Joint Patrol Signals New Era in Mali
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Malian Soldiers and former Tuareg rebels staged their first joint patrol in northern Mali, a key step in a 2015 peace agreement meant to help calm a region under threat from extremism. As helicopters with the United Nations peacekeeping mission hovered overhead, 50 men in distinctive turbans started to patrol the city of Gao in February 2017. The city has been a frequent target of attacks by extremists, including one in January that killed 54.
The joint battalion of 600 people is the first to formally combine Malian Soldiers with the rebels from armed independent groups of the Azawad region who signed the peace deal. The patrols are aimed at “building confidence and curtailing insecurity in northern Mali pending the full restoration of state authority,” said Stephane Dujarric, spokeswoman for the U.N. secretary-general.
The new units face the challenge of securing the vast region and rooting out extremists. They also must get along in the process. The Tuaregs’ quest for autonomy has been a source of conflict with the government for decades. Former rebels participating in the patrols have been vetted to ensure they are not allied to extremist groups.
“Today, it’s not a question of the Coordination of the Movements of Azawad [former Tuareg rebellion group] or the Malian Army,” said Hassan Ag Ibrahim, a young Tuareg fighter who was patrolling on foot alongside a Malian Soldier. “We fight together all under the same flag: the green, the yellow and the red.”
Northern Mali has been unstable since 2012, when extremists linked to al-Qaida took over the region, exploiting a power vacuum after mutinous soldiers overthrew the president. French and African forces pushed the extremists from strongholds in 2013, but attacks have continued and have pushed farther south. More peacekeepers have been killed as part of the U.N. mission in Mali than in any other active peacekeeping mission in the world.
More recently, extremists have issued statements threatening Tuareg and Arab families in northern Mali about participating in the joint operation, and they have followed through on those threats.
On January 18, 2017, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden vehicle into a military camp in Gao, killing at least 54 people and injuring more than 100 others. Al-Mourabitoun, a group linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, claimed responsibility and warned of more to come to punish “all who were lured by France.”
Those backing the joint patrol, and some residents of Gao, remain committed to the task.
Mohamed Maiga, a resident, said he hoped the joint patrol would bring peace. “They must continue their patrols of this type so that terrorists and armed bandits stop attacks and robberies,” he said.