63 Mali soldiers, 600 Islamists ‘killed this year’
The Malian army said Wednesday 63 of its troops and 600 rebels had died since the launch of French-led operations two months ago to take back the north from hardline Islamist groups.
The announcement by the military came as UN leader Ban Ki-Moon said up to 11,200 troops could be needed for a peacekeeping mission in the troubled west African nation.
In a surprise intervention, France sent troops to Mali in January to prevent an advance on the capital Bamako by Al Qaeda-linked fighters who overran northern Mali a year ago, taking advantage of a vacuum left after a coup.
“Since the start of the military offensive launched January 11, 2013 against the Islamists, the death toll is 63 Malian soldiers killed and our opponents have lost about 600 fighters,” army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Souleymane Maiga told AFP.
He said one Togolese and a Burkinabe soldier had also been killed in Operation Serval, which has also claimed the lives of five French troops.
France, which has 4,000 troops in the country, is eager to withdraw and hand over to an African force, known as AFISMA, which would be transformed into a UN peacekeeping mission.
It has urged the 15-member council to pass a resolution in April to set up the peacekeeping force that could be in place by July.
AFISMA currently has around 6,300 soldiers from west African countries and Chad.
Ban said the 11,200-strong peacekeeping mission would need to be backed up by a “parallel” military force to battle Islamist fighters.
The peacekeepers could only cover main towns “assessed to be at highest risk”, Ban said in a grim report on conditions in Mali that the UN Security Council will discuss later Wednesday.
The UN leader said there would be a “fundamental requirement for a parallel force” in Mali and possibly neighbouring countries — in a clear signal that France will have to maintain a strong military involvement in the conflict.
The second force would “conduct major combat and counter-terrorism operations and provide specialist support beyond the scope of the United Nations mandate and capability,” the UN secretary general said.
Having been beaten out of Mali’s northern cities, the Islamists have retreated to inhospitable desert and mountain hideouts from where they launch guerrilla attacks on French, Chadian and Malian forces trying to flush them out.
Ansar Dine, which occupied northern Mali last year with two other Islamist groups, has vowed to continue its fight to drive out French and African troops.
“We reassure our parents in Mali, particularly in Azawad (northern Mali), that their sons within Ansar Dine are in a good situation, resist by the grace of Allah and continue to lead the fighting…” the group said Tuesday in a statement published by Mauritanian news portal Sahara Media.
Ansar Dine, along with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, are accused of committing atrocities while in control of the northern cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, including amputations and summary executions.
While the militant groups have gone underground, Ban’s report said there was a “crisis of governance” in Bamako, marked by “endemic corruption” and a lack of state authority.
A political roadmap adopted by the transitional government calls for elections to be held by July 31.
But UN peacekeeping deputy chief Edmond Mulet said in a confidential report to Ban, obtained by AFP, that he thought it “unlikely” the elections could be held on time.