Mali crisis: French confident against well-armed Islamists

Troops from the French Navy Infantry Regiment arrive near the town of Markala to secure a strategic bridge on the Niger River on 16 January 2013 Image copyright AFP

We found the French army in a dusty military compound on the banks of the slow, broad Niger River, here in Markala.

There were perhaps a dozen armoured vehicles parked in the courtyard, with more grinding their way in and out every few minutes.

"The French forces are here to block and to stop the advance of the Islamist rebels," said the local French commander, who explained that for security reasons, he would only give us his first name, Frederick, and the name of his task force "Ciwara" - which is apparently a small antelope.

Lt Col Frederick explained that his immediate priority was to secure the nearby bridge - a long, narrow steel contraption - and the only crossing point over the Niger River for hundreds of kilometres.

"This is only the first part of the mission; we are waiting orders for the next part," he said, acknowledging that events on the ground were moving fast and unpredictably.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Security is tight around the bridge in Markala

On the bridge itself, a handful of Malian soldiers sat in the shade, telling journalists that nobody - "not even tourists in peace time" - was allowed to take pictures of it.

French flags for sale

These were among the very first Malian soldiers we had seen since leaving the capital, Bamako, and driving for about five hours to the north-east.

The city itself seemed to be without any organised defence - a surprise given that it appeared to be on the brink of falling to a surprise offensive by Islamist rebels just days ago.

The first checkpoint we encountered was a few minutes outside Markala.

The countryside around here forms some of Mali's richest farmland - flat fields of corn and rice interspersed with big fruit trees.

A couple of French armoured cars drove through Markala, past a selection of French flags being sold on the roadside, and up onto the bridge, heading north.

For several days now, French airstrikes have been targeting a town called Diabaly, about 140km (87 miles) north towards the border with Mauritania.

There have also been reports of clashes in a town called Niono, about half-way between the two.

Lt Col Frederick, who is based in Chad and acknowledged having taken part in several wars in Africa, admitted that the Islamist fighters who have seized Diabaly were "a lot tougher" than any other rebel armies he had encountered on the continent.


"But it's not really a huge problem for us," he continued.

"We know the ground. We know them. We know how they fight.

"And we have a lot of heavy arms and air strikes so for us it's no problem."

Image copyright AP
Image caption The River Niger is an important transport route in central Mali

Although journalists are currently being kept back from the frontlines, it seems clear that Mali's army, having been forced into a series of humiliating retreats, is in a state of some disarray - to put it politely; and that Lt Col Frederick and his men are taking on a far more prominent frontline role than initially envisioned.

When I asked him how long he expected to remain in Mali, he smiled and replied: "I don't know.

"And if you have the answer, I'm very interested to know that."

In the same compound being used by the French, we found a handful of Malian soldiers, and in an upstairs office, was Col Cheick Amala Sidibe, commander of the Seventh Region.

"We know they are strong. They don't respect the human rights. It's a problem," he conceded, when I asked him why the Islamists had captured the garrison town of Diabaly with such apparent ease.

But like his French counterpart, Col Sidibe was adamant that the lightly-armed Islamists would soon be defeated.

"We have faith… and we have the French with us.

"They are doing a good job. Together we can do it quickly… It is not a problem for us to win."

The battle for Mali

Image caption French forces have bombed rebel bases in Mali, where Islamist rebels have threatened to advance on the capital Bamako from their strongholds in the north. France said it had decided to act to stop the offensive, which could create "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe".
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The landlocked area of West Africa was the core of ancient empires going back to the 4th Century. The French colonised Mali, then known as French Sudan, at the end of the 19th Century, while Islamic religious wars created theocratic states in the region.
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mali gained independence in 1960 but endured droughts, rebellions and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992. In the early 1990s, the nomadic Tuareg of the north began an insurgency over land and cultural rights.
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The insurgency gathered momentum in 2007, and was exacerbated by an influx of arms from the 2011 Libyan civil war. Tuareg nationalists, alongside Islamist groups with links to al-Qaeda, seized control of the north in 2012 after a military coup by soldiers frustrated by government efforts against the rebels.
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The fighting in the north and the establishment of a harsh form of Islamic law has forced thousands to flee their homes - some estimates say more than half the northern population has fled south or across borders into neighbouring countries.
Image copyright AFP
Image caption In January 2013, the Islamists captured the central city of Konna. France, responding to appeals for help from the Mali president, has sent about 550 troops to the Mopti and to Bamako, which is home to about 6,000 French nationals. French jets have also launched air strikes.

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