peter tinti

independent journalist

Category: mali

Mali’s separatist Tuaregs cling to dream

CS Monitor

Caught between a distant government in Bamako and an Islamist rebel movement in their home region, Mali’s minority Tuaregs face an uncertain future.

GAO, MALI: “I never supported them, but many of my friends did,” says Aljimit. It is early afternoon, and we are taking refuge in a straw hut from heat that reaches 110 degrees F.

Aljimit is a light-skinned ethnic Tuareg, and he is talking about the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a local separatist rebel group led by Tuaregs. Last year, the MNLA briefly gained control of parts of northern Mali. Its aims have been a Tuareg homeland and territory, not jihad, like the groups that came later.

We are sitting in Gao, the largest urban area in northern Mali – although in the aftermath of a war that brought French troops and airstrikes, the streets in Aljimit’s neighborhood are lifeless.

“They are all gone,” he whispers under a typical indigo turban fabric that covers most of his face. “I don’t think they will ever be back,” he says of the many Tuaregs and Arabs who used to populate this area.

As we eat dates and drink small, sugary cups of mint tea – a beverage that Tuaregs prepare with a devotion that borders on religious ritual – Aljimit recounts the rise and fall of Tuareg nationalism that was personified here by the MNLA.

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The Jihadi from the Block

Foreign Policy

In the war for the heart of northern Mali, the real fear isn’t al Qaeda, it’s the criminals and fundamentalists lurking just around the corner.

GAO, Mali – It was Saturday, Jan. 26, when the people of Gao, a trans-Saharan trading hub nestled on the banks of the Niger river, took their first act of revenge against the rebels who had terrorized them for close to a year.

A mob had surrounded a jihadi fighter whose vehicle had been destroyed by a French airstrike. The rebel had retreated to the center of town via a stolen donkey cart. He had no idea that his comrades had abandoned the city earlier that morning.

The jihadi was a member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujao, a group that had spent the better part of a year implementing a destructive form of sharia law that included public amputations, floggings, and sexual slavery. He begged for his life, invoking Allah and the virtues of compassion. Then Dani Sidi Touré, a 29 year-old handyman and painter, took a screwdriver out of his pocket and stabbed the jihadi in the neck.

Touré tried to remove the screwdriver, but the handle broke off and the metal shaft remained lodged inside the jihadi’s neck. A man with a large knife came over and struck the Mujao fighter on the head. He fell to the ground and others quickly joined the fray, descending upon him with wood planks, stones, and chunks of concrete.

In a display of communal catharsis, the residents of northern Mali’s largest city continued to beat the body long after it was dead. When they were done, they tossed it into the Islamic police station, a building that had come to symbolize the brutal interpretation of shariah law that Mujao had imposed on their city.

The official liberation of Gao came only hours later, when French and Malian troops toured the city in front of cheering crowds. Women ripped off their veils. Gao’s mayor — a slick-talking, fedora-wearing businessman who campaigned in 2009 on the slogan “Yes We Can” — stood atop a French military vehicle and doled out cigarettes. Men and women danced in public, undulating together to Takamba — a trance-inducing local music played at celebrations — for the first time in months.

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In Mali fight, Chad proves a powerful partner for France

CS Monitor

Chad may be a poor country marred by frequent turmoil, but its forces have fought very effectively against Islamist rebels in northern Mali.

BAMAKO, MALI: Weeks after the French launched their military intervention in Mali, the majority of Islamist rebels who were once in control of northern Mali’s major cities have retreated to hideouts near the Algerian border.

But  forces from Chad have followed them, spearheading an ambitious push into northern Mali’s Ifoghas mountains, a terrain often compared to Afghanistan’s Tora Bora. And despite suffering dozens of casualties during weeks of heavy combat, Chadian forces have succeeded in killing and capturing more than 100 jihadist militants and uprooting a network of weapons caches, fuel depots, and food stuffs hidden among the countless caves and grottoes that dot the landscape.

