At least nine soldiers have been killed and 11 more wounded in an attack in central Mali, the army said, but local officials said the death toll was even higher.
The attack on Wednesday occurred near the village of Bodio in the Mopti region, the epicentre of violence in Mali by fighters linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), according to Moulaye Guindo, the mayor of the nearby town of Bankass.
“The death toll is heavy: 16 soldiers killed, 30 jihadists killed and 17 others wounded,” he told the Reuters news agency.
Another local official, who asked not be named, said more than 10 soldiers had been killed.
In a statement, Mali’s army said that troops had repelled a “complex IED attack,” referring to an improvised explosive device.
Mali has been struggling to contain fighting that first erupted in the north in 2012 and has since killed thousands of military personnel and civilians.
Malian soldiers, as well as French forces that support them, and United Nations peacekeepers are frequently targeted in central and northern Mali by the armed groups.
Despite the presence of thousands of French and UN troops, the conflict has engulfed central Mali and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Central Mali has become one of the most violent hotspots of the Sahel-wide conflict, where ethnic killings and attacks on government forces are frequent.
Laying roadside bombs or IEDs is a common tactic of armed groups in the region.
Four Malian soldiers were killed by an IED blast in the region on September 20. Another ambush also killed five soldiers in central Mali on September 12.
Both those attacks were claimed by the al-Qaeda-aligned Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
GSIM also said that it was responsible for an attack on a mining convoy in western Mali on September 28, which killed five gendarmes. A French serviceman was also killed last month in a clash with an armed group near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso.
In June 2021, Macron announced a major reduction of France’s military presence in the Sahel and the end of the existing Barkhane operation there.
France currently has 5,100 troops in the arid and volatile Sahel region. Under the plan, they will be reduced to between 2,500 and 3,000 troops.
Relations between Paris and Mali have been tense since two coups in the Sahel country since August 2020. France is also worried about the use of Russian mercenaries in the country.