NIAMEY, Niger, April 6 (UPI) -- The International Committee of the Red Cross said its staff was reduced in Mali and the situation in the rebel-held north of the country is becoming critical.
"People in the region, who were already hard hit by the food crisis afflicting the entire Sahel, find themselves without food aid or access to healthcare," Boris Michel, the ICRC's head of operations for North and West Africa, said in a statement from Niger.
"It is essential to be able to respond as quickly as possible to humanitarian needs that are likely to increase further in the days and weeks to come."
Rebel forces in the north of the country declared independence for the region, which they call Azawad. Tuareg rebels returned to Mali from fighting alongside forces loyal to former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, creating tensions in the West African country.
The declaration of independence followed a military coup that forced President Amadou Toumani Toure from power. Coup leaders said they were frustrated with Toure's handling of the Tuareg rebellion, though northern fighters were able to take advantage of the security vacuum.
France, the former colonial power, didn't recognize the autonomy of Azawad and London announced Friday it was temporary closing its embassy in the Malian capital Bamako.
The ICRC delegate said Red Cross volunteers were present in parts of the country, including in the north.
"There are many weapon bearers in the region's towns and villages," he said. "It is imperative that we establish or re-establish a dialogue with them."