New jihadist alliance claims border attack in Mali

Dakar – A new jihadist alliance claimed responsibility on Saturday for an attack that killed three members of Mali’s security forces on March 29, according to a statement released by jihadist monitoring group SITE.

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 Islamist organisation Ansar Dine.

The group, also known as Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimeen in Arabic, mounted an attack that killed three gendarmes, they said, though Malian security sources told AFP the day of the attack that it was two soldiers and a civilian who were killed.

“This past Wednesday, a brigade of mujahideen was able to attack a Malian gendarmerie post in Boulikessi, which is part of the Douentza area, near the Burkinabe border,” the statement released by SITE said.

“The attack resulted in killing three gendarmes and seizing some weapons and ammunition as spoils,” it added.

It is believed to be the jihadist alliance’s second operation after their merger, following the killing of 11 soldiers in the same area on March 5.

Ansar Dine was involved in an onslaught that saw northern Mali fall out of government control for nearly a year from spring 2012.

The extremists were later expelled from the region by a French-led international military intervention.

Nonetheless large swathes of northern Mali continue to come under attack from jihadist groups.

The area is also seen by governments battling the jihadist threat as a launchpad for attacks against other countries in the region.

Mali arrests two suspects in planned terror attack

BAMAKO, Mali -Malian officials said Friday two suspected jihadists have been arrested after they planned to stage a suicide attack in the capital Bamako during the France-Africa summit earlier this month.
“In two separate operations in Bamako on Thursday, Malian special intelligence operatives arrested two jihadists who were preparing to commit a large scale attack in Bamako against foreign targets,” a security official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The attack was planned for the France-Africa summit on January 13 and 14, which gathered some 30 African states and France to discuss the fight against extremists, the struggle to improve governance and the migrant crisis.
But stringent security measures forced the suspects to delay their plans, the official said. Another Malian security source confirmed the report.
Both suspects are Malian nationals from the country’s unrest-wracked north, which fell under the control of Tuareg-led rebels and jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.
The Islamists sidelined the rebels to take sole control.
Although they were largely ousted by a French-led military operation in January 2013, implementation of a peace accord struck in 2015 has been piecemeal with insurgents still active across large parts of the region.
The suspects were arrested carrying “compromising materials,” the official said, including a “GPS system, ammunition and explosive material.”
“The first (suspect) was the logistics specialist who did the tracking,” while the second was likely the would-be suicide bomber, the second security source said.
He also said that both men belonged to the group of Algerian jihadist and Al-Qaeda ally Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which claimed responsibility for a January 18 suicide bombing that killed more than 70 people in the northern city of Gao.
The group, allied to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), targeted militia groups committed to restoring peace in Mali.
That attack, which struck a fresh blow at efforts to stabilise the troubled north, occurred five days after French President Francois Hollande visited the military base at Gao en route to the France-Africa summit.
French special forces had arrested several people ahead of the summit suspected of planning attacks during the gathering, according to Malian and foreign officials.

Mali names new government

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita named seven new ministers on Saturday, with cabinet members replaced in key defence and economy posts in the strife-torn west African nation.

The government of new Prime Minister Modibo Keita was appointed by a presidential decree published overnight Saturday, after his predecessor as premier resigned under pressure on Thursday.

Tieman Hubert Coulibaly, a former foreign minister, takes over the defence and veterans portfolio in the new government, which has 29 members in addition to the premier, against 31 in the previous administration.

Banker Mamadou Igor Diarra becomes minister of economy and finance, while the digital economy and communication portfolio went to Choguel Kokala Maiga.

The new government faces many challenges in the conflict-hit country, which descended into crisis in 2012 after Islamist groups seized control of its vast northern desert for several months, prompting a French-led military intervention.

“This is a war government, but also a team that should make the return of peace in the north its priority,” a close associate of the president told GNR.

New Prime Minister Keita, named Thursday, was previously the president’s representative in peace talks launched in July between the government and jihadist rebels based in the north.

His predecessor, Moussa Mara, lasted just eight months as premier.

A member of the Tuareg minority, Mohamed Ag Erlaf, is the new minister of the environment, sanitation and sustainable development.

Other departing ministers include those for industry and education.

Dramane Dembele, an unsuccessful candidate in the 2012 presidential election, becomes minister of urban development and housing.

Mali: 4 prisoners exchanged for French hostage

Paris – The Malian government says it exchanged four prisoners to secure the release of a French hostage held for three years by al-Qaeda’s North African branch.

The liberation of Serge Lazarevic last week revived debate among Western governments over whether to negotiate with hostage-takers.

Mali government spokesman Mahamane Baby said on Sunday that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb demanded the release of six prisoners “but the government freed only four, including two Malians”.

The French government has not publicly confirmed a prisoner exchange or explained the circumstances of Lazarevic’s release.

France insists it pays no ransoms and does not exchange prisoners, although President Francois Hollande has acknowledged that other countries have done so, “to help us”.

EU resumes aid to Mali

Bamako – The European Union has resumed aid to Mali which it suspended in June due to suspected irregularities in government spending, including the purchase of a $40m presidential jet, the Malian government announced on Friday.

