About 22,000 people have fled fighting in Mali to the neighboring countries of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, the United Nations said today.
Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters in Geneva that most of the 10,000 refugees who have arrived in Niger are sleeping in the open with little access to shelter, clean water, food or medicine.
He said a further 9,000 have arrived in Mauritania and 3,000 have fled to Burkina Faso because of attacks that started Jan. 17 by a Tuareg rebel group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad.
The rebels claim they are fighting for independence from the Malian government. Many have returned from Libya following the death of leader Moammar Gadhafi, who included Tuaregs in his armed forces.
In just over two weeks, the rebels have attacked at least six towns in the north of landlocked Mali. It's the first time the Tuaregs have picked up arms since the last rebellion ended in early 2009.
Felix Kambire, a spokesman for Burkina Faso's security minister, said the 3,000 refugees who have fled there include army officers, paramilitary and high-ranking civil servants.
Ousmane Ag Dala, a former civil servant in charge of coordinating development activities in northern Mali, said thousands more refugees have fled to Burkina Faso and even more are expected.
"We are fleeing insecurity because we have come to understand that there is difference between those fighting in the north and the rest of us who suddenly found themselves out of their homes and offices," Dala told The Associated Press today.
"We have made peace in 1963, in 1990 and in 2000 to show the Malian people that we are a nation," Dala said alluding to the various Tuareg rebellions that occurred in Mali.
Col. Assane Ag Medi, a former rebel officer of the Malian army, said he arrived in Burkina Faso with some 60 vehicles full of refugees.
"Despite my loyalty to the defense and security forces of my country, I have been forced to leave my country like many others including family members of ministers, officers, diplomats," he said. "That means national unity is endangered."
Burkina Faso's government was to meet with its partners later Tuesday to figure out how to meet the needs of the refugees.