The World Today for October 19, 2016


A Shaky, Remote Front

A sparsely populated country covering a vast stretch of the Sahara Desert, Mauritania doesn’t receive much attention.

But it should.

“The country’s location in the desolate Sahel belies its importance to regional counterterrorism efforts, which could be disrupted by prolonged political instability,” concluded analysts recently at Stratfor, the global intelligence think tank.

These days, Mauritania has plenty of political instability, too.

On Tuesday, the country wrapped up a so-called national dialogue that President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz hoped would convince experts, civil leaders and lawmakers to support his call to amend the country’s constitution and let him to run for a third term.

The dialogue didn’t appear to succeed. The main opposition party boycotted the discussions and pledged to resist the proposed changes. “This is not the time to touch the constitution,” Jemil Mansour, head of the Islamist party Tawassoul, told Reuters.

Abdel Aziz has supported the West’s fight against al Qaeda-linked Islamists in the region, a largely overlooked front in the War on Terror that separates Islamic State-affiliated forces rampaging in northern Africa, like the Islamic State in Libya, and western Africa, like Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Illustrating how the country is on the front lines of the terror struggle, the Pentagon on Monday released Mohamedou Ould Slahi, 45, back to his home in Mauritania after 14 years of captivity in the Guantánamo military base in Cuba.

Ould Slahi was an Al Qaeda member who fought with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. He crossed paths with the September 11 plotters, the New York Times reported. But he had returned to Mauritania when the attacks occurred.

Last year, after a long fight to gain permission, he published a best-selling memoir, “Guantánamo Diary,” about his torture at the hands of American interrogators – who released him because they believed he had changed his mind and no longer sympathized with jihadism.

Irrespective of Mauritania’s fight against terror, Agence France Presse noted that other African countries have regretted giving in to their leaders’ demands for more time in office.

President Pierre Nkurunziza plunged Burundi into chaos last year after he won a third term. Presidents in the Democratic Republic of Congo and its similarly named neighbor to the east, the Republic of Congo, and also Rwanda are seeking additional terms.

Opposition forces in Mauritania and those other countries complain of “constitutional coup d’états” where dictators seize power via legal maneuvers.

Accordingly, Abdel Aziz is calling for a referendum to change the constitution, a fight he can win. After he seized power in a coup in 2008, he was elected to office in 2009.  He was reelected in 2014 on the promise of retiring from public life after the end of his second term.


Aleppo No More

After Britain and the United States warned they were considering further sanctions and a United Nations officials cautioned that Aleppo might well be wiped from the face of the map without intervention, Russia announced an eight-hour suspension in the brutal bombardment of the Syrian city to allow for the evacuation of civilians.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian and Syrian air forces suspended air strikes on Aleppo at 10 a.m. Damascus time Tuesday in preparation for an eight-hour evacuation window planned for Thursday, Bloomberg reported.

About 250,000 residents are trapped in rebel-held eastern neighborhoods of the city, the news agency said.

The decision came after Britain and the United States said Sunday they were considering imposing additional sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters for their actions in Syria’s war. A European Union summit is slated for Thursday and Friday to discuss sanctions as well, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, expressing fears that the assault on Mosul will draw attention away from Aleppo, the UN Special Envoy for Syria warned Monday that “between now and December, if we cannot find a solution, Aleppo will not be there anymore.”

No Wonders

Peace is not any more likely to break out in Ukraine than it is in Syria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said ahead of talks with leaders from Russia, France and Ukraine in Berlin Wednesday.

“One mustn’t expect any wonders from tomorrow’s meeting but it is worth every endeavor on this issue to take efforts forward,” Merkel said on the eve of the talks.

Merkel will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to discuss the stalled peace negotiations.

Apart from cautioning that a deal is not on the cards, Merkel and other French and German officials hinted that they’re unlikely to back away from sanctions on Russia, given Putin’s track record of talking nice and then not sticking to the rules.

The talks come a year after the four leaders last met in the so-called “Normandy Format” and some 18 months after the Minsk ceasefire agreement that stemmed the heaviest fighting – though frequent violations continue.

A Truce Test

Wednesday will see the first test of a temporary ceasefire aimed at stemming the fighting in Yemen.

The truce is set to start just before midnight and last 72 hours, United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed said in a statement Monday, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Overshadowed by the conflicts in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria and Iraq, the war in Yemen has killed around 10,000 people, as Shiite Houthi rebels battle to unseat the internationally recognized Sunni government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

With Iran backing the Houthis and a coalition of Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia backing the government, there have recently been signs that US forces may be drawn into the conflict – following several attacks on US Navy vessels by the Houthi rebels.

If it comes to fruition, the ceasefire would be the first significant lull in fighting since peace talks in Kuwait broke down in August.


Don’t Sweat It

Humanoids have been the subject of countless blockbusters with similar plots: A strikingly human-like robot loses its cool and goes berserk on any and all things in its vicinity.

Lucky for the real world, scientists at the University of Tokyo’s JSK laboratory have outfitted their latest humanoid, Kengoro, with a mammalian function to safeguard against a hot head: perspiration.

Kengoro’s slim physique is packed with some 108 motors, allowing for immense strength and a human-like range of motion. For example, Kengoro can crank out pushups for 11 minutes straight.

But all those motors can lead to severe overheating, the Achilles’ heel of robotics, the Washington Post reports.

To this end, manufacturers substituted an evaporation technique modeled after perspiration in lieu of bulky, traditional cooling methods.

Kengoro’s aluminum skeleton is an irrigation system of sorts, moving water throughout his frame, which then permeates through semi-porous layers to evaporate on the robot’s surface.

“Usually the frame of a robot is only used to support forces,” Toyotaka Kozuki from the University of Tokyo said in an interview with IEEE. “Our concept was adding more functions to the frame, using it to transfer water, release heat, and at the same time support forces.”

Click here to take a peek at Kengoro in action.

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