GAO, Mali (AP) — A suicide bomber in an explosives-laden vehicle penetrated a camp in northern Mali on Wednesday, killing at least 60 people and wounding 115 soldiers and former fighters who are trying to stabilize the region. The attack marked a significant setback for peace efforts.
Suspicion quickly fell on the Islamic extremist groups operating in the area which oppose the 2015 peace agreement that brought the parties together. A Mauritanian news agency that frequently receives communications from extremist groups, Alakhbar, said a group linked to al-Qaida's North Africa branch, al-Mourabitoun, had claimed responsibility.
The morning blast hit the Joint Operational Mechanism base in the city of Gao, home to Malian soldiers and hundreds of former fighters who signed the peace agreement with the government. Witnesses said the car breached the camp as hundreds of fighters were gathering for a meeting.
The office of Mali's president late Wednesday put the provisional death toll at 60, with 115 wounded.
Dr. Sadou Maiga at Gao's hospital told The Associated Press that all other hospital activities had ceased with dozens of wounded victims arriving.
"Some have died from their wounds, and others are in a very grave state," he said. "At this point, it's not the toll of dead and injured that interests me, it's saving who I can."
The attack underscores the enormous challenges that remain in northern Mali four years after the French military led an intervention to drive the jihadists from power in the major towns across the north. The peace agreement has proved difficult to implement.
The former fighters who signed the 2015 peace deal include ethnic Tuareg secular rebels who once fought the Malian military. Now they are supposed to be forming joint patrols in the area, though the program has yet to begin.
"If the security situation continues to deteriorate, then soon there won't be any peace to keep in Mali," U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday. He said attacks are becoming more sophisticated, and that rivalry among armed groups continues to slow implementation of the peace deal.
Ladsous reminded the council that it has the power to impose "targeted measures" against those who violate the cease-fire.
At the United Nations, Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said the "criminal, cowardly, barbaric attack" will not deter the government from moving forward to promote peace.
The U.S. condemned the "cowardly attack," State Department spokesman John Kirby said. French President Francois Hollande, who visited a French military base in Gao just a few days ago, also condemned the attack and reiterated support for Mali's peace process.
Mali has become the world's deadliest U.N. peacekeeping mission. Some 29 U.N. peacekeepers were killed last year in attacks blamed on jihadist armed groups, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Wednesday.
The report says extremists are extending their reach further into central Mali, trying to implement their strict interpretation of Shariah law and pressuring families to give up their children as soldiers for the cause.
Malian Security Minister Salif Traore declined to respond to the report's specifics but said he is well aware of security challenges throughout the region.
Associated Press writers Baba Ahmed in Port-Gentil, Gabon, Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Matthew Pennington in Washington and Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast contributed to this report.