Tens of thousands of people, many of them children, have fled to a town in northeastern Mali after fighting erupted in the jihadist-torn region, a local official said on Wednesday.
Since March, more than 65 000 people have arrived in the town of Menaka near the border with Niger, Ahmadou Chami Dicko, the local head of Mali’s social development agency, told AFP.
Of these nearly 47 000 are minors, he said, adding, „people are continuing to arrive.“
Northeastern Mali has been gripped by fighting among rival jihadist groups respectively linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organisation, and between jihadists and armed groups, notably ethnic Tuaregs who signed a peace deal with the government in 2015.
The state holds little sway over the vast and remote region, which is also struggling with bandit gangs and trafficking.
Several hundred civilians were killed in March, according to the United Nations, which was unable to give a more precise toll as access to the area is difficult.
Further west, the city of Gao has been virtually cut off from the rest of the country by road after jihadists took control over the strategic Highway 16.
The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday said they had set up an airlift to fly in medical supplies to Gao from the capital Bamako.
This „logistical support“ was „requested by the (Malian) ministry of health“, the ICRC’s local chief, Antoine Grand, said on social media.
The impoverished and landlocked country has been battered by jihadist insurgents since 2012.
An uprising by Tuaregs in the north of the country was joined by jihadists, prompting a French military intervention that quelled the revolt.
But the jihadists regrouped and several years later extended their campaign to the country’s volatile centre and to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Across the three Sahel countries, thousands have died and more than two million have fled their homes, according to official estimates.
Since August 2020, Mali has been ruled by a junta that has woven military ties with the Kremlin at the cost of falling out with France, the country’s traditional ally.
France withdrew its last soldier in Mali under the long-running Barkhane anti-jihadist mission on August 15.