GAO, Mali // French troops in northern Mali are searching out Islamic extremists who may be mixing among the population in Gao, after new clashes nearby raised questions about how solid a hold the French military has on the strategic area.
French military spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said yesterday that the operation to secure Gao is still under way, nearly two weeks after French and Malian troops moved into the city. There is a risk of "residual presence" of terrorists mixed among the population, he said from Paris. Extremists fired rocket launchers at French troops near Gao on Tuesday.
France launched a military operation in Mali on January 11 to help the Malian government restore control. Islamic extremists linked to Al Qaeda had imposed severe rule in northern Mali then started pushing toward the capital last month.
In a sign of heightened security, authorities briefly detained three Tuareg men in Gao yesterday who were stopped after they did not have their identity papers. The men, who came from a nearby village, were in Gao because they had missed their bus to a nearby market. The mayor intervened and the men were released.
As the French built up their presence in Gao, they started to draw down in Timbuktu yesterday, where they've had greater successes in holding the town.
Soldiers in fatigues could be seen pushing an artillery cannon onto the barge crossing the Niger River, located on the southern perimeter of Timbuktu. France has commandeered the river crossing, and yesterday small convoys of military vehicles were lining up, waiting for the barge.
While the population of Timbuktu is anxious, worrying that the departure of French troops will open the door for the Islamists to return, French military officials said they had fulfilled their mission here.
"We have succeeded in handing over the majority of our responsibilities to the Malian army and now she will assume our duties. But we will not leave the city of Timbuktu completely," said Captain Franck, an official with the French operation codenamed Serval, after a sub-Saharan wildcat. He said some French forces will stay because "once we are gone, these people will come back in order to trouble the population. At the same time, we can't stay indefinitely."
French president Francois Hollande has said France could begin withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali as early as March. Foreign minister Laurent Fabius reiterated that stance yesterday, saying the administration was sticking to its schedule and emphasising the need for political as well as military action.
For residents of this desert capital of Timbuktu, which was subjected to 10 months of often-brutal rule, the departure of the troops is premature.
"It really worries me to see the French military leave right away," said Abdel Kader Konta, the village chief of Korioume, the locality from which the troops were embarking onto the barge. "We think it's too early for them to leave because the Islamists have not fully quit the city. Some of the Islamists have simply shaved their beards and blended into the population. Before the French leave, they should assure themselves that security has been restored."
Curious onlookers gathered near the river crossing to watch the French departure. Several had long faces, despondent with worry.
"People think that the Islamists have left. But we think they are still here," said fisherman Baba Ali Sampana, who had stopped to watch their departure, standing next to his fishing canoe. "The French military should not leave right now."