French troops ad­vance in Mali as Is­lamists melt away

The Kurdish Globe - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS -

French troops ad­vanced cau­tiously to­ward north­ern Mali on Sun­day amid fears of am­bush by al Qaeda-linked fight­ers, while its fighter jets pounded the Is­lamists' strongholds in the desert near Tim­buktu.

In the cen­tral Malian town of Di­a­baly, seized by Is­lamist fight­ers on Mon­day, the wreck­age of the Is­lamists' charred pick-up trucks lay aban­doned among the mud-brick build­ings, tele­vi­sion im­ages showed.

Res­i­dents of the town, some 350 km (220 miles) from the cap­i­tal Ba­mako, said Is­lamists had fled into the bush af­ter French airstrikes.

The com­man­ders of French and Malian forces, who set up their op­er­a­tions cen­tre in the nearby town of Niono, said their forces were mov­ing slowly to­ward Di­a­baly af­ter re­ports that Is­lamist fight­ers had aban­doned their tur­bans and flow­ing robes to blend in with lo­cal res­i­dents.

"There are risks of mines and booby traps in houses, that is why we have to be care­ful," a French com­man­der who would be iden­ti­fied only as Colonel Fred­eric told re­porters shel­ter­ing from the sun in a grove of trees.

France has de­ployed 2,000 ground troops and its war planes have pounded rebel col­umns and bases for 10 days, turn­ing back an Is­lamist ad­vance to­wards the river­side cap­i­tal which Paris said would have top­pled Mali's government.

French now aims, with in­ter­na­tional sup­port, to dis­lodge the Is­lamists from Mali's vast desert north, an area the size of Texas, be­fore they use it to launch at­tacks on the West.

The Is­lamist al­liance, group­ing al Qaeda's North African wing AQIM and home-grown Malian mil­i­tant groups An­sar Dine and MU­JWA, has im­posed harsh sharia law in north­ern Mali, in­clud­ing am­pu­ta­tions and the de­struc­tion of an­cient shrines sa­cred to mod­er­ate Sufi Mus­lims.

De­fence Min­is­ter JeanYves Le Drian said French Rafale and Mi­rage planes had bombed Is­lamists' camps and lo­gis­tics bases around the an­cient car­a­van town of Tim­buktu as well as Gao, the largest city of the north. The strikes were aimed at prevent­ing Is­lamist fight­ers from re­cov­er­ing to launch a coun­ter­at­tack.

"The ter­ror­ists...have di­ver­si­fied tac­tics. They can leave a town at any time or min­gle with the pop­u­la­tion to avoid air strikes," he said. "It's ur­ban guer­rilla war­fare as well as a war so it's very com­pli­cated to man­age."

In Se­vare, the main mil­i­tary base in cen­tral Mali, a French mil­i­tary com­mand- er told Reuters his forces were hang­ing back to al­low Malian troops to mop up Is­lamist re­sis­tance near the town of Konna. Malian troops lost sev­eral ve­hi­cles and sol­diers to Is­lamist coun­ter­at­tacks, Colonel Di­dier Dacko said.

French For­eign Min­is­ter Lau­rent Fabius de­nied Mali could spi­ral into an­other Afghanistan, say­ing that Is­lamist fight­ers did not have the sup­port of the lo­cal mod­er­ate Mus­lim ma­jor­ity.

The stakes in Mali rose dra­mat­i­cally this week when Is­lamist gun­men cited France's in­ter­ven­tion as their rea­son for at­tack­ing a desert gas plant in neigh­bour­ing Al­ge­ria, seiz­ing hun­dreds of hostages. Al­ge­ria car­ried out an as­sault on Satur­day to end the siege and said on Sun­day it ex­pected a heavy death toll.

Veteran ji­hadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity in the name of al Qaeda for the Al­ge­ria at­tack, Mau­ri­ta­nian news web­site Sa­hara Me­dia said on Sun­day.

"We are ready to ne­go­ti­ate with the West and the Al­ge­rian government pro­vided they stop their bomb­ing of Mali's Mus­lims," Belmokhtar said in a video, ac­cord­ing to Sa­hara Me­dia.

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