Unidentified gunmen on Saturday killed at least 14 soldiers in central Mali, an area targeted by a growing wave of attacks by Islamist militants, when they overran a military camp early on Saturday, two army officers said.
West Africa’s arid Sahel region is suffering a spike in violence by militant groups, some with links to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, that is drawing an increasingly aggressive response from countries including France and the United States.
The military camp in the town of Soumpi, near the southern boundary of Mali’s Timbuktu region, came under attack at around 6 a.m. (0600 GMT).
“The provisional toll is 14 dead, 17 wounded and two enemies killed. The search is still on for those missing,” one of the sources said.
The second source said around 15 soldiers had been killed.
“The soldiers abandoned their position. The enemy carried away material,” he said.
Both sources asked not to be named as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Islamist fighters seized control of Mali’s northern desert regions in 2012 before being driven back by a French-led intervention a year later.
But despite the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping mission and troops operating under a regional French anti-militant mission, violence is again on the rise and attacks are spreading further south towards the capital, Bamako.
A landmine explosion blew up a civilian passenger vehicle near the central Mali village of Boni on Thursday, killing 26 people and wounding several others.
In a separate incident on the same day in the nearby town of Youwarou, the Malian military said its forces repelled an attack by suspected Islamist fighters.
Mali and its western neighbor Senegal plan to deploy 1,000 troops soon in an operation to pacify central Mali and contain jihadists who had previously been confined to its Saharan expanses in the north.
But analysts doubt they will be able to do so purely through military means. The Islamists exploit the grievances of Fulani cattle herders and their disputes with local farmers over access to grazing lands.
The government’s periodic crackdowns on suspected jihadists have therefore tended to target the Fulani, driving some of them into the arms of the armed groups.