The Atlas Newsletter - Volume 51

The Atlas Newsletter – World Updates & International News

Monday, February 12th, 2024

Good morning everyone,

Let’s get right to it.

In Europe, Rishi Sunak makes a bet on Rwanda deportations, a Russian Presidential candidate is banned from running, and there’s a hostage situation in Switzerland.

Over in the Middle East, Israel assaults Rafah, Israel responds to Hamas’ ceasefire proposition, and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq continues attacks against the US.

Meanwhile, in Africa, the M23 makes drastic gains against the DRC’s military, Zimbabwe abolishes the death penalty, and the RSF and Sudanese military junta trade accusations of cutting telecoms networks.

In the Americas, Nayib Bukele wins re-election, Ecuador and Spain launch joint anti-narcotics raids, and former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is accused of orchestrating a coup.

In Asia and Oceania, the Philippines and China scuffle in the South China Sea, Myanmar reintroduces it’s draft, and India boosts border security with Myanmar.

It looks like just another day at the office. Let's jump in:

- Joshua Paulo, Sebastien Gray, Trent Barr, & the Atlas team

Philip Mehrtens: One Year in Captivity

February 7th, 2024: (2 Minute Read) February 7th marked the one year anniversary of the capture of New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens by fighters of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) under the command of Egianus Kogoya.

Due to the remoteness of the Papua region of Indonesia, aircraft are often used for quick and easy transportation to villages.

Mehrtens was piloting a small passenger plane for Susi Air when he landed in the village of Paro, located in the Papuan Highlands. The aircraft was quickly surrounded by TPNPB fighters, who released the five civilian passengers because they were indigenous Papuans. Mehrtens was taken captive and the aircraft was destroyed, with TPNPB leader Egianus Kogoya initially saying he would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papaun independence. 

Mehrtens’ aircraft was targeted because Susi flights to the region are subsidized by the Indonesian government, thus being viewed as a legitimate target by the TPNPB.

“We’re taking the pilot hostage, not for anything else, but for Papua’s freedom,” Kogoya said in a video statement, adding, “He will be safe with me as long as Indonesia does not use its arms, either from the air or on the ground.”

Over the next several months, Indonesian forces launched a series of failed operations to locate and rescue Mehrtens as negotiations faltered. In one instance, at least six Indonesian soldiers were killed while looking for Mehrtens during a TPNPB ambush on April 17. Several other clashes have been reported, resulting in casualties on both sides.

Meanwhile, the TPNPB signaled shifts in their demands. While initially demanding that Mehrtens would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papuan independence, the TPNPB told Reuters in April that they have dropped that demand and are seeking to negotiate the pilot’s release because he is “not our enemy.”

To mark the anniversary, senior TPNPB leadership has signaled their intent to release Mehrtens and ordered Kogoya to do so. Central leadership stated the desire to release Mehrtens is “in order to protect humanity and ensure human rights” and “through the jurisdiction of the Secretary General of the United Nations.” Likewise, the TPNPB said that it has ordered Kogoya to release Mehrtens or face punishment; however, the TPNPB is highly factionalized, and Kogoya could ignore the demand.


February 5th-6th, 2024 - On February 5th, the British Prime Minister was being interviewed by British media personality Piers Morgan. The interview covered an array of issues, including Rishi Sunak’s deportation plan for deporting illegal immigrants to Rwanda. During the interview, Piers Morgan made a ‘bet’ with PM Sunak for £1,000 that he would not be able to have any deportation planes leave prior to the UK’s federal election. PM Sunak shook hands with Piers, signifying an agreement to the bet. The move, however, was immediately met with backlash across the different regions of the UK and within the UK’s political sphere. The following day, PM Sunak backed down upon the bet, stating that he was “not a betting person" and that he was “totally taken by surprise” by the question in the first place.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and UK Media Personality Piers Morgan pictured shaking hands upon a bet on February 5th, 2024 (Photo - Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street).

February 8th, 2024 - Presidential contender Boris Nadezhdin was barred from candidacy by Russia's Central Election Commission after what he claims to be due to his anti-war stance gaining momentum. His polling on the issue is nearing 10%. Nadezhdin, a former Duma member and mathematician, has criticized Russia's military actions in Ukraine, challenging the Kremlin. Despite his nationalist and opposition representation, sources within Putin's bloc fear his candidacy could disrupt Putin's aim for an 80% majority win in the upcoming elections. The decision to disqualify Nadezhdin was based on alleged irregularities in the collected signatures. In response, Nadezhdin plans to challenge the decision in court, citing widespread citizen support and urging the commission to reconsider. The presidential hopeful has stated that Putin’s biggest mistake was launching the invasion of Ukraine and that if he wins, he will seek to end the conflict through negotiations.

