Six Malian troops were killed when their vehicles drove over improvised land mines in the center of the West African country, the army said.
The attack on Tuesday, March 12 comes just days after French forces were attacked in the east and a week after United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that security is worsening in the country.
Two army escort vehicles were struck by improvised explosive devices “leaving two dead in Dialloube and four dead in the Hombori area,” in the central Mopti region, the army said in a release.
The government condemned the “cowardly and heinous terrorist acts.”
A security source put the toll at seven soldiers dead, AFP reported.
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.
French forces attacked in Menaka region
French forces deployed to Operation Barkhane were attacked at around 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 10 in the Akabar area of Mali’s eastern Menaka region, near the border with Niger, according to reports.
Ouest-France reported that the complex attack began when French forces opened fire on a suicide vehicle borne IED that was moving towards their bivouac position, causing the vehicle to detonate.
Around 15 militants on motorcycles then attacked the position, but were repelled.
A Mirage 2000 fighter jet patrol arrived 10 minutes later but was unable to intercept the bikes, RFI reported.
Two seriously injured French soldiers were later evacuated to a military hospital in France, Ouest-France reported.
Guterres warns Mali security is worsening
The latest deaths came a week after Guterres warned that security is worsening in Mali with terror attacks on the rise, targeting U.N. peacekeepers, Malian troops, international forces and civilians.
“Despite significant international efforts, the security situation has continued to deteriorate with an increase in the number of terrorist attacks,” Guterres said in a report sent to the Security Council.
In 2018, there were 237 terror attacks, up from 226 in 2017 and 183 in 2016, said the report.
The threat from extremist groups has spread from northern Mali to the center of the country, complicating efforts to implement a peace deal with armed groups.
The Security Council is planning to visit Mali this month for a closer look at the conflict as it faces a June deadline to extend the mandate of the Minusma peacekeeping force. The Minusma mission in Mali began in 2013 and has about 12,000 troops and 1,750 police deployed.
In January, 10 Minusma peacekeepers from Chad were killed in an attack on their base in Aguelhok, in the northern Kidal region. 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.
In all, 18 peacekeepers have been killed and 77 others injured in attacks in the past six months, the report said.
Despite the rising violence, Guterres reported progress in efforts to implement the peace deal, with over 1,400 combatants setting aside their weapons and new district administrations set up in the north.
“International pressure, including through the prospect of sanctions, was viewed as an important factor in accelerating the process,” said the report.
France, which will lead the council visit to Mali along with Germany, is pushing for additional funding to shore up the G5 Sahel Joint Force that was set up by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in 2015, an initiative which was spearheaded by colonial power France.
On March 1, nine Malian soldiers attached to the G5 Sahel Joint Force were killed when a vehicle in which they were traveling was struck by a roadside bomb in Boulkessi in the Mopti region near the border with Burkina Faso.
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.
The EUTM’s Koulikoro Training Center near the southern town of Siby was attacked early on February 24, but the assailants were stopped before they could enter the base.
With reporting from AFP