BAMAKO, MALI - Suspected Islamist militants have attacked an army base in central Mali, killing 17 soldiers.
Thirty-five soldiers were wounded in Tuesday's raid, which occurred in Nampala, in central Mali, just a few kilometers south of the border with Mauritania. The assailants burned buildings, pillaged shops and shot at troop positions at the base.
The attack followed increasing unrest in Mali’s central Mopti region that has included not only attacks on security forces but also clashes between self-defense militias and armed groups over territory.
The situation has degenerated since 2015, mainly because the state is absent in some parts of the region, said Boukary Sangare, a researcher who has monitored the conflict in the center for the past decade.
“The zone is drenched in intercommunal conflicts between Peul and Dogon, Peul and Tuareg and so on. It’s total chaos," Sangare said. "This has pushed some Peul groups to take up arms to defend themselves against other groups, since all traditional conflict-solving mechanisms have broken down.”
Little help available
Mali urgently needs help to address the escalating conflict in the center. But with the U.N. peacekeeping mission already overstretched in the north, and French forces in Operation Barkhane engaging with terrorist groups in the northern regions, resources are limited.
“Mopti is not a new front, but we are facing a new threat in this region from terrorist groups that have not signed the peace agreement," said Colonel-Major Abdrahamane Baby, the army chief of staff. "The biggest security threat is still northern Mali. What we see in the center is only the echo of the conflict in the north."
On Tuesday, two armed groups claimed responsibility for the attack in Nampala. A radio station received a call from the National Alliance for the Safeguarding of the Peul Identity and the Restoration of Justice, an ethnic Peul self-defense militia. It would be the first time the group, which was set up last month and includes some who fought alongside the Islamists, has launched an attack.
Hours later, the Massina Liberation Front also said it was behind the attack. Last year, the group affiliated with the Islamist extremist group Ansar Dine and killed over a dozen people in an attack on a hotel in Sevare.
Baby said it was more likely that the Massina Front was behind the attack.
“We know that some of the movements in the center, such as the Massina Front, are affiliated with Ansar Dine in the north," he said. "The group’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, is linked to other terrorist groups, such as HCUA and others. That’s why I’m saying that the north is the origin of the violence in the center.”
Worst loss since 2012
The Nampala attack resulted in the worst loss suffered by Malian forces in such a raid since January 2012, when fighters from Ansar Dine and al-Qaida-linked groups captured a military base in Aguelhok in northern Mali.
Following Tuesday’s attack, reinforcements were sent toward Markala, an important army base in the Mopti region.
“If we don’t act now, the terrorists will continue to occupy the terrain,” Baby said.
A peace deal signed between the Bamako government and northern separatist groups last year will allow the groups that are parties to the accord to disarm and reintegrate into the army. Many of the fighters are still waiting to be disarmed. None of the groups that claimed Tuesday’s attack are parties to the agreement.