U.N. accuses Mexico of torture, cover-up in case of 43 missing students

FILE PHOTO: Relatives pose with images of some of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa College Raul Isidro Burgos students in front of a monument of the number 43, during a march to mark the 41st month since their disappearance in the state of Guerrero, in Mexico City, Mexico February 26, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Romero

GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. human rights office said on Thursday that Mexican authorities had tortured dozens of people in connection with an investigation into the 2014 disappearance of 43 students, and it called for a full inquiry.

Mexico said on Monday it had arrested a suspected drug gang member regarded as a key figure in the kidnapping and massacre of the 43 student teachers. Activists say the case is emblematic of widespread gang violence in the country.

The atrocity plunged President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government into one of its worst crises as doubts swirled around the conduct of the investigation into the case.

“The findings of the report point to a pattern of committing, tolerating and covering up torture in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a report.

Mexico’s mission in Geneva said the ambassador was not immediately available to comment on the report, entitled “Double injustice – human rights violations in the investigation of the Ayotzinapa case”.

An initial investigation found that the students, who were on five buses, were abducted by corrupt police who handed them over to members of a drug cartel, who killed them, incinerated their bodies at a trash dump and threw the ashes into a river.

However, the official account has been widely questioned by local and international human rights experts. Only a bone fragment from one student has been found near a river.

Zeid’s office, which examined information related to 63 out of 129 people detained in connected with the case, said it had documented arbitrary detention and torture based on interviews, judicial files and medical records.

It had information on the possible torture of 51 people and “solid grounds to conclude that at least 34 of these individuals were tortured”, including one woman. But it stopped short of attributing blame for the murders.

“Ayotzinapa is a test case of the Mexican authorities’ willingness and ability to tackle serious human rights violations,” Zeid said. “I urge the Mexican authorities to ensure that the search for truth and justice regarding Ayotzinapa continues, and also that those responsible for torture and other human rights violations committed during the investigation are held accountable.”

The U.N. report calls for any evidence in the Ayotzinapa case for which there are credible indications that it was obtained under torture to be excluded or invalidated.

A team of international experts said in September 2015 that Mexico’s official account of the Ayotzinapa case did not add up, citing deep flaws in the inquiry and dismissing its claims that the victims were incinerated in a garbage dump.

In their report, the experts suggested the missing bus may have been carrying a shipment of cash or drugs.

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday that crimes against humanity had been committed in Mexico “in the name of security”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. jurors’ identities in ‘El Chapo’ drug trial to remain secret

Recaptured drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A U.S. judge in Brooklyn has ruled that the identities of jurors expected to decide the fate of accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at a trial this year will be kept secret.

In a decision on Monday, U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan said jurors’ names, addresses and places of employment will be shielded from Guzman, his lawyers, prosecutors and the press.

He also ordered that jurors be transported to and from the courthouse by federal marshals, and sequestered from the public while there.

Guzman’s lawyer had argued that an anonymous jury would undermine the presumption that his client was innocent, create an “extremely unfair” impression that he was dangerous, and impair his ability to question prospective jurors.

“Mr. Guzman is obviously disappointed by the decision,” the lawyer, Eduardo Balarezo, said in an email on Tuesday. “All he is asking for is a fair trial in front of an impartial jury.”

U.S. prosecutors have accused Guzman, 60, of running a global cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggling operation as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, and playing a central role in a decade-long Mexican drug war where more than 100,000 people have died.

Cogan said the U.S. government “presented strong and credible reasons to believe that the jury needs protection,” and the evidence might depict a “pattern of violence” by Guzman and his associates that might cause jurors to fear for their safety.

“That many of the allegations involve murder, assault, kidnapping, or torture of potential witnesses or those suspected of assisting law enforcement makes the government’s concerns particularly salient,” Cogan wrote.

The judge also said the significant media attention to the case could raise the potential for juror names to become public, exposing jurors to the risk of intimidation or harassment.

Balarezo had in court papers said keeping juror identities from the public and news media would be a “fair compromise.”

Guzman’s trial is scheduled to begin in September, according to court records, and could last a few months.

Mexican authorities captured Guzman and an associate in January 2016 by pulling over a Ford Focus they had stolen, after Guzman had fled through tunnels and drains from a raid on a safe house in northwest Mexico.

