Up to 5,000 troops could be deployed to Mali in coming days to combat escalating Islamic extremism, West African nations say.
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-Qaeda 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 subregion.
“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 centers 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 Shariah 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, said 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. However, last 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.
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.