Mali Votes Amid Coronavirus, Security Fears

A Malian woman holds a polling paper during a meeting for the campaign of the parliamentary elections in Bamako on March 23, 2020. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP

 

 

Malians headed to the polls on Sunday for a long-delayed parliamentary election just hours after the country recorded its first coronavirus death and with the leading opposition figure kidnapped and believed to be in the hands of jihadists.

There were security fears about the vote even before the war-torn West African country recorded its first coronavirus infection on Wednesday.

Some 200,000 people displaced by the near-daily violence in Mali’s centre and north will not be able to vote, because “no mechanism has been established” for them to do so, a government official said.

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There were also fears that the impoverished state of some 19 million people — where large swathes of territory lie outside state control — is particularly exposed to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Late Saturday, just hours before polls were scheduled to open at 0800 GMT Sunday, the country’s first coronavirus death was announced, with the number of infections rising to 18.

The poll will see new MPs elected to the 147-seat National Assembly for the first time since 2013 when President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s Rally for Mali party won a substantial majority.

Parliamentary elections were meant to take place again in late 2018 following Keita’s re-election, but the poll was postponed several times, largely due to security concerns.

After Sunday’s first-round vote, a second round is scheduled for April 19.

 

– ‘Difficult times’ –

Casting a shadow over the vote is the fate of veteran opposition leader Soumaila Cisse, who was kidnapped on Wednesday while campaigning in the centre of the country.

Cisse, 70, who has been runner-up in three presidential elections, and six members of his team were abducted in an attack in which his bodyguard was killed.

He was “likely” being held by jihadists loyal to Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, who leads a branch of the al-Qaeda-aligned GSIM active in the Sahel, according to a security source and a local official.

Cisse and his entourage were probably now “far from where they were abducted,” the security source told AFP.

The government’s election spokesman, Amini Belko Maiga, has admitted that voting conditions were not ideal.

“It’s true that we cannot say that everything is perfect, but we’re doing the maximum,” he said, referring to the threat of coronavirus.

He added that hand-washing kits had been distributed in the countryside, while in the capital Bamako, authorities would make masks and hand sanitisers available.

Cisse’s Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) on Saturday urged its supporters to turn out in even greater numbers.

“In these difficult times our country is going through, more than ever, the party’s activists are resolutely urged to redouble their efforts for massive participation in the March 29, 2020 elections,” the country’s main opposition party said.

However several other opposition parties called for the vote to be postponed due to coronavirus fears.

 

– Hopes for peace –

The country has been plagued by conflict since 2012 when rebels captured much of the country’s arid north.

Jihadists overtook the rebels in the north and swept into the country’s centre, accelerating a conflict which has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.

Despite the numerous difficulties, experts nonetheless hope that Sunday’s election will lead to reforms that might drag Mali out of its cycle of violence.

In particular, the hope is that the new parliament will implement reforms from a peace agreement brokered between the Bamako government and several armed groups, in Algiers in 2015.

Implementation has been painfully slow, although this year saw the Malian army deploy units made up of both former rebels and regulars, one the provisions of the Algiers agreement.

The pact also provides for the decentralisation of governance in Mali, a demand of some of the rebel groups.

AFP

Mali Records First Coronavirus Death Hours Before Election

A street vendor sells sunglasses and masks in front of a supermarket of Bamako on March 26, 2020.
A street vendor sells sunglasses and masks in front of a supermarket of Bamako on March 26, 2020. – The price of masks, gloves and sanitising gel has increased as supplies have dropped significantly after the first positive cases of COVID-19 coronavirus was reported this week in Mali. (Photo by MICHELE CATTANI / AFP)

 

 

Mali recorded its first coronavirus death on Saturday, a day before the West African country voted in a long-delayed parliamentary election threatened by both the pandemic and security concerns.

The kidnapping of the leader of the main opposition party earlier in the week has also cast a pall over the vote, with a security source saying he is “likely” in the hands of a jihadist group.

Several opposition parties on Saturday called for the vote to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen 18 people test positive since the country’s first case was diagnosed on Wednesday.

