Malian PM makes landmark visit to restive north

Mali's Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga made his first visit to the country's troubled north on Thursday, but delayed a trip to the restive city of Kidal due to bad weather.

Five French soldiers were wounded on Thursday in Kidal when their base was attacked, the French army said, and France’s defence minister said the assault was likely linked to Maiga’s planned stop.

Maiga was appointed in December charged with bolstering security as jihadists mount near-weekly attacks on security forces, raising fears for safety ahead of a presidential election due in July.

In the northern town of Tessalit, he met Malian soldiers, promising them “better conditions to face the common enemy, terrorism,” and saying they were “not alone”.

Bad weather meant the plane meant to fly the prime minister to Kidal could not take off, his entourage said, delaying his visit to Friday.

Around 4,000 French troops are deployed under Operation Barkhane alongside the UN’s 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.

Last month, French army chief Francois Lecointre warned parliament that it would take 10 to 15 years to resolve Mali’s problems, according to a summary of his remarks published on Thursday.

Meanwhile, MINUSMA head Mahamat Saleh Annadif said the attack on the joint French-UN base was aimed at the “strong signal given for peace and reconciliation in Mali” that Maiga’s visit would represent.

French Defence Minister Florence Parly told parliament there was “almost certainly a link between this attack and the submitted intention by the Malian prime minister to visit Kidal”.

No Malian head of government has visited Kidal since 2014 when fighting broke out during a visit by then prime minister Moussa Mara which ended with the army suffering a heavy defeat.

The rebels, who rose up against the state in 2012 in a movement piggybacked by jihadists, signed a peace treaty in 2015 but have remained resistant to handing back full control to the government.

Maiga said on Tuesday he would visit “without arrogance, in order to listen, and understand the urgent needs of the population”.

The prime minister is also due in Gao and Timbuktu, two other northern cities frequently rocked by unrest.

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