Top jihadist suspect arrested in southern Mali: security sources

Mali announced on March 31, 2016 that special forces had arrested suspected jihadist leader Souleymane Keita (AFP Photo/Habibou Kouyate)

Bamako (AFP) - A key Islamist suspect believed to head Mali's southern jihadist fighters was in detention in the capital Bamako on Thursday following his capture by special forces, security sources told AFP.

"Souleymane Keita, the top jihadist leader in the south of the country, was arrested a few days ago on the Mauritanian border, and transferred to Bamako on Wednesday," a security source said.

Keita's arrest comes as west African nations scramble to tighten security following a string of attacks against hotels and restaurants popular with foreigners that have highlighted the growing reach of jihadist groups in the region.

Keita is one of two suspected leaders of extremists operating in southern and central Mali that have been linked to the Ansar Dine group, which was one of three Islamist factions that conquered vast swathes of the country's north in 2012 before being repulsed by French troops.

A second security source told AFP that Keita's arrest near the town of Sokolo followed the capture of one of his allies a few months ago in the centre of the country.

"He was about to head to Timbuktu, probably to meet up with his mentor Iyad Ag Ghaly in the Kidal region" in north-east Mali, the source said, referring to the Tuareg leader of Ansar Dine.

Malian intelligence officials say Keita and Ag Ghaly fought side by side in 2012 in northern Mali.

When French troops stepped in to help Mali's government reconquer the area in January 2013, Keita moved south to his native region to set up a new group, the Khaled Ibn al-Walid "katiba" or combattant unit.

The group, also known as the "Ansar Dine of the South", has some 200 fighters, a Malian security source said.

- Two new jihadi groups in Mali -

Heading the Islamist push into central Mali is another jihadist commander who cut his teeth in the country's northern conflict, radical preacher Amadou Koufa, say security sources.

He leads the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), a new group that emerged in 2015 and has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, some targeting security forces in central Mali.

Long focused on targets in northern Mali, jihadist attacks have spread since the beginning of the year to the centre and the south.

In March 2015, Keita was accused by security services of heading a jihadist military training camp discovered outside Bamako.

He was also accused of attacks in Fakola and Misseni near the border with neighbouring Ivory Coast in 2015 as well as in Bamako.

Seven Malian jihadists arrested in August in Ivory Coast and extradited to Bamako admitted to being members of Khalid Ibn al-Walid and to taking part in several jihadist attacks, according to a source close to the case.

In the first attack of its kind in the Ivory Coast, 19 people were killed earlier this month in a gun and grenade assault on three hotels and a beach in the southeastern town of Grand-Bassam. Two Malians were arrested this week in northern Mali over the attack.

It was the third such strike in West Africa in recent months, following a November assault on a top hotel in Mali's capital which killed 20 people, most of them foreigners, and another in a Burkina Faso hotel in January which killed 30 people.