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Attacks by suspected jihadists on a military base and a passenger boat on the Niger River in northern Mali have killed 64 people, a Malian official said.

The two separate attacks on Thursday targeted the Timbuktu boat on the river and an army position in Bamba, in the Gao region (north), with “a provisional toll of 49 civilians and 15 soldiers killed”, according to a government statement.

He did not say how many people died in each assault, but the assaults were “claimed” by an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group. Earlier, the Malian army said on social media that the boat had been attacked by “armed terrorist groups”.

The ship, which was taking an established route between towns along the river, was targeted by “at least three rockets” aimed at its engines, operator Comanav said separately.

Niger is a vital transport link in a region with poor road infrastructure and no railways.

The attack comes after an al-Qaeda-linked alliance, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), announced last month that it was blockading Timbuktu, the historic crossroads city in northern Mali.

This impoverished state has struggled with insecurity since 2012, when a Tuareg-led revolt broke out in the troubled north. The insurgency was stoked by jihadists who, three years later, launched their own campaign in central Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, sending shockwaves across the Sahel.

In northern Mali, the regional rebellion officially ended thanks to a peace agreement signed between the rebels and the Malian government in 2015. However, this fragile agreement came under strain after the overthrow of the civilian government in 2020 and its replacement by a junta.

Tensions in the region have flared up in recent weeks after the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, which was ordered to leave by the end of the year, handed over to the armed forces two bases near Timbuktu.

The handover sparked clashes between the army and jihadists and led to a violent confrontation with former rebels, stoking fears for the 2015 peace deal.