Mali: Tuareg rebels fire on US military plane

Tuareg guerillas opened fire with AK-47s on a US Hercules military aircraft flying in supplies for Malian troops pinned down at Tin-Zawatine near the border with Algeria Sept. 12. There were no casualties and the plane managed to return to base at Mali’s capital, Bamako. But this represents the first time that the US military force in Mali, ostensibly introduced to counter Islamist militants, has become embroiled in the Tuareg conflict. “It was not a normal event. We do not do this day to day,” said Major John Dorrian, spokesman for the US European Command that also covers Africa. But he would not rule out the prospect of providing similar support in future. “Any such request would be handled on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Tuareg fighters under the leadership of Ibrahima Bahanga have launched a renewed guerilla campaign this year. Over the past two weeks, Bahanga’s fighters have ambushed at least three military convoys, capturing several dozen government troops and seizing vehicles and ammunition. They have also been accused of laying mines to cover their tracks, killing at least 13 people.

The attack on the US plane came days after western ambassadors had expressed their concern at the growing unrest in Mali, condemning hostage-taking and the use of landmines that put the civilian population at risk.

Tuareg insurgency has also returned to neighboring Niger this year. In the region around the fabled city of Agadez, the Tuareg-led Niger Movement for Justice has killed almost 50 soldiers over the last seven months, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency. Officials from both Mali and Niger say the insurgenices are linked, and have asked for foreign assistance.

US military officials said the Malian government asked them to fly in supplies to troops in Tin-Zawatine, as they happened to be in the region following a training exercise. But Major Dorrian would not rule out the prospect of providing similar support in future. “Any such request would be handled on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Some analysts are calling for the governments to return to the dialogue table with Tuareg leaders. “There are no formal negotiations taking place between new Tuareg groups and the government of Mali,” said Nana Adu Ampofo, an analyst at London-based group Global Insight in a recent briefing note. “Since Bahanga is overtly campaigning for concessions in access to government resources and regional development outlays, any lasting peace will require a concord of some order between the two.” (The Independent, Sept. 14)

On Sept. 14, Tuareg rebels in Mali attacked Tinzaouatene, another remote town near the northern border with Algeria. “Armed bandits this morning attacked our troops based in Tinzaouatene. Our troops are retaliating,” a senior local government official told AFP by telephone from Kidal region. “It’s Ag Bahanga who attacked first,” the official charged. (AFP, Sept. 14)

See our last posts on the Sahel and the Tuareg struggle.