The International Monetary Fund had questioned the way the government acquired the plane and a $200m state guarantee for a loan obtained by a private company which won a contract to provide supplies for the army.

The IMF halted its support for the West African country. Other international donors, including France and the EU, which have pledged around $4bn to back Mali’s recovery from a coup and an al-Qaeda linked occupation in the north, also suspended their assistance.

The IMF said this month, however, Malian authorities had complied with a requirement to make public the results of audits into the suspected irregularities.

“I confirm the receipt … of the sum of 62 241 680 110 CFA francs [$117m],” stated a communiqué read on state-owned radio which quoted Finance Minister Bouaré Fily Sissoko’s correspondence with the EU delegation in Mali.

Other donors are expected to follow suit.

The IMF has said Mali faces risks from its unstable security situation and an Ebola epidemic that has crippled the economies of West African neighbours Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the disease has killed more than 6 000 people.

Mali has recorded a handful of Ebola cases, but the health ministry said on Thursday that its last infected patient had recovered.

The IMF predicts Mali’s economy should expand 5.8% this year and 5.5% in 2015, provided Ebola does not spread.

French army kills ‘big fish’ jihadist in Mali

Paris – The French army said on Thursday it had killed a top jihadist commander in a military operation in northern Mali, describing it as a heavy blow to Islamists operating in West Africa.

French forces in the northern Gao region carried out an operation alongside Malian troops which led to the “neutralisation of about a dozen members of an armed terrorist group, including Ahmed el Tilemsi”, said army spokesperson Gilles Jaron.

Malian Defence Minister Ba N’Dao specified in a statement that “six other terrorists were killed and three taken prisoner” in the operation.

With a string of kidnappings of westerners and attacks under his belt, Tilemsi was described by a terrorism expert as a “big fish” and right-hand man of notorious Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Amputations, beatings and executions

Tilemsi was the leader of Belmokhtar’s Al-Murabitoun group in Mali and was earlier this year declared a “specially designated global terrorist” by the US State Department, which offered a $5m reward for information leading to his capture.

“We’ve really hit Al-Murabitoun hard,” said Jaron.

Tilemsi has a long history with jihadist groups operating in the Sahel region, having been a member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) before becoming one of the founding members of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), a splinter group aimed at spreading jihad throughout the region.

Mujao was one of a number of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali last year, imposing a brutal interpretation of Islamic sharia law characterised by amputations, beatings and executions, before being ousted by the French-led military intervention.

In August 2013, it merged with a group run by Belmokhtar to form Al-Murabitoun, which loosely translates as “the guardians” and claimed to seek revenge on France for its actions in Mali.

‘A very valuable target’

The one-eyed Islamist Belmokhtar split from Aqim in 2013 to form his own group and masterminded a deadly raid against Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in which 38 hostages were killed in a four-day siege.

Tilemsi “was a very valuable target. We had been tracking him for several days,” a French government source told GNR.

Mauritanian terrorism expert Isselmou Ould Salihi told GNR that Tilemsi’s death would “hit Belmokhtar hard because he was his right-hand man, a big fish whose death could have a fatal impact on local jihadism.”

The government source said Tilemsi was one of the masterminds of the kidnapping of Gilberto Rodrigues Leal, whom Mujao claimed to have killed last April.

According to the US State Department, Tilemsi also played a role in the kidnapping of two Frenchmen, Antoine de Leocour and Vincent Delory, in Niamey in January 2011 while part of Aqim.

Tons of weapons

The hostages were later found dead after a failed rescue attempt by the French military.

Tilemsi also took part in the October 2011 kidnapping of three aid workers in Algeria, which left two wounded by gunfire, the State Department said.

“The group we hit was known for … preparing suicide attacks,” said the army spokesman Jaron.

Tilemsi, 44, a married father-of-four, was described by Malian security sources as illiterate and having been radicalised at a young age.

France has kept 1 000 troops in northern Mali since operation Serval ousted the Islamist rebels in the region, as part of a wider counter-terrorism operation.

The new operation, nicknamed Barkhane, is taking place across Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad and involves a total 3 000 French troops.

Jaron said French troops had “neutralised about 50 terrorists and several tons of weapons” since Barkhane was launched in August.

SA hostage still held in Mali

Paris – Following the release of Franco-Serbian Serge Lazarevic, held captive in north Africa since 24 November 2011, three European hostages remain in the sub-Saharan region.

A Swede, a Dutchman and a Briton who also holds a South African passport were kidnapped one day later in Timbuktu, northern Mali.

A fourth man from Germany was killed trying to resist his captors.

All of the kidnappings were claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which released two photos to back up their claim.

On 21 August 2012, the Qatari television channel Al-Jazeera broadcast a video that identified the hostages as Stephen Malcolm from Britain and South Africa, Swede Johan Gustafson, and Sjaak Rijke from The Netherlands.

A Mauritanian press agency said on 16 September 2013, that it too had a video of the three Europeans.

On 17 November 2014, AQIM released more video footage of Lazarevic, along with a bearded man identified as Rijke.

