BAMAKO (Reuters) - Fighting in northern Mali has forced nearly 60,000 people to flee their homes over the last four weeks, a United Nations aid agency said on Friday, highlighting the lack of peace despite a partial deal being signed earlier this month.
The new wave brings to more than 100,000 the number of Malians displaced in the desert north, which has been in turmoil since a 2012 Tuareg-led separatist rebellion was hijacked by better-armed al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants.
French forces scattered the Islamists in 2013. But they have since regrouped and are attacking French and U.N. troops, who are also trying to broker peace between the southern government and rebels seeking autonomy for the north.
UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, said the vast majority of the newly displaced were from the Timbuktu region, which has seen a string of clashes involving various groups of gunmen.
Civilians said they were fleeing their homes because they feared violence as well as force recruitment by armed groups, UNHCR said.
Three U.N. peacekeepers were wounded in the region on Thursday when a vehicle in a convoy escorting their commander and the force’s police commissioner hit a landmine.
The recent flare-up had also forced some Malians to cross into neighboring countries, reversing the flow of refugees who, until recently, had been gradually returning home from Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, UNHCR said.
“Although the numbers are still relatively low, this is an extremely worrying development since it shows the degree to which civil strife in Mali is undermining social cohesion,” it said.
The Bamako government and its allied northern armed groups signed a peace deal on May 15 but a coalition of Tuareg-led rebels, known as the CMA, has so far refused and clashes continue between the rival factions.
French and U.N. forces are increasingly being caught up in the conflict, with all sides accusing them of taking sides.
While most of the violence has been limited to the northern desert zones, long awash with gunmen and smugglers, the southern capital, Bamako, has seen a spate of attacks in recent months.
A spokesman for the U.N. Secretary-General on Thursday called on Malian authorities to investigate a shooting in the city that killed a peacekeeper and wounded another earlier in the week.
Nearly 50 U.N. peacekeepers have been killed in Mali since the mission was launched two years ago, making it one of the world body’s most dangerous.
(Story corrects 10th paragraph to show U.N. accused of taking sides)
Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Angus MacSwan