The Malian army prevented United Nations forces from patrolling the central town of Djenne, a hotbed of violence and jihadist activity in the Sahel, a UN spokesman said on Thursday, the latest in a string of snags for its mission there.
The incident comes just weeks before a UN debate on whether to renew the mandate of its mission in Mali with increased restrictions imposed on it by the ruling junta expected to factor into the decision.
A Malian military official in the region said the patrol was only postponed, blaming the delay on military activities and on the mission, Minusma, itself.
The Malian junta has in recent months turned toward Russia — and away from France — for support in its anti-jihadist fight.
A security official speaking on condition of anonymity said that Minusma had not previously experienced problems patrolling Djenne.
“Unfortunately, the patrol scheduled for Monday, May 16, by UN police was refused on the grounds that military operations are underway in the area,” Olivier Salgado, a spokesman for Minusma, told AFP.
Asked about a possible Russian presence in Djenne that day, Salgado cited the junta’s official line that Mali is cooperating with Russia at a state level and receiving support from Russian military trainers.
France and its allies claim private military contractors from the Russian Wagner group are operating in Mali — one reason they cite for their withdrawal, along with “multiple obstructions” by authorities.
“We respect the sovereignty of Mali, which is free to choose its bilateral partners,” Salgado said. “However, this cooperation must allow us to continue our partnership with the Malian army.”
Colonel Karim Traore, zone commander of the Mopti military region in which Djenne is located, said Mali had not obstructed UN activities. He cited ongoing military operations in the area and claimed Minusma had changed the nature of the mission between two requests.
“The patrol was postponed but the patrol was not refused,” he told AFP. He added that Minusma had since requested and received permission for a mission to Ogossagou.
The junta earlier this year established a large no-fly zone in Mali, complicating UN operations.
Minusma is still waiting for permission to access Moura, in central Mali, where Human Rights Watch says Malian soldiers — associated with foreign, possibly Russian, fighters — massacred 300 civilians in April. The Malian army denies the accusations and says it “neutralized” more than 200 jihadists.
Salgado said Minusma was still in discussions with Malian authorities to secure access to the village.