The second phase of the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from Mali will be very challenging due to a tight calendar and dangerous security conditions, the UN special representative to the country said on Monday.
The UN peacekeeping mission, known as Minusma, has until December 31 to exit Mali after a decade of struggling to stabilize the country's security environment amid separatist and militia rebellions.
The 13,000-man mission was ordered to withdraw earlier this year under the demand of Mali's ruling junta, following the pullout of French troops in 2022.
Earlier this month, four UN soldiers were wounded in an attack on operations to exit the Ber base in the north of the country.
"Withdrawal operations in other areas were also targeted," El-Ghassim Wane, Special Representative of the Secretary-General, told the UN Security Council Monday.
He said the size of the convoys, involving hundreds of lorries, and the long distances they travel over inhospitable terrain leave them vulnerable.
"Nearly 1,100 of the so-called Blue Helmet UN peacekeepers have returned to their countries," he said.
"By September 30, about one-third of Minusma's civilian staff will have been pulled out," he said.
The second phase, through December 15, will involve abandoning six bases in northern, northeastern and central Mali.
"This phase will be incredibly difficult indeed," Wane told the council.
"The terrain is difficult and insecurity is an ever present threat," he said.
Added to the difficulty is what Wane called "the paralysis" of the bodies responsible for monitoring the 2015 peace agreement signed between the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) -- an alliance of predominantly ethnic Touareg groups -- and the then-civilian Mali government.
Nevertheless, Wane said, "We remain on the right track towards the missions' closure, and that should be completed by the 31st of December."
He said the accelerated closure of the Ber base was illustrative. It came amid tensions in the area between the CMA and the Malian army, which is being aided by the Russian Wagner paramilitary group.
"The last UN convoy leaving Ber took 51 hours to cover 57 kilometres (35 miles)," Wane said.
He said the military coup in neighbouring Niger has also impacted the withdrawal operation.
"It is vital that we are able to transport equipment and materials through Niger" to reach key ports like Cotonou and Lome, he said.