The arrest came six months after Guzman had escaped through a tunnel from a high-security Mexican prison. Guzman was extradited to the United States in January 2017.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Tom Brown)

Accused Arizona killer linked to seven more fatal shootings

Cleophus Cooksey, Jr., a convicted felon arrested for shooting and killing his mother and stepfather in their residence in December, has been linked to at least seven more gunshot murders, according to police, is shown in this undated booking photo in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., provided January 18, 2018.

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) – A convicted Arizona felon arrested on charges of killing his mother and stepfather in their home last month is now believed responsible for at least seven more fatal shootings in the Phoenix area, police said on Thursday.

Phoenix police said they have evidence linking Cleophus Cooksey Jr., 35, to the shooting deaths of nine people in all during a three-week span that began in late November when two men were gunned down in a local parking lot.

That death toll ranks among the highest attributed by authorities to a single suspect in Arizona history.

A blood-stained Cooksey was arrested at the scene of the Dec. 17 gunshot slayings of his mother, Rene Cooksey, and her husband, Edward Nunn, in their living room, according to police.

He has been held in custody ever since, as police amassed evidence linking him to seven additional homicides and other crimes, said Sergeant Jon Howard, a Phoenix police spokesman.

So far, Cooksey has only been charged with two counts of premeditated murder and one count of unlawful possession of a weapon in connection with his parents’ killings.

But he faces additional murder and weapons charges, as well as one count each of a sexually motivated kidnapping and armed robbery, stemming from the seven other murder investigations still underway, police said.

Gary Beren, a lawyer listed in court records as Cooksey’s attorney in the case of his parents, could not immediately be reached for comment.

“There are ballistic links to all of these crimes,” Howard told reporters.

Howard said there was no known motive for the killings. The nine victims – seven men and two women – ranged in age from 21 to 56.

Asked whether additional victims might be identified, Howard said that was “absolutely a distinct possibility.”

Apart from his mother and stepfather, police said Cooksey had a personal connection to at least one other of his alleged victims. The body of a former girlfriend’s brother was found inside a home on Dec. 11.

Cooksey has a long criminal history and served time for manslaughter and armed robbery in the past, prison records show. He is the second suspected serial killer arrested by Phoenix police in the last year. In May, police linked 12 shootings and nine deaths to a former city bus driver who has pleaded not guilty.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Tom Brown)

Victims of Mexico military abuses shudder at new security law

Activists hold a protest against a law that militarises crime fighting in the country outside the Senate in Mexico City, Mexico December 14, 2017. Placards read, "No to the Militarisation in the Country". Picture taken December 14, 2017.

By Lizbeth Diaz

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Human rights activist Juan Carlos Soni fears a new security law passed by Mexico’s Congress on Friday could mean his death after he suffered beatings, electrocution and abduction at the hands of the armed forces four years ago.

Bucking widespread protests from rights groups, Congress approved the Law of Internal Security, which will formally regulate the deployment of the military in Mexico more than a decade after the government dispatched it to fight drug cartels.

Proponents of the law argue it is needed to delimit the armed forces’ role in combating crime, while critics fear it will enshrine their purview, encouraging greater impunity and abuses in a country where justice is often notoriously weak.

Multiple human rights groups and international organizations, including the United Nations, attacked the bill, mindful of the dozens of reported cases of abuses by members of the military in Mexico over the past 11 years.

Soni, 46, a teacher from the central state of San Luis Potosi, whose case was documented by Mexico’s national human rights commission, related how in 2013 he was detained, blindfolded and tortured by marines after being warned by them to stop looking into alleged rights abuses.

While being held in a cellar, Soni said, he was made to leave fingerprints on guns and bags of marijuana and cocaine.

He was then arrested on charges of carrying an illegal weapon and drug possession, and spent 16 months in prison until he was released with the aid of U.N. representatives in Mexico.

“If they give them that power and send out the Navy again, I’m going to seek political asylum in another country,” Soni told Reuters shortly before the law passed Congress. “Much though I love my country, if I stay, they’ll kill me.”

The Navy subsequently acknowledged participating in abuses against Soni, but he said he has yet to receive any restitution.

The Navy did not immediately reply to request for comment.

“THE JOB WE WERE ASKED TO DO”

Well over 100,000 people have been killed in turf wars between the gangs and clashes with security force since former President Felipe Calderon first sent in the military to combat drug gangs shortly after taking office in December 2006.

