French troops operating at the border between Mali and Niger have arrested a senior figure of the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) armed group, authorities in Paris have said.
In a statement published on Wednesday, the Ministry of the French Armed Forces said that Oumeya Ould Albakaye was captured overnight from June 11-12 by Operation Barkhane – a French military operation deployed in the Sahel region since 2013.
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The military action which started weeks ago, involved air forces and one ground unit, according to the statement. The army added that several mobile phones and arms have been seized.
Albakaye was the leader of the ISGS, a group affiliated with the ISIL (ISIS) group, in the provinces of Gourma and Oudalan, two areas respectively in Mali and Burkina Faso. The French army said he was also responsible for the coordination of a network implementing explosive devices.
ISGS was founded in 2015 by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi who was killed last September.
Mali has been racked by violence for a decade, especially in its region bordering Niger and Burkina Faso. In 2013, France intervened to stamp out a revolt in the north. But the rebels regrouped to attack the volatile centre of the country, initiating a full-throated rebellion that elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was unable to brake.
In August 2020, protests against Keita culminated in a coup by disgruntled colonels in the Malian army – a move that was followed by a second military takeover in May 2021.
From that point, relations with France went steadily downhill, propelled by the military’s resistance to setting an early date to restore civilian rule and by Bamako’s allegations that France was inciting regional neighbours to take a hard line against its military rule.
Things worsened in 2021 as Mali’s military wove closer ties with Moscow, bringing in “military instructors” that France and its allies referred to as mercenaries hired from the pro-Kremlin Wagner group.
In January this year, the French ambassador to Bamako was expelled and the following month, France announced the pullout of its troops from Mali, and those in the French-led Takuba force.
While the military initially pledged to return power to civilians by February 2022, on Monday it pushed the date to March 24 – a move that was not welcomed by regional actor ECOWAS who has imposed sanctions on Mali.