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In Mountains Of Northern Mali, France Faces Elusive Enemy And Quagmire Risk

French and Chadian troops search for terrorist groups who melt into the landscape and launch suicide attacks in the towns. Initial plans for France's rapid return home have been revised.

French helicopters in Mali
French helicopters in Mali
Jean-Philippe Rémy

KIDAL - If you've ever stepped foot here, you might think the Adrar of Tigharghâr were created by the gods of rebellion. In the rocky mountains, a large stream flows, nourishing the heavy vegetation, something absolutely vital in this dry land where you face death at every corner if you don’t drink water or shield yourself from the elements.

And the rocks seem to have been naturally sculpted just so that you may rest in their shadow. In the past, these mountains were a base for the Tuaregs during their conflict against the Malian army or the French colonial forces. Today, it’s the theater of a crucial battle in the ongoing French military operation against the Islamic rebels affiliated with Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

But how do you fight an enemy that’s constantly in motion, camouflaged in the landscape, using man-to-man communications and avoiding gatherings in large groups? How do you track them down if they hardly ever keep their motors running to escape thermal detection?

These tactics represent a central challenge for “Operation Serval,” the Fren. The prize believed to be hidden in the Adrar of Tigharghâr is the headquarters of this Islamic army of shadows. This is the place where the decisive battle to end this war is now raging. The French are allied with the Chadian army, with the help of some Tuareg units.

AQIM fighters are believed to have chosen these mountains to shelter them against stronger firepower, as they stock ammunition, food supplies, and fuel, the ingredients needed to carry out a long and potentially problematic war.

The area is known for being unassailable, an ideal base from which to launch kamikaze operations and blitz strikes in the northern region. The French ground forces are currently fighting here with air support, but no further information seems to have come about the deployed forces. In order to block the mountains’ exits and outnumber the rebels, the Chadian allies have granted their military assistance. No Malian soldier has been associated with the operation.

The last few days of combat were led by the Chadian army troops, known for their bold charges in open territory, in their “Saharan war.” They pile up on pick-ups, even on the car’s hood, load it with jerrycans and ammunition, aim at the enemy and then start shooting RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) when the enemy comes in sight.

But on Feb. 22, this area turned out to be a trap for France's allies. Sidi Mohammed ag Saghid, aka “Three Three Trois Trois,” security chief of the NMLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the Tuareg allies), remembers: “The Chadians were advancing in a large column of about 200 vehicles when they were ambushed: the column was split in half - -- they lost 27 men. After that, they retaliated fiercely against the Islamists.”

(French declarations last month about their troops pulling out of Mali within weeks have since been revised -- remaining until at least July -- in the face of tough resistance from Islamist rebels)

A trap?

In this region, intelligence-gathering is key. The air strikes target the arms dumps, shelters and camps thanks to the precise information retrieved on the ground. A few days earlier, a young boy from Aguelhok, the closest town, who marked the spots for the air strikes, was caught by the Islamists and executed, according to the local administration representative.

Is Tighârghar becoming a mountain trap where the bulk of the rebel forces are holed up? No external witness could get close enough to the area to get an idea. This decisive battle is going on far from the world’s eyes.

We can only guess that they’re sorting out the skilled warriors who manage to pass through the net, from the inexperienced recruits. A local and reliable source who just came back from a few days on the frontlines next to the Adrar, witnessed some events: “At night, we hear small groups of three or five pick-ups rolling away from the rocks, with their lights off, towards Algeria or Taoudenni” – northwest of Mali.

There are some rebel-controlled areas near Gao, close to Ansongo. As for the forces leaving Tighargâr, they head for the dry lands in the north, their only solution, where the temperatures from March onwards start to climb, which will render the military operations particularly difficult.

The enemy may need to always retreat further and further to survive. It won’t solve the rebel problem in Mali, but it may break the organization of the Northern Mali guerillas.

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