BBC News

Timbuktu fears French troops withdrawal from Mali

By Thomas Fessy
BBC News, Timbuktu

media captionThomas Fessy in Timbuktu reports on fears over the French withdrawal

Malian soldiers advance anxiously in the streets of Timbuktu, a historic Muslim city freed from nine months of Islamist militant rule by French forces in January.

They are on board six pick-up trucks, but they are effectively alone and exposed.

They know they are the primary targets for suicide bombers, who have been targeting several towns in the north that were rapidly recaptured in the first phase of the French-led intervention.

None of the soldiers crammed onto the vehicles wear a bulletproof vest, and fewer than half have a helmet on.

They are sitting amidst drums of fuel, sleeping mats and cooking pots.

This poorly equipped army is asked to defend the city, but the soldiers themselves acknowledge they cannot do it alone.

"We asked the French to come and help us," says Colonel Seydou Kone, the commanding officer, referring to the last fighting that rocked the city on 30 March-1 April.

After a night of non-stop gun battles against a group of Islamist militants, Malian soldiers found themselves completely overwhelmed.

"It is fair to say that we couldn't have made it without the French," Col Kone confessed.

At least two jihadi fighters had managed to enter a small house located on the side of an army camp.

image captionIslamist militants in Timbuktu had imposed strict Islamic law

A Malian soldier was killed when he went in, thinking the militants had already been taken down.

The French then destroyed the house, which was transformed into a pile of rubble.

The bodies of two militants were rotting under the sun when we got there. The soldier's corpse was still trapped under the debris.

People were chopping down the surrounding trees to give the soldiers more visibility in case militants tried to sneak into the camp again.

Lost in the dunes

Col Kone said he wanted French troops to stay in Timbuktu.

"We don't have the means to protect the town and face this fight at present," he said.

But for the French, the fight is out in the desert pursuing the jihadi fighters.

They intervened in Mali to hunt members of al-Qaeda's North African branch and its allied Islamist groups not where they may strike, but from where they plan their operations.

Paris believes its military task is nearly accomplished.

In fact, the French say they are ready to hand over cities like Timbuktu to African forces.

However, the search for residual militant fighters continues, and only the French have the means to conduct operations in remote places of the far north.

We followed units of the French army to the tiny desert village of Araouane, more than 200km (125 miles) north of Timbuktu, where the people are all ethnic Arabs or Tamashek.

image captionAraouane is hundreds of kilometres from other setttlements

The not more than 40 homes made of dry mud look lost in the dunes.

The next town is a few hundred kilometres further north; there are no cars but dozens of camels.

A sandstorm that we were caught in whilst there was a reminder of the extreme conditions that are ordinary to these people.

Many of Araouane's residents also have a home in Timbuktu, where they go to trade and buy supplies. But they have not gone in months.

"We are not welcome, it's too dangerous for us," says Moulaye el-Arbi, 26.

Most fear reprisal attacks if they are accused of having collaborated with the Islamists who occupied the area last year.

"We have never seen a militant here," says Mr el-Arbi, "they have never come here."

The group of people standing beside him agrees immediately.

But the French were convinced that jihadi fighters would often stop over on their way to Timbuktu.

Since the beginning of the French airstrikes, many are believed to have swapped pick-up trucks for camels to move around in the desert.

'Life in the balance'

Back in Timbuktu, the streets are almost deserted.

Just over two months ago, when the French entered the town, we witnessed incredible scenes of jubilation.

Residents were celebrating the end of what they thought had been the darkest days of the city - nearly a year under the occupation of Islamist militants who had imposed strict Islamic law.

Now, the atmosphere has changed profoundly. People fear the militants may strike again.

"It's very difficult," says Hamada Diakite, a former tour guide whose wife and child fled to the capital, Bamako, four months ago.

"Our life is in the balance and the balance is not good. I may have to go to The Gambia, Senegal or Mauritania to do my job."

So what if the French leave?

"I'm worried if the French withdraw now," said a shopkeeper who refused to be named, fearing for his life.

"If they pull out in the coming days everybody will go running, even I will leave."

Until recently, a 7,000-strong regional African force was nowhere to be seen in northern Mali.

Most of the troops were deployed in the south, lacking both logistical support and funding.

Battalions from Niger were recently assigned to the north-eastern town of Menaka, while Senegalese soldiers moved to Gao.

In Timbuktu, there is little faith in these troops' capacity.

image captionNot many regional African soldiers have deployed to the north

"We don't think that these forces can do what the French have done so far," says Hamadoune Diadie Maiga, the acting head of the Timbuktu crisis committee.

"So when the militants understand that nobody is standing guard or that those who are here don't have the means to carry out their mission, they will feel like they are in conquered land - they will easily enter the city again and it will be a catastrophe for the people of Timbuktu."

The French deployed to Mali arguing that militants there had become a threat not only to the region but also to Europe.

After a rapid campaign, they are now pushing for a UN peacekeeping mission to take over.

Thousands of African forces are waiting for that mandate.

The French would most likely keep a small support force in Mali but President Francois Hollande made it clear that half of the 4,000 soldiers currently on Malian soil will be home by July, when elections are due to be held in Mali.

About 1,000 French troops will still be in the country by the end of this year.

The prospect of such a withdrawal means that uncertain times lie ahead for the people of northern Mali.