BAMAKO (Reuters) - Authorities in Niger have arrested the leader of a self-defense militia from neighboring Mali in a campaign to crush the illegal armed group, a Malian ministry official said Saturday.
Malian authorities, keen to promote peace with northern Tuareg rebels and avoid ethnic conflict, launched an assault last week against the Ganda Izo (Sons of the Land) militia after the group killed five Tuareg nomads earlier this month.
Ganda Izo’s leader, Amadou Diallo, fled across the border in Niger but was arrested there this week, an official in Mali’s Territorial Administration Ministry told Reuters.
“We knew he had fled to Niger. An international arrest warrant was issued against him. We confirm he was arrested by Niger authorities,” said the official, who declined to be named.
The official said for security reasons he could not confirm rumours in Mali’s capital Bamako that Diallo had been extradited and was in detention at Mali’s State Security secret service. But he suggested extradition was likely.
“Not long ago Mali also arrested and extradited to Niger a Niger army colonel who had fled to Mali,” he said.
Diallo, who used to work for a Malian importing company in neighboring Senegal, recently created Ganda Izo, whose name recalls that of a militia set up to oppose previous Tuareg rebellions in Mali, Ganda Koy.
Diallo is believed to have been a member of that group too.
Ganda Izo, mainly drawn from the Peulh and Sonrais ethnic groups, aimed to confront Tuareg nomadic fighters who last year launched a renewed rebellion in northeast Mali.
The group aimed to combat attacks, vehicle hijackings, and cattle-rustling blamed on Tuaregs, army officers have said.
The Tuareg rebels in Mali, Africa’s third biggest gold producer, have been demanding greater rights and more jobs for their people, like members of a similar rebellion in the uranium-mining north of Niger also launched last year.
Unlike their Niger counterparts, Malian authorities have engaged in a peace process with the rebels, sponsored by Algeria and Libya, and a military source said reining in the Ganda Izo was intended to avoid any escalating ethnic conflict.
“Having such a movement in Mali would be suicidal,” the military source said.
One member of Ganda Izo and one army soldier were killed in the September 17 assault on the village of Fafa in the Ansongo region, which served as a base for the 100-strong Ganda Izo.
Fafa is around 950 km (590 miles) from the capital Bamako.
Although Diallo and others escaped, the army also arrested 31 Ganda Izo members in the raid along with large quantities of guns. Military sources say a number of other people have been arrested in the area for illegally possessing “weapons of war.”
Africa’s Sahel region on the southern fringe of the Sahara is awash with small arms after decades of on-off rebellions and a surge in trans-Saharan smuggling and drug running.
Writing by Alistair Thomson; Editing by Giles Elgood