Over the past 48 hours, French-led troops in Mali have managed to take over the key town of Gao and the airport of Timbuktu from Islamist rebels. By Monday afternoon, French and Malian military sources confirmed that the troops had entered the historic city of Timbuktu, encountering minimal resistance from the militants. However it must be noted that while the towns of Gao and Timbuktu are currently under the control of French troops, travel to these areas continues to be unadvisable as the security situation may change at any moment. There continues to be a high level of terrorism and threat of kidnapping. As such, MS Risk advises against all travel to the region.
The advance into Timbuktu, which lies 1,000 km (600 miles) north of the capital city of Bamako, comes just one day after French and Malian soldiers seized control of another Islamist stronghold, the eastern town of Gao. French and Malian troops, along with soldiers from Chad and Niger, regained control of Gao on Saturday.
By Sunday, French paratroopers had swooped in to attempt to block the fleeing militants while on the ground troops, coming in from the south, seized the ancient city’s airport, which up until now had been one of the strongholds of the militant groups who have controlled the northern region of the country for the past ten months. Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French army spokesman, confirmed that in less than 48 hours, the troops, backed by helicopters, had seized control of the Niger Loop, which is the area located alongside the curve of the Niger River that flows between Gao and Timbuktu. On the ground sources have also confirmed that the ground force units and paratroopers were dispatched to surround the city of Timbuktu in an attempt to cautiously enter the city.
On Monday afternoon, the French military confirmed that the troops had moved into Timbuktu after blocking all the roads surrounding the city. It was also confirmed that “substantial airpower” had been used in order to support the 1,000 French and 200 Malian forces in their offensive against the rebels in Timbuktu. A Malian army colonel has indicated that “the Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the city of Timbuktu.” However reports have already emerged that while the town remains to be under the control of the allies, a severe amount of damage was caused to some of the historic sites located throughout this ancient town. Mali’s culture ministry has confirmed that prior to escaping the town, the militants burnt the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts from Greece and the ancient Muslim world. Reports have also indicated that Islamists have been fleeing from Timbuktu towards the city of Kidal, which is located more than 500km (300 miles) to the northeast.
Gao is the largest of the six towns which have been seized by French and Malian troops since France launched its military intervention on 11 January. The largest town yet to be recaptured is Kidal, which is located close to the Algerian border. It was also the first town that was seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamist extremists last year.
It is currently believed that once Timbuktu is secured, French-led troops will focus on retaking Kidal. Preparations for this final takeover have already been launched as Malian officials have confirmed that Kidal, which is the home of the head of Ansar Dine, was bombed overnight by French forces. Once Kidal is taken, the first phase of the French operation will be over, while the second phase, which will strictly focus on tracking down the militants in their desert hideouts, will commence. This phase, however, will likely prove to be a more complex task then the first as, according to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the militants have adopted a “strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north.”
On Sunday, France also confirmed that it has now deployed 2,900 troops to Mali, with another 1,000 troops supporting the operation elsewhere, and that there currently are 2,700 African soldiers on the ground in Mali and in Niger. However French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has appealed for more aid for the ongoing efforts in Mali.
The French-led military intervention in Mali has entered into its third week with French and Malian troops currently advancing towards the town of Gao after earlier retaking the northern town of Hombori. Meanwhile, militant extremists have struck back with the bombing of a strategic bridge in the region.
Official reports have confirmed that French and Malian troops have retaken the town of Hombori, which is located 160km (100 miles) from the Islamist stronghold of Gao. The movement towards Gao follows several days of air strikes which targeted Islamist bases, fuel stock and weapon dumps near the town. While troops are currently on their way to regain Gao, in the west, the French-led forces who recaptured the town of Diabaly on Monday are pushing towards the town of Lere, with the eventual plans of taking control of Timbuktu which lies further north. Gao is just one of three major northern towns, along with Kidal and Timbuktu, where al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have imposed a strict form of Sharia law over the past ten months..
Meanwhile, reports have indicated that rebels have blown up the Tassiga bridge which links Gao to neighbouring Niger. The bridge likes on the quickest route from Niger to Gao. More than 2,000 Chadian soldiers and 500 troops from Niger were planning to use this route in order to deploy and open a second front against the Islamists from the east. Although there is a detour, which is an additional three to six miles, that eventually links to the Niger-Gao road, it is currently unknown which direction these troops will take in order to link up with AU forces in Mali.
A large international troop-build up will continue over the weekend, ahead of a probable French-led air and ground offensive that will take place in Gao and other desert cities. Currently, France has 2,000 troops in Mali. More than 1,000 soldiers from Nigeria are expected to arrive in Mali within the coming days.
Residents who had fled to nearby towns returned to their homes in Douentza on Monday after hearing that the Islamist extremists who had controlled their town had been chased away.
Malian and French forces retook control of Douentza on Monday, ending four months of the town’s rule by armed Islamist extremists. The town is 270 miles north of Mopti, which delineates the line of control held by the Malian military.
When the troops arrived to Douentza, they found that the Islamists had already retreated from the town. Sources have not identified where the Islamists went. After entering the town, French infantry studied the rebel compounds, finding anti-tank mines.
The rebels’ actions display their ability to embed into the population and flee back into the desert. Residents have described how the militants also arrived suddenly. Malian soldiers were helping to spot Islamists, who may have trimmed their beards and swapped their robes for jeans in a bid to mix with the civilian population, France’s army spokesman Thierry Burkhard said.
