Six Malian soldiers were killed on Friday in a raid in the centre of the war-torn Sahel state, in a violent day which also saw 15 United Nations peacekeepers wounded in a car-bomb attack further north.
The Malian soldiers were killed when militants attacked a military outpost in the village of Boni in the centre of the country. Another soldier was injured.
Mali's army stated on Twitter that the troops had "vigorously responded" to "simultaneous attacks" launched in Boni in the afternoon.
Ten Malian soldiers had been killed in a similar ambush in Boni in February.
Central Mali -- which is the epicentre of the conflict in the Sahel -- also saw six French soldiers and four civilians wounded on Monday when a car bomb detonated near a French armoured car.
Attack on peacekeepers
The UN said on Twitter that an evacuation was under way after a car bomb struck a temporary base near Tarkint, in the lawless north of Mali.
German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said 12 of the peacekeepers were German and that three were seriously injured.
Two of the three were in a stable condition, she said in a statement, while one has undergone surgery. All of the wounded have been evacuated by helicopter, Kramp-Karrenbauer added.
One Belgian soldier was also injured in the attack, according to a Belgian defence ministry statement.
“The MINUSMA peacekeeping forces were escorting a new battalion of the Malian army in order to redeploy in this region. They most probably had bad intelligence about the situation on the ground because it’s an area where al Qaeda is very, very active,” said FRANCE 24’s terrorism expert, Wassim Nasr.
German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said three of the soldiers were seriously wounded. She told reporters in Bonn, Germany that two soldiers were in a stable condition while the third was still undergoing surgery.
The wounded soldiers were flown by helicopter to Gao, where they were being treated at German, French and Chinese medical facilities, said Kramp-Karrenbauer.
“It’s the first time that the Germans have been attacked in this way. They have already been in contact before,” said Nasr, referring to the term used for coming under enemy fire. “But it’s the first time they have been attacked this way, with a car bomb, with such a high number of casualties.”
MINUSMA has around 13,000 troops drawn from several nations deployed across the vast semi-arid country. Germany has 1,100 soldiers, mainly based in Gao.
Earlier this year, the German cabinet approved an extension for Germany's participation in MINUSMA for a year and upheld the current troop levels.
Mali is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in 2012 and which has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives since.
Despite the presence of thousands of French and UN troops, the conflict has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Crossroads for jihadist groups, arms and people-smuggling
The attack came days after a massive car bomb targeted a French reconnaissance patrol in the central Malian town of Gossi, wounding six French soldiers and four civilians.
France currently has 5,100 troops in the arid and volatile Sahel region, which stretches across Africa under the Sahara desert encompassing Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
The attack on the reconnaissance patrol also comes after French President Emmanuel Macron announced the drawing down of French troops in Mali and a merger into a broader international mission and a new call by AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) for attacks on foreign troops in the Sahel.
“The objective is to try to influence French public opinion and also European public opinion, particularly since we are a few months away from elections in Germany,” explained Nasr, referring to the September 2021 German parliamentary elections. “Al Qaeda wants to push European allies to disengage and also for public opinion to oppose engagement in the Sahel.”
The Sahel is seen by many Western politicians and experts as a major risk because of the growing strength of jihadist groups there, as well as its role as a crossroads for arms and people-smuggling.
Mali has been in turmoil since a 2012 uprising prompted mutinous soldiers to overthrow the country's president of a decade. The power vacuum that was created ultimately led to an Islamic insurgency and a French-led war that ousted the jihadists from power in 2013.
A peace agreement was signed in 2015 by three parties – the government, a coalition of groups who seek autonomy in northern Mali, and a pro-government militia.
However, the insurgents quickly regrouped in the desert and began launching frequent attacks on the Malian army and its allies fighting the insurgency.
The extremists, affiliated with al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group, have moved from the arid north to more populous central Mali since 2015 where their presence has stoked animosity and violence between ethnic groups in the area.
In the latest turmoil, Col. Assimi Goita grabbed power in August 2020 by overthrowing Mali’s democratically elected president. He eventually agreed to a transitional government led by a civilian president and prime minister but on May 24 he ousted those civilian leaders after they announced a Cabinet reshuffle.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)