West Africa’s arid Sahel region has seen a rise 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.
It was a Mali-based al Qaeda affiliate, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), that claimed responsibility for a March 2 assault on the French Embassy and army headquarters in Burkina Faso’s capital that killed eight people.
Colonel Patrik Steiger said soldiers from France’s Barkhane force and Malian troops were on a reconnaissance mission 90 km (56 miles) south of Menaka on Sunday when they encountered several dozen Islamist fighters, some on motorcycles.
A number of Malian soldiers died in the ensuing gunbattle, Steiger said, without giving more details. No French troops were hurt.
Five countries – Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania – backed by France, launched a new taskforce last year to tackle Islamist militants in the region, to which international donors have committed half a billion dollars.