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Northern Mali violence takes rising civilian toll, Red Cross warns

The International Red Cross is warning of a spike in violence and gunshot wounds as tensions in northern Mali rise.

Hospital in Gao has treated dozens of gunshot wounds in recent weeks

A Red Cross nurse at Gao regional hospital treats a young girl who received a gunshot wound to the leg during fighting in Tabankort, Mali. There has been an influx of wounded civilians since the end of last month. (ICRC)

The International Committee of the Red Cross is raising the alarm about an increase in violence and serious injuries in northern Mali.   

Its medical team at the Gao regional hospital says it has seen an influx of wounded militants and civilians since late January.  

Red Cross medical teams report having treated 21 people who were involved in recent fighting in the strategically significant town of Tabankort, and 18 people, likely civilians, who took part in protests against a proposed security buffer zone.

Aly Ouattara, head of the Red Cross at the Gao hospital, says most of the patients were admitted with gunshot wounds requiring surgery. "Many have multiple fractures and other severe wounds." 

The Red Cross says the increase in wounded is a signal that the situation in northern Mali remains volatile. In an interview with CBC News from his Geneva office, Red Cross spokesman Jean-Yves Clémenzo said, "We tend to think things are over in Mali, but there is still fighting, still violence and still the need to protect the population."

Power struggle in northern Mali

There has been a complicated power struggle for northern Mali since early 2012.   

That's when the Mali government lost control of the area in a partially successful military coup. But French troops and African Union soldiers intervened and brought about a fragile truce in 2013.  

It was short-lived, though, and the area remains prone to outbreaks of violence between government troops and a complicated mix of Tuareg and Arab separatists and al-Qaeda-supported Islamists, all vying for control of the north.

In mid-January, the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Mali says it was forced to retaliate after being attacked with rocks and Molotov cocktails during protests in GaoAt least three people were killed when peacekeepers responded by opening fire. The United Nations is conducting an inquiry into that deadly clash.

We've received reports that entire families have been trapped by the fighting.— Christophe Luedi, International Red Cross 

The Red Cross is particularly concerned about innocent citizens being caught in the middle of all it all, particularly in Tabankort. "We've received reports that entire families have been trapped by the fighting," said Christophe Luedi, head of the Red Cross in Mali. "We are quite concerned about them and doing everything we can to come to their aid."

Getting them help is hampered by fighting, "We are trying our best, but it’s not easy," Clémenzo said. "You can easily get hit with bullets yourself when you have that kind of fighting in the area. So, we are really trying to get access, but we also have to take into account the volatile situation."   

The Red Cross is reinforcing its team in the area.

"We're planning to bolster the ability of our staff to take rapid action," Luedi said. It is also trying to talk to all the parties involved to ensure those affected by fighting can get help and urging them to comply with international humanitarian laws that require the protection of civilians and non-combatants. 

About the Author

Carolyn Dunn

National reporter

Carolyn Dunn is a longtime national reporter for CBC News. Her Canadian postings and assignments have taken her from St. John's to Calgary. She has reported extensively abroad including East, West and North Africa and has done several tours in Afghanistan. Have a story tip? Email carolyn.dunn@cbc.ca.

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