A suicide bomber in a vehicle full of explosives has attacked a camp in northern Mali, killing at least 50 people and wounding dozens of soldiers and former fighters.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion quickly fell on Islamic extremist groups operating in the area. The attack marks a significant setback for efforts to achieve peace in the region.
The blast hit the joint operational mechanism base in the city of Gao, home to Malian soldiers and hundreds of former fighters who had signed a peace agreement with the government. Dismembered bodies could still be seen two hours after the blast.
The death toll rose over the course of Wednesday morning and had reached more than 50 by 1.30pm local time (1330 GMT), a military official said.
Sadou Maiga, a doctor at Gao’s hospital, said all other hospital activities had ceased as medical staff focused on the dozens of wounded blast victims arriving.
“Some have died from their wounds, and others are in a very grave state,” he said. “At this point, it’s not the toll of dead and injured that interests me, it’s saving who I can.”
Witnesses said the car bearing explosives breached the camp at about 9am as hundreds of fighters were gathering for a meeting. The bomber “succeeded in tricking soldiers’ vigilance” and penetrated the camp, said army spokesman Col Diarran Kone.
The attack underscores the enormous challenges that remain in northern Mali four years after the French military led an intervention to drive jihadis from power in the major towns across the north. The peace agreement has proved difficult to implement and unpopular with the forces wreaking havoc in the region.
The former fighters who signed the 2015 peace deal include ethnic Tuareg secular rebels who once fought the Malian military. Now they are supposed to be forming joint patrols in the area, though the programme has yet to begin.
Mali has become the world’s deadliest United Nations peacekeeping mission. Twenty-nine UN personnel were killed last year in attacks blamed on armed jihadi groups, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Wednesday.
The report details how extremists are extending their reach further into central Mali, trying to implement their strict interpretation of sharia law and pressuring families to give up their children as soldiers for the cause.
It also denounces rising levels of banditry, a phenomenon victims say is fuelled by the slow implementation of the 2015 peace accord.
Mali’s security minister, Salif Traoré, declined to respond to the report’s specifics but said he was well aware of security challenges throughout the region.