June 19, 2013
French troops advance north in Mali
French troops in armoured vehicles advanced today towards a central Malian town abandoned by Islamist rebels after days of air strikes, moving cautiously for fear of guerrilla-style counterattacks by the al Qaeda-linked fighters.
Television showed the wreckage of the Islamists' white pick-up trucks, some mounted with heavy machine guns, lying charred and twisted among the mud-brick buildings of the village of Diabaly.
Commanders of French and Malian forces, who have set up their operations centre in the nearby town of Niono, some 300 km (190 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, said the whereabouts of the Islamist fighters remained unclear.
"Our principal concern is that a section of the population may have joined the jihadists," said Colonel Seydou Sogoba, head of Malian military operations in the area.
"The war against the Islamists is not an easy one. They come in and mix with the local population," he said.
Some Islamist fighters had shaved off their beards and swapped their robes for jeans to blend in with local residents, he said.
France has deployed 2,000 ground troops and its war planes have pounded rebel columns and bases for 10 days, effectively halting an Islamist advance on the riverside capital.
French intervention was aimed at stopping the loose coalition of Muslim militants from using Mali's north as a training ground and springboard for attacks in Africa and 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.
In Niono, more than two dozen French military vehicles stood in a dusty field outside the headquarters of the regional prefect. Some soldiers cleaned their guns and chatted next to their armoured personnel carriers. Others bought cell phones, bread and other necessities from a local shop as they prepared for their next move forward.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius brushed off suggestions that France risked becoming embroiled in a guerrilla war. Islamist fighters have pledged to turn Mali into a new Afghanistan.
"In Afghanistan, there was no democratic regime. Here, there's a democratic regime even if it needs to be perfected," he told a news conference. "The common point is it's a battle against terrorism."
The stakes in Mali rose dramatically this week when Islamist gunmen cited France's intervention as the reason why they attacked a desert gas plant in neighbouring Algeria, taking 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.