Mali arrests jihadist attack suspects

Special agents are holding three people suspected of helping armed jihadists launch an attack on a nightclub in Mali`s capital in which five people died, government sources said Thursday.

AFP| Updated: Mar 19, 2015, 23:09 PM IST

Bamako: Special agents are holding three people suspected of helping armed jihadists launch an attack on a nightclub in Mali`s capital in which five people died, government sources said Thursday.

The arrests came 12 days after assailants with grenades and automatic rifles struck La Terrasse, a favoured nightspot among Westerners in Bamako, killing three Malians, a Frenchman and a Belgian.

"Two major links in the organisation of the deadly attack on the restaurant-bar La Terrasse were arrested on Wednesday and during the night by the special forces of Mali`s intelligence agency," a government source said, adding that a third suspect had also been detained.

A second government source and an investigator confirmed the first arrests, which came less than a week after security agents shot dead a man suspected of playing a role in the raid and found an arsenal they linked to the attack.

Eight people, including two Swiss nationals, were wounded in the attack, which marked the first time armed Islamists had targeted Westerners in the city of 1.8 million people.

The second government source said one of those arrested, who works for a private transport company, was the "principal liaison agent" in the capital with the jihadists based in Mali`s northern desert.Responsibility for the raid has been claimed by Al-Murabitoun, a jihadist group led by one-eyed Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is wanted for terrorist activities in several countries.

His movement said it had struck the nightclub in response to recent cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed, "whom the miscreant West insulted and mocked".

On March 13, Mali`s special forces killed a man on the edge of Bamako, saying that he had taken part in the attack.

Weapons and much ammunition were found in his rented apartment, security agents and civilian authorities said.

At the home of one of the suspects picked up on Wednesday "many telephone chips and some money was found," the investigator said.

"The second person to be arrested, who is a shopkeeper, notably organised the arrival of the three main people behind the attack in Bamako from the north," he added.

"The terrorist slain last week even lived for a while with the shopkeeper here in Bamako before going into action," the source said.

Malian investigators have been helped by the UN, while Belgium and former colonial power France have sent experts to back up a probe targeting about a dozen "truly organised terrorists", according to sources close to the case.Islamist movements came to the fore in northern Mali after a January 2012 uprising by armed Tuareg, nomads of the Sahara who sought to found their own state, Azawad.

While a military coup in Bamako contributed to chaos, the radical jihadists gained the upper hand over more moderate Tuareg and seized control of key northern towns, including the fabled Timbuktu, where they destroyed priceless artefacts.

French troops intervened to support Mali`s army in January 2013. The combined forces regained control over the towns and drove out the extremists who had sought to impose strict Sharia law.

Mali has been in negotiations for months with the Tuareg rebel alliance in the north and appeared to be making progress when it signed a peace accord on March 1.

The alliance has yet to sign however, and its request to make changes to the document were rejected on Wednesday by the government and Algerian mediators hosting the talks.

The intermediaries said in a statement that "the signing procedure started in Algiers on March 1 means negotiation is completed", adding that the agreement did not "pretend to solve at once and immediately every problem".

The Malian government said its signature on the document "excludes any idea of opening new negotiations on its contents".