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  • Nigerian army 'crushes' Boko Haram in key stronghold

    Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Saturday claimed the military had routed Boko Haram in a key northeastern stronghold, a year after saying the Islamist militants had been "technically" defeated.

    A campaign lasting for months in the 1,300 square-kilometre (500 square-mile) forest in northeastern Borno state led to the "final crushing of Boko Haram terrorists in their last enclave in Sambisa Forest" on Thursday, Buhari said in a statement.

    The government in Abuja and the military have frequently claimed victories against the Islamic State group affiliate but access to the epicentre of the conflict in Borno state is strictly controlled.

    That has made independent verification of official statements about victories virtually impossible. Attacks have meanwhile continued, making claims of defeating Boko Haram questionable despite undoubted progress in pushing back the group.

    "The terrorists are on the run, and no longer have a place to hide. I urge you to maintain the tempo by pursuing them and bringing them to justice," Buhari said.

    The announcement came after Nigeria launched a barrage of land and air assaults in Borno state at the heart of the insurgency that has spread to three neighbouring countries -- Chad, Cameroon and Niger.

    While the counter-insurgency has clawed back some territory, Boko Haram has responded by stepping up guerrilla tactics, ambushing troops when it can and terrorising civilians when it cannot.

    Buhari's statement made no mention of the whereabouts of Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram faction based in the forest.

    AFP/File /The Sambisa forest, covering an area of about 1,300 square kilometres (500 square miles), was a stronghold of the Boko Haram islamists

    Boko Haram, which last year pledged allegiance to IS, has been in the grips of a power struggle since late last year.

    Shekau led Boko Haram for several years, until the IS command said in August that he had been replaced as leader by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the 22-year-old son of the group's founder Mohammed Yusuf.

    Shekau says he is still in charge, however, as rival factions vie for control.

    - Chibok girls still missing -

    On Wednesday, a military commander said Nigerian troops had rescued 1,880 civilians from a Boko Haram redoubt in the restive northeast over the past week and arrested hundreds of insurgents.

    Buhari also said Saturday that "further efforts should be intensified to locate and free our remaining Chibok girls still in captivity", referring to more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014. To date only a few of them have been freed.

    Boko Haram seeks to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.

    The army's claim of recapturing Sambisa Forest brought a rare glimmer of hope for millions of people caught up in the devastating conflict.

    But Buhari has been keen to announce any positive news, with his government increasingly under fire for its handling of the economy, which is officially in recession.

    The humanitarian fallout from the conflict is also huge and aid agencies say it is too big for the country to handle on its own, heaping pressure on already overstretched resources.

    Buhari has previously claimed that Boko Haram had already been "technically defeated".

    His government has however struggled to stop attacks on soft targets such as markets, including the use of women and child suicide bombers.

    At least 20,000 people have been killed since the insurgency erupted in 2009. The fighting has also displaced some 2.6 million people, sparking a humanitarian crisis in the region.

    - 'Africa's largest crisis' -

    The United Nations said earlier this month a billion dollars are needed to help victims of Boko Haram and called the conflict "the largest crisis in Africa."

    It estimates that 14 million people will need outside help in 2017, particularly in Borno state, where villagers under siege have typically been forced to abandon their crops.

    "A projected 5.1 million people will face serious food shortages as the conflict and risk of unexploded improvised devices prevented farmers planting for a third year in a row, causing a major food crisis," the UN said on December 2.

    People freed from Boko Haram's grip by the army have generally been taken to camps where basic supplies are also scarce.

    The Nigerian presidency has since accused aid groups of exaggerating the food crisis.

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  • Senegal asks UN to back ECOWAS action in Gambia


    United Nations (United States) (AFP) - Senegal on Wednesday presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council seeking support for ECOWAS efforts to press Gambian leader Yahya Jammeh to step down, diplomats said.

    But the text does not explicitly seek council authorization to deploy troops to The Gambia to force Jammeh to cede power to president-elect Adama Barrow, diplomats said.

    The Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) has repeatedly called on Jammeh to respect the result of the December 1 election and step down after 22 years in power.

    Jammeh on Tuesday declared a state of emergency as Barrow, who is currently in Senegal, maintained his inauguration will go ahead as planned on Thursday on Gambian soil.

    At Senegal's request, the Security Council will discuss the crisis in the West African country on Wednesday, diplomats said.

    The African Union has said it will no longer recognize Jammeh as head of state as of January 19.

    UN envoy for West Africa Mohamed Ibn Chambas last week told the council that ECOWAS was prepared to ask the council to approve the deployment of troops to the Gambia.

    The council last month demanded in a unanimous statement that Jammeh recognize the outcome of the election and transfer power to Barrow.

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  • Gambia opposition says 'no court' can cancel Barrow's win

    Banjul (Gambia) (AFP) - The Gambia's opposition coalition vowed Friday to ensure that president-elect Adama Barrow is sworn in in January, despite President Yahya Jammeh threatening to hold on to power unless the Supreme Court orders him to step down.

    Barrow "is confident that he has won an election and he is confident that there is no court on this earth that will deliver judgement to the contrary," opposition spokesman Halifa Sallah told reporters in the capital Banjul.

    "We will not speculate on what the court will do ... What we are telling the Gambian people is: 'Focus your mind on the fact that president-elect Adama Barrow won an election and he will be inaugurated in January 19," he added.

    Jammeh, who has been in power for 22 years, stunned observers by initially accepting his defeat in the December 1 vote by opposition candidate Barrow, but then flip-flopped a week later, rejecting the results and filing a court challenge.

