Armed men abducted 22 members of a military unit comprising mainly Tuareg ex-rebels and former members of armed pro-government groups in violence-wracked Mali, the driver of their bus said Friday.
The group, set to be incorporated into a revamped Malian army, were travelling by bus in the centre of the country when they were abducted Wednesday, he said.
Those missing are part of a major overhaul of the troubled country’s armed forces which is designed to make them more representative of the population, notably in the northern and central regions hit by jihadist unrest.
No details on their fate had emerged by Friday afternoon.
The group had been heading for the city of Gao, the largest in the north, when they were attacked between Douentza and Hombori, a central area prone to jihadist attacks, the driver said.
“I was driving slowly because the road is very bad. Five men drew a gun on me,” he told AFP by telephone. He added they climbed aboard and forced him to change his route.
“Twenty-two of the armed elements who were headed for Gao were abducted — the other passengers were left alone,” the driver added.
A spokesman for the transport company Sonef said it had suspended the route “given the insecurity.”
Nobody claimed the abduction, which took place a day after 14 people were killed when a bus hit a road mine near Douentza in an attack bearing jihadist hallmarks.
The former mainly Tuareg rebel movement CMA and the pro-government Platform of armed militias — confirmed the abductions.
Saying two other of its numbers had managed to escape, the Platform told AFP that “terrorists carried out the operation … they want to prevent the peace process succeeding.”
The objective of the mixed Operational Coordination Mechanism (MOC) group to which the abducted men belong is designed for mixed military patrols to help foster Mali’s 2015 peace accord.
Northern Mali fell into the hands of jihadists in 2012 before the militants were forced out by a French-led military intervention.
But much of the region remains chronically unstable and despite the 2015 agreement violence has spread to the multi-ethnic centre of the country.