Dutch Gunships Battle Mali Rebels

Clash sparks protests against the U.N. force


by LIEUWE DE VRIES

Dutch attack helicopters operating in Mali flew into action for the first time on Jan. 20. The result was a lopsided victory for the Dutch, who are taking part in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the country.

The battle occurred as separatist rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad—or MNLA for short—advanced on the northern town of Tabankort. The rebels used heavy weapons to fire on U.N. peacekeepers in the town.

The U.N. troops called in an Apache attack helicopter to provide fire support.

The gunship opened up with warning shots to deter the rebels, but when that failed, the Apache destroyed a vehicle the militants used to coordinate the attack.

At least five rebels died in the clash.

The gunship attack against the Tuareg rebels sparked protests the following day. A crowd—mostly women and children—took over an airport in the northern town of Kidal, about 100 miles to the northeast of Tabankort.

U.N. troops fired shots into the air, but this failed to end the protests. The peacekeepers received the order to abandon their posts, and the crowd burned tents and generators at the airport.

“They were violent,” U.N. spokesperson Radhia Achouri told Reuters. “They threw stones, they burned some assets.”

There’s also a reason why skirmishes are heating up around the town of Tabankort. The pro-government GATIA militia holds the town, and the MNLA wants to capture it.

The MNLA condemned the attacks by the Dutch helicopters, and declared it was evidence of direct support for the GATIA. Officially, the peacekeepers don’t take sides in Mali’s internal conflict. But the Dutch force can defend itself. The Netherlands has 450 ground troops, four Apache gunships and three Chinook heavy transport helicopters in Mali.

At top and below—Dutch Apache helicopters during a demonstration on June 15, 2013. Archangel12/Flickr photo

The grounds troops are part of the special forces unit Korps Commandotroepen. One of the unit’s jobs is to gather intelligence on the country’s northern militias, and hunt for weapons stockpiles.

During one recent operation, the Dutch suspected that a coalition of militias—known as the Coordination Group—were storing weapons in several locations.

The rebel coalition, which includes the MNLA, wants to create an independent state in Mali’s Azaward region.

During an escort mission involving an Apache and a Chinook medical evacuation helicopter, the gunship diverted from its mission to inspect the suspected caches with its sensors. It spotted a stockpile of Katyusha rockets.

Dutch commandos arrived in the area to retrieve the rockets. That’s when Coordination Group troops tried to prevent the U.N. soldiers from inspecting the area. The Apache helicopter returned as a show of force, which convinced the rebels to back down.

The Dutch flew the Katyushas back to their base at Camp Castor—near the regional capital of Gao—and destroyed them.

Mali has been the stage for a major intervention after a 2012 coup and a rebellion in the sparsely-populated northern desert regions. Tuareg rebels, some of them combat veterans of Libya’s civil war, took over more than half the country with the aid of Islamist extremists.

Though the MNLA proclaimed the region’s independence from Mali, it was the Islamists who seized the most ground. A French expeditionary force, followed by a U.N.-led international force, has tried to stabilize the region since.

Mali is also extremely dangerous for U.N. troops. In terms of fatalities, it’s the deadliest mission in the world for peacekeepers. Which is why the Dutch brought helicopter gunships.

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