Mali: Faced with a jihadist dedication
Despite an offensive by French and Malian troops that chased the bulk of jihadists out of several northern Mali towns, the Islamic fighters’ retreat now confirms a tactical move, as they wage war from their desert hideouts.
The anti-extremist campaign in the region now appears to be entering into a second phase.
Suicide bombings on Friday and Saturday orchestrated by the jihadist group are believed to have unsettled Malian forces, allowing the Islamist fighters to infiltrate the city of Gao.
The militants returned to the city, via the Niger River in wooden boats, two weeks after they were driven out by a joint French and Malian military force.
The suicide bomber who killed himself, wounding one Malian soldier at a checkpoint at the entrance to the city on Saturday, followed an earlier attack which had seen another bomber on motorcycle blowing himself up at the same security spot on Friday. The first attack left no casualties.
“We are dedicating ourselves to carrying out more attacks against France and its allies” said MUJAO spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui.
The weekend attacks by Islamic extremists began after the second suicide attack, in what analysts argue looks like a diversion to oil the passage of the jihadists into the populous city of Gao.
On Saturday, the Islamist militants fought Malian government forces using heavy weaponry from 2pm until midnight when French helicopters flew over the city to engage the rebels.
Observers say the well-armed Islamists appeared to have combat experience, and France – which has over 4000 troops in the region – says a few more than ten militants had launched the offensive.
The attacks suggest an onset of a guerilla warfare against the French and Malian led forces. And what was hoped would be a few weeks of onslaught on Al-Qaeda linked Ansar Dine Islamists may turn into a long-drawn-out campaign by the Malian government, France and the international community.
Although the French intervention appears to have been successful, the onslaught shows the vulnerability of the Malian army, especially after infighting at a Bamako military barracks saw a gun battle among some groups of soldiers on Friday.
Meanwhile, a house-to-house search is underway in Gao after Saturday’s attack, amid concerns that some of the jihadists may have taken refuge in the town after reports that residents of a Gao village detained a Tuareg and an Arab, who they claimed were carrying explosives.
With reports indicating that the two suicide bombings were carried out by either a Tuareg or an Arab, the region is seeing a split between light-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs and their dark-skinned neighbours who accuse the former of backing the jihadists.
As it continues to map out an exit strategy, France has said it would hand over the responsibility of ousting the extremists to the Malian military and other African nations. The United Nations Security Council is soon to discuss establishing a UN peacekeeping operation in Mali.