UN expects up to 700,000 people to be uprooted by violence in Mali


Military operationUp to 700,000 people are expected to be uprooted by the violence in Mali, including 400,000 who could flee to neighbouring countries in the coming months, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said yesterday.

French, Malian and African forces are confronting an Islamist rebel alliance that includes al-Qaeda’s North African wing in a military operation that began last week. “We believe there could be in the near future an additional 300,000 displaced inside Mali and up to 400,000 additional displaced [refugees] in neighbouring countries,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

Some 147,000 Malians have already fled to countries including Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria since the crisis began last year. Some 229,000 Malians are already internally displaced within Mali.

“We have been hearing horrific accounts from refugees in the neighbouring countries,” Ms Fleming said.

“They report having witnessed executions, amputations, and they say also large amounts of money being offered to civilians to fight against the Malian army and its supporters. Disturbingly we are also hearing accounts that there are children among the rebel fighters.”

Meanwhile, UN diplomats in New York said French troops’ initial clashes with Islamist militants in Mali had shown that the desert fighters were better trained and equipped than France had anticipated.

Western reluctance

The realisation that the fighting could be bloodier than anticipated in the weeks – or months – ahead might make western countries even more reluctant to get involved alongside France. French officials, however, hope it will rally their allies behind them, diplomats say.

“The cost of failure in Mali would be high for everyone, not just the people of Mali,” an African diplomat said on Thursday.

The seizure of dozens of hostages in neighbouring Algeria, where Algerian troops launched a military operation to rescue the captives from “diehard” Islamist militants at a desert gas plant, also raises the possibility that Islamist violence could snowball beyond Mali’s borders.

“Our enemies were well-armed, well-equipped, well-trained and determined,” a senior French diplomat said.

French, Malian and African forces are facing off against an Islamist coalition that includes al-Qaeda’s North African wing, Aqim, and the homegrown Ansar Dine and Mujwa militants.

The motley mix of Tuareg rebels, Islamists and foreign jihadists has been united by the threat of foreign military intervention, which the UN Security Council called for last month. – (Reuters)