EDITH M. LEDERER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
UNITED NATIONS -- An estimated 30,000 people may have been displaced by fighting in central and northern Mali since Islamist insurgents started moving south last week, the United Nations said Monday.
U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said it's feared the number may be higher because some Islamist groups are reportedly preventing people from moving south.
He told reporters that some 230,000 people have been displaced by fighting and insecurity in Mali since March 2012, when the democratically elected president was overthrown by mutinous soldiers in a coup, creating a security vacuum.
That allowed the secular Tuaregs, who have long felt marginalized by Mali's government, to take half the north as a new homeland. But months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamist groups allied with al-Qaida, who took control of the north and have imposed strict Shariah law.
Those groups suddenly started heading south last week and on Thursday captured the city of Konna, which the weak Malian army was unable to hold. The Islamist offensive threatened the nearby city of Mopti, which has 100,000 inhabitants, and the capital, Bamako.
In response to a request from Mali's president, France launched a military offensive against the rebels on Friday. The Islamist fighters responded to French airstrikes and military action with a counter-offensive Monday, overrunning the garrison town of Diabaly.
Del Buey said the Mauritanian Ministry of Interior has confirmed that thousands of refugees are on their way from Mali to the border with Mauritania. He said significant number of refugees have not been seen arriving in Mali's other neighbors, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The U.N. World Food Program reported Monday that the conflict in northern Mali has triggered wide displacement within the country and into neighboring countries, "uprooting half a million people and placing pressure on vulnerable host communities still recovering from the Sahel drought," del Buey said.
While insecurity is severely limiting the food agency's access to northern Mali, he said WFP has managed to get emergency food to 270,000 people through its partners, including 70,000 people who are internally displaced.
The U.N. Security Council heard a briefing Monday afternoon from U.N. political chief Jeffrey Feltman, and del Buey said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was also closely following the situation.
Late last year, the 15-nation in West African regional group known as ECOWAS, which includes Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations.
The Security Council in December authorized an African-led force to support Malian forces in recovering the north _ an area the size of Texas _ but set no timeline for military action. Instead, it set out benchmarks to be met before the start of offensive operations, beginning with progress on a political roadmap to restore constitutional order, political reconciliation, elections and training of the Malian and African troops and police.
Del Buey said the secretary-general spoke to Ivory Coast President and ECOWAS Chair Alassane Ouattara on Saturday who briefed him on the upcoming ECOWAS summit in Nigeria's capital, Abuja, on Jan. 19, and the plans of several members to deploy military forces to Mali.
Ban welcomes the response to Mali's call for assistance to counter the push south by the armed and terrorist groups, and "hopes these actions will help to arrest the latest offensive," del Buey said.