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Armed Conflict

Malians hope for swift defeat of Islamists

There is relief in northern Mali at the start of a French military offensive against Islamist rebels. But there is also fear that the conflict is far from over.

Islamists were in control of the city of Gao in northern Mali for six months. The self-proclaimed defenders of the faith, members of the Ansar Dine group, entered the city in late June 2012 and swiftly expelled their erstwhile Tuareg allies. Their intention was to impose their strict interpretation of Islamic law, the sharia. They banned music and dancing, cut off the hands of thieves and stoned unmarried couples.

Following air attacks by French fighter planes, the islamists have now pulled out of Gao, the Malian army reported on Monday, January 14.

French troops line up to board a transport plane in Chad REUTERS/ECPAD/Adj. Nicolas Richard/Handout

French troops prepare to board a plane in Chad to take them to Mali

In a telephone interview with DW, a Gao resident who wished to remain anonymous expressed relief. "People have gone outside to smoke a cigarette in peace,” he said. “There were some aerial bombardments not far from here. Some Islamists are still in Gao but they're staying in their trucks and not moving through the town on foot.” According to this eye witness, all the positions targeted in the French attack were outside the city which prevented any civilian casualities.

Respite after rebel offensives

Many Malians appear relieved at France's sudden decision to become militarily involved in the Mali conflict. For months the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the European Union had debated a possible military operation. “Thanks to France, Mali can breath again,” said a commentary in the Monday edition of the 'Journal du Mali.'

There is also relief in Sevare, a small town further south. Sevare lies on the border with territory that was previously completely under the control of the Islamists. As the main military base of the Malian army, it is strategically important. If the rebels had got that far, they would have been able to advance swiftly on the capital Bamako.

Tactical withdrawal?

Bessema is a teacher in Sevare. “When the Islamists took Konna, I was really apprehensive,” he told DW.

A demonstration in Bamako several months ago calling for armed intervention by a west African force (Photo: HABIBOU KOUYATE/AFP/GettyImages)

Months ago demonstrators in Bamako called for an armed offensive against the Islamists

He too did not want his full name to be used. “We were all afraid because Konna is only 70 kilometers (43.5 miles) away,” he explained. It was from Sevare that the French offensive began against the Islamists who, according to the Malian army, were forced back.

Following the rebels' retreat, many Malians thought the war would be over in just a few days, Bessema said. “But the rebels are good at hiding. They disappear into the bush, avoid towns and cities and then suddenly reappear somewhere else.”

That was the experience of people living in the small town of Diabaly. It lies some 400 kms north of Bamako and on Monday, January 14 it suddenly became a target of the rebels. They did not directly attack civilians there, a resident told DW by phone “but there was still panic, because the rebels are known to act without fear or scruples. We are prisoners in our own homes.” Two Islamists entered his house which lies on the main road to the south. “They shot at a helicopter from my window. But thankfully no one fired back, otherwise I would probably be dead,” the Diabaly resident said.

Thousands flee

According to the Malian army, the French air force has attacked rebel positions near Diabaly. At least five Islamist fighters are said to have been killed.

Malian refugees in Burkina Faso
Photo: Peter Hille

Many Malians live in refugee camps like this one in Burkina Faso

If the information from the Malian army is correct, then the rebels have largely been pushed out of larger towns in the north. In an interview with DW, Seydou Amadou Cisse, secretary general of the Association of Malian Refugees in Niger, spoke of a massive congregation of refugees on the border with Niger. “I was in Ayoru, not far from the border, and I saw 300 to 400 families who had all arrived at the weekend,” he said. “I believe a new refugee exodus is beginning.”

The UN estimates that the latest clashes have forced 30,000 people to flee. To this figure can be added many more whose homes are in the conflict area and who want to leave but may have been hindered by the Islamists.

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