French security forces have killed more than 50 jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda in airstrikes in central Mali.
French defence minister Florence Parly said that the offensive took place on Friday in an area near the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger. Notably, the government troops were struggling to defeat an Islamic insurgency in the area.
Major blow for Ansarul Islam group
Referring to the French-led anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane, Parly said, “On October 30 in Mali, the Barkhane force conducted an operation that neutralised more than 50 jihadists and confiscated arms and material.”
She added that around 30 motorcycles were also destroyed in the operation.
Parly, who earlier met Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou and her Nigerien counterpart Issoufou Katambe before heading to Bamako, said the operation was launched after a drone detected a “very large” motorcycle caravan in the “three borders” area.
When the jihadists moved under trees to try and escape surveillance, the French force sent in two Mirage jets and a drone to launch missiles, leading to the “neutralisation” of the insurgents, Parly said.
Parly said the action marked a “significant blow” to the Ansarul Islam group which she said was linked to Al-Qaeda via the GSIM alliance led by Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Ghaly has emerged as a top jihadist leader in the Sahel since the death of the Qaeda commander Abdelmalek Droukdel, who was killed by French forces in Mali in June.
The United Nations has some 13,000 troops deployed in Mali as part of its peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, while France has 5,100 deployed in the Sahel region.
Military spokesman Colonel Frederic Barbry said that “four terrorists have been captured”.
Explosives and a suicide vest had been found, he told reporters in a conference call, saying that the group had been “about to attack (an army) position in the region”.
Mali struggling to contain jihadist insurgency
Mali has been struggling to contain a brutal jihadist insurgency which first emerged in the north of the country in 2012, overtaking a rebellion by mostly ethnic Tuareg separatists.
Former colonial power France launched a military operation to drive back the Islamists in 2013, but fighting has spread to central Mali, and to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes.
Another French operation against IS underway
Military spokesman Colonel Frederic Barbry revealed that another operation, this time targeting the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, was also underway, with a total of 3,000 soldiers.
The results of the operation, launched about a month ago, would be announced in the coming days, he said.
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