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.
An ethnic Tuareg separatist group in Mali has announced that it is ending a five-month ceasefire agreement that was reached with the Malian government back in June of this year. While the rebels have previously threatened to pull out of the peace deal, accusing the central government in Bamako of failing to fulfil its promises, this is the first time they have formally ended the ceasefire. The rebels have confirmed that they will take up arms, following violence in the northern city of Kidal, a move which will likely effect the security and stability of the entire country as it heads into a second round of parliamentary elections.
On Friday, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad announced that it would return to war against Mali’s army after indicating that one person was killed, and five others injured, in clashes with soldiers at an airport. The announcement, which has been described by the group’s leader as “…a declaration of war,” comes one day after clashes occurred between Malian troops and Tuareg protesters who prevented Prim Minister Oumar Tatam Ly from visiting the town of Kidal. According to Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, vice president of the MNLA, “what happened on Thursday is a declaration of war. We will deliver this war,” adding that “wherever we find the Malian army we will launch the assault against them. It will be automatic. The warnings are over.”
On Thursday, several hundred Tuareg demonstrators occupied an airport runway in order to prevent Mali’s Prime Minister from visiting the rebel-controlled north-eastern town of Kidal. While protesters indicated on Thursday that Malian soldiers had fired directly at “women and children who were demonstrating peacefully,” the central government has since indicated that its soldiers stationed at the airport had been “taken to task by uncontrollable elements” and had fired warning shots after being shot at and hit with stones. One person was killed in the clashes on Thursday, while three women and two children were injured. One of the women is in serious condition.
While Thursday’s incident has confirmed that tensions continue to exist between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels, the end of the ceasefire could potentially threaten security throughout Mali. Furthermore, this will likely have an impact on the second round of parliamentary elections, which are set to take place 15 December, and Mali’s overall process of returning to civilian rule after a Tuareg uprising that led to a coup last year and the occupation of the northern regions of the country by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
The end to the ceasefire could potentially threaten security in northern Mali. After eighteen months of a political and military crisis, the peace deal was signed between the rebels and the Malian government in June of this year. The June accord, which was signed in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, effectively opened the way for voting to take place in Mali, including in Kidal. Two rounds of a presidential election occurred in July and August. Furthermore, up until the agreement was reached, the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad, had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants to enter the town. Under the June agreement, the rebels remained in Kidal however they were required to return to their barracks under the supervision of UN peacekeepers. They were also forced to stop carrying arms in public and dismantle all roadblocks.
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.
A gun battle between Malian soldiers and suspected separatist rebels has erupted in the northern town of Kidal, sparking concerns that the violence could escalate amidst already rising tensions. Meanwhile in Guinea, polling stations have begun to announce the preliminary results after Saturday’s elections.
Northern Mali Tense After Two Days of Clashes
On Sunday, the Malian army came under attack from gunmen in the northern rebel stronghold of Kidal. The regional governor has confirmed the attack, which appears to be a sign that violence is intensifying against the army after peace talks with Tuareg rebels broke down last week. According to a source in Adama Kamissoko’s office, “fighters from the MNLA came armed into the city centre, not far from a bank where there were Malian troops. They never wanted the army around. The army fired warning shots, and a firefight began.” The governor has indicated that the exchange ended after more than an hour with “some wounded,” however it was not immediately clear whether the casualties were soldiers or militants.
International troops and UN peacekeeping forces, who were already present in the city, were deployed after the attack in order to protect the town hall, where the governor lives and works. According to Kamissoko’s office, the gunmen were separatist rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which is the main Tuareg group that is involved in the peace talks. A statement released by the MNLA has accused Malian troops of “flagrant aggression” in Kidal, stating that three of its fighters had been injured in exchanges of fire.”
Since Tuareg rebels, who are claiming autonomy for northern Mali, pulled out of peace talks on Thursday, there have been two militant attacks that have been carried out on Malian soldiers in the northern regions of the country. On Saturday, four suicide bombers blew up their car at a military barracks in the city of Timbuktu. Two civilians were killed and six troops were wounded. This attack occurred less than twenty-four hours after militants threw grenades at the army in Kidal, wounding two soldiers. Although no Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for the recent attacks, many have blamed them on militants belonging to the MNLA.
While the Malian government urged Malians to remain calm after Saturday’s attacks, stating that security was being enhanced across the country, the breakdown in peace talks, coupled with an increase in attacks, has dealt a blow to hopes that peace will last in the troubled West African nation. A statement released by the government indicated that “the multiplication of these attacks shows that the war against terrorism is not over and that the security situation remains fragile throughout the Sahel-Saharan region.”
In February of this year, the MNLA took control of Kidal after the French-led military operation ousted al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had taken advantage of the latest Tuareg rebellion to seize most of northern Mali. Although Malian authorities reclaimed the city after signing a ceasefire accord with the MNLA, the situation has remained tense. The June 18 Ouagadougou accord between the rebels and the government effectively enabled the Malian military to return to Kidal in order to prepare for the July presidential elections, which saw Ibrahim Boubacar Keita elected President. The agreement, which was signed in Burkina Faso, outlines that the government and rebels agreed to respect the country’s territorial integrity and that they will hold peace talks that will focus on the status of northern Mali, which the Tuaregs call Azawad. However on Thursday, the Tuareg rebels indicated that the government had not kept its commitments to start prisoner releases, and therefore they would pull out of any further discussions.
Elections in Guinea
Meanwhile in Guinea, the first polling stations across the country began to declare the results of Saturday’s elections. On Saturday, the country’s voters chose from more than 1,700 candidates vying for 114 seats in a national assembly that will replace the transitional body that has been running the country since military rule came to an end in 2010. Sources have indicated that there were no major incidents reported on Saturday. Guinea’s election commission has announced that it will publish “partial and provisional” results on Monday and Tuesday prior to releasing the preliminary results on Wednesday, which will show the full picture across the country. Under Guinea’s election law, the supreme court has to confirm the final results within ten days of polls closing.
While opposition activists, election observers and local media have reported that there were logistical problems in many polling stations, which prevented people from voting, including shortages of indelible ink, envelopes and delays in the provision of electoral lists, the observation mission of the Economic Community of West African States, which is made up of 100 observers who are led by former Togolese prime minister Edem Kodjo, has stated that the elections “were held in acceptable conditions of freedom and transparency.” The vote, which was originally due to be held within six months of the swearing-in of President Alpha Conde in 2010, had been delayed amidst disputes pertaining to its organization, resulting in violence between government and opposition activists.