Health Minister Michel Sidibe said late Saturday — just hours before polls opened the following day — that a patient who had tested positive had died earlier in the day.

“We have a death today,” he said, “because the virus was in his lungs.”

Though sub-Saharan Mali has had relatively few cases so far compared to other continents, the impoverished nation of some 19 million people — where large swathes of territory lie outside state control — is just the kind of state experts fear is particularly vulnerable.

– Jihadist recordings claim abduction –
In an unprecedented and shocking twist just days before the vote, veteran opposition leader Soumaila Cisse was kidnapped while campaigning in the conflict-ravaged centre of the country.

Cisse, 70, who has come second in three presidential elections, and six members of his team were abducted on Wednesday in an attack in which his bodyguard was killed.

“According to our information, the opposition leader was likely kidnapped by jihadists from central Mali claiming to be from Amadou Koufa,” a security source said.

Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa leads the Katiba Macina jihadist militia, a branch of the al-Qaeda-aligned Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) group active in central Mali.

Cisse and his entourage are probably now “far from where they were abducted,” the security source told AFP.

A source close to Cisse also said the opposition leader was in the hands of the Koufa’s Katiba Macina.

“Not only do we have clear indications from our own sources, but there are also recordings broadcast by the jihadists,” the source said.

Since the abduction, recordings seen by an AFP reporter have circulated on social media in the Fulani and Songhai languages spoken in central and northern Mali of men declaring loyalty to Koufa claiming Cisse’s abduction.

– ‘Difficult times’ –
Despite the deepening COVID-19 crisis, Cisse’s Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) urged its supporters to turn out in even greater numbers.

“In these difficult times our country is going through, more than ever, the party’s activists are resolutely urged to redouble their efforts for a massive participation in the March 29, 2020 elections,” the country’s main opposition party said Saturday.

But other opposition parties — the National Congress of Democratic Initiative (CNID), Patriotic Movement for Renewal (MRP) and the CMAS movement of influential imam Mahmoud Dicko — called for the vote to be postponed due to the coronavirus emergency.

Three candidates also withdrew from the poll, which will see new MPs elected to the 147-seat National Assembly for the first time since 2013.

The current parliament, which is dominated by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s party — Cisse’s URD has 18 MPs — was supposed to wrap up in late 2018, but subsequent elections were postponed, mostly over security concerns.

Voters will be supplied with hand-washing kits and masks at Sunday’s elections, as well being made to keep separate from each other, the government has said.

After Sunday’s first round vote, a second round is scheduled for April 19.

In neighbouring Mauritania, the government announced Saturday that travel between regions would be banned from noon on Sunday. The vast Sahel country also confirmed two more coronavirus cases, bringing its total to five.

-AFP

Italian Taken Hostage In Burkina Faso Returns To Rome

Italian Luca Tacchetto (L) and Canadian Edith Blais (R) are greeted by officials as they arrive at the airport in Bamako on March 14, 2020, after their release by UN peacekeepers. – A Canadian woman and her Italian partner kidnapped in Burkina Faso in 2018 have been found alive in the northwest of Mali by UN peacekeepers, diplomatic and UN sources said on March 14. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP.

 

An Italian who was taken hostage with a Canadian woman in Burkina Faso in 2018 has returned to Rome, after the pair emerged safe in Mali, the Italian foreign ministry said.

A Mali airport source had earlier told AFP that the couple, Italy’s Luca Tacchetto and Canada’s Edith Blais, had left the capital Bamako on a special flight.

A Canadian embassy source in Mali said arrangements had been made for them to return to their respective countries.

“Luca Tacchetto landed (Saturday) night at (Rome’s) Ciampino airport,” the Italian foreign ministry said, without saying how the two ended up in Mali.

Diplomatic and UN sources said the pair had been found in good health in the northwest of Mali on Friday.

They were located in the vicinity of Kidal, about 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) northeast of Bamako. Officials in Mali said they had escaped.