The string of Chadian military victories against a well-prepared and amply equipped rebel force has prompted many to wonder how Chad – a poor, landlocked country marred by decades of political turmoil and near continual civil war – has been able to contribute so effectively to this fight.

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In Mali, the Peril of Guerrilla War Looms

New York Times

GAO, Mali — Aguissa Ag Badara, a former tour guide, now rides around the city on the back of a motorcycle looking for Islamist militants who may still be lurking about. He even wears a pin to advertise his mission. It reads, “Vigilance Brigade: Patrollers of Gao.”

“We said Mujao had infiltrated the population, but no one listened,” said Mr. Ag Badara, referring to the Islamist militants who attacked this strategic city last week. “We support the French, we support the Malian state and the African forces, but why are they only at the checkpoints and in their camps? The war is here in the streets.”

The battle for Mali is not over. Remnants of the militant forces that once controlled major towns have not simply burrowed into their rugged, mountain hideaways far to the north. They also appear to have taken refuge in smaller villages nearby, essentially pulling back to less-contested ground after the French-led intervention to oust them, residents and experts say.

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Malian and French Troops Reassert Control in Key City

New York Times

GAO, Mali — French and Malian troops appeared on Monday to have reasserted control of this strategic settlement in northern Mali after a protracted firefight with Islamist extremists who infiltrated the city after being chased from it two weeks ago.

Malian troops took up position on virtually every street corner on Monday and fresh bullet holes scarred a police headquarters, testimony to Sunday’s fighting in Gao, which is at the edge of the desert and is the largest population center in the north.

The battle between Islamist militants and a force of Malian and French troops, which continued for much of Sunday afternoon, suggested that the quick French campaign against the local Al Qaeda affiliate and its allies was not over.

Overnight, a series of explosions echoed in the early hours of Monday but the cause of the blasts was not immediately clear.

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Mali War Shifts as Rebels Hide in High Sahara

New York Times

DAKAR, Senegal — Just as Al Qaeda once sought refuge in the mountains of Tora Bora, the Islamist militants now on the run in Mali are hiding out in their own forbidding landscape, a rugged, rocky expanse in northeastern Mali that has become a symbol of the continued challenges facing the international effort to stabilize the Sahara.

Expelling the Islamist militants from Timbuktu and other northern Malian towns, as the French did swiftly last month, may have been the easy part of retaking Mali, say military officials, analysts and local fighters. Attention is now being focused on one of Africa’s harshest and least-known mountain ranges, the Adrar des Ifoghas.

The French military has carried out about 20 airstrikes in recent days in those mountains, including attacks on training camps and arms depots, officials said. On Thursday, a column of soldiers from Chad, versed in desert warfare, left Kidal, a diminutive, sand-blown regional capital, to penetrate deep into the Adrar, said a spokesman for the Tuareg fighters who accompanied them.

“These mountains are extremely difficult for foreign armies,” said the spokesman, Backay Ag Hamed Ahmed, of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, in a telephone interview from Kidal. “The Chadians, they don’t know the routes through them.”

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Relief and Anxiety Meld in Malian Towns Freed of Islamists

New York Times

BAMAKO, Mali — As French and Malian troops routed Islamist militants from the northern Malian towns of Gao and Timbuktu, residents’ relief and elation appeared to give way on Tuesday to some measure of reprisal and frustration.

In Gao, groups of residents were reported hunting down suspected fighters who had not fled ahead of the French-Malian military forces who took control of the town over the weekend. Other residents expressed concern that Gao remained unsafe and was acutely short of food and fuel after a prolonged isolation.

“The city is free, but I think the areas close by are still dangerous,” said Mahamane Touré, a Gao resident reached by telephone from Bamako, the capital. “These guys are out there.”

Mr. Touré, who spent the evening watching soccer on television and listening to music with friends, said that although everyone was enjoying the new freedoms, the legacy of Islamist occupation was evident in the hardship of everyday life.

