Reports have indicated that Islamist militants blew up a bridge on Tuesday, leaving two civilians wounded, just one day after they shelled the northern town of Gao. The sharp rise in attacks over the past few days largely stems from the Tuareg separatists’ decision to withdraw from the peace process.
According to Ibrahim Cisse, a local councillor for the Gao region, “early this Tuesday, Islamists dynamited one of two small bridges…near Bentia, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the border with Niger, leaving two civilians wounded. The local councillor further added that the assailants, who were “wearing turbans,” had arrived by motorbike at the bridge that crosses the Niger River at Bentia and proceeded to destroy it. According to a police source in Gao, “in this place, there are two small bridges. The aim of the Islamists was to blow up both bridges, but fortunately, only the old one was badly damaged,” adding that “the new bridge, which is the most frequently used, sustained only very light damage.” On the ground sources have reported that Malian soldiers were sent to the area, along with French troops who were deployed in the northern desert region, in order “to avoid other acts of sabotage” by armed extremists.
The two bridges in Bentia were attacked just one day after armed militant fired shells on the northern Malian city of Gao, the first attack on the insurgents’ former stronghold in months. Suspected Islamist militants targeted the city with artillery fire on Monday, wounding one Malian soldier. Although the attack was similar to the guerrilla-warfare that was used by the insurgents in the months following the January offensive, until Monday’s violence, the area had not seen an attack since May. The attack was confirmed by residents and Idrissa Cisse, a municipal official in Gao, who stated that “this morning from around 06:30 (0630 GMT) a series of four explosions hit the town. One Malian soldier was wounded and a house was damaged.” By mid-morning, French helicopters were patrolling the skies, with local residents stating that calm had been restored in the city. A spokesman for an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), indicated that the group had claimed responsibility for the attack on Gao, warning that further such operations would be carried out.
The attacks on Bentia and Gao also come a week after a suicide bomb attack in Timbuktu killed two civilians and four bombers, and left seven Malian soldiers wounded. According to eye witness accounts, the suicide bombers detonated their vehicle near the Malian army camp in Timbuktu, killing both the themselves and two civilians. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which was founded in Algeria and which operates across the Sahel region south of the Sahara. The suicide car bomb attack was the first to occur since Mali’s presidential election. The attack also came a few days after Tuareg separatists pulled out of a ceasefire agreement and peace process with the new Malian government.
In the wake of rising tensions in the north of Mali, Mali’s Defence Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga has stated that he wants to “reassure the population that in coordination with our partners in Serval (the French military operation) and MINUSMA (the UN’s African military force in Mali), our deployment has been strengthened.” He also urged the population “to remain calm and above all to share information with personnel of the armed forces and security forces in order to help them track down the enemy in all its forms.” The recent rise in tensions also force Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to cut his visit to France short where he was holding talks with his French counterpart on the current security status of his country. During a meeting that was held last week, the Presidents of France and Mali warned that a “terrorist” resurgence in the Sahel region might be possible after new fighting between the insurgents and military had occurred in recent days. In a joint statement released by Hollande’s office shortly after the talks, the two leaders stated that “the Franco-African intervention put an end to the terrorist threat, but it could try to rebuild…we must remain vigilant.”
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.
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.
On Thursday, Mali’s military confirmed that two Malian soldiers were wounded as the army exchanged fire with “bandits” during security operations that were being carried out near the Mauritanian border. While this exchange of fire effectively marks the first time that separatist Tuareg rebels and forces from the Malian government have clashed since the two sides signed a peace accord in June of this year, government sources have rejected claims that the MNLA was involved. Meanwhile Mali’s newly formed government announced earlier this week that it will be carrying out a “compete inventory” of the existing mining contracts in a bid to maintain only those contracts that are in the country’s best interests.
