Suspect in Ivory Coast al Qaeda attack arrested in Mali

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Authorities in Mali have arrested a man believed to be linked to an al Qaeda attack on a beach resort town in neighboring Ivory Coast that killed 19 people early last year, Malian security officials said on Thursday.

Gunmen shot swimmers and sunbathers in the town of Grand Bassam, 40 km (25 miles) from the commercial capital Abidjan, last March before storming into several hotels.

The suspect was arrested in the town of Gossi in northern Mali by French soldiers involved in a regional operation against Islamist militant groups and was then handed over to Malian authorities.

Defence ministry spokesman Colonel Aboudoulaye Sidibe gave the suspect’s name as Mimi Ould Baba Ould Cheick.

“He was arrested by the French forces and transferred to the gendarmerie, which is carrying out investigation to determine the degree of his implication in the attack. He’s being brought to (the capital) Bamako now,” he said.

The arrest was confirmed to Reuters by Security Minister Salif Traore.

Both Ivory Coast and Mali have arrested suspects in the wake of the attack. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamist group’s North African branch, claimed responsibility and said it was revenge for France’s military intervention in Mali.

Eleven Ivorians, including three special forces’ soldiers, died in the attack. Four French citizens were killed and other foreign victims included citizens of Germany, Lebanon, Macedonia and Nigeria.

France intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive out Islamist fighters who had seized its desert north a year earlier. The intervention received support from Mali’s regional neighbors, including Ivory Coast, which hosts a French military base.

While the operation drove the insurgents from urban strongholds, Islamists are still present in northern Mali from where they have spread instability into neighboring countries.

In the months before the attack on Grand Bassam, AQIM struck hotels and restaurants in Mali’s capital Bamako and neighboring Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, killing dozens of civilians.

Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Tom Heneghan