Al Qaeda's North African branch has said its attack on a beach resort in Ivory Coast on Sunday that killed 18 people was revenge for a French offensive against Islamist militants in the Sahel region and called for the country to withdraw its forces from the country.
The raid in Grand Bassam — claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — was the first of its kind in Ivory Coast, but the third in the region since November. Gunmen descended on the resort town on Sunday firing at restaurant goers and sunbathers. Victims included visitors from Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mali and Germany, along with four French citizens who died in the assault.
In its most recent statement about the attack, AQIM said the operation in Grand Bassam was part of its ongoing plans to target "lairs" and gathering places of "the crusaders." The militants said the aim of the mission was to act as a warning for nations that have allied with French forces.
"The Ivory Coast especially and all who were implicated and joined the alliance of France in their invasion of our lands, and attacking our people and holy sites," the statement said, "…your crimes will not pass without response."
AQIM leadership has previously called for attacks on the French due to their military presence in Mali and the region. France intervened with a mission in Mali in 2013 to route out AQIM and other militant groups who had joined ethnic Tuaregs in a fight against the government.
France launched Operation Serval to oust militants from northern Mali and replaced it in 2014 with Operation Barkhane which targets militants across the Sahel region.
"We repeat our call to all countries involved in the French invasion of Mali to withdraw," the group said in the statement.
AQIM also addressed the west as a whole, saying "our message to the Western peoples is that these actions of ours come as a response to the crimes of your armies and governments against our [community]."
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The statement also named four attackers but gave no further details of their identities. The nationalities of the gunmen is an important remaining question about Sunday's event, which will indicate whether they came from AQIM's stronghold in northern Mali, or whether the group has managed to expand recruitment further into West Africa.
France is a key player in security in the region with about 3,500 troops in the region. It has also joined a campaign against Islamic State (IS), which is based in Iraq and Syria. IS has also singled out France as a target and claimed responsibility for the attack in Paris in November in which 130 people were killed.
As a result of the recent attack, Paris said it would station a force of armed gendarmes in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, to react swiftly in the event of another attack in the region and to provide training, according to an announcement from French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Tuesday.
"The desire to position this (gendarmerie) team in Ouagadougou is to enable us to immediately dispense advice and coordinate other actions in the event of a terrorist crisis," Cazeneuve said during a visit to Ivory Coast this week.
Cazeneuve traveled to the country with France's Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault with aims of reassuring the large French community in the country, while also offering support to the investigation into the attack in Grand Bassam. Around 18,000 French nationals live in the European country's former colony, now a top coffee and cocoa producer on the continent. French-speaking Ivory Coast has recovered from a decade of political crisis to boast one of the world's fastest-growing economies, West Africa's largest.
Ayrault and Cazeneuve met Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara on Tuesday and were due to visit the site of the attack and meet representatives of the French community.
West Africa as a whole has been on high alert in recent months as a result of two previous attacks on soft targets in the region. Twenty people were killed at a siege on the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako in November. Another 30 died in an attack on a cafe and hotel in Burkina Faso in January.
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