Decisive Islamist victory
Effective end of the self-proclaimed State of Azawad
Ansar Dine and MOJWA take over the largest cities of
Azawad and the
headquarters of the MNLA
Timbuktu World Heritage Site destroyed by Islamists
Commanders and leaders
Bilal Ag Asherif (WIA) Colonel Bouna Ag Tahib † Machkanani
Colonel Wari Ag Ibrahim †
Mokhtar Belmokhtar Ahmad al-Mahdi
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid
140 to 2,000
Casualties and losses
4 killed, 10 wounded, 40 captured
36 killed, 14 wounded
At least 35 killed overall, including 3 Niger fighters, and 41
Tuareg rebellion (2012):
2012 Malian coup d'état
Internal conflict in Azawad:
March 2015 Bamako shooting
2015 Bamako hotel attack
2016 Nampala attack
June 2017 Bamako attack
The Battle of
Gao was fought between the National Movement for the
Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Movement for Oneness and
Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), along with its ally Ansar Dine, that
took place in
Gao between 26–28 June 2012. followed the next day,
with more fighting. By 28 June 2012, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, the
three biggest cities in the disputed secessionist region of Azawad
within what is recognised as Malian territory, were under the control
Ansar Dine and its Islamist allies.
Two days later, parts of the World Heritage Site of Timbuktu had
started to be destroyed, amid condemnation by the UN Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Organisation of
Islamic Cooperation (OIC),
Mali and France. This was followed by
criticism within the region and internationally with Economic
Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suggesting it could send an
armed intervention force into the country and the International
Criminal Court (ICC) following Mali's lead in terming the acts as "war
crimes." While MNLA also criticised the Islamists for holding
civilians and destroying the structures,
Ansar Dine said that the
destruction was due to violation of sharia and in reaction to UNESCO's
labeling of the sites of Timbuktu and in
Gao as "in danger."
2 Involved groups and number of fighters
3 The Battle
Following previous Tuareg rebellions in 2007–2009 and the Libyan
Civil War, in early 2012 the MNLA and Islamist movements captured
northern Mali. Tensions then started between the MNLA and Islamist
movements over the use of sharia law within the territory. Clashes
started to erupt between both sides after a merge attempt failed,
despite the signing of an accord to share power. On 25 June, the
Ansar Dine took control of Kidal.
Protests broke out on 26 June in the city of Gao, the majority of
whose people are not
Tuaregs (as opposed to the MNLA), but rather
sub-Saharan groups such as the Songhay and Fula peoples. The
protestors opposed the Tuareg rebels and the partition of Mali. Two
were killed as a result of the protests, allegedly by MNLA troops.
The protesters used both Malian and Islamist flags, and France 24
reported that many locals supported the Islamists as a result of their
opposition to the Tuareg nationalists and the secession of Azawad.
Involved groups and number of fighters
The forces involved were not known precisely. At the end of May 2012,
the MNLA claimed to have 1,500 to 2,000 men in and around Gao, yet the
movement recognized that several hundred of its fighters have deserted
to join Ansar Dine, attracted by the financial gain they would gain by
the terrorist group, and by the personality of its leader, Iyad Ag
Ghaly. Towards the end of March or the beginning of April, French
investigative journalists managed to enter
Gao with the help of the
MNLA, and they noticed that the MLNA controled the
Gao airport and the
governorate, but that the city was mainly held by Islamists which were
in control of most patrols. Regarding the number of fighters, they
initially find the presence of fifty men at the airport, subsequently
300 gathered with pickups, a BM-21 and a BRDM-2. No planes were at the
airport, just a damaged and unusable Mil Mi-24 helicopter. In mid-June
2012, Intallah Ag Assai, an MNLA colonel, said that the airport served
as a base for their weapons and equipment, with more than half of
their war material being seized from battles with the army. According
to him the MNLA had 30 tanks in working order and 10 others in repair
as well as a helicopter. The number of his fighters was 2,000, of
which however half he recognized, were young recruits still
inexperienced. The forces of the jihadists were even less known. Gao
was mainly occupied by MUJAO, a group that had a total of 500 to 1,000
combatants, concentrated mainly in the
Gao region. Fighters from Ansar
Dine were also present, as well as a contingent of about one hundred
Boko Haram and one of five katiba(brigade-battalions from
AQIM, katiba Al-Mouthalimin, commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Belmokhtar was suspected as the one who commanded the assault on the
positions of the MNLA during the battle.
On June 25, 2012, a local elected official and teacher of the city,
Idrissa Oumarou was shot at close range by strangers on motorcycle.
