Renewed violence in northern Mali: what we knowWed, 13 Sep 2023 15:35:48 GMT

As separatist groups in northern Mali renew hostilities, the ruling junta — having pushed out French and United Nations forces which had been supporting the fight against jihadism and helping stabilise the country — faces yet another adversary.Here are some key points on the latest violence.- What happened on Tuesday? -Predominantly Tuareg armed groups who are demanding independence or autonomy for northern Mali attacked army positions in the town of Bourem. It was the first large-scale operation the groups have claimed since signing a peace agreement with the state in 2015.It followed months of rising tension. The army has since retaken control of its posts, with the two sides providing diametrically opposed accounts of events.The military says that 10 of its soldiers were killed while it “neutralised” 46 “terrorists”. The armed groups claim to have killed 97 soldiers and taken five prisoners while losing nine fighters. The details are difficult to verify.The operation appears to mark an open resumption of hostilities and the termination of the 2015 peace agreement.- Who are the players? -The main protagonist on the rebel side is the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), an alliance of armed groups dominated by Tuaregs — a traditionally nomadic population that has risen up several times since 1962. The groups took up arms in 2012, seeking autonomy or independence. After a ceasefire in 2014, the CMA signed the moribund Algiers peace agreement in 2015 with the government and loyalist groups fighting alongside it.The 2012 insurrection paved the way for armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda to conquer most of the north, triggering a military intervention by France and plunging the Sahel into war that has left thousands dead.The Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist alliance Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM) now operates over a large swathe of territory in the north and centre of Mali as well as on the outskirts of the capital Bamako. In the northeast, groups affiliated to the Islamic State organisation have extended their hold over almost all of the Menaka region.”Much of the north of the country has come under the de facto rule of militant Islamist groups,” think tank the Africa Center for Strategic Studies said in a July report.Following back-to-back coups in 2020 and 2021, the Malian junta pushed out France’s anti-jihadist force in 2022 and the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA in 2023. It is widely believed to be working with the Russian paramilitary company Wagner, despite denying that.- What impact has the UN’s withdrawal had? -The MINUSMA mission is due to complete its withdrawal by December 31. It had been widely criticised for failing to do enough to support the fight against jihadism.However, it was the only force capable of intervening between Tuareg independence fighters and the Malian army. Its gradual departure is thought to have contributed to the escalation of tensions in the north.MINUSMA has been handing over its camps to Malian authorities, but the separatists claim they should be returned to their control.Tensions are expected to mount further when the peacekeepers leave their camp in Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold.- Who is fighting who? -Both the Al-Qaeda-linked GSIM and the groups affiliated to the Islamic State are fighting Mali’s army.While they refrain from attacking towns, they compete with each other for resources such as water points, gold mines and local populations to tax. That comes at the cost of bloody fighting and the massive displacement of civilians. The predominantly Tuareg groups are fighting the jihadists as well as the Malian army.There is speculation that some sort of alliance could be forged between the separatist groups and GSIM.”There may be circumstantial, temporary allies who will clash tomorrow. Our real enemy is… the Malian armed forces,” a senior member of one of the armed groups told AFP on condition of anonymity.But he denied any current collaboration with the jihadists.- What’s to come? -The ruling junta has made reconquering territory a key priority and its preferred route is military action.Although it also has air power, opening an additional battle front risks testing an already stretched army.It would also call into question the junta’s claims that it has successfully turned around a dire security situation.”Mali is on pace to see over 1,000 violent events involving militant Islamist groups in 2023, eclipsing last year’s record levels of violence and a nearly three-fold increase from when the junta seized power in 2020,” the Africa Center for Strategic Studies said.