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.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed today that Malian and French troops have taken control of two key towns from the Islamist militants: Diabaly and Douentza. However French military officials and local residents have both noted that the town of Diabaly has been riddled with land mines which were placed by militants who were fleeing. Consequently, although the Diabaly is currently under French control, severe security issues remain and travel to the town is unadvised at this time. The town of Douentza, which was taken by Islamist militants in September 2012, is a crossroads town on the way to the rebel bastions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. Therefore while it is currently under French control, this may change at any moment as militants in the north continue to attempt to retake control. Therefore at this time, the situation in both towns remains to be tense while threats of attacks and kidnappings of westerners are highly likely to continue. MS Risk strongly advises against all travel to the region of Segou. This is due to terrorist and kidnap threats as well as an increase in troop movement and the possibility of checkpoints and military activity. Malian security forces are also likely to increase their security safeguards over the coming weeks. This will include checkpoints and other controls of movement in Bamako and across the country.
Although the security situation in Bamako remains to be relatively stable, the escalation of hostilities in Mopti, Diabaly and Douentza over the past several days has heightened tensions throughout the country. The country also continues to face challenges, including food shortages, internally displaced persons and the continued presence in northern Mali of factions that are linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The state of emergency, which was declared on 11 January 2013, remains to be in effect and it enables the government to take extraordinary measures in order to deal with the crisis. MS Risk advises against all travel to Mali. For those who remain in the country, it is advised to monitor local media as the situation remains to be fluid.
Malian forces have gained control of the central town of Diabaly, securing it from Islamist militants who have taken control of much of northern Mali.
Though this is a critical advance, the situation is confused at the moment. Parts of Diabaly’s population are sympathetic to the Islamists, and the rebels are suspected to be taking refuge in the forests beyond the city’s limits. French and Malian troops continue to monitor the town’s outksirts.
Mali was relatively stable, regarded as a “model democracy,” until the democratic government was overthrown in a 2012 coup.
Islamist rebels took advantage of the power vacuum to establish themselves in the north. Following the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Tuareg mercenaries returned to Mali, along with members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The militants imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law which included banning music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television. They also destroyed churches and damaged historic tombs and shrines.
On Saturday, demonstrators in Gao killed the chief of Islamic police, avenging the Islamists’ killing of a local journalist who was suspected of giving information to the Malian army.
France is considering sending up to an additional 2,500 in addition to the 2,000 troops currently in Mali. Of the estimated 5,800 African troops that have agreed to assist in Mali, only about 100 soldiers have arrived. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has reported that it has 3,300 regional troops on standby, and has urged the United Nations to provide immediate logistical and financial support for African troops. Canada and Britain are deploying military transport aircraft, and Russia has offered logistical support. While US policy prohibits direct military aid to Mali, until leaders are chosen through an election, the nation has dispatched 100 military trainers to six African nations who are sending troops.