Mali troops get reacquainted with lost north

Goundam - For Malian troops making their first forays into the country's north since jihadists took control, French military support provides reassurance at a time when they are strangers in their own back yard.

Islamist militias linked to al-Qaeda, some foreign fighters but most homegrown jihadists seized the vast expanse of desert in 2012, effectively kicking out the Malian military and government.

France came to the aid of its former colony in January 2013, leading an international military mission called Operation Serval to oust the extremists.

But much of the north has remained largely off-limits to domestic troops amid an ongoing jihadist insurgency and attacks by a variety of other rebel groups fighting for land and autonomy.

Following the success of Serval and its more widely-focused successor, the Sahel-wide Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism mission, the Malian army is making tentative steps back into its desert hinterland.

Hopes for peace in the region were boosted on Friday when Mali's main Tuareg-led rebel movement, known as the CMA, announced it would sign a final deal to end the conflict in the west African nation on June 20.

The French recently launched operation "La Madine 3", a reconnaissance mission to help Mali's military begin to get reaccustomed to an expanse of desert the size of Texas which has become an alien land.

The 30 or so French soldiers based near Timbuktu airport joined Malian troops at their barracks, but French commanders insisted they did not want to step on any toes -- just provide help where it was needed.

'The French see everything'

"We are here to help you," French Lieutenant Colonel Zlatan told Malian Captain Cheikh Bayala, a commander of 70 men.

"It's up to you to tell us when we leave, when we stop. We are behind you if there is a problem but I will not command your men."

Malian leaders say that the French forces give the local troops a sort of security supplement.

"Even if the jihadists receive reinforcements from the neighbouring countries, which is often the case, the French see everything with their planes and satellites," said Bayala.

"If they see enemy vehicles arriving, they can warn us, send their helicopters and that's good," he told AFP.

"This co-operation with the French shows us our limits, while at the same time giving us a feeling of security," said Captain Hamadou Traore, a doctor for the Malian patrol.

The French operation included five days of patrol, reconnaissance and intelligence operations west of Timbuktu, a region the government struggles to control because of constant attacks by armed groups and other criminal activity.

Villages in the region are quickly emptying as residents flee from gangs that come in the night to loot and, in some cases, kill before retreating back into their desert hideouts.

Malian military leaders say that the French presence may deter jihadists from doing more damage.

"They have firepower. Nobody will dare compete with them. The planes in the sky, the drones, medical evacuations by helicopter if needed, it's good," said Traore.

'Move towards peace'

In his ambulance, a Toyota van, Traore has a stretcher, an empty oxygen bottle, two medical first aid kits and not much else.

"When we have injured people, we transport them to a UN or Barkhane base as quickly as possible, so they can receive care," said Traore.

In May, nine Malian soldiers died in a rebel ambush near Timbuktu, some because they failed to get medical attention quickly enough.

"With Operation Serval, we had progress, things were better," said the doctor. "But little by little, we ask ourselves how long the French will be staying."

With six to eight men to a pick-up, their legs hanging out, Malian vehicles struggle to keep up with the French and their four-wheel drives in the soft sand. The group makes frequent stops because of the terrain.

Many of the soldiers who come from the south are just discovering the desert and its drawbacks, and struggle to communicate with the locals in their regional dialects.

One condition for the CMA agreeing to sign the peace accord was that its fighters and other combatants be included in a security force for the north, and for locals to be represented in government institutions.

Bocar Diarra, aged 25, from southwestern Mali, more than 1 500km from Timbuktu, doesn't place his trust in the current army, nor the future "reconstructed" forces.

According to Diarra, "the helicopters are the most important. Nobody can patrol and hold the big northern desert".

"As long as the French stay, it will be all right, the jihadists will not dare come south. We will move towards peace," he said.

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