Burkina Faso, which had been a safe destination for years, has been wracked by jihadist violence since 2015 and several foreigners have been kidnapped.

An Australian and a Romanian national still remain missing.

Mali has been struggling to quell an Islamist insurgency that erupted in the north in 2012 and has since claimed thousands of military and civilian lives.

AFP

Jihadist Attacks, Ethnic Massacres Leave Ghost Villages In Central Mali

A displaced family is seen in a courtyard of Sevare where they found a shelter after fleeing their village of Guerri in central Mali, on February 27, 2020. In January 2019 Jihadists broke in the village, setting fire on it, killing 3 villagers, and stealing all the livestock. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
A displaced family is seen in a courtyard of Sevare where they found a shelter after fleeing their village of Guerri in central Mali, on February 27, 2020. In January 2019 Jihadists broke in the village, setting fire on it, killing 3 villagers, and stealing all the livestock. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP

 

After years of ethnic massacres and unrelenting jihadist attacks, central Mali has been left a harrowed area of deserted villages and displaced people.

An Islamist insurgency erupted in the north of the vast west African state in 2012, claiming thousands of military and civilian lives since.

But the violence has since swept into the centre of the country — as well as neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger — inflaming ethnic tensions along the way.

Central Mali is now prey to tit-for-tat killings and routine jihadist attacks. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced.

Mamadou Lamine Diop, who works in central Mali for the United Nations’ refugee arm, said the situation “has not stopped deteriorating”.

Armed groups coming from the north found fertile soil in an area riven by long-running land disputes, often between herders and farmers.

A jihadist group active in the region led by radical Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa has also increased suspicion of his ethnic group.

In response to jihadists, traditional Dogon hunters have formed so-called self-defence groups, adding to the tension.

“Every day, word gets back to us of an extremely serious incident,” Diop said, explaining that people are displaced after each one.

Many Fulani villages now lie empty.

“These are ghost villages. Only huts are left; nothing else. Everyone has gone,” said a humanitarian worker who requested anonymity.

The displaced congregate in central Mali’s large towns, such as Mopti and Sevare. Out of 200,000 people displaced by Mali’s conflict, half are located in the country’s centre.

Boureima Barry, 56, is one such displaced person. He fled his village, several kilometres from the town of Bandiagara.

He told AFP he was among the first to leave in April last year. Now everyone is gone.

“It’s been a year and the situation hasn’t improved,” he said from a tent in a makeshift displaced persons’ camp in a football stadium in Sevare.

No protection

Alioune Tine, an independent expert sent to central Mali by the United Nations in late February, said that neither Malian troops nor UN peacekeepers were able to protect civilians.

The UN has some 13,000 people stationed in Mali as part of its MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in the country.

Tine pointed to the mostly Fulani village of Ogassagou near the Burkina Faso border, where some 30 people were killed last month.

About 160 people were killed in an attack on the same village in March last year.

“That means that protection for civilians is not there,” he said.

Displaced women prepare the dinner in a courtyard in Sevare in central Mali on February 26, 2020. Two months earlier 400 Dogon people fled their village of Toou finding a shelter in a school of Sevare. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Displaced women prepare the dinner in a courtyard in Sevare in central Mali on February 26, 2020. Two months earlier 400 Dogon people fled their village of Toou finding a shelter in a school of Sevare. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP

 

People who have not yet fled their villages also face deep food insecurity problems, according to the United Nations.

The governor of Mopti, Abdoulaye Cisse, said the general situation in central Mali was worrying but “not insurmountable,” pointing to locally brokered ceasefires as bright spots.

‘Thousands of deaths’

“Whatever we do, one day or another, we will sit down,” Cisse said, referring to talks with militant groups.

“Why wait until there are thousands of deaths to go back to negotiations,” the governor added.

The sentiment is now shared at the highest levels of government in Mali.

Last month, the government admitted for the first time that it was trying to establish talks with militant groups — an option it had long ruled out.

“It is possible to negotiate something with Amadou Koufa,” said a local security official who declined to be named, referring to the radical Fulani preacher.

