By Bakari Guèye
Mauritania last week launched an airstrike on an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) convoy in Mali, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz said on March 13th.
The announcement came three days after Mauritanian gendarme Ely Ould Mokhtar was freed in Mali. He was abducted last December during an attack on his police barracks in the eastern Mauritanian city of Adel Bagrou, near the Malian border.
“The state did not negotiate with the terrorists, but had him released in return for a criminal who had been working for the terrorists,” Ould Abdel Aziz said. “Our armed forces launched raids against them, inflicting heavy losses, following that operation.”
“Our aircraft attacked the terrorists once they had collected their criminal associate,” he added. Al-Qaeda splinter group Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO) reportedly released Ould Mokhtar in exchange for jailed Malian AQIM member Abderrahmane Ould Amadou Al-Azawadi.
The assault took place late afternoon on Sunday (March 11th), roughly 65km from Timbuktu, according to Saha journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Sidi.
“The raid targeted the group which had released a Mauritanian gendarme the night before in return for the release of a Malian national presumed to be a member of AQIM. The picture of the operation is unclear,” he said.
Two AQIM members were injured and four of their vehicles were destroyed, AFP quoted a Malian military source as saying.
“The aircraft spotted a column of several vehicles,” the source said. “On seeing the aircraft, the terrorists left their vehicles. The targeted AQIM members were part of a unit known as ‘Seriya de Al-Fourqane’, led by Yahya Abou al-Hammam, who was himself on board one of the vehicles, but managed to make his escape.”
Al-Qaeda, however, rebuffed the statements, claiming that “the Mauritanian air force had attacked a vehicle carrying Malian civilians”.
An AQIM spokesman told ANI that the gendarme’s release followed an “exchange” which had taken place directly, without any intermediaries involved”.
Terrorism analyst Mohamed Ould Cheikh commented that the attack “sent a clear message” in line with “the statements made in Nouadhibou by Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who said that Mauritania was not waging war on anyone else’s behalf, but was defending its own citizens and territorial integrity”.
He predicted that there would be “more attacks of this kind”, because Mauritania “now has more resources to get to the terrorists”.
“This is not the first time the Mauritanian army has acted within the borders of neighbouring Mali,” Ould Cheikh reminded. “The last such operation was in late October 2011, when it attacked AQIM’s positions in the Wagadou Forest.”
The mounting threats from Libya arms proliferation require Sahel states to be vigilant “more than ever before”, according to Ould Cheikh.