French special forces crossed the Niger River on Saturday to take control of the airport of Gao, previously a stronghold of the Islamist forces the country is battling in Mali.
“The rebels have melted into the local population,” a French officer told the Reuters news agency while the effort to drive the militants out of the city was still underway. Muslim fighters, who were able to take over the north of Mali last year and imposed their own strict version of Islamic law, have blended in with the population when French-Malian army operations, initiated two weeks ago, forced them into retreat.
France launched airstrikes against insurgent targets in Mali to halt their advance on the capital Bamako and followed up with ground deployments now numbering over 2,000 soldiers. According to the nation’s defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, France will accept nothing short of the “total reconquest” of its former colony from the Islamist alliance that includes Al Qaeda’s North African wing as well as local Islamist and Tuareg secessionist groups, bolstered by fighters that were displaced by Arab and Western powers’ intervention in Libya’s civil war in 2011 and Algerian counterterrorism operations in recent years.
The offensive appeared to have split the Islamist alliance on Thursday when a senior negotiator from Ansar Dine rejected the group’s ties with Al Qaeda and said he was prepared to negotiate. As of Saturday, it was unclear how many militants had joined the breakaway faction and whether it was committed to talks at all.
While French troops pushed deeper into rebel territory, neighboring African states struggled to prepare a regional peacekeeping force under a United Nations Security Council mandate. African Union leaders meeting in the capital of Ethiopia on Saturday urged international support to provide airlifts, ammunition, communications equipment and field hospitals to be able to deploy up to 6,000soldiers in Mali.
Other European countries and the United States have vocally supported France’s intervention and provided airlift and intelligence support but stopped short of sending in combat troops of their own. Paris has urged more active involvement from the United States, in particular to help refuel its fighter planes, but the administration in Washington is “dragging its feet,” one French official told the Financial Times this week.
American hesitation may stem in part from its previous counterterrorism efforts in the African country. The United States armed and helped train Malian forces only to have them join the insurgency. In March of last year, Captain Amadou Sanogo and Malian soldiers that were trained by the United States staged an army coup in Bamako that forced Congress to cut off American support for the government there.