US says Mali’s top priority must be holding fair elections

UNITED NATIONS — The top priority for Mali’s interim government must be holding free and fair elections by the end of the 18-month transition period following last August’s military coup that overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the U.S. ambassador at the United Nations said Tuesday.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield strongly encouraged Malian authorities “to issue a finalized timeline confirming dates for the electoral process,” and said the voting must be administered “by competent and impartial election authorities using transparent processes.” She urged the authorities to use the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali’s “election support capacities.”

Thomas-Greenfield told the U.N. Security Council that January’s dissolution of the military junta that carried out the coup was “an important step toward a peaceful and democratic transition.”

Mali has been in turmoil since a 2012 uprising prompted mutinous soldiers to overthrow the president of a decade. The power vacuum that was created ultimately led to an Islamic insurgency and a French-led war that ousted the jihadists from power in 2013. A peace agreement was signed in 2015 by three parties — the government, a coalition of groups who seek autonomy in northern Mali, and a pro-government militia.

But insurgents remain active in the region and the West African nation is under threat from a number of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State organization. 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.

Thomas-Greenfield urged the transitional government to step up efforts “to make tangible and significant progress” in implementing the 2015 peace agreement. She echoed U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal to the parties not to reopen the accord, saying that would “impede implementation.”

Many council ambassadors welcomed the first-ever meetings of the committee monitoring the peace agreement in northern and southern Mali as an important step to advancing the accord’s implementation.

U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix said the attack on a peacekeeping base in northern Mali’s Kidal region last week that killed four peacekeepers and wounded at least 34 was a reminder of the challenges facing the country and the broader Sahel region.

Lacroix said the battle also illustrated the bravery and determination of the Chadian peacekeepers, whose “heroic defense” inflicted serious casualties among the attackers. At least 23 attackers were reported killed.

Lacroix reiterated Guterres’ call “to scale up and strengthen the international community’s response to the issue of terrorism and violent extremism in the Sahel region.” In addition to the threat from extremist groups, Lacroix said he remains concerned “about ongoing destabilizing activities of militias operating along ethnic lines in central Mali.”

Seven months into the transition, he said, Malian authorities “have kick-started the functioning of the main institutions of the transition” and started implementing their reform agenda.

“It is crucial that the pace of these reforms be urgently accelerated while ensuring that the largest number of actors join the process,” Lacroix said.

He said that “any sustainable improvement of the security situation in Mali is predicated, in no small part, on the success of the current political transition.”