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Analysis: UN Mali MINUSMA Departure Could Amp Chaos

FILE: A MINUSMA logistic convoy is pictured in Kidal, Mali on Feb. 16, 2017.

DAKAR/NAIROBI — Mali's unexpected demand for the departure of U.N. "MINUSMA" peacekeepers is raising fears the country could slide deeper into chaos amid an Islamist insurgency and the possible revival of a separatist uprising.

It is unclear how quickly U.N. troops could leave following Mali's demand made on June 16. But, if and when they do, Bamako will be alone with about 1,000 Russian mercenary Wagner Group soldiers to battle the militants linked to Islamic State and al-Qaeda, who have killed thousands of civilians and soldiers and control large swathes of Mali's desert north and center.

The U.N. mission, known as MINUSMA, has been hobbled by restrictions on its air and ground operations since Mali's ruling junta joined forces with Russian military contractor Wagner Group in 2021. That has limited its effectiveness against an Islamist insurgency that took root a decade ago and has since spread across West Africa.

Despite the restrictions, MINUSMA's 13,000-strong force has held the line in northern cities including Gao and Timbuktu that are surrounded by militants. It patrols camps for displaced people, which come under frequent attack, and provides medical evacuations for Mali's under-equipped army.

And it has also helped to placate Tuareg-led rebels in northern Mali, who halted their separatist uprising with the 2015 Algiers Accord.

A spokesman for the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the Tuareg-led northern rebel alliance, said a UN withdrawal would be premature because the peace deal had not been fully implemented and would threaten stability across the Sahel. He said, however, the CMA had not yet reached an official position.

Relations between the U.N. and Mali's junta, which consolidated power in two coups in 2020 and 2021, have frayed. Bamako wanted MINUSMA to become a more active fighting force to counter the Islamist threat, which the U.N. said was not part of its mission. U.N. officials, meanwhile, pushed for greater freedoms to protect civilians and investigate alleged rights abuses by militants, the army and, more recently, Wagner.

"If you leave, you have anarchy and civil war, especially against civilians and the weak. If you stay, you are almost discredited," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, a former Mauritanian foreign minister who served as a top U.N. official in West Africa and now runs a regional think-tank.