UN calls for free, fair Mali polls minus coup leaders

The volatile west African nation has announced a new government with army figures in key roles, in the wake of an internationally condemned coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita last month.

FILE: A meeting of the UN Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York on 26 February 2020. Picture: Johannes Eisele/AFP

UNITED NATIONS - A large majority of the 15-nation UN Security Council called Monday for free and fair elections to go ahead in coup-hit Mali without the participation of its current leaders.

The volatile west African nation has announced a new government with army figures in key roles, in the wake of an internationally condemned coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita last month.

"The absolute priority must be the organization of the presidential election on February 27, 2022," said French Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere, adding that those behind the coup should play no part.

Fighting in the vast semi-arid Sahel on the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert began in 2012, when Islamist militants joined a local insurgency in northern Mali, capturing swathes of territory.

Former colonial power France intervened in January 2013 to beat them back, in an operation called Serval.

Serval was succeeded in 2014 by the broader Barkhane mission, which has some 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have died, and more than two million people have been displaced, adding to the woes of an already impoverished region.

France announced last week that it was planning to wind down Barkhane, although De Riviere said it would maintain a "significant military presence" in the region.

"It is critical that the February 2022 elections be free and fair and are administrated by competent and impartial election authorities, using transparent processes," added US deputy ambassador to the UN Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a view supported by Mexico, Norway, Ireland and Niger.

Several Security Council members backed a one-year extension of MINUSMA, the UN stabilisation mission in Mali whose mandate expires on 30 June, without any change to current personnel levels.

China and Vietnam said they were in favor of "maintaining the ceiling" of authorized military and police at around 15,000.

France said however an increase should be requested, deploring the fact that there are only 2,000 blue helmets in central Mali, a Islamist militant stronghold, with "three helicopters available every other week."

The United States again rejected a request by Paris and African countries to create a support office, funded by mandatory UN contributions, for the anti-jihadist force operated by the so-called G5 countries - Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad.

"We reiterate that it is important to maintain a clear line between counterterrorism and peacekeeping to protect the UN's impartiality and personnel," DeLaurentis said.

Russia said it was "irresponsible" following the announcement of the Barkhane drawdown and the end of joint military operations between the two nations to abandon Mali to its fate.

"The stakes are too high for the security of Mali and its entire region," said deputy Russian ambassador to the UN Anna Evstigneeva.

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