By Afua Hirsch
6 July 2012
Up to 5,000 troops could be deployed to Mali in coming days to combat escalating Islamic extremism, say West African nations
West African nations are considering imminent military intervention in Mali amid growing fears that the country is about to become what one expert has dubbed "the next Somalia".
Up to 5,000 troops from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) could be deployed in the coming days to combat Islamic extremists linked to the terrorist group Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim). Fighting between Islamist factions and government troops has threatened to plunge Mali into chaos and undermine the security of the entire West African sub region.
"Deployment of troops in Mali is imminent," said Abdel-Fatau Musah, Ecowas director for external relations. "We are very concerned about what is happening in northern Mali, particularly with the carnage and killing, and barbaric acts that are going on in Timbuktu, and the destruction of heritage sites.
"We are preparing to deploy between 3,000 and 5,000 troops to fight against these terrorists," Musah added. "The problem is that we are going to have to engage in urban warfare because they have occupied the major centres of northern cities, they are not wearing uniforms, it is going to be very difficult to separate them from the locals."
The news follows months of fighting between Mali's national army, secular Tuareg separatist rebels in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and extremist groups. The Tuareg rebellion in the north – one of the causes of the military coup that toppled Mali's civilian government in March – has become increasingly fractured, with the MNLA pitted against Aqim and Ansar Dine, factions that seek to impose Sharia law in Mali.
Residents in the northern town of Gao say Islamists have planted mines around the perimeter to keep the MNLA out. "It's like a prison. People are scared," Allouseini Mohamed said. "The militants warned on local radio that people should not wander outside the main roads. They said it was to prevent the Tuareg rebels from trying to attack the town. It's a big problem because most people here are herders and cattle-breeders and they can't go out to their fields anymore."
One senior NGO source who did not wish to be named told the Guardian the combination of violence and political instability in the country meant it was in danger of becoming the "next Somalia".
Residents in northern Mali have long been calling for an Ecowas intervention. But this week, the UN Security Council stopped short of backing the planned military action, although it condemned the destruction of ancient shrines in the historic city of Timbuktu, saying it could constitute a war crime, a move that follows a similar statement by the new chief prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda.
On Friday the UN children's agency UNICEF expressed "grave concern" about the fate of children in the rebel-held territory, reporting that 175 boys under 18 had been recruited into armed groups and at least eight girls had been raped, while other children had been killed and injured in land mine explosions. "Children in the north are witnessing, or becoming victims of, violence and they must be protected," said Theophane Nikyema, Unicef's representative in Mali.
Concerns about the escalating security crisis in Mali come amid criticism of the Bamako-based transitional government, intended to steer the country back to civilian rule after a military coup in March.
The capital has witnessed numerous demonstrations since the coup, including protests against the government and calls from northerners to give them arms to fight against Islamist occupation.
An influential group of cultural leaders including Cheick Oumar Sissoko, the Malian film director, have led weekly rallies, through the capital, Bamako, while rappers Les Sofas de la Republique, (Warriors of the Republic) have released two singles criticising the civilian and military governments.
Regional leaders are meeting on Saturday in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso, to discuss the political crisis – as dissatisfaction with the interim government continues to prompt popular support for the military junta.
It has emerged that Dioncounda Traoré, the country's 70-year old transitional president who was attacked by youths who broke into the presidential palace in May, will not be present, but remains in Paris where he went for medical treatment.
Traoré's absence adds to the political vacuum in Mali, an analyst in Bamako said, while the country teeters on the brink of economic collapse. "Mali has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in bilateral aid on which this poor, landlocked, arid country is utterly reliant," said the analyst, who did not want to be named. "The World Bank has suspended $1bn-worth of aid, the Millennium Challenge Corporation has terminated its contract with Mali, tourism has collapsed altogether, and private investors are leaving in droves."
Signs of economic freefall are evident in Bamako, residents say, with the city's flagship Grand Hotel announcing its closure, and fears that public sector workers will no longer be paid as government revenues plummet. One estimate suggests the total damage to the economy may amount to about £2bn.