Rijke referred to a recording made on 26 September to mark his 1 000th day of detention, and spoke in English.

French hostage freed in Mali

Paris – France’s only remaining hostage held abroad, Serge Lazarevic, who was kidnapped in Mali in 2011, has been freed and is in “relatively good health”, French President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday.

“Our hostage Serge Lazarevic, our last hostage is free,” Hollande said.

“There are no more French hostages in any country in the world.”

Hollande said Lazarevic would be met by his daughter in the Nigerian capital Niamey before making his way back to France where he and his family would be welcomed by the president.

“He is in relatively good health, despite the gruelling conditions of his long captivity,” said Hollande.

Lazarevic, who has dual French and Serbian citizenship, was the last French hostage still being held worldwide, after hiker Herve Gourdel was abducted in Algeria and beheaded in September by Islamic State-linked militants.

Several French citizens have been kidnapped in recent years, mostly in Africa where up to 15 were held in 2013.

Lazarevic was accompanying Frenchman Philippe Verdon on a business trip when they were both seized by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on November 24, 2011.

Both were held throughout the takeover by AQIM and other armed groups of vast areas of northern Mali in 2012 which resulted in an intervention by the French army in January 2013 to oust the Islamists.

Verdon was found shot dead last year and Lazarevic had last been seen in an AQMI video in November in which he said he was gravely ill and believed his life to be in danger.

Hollande thanked authorities in Mali and Niger for their assistance in securing Lazarevic’s release.

“This liberation was the result of intense and continued efforts from authorities both in Niger and Mali,” the presidency in Niamey said in a statement.

French, Dutch hostages in Mali beg for help

Paris – The last French hostage held in Mali by Al-Qaeda’s North African branch has pleaded in a video posted online for France to help negotiate his release.

French President Francois Hollande’s office late on Monday authenticated the video and said it constitutes “proof of life” of the hostage, Serge Lazarevic, who was captured in November 2011. Hollande’s office said it was doing all it could to help gain Lazarevic’s release.

Dutch hostage

The video posted by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb also shows another European hostage identified as Dutchman Sjaak Rijke, who gave the date of his video message as 26 September. The Dutch government has not authenticated the hostage’s identity.

The SITE intelligence group which monitors jihadi online postings made the video available.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took numerous Western hostages until France intervened in Mali in January 2013 to rout the extremists. Hostage-taking has proved to be a lucrative business in Mali and other Sahel countries, but Hollande’s government vows it pays no ransoms.

At one point, at least 14 French nationals were held hostage by Islamic militants in West Africa. Lazarevic is the last Frenchman held. He was captured with associate Philippe Verdon who was shot to death in March 2012 by AQIM in retaliation for France’s military intervention in Mali.

Lazarevic and Verdon were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori in northeastern Mali in November 2011. Their families have said they were in the region doing a feasibility study for a future cement factory.

‘My life is in danger’

“I feel my life is in danger since France intervened in Iraq,” Lazarevic said in the video, referring to French participation in the US-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State militants. Unlike Rijke, he did not give any date for filming the video.

A Frenchman was captured and executed in September in Algeria by a dissident AQIM faction which broke away from the al-Qaida North Africa branch to support the Islamic State group after France joined the coalition against the Islamic State group.

Rijke, speaking in English, said he wanted to send a message to the Dutch government, according to SITE.

“As of today, I hold my government responsible for any harm that comes to me,” Rijke said.

SA man also kidnapped

Rijke was kidnapped in November 2011 from a hostel in Timbuktu along with Swede Johan Gustafsson and South African Stephen Malcolm, who holds dual British citizenship. A German man was killed in the attack.

Rijke was shown with an Islamic extremist-style flag behind him. The Frenchman appeared to be sitting in a truck. There was no indication where they were held or whether they were together.

Both men, bearded, spoke of health problems and addressed their families.

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UN: Nearly 5 million in Mali are hungry

A convergence of droughts, harvest failures, locust invasions and political conflicts in Mali have left 4.75 million people without enough to eat, UN officials said on Friday.

Unicef Emergency Director Afshan Khan said the children’s agency estimates that almost a million children are suffering from varying degrees of malnutrition – and close to half a million youngsters will suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of the year.

“That’s comparable to the crises we see in South Sudan and the Horn of Africa,” Khan said.

John Ging, the director of UN humanitarian operations, warned that without an urgent infusion of additional funds “we can expect that the situation will continue to deteriorate.”

He said the United Nations has received just $230m of the $481m it needs for humanitarian aid for Mali – just 48%.

In June Ging said that nearly 500 000 children under the age of five were at risk of acute malnutrition and 1.5 million people were “food insecure”.

Khan said Unicef more than doubled the number of malnourished children it was providing special nutrition for to 120 000 at the end of 2013, “but that is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed”.

Ging and Khan were part of a mission of emergency directors for UN agencies and NGOs that visited Mali from 3-5 November.

“Mali has been going through a chronic nutrition crisis,” Khan said.

