Islamist militants staged separate attacks on a passenger ferry and a military camp in northern Mali on Thursday, the government said, killing dozens of civilians and soldiers in a region of the West African nation that is increasingly controlled by armed groups.
At least 49 civilians and 15 soldiers were killed in the attacks, and the army killed about 50 assailants, the government said in a statement.
The attacks were carried out by an affiliate of Al Qaeda, according to the Malian government. They came as Islamist groups have strengthened their grip on northern Mali, including by imposing a blockade on Timbuktu, a fabled site of Islamic influence in the 15th and 16th centuries that is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At least 33,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of the blockade in mid-August, according to the United Nations.
The attack on the river boat took place on Thursday morning, as the vessel was traveling on the Niger River. Last Friday, assailants killed three people on another boat on the same river, which had been headed to Timbuktu.
Later Thursday, assailants carried out the second assault of the day, at a military camp in the neighboring region of Gao.
The Malian government declared three days of national mourning after the deadly attacks.
Security in northern Mali has been unraveling since last year, after the country’s military rulers ousted a French military mission. In June, they abruptly ordered a United Nations peacekeeping operation of 13,000 personnel to leave the country by the end of the year.
The U.N. mission vacated two military camps in the Timbuktu region last month, and insurgents imposed several blockades shortly afterward.
Analysts have drawn comparisons between the ongoing deteriorating security situation in Mali’s north and a conflict in 2012 that eventually led an Islamist group to take control of Timbuktu for months and impose Shariah law there.
Mali’s junta has partnered with the Russian private paramilitary group Wagner, which has an estimated 1,500 fighters on the ground in the country. Civilian deaths have risen since the group began conducting operations alongside the Malian military in early 2022, according to news reports, U.N. experts and human rights organizations.
Wagner was previously led by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who in June staged a short-lived mutiny in Russia, abruptly called it off and then died last month in a plane crash, caused by what Western officials believed was an explosion on board.
A delegation of Russian defense officials traveled to Mali last week and met with the country’s military leaders, in what Western diplomats said could be an attempt by the Kremlin to reclaim control of some of the Wagner group’s activities.