Deadly clashes between Tuareg rebels and Government forces in northern Mali have sent a "small but growing" number of terrified civilians fleeing southward and into neighbouring countries, the United Nations refugee agency said today, while senior UN and African Union officials are in Kidal to push for a ceasefire.
Briefing reporters in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Adrian Edwards said fighting in Kidal last Saturday and again on Wednesday between Tuareg fighters of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known by the French acronym MNLA, and Government forces prompted new displacement, with people fleeing southwards or into neighbouring countries.
"Our partner in northern Mali, IEDA Relief, estimates that Kidal town has so far seen 3,000 people fleeing affected neighbourhoods," he said, explaining that people are mainly heading to the city outskirts or in the direction of Gao, where 400 people have so far arrived.
"[They] told our teams they had been forced to hide in their homes in Kidal for two days without food, and while waiting for the fighting to decrease. They also said that more people are poised to flee both Kidal and Menaka to Gao," added Mr. Edwards.
After the deadly violence that swept Kidal over the weekend during a visit by Mali's Prime Minister, Moussa Mara, nearby towns in the region have been on edge. UNHCR reported that Gao is restive, and buses leaving the city towards the capital, Bamako, are packed with people worried that the city might be attacked.
"UNHCR is ready to provide relief for 2,000 displaced persons in Gao and, in coordination with other UN agencies, to 1,000 internally displaced in Kidal, including with blankets, jerry cans and buckets," Mr. Edwards said.
In Niger, 21 refugee arrivals from Menaka in the Gao region were seen on Wednesday at the Intikane refugee hosting area near the Mali border. "Others are said to be trying to flee to Agando area in Niger. In Burkina Faso, 18 new refugees arriving from Gao and Bamako were seen in Bobo Dioulasso Thursday evening," he added.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) added that population movements have been recorded in all regions of the North as well as the Mopti region, in connection with rumours of attacks by armed groups and fears of inter-communal reprisals.
UNHCR said that in Mauritania, refugees at the Mbera camp, just across the border from Mali, report having been contacted by family members in the Timbuktu area asking for help in getting to Mbera.
Meanwhile, a UN spokesperson in New York reported that Albert Koenders, head of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA), is in Kidal today with the President of Mauritania and current chairman of the African Union (AU), Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, as well as Pierre Buyoya, AU Special Representative for Mali and the Sahel.
They are there to hold discussions with armed groups and urge them to agree to an immediate ceasefire. They are also meeting with traditional authorities in Kidal, the spokesperson added.
Mr. Koenders continues to use his good offices to bring about the resumption of the political process and to ensure evacuation of citizens and Malian soldiers wounded in clashes over the past week. MINUSMA said that 59 injured soldiers, four of them seriously wounded, are being treated at its camp in Kidal.
The spokesperson added that MINUSMA has retrieved wounded Malian and MNLA fighters and civilians from the Kidal hospital and evacuated them by air to Bamako yesterday for more urgent medical treatment.
Today, the UN Mission is planning to airlift the equivalent of 14 days of supplies including water, food, tents and beds to Kidal, and to repatriate the remaining wounded.