French troops in Mali mired in mud and mistrust

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French soldiers seeking out jihadists in central Mali’s savannah were prepared for sandstorms, thunderstorms, the lack of anything resembling a road and the need to tow vehicles which kept getting stuck in floodplains.

They knew getting information from terrified villagers would be difficult.

As the multi-week operation wears on in Gourma district, where 400 French troops and 100 allied Malians searched for 50-odd jihadists estimated to be hiding in the shadows, obstacles piled up.

First, there were storms, forcing them to abandon meals, pack up mosquito nets and sleep uncomfortably in their vehicles. Then up at 3 am for a mission that did not start because weather grounded helicopters at base.

Then, flash floods turned sandy ground to sludge and burst wadis so only newly deployed tracked fighting vehicles could cross.

When they reached the thatch-and-wood villages where suspected jihadists were hiding men tended cows, women pounded millet, everyone smiled. And nobody said anything.

“We’re not going to resolve this in a day,” said David, commander of the French forward base near Gossi. French military rules permit publication only of his first name. “This is going to take some time.”

Efforts led by France to stop a region on Europe’s doorstep becoming a launching pad for attacks at home are increasingly trapped in an endless cat-and-mouse game with well-armed jihadists, who know the terrain and hide easily among civilians.

On a rare reporting trip with the French troops into central Mali, Reuters journalists saw first-hand why a five-year-old mission — initially planned as a short-term stopgap before handing to local forces — may have more years left to run.

“DOGGED ADVERSARY”

The 4,500 French troops deployed in this patchwork of former French colonies for ‘Operation Barkhane’ face logistical challenges in hostile terrain. Hardest of all, they rely on co-operation from a civilian population spread thinly across vast and remote spaces, either sympathetic to the Islamists or terrified of informing on them.

In Gossi, a haven for Islamic State fighters next to the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger, the town’s local government councillor fled after being threatened and was now sleeping in the Malian base, the French base Commander said.

Operation Barkhane was launched in the wake of Operation Serval, a French offensive that pushed back Tuareg rebels and allied Islamists from northern Mali’s vast desert in 2013.

While Serval brought moderate stability to northern Mali, unrest spread to the country’s more populated centre, with attacks reaching neighbouring Burkina Faso, Niger and even Ivory Coast.

With no end date announced at its launch, the follow-up operation would try to stabilise countries in the region by assisting governments in a West African anti-terrorism force. Five years on, no end is in sight.

“We have a dogged adversary, who is tough, drawing from a breeding ground favourable to him because the population is isolated,” Colonel Nicolas James, Commander of Desert Tactical Croup Belleface, told Reuters in Gao.

On the first day of a mission, in 40 degree Celsius heat,  French soldiers arrived in a hamlet north of Ndaki, next to a small wood where suspected were earlier seen.

They separated women and children outside a thatched dome where camels chewed cud. They searched the men, took smartphones and copied them onto a computer. One contained incriminating jihadist propaganda.

“PEOPLE WILL COME AND KILL HER”

“Is this your telephone?” a soldier asked and the suspect nodded. They fingerprinted him, but with just circumstantial evidence let him go.

“I’m sure he’s a jihadist,” a French soldier guarding him later whispered. “He’s making fun of us.”

An elderly man in Fulani flowing robes brought out fresh milk as a gesture of hospitality. Only two tried it, before they moved to the next village.

That night it rained hard, so the next afternoon a logistics team towed vehicles out of mud. When troops returned nine hours later, they’d covered just 5 km.

At one stage they heard reports of an armed group heading towards them. War planes were called in to scare fighters off. One unit wanted to check a forest where weapons were abandoned, but troops were still towing vehicles.

The next morning a joint Malian-French mission visited a Fulani village next to woodland where they spotted men fleeing. The village chief denied seeing any armed men.

“They want to talk to us but are afraid,” Malian military police unit Captain Balassine later told Reuters.

“The other day we were talking to a young girl. First she lied. Then she said she was scared of talking because, after we leave, people will come and kill her.”