Mali attack shows security crisis in Sahel



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In a cellphone video, seen by CNN, a witness stepped cautiously into destroyed houses and around still burning vehicles in Ogossagou, central Mali. Near the end of the clip, a small body lying lifeless on the ground.

Many of the victims, according to the United Nations, were women and children.

The UN said armed men, allegedly dressed as hunters, came before dawn and attacked the villagers with guns and machetes.

The French ambassador to the UN called it "an indescribable act".

The scale of the attack is horrifying, but escalating violence in central Mali should come as no surprise.

Ethnic tensions and jihad insurgency

A jihadist insurgency has spread to northern and central Mali in 2012, and foreign troops and the government have failed to fully regain control of large parts of the West African country.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates have moved further into central Mali, exploiting existing ethnic divisions and sowing chaos.

Due to the government's lack of security, the so-called Dogon or Bambara ethnic self-defense units – such as Dogon Dan Na Ambassagou, whose name means "Hunters Who Trust in God" – have emerged.

Troops of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali

The Saturday massacre is the latest and most serious of a series of attacks possibly linked to self-defense groups.

In December, HRW released a report that collected more than 200 civilian deaths in 2018 in the Mopti region of Mali and warned that community violence was rapidly increasing there.

Much of the violence is between so-called self-defense units – from communities traditionally dependent on agriculture – and the Fulani herding population. The Fulani are a key recruiting group for jihadist groups, according to the UN and HRW.

US to reduce troop numbers in Africa

Last year, HRW accused Dan Na Ambassagou of attacking members of the Fulani group in attacks that "led to dozens of civilian deaths and injuries."

Dan Na Ambassagou was dissolved Sunday by Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar and the Council of Ministers, according to a government statement, which did not note whether that group would be to blame for the Ogossagou attack.

The council made the charge that Dan Na Ambassagou "deviated from its initial objectives, despite repeated warnings from local administrative authorities."

Corinne Dufka, HRW's West Africa Associate Director, told CNN that violence in Mali was underlined by "the continuing tension between land and water between shepherds and growers, but also by the growing presence of armed Islamist groups that committed very serious atrocities and members target of the Dogon group ".

Dufka said Dan Na Ambassagou "was attacked by armed Islamists and then involved in lethal reprisals, including the one that occurred yesterday."

Saturday's attack is the latest escalation of a cycle of violence that has run out of control.

Peacekeeping efforts

Last week, several Malian soldiers were killed in a coordinated attack in the village of Dioura. Earlier this month, the UN said a trapped body killed 10 people at a Dogon funeral.

A UN Security Council delegation was in the country meeting with leaders when the Saturday massacre happened – attempting to implement a 2015 peace agreement.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, is the most dangerous operation in the world; 191 mission troops have been killed since it was formed in 2013. Their bases are routinely attacked, their soldiers often hit by IEDs.

But insecurity is by no means isolated in Mali. Large areas of the Sahel are destabilized by inter-community conflicts and terrorist groups.

US special forces train troops in African nation facing terrorist threat

The United States has important boots in the region, especially in Niger, where the US operates a significant drone base in Agadez.

The presence on the ground, particularly the Special Operations Forces, drew the public's attention when four American soldiers were killed in a deadly ambush in Niger at the end of 2017.

There are about 1,200 troops under the Special Operations Command of Africa in about a dozen countries – usually in an advisory role for the African armed forces fighting terrorist groups.

But the Pentagon announced late last year that it planned to reduce the presence of troops on the continent.

This reduction and the ongoing violence in the Sahel has led many experts to speculate that the threat to civilians and the world at large will worsen, not improve.

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