BAMAKO, MALI - As the U.N. mission to Mali withdraws from the northern part of the country, hostilities between the Malian army and Tuareg rebels have reignited and Islamist attacks have increased amid the chaos.
Residents say they are effectively stuck in a war zone as the north is cut off from the south via road, air and river after a deadly attack on a passenger boat and the suspension of flights by Mali's only commercial airline.
The Coordination of Azawad Movements, or CMA, a coalition of Tuareg separatist groups who signed a peace agreement with the Malian government in 2015, declared itself at war with Mali this week.
Tuareg rebels launched an offensive in 2012 in northern Mali backed by Islamist militants. The rebels and militants eventually splintered, and Islamist forces seized control of northern Mali before the French army intervened and pushed them out of power in 2013.
An Islamist insurgency continues to ravage the north and center of the country.
On Tuesday, CMA rebels launched an attack on the Malian army in Bourem, a town in northern Mali.
People started to hear heavy weapons, loud shouting and vehicle motors around 9:15 a.m., a resident of Bourem who wished to remain anonymous for safety reason told VOA via a messaging app.
Before long, he said, he heard the shout of "Allahu Akbar."
The Malian army retains control of the town, the resident said, but much of the population depends on farming to survive and cannot access their fields.
The CMA said in a statement that it temporarily took control of Bourem and killed 97 Malian soldiers. The Malian army said it lost 10 soldiers and "neutralized" 46 "terrorists" in the incident.
FILE - This undated photo shows a boat named Tombouctou at dock on the Niger River in Mali. Militants attacked the boat on Sept. 7, 2023, killing at least 49 people. (Comanav via AP)
Fatouma Harber, a journalist and blogger from the northern city of Timbuktu, said Islamist forces have blockaded the city for weeks.
Militants attacked a passenger boat heading into Timbuktu last week, killing at least 49 people by official government counts, with residents claiming a higher death toll. Sky Mali, the only commercial airline in the country, stopped flights to Timbuktu last week amid frequent attacks on the airport.
Harber said that authorities need to stop their denial of the situation in Timbuktu and find a solution quickly. The city is being asphyxiated and the people are suffering, she said.
Fodie Tandjigora, a sociology professor at the University of Bamako and researcher on security in Mali for several organizations, told VOA that he anticipated increased tensions amid the withdrawal of the United Nations mission, known as MINUSMA.
Mali's military government asked MINUSMA to leave the country after MINUSMA launched investigations into atrocities allegedly committed by the Malian army.
MINUSMA withdrew from its base in Ber last month, and CMA forces quickly attempted to take control.
The situation could be fixed with dialogue between the government and the CMA, Tandjigora said, but the CMA has refused because the MINUSMA camps have been transferred only to the Malian state.
MINUSMA states on its website that it is transferring camps only to state authorities.
Tandjigora also said there already are signs of CMA collaborating with Islamists as they did in 2012.