Tuareg rebels join Mali army in operation against extremists

Malian soldiers and former Tuareg rebels have staged their first joint patrol in northern Mali, a key step in a 2015 peace agreement meant to help calm a region under threat from multiple extremist and other armed groups.
As helicopters with the UN peacekeeping mission hovered overhead last week, 50 men in distinctive blue turbans started to patrol the city of Gao, a target of attacks by Islamic extremists including one in January that killed 54.
The joint battalion of some 600 people is the first to formally combine Malian soldiers with the rebels from armed independent groups of the Azawad region that signed the peace deal.
The patrols are aimed at “building confidence and curtailing insecurity in northern Mali pending the full restoration of state authority,” the spokesperson for the UN secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, said on Friday.
The new units face the challenge of securing the vast region and unearthing hidden extremists.
They must also get along in the process, as the Tuaregs’ quest for autonomy has been a source of conflict for decades with the government.
“Today, it’s not a question of the Coordination of the Movements of Azawad [former Tuareg rebellion group] or the Malian army. We fight together all under the same flag: the green, the yellow and the red,” said Hassan Ag Ibrahim, a young Tuareg fighter who was patrolling on foot alongside a Malian soldier.
Northern Mali has been tense since 2012, when Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda took over the region, exploiting a power vacuum after mutinous soldiers overthrew the president.

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