GAO, MALI (TIP): Four Maliantroops were killed by a landmine interritory reclaimed from Islamistrebels, police said on Feb 8 as Francemulled handing over its four-week-oldintervention to UN peacekeepers.The deadly explosion Wednesdaybetween the northern towns ofDouentza and Gao came six days aftera similar blast in the same area killedtwo Malian soldiers, underlining thedanger the Islamist fighters still posedespite fleeing the towns under theircontrol.
“A Malian army vehicle was blownup by a mine placed by the Islamistcriminals,” a paramilitary policeofficer said.The Movement for Oneness andJihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one ofthe Islamist groups that seized controlof northern Mali for 10 months, said ithad “created a new combat zone” andclaimed two recent attacks on the roadto Gao, the largest city in the north.”MUJAO is behind the explosion oftwo Malian army cars,” the group’sspokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui saidin a text message sent to a newsagency.He called on Malians to stay awayfrom main roads, which he said hadbeen heavily mined.”We urge infinite jihad and astruggle against infidel regimes andthe establishment of God’s sharia andfor Muslims to be freed,” he added.
Nearly a month after it sent in thefirst fighter jets and attackhelicopters, France’s intervention haslargely driven the al-Qaida-linkedrebels into the remote mountains ofthe far northeast, stopping theirthreatened advance on the capital,Bamako.But French-led forces continue tocome under attack in reclaimedterritory, including rocket firedirected against them Feb 6 in Gao.With fears of a prolongedinsurgency, Paris is keen to hand overthe military burden of an operationthe defence ministry said has alreadycost France 70 million euros ($95million), with the figure rising by 2.7million euros per day.
French defence minister Jean-YvesLe Drian said patrols in reclaimedtowns had encountered “residualjihadist groups who are still fighting”.In Gao, French-led forces havebeefed up security to prevent rebelsinfiltrating the city, according to aMalian army source. An AFPjournalist reported large patrols byFrench, Malian and Nigerien troops.French helicopters have beenpatrolling the road between Gao andDouentza, 400 kilometres (250 miles) tothe southwest.The area is littered with landminesand improvised explosive devices,according to security sources.After announcing plans to startwithdrawing its 4,000 troops from Maliin March, France called Wednesdayfor a United Nations peacekeepingforce to take over.Foreign Minister Laurent Fabiussaid a peacekeeping force could bein place by April, incorporatingtroops being deployed under thebanner of a West Africanintervention force, AFISMA, into aUN mission.
The Economic Community of WestAfrican States (ECOWAS) is slowlydeploying some 6,000 troops in Mali,joined by another 2,000 from Chad.France’s ambassador to the UN,Gerard Araud, said it would take”several weeks” to make anassessment on deploying peacekeepersbut that the Security Council had “noobjections” to the plan.France now has as many soldiers inMali as it had at the peak of itsdeployment in Afghanistan in 2010.French fighter jets continue topound the area around the Adrar desIfoghas massif in the far northeast, acraggy mountain landscapehoneycombed with caves where theinsurgents are believed to have fledwith seven French hostages.France’s UN ambassador said apeacekeeping mission would also betasked with helping Mali, whose bowtie-shaped map circumscribes a vastsprawl of terrain and peoples, “reacha new national pact”.
Mali’s descent into chaos beganwith a new rebellion launched inJanuary 2012 among the Tuareg, atraditionally nomadic northern peoplewho have long felt marginalised by thesouthern government.Le Drian said Tuesday the Frenchledoperation had so far killed “severalhundred” al-Qaida-linked militants.France’s sole fatality so far has beena helicopter pilot killed at the start ofthe operation. Mali said 11 of itstroops were killed and 60 wounded inearly fighting but has not sincereleased a new death toll.