive means to fight jihadism nor the economic might to foster development in Africa, but it has a broad plan and it has identified Algeria as its key strategic partner in this endeavour,” he added.

During Monday’s news conference in Algiers, Meloni promoted her plan for “collaboration on an equal basis, to transform the many crises that we are facing into opportunities.” She spoke of a “model of development that allows African nations to grow based on what they have, thanks to a non-predatory approach by foreign nations.”

However, the Italian premier has offered scant detail about her plan for a “virtuous relationship with African countries”. Some analysts have described it as little more than a PR stunt by the far-right leader – and evidence of the current Italian government’s desire to act independently of its European partners.

>> A ‘seismic’ shift: Will Meloni’s Italy turn its back on Europe?

By evoking Mattei’s memory, Meloni not only tugs at Algerian heartstrings. She “also harks harks back to a memory of Italy as a major player in the Mediterranean and the Mideast – constructing a narrative that has no grounding today,” said RIE’s Sassi.

“The Mattei Plan is primarily about playing up Italy’s role in tackling Europe’s energy crisis in order to secure the investments that Italy itself needs,” he said, noting that the country will need to upgrade its own infrastructure in order to serve as energy hub for the continent. “It is natural for each country to play the national card,” Sassi added. “But the current energy crisis can only have a European solution.”



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Why Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia means so much for the Gulf monarchy’s sporting ambitions | CNN

Editor’s Note: A version of this story appears in today’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, CNN’s three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.


Abu Dhabi, UAE
CNN
— 

It’s a partnership that’s been hailed as “history in the making.”

One of the world’s most famous soccer stars landed in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Tuesday, where Cristiano Ronaldo was received in an extravagant ceremony, with excited children sporting his new club’s yellow and blue jerseys.

Oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s success in luring the five-time Ballon d’Or winner on a two-year contract with the kingdom’s Al Nassr FC is the Gulf monarchy’s latest step in realizing its sporting ambitions – seemingly at any cost.

According to Saudi state-owned media, Ronaldo will earn an estimated $200 million a year with Al Nassr, making him the world’s highest-paid soccer player.

Shortly after the 37-year-old’s signing with Al Nassr, the club’s Instagram page gained over 5.3 million new followers. Its official website was inaccessible after exceeding its bandwidth limit due to the sudden surge in traffic, and the hashtag #HalaRonaldo – Hello, Ronaldo in Arabic – was trending for days across the Middle East on Twitter.

Analysts say that his recruitment in Saudi Arabia is part of a wider effort by the kingdom to diversify its sources of revenue and become a serious player in the international sporting scene.

It is also seen as a move by the kingdom to shore up its image after it was tarnished by the 2018 dismemberment and killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents, and a devastating war it started in Yemen in 2015.

Critics have decried the kingdom for “sportswashing,” an attempt to burnish one’s reputation through sport.

“I think Saudi Arabia has recognized a couple of years ago that to be a powerful nation internationally, you cannot just rely on hard power,” Danyel Reiche, a visiting research fellow and associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar, told CNN.

“You also need to invest in soft power, and the case of Qatar shows that this can work pretty well,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia is following in the Qatari approach with sport, but with a delay of around 25 years.

Neighboring Qatar has also faced immense criticism since it won the bid to hosting last year’s FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Despite the smaller Gulf state facing similar accusations of “sportswashing,” the tournament has largely been viewed as a success, not least in exposing the world to a different view of the Middle East, thanks in part to Morocco’s success in reaching the semifinals and Saudi Arabia beating eventual World Cup champion Argentina in their opening group game.

Gulf nations engage in fierce competition to become the region’s premier entertainment and sporting hubs. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, in close proximity to each other, each have their own Formula One racing event. But their competition hasn’t been confined to the region. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also bought trophy European soccer teams.

Riyadh is playing catchup with neighbors who have long realized the importance of investing in sports, said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at SKEMA Business School in Lille, France, especially as its main source of income – oil – is being gradually shunned.

