Senegal rebels accuse army of 're-starting' war

The conflict in Casamance, which is separated from the rest of Senegal by The Gambia, has claimed thousands of lives since it first broke out in 1982.

Picture: pixabay.com

DAKAR - A long-running conflict in southern Senegal has flared up after a years-long lull, with rebels on Wednesday accusing the army of being the aggressors in the isolated region.

The conflict in Casamance, which is separated from the rest of Senegal by The Gambia, has claimed thousands of lives since it first broke out in 1982.

The army says it launched its operation on January 26 to "secure" the region.

Witnesses have reported gunfire around the main city, Ziguinchor, near the border with Guinea-Bissau, according to the Senegalese press.

Villagers in Guinea-Bissau, contacted by AFP, said on Wednesday they had heard loud explosions across the border.

A top military official told AFP on condition of anonymity that an operation was under way "against armed groups" based in the Bilass forest.

The goal is to "help and make people safe so they can carry out their activities peacefully," he said.

"At the same time, we are fighting illicit trafficking in timber and cannabis" -- believed to be main sources of revenue for rebels of the Casamance Movement of Democratic Forces (MFDC) -- he added.

More than a week into the operation the army has not reported on its progress or given a casualty toll.

An army official however denied a claim by the MFDC that three soldiers have been killed.

The rebels for their part on Wednesday accused Dakar of "restarting the war in Casamance", in a message on their news website Le Pays (The Country).

"There will be no compromise with those who set fires and spill blood in Casamance," it warned.

But on the ground, an MFDC fighter reached by telephone from Bissau said the rebels were on the back foot against the army's advance.

He said the army has been "bombarding us nonstop for two days", adding that a helicopter and a warplane joined the operation on Wednesday.

His claims could not be independently verified.

Recent years have seen a return to relative calm, with the 2012 election of President Macky Sall bringing about several attempts at peace.

Re-elected in 2019, Sall has made achieving "definitive peace" in Casamance a priority of his second term as president of the West African country.

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