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Mali: What happened in Ansongo?

By Manon Laplace, in Bamako
Posted on Wednesday, 11 August 2021 16:27

Malian soldiers of the 614th Artillery Battery attend a training session on a D-30 howitzer with the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), to fight jihadists, in the camp of Sevare, Mopti region, in Mali March 25, 2021. Picture taken March 25, 2021. REUTERS/ Paul Lorgerie - RC2GIM9BS5DD

Shortly before nightfall on Sunday, August 8, a series of attacks bloodied the villages of Ouattagouna, Karou, Dirga and Daoutegueft in the Ansongo Circle. At around 6pm, armed men, whose numbers are unknown, arrived on motorcycles and opened fire on civilians in these four northern communities on the banks of Niger River.

According to the Malian Armed Forces’ Directorate of Information and Public Relations (Dirpa), at least 49 people were killed in the attack. The Malian Armed Forces (Famas) patrols sent to the area to conduct sweeps and security operations indicated that 21 people were killed in Karou: seven in Dirga, seven in Daoutegueft and 14 in Ouattagouna.

The victims are mostly men, but there are also some children,” said a military source. This is a provisional toll, as many of the wounded are still being treated at the Ansongo Reference Health Center, a little more than 75 kilometers north of Ouattagouna.

Largest civilian massacre of 2021

With 49 dead, this series of attacks constitutes the largest civilian massacre in Mali in 2021. In the Ansongo Cercle, attacks generally target security forces and government officials, more than civilians.

“A massacre of this magnitude perpetrated on civilians is unprecedented in the area, even though there are many acts of banditry in the Ansongo Cercle,” said Héni Nsaibia, a researcher with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled). Acts of banditry, but also kidnappings.

Everything seems to indicate that those responsible are Jnim-affiliated elements who have lost control of the group and are acting locally.

But since the beginning of 2021, violence against the population has increased in the so-called ‘three borders’ zone. Just over two months ago, on the other side of the border, Burkina Faso faced the country’s deadliest attack since the violence began in 2015. On the night of 4-5 June, between 132 and 160 civilians (the official toll is disputed) lost their lives in an attack by armed groups.

Retaliation

According to a military source, “the Ansongo attacks may have been carried out in retaliation [of] several military successes in the region. For several months now, operations carried out by the Barkhane force, in conjunction with Nigerien forces, have led to the capture and neutralisation of several local commanders of the Islamic State in the Great Sahara (EIGS).”

If they suspect[ed] the population of having collaborated by providing intelligence to Barkhane or the Malian army, it is reasonable to imagine that the EIGS wanted to retaliate and strike hard,” says Héni Nsaibia.

This is an “extremely likely” hypothesis, according to a Malian army officer, who said that “the Famas intercepted a group of terrorists in the area less than a month ago, based on information provided by the population.”

Area of influence of the Islamic State

While the attack has not yet been claimed, the area is known to be the scene of clashes between the Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans (Gsim or Jnim), the Sahelian branch of al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS).

Should we then look for responsibility on the side of the EIGS or the Jnim? For several specialists on security issues in the Sahel, the mass attacks perpetrated against civilians are more reminiscent of the EIGS modus operandi, while the Jnim tends to position itself as “protector of the population” and the one “to strike at the symbols of the state and the army”.

However, some factions claiming to be Jnim are suspected of having carried out major killings targeting civilian populations in Solhan, Burkina Faso, last June. “Everything seems to indicate that those responsible are Jnim-affiliated elements who have lost control of the group and are acting locally,” says a specialist in the Sahel conflict.

However, in addition to the modus operandi, the area of operation of the killings in the Ansongo circle points more towards the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, says researcher Héni Nsaibia. “The Jnim would be less present near the river; it is found more towards Tessit or Talataye. The communes hit are in an area of operation under the influence of the EIGS.”

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