“This is part of an ongoing attempt to create more resilient economies that are more broadly based upon industries other than those that are derived from oil and gas,” Chadwick told CNN.

Ronaldo’s new club Al Nassr is backed by Qiddiya Investment Company (QIC), a subsidiary of the kingdom’s wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has played a pivotal role in Saudi Arabia’s diversification plans.

“It is also a sign of interconnectedness, of globalization and of opening up to the rest of the world,” said Georgetown University’s Reiche.

The move is part of “several recent high profile moves in the sports world, including hosting the Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua world heavywight boxing championship bout in 2019, and launching the LIV Golf championship,” said Omar Al-Ubaydli, director of research at the Bahrain-based Derasat think tank. “It is a significant piece of a large puzzle that represents their economic restructuring.”

The kingdom has been on a path to not only diversify its economy, but also shift its image amid a barrage of criticism over its human rights record and treatment of women. Saudi Arabia is today hosting everything from desert raves to teaming up with renowned soccer players. Argentina’s Lionel Messi last year signed a lucrative promotional deal with the kingdom.

Hailed as the world’s greatest player, 35-year-old Messi ended this year’s World Cup tournament in Qatar with his team’s win over France, making his ambassadorship of even greater value to the kingdom.

The acquisition of such key global figures will also help combat the monarchy’s decades-long reputation of being “secretive” and “ultra-conservative,” James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an expert on soccer in the Middle East, told CNN’s Eleni Giokos on Wednesday.

Al-Ubaydli said that the kingdom wants to use high profile international sports “as a vehicle for advertising to the world its openness.”

Saudi Arabia bought the English Premier league club Newcastle United in 2021 through a three-party consortium, with PIF being the largest stakeholder. The move proved controversial, as Amnesty International and other human rights defenders worried it would overshadow the kingdom’s human rights violations.

Ronaldo’s work with Saudi Arabia is already being criticized by rights groups who are urging the soccer player to “draw attention to human rights issues” in Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia has an image problem,” especially since Khashoggi’s killing, says Reiche. But the kingdom’s recent investments in sports and entertainment are “not about sportswashing but about developing the country, social change and opening up to the world.”

Saudi Arabia is reportedly weighing a 2030 World Cup bid with Egypt and Greece, but the kingdom’s tourism ministry noted in November that it has not yet submitted an official bid. Chadwick believes that Ronaldo’s deal with Al Nassr, however, may help boost the kingdom’s bid should it choose it pursue it.

Another way Saudi Arabia may benefit from Ronaldo’s acquisition is that it will be able to improve commercial performance, says Chadwick, especially if this collaboration attracts further international talent.

“It is important to see Ronaldo not just as a geopolitical instrument,” said Chadwick, “There is still a commercial component to him and to the purpose he is expected to serve in Saudi Arabia.”

What Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia shows is that the kingdom aspires “to be seen as being the best” and that it wants to be perceived as a “contender and a legitimate member of the international football community,” said Chadwick.

UAE FM meets Syria’s Assad in Damascus in further sign of thawing ties

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad received the United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed in Damascus on Wednesday in the latest sign of thawing relations between Assad and the Gulf state. The meeting addressed developments in Syria and the wider Middle East, according to UAE state news agency WAM.

  • Background: It was Abdullah bin Zayed’s first visit since a November 2021 meeting with Assad that led to the resumption of relations. Months later, in March 2022, Assad visited the UAE, his first visit to an Arab state since the start of Syria’s civil war.
  • Why it matters: A number of Assad’s former foes have been trying to mend fences with his regime. Last week, talks between the Syrian and Turkish defense ministers were held in Moscow in the highest-level encounter reported between the estranged sides since the war in Syria began. The regional rapprochement is yet to improve the lives of average Syrians. Syria is still under Western sanctions.

Turkish President Erdogan says he could meet with Assad

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech on Thursday that he could meet the Syrian leader “to establish peace.”