This murder provoked the anger of the population, and the next day
hundreds of people demonstrated in the city. The anger of the
population overwhelmed by the regular deprivation of water and
electricity and by insecurity soon turned against the MNLA's
independence movement. According to testimonies the flags of the MUJAO
were mixed with the Malian flags during the event. When the
demonstrators arrived near the governorate, MNLA men opened fire to
disperse the rioters, one or two protesters were killed and at least
12 to 14 wounded. Fighting began in the morning of 26th June, with
both sides firing heavy weapons. MNLA Secretary General Bilal ag
Acherif was wounded in the attack. After being extricated from the
fighting, he was later taken to a hospital in Burkina Faso's capital
city of Ouagadougou; while Colonel Bouna Ag Tahib, a defector from the
Malian army, was killed. MOJWA soon took control of the
palace as well as Ag Acherif's residence. A MOJWA spokesman stated
that 40 MNLA troops had been taken prisoner.
Azawad Vice President
Mahamadou Djeri Maïga acknowledged
that they lost control of the city but said that the fight would
continue. He asked for international help against Al-Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), who he stated was responsible for the
attack. The next day the MNLA were evicted from the city. Two
videos seen by the
Agence France-Presse (AFP) showed the black flag of
jihad groups and some members of the group saying "Long Live Mali" and
singing the national anthem of Mali, respectively.
Ennahar TV reported that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a founding
member of AQIM, was probably killed during the battle. A previous
death toll of 20 was later revised by doctors who added the number of
dead found in the
Niger River and the wounded who succumbed to their
injuries. Thirty more Algerian fighters were said to have arrived
in the city on 29 June to support AQIM and its leader Mokhtar
Belmokhtar as the latter seeks to maintain a hold on the town and
track MNLA fighters.
Ansar Dine's Chief of Security for Gao, Omar Ould Hamaha, said that
the group controls the region and would impose sharia.
Our fighters control the perimeter. We control Timbuktu completely. We
Gao completely. It's
Ansar Dine that commands the north of
Mali. Now we have every opportunity to apply sharia.
Sharia does not
require a majority vote. It's not democracy. It's the divine law that
was set out by God to be followed by his slaves. One hundred percent
of the north of
Mali is Muslim, and even if they don't want this, they
need to go along with it.
Paris-based MNLA spokesman, Moussa Ag Assarid, said that though the
group had lost ground in the big cities "we control 90% of the
On 26 June 2012 the Tomb of Askia, which had been listed as part
of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was named by UNESCO as
"endangered" at the behest of
Mali amid fears of damage to
"important ancient manuscripts" from being "looted and smuggled abroad
by unscrupulous dealers." Two days later, the same was done for
Timbuktu. A statement by the
World Heritage Committee
World Heritage Committee also read
that it "asked Mali's neighbours to do all in their power to prevent
the trafficking in cultural objects from these sites."
ECOWAS then met on 29 June in the Ivorian capital of
order to work towards "additional measures to prevent matters in Mali
becoming bogged down," according to host President Alassane Ouattara.
The meeting was also attended by the mediator for the Malian crisis
following the 2012 Malian coup d'etat, Burkina Faso President Blaise
Compaore, Niger President
Mahamadou Issoufou and Malian interim Prime
Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra. While the group was expected to call
for negotiations with movements in the
Azawad region, it was also
expected to continue with plans to get a 3,300 personnel intervention
force together to invade the region.
Subsequently, talks seem to have been initiated between the MNLA and
the Islamists. On June 28, Iyad Ag Ghali, Emir of Ansar Dine, arrived
Gao with 60 vehicles and several hundred men. On the 30th, he left
the city and met three officers of the MNLA. Colonels Machkanani,
Ntala and Salat. A ceasefire was then signed. By 2 July, AQIM,
along with its allies, were reported to have mined the periphery of
the city. The MNLA spokesman, Mossa Ag Attaher, said that AQIM was
"using the population as hostages, as a human shield to protect itself
from an MNLA counter-attack...Many people are trying to escape, to
take the bus to go to Bamako, but the Islamists are stopping
On 3 July, MOJWA released 25 MNLA prisoners who had been captured
during the battle to show that "they were for the peace," after being
asked to do so by Iyad Ag Ghaly. At the same time, Guinean President
Alpha Condé said that an
ECOWAS military intervention would be
directed against the Islamists and not the MNLA.
See Fall of Timbuktu
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Coordinates: 16°16′00″N 0°03′00″W / 16.2667°N