The United Nations launched its MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in 2013 wfollowinng clashes between Tuareg rebels and black AfricansUnited Nations (UN) soldiers patrol on July 27, 2013 in the northern Malian city of Kidal. Clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans a week ago left four people dead while five polling officials were kidnapped in Tessalit, 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Kidal, by gunmen thought to be from the MNLA. Millions of Malians are expected to vote Sunday in "imperfect" elections they hope will usher in a new dawn of peace and stability in a country torn apart by an 18-month political crisis and armed conflict. Voters will have a choice of 27 candidates as they go to the polls for the first time since a separatist uprising led to a coup and then a sweeping Islamist offensive last year which upended one of the region's most stable democracies. AFP PHOTO / KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (AFP Photo/Kenzo Tribouillard)
A Bangladeshi peacekeeper was shot dead and another wounded, the United Nations said Tuesday, in the second attack in days in Mali's capital on what is considered the world's most dangerous UN mission. A statement from MINUSMA, the UN's peacekeeping force in Mali, said "an incident" involving one of its vehicles took place in the area of Bamako airport. "One peacekeeper was wounded, another succumbed to his injuries," the statement said, adding that an investigation would determine the "exact circumstances of the incident". A Malian security source told AFP overnight on condition of anonymity that the soldiers were targeted by "unidentified armed men" but that account was thrown into doubt by an initial inspection of the UN vehicle. "We have launched an investigation to find out what exactly happened since, on the face of it, there are no bullet holes, just traces of blood, in the vehicle," the source later clarified. Bangladesh is the largest contributor to the 10,000-strong mission, with more than 1,700 troops and police on the ground. One of the peacekeepers, both ranked as privates, died on the scene and the other was rushed immediately to hospital with bullet wounds after the ambush on their SUV, the Bangladesh army said. With 35 peacekeepers killed in combat since MINUSMA's inception in 2013, the UN has described northern Mali as the deadliest place on Earth for its personnel. - Strained relations - The force is regularly attacked by militants in the north, but had not been a direct target in Bamako before an assailant opened fire on a MINUSMA residence in the city's Faso Kanu neighbourhood on Wednesday last week, wounding a civilian guard. No group has claimed responsibility for either attack, but they come at a time of strained relations between the government and MINUSMA, which has complained that its impartiality has been "regularly called into question". Reacting to criticism of the mission by Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the force said on May 15 that "neither its contribution nor its sacrifices are accorded their proper value". Keita's broadside came at the end of a speech by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, read out in Bamako by the UN's chief peacekeeper Herve Ladsous, lamenting serious violations of ceasefire agreements "on all sides". "Have we ever violated the ceasefire? Never. So then, Mr Ladsous, it would be appropriate that the United Nations act justly and fairly in this regard," Keita said, calling for "a little respect for our people". The country's northern desert has been plagued by violence from jihadist groups that seized control of the region from Tuareg rebels before being routed by a French-led international intervention in 2013. Despite peaceful elections after the French operation, the country remains deeply divided and the north has seen an upsurge in attacks by pro-government militias and the Tuareg-led rebellion known as the CMA. - 'Home truths' - The government and several armed groups signed a peace accord on May 15 in a ceremony in Bamako attended by numerous heads of state but missing the crucial backing of the CMA. The Algerian-led international mediation team in the peace process has announced it is hosting a series of consultations in Algiers this week aimed at securing the CMA's signature. Thousands of pro-government demonstrators took to the streets in Bamako on Tuesday in support of the peace agreement, according to an AFP correspondent in the capital. The crowd waved the Malian flag and chanted slogans including "Yes to peace, no to war", "Free northern Mali" and "Long live Mali". "I am here to support my government, especially (Keita), who recently told a few home truths to the UN... Mali is a sovereign country, and colonisation is over," university lecturer Kissima Traore told AFP. Around 31,000 people have been forced to flee their homes -- 500 into neighbouring countries -- over the past two weeks, mostly from the Timbuktu region, the UN's World Food Programme said on Tuesday. "The fighting in the north of Mali is greatly reducing an already limited humanitarian space and hampers vital humanitarian assistance to people who are very vulnerable," said Sally Haydock, the programme's WFP Mali director.