BAMAKO - The death toll in two jihadist attacks this week on Malian military camps near the Burkina Faso border has risen to 38 soldiers, the defence minister said on Thursday, calling for unity.
"I am very proud... of these paratroopers, who defended their positions. But unfortunately, today... we buried 38 bodies," Ibrahima Dahirou Dembele said on national radio.
The minister speaking from the scene of one of the attacks at Boulkessy said 33 missing soldiers had been found alive, eight of whom were receiving treatment. He did not say how many more, if any, were still missing.
An earlier death toll following the attacks on Monday and Tuesday put the number of fatalities at 25 troops, with dozens missing.
"In spite of this hard blow, we have to stick together. It's a tough difficult fight. But in the face of this war, we have to remain united behind our leader (President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita)," the minister added.
The militants aboard heavily-armed vehicles raided two military camps at Boulkessy and Mondoro.
Fifteen jihadists were killed in the raids, according to government figures, which began early Monday and were quelled more than a day later.
The attacks were eventually subdued with the help of Malian special forces and foreign allies, including French warplanes and helicopters.
The jihadists made off with a large quantity of arms, ammunition and equipment -- local media stated about 20 vehicles were captured, including some mounted with machine-guns.
Three days of national mourning declared by Keita began on Thursday.
Hundreds of angry youths and wives of soldiers demonstrated outside a military camp in the capital Bamako late on Wednesday.
Some demonstrators burned tyres.
"We came here because the government is not telling the truth about the number of dead," a woman demonstrator said.
"It's our husbands, the red berets, who are at Boulkessy."
"My father is a soldier, he's at Boulkessy, and I haven't any news of him," said 15-year-old Ali Oumar Diakite. "They're lying to us. The army is under-equipped."
The losses come as a crushing blow to Mali's armed forces, which are flailing in the face of a jihadist revolt that has spread from the arid north to its centre, an ethnically mixed and volatile region.
The operation is also a humiliation for the so-called G5 Sahel force -- a much-trumpeted initiative under which five countries decided to create a joint 5,000-man anti-terror force -- and for France, which is committed to shoring up the fragile region.
According to an army report, two army helicopters and about a dozen vehicles were burned in the attack on Boulkessy.
The camp there - which housed a Malian battalion that was part of the G5 Sahel - was destroyed.
The G5 Sahel secretariat said the assailants were members of Ansarul Islam, a jihadist group accused of multiple attacks in northern Burkina Faso.
Jihadists lost control of northern Mali after French military intervention, but regrouped to carry out hit-and-run raids and roadmine attacks -- classic tactics by a mobile guerrilla force.
They have also moved on to the country's central region, where they have inflamed long-standing resentments between ethnic groups, analysts say.
On March 17, the Malian army lost nearly 30 men in an attack on a camp in Dioura, also in the troubled central region.
That assault came on the heels of a massacre of 160 Fulani (also called Peul) villagers -- a bloodbath that led to a military reshuffle and the government's resignation.