The conflict in Mali could force some 700,000 additional people to flee and look for safety inside their country or abroad, the UN refugee agency said Friday in Geneva.

Currently 229,000 people are displaced in Mali and 147,000 have fled across the border, said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Our new planning basis allows for additional displacement of up to 300,000 people inside Mali and 407,000 into neighbouring countries,” Ms. Fleming said.

Malian refugees in Burkina Faso told UNHCR staff that they fled because of the French military intervention, the strict application of religious law by Islamists and increasing poverty in their country.

French and West African troops are fighting to push back Islamist militants who have claimed much of the country’s north since a rebellion began last year. The intervention on late Thursday resulted in the liberation of the village of Konna.

Mali was thrown into turmoil after a coup last year that allowed separatist ethnic Tuareg rebels and Islamist hardliners to overrun the ungoverned northern desert.

Fears of a new African terrorist haven grew as the Islamists ousted the Tuareg, imposed strict Islamic law and destroyed Muslim religious sites they deemed idolatrous in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

French forces, spurred by the fall of Konna, intervened last week to stop a rebel advance on the capital, Bamako.

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