UN Secretary-General warns of deteriorating situation

The Malian government has confirmed that 27 soldiers and Touareg rebels were killed and 31 wounded in clashes in northern Mali on 21 May and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that the situation is “concerning”.

“This latest incident underscores the urgent need to find an immediate and lasting solution to this recurrent conflict so that Mali can focus on its development priorities and consolidation of its democracy,” Ban said in a statement issued by his spokesperson in New York on 22 May.

Military officers and observers in Mali said the scale of the rebel assault on a garrison at Abebara, 150 km north of Kidal in northern Mali on 21 May, showed a worrying escalation in the audacity of the rebels’ tactics and of their fighting strength and speculated that several rebel groups had come together to launch the attack.

The rebels and the government had signed a Libyan-brokered truce in April after months of attacks on military facilities, skirmishes, and kidnappings. A separate Touareg rebellion in neighbouring Niger is ongoing.

A source within the Mali rebellion said that that they would continue their assaults until the government entered into negotiations over political and economic autonomy for the Touareg-dominated north.

“After the Malian government’s refusal to enter into a sincere and serious dialogue, the Touaregs in the rebellion determined that the government is not trying to do anything except to gain time to reinforce the military,” the source said.

Hama Ag Sid Ahmed, spokesperson for the Touareg Alliance of Northern Mali, laid out the rebels’ demands in a statement issued after the attack.

“To end this crisis, we hope that the Malian authorities quickly get together with the country’s technical and financial partners, the politicians, and international mediators to start a dialogue that takes into account the widening of this conflict to other regions of the north,” the statement said.

Before agreeing to Libyan-sponsored truce, Mali’s government had rejected the rebels’ demands for negotiations and accused them of using unreasonable political and economic demands to obfuscate their real goal of controlling cross-border smuggling routes used to move arms, drugs, fuel and other illicit goods around the vast desert region.

Research conducted by the UN has shown that preventing conflicts from widening is considerably cheaper than deploying peacekeeping and emergency relief operations once a conflict is underway.

A previous revolt by Touaregs in northern Mali and Niger in the 1990s resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilians being displaced into neighbouring countries and required a major relief operation and successive rounds of negotiations.

Ban said his Special Representative for West Africa, Said Djinnit, is scheduled to visit Mali and will be briefing him on the issue.