While Mali has been limping back to civilian control following the March 22 coup, the humanitarian situation in the rebel-controlled north has been deteriorating, sparking urgent appeals for help by displaced civilians.
Malians have heaved a sigh of relief following a weekend of rapid political developments that saw the lifting of sanctions imposed after the March 22 military coup and the resignation of the country's ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure, paving the way for the implementation of last week's transitional exit plan.
But the reprieve has been marred by reports of the worsening security and humanitarian situation in northern Mali, a region as large as France, effectively isolated for over a week since Tuareg rebels, in an uneasy alliance with Islamist groups, seized control of the key northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
As international attention focused on the implementation of Friday's power handover agreement, northern Malians in the capital of Bamako gathered to appeal to the international community to find a solution to the crisis in northern Mali.
“Today, we have a humanitarian disaster because our country has been occupied by terrorists and Islamic extremists who have killed hundreds of our brethren in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu,” said Maliki Alhusseini Maiga, president of COREN (Le Collectif des Resortissants du Nord Mali), an association of people from the north, at a press conference in Bamako on Sunday. “They have raped our sisters, they have burned government buildings, they have destroyed our cities and they are terrorizing the population. If it continues like this, we will face a very, very dangerous situation in this area.”
Maiga called on the regional West African ECOWAS bloc, the African Union, and the international community to “liberate northern Mali” and set up a humanitarian corridor to supply aid to Malians trapped in the northern region.
His appeal came amid reports of growing tensions between Tuareg rebels and Islamist factions.
The rebel advance following the March 22 coup has been conducted by the secular Tuareg separatist group MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad) in an uneasy alliance with Islamist factions, including the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), an Islamist group believed to have links to al Qaeda's North Africa branch, AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).
Last week, the MNLA declared the independence of the north. But more than a week after the three northern regions fell from government control, residents say they are still unsure which of the groups control their areas amid reports of rivalries between rebel factions.
On Sunday, residents of Gao trying to flee the city in a bus told the Associated Press that they saw Islamist fighters cut the throat of a Tuareg gunman, assumed to belong to the MNLA.
The bus was driven off the road by Tuareg fighters who apparently wanted to rob the occupants. Passengers on the bus then called a hotline given to them by Islamist fighters in an attempt to instill confidence. When the Islamist fighters arrived, a bus company employee told the Associated Press that he and the other passengers saw the Islamist fighters cut the throat of one of the Tuareg fighters.
Urgent calls for humanitarian access
International human rights groups have warned that northern Mali is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster compounded by drought, fighting and a lack of access to the region.
In a statement released last week, Amnesty International called for immediate access to northern Mali to deliver humanitarian aid.
“All the food and medicine stored by major aid agencies has been looted and most of the aid workers have fled,” said Gaëtan Mootoo, Amnesty International’s researcher on West Africa. “The population is at imminent risk of severe food and medical shortages that could lead to many casualties, especially among women and children, who are less able to fend for themselves.”
Northern Malians who managed to flee shortly after government soldiers abandoned their positions in the recent rebel advance described panicked scenes as rebels swept into the dcountry's main northern cities.
“I was the last representative to leave Kidal,” said Hominy Belco Maiga, a local assembly representative for the Kidal region. “When I saw the Tuareg fighters come and the army had fled, I thought that everything is finished and so I left.”
Amnesty International estimates that more than 200,000 people have fled northern Mali since fighting broke out in January following the return of Tuareg mercenaries after the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
While many northern Malians have fled to the government-controlled south, Amnesty International says an estimated 100,000 people have crossed into neighbouring Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Burkina Faso.
Maiga, however, maintained that he has no intention of permanently quitting his hometown. “I will go back to Kidal,” he vowed. “I am not afraid. These rebels are looking to find new territory for al Qaeda and for the trafficking of arms and drugs. But Mali is our country and it is indivisable."