GAO, Mali (Reuters) – Malian troops hunted house-to-house in Gao on Monday for Islamist insurgents whose surprise attack inside the northern town at the weekend posed a risk of France’s forces becoming entangled in a messy guerrilla war in Mali.
Sneaking across the Niger River under cover of darkness, the al Qaeda-allied rebels fought Malian and French troops on Sunday in the sandy streets of the ancient Saharan trading town, retaken from the Islamists two weeks ago.
Malian Defense Minister Yamoussa Camara said three of the Islamist raiders were killed and 11 taken prisoner, while some Malian soldiers were wounded in the street fighting.
A doctor in Gao’s hospital, Noulaye Djiteyi, said three civilians were killed and 11 injured by gunshot wounds. The casualties were hit by stray bullets in the gun battle.
The brazenness of the rebel raid, which followed successive blasts by two suicide bombers at a northern checkpoint, came as a surprise to the French-led military operation in Mali which had so far faced little real resistance from the Islamists.
It indicated that the French forces, which have 4,000 soldiers on the ground in Mali in an intervention now in its fifth week, were vulnerable to hit-and-run guerrilla attacks by the jihadists to the rear of the French forward lines.
French and Malian officials in Gao said the risks of infiltration, shootings and bomb blasts remained high.
“The Malians are checking house-by-house, block-by-block,” a French officer, who asked not to be named, told reporters.
French and Malian soldiers in armored vehicles reinforced key locations and sandbagged road checkpoints at the entrances to the town, alert for further attacks from bands of Islamist insurgents reported hiding in the surrounding desert scrub.
French leaders have said they intend to start pulling troops out of Mali in March, and want to hand over security operations to a larger, 8,000-strong African military force currently still being assembled and drawn mostly from West African states.
But this African contingent is still struggling to deploy in positions behind the French, raising the risk that Paris’ forces could face “mission creep” and be obliged to stay on longer to guarantee security in the face of rebel guerrilla tactics.
“There is no doubt that the Islamists will find weak spots,” Jakkie Cilliers, executive director of the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, told Reuters.
“Now it becomes all complex and messy,” he added.
MALI “NOT TOTALLY SECURED”
On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius played down the risk of his country getting bogged down in a difficult and longer than anticipated counter-insurgency war in Mali.
Citing the lessons of other conflicts such as Afghanistan and Somalia, he said in an interview with French BFMTV that the objectives of the Mali operation launched January 11 should be clear, and also have a clear end date. Malian and African troops would eventually take over from the French, he insisted.
“You have to remember that the French force’s intervention is only a month long. There has been significant positive advances but things are not totally secured. There are suicide attacks and incidents,” he said, referring to the Gao attack.
Gao’s main market was bustling on Monday but crowds gathered to look at the wrecked police station building where the jihadist raiders, some on motorbikes, firing AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, fought French and Malian troops.
Witnesses said bodies still lay in the dusty streets, some apparently rebels, others civilians caught by stray bullets.
“I passed by the police station and I saw shredded corpses inside. There are three victims from stray bullets,” local resident Ibrahim Toure told Reuters.
After driving the bulk of the insurgents from major northern towns such as Timbuktu and Gao, France has been focusing its operations on Mali’s remote northeast mountains, where French special forces and Chadian troops are hunting rebel bases.
They believe the rebels are holding at least seven French hostages, previously seized in the Sahel, in hideouts in the Adrar des Ifoghas range that straddles the Mali-Algeria border.