“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 so-called Islamic State has carried out a slew of massacres against local populations since March, in retaliation for attacks by the Tuareg militias against them. 

Hundreds of civilians have been killed in reprisal killings since then, Garigo said.

The jihadists have also looted and burned homes, markets and vehicles, leaving a trail of destruction behind them. 

Many pastoralists in the region have also lost their animals, “the herder’s main capital”, in the fighting, according to Garigo. 

Aid workers in Menaka have told him at least 32,000 people had been displaced in the region, Garigo said, adding that most of those fleeing the violence are women and children.

A map showing the tri-border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso

Fatoumata Maiga, president of the Menaka-based Women’s Association for Peace Initiatives said she was “very worried”.

“The security situation has deteriorated since March,” she said, adding that there were enormous human rights violations in Menaka at the moment. 

Describing an attack in early March, when the fighting initially flared, she said: “Women were raped and thrown alive into wells. This is inexplicable. This is not good for all of Mali. This is not good at all.”

The head of the UN’s MINUSMA mission to Mali, El Ghassim Wane, described the situation in the Menaka region as “extremely dramatic” in a visit at the end of May.

Who has controlof Menaka?

The fiercest battles are currently around Anderamboukane, a strategically important town on the border to Niger. 

The Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA), a largely Tuareg militia, and its ally, the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense Movement (GATIA), are trying to push the jihadists out of Anderamboukane and the surrounding Menaka region. 

These pro-government forces said last weekend that they had wrested “total control” of Anderamboukane and “routed” the jihadists, AFP news agency reported. 

Since then, there have been conflicting reports over who 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, the head of Menaka’s interim authorities, told AFP news agency 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 by the French

The increased militant activity comes amid the withdrawal of French troops, who had been operating in the West African nation since 2013, after a breakdown in relations with Mali’s ruling military junta. 

Military and police components from the UN mission, known as MINUSMA, along with Malian forces, have stepped up day and night patrols in Menaka, the United Nations announced. 

Malian forces pulled out of Anderamboukane in late 2019 as part of a redeployment in the face of relentless jihadist attacks, mostly by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, often called by its French acronym EIGS. 

The Tuareg movements fighting the jihadists 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 secretary general Fahad ag Almahmoud 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 EIGS decimate the Tuareg?”

Background to current violence

In 2012, the Tuareg separatist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), backed by a loose alliance of Islamist militant factions, moved to take control of territory in Mali’s north. 

The failure of then 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 MNLA 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 (Algeria led the negotiations) to end years of violent conflict in the country.

Mali | MINUSMA | Friedenstruppen | UNPOL

MINUSMA forces have been in Mali since 2013

International forces 

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 into a 5,000 strong force over Sahel countries, known as Operation Barkhane. 

That same year, the United Nations approved sending in peacekeepers to protect the civilian population under their MINUSMA mission, which includes German forces.

The MINUSMA mission is considered the most dangerous UN operation in the world. 

But the heightened presence of Malian and international counterterrorism forces has failed to stem the spread of Islamic militants in Mali, and across the Sahel. 

This again led to a coup  — first in 2020 when the country’s elected leader, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was deposed in a coup because of his failures to rein in jihadist activity. 

The military then took control of the transitional government in May 2021  — and are still in charge.

Some observers have compared the flaring insecurity in Menaka province to the situation in 2012 and 2013. 

But according to Baba Dakono, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Mali, there are several differences.

Ten years ago, the Tuareg and jihadist groups occupying almost all of northern Mali, including the important towns of Gao and Kidal and the fabled city of Timbuktu, for nearly eight months, he said. 

This time, he believes, jihadists aren’t interested in permanently occupying 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 Köppe

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