Mali has been unsettled since 2012 when mutinous soldiers overthrew the president of a decade. The power vacuum led to an Islamic insurgency that took control of the country's northern cities, including Timbuktu and Gao. A French-led campaign ousted the jihadis from the northern cities in 2013.
A peace agreement was signed in 2015 by three parties — the government, a coalition of groups that seek autonomy in northern Mali, and a pro-government militia.
However, the insurgents quickly regrouped in the desert areas and began launching frequent attacks on the Malian army and its allies. The extremists, affiliated with al-Qaida and the Islamic State militant group, have moved from the arid north to more populous central Mali since 2015 where their presence has stoked animosity and violence between ethnic groups.
AP writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed.