In recent days, jihadist terrorists have pushed farther into eastern Mali, taking territory, murdering hundreds of people, and driving others from their homes, according to local Malian officials.
The terrorists’ achievements underline Mali’s battle to fill the void left by the withdrawal of French and other European soldiers, and as ties with neighboring Niger have worsened, coordinated military operations along the borders of Niger and Burkina Faso are no longer possible.
Heavy fighting between Tuareg separatists and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) group has been reported in Menaka region, where Malian forces took over a French military camp in June.
While the offensive started in March, France’s pullout “left a vacuum and lifted a lot of pressure”, said Heni Nsaiba, senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a U.S.-based crisis monitoring group.
Hundreds have been killed since March, mainly civilians, as jihadists have battled their way into Menaka and the neighbouring Gao region, according to ACLED data, Nsaiba added.
Islamic State-linked fighters are the major perpetrators of that violence, according to the U.N. Secretary General’s report to the Security Council released on Thursday.
This month, Islamist militants took over the rural Ansongo district, near the border with Niger, a local official and pro-government militia said.
“Jihadists stopped several buses and forced drivers to make women sit at the back and men in the front,” Yacouba Mamadou Maiga, the deputy mayor of Ouattagouna, one of Ansongo’s seven municipalities told Reuters via telephone on Monday.
Shaky relationship with France
Mali’s former colonial power, France, is drawing to a close a nearly decade-long counterterrorism military effort in the West African country.
It opted to withdraw its forces in February following a disagreement with the military administration, particularly over its increased contact with Russia. It further escalated to a point where the Mali military administration expelled France ambassador from the country for an alleged unfriendly remark towards the military regime.
France and the US have accused mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked security firm Wagner of being deployed in Mali, despite the Russians’ assertion that they are just military instructors assisting in the restoration of order.
Due to the insurrection in Mali, which began in 2012 and extended three years later to Burkina Faso and Niger, large portions of the country are out of government control.