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Smuggler who ‘revelled in’ torturing migrants arrested in Italy

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Lizzie Dearden

A Somali man who colluded with Libyan smugglers to torture and extort fellow migrants in squalid prisons has been arrested in Italy as the refugee crisis continues to worsen.

Police on the island of Lampedusa said the 23-year-old suspect, Mohamed Ahmed Taher, “revelled” in beating asylum seekers and may have killed at least two people.

Giovanni Minardi, who headed the team who detained Taher, told the Ansa news agency he was part of a transnational armed criminal organisation dedicated to human trafficking, kidnapping, sexual assault, murder and illegal immigration.

Migrants who identified Taher as a torturer employed at a detention centre in Libya’s’ south-eastern Kufra region told prosecutors that after making the boat journey across the Mediterranean Sea on 27 May he attempted to threaten them into silence.

“On my arrival, Mohamed the Somali was already in the [centre’s] structure,” said one victim.

“He beat the migrants. He revelled in humiliating us and throwing his weight around.

“I remember once the Libyan man, who owned the camp, had to tell him off because he was beating us so badly that it was killing people.”

Taher is accused of beating migrants with rubber hose, burning them with petrol and threatening with them with weapons.

As in similar past cases, police said asylum seekers were sometimes tortured while traffickers spoke to their relatives on the phone to pressure them into paying for their freedom and safety.

At least two people who attempted to escape the camp were reportedly beaten to death, while those fleeing other Libyan detention centres have been shot and killed.

Taher is the sixth person detained in Italy since March on suspicion of torturing migrants in Libya, where smuggling gangs have set up a ruthless trade amid the chaos of the country’s ongoing civil war.

The UN has warned of migrants being bought and sold at “slave markets” and being detained in official and unofficial prisons where they are raped, tortured, starved and held to ransom by armed gangs.

Survivors have told The Independent of being sold from one “owner” to another while being forced into manual labour, with those asking for wages or struggling with the work killed.

The centre in Kufra is part of a smuggling chain stretching from the Libyan coast, which is the main launching point for refugee boats towards Europe, back through Sudan to sub-Saharan African nations.

The Sahara is thought to be the deadliest zone for migrants, with 52 people dying in Niger after being abandoned in the desert by smugglers last week and many more being murdered or killed by thirst, hunger  or falling off overloaded trucks.

The vast majority of asylum seekers currently making treacherous sea journeys to Europe are from African nations including Guinea, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Gambia, as well as Bangladesh, Syria and Iraq.

More than 85,300 migrants have arrived over the Mediterranean so far this year, with more than 2,000 dying in the attempt.

The bodies of at least 25 people who drowned off the coast of Libya were found near Tripoli on Tuesday after being washed up on a beach in a state of decomposition.

Almost 8,900 migrants were rescued off the Libyan coast on Sunday and Monday alone, after apparently being launched en masse in overcrowded fishing boats and smugglers’ dinghies.

Save the Children’s Vos Hestia was among the ships taking part in the huge operation, rescuing 1,065 people including a woman who gave birth on board.

She and her child were evacuated by helicopter to receive medical treatment in Malta, alongside two other pregnant women.

All ships at the scene of continuing rescues on Tuesday reported that they were full, even as new migrant boats were spotted approaching on the horizon.

Rob MacGillivray, Save the Children’s director of search and rescue, said the charity’s vessel had seen a “massive increase” in rescues since last year.

“There’s no indication that there’s going to be a decrease, which makes it all the more important that there’s a joined-up European response to guarantee people safe passage and their status when they arrive,” he told The Independent.

“The NGOs can only deploy what they’ve got and they have limited capacity.”

Mr MacGillivray called the Mediterranean Sea “one of the largest unmapped graves in European history”, calling on politicians to change a narrative seeing migrants increasingly demonised as rescuers are accused of worsening the crisis.

NGO rescue ships, naval vessels, Frontex assets and commercial ships are being deployed by Italian commanders who are coordinating operations in international waters from Rome.

The EU has been attempting to increase cooperation with the fragile Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) to reduce crossings, handing over millions of euros and equipment including new patrol boats.

But the push has been condemned by the UN and human rights groups warning that any move to force refugees back to war-torn Libya, where they face torture and death, is a violation of international law.

The number of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece has fallen dramatically since the EU-Turkey deal was imposed in March last year, seeing anyone arriving on islands detained under threat of deportation.

Migrants are also journeying into Europe by land, including via the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, bordering Morocco, and over the border between Turkey and Bulgaria.

Around 400 asylum seekers attempted to enter France through woods from the Italian town of Ventimiglia on Sunday, being tear gassed by Italian police as their French counterparts used dogs to hunt down anyone who made it through.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said it was concerned for the welfare of at least 100 migrants who had been sleeping near a river in Ventimiglia and disappeared on Monday, with a 16-year-old boy known to have died while washing his clothes there.

