Indignation dominates reaction as attacks in north escalate

In a spate of attacks by armed militias in north-eastern Mali over the last week at least 35 soldiers have been kidnapped and 11 people killed by newly laid landmines, raising fears that escalating violence in neighbouring Niger is spreading to Mali.

Between 26 and 30 August, a convoy of officials from the Ministry of Agriculture was attacked, a Malian army convoy was attacked, and in separate incidents 10 civilians and one soldier were killed when the vehicles they were traveling in hit landmines, army spokesman Abdoulaye Coulibaly told reporters in Bamako.

The incidents have all taken place in the north of Sahel state, a desolate mountain region close to the border with Libya and Niger controlled by one of several former warlords in the region responsible for an uprising by the Touareg ethnic group in the 1990s, Ibrahima Bahanga. The Malian authorities have accused Bahanga of drug smuggling and banditry.

Mohamed Toure, a former government official who has served in the north of Mali, told IRIN that Bahanga does not represent a reincarnation of the Touareg rebel movement. “People there don’t want anything but peace now,” he said.

Mali and Niger were rocked by Touareg rebel movements from 1990 until peace deals were signed in 1995. Touareg groups span the border region, which has largely been at peace since the peace agreements until this year when a Touareg-dominated group in northern Niger, the Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ), began attacking civilians and the army in northern Niger and laid landmines there. The MNJ has reportedly denied it is linked to the militias responsible for the attacks in Mali.

A Malian army officer who requested anonymity lamented the use of mines, which he said had not been used since the country gained independence from France in the 1960s. “What we deplore most is the use, for the first time, of antipersonnel mines in Mali,” the officer said.

News of the attacks has dominated conversation in the Malian capital Bamako this week.

“What’s going on with the Malian army?” asked Ousmane Sow, a businessman in Bamako. “I am flabbergasted, completely bewildered, to hear again and again that in two days, the men of the mutineer Ibrahim Bahanga have succeeded, without a shot being fired, to win two raids against our soldiers.”

Oumar Sangare, a French teacher in Bamako likewise asked “how could this happen?” and said he does not think hostilities will stop soon. “As long as he can, Bahanga will continue to humiliate the Malian security forces,” he said. “It comes back to [Army Chief of Staff] Seydou Traore to make appropriate arrangements to deal with this terrorist.”

Fatoumata Diarra, who runs a telephone centre in Bamako, urged the government to take action. “All we hear about are press conferences. We don’t have any need for them while innocent people are dying for nothing.”

Mali has one of the most vibrant and free press in the West Africa region and its newspapers have been filled with comment on the situation since the first attack last week, although journalists say they still rely on French broadcaster Radio France Internationale and the Agence France Presse for substantive news about events in the north.

Private daily newspaper The Independent on Wednesday in an editorial called on chief of staff Traore to say what the army will do about the situation in the north. “We would very much like to know his opinion in the face of what is happening,” it said.

The Independent also posed the question of what Bahanga is trying to achieve. “Does he want to negotiate his return to the fold despite the crimes he has committed? Is he trying, by taking these hostages, to siphon off more money from the Malian government which is always ready to open its suitcase? Does he claim autonomy for the region Kidal? Is he even well placed to lay claim… for the Touaregs from this part of Mali?”

However, prominent Malian columnist Tiegoun Boubeye, writing in the newspaper Les Echos, noted: “This is not just any bandit who can attack the military and relieve them of their arms and cargo, and take them hostage,” and cautioned that Bahanga should not be underestimated.

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