By Nangayi Guyson – NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) – Mauritania’s air force on Sunday clashed with al-Qaeda militants in the Sahara desert in northern Mali, destroying three vehicles carrying fighters, a Mauritanian military official told AFP.
The senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not say how many people were killed or wounded in the strikes, which came on the third day of an offensive against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)n but about 12 militants are said to have been killed in the fighting in Raz-el-Ma, 250km (155 miles) west of Timbuktu.
However a woman was among the dead, he said, describing her as “the wife of a terrorist”.
The official said earlier Sunday that the Mauritanian army was “pounding the positions of the AQIM terrorists in the north of Mali.”
The offensive follows the kidnapping on Thursday in northern Niger of a French employee of nuclear group Areva, plus his wife and three other French nationals, by suspected AQIM militants. A Togolese and a Madagascan were also abducted.
The official said the action was “in the framework of the fight against bands of terrorists who plague the Saharan-Sahel region, and who threaten the security and stability along Mauritania’s border.”
“The Mauritanians have engaged at least two combat aircraft with the aim of gaining the upper hand, which they have not had so far,” the security source told AFP news agency.
The official would not say how many planes took part in Sunday’s attack, or what type they were.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz was “personally supervising operations” and was due to meet with senior defence staff later on Sunday, a source close to the presidency told AFP.
Six soldiers were killed and eight injured in fighting on Friday and Saturday, while 12 militants were also killed, the defence ministry said on Saturday in its first official toll.
Mauritania is one of the countries hardest hit by AQIM activities. The north African branch of Osama bin Laden’s terror network operates in a vast desert area across the borders of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
France refused Sunday to rule out taking military action to free the seven hostages but said no French troops were involved in the latest Mauritianian offensive against AQIM.
“France will do everything to free the hostages,” government spokesman Luc Chatel told Radio J in Paris.
Asked whether that could involve military action, he replied: “I won’t say any more, you must understand why, given the hour at which I’m speaking.”
Chatel said France had received no claim of responsibility nor any ransom demand for the latest kidnappings.
French officials had said previously that they believed the kidnappers were connected to AQIM and had taken the hostages to Mali.
In July French commandos accompanied Mauritanian troops in a raid on an Al-Qaeda camp in Mali which left seven militants dead but failed to find a previous French hostage who is now known to be have been killed but later AQIM said it had killed Michel Germaneau, a 78-year-old French hostage being held in Mali, after a cross-border raid involving French and Mauritanian troops failed to free him.The group also killed the British hostage, Edwin Dyer, last year after the UK government refused to give in to its demands.