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TODAY:

  • Boko Haram has struck another school and abducted scores of young girls
  • Saudi Arabia’s government is promising to bring in thousands of foreign acts and invest $64 billion US in entertainment over the coming decade
  • Health officials in Canada’s North are taking extraordinary new measures to fight tuberculosis

The return of Boko Haram

Nigeria’s military says it has rescued 76 of the schoolgirls who were abducted during a Boko Haram attack in the country’s northeastern Yobe state on Monday, but scores more remain unaccounted for.

The girls were returned to the village of Dapchi after an army counter-attack late yesterday. The army said that it had also recovered two bodies, but did not specify how the girls died.

Local residents told Reuters that as many as 91 girls may still be missing. One parent, Bashir Manzo, said the parents compiled a list of 101 missing children and presented it to the governor, according to the Associated Press. 

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Girls kidnapped from the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok by Boko Haram insurgents in 2014 and who are still being held are seen in this still image taken from an undated video obtained Jan. 15. (Reuters)

The insurgent group drove into the village on trucks with mounted machine guns Monday evening, and proceeded directly to the school. Police and state officials initially denied that abductions had taken place during the attack, but later issued a press release about the rescues.

Nigeria’s government has a history of downplaying Boko Haram attacks. It remains particularly sensitive about the kidnappings of young women, after the international outcry that followed the abduction of 270 girls from a school in Chibok in the spring of 2014. Although some have since escaped, and others have been freed, as many as 100 are still being held by their captors.

(Last month, the group released a video that purported to show a dozen of the Chibok girls, dressed in abayas and hijabs, with some holding young children. “By the grace of Allah, we are never coming back,” one said in a message to the camera.)

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Yagana Bukar and her mother, right, whose children were among 300 kidnapped from the town of Damasak in North East Nigeria by Boko Haram insurgents in 2014. (Florian Plaucheur/AFP/Getty Images)

Parents of the missing Dapchi girls told reporters that they had been instructed by the army not to talk about the abductions.

Nigerian forces have made substantial gains against Boko Haram over the past four years, regaining almost all of the territory the Islamic group had claimed as its “caliphate.”

But a televised Christmas Eve speech by President Muhammadu Buhari claiming final victory over the terrorists after a successful operation against their camps in Nigeria’s Sambisa forest has proven premature.

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Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari declared victory over Boko Haram on Christmas Eve after a successful operation against their camps in Sambisa forest, but the group has continued to mount attacks. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

If anything, the violence in Borno state has since intensified, including a Feb. 17 suicide bomb attack on the fish market in Konduga that killed 21 and wounded 70 others.

A BBC analysis, published late last month, declared Boko Haram to be “as lethal as ever,” tallying 150 attacks by the group in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger in 2016, versus 127 the year before.

And as the power struggle continues, Nigeria’s civilians continue to bear the brunt.

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Families displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency line up for food being distributed by International Medical Corps on Jan. 29 in Maiduguri, Nigeria. (International Medical Corps/Margaret Traub via Getty Images)

Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of world human rights, released this morning, accuses the Nigerian military of arbitrarily arresting and detaining thousands of young men, women and children.

The report also documents dozens of abuses by Boko Haram, including the kidnapping of 10 female police officers in June, and the beheading of six farmers in November.

At least 1.7 million people have been displaced from their homes by the fighting, and the UN says that 5.4 million people in the country’s northeast are in urgent need of food assistance.


Fun-seeking in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s government is promising a revolution in entertainment choices in the conservative kingdom by bringing in thousands of foreign acts and investing $64 billion US over the coming decade.

Ground has already been broken on construction of the country’s first opera house, Ahmad Bin Aqeel Al-Khatib, head of the General Entertainment Authority, told reporters at a splashy press event in Riyadh today.

Some 5,000 concerts and events are planned for 2018, billed as an “unprecedented year of culture and entertainment.”

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Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ‘Vision 2030’ program aims to transform the kingdom and move its economy away from a strict reliance on oil exports. (Bandar Algaloud/Reuters)

Details remain sketchy, but the names Maroon 5, Cirque du Soleil and Andrea Bocelli flashed on a screen while Al-Khatib spoke. The money will come from both the government and private sector.

“God willing, you will see a real change by 2020,” said Al-Khatib, promising to create more than 200,000 new jobs in the entertainment sector this year alone. “Everything related to entertainment will be done here.”

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Members of circus troupe Cirque Eloize perform a show organized by the Saudi entertainment authority in Riyadh on Jan. 18. (Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters)

The announcement falls under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” program to transform the kingdom and move its economy away from a strict reliance on oil exports.

A 35-year ban on cinemas was lifted in December, with plans to build 300 new movie theatres.

And the GEA has already sponsored several groundbreaking events, including an electronic music festival, Saudi Arabia’s first-ever Comic Con last February, and a Monster Truck Jam at Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium last March.

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A Saudi woman looks on as children pose for a photo with a man dressed as Iron Man during the country’s first ever Comic-Con event in Jeddah on Feb. 16, 2017. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

The new, more liberal choices are part of an effort to keep Saudis and their entertainment dollars in the country — “Don’t Even Think About Travelling” was the theme of GEA’s Winter Break campaign — and help offset the slumping oil economy.

Last fall, the Crown Prince announced plans to build a new $500 billion US “entertainment city” and business zone outside Riyadh that will be roughly the size of Las Vegas.

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People attend a performance by actor John Travolta in Riyadh on Dec. 15, 2017. (Faisal al Nasser/Reuters)

The development will focus on boosting tourism by competing with similar areas, filled with amusement parks and shopping malls, in neighbouring Dubai and Bahrain.

It is meant to complement another new project that will turn 50 small Red Sea islands into a massive luxury hotel and resort area.

