Malian Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga kicked off a European tour in France Wednesday, in a bid to revive bilateral relations in the fields of economy and security. His visit has been marred by allegations of abuses by security forces that may be fuelling violence.
"We regret and condemn what happened," Boubeye Maiga told RFI Wednesday during a visit to France on the first leg of a European tour that will also take him to Brussels.
He was responding to allegations by the UN that Malian soldiers, who make up a regional counterterrorism force known as the G5, "summarily" executed 12 civilians in May, in retaliation for the death of a fellow soldier.
"Malian authorities are not targeting any community in particular," insists the prime minister, saying the catalyst for the retaliatory killings was the death of a soldier.
"Those who we're fighting are not in military uniform, they're in civilian clothing, and it is a civilian who probably killed our soldier," he said.
That has not prevented Malian authorities from opening an investigation into the killings and promising to take punitive measures, if need be.
"The legitimacy and credibility of our actions are at stake," says Boubeye Maiga, as his country gears up for general elections on 29 July.
Yet when it comes to Mali's fight against jihadist groups, there is a credibility gap, in so far as the campaign has shown little results since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's election in 2013, says Emmanuel Dupuy, of the Institute for Prospective and Security studies in Europe.
"There are territorial spaces that are very far from the capital [Bamako] in which the state has been at the best absent or at the worst not doing sufficiently its role as security provider," he told RFI.
Waiting for results
Patience is running out. In a surprise visit to Bamako last year, French President Emmanuel Macron said France would be "uncompromising" in the fight against "Islamist terrorists" in Mali and appealed for the same commitment from his Malian allies.
"Emmanuel Macron was very clear saying he wanted results and that the international community which is giving a lot of money to implement this regional force [the G5]: more than 450 million euros, is waiting for these results," he comments.
They're waiting notably for Mali to implement the 2015 Algiers peace agreement it signed with Tuareg rebels to end a separatist uprising in the north that led to a French military intervention.
It has not implemented the accord and violence has now spread to the centre of the country, where 32 Fulani herders were killed on Saturday 23 June in a tit-for-tat attack by Dozo hunters over a long-running dispute about access to land and water.
Analysts warn that rivalry between different communities is being exacerbated by jihadists and the military's response has increasingly been called into question.
"The military deployed in central Mali often lack preparation and competence," Marco Simonetti, West Africa Regional Manager with the charity International Alert, told RFI.
Violence on the rise
"They themselves live in fear of being attacked in a hostile environment. Forestry officials don't go out of their offices anymore because they are targeted. They only operate in towns because outside they are at risk. Whoever wears a uniform is a target," he said, without condoning the military's response.
Simonetti, though, does blame the surging violence on state abuse and unchecked corruption, as revealed in a new report by International Alert on violent extremism in the Sahel.
"The few people comparatively who are joining armed groups inspired by global jihadism, do so by and large for protection from state abuses," he says.
"If you are a Fulani and you have armed yourself to protect your cattle, family and then you are attacked by security forces because they are targeting indiscriminately, after the second or third attack you start seeking protection by the violent extremist groups," he comments.
"The fight against terrorism is a difficult and delicate mission," says Tiambel Guimbayara, a spokesperson for the Malian delegation at Unesco in Paris, insisting that even in the most organised of countries, terrorism is difficult to tackle.
"You only have to look at the attacks in Paris, New York and elsewhere. The Sahel is no exception but what differentiates us is poverty. Poverty is what's pushing young people into the ranks of jihadists, who promise them a better life. But there are efforts on our part, they're considerable and constant. And together with the international community we will restore peace to Mali," he vows.
Despite his optimism, the surging violence across vast swathes of Mali, has raised doubts about the government's ability to organise the 29 July presidential election.
The past two years have seen Islamist attacks also spread over the border into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Regional elections, already pushed back from December to April, were again postponed in March to the end of 2018.
The Malian prime minister's visit to Europe is thus asmuch a PR operation as symbolic, aiming to convince his partners that Malian authorities can and will restore stability.