“It’s related to droughts, harvest failures, locust invasions and it’s further been aggravated by the political conflict, the insecurity, the population displacement.”

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French sergeant killed in Mali

France said on Wednesday a French soldier and about 20 Islamist militants were killed during a fierce clash in northern Mali, near the Algerian border, earlier in the day.

Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s office said in a statement that French forces had battled a militant group of 30 fighters in the Tigharghar valley, part of the mountainous Adrar des Ifoghas area.

“Particularly violent combat took place. Our soldier was mortally hurt and two of his comrades were wounded.”

The offices of President Francois Hollande and Le Drian both confirmed the death on Wednesday of Thomas Dupuy, a sergeant from a commando parachutist unit in the air force.

His death raised to 10 the number of French soldiers killed since France intervened militarily in Mali in January 2013 to help drive out Islamist insurgents who had seized control of the former French colony’s north.

About 20 “heavily armed” militants were killed in the operation that included combat helicopters, a statement from the army chief of staff said, adding that operations were ongoing.

A defence ministry source said French forces had launched an operation at the weekend against dozens of militants who had returned to the region after being driven out last year.

Addressing a parliamentary hearing earlier in the day, Le Drian said the militants might be linked to al-Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM, which has thrived in a largely lawless and sparsely populated desert region.

France’s intervention in Mali was designed to retake control of northern towns that had been overrun by separatists and rebels linked to al-Qaeda in 2012 after a coup in the capital Bamako. It has since evolved into a 3 000-strong counter-terrorism mission stretching from Mauritania to southern Libya.

Le Drian on Monday criticised the slow deployment of UN peacekeepers in Mali’s volatile northern region and said he would send more troops to the area while the United Nations builds up its presence there.

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Roadside bombs kills 5 UN peacekeepers in Mali

Bamako – A roadside bomb in northern Mali killed five UN peacekeepers and wounded several others on Thursday, a spokesperson said of the latest in a string of deadly attacks on the force.

A car carrying Chadian troops hit the explosive north of Aguel’hoc, which is near the embattled city of Kidal, said Olivier Salgado.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed outrage at the attack and called on armed groups meeting in Algiers to take immediate action on their 16 September declaration to collaborate with the UN mission to prevent “these cowardly attacks”, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said.

“These continued assaults against the United Nations must cease immediately”, Dujarric said.

Since the UN mission in Mali began on 1 July 2013, he said 21 peacekeepers have been killed by explosive devices and 84 wounded.

Earlier this month, four UN peacekeepers were killed and several were wounded when their convoy hit a mine in the same region. Another mine killed a peacekeeper earlier this week.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility and Salgado did not speculate on who was responsible for the bomb.

Previous land mines have been blamed on Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda, and they have taken responsibility for some.

Northern Mali fell under control of Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012.

A French-led intervention last year scattered the extremists, but some remain active in the countryside and there have been continued bursts of violence.

UN troops are now trying to stabilize the north, and peace talks have begun between the Malian government and Tuaregs, who maintain a heavy presence in Kidal and have resisted the authority of the Bamako-based government. al-Qaeda is not participating in those discussions.

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Mali arrests fugitive Algerian Islamist

Bamako – A suspected lieutenant of al-Qaeda-linked Algerian jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been arrested in northern Mali, security sources said on Friday.

Rebel groups in the northeastern separatist stronghold of Kidal arrested Meherig Jafar before handing him over to the authorities via the French army, a source from the United Nations peacekeeping mission told GNR.

A Malian police source described Jafar as a “big fish” who was wanted in his home country of Algeria.

The source said the Islamist had been found with letters calling for jihad and pictures showing him alongside Belmokhtar.

“We came to the conclusion that, even though he’s refusing to talk at the moment, he is a lieutenant of the jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” he said.

Belmokhtar was a leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which, along with other armed Islamist groups, took advantage of a military coup in 2012 to occupy northern Mali before being driven out by French and African troops.

The one-eyed Islamist split from AQIM in 2013 to form his own group, the Signatories in Blood, and masterminded a deadly raid against Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in which 38 hostages were killed in a four-day siege.

He was thought to have been killed in Mali, but security sources told GNR in April he had moved into Libya and remained active.

France called Tuesday for the international community to act in Libya, amid growing fears the country is becoming a major “terrorist hub” on Europe’s doorstep.

The Bamako government and six rebel groups, mostly Tuareg but also including Arab organisations, are seeking to resolve a decades-old conflict that created a power vacuum in the desert north.

Since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power last year negotiations have stalled, however, and northern Mali has seen a spike in violence by Islamist and separatist militants.

A ceasefire has been in force since May when the rebels seized a large swathe of northern Mali in a major offensive.

A second round of negotiations opened on 1 September in Algeria, aimed at clinching a lasting peace agreement.

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Mali refugees face food crisis

VIDEO: silent crisis in Niger
Timbuktu – A pile of stones and wood was all that remained of the house where Fadimata Walet Abdou Salam once lived when she and her young daughters returned after more than a year of sleeping in a tent as refugees in a foreign country.

