DAKAR/BAMAKO (Reuters) - After U.N. helicopters strafed separatist rebels in northern Mali last month, residents of the region’s largest town Gao took to the streets to celebrate the long-awaited burst of action by the peacekeeping mission.
Just days later, a U.N. base in Gao was attacked by crowds hurling stones and petrol bombs, furious at rumours the peacekeepers had signed a secret deal with the rebels. At least three people were killed after U.N. troops opened fire, forcing U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to order an enquiry.
The abrupt reversal highlights the daunting task facing the U.N. mission in a country where there is still no peace to keep, two years after French forces wrested control of Mali’s desert north from separatist rebels and al Qaeda-linked militants.
In part, the difficulties experienced by the U.N. mission in Mali (MINUSMA) stem from a mandate that has left it open to attack from all sides.
Peacekeepers in Mali are supposed to help the state impose its authority on the north, while also acting as a broker for stalled peace talks between the warring factions - a role that requires the U.N. mission to win the trust of rebels.
“MINUSMA’s position (was already) delicate due to the complex mandate,” said Jean-Herve Jezequel, Sahel analyst at International Crisis Group. “The events in Gao have just complicated an already very tricky task.”
While France’s focus has shifted to regional counter-terrorism, the 10,000-strong U.N. mission that deployed in the wake of the swift French offensive in Mali inherited the trickier task of rebuilding a broken state.
U.N. peacekeepers face challenges ranging from Malians’ expectations that they would bring separatists to heel, a leadership vacuum within the mission itself, and the harsh reality of operating in a zone awash with rebels, Islamists and organised criminal gangs.
“MINUSMA’s relationship with the government and the (rebel) groups was already strained by the lack of trust,” Jezequel said. “The Malian population doesn’t understand the role of the mission. This is not a lack of explanation but a fundamental problem.”
Having seen French firepower defeat Qaeda-linked forces advancing south two years ago, many Malians want peacekeepers take a robust approach to the remaining rebels, especially those led by Tuaregs demanding a separate homeland.
Yet until Dutch Apache attack helicopters destroyed a rebel vehicle in the town of Tabankort in January, they mostly saw U.N. troops standing guard on sandy urban streets.
“MINUSMA had won over our hearts when they appeared to launch the assault against the rebels,” said Mountaga Toure, a Malian political analyst.
“But then they wasted this enormous feeling of goodwill with a bogus agreement,” he said, referring to a proposed buffer zone to separate warring factions, which was seen as favouring Tuareg separatists over pro-government militia.
The idea, which peacekeepers say was a working document, has since been scrapped. However, it highlights an atmosphere of mistrust and the mission’s failure to communicate effectively with Malians.
Yvan Guichaoua, a Mali expert at the University of East Anglia, said the mission had not received due credit for behind-the-scenes work in talking sides down from conflict.
Tiebile Drame, leader of the opposition PARENA political party, agreed. He said much was done by U.N. peacekeepers that few knew about: “They send their planes, helicopters to take soldiers and wounded out of the field to the hospitals.”
But Drame argues Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was partly responsible for strained ties with the U.N. mission due to his reluctance to fully back talks with rebels. The negotiations are unpopular in the southern capital.
Keita came to power promising to restore order to the north, where Tuaregs have repeatedly taken up arms. However, a failed attempt to seize their stronghold, Kidal, last year left the army as weak as ever.
Keita has publicly told Malians to see peacekeepers as allies not enemies. But tension runs deep through the relationship.
“Our message to him - and in fact to all parties - is to make the compromises needed to get a deal,” said a senior U.N. official working on Mali. “But even after the events in Kidal last May, there are apparently some who still want to avoid this.”
Peacekeepers say they fired on separatists in Tabankort to protect civilians and U.N. troops being shot at there during clashes between pro- and anti-government militia - the latest in a string of violations of a ceasefire signed last year.
ICG’s Jezequel said MINUSMA should have come out sooner against violations. “The mission is paying for the errors it made but also the lack of will on the warring factions to stick to the ceasefire.”
The departure in October of Bert Koenders, the U.N. mission chief who left to become Dutch foreign minister, has hamstrung the operation, several diplomats said.
In a bid to save talks, the government and armed groups have been convened for meetings in Algeria this week.
However, U.N. diplomats must forge peace in an environment where both the government and the separatists have an interest in prolonging fighting, hoping to win more ground. Violence also suits criminal gangs battling over smuggling routes across the Sahara, and Islamists who profit from lawlessness.
With U.N. patrols and bases increasingly coming under Islamist attack, the mission has already lost more than 30 dead and nearly 100 injured since mid-2013. For many, the priority is just to keep blue helmets safe.
“There are clearly a lot of actors who are not on board. The extremist groups and the traffickers are profiting from this,” the U.N. official said.
Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Peter Graff