Italy, which is housing more than 190,000 asylum seekers in state-funded accommodation, has criticised other European countries for failing to resettle asylum seekers and help rescue efforts.

“I’m sorry that not everyone, including in Europe, has shown the same willingness to take people in [as Italy has],” Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said in a message marking World Refugee Day last week.

“The refugee issue crosses national borders and involves the entire EU and is, in the end, a global phenomenon.”

Briefing Room

Pentagon Foresees at Least Two More Years of Combat in Somalia

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WASHINGTON — Amid its escalating campaign of drone strikes in Somalia, the Pentagon has presented the White House with an operational plan that envisions at least two more years of combat against Islamist militants there, according to American officials familiar with internal deliberations.

The proposed plan for Somalia would be the first under new rules quietly signed by President Trump in October for counterterrorism operations outside conventional war zones. The American military has carried out about 30 airstrikes in Somalia this year, twice as many as in 2016. Nearly all have come since June, including a Nov. 21 bombing that killed over 100 suspected militants at a Shabab training camp.

In a sign that the Defense Department does not envision a quick end to the deepening war in Somalia against the Shabab and the Islamic State, the proposed plan is said to include an exemption to a rule in Mr. Trump’s guidelines requiring annual vetting by staff from other agencies — including diplomats and intelligence officials — of operational plans for certain countries.

Instead, the Pentagon wants to wait 24 months before reviewing how the Somalia plan is working, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Moreover, they said, the Defense Department wants to conduct that review internally, without involvement from other agencies — a request that would further a Trump-era pattern of giving the Pentagon greater latitude and autonomy.

Luke Hartig, a senior director for counterterrorism at the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration, said he supported delegating some greater authority to the Pentagon over such matters, but found it “problematic” that the military wanted to be unleashed for so long without broader oversight.

“A ton can happen in 24 months, particularly in the world of counterterrorism and when we’re talking about a volatile situation on the ground, like we have in Somalia with government formation issues and famine issues,” he said. “That’s an eternity.”

The Defense Department has submitted the plan to the National Security Council for approval by other agencies. Representatives for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and for the council declined to comment on the details, other than to stress that the military took seriously its need to mitigate or prevent killings of civilian bystanders.

“We are not going to broadcast our targeting policies to the terrorists that threaten us, but we will say in general that our counterterrorism policies continue to reflect our values as a nation,” said Marc Raimondi, a National Security Council spokesman. “The United States will continue to take extraordinary care to mitigate civilian casualties, while addressing military necessity in defeating our enemy.”

Approving the plan would also end the special authority that Mr. Trump bestowed on the top State Department official for Somalia to pause the military’s offensive operations in that country if he saw problems emerging, the officials said. The Pentagon has objected to that arrangement as an infringement on the chain of command, the officials said, and the new plan would drop it — further eroding State Department influence in the Trump administration.

Still, eliminating the State Department authority might make little difference in practice, said Joshua A. Geltzer, who was senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Either way, he said, if the State Department wanted to stop airstrikes in Somalia and the Pentagon wanted to keep going, the dispute would be resolved in a meeting of top leaders convened by Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and the head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, in April. Although the Trump administration gave him flexibility to depart from a rule designed to protect civilians during military operations in much of Somalia, General Waldhauser has avoided using the looser standards. Credit Jonathan Ernst/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The question of whether to allow a veto has been a source of tension before,” Mr. Geltzer said of the State Department authority. “But it’s not clear to me how much it’s worth fighting over — so long as those channels for communicating and working out concerns are functioning.”

According to the officials familiar with it, the Pentagon plan would also exempt operations in Somalia from another default rule in Mr. Trump’s guidelines: that airstrikes be allowed only when officials have determined there is a near certainty that no civilians will be killed. Instead, the officials said, the plan calls for imposing a lower standard: reasonable certainty that no bystanders will die.

However, it is also not clear whether altering that standard would result in any changes on the ground in Somalia. Mr. Trump has already approved declaring much of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” a designation for places where war zone targeting rules apply, under an Obama-era system for such operations that Mr. Trump has since replaced. That designation exempted targeting decisions in that region from a similar “near-certainty” rule aimed at protecting civilians and instead substituted the looser battlefield standards.

Nevertheless, the head of the United States Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, decided not to use that added flexibility and instead kept the near-certainty standard in place. His decision stemmed from the challenges of distinguishing fighters from civilians from the air in Somalia, a failed state with complex clan dynamics and where a famine has uprooted people, many of them armed, in search of food and water.

Robyn Mack, a spokeswoman for General Waldhauser, declined to say whether he would again decide to keep the near-certainty standard in place if the Pentagon’s new plan were approved, writing in an email that it would be “inappropriate for Africom to speculate on future policy decisions.”

However, asked whether General Waldhauser is still imposing the near-certainty standard for strikes in Somalia, she invoked his comments at a Pentagon news conference in March, while the White House was still weighing whether to designate Somalia as an active-hostilities zone, saying what he said then “still stands.” General Waldhauser said then that he did not want to turn Somalia into a “free-fire zone,” adding, “We have to make sure that the levels of certainty that have been there previously, those are not changed.”

Ms. Mack wrote that “it is very important for Africom to have a level of certainty that mitigates or eliminates civilian casualties with our strike operations.”

Mr. Trump’s rules, which have been described by officials familiar with them even though the administration has not made them public, are called the “P.S.P.,” for principles, standards and procedures. They removed several limits that President Barack Obama imposed in 2013 on drone strikes and commando raids in places away from the more conventional war zones that the government labels “areas of active hostilities.”

Among other things, Mr. Trump dropped requirements in Mr. Obama’s rules — called the “P.P.G.,” for presidential policy guidance — for interagency vetting before each offensive strike and determinations that each person targeted pose a specific threat to Americans.

Instead, under Mr. Trump’s guidelines, permissible targets include any member of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State or any other terrorist group deemed to fall under the 2001 congressional authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, even if they are mere foot soldiers who pose no specific threat on their own.

Moreover, instead of interagency vetting before each strike, Mr. Trump’s guidelines call for agencies to approve an operational plan for particular countries, after which the military (or the C.I.A., which also operates armed drones in several countries) may carry out strikes without first getting approval from higher-ranking officials.

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Briefing Room

How drones could be game-changer in Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab

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A former member of U.S. military intelligence is helping fight one of the deadliest terror groups in Africa. He is also a pioneer in the U.S. military’s use of drones and is now using that expertise to help Somalia in its fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group al-Shabab.

The threat of unpredictable violence is ever-present in Somalia. Al-Shabab’s reach is vast and it is one of the most organized and dangerous of Africa’s militant groups, reports CBS News correspondent Debora Patta.

Al-Shabab no longer controls the crumbling city of Mogadishu, but has still been able to wreak havoc with its relentless bombing campaigns. Their weapon of choice has been the vehicle bomb, like the one used with devastating effect on October 14 killing over 500 people in the capital.

CBS News has been told repeatedly that al-Shabab has eyes and ears everywhere. The group’s members blend easily into local communities, and a seemingly quiet road may not look very menacing but can turn nasty in an instant.

Former U.S. military intelligence officer Brett Velicovich wants to change that. He has donated commercial drones to the Somali police force and is training them to use the technology to combat al-Shabab.

“When they go into different areas to clear parts that are under Shabab control, they will actually fly those drones low and in front of them to look out for roadside bombs,” Velicovich said.

Another al-Shabab tactic is to plant one bomb then, as first responders arrive, detonate another, killing everyone who rushed to help.

“The investigators will actually go out and they’ll fly our drones and they’ll make sure that the area is safe for first responders to come into,” Velicovich said.

Somali intelligence has told us that al-Shabaab continues to practice its bomb-making skills over and over until they get it right.

Al-Shabab footage shows how they test one of their bombs on an African peacekeeping convoy. Drone technology could help thwart attacks like these.

“It significantly alters the way they can do counter-terrorism work?” Patta asked.

“Exactly. I mean, imagine walking into a situation where you don’t know if the people in the house or the compound have weapons or if they have explosives, but if you could see from the air what you are about to walk into, that changes the game,” Velicovich said.

Al-Shabab’s bombs are increasingly more complex and more powerful. Simple drone technology could provide a much needed boost for the over-worked, under-resourced Somali counter-terrorism units.

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Briefing Room

Uganda begins Somalia troop withdrawal

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Uganda’s military says it has begun the withdrawal of 281 troops serving in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

The move announced on Wednesday is part of a UN plan that will see African Union (AU) soldiers’ numbers reduced by 1,000 by the end of this year.

20,000 SOLDIERS

At the moment there are more than 20,000 soldiers serving in the AU mission (Amisom).

Uganda, which first sent troops to the country in 2007, is the biggest contributor with more than 6,000 soldiers in the force.

Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia are also expected to reduce their numbers by 31 December.

Pulling out 1,000 soldiers will not be immediately significant but it shows the international backers of Amisom want to see a handover of security to Somali soldiers and police.

African countries have been praised for bringing increased stability to Somalia but there is frustration about corruption among their forces and the failure to secure an adequate victory.

Efforts to develop Somalia’s national army are gaining ground.

The US has already increased its troop numbers in the country to more than 500 and stepped up airstrikes – boosting its co-operation with the Somali military.

But defeating the militant Islamist Al-Shabaab group will not be easy.

A massive bomb attack blamed on the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants killed more than 500 people in the capital, Mogadishu, two months ago – the deadliest in its campaign against various UN-backed governments.

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