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Pope Francis calls for end to South Sudan killings, kisses feet of leaders

To the three of you who signed the Peace Agreement, I ask you, as a brother, remain in peace. I ask you from the heart

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Pope Francis (Bottom) kneels to kiss the feet of South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit (C) and South Sudan opposition leader Riek Machar. (AFP) Pope Francis (Bottom) kneels to kiss the feet of South Sudan's President Salva Kiir Mayardit (C) and South Sudan opposition leader Riek Machar/AFP

In an act of awe that shook his guests, Pope Francis has kissed the feet of South Sudan leaders, in a spontaneous and out of protocol gesture meant to promote peace and end conflicts in the country that have led to countless deaths.

“To the three of you who signed the Peace Agreement, I ask you, as a brother, remain in peace. I ask you from the heart”, Vatican News quoted the Pope as saying.

South Sudan’s political leaders including leaders of the two main warring factions, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar, a Vice President designate in the peace deal, had on Thursday concluded a two-day retreat at the Vatican brokered by Pope Francis that sought to heal bitter divisions that have fuelled the conflict since 2013. Another Vice President designate Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabio was also at the retreat.

“People are wearied, exhausted by past conflicts, remember that with war, all is lost! The Catholic pontiff said while appealing to the leaders. “Your people today are yearning for a better future, which can only come about through reconciliation and peace.” The Catholic pontiff added.

The pope said the meeting was “something altogether special and in some sense unique,” as it was neither an ordinary bilateral nor diplomatic meeting between the pope and heads of state, nor an ecumenical initiative involving representatives of different Christian communities.

Instead, it was a spiritual retreat.

The pope expressed hope that hostilities would finally cease, the armistice respected and that political and ethnic divisions would be surmounted, bringing a lasting peace for all citizens who dream of rebuilding the east African nation.

“You have started a process; may it end well. Although struggles will arise, he said, these should stay “within the office”. However in public, he said, “before the people: [keep your] hands united”. In this way, the Pope said, “from simple citizens, you will become fathers of the nation.”

South Sudan’s civil war, which broke out in late 2013, has killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 4 million South Sudanese from their homes. A peace deal last August has reduced the killings, but not stopped the fighting.

After his speech at the end of the retreat, Pope Francis kissed the feet of the former warring leaders and told them that their people are waiting for their return home, for reconciliation, and a new era of prosperity. Oil-rich South Sudan is due to set up a unity government in May, after the September 2018 peace deal that was negotiated in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. It had plunged into civil war two years after its independence from Sudan after Kiir, a Dinka, fired Machar, of the Nuer ethnic group, from the vice presidency. It is the world’s youngest nation.

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East Africa News & Stories

Collapsed wall kills street children in Uganda

Due to a heavy downpour part of the perimeter wall of the school gave way

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Six street children who were sleeping in a storm drain next to an elite school in the Ugandan capital have been killed after a wall fell on them, police said Monday.

“Due to a heavy downpour part of the perimeter wall of the school gave way, collapsed on the kids, killing six of them on the spot and two were injured,” Kampala’s deputy police spokesman Luke Owoyesigire said. 

“The police rescue team is on the scene to check if any person is buried under the debris.”

The spokesman said police were trying to establish the identities of the children and track down their families, adding that they had been sleeping in the storm drain for a while.

According to Owoyesigire, it was the second such incident recently, after five family members were killed last month as they slept in a mud and wattle house when a wall collapsed on them.

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Thousands rally in Bamako to demand end to massacres

Ethnic tensions in the centre of the country have surged since a jihadist group led by preacher Amadou Koufa emerged in 2015.

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Thousands of Malians demonstrated in Bamako Friday to demand an end to a series of massacres in the centre of the country.

Police said 3,000 attended the rally in the capital while organisers said 5,000 turned out to urge an end to a spike in violence which has led UN peacekeepers to declare a state of alert.

Ethnic tensions in the centre of the country have surged since a jihadist group led by preacher Amadou Koufa emerged in 2015. 

The group recruit mainly from among the Fulani – primarily cattle breeders and traders – and they have clashed with the Dogon and Bambara — traditionally sedentary farmers who have formed their own self-defence militias.

There has been a swathe of mass killings this year. New Year’s Day saw 39 Fulani butchered in Koulogon, a village in the central Mopti region while 160 more were slaughtered on March 23 in Ogossagou then 35 more on June 9 in Sobane Da.

Fresh ethnic violence erupted this week leading to 41 further deaths in the ethnic Dogo villages of Gangafani and Yoro — the latest in a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks between the warring communities despite the army sending in troops.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who rejects the idea of an “inter-ethnic conflict,” on Thursday named former interim president Dioncounda Traore as high representative for the region to report back to him.

‘Too much blood’

The Red Cross, meanwhile, said Friday that some 2,800 people fleeing the violence had taken refuge in the town of Bandiagara in the east of Mopti region where aid including utensils and bedding had been distributed.

At Ouenkoro market on the border with Burkina Faso, local politician Moussa Dembele was abducted by armed men, said mayor Harouna Sankare.

He said five men blindfolded Dembele and took him across the border.

Friday’s demonstration was organised by a youth association demanding that militia be disarmed and for people to “say no to hate” whatever their ethnicity.

“Too much blood has been spilled. It has to stop or there will be no life left in the centre of Mali,” said one demonstrator, Habitatou Diallo.

UN peacekeeping chief in Mali Jean-Pierre Lacroix, visiting Mali on Friday, said in a statement “the situation has reached what one could call an alert level with the dreadful massacres of the past few weeks and days.

“We are ready to increase our efforts to support Malian efforts” to stem the unrest, he added, while stressing that “there has to be a Malian solution.”

The UN Security Council is due to examine next Thursday whether to extend the UN mission (MINUSMA) in Mali.

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Over 500 vultures die in Botswana after eating elephant carcasses

Most of the birds, 468 of them, were white-backed vultures, which are classified as critically endangered species.

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More than 500 endangered vultures died of poisoning after eating the carcasses of three elephants killed by poachers in Botswana, the government said in a statement.

A total of 537 vultures, along with two tawny eagles, were found dead at the site in the north of the African country.

The Botswanan wildlife and national parks department did not say when the dead vultures had been found or why the three elephants were laced with poison after being killed.

But poachers are known to poison carcasses to target vultures as the birds circle in the sky and help rangers to track poaching activity.

Most of the birds, 468 of them, were white-backed vultures, which are classified as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species.

Also among the dead were 17 white-headed vultures and 28 hooded vultures — also critically endangered.

“The poisoning was believed to have been caused by lacing of three poached elephant carcasses with a poisonous chemical,” the wildlife department said.

Teams decontaminated the area and samples were taken for laboratory analysis.

Conservationists last week warned of surging elephant poaching in parts of Botswana and estimated nearly 400 were killed for their ivory tusks in 2017 and 2018.

The country recently sparked controversy by lifting its ban on hunting, saying it would help control a booming elephant population that was damaging farmers’ livelihoods.

In 2016, two lions and over 100 vultures in South Africa’s Kruger National Park died after eating a poisoned elephant carcass.

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