Analysis: France, Africa face tough Sahara phase of Mali war

Fri Feb 1, 2013 4:28am EST
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By David Lewis and Pascal Fletcher

BAMAKO/DAKAR (Reuters) - The French or African troops who hunt down the Islamist fighters holed up in the mountains and deserts of northeast Mali may find a resilient enemy capable of fighting back with a concealed arsenal of surprising firepower.

France's initial success in its three-week old intervention in its former colony has gained Paris plaudits at home and abroad as a welcome blow struck against radical jihadists threatening Africa and the West.

Timbuktu and Gao, the main Malian towns held by Islamist insurgents since last year, fell to the French at the weekend, and French troops also seized the airport at Kidal, the last urban bastion abandoned by the rebels.

But the next step in stabilizing Mali and pursuing the al Qaeda-allied fighters in their remote desert and mountain bolt-holes near Algeria's border looks like a much tougher task.

It will take longer than a few weeks and likely require a bigger and more international effort than the limited offensive that has so far involved 3,500 French soldiers on the ground, backed by warplanes, helicopters and armored vehicles.

"Both politically and militarily, now is going to be the hard bit," Gregory Mann, a Mali expert who is associate professor of history at Columbia University, told Reuters.

The Islamist forces are thought to be sheltering north of Kidal in the Adrar des Ifoghas, a vast, rugged mountain buttress that has given sanctuary before to al Qaeda hostage-takers and Saharan traffickers of drugs, people and cigarettes.

They are believed to have weapons, fuel and supplies hidden in caves, tunnels and rock strongholds. These were stashed away before their pell-mell retreat from relentless French air strikes that left a trail of rebel charred vehicles and abandoned arms caches in dusty Niger River and Saharan towns.   Continued...

Malian soldiers leave Timbuktu in a pickup truck January 31, 2013. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier