- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2013

Mali will need all the international support it can get to successfully conduct elections in July, the country’s first since an international military intervention helped the West African nation beat back a takeover by Islamic extremists in the North, a Mali official said Monday.

A lot is riding on the elections, Tienan Coulibaly, minister of economy, finance and budget, said at the Mali Embassy in Washington.

They would be the first since a military coup overthrew the Malian government March 2012 and set the country into turmoil until France sent troops to its former colony in January.

Democratic elections would show the world that Mali is able to responsibly channel international financial support to rebuild the country after the military coup, which allowed Islamic extremists to establish a foothold in the North before being beat back by French and African troops. The northern part of the country is still unstable, as rival rebel forces fight for control.

Islamic militants captured a village near the ancient city of Timbuktu on Sunday, while ethnic Tuareg rebels massed near another key city.

The United States also provided funding for the French Army, as well as drones and refueling tankers, Mr. Coulibaly said.

“The whole world is supporting Mali today,” he said. “We should not lose this chance.”

There are approximately 7,000 foreign troops assisting the Mali government, of which 4,000 are French. The French government has said it wants to withdraw all troops by the end of the year. One hundred French troops have recently left, Mr. Coulibaly said.

Mr. Coulibaly said all foreign troops would be needed through the election in July.

“We are grateful to the whole world, but we are mostly grateful to France,” he said. “Now we are at the final stage of freeing the whole country.”

But mAliWatch, a civil society group active in Washington, expressed concerns over whether free and fair elections can be held so soon.

“It’s important to have all the accouterments of an election [but] we also understand that the international community wants to have good elections, that all Malians agree to as opposed to quick elections,” said Vivian Lowery Derryck, a member of mAliWatch.

They are also concerned over whether secular Tuareg fighters would have a chance to participate in the election. The Tuaregs first teamed up with Islamic fighters, who later turned against them.

“It’s important to make sure the Tuareg feel that they are integrated and have a stake in Mali’s future, both economically and politically,” Ms. Derryck said. “If the elections go badly, then they feel further marginalized.”

Mr. Coulibaly said the Mali government was doing everything it could to ensure peaceful and democratic elections.

“We will do our best to make sure the elections are organized very, very fairly,” he said. “So we cross our fingers.”

• Kristina Wong can be reached at kwong@washingtontimes.com.

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