Looters had stolen the windows and doors, and then heavy rains transformed the earthen walls into a heap of mud after she had to abandon her home in Timbuktu following unrest and violence.

Northern Mali fell under control of Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaeda-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led intervention last year scattered the extremists, but some remain active and there have been continued bursts of violence. Walet Abdou Salam and her family were among the Tuareg and Arab residents who fled reprisal attacks in January 2013 after jihadists were ousted from power.

For months, she and her two daughters – 11-year-old Aicha and 9-year-old Karima, lived in neighbouring Burkina Faso, fearing for their lives after a series of attacks on ethnic Tuaregs like her.

“We came home to find our house in this state, and it was a huge shock for me,” she says of the looted plot of earth next to a school where her two-bedroom home used to stand.

Nearly 54 000 refugees are still in Mauritania some 18 months after major fighting ended in northern Mali, along with about 51000 in Niger and 33 000 in Burkina Faso, aid officials say.

While a peace accord still has not been reached between the Malian government and the Tuareg separatist rebels in the north, a growing number of Malian refugees like Walet Abdou Salam and her family are now returning home anyway.

Living conditions in the camps are poor, and the town of Timbuktu is considered somewhat safer now for the Arab and Tuareg residents who fled.

Food crisis

Many, though, are coming back to almost nothing: Shops destroyed, a tourism economy decimated by war and kidnappings of foreigners.

“The return of the refugees has been a spontaneous one without organisation,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who met with Malian returnees in Timbuktu late last month.

The growing number of Malians coming back to the north also coincides with a looming food crisis in the region. Last year’s harvest was not good, and already many did not have sufficient rice stocks, said Halle Ousmane, the deputy mayor of Timbuktu.

“Then the rains came late this year and there had been a drought,” he explained. “Many sheep and cattle had died, and on top of that livestock prices fell. Herders were forced to sell cattle at $10 to buy grain for their families when normally they would sell at $200.”

Walet Abdou Salam says she’s angry with the neighbours who stole her things but also upset with local authorities for doing nothing to protect the homes of those who fled. And she also wishes aid groups would do more to help those returning like her.

“Today my only wish is to rebuild my home and send my daughters to school,” she said.

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Amnesty: Mali holding children as adults

Bamako – Children accused of belonging to armed militias in Mali and participating in the country’s ongoing unrest are languishing in jails and being held alongside adults, an international human rights group charged.

In a brief report released on Thursday, Amnesty International said that holding children with adults, often without access to lawyers or their families, violates international law.

Researchers who visited West African country in June interviewed seven detainees whom they suspect are minors. The group said they have long been concerned that children recruited by militant groups in Mali are not being offered opportunities for rehabilitation and are being held along with adults.

“Children have suffered throughout this conflict,” said Gaetan Mootoo, Amnesty’s researcher for West Africa. “A number of them as young as 16 have been recruited as child soldiers and those accused of being members of armed groups are being detained alongside adults without access to family or legal counsel.”

Northern Mali fell under the control of armed separatists and then al-Qaeda-linked extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led intervention last year scattered the extremists, but some continue to sow violence across the north.

Amnesty has called on Malian troops and French forces, who are still participating in operations in Mali, to verify the ages of anyone they detain. It has also asked the Malian government to ensure no minors are being held.

Amnesty said the Ministry of Justice said it would look into the allegations. After the researchers’ visit, four minors were released, but Amnesty said more are still being held.

The report also criticised the conditions for all detainees and documented the deaths of two inmates, whom Amnesty said did not receive proper medical care.

Amnesty said the Ministry of Justice acknowledged that detention conditions are “sub-human” but said that a new prison is in the works.

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Mali opens inquiry into Air Algerie crash

Bamako – Mali has opened a judicial probe into the Air Algerie plane disaster as part of international efforts to determine the cause of the crash, Mali’s Minister of Solidarity and Humanitarian Action said on Sunday.

“Mali opened a judicial inquiry immediately after the discovery of the plane… for manslaughter,” Hamadou Konate told our news crew after visiting the family of Bakary Diallo, the only Malian killed in the crash.

A total of 118 people died, with entire families were wiped out, when an Air Algerie plane crashed in Mali’s remote, barren Gossi area, not far from the border with Burkina Faso last Thursday.

Travellers from Burkina Faso, Lebanon, Algeria, Spain, Canada, Germany and Luxembourg were also killed in the disaster, which is increasingly being blamed on bad weather that forced the pilots to change course.

France on Thursday opened a preliminary investigation for manslaughter led by the commanding general of the aviation police.

Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore on Saturday also announced an inquiry into the cause of the disaster after meeting with relatives of some crash victims in Ouagadougou.

“International cooperation is underway so that we can find out what happened to the plane,” Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said Saturday after meeting with Algeria’s Transport Minister Amar Ghoul.

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Wreckage of Air Algerie plane carrying 116 people found in Mali

Authorities said on Thursday they located the wreckage of an Air Algerie flight after it crashed in northern Mali carrying 116 passengers and crew, nearly half of them French, en route from Burkina Faso to Algeria.

