The United Nations refugee agency today announced it is urgently preparing for a possible spontaneous return of thousands of conflict-displaced people in northern Mali, where ongoing insecurity is hampering some 380,000 from returning home.
"We aim to open new presences in Gao and other cities in the north as soon as it becomes feasible," Adrian Edwards, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters in Geneva.
UNHCR said that, based on interviews with internally displaced persons (IDPs) over the past few days, many people are hoping to return soon to Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, and neighbouring areas despite serious shortages of food, clean water and fuel.
Mr. Edwards said a UN security evaluation mission confirmed people returning to the central Mali town of Konna. Up to half of the town's population of 10,000 was reported to have fled after rebel fighters overran the town on 10 January, prompting a French military intervention.
"The supply of food and other essential items has been seriously affected by the conflict and the closure of the border with Algeria, across which many goods used to be imported," Mr. Edwards noted, adding that people fleeing the fighting moved closer to the closed border and some crossed it.
UNHRC is bringing into Mali relief items for 54,000 people, including sleeping mats, blankets, plastic tarpaulins, jerry-cans, mosquito nets and cooking utensils. A distribution of relief items is scheduled to start today in the town of Mopti, central Mali, where an estimated 40,000 people are internally displaced.
In all, some 380,000 people have fled northern Mali since the start of the conflict a year ago. This includes 230,000 who are internally displaced, and more than 150,000 who are living as refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.
Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced today that it completed food distributions to 22,000 IDPs in Mopti and 12,000 IDPs in the capital city of Bamako. The distributions had been postponed following the outbreak of fighting and military intervention. Rapid analyses of the food security situation in other affected areas are underway.
WFP aims to reach around 530,000 people this year under an emergency operation that includes food and cash distributions, nutrition programmes for young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and emergency school feeding.
In addition, WFP is targeting 1.2 million people in rural areas in southern Mali with activities related to rural development, health and education to increase the food security of poor households.
Also today, the top UN political official stressed the strong commitment of the world body to support Mali as thousands of displaced persons are potentially gearing to return home.
Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman represented the UN at the donor conference for Mali held today at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where international donors pledged a reported $455 million.