NIONO, Mali (Reuters) - French troops advanced cautiously toward northern Mali on Sunday amid fears of ambush by al Qaeda-linked fighters, while its fighter jets pounded the Islamists’ strongholds in the desert near Timbuktu.
In the central Malian town of Diabaly, seized by Islamist fighters on Monday, the wreckage of the Islamists’ charred pick-up trucks lay abandoned among the mud-brick buildings, television images showed.
Residents of the town, some 350 km (220 miles) from the capital Bamako, said Islamists had fled into the bush after French airstrikes.
The commanders of French and Malian forces, who set up their operations center in the nearby town of Niono, said their forces were moving slowly toward Diabaly after reports that Islamist fighters had abandoned their turbans and flowing robes to blend in with local residents.
“There are risks of mines and booby traps in houses, that is why we have to be careful,” a French commander who would be identified only as Colonel Frederic told reporters sheltering from the sun in a grove of trees.
France has deployed 2,000 ground troops and its war planes have pounded rebel columns and bases for 10 days, turning back an Islamist advance towards the riverside capital which Paris said would have toppled Mali’s government.
French now aims, with international support, to dislodge the Islamists from Mali’s vast desert north, an area the size of Texas, before they use it to launch attacks on the West.
The Islamist alliance, grouping al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM and home-grown Malian militant groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA, has imposed harsh sharia law in northern Mali, including amputations and the destruction of ancient shrines sacred to moderate Sufi Muslims.
Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French Rafale and Mirage planes had bombed Islamists’ camps and logistics bases around the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu as well as Gao, the largest city of the north. The strikes were aimed at preventing Islamist fighters from recovering to launch a counterattack.
“The terrorists...have diversified tactics. They can leave a town at any time or mingle with the population to avoid air strikes,” he said. “It’s urban guerrilla warfare as well as a war so it’s very complicated to manage.”
In Sevare, the main military base in central Mali, a French military commander told Reuters his forces were hanging back to allow Malian troops to mop up Islamist resistance near the town of Konna. Malian troops lost several vehicles and soldiers to Islamist counterattacks, Colonel Didier Dacko said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius denied Mali could spiral into another Afghanistan, saying that Islamist fighters did not have the support of the local moderate Muslim majority.
The stakes in Mali rose dramatically this week when Islamist gunmen cited France’s intervention as their reason for attacking a desert gas plant in neighboring Algeria, seizing hundreds of hostages. Algeria carried out an assault on Saturday to end the siege and said on Sunday it expected a heavy death toll.
Veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility in the name of al Qaeda for the Algeria attack, Mauritanian news website Sahara Media said on Sunday.
“We are ready to negotiate with the West and the Algerian government provided they stop their bombing of Mali’s Muslims,” Belmokhtar said in a video, according to Sahara Media.
The conflict in Mali and the hostage crisis in Algeria have raised concerns about the radicalization of the broader Sahel region, which is awash with weapons pillaged from the armories of toppled Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
At a meeting with ECOWAS heads of state in Ivory Coast on Saturday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius appealed for international help to fund a U.N. mandated African mission to oust the Islamists from the region.
A donors conference will be held in Ethiopia on January 29.
Military experts say France and its African allies must deploy ground forces quickly to capitalize on recent gains and prevent the insurgents from regrouping in the desert.
The African deployment is hampered by a lack of transport and supplies, however. Nigeria, Niger and Togo have deployed a few hundred troops and a first contingent of 50 Senegalese troops left for Bamako on Sunday.
Underscoring the scale of the challenge, diplomats said full deployment of Senegal’s full contingent of 500 soldiers was being held up by the lack of ammunition for their artillery.
Chad’s President Idriss Deby, visiting a battalion of 600 Chadian troops awaiting deployment in neighboring Niger, said his government would do everything to ensure the maximum number of African troops in Mali.
“It’s not that we have a lot of soldiers to spare but it’s because we want to ensure the maximum number of soldiers on the ground,” said Deby, who has promised to send 2,000 soldiers.
Human Rights Watch warned on Saturday it had received reports of serious abuses, including killings, being committed by Malian security forces against civilians in Niono, fuelling concerns of reprisals by the army against Tuaregs and Arabs — ethnic groups associated with the Islamist uprising.
A rebellion by the MNLA Tuareg separatists last year seized control of the north, which they call Azawad, before it was hijacked by the Islamists.
A spokesman for the MNLA said on Sunday it was were ready to join international efforts to expel the rebels, amid fears the Malian army could exact revenge on Tuaregs.
While some Tuaregs support the Islamists, particularly the Ansar Dine faction founded by former separatist leader Iyad ag Ghali, many of them do not and resent its fundamentalist form of Islam at odds with the region’s moderate Sufi beliefs.
“The population of Azawad, for whom we are fighting, are the first victims of this terrorism and we are afraid they will also become victims of the military operation, especially from the Malian army,” Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Brian Love in Paris, Abdoualye Massalatchi and Nathalie Prevost in Niamey, Media Coulibaly in Niono and Anthony Rickles in Sevare; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Myra MacDonald