Shelling and rocket fire on a United Nations camp in Mali’s troubled town of Timbuktu killed a member of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), Corporal Sheriff Ousma, and also wounded nine others, the United Nations Mission said last evening. Ousma was a signal soldier assigned with the 23rd Infantry Brigade.
Of the nine, three that were on critical list reportedly died en-route to hospital.
Assistant Defense Minister David Kadiker Dahn told the Daily Observer via mobile phone that the soldiers came under attack when Jihadists launched several rounds of mortar shells that hit the AFK base near Timbuktu airport.
“Remember that our soldiers have least expected the attack. Even though they are aware of their security role in the area, yesterday’s attack was not conventional, but the shelling from the rebels long range,” Dahn told the Daily Observer.
It is the latest attack to hit the mission, known as MINSUMA, stationed in Mali since 2013, and considered its most dangerous active peacekeeping deployment since Liberia restructured her armed forces.
“A mortar and rocket attack was launched against the MINUSMA camp in Timbuktu,” a UN statement told the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
“The provisional toll is nine wounded among the peacekeepers, four seriously who are being evacuated to Bamako. The attack also killed one person, they are still being identified,” it added.
The UN mission said it had reinforced the camp’s defenses and deployed air cover to identify where the enemy fire had originated, describing it as a “terrorist” attack.
Sweden’s armed forces confirmed one of its soldiers was also wounded, though not severely. “A Swedish soldier was slightly injured and is now being cared for by the Swedish medical unit,” it said in a statement.
Northern Mali fell to jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in March 2012, and although these forces were driven out of key towns by a French-led military intervention the following year, the Islamists have now spread further south.
The 13,000-strong UN mission was deployed to provide security and assist Malian troops struggling to keep the country safe, but it has been targeted constantly by the jihadists with dozens of peacekeepers killed.
Three Malian jihadist groups with previous Al-Qaeda links recently joined forces to create the “Group to Support Islam and Muslims” (GSIM), led by Iyad Ag Ghaly of Ansar Dine, and have killed Malian soldiers further east near the Burkina Faso border.
Nine Malian soldiers were killed and five wounded Tuesday, an attack that has become near routine in the country’s north and centre.
The commander of MINUSMA is Danish Major General Michael Lollesgaard. The mission has suffered 101 casualties since it was established in 2013, 68 of which were due to “malicious acts”—that is, attacks from militants or opposition groups—making it the deadliest deployment for blue helmets in recent years.
The mission again came under siege in recent weeks after a series of attacks perpetrated by militants of a variety of stripes. Five Togolese peacekeepers were killed in May in Mopti, central Mali, after their vehicle came under fire and then hit a landmine. The attack was not claimed by any group, though a Malian militant group known as the Macina Liberation Front is believed to operate in the region. Days later, a base used by Chinese peacekeepers was besieged by mortar or rocket fire, resulting in the death of one U.N. soldier (three other non-U.N. personnel were also killed in a separate attack in Gao.) The attacks were claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which said that a branch of its group known as Al-Mourabitoun led by veteran Algerian jihadi Mokhtar Belmokhtar was behind the incident.
The most recent Tuareg rebellion occurred in 2012, when an organization called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) began campaigning violently for greater autonomy for the ethnic group in northern Mali.
In March 2012, Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré was overthrown in the capital Bamako by mutinying soldiers dissatisfied with his handling of the Tuareg rebellion. In the midst of the chaos, the MNLA seized control of northern Mali’s three major cities—Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu—initially with the backing of Islamist militant groups including Ansar Dine. Once they had seized control and declared Azawad’s independence, however, the MNLA was overthrown by Ansar Dine and an AQIM splinter group, leaving the extremist militants in control of northern Mali from July 2012 until the start of 2013.
MINUSMA was established in the wake of this complex recent history in April 2013 with the mandate of overseeing a ceasefire, supporting peace and reconciliation and, significantly, protecting civilians. This last clause means that, according to Lollesgaard, peacekeepers are permitted to conduct “pre-emptive strikes” if they find militants whom they deem to be an immediate threat to the mission or civilians. But there is little support from Malian security forces in the north of the country, according to Marie Rodet, Mali expert and senior lecturer in the history of Africa at SOAS, University of London. “The state institutions haven’t been redeployed in northern Mali. The only security forces you have are MINUSMA and the French mission Barkhane,” says Rodet.
The U.N. mission draws its military personnel from some 48 countries—from near neighbors Niger and Burkina Faso to distant countries such as Bangladesh—and the varying levels of training that each troop-contributing country provides serves to complicate matters, according to Lollesgaard. (With other sources in Bamako and AFP).