The latest violent event to shake the unstable Sahel nation claimed the lives of 42 Malian soldiers in a complex weekend attack by suspected jihadists employing drones and artillery, authorities said on Wednesday.
One of the highest death tolls has been recorded during Mali’s ten-year insurgency, which has affected the neighboring nations of Burkina Faso and Niger as well as the country’s center and south.
Senior military authorities verified the authenticity of a document listing the victims for AFP, and the government later confirmed the death toll in a statement that stated that 22 soldiers had been hurt and 37 “terrorists” had been neutralized.
The incident took place on Sunday in Tessit, a town located in the volatile “three-border” region where the borders of the three countries meet.
On Monday, the army had said 17 soldiers and four civilians had died. Relatives of the victims, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that some of the civilians had been elected officials.
Monday’s statement pointed the finger of blame at the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), saying its members had deployed “drone and artillery support and (used) explosives and an explosives-laden vehicle”.
The last time Mali’s armed forces sustained such losses was in a string of attacks in the same region in late 2019 and early 2020.
Hundreds of soldiers were killed in assaults on nearly a dozen bases, typically carried out by highly mobile fighters on motorbikes.
The raids prompted the Malian, Nigerien and Burkinabe forces to fall back from forwarding bases and hunker down in better-defended locations.
In January 2020, France and its Sahel allies agreed on a push against the ISGS at a summit in Pau, southwestern France.
Several of its leaders were targeted and killed, including its founder, Abu Walid Al-Sahraoui, but local people say the group has continued to recruit and carry out its operations.
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Tessit is one of the hotspots in the three-border area.
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).
33 troops were slain in an ambush that the ISGS said occurred in March 2021 when units were being rotated, and 40 civilians who the ISGS believed to be working with Al-Qaeda were massacred in February of this year.
Physical access is difficult, particularly during the rainy season in the middle of the year, and mobile phone connections to the area have been periodically cut during the last few years.
The closest significant town, Gao, which is situated around 150 kilometers (90 miles) to the north, has received thousands of refugees from Tessit.
The Islamist onslaught in the Sahel has taken thousands of lives and driven more than two million people from their homes.
Fears of a jihadist drive have increased due to sporadic cross-border attacks in the southern countries of Togo, Benin, and Ivory Coast.