A raid against a Malian army base in Nampala, a town in central Mali located near the border with Mauritania, left eight troops dead on Monday. A military source with the United Nations Mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, reported that armed fighters entered the camp at around 6:15 AM, "penetrating the Nampala military camp with relative ease."
A source close to Mali's government told VICE News that 10 of the assailants were also killed during the attack. Militants from the regional Islamist group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have claimed responsibility for the assault and taken several hostages, according to the Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar, though this information has not yet been confirmed by the Malian government.
This follows an attack in the northeastern region of Gao on Sunday that targeted MINUSMA peacekeepers, injuring eight soldiers from Niger who were working with the mission.
The Nampala attack is the deadliest in the country since an ambush along the road between Ansongo and Menaka in northeastern Mali killed nine UN peacekeepers from Niger in October.
Malian Communications Minister Mahamadou Camara told VICE News that the clashes between Malian troops and the attackers "were particularly violent, prior to the arrival of reinforcements and the French air force." Several sources confirmed that French aircraft from Operation Barkhane — an anti-Islamist campaign across Africa's Sahel region that that is headquartered in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad — had caused the attackers to flee.
Launched in July 2014, Operation Barkhane replaced the previous French military campaign in the region, Operation Serval, whose goal was to rid northern Mali of jihadist militants and take back control of Gao, an Islamist stronghold.
MINUSMA officials declined to comment on the attack when contacted by VICE News, saying that they only had access to information that the Malian government had released. A spokesperson for the peacekeeping mission said that the UN "strongly condemned" the attack.
Monday's raid was the first assault south of Timbuktu and the closest militants have struck to Mali's capital, Bamako, since the start of the French intervention in January 2013. It occurred as Guinean President Alpha Condé met with his Mauritanian counterpart Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
Camara described the border with Mauritania as a "high-risk area."
"There are still terrorists lurking there," he told VICE News. "They come and go, so to speak. It is not that surprising to have this kind of attack in the center of the country."
Samuel Nguembock, a researcher at the French Institute of International and Strategic Relations, told VICE News that the attack was "a result of the joint failure of Malian and UN military operations." He explained that the partnership between the Malian Armed Forces and MINUSMA had "deployed its resources in the north of the country without taking into account the weaknesses [in its line of defense] in the south. The area south of Timbuktu is not adequately protected, if you consider the resources and mobility of terrorists in that area."
The Malian army has been working closely with Mauritania's military since the incident.
"As soon as the Malian army became aware of the attack, they alerted the Mauritanian troops stationed along the border to help intercept the attackers," said Camara. "Unfortunately, to no avail."
Nguembock believes that no African army currently has the capacity to control terrorist activity across the whole country, particularly considering the difficulty of maintaining border control. He also thinks it is too early to know whether or not AQIM is in fact responsible for the attack.
"Considering the number of terrorist groups that are currently active in the region," he said, AQIM might possibly be co-opting the attack for publicity — but an article published on Monday by the French daily Le Figaro noted that none of Alakhbar's reports on AQIM's responsibility for attacks in the region have so far been refuted.
Algeria is currently hosting talks between officials from northern Mali, known as the "inter-Malian dialogue." While negotiations for a comprehensive peace agreement for the region seem to be on the right path, Nguembock says that those involved in the talks do not always see eye to eye.
"Not everyone is pleased with the conditions that are currently being negotiated," he remarked. "There are power imbalances between the parties involved in the negotiations."
"There is a link between the progression of the inter-Malian dialogue towards an agreement and the renewed campaign of attacks in the region," he added. "Certain groups are trying to weigh in on the discussion."
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