South African court sentences rhino horn smuggler to 40 years

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A South African court on Friday sentenced a Thai national to 40 years in prison for his part in a syndicate that smuggled dozens of rhino horns out of the country, the stiffest sentence ever handed down for such a crime in South Africa.

Two government ministers praised the court for sending a strong message that rhino horn smuggling would not be tolerated. But critics questioned why Chumlong Lemtongthai was convicted while charges were dropped against a South African farmer accused of involvement in the crime.

South Africa, home to about 90% of Africa's rhinoceroses, has faced an alarming rise in poaching with 488 of the animals illegally killed this year by Oct. 30, compared with 13 in 2007. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs, 2.4% of South Africa's rhinos were poached last year, with the rate increasing this year, posing a serious threat of extinction to rhinos.

The previous harshest sentence, 29 years, was handed down for poaching in August to two foreigners, Gearson Cosa, 35, and Ali Nkuna, 25, convicted of killing a rhino cow and her calf in the Kruger National Park, where around half the incidences of rhino poaching in South Africa occur.

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Dozens trapped in Ghana shopping center collapse

This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Dozens of people were trapped and at least three people died when a multi-story shopping mall in the capital of Ghana collapsed shortly before opening Wednesday, according to Ghanaian authorities.

About 23 people had been rescued, according to news reports. It was unclear how many more remained in the rubble.

[Updated at 11:25 a.m., Nov. 7: Around 40 people had been rescued from the building by late Wednesday, according to news reports.

President John Dramani Mahama suspended campaigning for upcoming elections, visited the scene of the collapse and later spoke to survivors in hospital.]

"My prayers are with the workers, shoppers and others who are trapped in the rubble of the collapsed Achimota Melcom building," he said earlier in a tweet.

The shopping complex in Accra -- rented by Melcom Superstores, Ghana's biggest retail supermarket chain -- was opened earlier this year.

Ghana, a small cocoa and gold exporting nation in West Africa, is known best for its democratic successes in recent years in a region more often known for coups and stolen elections. The country is preparing for elections next month.

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Obama's Kenyan step-grandmother congratulates him on victory


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Congratulations on President Obama’s reelection flooded in from leaders across Africa on Wednesday, but the sweetest words of all came from a 90-year-old Kenyan villager.

Sarah Onyango Obama is the president’s step-grandmother, from the village of Kogelo in western Kenya, where the president’s father grew up. She said the president had won because of his love for the people.

"I knew he was going to win," she told Kenyan media Wednesday. "The reason why he has won is because God has given it to him. We are happy for the victory and are embracing everyone who visits our home. My grandson is loving and down to earth. I ask him to work for the people that voted for him."

She is the third wife of Obama’s paternal grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, while the president is descended from the second wife.

Hundreds of people in the normally sleepy village stayed up all night watching a big-screen TV with U.S. election coverage, erupting in celebration early Wednesday as news of Obama’s victory broke. People danced in the streets, sang songs praising Obama and waved American flags, according to reports from the scene.

Visitors had swarmed the village in the days before the vote. The president’s half-brother, Malik Abongo Obama, organized nightly prayer vigils in the days leading up to the election. As spirits ran high waiting for the results Tuesday night, local comedians ran a mock election and declared Obama the winner.

Kogelo village has changed since a visit from then-Sen. Obama in 2006, with electricity installed, roads paved and a hotel built to deal with the influx of tourists, who flock to meet Sarah Obama (by appointment only) and see the grave of Obama’s father.

Villagers said Wednesday they hoped Obama would come back to his ancestral village during his second term, Kenyan television reported.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki said that although the U.S. presidential election race had been tight, Obama’s victory testified to Americans’ faith in his leadership.

"I commend the American people for showing their confidence in your leadership. Kenya, as always, is proud of our association with you. We look forward to the deepening of relations between our two countries during your second term in office," Kibaki said in a statement.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Obama’s victory had electrified the world.

"It is a tribute to the people of the United States that they have reelected an African American president amidst an intensely trying economic environment that would have tested any incumbent. It is therefore also an outstanding personal triumph for President Obama," Odinga said.

He said Obama’s victory would "reignite faith worldwide, but especially in Africa, in the restorative capacity of democracy to deliver change and discard entrenched divisions."

South African President Jacob Zuma, who has himself been campaigning in the run-up to a December leadership vote in his party, sent congratulations.

"We value our relations with the United States and look forward to strengthening bilateral cooperation in the years to come," he said in a statement.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan also congratulated Obama and added that he hoped the American election would give millions of people across the globe a better appreciation of democracy, Nigerian media reported.


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Photo: Sarah Obama, step-grandmother to President Obama, revels in the U.S. presidential election results with members of her family Wednesday in the hamlet of Kogelo in western Kenya. Credit: Tony Karumba / AFP/Getty Images

As one Somali journalist is buried, a top poet and comedian is slain

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — They buried Somali radio journalist Mohamed Mohamud Turyare on Monday, a week after he was killed by unknown gunmen near a mosque in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. On Monday night, killers struck again, this time shooting dead one of Somalia's famous poets and radio comedians, Warsame Shire Awale, near his Mogadishu home.

