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Mali special forces arrest suspects in deadly jihadist attack

Special agents in Mali have arrested two men suspected of helping armed jihadists attack a cafe in Bamako frequented by Westerners, killing five people, government sources said Thursday.

“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,” State Security (SE), a government source said.

The detained men were identified as “Boubacar Adama Traore and Maouloud”, the source added.

A second government source and an investigator confirmed the arrests, which came less than a week after security agents shot dead a man suspected of playing a role in the March 7 raid and found an arsenal they linked to the attack.

The assailants struck the popular busy bar, a favoured nightspot in the west African capital, with hand grenades and automatic rifles, killing three Malians, a Frenchman and a Belgian.

Eight other people, including two Swiss nationals, were wounded in the attack on La Terrasse, which marked the first time armed Islamists have launched such an operation against Westerners.

The second government source alleged that Traore, 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 Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed fighter and smuggler wanted for terrorist activities in several countries.

– ‘Truly organised terrorists’ –

His movement said it had struck the Bamako cafe 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 in an outlying district of the capital, saying that he had a part in the attack. Many weapons and much ammunition were found in his rented apartment, security agents and civilian authorities said.

“At Mr Traore’s home, many telephone chips and some money was found” during the latest operations, 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 given help by the UN mission in the country (Minusma), while Belgium and former colonial power France have sent experts to back up a probe targetting about a dozen “truly organised terrorists”, according to people close to the case.

Islamist movements came to the fore in the north after a January 2012 uprising by armed Tuaregs, the longtime 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 Tuaregs and seized control of key northern towns, including the fabled Timbuktu, where they destroyed some 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, but the latter fell back into remote hideouts.