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Under pressure from Mali junta, UN ends peacekeeping mission

Author: AFP | Published: Saturday, July 1, 2023

A Nigerian policeman of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) patrols on Timbuktu's main square on December 8, 2021 -- the UN is now ending the mission (FLORENT VERGNES/AFP)

The UN Security Council on Friday ended a decade-old peacekeeping mission in Mali, whose military junta has aligned with Russia and demanded the withdrawal of the international force battling jihadists.

Bowing to the principle that peacekeepers need the consent of the host government, the Security Council voted unanimously to start immediately winding down the mission despite fears by Western powers of new instability in the troubled African nation.

The vote came two weeks after Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop stunned the Security Council by calling the major UN operation known as Minusma a “failure” and urging its end.

Mali’s relations with the United Nations have deteriorated sharply since a 2020 coup brought to power a military regime that also severed defense cooperation with France, the former colonial power.

The junta instead has rallied behind Moscow and brought in the Wagner Group, the ruthless mercenaries involved in a mutiny against Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.

“We deeply regret the transitional government’s decision to abandon Minusma and the harm this will bring to the Malian people,” senior US diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis told the Security Council.

But he said that the United States voted for the resolution as it agreed with the logistical timeline for the withdrawal, which is set to be completed by the end of the year.

Shortly after the vote, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Diop and promised “unstinting support” for Mali in the military, humanitarian and economic areas, the foreign ministry in Bamako said.

Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Anna Evstigneeva, also promised “comprehensive support” to Mali, which she said wanted to take “full responsibility” for its security.

Under the resolution led by France, the peacekeepers will cease their main activity from Saturday and focus on departure, although they will still be empowered to protect against “imminent threats of violence to civilians” through September.

– Deadly and costly –

Minusma has been the most costly mission for the UN, at $1.2 billion a year, and 174 peacekeepers have died since its creation in 2013.

Despite tensions with the junta, the UN mission had widely been expected to be extended until the Malian foreign minister’s intervention. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier in June had proposed renewing Minusma but streamlining its activities.

In a report, Guterres acknowledged shortcomings but called the mission “invaluable.” He noted that several countries in the region saw extremist groups as an “existential threat,” fearing the violence would spill over.

With 13,000 troops and police in Minusma, its termination will be a Herculean task, with the United Nations needing to take away equipment, helicopters and armored vehicles.

“Securing the constructive cooperation of the Malian authorities will be essential to facilitate the process,” said a spokesperson for UN peacekeeping operations.

While the withdrawal was a given, the timeline was the focus of heated negotiations in recent days, according to diplomats.

Mali, with the backing of veto-wielding Russia, had pushed for Minusma to leave as quickly as possible, while some other nations feared that even six months was too rushed.

Richard Gowan, an expert at the International Crisis Group, said that UN officials feared that Wagner will simply take over Minusma facilities once the mission is completed.

Julie Gregory of the Stimson Center said the end of the mission could have a dire effect on civilians.

“It’s likely that violent extremists will take the opportunity to increase violence,” with a potential for increased confrontation with national forces, especially in the north, Gregory said.

Russia has insisted that its paramilitary forces will continue to operate in Mali and other African nations, notably the Central African Republic, despite the aborted mutiny of the Wagner Group’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Russia had long insisted that Wagner was a private group but acknowledged after the rebellion that it had been directly funding its overseas operations, which have been widely criticized by the West and human rights groups.

“We do not believe the partnership with the Wagner Group will deliver long-term stability or security for the Malian people,” said the British ambassador to the United Nations, Barbara Woodward.

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