Armed groups in northern Mali claimed on Tuesday (September 12th) an offensive against the army in Bourem, a key town they say they have taken control of at least temporarily but where the situation remains unclear.
No comment was obtained from the Malian authorities on this operation, which would confirm fears of renewed hostilities between these armed groups and the central state, and the end of the peace agreement signed in 2015.
Rare elements coming up from this remote area reflect a confused situation on the ground. Testimonies report an intervention by the Malian air force and a resumption of control by the army.
The Permanent Strategic Framework (PSC), an alliance of armed groups that signed a peace agreement with the Malian state in 2015, said it carried out an operation on the garrison town of Bourem that "resulted in the control of the camp and various outposts" of the Malian armed forces and their ally the Russian paramilitary group Wagner. There was "intense fighting," said CSP spokesman Mohamed El Maouloud Ramadane.
"The unidentified armed groups had surrounded the camp, and were circling in town, but the planes reacted against them. We no longer hear gunfire, the FAMA (Malian Armed Forces) are in the city everywhere in numbers," said Mahamoud Ould Mety, a resident reached by phone.
Such an operation by the groups would mark the collapse of the peace agreement signed in 2015 by an alliance of Tuareg-dominated armed groups that rebelled against the central state in 2012, by the government and by loyalist armed groups.
After weeks of growing tensions, one of the signatories of the so-called Algiers agreement, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), said Monday night that it now considers itself in "war" with the junta that took power by force in Bamako in 2020.
The CSP said Tuesday it was acting in "self-defense against the provocations of Malian army terrorists accompanied by the Wagner militia".
Bourem is a junction near the Niger River and on the road between Timbuktu and Gao and towards Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold, further north.
Tensions have been growing for months between the CSP and the CMA on the one hand and the junta on the other, raising fears of the resumption of hostilities that began in 2012. Independentist and Salafist insurgencies plunged this poor and landlocked country into a deep security, political and humanitarian crisis from which it has still not emerged.
While Tuareg-dominated groups agreed to a ceasefire in 2014, the jihadists continued the fight against the central state and any foreign presence under the banner of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organization. The jihadist spread has spread to the centre of the country, neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
In the vast desert or semi-desert expanses of the north, as well as the regions of Timbuktu and Gao, rivalries have intensified in recent weeks between the multitude of armed actors vying for control of the territory: jihadist groups against the Malian army, jihadist groups among themselves, Tuareg armed groups against jihadists, and Tuareg groups against the Malian army.
They have given rise to a succession of attacks, security incidents and clashes between the army and the CMA.
This escalation coincides with a security reconfiguration in the north after the departure of the French anti-jihadist force in 2022 and the ongoing departure of the UN mission (MINUSMA), both pushed out by the junta.
The CMA does not intend MINUSMA to return its camps to the Malian authorities, as it did in August in Ber, near Timbuktu. It believes that, under the 2014 and 2015 arrangements, these areas should return to its control.
The junta has made the restoration of sovereignty one of its mantras, a goal that clashes with the various armed groups, which control large swathes of territory.
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