US calls for smaller UN force in Mali, Russia says no change

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United States called Wednesday for a reduction in the more than 16,000-strong peacekeeping force in Mali and a new focus on protecting civilians because parties to a 2015 peace deal have made little progress in implementing it, but Russia said it doesn’t want any changes now.

France, which has some 4,500 troops in the sprawling Sahel region which includes Mali fighting extremists, said it needs the U.N. force.

The opposing views played out at a Security Council meeting but there was agreement on the growing extremist threat.

Mali has been in turmoil since a 2012 uprising prompted mutinous soldiers to overthrow the 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.

Insurgents remain active in the region and the West African nation is under threat from a number of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization. The extremists have moved from the arid north to more populated central Mali since 2015, stoking animosity and violence between ethnic groups in the region.

The 2015 agreement was signed by three parties — the government, a coalition of groups who seek autonomy in northern Mali, and a pro-government militia.

Acting U.S. deputy ambassador Cherith Norman told the Security Council that “inaction" in implementing the peace agreement has seen civilians killed and abducted “with impunity,” and the West African country’s displaced population double last year.

“Today millions suffer from food insecurity, with fully 30 percent of the population malnourished,” she said.

In this environment, Norman said, “terrorist groups are taking advantage of ungoverned spaces, exploiting grievances, and fueling inter-communal conflict.” Mali’s peacekeeping force, already one of the most dangerous U.N. peacekeeping operation, is facing “extraordinary dangers,” she said, and Malian armed forces are also “suffering critical losses.”

With little progress on the peace front and a deteriorating security environment, Norman said, it’s time to re-evaluate the U.N. mission’s role in supporting implementation of the 2015 agreement.

The mission's primary mission remains supporting implementation of the peace deal and last June it was given a secondary mandate to help tackle escalating violence and re-establish government authority in the central part of the troubled West African nation.

The U.S. envoy said the council should consider having the peacekeeping force focus instead on protecting civilians, especially in densely populated and strategically important central Mali, and reducing the size of the force which would allow countries “to apply resources toward more effective efforts in the region.”

The council should also recognize “that peacekeeping missions are not the answer to growing terrorist threats in Mali,” Norman said, and it should sanction those on both sides of the conflict blocking implementation of the peace deal.

But Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Dmitry Polyansky told the council that Moscow supports the current U.N. mission, known as MINUSMA, and it should fulfill its mandate in central and northern Mali.

“At the present juncture we are not ready to consider actions that would significantly reformat the parameters of this operation, nor its drawdown,” he said.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix told the council the security situation in Mali and the Sahel is deteriorating at an “alarming” rate, and terrorism continues to feed inter-communal violence in central Mali.

He said “the rapid and thorough implementation of the peace agreement remains the only viable path for the stabilization of Mali,” but so far it has been “slow” and “irregular.”

Lacroix called for additional resources to ensure MINUSMA can carry out its mandate in the north and center, and he said the U.N. mission has developed plans for a Mobile Task Force that will enable peacekeepers to be “more agile, flexible” and enhance protection of civilians.

But he stressed that the U.N. mission in Mali is just one element of the response needed to fight violence, extremism and instability in the country and the wider Sahel.

France’s U.N. Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere stressed that MINUSMA “remains a very important tool for us” and “we will continue to need and to support MINUSMA.”

In 2018, five countries in the Sahel — Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania — decided to form a regional force to fight the Islamic State, Al-Qaida and other extremist groups, but it has struggled financially, and still needs aircraft and modern military equipment.

French President Emmanuel Macron met leaders of the so-called G5 Sahel force on Monday and they vowed to boost their military efforts under a joint command in the Sahel, which has seen a surge of deadly violence. They also urged the U.S. to maintain its key support in the fight against Islamic extremism.

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