Forces deployed to France’s Sahel counter-terrorism mission Operation Barkhane were attacked in Mali on Sunday, July 1.
According to multiple social media reports, vehicles attached to Operation Barkhane were attacked in Gao on the road to Bourem. Some reports claim a suicide bomb attack while others say rockets were used. There are also reports of gunfire following the explosion.
Mali’s security ministry tweeted that a Barkhane patrol was hit by a suicide car bomb at around 11 a.m.
Another suicide attacker detonated their explosives in a building, while a third on a motorcycle was “neutralized,” the security ministry said.
“I confirm that it was a car bomb that drove into a joint Barkhane/Malian army patrol,” Malian defense ministry spokesperson Boubacar Diallo said, Reuters reported.
There are reports of numerous civilian and military casualties, but The Defense Post has not yet been able to confirm details.
Diallo said around a dozen people were wounded, including “four to eight” French troops.
Mali’s security ministry later tweeted that, according to hospital sources, four civilians were killed and 31 people were injured, including eight from Barkhane.
French soldiers were in two vehicles that were completely destroyed by the blast, Reuters reported a local army source as saying.
France armed forces spokesperson Patrik Steiger also said civilians had been killed, Reuters reported. Steiger said the explosion occurred near three French vehicles and that the patrol comprised 30 French personnel.
— Kibaru/الغد (@kibml) July 1, 2018
Images shared on social media appeared to show blackened Nexter VBCI vehicles, which are used by French forces in Gao. Images also appeared to show civilian casualties.
Update July 3 A spokesperson for the French armed forces told The Defense Post on Tuesday, July 3 that the incident occurred in the Aljabandia area of Gao, confirming that the patrol included three VBCIs and 30 French soldiers, some on foot.
After the explosion at around 10:45 a.m., French soldiers secured the area supported by Malian armed forces who had also been on patrol.
Malian forces and “many civilians” gave first aid to the injured.
The spokesperson confirmed that four people were killed and 24 civilians were injured, along with four French soldiers who were seriously injured, who were flown to France.
— Buuba Ibrahiim ?? (@lepetit_peulh) July 1, 2018
In a separate incident on Sunday, a vehicle belonging to the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), an armed group of former touareg rebels which often operates alongside French and Malian forces in Mali’s north, hit a landmine near Talataye village in the Gao region. Four people were killed and three in the explosion, the group said in a statement.
The two attacks on Sunday follow others in recent days.
On Friday, a bomb and gun attack on the headquarters of the G5 Sahel Joint Force in Sevare in the Mopti region of Mali was later claimed by JNIM, al-Qaeda’s Mali affiliate.
And on Saturday, four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle was hit by a landmine in the central Mopti region. Governor Sidi Alassane Toure said the Malian army vehicle drove over the landmine near the border of the Koro region, killing four members of the national guard and wounding two others, AFP reported.
The attacks highlight the fragile security situation as Mali prepares for elections on July 29.
The G5 Sahel group of nations – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – agreed last year to set up the 5,000-strong G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train 5,000 troops to work alongside French troops as well as peacekeepers deployed to the United Nations’ Minusma stabilization mission in Mali.
A meeting of the African Union began in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott on July 1.
Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said the attack on the G5 Sahel headquarters “hit the heart” of the region’s security and criticised the lack of international help.
“It was a message sent by the terrorists at this precise moment when we are getting organised to stabilise and secure our region,” Aziz told France 24.
“If the headquarters was attacked, it is because there are so many failings we need to fix if we want to bring stability to the Sahel.”
The heads of the G5 Sahel states are due to meet on Monday with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss progress made by the force.
Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda took control of the desert north of Mali in early 2012, exploiting a Taureg separatist uprising. France began a military intervention the next year that evolved into the current Operation Barkhane deployment with a mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel region, and around 4,000 French troops are deployed.
On June 14, the first troops from a 100-member U.K. contingent to be deployed in Gao alongside French forces arrived in the region. British forces will operate three CH-47 Chinook heavy transport helicopters to assist the French operation, but British military personnel will not be involved in combat operations, the government said.
On June 22, a joint operation between French and Malian forces engaged a group of around 20 militants in a wooded area in the Inabelbel region. About 15 militants were ‘put out of action’, and two pickup trucks, six motorcycles, RPGs and AK47s were either seized or destroyed, the French armed forces said.
This post was substantially and frequently updated on July 1, and was again updated on July 3 with information from the French armed forces. It includes reporting from AFP.