Refugees flee Mali as conflict worsens
Relief agencies are bracing themselves for an influx of refugees to neighbouring countries as the conflict in Mali escalates following the arrival of French troops.
Since France intervened by sending warplanes and troops to stop an Islamist offensive into southern Mali, humanitarian organisations have reported an increase in the number of Malians leaving the country. Almost 1,500 have crossed into Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso since January 11th amid worries the figures could multiply if the fighting persists.
“Refugees are telling us they fled the military intervention, the absence of subsistence opportunities and basic services, and the imposition of sharia law,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said in Geneva on Tuesday.
Yesterday, French troops surrounded Diabaly, keeping Islamists rebels who had seized the town three days ago bottled up while a west African military force took shape.
The French held back from launching a full-out assault on the town as the al-Qaeda-linked rebels had taken refuge in the homes of civilians.
“The Islamists are still in Diabaly. They are very many of them. Every time they hear a plane overhead, they run into homes, traumatising the people,” said a woman who fled the town with her three children overnight.
French forces now total some 1,400 troops, said defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, and their numbers are expected to rise to 2,500. The vanguard of about 900 Nigerian troops was due to arrive in Mali’s capital, Bamako, yesterday in the first wave of a 2,000-strong African force to fight alongside the French.
A convoy of armoured vehicles, fuel tankers and ambulances and about 200 soldiers from Mali’s eastern neighbour Niger was also positioned at that border, witnesses said.
UNHCR, other UN agencies and national authorities have prepared contingency plans to cope with 300,000 internally displaced Malians and 407,000 refugees. The number of Malian refugees in the region is estimated to be 144,500, with about 54,100 in Mauritania, 50,000 in Niger, 38,800 in Burkina Faso and 1,500 in Algeria. Small groups are also in Guinea and Togo.
Most of the refugees are arriving in underdeveloped and difficult to reach areas. Poor infrastructure and harsh conditions, including flooding during the rainy season, make the situation even more difficult. The UNHCR has been registering refugees in Niger; once this is done, some of the estimated 50,000 Malian refugees will be moved away from the dangerous border areas.
The internally displaced population inside Mali, including people who fled last year and those newly displaced in the past week, is estimated by Mali’s commission on population movements to be 228,918. They are mainly in the capital, Bamako, Segou, Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso and Mopti. Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) has called on all parties to the conflict to respect the safety of civilians and leave medical facilities untouched. It said bombardments started again on Sunday morning in Douentza, a town to the northeast of Mopti, in central Mali.
“Because of the bombardments and fighting, nobody is moving in the streets of Douentza and patients are not making it through to the hospital,” said Rosa Crestani, MSF emergency response co-ordinator. “We are worried about the people living close to the combat zones.”
MSF said that during the night between January 10th and 11th it had received phone calls about dead and injured people in the central town of Konna, including civilians. The seizure of Konna by Islamists precipitated France’s military intervention as it feared the rest of the country would fall into the hands of the Islamists.
Oxfam, which is providing humanitarian assistance in the Gao region of northern Mali, called for UN monitors to be “urgently deployed” in the country, and urged the Malian authorities and France to report regularly to the UN security council on civilian casualties and human rights violations.
Military action has disrupted the work of some NGOs in the north. Action Against Hunger said it has suspended its programmes in Gao temporarily, and warned that clashes are hampering humanitarian aid to vulnerable communities.
“This new phase of the conflict is adding to the fragility of the population,” said Vincent Stehli, director of operations for Action Against Hunger. “We fear the worst is yet to come in the spring – the period between harvests, when food reserves will be exhausted. For now, we have been forced to suspend our projects in Gao, as the hospital where we were treating malnourished children is closed.” – (Guardian service; additional reporting Reuters)