July 23, 2017 / 1:23 PM / a month ago

Mali confirms arrest of key jihadist near Timbuktu

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malian and French troops have arrested a close associate of a preacher whose jihadist group has claimed dozens of attacks against Western and Malian targets, Mali's security minister said on Sunday.

Macina Liberation Front, based in central Mali's Mopti region, is led by cleric Amadou Koufa who has called upon followers to take up arms and rebuild the historic Fulani empire of Massina.

"I confirm that the terrorist Alhousseyni Ag Assaleh, in charge of logistics for...the group run by Amadou Koufa was arrested on 8 July during a joint operation with Barkhane in the Timbuktu region," General Salif Traoré told Reuters.

He said the arrest was kept secret until now because of ongoing efforts to capture others in his network.

A spokesman for France's 4,000 strong Barkhane counter-terrorism force in the Sahel said he did not communicate on people placed "hors de combat", or "out of combat".

This term may refer to a fatality or an arrest or anything else that affects the subject's capacity to fight, he said.

Barkhane is collaborating with regional troops in five West African countries to form a new force to fight desert militants who have regrouped since the French army drove them out of their urban strongholds in northern Mali in 2013.

Losses have been high among Malian forces in recent months. The United Nations, which has a peacekeeping force in the country, reported 131 soldiers killed over the past year versus 49 in the previous year.

Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Emma Farge; Editing by Toby Chopra and Elaine Hardcastle

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