French and Malian forces have retaken the towns of Timbuktu and Gao in the nation’s North over the weekend, in both cases without meeting resistance, leaving just one major town in rebel hands. Their forces have been bolstered by the first Chadian and Nigerian troops out of an expected total of 7,700 from the ECOWAS organisation.
McClatchy reports that the Islamist opposition are fleeing in large numbers well in advance of the French-led advance – and that rebel fighters aren’t the only ones fleeing.
The Islamists, who have controlled northern Mali since last spring, have melted away in the past week under French air strikes and special forces operations after initially advancing in the first days of France’s intervention in Mali, which began Jan. 10.
France since has taken advantage of the rebels’ apparent preference for flight instead of fight when faced with the superior military power. The Islamists mostly have disappeared before French forces arrive, avoiding inch-for-inch street battles for population centers.
For example, by Monday, Islamist forces had deserted the town of Gossi, on the road between Sevare – the base of French and Malian operations – and Gao, according to two village residents, including the district chief.
“After hearing of the withdrawal from Douentza, the armed rebels fled,” said local chief Mohammed Sidiya Maiga.
On Monday, about 30 vehicles had sped through the town from the southwest in retreat.
Most of the town’s Arab residents also had fled to nearby Bourkina Faso, fearing retribution at the hands of the Malian military, most of whom are black Africans, Maiga said.
That fear is not an irrational one, although there’s little doubt the Islamist rebels have committed atrocities, there have been reports of several crimes by Malian troops too.
So is France’s intervention a roaring success, over in days against the expectations of many? Hardly. Reuters, via The Guardian, notes:
The rebels appeared to be withdrawing further north into the trackless wilderness of the Sahara, from where some military experts fear they could wage a guerrilla war.
This is simply where the parallels to Afghanistan really start to bite, and possibly spread into neighboring nations – with the only real way to ending the war being a political solution.