Mali asks for UN rapid-reaction force

Carole Landry
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Malian Foreign Affairs Minister Abdoulaye Diop attends the opening of peace talks on September 1, 2014 in Algiers between the Malian government and armed rebels

Malian Foreign Affairs Minister Abdoulaye Diop attends the opening of peace talks on September 1, 2014 in Algiers between the Malian government and armed rebels (AFP Photo/Farouk Batiche)

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - Mali on Wednesday asked the United Nations to send a rapid-reaction force to help end a wave of attacks on UN peacekeepers in the north, where Islamist fighters are back on the warpath.

Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the UN Security Council that it must take "urgent measures" to bolster the UN mission in the north after 31 peacekeepers died in a string of brazen assaults.

The UN mission known as MINUSMA must have the "appropriate means to fulfil its mandate, protect civilians and the blue helmets who are paying a high price on the ground," said Diop by video link from Bamako.

"Perhaps the council should consider setting up a rapid intervention force that would be able to fight the terrorist elements," he said.

Such a force set up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, pairing government soldiers with UN troops, managed to beat back some of the myriad groups of rebels roaming the east.

The appeal for more robust action in northern Mali came amid some of the deadliest violence to target a UN peace mission in recent years.

A Senegalese soldier was killed Tuesday when a UN camp in Kidal came under rocket fire, just days after nine troops from Niger died in an ambush by Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

In September alone, ten Chadian soldiers were killed by explosive devices, prompting the government in Ndjamena to complain that its troops were being used as "shields" to protect other UN deployments in northern Mali.

In all, 31 peacekeepers have died in attacks since the mission was deployed in July 2013 and 66 others have been wounded, according to UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.

- Range of threats -

Following the deadliest single attack that left nine Niger troops dead, Ladsous traveled to Mali to attend a ceremony honoring their sacrifice and to beef up MINUSMA.

"We are working very actively on a number of measures designed to harden the protection of our bases, our equipment, our people," Ladsous told the council.

"We are very active in the field of explosives, because we are facing a whole range of threats: rockets fired randomly, mortar shells, suicide attacks, ambushes," he said.

Diplomats said Ladsous detailed during close-door consultations a series of measures taken to buttress the mission including the deployment of attack helicopters, drones and more armored personnel carriers.

Discussions focussed also on more robust rules of engagement for the UN force, diplomats said.

Ladsous said MINUSMA had become a "target" for jihadists, radical fighters and drug traffickers in northern Mali after France downsized its troop presence there and the Mali government failed to send troops.

Islamist groups occupied the desert north of Mali for ten months before they were ousted by a French-led military intervention in January 2013.

The United Nations MultiDimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) force took over from an African-led mission in July last year, with some 9,300 troops and police drawn from around 30 countries.

The upsurge in violence coincides with stalled peace talks brokered by Algeria between the Mali government and six armed groups despite agreement on a road map to end the violence.

Ladsous emphasized the need for countries in the region to take action, in an apparent reference to Libya and Algeria where many of the jihadists are said to have rear bases.

"We need the support of the countries in the region who know these groups," he said. "MINUSMA is not and cannot be a target."

The attack Tuesday on the UN camp in Kidal was said to be carried out by jihadist Iyad Ag Ghaly, who had dropped out of sight in January 2013 and resurfaced in a video last month signalling his return to combat.