Malian forces and local armed groups have launched a bid to recapture a jihadist-held border town in a region where hundreds of civilians have died in the past few months, sources there say.
Fighting has been unfolding over the last few days at the strategic town of Anderamboukane near the border with Niger, located in central Mali’s Menaka region.
The clashes have pitched Mali’s armed forces and local allies, mainly ethnic Tuaregs, against militants allied to the Islamic State group, the sources say.
“A big part of the Menaka region is under the control of the jihadists today,” Abdoul Wahab ag Ahmed Mohamed, head of Menaka’s interim authorities, told AFP.
“From March to May, several hundred civilians were killed and between 20,000 and 30,000 people displaced,” said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, leader of the Movement for the Salvation of Asawad (MSA), a Tuareg group which is fighting the jihadists. The figure for the displaced chimes with UN estimates.
The head of the UN’s MINUSMA mission to Mali, El Ghassim Wane, described the situation in the Menaka region as “extremely dramatic” in a visit on May 31.
Jihadists in northern Mali launched a revolt in 2012 that three years later spread to the center of the country — an ethnic powder-keg where the militants inflamed long-running community friction.
From there, the insurgency spread into neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Across the Sahel, thousands of people have lost their lives and more than two million have fled their homes.
Malian forces pulled out of Anderamboukane in late 2019 as part of a redeployment in the face of relentless jihadist attacks.
Pro-government forces on Saturday said they had wrested “total control” of the town and “routed” the jihadists. Since then, there have been conflicting reports over who controls the town.
But information from the remote, conflict-torn region is sketchy, and Mali’s ruling junta has been relatively tight-lipped about operations there.
The attempt to recapture the town coincides with a military pullout from Mali by France — the country’s traditional ally — and its European partners.
Relations between Mali and its erstwhile colonial power soured after Bamako wove closer ties with the Kremlin, bringing in Russian military operatives that Paris says are mercenaries.
In a report last week to the Security Council, UN chief Antonio Guterres sounded the alarm for the so-called tri-border area, where the borders of Niger, Mali, and Burkina converge.
In Menaka, “inter-community relations have also worsened, with most recent attacks sparking reprisals against local Fulani, based on claims that they supported previous attacks against the Daoussahak,” one of the Tuareg groups, the report said.
“Attacks by violent extremist groups have become increasingly sophisticated, well-organized and deadly. This triggered the displacement of an estimated 32,000 people,” it said.
On Monday, several dozen inhabitants of Menaka staged a demonstration, with banners condemning “the silence over the massacre of civilians in Menaka (and) Gao” and appealing for the state to deploy forces in the area.
Mali has been run by a military junta since August 2020, when colonels angered at failures to roll back the jihadists toppled the country’s elected leader, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
“The state is aware of the situation in the Menaka region and every measure is being taken to prevent the region from falling into the jihadists’ hands,” a senior military source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Ousmane Diallo, an Amnesty International specialist on Mali, said the IS-affiliated jihadists in Menaka had suffered a string of “tactical losses” in the last two years.
Today, though, the French pullout has given the jihadists “greater room to maneuver,” he said. “The government’s response is still wanting, three months after the first attacks.”