UN sounds warning on mounting crisis in Sahel

Once confined to lawless areas of northern Mali, armed terrorist groups have in recent years spread across the Sahel region, fueling a growing humanitarian crisis.

GENEVA - More than 2.4 million people need urgent food aid across the central Sahel region, encompassing Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where rising jihadist violence has triggered a humanitarian crisis, the UN said Tuesday.

On Monday, unidentified gunmen killed 24 Malian soldiers and wounded 29 in an ambush that bore the hallmarks of a jihadist attack. It was the third major attack against the army in less than two months that together have killed over 100 soldiers.

Those attacks mark a step-up in violence, according to records from Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an NGO. In 2018, about 95 members of the Malian security forces, including soldiers, policemen, gendarmes and other officials, were killed. So far in 2019, about 249 have died.

Peace has also been shattered in Burkina Faso, where one third of the country is now in a conflict zone, UN officials said. 

"The world does not yet fully grasp the extent of the mounting humanitarian crisis in the central Sahel region," a spokesman for the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), Herve Verhoosel, told reporters in Geneva. "If we do not act now to tackle hunger in the Sahel, a whole generation are at risk."

He said some 20 million people were living in conflict-affected areas across the region, hit by violent clashes involving a range of armed groups including some with links to al-Qaeda and Islamic State. 

Once confined to lawless areas of northern Mali, such groups have in recent years spread across the arid scrublands of the Sahel, to the south of the Sahara, into Burkina Faso and Niger, stoking local ethnic conflicts and attacking security forces wherever they go.

More than 860,000 people across the region have become internally displaced, while the three countries are also hosting 270,000 refugees , but a lack of security stops most of the aid reaching those in need. Despite the presence of growing ranks of international troops, the violence continues to spread.

Burkina Faso has been particularly hard-hit by the crisis due to a sharp increase in violence, Verhoosel said, pointing out that there were more attacks in the country during the first half of this year than during all of 2018.

According to a tally from AFP news agency, nearly 700 people have died in Burkina Faso since it began struggling against the jihadist insurgency that began in neighbouring Mali in 2015.

The UN estimates that nearly half a million people have fled their homes in Burkina Faso, and the WFP's country director there, David Bulman, told reporters Tuesday that number is expected to swell to 650,000 by the end of the year.

"These people are already poor... and when they are displaced it means that they leave everything behind," he said, warning that malnutrition rates among the displaced were staggering.

There were high levels of acute malnutrition among displaced populations in Burkina Faso - up to seven percent which is far above the two-percent threshold for declaring an emergency.

"We are talking thousands" of children affected, Bulman said.

WFP said it was scaling up its assistance activities, and had provided more than 2.6 million people across the central Sahel region with food and nutritional assistance so far this year.

But it warned that the rise and spread of militant groups was seriously limiting access to provide aid.

The UN agency also cautioned that it was facing a severe funding gap, stressing that it urgently needs $150 million to keep its programmes running.