Mali’s northeast is seeing heavy fighting as Mali’s army, together with pro-government militias, battle insurgents. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands are displaced.
“The principle victims are civilians,” said Ibrahima Garigo, director of the regional station Radio Rurale de Meneka, in a telephone interview with DW.
The fighting between Mali’s army and its Tuareg allies against Islamist militant groups in Mali’s northeast Menaka region has intensified in the past weeks.
The local wing of extremist group known as the Islamic State has killed hundreds in the area since March, in retaliation for attacks by the Tuareg militias.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed in reprisal killings, Garigo said.
The extremists have also looted and burned homes, markets and vehicles.
Many pastoralists in the region have also lost the animals they make their livelihoods from in the fighting, according to Garigo.
Aid workers in Menaka told Garigo at least 32,000 people had been displaced in the region. Most of those fleeing the violence are women and children.
“The security situation has deteriorated since March,” Fatoumata Maigia, president of the Menaka-based Association of Women for Peace Initiatives said, adding that there were enormous human rights violations going on in Menaka at the moment.
Describing an attack in early March, when the fighting initially flared, she recounted how women were raped and thrown alive into wells. “This is inexplicable. This is not good for Mali,” she said.
The head of MINUSMA, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, El Ghassim Wane, described the situation in the Menaka region as “extremely dramatic” during a visit at the end of May.
Who controls Menaka?
The fiercest battles are currently around Anderamboukane, a strategically important town near the border with Niger.
The Movement for the Salvation of Azawad, a largely Tuareg militia, and its ally, the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense Group, known as GATIA, are trying to push the extremists out of Anderamboukane and the surrounding area.
These pro-government forces said last weekend that they had “total control” of Anderamboukane and had “routed” the extremists, the AFP news agency reported.
Since then, there have been conflicting reports over who actually controls the town and the region.
“A big part of the Menaka region is under the control of the jihadists today,” Abdoul Wahab Ag Ahmed Mohamed, head of Menaka’s interim authorities, told AFP on Tuesday.
Asked about this by DW, radio director Garigo said there was definitely territory in Menaka region “where the symbols of the state weren’t present.”
Vacuum left after French withdrawal
The increased militant activity comes amid the withdrawal of French troops, who had been operating in the West African nation since 2013. They withdrew after a breakdown in relations with Mali’s ruling military junta.
Military and police from the UN mission, along with Malian forces, have stepped up day and night patrols in Menaka.
Malian forces pulled out of Anderamboukane in late 2019 as part of a redeployment in the face of relentless attacks, mostly by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, or IS-GS.
The Tuareg movements fighting the group have complained that the army isn’t doing enough in Menaka.
“The Malian government has not even bothered to issue a communique to deplore the unprecedented number of citizens killed,” complained GATIA’s Fahad Ag Al Mahmoud to the French language news magazine, Jeune Afrique in April.
“We are facing hundreds of fighters who are massacring civilians and the Malian army does not intervene. Is this a lack of sincerity on the part of the authorities in the fight against terrorism, or a deliberate desire to let the IS-GS decimate the Tuareg?”
Why is violence happening?
In 2012, the Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, backed by a loose alliance of Islamist militant factions, moved to take control of territory in Mali’s north.
The failure of former president, Amadou Toumani Toure, to end this rebellion led to his ousting in a coup in March 2012.
The Tuareg and Islamist groups quickly took much of Mali’s north. But their alliance was short-lived. The National Movement broke with the jihadists over their push to impose Sharia law.
Several years later, these largely Tuareg armed groups signed what is known as the 2015 Algiers Peace Agreement to end years of violent conflict in the country.
With the rebel groups advancing southwards towards the capital, Bamako, Mali’s government appealed to France for help. Some 1,700 French troops were originally deployed in 2013, with this expanded to a 5,000-strong force known as Operation Barkhane.
That same year, the UN approved sending in peacekeepers to protect the civilian population under their own mission. This includes German forces.
The MINUSMA mission is considered the most dangerous UN operation in the world.
But even the increased presence of local and international counterterrorism forces has failed to stem the spread of Islamic militancy in Mali.
This again led to political turmoil. The first coup occurred in 2020 when the country’s elected leader, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was deposed because of his failure to rein in extremist activity.
The military then took control of the transitional government in May 2021. They are still in charge.
Some observers have compared the security problems in Menaka province to the situation in 2012 and 2013.
But according to Baba Dakono, an analyst in Mali, there are several differences.
Ten years ago, the Tuareg and extremist groups occupied almost all of northern Mali, including the important towns of Gao and Kidal and the city of Timbuktu, for nearly eight months, he said.
This time, he believes, the extremists are not interested in permanently controlling the region. Rather, he says, they want to control “territory which doesn’t have a continuous presence of defense and security forces.”
Frejus Quenum and Eric Topona contributed to this article.
Edited by: Dirke Köpp