On Friday, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar warned the United Nations that the failure to fully implement a nationwide peace accord was helping al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS)-affiliated groups spread their influence in the West African country.
Speaking at a high-level meeting on Mali at the annual UN General Assembly, President Keita stated, “we have to admit that several factors are contradicting our will and effort,” adding, “in particularly the extension of terrorism and banditry and security of neighbouring countries because of the desire of terrorist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda and Islamic State seeking to expand.” The president further disclosed that Islamists were using the slow implementation of peace accords in order to “manipulate” and “destroy” links between different ethnic groups in Mali. One incident, a clash in the north that erupted earlier this week between pro-government Gatia milita and the Tuareg separatist Coordination of Azawad movements, has highlighted the fragility of the UN-backed deal, which was singed last year between the Malian government and northern armed groups. That agreement is meant to end a cycle of uprisings. Also speaking at the meeting was Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, whose country is leading mediation efforts in Mali. Lamamra disclosed, “we must redouble our efforts,” adding, It’s terrible that signatories of the accord are involved in the fratricidal killings.” Meanwhile French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, whose country has thousands of troops deployed across West Africa in a bid to hunt down militants, disclosed that the security situation was “in general satisfying despite asymmetric attacks.”
UN peacekeepers are deployed across northern Mali with the aim of stabilizing the vast region, which was occupied by separatist Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda-aligned Islamist militants in 2012, before France intervened the following years. Tit-for-tat violence between rival armed groups however has distracted the West African nation from fighting Islamist militants. Furthermore, the country has become the deadliest place for UN peacekeepers to serve. On Thursday, the international mediation team, which includes the UN, Europeans Union (EU), African Union (AU) and regional bloc ECOWAS, disclosed that it believed the situation could not continue without compromising the agreement. The international mediation team also threatened international sanctions on those responsible for blocking the deal’s implementation.
On 13 May, Germany’s lower house of parliament approved a draft law effectively declaring Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia as safe countries. The move was done in a bid to ease deportation of failed asylum seekers from those North African states.
The law passed easily in the Bundestag lower house, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives and their left-leaning Social Democrat coalition partners hold a majority. Only three lawmakers abstained from the vote while 424 voted for bill and 143 voted against it. The government commissioner for human rights, Baerbel Kofler, voted against the bill, stating that there were “proven and documented human rights violations” in those three countries. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has defended the law, stating that only 0.7 percent of asylum applicants from the three North African countries were granted refugees status in the first three months of this year.
The bill, which has been criticized by human rights groups as well as the opposition Greens and hard left Die Linke, still needs to be receive final approval from parliament’s upper house. If passed, the law will effectively allow German authorities to speed up the processing of asylum applicants from those countries and deport them if they are rejected.
In January, the German government tightened asylum rules in a bid to stem an influx of migrants, which last year saw more than one million people entering the country. Most of those who entered Germany in 2015 were asylum seekers fleeing conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
On Tuesday (11 August), last week’s deadly hostage drama, which killed 13 people including five UN workers, was claimed by fighters linked to Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The militant group also claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that occurred Monday.
A radical, who is associated with militant Malian Islamic leader Amadou Koufa, stated that he gave his “blessing” for the attack on the Byblos Hotel in the central Malian town of Sevare. Koufa has ties to Belmokhtar, a former head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who leads Al-Murabitoun. According to Souleymane Mohamed Kennen, the group also claimed responsibility for the killing of three Malian soldiers on Monday, when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device close to Diabozo, which is located near Sevare. While the US had reported that it has targeted Belmokhtar in an airstrike in the Libyan desert in June, AQIM has denied reports that its former leader had been killed.
The claim of responsibility comes just a day after investigators disclosed that they have found phone numbers and addresses on the bodies of the “terrorists” killed in the Sevare hotel, which suggested that they were affiliated with the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), which is a new Islamic extremist group drawn from the Fulani people of central Mali. According to one investigator, “at this stage, there is no formal proof that it was the Macina Liberation Front, but strong suspicions point to this group that has been seeking notoriety at all costs.” Officials are reporting that this new extremist group is drawn from the Fulani people of central Mali and that it has links to Ansar Dine.
Meanwhile on Thursday (13 August), a policeman and a civilian were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a police outpost in the capital city in an attack that a Malian government minister has insisted is an “isolated act.” According to Interior minister Sada Samake, the attackers arrived at a busy bus station in a taxi before opening fore in the police post, injuring two people. The minister confirmed that officials “…have opened an investigation” into what he called an “isolated act.”
On Monday, a second round of peace talks between the Malian government and separatist militias will begin in Algiers. The talks are aimed at ending a conflict that has continued over this past year despite the country’s efforts to return to a democracy. The two groups signed an interim agreement in June last year, which effectively paved the way for nationwide elections, however since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected to power, negotiations have stalled and northern Mali has seen a spike in violence by Islamist and separatist militants.