“The local roots of Koufa’s group make dialogue possible,” the official added.

The al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist alliance of which Koufa’s group is a member said last week that it was open to the possibility of talks.

 

AFP

Five Mali Soldiers Killed In Checkpoint Attack

Mali is the eighth-largest country in Africa.
Mali is the eighth-largest country in Africa.

 

Five Malian soldiers were killed when militants armed with rocket launchers attacked a checkpoint in a central region of the conflict-torn nation, a military source and local official said Monday.  

“At least five soldiers were killed on Sunday in Mondoro during a jihadist attack,” said a source from the Mali army base in Mopti, the largest town in the region, adding that the assailants had also “suffered losses”.

A local official said the militants had launched the assault “using rocket launchers fired at parked military vehicles”.

The official said the Malian air force then bombed jihadist positions, adding that the clashes lasted for an hour.

“I don’t know the number of jihadists killed but there are victims,” the official said.

A local association on Monday expressed concern over the possible withdrawal of troops from Mondoro, where one soldier was killed and three others wounded on February 14.

The camps at Mondoro and Boulkessi, near the border with Burkina Faso, were targeted in twin attacks in September that left at least 40 soldiers dead.

“According to information received, the soldiers are threatening to leave Mondoro… if they execute this decision, the terrorists will take control not only of Mondoro but the entire area of Douentza,” said Oumar Ongoiba, an official with the Association for the Development of Mondoro, underscoring the strategic importance of the zone.

The September attacks on Mondoro and Boulkessi were claimed by the GSIM, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel region affiliated to Al-Qaeda, with which Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita hopes to negotiate.

AFP

20 Killed In Attack On Mali Village

 

Twenty people were killed in an attack overnight on a village in central Mali, local officials said Friday, in an apparent spate of ethnic violence in the deeply troubled region.

The attack occurred in Ogossagou, a village mainly inhabited by Fulani people where around 160 died last March in a massacre blamed on Dogon militiamen.

About 30 gunmen carried out the new attack, village chief Aly Ousmane Barry told AFP.

“I counted the numbers while soldiers and the medical services were there,” he said.

“We have 20 dead. Some of them have been burned.”

A local government official, who requested anonymity, earlier confirmed that the attack took place and gave a toll of 11.

He said that the attackers moved in several hours after government troops had pulled out of the area.

Central Mali has been torn by ethnic violence as a result of a jihadist revolt that broke out in the north of the country in 2012.

The insurgency has claimed thousands of lives and spread to neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Tit-for-tat attacks in central Mali flared after Fulani people, also called Peul, became associated with jihadists.

Led by a firebrand Islamic preacher Amadou Koufa, a militia called the Katiba Macina recruited members from among the Fulani and became accused of ethnically-motivated attacks.

Other ethnic groups such as the Bambara or the Dogon began to form self-defence groups that in turn became accused of reprisal massacres.

In addition to the latest attack at Ogossagou, 14 Fulani were killed in central Mali in January.

Around 75 Dogons were killed in the villages of Sobane Da, Gangafani and Yoro in June last year, in an attack blamed on Fulani militants.

‘Epicentre’ of violence 

Human Rights Watch this month pointed to the ethnic patchwork of central Mali as the country’s “epicentre” of violence.

It said over 450 civilians had been killed in the region in 2019, “the deadliest year for civilians” since the jihadist insurgency began.

Reflecting the chronic instability in the centre, Malian soldiers are themselves frequently targeted.

On Friday, one soldier was killed in an attack on a military camp in Mondoro, security officials said.

It had already been hit before — as part of a joint raid by militants that also targeted the military camp of Boulkessy near the border with Burkina Faso, killing at least 25 soldiers.

On January 26, Al-Qaeda-linked militants attacked a military camp in Sokolo, central Mali, killing 20 gendarmes and wounding five more.

The violence in central Mali coincides with renewed hopes that the fragile government can reassert control over the widely lawless north.

Troops returned on Thursday to Kidal, a northern town that had been a bastion of Touareg rebels, after a six-year absence.