The rebels have vowed to defend other urban centers and turn Mali into a protracted guerrilla conflict they call “France’s Afghanistan.” The fighters appeared to find little support among the local population, who said the harsh version of Islam they sought to impose had little resemblance to the moderate faith practiced by most people here.
On Monday, U.S. Africa Command says American planes had begun transporting French troops and equipment in support of the country’s mission in Mali. A spokesman for U.S. Africa Command said that the U.S. Air Force C-17 transport began flights sent two flights on Monday from the French base in Istres, France, to Bamako, and a third arrived Tuesday morning. The missions will operate over the next several days.
In addition, armoured columns of Chadian troops in Niger are moving towards the Malian border. The Chadian forces, experienced in desert operations, were seen advancing north from the capital Niamey on the road to Ouallam, some 60 miles from the border, where a company of Niger’s troops are already stationed. Niger’s armed forces, which completed training last month, will advance toward the rebel-held city of Gao in collaboration with the Chadian troops. It is not clear when they would cross the border. Niger has already sent a technical team to Mali, as part of a battalion troops accompanied by six French liaison officers.
French officials say the troops will remain in Mali until they have dislodged the Islamist fighters from the north. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the French military is on a route which hopes to drive militants from the Mali’s northern cities: Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
“The Malian army’s advance toward the towns held by their enemies is a military success for the government in Bamako and for the French forces,” Mr. Le Drian said.
Algerian Prime Minister Sellal stated today that the terrorists involved in the attacks at Ain Amenas gas complex ranged in nationality from Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Mali and elsewhere in the region, as well as two from Canada. Sellal also revealed that the militants were helped by a former driver who worked at the plant. This detail validates speculations that people known to the complex were involved in the planning of the attacks.
He also confirmed that 38 workers and 29 terrorists died, while another three were taken into custody. Sellal states that five hostages are unaccounted for; other governments claim there are seventeen still missing.
In defence of the actions taken by the Algerian government, Sellal said, “I swear before God that there are few in this world who could achieve” what the Algerian armed forces undertook. Sellal also indicated that Algeria wanted to send a message to terrorists.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the militant group, confirmed that the attack had been prepared for a long time, but the French intervention in Mali provided the opportunity to carry out the plan. Belmokhtar also stated that he had hoped to negotiate and had promised the hostages would not be harmed. The Algerian government believed that the demands were “unacceptable”.
Analysts suggest that the diverse composition of the militants, which included three explosives experts, and the nature of the target may signal a shift toward a more sophisticated approach to conducting attacks. Though Belmokhtar and his group failed in Algeria, he has vowed more attacks in the future.
Algeria has not been economically impacted by the events. The Ain Amenas plant, which produces 10% of the nations’ gas, is set to resume operations in a few days. Gas complexes throughout the nation increased output to maintain normal demand. PT Pertamina, Indonesia’s state-owned oil company, will proceed with a bid to buy stakes in three Algerian oil fields from ConocoPhillips.
On Saturday, Algerian Special Forces stormed a natural gas complex in Ain Amenas, in a “final assault” to put an end to the four-day hostage situation. Seven hostages were summarily killed as Algerian troops tried to free them. Over the course of the crisis, 37 foreign hostages from eight countries, and eleven Algerian workers have been killed in the attacks. Seven victims are yet to be identified; five are still missing.
Sources indicate that the militants conducted a highly organized and well planned assault. Members of the Al-Qaeda linked group, Katiba Moulathamin, attacked the plant Wednesday morning from the Libyan border, 60 miles from the natural gas plant. The militants attacked two buses taking foreign employees to the airport. As the buses’ military escort fired on the attackers, the rebels turned to the gas complex, which is divided between the workers’ living quarters and the refinery itself, and seized hostages. Algerian officials suggest that the attackers may have had inside help from Algerians employed at the site.
Early Saturday, the Algerian military stationed itself in the residential barracks of the plant, while militants, armed with rocket-launchers and machine guns, were located in the industrial section with an undisclosed number of hostages. Shortly before the military assault, the leader of the hostage-takers, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, said the government had to choose between negotiating with the kidnappers and leaving the hostages to die, also stating that the area had been booby-trapped and swore to blow up the complex if the Algerian army used force. The Algerian military is clearing mines planted by the militants.
A video released by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Katiba Moulathamin’s leader, confirmed his involvement for the first time, stating that the operation was carried out by 40 fighters from six nations, including several Westerners. Algerian officials say Belmokhtar’s group was behind the attack, but he was not present himself. The raid leader, Abdul Rahman al-Nigeri, is thought to be among the 32 dead militants.
Nigeri, a fighter from an Arab tribes in Niger, joined the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in early 2005. A year later, the GSPC joined up with al-Qaeda to create al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has since spread across North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel region. Recently, AQIM has been bolstered by millions earned from the kidnapping of Westerners and their ability to move across the borders between Libya, Algeria, Mali and Niger.
It is suspected that this attack was a symptom of disputes between Belmokhtar and Abdelmalek Droukdel, man who was chosen to lead the GSPC following the death of former leader Nabil Sahraoui. Belmokhtar believed himself as a major candidate to replace Sahraoui, however the the position went to Droukdel instead. On the outer level, the crisis in Ain Amenas appeared to be a warning to the Algerian government, but within AQIM, the situation could be perceived as a show of strength by Belmokhtar.