By ALMAHADY CISSE, AP, Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2007
BAMAKO, Mali -- Suspected rebels hit a U.S. military plane with machine-gun fire after it dropped food to Malian troops pinned down in battle this week near the Algerian border, American and Malian officials said Thursday.
No one was wounded and the C-130 transport sustained only minor damage, said Maj. Pam Cook, a spokeswoman for the U.S. command in Stuttgart, Germany, which oversees Africa missions. The attack occurred between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning over the village of Tin-Zawatine.
Another U.S. official in Stuttgart, Air Force Maj. John Dorrian, said the plane was the only U.S. aircraft in Mali. It was there for a counter-terrorism training exercise when the rare call for help came from the government, he said.
The plane had completed an airdrop of about 14,000 pounds of food when it was hit, Cook said.
"We would do this for any partner nation that we're working with when their troops are pinned down," Cook said by telephone from Stuttgart.
It was unclear if the Malian troops' movements were restricted by rebel fire or because the area was heavily mined. Mali's military says delivering food by land to the region is no longer safe because rebels have mined much of the area.
Cook said the aircraft returned safely and did not return fire.
Malian officials gave similar accounts. They called the gunmen "armed bandits," a phrase the government uses for Tuareg rebels active in the far north. Cook also cited U.S. officials in Mali as saying that the attack was perpetrated by "armed bandits."
Another senior Malian military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the plane landed safely in the capital, Bamako. He said gunmen used automatic rifles in the attack and that the incident occurred early Wednesday.
Though Mali is often called one of the most stable countries in West Africa, it has seen rebellions several times since the 1990s. The Tuaregs are a semi-nomadic people, part of the Berber ethnic group, and many say they suffer discrimination at the hands of the Bambara-speaking majority.
Tuareg rebels signed a peace deal with the government in July 2006. A Tuareg faction led by Ibrahim Bahanga rejected the deal, however, saying it did not do enough to help Tuaregs.
The government blames Bahanga for a new spate of attacks and kidnappings. This month, rebels released 10 of about 30 soldiers they had held for more than week.
Mali's neighbor, uranium-rich Niger, is facing a similar Tuareg rebellion.
The U.S. military exercises do not normally involve the fight with the Tuareg. Instead, they are designed to help Mali prevent terrorist groups including al-Qaida from setting up training camps and other bases in northwest Africa's lawless, unpoliced deserts.
Tbe training missions typically involve only dozens of U.S. soldiers at a time. Dorrian said the U.S. military has no permanent presence in Mali and does not supply arms or ammunition to the government.
Associated Press Writer Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Dakar.