FRANCE 24 Exclusive: On the front lines in Mali
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French ground forces in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali engaged in a firefight with jihadists on Sunday, FRANCE 24’s Matthieu Mabin reports from one of the world’s most forbidding zones.
It’s barely 9.30 in the morning and the sun is beating down on the black granite rocks of the Adrar des Ifoghas, one of Africa’s most forbidding mountain ranges, situated in the Kidal region of northern Mali near the Algerian border.
French soldiers carrying over 50 kilograms of equipment trudge through the 45-degree Celsius heat and the rugged, rocky area they have nicknamed “Planet Mars”.
Over the past few weeks, heavy fighting has rocked the Ifoghas Mountains, where diehard militants fleeing the January 11 French military assault in northern Mali converged.
Some of the top local al Qaeda leaders, such as Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, were reportedly killed in French airstrikes in the region. But while their deaths have not been confirmed, there’s little doubt that the French aerial assault has taken a heavy toll on the Islamists holed up in the cracks and crevices of these rugged mountains.
Sunday’s operation does not involve aerial bombardments. Instead, it sees French troops combing the terrain, searching for jihadists hiding in the Adrar des Ifoghas.
Extricating a prisoner and extracting intelligence
Within minutes fighting erupts as a small group of jihadists is spotted. The assault begins, the enemy is ambushed and the fighting ends in just a few minutes.
As the soldiers approach the crevice from where the militants were firing just minutes ago, they spot a young fighter standing terrified among the bodies of his slain fellow fighters.
It’s a tricky operation to get the jihadist out of the crevice, ensuring that he does not have explosives strapped to his body as he’s slowly allowed to emerge from his hiding place.
The captured militant is given a bottle of water and ushered to a French military base from where he will be flown to the northern Malian town of Tessalit, where he will be interrogated.
The young man who minutes ago was on the other side of the firing line has now turned into a potentially valuable intelligence source for the French soldiers.
French President François Hollande has called for a scaling back of French troops in northern Mali in April as the ground offensive is handed over to African Union troops supported by the Europeans.
Militants in northern Mali are believed to be holding up to seven French hostages kidnapped between 2011 and 2012 in the Ifoghas Mountains. Tuesday’s operation may not have provided any sign of them, but the intelligence gained from the jihadist prisoner should be useful in the days to come.