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.
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.
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.
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 Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

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

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs