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Thousands of refugees from war-torn Mali have crossed into neighbouring Niger amid fears of reprisals by the country's military who are battling Islamist fighters, the UN refugee agency said Friday.
Almost 6,000 people, mainly women and children, arrived on foot or on donkeys, said Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
"They say they fled because of the ongoing war in northern Mali, and for fear of possible reprisals by the Malian army. They also said that more people are on their way to Niger," Edwards told reporters.
The refugees began arriving on March 28 near the communities of Mentes and Midal in a remote desert area in the north of the west African country.
"We haven't had refugees coming across at this point before," Edwards said.
"Reception conditions are very precarious. The only available water - which contains clay - is drawn from pools. No health facilities are available. We are planning to relocate these refugees to Midal where we can better assist them and where there is a functioning well," he added.
Mali imploded following a coup in March 2012 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 northern half of the country.
French forces launched a surprise intervention in January in a bid to stop Islamist forces from moving southward and threatening the capital Bamako.
The Islamists have now largely been driven out of the main cities in the north and are waging a guerrilla war against French, Malian and other troops seeking to help the government assert its control over the entire territory.
There have been repeated reports of retaliatory attacks against ethnic groups suspected of sympathising with the rebels.
There are an estimated 175,076 Malian refugees in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, including 37,530 people who have fled since January, according to United Nations figures.