UN pull-out from Mali 'recipe for disaster', US envoy says as ISIS attacks intensify

World body's withdrawal process in the north of the country speeds up after a surge in fighting

Members of an extremist group stand guard during a hostage handover in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali. AP
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Mali’s request for the UN to withdraw its peacekeepers by the end of the year is a “recipe for disaster”, as ISIS attacks intensify in the West African state, the US said on Monday.

“As many of us feared, the transition government's decision to close Minusma [UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali] has already triggered renewed violence on the ground,” US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the 15-member Security Council.

She warned about the potential for war and emphasised that such an event could “unleash unspeakable, unthinkable devastation on the Malian people”.

The US diplomat noted that increased instability could pave the way for the expansion of terror groups in the region.

“It would be a recipe for disaster,” she said.

The unrest, fuelled by local branches of al Qaeda and ISIS, has escalated in the past year after the country's military leaders forced French troops out, ordered the 15,000 UN peacekeepers to leave by December 31 and joined forces with the Russia's mercenary Wagner Group.

According to a UN report released on Friday, ISIS extremists have almost doubled the territory they control in Mali in less than a year.

In addition, Jama'at Nusrat Al Islam Wa Al Muslimin, a terrorist group based in Mali and active across West Africa, is “now positioning itself as the sole actor capable of protecting populations against Islamic State in the Greater Sahara”.

The UN was forced to speed up the withdrawal process this month after a surge in fighting.

Reporting to the Security Council, El-Ghassim Wane, head of the peacekeeping mission in Mali, said four UN peacekeepers had been wounded in two attacks during withdrawal from the Ber camp in the north, amid tension between the Co-ordination of Azawad Movements – a coalition of Tuareg independence and Arab nationalist groups – and the Wagner-backed Malian junta.

He said almost 1,100 UN peacekeepers have so far left Mali.

However, the UN diplomat warned, the second phase of the withdrawal will be very challenging due to a tight calendar and dangerous security situation.

It will involve abandoning six bases in northern, north-eastern and central Mali by December 15.

“This phase will be incredibly difficult indeed,” Mr Wane told the council.

The first phase of the withdrawal started on July 17 and ended on Friday.

Nevertheless, he said, the withdrawal at the request of the Malian authorities and subsequent Security Council resolutions, remains “right on track” and should be completed by December 31.

Closing a mission that was built over a decade and that has to be wrapped up within a period of six months, he said, is a “very complex and ambitious endeavour” and is made even more challenging by a host of other concerns linked to human climate, logistics and infrastructure.

He said the military coup in neighbouring Niger also has affected the UN withdrawal operation.

“It is vital that we are able to transport equipment and materials through Niger” to reach key ports, he said.

James Kariuki, Britain's deputy ambassador to the UN, suggested the council consider revising the withdrawal timetable “if needed”, as a rushed operation would have “security implications for the whole region”.

Mr Wane stressed that even though Minusma is leaving Mali, the world body through its agencies, funds and programmes will “remain in the country”.

Over the past decade, more than 300 UN peacekeepers have been killed in Mali, making it the deadliest and most expensive peacekeeping mission in the world with a $1.2 billion budget.

Updated: August 28, 2023, 9:55 PM