Kidnappings and unrest in Mali threaten aid efforts

by Onize Ohikere
Posted 4/22/16, 01:22 pm

Islamic extremist group Ansar Dine has freed three members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who where kidnapped Saturday, the organization said. The kidnapping highlights the increasing difficulty aid groups face in a country riddled by unrest and extremism.

The militants kidnapped the aid workers, who are all African, near Kidal in north Mali. The staffers were returning from the village of Abeibara, where they went to distribute water.

“We are relieved at this happy ending for our team,” said Christopher Leudi, head of the ICRC’s delegation in Mali. “For their families who were immediately informed, it marks the end of an ordeal.”

Mali is home to several separatist groups, including Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took responsibility for the November hotel attack in Mali’s capital, Bamako, that left 20 dead. Mali’s intelligence service announced yesterday it has arrested a Mauritanian man believed to be behind the attack.

The United Nations helped broker a peace deal between the Malian government and an alliance of some rebels in June, but insecurity remains.

“There has been a slow, gradual stabilization, but the situation remains very fragile,” Ute Kollies, the head of the UN’s Mali office, told Reuters. “Some of this progress is regularly compromised by recurring insecurity across the north.”

On Monday, a group of young men attacked the UN’s military mission in the town of Kidal to protest the arrest of people linked to extremism. Four people died and the demonstrators burned buildings and damaged the airstrip used to deliver aid.

In Mali, 24 percent of households are moderately to severely food-insecure, according to the UN. This year, officials estimate 2.5 million people will face food insecurity. But with heightened security risks in remote places, ICRC has suspended several of its operations in the most affected areas.

“We refrain from moving out of the main city,” said Valery Mboah Nana, ICRC’s spokesman in Bamako. “The worsening of the security situation affects our capacity to deploy and provide aid.”

Medicine for Mali, a U.S.-based aid group that offers health and economic help, has faced similar struggles. Beginning with the 2012 Ebola outbreak in parts of Africa and now the heightened security concerns in Mali, the nonprofit has not sent workers to the country in two years. But its programs continue despite the dearth of international teams.

“We’re very fortunate that we have some people that live there that have worked with us for many years, so they’re able to continue our programs,” said Dave Merschman, the nonprofit’s president.

Mali’s unrest began in 2012 with the emergence of extremist groups across the country’s north. A French-led intervention drove them out of their main hubs, but they have since regrouped. As the crisis continues, Nana said ICRC will continue to uphold its mission to serve.

“The mandate is to assist and protect people in armed conflict,” Nana said. “We know security is part of what we deal with on a daily basis.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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