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.
Three armed movements from northern Mali have signed a joint statement in Algiers, declaring that they are ready to work for peace with the Malian government. The top leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) have been in the Algerian capital since Thursday.
Algeria’s foreign ministry confirmed Tuesday that three northern Malian rebels groups have signed an accord in Algiers, pledging to work for peace through inclusive talks in Mali. An Algerian government statement issued Tuesday indicated that the MNLA, HCUA and the MAA signed the “Algiers Declaration” late Monday, effectively pledging their “good faith” to strengthen the process of reconciliation through dialogue. The statement also pledged to support for a dialogue with the Malian government that “takes into account the legitimate desires of the local population while respecting the territorial integrity and unity of Mali.” The dialogue between the government and the armed groups however has yet to begin.
The secular MAA, which seeks sweeping autonomy in Mali’s part of the Sahara and the Sahel, has joined forces with the MNLA and HCUA in order to try and enhance “the momentum under way for peace.” The three groups have indicated that they are seeking a “definitive” solution to the decades of instability that have affected northern Mali by “taking account of the legitimate claims of the local population with full respect for the territorial integrity and the national unity of Mali.”
Mali has been in turmoil since 2012, when Tuareg rebel groups seized control of the northern regions of the country. While the government regained control in 2013, with the help of French and African troops that intervened after al-Qaeda militants took over the Tuareg rebellion, tensions between the Malian government and the rebel groups have not declined. The government in Bamako continues to be an object of resentment, especially in the far northern town of Kidal. This was evidenced in May when clashes erupted between government soldiers and MNLA rebels, leading to a tense standoff.
Three Tuareg and Arab rebel movements announce their merger. Meanwhile insecurity continues to destabilize the country with a new attack occurring in northern Mali.
On Monday 4 November 2013, three Tuareg and Arab rebel movements in northern Mali announced their merger to form a united front in peace talks with authorities in the Malian capital city Bamako. According to reports, after several days of talks in Burkina Faso, which is the regional mediator for the conflict, representatives of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) along with the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) adopted a “political platform,” a “negotiating committee,” and a joint “decision-making body.” The three rebel movements further indicated that the decision to merge was “guided by a common political will to prioritize the best interests of the people” of the vast northern desert region they call Azawad, adding that a political solution was the only option in securing peace. According to the groups, the merger will go ahead “within 45 days” after the membership of each of the groups had approved the move, adding that no name has yet been chosen for the new movement.
Meanwhile in the latest insecurity to hit the country, on Monday four people were killed in northern Mali after their truck ran over a land mine. According to a local government official in Menaka, four passengers were killed when a pick-up, which was transporting thirty-eight people between the desert towns of Ansongo and Menaka in the region of Gao, drove over the explosive device. Ibrahim Ag Moha further indicated that ‘four people died on the spot and eight others were injured, and are currently being taken to hospital in Menaka.” Two of the injured are reported to be in critical condition. The truck was a public transport vehicle. It currently remains unknown who is responsible for laying the mine however a report released by the United Nations earlier this year indicated that unexploded ordnance and land mines littering the West African nation remained a “significant threat.”
The latest unrest comes as the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Mali late on Monday to begin a regional tour that will highlight the battle against poverty. The Secretary General, along with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and top officials from the African Union, African Development Bank and European Union are scheduled to meet in Mali on Tuesday before travelling to Niger later that day and Burkina Faso and Chad on Wednesday. They are scheduled to meet the presidents of each country. Ahead of his visit to Mali, Mr. Ban stated that eleven million of the 80 million people living in the Sahel countries lack sufficient food.‘ According to a statement released by World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim, “the people of the Sahel region desperately need more secure living standards, and our hope is this funding helps build a new path for economic growth in the region.” The European Union and the World Bank have pledged more than US $8 billion in fresh aid for the Sahel region countries which have been affected by conflict.
The Secretary General’s official visit to Mali comes at a time when French and Malian troops are searching for the killers of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, who were kidnapped and shot dead by suspected terrorists on Saturday in the northeastern town of Kidal. The deaths of the two French journalists have further highlighted the ongoing security threat just three weeks ahead of parliamentary elections which are meant to mark the completion of Mali’s transition back to democracy following a military coup in March last year.
Despite reaching a peace agreement with the Malian government in June of this year, on Thursday, Tuareg separatists confirmed that they were suspending participation in the peace deal, accusing the Malian government of not respecting the accord that had been reached between the two groups. While the peace accord enabled national elections to go forward in July and August, and allowed Mali’s military to return to the northern Tuareg town of Kidal, it also called for the central government to commence peace talks within two months of the President’s election. In turn, under the signed deal, the government and rebels would agree to respect the country’s territorial integrity and hold peace talks that would focus on the status of the north. Although the signing of the agreement was seen by many as an easing of tensions in a region of Africa that has been on numerous occasions affected by Tuareg uprisings, this latest falling out demonstrates that tensions and a lack of trust continue to be a major issue and may deal a blow to the hopes of a lasting peace.
Following a meeting in neighboring Burkina Faso’s capital of ouagadougou, the separatist groups – the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) – stated that they wanted to hold an emergency meeting of all parties involved in the peace accord in order to assess the implementation of the agreement. In a statement released late on Thursday, Mossa Ag Acharatoumane, a founding member of the MNLA, accused the Malian government of failing to live up to its promises, which were outlined in the agreement that was signed in the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. The statement also indicated that “following multiple difficulties in implementing the Ouagadougou accord, caused notably by the Malian government’s failure to respect its commitments,” the Tuareg and Arab rebel groups “decided to suspend participation in the structures created by the said accord.” The three movements involved in the recent meeting dated the decision from September 18, the date of the second meeting of the joint committee as set under the ceasefire accord.
The central issue for Tuareg groups is the future status of northern Mali, which the Tuareg movements call “Azawad.” The rebels are seeking autonomy, an issue which the central government has been unwilling to discuss. Furthermore, amongst the Tuaregs grievances outlined in the statement are that the Malian government has not yet started prisoner releases which are inline with the Ouagadougou agreement. However observes of the peace deal have noted that Tuareg fighters have increasingly been moving outside of their bases in Kidal, which is in contrast to the accord that stipulates that the separatists would garrison their fighters.
While so far neither the Malian government nor authorities from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali have commented on these latest developments, tensions between Tuareg separatists and the central government in Bamako have been rising has no peace talks have occurred despite Mali’s new President being sworn in and a new government being formed. This decision also risks increasing tensions in a country that continues to be fragile after eighteen months of political instability. Just last week, protesters in Mali’s northern town of Kidal pelted officials from Mali’s newly elected government during a weekend visit to the town.