French troops in Mali have captured a senior official of the Sahelian subsidiary of the Islamic State group, the French army announced on Wednesday.
The arrest comes as France prepares to complete its withdrawal from Mali after nearly a decade of fighting a jihadist insurgency in the country with the French-led Barkhane counter-insurgency force.
“On the night of June 11 to 12, an operation by the Barkhane force led to the capture of Oumeya Ould Albakaye, a senior figure in the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS),” a spokesman for the Chief of Staff. AFP.
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The operation, carried out near the border with Niger, required weeks of preparation involving air force and army units, the defense ministry in Paris said.
Albakaye will be held by French forces for questioning for several days and then handed over to Malian authorities, the military added.
A security source who asked not to be named told AFP that Albakaye had once been seen as a potential successor to former IS-GS leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, who was killed by French forces in August 2021.
An explosives expert, Albakaye was a regional leader of the group, commanding the regions of Gourma in Mali and Oudalan in neighboring Burkina Faso.
He is responsible for a large number of abuses against civilians in these countries, according to the army.
France is due to complete its withdrawal from Mali in the coming months when its main military base in Gao is returned to Malian forces.
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On Wednesday, the French Ministry of Defense described the capture of Albakaye as “a new success for the Barkhane force, which is continuing its fight against armed terrorist groups while repositioning itself outside Mali”.
Relations between Mali and France collapsed after the army seized power in Bamako in August 2020.
The junta has resisted setting an early date to restore civilian rule and has tightened ties with Moscow, bringing in ‘military instructors’ whom France and its allies condemn as mercenaries recruited by the pro-Kremlin group Wagner.
For most of the previous decade, France had been Mali’s staunchest ally in its fight against jihadists who killed thousands and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes.
France began anti-jihadist operations in the Sahel in 2013, helping Mali, its former colony, quell a revolt in the north.
But the jihadists regrouped to attack the country’s volatile center, triggering an all-out insurgency that President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was unable to crush.
In August 2020, protests against Keita culminated in a coup by disgruntled colonels, a move followed by a second military coup in May 2021.
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Relations with France steadily deteriorated, propelled by the junta’s resistance to setting an early date to restore civilian rule and by accusations from Bamako that France was inciting the region to take a hard line against it. .
In January this year, the French ambassador in Bamako was expelled and the following month France announced the withdrawal of its troops from Mali and those of the French-led Takuba force, which includes nearly 1,000 soldiers mainly from EU countries.
One unknown is the impact of the unrest on the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali (MINUSMA), which, with 14,000 soldiers and police, is one of the largest United Nations operations in the world.
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