International warning on arms to Russia. Papuan separatists ambush hostage search. The yuan versus the greenback. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Ceasefire calls ignored as Sudan lists towards civil war

A protester amid burning tyres during a rally in Khartoum, Sudan, this month.
A protester amid burning tyres during a rally in Khartoum, Sudan, this month.
Credit: Reuters / Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Great power rivalry 

Ukraine: A group of the world’s major advanced economies this week warned countries not to supply arms to Russia amid growing concerns that China may send munitions to Moscow.

The warning was issued following a meeting in Japan of the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) nations. Russia was suspended from the group in 2014 after it annexed Crimea.

Following the talks in Japan, Yoshimasa Hayashi, Japan’s Foreign Affairs minister, told reporters: “The strength of the solidarity between the G7 foreign ministers is at a level not seen before.”

Russia this week intensified its crackdown on dissent and the media as part of its attempt to stifle criticism of its invasion of Ukraine. On Monday, a judge in Moscow sentenced Vladimir Kara-Murza, a 41-year-old opposition activist, to 25 years in prison for treason and spreading “false information” about the Russian army. Kara-Murza, who has survived two poisonings, has accused Russia of committing war crimes in Ukraine and has urged Western states to sanction Russian officials.

After receiving the maximum sentence, he reportedly said: “My self-esteem even rose, I realised I’d been doing everything right.”

On Tuesday, the same court rejected an appeal by detained American journalist Evan Gershkovich to be released ahead of his trial for espionage. Gershkovich was arrested while reporting for The Wall Street Journal on the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organisation that has deployed tens of thousands of fighters – including many who were recruited from jail – to Ukraine. Gershkovich faces 20 years in prison for allegedly attempting to obtain classified information for the United States. He denies all wrongdoing.

Alexey Savichev, a 49-year-old Russian ex-convict who fought for Wagner, claimed in a video released this week by, a human rights group, that he had tortured and executed Ukrainian prisoners. “We were told not to take any prisoners, and just shoot them on the spot,” he said. “I do not regret a single thing … If I could, I would go back.”

The neighbourhood 

Indonesia: Separatists in Papua ambushed a group of Indonesian troops who were searching for a New Zealander who is being held hostage by the rebels, killing up to 13 soldiers.

The attack last Saturday involved gunmen from the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement, who overran an army post in Nduga, a mountainous inland district.

Indonesia has dispatched troops to try to rescue a 37-year-old New Zealand pilot, Phillip Mark Mehrtens, who has been held by the separatists since February. Mehrtens was seized after he flew into an airport in Nduga on a small plane operated by Susi Air. Five passengers aboard the plane were released.

The TPNPB said this week it killed four soldiers in the ambush and executed nine who had been held captive. Indonesia said one soldier was killed and four are missing.

Violence has been worsening in Papua, where an insurgency has continued since an independence vote was held in 1969 that is widely seen as a sham. Indonesia has been developing infrastructure and sending in migrants and troops to the region, which has prompted further resistance from local separatists.

Following the abduction of Mehrtens, the TPNPB demanded Indonesia acknowledge Papuan independence, but the group is now calling for negotiations with Indonesia or New Zealand to secure his release. Jakarta says it will not negotiate with the separatists.

Democracy in retreat 

Sudan: During his 30-year rule, former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir backed a group of militias – the Janjaweed – to brutally suppress a rebellion in the Darfur region. The militias conducted a mass killing, mass rape and the destruction of villages, which has been internationally recognised as genocide. Bashir then transformed the Janjaweed into the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a standalone force that effectively became a second army.

In 2019, the RSF’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, united with the head of the army, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to overthrow Bashir. In 2021, the two generals again united to stage a coup to prevent the transition to democracy. But relations between Burhan, the country’s leader, and Dagalo, his deputy, have been tense, especially as the pair were due to merge their two forces as part of an internationally backed plan to shift to civilian rule.

Last week, these tensions spilled into violence that has left the country on the brink of civil war. By Wednesday, at least 270 people had died as both sides deployed tanks and artillery and conducted shelling in densely populated areas of the capital, Khartoum, and the neighbouring city of Omdurman. Borders were shut and the airspace was closed, as many of the country’s 49 million residents remained at home, often with no water or electricity and little access to food and other supplies. Hospitals have been damaged, and those in Khartoum that remain open have run out of blood and intravenous fluids.

The army this week declared the RSF a rebel group and ordered that it be dissolved. Dagalo said on Twitter that Burhan was a “radical Islamist who is bombing civilians from the air”.

On Tuesday, the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, spoke to Burhan and Dagalo and negotiated a 24-hour truce, but clashes erupted within minutes of it beginning.

Burhan, who is backed by Egypt, and Dagalo, who has received support from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and has close ties to Moscow, have resisted calls for a permanent ceasefire.

An unnamed Western diplomat trapped in Khartoum told the Financial Times this week: “This may only end when one of them wins this fight.”

Spotlight: Leaked Pentagon documents

In 2017, Bangladesh finally started constructing a nuclear power plant – a project that it has pursued since it became independent in 1971. But work on the plant, which is being built by a Russian state-owned firm, has been delayed since the invasion of Ukraine.

Bangladesh needs to pay $US318 million to the Russian firm but has been unable to send the funds because Russia is currently barred from accessing the SWIFT international money transfer system. But Bangladesh found a solution this week: it will pay the firm in Chinese yuan, using an alternative system – CIPS – that Beijing developed in 2015.

The Bangladeshi payment follows a growing push by Beijing, Moscow and others to try to erode the dominance of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Saudi Arabia is reportedly considering China’s request to accept payments in yuan instead of dollars. And Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva used a visit to China last week to call for the five-nation BRICS group – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – to develop an alternative currency.

“Every night I ask myself why all countries have to base their trade on the dollar,” Lula said in a speech at a bank in Shanghai.

China’s status as the top trading partner of more than 120 countries has boosted trade in the yuan.

Still, most analysts remain sceptical about the moves to unseat the dollar. Recent rises in the use of the yuan – to 4.5 per cent of global trade – are largely due to increased Chinese purchases of Russian energy since the invasion of Ukraine. Most countries and companies prefer currencies such as the dollar, which, unlike the yuan, are controlled by the market rather than the government. And, as economist Paul Krugman argued in The New York Times recently, traders may be wary of using a currency belonging to China, where “your assets may be at risk if you say something the strongman in charge doesn’t like”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2023 as "Ceasefire calls ignored as Sudan lists towards civil war".

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