DAKAR (AlertNet) – The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) has suspended some activities in the northern and central regions of Mali after armed groups ransacked its offices and looted food aid in the towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, a spokesman for the agency said on Tuesday.
Tuareg-led rebels seeking to carve out an independent state in the north of Mali, and local Islamists, seized the garrison town of Gao, the ancient trading post of Timbuktu and the town of Kidal over the weekend.
In the confusion that followed armed groups ransacked government offices, hospitals, hotels, private property as well as the offices and warehouses of aid groups, residents said.
“As a result of the violence and widespread looting and lawlessness, WFP has lost the food stocks it had in its depots (848 tonnes of food in Timbuktu, 1,442 tonnes in Gao and 64 tonnes in Kidal),” said Malek Triki, the WFP spokesman for West Africa.
“This will make it particularly difficult to resume our operations as quickly as we hope for when the security situation improves,” he said.
More than 3.5 million people are at risk of going hungry in Mali due to drought, with the majority in the north of the country where there has been fighting since January when the Tuareg-led Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) launched an offensive against Malian forces.
WFP planned to aid 1.2 million people in Mali this year, including over 1 million hit by drought and up to 120,000 people who have been internally displaced by the conflict.
The agency says it now is unable to reach hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, food-insecure people who depend on its assistance as a result of the recent developments.
The international charity Oxfam says it is also reassessing its ability to operate in the northern region after armed groups entered its offices at the weekend and looted computers and vehicles when rebels seized the town of Gao.
“It remains unclear what our next steps will be but we are looking at ways to continue to respond and reach the thousands of people who need assistance,” said Steve Cockburn, Oxfam’s campaigns and policy manager for West Africa.
Oxfam says it is concerned that the insecurity problems could make it harder to reach those facing hunger in the country and is urging all groups involved in the fighting, as well as those seeking to mediate, to ensure there is security and access for humanitarian groups wanting to provide relief to the people.
“The crises in Mali need to be dealt with together because within the growing insecurity you cannot forget that there are people going hungry,” Oxfam’s Cockburn said.
The situation in Mali has become even more unstable after soldiers, angered by what they saw as President Amadou Toumani Toure's poor handling of a northern rebellion, seized power in the capital Bamako last month.
Worried neighbours, including Ivory Coast and Niger, have told coup leaders to step down immediately. On Monday they launched sanctions, including the closure of borders to the land-locked country and a freezing of its funds at the central bank of the West African franc currency zone.
The charity World Vision, however, says it is concerned that the decision by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to impose sanctions could have a negative and far-reaching impact on the country’s poorest and most vulnerable.
“The closing of the borders means the high food prices will climb even further out of the reach of the poorest members of Mali’s population – people who are already spacing out their meals or eating less each day,” Chris Palusky, World Vision's food crisis response manager for Mali and Niger, said in a statement.
“The people who at the moment may be barely able to afford food may be pushed into dependency on food assistance,” Palusky added.
Malians rushed to stock up on petrol and cash on Tuesday after the trade and diplomatic sanctions went ahead.
WFP says its non-governmental organisation partners are ready to work and scale up humanitarian assistance in some central regions, and are willing to move into northern regions as soon access is secure. WFP is operating normally in Kayes where the situation is still calm, Triki said.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)