News / Africa

In Mali Town, Counter-Insurgency Task Ties Down French

A French soldier secures an area next to an abandoned jihadist bomb factory in Gao, Mali, February 13, 2013.
A French soldier secures an area next to an abandoned jihadist bomb factory in Gao, Mali, February 13, 2013.
Reuters
By the slow-moving Niger River at Gao, the north Malian town retaken by French troops from Islamist rebels last month, men repair fishing nets beside beached pirogues, women wash pots and children splash naked in the muddy water.

The scene looks tranquil enough but the French soldiers and their allied troops from Niger on the riverbank are alert, fingering their weapons and squinting southwest across the water to the village of Kadji, shrouded by eucalyptus trees.

Locals living along the bank have identified Kadji as a hotbed of al-Qaida-allied jihadists who last weekend surprised the French, Malian and Nigerien troops in Gao with two suicide bombings and a daring raid into the heart of the town.

Since Sunday's attack, the French and their African allies have been busy hunting down rebel suspects and dismantling bomb-making factories in the sprawling mud-brick Saharan town in a counter-insurgency operation that is tying them down.

"After Sunday, securing Gao is our priority,'' said a French officer who, like many involved in the operation, asked not to be identified. "Once we have done this, we will move out of town to help the Malians neutralise these pockets of Islamists.''

The house-to-house searches, sandbagging of fixed defensive positions and reliance on tip-offs from locals already have the hallmarks of an arduous counter-guerrilla operation.

People walk through the heavily shelled police station in Gao, northern Mali, Feb. 11, 2013.People walk through the heavily shelled police station in Gao, northern Mali, Feb. 11, 2013.
x
People walk through the heavily shelled police station in Gao, northern Mali, Feb. 11, 2013.
People walk through the heavily shelled police station in Gao, northern Mali, Feb. 11, 2013.
The need to secure Gao, hundreds of kilometers behind the French forward lines where commandos are hunting for French hostages believed to be held in rebel mountain hideouts, is robbing momentum from France's five-week-old campaign.

France's military operation which started in Bamako, the southern capital, and drove 1,700 km (1,050 miles) northwards to Tessalit near the Algerian border, initially forced the bulk of the Islamist forces from the main northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu, earning global plaudits for French President Francois Hollande.

The United States and Europe praised a decisive move against Mali-based jihadists threatening international attacks. But following the recent Gao attacks, French spokesmen are increasingly having to fend off suggestions that the 4,000 French soldiers in Mali could risk getting mired in a long and debilitating war, in a tough and hostile battleground.

"I don't think we can talk for the moment about getting bogged down,'' French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard told reporters on Thursday in Paris.

"Bamako-Tessalit, that's like the distance from Paris to Rome,'' Burkhard said, stressing the speed of the French campaign, which has cost the life of only one French serviceman so far - a helicopter pilot killed early in the operation.

But others see clear "mission-creep" risks in Mali.

"It's very much going to be an insurgency on the ground like we've seen in Iraq and like we've seen in Afghanistan,'' Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird said on Tuesday, explaining why Canada was not likely to send troops to support the French.

After Euphoria, Unease

Conscious of the task facing the French to stabilize north Mali, Gao citizens who spent months living alongside Islamist occupiers under the yoke of severe sharia law are coming forward with information on the jihadist gunmen and their arms caches.

"We know the fighters. We are keeping an eye on them. We are ready to denounce them,'' said Seydou Maiga, speaking beside his riverside hut, in full view of Kadji.

French and Malian troops man a checkpoint at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Feb. 11, 2013.French and Malian troops man a checkpoint at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Feb. 11, 2013.
x
French and Malian troops man a checkpoint at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Feb. 11, 2013.
French and Malian troops man a checkpoint at the entrance of Gao, northern Mali, Feb. 11, 2013.
The attention of the French and their African allies is focusing on suspected jihadist hotspots like Kadji. Authorities say Sunday's raiders slipped across the river in canoes while soldiers were distracted at checkpoints by suicide bombers.

A joint French-Nigerien military patrol picks up the latest information on the riverbank from locals such as Maiga.

The informants tell the troops a group of children acting as scouts for the Islamists had slipped across the river by canoe hours earlier, raising fears of fresh rebel infiltrations.

Malian troops convinced the children to lead them to the people they were meant to meet in town. As a result, four youths, suspected collaborators with the insurgents, were arrested in the market, Maiga said.

"We have mobilized residents to inform authorities whenever they see people they don't recognize,'' Gao Mayor Sadou Diallo told Reuters. He said this early warning system from the local population helped the military to intercept Sunday's raiders before they could carry out more suicide bombings.

The attacks have soured the mood of the town, ending the post-liberation euphoria. Shops have been shuttered and French and African forces have stepped up their patrols, their jeeps and armoured vehicles rumbling through the sandy streets.

At checkpoints outside Gao, jittery soldiers search passengers on buses and check the papers of anyone riding motorbikes, used by Islamists in their suicide attacks.

Around the government army base in town, and other potential targets like checkpoints, civilians have been cutting down trees and shrubs to reduce cover for would-be attackers.

Bomb Factory

Following a tip-off from locals, French troops on Wednesday made safe homemade explosives found inside a house in Gao, which they said was a bomb-making factory, abandoned by fleeing Islamists when the town was liberated nearly three weeks ago.

Inside, unused shell casings and shreds of a black Islamist flag with Koranic inscriptions in white lay on the floor. Surfaces were littered with tools for making homemade explosives from fertiliser, including an oxygen tank, and utensils for measuring out powder.

"When the Islamists left, we went into the house and inside we found rockets, buckets with wires coming out and bullets,'' said Mahamadou Kabare, who lived opposite the building.

When Islamist militants swept down through northern Mali last year accompanying a Tuareg separatist revolt, which they later hijacked, hundreds of thousands of people fled their harsh sharia Islamic rule. Tapping into poverty and pockets of fundamentalism, rebels were able to recruit fighters locally.

But many in the occupied towns, while lacking weapons to fight the Islamists, were proud to show passive resistance.

"We burned tires. We sang the national anthem,'' said Amadou Sarr, who used to work for aid agencies in Gao but is now a leader of "Gao's Patrollers," whose members take to the streets nightly to protect houses and businesses.

Sarr said that hundreds of people had been identified as suspected Islamists or collaborators by his network. But he said Mali's army and their allies from France and Niger were too thinly stretched to follow up immediately on all the reports.

"They lack the men and the means,'' he said.

Gao and Timbutku have largely emptied of Arabs and Tuaregs, ethnic groups that made up the bulk of the Tuareg separatist and Islamist rebels. In the days after French and Malian forces retook the northern towns, shops owned by Arabs were looted.

Such acts of vengeance suggest that re-establishing peace and unity before elections expected by July 31 will be an uphill task for Mali's authorities and their French and African allies.

"Those who took up arms against fellow Malians deserve to be crushed,'' Sarr said. "People talk about reconciliation but we are not ready for it yet.''

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs