After weeks of lurking, the threat has finally become a reality: according to several sources and local media, the jihadists aligned with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) have now completely encircled Ménaka after having taken Tidarmène, some 70 kilometres north of the town, on 10 April.
Over the past few months, the Sahelian branch of the Islamic State has taken over several surrounding subdivisions, or circles, as they are referred to in Mali, including Talataye, Inekar, and Anderamboukane, to name a few. The jihadist group is threatening to plant its black flag in the largest city in northeastern Mali, already trying to cope with the influx of several thousand refugees fleeing their advances in the region.
At the end of March, a report by OCHA Mali, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, indicated that 8,000 people had left neighbouring towns to take refuge in Kidal and Ménaka over the past two months.
In early March 2022, the IS-GS launched a large scale and deadly offensive in the region against its rivals in the al-Qaeda-affiliated Groupe de soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans (GSIM), led by the Malian Iyad Ag Ghali.
Despite occasional alliances with other local groups, notably the Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad (MSA) and the Groupe autodéfense touareg imghad et alliés (Gatia), the JNIM has continued to lose ground to the IS-GS, so much so that almost the entire region is now under its control.
Although weakened for a time by French-led Barkhane raids and the joint G5 Sahel force after the Pau summit in early 2020, the EIGS has gradually reconstituted its forces and extended its territorial hold in northeastern Mali.
The Malian Armed Forces (Fama) and mercenaries from Wagner, the private Russian military company, have small detachments in Ménaka and Ansongo, more than 220km away. So far, they have remained confined to their camps and have not launched any response.
In his quarterly report to the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern about the security situation in the Ménaka region.
“It is essential that the parties [the government and the armed groups that signed the Algiers peace agreement] urgently overcome the current impasse given the prevailing security situation, particularly in north-eastern Mali, where terrorist groups have been relentlessly targeting civilians, and all the humanitarian consequences that this has entailed,” he said.
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