Bamako/Dakar — French and Malian military forces have blocked the access of aid workers to Konna in Mopti Region, the scene of heavy fighting over the past week, causing increasing frustration for humanitarians.
"Despite our repeated demands, access to Konna has been refused," said Malik Allaouna, head of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) MSF Brussels, in an 18 January communiqué. "They must permit impartial medical aid to reach conflict-affected zones. We call on all parties to the conflict to not only respect the civil population but also humanitarian action."
MSF has been negotiating access with the civil authorities and Malian armed forces, and the French government and its military all week. A further meeting was held today, said MSF spokesperson Gregory Vandendaelen, in Brussels, but the outcome is not yet known.
For the past several months MSF - alongside other NGOs - has successfully negotiated access with Islamist groups in the north and with government officials in the rest of Mali, to provide health care in Timbuktu, Ansongo and Gao."But since the beginning of the offensive we have not been able to access the front line," said Allaouna. "Entire regions are now cut off from external aid."
The Malian Red Cross, which works with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has also been unable to access the war-wounded in Konna and Douentza. Its president, Mamadou Traoré, told IRIN this goes against its mandate to help those who are injured in conflict.
"They must allow the ICRC to access these areas, under military protection," said Traoré. The organization only has access to Mopti town where it is assessing needs, he said.
The Malian army announced today that it has recaptured Konna, while eye-witnesses told reporters Islamists had fled.
Local NGO Cri de Coeur was also blocked by French and Malian forces when trying to access Sévaré, just next door to Mopti earlier this week. Its president, Almahady Cissé, told IRIN: "We were able to gather 12 volunteer doctors and lots of drugs that we wanted to get to Konna, Gao and Douentza because, according to the information we had, fights were violent in these areas and there were many dead and wounded."
Cissé is angry. "Is it normal to leave the wounded to die like flies without assistance?"
However, agencies say access in and around Mopti town, is now open, and most, including ICRC and Catholic Relief Services, are able to carry out assessments.
Areas south of Mopti are also accessible.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 30,000 people have been displaced by the current fighting. Estimates put the total number of internally displaced Malians at 228,920.
Several agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP) have suspended their operations in Mopti and evacuated staff to Bamako.
Some humanitarian agencies have withdrawn from Gao, while others are still trying to provide services. MSF, which works in the hospital in Gao town, said staff remained but admission rates at all the facilities where it operates - in Ansongo, in Gao region and in Timbuktu - have declined sharply as people are staying at home out of fear.
In Diabaly in Ségou region, also the scene of protracted fighting all week, people are holed up at home and need help, said Mamadou Diakité, who is from Diabaly but fled to the town of Ségou 45km away and has phone contact with residents. "The market is closed, the streets are deserted. People who didn't flee are like prisoners. They are too scared to leave their houses because of aerial bombardments. In some households there is nothing left to eat," he told IRIN.
Army explains restrictions
Col Didier Dakouou, chief of the operational command in the Malian army in Sévaré, told IRIN they were trying to protect humanitarians. "The war against the jihadists is not a conventional war that respects the principles and regulations. These Islamists are outlaws who would not hesitate to kill humanitarian workers. We do not refuse the help of humanitarians, but we want to preserve their lives."
Once Konna, Douentza and Diabaly are under control, he told IRIN by phone, humanitarian organizations would be allowed in.
Journalists also restricted
Understanding exactly what is happening in combat zones is also very hard given that journalists have also been banned from accessing them.
The Malian government has accredited journalists to work in the capital Bamako and Ségou 260km to the north, but nowhere else. "This isn't normal," said South African journalist, Nick Lama. "We have no information - only testimony over the phone, and press releases... We want to go [to affected areas] speak to citizens and Islamists to find out what is happening - that is our job," he said.
Telephone lines to Gao have also been cut, leading to an information vacuum.
Fellow journalist Moussa Simon from Niger was able to reach Sévaré but could not get anywhere near the front line. "No one wants journalists here, neither the Malian military nor the French. They say it's in our own interest. But we have the right and duty to inform people of what is going on, taking into account the risks involved."
On the evening of 17 January Minister of Communications and Government Spokesperson Manga Dembélé said all journalists without accreditation must be restricted to Bamako. "We do not intend to prevent journalists from working ... As of 14 January, we had issued 130 accreditations to foreign journalists. But they must operate outside conflict zones."
He continued: "We do not want journalists killed in the line of duty here in Mali or to come into the hands of Islamists. Journalists, especially whites, are all potential hostages for these people."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]