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The government of Mali has joined forces with Mauritania in a fight against al-Qaeda through the establishment of the first ever joint patrols between the Malian and Mauritanian armies.
This weekend several hundred Malian and Mauritanian military vehicles gathered about 80km north of Timbuktu.
The Malians recently joined Mauritanian troops who arrived last week to relieve soldiers who had been in place for many weeks.
“You see, we are brothers, our goal is the same: to ensure the security of our people, to not leave the land to terrorists, preventing the organisation from attacking,” a Mauritanian soldier told AFP.
Following a wave of kidnappings, most recently of seven foreigners in Niger in September, the neighbouring countries were among those in the Sahel who pledged to boost their efforts to combat Aqim units.
The five French nationals along with a Madagascan and a Togolese kidnapped in September are still believed to be held in a mountainous desert region in northeastern Mali.
‘As long as it takes’
However, a Malian officer said, “Today we are in the Malian desert. Tomorrow, together, we can, we will go into the Mauritanian desert. The problems of Mali are the problems of Mauritania and the problems of Mauritania are those of Mali”.
The co-operation shows a marked thaw in relations between Nouakchott and Bamako, which were very strained at the beginning of the year over the strategies regarding Aqim.
Mauritania’s ambassador to Mali regained his post in mid-September, eight months after being recalled by Nouakchott over the release of four detainees wanted by Aqim, in exchange for a French hostage.
The first ever joint patrols between the two armies will continue “for as long as it takes,” a source close to the two armies told AFP.
According to a Mauritanian soldier, the army’s “arms are open” to its young countrymen who “have strayed into the ranks of Aqim and are ready to defect”.
In parallel to the search for Aqim units, the soldiers have entered the most remote corners of the desert to distribute tea, sugar and medication, which is popular with inhabitants who previously felt abandoned.
Algeria and Niger
“For us, it is the tea of brotherhood. We want peace here,” said a man in his 60s, seated under a tent.
“If there is no presence of the state, administration, the army, we are at the mercy of everyone. What will become of us if the troops leave?”
The Mauritanian army has conducted several operations alone in northern Mali to prevent attacks by Aqim on its territory, which along with Algeria has been the organisation’s biggest target.
“The Mauritanian soldiers, by attacking Aqim, were the first in the region to show that these criminals represent nothing. Today, the Malian army is also moving to the front. It’s a good thing,” said Abdoulaye Maiga, a government official from the city of Timbuktu.
Army chiefs of staff from Mali, Mauritania, Algeria and Niger met in late September in Tamanrasset in southern Algeria, home of their joint command station.
They decided to strengthen the fight against Aqim, whose units are very active in the desert area shared by these four states.
“Now we need other countries such as Niger and Algeria to also send troops. We should not wait for Aqim to attack, we must go to its bases in a co-ordinated manner,” said a restaurant owner in Timbuktu.