Eight soldiers and 57 “terrorists” were killed in clashes at a rebel base in northern Mali where rival jihadist groups, including the so-called Islamic State, are active, the Malian army said on Saturday.
Friday’s fighting followed an air raid and erupted just a day after France and its allies announced their military withdrawal from the African country.
The Malian army said it carried out the attack against the rebel base after its troops had been attacked by “unidentified armed men” in the Archam region in the conflict-plagued north, near the border with restive Burkina Faso and Niger.
Eight soldiers died and 57 armed rebels were “neutralized” in the ensuing “violent clashes,” the army said.
Mali, a landlocked nation of 21 million people, has struggled to contain a brutal jihadist insurgency that emerged in 2012, before spreading to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and two million people have been displaced by the Sahel-wide conflict, of which Mali remains the epicenter.
About 40 civilians — believed to be loyal to rival jihadist groups, according to local sources — have been killed this week in the same area where the incident on Friday occurred.
It took place in the so-called “three borders” area, a hotspot of jihadist violence where the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) and the Sahel’s largest jihadist alliance, the al-Qaeda-aligned GSIM group, are particularly active.
The Mali army said it had been looking for “terrorist sanctuaries” in the area.
The forces deployed to the “three borders” area include Mali’s own army, as well as French and European troops and UN peacekeepers.
Just a day before, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the withdrawal of French troops from Mali.
France first intervened in the country in 2013 and currently has around 4,600 troops stationed across the Sahel, 2,400 of them in Mali.
But relations between the two countries deteriorated sharply after Malian army officers led by Colonel Assimi Goita deposed elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020.
The army then deposed the civilian leaders of a transitional government last year, in a second coup.
Mali’s international partners — including France and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — insisted that the junta stick to a pledge to stage elections in February 2022 and restore civilian rule.
But the junta then floated plans to stay in power for up to five years.
On Friday, Mali’s army-led government asked France to withdraw its forces from the Sahel state “without delay.”
Mali has also asked the smaller European Takuba group of special forces, created in 2020, to depart quickly.
But Macron responded with a statement saying he would not compromise the safety of French soldiers and the withdrawal will take place “in orderly fashion.”