Monday, February 11, 2013

France bombs Islamist hideout as Mali insurgency deepens Read more: France bombs Islamist hideout as Mali insurgency deepens

GAO (Mali): France has bombed an Islamist rebel hideout in northern Mali’s largest city, intensifying a security lock-down against guerrilla attacks as the French-led campaign entered its second month.

Witnesses said a French attack helicopter destroyed the central police  station in Gao in a pre-dawn assault Monday.
A day earlier, rebels from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West  Africa (MUJAO) had hidden in the building before opening fire on Malian troops,  sparking a long street battle.
Hundreds of curious locals gathered Monday morning to view the wreckage of  the police station, where body parts and unexploded grenades lay amid the  debris.
Soldiers eventually closed off the area so a French demining team could get  to work, also evacuating the city’s main market nearby.
“We fear an attack,” a senior Malian officer explained.
One witness to the helicopter attack said an Islamist fighter inside the  police station had blown himself up. Later that day, blood splatters and flesh  still covered the concrete.
“It’s disgusting but wonderful to see,” said Mahamane Tandina, 24. “These  people tortured us, they did nothing but damage here.”    
During the 10 months the extremists occupied northern Mali, MUJAO used the  police station as the headquarters of its “Islamic police”, enforcing a strict  form of sharia that included public whippings and amputations.
MUJAO has claimed Sunday’s attack and a pair of suicide bombings Friday and  Saturday, the opening shots of a deepening insurgency in the former French  colony.
Sunday’s street fighting was the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault  on territory reclaimed by French-led forces.
Medical and military sources said at least two Islamist rebels and three  civilians were killed and 17 people wounded, including two Malian soldiers, in  Sunday’s battle.
France launched its operation on January 11, after Mali’s interim  government requested help. It sent in fighter jets, attack helicopters and  ground troops to battle Islamist rebels who had seized the north and were  advancing into southern territory.
The campaign racked up a string of early successes as French and African  troops drove the extremists from Gao, Timbuktu and the rest of the towns under  their control.
But the turn to suicide attacks, landmine explosions and guerrilla fighting  show the security problems still facing Mali — and by extension France, which  is eager to wind down the operation and hand over to a United Nations  peacekeeping mission.
Paris announced last week it would begin bringing its troops home in March.
On Monday, French President Francois Hollande told reporters the  intervention had been a success.
 “The greater part of Malian territory has been freed, no town is occupied  by a terrorist group and no networks or groups who had up until now threatened  the lives of Malians are capable of launching a real offensive,” Hollande said.
But at the same Paris news conference Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan  warned that the west African force slowly being deployed in Mali would likely  have to stay for some time.
“The rebels will come back as terrorists using guerrilla tactics,” Jonathan  said. “It’s not going to be an overnight operation.”    Nigeria’s General Shehu Abdulkadir is leading the west African force, which  will eventually include some 6,000 troops. Chad has pledged an additional 2,000  troops, most of them already deployed.
France wants the African force incorporated into a UN peacekeeping mission.
But Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said Monday “there is still  hesitation from the government of Mali.”    In any case, he added, the situation on the ground would first have to be  more stable and any UN peacekeeping force there would require a UN resolution.
US President Barack Obama on Monday allocated up to $50 million for ongoing  US airlift and air refuelling services to France and Chad, for “efforts to  secure Mali from terrorists and violent extremists”.    Mali imploded after a March 22 coup by soldiers who blamed the government  for the army’s humiliation at the hands of north African Tuareg rebels, who  have long complained of being marginalised by Bamako.
With the capital in disarray, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg  rebellion and took control of the north. 

-- AFP, February 12, 2013

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