    His stance has stoked international concerns about the future of the tiny west African country, with the UN joining African leaders in calling for him to step down.

    "Unless the court decides the case, there will be no inauguration (of Barrow) on the 19 January," Jammeh said in a lengthy television address this week, referring to his petition to the Supreme Court to overturn the election result.

    According to Sallah, Jammeh's statement showed he had no intention to relinquish power in January.

    He also recalled efforts by the west African bloc ECOWAS -- which have also come under fire by Jammeh -- to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

    Leaders of ECOWAS -- including Senegal, which surrounds the landlocked country save its coastal border -- said at the weekend they would attend Barrow's inauguration and "take all necessary actions to enforce the results", without spelling out what those measures might be.

    Under Jammeh's long rule, The Gambia has remained crushingly poor but enjoyed relative stability -- though rights groups and media watchdogs accuse him of cultivating a climate of fear and crushing dissent.

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  • Gambia's Jammeh must leave power when term ends: United Nations

    DAKAR/BANJUL (Reuters) - Gambian President Yahya Jammeh will not be allowed to remain head of state if he refuses to go after his elected term ends next month, and will face strong sanctions if he clings to power, the top U.N. official in West Africa said on Wednesday.

    Jammeh, who took power in a coup in 1994, initially conceded defeat in the Dec. 1 election to little-known challenger Adama Barrow, raising the prospect of an end to 22 years of autocratic rule tainted by allegations of widespread human rights abuses.

    But in a dramatic about-face that drew international condemnation, he then rejected the voting results last Friday, and his party is now challenging the outcome at Gambia's Supreme Court.

    "For Mr. Jammeh, the end is here and under no circumstances can he continue to be president. By that time (Jan. 18), his mandate is up and he will be required to hand over to Mr. Barrow," Mohammed Ibn Chambas, U.N. Special Representative for West Africa and the Sahel, told Reuters.

    He said Jammeh would be "strongly sanctioned" if he did not step down and hand over power to Barrow, without giving details.

    Chambas accompanied a delegation of presidents representing the regional bloc ECOWAS who traveled to Gambia on Tuesday but failed to reach a deal that would see Jammeh step down.

    Instead, Gambian soldiers seized the headquarters of the national elections commission and sealed it off just hours before the presidents touched down in the riverside nation.

    United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Wednesday that the takeover was an "outrageous act of disrespect of the will of the Gambian people".

    The building in the capital Banjul remained deserted on Wednesday aside from two armed security guards. Its front gate and ground floor entrances were closed.

    "No one has gone to work. I didn't even try. No one has informed me that I can go back," elections commission chairman Alieu Momarr Njai said on Wednesday.

    The ruling Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction filed a challenge to the election result, even as the delegation held mediation meetings on Tuesday.

    The court has not held a session for a year and a half, and legal experts believe that at least four new judges would need to be hired to hear Jammeh's petition.

    "We do not believe it will be heard by a credible court dedicated to ensuring the integrity of The Gambia’s democratic process," a U.S. Embassy statement said.

    Analysts have suggested that the challenge in the Supreme Court - the legal channel for resolving election disputes - could put diplomats in a difficult position.

    While such disputes are relatively common in Africa, the international community generally defers to established domestic legal mechanisms for resolving them.

    However, in a notable exception, U.N. troops intervened militarily alongside France to oust Ivory Coast's then-president Laurent Gbagbo after he used the constitutional court to overturn the 2010 election victory of Alassane Ouattara.

    Asked whether military intervention was an option in Gambia if mediation failed, Chambas said: "It may not be necessary. Let's cross that bridge when we get there."

    ECOWAS leaders will discuss Gambia at a summit in Nigeria on Saturday.

    (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; writing by Emma Farge and Joe Bavier; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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  • Gabon's Ping urges security forces to defect


    Libreville (AFP) - Gabon's opposition leader Jean Ping on Friday called on the police and army to join in his fight against the contested re-election of President Ali Bongo.

    Ping has repeatedly declared himself the winner of the August election, but Gabon's constitutional court has upheld Bongo's victory.

    "I join you in telling them (security forces): Join us in liberating Gabon", he told a crowd of supporters in Libreville, who refer to him as president-elect.

    He promised he would soon be sworn into office, and spoke a line from the presidential oath: "I swear to dedicate all my strength to the good of the Gabonese people..."

    Bongo has already been sworn in, taking his oath in September with a call for unity after the disputed election win that sparked deadly unrest and revealed deep divisions in the oil-rich country.

    His re-election, which was validated by the constitutional court, is contested by the opposition and the European Union.

    In its final tally, the court ruled Bongo had won 50.66 percent of the vote and Ping 47.24 percent, giving Bongo a paper thin lead to 11,000 votes over his opponent.

    "I will serve only one term and none of my children will be made ministers in the government under my authority. None of my descendants... will succeed me directly as president of the republic," Ping said on Friday.

    His comments were a direct attack on Ali Bongo who took over from his father Omar Bongo, who ruled for 41 years until his death in 2009.

    Ping said he wanted to "use all appropriate means to get back the victory stolen from us."

    "There are limits. If he crosses them, he will be arrested," government spokesman Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze said, referring to Ping.

    Gabon has large oil, mineral and tropical timber resources, and its per-capita national income is four times greater than that of most sub-Saharan nations.

    But about a third of its population of 1.8 million still live below the poverty line -- the result, say specialists, of inequality, poor governance and corruption.

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