Reports of abuse gradually crept up as the battle with the cartels intensified, and tens of thousands of people have gone missing or disappeared in the tumult.

Many of the most damaging scandals, from extra-judicial killings of suspected gang members to questions over the army’s failure to stop the disappearance of 43 students near a base in 2014, have come under President Enrique Pena Nieto.

Opponents of the military deployment say it has undermined trust in one of the most respected institutions in Mexico, as exposure to sickening violence and organized crime corroded the Army and the Navy just as it had the police.

“We don’t want to be on the streets, but this is the job we were asked to do,” said a soldier who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Noting that personnel were often separated from their families for long periods, the soldier said the task of attempting to keep order was made harder by the lack of regulations governing how the military should proceed.

“It should be the police who are doing this, but they don’t have the necessary training,” he said.

Under Calderon and Pena Nieto, the armed forces played a major role in capturing or killing most of the top capos in Mexico. But they have not managed to pacify the country.

October was the most violent month on record since the government began keeping regular monthly tallies 20 years ago.

Relatives of the victims of abuses believe the new law will only give the military more cover to do what it wants.

“The Law of Internal Security won’t just protect them, it offers them more faculties to carry out human rights violations masquerading as security operations,” said Grace Mahogany Fernandez, whose brother was kidnapped and disappeared by the armed forces in December 2008 in the northern state of Coahuila.

(Editing by Dave Graham and Leslie Adler)

U.S. says concerned about Myanmar’s silence over where Reuters journalists are being held

U.S. says concerned about Myanmar's silence over where Reuters journalists are being held

YANGON (Reuters) – The U.S. embassy in Myanmar said on Friday it was concerned that there had been no word on the whereabouts of two Reuters journalists three days after they were detained, and that authorities had not allowed their families to visit them.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Information said on Wednesday that the reporters, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and two policemen, faced charges under the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act, though officials have since disclosed that they have not been charged. The 1923 law carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

The journalists had worked on stories about a military crackdown in Rakhine state, which has triggered the flight of more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims to southern Bangladesh since the end of August.

“We remain concerned about Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement on its Facebook page. “Their families and others have not been allowed to see them, and don’t even know where they are being held.”

In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s spokesman Motosada Matano, said the Japanese government is closely watching the situation. He said Japan has been conducting a dialogue with the Myanmar government on human rights in Myanmar in general.

Bangladesh, which is struggling to cope with the influx of refugees into its southern tip, condemned the arrests of reporters working for an agency that had shone a light for the world on the strife in Rakhine state.

“We strongly denounce arrests of Reuters journalists and feel that those reporters be free immediately so that they can depict the truth to the world by their reporting,” said Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, information adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Thursday that the arrests were a signal that press freedom is shrinking in Myanmar and the international community must do all it can to get them released.

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo went missing on Tuesday evening after they had been invited to meet police officials over dinner on the northern outskirts of Yangon.

Gutteres said they were probably detained because they were reporting on the “massive human tragedy” in Rakhine state.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh say their exodus from the mainly Buddhist nation was triggered by a military offensive in response to Rohingya militant attacks on security forces.

The United Nations has branded the military’s campaign “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” of the minority Rohingya.

POLICE HAVE 28 DAYS TO FILE A CASE

The Ministry of Information said the reporters “illegally acquired information with the intention to share it with foreign media”, and released a photo of the pair in handcuffs.

As of Friday evening, Reuters had not been formally contacted by officials about the detention of Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27.

A court official in the northern district of Yangon where they were detained, said that no paperwork had yet been filed relating to either journalist. The official said that usually cases are lodged 20-30 days after an arrest as suspects can be held in custody for up to 28 days without being charged.

Reuters President and Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler has called for the immediate release of the journalists, saying in a statement on Wednesday that the global news organization was “outraged by this blatant attack on press freedom”.

Britain has expressed “grave concerns” to the government of Myanmar over the arrest of the two journalists, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters in London on Thursday.

“We are committed to freedom of speech and people’s ability to report the facts and bring into the public domain what is happening in Rakhine state,” he said.

(Writing by John Chalmers\; Editing by Martin Howell)

Six crew from German ship kidnapped in Nigerian waters

BERLIN (Reuters) – Six crew from a German container vessel have been kidnapped in Nigerian waters, a shipping company said on Tuesday.

