Skip to main content

Soldiers attend to wounded and casualties in the aftermath of a suicide bomb attack in northern Mali on Jan. 18, 2017.STRINGER/AFP / Getty Images

A familiar Canadian enemy has claimed responsibility for a massive bombing that killed at least 60 people in a region where Canadian troops could soon be deployed.

An Islamist radical group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the subject of an RCMP arrest warrant for his role in the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats in 2008, says it is responsible for the suicide bombing at a military base in northern Mali on Wednesday.

The bombing is a reminder of the risks that the Canadian soldiers would face in Mali, where the UN mission is already the most dangerous in the world, with more than 100 peacekeepers killed since 2013. The attack also highlighted the fragility of a peace agreement in northern Mali, which has yet to be fully put into operation.

Up to 600 Canadian troops are likely to be deployed in support of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali later this year. The federal government hasn't yet confirmed the deployment, although it has pledged 600 troops for UN peace operations in Africa, with analysts saying that Mali is the most probable location.

A new report this week by Human Rights Watch has warned of the growing power of Islamist armed groups in northern and central Mali. The groups, including Mr. Belmokhtar's militia, have launched many attacks on UN forces and executed at least 27 people in the past year, the report said. The groups have also occupied villages and imposed their own harsh version of Islamic law on villagers, it said.

In the suicide attack in the northern Mali town of Gao on Wednesday morning, at least 60 people were killed and 115 injured, along with five suicide bombers, according to reports quoting government officials. A Malian newspaper, however, reported that as many as 77 people were killed.

The bombers used a vehicle packed with explosives, that had reportedly been painted in Malian army colours, allowing it to breach the gates of a military camp. Malian soldiers and former rebel militias are based at the camp under the terms of a UN-brokered peace agreement.

When the attack occurred, about 600 of the troops and militia members were gathered for a meeting at the base. The vehicle ran over several people and then exploded, reports said.

Mali's president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, declared three days of national mourning.

The UN denounced the bombing. "We condemn with the utmost firmness this cowardly and ignoble attack which constitutes a direct attack on the peace process," said Hervé Ladsous, the head of UN peacekeeping operations.

Under the peace accord, the Malian soldiers and militia groups are required to conduct joint patrols in the region, but the patrols have not yet begun.

More than 18 months after it was signed, the peace agreement has "stagnated" and "remains undermined by persistent disagreements and lack of trust between the signatory parties," Mr. Ladsous told the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

"Fragmentation of armed groups … and the repeated attempts by dissident groups to undermine the peace process also hampered the implementation," he said, adding that he wondered about the "real will and commitment" of the signatories.

"If the security situation continues to deteriorate, then soon there won't be any peace to keep in Mali," Mr. Ladsous told the Security Council.

Rebel groups, including Islamist radicals, seized control of the entire northern half of Mali in 2012. They were driven back by a French and Malian force in 2013, but many deadly attacks have continued in northern and central Mali since then.

Mr. Belmokhtar's extremist militia, known as Al Mourabitoun, has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks across West Africa and North Africa in recent years. In 2015, it was involved in an assault on a luxury hotel in Mali's capital, Bamako, that killed 20 people. Two years earlier, it led an attack on an Algerian gas plant in which two Canadians were among the hostage-takers.

Mr. Belmokhtar, a veteran one-eyed jihadist, has often been declared dead as a result of Western military attacks, yet he has always survived. The RCMP issued an arrest warrant for him after the 2008 kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, who were held in the desert of northern Mali for more than four months before being released in April 2009.

On Wednesday, his group claimed responsibility for the Gao bombing in a statement that it sent to a Mauritanian news agency. The agency is often used by radical Islamist groups for their public statements.