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NEWSBLOG: Behind the headlines - April 21, 2006

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 21 Apr 2006 00:00 GMT
Author: (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2010. Click For Restrictions. http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp
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A calf wears a mask to protect it from ashes after Peru&${esc.hash}39;s volcano Ubinas sent smoke and ashes to the town of Ubinas, in the Moquegua region, some 550 miles (900 km) south of Lima, April 19, 2006. REUTERS/Mariana Bazo

Chad&${esc.hash}39;s rebels get lost, sexual violence in Liberia, and would you wear a gold-plated dog tag with the name of an abducted Ugandan child - even for charity?

"Why is AlertNet suddenly doing cute?" we hear you cry. In fact, today&${esc.hash}39;s masked calf photo (left) tells a serious humanitarian story. A volcano in southern Peru has rumbled back to life, prompting authorities to declare an "orange alert" to encourage villagers to evacuate the area. So far most of the poor farming families living on the slopes of the Ubinas volcano have stayed put, but many have reported breathing problems and poisoned livestock. They say they&${esc.hash}39;ll only go if they can take their animals with them.

***

Most self-respecting insurgents wouldn&${esc.hash}39;t be seen dead asking directions to the seat of government &${esc.hash}39; except in Chad. When rebels reached the capital last week, it seems they&${esc.hash}39;d forgotten to bring a map. Reuters reports that, after asking the way, they finally made it to the National Assembly building and started shooting. Fine, except that President Idriss Deby was safely tucked up in the presidential palace, while the assembly was empty. "I was not all that impressed with them," Deby told the New York Times. "There was nothing tactical. It was amateurish, unprofessional."

Even so, Deby&${esc.hash}39;s troubles look far from over. According to Christian Science Monitor, although the rebels have retreated for now, diplomats say they&${esc.hash}39;re probably refuelling, and no one quite knows where they are. Who they are is also a matter of great interest. Deby is pointing the finger at Sudan, which he says is backing the rebels in an effort to unseat his government. This hasn&${esc.hash}39;t been proved conclusively, but Reuters reports that, after the attack, journalists were shown Chinese weaponry in Sudanese sugar sacks and foreign diplomats said some of the rebels weren&${esc.hash}39;t familiar with the local lingo, let alone the street layout.

Another intriguing angle, revealed by the New York Times, is that some of the insurgents come from Deby&${esc.hash}39;s own family, including two uncles and two nephews. Apparently, there are two reasons for this. First, clan members are angry that Deby has not made more of an effort to support his own tribe, the Zaghawa, in Darfur, where it&${esc.hash}39;s part of the rebel movement fighting the Sudanese government. And second they&${esc.hash}39;re not happy that Deby has been trying to push forward his son as his successor, with family elders regarding him as unfit.

If Deby&${esc.hash}39;s hostile relatives do succeed in helping kick him out, he won&${esc.hash}39;t be the only one who&${esc.hash}39;s a tad upset. Western governments are also concerned about the prospect of a new government in N&${esc.hash}39;Djamena that may be much friendlier with Khartoum &${esc.hash}39; mainly because of what this could mean for Chad&${esc.hash}39;s oil supplies. Currently, Chad only pumps a relatively small amount of oil through its pipeline to Cameroon&${esc.hash}39;s coast. But exploration is ongoing and there may be more. So if the rebels do seize power, there&${esc.hash}39;s a risk they might start selling oil to China, as Sudan does. And in the global competition for access to Africa&${esc.hash}39;s black gold, that would be a definite blow to Washington.

But the biggest losers, as usual, are likely to be those already struggling for survival in the world&${esc.hash}39;s fifth-poorest country. There are some 220,000 Sudanese refugees living in camps on the border with Darfur, and in the south, tens of thousands who have fled violence in the Central African Republic. Also near the Sudanese border, there are reports of Chadian villagers being displaced from their homes by Khartoum-backed &${esc.hash}39;Janjaweed&${esc.hash}39; militia attacks. In short, the last thing these people and their neighbours in Darfur need is more political instability. As U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Britain&${esc.hash}39;s Independent newspaper this week, the growing regional crisis &${esc.hash}39;has the potential to become the most dramatic humanitarian catastrophe in the world.&${esc.hash}39;

***

The United Nations estimates 40 percent of women and girls were raped during Liberia&${esc.hash}39;s 14-year war in which sexual violence was used to terrorise civilians.

The horrifying figure was mentioned in an IRIN report highlighting an alarming increase in AIDS in the country.

New leader Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said HIV/AIDS was now a "serious problem" in Liberia.

&${esc.hash}39;The problem has been increasing very rapidly. Now we are talking an average infection rate of 12 percent [and] the rate of infection for women and children is higher," Sirleaf said at the recent launch of a new HIV/AIDS public awareness campaign.

Africa&${esc.hash}39;s first woman president said the presence of large numbers of soldiers from countries with high AIDS rates, both during and since the war, was a factor.

The IRIN report did not specifically link the AIDS problem to the level of rape during the war.

Post-war security in Liberia is provided by 15,000 U.N. troops from 46 nations, including several southern African countries with some of the highest AIDS infection rates in the world. Soldiers from West African states served as peacekeepers during the conflict.

At the end of 2003, shortly after the fighting stopped, UNAIDS estimated 5.9 percent of Liberians were infected, the IRIN report said.

***

A fitting way to commemorate northern Uganda&${esc.hash}39;s abducted child soldiers or just a bad bit of bling? So asks the New Statesman magazine in an article about a new twist in the trend for charity-branded dog tags (usually used by the military to identify dead and wounded soldiers). The Name Campaign, a U.S.-based group that aims to raise awareness about the shocking tactics of Joseph Kony&${esc.hash}39;s rebel militia, has launched a new line of dog tags engraved with the names and ages of children kidnapped by Kony&${esc.hash}39;s Lords Resistance Army.

When you go to the website, you click on &${esc.hash}39;buy a dog tag&${esc.hash}39;, at which point a window pops up asking you to endorse an &${esc.hash}39;agreement to advocate&${esc.hash}39; saying: &${esc.hash}39;I hereby commit to using my power, my voice, and my energy on behalf of the child whose name I wear&${esc.hash}39;. Then you get to choose your tag: the ${esc.dollar}10 option (complete with green silencer), presumably for your average American kid; the ${esc.dollar}100 gold-dipped tag, &${esc.hash}39;seen on&${esc.hash}39; celebrities such as Steven Spielberg; and the ${esc.dollar}100 platinum version (ditto for the celebs). Did we hear someone mention the word &${esc.hash}39;tasteless&${esc.hash}39;?

According to the New Statesman, since the tag was featured on the trendsetting Daily Candy website, orders for the cheap version have been flooding in. But not all charity workers are too happy about it, with particularly harsh criticism reserved for the flashy &${esc.hash}39;bling&${esc.hash}39; versions. The Name Campaign argues that the tags give the children &${esc.hash}39;an identity&${esc.hash}39; and help &${esc.hash}39;tell their story&${esc.hash}39;. It&${esc.hash}39;s OK to use the tags, it says, because they&${esc.hash}39;re not only issued in the event of death. In the campaign&${esc.hash}39;s favour, New Statesman reports that the project is backed by a Ugandan rehabilitation centre for former child soldiers, which gets the proceeds. Luckily for them, AlertNet couldn&${esc.hash}39;t find any tags for sale on ebay &${esc.hash}39; yet!

Megan Rowling and Emma Batha AlertNet journalists

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