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By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The conflict in northern Mali risks dragging on for months, cutting off civilians from aid and basic services in a Somalia-like situation, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned on Friday.
The independent agency said that it had become harder to contact armed Islamist groups and determine who was in control of territory to get security guarantees for its aid convoys.
But in anticipation of further clashes and suicide bombings, it was stocking medical supplies at a hospital in the northern town of Gao, where it said six wounded Malian soldiers were treated on Thursday, while other wounded were evacuated to the capital Bamako.
"Contrary to what some people may have thought after the French and Malian armies retook major cities, the situation is not stable nor is it suitable for civilians to return," Jean-Nicolas Marti, head of ICRC regional delegation for Mali and Niger, told reporters in Geneva.
French troops dispatched to root out rebels with links to al Qaeda swiftly retook northern towns last month. But they now risk being bogged down in a guerrilla conflict as they try to help Mali's weak army counter bombings and raids.
Malian troops backed by French soldiers and attack helicopters killed 15 Islamists in Gao on Thursday in fighting to retake a mayor's office occupied by the militants, France's Defence Ministry said on Friday.
Four Malian and two French soldiers were wounded in the fighting that erupted after Islamists were reported to have infiltrated the town, the ministry said.
"In the medium term, the next few months or year or two, what worries me is that the kind of asymmetric conflict we now see sets in with a precarious security situation and populations that don't have access to basic services," Marti said.
EXPERIENCES IN SOMALIA
"We see what that has meant in regions like Somalia and parts of Yemen and Afghanistan. It is a situation that if it lasts can clearly create a certain number of humanitarian problems," he added.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes since the deployment of French troops and aerial bombing, joining tens of thousands uprooted prior to the intervention, Marti said.
"We are prepositioning emergency medical assistance because we fear that there will be more suicide attacks and fighting and the need for treating wounded will increase in coming weeks."
"People fear the security situation with attacks and suicide bombings and the presence of pockets of armed groups. Some people, depending on their ethnicity, fear possible reprisals by Malian security forces," he said.
ICRC aid workers have visited detainees in Mopti and Gao in the north as well as the capital Bamako in the south, but their findings on their treatment and conditions remain confidential.
"I won't hide that it is a situation that worries us because there is a lot of hate that has accumulated and added to the tensions over the years. In this kind of situation, we can have fears about the health of people who have been arrested and are particularly vulnerable," Marti said.
The ICRC is in close touch with French forces in Mali and commanders in Paris to give notice of ICRC operations and remind them of their obligations under international law, he said.
ICRC aid workers are deployed in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. But all are Africans, not Westerners, due to kidnapping, "a lucrative activity" in the country, Marti said.
Human rights violations and sexual violence have been reported in northern Mali but access remains limited due to fighting and landmines, the United Nations said on Friday.
Armed groups have recruited children, who have been killed or injured, UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told a briefing.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Stephen Powell)