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.”