Before U.N. peacekeepers hurriedly left their base in Kidal in northern Mali on Tuesday, they made a costly call: With rebels stationed nearby, they destroyed sensitive equipment to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, the U.N. said.
Shortly after the last UN convoy was released, Tuareg rebels announced that they had captured the base. Photos posted on social media on Wednesday appeared to show locals loading trucks with looted goods, including tires, cables and chairs.
Mali’s ruling military junta in June ordered the decade-old UN mission, known as MINUSMA, to leave as relations with former international allies soured. MINUSMA has accelerated its departure in recent weeks as northern Mali has been engulfed in fighting between rebels and government forces fighting for control of the areas it is vacating.
Bloody clashes have surrounded at least two UN bases and two have also been looted, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the withdrawal. At least a dozen peacekeepers have been injured by explosive devices hit by UN convoys heading south, according to UN statements.
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The UN has acknowledged difficulties with its withdrawal. MINUSMA said in statements that it was forced to destroy equipment, including vehicles, ammunition and generators that its forces were unable to evacuate after the government imposed restrictions on their movement. Mission spokeswoman Fatoumata Sinkoun Kaba told Reuters that millions of dollars worth of cash had gone missing.
Authorities have denied approval for air support for convoys traveling through some of the most volatile terrain in West Africa. They ordered some fuel and spare parts imports halted and in some cases compromised the safety of departing peacekeepers, according to the two sources with direct knowledge of the withdrawal.
Mali’s government did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Security analysts have warned that Mali’s state could collapse completely, further destabilizing a region where insurgents with links to al-Qaida and Islamic State are gaining ground.
MINUSMA had originally planned to leave Kidal in mid-November, the sources said. Equipment destroyed there and at two other northern bases could have been removed by UN trucks earlier, but Mali’s junta blocked access, the UN said.
Four aircraft have been grounded due to a lack of spare parts, the UN told Reuters, without specifying which type of aircraft.
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Dozens of UN import requests have gone unanswered, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and the Department of Operational Support said in an internal letter to the Security Council on October 14, seen by Reuters.
With routes to the south threatened by militants, the mission has explored the possibility of an exit via Algeria to the north or Mauritania to the west, the letter said, which were proving “difficult to work”.
The two sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, said they believed the Malian junta had tried to delay the retreat to give it time to reach the bases before the UN left.
Reuters could not confirm this, but the junta has expressed concern in public statements about the withdrawal of UN bases before their arrival, including the departure from Kidal. Last month, he called the speeding up of MINUSMA’s withdrawal a “treason”.
The situation marks a bitter end to the UN mission in Mali, where it was deployed after Tuareg fighters and rebels seized control of the north in a 2012 uprising. MINUSMA initially helped restore calm, but violence has continued.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 170 peacekeepers have been killed in combat, making MINUSMA the deadliest UN mission.
Worsening insecurity prompted military coups in 2020 and 2021. The junta subsequently expelled French troops helping to fight the militants, partnered with Russian private military contractor Wagner Group, and ordered MINUSMA out.
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The mission has until December 31st to pack up. So far, more than 6,000 of the nearly 14,000 staff have left, the UN spokeswoman said.
Tuareg rebels signed a peace deal in 2015 brokered by MINUSMA, but have retained control of much of the north from Kindal. That arrangement has fallen apart since the expedition began to move away.
The first sign of trouble came in early August, when fighting broke out between the Malian army and Tuareg rebels around the UN camp in Ber in the north. The mission is gone the camp on August 13, two days earlier. His motorcade was attacked twice that day, injuring four peacekeepers, he said.
In October, gunfire around his base in Tessalit, near the Algerian border, forced peacekeepers to flee to shelters, the UN said. On 19 October, gunfire hit a MINUSMA plane landing on the airstrip.
When the last soldiers left Tessalit on October 21, they were denied air support for the nine-day journey through the unpoliced desert.
“They are essentially putting the lives of our troops at risk,” one of the sources said. As in Kidal, peacekeepers destroyed before leaving equipment that could have been trucked in earlier if the government had allowed it.
Air support was also not given to convoys leaving Kidal on a 350-kilometer (217-mile) journey south to the city of Gao, the MINUSMA spokesman said.
Three security analysts told Reuters that Kindal, a Tuareg stronghold from which the rebels have long fought for autonomy in the desert region they call Azawad, was a potential flashpoint now that the UN has pulled out. It is unclear how well positioned the Malian military is to retake the base. It has been trying to reach the city in recent weeks, but progress has been slow, analysts said.
“If the base in Kindal falls into the hands of the rebels, it will cause an outcry in Bamako,” said Ivan Guihawa, a senior lecturer at the School of International Studies at the University of Kent in Brussels. “An ugly war may eventually break out.”
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