Regional aviation officials said they had lost contact with flight AH5017 at around 0155 GMT (9:55 p.m ET) on Thursday, less than an hour after takeoff, following a request by the pilot to change course due to bad weather.

Two French Mirage fighter jets and United Nations helicopters on Thursday had for hours hunted for the wreck of the McDonnell Douglas MD-83 plane in remote northern Mali, a region prey to scattered Islamist militants and Tuareg separatist fighters.

Malian state television said the wreckage of the flight was discovered between the town of Gossi and the Burkina Faso border. It said President Ibrahima Boubacar Keita would visit the site of the crash on Friday.

General Gilbert Diendere, a member of the crisis unit in Burkina Faso, said his team of investigators had already inspected the wreckage near the village of Boulikessi, 50 km (31 miles) from the frontier.

“This team has confirmed that it has seen the remains of the plane, totally burned out and scattered on the ground,” Diendere told local television, adding the remains of dead bodies had also been discovered.

“Sadly, the team saw no one on site. It saw no survivors.”

Communications Minister Alain Edouard Traore said the accident was the worst in Burkina Faso’s aviation history. President Blaise Compaore declared two days of national mourning, starting on Friday.

Burkina Faso authorities said the passenger list included 51 French, 27 Burkinabe, eight Lebanese, six Algerians, five Canadians, four Germans, two from Luxembourg, one Cameroonian, one Belgian, one Egyptian, one Ukranian, one Swiss, one Nigerian and one Malian. The Lebanese Foreign Ministry said its embassy in Abidjan estimated the number of Lebanese citizens on the flight was at least 20, some of whom may have dual nationality.

“We don’t know anything yet. We have just heard from the news that the plane went missing,” said Amina Daher, whose sister-in-law Randa was traveling on the plane with her three children, and returning to Beirut to celebrate the Muslim religious festival of Eid El-Fitr with her family.

HERDERS “SAW THE PLANE FALL”

Another plane crash is likely to add to nerves over flying a week after a Malaysia Airlines plane was downed over Ukraine, and a TransAsia Airways plane crashed off Taiwan during a thunderstorm on Wednesday. International airlines also temporarily canceled flights into Tel Aviv this week, citing security concerns amid the instability in Gaza.

Swiftair, the private Spanish company that owns the plane, confirmed the MD-83 operated by Air Algerie was carrying 110 passengers and six crew. It said it took off from Burkina Faso at 0117 GMT and was due to land at 0510 GMT, but never reached its destination.

A spokeswoman for SEPLA, Spain’s pilots union, said the six crew were from Spain.

A local official in Gossi said the crash had been witnessed by a group of herders near the village of Hamni-Ganda, and word was passed to authorities in Burkina Faso.

“The herders were in the bush and saw the plane fall,” Louis Berthaud, a community counsellor in Gossi, told Reuters by telephone. “It must have been a storm and it was struck by lightning. They said it was on fire as it fell, before it crashed.”

Asked if he suspected a terrorist attack, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said authorities believed the cause of the crash may have been bad weather, but no hypothesis had been excluded.

French President Francois Hollande had earlier canceled a planned visit to overseas territories and said France – which has some 1,700 troops stationed in Mali – would use all military means on the ground to locate the aircraft.

“We cannot identify the causes of what happened,” Hollande told reporters.

Much of northern Mali lies in the hands of Tuareg separatist rebels, who rose up against the government in early 2012, triggering an Islamist revolt that briefly seized control of northern Mali. A French-led international operation in early 2013 broke the Islamists control over northern Mali.

RELATIVELY CLEAN RECORD

The MD-83 is part of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 family of twin-engine jets that entered service in 1980. A total of 265 of the MD-83 model were delivered before McDonnell Douglas, by then part of Boeing, halted production in 1999.

“Boeing is aware of the report. We are awaiting additional information,” a spokesman for the U.S. planemaker said.

According to the Ascend Fleets database held by British-based Flightglobal, there are 187 MD-83s still in operation, of which 80 percent are being flown in the United States.

The aircraft’s two engines are made by Pratt & Whitney, a unit of United Technologies.

Swiftair has a relatively clean safety record, with five accidents since 1977, two of which caused a total of eight deaths, according to the Washington-based Flight Safety Foundation.

Air Algerie’s last major accident was in 2003 when one of its planes crashed shortly after take-off from the southern city of Tamanrasset, killing 102 people. In February, 77 people died when an Algerian military transport plane crashed into a mountain in eastern Algeria.

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Mali govt, rebels swap prisoners before peace talks

Bamako – Tuareg rebels and the Malian government on Tuesday exchanged dozens of prisoners in a goodwill gesture on the eve of peace talks opening in Algiers, an AFP correspondent witnessed.

Forty-five Malian soldiers and police captured during clashes at the end of May in the west African nation’s restive northeast arrived at Bamako’s airport, where they were welcomed by Prime Minister Moussa Mara.

They were replaced on the plane by 41 militants captured during patrols of the north by security forces, with the rebels due to be to returned to their homeland, known by the Tuareg as “Azawad”.

