Al-Qaida-linked militants threaten Mali as France cuts force
GAO, Mali — As Ali Aboubacar Maiga sold red onions and potatoes in this northern Malian town, he shook his head at France's decision to start withdrawing soldiers a year after they routed al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants.
"We don't want France to leave. The more security we have the better," Maiga, a 46-year-old farmer, said in an interview in the central market, which the French rebuilt after it was destroyed in fighting. "Nowadays we can work, it is way better than it used to be during the occupation."
France is reducing the number of its troops in the West African nation to 1,000 from 2,500 now, with President Francois Hollande saying on Jan. 8 the intervention's objectives "have been largely achieved." Yet security in the north of Africa's third-biggest gold producer, especially towns such as Gao, 745 miles from the capital, Bamako, is precarious.
Ethnic clashes earlier this month near Gao killed at least 24 people, while four International Committee of the Red Cross workers and a veterinary assistant disappeared Feb. 8 while traveling to the city. An al-Qaida-linked militant group claimed to have kidnapped them.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in January that there was "a marked deterioration in the security situation" from October to December in a region the size of Texas that's home to Timbuktu, a World Heritage Site and historic center of ancient Islamic scholarship. Since the Islamists almost split Mali in two in 2012, ethnic tensions have worsened among the various groups such as the darker Shongai and Peul peoples and the lighter skinned Tuareg and Arabs.
Ban's Jan. 2 report lists a series of violent raids in October and November, including rocket attacks, claimed by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known by its French acronym Mujao — the group that said it kidnapped the ICRC workers.
Another militant group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, said it killed two French reporters in November in the town of Kidal, about 388 kilometers north of Gao, and detonated a bomb the next month that left two UN peace-keepers dead in the city.
"The north remains a hotbed of intercommunal tensions and localized violence as both French and UN forces struggle to consolidate security gains," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a report last month. Last year "ended with renewed tensions across the north. Reported incidents include armed banditry, new jihadi attacks, intercommunal violence and frequent clashes between Malian forces and local armed groups."
While a U.N. force that is authorized to have 12,640 soldiers and police and Malian troops are taking over security, the militants still live close by and in some cases receive succor from local villagers, according to residents and French soldiers.
"As the mayor of a village north of Timbuktu recently told me, they still come in town to the market and buy goods, then they go back to the bush," Col. Herve Pierre, head of the French force in Gao, said at the main base at the airport. "He knew if he denounced them, he would be killed immediately. The army cannot be everywhere."
Across the Niger River from Gao in the village of Lobou, local chief Harouna Halidou told patrolling French soldiers that residents haven't seen the militants in months.
"They are hiding on the northern bank of the river," he Msaid. "We are in peace, and the U.N. peace-keepers have started to patrol like the French do, in our remote places." As he spoke, two white pickups laden with UN troops appeared on a nearby sandy track.
French forces understood the intervention wouldn't bring a total end to kidnappings and attacks by militants, Paul Melly, associate fellow of the Africa program at London-based Chatham House, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
"It is hard to see the militants retaking control of the north, but they have the capacity to continue causing trouble for a long time," he said.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the first president elected since a 2012 military coup, has pledged to gain control of the whole territory. Ban, in his report, said the re- establishment of government authority in the north "continued at a slow pace" and that many state officials haven't returned to their posts due to "persistent insecurity and deficient infrastructure and equipment."
Mali's $10.3 billion economy, which contracted 1.2 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund, grew 4.8 percent last year and may expand 7.4 percent this year. Its gold mining hasn't been affected by the fighting, according to the fund. AngloGold Ashanti and Randgold Resources are among mining companies in Mali.
AngloGold said Wednesday its Yatela and Sadiola mines were operating normally even as about 2,000 workers employed by contractors started a strike over payouts two days ago.
About 800,000 people in Mali need food assistance and as many as 3 million more aren't likely to find enough to eat in the first half of the year, group of aid organizations including Oxfam, Solidarites International, World Vision and Action Against Hunger said in joint statement on Jan. 31.
"Our main concern in this village and in the others is the poor harvest expected this year," Chief Halidou of Lobou village said. "The rains came too late, too little, and ended too early."
In the town of Gao itself, residents say they're enjoying the improvements since the French arrived, including the new market, a refurbished water system and reopened schools. With the ban on alcohol lifted, even the bars are reopening.
Business in the area has picked up especially since the return of Arab merchants who fled the French advance last year and whose shops were looted because residents of Gao accused them of supporting the Mujao militants.
"The pale skins are back and we do business with them, that's all," said Abdulwahab Cisse, a baker on the main commercial road of Gao's Fourth District. "We can forgive, but we will never forget they helped the Mujao."