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Morocco launches drones to detect lockdown violators, high body temperature4 minutes read

A strict lockdown imposed in March has not been uniformly respected, with local media reporting on nighttime gatherings of neighbours and collective prayers on roofs, beyond the view of street patrols. Drones have now been introduced to spot violators or make announcements.

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Morocco is trialling high tech solutions like disinfectant-spraying drones to help fight the new Coronavirus. AFP/Fadel Senna

Moroccan authorities have launched a fleet of drones to battle the coronavirus pandemic in the north African country, deploying them for aerial surveillance of lockdown violators, fumigation and public service announcements.

“This is a real craze. In just weeks, demand has tripled in Morocco and other countries in the region,” said Yassine Qamous, chief of Droneway Maroc, African distributor for leading Chinese drone company DJI.

Moroccan firms have been using drones for years and Qamous says it “is among the most advanced countries in Africa” for unmanned flight, with a dedicated industrial base, researchers and qualified pilots, an AFP report said.

But restrictive regulations have long limited civilian drones to specific applications such as filming, agriculture, monitoring solar panels and mapping.

That changed rapidly as the novel coronavirus swept across the world. 

In recent weeks, authorities have employed drones to issue warnings, identify suspicious movement in the streets and disperse illegal rooftop and balcony gatherings.

A strict lockdown imposed in March has not been uniformly respected, with local media reporting on nighttime gatherings of neighbours and collective prayers on roofs, beyond the view of street patrols.

– ‘Vital technology’ –

Last week local authorities in Temara, a town near the capital Rabat, launched a high-precision aerial surveillance system developed by local company Beti3D, which previously specialised in aerial mapping.

Other countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East have also adopted technology deployed in China since the start of the pandemic, whether for tracking the movements of citizens, disinfecting public spaces or facilitating deliveries.

“Drones have quickly emerged as a vital technology for public safety agencies during this crisis as they can safely monitor public spaces,” according to the website of DJI, by far the world’s top drone maker.

Like most countries, Morocco primarily uses imported Chinese drones. But the emergence of new applications linked to the pandemic is also driving local production of specialised aerial vehicles.

“There is real demand,” said Abderrahmane Krioual, the head of Farasha, a startup that has raised funds to produce drones for thermal surveillance and aerial disinfectant spraying.

The aeronautics department of the International University of Rabat (UIR) offered its facilities, expertise and prototypes to authorities in March, deploying drones with loudspeakers or infrared cameras able to detect movement at night or spot individuals with high temperatures.

Several projects are underway across the country ahead of the widespread deployment of various models of drones, said Mohsine Bouya, the university’s director of technology development and transfer. 

Teams are also developing tracking applications, but “we’ll have to wait for a change to the law” before launching them, he said.

Moroccan authorities declined to comment on the use of drones or the numbers deployed since the start of the public health emergency in mid-March.

‘Toxic lockdown culture’ –

Unlike in some countries, the use of surveillance drones has not sparked public debate in Morocco, where the kingdom’s authoritarian response to the pandemic is widely supported.

Morocco closed its borders early and tasked law enforcement with imposing strict confinement measures on the population.

They include movement restrictions and the compulsory wearing of masks, with a nighttime curfew since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — enforced by a heavy police presence.

Those found guilty of violating lockdown measures face one to three months in prison, a fine equivalent to $125, or both. 

Officials say police have arrested 85,000 people for breaching lockdown measures between March 15 and April 30, bringing 50,000 prosecutions.

Authorities say the measures have limited transmission of the virus, with 5,053 COVID-19 cases reported including 179 deaths and 1,653 recoveries since the crisis began.

But the kingdom’s high number of arrests has drawn criticism from Georgette Gagnon, director of field operations at the United Nations’ Human Rights Office.

Last week she listed Morocco among countries where repressive coronavirus measures have created a “toxic lockdown culture”. 

Morocco disputed this, saying its measures were “in line with legal frameworks respecting human rights”.

Morocco has relied on heavy surveillance to enforce a strict lockdown, attracting criticism from the United Nations Human Rights Office. AFP/Fadel Senna

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North Africa Politics

Algeria recalls its ambassador in France for airing films on protests

Algeria’s interior ministry said films including two broadcast on Tuesday, while “seemingly spontaneous and under the pretext of freedom of expression, are in fact attacks on the Algerian people and its institutions” including the army.

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Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune

Algeria plans to “immediately” recall its ambassador from France for consultations after documentaries about the North African country’s anti-government protest movement were aired on French public television, officials said Wednesday. 

The interior ministry said the films including two broadcasts on Tuesday, while “seemingly spontaneous and under the pretext of freedom of expression, are in fact attacks on the Algerian people and its institutions” including the army.

Citing the “recurrent character” of such programmes on French public TV, it singled out two documentaries broadcast on Tuesday by France 5 and the former colonial power’s Parliamentary Channel.

Unprecedented mass protests rocked Algeria early last year to demand the departure of veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, sparked by the ailing 82-year-old’s announcement that he would stand for a fifth term.

