Mozambique riots leave six dead

Riots in Mapuso highlight emerging food price crisis. Middle east peace talks kick off despite Hamas attacks. Shia festival hit by bombings in Lahore. Nato air strike blamed for ten fatalities in northern Afghanistan. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
2 September 2010

Six people, including two children, were killed yesterday in Mapuso, the capital of Mozambique, during riots over rising food prices. The fatalities allegedly occurred when police opened fire on demonstrators in the capital, who were protesting rising food prices.

The Mozambican government, which had earlier declared protests to be illegal, has appealed for calm. The president, Armando Guebuza, used a state radio address late on Wednesday to call on citizens not to protest on Thursday. However, police continued to patrol Mapuso this morning, with gunshots reported in some areas of the capital.

The demonstrations come in response to rocketing food prices; the price of a loaf of bread in Mozambique has risen by 30 percent over the last year.  The Mozambican currency, the metical, has fallen sharply against the South African rand as wheat prices have increased worldwide. However, the government is planning to raise water and electricity rates by 30 percent today, and increase the price of bread by a further 25 percent at the end of the week.

There are conflicting reports of the numbers left dead in yesterday’s clashes. Local press is reporting that at least six people were killed as riots rocked the Mozambican capital on Wednesday. However, these reports have since been denied by state security forces. Police spokesman Pedro Cossa, talking to Agence France-Presse, said that only four people had been killed, and denied that the police had fired live ammunition on crowds. According to Cossa, “our officers always use rubber bullets.” However, eye witnesses report seeing a twelve-year-old boy being shot in the head. According to police statements, 142 people have been arrested and 27 wounded, including two police officers.

The openSecurity verdict: Unfortunately, the food price crisis is not only affecting Mozambique. This should serve as a reminder that, despite the monumental failure of talks in Copenhagen last December, climate change and the nexus of associated security challenges have not gone away. A combination of rising food prices, population growth and increasing extremes of weather as a result of climate change are putting increased pressure on global food production.

The causes of this latest hike in food prices, which has been most pronounced over the last month, are broadly climate related. The main surge in wheat prices this summer was caused by a Russian government decision on 15 August to halt wheat exports, on which many states rely, after a severe drought struck this summer. This led to a 5 percent increase in global food prices, hitting countries across the globe. An announcement today that Russia will only consider lifting this ban after next year’s harvest is likely to deepen concerns over world wheat prices. According to the FAO’s Food Price Index, prices have reached their highest in two years, although they are still almost 40 percent below the June 2008 price hike – the apex of the last world food prices crisis, which saw deadly riots around the globe. Cereal and rice production forecasts have been revised downwards in recent months, but are still at record levels.

Although the problem may not yet be as serious as two years ago, rising food prices will affect all, and the poorest hardest. The food price crisis of 2007 to 2008 pushed the number of hungry people around the world to above 1 billion and led to riots in Egypt, Lebanon and Haiti, as well as Mozambique. While food security is a vital component of human security more generally, as yesterday’s riots in Mozambique demonstrate, food insecurity can quickly blossom into a matter of state security.

In neighbouring Malawi, despite a reported surplus of maize, the nation’s staple crop, aid agencies the Famine Early Warning Systems Network and the Food Security Early Warning System are reporting that up to one million people will still face hunger by next month. The Southern African Development Community reports that the rise in food insecurity on 2009 levels is due to “severe dry spells which affected the highly populated Southern Region of the country.”

Further north, in Egypt, the state run wheat subsidy system, on which tens of thousands of poor Egyptians rely for their daily bread, is suffering the consequences of the Russia’s export ban. Although Egyptian authorities were quick to reassure the public that their wheat stocks were sufficient to meet local needs over the coming months, local media is already reporting shortages, price rises and the production of smaller loaves.

Food insecurity has long been recognised as one result of climate change. 2010 has been a year that demonstrates this link, with extreme weather conditions leading to chronic food shortages around the world. Last month’s flooding in Pakistan, which also hit parts of northern India, resulted from, among other causes, heavier than usual monsoon rains. Although the scale of the damage and the time it will take for Pakistan to recover from this crisis is not yet clear, many experts are already worried about future food shortages in this nation of 174 million. Wheat harvests may have been totally decimated. Even prior to the flooding, the government in Islamabad had made moves to increase prices at subsidised stores, which is likely to hit the poorest extremely hard.

Recent efforts by scientists to protect and preserve the world’s biodiversity through gene and seed banks may offer hope to the millions who could face hunger as populations rise and food production struggles to keep up over the coming decades. Such stockpiles could be used to feed growing populations during crisis times. However, it is not yet clear whether such techniques will be effective in the long term.

