Mali: France bombs Islamist hideout
12 February 2013, 16:42
Gao - 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
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
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
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 11 January, 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
Nigeria's General Shehu Abdulkadir is leading the west
African force, which will eventually include at least 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
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 $50m 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 22 March 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.