A suicide bomber in a vehicle painted in UN colors on Friday attacked the Malian headquarters of the G5 Sahel international anti-terrorism task force, killing two soldiers and a civilian, a security source and a local leader said.
The building’s entrance wall was destroyed, with the force of the blast throwing the vehicle inside it, according to witnesses and pictures of the scene.
The al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel region, claimed the attack in a telephone call to Mauritanian news agency al-Akhbar.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned “the complex attack perpetrated against the G5-Sahel Joint Force’s Headquarters,” his spokesman said in a statement.
It was the first attack on the headquarters of the five-nation force set up with the backing of France last year to roll back jihadist insurgents and criminal groups in the vast, unstable region.
“Shortly after Friday prayers, a suicide bomber in a vehicle painted with UN colors blew up at the entrance to the G5 base in Sevare. It was a huge blast,” a military source in the G5 Sahel force told reporters.
Two soldiers from the force and a civilian were killed, as well as two attackers, said a source within the force and the governor of Mopti, the regional capital.
The Malian government later said that the two soldiers killed were members of its armed forces.
A previous toll of six people killed was revised down.
Mopti Governor Sidi Alassane Toure said there had been “confusion” in the morgue.
“We have arrested four suspects,” he said, adding that search operations would take all night.
Guterres, who visited the Sevare headquarters last month, highlighted security shortcomings on several of the forces’ sites in Mali in a report published in May.
“Poor conditions on and around the site represent an important security threat, and are delaying the deployment of the remaining soldiers,” the report said.
Residents in Sevare, 600km northeast of the capital, Bamako, hid inside their homes during Friday’s attack, said Bouba Bathily, a trader who sheltered from the gunfire in his house.
“There was a huge blast” followed by shooting that lasted more than an hour, orange seller Haoussa Haidara said.
The attack came three days before a meeting in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, between French President Emmanuel Macron and the heads of the G5 Sahel states to discuss progress made by the forces.
The G5 Sahel force aims to have a total of 5,000 troops from five nations — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — but has faced funding problems.
It operates alongside France’s 4,000 troops in the troubled “triborder” area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and alongside the UN’s 12,000-strong Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.
French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly on Twitter condemned the “cowardly attack.”
“Solidarity with our African partners with whom we will continue the fight against terrorism,” she wrote.
The G5 Sahel was scheduled to be fully mobilized by the middle of this year, but its deployment has faced delays, equipment worries and accusations of human rights abuses.
On Tuesday, the UN said that Malian soldiers within the force “summarily” executed 12 civilians in a market in central Mali in May in retaliation for the death of a soldier.
Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said that the government had “taken the necessary measures” after the bloodshed, which he condemned.
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