Three UN peacekeepers were wounded Thursday when their vehicle hit a land mine in northern Mali, on the road from Teherdge to Timbuktu, the UN has said. According to MINUSMA — the UN's peacekeeping mission in the region — Danish Major General Michael Lollesgaard and police commissioner Awale Abdounasir, from Djibouti, were traveling in the convoy but escaped the blast without injuries.
Speaking to VICE News Friday, MINUSMA spokeswoman Radhia Achouri confirmed the two UN officials had been part of the convoy, but described the suggestion that the attack had specifically targeted UN chiefs as "speculation."
"Both generals were indeed present. They were traveling to a MINUSMA camp that came under mortar attack three days earlier," she explained. "But we have no reason to believe they were targeted." Achouri likened the incident to other attacks in the region and said insurgents had used "the same modus operandi: a land mine placed in the path of a convoy."
Achouri did say she was "worried" about the number of attacks against UN personnel in Mali, which have been on the rise since last year. "The mission has weathered around 400 attacks, often involving land mines — sometimes suicide attacks, sometimes mortar attacks," she said. "They are carried out by terrorists and drug traffickers, who also take up arms when their interests are at stake."
The UN launched the MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in April 2013, as part of an effort to stabilize the country in the wake of the Tuareg separatist insurgency in northern Mali. Earlier in the year, French forces drove militants who'd been enforcing a strict version of Islamic law — which included stonings, beheadings, and amputations — from the towns they'd seized.
According to official figures, 35 UN peacekeepers have been killed in the line of duty since the start of the operation, many of them by land mines. A further 135 peacekeepers have been seriously wounded, and the mission is considered to be the deadliest for the UN since its intervention in Somalia, between 1992 and 1995.
The first UN peacekeeping mission was established in 1948 by the UN Security Council, which tasked unarmed UN military observers with monitoring the 1948-1949 truce between Israel and the Arab states. The peacekeeping force was eventually armed in 1956 to defend itself from attack and to protect civilians.
Every year on May 29, the UN honors "the memory of the UN peacekeepers who have lost their lives in the cause of peace" by marking the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers.
This year, the MINUSMA paid tribute to peacekeepers killed and serving in Mali. Around 9,250 UN peacekeepers are currently deployed in the West African nation — out of the 11,200 authorized by the Security Council.
The MINUSMA has tried to improve its ability to counter the danger of land mines by acquiring mine-protected armored vehicles as well as by increasing its aerial surveillance capacity.
"We're concerned for civilians," said Achouri. "These attacks, by contributing to the [high] level of insecurity, are preventing aid workers from doing their job. Those who are committing [these attacks] want to sabotage the peace process," she added.
One of the MINUSMA's missions is to supporting the national political dialogue between Mali's government and the Tuareg rebels, who seek autonomy for northern Mali — a region known to the insurgents as "Azawad." The mission is also mandated to protect civilian populations, to restore the Government's sovereignty, and to support aid workers in the region.
Some Malians have blamed MINUSMA for failing to stop the rebels in the North, for being powerless in the face of terrorism, and for stalling the peace process. For Achouri, these accusations illustrate a fundamental "lack of understanding of the mission's mandate."
"We're not here to fight terrorism or the rebels," she said. "We're here to make sure the ceasefire is respected and to prevent clashes."
The UN security council has voted to prolong the MINUSMA mission until June 2015.
Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter : @MatthieuJublin
Image via UN Mision in Mali/Flickr