“The price of gasoline is almost double, and the price of food is very high,” Mr. Touré said. “There are still things in the market, but no one has any money and there is no aid.”

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With Fighters Gone, Malians Welcome Normal Days

New York Times

SÉVARÉ, Mali — Residents of northern Mali’s largest city poured out of their homes to celebrate the expulsion of Islamist fighters who had held their town for months, playing the music that had been forbidden under the militants’ harsh interpretation of Islamic rule and dancing in the streets.

“Everyone is in the streets,” a Gao resident, Ibrahim Touré, said in a telephone interview. “It is like a party. There is music. There are drums. It’s freedom.”

Their celebrations came as international forces trying to recapture northern Mali, which has been seized by a mosaic of heavily armed Islamist groups, deployed into Gao, one of the principal militant strongholds, French officials said Sunday. Malian forces backed by French troops also advanced toward another crucial northern town: the ancient city of Timbuktu.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of France said French troops were “around Gao and soon near Timbuktu,” farther west. Timbuktu has been under the control of rebels and Islamist fighters for 10 months, although there are reports that many of the Islamists have moved farther into the vast desert to escape the advancing forces.

In Gao, people who had been under occupation for nearly a year by Islamist fighters flooded the streets in jubilation, weeping and shouting to welcome the Malian and French troops who arrived in force on Sunday, residents said.

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Mali: France expected to take control of Timbuktu

The Telegraph

French troops are expected to try to take control of the ancient Saharan city of Timbuktu after pushing al-Qaeda’s allies from their other major urban strongholds across northern Mali.

Konna, Mali: Armed convoys of Malian and French soldiers converged on the outskirts of the ancient trading centre after reports that the city’s Islamist occupiers had fled.

Diplomatic sources said immediate attempts to secure Timbuktu were “on hold” as specialist French forces assessed risks that militant commanders had ordered the city’s mud-walled buildings and narrow streets booby-trapped as they left.

Mali’s army and its French allies were not expected to face significant resistance in the city however, following accounts that Ansar Dine, the al-Qaeda-linked militants that held it since April last year, had fled early on Saturday.

Timbuktu was one of three major cities in northern Mali, along with Gao and Kidal, that the group controlled until the French operation to push them back began earlier this month.

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With France bearing down, key rebel in Mali splits from Islamists

CS Monitor

A prominent member of Ansar Dine, an Islamist militant group that recently overran northern Mali, announced that he and his fighters were breaking with the group.

BAMAKO, MALI: In an apparent sign of internal conflict among one of the Islamist rebel groups controlling northern Mali, a prominent Ansar Dine member, Alghabass Ag Intallah, told the Associated Press Thursday that he and his men were breaking from the group “so that we can be in control of our own fate.”

The split suggests that at at least some of the fighters within Ansar Dine’s ranks have changed their posture since the start of French air strikes in central and northern Mali. With French air power and ground units weighing in on the side of the Malian government, the momentum of the conflict has shifted away from the once-surging Islamist forces.

But it remains to be seen how many fighters will follow Mr. Ag Intallah away from Ansar Dine and what future role they might play in a conflict that has become increasingly factionalized.

“We are not terrorists. We are ready to negotiate,” Ag Intallah told AP. “We are neither AQIM or MUJAO,” referencing Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO is its acronym in French). “We are a group of people from the north of Mali who have a set of grievances that date back at least 50 years.”

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As Troops Advance in Mali, U.S. Begins Airlift

New York Times

SEGOU, MALI — Malian and French forces were reported to be in control of two important central Malian towns on Tuesday after the French Defense Ministry said they recaptured them on Monday, pushing back an advance by Islamist militants who have overrun the country’s northern half.

At the same time, the United States military said on Tuesday that it had begun airlifting French troops and equipment from a base in southern France to Bamako, the capital of Mali, aboard giant C-17 transport planes.

