Armed men abducted 22 members of a military unit comprising mainly Tuareg ex-rebels and former members of armed pro-government groups in violence-wracked Mali, the driver of their bus said on Friday.
The group were set to be incorporated into the Armed Forces of Mali (FAMa) as part of a major overhaul designed to make them more representative of the population, notably in the northern and central regions hit by Islamist insurgency.
They were abducted on Wednesday, September 4, the driver said, and no details on their fate had emerged by Friday afternoon.
The driver said the group had been heading for the city of Gao, the largest in the north, when they were abducted between Douentza and Hombori, an area of the central Mopti region that is prone to attacks.
“I was driving slowly because the road is very bad. Five men drew a gun on me,” he told AFP by telephone. He added they climbed aboard and forced him to change his route.
“Twenty two of the armed elements who were headed for Gao were abducted – the other passengers were left alone,” the driver added.
A spokesperson for the transport company Sonef said it had suspended the route “given the insecurity.”
No group has claimed the abduction, which took place a day after 14 people were killed and eight others injured when another Sonef bus traveling from Douentza to Gao hit a road mine. Police said the bus was struck around 30 km (18 miles) from Douentza.
The Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA) alliance, a mainly Tuareg former rebel movement and the pro-government Platforme of armed militias confirmed the abductions.
In June 2015, Mali’s government signed a peace agreement with the Platforme coalition and some armed groups in the separatist CMA, but other insurgents remain active in the vast Sahel region.
The abducted men were part of the Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC) group, which enables mixed military patrols to help foster Mali’s under-pressure peace accord.
The Platforme told AFP that “terrorists carried out the operation … they want to prevent the peace process succeeding,” adding that two other members had managed to escape.
In 2012 a Tuareg separatist uprising against the state was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north of Mali.
France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, and the MINUSMA peacekeeping force was then established.
But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and 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 Mali remain outside government control.
The French mission evolved in August 2014 into the current Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel. Roughly 4,500 French troops are deployed in the region, including 2,700 soldiers in Mali.
Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside other international operations, including the roughly 14,000-strong MINUSMA United Nations peacekeeping mission, and the regional G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel from the five members – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
With reporting from AFP