LONDON (AlertNet) - Humanitarian access to northern Mali is being hindered by the presence of roadside bombs and restrictions imposed by Malian security forces on the movement of transport to the recaptured north, a senior U.N. official said.
David Gressly, the United Nations' regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, said he was concerned that supplies of food in northern areas -- where 500,000 Malians need assistance -- might run out by the end of the month if relief workers could not get through to them.
He also said the south, where an estimated 1.5 million people will need food aid this year, must not be neglected.
"What we're worried about now is the population in the north of Mali where access is extremely limited," Gressly told AlertNet in an interview in London.
"In the past we were able to get assistance in by river, by road. There was also market access from Algeria and other countries, with food coming in. Most of that, almost all of that, has been cut off, so we're concerned that over time the existing supplies in the northern regions will dwindle and create a critical situation."
One of the priorities was to reach Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, Gressly said. The three northern towns were under the control of Islamist rebels until a French-led offensive pushed them out of their strongholds last month.
Although French and Malian troops have faced little real resistance from the Islamists -- who seized control of northern Mali in the confusion that followed a coup in March 2012 – the rebels launched a raid in the heart of the town of Gao on Sunday.
The brazen rebel raid followed blasts set off by two suicide bombers at a northern checkpoint.
Gressly said U.N. agencies were building up their operations out of the central town of Mopti, but the presence of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and the lack of security, as seen in the recent suicide attacks and rebel raid, were hampering access.
"We're facing some restrictions from Malian security forces which are limiting movement of vehicles going forward from the Mopti area," Gressly added, explaining that this seemed to be due to the military operations still under way.
However, there has been some progress.
Last Tuesday, the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) started using the river to gain access to Timbuktu, Gressly said. The WFP is also considering the use of air transport to deliver food and the possibility of getting supplies to Gao via neighbouring Niger, he said.
Gressly later told an audience at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) that beyond the question of access, a second important issue was the need to get more aid workers on the ground to provide communities with some protection through their presence.
He also called for human rights monitors to investigate reports of abuses, saying: "As long as there is a vacuum of knowledge, it can create conditions for reprisals."
Gressly, who was appointed to oversee humanitarian operations in the Sahel in April 2012 after seven years in Southern Sudan, said the needs of southern Mali should not be neglected.
"We cannot forget the larger humanitarian issue which is actually in the south of the country and the central part," Gressly said. "The majority of people who need food assistance for treatment of malnutrition and other humanitarian support are actually in the south – about 80 percent."
"It's quite easy to focus on security challenges and to orientate our work in that direction but we can't forget the more silent emergencies behind those lines that continue to affect people every day."
Mali descended into chaos after the coup last March, leaving a power vacuum that enabled Tuareg rebels to seize two-thirds of the country. Islamist extremists, some allied with al Qaeda, then hijacked the revolt.
The conflict exacerbated a deteriorating humanitarian and security situation in the Sahel -- a belt of land on the southern rim of the Sahara -- where drought had pushed millions to the brink of starvation.