UN peacekeepers speed up northern Mali withdrawal as separatists accuse army of attack

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) – The United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Mali on Sunday said it had sped up a planned withdrawal from the town of Ber in northern Mali due to worsening security, as fighting in the area raised fears of a revival of a separatist uprising.

Over the past few days, the Tuareg-led northern rebel alliance, called the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), has accused Malian forces and Russian Wagner troops of violating a ceasefire by attacking its forces stationed near Ber.

The Malian army has not responded to the allegations, but on Saturday said six of its soldiers stationed in Ber were killed repelling an attempted incursion by unspecified “armed terrorist groups.”

The U.N. mission known as MINUSMA said in a statement it had “expedited its withdrawal from Ber due to the deteriorating security.”

“It urges all concerned parties to refrain from any actions that could further complicate the operation,” it said, without naming those involved.

The clashes follow Mali’s unexpected demand in June for MINUSMA to end its decade-long mission, raising concerns its departure could put further strain on a 2015 peace deal with Tuareg rebels and weaken efforts to curb an Islamist insurgency.

Fighting between CMA forces and Malian troops around Ber was ongoing as of Sunday morning, CMA spokesperson Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadane told Reuters by phone.

The presence of MINUSMA peacekeepers had helped to placate the Tuareg-led rebels, who halted their separatist uprising with the 2015 Algiers Accord.

Unrest in the region began in Mali in 2012, when Islamists hijacked the Tuareg’s uprising. The Islamist insurgency has since spread into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, killing thousands of people and displacing millions in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

The violence has also fuelled political instability helping the Malian junta seize power in coups in 2020 and 2021. Since then it has teamed up with Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which has about 1,000 fighters in Mali.

Under their joint operations, Malian troops and its foreign security partners, believed to be Wagner mercenaries, have been using “grave human rights abuses” including violence against women to spread terror, U.N. sanctions monitors said in a recent report seen by Reuters.

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Ros Russell)