DAKAR, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Relentless attacks on aid workers and their facilities, spiralling levels of crime and escalating tribal tensions in northern Mali are hindering humanitarian access to the most vulnerable communities, aid agencies said on Wednesday.
Armed clashes in the north of the West African nation have subsided since a June peace deal between the government and an alliance of Tuareg-led rebels, allowing previously suspended humanitarian operations to resume, the United Nations said.
Yet aid efforts have been hampered by crimes targeting civilians and relief workers, including hijackings, robberies and looting, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
"Hindering this work affects first and foremost the most vulnerable people - the men, women and children for whom humanitarian assistance is often a question of survival," said Mbaranga Gasarabwe, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Mali.
A bomb was set off at the building of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in the northern town of Menaka last week, bringing the number of attacks on aid workers and facilities since the start of the year to 30, according to OCHA.
Violence has also restricted humanitarian access to people in need in Mali on more than 60 occasions so far this year - three times higher than the total for 2014, the U.N. body said.
Such attacks and the threat of kidnappings have made travelling between cities harder for both aid groups and people, said Medecins Sans Frontieres Mali representative Luis Encinas.
"A lack of doctors, nurses and supplies in hard to reach areas leaves more and more people in danger, and vulnerable to outbreaks of diseases such as malaria, meningitis and measles."
Progress made at a political level has not been reflected within communities, where tension and fighting continue to force people to flee their homes, said Muriel Tschopp, Mali country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
"Those at a community level do not see what they are getting from the peace deal and there is a severe increase in criminality ... when one security aspect improves in Mali, another gets worse - it is a vicious cycle," Tschopp said.
Some 60,000 people are uprooted in Mali, while there are 138,000 refugees in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, OCHA said.
Thousands have fled tribal fighting, lawlessness and food shortages in recent weeks, and the number of Malian refugees in Niger is now the largest since Mali's conflict erupted in 2012, the U.N. refugee agency said last week.
Conflict in Mali erupted in 2012, when a loose coalition of separatist rebels and al Qaeda-linked militants swept across the north of the country before a French-led military intervention in 2013 drove them from the main towns they had been occupying.
The U.N.-brokered June peace deal excluded Islamist fighters, some linked to al Qaeda, who have continued to carry out sporadic attacks despite the presence of some 3,000 French troops and several thousand U.N. peacekeepers in Mali. (Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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