The Malian Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine claimed it carried out a series of attacks against U.N. peacekeepers and Malian army targets in the country’s capital, Bamako, and border areas near Ivory Coast and Mauritania.
Fighters from Ansar Dine and other Islamist militant groups, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), seized Mali’s desert north after a Tuareg uprising in 2012 but were ousted by a French-led military operation a year later.
However, Islamist militants have intensified operations this year, attacking parts of the country’s west and south previously seen as secure and raising regional fears of a spillover in violence.
A statement sent to the Mauritanian website Alakhbar, which frequently publishes messages from Islamist groups, said that Ansar Dine claimed responsibility for an attack on the western Malian town of Nara on June 27. Mali’s defense ministry said 12 people were killed in the attack.
A senior army officer said military intelligence and initial witness accounts indicated the attackers were Islamist fighters mainly from the Peuhl ethnic group.
The raid took place a week after a Tuareg-led northern rebel alliance signed a peace deal with the government aimed at ending their uprising and allowing the authorities to focus on fighting Islamist militants.
The gunmen attacked a military camp in Nara, though an army spokesman said they also targeted a bank.
“They then occupied the prefecture. Their methods indicate an infiltration in advance and a well planned operation,” said Souleymane Dembélé, the army’s director of information.
Government soldiers carried out house-to-house clean-up operations throughout the afternoon.
A second resident said he saw bodies lying in the streets in the wake of the fighting.
“I saw four bodies of the people who came to attack and one of a Malian soldier,” said resident Issa Traoré. “The last few days we’ve informed the military authorities about the presence of strange men in the town.”
A senior army officer, who asked not to be named, said the attackers were mainly Peuhls infiltrated by fighters believed to be linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb