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Mali in meltdown as militants advance and U.N. withdraws

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Islamist militants in Mali have launched a blockade of Timbuktu, a city once again on the frontline of a jihadist insurgency. The attack began in August and has since escalated, with rockets hitting hospitals, killing two children, and lands near a school where survivors of a passenger boat attack killed more than 100 people were sheltering. Since the United Nations began winding down its peacekeeping mission in July, al Qaeda affiliated militants launched an offensive in central Mali, fighting has resumed between the army and Tuareg rebels from the north, and Islamic State-allied insurgents have continued to carry out attacks.

Mali, run by a junta that has spurned the support of the U.N. and French forces, is in meltdown and the violence risks adding to instability across West Africa’s Sahel, a region already reeling from military coups in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. Experts compare Mali’s situation now to its position in 2012 when another Tuareg rebellion was overtaken by jihadists who captured Timbuktu and pressed south towards the capital Bamako.

In 2012, French forces and the U.N. intervened to halt the advance in Mali, but there will be no such intervention now. Mali’s military rulers, who consolidated power over two coups in 2020 and 2021, severed ties with former colonial power France and kicked out its troops. In June, it ordered the 13,000-strong force deployed by the United Nations to leave. Russia’s Wagner Group, which has sent 1,000 mercenaries to support the junta, has failed to fill the gap and is accused of attacks against civilians. More than 650 people have died in conflict in Mali in the two months after the U.N. began pulling out, a more than 40% rise over the previous two months.

In 2013, French forces beat back Islamists, but they regrouped and waged a new campaign that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Insurgents also have a foothold in West African coastal states, including Benin, Togo, and Ivory Coast. Insecurity has spawned coups whose leaders have jilted regional and Western states.

In Mali, fighting began in August between the army and an ethnic Tuareg group called the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA). Al Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) raided other military camps, attacked an airport, fired on passenger boats, and launched its blockade of Timbuktu.

SOURCE: REUTERS (Reporting by Alhousseini Alhadji in Timbuktu and Edward McAllister in Dakar)