The UN says it has pulled its peacekeepers out of a camp in northern Mali earlier than planned, because “their lives were in danger”.
It says its last convoy left the camp in Tessalit on Saturday. Mali’s military leaders, who ordered the withdrawal of all UN and French troops earlier this year, says the Tessalit camp is now in its control.
Saturday’s withdrawal happened “in an extremely tense and degraded security context putting in danger the lives of personnel”, said the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, Minusma, in a statement seen by AFP.
With fewer international troops on the ground in Mali, it is feared that the country will be subject to worsening violence from powerful armed groups – including Islamist militants and Tuareg militias.
“MINUSMA may be leaving Mali, but the United Nations, through its agencies, funds, and programs, remains. Their work has never been as vital as it is today,” he said, welcoming assurances received from Malian authorities regarding security of UN personnel.
Mr. Wane called for additional funding for the UN Country Team and all humanitarians working there to enable them to continue supporting Mali’s development efforts.
MINUSMA was established by the Security Council in 2013, following a coup the previous year. Over the past decade, it has become the UN’s most challenging peacekeeping mission, suffering over 303 fatalities amid continuing extremist violence and rampant insecurity across much of the north and centre.
By December, the mission’s 12 camps and one temporary operating base will be closed and handed over to transitional authorities, while its uniformed personnel numbering about 12,947 will be repatriated.
Civilian staff will also be drawn down, and equipment – a load of approximately 5,500 sea containers and nearly 4,000 vehicles – relocated to other missions or repatriated to the countries that provided them.
Making the transition
In an exclusive interview with UN News shortly before the briefing, Special Representative Wane said that though a lot remains to be done before the closure, the Mission is helping Malian actors prepare to take over once it has left the country.
In early August, MINUSMA convened a roundtable with authorities to brief them on what it has achieved over the past ten years, as well as what remains to be accomplished.
“A lot remains to be done obviously. And the objective was to help them prepare as much as they can to take over…and continue the stabilisation efforts we have been supporting for the past ten years,” he said, adding the UN was in Mali before MINUSMA was deployed and “we will continue to offer support to the Malian people and government.”
Mr. Wane also highlighted that the Mission is committed to ensuring the closest coordination possible so that its departure does not result in a void, that could make the country more unstable and civilians more vulnerable.
Fraught with challenges
The withdrawal process, outlined in Security Council resolution 2690, has been structured in two phases, with the first phase underway since July. This phase involved the closure of MINUSMA’s smaller outposts and camps located in remote regions.
In his briefing, Mr. Wane spoke of the progress thus far, which had been fraught with challenges.
He recounted the difficulties encountered during the closure of MINUSMA’s Ber camp, including an arduous 51-hour journey – to cover a mere 57 kilometres or 35 miles – to Timbuktu through difficult terrain, made worse by the rains and insecurity.
“The convoy was attacked twice by unidentified extremist elements, injuring four peacekeepers and damaging three vehicles,” he said.
The second phase, scheduled to last until mid-December and focusing on the closure of six more bases, also presents logistical and security challenges.
These include covering distances of up to 563 kilometres – about 350 miles – and managing over 1,050 truckloads of equipment, while braving the threat of ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
The political dimension
At the same time, the political dimension cannot be overlooked, Mr. Wane said, noting disagreements on the fate of vacated camps between Mali’s military and the Signatory Movements of the Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Mali.
He highlighted the urgent need for common ground to avoid incidents that could hamper the withdrawal process and jeopardize the prospects for resuming the peace process.
The UN envoy also noted that the situation in Niger in the aftermath of the current military takeover also impacts MINUSMA’s withdrawal plan, given that routes to ports in Cotonou (Benin) and Lomé (Togo) cross Niger.
“It is crucial that we can transport equipment and materials across Niger to these ports for their subsequent repatriation to the concerned troop and police-contributing countries,” he said.