French and Chadian forces have reached a mountain range in the far north-east of Mali where Islamist insurgents are believed to be holed up, amid concerns of guerilla tactics changing the speed of the so-far successful bid to reconquer the area.
French and Chadian troops have pushed to the Ifoghas mountain range in the far northeast of Mali where Islamist fighters are thought to be holed up with seven French hostages.
The Malian crisis
The joint force reached the town of Aguelhok, 160 kilometres (100 miles) north of the town of Kidal, near Mali's border with Algeria.
Nearly a month after France sent in the first fighter jets and attack helicopters, it has largely driven the rebels into remote mountains in the far northeast.
The area has been the target of repeated French air strikes in the past few days, aimed at knocking out Islamist bases, French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said.
On Friday, military sources reported that a Malian soldier was injured after a suicide bomber attacked an army checkpoint 100km north of Gao, fuelling concern that the successes of the French-led lightning push through northern Mali that began last month could turn into a protracted guerrilla war.
One Islamist group, the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), told AFP on Thursday that it had "created a new combat zone" and was organising attacks on military convoys and placing landmines.
On Wednesday, a landmine between the northern towns of Douentza and Gao killed four civilians returning from market, a Malian military source said. A similar blast in the same area on January 31 killed two Malian soldiers.
"MUJAO is behind the explosion of two Malian army cars," the group's spokesman Abu Walid Sahraoui said in a text message to AFP, who further warned civilians to stay away from main roads which he said were heavily mined.
The shift to guerrilla tactics by the al Qaeda-linked groups, which occupied Mali's vast desert north for 10 months, came as France sought to hand over operations to African forces.
Paris is keen to speed up the process. There are some 4,000 French troops in Mali, as many as the country had in Afghanistan at the peak of its deployment in 2010, while the operation is costing the country 2.7 million euros a day.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is slowly deploying 6,000 troops in Mali, joined by another 2,000 from Chad, while France has called for peacekeeping operations to be placed under United Nations control.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned on Thursday that it would take weeks for the UN Security Council to decide the international community's next move and UN officials stressed that Mali's interim government had yet to accept a UN force.
In Cairo, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation backed efforts to help Mali "regain its territorial integrity", in what appeared to be an endorsement of France's military intervention.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2013-02-08