The 32-year-old Crown Prince seems to have grasped that the country is ripe for some fun. Seventy per cent of Saudi Arabia’s 33 million citizens are under the age of 30.


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Tuberculosis in Canada’s North

Health officials in Canada’s North are taking extraordinary new measures to fight an old foe — tuberculosis.

The infectious disease, which most often attacks the lungs, remains one of the developing world’s top-10 killers, but it has all but disappeared from Canada. At least in the South.

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A chest x-ray shows pulmonary tuberculosis. Canada’s overall TB incidence rate was 4.6 cases per 100,000 population in 2015. (Puwadol Jaturawutthichai/Shutterstock)

In 2015, there were just 1,639 active TB cases reported across the country, and 71 per cent were diagnosed in foreign-born patients.

Canada’s overall TB incidence rate was 4.6 cases per 100,000 population.

But infection rates among Canada’s Indigenous peoples are almost four times higher. And among the Inuit specifically, the rates are far worse, with 166.2 cases per 100,000 population.

In Quebec’s Inuit territory of Nunavik, the TB infection rate is now 360 cases per 100,000 people — 120 times more than in the southern parts of Quebec.

This week, public health officials in Nunavik announced plans to launch a tuberculosis awareness campaign, following a coroner’s report into the death of a 22-year-old Kangiqsualujjuaq man last June.

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In Kangiqsualujjuaq, a remote village on the east coast of Ungava Bay with a population of around 800, TB resurfaced in 2012 after an absence of many years. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)

Jimmy Baron contracted the disease from close contact with another sufferer, but downplayed the symptoms, refusing to follow through when the local health care centre recommended a chest x-ray.

An addiction to alcohol may have played a part in his death, but the coroner also singled out the social stigma of TB, saying people avoid a diagnosis for fear of being marginalized in their communities. Kangiqsualujjuaq, a remote village on the east coast of Ungava Bay, has a population of around 800. Tuberculosis resurfaced there in 2012, after an absence of many years.

In Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, a Baffin Island hamlet where almost 10 per cent of the 600 residents have been diagnosed with tuberculosis, health officials have set up an emergency mobile screening clinic.

Qikiqtarjuaq mobile TB clinic

The mobile tuberculosis screening clinic in Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut, where almost 10 per cent of the 600 residents have been diagnosed with TB. (Travis Burke/CBC)

“It’s now hit a point where if you just take one patient and screen all their contacts you might as well have screened the entire community,” Dr. Kim Barker, Nunavut’s chief medical officer of health, told CBC News.  

The roughly two-month program is being run by the Public Health Agency of Canada. It has brought in a dozen medical personnel, including an epidemiologist, X-ray technicians and respiratory therapists, and will cost around $1 million.

Geela and Ileen Kooneeliusie Qikiqtarjuaq Nunavut

Geela Kooneeliusie and her 15-year-old daughter Ileen, right. Ileen died from tuberculosis in early 2017 while being treated at an Ottawa hospital. (submitted by Geela Kooneeliusie and Matthew Kilabuk)

If the program is successful in persuading residents to get tested and treated for the disease, it will be packed up and moved on to 16 other Nunavut communities that currently have TB cases.

Qikiqtarjuaq gained national attention in early 2017 when a 15-year-old girl, Ileen Kooneeliusie, died of a rare form of TB after she was airlifted to an Ottawa hospital.

In the wake of her death, Inuit leaders joined with the federal government to create a Tuberculosis Task Force. It’s charged with formulating a strategy to bring down an active TB rate among Inuit that is 270 times higher than the Canadian-born, non-Indigenous population, where there are just 0.6 infections per 100,000 people.

Matthew Kilabuk and Geela Kooneeliusie Qikiqtarjuaq Nunavut

Matthew Kilabuk, left, and Geela Kooneeliusie visit their daughter Ileen’s grave outside of Qikiqtarjuaq. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Last year’s federal budget devoted $13 million to TB control and prevention.

The housing crisis in the far North remains a huge contributing cause to the spread of the disease, with more than a third of the population living in run-down and overcrowded conditions.

Although there is also a deep historical distrust that must be addressed. During the last TB epidemic in the region, between the 1940 and 1960s, many Inuit who were sent away from their communities for treatment never returned home. And to this day, their families don’t know their burial locations.


Quote of the moment

“… History shows that a school shooting lasts, on average, 3 minutes. It takes police & first responders approximately 5 to 8 minutes to get to site of crime. Highly trained, gun adept, teachers/coaches would solve the problem instantly, before police arrive. GREAT DETERRENT!”

– Via Twitter this morning, U.S. President Donald Trump outlined his plan to end school shootings by creating an elite corps of armed teachers.


What The National is reading

  • UN pleads for urgent truce to avert ‘massacre’ in Syria’s Ghouta district (CBC)
  • Greece approves bribery probe of political elite (New York Times)
  • ‘I’m not a saint’: What Tina Fontaine’s accused killer revealed to a CBC reporter (CBC)
  • Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in ‘racist’ anthrax terror threat (Evening Standard)
  • Russia pays $15 million doping fine to IOC (Moscow Times)
  • America’s most-wanted deadbeat dad arrested in Calgary (CBC)
  • China cracks down on funeral strippers (Asia Times)

Today in history

Feb. 22, 1988: The ‘Two Brians’ battle for gold at Calgary Olympics

Canada’s Brian Orser was world champion and the home crowd favourite at the 1988 Winter Games. But he ended up slipping on a triple flip and losing the men’s figure skating competition to American rival Brian Boitano. “It was only one-tenth of a mark from one judge that cost me the gold medal,” Orser recounts in this Midday interview a day later, his emotions still barely in check.

Brian Boitano and Brian Orser fight for Olympic gold4:08


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