NOUAKCHOTT Mali's main jihadist groups said on Thursday they will merge under Islamist leader Iyad Ag-Ghali whose fighters have claimed multiple attacks on Malian, French and U.N. peacekeeping forces, Mauritania's Nouakchott News Agency (ANI) reported.
ANI said Ag-Ghali's Ansar Dine would join with al-Mourabitoun, led by Algerian jihadist and smuggler Mokhtar Belmokhtar, which claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack on a military camp in northern Mali that killed up to 60 people and wounded more than 100 in January.
France intervened in Mali in 2013 to drive back Islamist groups that seized the desert north a year earlier, but despite that and a costly U.N. peacekeeping presence, Islamist militants conduct frequent attacks in northern Mali and use it as a base for operations in neighbouring countries.
However, their various groups are seen as fragmented and often in competition with each other.
Al-Mourabitoun is believed to have carried out a number of high-profile attacks against military and civilian targets in Mali and other West African nations - including an assault by jihadist gunmen on a Radisson hotel in the capital Bamako in November 2015 in which 20 people were killed.
"The biggest jihadi groups in Mali said they will unite in one organisation called Nusrat-ul-Islam ... under the leader Iyad Ag-Ghali," ANI reported, sourcing it to an announcement on the Islamists' online forum.
It showed a picture of Ag-Ghali and four other bearded jihadis sitting around a laptop.
It also said the Massina Brigades, a central Malian group mostly staffed by Fulani herders, and an offshoot of al Qaeda's north African wing called the Sahara Emirat, would join the merged entity.
ANI sometimes enjoys privileged access to information on the shadowy networks of Saharan Islamist fighters. In 2013 it reported several exclusives about an al-Mourabitoun attack on a gas facility in Algeria that killed 38 hostages.
The newly formed group pledged allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah, al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and the leader of al Qaeda's north African franchise Abu Musab Abdul Wadud.
(Reporting by Kissima Diagana; Additional reporting by Emma Farge in Dakar and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Rabat; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Janet Lawrence)