UN eyes north Mali aid access within days

The United Nations said Wednesday it hopes to have full access for aid operations in northern Mali within days, but warned that the security situation there was still a concern.

"We now have access back into central Mali," said David Gressly, who steers operations in the region of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

"But we're looking for a broader access, throughout north Mali. We're concerned about the population in the north because they have been cut off... Approximately 500,000 people in northern Mali are food insecure, and need assistance," he told reporters in Geneva.

"We could have access over coming days. We're working on assessments right now, and on the basis of those assessments, we should be able to re-establish a presence," he added.

French forces intervened in Mali on January 11 to help the army halt an advance on the capital Bamako by Islamists who overran the north after a military coup in March last year.

France confirmed Wednesday that a drawdown of its 4,000-strong force will begin next month as long as the military operation in Mali continues to go well.

French troops are still battling the remnants of Islamist groups that have been routed in most of the northern Malian towns they had controlled.

Gressly said that aid groups were still working on the assumption that a new spike in violence was possible, while unexploded ordnance and landmines also posed a threat.

"I think we have to be prepared for the situation to get worse. That's not a prediction that it will get worse. But we need to be prepared for that," he said.

The Mali conflict came amid an enduring drought in the country and other nations in the impoverished Sahel region, where an estimated 10 million people risk starvation this year, according to Gressly.

"It's important to bear in mind that the northern Mali crisis is coming on top of a broad, chronic crisis across the Sahel," he said.