At least one Malian soldier was killed by suspected jihadists Friday in the country’s restive north, hours before France’s prime minister visited French troops deployed in the region to help quash the Sahel’s Islamist threat.
Military sources and a civilian witness told AFP that in the assault on a Malian army post in the town of Menaka another soldier was wounded and at least one army vehicle stolen.
The latest death highlights the tough security problem for Malian, French and UN forces as they attempt to maintain order over vast stretches of desert where extremist groups roam, after being ousted from key towns by a French-led military operation in January 2013.
The area had fallen under the control of Tuareg-led rebels and jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Friday morning met French troops stationed in the main town of Gao. The soldiers are part of the regional anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane, a follow-up mission to 2013’s Operation Serval inside Mali.
Accompanied by Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, Valls participated in a military ceremony on his second day in Mali, after describing the fight against Islamic militancy as a “battle against barbarity”.
Barkhane comprises at least 3,500 soldiers deployed across five countries (Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso) with a mandate to combat jihadist insurgencies in the region.
Mali has concluded a landmark peace agreement between the government and Tuareg-led rebels, but jihadist violence has intensified on the ground and the handling of a return to peace has been criticised by the international community.
Seven Guinean UN peacekeepers were killed and some 30 wounded a week ago when suspected Islamists attacked their base in northern Mali, while three Malian soldiers died in an ambush the same day.
Valls is also due to meet the chief of the UN force, known as MINUSMA, on Friday along with the head of an EU training mission for Malian troops.