Mine explosion on civilian vehicle central Mali kills 26

BAMAKO (Reuters) - A landmine explosion blew up a civilian passenger vehicle in central Mali on Thursday, killing 26 people and wounding several others, state TV reported.

The vehicle had crossed the volatile border with neighboring Burkina Faso, where militants loyal to Islamic State are known to operate, when it ran over the mine, Malian army spokesman Colonel Diarran Kone said.

State TV said many of the dead and wounded in the explosion, which took place by the village of Boni, not far from central Mali’s medieval Islamic city of Mopti, once a popular tourist spot, were Burkina Faso nationals.

In the past three years, Islamist groups that had long been destabilizing the thinly populated desert north of Mali have swept south into its wetter, more populated central regions, exploiting local conflicts to spread jihad.

That has shifted the battlefield closer to the more prosperous south and capital Bamako, raising concerns for the security of a presidential election expected between July and November.

In a separate incident, the Malian military said its forces came under attack in the town of Youwarou, also near Mopti, but that they had repelled it.

“They neutralized seven terrorists and recovered equipment abandoned by the assailants,” it said in a statement.

Mali and its western neighbor Senegal plan to deploy 1,000 troops soon in an operation to pacify central Mali and contain jihadists who had previously been confined to its Saharan expanses in the north.

But analysts doubt they will be able to do so purely through military means. The Islamists exploit the grievances of Fulani cattle herders and their disputes with local farmers over access to grazing lands.

Periodic crackdowns on suspected jihadists have therefore tended to target the Fulani, driving some of them into the militants’ arms.

Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Mark Heinrich