“In total today (Tuesday) the Malian government and armed groups in the north have released 86 prisoners on both sides, in the context of an easing of tension,” security ministry official Aliou Toure told AFP.

The exchange had been agreed as part of negotiations between the two sides ahead of the talks, a separate official source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“The Malian government has released 41 prisoners from the ranks of armed groups from the north, and they have released 45 members of the security forces of Mali. All prisoners released from both sides are healthy,” the source said.

The freed Tuareg, captured during clashes in the rebel bastion of Kidal from 17 to 21 May, are members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA).

The skirmishes resulted in the deaths of 50 soldiers in an embarrassing defeat for the army.

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French soldier killed in Mali suicide bombing

PARIS – A French soldier was killed in a suicide bombing in northern Mali, where local and foreign troops have struggled to restore order after quelling an Islamist insurgency last year, officials said.

The Foreign Legion soldier, the ninth to die since France intervened in its former colony in January 2013, was killed in the northern city of Gao on Monday, the defence ministry said.

France’s intervention in the African country halted the advance of al Qaeda-linked Islamists who had taken advantage of a Tuareg separatist uprising to occupy swathes of land in the north.

France and other Western powers feared the Islamists could further destabilise the region and use the country as a launchpad for foreign attacks.

Peace talks were due to begin between Mali government officials and Tuareg rebels in Algeria on Wednesday.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was also set to travel to Mali on Wednesday and President Francois Hollande was due in the region later this week. Both had been expected to say the security threat in Mali had reduced and that France should start redeploying its troops.

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Mali arrest fugitive for jail break

Bamako – Mali security forces have arrested Mahamed Aly Ag Wadoussene, a fugitive at the heart of a jail break in Mali’s capital on June 16 in which at least two people were killed and 22 prisoners escaped, officials said on Wednesday.

Ag Wadoussene who shot his way out of the prison, was being held for his alleged role in the 2011 kidnapping of two French citizens who ended up in the hands of al Qaeda’s in north Africa.

The kidnapping and jail break served as a reminder about the fragile security situation in the West African state after a 2012 coup led to the collapse of the army, allowing al Qaeda-linked Islamists to occupy three vast desert regions for nearly a year.

“Mahamed Aly Ag Wadoussene was arrested in Bamako. We knew he was going to try and contact his girlfriend, who lives with a family in Bamako,” Major Modibo Traoré, a Mali army spokesman told Reuters.

Colonel Souleymane Maiga, confirmed the arrest, adding that Ag Wadoussene was arrested on Tuesday night at the Hamdalaye neighbourhood in the Malian capital.

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Mali ceasefire must be implemented: UN

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for the immediate implementation of a ceasefire agreement to end the unrest in northern Mali.

In a report to the UN Security Council (UNSC), Ban said that the continuation of violence since last month had led to “an altered security landscape in the north of Mali with risks for international security.”

On May 23, the Tuareg fighters, who still control the northern town of Kidal, and the Malian government signed a ceasefire agreement brokered by the African Union (AU).

Under the ceasefire deal, both sides were committed to returning to an agreement signed last June, which requires the Tuareg to keep their fighters stationed prior to disarmament, a commitment they have not lived up to.

The UN chief said that the unrest posed a significant threat to civilians, UN peacekeepers, and the delivery of humanitarian aid. He warned that “in the absence of a political process, terrorist groups will seize opportunities to target Malian and international forces, and threaten civilians in the north.”

This comes days after a bomb explosion at a camp in Kidal killed four UN peacekeepers.

Chaos broke out in Mali after President Amadou Toumani Toure was toppled in a military coup in March 2012. The coup leaders said they mounted the coup in response to the government’s inability to contain the Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country.

The violence continues despite the intervention of French troops last year and their ongoing presence in Mali.

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Mali leader urges ceasefire, orders three days of mourning

Mali’s president called for a ceasefire in the restive north of the country and ordered three days of mourning from Friday as Tuareg separatists claimed they captured more than a key desert bastion after slaying several soldiers.

Tuareg militants killed the soldiers during clashes in the rebel-held town of Kidal on Wednesday, a United Nations source told news wire AFP, as a rebel leader said three armed groups had also taken other northern towns.

After clashes during the day “the situation is calm tonight in Kidal”, which is under the control of rebel groups, National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) spokesman Moussa Ag Assarid told AFP from Kidal.

“We took several towns from where the army fled without a fight,” he added, citing Anderamboukane, Menaka, Aguelhoc, Tessalit and Anefis.

Mohamed Ag Rhissa, one of the MNLA leaders, told AFP by telephone his group had taken “control of the whole town of Kidal” and that “we have prisoners”.

The fighting shattered an uneasy calm, which had held since the MNLA took 32 civil servants hostage during a battle that left eight Malian soldiers and 28 rebels dead.

“The noise of gunfire has stopped… There are prisoners and deaths among the Malian army’s ranks,” a source from the MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, told AFP, adding that the rebels appeared to have the upper hand.

The fighting first broke out during a visit to Kidal on Saturday by Prime Minister Moussa Mara, whose government is backed by French soldiers who have helped dislodge rebels and armed Islamic extremists from the desert north.

