UN peacekeepers in Mali announced Monday their pullout has started from two camps in the tense Kidal region, opening a new phase in a forced withdrawal igniting fears fighting will intensify between troops and armed actors.
The UN stabilisation mission known as MINUSMA had expected to leave the camps in mid-October has brought the date forward as the region witnesses escalating violence for territorial control.
The Malian army, anticipating the UN disengagement, landed two aircraft at one of the camps at Tessalit, two airport officials said.
The planes flew in army troops and Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, the officials said.
The Tessalit camp is close to the airport and had been staffed largely by Chadian soldiers under the UN banner.
The Malian army posted on social media that a single plane came under fire but managed to land and leave without too much difficulty after enemy positions were “neutralised” by the air force.
“In a climate of high tension, (the mission) has begun the process of withdrawing from its camps in the Kidal region, starting with Tessalit and Aguelhok,” MINUSMA said in a statement.
The UN peacekeepers cited the shooting during the morning as illustrating “the rapid deterioration in security conditions for the lives of hundreds of soldiers for peace.
The withdrawal would be completed “as soon as possible, including if necessary by accelerating the withdrawal” from a third camp, at Kidal town itself, which had been planned for mid-November.
Mali’s ruling junta, which seized power in 2020, had in June demanded that the mission — which had been deployed since 2013 — depart the country despite being in the grip of jihadism and a deep multidimensional crisis.
– Exacerbated rivalries –
That followed months of deteriorating relations.
Malian foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop said at the weekend the UN withdrawal from northern Mali would happen on time by December 31.
MINUSMA’s departure from the camps has however exacerbated rivalries between armed actors present in the north.
The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) — an alliance of predominantly Tuareg groups seeking autonomy or independence from the Malian state — has carried out a series of attacks on army positions.
And the Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM) has also increased attacks against the military.
Since August, MINUSMA has transferred four camps to the Malian authorities.
But the evacuation of the camps in the Kidal region — and especially that of Kidal, a bastion town of the separatists — promises to be the riskiest.
The separatists do not want MINUSMA to hand the camps back to the Malian army in the belief that would contravene ceasefire and peace deals struck with Bamako in 2014 and 2015.
The army on October 2 dispatched a convoy of dozens of vehicles, some armoured, in the direction of Kidal.
The fact that Kidal is still controlled by the rebels remains a source of irritation for the junta.
The generals have made the recovery of national sovereignty and all territory a major part of its push to rule and insists on recovering the UN camps.