BAMAKO, Feb 23 – Fresh fighting erupted Saturday in northern Mali between ethnic Tuaregs and an unidentified armed group, security sources told AFP, the latest violence in the wake of a French-led campaign that drove radical Islamist fighters from major cities.
Tuaregs of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) were fighting what one source said “seemed to be Arab fighters” near the northern town of Tessalit, where suicide car bombers killed three people on Friday.
The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebel group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), on Saturday claimed responsibility for the bombings in In-Khalil near Tessalit, saying they were specifically targeting the MNLA ,which has been cooperating with French forces to flush out Islamists from northern Mali.
“Through the car bombings against MNLA elements in the In-Khalil zone, the MUJAO is committed to pursuing jihad against infidels,” group spokesman Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui said in a statement sent to AFP in Bamako.
On Thursday, MUJAO also claimed an attack in the northern city of Kidal where a vehicle exploded near a camp occupied by French and Chadian troops.
The mountainous region between Tessalit and Kidal is strategically important, seen as a stronghold for many Tuaregs and used by Islamists as a hideout from French forces.
France sent in troops on January 11 to help the Malian army oust Islamist militants who last year captured the desert north of the country. Since then, thousands of soldiers from African countries have also deployed, and France plans to start withdrawing its troops next month.
In Saturday’s statement, the MUJAO spokesman warned that future suicide attacks are planned in Mali’s capital as well as in the capitals of Burkina Faso and Niger, whose troops are part of the African force in Mali.
“Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey remain favourable zones for our suicide bombers who are ready to make the planned attacks,” he said, without elaborating.
He also demanded that the groups holding French hostages in the Sahel region and in Niger kill their victims in revenge against France, which he accused of “staging a crusade against Islam and Muslims”.
Seven members of a French family, including four young children, were seized by kidnappers in Cameroon on Tuesday and are believed to have been taken over the border into Nigeria.
French-led forces met little resistance during the initial offensive that drove the Islamists from the main northern centres of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.
Now, however, they are facing a guerrilla campaign that includes sudden raids, suicide attacks and land mines.
On Friday, Chad, which also has troops Mali, suffered its heaviest losses so far after clashes with Islamists in the mountainous northern Ifoghas region. The Chadian army said the fighting claimed the lives of 13 Chadian soldiers and 65 Islamists.
Earlier this week, France announced the death of one of its soldiers in the same area, after having destroyed rebel munition depots and killing “more than 20” Islamists.
Overnight Thursday and early Friday, shooting broke out in several parts of Gao, some 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) north of Bamako. The Islamists were then “neutralised” by the city’s town hall, a Mali military official said, adding that two French troops were wounded in the operation.
“Some terrorists” tried unsuccessfully to “infiltrate by the banks of the River Niger”, and around 10 of them were killed, the same source said.
On Friday, a US defence official said the United States has deployed several Predator drones to Niger to fly surveillance missions in support of French forces in Mali.
The separatist Tuareg rebels initially led the takeover of northern Mali in a bid to split the region from the south where the government in Bamako has long marginalised their community.
Fighting alongside the main Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) backed by MUJAO, the Tuareg were then swiftly pushed aside and the alliance collapsed, with many MNLA fighters instead defecting to the Islamist rebel groups.
The MNLA then came out in support of the French-led intervention, hoping the move could help it regain control of the north.