February 9th, 2024 - A hostage situation broke out on Friday afternoon in Essert-sous-Champvent, Switzerland, which is located near the French border. Police were alerted when a man armed with an axe, a hammer, and a knife boarded a train, holding 13 people hostage. Police were quick to react, storming the train and killing the perpetrator in the ensuing struggle. The perpetrator, a 32-year-old Iranian, had come to Switzerland to seek asylum. Police stated the motive could be connected to the perpetrator’s asylee status as well as his “insistence on having contact with a member of staff at an asylum center.” Police initially utilized a taser but were forced to fire on the asylum seeker after he charged police.

Middle East

February 7th, 2024 - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called Hamas’ counterproposal for a temporary ceasefire “delusional” after the group responded to the Israeli proposal sent a week prior. Hamas’ proposal would have seen a ceasefire lasting four and a half months, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and the release of all Israeli hostages still held, along with Israel’s release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners and a significant increase in humanitarian aid into Gaza. The counterproposal went far beyond the original six weeks that had been proposed by Israel (with Qatari, US, and Egyptian input). The prospects of a ceasefire appear to have again been squandered, as Netanyahu reiterated his push for “total victory” in Gaza.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pictured with Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani (Photo - Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

February 11th, 2024 - The IDF began an assault on the city of Rafah in Gaza. Over the course of the Israel-Gaza war, Rafah has served as a refuge for a significant amount of Gaza’s population that had been forced out of the north. It had also previously been established as a safezone. Israel struck a number of targets within the city, reportedly including two mosques. Palestinian sources reported at least 100 fatalities and several hundred injuries resulting from the attack, the claims of which were accompanied by some rather gruesome photos and videos posted online. Rafah is currently home to approximately 1.4 million people. The same night, amidst the bombings, Israel announced the rescue of two hostages, a 60 and a 70 year old man. The two hostages were reported to have been in good health.

February 9th, 2024 - The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella organization of Iranian-backed militants, has announced the resumption of attacks against American forces in an attempt to “expel” them from the region. The Islamic Resistance halted attacks pending an American response to a drone attack on a US base in Jordan by the group, which killed three US soldiers. The US launched a series of strikes against the organizations of the group, aimed at deterring future attacks. Iraqi and Syrian militants have launched over 150 different attacks against US forces in the region since October, which they have stated are in support of Gaza as the Israel-Gaza war rages on.


February 8th, 2024 - Zimbabwe's parliament has voted to abolish the death penalty, the law of which was inherited from British colonial rule. Instead of the death penalty, those who commit what the nation considers to be the worst offenses will receive lengthy prison sentences. "In view of the need to retain the deterrent element in sentencing murderers, it is expected that the new law will impose lengthy sentences without violating the right to life," said Zimbabwe's National Cabinet. The last time Zimbabwe carried out an execution was almost 20 years ago, in 2005. The abolition of the death penalty has been strongly pushed for by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been sentenced to death by the British/Rhodesian administration in 1965 for blowing up a train in 1964. However, his lawyers successfully argued that since he was under 21, the minimum age for execution, he could not be executed. His death sentence was replaced with a 10-year prison sentence.

February 8th, 2024 - Tens of thousands more people have become displaced within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as fighting between the M23 Rebels, the DRC government, and the DRC's Southern African Development Community (SADC) allies has intensified. The M23 now sits approximately 25km (15.5 miles) away from the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma, a city of two million people. The M23 had reportedly surrounded the town of Sake, with fighting ongoing for control of the city itself. If taken, this would represent an incredible logistical defeat for the DRC's army, with Sake being the last road to Goma that is not yet controlled by the M23. It is unclear exactly who controls what in Sake. The M23 stated their intention was not to capture Goma, as they had in 2012. However, the surrounding of Sake does cut Goma off from any roadways accessible to the DRC’s military, representing significant logistical issues.

A group of M23 soldiers prepares to withdraw from the DRC town of Kibumba as a part of an established ceasefire, December 23rd, 2022 (Photo - AP/Moses Sawasawa).

February 6th, 2024 - The Sudanese military government has accused the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of disrupting several of Sudan’s largest telecommunications companies following days of zero or near-zero activity from the networks. Sources within the companies have also accused the RSF of being behind the disruptions. Publicly, the companies stated the disruptions were due to conditions “outside of its control." The RSF denied being behind the disruptions, although they did not say who was responsible instead. The RSF countered the government’s accusations with their own, accusing the government of disrupting networks in Darfur, which is controlled by the RSF.

