Published by: AFP

GAO, Mali — Malian security forces have arrested the mayor of the northern town of Tarkint who has been wanted since February for alleged drug trafficking, security sources said on Thursday.

Baba Ould Cheikh, accused in an arrest warrant of trafficking in cocaine, was picked up on Wednesday and transferred to Gao, the largest city in the region, a national security official reached in the town told AFP.

A local security source confirmed the capture. “He was arrested with six other people who are probably also accused” of drug trafficking, the source said, adding that the suspects would swiftly be sent to the capital Bamako, some 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) away.

Baba Ould Cheikh, in his 40s, has several times helped to mediate the release of European hostages taken by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), one of the armed groups that occupied northern Mali for nearly 10 months last year with other jihadist movements.

These groups seized control of main towns in northern desert Mali after an offensive launched in January 2012 by the Tuareg rebel National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) with Islamist allies who later sidelined the Tuaregs.

On February 8, the public prosecutor’s office in Bamako announced the issue of national and international arrest warrants against people suspected of “terrorism”, “sedition”, “crimes against the internal security of the state, against the integrity of the national territory by warfare” and “international drug trafficking”. These mandates target MNLA leaders and Islamist forces like AQIM, as well as other suspected drug dealers.

Baba Ould Cheikh was listed among other elected officials accused of drug trafficking.

Cheick is the mayor of Tarkint, a small village located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of the town of Gao.

In November 2009, a Boeing 727-200 that was believed to be coming from Venezuela landed near Tarkint carrying at least five tons of cocaine aboard.

Officials have identified the Gao region in northeastern Mali as a drug trafficking hub in West Africa.

Many of the trafficking operations, though, have been dislodged by the French-led military intervention to oust radical Islamic fighters who controlled the town of Gao until January.

In 2008, Malian officials seized 750 kilograms (1,650 pounds) of ingredients used to make cocaine, following a nine-hour gunbattle with the suspected drug traffickers.

That operation occurred in the town of Achiboro, located 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) northeast of Mali’s capital, Bamako.