French soldiers search people at a checkpoint on the
outskirts of Gao, Mali. REUTERS/Francois Rihouay
French and Malian troops have secured the north Mali town
of Bourem, tightening their control over areas where Islamist
insurgents have been launching guerrilla attacks to harass the
French-led military operation.
"Bourem is a bastion of Islamists," said a military official
from an African military contingent called AFISMA.
African troops in this contingent are being deployed behind
the French forward lines in the five-week-old intervention by
Paris in its former Sahel colony.
Located by the Niger River, Bourem is about 80 km (50 miles)
north of Gao at a crossroads between Timbuktu to the west and
Kidal to the north, both of which are now under French and
Malian government control.
"All the current problems in Gao come from Bourem," said the
official, who asked not to be named. He said there had been
no real fighting to take the town.
French leaders have said they intend to start pulling out the
4,000 French troops in Mali in March to hand over security to
the Malian army and to the U.N.-backed AFISMA force, which is
expected to exceed 8,000 soldiers and is drawn mainly from
Mali's West African neighbours.
Last week two suicide bombers struck at the same checkpoint
on the road coming into Gao from Bourem, while insurgents
also launched a surprise raid in Gao battling French and
The attacks, two weeks after Gao was liberated from al
Qaeda-allied rebels who had held it for 11 months, surprised
the French and the Malian soldiers there and raised the
prospect of a laborious counter-insurgency task for Paris'
After driving the jihadist rebels from main northern towns
such as Gao and Timbuktu, French warplanes and special forces
are searching for rebel hideouts in the remote and
mountainous northeast, where Paris believes the insurgents
may be holding French hostages sized in the Sahel and
The United States and Europe back the French-led operation
against al Qaeda and its allies in Mali, hoping it will ward
off the threat of jihadist attacks in Africa and elsewhere.
But while providing logistical and intelligence support in
Mali, the American and European governments have ruled out
sending their own ground troops, and analysts say the French
may be left with a messy anti-guerrilla war on their hands.