Two soldiers were killed and seven were injured by a roadside bomb in central Mali on Monday, the army said, in the latest deadly incident to hit the conflict-ridden West African country.
The attack follows the deaths of 13 French troops in a mid-air helicopter collision last week as they were chasing jihadists in northern Mali.
Mali has been struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in the north in 2012, and which has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives since.
Despite some 4,500 French troops in the Sahel region, plus a 13,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali, the conflict has engulfed the centre of Mali and spread to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Mali’s armed forces announced on Twitter late Monday, December 2 that nine troops were injured by a homemade roadside bomb in Diougani, a village in Mopti region north of the border with Burkina Faso.
Two died later of their wounds, the army said.
At least four Malian soldiers have been killed by such bombs since last month, as well as two from Burkina Faso and one from France.
More than 140 Malian troops have died since September, including 43 in a single ambush last month.
Unrest in the Sahel
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.
Many armed groups are active in Mali and the wider 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 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.
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. 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 also 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 month, 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.
With reporting from AFP