UN experts warn of intensified terrorist threats in Sahel

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — U.N. experts monitoring the implementation of sanctions on Mali are warning that the conflict-wracked West African nation and its neighbors "face intensified terrorist threats," especially in the border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

The experts' interim report said the militant group calling itself the official al-Qaida branch in Mali and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara extremist group have declared that "jihadist groups are working together" to fight a new 5,000-troop African force charged with fighting extremists in western Africa's vast Sahel region.

Their report to the Security Council sanctions committee was obtained Friday by The Associated Press, the same day Islamic extremists opened fire on the French Embassy and army headquarters in Burkina Faso's capital. The government said at least seven soldiers and eight militants were killed.

The Jihadist threat was raised in the experts' report which focuses on implementation of a 2015 peace agreement.

In January, the Security Council threatened sanctions against parties in Mali who obstruct or delay the full implementation of the peace deal agreed to by Mali's government, Tuareg separatists and armed groups.

The report said both sides blame each other for the prolonged delays, with the government claiming the armed groups haven't advanced on disarmament and security arrangements — and the armed groups saying the government "is failing to deliver on political and economic commitments."

The experts concluded after their visit to Mali from Feb. 7-23 that "all parties to the agreement are responsible for delays."

But the panel said it "considers that the process is, at the time of writing, not obstructed to the extent that no advances are made."

Mali has been in turmoil since a 2012 uprising prompted mutinous soldiers to overthrow the country's president of a decade. The power vacuum that was created ultimately led to an Islamic insurgency and a French-led war that ousted the jihadists from power in 2013. But insurgents remain active in the region.

The panel said "insecurity continues to rage and is now shifting increasingly toward the center of the country" from the north.

Across the country, it said, "an estimated 4.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance."

Five nations in the Sahel — Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad — have been grappling with a growing menace from extremists, including the Islamic State group, Boko Haram and groups linked to al-Qaida's North Africa branch.

In February 2017, the so-called "Group of Five" agreed to assemble a 5,000-strong force to combat extremist groups, organized crime and human trafficking.

The experts said the extremist group Jama Nusrat Ul-Islam wa Al-Muslimin, which positioned itself as the al-Qaida branch in Mali, and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have claimed attacks not only in Mali but in Niger, in the Tahoua and Tillaberi regions, notably last July 5, Oct. 4 and Oct. 21.

In Burkina Faso, the experts said, "the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam has multiplied attacks in the last months against the government, including two attacks against Burkinabe security forces in the Soum province on Dec. 2 and Dec. 21."

While being mostly active in Burkina Faso, they said, it also has militants in Mali's Mopti region where Jama Nusrat Ul-Islam wa Al-Muslimin is also active.

The experts said "the fragile security situation in the tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger risks to be exacerbated further as a result of environmental pressure."

"The Niger River basin has recorded its lowest level of water since 1994, which is likely to increase community tensions in the coming months," they warned.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Edith M. Lederer


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