PARIS (Reuters) - Mali’s prime minister said on Monday Islamist militants had been given an opportunity to return to the north of the country after France redeployed troops across the region and urged French and U.N. forces to go on the attack to stop their resurgence.
Nine U.N. peacekeepers from Niger were killed on Friday when gunmen on motorbikes ambushed their convoy on Friday, the deadliest attack yet on them in the west African nation.
The attack highlighted a spike in strikes on foreign troops based in Mali’s northern desert region - particularly since Paris turned its Mali operation into a regional counter-militancy force this year after driving out Islamists from northern Mali in early 2013.
“The French forces are less concentrated and spread out across the Sahel-Sahara and so it’s appeared like an opportunity for the groups to come and set up,” Moussa Mara told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of an OECD forum on Africa.
Since the Islamists were scattered by French forces, elections have been held and rebels who distanced themselves from militant groups have begun talks with the Bamako government.
But the peace process is moving slowly and Malian troops abandoned most positions in the north earlier this year after clashes with the rebels, leaving a vacuum for insurgents in a zone awash with drugs and weapons smugglers and rebels groups.
Mara called on the U.N. peacekeeping mission to deploy more of its mandated force of 12,000 men in the north, and for it to use the helicopters and special forces it had to hunt down the Islamists, who, with separatists, took advantage of the disarray created by a coup in 2012 to seize the northern regions.
“HAND TO HAND COMBAT”
One of the challenges for the U.N. force in Mali has been the sheer size of the former French colony of 16 million people, at twice the size of France.
“The area of Kidal (in the north) does not have the Malian army and international forces are in barracks or don’t have sufficient territorial reach,” he said. “MINUSMA (U.N. force) should stop doing patrols ... it needs to be in an offensive posture to identify unsafe havens and eliminate them,” he said.
Under Paris’ regional plan, about 3,000 French troops are now operating out of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad -- countries straddling the vast arid Sahel band -- with the aim of stamping out Islamist fighters across the region. It has significantly reduced its forces operating in northern Mali.
“The first thing that needs to be done is for the French army .... to intensify (its efforts) and even send special forces on the ground. It practically needs to be hand to hand combat to clean up these areas,” Mara said.
French officials last week said the military was setting up a base in northern Niger as part of the operation to stop al Qaeda-linked militants from crossing the Sahel-Sahara region especially from southern Libya, where militants have regrouped.
Mara, whose government is negotiating a peace settlement with rebel groups, including Tuareg separatists, under the auspices of the Algerian government, said he was optimistic of a deal, but warned that these groups were still ambiguous.
“These armed groups must stop being vague by in the morning saying they are against these terrorists and then in the evening going off with them,” he said. “Sometimes we get the impression they are playing for the MINUSMA’s departure.”
Under the terms of an initial June 2013 deal to end the uprising, the separatist groups agreed to sever all ties with the Islamist rebels as a precursor to talks and the Malian government agreed to cease hostilities in the region.
“Today, every time we have armed clashes in the north, we think they are fighting more to secure drug trafficking routes than fighting terrorists. The armed groups must stop this.”
Editing by Alison Williams