Mali's refugee misery spreads with Islamists' advance

Hundreds of civilians have fled as towns on either side of the de facto border between the north and south of Mali have become the scene of fighting between Islamists, Malian troops and, since Friday, the French

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 4:10am


The city of Segou used to welcome visitors with a sign for its industrial zone, a scheme designed to encourage industry in this impoverished part of northern Mali. But now the town has a new welcome notice.

Someone has scrawled in broken French in huge red letters on the side of a wall on the outskirts of town: "Our soldiers are at war!"

No one knows how many refugees have arrived in Segou since rebel fighters began advancing south after months of controlling the desert in Mali's north. But hundreds have fled as towns on either side of the de facto border between north and south became the scene of fighting between Islamists, Malian troops and, since Friday, the French.

French troops drove out for their first ground offensive against Islamic insurgents in Mali, with Nigerian troops for the African intervention force expected to arrive yesterday.

Witnesses said yesterday that hundreds of Malian and French troops in armoured vehicles were headed to Diabaly, a town 400 kilometres north of the capital which was seized by the rebels on Monday. Another convoy was seen leaving Bamako in a northerly direction.

One of the refugees caught up in these events is Asadek Dicko, 20, who left his hometown of Timbuktu when Islamists seized control there in April, settling in Mopti, the northernmost town in government control. Dicko spoke in melancholic tones about the fear he felt when the town he had believed was a safe refuge came under threat.

"Timbuktu became like a prison under the Islamists. We thought Mopti would be safe."

Segou is becoming the new front line in the battle for control of Mali. Dicko said he now feared for his safety there, too.

"I hear what is happening in Diabaly," he said of the town now at the centre of the conflict. "I had never even heard of Diabaly before, but now I feel scared. The Islamists seem to be approaching - they are close."

France's deployment of ground forces came as defence sources said the country would triple its force in Mali to 2,500.

French president Francois Hollande, speaking in Dubai, said French troops were not in Mali for good but would stay until security had been restored and the "terrorists" eliminated.

West African army chiefs met in Bamako to plan the roll-out of the UN-mandated, 3,300-strong regional intervention force in the former French colony.

Nigeria, which is leading the regional force, said its total commitment would be 900 troops, 300 more than first announced.

A first contingent was to have been deployed yesterday, said Nigerian defence spokesman Colonel Mohammed Yerima. Benin, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Togo have also pledged troops.