French and Malian troops on Monday said they are in control of the strategic city of Gao once again after fighting that was described as the most serious escalation of the conflict since French forces entered Mali in late January. The clashes took place on Sunday when Islamist rebel forces infiltrated Gao and attacked Malian and French forces there.
The clash may indicate that the war in Mali has moved into a new phase of guerrilla war after the French managed to liberate Gao with an aerial bombing campaign and almost no fighting on the ground, reports The New York Times.
Rebels from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), claimed responsibility for the attack, as well as a suicide bombing that took place on Saturday. The group had been in control of Gao for 10 months prior to the arrival of French forces. In a statement by the group, the group sounded prepared and ready to conduct an insurgent campaign.
“Today God’s faithful successfully attacked the Malian army, which let the enemies of Islam come to Gao,” said MUJAO spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui in an article by Agence France-Presse. “The combat will continue until victory, thanks to God's protection. The mujahedeen are in the city of Gao and will remain there."
As French forces work to flush out and destroy the remaining MUJAO and rebel bases in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in northeastern Mali, Sunday’s attack has raised concerns that both Malian and French troops may be susceptible to insurgent attacks. The Malian Army appears to be too weak to maintain security of recaptured areas, and there are large, open areas surrounding French troops that “now look vulnerable to guerrilla activity,” Reuters reports. Additionally, the arrival of an African security force has been delayed, leaving fewer forces available to secure the territory.
French and Malian officials say it is still too early to establish a death toll from Sunday’s fighting, but they have reported that rebels entered the city by crossing the Niger River with canoes, hid in an empty police station, placed snipers on surrounding buildings, and attacked once Malian troops arrived, reports Al Jazeera. On Monday morning a French helicopter fired on the building and since this afternoon there has been a “tense calm” in Gao.
Amid concerns that more rebels may have infiltrated the city and are now hiding among the population, Malian troops are conducting house-to-house searches. French officials estimate that about a dozen fighters took part in the attack and said they are unable to confirm if any of them had been killed. The BBC reports that Malian soldiers initially responded to the attack and French forces only provided assistance when rebels began using heavy weapons, such as rocket-propelled grenades.
France has already begun planning its exit from Mali, once a former French colony. France24 reports that “France is anxious to hand over its military operation to African-led UN peacekeepers,” and officials have already announced plans to exit the country by March.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in a televised interview on Sunday that the French are now fighting in Mali because of their support of Libyan rebels during the fight to oust Muammar Gaddafi.
“France is fighting against those in Mali whom it had once armed in Libya against Gaddafi in violation of the embargo ordered by the UN Security Council,” said Mr. Lavrov, in an article by Russia’s RT. “France is marching across Mali with relative ease, virtually in a parade manner, occupying positions abandoned by the terrorists. It will soon liberate the whole of the state. The question is: Where are these guys no one had been able to subdue? They may turn out to be fine in the neighboring countries, where expeditionary decisions will have to be made.”