Awale, in his 60s, was the 18th Somalia media figure killed this year. Turyare, 22, of the Shabelle Media Network, died days before TV journalist, Ahmed Farah Sakin, 25, was shot dead by unknown assailants in northern Somalia.

Dozens more journalists and media personalities have been injured in the deadliest year on record for Somali journalists. In 2009, the next deadliest year, nine were killed.

“In Mogadishu, the atmosphere is very fearful and people wonder how they can continue doing their jobs. Many have stopped. They're afraid of being killed,” said Rashid Abdullahi Haydar of the National Union of Somali Journalists, in a phone interview. Haydar was among the hundreds of mourners who laid Turyare to rest at the city's Al Jazeera cemetery Monday.

“Families are afraid too. They are saying, 'Please stop this [journalism] because you have no rights and no protection.' It's very precarious working conditions we have right now.”

As Somalia makes a delicate political transition, a new president has been elected and Mogadishu is more peaceful and stable than it has been in decades. Yet the rash of assassinations of Somali journalists continues, evidence of the country's  ongoing security problems and the new government's impotence against targeted killings and suicide bombings.

In September, three journalists were killed and four were injured when suicide bombers attacked a cafe in central Mogadishu that was a popular hangout for news reporters and civil servants.

Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist group that has been pushed by African Union forces from urban strongholds, is thought to be responsible for a number of the attacks. But many believe that powerful warlords or businessmen may be behind some of the killings.

Awale was well-known for his role on Radio Kulmiye lampooning Al Shabab. He was the second Radio Kulmiye comedian to be shot dead by gunmen. Abdi Jeylani Marshale, who performed on the same program, was killed in August.

“He was well known in Somalia's literature and culture. He was a musician and he was an intellectual,” Haydar said, describing Awale.

Haydar said Awale and others on the show  had received death threats by phone in recent months. He said the journalists' union believed that like Marshale, Awale was assassinated for poking fun of Al Shabab.

“They were calling them all the time, saying, 'Why are you insulting the insurgency?''' Haydar said.

Awale, long famous as a playwright and musician, was a member of the  musical group Onkod that performed in Mogadishu before the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. Later, he was known for his romantic and patriotic songs and he has since written songs calling on people to reject violence and to join the police force instead of militant groups. The Somali journalists' union has called on the government to carry out a full investigation into the killing of Awale and all other media workers.

Haydar said the government appeared to have no power to protect targeted journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international press freedom organization, ranks Somalia as Africa's most dangerous country to be a journalist.

Radio Kulmiye's website ran a recent commentary saying that if not for the brave reporting of Somali journalists, the world would not have known about the country's suffering during more than two decades of chaos and violence.

“All Somali journalists and the general public as well as the international media and human rights watchdogs and the world community at large agree that the vast majority of Somali journalists are targeted in attempt to silence the only independent, neutral voice from a country mired by 21 years of chaos and lawlessness,” read the article, published Oct. 22.

It followed a polemic published Oct. 11 in Britain's Guardian newspaper by London-based Somali Jamal Osman, arguing that many journalists were killed because they were corrupt and accepted payments to write good things about certain politicians or businessmen.

“The profession needs to be cleaned up. The media owners should do it to save the lives of their employees,” he wrote. Somali journalists staged protests in Mogadishu condemning the article.


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At least eight dead in suicide attack on Nigerian church

Suicide attack on Nigerian church
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- At least eight worshipers were killed Sunday in a suicide attack on a Roman Catholic church in northern Nigeria, according to officials. About 100 other people were injured, raising fears the death toll could rise.

Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency confirmed in a statement Sunday that eight people died in the blast in Kaduna. No group claimed responsibility; however, the attack bore the hallmarks of previous terrorist attacks by the Islamist insurgent militia Boko Haram, which models itself on Afghanistan's Taliban and wants to impose Sharia law across the country.

“A number of casualties were evacuated to hospitals. The incident was suspected to be triggered by a suicide bomber in a car which relevant security agencies may soon determined,” NEMA spokesman Yushau Shuaib said in the statement.

The bombing follows a string of deadly terrorist attacks in the north, many targeting churches. Extremists also have launched assaults on police stations, burned schools, bombed automatic teller machines and assassinated politicians.

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Assailants kill at least 25 students in northeastern Nigeria

Federal Polytechnic school in Mubi  in Adamawa state, Nigeria

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Unknown assailants killed at least 25 polytechnic students in  northeastern Nigeria, invading the campus dormitory and shooting or stabbing their victims, authorities said Tuesday.

The  attack at Federal Polytechnic Mubi, in the town of Mubi in Adamawa state came as police press to curb violence attributed to the Islamic rebel militia, Boko Haram, which is active across much of northern Nigeria.

