UN urges swift release of Mali’s kidnapped opposition leader

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council urged the government of Mali and armed groups Tuesday to accelerate implementation of a 2015 peace agreement and called for “the swift liberation” of kidnapped opposition leader Soumaila Cisse.

The council also called on Mali’s government “to enhance its efforts to stem violence in the center” of the country and ensure that those responsible for human rights abuses and violations of international law are brought to justice.

The statement was issued after the Security Council held its first open meeting in nearly four week using video conferencing because of the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time since March 12, members of the media and the public watched as the council received a video briefing by the U.N. envoy for Mali, Mahamat Saleh Annadif.

Annadif said Mali had recorded 46 positive cases of COVID-19 disease, including one member of the U.N. peacekeeping force, and five deaths.

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The council called on the more than 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force to continue doing its job “despite the pandemic, while ensuring the safety and security of its staff and peacekeepers.”

Mali has been in turmoil since a 2012 uprising prompted mutinous soldiers to overthrow the president of a decade. The power vacuum that resulted ultimately led to an Islamic insurgency and a French-led war that ousted the jihadists from power in 2013.

Insurgents remain active in the region and Mali is under threat from a number of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State movement. The extremists have moved from the arid north to more populated central Mali since 2015, stoking animosity and violence between ethnic groups in the region.

The Security Council condemned a “terrorist attack” Monday on an army post in the northern town of Bamba, which the Malian military said killed at least 25 soldiers and wounded six others. No group claimed responsibility but the attack bore the mark of armed groups linked to al-Qaida or Islami State.

The 2015 peace agreement was signed by three parties — the government, a coalition of groups that seek autonomy in northern Mali and a pro-government militia.

The council welcomed the progress made so far in implementing the agreement, “while underlining that more progress was needed.”

Annadif said more than 1,000 soldiers of Mali’s reconstituted military have redeployed into the north since February, notably in the Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal and Menaka regions. He called the prime minister’s visit to the northern regions “a demonstration of trust-building among the signatory parties to the agreement.”

Annadif also said the first round of legislative elections was conducted in a peaceful atmosphere despite opposition leader Cisse’s kidnapping three days before voting took place March 29. At the national level, he said, a 30% quota for women “has been respected.”

Cisse, who placed second in the 2018 presidential election, and members of his campaign team were taken hostage by unidentified gunmen while campaigning in central Mali. One bodyguard died during the abduction.

Nobody claimed responsibility but the kidnapping took place in an area controlled by extremist groups linked to al-Qaida. Media reports say negotiations are taking place for his release.

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