Regular forces returned to the town accompanied by former rebels who have been integrated into the army under a regional peace agreement.

The deal, reached in Algiers in 2015, is considered one of the few avenues Mali has for escaping the cycle of violence.

AFP

Pro-Government Militant Leader Killed In Mali

Mali is the eighth-largest country in Africa.
Mali is the eighth-largest country in Africa.

 

A senior officer in a pro-government Arab armed group was gunned down in northern Mali on Sunday, officials said, casting a shadow over efforts to reassert state control over the strife-torn north. 

The killing comes as Mali’s army is due to redeploy to several cities in the north of the West African country, after rebels captured much of the vast semi-arid area in 2012.

Two unidentified assailants on a motorbike killed Yoro Ould Daha near Tamkoukat, in the north, said Moulaye Abdallah Haidara, the permanent secretary of the pro-government Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).

Daha was the chief of staff of a branch of the MAA allied to the government in Bamako, according to officials, and was involved in implementing a peace deal between Mali and some rebel groups struck in 2015.

Among other things, the pact provided for former rebels joining the army, which would eventually return north.

Jihadists overtook the anti-government rebellion in 2012, and have since spread the conflict to central Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Despite the presence of foreign troops, the government has been struggling to contain the jihadist insurgency, which has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.

Much of northern Mali remains outside state control.

But in a sign of renewed momentum, the Malian army said Friday that it would redeploy  to the northern city of Kidal before February 10.

The army is due to return to Kidal with units comprised of regulars and former rebels — one of the key components of the 2015 peace plan.

These new units are also due to deploy to other northern cities such as Gao and Timbuktu after they reach Kidal.

Daha, the killed MMA officer, was associated with Gao.

He left the city on Sunday to check on his livestock, according to MMA member Aziz Ould Dida, before getting shot.

Ousmane Maiga, a local leader in Gao, said Daha’s body was in the town’s morgue where members of the local Arab community were also in attendance.

 

AFP

US Denies Destroying Malian Musician’s Instrument

The kora is a 21-string lute-bridge-harp used extensively in West Africa.
The kora is a 21-string lute-bridge-harp used extensively in West Africa.

 

United States aviation security officials have denied destroying a precious traditional instrument belonging to a Malian musician, responding to an incident that sparked outrage online.

Renowned kora player Ballake Sissoko touched down in Paris on February 4 after flying from New York at the end of a US tour, to find that his instrument had been “completely destroyed”.

The traditional West African 21-string lute had been dismantled, with a note left by the agents, in Spanish, reading “intelligent security saves time,” according to a post on Sissoko’s Facebook page.

“Would US customs have dared to dismantle a Stradivarius?” the post said, referring to a class of fabled violins.

“These kinds of custom-made koras are simply impossible to replace,” it added.

However, the US Transport Security Administration, which screens luggage for explosives, said in a statement to AFP on Sunday that it played no part in the damage.

It added that it knew agents did not search Sissoko’s instrument case because “it did not trigger an alarm when it was screened,” and was tagged appropriately.

The broken kora generated significant media interest and social media comment around the world this week after Sissoko suggested white musicians would have been treated better.

“This is an unprovoked and sad act of aggression, a reflection of the kind of cultural ignorance and racism that is taking over in so many parts of the world,” his Facebook post said.

The musician told AFP on Sunday that his kora was broken by the time he opened his case after landing in Paris, and admitted the airline could have been responsible.

“Maybe the message is too strong and I should have said it differently,” Sissoko said.

He added, however, that he was shocked and angry that his kora was beyond repair and that whoever was responsible should have respected it.

“I’m not trying to play the media to get money,” Sissoko said.

Adding to confusion surrounding the affair, Mali’s culture ministry released a statement on Saturday saying it would “do everything legally and diplomatically possible to obtain reparation” for the offence.

But on Sunday it removed the statement from its website and issued another one that denied the earlier release came from the culture ministry, without giving further details.