Four of those taken are Filipino, and one is a Ukrainian national, according to the Philippines department of labor and Ukrainian foreign ministry.

Kidnapping for ransom is a common problem in parts of Nigeria. A number of foreigners have, in the last few years, been kidnapped in the Niger Delta, source of most of the crude oil which is Nigeria’s economic mainstay.

“The vessel was attacked by pirates on early Saturday morning when it was approaching one of the ports of Nigeria,” said a spokesman for Peter Doehle Schiffahrts KG.

“Six of the crew were taken off the ship and they are now held by kidnappers in Nigeria,” he said. There were no German nationals among the kidnapped but the spokesman declined to say where those abducted were from.

Those kidnapped comprise four Filipinos, one Ukrainian and one Hungarian, officials from the countries involved told Reuters.

At the time of the statement there was no official contact with the kidnappers and the vessel had moved away from Nigerian waters with the 12 remaining crew safe, the spokesman said.

“The top priority is to try and establish contact with the kidnappers and try to have a quick and safe release of our seafarers,” he said.

Germany’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Four of the six abducted crew members are Filipinos, the Philippines labor secretary told Reuters.

An official at Ukraine’s foreign ministry said preliminary information indicated a Ukrainian citizen was among those kidnapped. He gave no further details.

One Hungarian national was also taken, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the rescue operations.

The Hungarian foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa; Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi and Paul Carsten in Abuja, Pavel Polityuk in Kiev, Karen Lema in Manila and Krisztina Than in Budapest; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Kidnapped U.S.-Canadian couple, three children freed in Pakistan

A still image from a video posted by the Taliban on social media on December 19, 2016 shows American Caitlan Coleman (L) speaking next to her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle and their two sons. Courtesy Taliban/Social media via REUTERS

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A kidnapped U.S.-Canadian couple and their three children born in captivity have been freed in Pakistan, nearly five years after the couple was abducted in neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistani and U.S. officials said on Thursday.

American Caitlan Coleman and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012 by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network, which the United States has long accused Pakistan of failing to fight.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been highly critical of Islamabad, praised Pakistan’s cooperation with the U.S. government over the freeing of the hostages, saying it represented “a positive moment” for U.S.-Pakistan relations.

“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honoring America’s wishes for it to do more to provide security in the region,” Trump said in a statement.

The Pakistani army and U.S. government statements offered no details about the operation itself.

The Pakistani army said its forces “recovered” the hostages after acting on U.S. intelligence about their passage into Pakistan from Afghanistan. A U.S. State Department statement used the word “rescue” to describe efforts by the U.S. and Pakistani governments to secure the hostages’ release.

Coleman was pregnant at the time she was kidnapped, and a video released by the Taliban in December showed two sons born while she and her husband were hostages.

Thursday’s statements from Islamabad and Washington were the first mention of a third child.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland asked for respect for the family’s privacy and thanked the governments of the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan for their efforts to win the hostages’ release.

“Joshua, Caitlan, their children and the Boyle and Coleman families have endured a horrible ordeal over the past five years. We stand ready to support them as they begin their healing journey,” Freeland said.

The Pakistani effort came as Pakistan and the United States, uneasy allies in fighting Taliban and other Islamist extremists in the region, are experiencing one of the worst lows in their relations.

In recent days, senior U.S. officials have been more pointed about Islamabad’s alleged ties to militant groups, who are battling against U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

The United States has repeatedly accused Pakistan of granting safe haven to militants fighting a 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, further complicating a drawn out conflict that the U.S. military has described as a stalemate between the Taliban and U.S.-backed Afghan government forces.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the United States would try “one more time” to work with Pakistan in Afghanistan before Trump would “take whatever steps are necessary” to change Pakistan’s behavior.

Pakistan touted the success of the operation as proof of the strength of the alliance.

“The success underscores the importance of timely intelligence sharing and Pakistan’s continued commitment toward fighting this menace through cooperation between two forces against a common enemy,” the Pakistani army statement said.

U.S. intelligence agencies had been tracking the hostages and on Wednesday shared that the family had been moved to Pakistan through Kurram tribal area border, the army said. No other details were immediately available.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump’s strategy in the region recognized “the important role Pakistan needs to play to bring stability and ultimately peace to the region.”

