News24

Air strikes 'hit al-Qaeda in Mali'

2012-03-14 14:07

Nouakchott - Mauritania said on Tuesday its air force hit al-Qaeda targets in northern Mali, but Malian official sources reported the attacks had misfired and injured two civilians instead.

The air strikes on Sunday came after al-Qaeda's north African wing released a member of Mauritania's security forces kidnapped in December in exchange for the release of a suspected Islamist militant from a Mauritanian prison.

"Those who took our gendarme hostage liberated him for the release of one of its criminal members from our prison, but the planes of the army chased them and hit them," President Mohamed Abdel Aziz said on state television.

The strike about 80km north of Timbuktu was the latest by Mauritania targeting al-Qaeda operatives in neighbouring Mali since June, when forces struck a suspected al-Qaeda camp in the Wagadou forest near the border.

Regional neighbours have accused Mali, which also faces a Tuareg rebellion in its desert north that has been bolstered by arms and fighters from Libya, of doing too little to combat Islamist militants.

Abdel Aziz said the latest strike by Mauritania targeted a convoy of vehicles suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), which has claimed responsibility for a rash of kidnappings across the Sahel.

Two Malian officials confirmed the air strike took place but said that the Islamists targeted were not hit.

"It was a transport vehicle full of goods that was hit," Tahart Ould El Hadj, mayor of Salam commune in Timbuktu region, told Reuters, adding that a man and a woman were injured.

Baba Haidara, a Malian member of parliament for Timbuktu, also told Reuters the strikes had missed their target.

"Islamists came to the market to buy provisions and the Mauritanians were informed but the Islamists had already left [when the strike happened]," he said.

Haidara said Mali had no problem with the incursion as it fell under the agreement between countries in the region to allow armies pursuit across borders.

Aqim has its roots in Algeria's Salafist movement, but has pushed south into the lawless Sahel region in recent years where it funds operations by collecting kidnap ransoms and by siphoning off the West African drugs trade.