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Al Qaeda branch claims attack on second Mali military base

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) -An al Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility on Friday for a suicide attack on a military base in northeastern Mali, a day after authorities blamed the group for carrying out a dual assault on another military camp and a boat that killed over 60.

At least 49 civilians and 15 soldiers were killed when assailants opened fire on a boat on a waterway that connects the northern regions of Gao and Mopti and raided a camp in the Bourem Circle, in Gao region, a hotbed of Islamist activity over the past decade.

Mali's interim government said insurgents from a West African branch of al Qaeda, called Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), were responsible for Thursday's attacks, which Reuters could not immediately confirm.

JNIM separately said on Friday said it was behind a suicide bombing on a military base next to Gao International Airport, the Site Intelligence Group said.

Authorities confirmed the attack in an online statement later on Friday and said that damage and casualties were being evaluated.

Mali is one of several West African countries battling violent insurgencies linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State that took root in Mali's arid north in 2012 before spreading across the region.

Frustrations about growing insecurity have spurred military coups in the three worst-hit countries - Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger - since 2020, worrying global powers with strategic interests in the region.

The latest spate of violence began on Thursday when militants fired a shell at the engine of a passenger boat transporting military personnel near Gao, said transport ministry spokesman Ould Mamouni.

Soldiers responded with gunfire, but many passengers jumped overboard in panic. Some could not swim.

"Most of the deaths were more by drowning than by bullets," he said.

The other attack on Thursday was on an army base about 230 km (140 miles) north of the boat attack. It is not clear how many died in each assault.

AIRPORT ATTACK

Attacks have worsened in Mali since the military seized power in two coups in 2020 and 2021, kicked out French forces and the U.N. peacekeeping mission and teamed up with Russian private military contractor Wagner Group.

The U.N., which is in the process of departing, has handed over a series of northern bases to the army.

Islamist groups have stepped up attacks following the void left by the departure of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers, and French soldiers in the north and east.

The violence continued into Friday.

One resident in Gao who did not wish to be named said vehicles exploded at the base and that there was a gunfire exchange between assailants and soldiers.

Access to the city was blocked, the airport was shut and soldiers were deployed in front of government buildings, the resident said.

Videos posted online and reported by local media showed smoke rising from the area around the base while machine gun fire cracked in the background. Reuters was unable to immediately verify the footage.

(Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Sofia Christensen and Anait Miridzhanian; Editing by Edward McAllister, Alison Williams and Nick Macfie)