The United Nations and human rights groups are warning that a humanitarian disaster is brewing in the West African nation of Mali, where thousands of refugees are fleeing a resurgence in fighting by the minority Tuareg people against the government.

The Tuareg, a nomadic tribe, have attacked several towns in northern Mali and demand autonomy.

More than 44,000 people from Mali have fled to neighboring nations of Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso in order to escape the violence.

Melissa Fleming, a spokesman for the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, stated: As the influx [of refugees] continues, our teams are stepping up assistance for refugees who have taken refuge in makeshift shelters in villages bordering Mali. Humanitarian assistance is all the more critical because the Sahel region is facing a severe food crisis due to several years of drought.”

Amnesty International describes the situation in northern Mali as the country’s worst crisis in two decades.

Gaetan Mootoo of Amnesty warned in a statement that the rule of law has been markedly absent in this part of the country for years, and the region could be plunged into chaos if the fighting continues.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) stated that about 60,000 people within Mali itself have been displaced by the conflict.

As clashes continue in the north, the humanitarian situation of those displaced is getting worse amid a food crisis, ICRC said in a statement.

Juerg Eglin, who heads the ICRC's delegation for Mali and Niger, told Agence France Presse: In northern Mali all those people who have abandoned their homes, their fields, who lost their cattle and their daily activities are at a loss.”

Last month, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) -- a Tuareg rebel movement, comprised of many warriors who formerly fought for deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi -- commenced a brutal offensive against the Malian state military (after two years of relative peace).

According to reports, MLNA has about 1,000 members and also includes Tuareg soldiers who deserted the Malian army.

The Malian government has accused MNLA of having links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (which the Tuaregs deny).

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has also condemned the Tuareg offensive and urged them to cease all hostilities. ECOWAS also agreed to send $3-million to help Mali cope with the humanitarian crisis, Reuter noted.

Reportedly, casualties have been heavy in the fighting, though given the desert country’s remoteness and lack of infrastructure, it is impossible to verify the figures.

Earlier, thousands of Tuaregs fled the capital city of Bamako after the fighting started raging in the north.

 All reports indicate that the Malian security forces were unwilling or unable to protect the Tuareg population and others targeted when the Bamako protests turned violent. The authorities must take immediate measures to ensure that anyone at risk is granted protection, Mootoo of Amnesty added.