UN peacekeepers, ordered to leave Mali by the country’s leaders, have been forced to rush their withdrawal, destroy equipment left behind and risk their lives on the road out.
Following a coup in 2020, the new military rulers in June ordered the peacekeepers out, proclaiming the “failure” of their mission.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), whose strength has hovered around 15,000 soldiers and police officers, has seen 180 of its members killed. According to the latest update from the force, 5,817 MINUSMA staff have left the force as of this week.
The original plan was for the peacekeeping force to withdraw from the West African nation by the end of the year, but already the UN troops have been leaving their compounds one after another, with the first withdrawals as early as July.
The MINUSMA withdrawal has exacerbated rivalries between armed groups present in the north of the country and the Malian state. These groups do not want the UN camps handed back to the Malian army, saying such a move would contravene the ceasefire and peace deals struck with Bamako in 2014 and 2015. However, the army is pushing to take back control of the evacuated camps.
The predominantly Tuareg separatist groups that oppose the army have resumed hostilities against it. The Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM) has also stepped up attacks against the military. After vacating five camps since August, MINUSMA completed its “accelerated withdrawal” from Tessalit, in the northern Kidal region, on Sunday.
It did so, it said, in an “extremely tense and degraded” security context that “endangered the lives of its personnel”. In the days leading up to the pull-out, shots were fired at its cargo aircraft and its positions.
Part of the contingent, mainly Chadian, left by plane. But the rest were forced to travel overland to Gao, through more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) of desert, under constant threat from armed groups.
The UN peacekeeping force says it has had to destroy or decommission equipment such as vehicles, ammunition and generators that it was unable to take away under UN rules.
By speeding up its withdrawal, the UN peacekeeping force is upsetting the plans of the Malian army, which does not want to let the separatists fill the vacuum.
Tensions are expected to rise further in Kidal following the UN departure.
The region is the stronghold of the Tuareg rebellion and a major sovereignty issue. While the final departure from Kidal was initially planned for the second half of November, a MINUSMA official recently said it could be just a matter of days before the peacekeepers left.