Police in Mali arrested 20 suspected Islamist militants on Monday in the southern town of Zegoua, near the border with Ivory Coast, after the men crossed the border on a bus bound for Mali's capital Bamako and the northwestern town of Gogui. Malian security sources said the 20 men were taken to Bamako for questioning.
According to a security source cited by Reuters, most of the suspects are Mauritanian, with some also hailing from Mali and France. Authorities are currently trying to determine the authenticity of two French passports seized during the arrest. The same source said that the men were "all Islamists, all bearded."
When contacted by VICE News, the French embassy in Mali and the French Foreign Affairs Ministry could not confirm the nationality of the two individuals found carrying French passports.
A local source said that the group's leader, a Mauritanian man identified as Samir Enrique, was also arrested. The Malian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.
The arrests come just one day after Malian police detained a man identified as Saouty Kouma in the central town of Melo. Kouma is the suspected mastermind of a March attack on a restaurant in Bamako that killed a Frenchman, a Belgian, and three Malians. The Islamist militant group al-Mourabitoun later claimed responsibility for the attack.
Police in Mali have redoubled their counter-terrorism efforts in the south of the country following a recent wave of attacks across the south and west, including the capital Bamako, which was formerly considered safe.
Last week, police arrested two men, including an envoy of Iyad Ag Ghali — the leader of militant Islamist group Ansar Dine — as they were headed into Bamako. During the arrest, police seized several recent propaganda videos in which Ghali urges his followers to mobilize in Mali's north and south.
Police also seized a message from Ghali to one of his accomplices in the south that reportedly included details of future attacks. According to Reuters, six other people — including two women — were detained for questioning in connection with the arrest.
According to intelligence gathered during questioning of Ghali's presumed messenger, Ansar Dine is currently looking to the south as a potential target for attacks. The group has claimed responsibility for several recent attacks against Malian troops and UN peacekeepers stationed in the center and south of the country, including in Bamako.
"The aim of the attacks is for jihadist groups to flaunt their presence and get people talking about them," Pierre Boilley, director of the Institute of the African Worlds (IMAF), told VICE News. "[Insurgents] want to show that they can strike anywhere, north or south."
French radio channel RFI and news outlet Jeune Afrique have both alluded to a new coalition of four Islamist militant groups in the south of Mali, along the border with Ivory Coast. Ansar Dine is rumored to be heading up the coalition as a means to expand its operations in the south. According to local media, including news site Mali Actu, the new southern jihadist front plans to settle in the border forest of Sama.
In January 2013, France launched operation Serval, a military operation to rid northern Mali of militants. In July 2014, Serval was replaced by Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism campaign across Africa's Sahel, a region that includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso.
According to French military sources, the fighting in the north between weakened militant groups and Operation Barkhane forces has been a game of "hide and seek." Speaking to the Associated Press on Tuesday from the former Islamist stronghold of Gao, French Colonel Luc Laine said that the security situation in the north was "different," with operations that are "highly reliant on intel gathering, research, with lots of waiting around and isolated actions."
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter: @PLongeray