In line with MS Risk’s recent advisories indicating that the security situation throughout Mali remains uncertain, a suicide bomber blew himself up on Friday in the northern town of Gao, sparking the first such incident to occur since France launched its military intervention in January of this year. This attack signifies that the Islamist rebels have resorted to guerrilla warfare as a means of demonstrating that despite being ousted from their stronghold in northern Mali, they are still able to carry out hit and run attacks. MS Risk therefore advises that it is highly likely that such guerrilla attacks may continue in the coming months, especially in those towns and cities that were recently recaptured by French-led forces. This recent incident also proves that the war is far from being won. The current security situation may result in an increased military presence and checkpoints in towns throughout the country. Meanwhile in Bamako, fighting has erupted between Malian government soldiers and paratroopers who are stationed in the capital city. MS Risk advises any expats in the Bamako to get to safety immediately. It is highly recommended that you stay off the streets and keep away from any military bases as further fighting amongst the military divisions may occur. Military base, especially those occupied by French troops, may also be targeted by rebel Islamist groups. It is also recommended to be wary if driving over any of the three bridges across the Niger river which cuts the city in two.
Fridays’ suicide attack occurred when the attacker, who was on a motorbike at the time, approached a checkpoint located on the outskirts of Gao at about 6:30GMT. The bomber, who is believed to be a young Tuareg, then detonated an explosive belt. Reports have also indicated that he was carrying a larger bomb which failed to detonate. The attack left one soldier injured. Gao is one of the most populous cities in northern Mali and it is one of the towns that was recaptured by French-led troops.
This incident is the first known suicide attack to have occurred in Mali since France sent 4,000 troops into the northern region of the country on 11 January in order to oust the militants. Although there are checkpoints, which are run by troops from France, Mali and Niger, throughout the country, there is currently an increased military presence in Gao as there are rising fears that mines may have been strategically placed throughout the city as a means of carrying out further attacks. The suicide attack comes just one day after one of the Islamist groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), stated that they had “created a new combat zone” by organizing suicide bombings, attacking military convoys and placing landmines.
Over the past week, French-led forces have increasingly come under attack in the reclaimed territories. A landmine blast which occurred on Wednesday between the northern towns of Douentza and Gao, killed four civilians who were returning from a market. A similar incident in the same area, which occurred on January 31, resulted in the death of two Malian soldiers. All of this is occurring at a time when French-led forces have been split into two units, with some remaining in the recaptured towns in order to enforce security, while others, along with 1,000 Chadian soldiers, moving into the mountains near the Algerian border where a large number of Islamist rebels are believed to have fled after French forces began bombarding their strongholds. On Thursday, French and Chadian troops arrived in Aguelhok, which is located 160 km (100 miles) north of Kidal. By Friday, the French-led forces moved into Tessalit, which is the gateway into the country’s northern mountainous region. Over the past few days, air strikes have targeted both towns, aimed at removing Islamist bases. The air strikes are also in preparation for ground forces which are set to enter the mountainous regions in order to drive the remaining Islamist groups out of the country.
Meanwhile in Bamako, reports have surfaced that Malian government soldiers have fought mutinous paratroops in the capital city. Fighting erupted as soldiers attacked a camp of elite paratroopers who are loyal to ex-President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was ousted in the March 2012 coup. It is believed that the incident broke out after the paratroopers refused to be absorbed into the other units in order to go to the northern frontline. The violence comes on the same day that the first EU military trainers were expected to arrive in Bamako in order to begin further training of the Malian army.
Over the past forty-eight hours, Chadian soldiers have continued to secure the town of Kidal in Mali while France has urged the United Nations to send peacekeepers into Mali as French troops prepare to withdrawal from the mission by March 2013. The security situation throughout the country remains to be volatile as counter attacks by Islamist rebels have indicated that while all of the cities in the northern region have been retaken, the rebels continue to have the capabilities of regrouping and staging hit and run attacks. It is highly likely that such attacks and clashes will continue to occur during the transitional period as the rebels will attempt to use this moment to regain their access.
On Tuesday, an estimated 1,800 Chadian troops entered the northern town of Kidal in order to continue securing the last major Islamist rebel stronghold. Meanwhile reports have indicated that there are rising tensions in Mali as the French-led forces have been attacked by Islamist rebels in retaken territories, raising fears that a prolonged insurgency may occur. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed on Tuesday that rebels had hit back at troops with rocket fire in Gao, which is the largest northern city.
Meanwhile after announcing plans to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali in March, France has called on the United Nations to begin deploying its peacekeeping force in order to take over the mission. Speaking to the media in Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius indicated that a peacekeeping force could be in place by April and that it would incorporate troops being deployed under the banner of the West African intervention force. France wants the UN force to help stabilize Mali and to seek an end to the long-standing conflict between the ethnic Tuaregs and Arabs and the rest of the population.
So far, France has sustained one fatality, a helicopter pilot who was killed at the beginning of the mission. The Malian army has indicated that eleven of its troops have been killed while another sixty have been wounded. France’s Defence Minister has indicated that the monthlong French offensive has killed hundreds of Islamist fighters in Mali.
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.
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.