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.
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.