Bamako — As the Malian Army mounts a counter offensive against rebel forces that is being aided by foreign troops, aid agency World Vision is warning of severe humanitarian consequences if immediate steps are not taken to guarantee the security of children.
"Children are especially vulnerable when military operations are launched, and this latest move has to be managed carefully and those who would like to flee have a safe passage out," says Chance Briggs, the head of World Vision's Mali office.
Governments committing resources to the offensive in the north have a responsibility to ensure children and their families are protected throughout the conflict, and that humanitarian organisations like World Vision can get help through, said Briggs.
"It would be intolerable to see more children separated from their parents, displaced from their homes, or cramped in refugee camps for weeks on end, not knowing where to go next or when they will be able to begin rebuilding their lives.
"Last year was a particularly difficult year for children around the country, and the ongoing conflict in the north threatens them further. Their needs must be prioritized, and international humanitarian law abided by at every step," said Briggs.
Almost five million Malians are affected by the concurrent three crises namely, food, nutrition and military conflict. More than 400,000 people have already been forced to flee their homes, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
As a military offensive begins, World Vision fears that more children and communities will be put at risk both directly as a result of the intervention, and indirectly as humanitarian access is affected.
NGOs in Mali estimate that if military intervention begins the total number of displaced persons could reach 700,000.
Meanwhile all parties to the armed conflict in Mali must ensure civilians are protected, Amnesty International has urged as attacks by French forces continue.
With French support, the Malian army launched a counter-offensive against armed Islamist groups on January 11, 2013 to prevent the capture of cities in the south of the country.
"There are real concerns that the fighting might lead to indiscriminate or other unlawful attacks in areas where members of armed Islamist groups and civilians are inter-mingled," said Paule Rigaud, Amnesty International's Africa deputy director.
"Forces involved in armed attacks should avoid indiscriminate shelling at all costs, and do their utmost to prevent civilian casualties."
Amnesty is calling for the international community to support the immediate deployment of human rights monitors, with particular attention given to the use of child soldiers, children's rights, gender, and protection of civilians.
The human rights NGO is also urging French forces in Mali to give as much advance warning as possible to civilians, and calls on the armed groups to not put military targets near civilian objects.
The organisation is additionally calling on the Islamist armed groups not to harm any of the 13 hostages they are holding, among whom are six French and four Algerian nationals.