Red Cross Workers in Mali Abducted by Al Qaeda-Linked Islamists
A Red Cross team working in northern Mali has been kidnapped by an al Qaeda-linked Islamist group known as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a spokesperson for the militants said earlier this week. The MUJAO official also told the media by telephone fromm the country’s capital, Bamako, that the members of the International Committee of the Red Cross team – all five of them Malian citizens – “are alive and in good health.”
MUJAO is one of the groups allied to the regional al Qaeda offshoot – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM – that seized control of northern Mali in 2012 before being driven back by a French-led military intervention launched in January 2013. The MUJAO official also expressed a satisfaction with the group’s operation, saying that “thanks to God we seized a 4X4 [vehicle] of the enemies of Islam with their accomplices.” ICRC spokesman, Alexis Heeb, said in a statement that “at this stage we’re exploring all possibilities. We’re extremely worried and we’re contacting everyone to try to localise them,” Heeb said. For security reasons, ICRC teams make regular contact every few hours with their base when they are on mission, and the team had done so for part of its journey.
ICRC operations in Mali range from visiting people detained during the country’s conflict to providing aid to the hundreds of thousands of people who were driven from their homes by fierce fighting. Mali descended into chaos when Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups took over the north after a military coup in March 2012 far to the south in the capital Bamako. The humanitarian crisis sparked by the conflict came after years of drought in the Sahel region that has left 800,000 Malians relying on food aid. The rebels then started an advance on Bamako that led to a military intervention by former colonial power France in January last year. French troops that firstly pushed the al Qaeda-linked militants out of northern towns early in 2013 and have later kept up operations against residual groups of insurgents, are now gradually being withdrawn by Paris – its force is expected to be wound down from a peak of around 5,000 soldiers to about 1,000 troops beyond the spring. The UN peacekeepers took over security in July last year from a pan-African military mission which had been supporting the French troops.