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French army kills 15 Mali jihadists, mine kills peacekeepers

The French army said Thursday it had eliminated an “armed terrorist group” linked to Al-Qaeda in northern Mali, killing 15 jihadists, while three UN peacekeepers died after their vehicle struck a mine. / AFP PHOTO / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

The French army said Thursday it had eliminated an “armed terrorist group” linked to Al-Qaeda in northern Mali, killing 15 jihadists, while three UN peacekeepers died after their vehicle struck a mine.

Army spokesman Patrick Steiger said troops from France’s regional Barkhane anti-terror operation carried out a joint strike against the group with French special forces about 100 kilometres (60 miles) northeast of Kidal.

The operation, backed by fighter jets and helicopters, took place overnight Monday.

It “allowed us to take 15 members of this katiba out of action”, Steiger said, using a local word for a militant unit.

The group was a branch of Ansar Dine, which has links to the regional Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) group, he added, saying weapons and ammunition including assault rifles and grenades were destroyed in the raid.

France has had some 4,000 soldiers deployed in the Sahel region — a vast stretch of territory on the edge of the Sahara Desert — since 2014.

The announcement in Paris came as the Mali-based branch of al-Qaeda, Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, claimed an attack in the north that killed two soldiers.

US monitoring group SITE said the claims were made on the Telegram messenger channel of the group’s so-called Al-Zallaqa Media Foundation.

In further violence, three UN peacekeepers were killed and two more injured Thursday when their vehicle struck a “mine or an improvised explosive device” in northern Mali, the United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) said.

The blast occurred as their vehicle was escorting “a logistical convoy” north of Kidal, MINUSMA said, adding the toll could rise.

UN condemnation

Interim UN mission head Koen Davidse vigorously condemned “such despicable acts whose sole aim is to destabilise the country and jeopardise the ongoing peace process in Mali.”

He added MINUSMA remained determined to work to bring peace to the country and warned attacks on peacekeepers could be construed as war crimes.

This week has seen several attacks attributed to jihadists, including on gendarmerie posts in Dioro and Ouan in central Mali on Monday and a landmine blast on a Malian army vehicle in the Mopti region on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Malian defence ministry said two soldiers were killed in a “terrorist” attack in Soumpi.

Islamic extremists linked to Al-Qaeda took control of the desert north of Mali in early 2012 at the expense of Tuareg rebels, but were chased out of Sahara towns by an ongoing French-led military operation launched in January 2013.

Mali’s army, French soldiers and a MINUSMA are battling for control over large tracts of the country under attack in spite of a peace accord signed with Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.

Since 2015, jihadist attacks have spread, including latterly to neighbouring countries, particularly Burkina Faso and Niger.

The creation of Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen was announced on March 2 as a fusion of Ansar Dine, the Al-Murabitoun of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the “Emirate of the Sahara,” a branch of AQMI.

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