  • Background: Erdogan’s comments came after the Moscow talks between the two nations’ defense ministers and intelligence chiefs. “Following this meeting… we will bring our foreign ministers together. And after that, as leaders, we will come together,” Erdogan said on Thursday.
  • Why it matters: The meeting would mark a dramatic shift in Turkey’s decade-long stance on Syria, where Ankara was the prime supporter of political and armed factions fighting to topple Assad. The Turkish military maintains a presence across the Syrian border and within northern Syria, where it backs Syrian opposition forces. Erdogan has also pledged to launch yet another incursion into northern Syria, aiming at creating a 30-km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” that would be emptied of Kurdish fighters.

Iran shuts down French cultural center over Charlie Hebdo’s Khamenei cartoons

Iran announced on Thursday it had ended the activities of a Tehran-based French research institute, in reaction to cartoons mocking Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and fellow Shia Muslim clerics published by French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this week.

  • Background: Iran summoned the French ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday to protest cartoons published by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. More than 30 cartoons poking fun at Iran’s supreme leader were published by the magazine on Wednesday, in a show of support for the Iranian people who have been protesting the Islamic Republic’s government and its policies.
  • Why it matters: French-Iranian relations have deteriorated significantly since protests broke out in Iran late last year. Paris has publicly supported the protests and spoken out against Iran’s response to them. French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna criticized Iran’s freedom of press and judicial independence on Thursday, saying “press freedom exists, contrary to what is going on in Iran and… it is exercised under the supervision of a judge in an independent judiciary – and there too it’s something that Iran knows little of.”

The prized legacy of iconic Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum re-emerged this year when Rolling Stone magazine featured her in its “200 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

Ranking 61st, Umm Kulthum was the only Arab artist to make it to the list, with the magazine saying that she “has no real equivalent among singers in the West.”

Born in a small village northeast of the Egyptian capital Cairo, Umm Kulthum rose to unmatched fame as she came to represent “the soul of the pan-Arab world,” the music magazine said.

“Her potent contralto, which could blur gender in its lower register, conveyed breathtaking emotional range in complex songs that, across theme and wildly-ornamented variations, could easily last an hour, as she worked crowds like a fiery preacher,” it wrote.

Nicknamed “the lady of Arab singing,” her music featured both classical Arabic poetry as well as colloquial songs still adored by younger generations. Her most famous pieces include “Inta Uumri” (you are my life), “Alf Leila Weileila” (a thousand and one nights), “Amal Hayati” (hope of my life) and “Daret al-Ayyam” (the days have come around). Some of her songs have been remixed to modern beats that have made their way to Middle Eastern nightclubs.

The singer remains an unmatched voice across the Arab World and her music can still be heard in many traditional coffee shops in Old Cairo’s neighborhoods and other parts of the Arab world.

Umm Kulthum’s death in 1975 brought millions of mourners to the streets of Cairo.

By Nadeen Ebrahim

Women athletes aim their air rifles while competing in a local shooting championship in Yemen's Houthi rebel-held capital Sanaa on January 3.



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‘Tirailleurs’: France’s forgotten colonial soldiers step out of the shadows

The last surviving African soldiers who fought for colonial-era France will be able to live out their final days in their home countries following the French government’s U-turn on their pension rights. The decision coincides with the cinema release of a film highlighting the untold sacrifices made by African “tirailleurs” on France’s battlefields during World War I.

In November 1998, just months after France’s multiracial football team lifted its first World Cup title, another legacy of the country’s colonial history passed away quietly in a faraway village north of Dakar, Senegal.

Abdoulaye Ndiaye, who died aged 104, was the last of the tirailleurs, the African riflemen who fought for their colonial masters in the trenches of northern France during World War I. He died just one day before France’s then-president, Jacques Chirac, was due to decorate him with the Legion of Honour in belated recognition of his services.

The failure to acknowledge Ndiaye’s sacrifice during his lifetime has stuck with French director Mathieu Vadepied ever since, inspiring a long-gestating project that has come to completion this week with the release in France and Senegal of his film “Tirailleurs” – whose English version is titled “Father & Soldier”.

