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Islamist militants clash with Mauritanian forces

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Recently there have been two major fights between the Mauritanian military and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The first of these occurred in the Wagadou forest of Mali, near the border with Mauritania, on June 24. According to press reports, Mauritanian forces raided an AQIM camp with Malian help, killing over a dozen militants and sustaining two casualties. Malian troops reportedly captured nine militants near the forest on June 26. The second battle occurred yesterday in the Bassiknou region of eastern Mauritania (again, relatively close to the border). Reports say that AQIM attacked a Mauritanian army outpost, and that Mauritanian troops killed some twenty militants in a counterstrike.

Kal has been covering these battles in detail (first here, second here), doing an excellent job as always. I would add only a few points:

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First, both incidents have given rise to massive speculation and rumor (for those who read French, see the Malian news aggregation site Maliweb for daily examples) about the nature of the battles and the precise contributions of Mauritanian and Malian forces.

Second, it is possible that there is an escalation in the intensity of the fighting – yesterday’s battle featured, on the Mauritanian side, use of aircraft, and the character of the fighting this summer feels fiercer to me than other recent incidents, such as a clash between Mauritanian forces and AQIM in January/February of this year (on the other hand, the attack on Lemgheiti, Mauritania, by AQIM’s predecessor organization in 2005 was at least as intense as yesterday’s attack).

Finally, observers, both in the region and in Western powers, are watching carefully to see whether AQIM’s capabilities have increased due to alleged influxes of Libyan weapons, and whether Sahelian militaries are getting closer to neutralizing AQIM. TheChristian Science Monitor quotes an unnamed Western official in Mali questioning whether the political will exists in Sahelian capitals to prosecute the fight against AQIM to the full extent. That may be the case. Yet it seems that Mauritania and Mali – as well as AQIM – are gearing up for sustained military conflict.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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