France launches anti-terror operations in Mali

BAMAKO (AFP) - French forces have carried out two night-time counter-terrorism operations in rebel-infested northern Mali, military sources in the west African nation said on Thursday.

A foreign military source in Bamako said troops targeted the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the Signatories in Blood, an armed unit founded by fugitive jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

"We do not have a death toll yet... It is clear that MUJAO fighters, heirs of Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar's (unit) are in the viewfinder," he said.

"They are trying to rebuild. Perhaps they even have military equipment from Libya," he told AFP, adding that the operations were still ongoing on Thursday morning.

Algerians Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar were leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which, along with MUJAO and other Islamist groups, occupied northern Mali in 2012 before being driven out by French-led troops.

Abou Zeid was killed in fighting led by the French army in the Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali in late February last year while Belmokhtar remains at large.

An African military source in MINUSMA, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, confirmed the operations near the desert caravan town of Timbuktu and in the Ifoghas mountains.

"There are air and land resources. This is not the largest military operation since the liberation of the cities, but it is necessary to ensure that terrorists don't rebuild," he said.

A local government source in Timbuktu told AFP, without elaborating, that "more than 100 French soldiers" had left the town, heading north with "the necessary equipment".

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed the operations when he was asked by the i TELE television station to assess military activities in Mali over the past year.

He said that "not everything is finished, the terrorist risk in this part of Africa remains high".

"We will keep 1,000 soldiers who are carrying out counter-terrorism missions, including last night," he added.

"We have operations targeting groups rebuilding on two fronts, firstly around Timbuktu and then in the Ifoghas mountains." Belmokhtar split from AQIM last year and launched the Signatories of Blood, masterminding a raid of Algeria's In Amenas gas plant in which 38 hostages killed in a four-day siege.

Abou Zeid was credited with having significantly expanded AQIM's field of operations to Tunisia and Niger, and for kidnapping activities across the region.

Mali has been the target of a series of attacks claimed by Islamist insurgents since the France launched its military intervention.

Residual groups of fighters are no longer able to carry out coordinated assaults, but are still capable of regular small-scale attacks, mainly against Malian soldiers.