Group warns against hasty return of Mali displaced

Malians displaced by the Islamist takeover of northern Mali last year and planning to return to their homes in the wake of France's military intervention still face sharp threats and challenges, a watchdog warned Wednesday.

The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) said that a survey on the ground showed that an overwhelming majority of Malians who fled the conflict zone aimed to go home soon.

But the risk, said the IDMC, is that they could be forced to hit the road again even though a French-led offensive has rolled back Islamist fighters.

"The military intervention has not cured all evils," said Elizabeth Rushing, the IDMC's Mali analyst.

"Invisible threats remain with reports of on-going ethnic tensions alongside fears that Islamist militants will regroup in the mountains, where they are believed to have fled, to continue their campaign of guerrilla-style raids and suicide bombings in the north," she added.

Some 380,000 people have fled northern Mali since the conflict broke out a year ago, including more than 150,000 who sought refuge in neighbouring countries, according to recent UN figures.

The country imploded following a coup last March by soldiers who blamed the government for the army's humiliation at the hands of Tuareg rebels, who had launched an uprising in the north two months earlier.

Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north.

Though the French-led intervention launched last month has helped push back the Islamist militias, Mali's army is struggling to restore security.

Besides security fears, Mali and neighbouring countries in the Sahel region have been in the grip of a chronic food crisis for years.

"There is no food. And an undercurrent of tension and instability remains. There are real concerns that premature and uncoordinated return will leave thousands at risk of being displaced again," said Rushing.

The IDMC said the international community should scale up aid efforts fast, and do more to help coordinate the return of displaced Malians.

"There is a real threat that the country will continue to slide down a slippery slope to perpetual chaos if the international community drops the ball on Mali at this crucial crossroads," warned Rushing.