Bamako, Jan 21: A UN helicopter gunship has destroyed a rebel vehicle in northern Mali, causing some fatalities, after UN troops came under heavy weapons fire on the ground, the UN mission said. UN peacekeepers were "compelled to use force in response to direct heavy weapons fire on (them) in Tabankort," its MINUSMA mission said in a statement corroborated by a rebel umbrella group joining ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs. MINUSMA noted that its mandate "authorises it to use force to protect civilians, its personnel and its property in case of attack or imminent danger."
The statement said the peacekeepers fired warning shots on the rebel vehicle that had attacked MINUSMA ground troops stationed in Tabankort, near Gao, the largest city in northern Mali. "Despite these warning shots, the shooting continued, so and MINUSMA's attack helicopters reacted, rendering the vehicle harmless," it said.
The Coordination of Movements of Azawad (the Tuareg name for northern Mali) said it had been the "target of aerial bombardments by MINUSMA aviation (that) led to deaths and injuries". The incident follows fighting in the area that broke out a week ago pitting Tuareg and Arab groups against other armed groups considered Bamako "loyalists" who want to be included in Algerian-brokered peace talks. Mali descended into crisis in January 2012, when an insurgency by Tuareg rebels led to a coup in the capital Bamako.
Militants linked to al-Qaeda then overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali's northern desert. A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 drove the extremists into the bush, while the Tuareg rebels remain active throughout the northeast of the country. The jihadists remain active as well, launching regular raids on UN forces.
On January 5, 11 Malian soldiers were killed during an assault on the Nampala garrison near the border with Mauritania. Yesterday's incident came as Algeria was set to host a new round of talks on a peace accord for northern Mali. Algerian-brokered negotiations yielded a ceasefire deal and a roadmap for peace talks in July but subsequent rounds have failed to generate momentum towards a final agreement.