North Mali off-limits for Western staff: Red Cross

The international Red Cross said Monday it is keeping northern Mali off-limits for Western staff for security reasons, despite the retreat of radical Islamists there.

"Our staffing has remained the same since before the revival of the conflict, with around 100 staff in northern Mali," said Wolde Gabriel Saugeron, spokesman for the Africa division of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"We work with expats, but non-OECD expats, for obvious security reasons," he told reporters, referring to a grouping of Western nations.

Non-Malian staff working in the troubled nation hail from neighbouring countries such as Nigeria, he noted.

Despite joyous scenes in communities freed from Islamist control, those who fled appear wary of returning.

"The situation in Mali remains a concern for the population, with several tens of thousands displaced within the country or having fled to neighbouring countries," Saugeron said.

What "we've seen since the end of last week is the start of returns in central Mali," with over 7,000 heading home, he added.

"But it's only the beginning of returns, not a trend. And in the north, the situation remains unclear."

French forces intervened in Mali last month to halt an advance on the capital Bamako by Islamists who seized a swathe of the north in 2012.

With the Malian army, the French have taken back large chunks of territory from the militant groups, but concerns remain that the fighters have simply gone underground.

"The return of expatriate staff is still not on the table. We need to observe the security situation on site," said Saugeron.

"This crisis escalated last year, but for several years already, we haven't been sending certain nationalities to that part of Mali," he underlined.

The Red Cross has long sounded the alarm about the situation in Mali and the rest of the drought-stricken, impoverished Sahel region.

An estimated 18 million people are at risk from starvation across the Sahel, and the issue has rarely made headlines even during the Mali conflict.

"The Sahel region is really a fully fledged humanitarian crisis and it hasn't gone away," said Jessica Sallabank, spokeswoman of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.