Among the rebels controlling Mali’s northern city of Gao are dozens of Nigeria’s Islamist Boko Haram group, a regional deputy told AFP on Monday, while a security source confirmed the information.
“There are a good 100 Boko Haram fighters in Gao. They are Nigerians and from Niger,” said Abu Sidibe, a regional deputy. “They’re not hiding. Some are even able to speak in the local tongue, explaining that they are Boko Haram.”
Militants from Boko Haram “were in a majority among those who attacked the Algerian consulate” in Gao on Thursday, a Malian security official said, adding that “they had black skin”.
Seven Algerian diplomats, including the consul, were taken hostage at the time.
Witnesses interviewed by telephone from Bamako said members of Boko Haram were later seen openly driving the kidnapped consul’s car.
The kidnapping was claimed in a statement on Sunday by an Al-Qaeda dissident group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
MUJAO is said to have broken off from the main group, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in order to spread jihad to west Africa rather than confine themselves just to the Maghreb or Sahel regions.
Boko Haram, which has also kidnapped westerners in Nigeria, has been blamed for a series of attacks over Easter weekend in northern Nigeria that left at least 45 dead.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the leaders of AQIM, was also spotted over the weekend in Gao, witnesses said.
Touareg separatists pushed Mali's military out of the north of the country over the past few weeks. Their offensive was helped by weapons smuggled out of nearby Libya and by the distraction caused by a military coup in Mali's capital, Bamako.