In April 2019 he resigned, and in December, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune was elected on an official turnout of less than 40 percent. Analysts say participation was considerably lower. 

Mass protests against the ruling system only halted when the novel coronavirus arrived in Algeria earlier this year.

Despite the movement suspending demonstrations since mid-March, a crackdown has continued against regime opponents and independent media.

– ‘Malicious and lasting intentions’ –

The films cited by the Algerian ministry had sparked fierce debates on social media. 

“Algeria, my love”, aired by France 5, told the story of the Hirak protest movement through the eyes of five Algerians in their 20s from across the country. 

Directed by French journalist of Algerian origin Mustapha Kessous, it broke with a number of taboos and highlighted sociocultural divisions driving the movement, triggering heated discussion on social networks.

The second film, “Algeria: the Promises of the Dawn” was broadcast on France’s Parliamentary Channel.

In its statement, the Algerian ministry cited what it said were “malicious and lasting intentions on the part of certain circles, which do not wish to see peaceful relations between Algeria and France after 58 years of independence”.

France Televisions, which owns France 5, declined to comment on the Algerian announcement on Wednesday evening.

France and Algeria have often had tense ties since Algeria won independence in 1962 after eight years of war.

In early April, the French ambassador to Algeria, Xavier Driencourt, was summoned to the foreign ministry after statements on the France 24 satellite news channel about Chinese medical aid.

Earlier in the year, Tebboune had called for “mutual respect” in Franco-Algerian relations, saying his country “will not accept any interference or tutelage” from abroad.

He was referring to statements made by French President Emmanuel Macron early on in the Hirak protest movement, calling for “a transition of reasonable duration” — remarks seen by Algiers as “interference” in its internal affairs.

In recent weeks, the Algerian government has repeatedly blamed “foreign” NGOs for influencing Algerian media outlets aiming to damage state institutions.

Last month, authorities blocked three news websites that had covered the protests.

Algeria ranks 146 out of 180 countries on RSF’s world press freedom index for 2020.

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Health

Algeria insists on hydroxychloroquine for Covid-19 treatment

WHO said on Monday it had temporarily suspended clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for coronavirus.

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Algeria has disclosed plans to continue the use of hydroxychloroquine in tackling the coronavirus, despite the discouragement by the World Health Organization that has suspended clinical trials of such treatments following a study which showed that the drug caused more harm than good.

“We’ve treated thousands of cases with this medicine, very successfully so far,” said Mohamed Bekkat, a member of the scientific committee on the North African country’s Covid-19 outbreak. 

“We haven’t noted any undesirable reactions,” he said.

Bekkat, who is also head of the Order of Algerian Doctors, said the country had not registered any deaths caused by hydroxychloroquine.

“For confirmed cases, we use hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. Then there is a whole protocol for serious cases,” a health ministry official said on Monday.

Bekkat’s comments came days after medical journal The Lancet published a study of nearly 100,000 coronavirus patients, showing no benefit in those treated with the drug, which is normally used against arthritis.

The study found that administering the medicine or, separately, the related anti-malarial chloroquine, actually increased Covid-19 patients’ risk of dying.

The World Health Organization said on Monday it had temporarily suspended clinical trials of hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for coronavirus, following the Lancet study.

Bekkat argued that the Lancet study had led to “confusion” as it “seems to concern serious cases in which hydroxychloroquine is of no help”.

“There is evidence that the use of chloroquine by some Arab and African countries has proven to be effective when used early,” he explained.  

Public figures including US President Donald Trump have backed the drug as a virus treatment, prompting governments to bulk buy — despite several studies showing it to be ineffective and even increasing COVID-19 hospital deaths.

Algeria’s coronavirus outbreak is one of the worst in Africa, with a total of 8,503 cases and 609 deaths officially recorded since February 25.

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North Africa Politics

Egyptian security forces kill 21 terrorists planning Eid-ul-Fitr attack

Police raided two hideouts of “terrorist elements” in North Sinai governorate, sparking a gunbattle in which two officers were also wounded, the Interior Ministry said.

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An Egyptian police Vehicle is parked inside a cemetery after the former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was buried in Cairo
Egyptian security forces had found automatic weapons and suicide belts in the hideouts.) AFP

Egyptian security forces said Saturday that 21 terrorists were killed in clashes within the restive Sinai peninsula, where Islamic State group-affiliated militants have waged a long-running insurgency amidst constant crackdown by the police and military.

The government said two terrorist groups had been planning attacks during the major Islamic holiday – Eid al-Fitr – which starts in Egypt on Sunday.

The interior ministry said in a statement that police raided two hideouts of “terrorist elements” in North Sinai governorate, sparking a gun-battle in which two officers were also wounded.

Security forces had found automatic weapons and suicide belts in the hideouts.

Security forces have been battling a long-running insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula — in Egypt’s northeast — that is spearheaded by a local affiliate of the terrorist Islamic State group.

The fighting intensified after the military’s 2013 ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.

In February 2018, security forces launched a nationwide operation against militants, focused on North Sinai. 

Around 950 suspected militants have been killed in the region along with dozens of security personnel, according to official figures.

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