In THE remote desert cities of northern Mali, civilians weary of the violent rule of Islamist rebels hope French troops can rout them but fear being caught in the crossfire as fighters try to melt into the local population.
French troops pressed north into Islamist-held territory yesterday, launching a land assault which will put soldiers in direct combat “in one to 72 hours,” military officials said.
A trickle of refugees left Diabaly, a town seized two days ago by the jihadists, who have held on despite bombing by French fighter jets.
French ground operations began overnight, military chief of staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud, said. He stressed infantry units “will be fighting directly in coming hours, but I am unable to say whether it is in one hour or in 72 hours… Of course, we will be fighting directly.”
Several residents contacted by phone in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, home to tens of thousands, said militants were keeping out of sight of French assault aircraft but could put up a fight.
Having put Mali’s army to flight nine months ago and imposed a harsh form of Sharia law in oasis towns they occupied across the Sahara, al-Qaeda’s north African wing, Aqim (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and its allies from Mali’s Mujwa (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) and Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) have some local sympathisers. But many residents wish them gone.
“There is a great hope,” one man said from Timbuktu, the trading centre 450 miles north-east of Bamako. “We hope that the city will be freed soon. “People are eagerly awaiting the arrival of ground troops.”
Having abandoned command posts and avoiding travelling in their easily targeted convoys of machine gun-mounted lorries, rebels have occupied private homes, raising fears they may use civilians as human shields.
“The jihadists have left their usual buildings for other more discreet homes,” the Timbuktu resident said. He would not give his name, fearing reprisals by rebel fighters whose rule has been marked by public amputations and executions. Local people have already been accused of spying for the enemy.
Timbuktu has yet to see airstrikes, but at Gao, 200 miles east and a bastion of the home-grown Mujwa militants, French warplanes wiped out a training camp and weapons dump.
“The French airstrikes did their job. They have hit the jihadists very hard and many have gone into hiding, some in the bush and others in abandoned houses,” said one man in Gao. “If there were ground troops, this war would end.” He said he had to leave Gao to make a call since Islamist fighters had cut landlines in the town after accusing local people of giving their positions to the French.
The manager of a bus station in Zarma, a town just across the border in Niger and some 120 miles south of Gao, said the only news coming out of that city came from the few drivers still willing to brave checkpoints manned by armed Islamists.
“The only word we get is from those drivers, because the phone is out of order now,” said Abdourahamane al-Housseini. “All the lines have been cut off.”
In Kidal, the northern stronghold of Ansar Dine’s leader Iyad Ag Ghali, one local man said by phone that the town was calm as most of the Islamists had fled into mountains on the border with Algeria.
“We want to be done with this war as soon as possible,” said a woman in Kidal. “If the French army fails, the Islamists will think they are invincible and will gain many more fighters.”
The image of power the Islamists project has gained them admirers among a people disillusioned with government from Bamako: “I fear for the future,” the Kidal woman said. “My eight-year-old boy jumps with joy when he sees Ansar Dine men in their vehicles. He told me he wants to be as strong as them. I want him to go to school.”