A car bomb attack targeting a military patrol in northern Mali has killed at least two civilians and wounded several French soldiers, according to Mali’s defence ministry.
Patrik Steiger, France’s army spokesman, confirmed that civilians had been killed in Sunday’s bombing near the town of Bourem in the Gao region. He said the explosion took place near three French vehicles during a joint patrol with Malian troops.
The blast, which came two days after a deadly attack on the Mali headquarters of a five-nation regional force known as G5 Sahel, underscores the fragile security situation in the West African nation as it prepares to go to the polls on July 29.
“I confirm that it was a car bomb that drove into a joint Barkhane/Malian army patrol,” defence ministry spokesman Boubacar Diallo was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency. Barkhane is the name of the nearly 4,000-strong French forces stationed in its former colonies across the Sahel region.
France intervened in its former West African colony in January 2013 to stop a southward offensive by fighters linked to al-Qaeda who seized control of vast expanses of the north.
About a dozen people were wounded in Sunday’s attack, including four to eight French Barkhane troops, Diallo said.
Photos posted on social media showed an armoured vehicle on a sandy road surrounded by black smoke.
Fatouma Wangara, a resident of Gao, said the French convoy was clearly targeted by a suicide car bomb.
“An armoured vehicle blocked the way and the car blew up,” she said.
Another resident said the area around the ambush had been sealed off by French soldiers.
On Friday, a suicide attack on the G5 headquarters killed two soldiers and a civilian in the Malian town of Savare.
The al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the main armed alliance in the Sahel, claimed Friday’s bombing in a telephone call to the Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar.
On Saturday, four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in the central Mopti region.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose country is part of the G5, warned earlier on Sunday that security failings were hampering the work of the Sahel force.
He said Friday’s attack “hit the heart” of the region’s security and lashed out at the lack of international help.
The G5 aims to have a total of 5,000 troops from five nations – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – but has faced funding problems.
It operates alongside France’s 4,000 troops in the troubled “tri-border” area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and alongside the UN’s 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who last year complained that G5 was taking too long to set up, is due to attend an African Union summit in Mauritania on Monday to discuss security in the region
Violence by armed groups with links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in the arid, sparsely populated Sahel region have risen in recent years with armed factions exploiting the security vacuum in northern Mali to launch attacks across the region.
The violence has also spilled over into both Burkina Faso and Niger.
A hollow state presence has left millions at the mercy of the inhospitable climate and non-state armed groups.
Lawlessness, insecurity and impoverishment have long plagued the Sahel, an area traversing Central and West Africa where many are living in a permanent state of neglect.
Despite the presence of peacekeepers and French troops, armed groups have taken advantage of porous borders and ungoverned areas to spread into other parts of the Sahel.
Western powers, including France and the United States, have provided significant funding to the G5 in a bid to beat back the armed groups and take the pressure off their thousands of troops deployed to the zone.
But the force has been slow to get off the ground, hobbled by delays disbursing the money and coordinating among the different countries.