The United Nations said yesterday it hopes to have full access for aid operations in northern Mali within days, but warned that the security situation there was still a concern.
"We now have access back into central Mali," said David Gressly, who steers humanitarian operations in the region for the UN.
"But we're looking for a broader access, throughout north Mali. We're concerned about the population in the north because they have been cut off. Approximately 500,000 people in northern Mali are food insecure, and need assistance," he said in Geneva.
French forces intervened in Mali on January 11 to help the army halt an advance on the capital Bamako by Islamists who overran the north after a military coup in March last year.
France confirmed yesterday that a drawdown of its 4,000-strong force would begin next month if the military operation in Mali continued to go well.
French troops are still battling the remnants of Islamist groups that have been routed in most of the northern Malian towns they had controlled.
Gressly said that aid groups were still working on the assumption that a new spike in violence was possible, while unexploded ordnance and landmines also posed a threat.
That comment came as Malian soldiers patrolling Gao uncovered a stash of industrial-strength explosives yesterday.
The Nitram 5 explosives were hidden inside rice bags that were left in a communal trash area amid used tins of meat and empty plastic bottles.
Groups of Malian soldiers on foot were called out to several sites yesterday, including one building where they found grenades alongside a large suitcase and reading material in Arabic script about sharia law.
The Mali conflict came amid an enduring drought in the country and other nations in the impoverished Sahel region, where an estimated 10 million people risk starvation this year, according to Gressly.
"It's important to bear in mind that the northern Mali crisis is coming on top of a broad, chronic crisis across the Sahel."
Additional reporting by Associated Press