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French troops pound Mali Islamists near Gao

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
April 9th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A major operation was undertaken this past weekend by French troops in a river valley near Gao, which is northeastern Mali's largest city and once a stronghold of the country's al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants. At least 1,000 French soldiers backed by tanks, drones and air support combed the area for radical Islamists that have sought to intimidate the region.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A thousand French soldiers swept a valley believed to be a logistics base for Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists near the Malian city of Gao. Called Operation Gustav, the movement is one of France's largest actions since its intervention in its former colony, involves dozens of tanks, helicopters and aircraft.

"We surrounded the valley north of Gao, which we believe serves as a logistics base for jihadist groups, and we began to search methodically," General Bernard Barrera, commander of the French land forces in Mali said.

In the meantime, France has withdrawn its first batch of 100 soldiers from Mali as it prepares to transfer responsibility for the county's security to a U.N.-mandated African force of 6,300 in the coming weeks.

Four thousand French troops were sent to Mali in January to block a feared advance on the capital Bamako by the Islamist fighters who took control of the country's north a year ago.

France says it plans to pull its soldiers out of the country but plans to leave a permanent 1,000-strong force to fight terrorism.

Gao is 750 miles from the capital Bamako, was a stronghold of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, one of the Islamist militias which occupied the north until being dislodged in January.

Gao suffered the first suicide bombings in Mali's history in February and has been the scene of deadly clashes between French-Malian forces and jihadists over the last few days.

Troops reported that they neutralized around 340 artillery shells and high-caliber rockets and destroyed a Toyota pick-up truck. No Islamist fighters have yet been encountered on the first day of Operation Gustav.

France's 3rd Mechanized Brigade later began the excavation of a thick forest where military intelligence suspects a jihadist base may be hidden.

Troops will spend the coming days combing the 12-mile valley with the help of Malian soldiers and police officers going into the nomad camps and mud houses which line the dry river basin.

"This is the fourth wadi we have gone into in the Gao region. There will no doubt be other such operations but perhaps not to the same extent," Barrera said.

Ethnic Tuareg rebels seized the country's vast arid north in the chaos following a coup in Bamako in March 2012 before losing control to well-armed Islamists. A French-led intervention quickly drove insurgents from most of their northern strongholds. However, there significant pockets of resistance in Gao, as well as in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.

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