The government announces two attacks, killing 64 people including 49 civilians and 15 soldiers, and declaring national mourning.
Sixty-four people, including 49 civilians and 15 soldiers, were killed on Thursday in two "terrorist" attacks targeting a passenger river transport boat and an army base in northern Mali, in an area that has been under heavy pressure from armed groups fighting the central government in recent weeks.
The two separate attacks targeted "the Timbuktu boat" on the Niger river and "the army position" in Bamba, in the Gao region (north), with "a provisional toll of 49 civilians and 15 soldiers killed", according to a government statement, which did not specify how many people had died on the boat and in the military base respectively.
The Bamba attack was claimed on Thursday by the Groupe de soutien à l'islam et aux musulmans (GSIM or Jnim by its Arabic acronym), a jihadist alliance affiliated to al-Qaeda, on the al-Zallaqa propaganda platform, according to SITE, an American NGO specialising in monitoring radical groups.
The two attacks were "claimed" by GSIM, the government said in a statement, adding that the assault on the boat also caused "injuries and material damage". The army's response made it possible to "neutralise around fifty terrorists", according to the same source.
In a separate statement, the government announced a three-day national mourning period starting on Friday.The boat, belonging to the state-owned Malian shipping company (Comanav), was attacked in the Gourma-Rharous sector, between Timbuktu and Gao, the Malian army had said earlier on social networks.The boat was hit by "at least three rockets fired at the engine", Comanav told AFP. Comanav, which operates a major service over several hundred kilometres from Koulikoro, near Bamako, to Gao, passing through the major towns on the river.
Several passengers jumped into the water as soon as the first shots were fired at the ship, a Comanav official told AFP.The Timbuktu can carry around 300 passengers, company officials said on condition of anonymity, without saying how many people were actually on board.
Soldiers were on board as an escort, given the security threat in the region, a military official said on condition of anonymity.
Rare images posted on social networks and supposed to reflect the situation in an area where access and communications are difficult, show a thick cloud of black smoke rising above a river landscape.
A boat had already been attacked by rockets on 1 September in the Mopti region, further south, killing a 12-year-old child and injuring two others. The river link was used by various users, traders and families, and seemed safer to many than the road, a Comanav agent told AFP.
- Blockade -
This attack came a few weeks after the GSIM announced in early August that it was imposing a blockade on Timbuktu, coinciding with the ongoing security reconfiguration around the World Heritage city of 333 saints.
The UN mission (Minusma), pushed out of Mali by the ruling junta, has just left two camps close to Timbuktu, Ber and Goundam, transferred to the Malian authorities. This takeover by the Malian state has led to fighting with the jihadists, as well as clashes with the ex-Tuareg rebels.
Timbuktu, with its population of several tens of thousands on the edge of the Sahara, is one of the major towns in the north that fell into the hands of Tuareg rebels and then Salafists after the outbreak of the insurrection in 2012. French and Malian forces recaptured the town in 2013.
The predominantly Tuareg groups signed a peace agreement with the Malian state in 2015, while the jihadists continued hostilities. The violence spread to central Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, leaving thousands dead.Militaries have taken power by force in all three countries since 2020, citing a security crisis.
Recent tensions in northern Mali have raised fears about the survival of the 2015 agreement.
The Malian military have pushed out the French anti-jihadist force in 2022 and the UN mission in 2023, and have turned militarily and politically to Russia. They have made the restoration of sovereignty one of their mantras.But vast areas remain outside their control and various experts believe that the security situation has deteriorated further under their leadership.