Civilians flee as jihadists advance in northeast Mali

Jihadists linked to the Islamic State group are advancing in northeastern Mali, forcing terrified citizens to flee their homes, sources there say.

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) launched an offensive in the Gao and Menak regions in March, sparking heavy fighting with local armed groups and rival jihadists.

“If nothing is done, the whole region will be occupied” by jihadists, a human rights activist contacted AFP on WhatsApp, said on condition of anonymity.

Witnesses and other sources contacted AFP confirmed a sustained ISGS push in this remote and dangerous area, and human rights activists say civilians have been killed.

The strategic cities of Gao and Menaka have long been at the forefront of Mali’s decade-long jihadist crisis.

Since 2012, thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced by the insurgency, which has spread to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Desperation from the losses prompted Malian army officers to stage a coup d’état in 2020.

The junta brought Russian paramilitary formations — the move that prompted France will withdraw troops who fought the jihadists for nine years.


Outside of these two cities, the region is mostly desert, populated mostly by nomads.

They bore the brunt of clashes between the pro-independence Tuareg and the Malian army between 2012 and 2015.

They are now caught in the crossfire between the ISGS on one side and a motley array of armed groups on the other.

The Gudebou refugee camp in northern Burkina Faso hosts about 11,000 Malians. Photo: Olympia de Maismont/AFP

The latter consist of al-Qaeda jihadists; independence fighters who signed a peace agreement with the government in 2015; and pro-government Tuareg fighters who previously fought pro-independence groups.

The UN and non-governmental organizations have reported repeated attacks on communities accused of supporting the enemy or refusing to join the jihadists.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said last month that hundreds of villagers were killed in massacres by ISGS fighters.

Eleven were killed on Monday when gunmen on motorcycles raided a camp for displaced people in Kaji, near Gao, local officials and aid workers said. AFP.

Musa Ag Acharatumanhead of the loyalist Movement for Security of Azawad (MSA), said there was an “atmosphere of terror”.

“All economic life has stopped, roads are destroyed,” he said.

“(It’s) an unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” he said, adding that the town of Menaka was swamped with displaced people.

The mayor of the Menaka administrative region said there was “no one left” in his area.

A UN document released this month said nearly 60,000 people had arrived in Gao.

Several sources said the jihadists had moved into the vacuum left when France withdrew its troops from the region.

The border with neighboring Niger marks the border of hostilities.

Niger’s army is supported in the air and on the ground by foreign forces, including the French Barkhane mission.

On the Malian side, the army is stuck in the town of Menaka, a tactic that leaves the “way open” for jihadists, a local elected official who has fled to Bamako said. AFP.

Stone beating

He and others painted a grim picture of life in areas under jihadist control.

“If you’re not with them, you’re against them,” the official said.

Militant-taken villages must pay an Islamic tax and obey a strict interpretation of Sharia.

An aid worker in Ansongo said an unmarried couple, aged 50 and 36, were stoned to death in Tin Hama village in September.

“They would dig him up on the weekly market day and put (them) … up to her thighs and then throw stones at them,” the source said.

A security source in Niger said pro-government forces are trying to recruit outside help for their cause.

One idea is to form an alliance with former rebels from the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), a shadowy group led by al-Qaeda-linked Tuareg. Iyad Ag Ghali.

But the chances of a united front are low, said an African diplomat in Bamako.

“From a political point of view, the open association of people with Al-Qaeda today will be difficult,” said the diplomat. Civilians flee as jihadists advance in northeast Mali

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