Mali’s Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga made a landmark visit to the restive northern town of Kidal on Friday, the first since 2014 by a head of government to an area still in the hands of former rebels.
Five French soldiers were wounded in Kidal on Thursday when a joint U.N.-France base was attacked, underscoring the security issues faced by domestic and foreign forces in Mali. French Defence Minister Florence Parly told parliament there was “almost certainly a link between this attack and the submitted intention by the Malian prime minister to visit Kidal”.
The prime minister spent several hours in the city after touching down at a U.N. base, before heading to Gao, another urban centre rocked by periodic unrest.
Le chef du Gouvernement a commencé l’étape de Kidal par la visite de courtoisie à l’Aménokal de Kidal, avant d’animer la conférence des cadres élargie aux organisations de la société civile et aux communautés de base constituées des jeunes et des femmes.#Mali #SBM #Primature pic.twitter.com/Z54PE92ZCh
— Primature du Mali (@GouvMali) March 23, 2018
Appointed in December, Maiga was charged with bolstering security as near-weekly attacks on security forces raise safety fears ahead of the presidential election in July.
The former rebels of the Co-ordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA) provided security for the delegation, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene.
The CMA contains members who rose up against the state in order to separate the north from the rest of Mali in 2012, but ultimately signed a peace treaty in 2015 with the aim of reintegrating into the army and accepting a measure of control from Bamako.
“The republic will do what it should for all its children. Mali is one and indivisible in its diversity,” Maiga said after meeting locals in a city with still strong separatist tendencies.
“We are placing a lot of hope in this visit to advance the peace process,” said CMA spokesman Mohamed Ag Assaleh.
The CMA and similar groups have resisted handing back full control to the government, and clashes with pro-government armed groups have flared despite the ceasefire.
The attack on French soldiers on Thursday was claimed by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), a jihadist coalition affiliated with Al-Qaeda and led by Tuareg former rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly.
No Malian head of government has visited Kidal since 2014 when fighting broke out during a visit by then prime minister Moussa Mara which ended with the army suffering a heavy defeat.
Maiga on Tuesday said he would visit “without arrogance, in order to listen, and understand the urgent needs of the population”.
On Saturday he is due in Timbuktu, another northern city frequently rocked by unrest.
International forces in Mali
The United Nation’s MINUSMA peacekeeping force includes 12,000 military and 1,900 police personnel from 57 U.N. partner nations.
Separately, France launched an intervention to chase out jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda who had overtaken key northern cities in Mali in 2013. That mission evolved into the current Operation Barkhane deployment launched in 2014 with an expanded mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel region of west Africa. Around 4,000 French troops are deployed under Operation Barkhane.
Last month, French army chief Francois Lecointre warned parliament that it would take 10 to 15 years to resolve Mali’s problems, according to a summary of his remarks published on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger set up the G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train 5,000 troops to work alongside the 4,000 French troops and 12,000 U.N peacekeepers in Mali.
On Thursday, Estonia’s government said it would ask parliament for a mandate to send 50 troops to Mali for one year as part of France’s Operation Barkhane mission, and on Monday, Canada said it will deploy an infantry unit and military trainers along with attack and transport helicopters to Mali for 12 months in support the MINUSMA mission.
In February, European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini announced the E.U. would double its financial contribution to the G5 Sahel joint force.
In January, the U.K. government said it would send three additional Chinook helicopters to Mali for counter-terrorism operations. The helicopters will be used by French troops, part of the wider counter-terror effort in the Sahel region of Africa.
Former Burkina official abducted in troubled zone
A former municipal councillor in Burkina Faso was abducted in a northern zone bordering Mali which has been repeatedly targeted by jihadists, the security ministry said Thursday.
Troops were combing the area after the abduction in Lassa village, Soum province, by “five armed individuals on motorcycles” on Wednesday evening, a statement said.
His whereabouts were unknown, the ministry added.
A similar incident in April last year saw two civil servants abducted in Ina-Bao, also near the Mali border. Both were later released.
In 2015, the Ansar Dine group led by rebel leader Iyad Ag Ghaly kidnapped Australian Kenneth Elliot and his wife Jocelyn in Djibo, a town on the Mali-Nige borderr.
Jocelyn Elliot was released a year later but her husband is still in captivity.
Ansar Dine has since merged with other groups and its new variant, the Al-Qaeda-linked Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), claimed a March 2 attack in the Burkinabe capital Ouagadougou which left eight dead.
Another group kidnapped Romanian Iulian Ghergut in 2015 and he remains in captivity.
A total of 133 people have been killed in 80 jihadist attacks in the region in the past three years, according to an official toll.
With reporting from AFP