x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Burkina Faso soldiers worry about defence in Timbuktu

African soldiers in the fabled city of Timbuktu worry their equipment, training and circumstances are not adequate to defend against another takeover by militants who know the terrain.

TIMBUKTU, Mali // African soldiers in the fabled city of Timbuktu worry their equipment, training and circumstances are not adequate to defend against another takeover by militants who know the terrain.

Burkina Faso soldiers officially took over at the end of April after hundreds of French forces left the northern Malian town several months after their military operation largely ousted the Islamic fighters from the area.

French forces parachuted into Timbuktu in late January to liberate the city from the fighters who had occupied it for 10 months. Al Qaeda's wing in Africa imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, carrying out public executions, amputations and whippings. The French are now scaling down their deployment from 4,000 to 1,000 soldiers in its former colony by the end of the year, leaving other forces in charge.

But a report by obtained this week indicates that some 500 soldiers from Burkina Faso are facing problems with defence.

"Insufficient night vision capabilities and radio communications with the Malian army for coordination" are among the issues, the report to the head of the African-led mission in Mali said.

Colonel Gilles Bationo, who leads the Burkina Faso soldiers, also said that their second-generation night vision equipment does not work if there is wind, dust or no moon. He said the militants also move faster through the deserts in their vehicles because they know the terrain so well, making it difficult for the forces to capture them.

"Weak capacity engineering, the need for air combat assets on site, transport logistics," and shielding tactics are also missing, according to the report and Col Bationo.

The fight against the militant is also hindered by a runway that is blocked by trees.

"The trees around the airport prevent US military from coming into the airport, and security is not guaranteed," Col Bationo said, adding that militants also can hide out in the thick trees to shoot at any planes landing or taking off.

He said that they also lack reliable electricity. Col Bationo submitted the report to Pierre Buyoya, the head of the African-led mission, in hopes the battalion's concerns will be addressed. Mr Buyoya visited Timbuktu last week.

"The battalion is going to stay in place in Timbuktu and will transform into the MINUSMA which is the UN mission for maintaining peace around July," Mr Buyoya said. "The Burkina Faso battalion will be made up of 850 soldiers."

Col Bationo said the situation in Timbuktu remains calm, despite frequent reports of robberies and inter-communal clashes in neighbouring communities, but that reinforcements were needed.

"The double bombing in Niger means we must prepare," he said, adding that an attack on Timbuktu is likely after suicide bombers in Niger detonated two car bombs simultaneously, one inside a military camp in the city of Agadez and another in the remote town of Arlit at a French-operated uranium mine, killing at least 35 people, according to Niger's president.

The attacks that began at dawn on Thursday were claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and by Algerian terrorist Moktar Belmoktar. Both are believed to have fighters in Mali. Belmoktar, whose brigade known as "Those Who Sign in Blood" is also responsible for the devastating attack in January on the Ain Amenas gas plant, where 37 foreigners were killed.

UN peacekeepers are supposed to take over in July from a 6,000-member African-led mission now in Mali, although the deployment date is subject to change depending on security conditions. The UN force will be tasked with helping to restore peace. However, it will not be authorised to launch offensive military operations or chase terrorists in the desert, which French forces will continue to do.

Mali fell into turmoil after a March 2012 coup created a security vacuum that allowed secular Tuareg rebels to take over the country's north as a new homeland. Months later, the rebels were kicked out by Islamic militants.

When the militants started moving into government-controlled areas in the south, France launched a military offensive on January 11 to oust them. The fighters, many linked to Al Qaeda, fled the major towns in the north, but many went into hiding in the desert and continue to carry out attacks including suicide bombings.

Tuareg separatists have since reclaimed the northern city of Kidal. The government is in talks with the separatists as elections are slated for this year.