Bamako — French and African forces aim to hunt down and eradicate Islamist rebels in northern Mali, not contain them, the African contingent commander said last week.
The African military force (Afisma) drawn mainly from Mali’s neighbours is accelerating deployment in support of around 4 000 French soldiers already on the ground in the Sahel nation, said its commander Nigerian major general Shehu Abdul-Kadir.
“This is not a containment mission, this is an eradication mission,” Abdul-Kadir said in an interview in Bamako.
With the Malian army, the French are battling al Qaeda-allied insurgents who have withdrawn from northern towns.
Some 70% of the African troops, expected to number more than 8 000 at full strength, have been deployed to Mali, according to figures provided by the force. But African units mostly remain in the south, meaning French and Malian troops are bearing the brunt of responsibility for security in the north.
Paris hopes to start pulling some of its forces next month.
As the Nigerian general spoke, French-backed Malian forces were trying to flush out rebel infiltrators fighting a rearguard guerrilla action in the northern town of Gao.
Abdul-Kadir said this showed the kind of asymmetrical war that Mali and its French and African allies were facing. “You know how the terrorists operate … they are with us, they are around us and they are far away from us,” the general said, wearing light desert camouflage.
He added the French and Malians, and Afisma, were employing counter-insurgency tactics such as gathering information from the local population, setting up checkpoints to block access to roads and towns, and cordon-and-search operations.
Abdul-Kadir said France’s military intervention since January 11, which has involved hundreds of air strikes, special forces parachute drops and fast-moving advances by armored columns, had “depleted” the rebels.
“You can see that by the way they operate. They operate in pockets, and that tells you that their centre of gravity is hit and hit badly and that’s why they’ve retired to the mountains and the forest,” he said.