BAMAKO, Mali – Mali vowed Monday, March 9, not to bow to terror and to punish the jihadists behind a deadly nightclub attack in the capital, as local and French investigators joined forces to hunt down the killers.
Bamako has been on high alert since a heavily-armed gunman burst into La Terrasse, a popular venue among expatriates, early Saturday, March 7, and killed 5 people, including a French national and a Belgian.
A counter-terrorism team arrived from Paris overnight to join the investigation, with the assailant and a suspected accomplice still at large despite a huge manhunt and stepped-up vehicle checks across the capital.
“We are still standing,” President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said in a defiant first public reaction after visiting La Terrasse and 8 people wounded in the attack, including two Swiss nationals.
“Those who dared claim this attack will pay dearly,” he said, adding that they “have failed and will fail” to spread fear.
Government spokesman Choguel Maiga said Malians “will not allow themselves to be affected or intimidated by terrorist acts”.
He urged the predominantly Tuareg rebellion in the restive north to rubber-stamp a peace agreement signed on March 1 by the government, to bring about “a real basis for the stabilization of our country”.
His comments were echoed by the head of the UN’s MINUSMA force, Mongi Hamdi, who said the rebels had “no other choice” but to “follow the logic of peace”.
The main Tuareg rebel alliance has asked for more time to consult its grassroots.
Al-Murabitoun, a jihadist group run by leading Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has claimed responsibility for the nightclub assault.
The group said it had struck partly to avenge Ahmed el Tilemsi, one of its commanders killed by the French army in Mali in December.
But it added that the attack was mainly a response to recent cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, “whom the miscreant West insulted and mocked”.
The group was referring to images published by Paris satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which lost 11 staff in a jihadist attack exactly two months before the Bamako killings.
Fears over security mounted further on Sunday, March 8, when a Chadian peacekeeper and two Malian children were killed as militants shelled a UN base in the northeastern rebel stronghold of Kidal.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the weekend killings as “an attack on peace”.
“At a time when we are just meters from peace, hostile forces are trying to intervene to wreck this perspective,” Fabius told a news conference in the Moroccan capital.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also condemned the “intolerable” killings, calling them a “breach of international humanitarian law”.
It emerged after the Bamako attack that the Belgian victim, 44-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Ronny Piens, had been in charge of security for the European Union delegation in Bamako.
The body of Fabien Guyomard, the 30-year-old Frenchman who died at the nightclub, was due to be repatriated later on Monday.
The anxiety gripping the expatriate community in the aftermath was underlined Sunday by the decision of the French Lycee of Bamako to delay its return from holidays for 48 hours to strengthen security.
Troops and police from Mali and the UN are a permanent fixture in the city of 1.8 million people.
Zakaria Maiga, a Malian friend of Guyomard who survived the attack, said he was “surprised” by the ease with which the assailants – armed with automatic weapons and grenades – were able to get downtown.
French President Francois Hollande has led the international outcry, condemning the “cowardly attack” and vowing to meet Keita to offer Paris’s help to its former colony.
An anti-terrorist prosecutor from Paris arrived in Bamako late Sunday with 10 French police to “work on Saturday’s incident hand-in-hand with their Malian colleagues” airport and security sources told Agence France-Presse.
The attack was the first to target Westerners in Bamako, although Mali’s vast desert north is riven by ethnic rivalries and an Islamist insurgency, and has seen numerous militant attacks on security forces.
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. – Serge Daniel, AFP / Rappler.com