French Forces Step In As Noncombatants Seek Safety

A Catholic bishop in war-torn Mali, whose diocese lies in the path of Islamist insurgents, said “people are hiding in their homes, unable to venture out.”

“Although our churches are still intact, people are becoming afraid to enter them,” said Bishop Augustin Traore of Segou, Mali. “Our entire Catholic culture will clearly be in danger if this conflict drags on.”

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As French combat troops prepared to engage Islamist rebels at Diabaly, 90 miles north of Segou, Bishop Traore said, “Until the havoc caused by the French bombing ends and the hostilities cease, no one will be in a position to know what has happened.” He warned that the country’s churches could face destruction if conflict continues. African forces were expected to join French troops in an attempt to drive insurgents back from central parts of the landlocked country after French jets began bombing rebel-held towns on Jan. 11.

Helen Blakesley, regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services, said more than 200,000 Malians have fled southward since the conflict was accelerated by a March 2012 military coup, while a similar number have escaped to Niger, Burkina Faso, Morocco and Algeria. Blakesley said a tradesman from the rebel-held town of Tombouctou, or Timbuktu, a world heritage site, was renting rooms with 40 members of his extended family in Mali’s capital, Bamako, assisted by C.R.S. The man told her more family members were arriving weekly.

Blakely added that the tradesman, Ibrahima Diallo, had been robbed by armed rebels during the five-day truck drive to the capital, which he made with his blind sister and five small children. Blakesley said two women, Fanta Poudiougou and Mariam Dembele, had described fleeing their hometown of Gao, 200 miles southeast of Tombouctou, without their husbands to escape the threatened rape of their young daughters.

She added that both women were “praying negotiations will work,” fearing military intervention could place civilians in the crossfire.

Ethnic Tuareg rebels seeking to establish a separate state overran most of northern Mali during 2012, operating alongside the Islamist group Ansar Eddine, which is thought to be linked to Al Qaeda. The two rebel contingents have since had a falling out, and now Islamist militants are leading the attacks on Mali government forces.

Sean Gallagher, the C.R.S. country representative in Mali, said the U.S. bishops’ international development agency was providing help to people fleeing from rebel-occupied parts of Mopti Diocese. He added that many northern inhabitants had fled to Segou but were now moving south to Bamako as the insurgent threat to Mopti and Segou increased.

“Conditions aren’t so bad in the rural towns, where the autumn harvests were good and there’s food available,” Gallagher said on Jan. 16. “Since most of the displaced are women and children, it’s much harder in urban areas like Bamako, where the priority is to ensure they have enough to eat and can maintain their dignity.”

The Catholic Church has six dioceses in Mali, where Catholics make up less than 2 percent of Mali’s predominantly Muslim population. Bishop Traore said relations between Christians and Mali’s Muslim majority remained good at a “local level” and had not been damaged by the Islamist insurgency, adding that people of all faiths were “vigorously committed” to maintaining the country’s secular character.

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