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

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said To Be Improving

Experimental drugs have been tried on six people: three Westerners and now, three African pyhysicians More

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities residents rebuild their lives, but many say everyone is being treated with suspicion More

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

Girls learn to object; FGM practitioners face penalties from jail sentences to stiff fines 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.
Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improvingi
X
Carol Pearson
August 19, 2014 11:43 PM
The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.
Video

Video For Obama, Racial Violence is Personal Issue

The racial violence in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson is presenting U.S. President Barack Obama with an issue to which he has a deep personal connection. To many Americans, Obama's election as America's first black president marked a turning point in race relations in the United States, and Obama has made ending the violence a policy priority. On Monday he issued a new call for calm and understanding. Luis Ramirez reports from the White House.
Video

Video Clinton-Obama Relationship Could Impact 2016 Election

President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have a long and complicated relationship. That relationship took another turn recently when Clinton criticized the president’s foreign policy. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports there is renewed attention on the Clinton-Obama relationship as Hillary Clinton considers running for
Video

Video Iran Looks to Maintain Influence in Baghdad With New Shia PM

Washington and Tehran share the goal of stopping Syrian-based militants in Iraq. But experts say it's Iran, not the United States, that will most influence how the new government in Baghdad approaches internal reforms and the war in Syria. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.

AppleAndroid