Jihadists announce blood-soaked return to northern Mali

Bamako (AFP) - From roadside bombs and rocket attacks to murderous ambushes launched on motorbikes, Mali's ousted jihadists have announced their return in a bloodbath of foreign troops in the desert north.

Some 19 months since they were driven from the conflict-ravaged west African nation in a French-led military intervention, various Islamist groups have stepped up a campaign of violence which hit its gruesome nadir with the deaths of nine UN peacekeepers on Friday.

The slaying of the soldiers, part of a contingent from Niger who were in a supply convoy in the northeast, brought to 30 the number of peacekeepers killed since the UN began its MINUSMA mission in Mali last year.

"This is no longer in the context of maintaining peace," said Herve Ladsous, the UN's head of peacekeeping operations, as he announced the deployment of drones and armoured vehicles.

"We are required to take a series of measures... to toughen up our bases, and boost our protection," he said at a news conference in Bamako after the troops' funeral.

Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop called for a rapid-reaction force to help end the wave of attacks, telling the 15-member UN Security Council in New York that it must take "urgent measures" to ensure MINUSMA can protect civilians and its own troops.

France's military intervention, codenamed Serval, repelled the Islamists who had taken advantage of the chaos following a March 2012 military coup to seize control of Mali's northern desert cities.

"There are no more terrorists in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu", said Oumar Diarra, an official from the Timbuktu governor's office.

- 'Failure of security forces' -

But they re-appeared in other parts of the north, he said, and even strengthened their positions, and locals now live in "fear".

The violence is not targeted exclusively at foreign forces but also residents deemed to be helping them.

In September an ethnic Tuareg civilian was kidnapped near Timbuktu along with four members of his family and he was beheaded.

Relatives said he was killed by members of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who suspected him of being an informant for international forces in Mali.

Three jihadist groups, AQIM, Ansar Dine, and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) controlled northern Mali for the best part of 2012 before being largely ousted by the French and their African allies in January 2013.

Their organisational structure smashed, small pockets of armed Islamists managed nevertheless to remain active, carrying out occasional deadly attacks in the desert.

The security crisis has been "exacerbated by the failure of the security forces on the ground", according to the latest UN report on the situation in Mali, dated September 22.

Kidal, the Tuareg rebel stronghold which the state has never been able to fully control, perhaps best exemplifies the deep ethnic divisions which mar day-to-day life in the north.

The situation in the town has declined further since the defeat of the army by mainly Tuareg and Arab fighters who routed the army in May.

In July, France unveiled a new mission -- dubbed "Operation Barkhane" -- to counter Islamist militants in a broader area including five countries along the southern rim of the Sahara.

- 'Link with Libya' -

MINUSMA mission comprised around 9,300 troops and police, deployed mainly in Mali's north.

Bamako does not provide figures on troops, but a MINUSMA source estimated the Malian army's deployment as around 1,000 men in the central region of Mopti as well as Timbuktu and Gao.

Where once their jihadi foes hid in boltholes throughout the vast desert, now several hundred can be seen operating on the ground in northern Mali, according to several sources.

Ladsous pointed on Tuesday to a "resurgence that is the result of the gradual reduction of the Serval deployment but also the withdrawal of most of the Malian army from northern Mali".

He highlighted a "probable link" with the situation in southern Libya, which has become the sanctuary of radical Islamist groups from which the Mali-based jihadists have acquired huge supplies of arms.

The attack on Friday against Nigerien peacekeepers was claimed by a Malian jihadist close to MUJAO.

Four days later a Senegalese peacekeeper was killed in an attack on a MINUSMA camp in Kidal.

No claim of responsibility has been made but diplomatic and military sources pointed to Iyad Ag Ghaly, who led a Tuareg rebellion in the Sahara before setting up Ansar Dine.

The situation requires "the international community to be challenged to confront terrorism", Foreign Minister Diop told AFP, noting that the spike in violence coincided with the resumption of talks in Algiers between the government and six Tuareg and Arab militias.

"All experts agree that there are links between the different armed groups", whether or not jihadists, a senior government official said.

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