US to Mali: End restrictions on UN peacekeepers, seek peace

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – The United States warned Mali’s military government Wednesday that it would be “irresponsible” for the United Nations to continue deploying its more than 15,000 peacekeepers unless the western African nation ends restrictions including on operating reconnaissance drones and carries out political commitments toward peace and elections in March 2024.

The warning came as the U.N. Security Council considers three options proposed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for the peacekeeping mission’s future: increase its size, reduce its footprint, or withdraw troops and police and turn it into a political mission. Its current mandate expires on June 30.

U.S. Deputy Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis told the council that “it is unacceptable” that Malian authorities denied nearly 300 flight requests from January through March – about 80% of them for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones. The denials were seen as threatening the safety of peacekeepers and their ability to protect civilians.

The United States is also “greatly concerned” that the government expelled the peacekeeping mission’s human rights chief and didn’t issue sanctions for U.N. experts monitoring sanctions against Mali. Also cited was lack of progress on implementing a 2015 peace agreement Mali signed with a coalition of groups that included ethnic Arabs and Tuaregs who seek autonomy in the country’s north, and a pro-government militia.

While DeLaurentis said peacekeepers shouldn’t be deployed “in conditions where they cannot succeed,” the U.N. special envoy for Mali strongly supported maintaining the peacekeeping mission, citing its importance to stability in Mali and the larger Sahel region.

Mali has struggled to contain an Islamic extremist insurgency since 2012. Extremist rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, but they have moved from the arid north to more populated central Mali since 2015.

Insecurity has worsened with attacks on civilians and U.N. peacekeepers. The mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, is the most dangerous of the U.N.’s 12 far-flung peacekeeping operations. In August 2020, Mali’s president was overthrown in a coup that included Assimi Goita, then an army colonel. In June 2021, Goita was sworn in as president of a transitional government after carrying out his second coup in nine months and developed ties to Russia’s military and the Wagner group, the private military contractor with links to the Kremlin.

Last year, Mali’s former colonial ruler France pulled its troops out of Mali following tensions with the ruling junta and the arrival of Wagner mercenaries. In January, U.S. Deputy Ambassador Richard Mills called Wagner “a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses in Mali and elsewhere.

France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere expressed concern Wednesday that there has been no report on an attack in the central Mali town of Maura in late March 2022 “with, as we know, the involvement of the Wagner Group.” Human Rights Watch said Mali’s army and foreign troops suspected to be Russian rounded up and killed an estimated 300 men in the town.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council Moscow is providing “comprehensive assistance” to the Malian army to increase its combat readiness which is producing “real results on the ground.”

Responding to “negative” Western reaction to its military cooperation, Nebenzia said it’s “unfortunate that they cannot set aside their geopolitical rivalry.” He blamed the current terrorist activity in Mali and the Sahel on “irresponsible military actions of Western countries in Libya.”

Mali’s U.N. Ambassador Issa Konfourou said the government is committed to holding a referendum on the newly drafted constitution, which had been scheduled for March 19, and elections in March 2024.

To Western criticism of its human rights record, he said security forces are continuing offensives against terrorists linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group with “very encouraging results” and “in strict respect of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

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