Three wounded as UN convoy triggers landmines in Mali

Serge Daniel
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Officials with the UN mission in Mali said in a statement that "an accidental explosion of a shell caused the deaths of two MINUSMA peacekeepers during a training exercise"

Officials with the UN mission in Mali said in a statement that "an accidental explosion of a shell caused the deaths of two MINUSMA peacekeepers during a training exercise" (AFP Photo/Alou Sissoko)

Bamako (AFP) - Three United Nations troops were wounded on Thursday when a convoy including the head of peacekeeping in Mali triggered landmines in the country's restive north, sources within the force said.

MINUSMA commander Major General Michael Lollesgaard and the mission's police chief "escaped death on Thursday in the Timbuktu region when mines on the route of their convoy wounded three peacekeepers from Burkina Faso", a civilian manager in the force told AFP.

Lollesgaard, from Denmark, and police commissioner Abdounasir Awale were on a field visit when a vehicle in their convoy hit at least one mine between the towns of Dire and Ber, a separate MINUSMA source based in Timbuktu told AFP.

The source said it was "very likely" that the mines had been laid just before the convoy arrived, specifically targeting the two commanders, as security checks had been carried out along the route a few hours earlier.

An official statement from MINUSMA placed the explosion at 1:00 pm (1300 GMT), although it made no mention of Lollesgaard or Awale.

"MINUSMA strongly condemns this terrorist act which aimed to paralyse the mission's operations in this part of Mali," it said.

"Mines in Mali indiscriminately affect United Nations personnel and innocent civilians."

The attack came a day ahead of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers when member states and non-governmental organisations hold events to honour fallen troops.

- UN's deadliest mission -

With 35 peacekeepers killed in combat since MINUSMA's inception in 2013, the UN has described northern Mali as the deadliest place on Earth for its personnel.

A Bangladeshi peacekeeper was shot dead and another wounded in Mali's capital, Bamako, on Tuesday, although the circumstances remain unclear and it has not been attributed by the UN to militants.

Malian security sources first suggested that the soldiers were targeted by "unidentified armed men" but that account was thrown into doubt by an initial inspection of the UN vehicle.

"We have launched an investigation to find out what exactly happened since, on the face of it, there are no bullet holes, just traces of blood, in the vehicle," a source later clarified.

The force is regularly attacked by militants in the north, but had not been a direct target in Bamako before an assailant opened fire on a MINUSMA residence in the city's Faso Kanu neighbourhood on Wednesday last week, wounding a civilian guard.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they come at a time of strained relations between the government and MINUSMA, which has complained that its impartiality has been "regularly called into question".

- Demonstration -

The country's northern desert has been plagued by violence from jihadist groups that seized control of the region from Tuareg rebels before being routed by a French-led international intervention in 2013.

Despite peaceful elections after the French operation, the country remains deeply divided and the north has seen an upsurge in attacks by pro-government militias and the Tuareg-led rebellion known as the CMA.

The government and several armed groups signed a peace accord on May 15 in a ceremony in Bamako attended by numerous heads of state but missing the crucial backing of the CMA.

The Algerian-led international mediation team in the peace process has announced it is hosting a series of consultations in Algiers this week aimed at securing the CMA's signature.

Thousands of pro-government demonstrators took to the streets in Bamako on Tuesday in support of the peace agreement.

Around 31,000 people have been forced to flee their homes -- 500 into neighbouring countries -- over the past two weeks, mostly from the Timbuktu region, the UN's World Food Programme said on Tuesday.

"The fighting in the north of Mali is greatly reducing an already limited humanitarian space and hampers vital humanitarian assistance to people who are very vulnerable," said Sally Haydock, the programme's WFP Mali director.