UN soldiers Tuesday evacuated a camp in the strategic town of Kidal in Mali’s volatile north, which has been wracked by jihadist and separatist violence, several sources in the peacekeeping mission told AFP.
“We left Kidal this morning,” a source in the UN peacekeeping mission based in the town said, adding that the convoy of over 100 vehicles was headed for Gao, another key town in the north about 330 kilometers (200 miles) away.
Tensions are expected to rise further in Kidal following the UN departure.
The region is the stronghold of the Tuareg rebellion and a major sovereignty issue.
While the final departure from Kidal was initially planned for the second half of November, a MINUSMA official recently said it could be just a matter of days before the peacekeepers left.
Non-essential personnel have been the first to withdraw.
Following a coup in 2020, Mali’s new military rulers in June ordered the peacekeepers out, proclaiming the “failure” of their mission.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), whose strength has hovered around 15,000 soldiers and police officers, has seen 180 of its members killed.
The original plan was for the peacekeeping force to have withdrawn from the West African nation by the end of the year, but the UN troops began withdrawing from their compounds as early as July.
The UN peacekeeping force says it has had to destroy or decommission equipment such as vehicles, ammunition, and generators that it was unable to take away in accordance with UN rules.
The MINUSMA withdrawal has exacerbated rivalries between armed groups present in the north of the country and the Malian state.
These groups do not want the UN camps handed back to the Malian army, saying such a move would contravene ceasefire and peace deals struck with Bamako in 2014 and 2015.
However, the army is pushing to take back control of the evacuated camps.
The predominantly Tuareg separatist groups who oppose the army have resumed hostilities against it.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM) has also stepped up attacks against the military.
That means that MINUSMA’s pull-out is all the more perilous, taking place against the background of this renewal of hostilities — and on what are perceived to be restrictions imposed by the authorities on its ability to maneuver.
A confidential note to the UN Security Council from its Department of Peace Operations, seen by AFP, set out the obstacles faced by MINUSMA. They included the withholding of flight or travel permits, an embargo on imports it needed, and the impossibility of carrying out security patrols around its own camps.
In this light, MINUSMA drew up a plan B for its withdrawal.
Malian government spokesman Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga has accused former ally and ex-colonial ruler France, which has also been pushed out of the country, of sparing “no effort to make MINUSMA flee.”
By speeding up its withdrawal, the UN peacekeeping force is upsetting the plans of the Malian army, which does not want to let the separatists fill the vacuum.