Al Qaeda affiliate claims Mali attack that killed U.N. peacekeepers

DAKAR (Reuters) - A Mali-based al Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 10 Chadian peacekeepers in the north of the country, the SITE Intelligence Group said on Monday, citing the Israeli Prime Minister’s visit to Chad as the motive.

Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) - an umbrella group for al Qaeda-linked militants in West Africa’s Sahara - launched attacks to disrupt Mali’s presidential elections in July last year and claimed credit for a spate of attacks in neighboring Burkina Faso.

Their most recent strike occurred near Mali’s northern village of Aguelhok on Sunday. Aside from the deaths, assailants in armed vehicles wounded at least 25 others.

SITE, citing a statement from the group, said the attack was carried out in response “to Chad’s diplomatic pursuits with Israel”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Chad on Sunday to stress the two countries’ mutual interest in confronting Islamist insurgencies on the continent.

The visit is seen as a bid by Israel to rebuild ties in Africa, damaged by the occupation of Palestinian territories in the 1967 Middle East war.

Chad’s President Idriss Deby visited Jerusalem in November, the first official visit by a Chadian leader since the country severed ties with Israel in 1972.

Deby has been in power since 1990 and has been an ally of the West in a fight against Islamist militants in West Africa. But Chad itself faces destabilizing forces on multiple fronts, including jihadists with links to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Violence by Islamist militants has proliferated in the sparsely-populated Sahel in recent years, with groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State using central and northern Mali as a launchpad for attacks across the region.

French forces intervened in 2013 to drive a Tuareg uprising a year earlier, and some 4,000 French troops remain there. The U.N. Security Council then deployed peacekeepers, which have been targets of a concerted guerrilla campaign.

Editing by Edward McAllister and Toby Chopra