Mali soldiers, armed groups on first joint patrol


Malian soldiers staged their first joint patrol on Thursday with rival armed groups in Gao, where Islamist militants killed over 77 people last month in the deadliest such attack in the country’s history.

The long-awaited patrol is part of an initiative aimed at easing local tensions so government forces can focus on fighting militants. Similar patrols are due over the next few weeks under the terms of a 2015 UN-brokered peace deal.

Hundreds of soldiers from Mali’s army, France’s operation Barkhane, the UN peacekeeping mission, the Tuareg separatist Co-ordination of Azawad Movements and pro-government militias took part in the patrol, a Reuters witness said.

They moved through town on foot and in pick-up trucks, starting at around 9.45 am local time on a roughly 7 km route and met no resistance, the witness said.
“The patrol … allows us to make sure the situation is calm so people can get along. Without patrols people will not mingle but the patrols help people feel more confident,” said Malian sergeant Alhousseyni Ag Sid in a pick-up truck.

The January 18 attack in Gao claimed by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb shows the difficulty faced by government and international peacekeepers in combating militant Islamist groups, some with links to al Qaeda, based in the desert north.

Gao is a town of 50,000 people on the banks of the Niger River, where the offices of the 13,000-strong UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA, were flattened by a truck bomb in December.

A French-led military intervention in 2013 pushed insurgent groups back from northern Mali – a vast desert area they took the year before – but Islamist militants still conduct frequent attacks there.