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.
The French-led military intervention in Mali has entered into its third week with French and Malian troops currently advancing towards the town of Gao after earlier retaking the northern town of Hombori. Meanwhile, militant extremists have struck back with the bombing of a strategic bridge in the region.
Official reports have confirmed that French and Malian troops have retaken the town of Hombori, which is located 160km (100 miles) from the Islamist stronghold of Gao. The movement towards Gao follows several days of air strikes which targeted Islamist bases, fuel stock and weapon dumps near the town. While troops are currently on their way to regain Gao, in the west, the French-led forces who recaptured the town of Diabaly on Monday are pushing towards the town of Lere, with the eventual plans of taking control of Timbuktu which lies further north. Gao is just one of three major northern towns, along with Kidal and Timbuktu, where al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have imposed a strict form of Sharia law over the past ten months..
Meanwhile, reports have indicated that rebels have blown up the Tassiga bridge which links Gao to neighbouring Niger. The bridge likes on the quickest route from Niger to Gao. More than 2,000 Chadian soldiers and 500 troops from Niger were planning to use this route in order to deploy and open a second front against the Islamists from the east. Although there is a detour, which is an additional three to six miles, that eventually links to the Niger-Gao road, it is currently unknown which direction these troops will take in order to link up with AU forces in Mali.
A large international troop-build up will continue over the weekend, ahead of a probable French-led air and ground offensive that will take place in Gao and other desert cities. Currently, France has 2,000 troops in Mali. More than 1,000 soldiers from Nigeria are expected to arrive in Mali within the coming days.