Mali refugees causing regional strain
Nouakchott - Days ago, Bahi Ag Mohamed was living comfortably as a trader in Mali's capital. Now he is hungry and living in a small room with eight others in a remote border town of Mauritania.
"It's cold at night and we don't have enough blankets," Ag Mohamed said from Fassale. "Last night three of us slept with a blanket meant for just one."
Ag Mohamed is among the tens of thousands of Malians fleeing to neighbouring countries because of attacks by a Tuareg rebel group in Mali's north that began last month.
Local governments worry the massive movement of people could bring instability to the region, and aid agencies say those fleeing could further complicate efforts to fight a looming food crisis.
"The humanitarian consequences of the violence in the north of Mali are further straining a part of the Sahel that was already hard hit by recurrent droughts and food crises," the International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement released this week.
The Sahel is a semiarid zone that runs along the bottom of the Sahara Desert. The region is moving into the lean period of the year when grain reserves run out before the next harvest. This critical time starts as early as April in some areas.
"The hunger gap is starting earlier this year because people's reserves are so low," Stephen Cockburn, regional campaign and policy manager from Oxfam West Africa said. Aid agencies that are providing food aid will be put under more pressure if they have to account for thousands more, he said.
The ICRC said 15 000 people have fled across the border into northern Niger, an area where people are already at risk of hunger.
"The region people have fled to in Niger is an area we had already identified as likely to be at acute risk," Cockburn said.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mauritania said that 10 000 people from Mali, mostly women and children, have fled to eastern Mauritania.
Oxfam said that eastern Mauritania is another area likely to see food shortages this year.
The Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso, Djibril Bassolet, said about 10 000 people had fled from Mali into his country, including 72 members of the security forces. The humanitarian situation is worrying, he said.
A Tuareg gendarme who left southern Mali last week for the capital of Burkina Faso said many, like him, are staying with families they know in Ouagadougou.
"But in the town of Bobo Dioulasso the situation is much worse, there are people who have had to set up tents in the stadium there," the gendarme said on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
In Mali, where the ICRC said at least 30 000 people have been internally displaced by the fighting, the conditions are not much better.
"Some of us here are living in tents made out of blankets," said a man who moved all his family out of the town of Timbuktu in northern Mali to a small village nearby he considers safer. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"The conditions are tough - the people who ran the health centre have fled and the price of food is high," the man said.
Impact on Niger
The President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, speaking on Radio France International on Thursday said he was worried about the impact people fleeing from Mali would have on Niger, especially as people are also fleeing into Niger from recent violence in northern Nigeria.
"We're trying to deal with all these problems, even though we had a bad season for agriculture," Issoufou said.
The government of Niger said it has seen a drop in cereal production this year of almost 700 000 metric tons and also a drop in feed available for livestock.
The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people spread across the Sahara Desert, have risen up against the central government in Mali several times since the country's independence from France in 1960.
The newest rebellion launched Jan. 17 broke years of relative peace, and is being fuelled by the return of Tuaregs from Libya who had fought in Muammar Gaddafi's army.
The Tuareg group has attacked at least seven towns spread out over more than 800km across Mali's vast north.
A group calling itself the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad formed in October has claimed responsibility for the attacks. The groups says it is seeking self-determination of the north of Mali.
Burkina Faso worried
The Malian government has accused the group of fighting one battle with al-Qaeda's North Africa branch, which is active in the region. The NMLA denies the accusation.
Burkina Faso's Foreign Minister Bassolet said he is concerned some Tuaregs may use Burkina Faso as a base from where they would try to destabilize Mali. He said measures would be taken to ensure no one entered Burkina Faso with weapons.
"Any act or statement that can affect the security of the republic of Mali from the refugees will not be tolerated by the Burkina government," he said.
The President of Niger played down the risk that the Tuareg rebellion in Mali might rekindle Tuareg rebel movements in Niger. Tuaregs in Niger have also risen up against the government several times before.
"We've made a lot of effort and put in place a vast program of economic and social development in the northern zones," Issoufou said. "Even the old heads of the rebellion are part of putting this programme in place."