, BAMAKO, Jan 13 – The French air force on Sunday struck the northern Malian city of Gao, which had been controlled by the Al-Qaeda offshoot MUJAO, destroying Islamist bases and forcing the insurgents to flee, residents told AFP.
“There were dozens of strikes in and around Gao. All Islamist bases have been destroyed,” a resident told AFP by phone. Another witness said all Islamist fighters had been forced to flee by the airstrikes.
“We can see smoke billowing from the base. There isn’t a single Islamist left in town. They have all fled,” a teacher said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A military source from the region confirmed that the raids conducted by France – which has been using Gazelle helicopters and Mirage jets since the start of the intervention on Friday – had destroyed the main Islamist bases in the Gao area.
The town had for more than nine months been under the control of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
MUJAO had enforced an extreme form of Islamic law and the city of Gao, one of the three main cities in northern Mali, with Kidal and Timbuktu, had seen some of the worst punishments meted out in the name of sharia.
Many residents expressed their pleasure at the Islamists’ riddance and called for a quick deployment of government troops to fill the security vacuum.
“if only the Malian army could move quickly, I would really be very happy. What we need now if for the army to come here so that the Islamists can’t come back,” a young Gao-based student said.
“We say thank you to France. French troops have to be deployed on the ground to liberate us. Our army alone is powerless,” said one resident.
“The people in the north have suffered enough from this unjustifiable war. Now that this mechanism was triggered, it must go all the way” to eradicate extremist groups from northern areas, local human rights official Ibrahim Toure said.
Gao is located around 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) northeast of the capital Bamako and was the main staging base for the military offensive launched by the secular MNLA Tuareg rebellion a year ago.
A coup by renegade soldiers in Bamako allowed the rebels to seize the entire north almost unopposed but they were soon overpowered by Ansar Dine (a homegrown Islamist group), MUJAO and AQIM.
Former colonial power France had consistently ruled out getting directly involved in the Malian crisis but changed tack last week after Islamist insurgents made a fresh southward push and were seen as threatening the capital.
France deployed its aerial might and promptly stopped the Islamist offensive, helping Malian troops reconquer a key central town called Konna.
France has since expanded its campaign, striking some of the main Islamist bases across the entire Islamist-held north.