BAMAKO, Mali (UPDATED) – A peacekeeper and two children died Sunday, March 8, as militants shelled a UN base in northern Mali, heightening security fears as police hunted jihadists who launched a deadly Bamako nightclub assault.
The UN’s MINUSMA force said more than 30 rockets were fired at its barracks in the rebel stronghold of Kidal from 5:40 am local time (0540 GMT).
“Once they had established from where the rockets were being fired, MINUSMA troops immediately returned fire two kilometers from the compound, at around 6 am,” the force said in a statement.
“According to preliminary reports, one MINUSMA soldier died and 8 others were injured. The shelling also claimed victims among the citizens of Kidal outside the compound, killing two and injuring 4.”
The force said in an update on Twitter that the civilian victims – members of the nomadic Arab Kunta tribe – were children and that only 3 had been wounded.
Their encampment near the UN base was hit by stray rockets as the attack got under way, a MINUSMA source said.
Sources inside the force also said the peacekeeper, like the majority of personnel at the base, was Chadian.
The UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the “heinous” assault and warned that “those responsible for the attack shall be held accountable”.
No group has claimed responsibility, although Kidal is the cradle of northern Mali’s Tuareg separatist movement, which has launched several uprisings from the region since the 1960s.
Tuareg and Arab militias – loyalist and anti-government – have forged a peace agreement with the Malian government formulated earlier this month in Algiers, although the main rebel groups have yet to sign it.
“MINUSMA strongly condemns these heinous terrorist acts, whose only goal is to thwart all the efforts currently under way to achieve lasting peace in Mali,” the force said.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadist groups also carry out operations in Kidal, including the 2013 murders of French journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon.
‘West insulted our prophet’
In Bamako, police in bulletproof vests patrolled the area where a masked gunman had burst into La Terrasse, a popular venue among expats, spraying automatic gunfire and throwing grenades early Saturday, March 7.
Al-Murabitoun, a jihadist group run by leading Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has claimed responsibility for the attack, which left a Frenchman, a Belgian and 3 Malians dead.
It said in an audio recording carried by Mauritanian news agency Al-Akbar the operation was carried out “to avenge our prophet against the unbelieving West which has insulted and mocked him”.
Vehicle checks were stepped up on the 3 bridges over the Niger river as detectives focused on a black 4-wheel drive apparently used by the nightclub attacker and an accomplice.
“We cannot say much more at this stage but there are clues about the vehicle used to transport the author of the crimes committed in Bamako,” a police source told Agence France-Presse.
MINUSMA, which has around 10,000 personnel in Mali, said it has made investigators and crimes scenes experts available to the authorities.
The French victim has been named as 30-year-old Fabien Guyomard, a single man with no children who had lived in Bamako since 2007 and worked at US construction company ICMS Africa.
Mali’s premier and president visited 8 people who were being treated in hospital overnight, including two Swiss weapons experts advising the Malian government.
The pair – both soldiers – were stable and out of danger after being hit by bullets, the Swiss military said in Geneva, and were later repatriated to Bern.
“We must remain vigilant, the population must report people behaving suspiciously,” Prime Minister Modibo Keita told reporters.
The French Lycee in Bamako, which teaches 1,230 secondary school students of more than 30 nationalities, announced on its website it was delaying the return to classes over security concerns.
“We felt, given the events, that we needed to improve the external security of the Lycee Francais de Bamako. For this reason, the school will exceptionally be closed for 48 hours, starting from Monday (March 9),” an official at the school said.
In the moments after the nightclub attack, an Agence France-Presse correspondent witnessed the French victim being taken by stretcher out of the venue while the bodies of the police officer, a guard and the Belgian could be seen outside.
“They reportedly shouted ‘death to whites’ on entering the restaurant… It sounds like an attack against the presence of Europeans,” a diplomatic source said.
French President Francois Hollande led the international outcry, condemning the “cowardly attack” and vowing to meet Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to offer Paris’s help to its former colony.
Mali’s vast desert north is riven by ethnic rivalries and an Islamist insurgency.
Jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda controlled an area of desert the size of Texas for more than nine months until a French-led military intervention in 2013 that partly drove them from the region.
But day-to-day life in the capital, a city of 1.8 million, has been largely unaffected by the northern conflict. – Serge Daniel, AFP / Rappler.com