By Tim Cocks
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Last week, the offices of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the desert city of Gao in northern Mali were flattened by a truck bomb. On Tuesday, just five suspected Islamist militants succeeded in freeing 93 inmates from a jail in the town of Niono.
"Peace" in Mali looks increasingly like war by another name. As both rebels and government go slow on implementing a deal signed last year, it is the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has lost 100 lives and is costing nearly a billion dollars a year, that is paying the price.
"The war makes a living for a lot of people," said Moussa Mara, a former prime minister who led an abortive effort to retake the lawless desert town of Kidal in 2014 but no longer has a government post.
"There are those in the peace process who don't want it to conclude. They get their 'per diems', they get their travel paid. These armed groups are not in a hurry," Mara told Reuters, recalling that one meeting on implementation that was supposed to take an afternoon had ended up dragging on for weeks.
Ever since French forces intervened in 2013 to push back Islamists who had hijacked an ethnic Tuareg uprising in Mali's desert north, world powers, especially former colonial master France, have invested huge sums in trying to soothe the complicated rivalries that caused Mali to implode.
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The U.N. peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, has 13,000 staff from 123 nations. France maintains a 4,000-strong parallel peacekeeping operation, "Barkhane". And the European Union has 580 instructors training the Malian army.
"TIME IS OUR ENEMY"
The aim is to ensure the success of the July 2015 peace pact, which offers Tuaregs and other northern groups some autonomy if they give up on independence, and to prevent a resurgence of Islamist militants adept at exploiting any power vacuum.
But the setting up of interim authorities has stalled, and Islamist militants based in the desert north are venturing further and further south with their attacks. One of the north's main cities, Kidal, lies completely outside government control because of fighting between pro- and anti-government Tuareg factions, partly over trafficking routes.
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), Chadian diplomat Mahamat Saleh Annadif, has pressed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita personally for more urgency.
"I've told him that this is an emergency, and that time is our enemy," Annadif told Reuters in his office in Bamako, inside a U.N. building protected by security barriers of sandbags.
Annadif said he believed Keita was sincere about wanting to implement the deal, but that he had said Mali was a democracy and had to work through its institutions, which took time.
"I told him, regardless of the justification, we could have moved more quickly."
A spokesman for the president did not respond to a request for comment, but Security Minister Colonel Salif Traore told Reuters: "It's the nature of a deal that nobody can get all they want ... but I'm confident this deal will permit us to stabilize our country."
Meanwhile, the security situation worsens.
Andrew Lebovich of the European Council on Foreign Relations said the northern rebel groups were becoming more fragmented, and had little trust in the U.N. force.
"Even supposedly pro-government militias (in the north) don't really want the government back."
Some analysts even say that all the international support has allowed Mali to delay rebuilding its own army, brutally exposed in 2012.
Mara said the government was dragging its feet elsewhere, too. Civil servants drawing up legal documents to enact the peace deal were sometimes sitting on them for months because they did not want to give up that power.
This has led the Tuaregs to suspect more sinister motives.
"The government signed the deal but they don't like the deal," Ilad Ag Mohammed, spokesman for a Tuareg umbrella group, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), told Reuters during a visit to Bamako to brief U.N. officials. "It's bad faith."
Yet Tieman Hubert Coulibaly, Mali's defense minister until he was removed in September, told Reuters the Tuaregs had only put forward the names of local officials two months ago.
Meanwhile, the international effort goes on.
Instructors from EU armies have so far trained 9,000 Malian troops, almost half the army's complement.
At least one of them has since been wounded fighting alongside the insurgents, the head of the EU training brigade, General Eric Harvent, told Reuters at the mission's headquarters in Bamako's Nord-Sud hotel -- protected by sand-filled barriers since an attack by suspected Islamists in March.
"We have to be realists," Harvent said. "Reform of an ... army can take 10 years."
France, for its part, is resigned to being in Mali for perhaps another 15 years, a senior diplomat said.
"The small progress we've achieved is because we've piled on pressure each time," he said. "We shouldn't imagine that we hold an election, deploy some blue helmets -- and it's solved".
(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Kevin Liffey)