Malian soldiers patrol the banks of the Niger River on a motorcycle in Gao. The security situation in Mali is of concern to scores of refugees who fled the country, according to the United Nations.

New York - Hundreds of thousands of Malian refugees are too scared to return to their homes in zones where French forces have chased out Islamist rebels, a top United Nations official said on Tuesday.

John Ging, operations director for the UN humanitarian agency, also bemoaned the “very poor” response to its $373-million appeal for Mali. Only $17-million has been received, he told a press conference.

About 170 000 Malians fled to neighbouring countries since the Islamists took over much of northern Mali in April last year. Ging said there are about 53 000 people in Niger and 69 000 in Mauritania. Another 260 000 are internally displaced in Mali.

“The people of the north are very traumatised by the experience of the past year and very much still in fear,” said Ging, who has just returned from a trip to Mali to meet government officials and tour the north.

While the Islamist rebels have been chased out of the cities, French forces are now confronting guerrilla attacks in northern Mali.

Ging said Malians feared a return by the Islamists while ethnic Tuaregs and other minorities are scared of reprisals by the Malian army as it returns to the north.

“They do not feel yet that it is safe to return. The people who never left don't feel it is safe,” Ging told a press conference.

“They don't have the confidence yet that they have entered the new era,” the UN official added.

Ging said the United Nations had made it clear to the Malian government that they must show “that they are capable of making secure the places for return and that there will be no reprisals”.

“It is also a fact that people fear the security forces.”

Rights groups have made vocal condemnations of reprisals by the Malian army in areas where they have taken back control. Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups took advantage of the chaos after a military coup in March last year to take over the north.

Ging said Mali was in desperate need of humanitarian cash with 585 000 people needing immediate food assistance and one million more at risk of food security.

He said 660 000 children in Mali are at risk of malnutrition and that money was needed to rebuild schools which had been closed by the Islamists and health facilities. - Sapa-AFP