“The United States is hopeful that Pakistan’s actions will further a U.S.-Pakistan relationship marked by growing commitments to counterterrorism operations and stronger ties in all other respects,” Tillerson said.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington, Andrea Hopkins in Ottawa; Editing by Nick Macfie, Andrew Heavens and Frances Kerry)

Family of Chinese scholar missing in Illinois asks Trump for help

Chinese student Yingying Zhang is seen in a still image from security camera video taken outside an MTD Teal line bus in Urbana, Illinois, U.S. June 9, 2017. University of Illinois Police/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Family members of a Chinese scholar presumed kidnapped in Illinois asked President Donald Trump on Tuesday to provide additional resources to help find her.

Yingying Zhang, a 26-year-old visiting scholar to the University of Illinois from southeastern China, disappeared on June 9. Police believe Zhang is dead, although no body has been found.

Brendt Christensen, a former master’s student at the university, has been charged with abducting Zhang. Christensen, 28, pleaded not guilty to the kidnapping last month and is scheduled to stand trial in September.

Yingying Zhang’s father, Ronggao Zhang, cited the president’s own role as a father in a letter sent to Trump earlier this month and read by Zhang’s boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, at a news conference on Tuesday.

“As a loving father to your own children, you can understand what we are going through,” the letter said. “We fervently request that you direct all available federal law enforcement and investigatory resources be used to find our daughter as soon as possible.”

A White House representative could not immediately be reached for comment.

Hou also told reporters at the news conference in Champaign, Illinois, that he and the family would not return to China until Zhang is found.

An online fundraising platform has collected more than $137,000 to support the family’s stay in the United States.

The case has been watched closely by Chinese media, China government officials and Chinese students in the United States.

Zhang, who had been studying photosynthesis and crop productivity, was last seen when a security camera recorded her getting into a black car that authorities linked to Christensen, according to court documents.

Christensen was placed under surveillance by federal agents who heard him talking about how he kidnapped Zhang, court records said. He could receive a life sentence if convicted.

Christensen’s attorney, Anthony Bruno, said in a phone interview on Tuesday that the defense received more than 1,000 pages of police reports related to the case earlier this month, and expects to gain access to video evidence soon.

Bruno said the defense plans to request a delay to the start of the trial to get additional time to review the “enormous” amount of evidence received from the government.

A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Springfield, Illinois, office referred questions to U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Sharon Paul.

Paul said in a phone interview on Tuesday that prosecutors have no update on Yingying Zhang’s whereabouts and declined to provide details of the FBI’s search efforts.

(Reporting by Julia Jacobs in Chicago; Editing by Patrick Enright and Matthew Lewis)

Nigeria’s freed Chibok girls to return home ‘fully recovered’

Nigeria's freed Chibok girls to return home 'fully recovered'

By Paul Carsten

ABUJA (Reuters) – More than 100 girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in the Nigerian town of Chibok in 2014 are ready to return to normal life after being released and receiving psychological and medical treatment, the government said on Friday.

Some 270 girls were originally abducted by the Islamist group but 82 were freed in May this year after mediation, adding to 24 who were released or found last year. The girls have been receiving psychological and medical care in the capital, Abuja, as part of a government rehabilitation program.

“All the 106 girls are now fully recovered, ready for re-integration with their families and the larger society, and to go back to school,” Aisha Jummai Alhassan, minister of women affairs, told a news conference.

“They are now stabilized and most of their traumatic stress disorder symptoms have been overcome and previously frequent incidents of flashbacks, insomnia and nightmares have now been successfully brought under control,” she said.

Some of them underwent surgery, and a prosthetic limb was provided for a girl who lost a leg while in captivity. Four babies were also said to be in good health.

Of the 270 girls who were originally taken, about 60 escaped soon afterwards but around 100 are still believed to be in captivity. Alhassan said negotiations to secure their release were ongoing.

Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than two million during an eight-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.

The Chibok case provoked global outrage and a celebrity-backed campaign to raise awareness of the girls’ plight, but aid groups say Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands more adults and children, many of whose cases are neglected.

A United Nations human rights committee called in July for Nigeria’s government to step up efforts to rescue all women and girls abducted by Boko Haram and ensure they returned to school without stigma.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Boko Haram wing tied to IS marks resurgence by kidnapping oil workers

Boko Haram wing tied to IS marks resurgence by kidnapping oil workers

By Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS (Reuters) – A Boko Haram faction with ties to Islamic State and responsible for the kidnapping of a Nigerian oil prospecting team which led to at least 37 people being killed has become a deadly force capable of carrying out highly-organized attacks.

