Al Qaeda affiliate claims Mali army base attack

DAKAR, March 22 (Reuters) - A Mali-based al Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility for an attack on an army base that killed 23 Malian soldiers last week, its media arm said in a statement on Friday, citing violence against Fulani herdsmen as the motive.

Violence by Islamist militants has proliferated in the sparsely populated Sahel in recent years, with groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State using central and northern Mali as a launchpad for attacks across the region.

Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) - an umbrella group for al Qaeda-linked militants in West Africa and the Maghreb - disrupted Mali's presidential election in July 2018, launched a spate of attacks in neighboring Burkina Faso and killed 10 Chadian peacekeepers in Mali earlier this year.

The most recent strike took place last on Sunday in the village of Dioura, in the central Mopti region, when gunmen attacked and briefly seized an army base.

"This raid comes in response to the heinous crimes committed by the forces of the formal Bamako government, and the militiamen that support it, against our Fulani people," said JNIM in a statement on Friday.

Mali has been in turmoil since 2012, when Tuareg rebels took over the north and advanced towards the capital, Bamako.

A French-led intervention pushed them back the following year, but Islamist groups have since regained a foothold in the north and center, tapping into ethnic rivalries between nomadic Tuareg and Fulani herders to recruit new members.

Dozens of Tuareg and Fulani civilians have been killed in spate of attacks that have grown increasingly frequent over the past year, spurring a spiral of violence that has displaced thousands. (Reporting by Aaron Ross; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Alison Williams)