TIMBUKTU, Mali (Reuters) - Patrolling Timbuktu’s maze of mud-brick houses, the French troops quickly lost their way, their jeeps stuck, wheels spinning, in the sand of the ancient Saharan trading town.
“We don’t know the terrain and sometimes we are working with maps that are out of date,” said the patrol leader, Sergeant Jeremy, who like other French soldiers deployed in Mali was only authorized to give his first name.
Having reached Timbuktu, whose fabled name has become synonymous in popular English for “the middle of nowhere”, the French forces pursuing fleeing Islamist jihadists are wondering where their mission will take them next as their elusive prey scatters into the deserts and mountains of the Sahara.
At the end of the dusty, rubbish-strewn town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous seat of Islamic learning which was damaged and ransacked by the rebels, a checkpoint marks the spot where the sand, rock and scrub of the surrounding desert begin.
As French warplanes pound al Qaeda-allied rebel positions and supply lines in the far northeast around the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near Algeria, French and Malian patrols have been fanning out from Timbuktu into the surrounding wilderness.
French intelligence this week spotted an Islamist logistics depot just 50 km (30 miles) north of the city.
Fleeing rebels left behind tonnes of food and fuel, an indication of the supply network the fast-moving insurgents have had time to set up during months of occupation.
“It is likely that in lots of villages around Timbuktu we will find this sort of depot,” Lt.-Colonel Frederic, the French officer who led the mission to the village, told Reuters.
Highlighting the problem of hunting highly mobile rebels, villagers told the French the insurgents headed west towards Mauritania. But tracks suggested they went in the opposite direction.
After its lightning air and ground offensive that retook Mali’s main northern towns from Islamist occupiers in three weeks, Paris is finding that its plan to hand over security to Malian and other African troops is moving less smoothly.
France, which has 4,000 soldiers in Mali, has said it wants to begin pulling troops out from March. But the Malian troops due to relieve them are thin on the ground and lack equipment.
West African troops meant to advance up from the southern capital Bamako to secure liberated zones behind the hard-charging French have yet to arrive in Timbuktu and elsewhere.
The speed of the French capture of the biggest rebel- occupied Saharan towns of Timbuktu and Gao, achieved with overwhelming French air power, led to French President Francois Hollande being feted as a “savior” by thousands of Malians when he visited Timbuktu and Bamako on Saturday.
This is no small irony when one considers that former colonial power France has often been vilified across Africa as the biggest post-independence meddler in its former territories.
But the next phase of protecting the retaken Malian towns and the roads that connect them against the likely threat of guerrilla-style rebel reprisal attacks promises to be tougher.
And France, which has lost only one serviceman so far in its Mali campaign while claiming “hundreds” of insurgent kills, is hoping the task will not be theirs alone.
“It is a tough battle. These are terrorists - they operate in a complex way,” Sergeant Jeremy said. Recent mine explosions on roads outside the recaptured towns have claimed Malian army and civilian lives, suggesting that the retreating insurgents could be preparing a hit-and-run war from the desert.
Europe and the United States, which are supporting the French operation in Mali with logistics and intelligence, have no plans to send ground troops and are hoping the French will stay the course alongside the Malians.
“Of course, we have to help them but I think the Malian army has shown it is capable,” Sergeant Jeremy said, with commendable diplomacy. But the Malian soldiers meant to patrol with his unit did not show up, except for a brief contact at the checkpoint.
In Timbuktu, the power of French air strikes in driving the heavily-armed Islamists out of the city was plain to see. The old gendarmerie used as an Islamist training center for fighters was reduced to a pile of rubble.
On the other side of town, a palace built by former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and also used as a rebel headquarters, suffered the same fate, its intricate wood and metal construction scattered in pieces across the ground.
Few in Timbuktu are convinced the rebel threat has disappeared entirely. They want the French to stay.
“We don’t mind the Africans, but the French must stay,” said Kadjiatou Maiga, a trader in Timbuktu’s market, where sales of French flags match those of Mali and residents still cheer “France, France!” each time they see a French patrol.
“The French must leave some men behind to support us. They need to leave us their drones, which we like to hear up there,” she added, pointing to a cloudless sky.
In contrast to France’s air assets and its fleet of jeeps and armored cars, some Malian soldiers in Timbuktu rely on pickups, while others get around on the back of motor-bikes.
Two Malian armored personnel carriers are parked at the town’s entrance. Their tires are flat.
At his base, Malian Colonel Keba Sangare, head of operations for the Timbuktu region, said security was improving.
Malian officers behind him drank late morning beers, apparently still celebrating the end of the severe sharia Islamic law imposed by the rebels who had banned alcohol, music and parties during the 10-month Islamist occupation.
When asked if his forces were capable of defending the town alone, Sangare said cautiously: “For now, the French are still here. Let’s wait for the Malian and African reinforcements to come and then we will answer that question.”
French officers in Timbuktu say they are still working to clear the town of munitions, search for booby traps and secure the surrounding area up to a 100 km (60 mile) radius. But at each press briefing, they stress the urgency to move on.
“We are planning our departure,” said Colonel Geze, the top French officer in Timbuktu. “African troops are due to come but I don’t know which nationality. I don’t have any date for their arrival,” he added.
Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Pascal Fletcher and Jon Hemming