UN peacekeepers patrol Mali desert areas

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Drone video footage released by the UN peacekeeping forces in Mali [MINUSMA] shows its soldiers patrolling the country’s desert regions Timbuktu and Gao.

UN peacekeepers patrol Mali desert areas

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Mali in mourning as siege hotel yields clues

/ Bamako (Mali) – 23 November 2015 23:09

French and UN investigators joined a Mali police probe into a jihadist siege at a luxury hotel that left at least 20 dead, as flags were lowered Monday for three days of mourning.

Security was tightened at hotels in the capital, Bamako, while neighbouring nations Senegal, Mauritania and Guinea joined in the three days of mourning over Friday’s bloodshed.

Benin’s President Thomas Yayi Boni said after visiting the Radisson Blu hotel, where the killings took place, that the “odious attack” was aimed at “frightening off international investors”.

The assault began Friday morning when gunmen went on the rampage at the hotel, shooting in the corridors and taking 170 guests and staff hostage before Malian and international troops stormed the building.

Prosecutor Boubacar Sidiki Samake, who is in charge of the anti-terrorist probe, said late Monday that the toll had climbed from 19 to 20 dead, with nine people injured.

The two gunmen were also killed in the attack, he said on Malian public television.

The UN peacekeeping force in Mali (MINUSMA), which is helping with the inquiry, gave the same toll.

The hotel was popular with businessmen, diplomats and other expatriates and many foreigners were among those killed, including six Russians, three Chinese, two Belgians, an American, an Israeli and a Senegalese national.

The attack has been claimed by two separate jihadist groups and investigators are searching for possible accomplices.

Samake said the investigation was advancing.

“It is clear that they had accomplices who helped them come to the hotel,” he said about the gunmen, adding that police had staged several raids on homes.

The police found a suitcase with grenades in the hotel lobby and were following up “several leads” linked to “objects” left by the gunmen, a Malian police source told AFP.

– ‘Gunmen spoke English’ –

The Al-Murabitoun group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate led by notorious one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, has claimed responsibility for the attack.

The group said Sunday there were only two attackers and suggested they were Malian.

In a recording broadcast by Al-Jazeera, a spokesman identified them as Abdelhakim al-Ansari and Moez al-Ansari, the term “al-Ansari” indicating they were indigenous jihadists.

But a jihadist group from central Mali, the Macina Liberation Front (LWF), also claimed the attack in a statement sent to AFP Sunday, saying it was carried out by a squad of five, including “three who came out safe and sound”.

Guinean singer Sekouba Bambino Diabate, who was among the survivors, told AFP the gunmen spoke English among themselves.

On Monday, national TV released photos of two dead men said to be the attackers, along with a telephone number to call to offer information.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said Belmokhtar, one of the world’s most wanted men, was “likely” the brains behind the assault.

French forensic specialists have arrived in Bamako to help with the identification of the victims.

– State of emergency –

Despite a state of emergency imposed late Friday, residents of Bamako were trying to return to normal life.

Security remained high at the major hotels and was tighter than usual, though more discreet, at public buildings and banks.

“People are not being vigilant. We forget. I don’t know whether it’s because of the problems of daily life, but people just aren’t being careful here,” said hotel worker Daouda Sissoko.

Others are concerned that Friday’s attack will have more economic repercussions for a country still recovering from a 2012-13 civil war.

Mali has been torn apart by unrest since the north fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in 2012.

The Islamists were largely ousted by a French-led military operation launched the following year, but large swathes of Mali remain lawless.

France has more than 1,000 troops in its former colony, a key battleground of the Barkhane counter-terror mission spanning five countries in Africa’s restive Sahel region.

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Belmokhtar, ‘The Uncatchable’ desert jihadist

/ Bamako (Mali) – 23 November 2015 16:20

Wily one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed an assault on a luxury Mali hotel, shot to global notoriety with a spectacular assault on an Algerian gas field two years ago, but had long been known as “The Uncatchable”.

US bombers as recently as June were sent out to target the elusive 43-year-old Algerian born and bred in the country’s desert hinterland, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last weekend.

Washington has pledged a reward of $5 million (4.7 million euros) on his head, and of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region straddling the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar’s photo that features on the wall of the French army commander’s office at Gao in northern Mali.

“It reminds me that he exists and wants to do me harm,” Colonel Luc Laine told AFP.

Behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south of his homeland, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed, “Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the backbone of all jihadists,” a source in Mali’s intelligence services told AFP on Monday.

In May, he reaffirmed that his group, Al-Murabitoun, remained loyal to Al-Qaeda, denying allegiance paid to the Islamic State by another of the movement’s leaders.

He was born in 1972 in the ancient desert city of Ghardaia, 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of the Algerian capital, noted for its dates and rugs and fabrics.

– In the ‘Grey Zone’ –

But in a rare 2007 interview, he said he was drawn away from home by his fascination with the exploits of the mujahedeen combating the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan, whom he joined in 1991 when he was barely 19 years old.

It was in Afghanistan that he claims to have lost his eye when it was hit by shrapnel and where he had his first contacts with Al-Qaeda, whose ranks he joined, eventually rising to a senior position.

Now nicknamed Lawar (The One-Eyed), Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in 1993, a year after the government sparked civil war by cancelling an election the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.

He joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent campaign of civilian massacres in its battle against the government, sometimes wiping out entire villages in the process.

Belmokhtar thrived thanks to his intimate knowledge of the nearly lawless “Grey Zone” of southern Algeria, northern Mali and neighbouring Niger. That success was strengthened by a network of tribal alliances that he cemented through marriage

In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA. Belmokhtar, now also nicknamed “The Uncatchable” by a former chief of French intelligence, went with them.

Nine years later, the GSPC formally adopted to the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden and renamed itself Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

These Islamists have spun a tight network across tribal and business lines that stretch across the sub-Sahara Sahel zone, supporting poor communities and protecting all kinds of traffickers.

They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and made millions of dollars from the ransoms of European hostages

– ‘Divisive activities’ –

When a Tuareg rebellion opened the way for a jihadist takeover of northern Mali in 2012, Belmokhtar bought weapons in Libya and was twice seen at the side of Iyad Ag Ghaly, the Tuareg head of Ansar Dine jihadists, in Gao and Timbuktu.

That same year, Belmokhtar was pushed out as one of AQIM’s top two leaders in north Mali for what one regional security official said were his “continued divisive activities despite several warnings.”

With a reputation as a smuggling baron — dealing in contraband cigarettes, stolen cars and even drugs, as well as profiting from illegal immigration networks — Belmokhtar’s commitment to AQIM’s puritanical brand of Islam was questioned by some members of the group.

But in January 2013, months after his destitution for subordination, a group calling itself the “Signatories in Blood,” led by Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the Algiers gas field assault.

It took place a few days after France launched a military operation to help Malian troops in the north stem a jihadist invasion.

Then in May 2013, two months after reportedly being killed by Chadian troops in Mali, he claimed deadly attacks against Niger’s army in Agadez and against French firm Areva, which mines uranium in Niger.

Al-Murabitoun, formed in August 2013 when his “Signatories” joined forces with another jihadist group, Mujao, claimed its first deadly attack against westerners in Bamako in March. Five people were killed.

In its claim for the Radisson hotel attack that left at least 19 people dead, the group said: “This blessed operation comes as a response to the assaults of the Crusaders on our people, our sanctities, and our mujahideen brothers in Mali.”

END

Tags : areas, desert, Mali, patrol, Peacekeepers

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