At least 24 soldiers were killed and 29 others injured during a bilateral Mali-Niger military operation, the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) said in a Monday release.
“In order to better track terrorists along the border, Mali and Niger mounted a bilateral operation called ‘Tongo Tongo,'” the release said.
During the operation “a FAMa patrol was attacked on Monday, November 18, 2019 in Tabankort in the Gao region” in eastern Mali, and clashes led to the death of 24 FAMa personnel, with 29 others wounded.
“On the enemy side there are 17 terrorists killed,” and around 100 suspects were “apprehended by Nigerien forces in Tiloa,” the release said, adding that 70 motorcycles had been destroyed.
Update November 22 FAMa on Wednesday put the death toll in the attack at 30, but a security source told AFP that had risen to 43 with the discovery on Thursday of the bodies of 13 soldiers in two separate locations by a Malian army patrol.
In a Wednesday statement, Islamic State said fighters from its West Africa Province affiliate had ambushed a Malian army column “in the Tabankort region near the artificial border with Niger,” claiming that at least 30 soldiers were killed and 30 others injured. It said ISWAP fighters captured a vehicle, weapons and ammunition.
ISIS propaganda agency Amaq placed the incident in the Menaka region.
It is unclear where the incident occurred. A town called Tabankort in the Gao region is around 180 km 300 km from the Niger border.
Another location named Tabankort in the Menaka region is less than 10 km from the border and around 45 km northeast of Tongo Tongo in Niger, the location of a number of infamous terrorist incidents in recent years. Tiloa in Niger, where the suspects were apprehended, is around 20 km east of Tongo Tongo.
In June, 18 Islamic State militants were killed by French and Nigerien troops near Tongo Tongo after a May ambush in Balley Béri, near Tongo Tongo that killed 28 Nigerien soldiers, an attack later claimed by ISIS. Last December, around 15 ‘terrorists’ were killed in French airstrikes followed by two days of clearance operations on the ground near Tongo Tongo. In perhaps the best-known incident in October 2017, four American and five Nigerien soldiers were killed when their convoy was ambushed at Tongo Tongo, an attack claimed by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Since May, ISIS has attributed insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to its West Africa Province affiliate, rather than to what was previously known as ISGS.
FAMa earlier said seven soldiers had been killed and 15 injured in the Tabankort attack, and that the injured were evacuated to Tiloa. That release said that with the support of the France-led Operation Barkhane force, “FAMa and the Nigeriens have taken over the field initiative in Tabankort,” and that Nigerien forces were conducting searches.
Neither FAMa statement said which group was responsible.
The Tabankort attack came just one day after the end of an ‘unprecedented’ 17-day joint counter-terror operation involving forces from forces France, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in the Déou area of Burkina Faso and Boulikessi area of Mali. More than 1,400 soldiers took part in the operation against “armed terrorist groups” and Operation Bourgou IV “resulted in 24 individuals being put out of action,” the French Armed Forces Ministry said.
Upsurge in Sahel violence
In 2012 a Tuareg separatist uprising against the state was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in Mali’s desert north.
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 have 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, and inter-ethnic bloodshed is a regular occurrence.
The U.N. says that since January more than 1,500 civilians have been killed in Burkina Faso and Mali, and more than one million people have been internally displaced across the five Sahel states – more than twice the number displaced in 2018. Access has become increasingly difficult, but 12 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
Many armed groups are active in the Sahel region, but the majority of attacks are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups including the Sahara branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and al-Mourabitoun. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The Serval mission evolved in August 2014 into Operation Barkhane, and roughly 4,500 French troops are deployed in the region, including around 2,700 soldiers in Mali. But Barkhane has a growing international dimension, with European partners sending more troops and equipment. Denmark is to send two helicopters and up to 70 troops to support Barkhane in December and Estonia is to almost double the size of its Barkhane contingent in 2020. Chinook helicopters from the United Kingdom currently support the operation.
Operation Barkhane focuses activity in insurgent-hit Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and troops work alongside other international operations, including the 14,000-strong MINUSMA U.N. stabilization mission in Mali and the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S), a planned 4,500-strong joint counter-terrorism force comprising troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.
France has been trying to build international support for a new military force to work alongside Barkhane.
French plans for a new international special operations task force for the Sahel were first reported in early October, and on November 5, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that France expected the new force – dubbed “Takuba” – to deploy in Mali by 2020. Around a dozen European states “have expressed an interest in taking part in this initiative,” a French Armed Forces spokesperson said.
Estonia is the first partner to confirm a special operations forces deployment to Takuba. A defense ministry spokesperson told The Defense Post that special forces will deploy to Mali in the second half of 2020 and that force will ‘assist, advise and accompany’ the Malian Armed Forces.
Last week, senior officials said the United States is seeking a meeting of the Coalition against ISIS early in 2020 to focus on threats in West Africa and the Sahel.