Mali attack highlights deteriorating security across west African Sahel
Suspected jihadis have killed at least 53 soldiers and one civilian in Mali close to the border with Niger in the latest sign of a security breakdown across much of the west African Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara.
Yaya Sangare, a Mali government spokesman, said in a tweet that his country’s armed forces had come under what he called a terrorist attack in Indelimane in the Menaka region, one of several areas of Mali where the state has lost full control. Reinforcements had been sent and were examining the bodies, he said.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack which comes just a month after two incidents in which at least 40 soldiers were killed near the border with Burkina Faso.
The deteriorating security situation has led to protests in the Malian capital Bamako where military families have complained that the army is not being given sufficient resources to fight the insurgency.
Mali was split in two in 2012 when Islamists linked to al-Qaeda took over the north of the country and declared sharia law in areas they controlled, including the ancient religious city of Timbuktu. The following year they were forced out by French troops.
Since then, however, the situation has, if anything, got worse, according to security analysts in Bamako, with the government losing day-to-day control of large swaths of the country, including in the centre of the country around Mopti.
The worsening situation comes in spite of the continued presence of French troops under the auspices of Operation Barkhane and strong support for a counter-insurgency from France’s President Emmanuel Macron who has highlighted conflict in the region as a major security threat.
Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have formed the so-called G5 Sahel force, but it has struggled to police an increasingly lawless region with porous borders. Across much of the Sahel, clashes between pastoralists and sedentary farmers have become entangled with religious extremism and criminal gangs and have been weaponised with guns pouring out of Libya.
Groups with ties to both al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State have killed civilians and soldiers in Niger and Burkina Faso as well as Mali.
There are also 15,000 UN troops in the Sahel.
In a recent report, the Crisis Group said that the war in central Mali had “reached an impasse with the state unable to defeat the Jihadist insurgents by force.” Both the insurgency and the responding military operations, it added, had exacerbated intercommunal violence, leading some to call for talks with the Islamists.
The Jihadist groups had “not only remained strong but also extended their reach into new territories,” the Crisis Group said.
Violence has occasionally spilled into other countries on the west African coast. In 2016, militants shot beachgoers in the Ivory Coast resort of Grand Bassam, near the capital Abidjan, killing 16 people.