“It felt like a symbol of France’s failure to recognise the tirailleurs and tell their story,” said the director following his film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last year.

Vadepied, who has travelled and worked in Senegal and elsewhere in Africa, said he felt a duty to exhume the history of the tirailleurs. His film is a tribute to the young men of Senegal and other French colonies who were snatched from their homes and forced to fight in a war that meant nothing to them for a “motherland” whose language most didn’t speak.


While the film’s original title, “Tirailleurs”, or “riflemen”, has evocative power in French, its English version highlights the director’s concern to approach war through an intimate focus on a father’s relationship with the son he is desperate to protect. “Lupin” star Omar Sy plays a weary village farmer who enrols in the army to watch over his son after he is forcefully conscripted by the French.

Vadepied stressed the importance of rooting his story in Senegal and keeping an intimate gaze on the film’s protagonists while giving war itself a distinctly unspectacular treatment.

“We know the history of the war, but not that of the tirailleurs,” he said, highlighting cinema’s “mission to educate, to pass on stories and historical memories, while also interrogating the society we live in.” He added: “The story of France’s colonial troops needs to be recognised and told, to allow subsequent generations to identify with this history too.”

As Sy, himself a son of Senegalese immigrants, told the audience at the Cannes premiere, “We don’t have the same (historical) memory, but we share the same history.”

A decision long overdue

In one of the film’s rare battle scenes, moments before the tirailleurs leap out of the trenches and charge into muddy no-man’s land, a French officer is pictured yelling: “After this battle, you will no longer be indigenous, you will be French!”

It would take a full century for France to deliver on that promise.

In April 2017, then-president François Hollande granted French citizenship to a first group of 28 former tirailleurs in a ceremony at the Élysée Palace, following a petition signed by more than 60,000 people, including Sy. The event was timed to coincide with the centennial of the Chemin des Dames, a gruesome battle in which more than 7,000 African soldiers perished in the fields of northern France.

Six years on, the last surviving tirailleurs have won another battle in their decades-long quest for recognition, securing the right to live out their final days in their home countries – while continuing to receive their French pensions.

>> France’s forgotten African war heroes finally given full pension rights

France’s former colonial troops were previously required to spend at least six months of the year living in France in order to qualify for a monthly payment of 950 euros ($1,000). The rule separated ageing former combatants from their families in Africa, leaving some to die alone, often in cramped quarters, away from their loved ones.

The change of rule will apply to 37 former soldiers known to be living in France, said Aïssata Seck, a campaigner for the rights of the tirailleurs. She said news of the breakthrough might inspire more veterans to come forward, estimating the total number of surviving tirailleurs in France at “around 80”.


FOCUS © FRANCE 24

Seck, whose grandfather was a tirailleur, expressed relief that the last of his comrades would “finally be able to return home and live out their lives with their wives, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren”.

France’s decision was long overdue, said the head of Senegal’s National Office for Veterans and Victims of War, in an interview with AP.

“For a long time veterans have asked to return with their pensions but were not successful. This decision will relieve them. These veterans live alone in their homes, they are not accompanied, they live in extremely difficult conditions,” said Capt. Ngor Sarr, 85, who fought for the French military in Algeria and Mauritania and then moved to France in 1993 so he could receive his pension. He said he then lost it when he returned to Senegal 20 years later.

‘Repair the injustice’

A product of France’s 19th-century colonial expansion in Africa, the tirailleurs were initially designed as a lightly-armed infantry corps deployed to harass enemy lines. The corps was expanded during World War I to bolster French troops on the Western Front, and eventually disbanded in the early 1960s.

Over the two World Wars, some 700,000 soldiers from France’s African colonies fought for the colonial power. While some volunteered, others – like the son’s character in Vadepied’s film – were captured and forcibly enlisted.

Historians estimate that around 30,000 African soldiers died in the trenches fighting for France during World War I. But their names never featured on the war memorials that grace towns and villages across the country, daily reminders of the cost of the conflict.