The government has said that the MNLA is being backed in Kidal by Islamist fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and others.

‘Our responsibilities’

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita called for an “immediate ceasefire” in the fighting in Kidal that had left “several wounded and caused the loss of human life”, the government said in a statement.

Mr Keita’s plea was “in line with requests by the UN secretary general and (made) in the name of the international community”, said the statement read on public ORTM television by government spokesman Mahamane Baby.

“Our men are still on the ground fighting the joint forces of AQIM, MUJAO and other militants. That’s all we can say at the moment,” a Malian defence ministry source had said earlier.

Alghabass Ag Intalla, secretary general of the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, said his group and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) had also played a key role in the fighting.

“This morning, we were the first to have been attacked by the Malian army. So we took up our responsibilities. We mobilised the MNLA and MAA and together we took control of the city,” he said.

The hostages were freed on Monday as 1,500 Malian troops poured into Kidal, sent to restore government control to the bastion of the Tuareg separatist movement, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) northeast of the capital.

Not resolved

Mali descended into crisis in January 2012, when the MNLA launched the latest in a string of Tuareg insurgencies in the north.

A subsequent coup in Bamako led to chaos, and militants linked to Al-Qaeda overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali’s northern half.

A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 ousted the extremists, but sporadic attacks have continued and the Tuareg’s demand for autonomy has not been resolved.

Tuareg separatists occupied the regional governor’s office for nine months before handing it back in November last year as part of a June peace deal that paved the way for presidential elections.

But the process deeply divided the MNLA, whose ultimate goal is the independence of Azawad, the minority Tuareg name for their homeland in northern Mali.

Up until the agreement, the Tuareg group had refused to allow any government soldiers or civil servants into the desert town.

‘Sincere’ talks

The UN Security Council in a statement Tuesday called for an end to violence across northern Mali.

It also called for “sincere” peace talks and “reiterated that only a credible and inclusive negotiation process can bring long-term peace and stability throughout the country”.

MINUSMA sources said several hundred people had fled their homes in Kidal to the relative safety of nearby desert camps.

With the UN peacekeeping mission soon up for renewal, Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop has requested “a much more robust mandate, under Chapter VII of the UN charter” — which allows for the use of force.

This would enable the soldiers to “deal with threats on the ground and disarmament of all armed groups, in particular the MNLA”, he said.

The French army announced on Wednesday it had sent 100 soldiers to Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, where 1,000 of its troops are already stationed

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Mali coup leader faces possible death penalty

The leader of Mali’s 2012 coup, General Amadou Sanogo, could face the death penalty after a new charge was laid against him following the discovery of the bodies of soldiers who opposed his rise to power, officials have said.

The new charge of assassination conspiracy follows the unearthing of a mass grave of loyalist soldiers.

So far, 30 bodies have been dug from mass graves around the former military government headquarters in Kati, about 20km north of the capital Bamako.

Sanogo was arrested and charged with complicity in kidnapping in November over the disappearance during the 2012 coup of dozens of paratroopers loyal to toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure.

A close aide to investigating judge Yaya Karembe, who placed Sanogo in custody in late 2013, confirmed that the new charge, which carries a possible death sentence, was related to the discovery of the mass grave.

“Now he is charged with complicity to commit murder,” Harouna Toureh told Reuters, noting that the charge carried the death penalty if found guilty.

A justice official said Sanogo was informed that only the assassination charge, which carries the death penalty, was being pursued.

The general’s coup toppled what had been heralded as one of the region’s most stable democracies and precipitated the fall of northern Mali to Al Qaeda-linked groups until a French-led military operation forced them out.

In the months after the coup and a failed counter-coup in April 2012, Sanogo’s then-headquarters in Kati were the scene of abuses and killings carried out against soldiers seen as loyal to Toure.

Politicians, journalists and civil society leaders were also victims of the army’s brutality.

The case against Sanogo and other soldiers is part of a push by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to assert civilian control over the Malian army, which is accused by human rights groups of excessive violence and torture during the period.

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UN envoy calls for more troops in northern Mali

The top UN envoy in Mali is calling for beefed up national and international forces in the country’s volatile north to confront stepped up shelling, terrorist activity and clashes between rival communities.

Albert Koenders told the UN Security Council on Wednesday that the violent incidents reflect the very fragile security situation in the north and the need to fast-track the reconciliation process, strengthen military forces, and start a programme to demobilise armed groups.

A 2012 coup plunged Mali into chaos and expedited the seizure of the country’s north by a mix of rebel groups, including al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.

A French-led military intervention routed the rebels but hold-outs remain. French troops and a UN peacekeeping force occupy the north.

Despite the attacks, Koenders said Mali is on the road to peace.

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Kidnapped aid workers freed in Mali

Bamako – French troops in Mali on Thursday freed five local aid workers kidnapped in February, the presidents of France and Mali said in a joint statement.

Four of the aid workers work for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The statement said the aid workers were freed near the northern town of Timbuktu and were in good health.

It was not clear at the time who seized the aid workers and the statement did not give any further details.

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