Nigerian government forces have focused on crushing the best-known branch of the Islamist militant group whose leader Abubakar Shekau has led an eight-year insurgency to create an Islamic state in the northeast which has killed thousands.

But while Nigeria has claimed the capture of Shekau’s main base in the Sambisa forest and freed many of more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by his faction in April 2014 in Chibok town, a rival wing has developed the capacity to carry out attacks on a larger scale.

At least 37 people, including members of the team, rescuers from the military and vigilantes, died last week when security forces tried to free those being held by the Boko Haram faction led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi who is trying to thwart government efforts to explore for oil in the Lake Chad Basin.

That wing is “much better organized than the Shekau faction” which typically stages suicide bombings in mosques and markets, said Malte Liewerscheidt, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft consultancy group.

“The Shekau faction does not seem to have a clear ideology or any strategy,” said Liewerscheidt. That makes it easier for al-Barnawi’s faction to recruit whereas Shekau’s faction was not trusted by locals, he said.

And despite the assessment that it is less organized, Shekau’s faction has stepped up suicide bombings in the last few weeks, killing at least 113 people since June 1, according to a Reuters tally.

The combined attacks by the two wings marks a resurgence by the group, months after President Muhammadu Buhari’s announcement in December 2016 that Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest had been captured.

Boko Haram, which has killed more than 20,000 people and forced some 2.7 million to flee their homes since 2009, split last year.

The division led by Shekau, Boko Haram’s most recognizable figure known for videos taunting Nigerian authorities circulated on social media, operates in the northeastern Sambisa forest and usually deploys girls as suicide bombers.

IS NAMED AL-BARNAWI

But, since Islamic State named al-Barnawi as Boko Haram’s leader in August 2016 after the west African militants pledged allegiance the previous year, his Lake Chad-based faction has been moving fighters and ammunition across porous borders in northeast Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

The head of a private Nigerian security firm, who did not want to be named, said al-Barnawi’s IS affiliation meant his wing benefits from sub-Saharan trade routes to ship weapons from lawless Libya where Islamic State is active.

His group has been planning a larger scale attack for some time, said a Western diplomat, speaking anonymously.

Boko Haram launched two attacks in June – the most prolonged raid on the northeastern city of Maiduguri in 18 months and an attack on a police convoy – which were more ambitious than routine suicide attacks. Shekau’s faction is widely believed to have been behind the two attacks.

Buhari has repeatedly said the insurgents are on the verge of defeat since the army, helped by neighboring countries, wrested back most of the land in Nigeria’s northeast, an area the size of Belgium, that the militants took in early 2015.

But security experts say the territorial gain has given a false impression because much of the liberated areas beyond main roads patrolled by the army remain no-go areas where displaced people cannot return to farm.

“While insurgent-held territory has been recaptured, this was conflated with a military victory,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Africa-focused risk management company Signal Risk.

“All that has happened is that Boko Haram has reverted to the asymmetrical armed campaign it had waged for the seven out of the eight years of its armed campaign against the Nigerian state,” he said.

The military has been forced to concentrate forces around Maiduguri, capital of the insurgency’s birthplace, Borno state, where Shekau’s faction has stepped up suicide bombings, which now occur on a near-daily basis.

RANSOM MONEY

A security analyst said Shekau’s wing used ransom money paid by the government to free Chibok girls to buy weapons and recruit fighters — the attacks stepped up after a deal was brokered in May to free 82 of them.

The return of experienced commanders freed in exchange for the girls had also bolstered his group, said the analyst, who asked not to be named. “The fact that they were held for some time suggests they were serious players,” he said.

Acting-President Yemi Osinbajo, in power while Buhari takes medical leave in Britain for an unspecified ailment, responded to the oil team’s abduction and frequent attacks by ordering military chiefs to “scale up their efforts” in Borno, according to a statement.

The military said armed forces chiefs relocated to Maiduguri on August 1. “This move and action are expected to give impetus to the military effort,” it said, without elaborating. The theater army commander is already based in the city.

(Additional reporting by Paul Carsten in Abuja; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Peter Millership)