Douentza/Gao (Mali), Jan. 29 (Reuters): French-backed Malian troops searched house-to-house in Gao and Timbuktu today, uncovering arms and explosives abandoned by Islamist fighters.
French and Malian troops retook the two Saharan towns in northern Mali virtually unopposed at the weekend after an 18-day French-led offensive that has pushed back the al Qaida-allied militants into hideouts in the deserts and mountains.
Malian government soldiers were combing through the Niger river towns and their neighbourhoods of dusty alleys and mud-brick homes. In Gao, they arrested at least five suspected Islamist rebels and sympathisers, turned over by local people, and uncovered caches of weapons and counterfeit money.
Residents reported some looting of shops in Timbuktu owned by Arabs and Tuaregs suspected of having helped the Islamists who had occupied the world-famous seat of Islamic learning, a Unesco World Heritage site, since last year.
Fleeing Islamist fighters torched a Timbuktu library holding priceless ancient manuscripts, damaging many.
Malian army sources told Reuters pockets of armed Islamist fighters, on foot to avoid French air strikes, were still hiding in the savannah and deserts around Gao and Timbuktu and near main roads leading to them, parts of which were still unsafe. The West African country has been in political limbo since a March 2012 coup triggered the rebel takeover of the north.
France, which has sent around 3,000 troops to Mali at the request of its government, says it wants to pass the baton of longer-term security operations there to a larger UN-backed African force, known as AFISMA, being deployed in the country.
The French, anxious not to get bogged down in a messy counter-insurgency war in their former Sahel colony, have made clear that while the first phase of liberating the biggest north Mali towns may be over, a more difficult challenge to flush the Islamist desert insurgents from their hideouts still remains.
“We will stay as long as necessary. We want to make sure there will be a good handover between France and AFISMA. There is no question of us getting stuck in the mud,” French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa.
Also in Addis Ababa, Malian interim President Dioncounda Traore announced his government would aim to organise “credible” elections for July 31.