Russia revealed on Wednesday it was supplying guns to Mali’s government, as French troops defused a massive bomb in the north of the country, the latest bid by Islamist rebels to strike back.
The head of Russia’s arms export agency said it had delivered small amounts of light weapons for the West African nation’s poorly equipped and deeply divided army.
“We are in talks about sending more, in small quantities,” said Rosoboronexport chief Anatoly Isaikin, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
In the centre of the northern city of Gao, the scene of twin suicide bombings and a street battle in recent days, French troops defused a homemade bomb they said contained 600 kilograms.
The bomb, four metal barrels filled with explosives and connecting wires, was in the courtyard of an abandoned house and had been there since at least Monday, according to a correspondent at the scene.
The United Nations said on Wednesday it was working on a “regional strategy” for the Sahel, the semi-arid region south of the Sahara desert. Analysts say a dangerous mix of Islamist extremism, kidnapping, drug trafficking and organised crime are fuelling the unrest there.
Mali’s army is struggling to restore security after a French-led military intervention helped it push out al-Qaeda-linked rebels who had seized the country’s north.
Romano Prodi, the UN’s special envoy for the Sahel, and UN West Africa representative Said Djinnit began a three-day visit to the region Wednesday to discuss the situation in Mali with the presidents of its neighbours Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.
On Tuesday, UN rights chief Navi Pillay warned that Mali risked descending into a cycle of violence.
The problem, she said, was not just rebel groups but also the army and black majority who have carried out reprisal attacks on light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs accused of supporting the insurgents.
Rights groups have accused the Malian army of killing suspected rebel supporters and dumping their bodies in wells. Tuaregs and Arabs have also come under attack from their black neighbours in northern towns such as Timbuktu.
In all, the crisis has caused some 377,000 people to flee their homes, including 150,000 who have sought refuge across Mali’s borders, according to the UN.
“The recent developments in the conflict have sown panic among these people, who have fled for fear of being trapped between two fires,” Nawezi Karl of aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said on Wednesday.
Refugees, who had taken few belongings with them, were living in precarious conditions and threatened by hunger, the agency said.
Mali imploded after a March coup by soldiers who blamed the government for the army’s humiliation at the hands of north African Tuareg rebels, who had launched an uprising in the north two months earlier.
With the capital in disarray, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north.
France launched its intervention on January 11, after Mali’s interim government called for help fending off the Islamist insurgents as they made incursions into government territory.
But after pushing the rebels from the towns under their control, France is eager to wind down the operation in its former colony and hand over to United Nations peacekeepers.
In Bamako on Wednesday the leader of the March coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, was sworn in as head of a military reform committee.
Sanogo, under pressure from the international community, handed power to the interim government last April, but continued to exercise influence behind the scenes.
Sanogo’s new post comes with living quarters at the army chief of staff’s offices in Bamako - an arrangement political and military insiders say is a bid to lure him away from his loyalists in the garrison town of Kati.