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Residents of northeastern Mali town trapped, blocked from humanitarian aid

FILE - An anti-aircraft gun is mounted on the back of a pickup truck as militants from a Tuareg political and armed movement in the Azawad Region in Mali gather in the desert outside Menaka, March 14, 2020.
FILE - An anti-aircraft gun is mounted on the back of a pickup truck as militants from a Tuareg political and armed movement in the Azawad Region in Mali gather in the desert outside Menaka, March 14, 2020.

Save the Children says more than 140,000 people in the Malian town of Menaka, including 80,000 children, face malnutrition and disease due to a blockade by Islamic State-linked insurgents. The organization warns that the months-long blockade has driven supplies to alarmingly low levels as aid agencies and Malian government programs struggle to deliver basic necessities.

In a statement this week, Save the Children said that unless aid gets to the Menaka communities soon, the area could see many deaths in coming months.

The London-based organization said some of its workers who went to assess the population’s needs had been trapped for more than three weeks.

The blockade in Menaka follows a siege in Timbuktu that began last August and has trapped more than 136,000 people, 74,000 of them children.

In Timbuktu, however, some aid supplies are able to reach people in need, according to Save the Children. David Otto, a Nigerian-based security analyst, says the lack of government presence in northern Mali is complicating aid efforts.

“Humanitarian activities within that region also have been very, very much limited," said Otto. "Not just due to insecurity, which is one of the main factors, but also due to the fact that the regime or the military government has limited access to that region for humanitarian organizations on the basis of jihadist groups.”

Aid agencies say Mali is locked in a complex crisis, facing criminal organizations, an Islamist insurgency, socio-economic challenges, and climate change.

More than 7 million people need humanitarian assistance, and the situation is worse in conflict-affected areas of northern and central Mali.

According to Cadre Harmonise 2024, a framework used to identify food and nutrition insecurity in the Sahel and West Africa, over 40,000 residents of Menaka already face emergency levels of hunger.

Aid agencies warn the situation is expected to deteriorate in June, by which time nearly 50,000 people will be food insecure and needing urgent support.

Kevin Oduor teaches International Criminal Law at Technical University in Kenya. He says the starving the population in Menaka is a war crime.

“Blocking aid getting to the people is tantamount to exposing them to murder, exposing them to situations that would hinder them from living their full life," said Oduor. "So, these are actually war crimes.”

Mali’s military junta recently launched a joint operation with the military governments in Burkina Faso and Niger to fight jihadist and insurgent groups that have destabilized parts of West Africa.

The junta says it sees the operations as one way of easing the suffering of its people in the hands of armed groups.

However, the government has been unable to break the sieges of either Menaka or Timbuktu.

Meanwhile, the government has ordered the U.N. mission in Mali to close its offices and end the support it was providing to the population.

Otto says saving lives and feeding its people is not a top priority for the military government in Mali.

“The government is now focusing a lot on dealing with security issues rather than actually looking at the humanitarian aspects within that area," said Otto. "This is why you are seeing an increase in the number of people living in very dire circumstances within that region. Right now, the government is focusing on consolidating its power from a military and defense point of view rather than actually providing some kind of economic or sustainable assistance to the people living in this area.”

Experts warn Mali’s unwillingness to work with regional and international institutions may worsen the humanitarian situation in the country.