The U.N. peacekeeping chief called the security situation in Mali "alarming" on Thursday, warning that extremist groups operating under the al-Qaida banner are carrying out more sophisticated attacks and Islamic State militants are slowly making inroads.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix told the Security Council that "this convergence of threats is particularly alarming" because the government presence is often weak or non-existent.
He said the situation is exacerbated by groups defying state authority in the centre of the country that are killing individuals and closing certain schools, and by criminal networks that are operating very actively in the region.
Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida took over northern Mali in 2012, exploiting a power vacuum after mutinous soldiers overthrew the president. French-backed forces pushed the extremists from strongholds in 2013, but attacks have continued and progressed south.
Lacroix was critical of the slow progress in implementing a peace deal reached in June 2015 between Mali's government, Tuareg separatists and armed groups in the north.
Despite advances on some fronts, he said that with elections looming in 2018 "we cannot ignore the major delays sustained and the fragility of the gains that have been made."
Lacroix said criteria for integrating former combatants haven't been determined, eight sites for the cantonment of weapons remain empty, and there is no clarity about government institutions which is "leading to splintering on the security and political fronts."
The United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to Mali in 2013 to help stabilize the country and it has become the most dangerous and deadly of its 16 far-flung missions with at least 114 members killed since it began operations.
Lacroix welcomed the decision by five countries in the Sahel including Mali to set up a regional force.
He said the U.N. peacekeeping mission — which has more than 12,000 troops and police and over 1,300 civilian staffers, with a current budget of $933 million — will step up support to Malian forces and help the government implement defence and security reforms.
Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told the council the government's accomplishments "are still fragile" and the country faces many challenges including mobilizing resources to implement the peace agreement and restore authority throughout the country.
Mali also needs funds to provide "the peace dividend" to people affected by the crisis in the country, he said.
U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley urged the government to do more to implement the peace agreement and immediately focus on extending the authority of the state. She said the Security Council must also do more to address the shortfalls in the peacekeeping mission.
"In far too many parts of Mali, there isn't a peace for the blue helmets to keep," Haley said, and "the mission's equipment is simply not up to standard."
Haley said in the coming months the U.S. will be reviewing MINUSMA's mandate to help the mission "play a more effective role."
Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press