Mali’s Culture Minister N’Diaye Ramatoulaye Diallo told AFP on Sunday that her department’s statement on Saturday was simply “fake,” without clarifying further.

Sissoko said that he was contacted by the Malian embassy in Paris about the kora incident and that he plans to meet government officials when he is next in Mali.

He added that friends had told him the government appeared to have asked for “reparation” but that he was unaware the statement had been removed.

 

AFP

Terrorists Kill 15 Gendarmes In Mali Military Camp

 

Fifteen members of Mali’s security forces died in a jihadist assault on Sunday at a camp in the center of the country, military and local sources said.

“At least 15 Malian military were killed Sunday in the Sokolo military camp during an attack by terrorists,” a Malian military source told AFP.

A local lawmaker said all those killed were gendarmes, or paramilitary police officers, adding that he saw “two other bodies outside the camp.”

“The terrorists arrived on motorcycles,” said the official, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

“They were well-armed. They entered the Sokolo camp. They took away a lot of material”, he said, adding that other officers were able to leave the camp.

“It was complete chaos,” said a local humanitarian source who managed to enter the camp after the suspected jihadists had left.

“In the camp, we counted 15 military bodies. All the military material had been taken. It looked like the attackers knew what they were doing,” the source said.

Sokolo is located in the central Segou region where jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda are known to operate.

Mali has been struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in the north in 2012 and has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives since.

Mali announced Wednesday it would hold legislative elections in late March after repeated postponements prompted by insecurity and political infighting.

Holding the elections was a key recommendation from crisis talks in December aimed at exploring non-military solutions to the worsening violence.

Despite some 4,500 French troops in the Sahel region, plus a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force in Mali, the conflict has engulfed the center of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Local Malian troops are frequently attacked.

AFP

Former Mali Official Charged Over Expletive-Laden Anti-Trump Tweet

 

 

 

A former Malian government official was charged on Thursday for sending embarrassing tweets from the president’s account about the US assassination of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani a judicial source said.

The former spokesperson for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Tiegoum Maiga, later outed himself on his own Twitter account.

Keita’s official Twitter account had posted on Monday that “no one is around to tell Trump that he committed a fuck-up” by ordering the assassination of Soleimani.

Soleimani was killed on Friday in a US drone strike in Iraq ordered by President Donald Trump, triggering fears of a retaliatory strike and an escalation of conflict in the Middle East.

The Malian presidency account added that Trump “threatens world peace and has made of the US a rogue state”.

The tweets, which have since been deleted, were widely shared and Maiga was arrested.

On Thursday he was charged and “placed in detention for internet fraud and harmful data entry,” his lawyer Moussa Maiga told AFP. A judicial source confirmed the charges.

“What is serious is the use of the presidential (Twitter) account to send a message of this nature which could create problems between our two countries,” a presidential official said.

Maiga, the brother of former Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, said on Tuesday that he left his job in November but had forgotten he still had access to the president’s account.

The tweets were meant for his personal account and he had “no desire to be a nuisance,” he added.

The US also suffered a PR fiasco on Monday, when it said a draft letter describing steps to move its military out of Iraq had been mistakenly sent out.

IS Says It Caused Mali Crash That Killed 13 French Troops

A handout picture taken and released on November 27, 2019 by the SIRPA, the French army press service shows the coffins of the 13 French soldiers who died when two French military helicopters collided in Mali, two days ago displayed prior to a tribute ceremony, on November 27, 2019 in Gao.  James WILLIAM / SIRPA / AFP

 

 

The Islamic State on Thursday claimed responsibility for provoking a collision of two military helicopters which killed 13 French soldiers in Mali.

Monday’s accident was the heaviest single loss for the French military in nearly four decades. All 13 aboard the two helicopters were killed.

The Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) said its fighters ambushed “a convoy of vehicles carrying Crusader French army elements near Indelimane village, in the Menaka area.

“As the Crusaders attempted to land from one of their helicopters, to descend on the position of the ambush, to support their soldiers, the soldiers of the Caliphate targeted it with medium weapons, forcing it to withdraw,” the statement on the SITE intelligence group website said.

“After staggering in flight, it then collided with another helicopter, killing 13 Crusaders.”

The accident brought to 41 the number of French troops killed in the Sahel region since Paris intervened against jihadists in northern Mali in 2013.

Since then, armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda and others have advanced into southern Mali as well as into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Black Boxes From Crashed Helicopters Found In Mali

French Defence Minister Florence Parly (C) walks with France’s chief of the Defence staff general Francois Lecointre (2ndL) as they arrive to take part in a tribute ceremony for the 13 French soldiers who died when two French military helicopters collided in Mali, two days ago are displayed prior to a tribute ceremony, on November 27, 2019, in Gao.
SIRPA / AFP

 

The black boxes from two French military helicopters that collided in Mali killing 13 soldiers have been found, a French military spokesman said Wednesday.

The crash occurred late Monday during an operation against jihadists in the Liptako region, near the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger. It was the heaviest single loss for the French military in nearly four decades.

“The two black boxes from the helicopters have been recovered, they will be handed over to the relevant authorities to be analysed,” the spokesman, Colonel Frederic Barbry, told BFMTV.

Three helicopters and a squadron of Mirage jets had arrived on Monday to support ground troops pursuing Islamist extremists.

Shortly after troops engaged the insurgents, who fled on motorbikes and in a pickup truck, a Tiger attack helicopter collided with a Cougar military transport helicopter.

All 13 aboard the two aircraft were killed.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly arrived along with top military brass at the Barkhane base in Gao on Wednesday afternoon to pay homage to the dead soldiers ahead of their repatriation to France.

The chief of staff of the French armed forces, General Francois Lecointre, and the army chief of staff, Thierry Burkhard, accompanied Parly on the trip.

Parly will address the soldiers at the base to convey “the nation’s sadness, recognition and determination”, the defence ministry said in a statement.

The minister was greeted by Barkhane Force commander General Pascal Facon and her Malian counterpart, General Dahirou Dembele.

The soldiers’ bodies will be repatriated to France where President Emmanuel Macron will lead commemorations at Invalides military hospital and museum in Paris on Monday.

Barbry said no theory as to the cause of the crash had been ruled out.

The conditions for flying at the time of the crash were “extremely difficult” because it was a moonless night, the spokesman said.

The accident brought to 41 the number of French troops killed in the Sahel region since Paris intervened against jihadists in northern Mali in 2013.

Since then, armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State group, Al-Qaeda and others have advanced into southern Mali as well as into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.

No ‘definitive’ victory possible

Lecointre warned earlier Wednesday against expecting total victory over insurgents roaming an area the size of Western Europe.

“We will never achieve a definitive victory,” he told France Inter radio, while insisting that France’s intervention was “useful, good and necessary”.

“We are producing results but we must be patient and persevere,” he said, adding that a lasting solution to the unrest in the region required “military action but also action on the development front.”

France has 4,500 troops deployed under Operation Barkhane to help local forces hunt jihadists in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

It had been hoping that a joint counter-terrorism force set up by the five African countries would gradually take over the operations.

But the G5 Sahel force has been hamstrung by a lack of manpower, funds, training and weaponry.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali MINUSMA and regional armies, meanwhile, have also suffered heavy losses in the unrest.

In some of the deadliest incidents, 43 Malian soldiers were killed in an attack in the east of the country in mid-November while Burkina Faso lost 24 troops in an assault on a base near the Malian border in August.

Despite the challenges and the growing hostility towards French troops in Mali and Burkina Faso, both former colonies, Macron’s government is adamant it has no plans to scale back operations.

France has presented the battle against the jihadists operating on Europe’s doorstep as a battle for the security both of Africa and Europe.

Former president Francois Hollande, who took the decision to intervene in Mali in 2013, on Wednesday said he stood by his decision.

“If there had not been the operation which I launched on January 11, 2013, all of Mali would have been occupied by Islamist terrorists, and not just Mali. All of West Africa would have be destabilised,” he said.