Although analysts may discuss the importance of appropriate state responses and timely action to prevent widespread hunger or even famine, the global problem of food insecurity cannot be holistically addressed in the absence of meaningful action on climate change.

Middle east peace talks kick off

The first direct peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in twenty months are set to begin later today in Washington DC. The talks, hosted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sitting down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the first time in almost two years.

Last night, Obama met with Abbas and Netanyahu, as well as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The talks are set to go ahead despite concerns that recent violence in Israel could derail the ever-fragile peace process. Two Israelis shot in the West Bank yesterday by Hamas militants remain in a critical condition. This incident came only 24 hours after another Hamas shooting in the area left four Israelis dead.

Several commentators have drawn hope from the united response of Palestinian, Israeli and US leaders. All declared that the violence would not derail talks, with Abbas condemning the attacks and urging an end to bloodshed, as Obama yesterday urged both sides not to allow the chance of peace to “slip away” because of these incidents.

However, although the talks look set to continue, opposition remains strident on both sides. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that the group would continue to target Israelis, despite the efforts of Abbas’ Fatah party. Analysts believe that the recent attacks are a reminder that Hamas, excluded from current talks, cannot be ignored in the peace process.

The inclusion of Mubarak and King Abdullah II shows Obama’s hopes to create a regional solution to the problem. Both Egypt and Jordan are signatories of peace treaties with Israel, and were they able to bring other Arab states on board in formulating a general peace offer, Israel may be more inclined to accept a separate Palestinian state. The current talks also have backing of Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, which bodes well for progress.

US officials aim to get both sides to agree to another round of talks later this month. However, ongoing violence and the issue of Israeli settlement construction remain thorns in the side of the peace process.

Shia festival hit by bombings in Lahore

A triple suicide bombing has left at least 33 people dead and over 170 injured in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore last night. The attacks targeted a Shia mourning ceremony, which traditionally marks the assassination of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin. Roughly 35,000 Shia Muslims had assembled in Lahore to observe the mourning period. The three blasts hit three separate processions at the end of the traditional mourning period, according to AFP news agency. Although the reported death toll was confirmed by Sajjad Bhutta, a senior local administration official, the local media is reporting much higher casualty figures, with some putting it at 281.

In the wake of the attacks, angry and shocked protestors turned on police, who had failed to provide adequate security according to protestors. Witnesses reported that protestors set fire to a police station and a number of police vehicles. Police responded with tear gas canisters and by firing shots into the air, according to senior police officer Zulfiqar Hameed.

Local press is also reporting that the Islamist extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, believed to be a faction of the Pakistani Taliban, is responsible for the attacks, although these reports are as yet unconfirmed. Blasts are typical of attacks against Shia communities by Sunni extremist and pro-Taliban groups. Lahore, which is the capital of Punjab province and a major military, political and cultural hub, is increasingly a target of attacks by such groups, with over 3,500 people killed in last three years. Pakistani Sikhs, Christians, and Ahmadis have all been subject to attacks in recent years.

According to analysts, the rise in militant attacks in Lahore and other cities across Pakistan can be linked to the government’s increasingly high-profile ties with the United States. The attacks come after air raids carried out by the Pakistani military earlier this week killed up to 45 suspected militants in the Khyber agency in north-west Pakistan. While government sources claimed that several military hideouts, a training centre and a radio station were destroyed, local government officials have reported that a number of civilians were also killed. The attacks are likely to arouse more intense anti-government sentiments among residents of this region.

Air strike kills ten in northern Afghanistan

Ten election campaign workers have been killed in a Nato airstrike in northern Afghanistan, according to local media reports. While a Nato spokesman claimed that the strike had successfully targeted a militant’s vehicle, the governor of Takhar, the northern province in which the air raid took place, said that ten people were killed and at least two were injured.

Although a Nato statement said that eight to ten insurgents were killed in the attack, no mention was made of civilian casualties. The statement quoted US Marine Corps Major General David Garza as saying that “We’re aware of the allegations that this strike caused civilian casualties and we’ll do our best to get to the bottom of these accusations.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been quick to condemn the incident, saying that “pro-democracy people should be distinguished from those who fight against democracy.” Karzai also pointed out that accidental killings of civilians are a major source of tension between Afghanistan and its Nato allies.

Local authorities have been critical of Nato forces’ failure to coordinate with local contacts, claiming that there were no anti-government elements in the district at the time. A UN Report last month said that casualties increased by a third in the first six months of 2010 compared to the same period in 2009, although the report claims that over 75 percent of these were caused by insurgents rather than Nato activities.

Karzai is due to meet US Defense Secretary Robert Gates later today, in a meeting at which the US is expected to raise its ongoing concerns over high-level corruption in Afghanistan.

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