At least 35 people were killed and dozens injured on Wednesday when a suicide bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives inside a military camp in Mali’s northern city of Gao, the worst militant attack in years in the Saharan West African nation.
A Reuters reporter who arrived at the camp soon after the blast, which occurred as hundreds of soldiers assembled at around 9 a.m (0900 GMT), said he saw dozens of bodies lying on the ground alongside the wounded.
Ambulances rushed to the scene and helicopters circled overhead as President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita declared three days of national mourning.
“It’s terrible,” Gao resident Kader Touré said. “The attack happened while they were having an assembly. I’ve just left the hospital where there were bodies ripped to pieces and wounded piled up.”
State media put the death toll at 35 although Radhia Achouri, a spokeswoman for the 13,000-strong United Nations MINUSMA peacekeeping force, said it could rise as high as 50, with as many wounded.
“A vehicle smashed through the entrance of the camp, running over those who were in the way, before blowing up just as 600 men were assembling,” she said. “The priority is getting the wounded out to treatment centres.”
The camp was home to government soldiers and members of various rival armed groups which are jointly patrolling Mali’s restive desert north in line with a U.N.-brokered peace accord.
A French-led military intervention in 2013 drove back Islamist militants, including al Qaeda-linked groups, that had seized northern Mali a year earlier.
However, Islamist militants still operate in the region and insecurity is aggravated by tensions between local rebel groups and pro-government militias.
French interior minister Bruno Le Roux described the blast as a “major and highly symbolic attack” in an area visited only days ago by President Francois Hollande.
Gao is a dusty town of 50,000 people on the banks of the Niger river. Underscoring the dangers of trying to bring stability to the southern reaches of the Sahel, the offices of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Gao were flattened by a truck bomb in December.
The MINUSMA mission has staff from 123 nations, costs $1 billion a year and is the United Nations’ most dangerous deployment, with more than 100 casualties before Wednesday’s blast.
In addition, France maintains a 4,000-strong parallel peacekeeping operation, “Barkhane” and the European Union has 580 instructors training the Malian army.
Before Wednesday’s blast, the worst militant attack on the former French colony was a November 2015 assault by jihadist gunmen on a Radisson hotel in the capital, Bamako, in which 20 people were killed.