According to sources, the talks will be based on a “roadmap” that was agreed to by the different sides in July. The talks will be overseen by a “college of mediators,” which includes Algeria, the African Union (AU) and the 15-member regional bloc ECOWAS. A “college of facilitators” will be made up of delegates from France, Niger, Nigeria and the European Union. While former Prime Minister Modibo Keita, who is the president’s envoy at the talks, has disclosed “this time in Algiers, participants will get to the bottom of their problems and, it is to be hoped, come to an agreement,” Mali’s Prime Minister Moussa Mara has suggested that despite the government willing to make concessions, a “red line” has been set, noting that Mali’s territorial integrity and secular status will not be up for discussion. While there currently is no set deadline, negotiations between the Malian government and separatist militias are expected to last weeks with the claim for special legal status expected to be the main sticking point.
In the weeks prior to these talks, rival factions amongst the rebels, including members of the MNLA, HCUA, the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), the coalition of the People of Azawad, which is a sub-division of the MNLA, along with a vigilante movement in the region, met in Burkina Faso’s capital city, Ouagadougou, in order to sign a broad policy agreement that effectively ensures they will speak with one voice in Algiers. According to sources, the signatories of the document are requesting “special legal status” for their homeland in northern Mali, adding that they want official recognition of the “legitimacy of the struggle of Azawad/northern Mali for 50 years to enjoy a special status in line with the geographical, economic, social, cultural and security realities.” Although these armed groups once fought each other in northern Mali, it now appears that they are increasingly willing to unite together in order to achieve their goals and to negotiate with the Malian government.
In May of this year, clashes erupted between the Malian army and a coalition of rebels from the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), resulting in at least fifty soldiers being killed in the region of Kidal. Although a ceasefire, which was achieved by Mauritanian leader and AU chief Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, has since been in place, the Malian government has expressed alarm over the “concentrations of armed groups” that are present in the desert region.
France announced Sunday that its military offensive in Mali will now be replaced by an operation that will focus on the wider and largely lawless Sahel region, and will aim at combatting extremist violence, which is now threatening the entire area.
During a television interview Sunday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that President Francois Hollande “…wanted a reorganisation of our troops in the Sahel zone.”
France’s Serval offensive was launched in January last year and saw French troops deploy to aid Malian soldiers in stopping al-Qaeda-linked militants and Tuareg rebels from descending further south and advancing on the capital Bamako. While France had initially planned to end operation Serval in May, and redeploy troops to the Sahel region to fight al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups, renewed clashes between rebels and the army in the north-eastern town of Kidal effectively forced officials in Paris to delay the pull out.
Although the French-led Serval operation, which saw eight soldiers die over a period of eighteen months, has widely been deemed a success by the international community, Le Drian indicated that the concern has now shifted to the vast Sahel region, noting the operation aims “to make sure there is no upsurge (in terrorism) as there are still major risks that jihadists will develop in the zone that goes from the Horn of Africa to Guinea-Bissau,” adding “the aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security.”
The new “counter-terrorism” operation, which has been codenamed Barkhan, will launch in the coming days and is being implemented in partnership with five countries including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Some 3,000 French soldiers will take part in the operation in which 1,000 will remain in the northern regions of Mali while the rest will be deployed in the four other countries. Drones, helicopters, fighters jets, armoured vehicles and transport planes will be used in the operation, with the headquarters stationed in the Chadian capital, N’Djamena.
While France plans to launch operation Barkhan in the coming days, tensions in the northern region of Mali have increased over the past week amidst reports of renewed fighting.
On Friday, Malian government officials confirmed that armed groups in northern Mali have begun to regroup, a move that is in violation of a recent truce signed between them and the government. A government statement released by Mali’s state-owned news agency indicated “corroborating information details military gatherings and even advances by troops from armed groups in certain locations in the north,” adding “such acts are unacceptable because they violate the ceasefire agreement of May 24” between the Malian government and armed groups. The truce was brokered after fighting erupted between the army and militants in the northeastern desert town of Kidal.
According to officials in Bamako, the mobilizations in the north come “a few days ahead of the opening of inclusive talks planned in Algiers from July 16.” The talks were announced late Wednesday by Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra during a visit to Burkina Faso and are aimed at restoring stability in the north.
On the ground sources have also reported that fighting broke out on Friday between two of the movements due to participate in the upcoming discussions. According to Mohamed Ould Mataly, who represents one wing of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), the Tuareg rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was attacking “our positions.” Mohamed Ag Rhissa, spokesperson for the MNLA in Kidal, confirmed that “…clashes are taking place between Anefis and Tabankor.” Lt. Col. Diarran Kone, a defence ministry adviser also confirmed that clashes had taken place, adding that the Malian army was not involved.
The latest incidents are likely to further increase the already high tensions, with further clashes between the two groups likely to occur in the coming days. They also highlight the on going fragility of Mali’s security and relations between the government and northern rebel groups.