Last week, police rounded up more than 150 suspected members of Boko Haram. Authorities also claimed they killed Boko Haram spokesman Abu Qaqa in the raid and seized many weapons as part of a wider crackdown in northern Nigeria designed to wipe out the militia. Boko Haram acknowledged Qaqa had been arrested by security forces, but denied he was killed.

Authorities also speculated that the attack at the polytechnic institute may have been linked to rival political factions there, after a recent student election. Campus politics, like local, state and federal politics in Nigeria, is often violent, though massacres are not common.

Nigerian media reports said assailants ordered students to line up  and give their names. Some were killed and others released.

Mubi reportedly has a mixed Christian and Muslim population, with victims from both faiths.

Boko Haram, which opposes secular education and secular governance, has attacked banking automatic teller machines, cellphone towers, schools, churches, mosques and police stations in recent months. It has destroyed some 30 mobile phone towers in northern Nigeria, crippling communications in some areas. The militia frequently assassinates Nigerian politicians and religious figures.

The rebel militia is responsible for more than 690 killings this year, according to the Associated Press, which keeps a count of deaths from attacks. The group made no  statement claiming responsibility for  the attack Tuesday.

Danjuma Aiso, a student who fled the polytechnic college, said a statement  had been circulated in recent days warning students to leave the institute, the Associated Press reported.

The institute has been closed temporarily.


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Photo: The gate of the federal polytechnic school in Mubi, Nigeria. Credit: AFP / Getty Images

Somali troops take key port of Kismayo after Al Shabab rebels retreat

Somali troops and their foreign allies occupied the key city of Kismayo, the last strategic base for Islamist militants who had relied on the local port as an main source of revenue
MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Somali troops and their foreign allies on Monday occupied the key city of Kismayo, the last strategic base for Islamist militants who had relied on the local port as a main source of revenue.

A Kenyan military spokesman, Cyrus Oguna, said Kenyan forces had also deployed in the southern Somali city. The troops moved in after fighters from Al Shabab, a militia linked to Al Qaeda, pulled out following Friday's beach assault and airstrikes by the Kenyan military. Oguna said further airstrikes were carried out over the weekend to destroy militant bases.

The Kenyan troops are part of a 17,000-member African Union force in Somalia to help the country's weak government confront a long-standing rebellion by Al Shabab.

Residents described a tense atmosphere Monday as troops entered, with fears that Al Shabab would strike back, but said the militants offered no resistance.

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Sudan and South Sudan sign a deal to resume oil exports

Sudan and South Sudan to resume oil exports
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Oil exports are set to resume from Sudan and South Sudan after their leaders signed trade and security agreements Thursday aimed at ceasing hostilities and setting up a demilitarized buffer zone on their shared border.

The deal averts the threat of sliding back into a war that has lingered since clashes resumed in April between the uneasy neighbors.

But in a sign of the underlying hostility, there was no territorial deal resolving one of their most enduring sources of conflict: the disputed border and the region of Abyei, which both sides claim.

The two countries faced U.N. Security Council sanctions if they failed to reach a peace deal.

Talks between President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir of Sudan and President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, which were mediated by the African Union, had dragged on since Sunday before they finally signed the accords in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

The two sides signed a peace deal in 2005 that ended more than two decades of war and led to South Sudanese independence in July 2011. But many contentious questions, including the border and oil transit issues, were left unresolved. 

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Expelled South African activist Malema in court on corruption case

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Firebrand activist Julius Malema traded his usual revolutionary beret and T-shirt for a crisp business suit Wednesday when he appeared in a South African court to face charges of money laundering.

Malema, tossed out of the ruling African National Congress in April for sowing divisions, is accused of receiving in a family trust about $500,000 tied to fraudulent government tenders. He appeared in a court in Polokwane, capital of Limpopo, his home province.

He denied the charges and was freed on $1,250 bail. Outside the court he claimed the charges against him were pushed by senior government officials and mounted a virulent attack against South African President Jacob Zuma, a man he helped propel to the leadership of the ANC.

Malema called Zuma the illiterate leader of a banana republic and said Zuma had been charged on 700 counts of corruption and fraud, compared with only one count against him. The charges against Zuma were dropped by prosecutors just weeks before the 2008 election, won by the ANC.

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Suicide blasts at Mogadishu cafe reportedly kill 15

MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Suicide bombers set off at least two explosions at a popular restaurant in Mogadishu late Thursday, killing about 15 people including journalists and two police officers, authorities said.

The Village Restaurant is owned by Ahmed Jama, a British Somali profiled in The Times last month who has several restaurants all with the same name. The one hit Thursday is located in central Mogadishu, opposite the National Theater -- itself the target of a suicide bombing in April -- and is popular with Somali journalists and civil servants.

No group had claimed responsibility for the blasts. The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic militia Al Shabab, which has carried out many bombings in the capital in the past, did not issue an immediate commented.

Some witnesses reported two blasts, while others said there were three. Witnesses described a scene of mayhem, with blood spattered across the floor, the bodies of dead and wounded people strewn among the plastic chairs and cups.

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