By Jemal Oumar
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) may have had a hand in the Aguelhok massacre that claimed scores of lives late January, according to Malian and French officials.
“There were indeed summary executions on this day. People’s throats were cut, others were simply shot in the head,” AFP quoted Malian army information chief Colonel Idrissa Traore as saying on February 13th.
Civilians were among those killed, Traore said, adding that he believed the acts could only have been committed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Eighty-two were killed in the January 24th Touareg offensive, AFP reported, but other sources put the toll at over a hundred. Aguelhok is located 150km northeast of Kidal in northern Mali, an area locked in intense fighting between Touareg rebels and the Malian government for over a month.
“There was absolutely atrocious and unacceptable violence in Aguelhok. There were summary executions of soldiers, civilians,” French Development Minister Henri de Raincourt told RFI radio.
He added that the tactic “resembled that used by al-Qaeda”.
For his part, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was less certain about AQIM’s role in the killings.
“It’s not very clear what role al-Qaeda or AQIM played has in these attacks, but there have been appalling massacres that we have condemned,” he said.
Terrorism analyst al-Mokhtar al-Salem agreed that the link between al-Qaeda and Touareg rebels was far from clear.
“Despite controversy about the traces of al-Qaeda in the Aguelhok attack, it is not yet clear whether that was done in direct co-ordination with Azaouad or as an independent initiative from al-Qaeda itself to take advantage of the preoccupation of the Malian army and deal a heavy blow to it,” he commented. “Personally, I think the latter option is more likely, in line with the rule that goes: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Reports have circulated lately that AQIM is trying to take advantage of Mali’s volatile security to achieve certain goals. El Khabar reported on February 13th that a group of seven AQIM fighters dressed as Malian soldiers had tried “to get close to a joint military unit near the Algerian-Malian border in Bouasi to carry out a terrorist attack”.
“The commander of the Algerian unit, however, was not taken in by them and ordered them to stop. When they refused to obey orders, he gave instructions to shoot at them, and they were killed,” the Algerian daily reported.
Ibrahim Assalah, an analyst residing in Timbuktu, commented, “The fact that al-Qaeda had access to the Malian army uniform only proves they were exploiting the war currently going on. Fighters get to take advantage of the soldiers’ uniform, guns, and equipment, and at the same time, take the gear of Touareg combatants.”
Meanwhile, Touareg rebels continue to insist that they have no connection with terrorists.
“There can never be any alliance between us and al-Qaeda, because of the vast difference between us and lack of mutual trust. I cannot help but be surprised by the repeated talk about that,” National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA) spokesman Hama Ag Sid’Ahmed told RFI on February 15th.