Mali: France airstrike kills 15 in Mopti as EU training base in Koulikoro attacked

French forces with Operation Barkhane, operating in support of the Malian armed forces, killed 15 suspected members of the militant Islamist group Katiba Macina in an aerial raid north of Mopti in central Mali, France’s defense ministry said on Monday.

Barkhane forces operating from the French base in Niamey, Niger launched the strike from a Mirage 2000 supported by a Reaper drone, on Saturday, February 23, the Ministry of the Armed Forces said in a press release.

“About 15 terrorists were taken out of action,” the release said. The strike follows a series of operations in the same area, around the town of Dialloube, in recent weeks.

Katiba Macina is part of the umbrella Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s branch in Mali. JNIM was formed in 2017 by the merger of several smaller groups including Katiba Macina, the Sahara branch of AQIM, Ansar Dine and Al-Mourabitoun. Its leadership has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

On Friday, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly said that French forces killed JNIM deputy leader Yahya Abou El Hamame in an operation north of Timbuktu.

International forces killed and wounded

The strikes come after international forces with the European Union Training Mission in Mali came under attack by unknown assailants early on February 24. Attackers opened fire around 3 a.m. and tried to breach the south entrance of the Koulikoro Training Center near the southern town of Siby but were stopped before they could enter the base.

Three Malian soldiers were wounded but are expected to survive. No EUTM personnel were injured, the mission said in a Sunday statement. Spanish soldiers with the Galicia VII brigade are currently deployed to the mission and stationed in Koulikoro.

“Upon reaching the vicinity of the Center, the occupants of one of the vehicles got off and began firing from the vicinity of one of the secondary entrances,” while the vehicles went to the main entrance, Spain’s defense staff said in a statement on Monday.

According to the statement, Spanish and Malian forces fired on the two trucks, causing one of the drivers to detonate an explosive vest inside the vehicle. The second exploded in the vicinity of the center entrance, but did not cause significant damage, the defense staff said.

It was unclear how many occupants were in the vehicles.

The EUTM said the number of attackers killed was still under investigation, but the Malian armed forces (FAMa) said there were two, adding that two of the wounded soldiers had already been released from hospital.

Separately, three Guinean peacekeepers with the United Nations stabilization mission in Mali, Minusma, were killed Friday near Siby. They were attacked by suspected bandits while traveling on leave along the road from the capital Bamako to neighboring Guinea, AFP reported sources as saying.

The Minusma mission in Mali began in 2013 and has about 12,000 troops and 1,750 police deployed. Guinea is the eighth largest contributor of troops to Minusma, with 869 women and men serving, according to the U.N.

The deaths of the three Guinean troops bring to 180 the number of Minusma peacekeepers killed, accounting for more than half of blue helmets killed in the past five years. It is the U.N.’s deadliest mission, with 15 peacekeepers killed so far this year alone.

In January, 10 Minusma peacekeepers from Chad were killed in an attack on their base in Aguelhok, around 200 km (125 miles) north of Kidal towards the border with Algeria.

Five days later, two peacekeepers from Sri Lanka died and six were injured near Douentza in Mopti after their vehicle hit a mine. A peacekeeper from Burkina Faso was injured in a separate roadside bomb attack near Douentza the previous day.

The recent unrest in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012 with Tuareg separatist uprising against the state, which was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north.

France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, but the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, sometimes winning over local populations by providing basic services and protection from bandits.

The insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali, and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Large swathes of the country remain outside government control, despite a 2015 peace accord designed to isolate the Islamists.

The French mission evolved into the current Operation Barkhane, which has roughly 4,500 personnel deployed with a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the region.

The 620-strong European Union Training Mission in Mali was established in 2013 and has a mandate until May 2020. Troops from 22 member states and five non-E.U. states work with both FAMa and the G5 Sahel Joint Force. It has trained around 13,000 FAMa personnel.

Romania to replace Canada peacekeepers in UN’s Mali mission

This story was updated on February 25, 2019 at 1245 GMT to add a statement from the Spanish defense staff.

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