The French government said on Monday that its forces had killed more than 50 al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in airstrikes in central Mali.
The offensive took place on Friday in an area near the borders of Burkina Faso and Niger, where government troops are fighting to direct an Islamic uprising, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said after meeting with members of Mali’s transitional government.
“On October 30 in Mali, the Barkhane force carried out an operation that neutralized more than 50 jihadists and confiscated weapons and materials,” Parly said, referring to the French-led anti-jihadist operation Barkhane.
She added that about 30 motorcycles were destroyed.
Parly, who previously met Nigerian President Mahamadou Issoufou and her Nigerian counterpart Issoufou Katambe before heading for Bamako, said the operation was launched after a drone spotted a “very large” motorcycle caravan in the “Three Borders” area. .
As the jihadists moved under trees to try to escape surveillance, the French force sent two Mirage jets and a drone to launch missiles, leading to “neutralization” of the rebels, Parly said.
Military spokesman Colonel Frederic Barbry said “four terrorists have been captured”.
Explosives and a suicide vest had been found, he told reporters in a conference call, saying the group was “attacking (an army) position in the region”.
Barbry also said that another operation, this time targeting the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, was also under way with a total of 3,000 soldiers.
The results of the operation, which was launched about a month ago, would be announced in the coming days, he said.
Parly said the action marked a “significant blow” to the Ansarul Islam group, which she said was linked to Al-Qaeda through the GSIM alliance led by Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Ghaly has emerged as a top jihadist leader in the Sahel since the death of Qaeda commander Abdelmalek Droukdel, who was killed by French forces in Mali in June.
The UN has about 13,000 troops deployed in Mali as part of its peacekeeping mission, known as MINUSMA, while France has 5,100 deployed in the Sahel region.
Mali has struggled to contain a brutal jihadist uprising that first erupted in the northern country in 2012 and overtook a revolt by predominantly ethnic Tuareg separatists.
The former colonial power France launched a military operation to drive the Islamists back in 2013, but fighting has spread to central Mali and to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, killing thousands and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.
Large parts of Mali are outside effective government control. Frustration over the seemingly endless conflict contributed to mass protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita this year, culminating in him ousting a military coup on 18 August.
Many analysts claim that dialogue with jihadists is one of the few escape routes from Mali’s cycle of violence, and government leaders in Bamako are increasingly seeing the opportunity favorably.
Mali’s new interim government, who was appointed to rule for 18 months before the election, appears willing to enter into dialogue.
Last month, it secured the release of four hostages held by Islamist groups – including 75-year-old Sophie Petronin, the last remaining French hostage in the world – in exchange for about 200 prisoners, some of whom are believed to have been jihadists.