Mourners return to Mali resort hit by jihadists

by Serge DANIEL

Bamako (AFP) - The debris of the jihadist attack is still scattered for all to see: broken tea cups, charred mobile phones and upended chairs strew the once idyllic surrounds of this Malian ecolodge following last Sunday's violence.

More than 100 mourners, diplomats and local officials gathered Saturday at the vast Kangaba Campement resort outside Mali's capital Bamako to remember the five victims who lost their lives, to pay their respects and express their fears for the west African nation's future.

A Malian soldier, a Chinese man, a Malian woman and a Portuguese soldier serving with the European Union military training mission died from bullet wounds, while a man from Cameroon died of a heart attack at the scene.

"Look at those beige sandals, they belonged to my friend who was killed," said a mourner named Maimouna, who was celebrating the birthday of a friend last Sunday when a group of gunmen appeared, shouting "Allahu Akbar" and firing on tourists.

- To stay or go? -

Several attackers were killed at the scene and subsequent arrests have been made, but the rarity of an attack, so close to Bamako, has shocked a nation sadly accustomed to reports of jihadist violence in its northern and central regions.

Herve Depardieu, a blond Frenchman who owns the Kangaba Campement and organised Saturday's ceremony, led proceedings, denouncing the "barbaric" murders and thanking quick-thinking European soldiers who raised the alarm when the attackers descended.

Following a minute's silence, tears began to flow from all quarters as bouquet after bouquet of flowers was thrown onto the attack site in the upper reaches of the vast resort.

Mourners joined hands and raised them aloft, and thoughts turned to the future of this troubled west African nation, where instability has grown worse in recent months as jihadist groups collaborate ever more effectively beyond their traditional strongholds.

"The problem today is to know whether to stay or to go," Depardieu wondered aloud, acknowledging that while the Al-Qaeda-linked group that carried out the attack ultimately want westerners out of Mali, "it is up to the authorities to do what they should be doing," referring to "necessary measures" to ensure security.

- 'Panic' -

Among those present were some of the 36 people briefly held hostage at the scene, returning just six days after a near brush with death to pay their respects to those who were less lucky.

Witnesses described jihadists descending from two directions simultaneously to trap those relaxing on higher ground, and the targeting white tourists.

Off-duty European soldiers fired on the attackers, one witness said, reducing the jihadists' firepower until help arrived.

"The jihadists really got scared when they saw from above that the Malian special forces had arrived, followed by a French army armoured vehicle," the witness added.

In a panic, jihadists fired on the roof of the Kangaba's restaurant terrace, and before long flames began to engulf the structure, according to a separate witness.

"It's just so sad. I came because the wife of my colleague was killed," one European mourner told AFP, amid the chaotic remains of a once cherished spot for those seeking respite from Bamako's heat and noise.

No central government representative attended the private ceremony on Saturday, though several European diplomats and local officials from the village where the Kangaba site is situated came to offer their respects.

The Group to Support Islam and Muslims, a fusion of jihadist groups with previous Al-Qaeda links, said it targeted the resort as a site of "debauchery", and described the attackers as "martyrs" after claiming the attack.

After routinely killing Malian soldiers and UN peacekeepers in the violence wracked north and centre, sections of which have little state presence at all, the group has now shown its capacity and willingness to attack civilian sites close to Bamako.