By Emma Farge
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations' top humanitarian official in Mali urged more engagement with armed groups including jihadists, and more aid and development funding, saying on Monday that extra troops would not help to stabilize the country.
Islamist groups with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State operate across northern and central Mali despite constant efforts to drive them back. More than 200,000 people are displaced and many communities have no local government or means of defense.
The former colonial power, France, on Sunday pledged another 600 soldiers to the 4,500 it has tackling armed groups in the Sahel or with a 14,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in the region.
Ute Kollies, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Mali, told journalists in Geneva that the country was at a watershed, and complained of a lack of international support.
The funds received by OCHA in Mali last year amounted to just 5% percent of the $3 billion spent by armies there.
"I do not believe that more military would help," Kollies said. "What we need is more engagement on the political front."
She mentioned a decision by the Malian government to send emissaries to speak with representatives of two Islamist militant groups in central Mali, and said such contacts should not be confined to a hitherto stumbling peace process.
"We need different pressure on the different sides," she said.
OCHA says that about 4.3 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Mali, 1.1 million more than last year. Yet risks for aid workers are growing, and Kollies said access to some areas was "extremely difficult".
She said OCHA was in regular contact with armed groups active in areas where the state was absent, and had even provided some of them with training in "humanitarian principles and mandate" to try to ensure civilians and aid workers were protected.
(additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice in Dakar; Editing by Kevin Liffey)