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As Foreign Troops Dig In For Long Stay, Resentment In Mali Brews

8/28/2013, 10:12 p.m.
U.N. peacekeepers in Mali

Aug. 27 (GIN) – As the U.S. ponders regime change in Syria, U.N. peacekeepers are preparing for a long stay in Mali as that country recovers from a similar French-led campaign earlier this year.

In a rescue mission made urgent by pictures of ruined mosques and Malian battle victims, French troops in January moved in to halt an Islamist offensive which threatened to take the capital Bamako. After a longer than expected military campaign, the French fighters were slated to return home. But till security returns, some 3,200 soldiers will remain to supply logistics and training.

About 1,000 French special forces will also stay to deter the return of Islamists.

"This could become a permanent force with a mandate to tackle Islamists across the region, particularly in Niger," said one Western diplomat.

A 500-strong brigade of Chinese soldiers is due next month but the lack of "enablers" such as engineers and helicopters mean it will take time for others to arrive.

"The UN is here to facilitate the return of the state to north Mali and provide security until the army is ready to take over ... It's a mission which is likely to last a few years," said Bert Koenders, the UN special representative to Mali.

Some Malians are troubled by the massive U.N. presence – close to 13,000 - which dampens prospects for the return of tourists.

One of Bamako's biggest hotels, the Amitie, has been turned into UN headquarters, with armored personnel carriers and blast barriers protecting the glass-fronted atrium.

"We do not need them here. They drive around town in their white cars without saying hello to anybody," said Yaya Diaby, 54, a Bamako artisan in a press interview. "Since they came, there has not been the slightest clash. They have not had to intervene at all."

Abdoulaye Niang, a local political commentator, said he had lobbied newly-elected President Boubacar Keita and petitioned the Supreme Court to reduce the size of the UN mission and withdraw it from Bamako.

"A UN administration cannot come and run Mali. Malians will not accept this," Niang said, recalling how residents of Bamako had taken to the streets in January—just before the French intervention—to protest foreign meddling.

The UN mission will attempt to facilitate a peace deal revising ties between Bamako and northern Mali—a new "social contract"—which would devolve political power but put in place checks to prevent corruption.

But Kwesi Aning, director of research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, says this points to a dangerously broad range of tasks for a peacekeeping mission. State-building takes a decade, at least, he added.

President Keita, due to take office in mid-September, has said little in public about the UN mission, but his campaign stressed the need to prepare for its departure at some point