BAMAKO (Reuters) - Tuareg rebels fired on a U.S. military plane flying food supplies to Malian troops fighting the desert insurgents in the far north of the African country, Malian officials said on Thursday.
The incident occurred early on Wednesday when the U.S. aircraft was resupplying a Malian army garrison at Tin-Zaouatene in a desolate northern mountain region bordering Algeria and Niger, where the rebels have staged raids in recent weeks.
The U.S. embassy in Mali said the aircraft returned safely to the capital after being hit by gunfire but denied a report by Malian officials that a U.S. serviceman was injured.
“Shots were fired at the plane ... It was resupply drop of food done to help our partner nation. There was minimal damage and they were able to successfully complete the mission and arrive safe and sound back at Bamako,” an embassy spokesperson told Reuters.
Washington views Mali as a staunch military ally in its global war against terrorism, but it was believed to be the first time that the U.S. military had actively supported an ongoing Malian military operation against Tuareg insurgents.
The incident followed a joint exercise in the Malian desert, code-named Operation Flintlock, involving U.S. troops and the armies of several Sahel states, aimed at countering the threat of terrorism and Islamic militancy in the region.
“We had the plane in country and when the government requested assistance to resupply food, we were able to do it. The Malians provided the food,” the embassy spokesperson said.
Mali’s armed forces have been hunting Tuareg fighters led by insurgent leader Ibrahima Bahanga who in recent weeks have carried out several attacks and ambushes in the remote Tin-Zaouatene region.
The insurgents have taken several dozen soldiers prisoner and seized vehicles and ammunition. The government also blames them for laying mines which have killed at least 13 people.
Mali had appealed for international help to counter the rebel raids.
The U.S. embassy spokesperson could not confirm whether the U.S. military would make more resupply flights for Mali’s army.
Tuareg rebels over the border in neighboring Niger have also carried out attacks on military posts, and officials from both countries say they see links between the two insurgencies.
The nomadic light-skinned Tuaregs in northern Niger and Mali, who staged an uprising in the former French colonies in the 1990s, have long complained of being neglected and marginalized by black-dominated governments ruling far away in the south.
They demand more autonomy and a greater share in their region’s wealth. But the Niger and Malian governments have dismissed them as renegades and bandits involved in arms- and drugs-trafficking.
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher