Mali’s army on Monday said it had arrested “12 terrorists” in the troubled northeast, where militants affiliated with the Islamic State group have widened their control, but Tuareg ex-rebels claimed the fighters were theirs.
“They are not terrorists at all, nor jihadists — this is absolutely false”, Mohamed Elmaouloud Ramadane, spokesman for the former rebels, told AFP.
“They are soldiers of the former rebellion who are integrated into the reconstituted Malian army.”
The rebels in 2015 signed a peace agreement with the government, but it has been suspended because of tensions between these groups and Mali’s ruling junta.
Ramadane said the soldiers were on leave, and carried documentation to prove it.
A dozen “terrorists,” as well as equipment, were captured in the operation on Sunday in the Menaka region, the military said in a statement.
It invited signatories to the peace agreement to “coordinate their movements with the Malian armed forces.”
The army also announced in on Facebook an operation on Monday in the Bandiagara area of central Mali following a “terrorist attack alert.”
“Twenty-nine neutralized terrorists were counted after air strikes,” it said, adding that those who “escaped were caught in a pincer move” by ground units who “neutralized,” meaning killed, eight of them.
The army also reported in the same statement killing three more suspected “terrorists” near the central town of Boni, adding that the group were using child soldiers.
Northern Mali was the starting point of unrest in 2012 that flared into a jihadist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives, forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, and fuelled two coups.
Unlike the Tuareg independence fighters, jihadist groups have continued to oppose the Malian state, dragging the country into a deep security and political crisis.
The Islamic State in the Great Sahara (ISGS) group earlier this month took Tidermene, a town north of the Menaka region, the latest in a series of victories beginning in 2022.
It has gained ground against a disparate constellation of rivals — the al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), government troops, and local Tuareg-dominated armed groups.
Mali has since August 2020 been ruled by a military junta, which broke a long-standing alliance with France and turned militarily and politically to Russia.
In early April, the Tuareg ex-rebels said there was “no way to build a common future” with the government.
They announced in December a halt to participation in the implementation of the peace agreement.