31 Jan 2013

Landmines outside Gao show Mali’s guerrilla war has started

A yellow plastic jerry can and a broken chair marks the spot where two landmines have been laid on the road out of Gao.

A few yards away, a big hole in the road was the first evidence of the landmine which exploded last night around 10pm.

I looked a few yards into the desert on my left and saw the wreckage of a Malian military vehicle – the four soldiers inside were killed and their bodies removed early this morning.

We were driving with a Malian military convoy. I had hoped simply to drive by ourselves, straight down the road, but was grateful for the escort.

The landmine showed that the guerrilla war in Mali has already started.

Timbuktu and Gao fell quickly to French air strikes, and the jihadis who controlled the two cities were killed or fled into the desert.

Kidal, further north, up towards the Algerian border, is going to be much more difficult. It is the home town of Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine.

Well known to all Malians, he used to be a diplomat for the Malian government in the Gulf. But he has led his Tuareg clansmen into a revolt against the Malian state.

There are unlikely to be the same scenes of joy in Kidal as we saw in Gao when we entered with the Malian military on Sunday.

Moreover, the French will have to tread softly because it is believed that eight French hostages are being held in the Kidal area. There is a great danger that if the French attack with the same resolve, many of those hostages may be killed.

The French may therefore try to negotiate with Iyad Ag Ghaly’s men in Kidal.

The Tuaregs and jihadis are clearly in a weak situation now, but the hostages are their trump card. In the past, European governments have paid millions of dollars to get their hostages back. The French won’t want to do that now because it’s that money which enables the hostage takers to buy weapons and take control of northern Mali.

The French won’t want to do anything which makes it more likely that Ansar Dine and its allies in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb will kill the hostages.

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