Two flights arrived on Monday and a third on Tuesday, and the airlift will continue for the next several days, Tom Saunders, a spokesman for the United States Africa Command, said in a telephone interview from the command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defense minister of France, hailed the French-Malian advance on Monday as “a clear military success for the government in Bamako and for French forces intervening in support of these operations.”

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30-minute interview with “This is Hell”

I had the pleasure of being on WNUR 89.3FM Chicago‘s “This is Hell,” three days ago, but due to spotty internet access am only just getting the chance to post and listen to it now. It was a thirty-minute, live phone call that I fielded somewhere between Niono and Markala as French armored vehicles were prepping to move north, and it was an absolute pleasure from start to finish. The questions were intelligent, well-researched and to be perfectly honest, caught me a bit off-guard as I’m used to doing radio interviews that put the ball on a tee for me. You can listen by streaming or downloading by clicking here, my segment starts during the 48th minute.

French Airstrikes Push Back Islamists and Regain Towns in Central Mali

New York Times

SEGOU, MALI: Malian and French troops appeared to recapture two important central Malian towns on Monday, pushing back an advance by Islamist militants who have overrun the country’s northern half.

French soldiers in armored vehicles rolled through the town of Diabaly, about 275 miles from the capital, Bamako, to cheers from residents, who flew French and Malian flags to welcome them.

“I want to thank the French people,” said Mamadou Traoré, a Diabaly resident. He said French airstrikes had chased away the militants without harming any civilians, a claim echoed by other residents.

“None of us were touched,” Mr. Traoré said. “It was incredible.”

Islamist fighters overran Diabaly a week ago, the closest they have come to Bamako in an aggressive surge this month. Worried that there was little to stop them from rolling into the capital, where many French citizens live, France quickly stepped into the fight, striking the militants at the front lines and bombing their strongholds in the north.

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In Mali, French forces move north amid plea for faster African deployments

CS Monitor

Malian troops have entered the key garrison town of Diabaly after French airstrikes pushed out Islamist rebels. But many residents wonder if they’re gone for good.

NIONO, MALI: As Malian troops enter Diabaly, a garrison town of 35,000 recently abandoned by rebels in response to French air strikes, France’s foreign minister has warned his African counterparts that “African friends need to take the lead” in the ongoing military campaign against Islamist rebels in Mali.

The Malian Army’s inability to hold Diabaly was just one of a string of military setbacks that prompted France to mobilize more than 2,000 troops on the ground and to call for West African nations to accelerate troop deployments to Mali. Islamist rebels gained control of the town – just 270 miles from the capital city of Bamako – only days after France intervened Jan. 11 to stem an ambitious rebel push southward to the town of Konna, in central Mali. Diabaly, with its relative proximity to Bamako, has since come to be viewed as a second frontline of a conflict that was originally envisioned as a limited air campaign to support Malian troops.

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A town on Mali’s frontline switches back and forth

CS Monitor

The recent history of Diabaly calls into question the quality of the Malian troops that are needed to hold on to such areas cleared by the French military intervention.

NIONO, MALI: In a potential breakthrough for the fledgling campaign to drive Islamist rebels from their strongholds in Mali, French and Malian troops are poised to secure the town of Diabaly amid reports that rebel forces have abandoned the town.

The news comes in the wake of a virtual information blockade out of the city. Despite reports earlier this week suggesting heavy fighting between French ground troops and rebels who had embedded themselves within the population, Diabaly residents say it was French airpower, not boots on the ground, that proved a decisive factor.

Residents on Friday expressed concern about the delay in ground forces arriving to secure the town. The recent history of Diabaly also calls into question the quality of the Malian troops that are needed to hold on to such areas cleared by the French military intervention.

In less tenuous times, Diabaly was a nondescript hamlet in a part of Mali that aspired to be an agricultural oasis in the scorching climate of Africa’sSahel. But the town of 35,000 took on a strategic significance when Islamist rebels took control just days after the French began bombing various locations in central and northern Mali. With Diabaly’s fall, rebel forces had advanced to just 270 miles from the capital and France scrambled troops northward.

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