January 12, 2018 / 5:09 PM / 10 months ago

Mali plans operation to flush Islamists from lawless center

BAMAKO (Reuters) - Mali and neighboring Senegal will deploy 1,000 troops in an operation to pacify central Mali, which has suffered growing violence by Islamists previously confined to its desert north, a security source with knowledge of the plan said.

General M’Bemba Moussa Keita told state radio on Friday that an operation was planned to “secure the central regions”.

The security source told Reuters the aim was to enable presidential elections expected at the end of this year to go smoothly. He added it would focus on the area around the medieval Islamic city of Mopti on the Niger river. Some 200 troops from neighboring Senegal would join the operation.

Senegalese army spokesman Abdoul Ndiaye confirmed that Senegalese troops were already being deployed for this offensive — many were in Mali anyway on U.N. peacekeeping duties — though he declined to give the precise number.

Islamist groups have for more than a decade destabilized the sparsely populated desert north, but in the past three years they have exploited conflicts between Fulani cattle herders and farmers in Mali’s wetter, more populated center.

That has shifted the battlefield closer to the richer south and capital Bamako, a fact highlighted by a string of attacks blamed on Fulani Islamist fighters from central Mali — most spectacularly one on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako in November 2015 that killed dozens of people.

Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Diadie Ba in Dakar; Writing by Tim Cocks, Editing by William Maclean

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