Some 50,000 new refugees arrive in Niger as fighting continues in Northern Mali

Source:Xinhua Published: 2013-1-17 9:23:52

Niger hosted at the past weekend nearly 50,000 new refugees from Mali, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In a statement released Wednesday, the UNHCR states that total number of Malian refugees in neighboring countries, fleeing clashes between the France-backed Malian army and armed rebel groups in northern and central Mali, is estimated at more than 144, 500 people.

In Niger, the refugees consisting mainly of women and children who were received at camps built in the cities of Banibangou Ayarou and Tillaberi and Tillia area in west of the country.

According to UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards, the refugees fled the ongoing military operation for livelihood and essential services.

Niger is already home to tens of thousands of Malians who took refuge in the country in the early hours of crisis, fleeing insecurity in northern Mali occupied by rebels groups including MUJAO, ANSAR DINE and AQIM since March last year.

Niger and Mali share a border of more than 400 km with people on either side speaking the same language.

Situation in Mali was tense in the last couple of days. Fighting between al-Qaida-linked rebels and the Malian army supported by French forces entered the sixth day on Wednesday. The Malian-French joint ground troops attacked the rebels in Diabaly, 400 km from the capital Bamako, on Wednesday, a security source told Xinhua.

Al-Qaida's North African branch AQIM briefly seized Diabaly on Monday in a counter-attack launched from the west along the Mali- Mauritania border.

AQIM fighters fled out of town to surrounding areas after an overnight airstrike by the French forces.

The ground battle in Diabaly marked a shift of days of air raids to land operations between rebels and Mali's allies including France and the West African bloc ECOWAS.

Between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, about 200 French soldiers headed towards Diabaly in their first ground operation since Paris declared intervention on Friday, Mali's security source said.

The ground operation, which came after many rebels were reportedly killed and injured in airstrikes, might be difficult as "some of the terrorist and Islamist fighters had mixed with the Diabaly population while others had fled the town," the source indicated.

Eyewitnesses told Xinhua that local residents including women and children had fled the town of Diabaly, which is near the Mauritanian border, heading towards southern Mali controlled by the government.

Members of the 15-nation bloc ECOWAS have been meeting in Bamako for an extraordinary forum since Tuesday to discuss an urgent deployment of the International Support Mission for Mali (MISMA).

Troops from ECOWAS member states Senegal, Niger, Ghana, Nigeria and Guinea are expected to arrive in Mali soon.

French intervention to stop rebels advancing south prompted an early than expected deployment of MISMA, which was approved by the UN Security Council in December 2012 after submitted by ECOWAS.

The bloc plans to help member state Mali to restore constitutional rule and territorial integrity after rebels took advantage of a military coup on March 22, 2012 to occupy northern part of the country. But the plan was initially considered impossible until September 2013 because of preparations ranging from training to logistics.

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