BAMAKO: A French counter-terrorism offensive in rebel-infested northern Mali ended on Friday with 11 Islamist militants killed and a French soldier wounded, military sources inside the operation told AFP.
The action came as Paris steps up its campaign against armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda holed up in Mali’s vast desert, following the former French colony’s recent return to democratic government after a coup which plunged the country into chaos.
“The French military operation in the Timbuktu region is completed. Eleven terrorists were killed. A French soldier was wounded but his life is not in danger,” said an official from France’s Operation Serval military mission in its former colony.
A foreign source told AFP on Thursday troops were targeting the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Signatories in Blood — an armed unit founded by fugitive jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar — and fighters loyal to slain warlord Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.
A Malian military source confirmed the information, saying “the French have done a good job, because the jihadists, notably from Libya, are reorganising to occupy the region and dig in permanently”.
The sources said military equipment and phones belonging to Islamist militants were seized by French troops.
The French operation took place a few hundred kilometres (miles) north of the desert caravan town of Timbuktu, according to a Malian security source.
Two explosions were reported late Friday in Kidal, some 300 miles northeast of Timbuktu, an African military source and a local official said.
One blast was heard near a Malian military base and another north of the town near the regional office of the state broadcaster but no further details were immediately available.
Algerians Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar were leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which, along with MUJAO and other Islamist groups took advantage of a military coup in 2012 to occupy northern Mali before being driven out by French-led troops.
Abou Zeid was killed in fighting led by the French army in the far-northern Ifoghas mountains in late February last year, while Belmokhtar remains at large.
An African military source in MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, confirmed the operations on Thursday, while a local government source in Timbuktu told AFP “more than 100 French soldiers” had headed north from the town.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian spoke of the operation when he was asked by a French television station on Thursday to assess military activities in Mali over the past year.
He said that “not everything is finished, the terrorist risk in this part of Africa remains high”.
“We will keep 1,000 soldiers who are carrying out counter-terrorism missions,” he added. “We have operations targeting groups rebuilding on two fronts, firstly around Timbuktu and then in the Ifoghas mountains.”
Belmokhtar split from AQIM last year and launched the Signatories in Blood, masterminding a raid of Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in which 38 hostages were killed in a four-day siege.
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