Allied troops from France, Niger, Chad and Mali took control of Mali’s northern city of Gao from the control of Muslim terrorists, according to the French defense ministry. Announced on January 26, the assault on Gao gave a shot in the arm to the efforts to take back the northern tier of Mali from the Islamist militants who are affiliated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Troops from Chad, Niger and Mali are in Gao to secure the area, while other troops are moving towards the Malian border from the Niger town of Ouallam, about 60 miles southeast of Gao. The region disputed by Mali’s government and the Islamist rebels is approximately the size of Texas. The troops were back by French air forces. Rebels are streaming out of Gao and surrounding area on foot or motorcycle.
Led by French troops, the allies seized the airport at Gao as well as a key bridge at the southern end of the town. It had been held by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO, which has been linked to Al-Qaeda. The French daily Le Monde reported that hundreds of rebels may have been killed in the affray. The Islamists had allied themselves with rebels belonging to the Tuareg ethnic group, which has a long history of smuggling and slave raiding. The Tuareg rebels had wanted to declare independence for a part of northern Mali as their homeland as the Islamist rebels had seized the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in 2012 after a coup in Bamako. The Islamist groups involved include MUJAO, Ansar Dine (a local Islamist group), and Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, of which MUJAO is a sub-set. MUJAO says it wants to negotiate the release of Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, a French national of Portuguese origin, who was kidnapped in western Mali in late 2012. This offer by MUJAO has been taken to mean that a fracture line has developed in the Islamist’s otherwise allied effort.
Once successful in seizing the key towns in northern Mali, the Islamist terrorists sidelined the Tuaregs and implemented their own agenda. Once they took control, the Islamist imposed punishments and sanctions permitted by Islamic religious law or sharia. This includes having transgressors flogged, stoned and executed. The Islamists have also forbidden music and television and forced women to wear veils, thus emulating Afghanistan’s feared Taliban.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of France said the troops are currently "around Gao and (will be) soon near Timbuktu," the once isolated caravan town on the edge of the Sahara desert which for centuries was a key center of Islamic learning and known for its idiosyncratic architecture. As for the release of French citizen Leal, Prime Minister Ayrault was dismissive, saying "we will not give in to blackmail." The premier added, "We cannot cede to terrorism because if this is the case they will win every time."
One of the leaders of the alliance of Islamist groups promised retribution against what he called the "new Crusader aggression", according to Al Jazeera's Arabic website. Yahya Abu Al-Hamman, a leader of Al Qaeda's North African wing (AQIM), that the rebel alliance seeks to impose a "Jihadist Islamist emirate" would be created in the territory.
Defense officials of various West African nations are meeting to discuss the deployment of regional forces in support of the allied offense led by France. Meeting in the Ivory Coast, deployment of the 4,500 promised by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been delayed, ostensibly by financing and logistical problems. Regional army chiefs said on January 26 that a total of 7,700 African soldiers would be dispatched, up from 5,700. Liberia, Guinea-Bissau, Burundi, Guinea and Uganda are due to join the mission, but it was not clear if progress had been made in discussions.
Chad, which is not an ECOWAS member, has pledged 2,000 additional troops, which were sent to Niger to join 500 local troops to open a new front against the Islamists. A fraction of the promised African forces have arrived in-country so far. French and Malian forces have done all the fighting. France has deployed 2,500 troops to Mali, as well as helicopter gunships. Currently, there are approximately 1,900 African troops involved. African Union leaders meeting in Ethiopia called on the United Nations to provide emergency logistics and funding to allow the African force for Mali to deploy. AU officials say their troops need logistical support in the form of airlift capacity, ammunition, telecommunication equipment, field hospitals, food and water.
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.