Mauritanian warplanes attacked militants of Al-Qaeda’s north African wing in Mali, senior officers said, as the head of Mauritania’s ruling party urged support for a “holy war against terrorists.
A Mauritanian military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP the planes had destroyed three vehicles carrying fighters in Sunday’s strikes, criticised by Malian politicians for having killed two civilians.
He did not say how many militants were killed or wounded in the strikes in northern Mali, which came on the third day of an offensive against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But he said a woman he described as “the wife of a terrorist” was among the dead.
“Sunday’s raids against AQIM in the north of Mali have already allowed the destruction of three vehicles carrying terrorists from seven targeted vehicles in a convoy,” the official said.
It was a “logical continuation” of an offensive that started on Friday and continued Saturday, which also included aircraft, after a convoy of militants was spotted approaching the Mauritanian border from Mali, he said.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was “personally supervising operations,” a source close to the presidency told AFP.
“This holy war against the terrorists will benefit from the backing of us all and our armed forces should have the support of all of us,” said Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Mohamed Lemine, the head of Mauritania’s ruling party.
“We are engaged in battle with extremists who have tarnished the image of our sacred religion as well as the image of Muslims,” added Ould Mohamed Lemine, a former defence minister.
Niger denies kidnap links
In Niger, a government spokesman denied the targeted militants were those suspected to have kidnapped seven foreigners, including five French nationals, from the north of the country and then taken them to Mali.
They “are not those who took the hostages,” said Laouali Dan Dah, but added: “However, it cannot be excluded that they are in touch with the group that took the hostages.”
A local mayor in Mali denounced the air raids, saying the victims had been Malian civilians.
“I am currently at the hospital in Timbuktu,” said Mohamed Lamine Ould Sidate, mayor of the nearby town of Ber.
“Two women from our region are dead and four men are wounded after gunfire from a Mauritanian plane this morning on their vehicle,” he said.
“We are angry. We, the civilians, we have nothing to do with this business and here they are killing us.”
A source at the hospital said one of the dead women was in fact a minor. And one Malian security source spoke of a blunder by the Mauritanian army.
A senior Mauritanian officer dismissed the claims of civilian casualties.
“Our targets are armed terrorists,” the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP. “If there is anyone who profits from these kinds of allegations, it it certainly propaganda of the terrorists.”
But other Malian politicians joined the condemnation.
“I condemn the death of civilians, who in no circumstances should be targeted,” said Assarid Ag Imbarca-Wane, vice president of Mali’s National Assembly, in a statement.
The attacks followed Thursday’s kidnapping by suspected AQIM militants in northern Niger of five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan.
French government spokesman Luc Chatel on Sunday refused to rule out taking military action to free the seven hostages but said no French troops were involved in the latest Mauritanian offensive against AQIM.
French officials have said they believe the kidnappers were connected to AQIM and had taken the hostages to Mali.
In July French commandos accompanied Mauritanian troops in a raid on an Al-Qaeda camp in Mali, which left seven militants dead but failed to find French hostage Michel Germaneau, now known to be have been killed.
Security sources in Mali and Niger meanwhile said French reconnaissance planes had been searching several countries in the Sahel region since Thursday’s abductions.
The Sahel is a mainly desert region that covers Mali, southern Mauritania, southern Niger and several other countries, and includes areas where the north African branch of Osama bin Laden’s terror network operates.