Authorities in Mali said July 31 that a once-powerful jihadist leader has been arrested by French military forces in the northern desert town of Gao. Yoro Ould Daha was a commander of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which controlled Gao for nearly a year before the French intervention of 2013. Ould Daha was the MUJAO commander who announced the death of French hostage Gilberto Rodriguez-Leal, who was captured in November 2012 while traveling in Mauritania and Mali. He also took responsibility for the abduction of five humanitarian workers who were later released. (AP, July 31)
Mali's government meanwhile opened talks with Tuareg separatists in Algiers. Tuareg rebel groups, most prominently the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), have gained control of much of northern Mali in recent months. Mali's army lost some 50 troops in battles with Tuareg rebels for control of the key town of Kidal in May. An Algerian diplomat said "the armed movements now occupy nearly two-thirds of the country…and come to Algiers in a position of strength."
France last week announced plans to expand operations for its 1,700-strong Mali force to the larger Sahel region. Under the new plan, some 3,000 French troops will operate out of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, with a mission of hunting down jihadist forces that have spread across the region. "Operation Barkhane," named for a crescent-shaped sand dune created by the desert winds, will be headquartered in Chad, but will receive logistical support from bases in Senegal, Ivory Coast and Gabon. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Mali this month, while President François Hollande made a tour of West Africa, including Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad. (France24, BBC News, July 16)