Three people were killed Tuesday in the town of Gao, in northern Mali, as nearly 1,000 people tried to storm the military headquarters of MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission dedicated to stabilizing the country in the wake of the Tuareg insurgency.
The pro-government militias that largely control the region have accused MINUSMA — an acronym that stands for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali — of favoring Tuareg separatists, who want to turn northern Mali into an independent state. According to reports, the protesters — mostly young people who oppose the separatist movement — dispute MINUSMA's reported plan to create of "a temporary security zone" in the town of Tabankort, 70 miles north of Gao. The measure would effectively force the loyalists fighting the Tuareg to lay down their arms.
It was the second day of demonstrations outside the MINUSMA base, and protesters hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at UN peacekeepers, injuring two. On Tuesday, MINUSMA troops tried to disperse the demonstrators with tear gas, and fired warning shots before panicking and allegedly opening fire on the crowd, a Malian military source told Reuters.
MINUSMA spokesman Olivier Salgado denied the report that the troops fired on the protesters.
"According to our information, our troops did not open fire on the protesters," Salgado told VICE News. "We are trying to understand what happened. That's why we launched an investigation last night."
The protests came one week after Tuareg militias attacked MINUSMA troops in the town of Tabankort, prompting UN troops to bomb a rebel vehicle.
In an attempt to restore peace in the region, MINUSMA launched negotiations with various rebel groups, which led to the agreement over the contested "security" zone. But the deal was still in its draft stage, and was in no way a binding bilateral agreement between the MINUSMA and the Tuareg.
"This was a working document, still in progress, which was presented by some as an official document outlining a definitive agreement," Salgado said. "Negotiations had just begun, we were far from having reached a deal."
The agreement has since been scrapped.
Salgado said that "loyalist militias were consulted form the get-go, alongside the Tuareg," to find a solution to the crisis and ensure the protection of civilians in the region. "This document was a diplomatic shuttle between the various parties, and was due to be evaluated by the UN before being submitted to the government," he added.
There was apparently confusion over the binding nature of the agreement, leading loyalists to believe the Tuareg had been given preferential treatment by MINUSMA.
Alain Antil, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations who specializes in the Sahel region, speculated that one of the parties involved in the negotiations may have become displeased and leaked the details. Salgado, however, insisted that, "there was never any intention to hide anything from anyone."
Antil said the number of groups that are active in northern Mali make for "a very complex situation." The country was plunged into chaos in March 2012 after Tuareg rebels from Mali's National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) joined armed Islamist groups like Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) after a coup by Gen. Amadou Sanogo.
In January 2013, Islamist forces launched an unprecedented attack on the south of the country, triggering French military intervention. Operation Serval successfully halted the militant advance, and helped the Malian government regain control of northern Mali, including the Islamist stronghold of Gao.
"Islamist Salafist groups are still present in northern Mali, but no longer have the capacity to gain control of the region like they did in 2012, before they were weakened by the French army," Antil said.
The Tuareg separatists, who mostly live north of Timbuktu, advocate for an independent homeland they call Azawad. According to Antil, the Malian army is "very weak," but supported by three pro-government militias: the Imghad and Allies Tuareg Self-Defense Group (GATIA), the pro-government wing of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), and the Coordination of Patriotic Resistance Forces and Movements (CMFPR). "These militias are in charge of compensating for the weaknesses of the regular Malian army," Antil explained.
Loyalist militias and Tuareg rebel forces in the region clash regularly. On Tuesday, a dozen people died 120 miles north of Gao in an attack that was later claimed by GATIA.
MINUSMA inherited the peacekeeping mission in northern Mali after operation Serval came to an end in July 2014 and France redeployed its troops as part of Operation Barkhane, an anti-Islamist campaign across Africa's Sahel region. Antil said the UN troops work mainly to secure towns and major thoroughfares, not coordinate attacks and offensives.
"For several months, people had been complaining that the MINUSMA was not being sufficiently proactive," Antil said. "It's going to assert itself more and more in the region, especially now that French forces have been scaled down."
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