The Americas

February 6th, 2024 - Ecuadorian police launched a series of multinational raids alongside Spanish police on Tuesday, seizing over two tons of narcotics and a variety of other assets. The operation, dubbed “Operation Great Phoenix 13,” follows over two years of joint investigations between Ecuadorian and Spanish police. The raids began early in the morning and led to the search of 57 properties across Ecuador and Spain. Alongside the narcotics, authorities also seized 500,000 euros, 10 firearms, 25 vehicles, 22 properties, 27 cellphones, and over two million USD in Ecuador. 30 suspects were detained during the raids, with the leader behind the transnational smuggling being a man of Albanian nationality. 10 "corporate coordinators" were also discovered to be involved in the narcotics smuggling, being responsible for transporting the narcotics from Ecuador into Spain.

Body cam footage showcasing Ecuadorian police launching a raid on a property in Ecuador. (Photo - Policía Ecuador)

February 9th, 2024 - Brazilian police seized former President Jair Bolsonaro's passport on Friday following accusations that the ex-president was orchestrating a military coup attempt following his electoral loss to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2022. Police also issued search warrants against four former ministers, while four former aides were arrested during the operation. Authorities stated the seizure would minimize Bolsonaro’s flight risk as the case for his alleged coup attempt heats up. One officer further claimed that there is strong evidence against the former president. Bolsonaro stands accused of sending a draft decree aimed at overturning electoral results to Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes and issuing arrest warrants for Supreme Court justices and a Senate leader. Bolsonaro allegedly modified the decree and pressured military commanders to support a coup. Bolsonaro is already ineligible to run for any public office until 2030, following his connection to the 2023 Capitol Siege, in which a mob of Bolsonaro supporters raided the government building, causing severe damage.

February 8th, 2024 - El Salvadorian electoral authorities have opted to headcount ballots following President Bukele’s landslide victory in the nation’s most recent elections. While authorities have claimed they are not concerned with Bukele’s win, the focus is centered on the outcome of the congressional seats following numerous claims of irregularities, glitches, power outages, and internet outages while voters attempted to reach the polls. Some have raised concerns that Bukele’s party’s electoral wins could lead to a supermajority in Congress and could grant Bukele unprecedented power, potentially allowing him to make significant constitutional changes and continue his tough stance against gangs, which has been criticized by rights groups.

Asia and Oceania

February 11th, 2024 - The Philippine Coast Guard vessel BRP Teresa Magbanua returned to port from a nine-day mission to patrol the area surrounding Scarborough Shoal. PCG Commandant, Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan, ordered the mission to ensure the safety of Philippine fishermen as well as offer assistance if needed. During her mission, the Teresa Magbanua monitored four Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels that were also present at the shoal. The four vessels shadowed the Teresa Magbanua around 40 times during the patrol, with one vessel coming within 577 feet (176 meters) of her front port side. The vessels also conducted several “dangerous and blocking maneuvers at sea” against the PCG vessel on four occasions, with two vessels crossing the Teresa Magbanua two times. There were also four Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels near the shoal. The Teresa Magbanua communicated with the eight vessels via radio, stating that the Philippines’ position is in accordance with international law. Chinese state media outlet, the Global Times, released a statement saying that the PCG vessel “illegally intruded into the waters adjacent” to Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island).

Screengrab of two CCG vessels blocking path of BRP Teresa Magbanua (Photo - Philippine Coast Guard)

February 10th, 2024 - The government of Myanmar, the State Administration Council (SAC), announced the activation of its 2010 conscription law, the People’s Military Law. Under the activated law, unskilled males and females ages 18–35 and 18–27, respectively, will be required to serve a mandatory two-year period in the military. Males and females ages 18–45 and females ages 18–45 who are considered ‘skilled’ (i.e., engineers, doctors, or people with other technical skills) will also be required to serve two years. The Junta can extend the mandatory service period to five during national emergencies. Individuals who attempt to dodge or do not comply with draft notices will receive jail sentences ranging from one to three years.

February 6th, 2024 - India announced that construction on the approximately 1021-mile (1643 km) border with Myanmar to enhance border surveillance. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah made the announcement on social media, stating the government built a 6.21-mile (10-km) stretch of the fence in Manipur state. The Home Minister also said that the border will also include a paved track to enhance the Indian security force’s ability to patrol and monitor the border. Shah also said that the government also started two pilot fencing projects under the Hybrid Surveillance System. The two HSS projects will run 0.62-mile (1 km) of the border in both Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur states. Indian officials approved a separate fencing project that will cover an additional 12.43-mile (20-km) stretch of the border and will be constructed in Manipur that will begin “soon.” Planning for an additional 186-mile (300-km) length of smart fencing systems along the Indo-Myanmar border is ongoing and will begin when the project receives approval.

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