Red Cross Worker Killed In Mali

somalia islamistsA worker for the International Committee of the Red Cross was on Wednesday night killed in the northern part of Mali town, Gao, a spokesman for the aid organization and local residents said.

“We are trying to confirm the details, but we can confirm the worker was killed,” Saoure Barthelemi said on Thursday, without providing further details.

The Malian man was not working at the time of the shooting and was visiting family, Barthelemi said.

Kader Toure, a resident of Gao, said the worker had been shot by two men on a motorcycle late at night. He was taken to hospital where he died from his wounds, Toure said.

Northern Mali has been beset by attacks over the past year from resurgent Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Gao, seized by Islamist militants in 2012 before French forces drove them out a year later, is considered the most secure town in northern Mali, with multiple U.N., French and Malian army checkpoints along main roads.

Even in Gao, however, problems persist.

A French aid worker was kidnapped there on December 24, and in November the offices of the U.N. peacekeeping mission located next to the city’s airport terminal were razed by a truck-bomb explosion.

Gunbattle Rocks Gao After Rebels Surprise French, Malians

Islamist insurgents launched a surprise raid in the heart of the Malian town of Gao on Sunday, battling French and local troops in a blow to efforts to secure Mali’s recaptured north.

Local residents hid in their homes or crouched behind walls as the crackle of gunfire from running street battles resounded through the sandy streets and mud-brick houses of the ancient Niger River town, retaken from Islamist rebels last month by a French-led offensive.

French helicopters clattered overhead and fired on al Qaeda-allied rebels armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades who had infiltrated the central market area and holed up in a police station, Malian and French officers said.

The fighting inside Gao was certain to raise fears that pockets of determined Islamists who have escaped the lightning four-week-old French intervention in Mali will strike back with guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings.

After driving the bulk of the insurgents from major northern towns such as Timbuktu and Gao, French forces are trying to search out their bases in the remote and rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, far up in the northeast.

But with Mali’s weak army unable to secure recaptured zones, and the deployment of a larger African security force slowed by delays and kit shortages, vast areas to the rear of the French forward lines now look vulnerable to guerrilla activity.

“They infiltrated the town via the river. We think there were about 10 of them. They were identified by the population and they went into the police station,” said General Bernard Barrera, commander of French ground operations in Mali.

He told reporters in Gao that French helicopters had intervened to help Malian troops pinned down by the rebels, who threw grenades from rooftops.

Malian gendarme Colonel Saliou Maiga told Reuters the insurgents intended to carry out suicide attacks in the town.

SUICIDE BOMBERS

No casualty toll was immediately available. But a Reuters reporter in Gao saw one body crumpled over a motorcycle. Malian soldiers said some of the raiders may have come on motorbikes.

The gunfire in Gao erupted hours after French and Malian forces reinforced a checkpoint on the northern outskirts that had been attacked for the second time in two days by a suicide bomber.

Abdoul Abdoulaye Sidibe, a Malian parliamentarian from Gao, said the rebel infiltrators were from the MUJWA group that had held the town until French forces liberated it late last month.

MUJWA is a splinter faction of al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM which, in loose alliance with the home-grown Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine, held Mali’s main northern urban areas for 10 months until the French offensive drove them out.

Late on Saturday, an army checkpoint in Gao’s northern outskirts came under attack by a group of Islamist rebels who fired from a road and bridge that lead north through the desert scrub by the Niger River to Bourem, 80 km (50 miles) away.

“Our soldiers came under heavy gunfire from jihadists from the bridge … At the same time, another one flanked round and jumped over the wall. He was able to set off his suicide belt,” Malian Captain Sidiki Diarra told reporters.

The bomber died and one Malian soldier was lightly wounded, he added. In Friday’s motorbike suicide bomber attack, a Malian soldier was also injured.

Diarra described Saturday’s bomber as a bearded Arab.

Since Gao and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Timbuktu were retaken last month, several Malian soldiers have been killed in landmine explosions on a main road leading north.

French and Malian officers say pockets of rebels are still in the bush and desert between major towns and pose a threat of hit-and-run guerrilla raids and bombings.

“We are in a dangerous zone… we can’t be everywhere,” a French officer told reporters, asking not to be named.

One local resident reported seeing a group of 10 armed Islamist fighters at Batel, just 10 km (6 miles) from Gao.

OPERATIONS IN NORTHEAST

The French, who have around 4,000 troops in Mali, are now focusing their offensive operations several hundred kilometers (miles) north of Gao in a hunt for the Islamist insurgents.

On Friday, French special forces paratroopers seized the airstrip and town of Tessalit, near the Algerian border.

From here, the French, aided by around 1,000 Chadian troops in the northeast Kidal region, are expected to conduct combat patrols into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

The remaining Islamists are believed to have hideouts and supply depots in a rugged, sun-blasted range of rocky gullies and caves, and are also thought to be holding at least seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.

