Five United Nations peacekeepers were killed and some 30 others wounded when suspected Islamists attacked their base in Mali’s restive north on Friday, as three Malian soldiers perished in an ambush in the same region, the UN chief and security sources said.
The latest attacks highlighted the vulnerability of the sprawling arid north, where UN peacekeepers and Malian soldiers are struggling in their fight against jihadists who seized vast swathes of territory in 2012.
UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon condemned the “massive” assault on the base of the UN mission in Mali, or MINUSMA, in the strategic town of Kidal and recalled that targeting peacekeepers constitutes a war crime.
UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said some of the peacekeepers who were killed were from Guinea and that there “may be other nationalities involved”, describing the attack early Friday as a “massive and complex one.”
Two Guinean soldiers died on the spot. Two other soldiers, among seven seriously wounded, died later of their injuries, a Guinean source said.
The source said a vehicle “carrying suicide bombers entered the camp shortly the assailants fired rockets.”
The raid coincided with a visit to the region by the new chief of MINUSMA, Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who began touring the north on Monday.
UN decries ‘odious act’
Annadif said the raid was an “odious and irresponsible act” which highlighted the “confusion in the ranks of the enemies of peace.”
Annadif was in Kidal a week after a peace pact eased tensions in the town, where the arrival early in February of members of a pro-government group had upset the former rebels in the Coordination of Movements of the Azawad.
Azawad is the name the traditionally nomadic Tuareg people of the desert use for territory they regard as their homeland, straddling the southern Sahara and the Sahel.
In a separate attack, three Malian soldiers were killed and two others were wounded near the fabled city of Timbuktu, a Malian military source said.
“Three of our men died today between Timbuktu and Goundam when they were ambushed by jihadists,” a Malian officer told AFP. “Two others were wounded but their lives are not in danger.”
The defence ministry confirmed the attack, condemning what it termed a “cowardly” strike.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said there was a pressing need to secure the north.
“We have to find a solution to this,” he said. “Kidal cannot remain like this... where attacks occur on a daily basis and the international community and we ourselves watch on,” he said.
Visiting German President Joachim Gauck agreed, telling a joint press conference that he was aware of the “threat still hanging over the country.
On Thursday, a customs officer and two civilians were killed in another Islamist strike in the northern town of Hombori, two days after three Malian soldiers died in an explosion while they were patrolling the frontier near Burkina Faso.
The latest attack came a week after at least four suspected jihadists and a Malian soldier were killed in clashes at a UN camp for police officers from Nigeria in Timbuktu.
That assault came just a day after the fabled city had celebrated the restoration of its greatest treasures -- earthen mausoleums dating to medieval times that were destroyed during an Islamist takeover in 2012.
Responsibility for the raid on Timbuktu was claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The sprawling north of the country continues to be beset by violence having fallen under the control of Tuareg-led rebels and jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.
The Islamists sidelined the Tuareg to take sole control and although they were largely ousted by a French-led military operation in January 2013 extremist groups still pose a threat.