French in Mali face Islamist insurgency of unknown strength

Insurgent raids into Timbuktu and Gao in supposedly secured northern cities put a question mark over France's aspirations to wrap up its military intervention in Mali soon.

Jerome Delay/AP/File
A Malian soldier walks in Gao, northern Mali, in early February. Timbuktu has been hit by a prolonged battle between Islamic extremists and the Malian and French armies, residents and a Malian military spokesman said Sunday.

Handfuls of Islamist radicals are slipping in and out of towns in northern Mali on hit and run operations, putting a question mark over France's aspirations to neatly wrap up its military intervention soon.

This weekend brought a suicide car bomb in Timbuktu that rattled residents and sparked a brief, intense skirmish with French and Malian troops who say they will now more strongly garrison the ancient trading post town. The French deployed air craft to crack down on rebels, whose identity in this attack remains unclear. Malian officials said 21 rebels were killed.

As French politicians and senior officers prepare to partly exit Mali this month, having largely assuaged fears of a new Afghanistan developing in northwest Africa, they are facing a new low-level radical insurgency of yet uncertain numbers, capability, and intent.

"The fighting is heavy and it is ongoing," Malian Army Capt. Modibo Naman Traore told Reuters on Sunday, adding that the Army was in the process of "encircling" the militants. 

Last week in Gao, the largest city in the Malian north, rebels killed six locals in a similar attack. That operation, which French forces reportedly rebuffed quickly, was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, a group that partly controlled the city last fall.

In January the French quickly drove out a loose but effective Islamist insurgency that last year took over huge swaths of Mali using weapons siphoned out of Libya after its civil strife ended.

But having liberated Gao, Timbuktu, and other northern towns, the French have focused on Islamists in the northern mountains; days back French forces confirmed killing a significant rebel leader Abou Zeid. Yet apparent French indifference to, or even collaboration in recent weeks with, ethnic Tuareg rebels, reported here by Peter Tinti in The Christian Science Monitor, has strained relations between government, military, and local populations.

Much of the media coverage and information of sensitive war operations in Mali by the French is under strict control. The New York Times today, reporting out of Paris, writes about the rebels in Timbuktu that,

“They had said Timbuktu was secured,” the mayor [of Timbuktu] lamented. The fighting had ceased by about 3 p.m. on Sunday, he said, though military aircraft, presumably French, continued to circle in the skies above Timbuktu. Two patrols of French fighter aircraft had been sent to Timbuktu, according to Colonel Burkhard, the military spokesman, but they did not fire any munitions.

Analysts continue to ask whether, after a successful effort to put Al Qaeda-linked rebels on the run, Mali itself can continue to hold together.

Mali has announced new elections in July and the French force levels are to draw down from more than 4,000 to 2,000 by that time. 

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