The U.S. and European governments back the French-led operation as a defense against Islamist jihadists threatening wider attacks, but rule out sending their own combat troops.

To accompany the military offensive, France and its allies are urging Mali authorities to open a national reconciliation dialogue that addresses the pro-autonomy grievances of northern communities like the Tuaregs, and to hold democratic elections.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore, appointed after a military coup last year that plunged the West African state into chaos and led to the Islamist occupation of the north, has said he intends to hold elections by July 31.

But he faces splits within the divided Malian army, where rival units are still at loggerheads.

 

President’s Son Leads Chadians Against Islamists In Mali

Around 1,000 troops from Chad led by the president’s son, Gen. Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, advanced towards the mountains of northeast Mali on Thursday to join French search-and-destroy operations hunting Islamist jihadists.

A column of 100 Chadian armored vehicles, jeeps and supply trucks rolled out of Kidal, the Saharan town 1,200 km (750 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako. From Kidal, French and Chadian forces backed by French warplanes are striking against Islamist rebel hideouts in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range straddling the border with Algeria.

President Idriss Deby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, commanded the Chadian column. He told Reuters its mission was to “fight terrorism, and eradicate it from the region”, a reference to the Al Qaeda-allied fighters in the mountains who are being bombarded almost daily by French aircraft.

More than 2,500 troops from Chad and Niger are assisting 4,000 French soldiers in the second phase of Paris’ four-week-old intervention against Al Qaeda and its allies in Mali. This is supported by Africa, the United States and Europe as a strike against radical jihadists threatening international attacks.

France’s Operation Serval has retaken the main urban areas of Mali’s north, including Timbuktu and Gao, and is now pursuing the retreating jihadists into the remote northeast. Malian troops are moving up behind to secure the recaptured locations.

Malian Defense Minister General Yamoussa Camara told Reuters the Malian army intended to follow the French and Chadians right up to Tessalit close to the Algerian border.

“That is going to take some time. The enemy’s offensive has been broken, they’ve lost a lot of equipment, but there are pockets of resistance scattered across the country,” he said.

This echoed statements by French leaders who say the Islamists have suffered “hundreds” of casualties but warn the Mali campaign is not yet over. France has said it wants to start pulling troops out of its former colony in March and would like to see a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed there by April.

Pro-autonomy Tuareg MNLA fighters, whose revolt last year defeated Mali’s army and seized the north before being hijacked by Islamist radicals, have said they are controlling Kidal and other northeast towns abandoned by the fleeing Islamist rebels.

Tuareg desert nomads, offering local knowledge as guides, have said they will help the French and Chadians hunt down the al Qaeda-allied insurgents in the desert and mountains.

But this has created a potentially sensitive situation as Mali’s government and army insist on restoring Bamako’s sovereignty over every corner of Mali, including the vast and empty desert zone which the Tuaregs claim as their homeland.

“It is out of the question that we would abandon any place to the MNLA,” Defence Minister Camara said.

French President Visits Mali To Support French Troops

The President of France, Francois Hollande arrived in Mali on Saturday on a one-day visit to support French troops fighting a campaign against Islamist rebels in the Sahel nation.

Hollande, accompanied by his ministers for Defense, Foreign Affairs and Development, flew into Sevare in central Mali, French TV channels said.

He was due to go on to Timbuktu, the famed Saharan trading town which was recaptured from the rebels on Sunday.

The French leader was expected to outline the next phase of the mission for the French forces, which in a three-week intervention launched at Mali’s request have pushed the Islamist fighters into the desert and mountains of the remote northeast.

Hollande has said that the French operation, which has 3,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali backed by warplanes, helicopters and armored vehicles, wants to hand over to a larger U.N.-backed African force which is still being deployed.

Sustained French airstrikes have forced fighters from the Islamist militant alliance that was occupying northern Mali to retreat into the remote Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border. The rebels are also believed to be holding there seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.

In their three-week offensive, the French forces recaptured last weekend, with little resistance from the rebels, the two main towns in northern Mali, Gao and the fabled ancient city of Timbuktu.

 

French Troops Re-Claim Malian Town

French forces have now re-claimed the northern Malian town of Kidal, the last main stronghold of Islamist rebels in the region.

The militant Islamist fighters left the town, near the Algerian border, and are now believed to be hiding in the surrounding mountains.

Kidal was captured days after French and Malian forces retook the provincial capitals Gao and Timbuktu.

Haminy Maiga, a Kidal official, said the troops who arrived aboard four planes had met no resistance.

“The French arrived aboard four planes,” said, Mr Maiga, who heads the regional assembly.

“They took the airport and then entered the town, and there was no combat. The French are patrolling the town and two helicopters are patrolling overhead.”

Earlier, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said a sandstorm had delayed the troops from leaving the airport and entering the town.