A Malian soldier peeks through a doorway behind which
Malian and French soldiers are stationed in Niono.
French troops in armoured vehicles have advanced towards
a central Malian town abandoned by Islamist rebels after days
of air strikes, moving cautiously for fear of guerrilla-style
counterattacks by the al Qaeda-linked fighters.
Television showed the wreckage of the Islamists' white
pick-up trucks, some mounted with heavy machine guns, lying
charred and twisted among the mud-brick buildings of the
village of Diabaly.
Commanders of French and Malian forces, who have set up their
operations centre in the nearby town of Niono, some 300 km
(190 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako, said the
whereabouts of the Islamist fighters remained unclear.
"Our principal concern is that a section of the population
may have joined the jihadists," said Colonel Seydou Sogoba,
head of Malian military operations in the area.
"The war against the Islamists is not an easy one. They come
in and mix with the local population," he said.
Some Islamist fighters had shaved off their beards and
swapped their robes for jeans to blend in with local
residents, he said.
France has deployed 2,000 ground troops and its war planes
have pounded rebel columns and bases for 10 days, effectively
halting an Islamist advance on the riverside capital.
French intervention was aimed at stopping the loose coalition
of Muslim militants from using Mali's north as a training
ground and springboard for attacks in Africa and on the West.
The Islamist alliance, grouping al Qaeda's North African wing
AQIM and home-grown Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and
MUJWA, has imposed harsh sharia law in northern Mali,
including amputations and the destruction of ancient shrines
sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.
In Niono, more than two dozen French military vehicles stood
in a dusty field outside the headquarters of the regional
prefect. Some soldiers cleaned their guns and chatted next to
their armoured personnel carriers. Others bought cell phones,
bread and other necessities from a local shop as they
prepared for their next move forward.
In Paris, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius brushed off
suggestions that France risked becoming embroiled in a
guerrilla war. Islamist fighters have pledged to turn Mali
into a new Afghanistan.
"In Afghanistan, there was no democratic regime. Here,
there's a democratic regime even if it needs to be
perfected," he told a news conference. "The common point is
it's a battle against terrorism."
The stakes in Mali rose dramatically this week when Islamist
gunmen cited France's intervention as the reason why they
attacked a desert gas plant in neighbouring Algeria, taking
hundreds of hostages. Algeria carried out an assault on
Saturday to end the siege and said on Sunday it expected a
heavy death toll.
Veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility in
the name of al Qaeda for the Algeria attack, Mauritanian news
website Sahara Media said on Sunday.
"We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian
government provided they stop their bombing of Mali's
Muslims," Belmokhtar said in a video, according to Sahara
SLOW AFRICAN DEPLOYMENT
The conflict in Mali and the hostage crisis in Algeria have
raised concerns about the radicalisation of the broader Sahel
region, which is awash with weapons pillaged from the
armouries of toppled Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
At a meeting with ECOWAS heads of state in Ivory Coast on
Saturday, Fabius appealed for international help to fund a
U.N. mandated African mission to oust the Islamists from the
region. A donors conference will be held in Ethiopia on Jan.
Military experts say France and its African allies must
deploy ground forces quickly to capitalise on recent gains
and prevent the insurgents from regrouping in the desert.
The African deployment is hampered by a lack of transport and
supplies, however. Nigeria, Niger and Togo have deployed a
few hundred troops and a first contingent of 50 Senegalese
troops left for Bamako on Sunday.
Underscoring the scale of the challenge, diplomats said full
deployment of Senegal's full contingent of 500 soldiers was
being held up by the lack of ammunition for their artillery.
Chad's President Idriss Deby, visiting a battalion of 600
Chadian troops awaiting deployment in neighbouring Niger,
said his government would do everything to ensure the maximum
number of African troops in Mali.
"It's not that we have a lot of soldiers to spare but it's
because we want to ensure the maximum number of soldiers on
the ground," said Deby, who has promised to send 2,000
Human Rights Watch warned on Saturday it had received reports
of serious abuses, including killings, being committed by
Malian security forces against civilians in Niono.
Residents in the northern Malian town of Gao on Saturday
lynched a prominent Islamist leader in retaliation for the
killing of a local journalist earlier in the day, heightening
fears of ethnic violence and reprisals following the