Clashes Between Tuareg Rebels and Malian Forces
According to army spokesman Souleymane Maiga, as part of a week-long “operation to secure people and property,” the troops had been on patrol around the market town of Lere when they encountered gunmen on Wednesday, adding that “there was an exchange of gunfire…two of our soldiers were very slightly injured and we arrested a dozen armed bandits.” While media reports have stated that the fighters were from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group that has agreed to be confined to camps as part of a peace accord signed with the government, Maiga has rejected the claims, instead stating that “we were not faced with MNLA fighters, we were confronted by armed bandits who were preventing people going about their daily lives.” The army spokesman added that the security operations would continue until the end of the week.
The MNLA and the transitional government reached an agreement in June of this year, which effectively allowed Malian troops to enter the rebel bastion of Kidal ahead of the nationwide presidential elections which eventually saw former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita elected President. The accord also allowed for the release of fighters who were detained during a Tuareg uprising last year and outlines that talks between the new administration and Tuareg rebels, pertaining to autonomy for a large part of northern Mali, will occur within the next two months. Tuareg leaders however have warned that if the current president fails to reach a negotiated solution, then the MNLA will not hesitate in taking up arms again. If it is proven that MNLA rebels are behind this latest attack, then it will demonstrate that despite the signed agreement, and desires to reconcile the country, their remains a great rift between the new Malian government and the Tuareg rebels.
Mining Contracts to be Examined
Meanwhile earlier this week, Mali’s new government announced that it will be carrying out a “complete inventory” of the existing mining contracts, adding that it is ready to renegotiate any contracts that are not in the country’s best interests. In a brief interview after taking office, Mines Minister Boubou Cisse stated that “the government has decided to carry out a complete inventory of what exists – mining contracts, titles, licenses – be it in the mining or the oil sector,” adding that “if there are contracts which it is necessary to revise in the interests of Mali, we will start negotiations with the partners in question.” Mr. Cisse, a 39-year-old former World Bank economist, indicated that the inventory would be conducted under complete transparency and that its results would be made available to the public. He also noted that his ministry aims to increase the contribution of the mining sector in the national economy from around eight percent at present, to fifteen to twenty percent in the long term. Mali currently produces around fifty tonnes of gold a year. Randgold Resources and Anglogold Ashanti are amongst a number of international companies that operate in Mali. While no comments have been made pertaining to these specific mining companies, their contracts may be affected.
France’s Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault declared on Monday that elections in Mali, which were held on Sunday, were a “great success” for the country and for France, which deployed its troops to the African nation earlier this year in order to dislodge Islamist militant groups from the northern regions of the country. A high turnout has been reported despite renewed threats from Islamist groups that polling stations would be attacked.
Thousands of United Nations troops kept the peace on Sunday as Malians voted for a new president in a bid to usher in a new period of peace and stability in the first elections to be held since a military coup helped plunge the country into chaos. Early indications showed a record turnout in much of the country, where voters were choosing from twenty-seven candidates, all of whom have pledged to restore peace. Preliminary results collated by journalists in polling stations suggest that former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had taken a clear early lead. The unofficial projection may indicate that Mr. Keita, 69, could win the elections after the first round. Amongst the twenty-seven candidates, Mr. Keita is seen as the frontrunner. His main rival is thought to be Mr. Soumaila Cisse, a former chairman of the Commission of the West African Monetary Union. An official announcement on the first-round results however is not expected until Friday. If no candidate winds an overall majority, then a second round run-off between the top two contenders will be scheduled for August 11.
Voting stations opened on Sunday at 8:00AM (0800 GMT) under heavy security just one day after the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is one of the main armed groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had threatened to “strike” polling stations. However there have been no reports of any serious incidents occurring. Voting in the northern regions of the country also passed off peacefully. In Gao, which is northern Mali’s largest city, dozens of people lined up to vote in a school near Independence Square. Meanwhile in Timbuktu, voting went ahead after initial problems with organizations, in which many voters were unable to find their names on the voting lists. A large portion of the worry ahead of the polls had been focused on Kidal which was occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord allowed the Malian army to provide security earlier this month. In the run-up to the elections, ethnic clashes between Tuareg rebels and black African left four people dead. In turn, gunmen, though to be from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) kidnapped five polling officials 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of Kidal.