Bamako, Mali – Forty-two Malian soldiers died in a sophisticated weekend attack by suspected jihadists using drones and artillery, authorities said on Wednesday, the latest violent incident to rock the troubled country of the Sahel.
The toll is one of the bloodiest in Mali’s decade-long insurgency, which has spread from the north of the country to the center and south, as well as into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
A document naming the dead was authenticated to AFP by several senior military officials, while the government later confirmed the toll in a statement that 22 soldiers were injured and 37 “terrorists” neutralized.
The attack happened on Sunday in the town of Tessit, in the troubled “three borders” region where the borders of the three nations converge.
On Monday, the army said 17 soldiers and four civilians were dead. Relatives of the victims, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some of the civilians were elected officials.
Monday’s statement pointed the finger at the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), saying its operatives had deployed “drone and artillery support and (used) explosives and an explosive-laden vehicle”.
The last time the Malian armed forces suffered such losses was during a series of attacks in the same region in late 2019 and early 2020.
Hundreds of soldiers were killed in assaults on nearly a dozen bases, usually carried out by highly mobile fighters on motorcycles.
The raids prompted Malian, Nigerien, and Burkinabè forces to withdraw from forward bases and retreat to better defended locations.
In January 2020, France and its Sahel allies agreed on a push against ISGS at a summit in Pau, southwestern France.
Several of its leaders were targeted and killed, including its founder, Abu Walid Al-Sahraoui, but locals say the group continued to recruit and carry out its operations.
Tessit is one of the hotspots of the three borders.
The ISGS is fighting for control of the strategic gold-rich area against an Al-Qaeda-linked alliance, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
In March 2021, 33 soldiers were killed in an ambush claimed by the ISGS during the rotation of the units, and in February this year, around 40 civilians – suspected by the ISGS of being in cahoots with Al-Qaeda – were massacred.
Mobile phone connections in the area have been frequently cut in recent years and physical access is difficult, especially during the mid-year rainy season.
Thousands of people have fled Tessit to the nearest large town, Gao, some 150 kilometers (90 miles) to the north.
Across the Sahel, the jihadist campaign has claimed thousands of lives and forced more than two million people to flee their homes.
Sporadic cross-border attacks have also taken place in Ivory Coast, Togo and Benin to the south, amplifying fears of a jihadist push towards the Gulf of Guinea.