A suicide bomber has blown himself up in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu, raising fears of a new wave of violence as the European Union launches an ambitious new programme to overhaul Mali’s ragtag army.
An army officer said a Malian soldier had been wounded in the attack on Saturday at an army barricade in Timbuktu, the fabled city’s second in nine days.
“A jihadist suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt after trying unsuccessfully to force his way through the barricade at the west entrance to Timbuktu, which was guarded by Malian soldiers,” the officer told the AFP news agency by phone.
Earlier Saturday, a land mine explosion killed two Malian soldiers in the country’s Gao region, to the east of Timbuktu, the defence ministry said. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks.
As France prepares to withdraw its 4,000 troops, the first of four Malian battalions will begin training with European instructors on April 2 as part of a wider effort to bring the army up to scratch as quickly as possible.
“Objectively, it must be entirely rebuilt,” said French general Francois Lecointre, who heads the European Union training mission in Mali.
Underpaid, ill-equipped and riven by divisions, Mali’s armed forces fell apart last year when well-armed militants seized the country’s vast northern reaches. Today no one knows exactly how many soldiers are left, probably around 6,000 – about half of which will train with the EU mission over the next year.
Class is at a dusty green-shuttered military academy 60km from the capital, Bamako, its grounds now packed with rows of EU-supplied troop transport vehicles, a field hospital, tents, and trunk-loads of equipment.
After 10 weeks of training, the first 670 Malians are expected to be ready for combat and deployed to northern Mali, where French and Chadian troops are still on the lookout for pockets of fighters.
The French are to hand over to an African force of 6,300, likely to come under a UN mandate in the coming weeks. But UN leader Ban Ki-Moon said last week that up to 11,200 troops were needed as well as a second “parallel” force.
All of these troops will confront a mounting series of attacks claimed by insurgents since France launched its military intervention against al-Qaeda-linked groups that had seized the north of the country.
The French-led operation, which began on January 11, forced the militants from cities they had seized for 10 months in the chaotic aftermath of a March 2012 military coup. But French and African forces have faced continuing suicide blasts and guerrilla attacks in reclaimed territory.
On March 21, a suicide bomber blew up a car near the Timbuktu airport, launching an overnight assault on the city. The blast killed one Malian soldier. Around 10 militants were killed in the ensuing battle with French and Malian forces, a French army spokesman said.
The attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of three rebel groups that had seized the north.
MUJAO said it had “opened a new front in Timbuktu”, which had not come under attack since French-led forces entered the city on January 28 – unlike Gao, the largest city in the north, which has been hit by a string of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks claimed by MUJAO.