Mali fighting: Refugee count could rise to 700,000

Geneva, Jan 19 (IANS) Predicting a worsening of West Africa's refugee situation, a UN agency says up to 700,000 people are expected to be uprooted by the ongoing turmoil in Mali.

"We believe there could be in the near future an additional 300,000 displaced inside Mali and up to 400,000 additional displaced (refugees) in neighbouring countries," United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Melissa Fleming told reporters here.

West African, French and Malian forces are fighting Islamist insurgents, including the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), that took over northern Mali last year.

It is estimated that around 150,000 Malians have fled the fighting to countries like Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, while some 230,000 are internally displaced within Mali.

In the latest fighting, Islamic rebels pushed south and seized Konna, about 550 km north from Mali's capital Bamako, on Jan 10, prompting the country's former colonial ruler France to intervene and check the rebel advance.

More than 8,000 French citizens live in Mali, which straddles the arid areas of the sub-Saharan Sahel - comprising Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, northern Cameroon and Nigeria - whose chronic food insecurity has been aggravated by the recent fighting.

Reports Friday quoted Mali's army as saying it has recaptured Konna from the Islamist rebels.

In December 2012, the UN Security Council authorised a one-year military peacekeeping mission in the country. The Economic Community of West African states (ECOWAS) has also pledged troops in the operations against Islamist insurgents.

Mali's institutions have been vulnerable since the military coup in March 2012 that overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure.

A predominantly Muslim, West African nation that gained independence from France in 1960, Mali, after decades of stability, has been plagued by ethnic and separatist tensions, drug trafficking, and increasing weakening of insitutions, particularly its army.

Islamist groups, especially AQIM, joined with Tuareg rebels and took advantage of the chaos following a military coup to seize northern Mali in April 2012.

The northern rebels have around 4,000 fighters from the separatist Tuareg of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and jihadist groups, including AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA).

The UN special envoy for the Sahel, Romano Prodi, said the French air and ground intervention in Mali was the only way to stop Islamists creating "a terrorist safe haven in the heart of Africa".

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