WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration moved Thursday to boost assistance to people fleeing violence in northern Mali, where radical Islamists and rebels have taken advantage of political chaos in the west African country to attack villages and destroy historic monuments.
President Barack Obama authorized the use of up to $10 million from an emergency fund to help the United Nations and relief groups deal with growing numbers of people fleeing the conflict. Close to 230,000 refugees from Mali have fled to neighboring countries, the White House said, plus another 155,000 who are displaced within the country.
In June, the U.N. refugee agency warned that it was running out of money to help those fleeing violence in Mali, having received just 13 percent of the $153.7 million the U.N. said it needed to help those displaced inside and outside of Mali. A spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said water was in short supply, and there wasn't enough cash available to dig deeper wells. Meanwhile, the demand on relief groups was expected to grow, with the U.N. saying another 140,000 would likely abandon their homes.
Adding to the international community's concern has been the destruction of Muslim shrines and historical sites — including those deemed World Heritage Sites by UNESCO — by Islamist groups who claim the sites violate Islamic law by encouraging people to direct their prayers toward the deceased and not toward God. Two mausoleums in a cemetery attached to a nearly 700-year-old mosque were destroyed Tuesday in Timbuktu, prompting condemnation from the U.S. government.
"This is an assault not just on Mali but on the heritage of all Africans, and those responsible for these acts should be brought to justice," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Once considered a stable democracy, Mali has been mired in turbulence stemming from a March coup by soldiers who defected and overthrew the democratically elected president. The U.S. promptly cut off military and other government aid to Mali, saying that only humanitarian and food assistance would be maintained until a democratic government is restored.
Making matters worse, rebel groups took advantage of the power vacuum to rapidly encroach on the northern part of Mali, an area larger than France. In June, an al-Qaida-linked group vowing to impose Islamic law declared they had driven out another rebel group of ethnic Tuareg separatists and had assumed control over northern Mali.
A White House spokesman called Thursday for both the rebel groups and the soldiers who overthrew the government in March to support a return to democratic rule, urging the interim government to lay out its plan for elections to take place without delay. The Obama administration also called for rebel groups to disavow terrorist groups and to use legitimate means to negotiate for political power.