ECOWAS warns Mali rebels, calls for ceasefire

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LAGOS  (AFP) – West African bloc ECOWAS has called on rebels in northern Mali to lay down their arms and said it would “take all necessary measures” to support the country’s government, a statement said Tuesday.

The 15-member Economic Community of West African States also said it aims to launch a mediation process to stop violence that has caused tens of thousands to flee.

It issued the statement following a fact-finding mission to the country led by ECOWAS commission chief Kadre Desire Ouedraogo from March 16-18.

The statement expressed concern over the humanitarian and security situation “provoked by the attacks in the north of the country by the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and by the activities of suspected terrorist cells.”

“The mindless acts of violence, terrorism and banditry pose a serious threat not only to the territorial integrity of Mali and the regional integration process, but also to international peace and security,” it said.

ECOWAS condemned “atrocities perpetrated in the north by the rebels, and calls on the MNLA to immediately and unconditionally observe a ceasefire, lay down their weapons and relinquish all occupied territory in the north to central authority.”

It vowed solidarity with the Malian government and said it wanted “to leave the MNLA in no doubt that ECOWAS will take all necessary measures to assist the country to safeguard its sovereignty and territorial integrity and ensure the continuity of constitutional rule in the country.”

The bloc, headquartered in Nigeria and which includes Mali, said it planned to launch a mediation process in the coming days in cooperation with neighbouring nations.

Tuareg rebels have been waging their biggest offensive since a 2009 rebellion as they demand autonomy in Mali’s vast north, and have launched several attacks on towns in the region since mid-January.

There have been reports of scores of executions, as well as deaths of civilians and soldiers in the fighting.

The United Nations humanitarian office OCHA has said that the clashes have forced 195,000 people to flee their homes since mid-January.

Authorities have accused the Tuareg of joining hands with Al-Qaeda’s north African branch, which has been involved in kidnappings of Westerners and other criminal activities in the country’s vast desert north.

Many Tuareg rebels recently returned from fighting for fallen Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

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