The tirailleurs were a vastly enlarged force by the time Nazi Germany invaded France. They fought for Free French forces in sub-Saharan and North Africa and took part in the Allies’ landings in southern France in August 1944, precipitating the Nazis’ retreat.

Months later, however, French troops at a barracks near Dakar opened fire on mutinous tirailleurs demanding back pay for years spent in prisoner-of-war camps. Dozens were killed in a massacre that was hushed for decades but is bitterly remembered in Senegal.

REPORTERS
REPORTERS © FRANCE 24

Hollande promised to “repair the injustice” on a trip to Dakar in 2014 – in line with tentative steps to acknowledge France’s debt towards its former colonial troops. Their sacrifice was honoured on Armistice Day last year during a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe attended by Aïssata Tall Sall, Senegal’s minister for foreign affairs and Senegalese abroad.

Despite such gestures, more needs to be done to “give the tirailleurs visibility in the public space”, said Seck, whose campaign group has appealed to French mayors to name streets after France’s African soldiers.

“The history of the tirailleurs is still insufficiently known,” she explained. “But things are starting to go in the right direction – slowly but surely.”

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Francophone countries meet for summit in Tunisia amid democracy concerns



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The world’s club of French-speaking countries will meet in Tunisia from Saturday for talks focused on economic cooperation, more than a year after President Kais Saied began an internationally criticised power grab.

Around 30 heads of state and government, including French President Emmanuel Macron, his Senegalese counterpart Macky Sall and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are set to attend the summit of the International Organisation of Francophonie (OIF) on the southern Tunisian resort island of Djerba.

While the two-day summit and an associated economic forum will officially focus on digital technology’s role in development, it will also be an opportunity for Western and African leaders to discuss issues like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Many African countries have decried what they see as a lack of international solidarity in the face of crises on their continent, in sharp contrast with European nations’ swift support of Kyiv.

The summit coincides with the final stage of UN climate talks in Egypt, and comes just days after G20 leaders met in Indonesia for a meeting dominated by the war in Ukraine, which is an OIF observer state.

Normally held every two years, the meeting was postponed in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and then last year after Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament, later dissolving the legislature entirely.

Hosting the summit is a “success” for Saied, said French political researcher Vincent Geisser.

It will see him “leave his isolation — at least temporarily”, Geisser told AFP, after Canada, France and other developed nations last year called on Saied to restore “constitutional order”.

Economic cooperation

The summit will belatedly celebrate the 50th anniversary of the now 88-strong group whose members, such as Armenia and Serbia, are not all French-speaking.

The world’s French-speaking community is around 321 million-strong, and is expected to more than double to 750 million in 2050.

Secretary general Louise Mushikiwabo, of Rwanda, who is up for re-election, said the bloc is “more pertinent than ever” and able to bring added value to “most of the world’s problems”.

She told AFP she would ask member states to “redouble their efforts” in the face of a decline in the use of the French language in international organisations, and recalled that promoting “peace, democracy and human rights” is also part of the OIF’s mission.

Senegalese civil society figure Alioune Tine instead criticised the OIF’s record on international crisis mediation.

The group has shown itself to be “totally powerless in the face of fraudulent elections, third mandates (of African leaders) and military coups” in Mali, Guinea, Chad and Burkina Faso, he said.

Summit coordinator Mohamed Trabelsi told AFP the meeting was “a recognition of the role of Tunisia in the Francophone space, and of its regional and international diplomacy”.

It is also an opportunity to “strengthen economic cooperation”, Trabelsi said.

But an official from OIF heavyweight Canada said Ottawa wanted to echo “concern” over “democratic participation” following Saied’s power grab in the only democracy to have emerged from the Arab Spring uprisings more than a decade ago.

Tunisia is confronted by a deep economic crisis which has pushed a growing number of its people to try to reach Europe.

Seeking to draw delegates’ attention to the issue, hundreds of protesters tried Friday to highlight the disappearance of 18 Tunisians onboard a boat that set out in September. Police prevented them from reaching Djerba.

(AFP)



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