Dakar — UN peacekeepers today took over the role of African troops in helping to stabilize and protect northern Mali, with a plan to build up to 12,640 troops - most of them African - by the end of the year.
Though Islamist groups took a severe battering by French troops, which have secured most of the north since January, they continue to attempt suicide attacks, many of them centred around the city of Gao. The region of Kidal, meanwhile, remains under the control of the Tuareg group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
Malians hope the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) will be robust in keeping the peace, given the gradual withdrawal of French troops - from 4,500 at its height to a projected 1,000 by the end of the year. Challenges facing MINUSMA troops include the vast area to be secured, searing temperatures and a lack of knowledge among some of desert operations.
The aim was to firmly establish a MINUSMA presence before presidential elections, which are scheduled for the end of July. However, the independent election commission recently cast doubt on the date, citing the difficulty of getting voting cards to 8 million voters in time.
The humanitarian situation in northern Mali remains precarious. While widespread aid and the gradual opening up of commercial routes has helped some deeply depleted markets, much of the region is in "crisis" mode, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network's (FEWS NET) classification, and at least half a million people remain dependent on outside aid. The commercial banking system remains dysfunctional in northern cities, electricity supply is sporadic, and the economy has yet to be reinvigorated.
Nomadic herders in the far north are particularly vulnerable, as their movements have been restricted by ongoing insecurity, and aid programmes to help feed or vaccinate their animals have been curtailed.
Insecurity fears and the shaky state of the economy are cited as the main reasons the vast majority of the country's 227,000 internally displaced people and 185,100 refugees are staying put. Many refugees say they will be spurred to return only if the government pushes more vigorously for a meaningful effort to bring about reconciliation in a country that is divided at many levels.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]