Nouakchott — Refugees at the M'Bera camp in south-eastern Mauritania hope that the deployment of UN peacekeepers will allow them to return to their homeland swiftly and without fear.
Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists launched a new attack on the northern Malian city of Gao on Sunday (February 10th), leading to an hours-long gunfight with Malian and French troops.
The skirmish left at least two Islamists and three civilians dead, AFP reported. Fifteen civilians and two Malian soldiers were also injured in the attack.
The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) claimed credit for the assault, as well as two failed suicide bombings over the weekend. On Monday, French forces launched airstrikes to repel the jihadists.
The latest flare up raised fresh fears for the hundreds of thousands of refugees forced from their homes by the Islamist-led violence.
Many of the Malian refugees are now living at the M'Bera camp but news of a proposal for UN peacekeepers has many hopeful they could soon return home.
On Wednesday (February 6th), France made a formal request to the Security Council to prepare UN peacekeepers for deployment to northern Mali, once French military operations in the region end.
French Ambassador to the UN Gérard Araud called for the world body to accelerate the deployment of peacekeepers in order to protect civilians from potential human rights abuses.
However, Radio France International reported on February 7th that the deployment may only happen in March or April.
A number of Malian refugees have reported witnessing atrocities against civilians committed by Mali's jihadist rebels. Refugees fleeing the war in Mali saw summary executions and amputations committed by the rebels, who sought to impose Sharia law in areas their forces controlled, Al Jazeera reported.
Nearly 150,000 people have crossed borders to flee the war, while the war has uprooted and internally displaced another 230,000, AFP reported on January 20th, citing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Zakiyatou Oualett Halatine, spokeswoman for the Association of Refugees and Victims of Repression in Azawad (ARVRA), welcomed the news of France's call for UN peacekeepers.
"I think that what the Malian refugees in Mauritania need is the provision of appropriate conditions for the return to their country, land and normal lives without fear. If the peacekeeping forces will ensure that, then they will go back to their homes," she told Magharebia.
"UN peacekeeping forces are present in all areas that have experienced a conflict," she added. "What refugees need as a substitute for their suffering is to be enabled to run their own lives."
Ibrahim Ag Bibi, a Malian who fled the war and is now living at M'Bera refugee camp, said he was encouraged by the peacekeeper proposal.
"This step is very important and welcomed, because sending those troops would spread security in the hearts of refugees who are fearful of reprisals," he said.
Ag Bibi would not rule out returning to his home in northern Mali once the region is cleared of hard line terrorist who kill people and whip women.
"There is no doubt that armed terrorist groups are the cause of so many of us leaving our homes and fleeing to Mauritania, for fear of killing and harassment," he added.
Mohamed Ould Oubeida Sharif, a journalist who covers the plight of refugees at the M'Bera camp, cautiously welcomed word of the potential arrival of UN Peacekeepers.
"There is no doubt that sending international troops to northern Mali may relatively contribute to the return of refugees to their homes," he told Magharebia. "Yet their presence should be large and well-armed in order to confront suicide operations expected to be conducted by some terrorists."