U.N.: Over 435,000 displaced, children forced to fight in Mali

More than 435,000 displaced in Mali, U.N. says

As Mali remains racked by infighting and has failed to reverse a rebel takeover of the north, the number of people pushed out of their homes in the African country has soared and more children are being recruited as fighters, United Nations agencies warn.

Soldiers in Mali mounted a coup earlier this year, claiming the government had done too little to fight a rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs in the north. But the coup only unsettled Mali more, allowing Tuareg fighters to claim more territory and bringing in Islamic extremists.

Alarming reports have spread of Islamists stoning a couple and cutting off the hand of an alleged thief, unnerving neighboring countries that fear the instability could spread.

Although the military has pledged to hand off power, the coup leaders appear to still hold sway. West African nations have readied forces to intervene, but have pushed Mali to stabilize its interim government in the south as well.

Meanwhile, the north remains in peril with scant resources to help the needy, U.N. agencies say. More than 435,000 people have been displaced, including nearly 262,000 who have registered as refugees in neighboring countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Thursday.

The chaos has also worsened an existing food crisis, leaving 4.6 million people in need of aid, according to the World Food Program. Swarms of locusts threaten to add to their woes, though the World Food Program says it is unclear whether the insects have reached the north.

Armed groups in the north have also continued to recruit and use children as fighters, UNICEF said Friday. Last month, the agency reported that at least 175 boys had been recruited in the region; the numbers are now believed to be in the hundreds and still rising, the agency warned.

While the violence and suffering continue, U.N. agencies said they are far short on funding to address the crisis. UNICEF has gotten just over one-fourth of the $58 million it has been seeking, it said. The U.N. refugee agency lamented it was severely short on funding earlier this month, calling the crisis a hidden emergency.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Malian refugees rest in the shade inside the Mentao refugee camp north of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Credit: Ahmed Ouoba / AFP / Getty Images

 
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