Fighters included Arabs, Pakistanis: residents

Aman Sethi
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Rebels did not impose any restriction on the populace

Semblance of normality:Residents go about their routine as Malian soldiers patrol in Diabaly on Tuesday.— PHOTO: AFP
Semblance of normality:Residents go about their routine as Malian soldiers patrol in Diabaly on Tuesday.— PHOTO: AFP

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….Ansar Dine is still a majority Tuareg formation, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MUJAO) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are pan-ethnic.

Three weeks ago, on January 10, the rebels entered Konna, a small town 700 km from Bamako but barely 60 km from a key military base and airport in Sevare. The push into south-central Mali prompted France to rush troops, jets, and helicopters from bases across west Africa to the aid of its former colony.

Even as French bombs slammed into Konna, the rebels advanced towards Bamako from the west, overrunning the Malian army outpost in Diabaly in a matter of hours. On the morning of January 14, residents said, a convoy of pick-up trucks materialised on the outskirts of the village.

“There were loud explosions as they attacked the Army camp,” said Hadi Arch, who runs an auto parts store on the main thoroughfare. “Everyone hid in their homes. By afternoon, the Army had left, and the Islamists were in control.”

No clear leader

A force of 100-150 rebel fighters took control of Diabaly using between 20 and 30 modified pickup trucks, sources in the military said. “There was no one clear leader,” said Tumani Diakite, a young resident. “There were Algerians, Yemenis, Arabs, Pakistanis and lots of Malians as well. You could see them patrolling the streets in loose white clothes with guns and ammunition belts slung across their shoulders.”

Diakite said the Malians were from the Bambara, Songhai and Bellaethnic groups and relatively a few Tuaregs, suggesting that the Tuaregs have been sidelined. He could not explain how he established the nationalities of the foreign fighters, or distinguished between Afghans, Yemenis and Pakistanis, but said they were speaking a foreign language that sounded like Arabic.

Several residents corroborated Diakite’s observations, adding the rebels did not impose any restriction on the populace. “After they took control, they called a meeting at the mosque where they explained that they were not opposed to the population; they were only targeting the police and the army. They said, ‘You are Muslim, we are Muslim,’ and they would slowly impose Sharia but we could not leave the city,” a resident said.

Shekna Kantagu, a married man with children, was not convinced by the assurances offered by the rebels, nor did he heed their warning. “When they stopped him in the street, he tried to run away,” the resident said. “They shot him in the head.” His family was so scared of stepping outside that they buried him in their house. “All the shops were shut, everyone just stayed indoors,” said Mr. Arch, the auto parts seller. “No one played any music or spoke loudly on their cellphones or smoked in public.”

The rebels did not specifically prohibit such actions, Mr. Arch said, but added that Diabaly residents were aware of the harsh punishments such as flogging, stoning and, in some instance, amputations that were meted out in rebel-controlled towns. Several villagers said the rebels did not force the women to wear a hijab . “We already heard the news from Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal,” he said. “So we knew what to do.”

The death of Shekna Kantagu was the sole act of rebel violence directed at the civilians of Diabaly. Instead, rebel fighters frequently handed out large sums of money in attempts to gain new recruits. Their presence appears to have sown some dissent among the residents who spoke darkly of collaborators who led the rebels into Diabaly. “We have a list of everyone who supported the rebels,” said one resident, but declined to make the names public. “There are some Wahhabis in the town,” said another resident. “They may support the rebels, but they never openly say they are Wahhabis.”

The French bombardment of Diabaly began on the night of January 15, about 36 hours after the rebels took control of the village, and continued for three days. By the fourth day, residents said, the rebels departed.

“Most of the bombing was during the night and the early hours of morning using helicopters and fighter jets,” said a Malian Army officer in Diabaly. “The bombing was used to scatter the rebels, and then French Special Forces would move in over the ground, strike the rebels and retreat back beyond the town.”

“We were very impressed with their tactical acumen, particularly their movement,” said a French soldier, “They moved very quickly, dispersed when they were under fire, and got back together again.”

The debris left behind suggests that the fighters were well-armed, and confirms fears that weaponry looted from Libyan armouries during the Arab Spring of 2011 has found its way to northern Mali. Among the wreckage, this correspondent spotted a machine gun mounted on a revolving turret devised out of heavy sheet metal. The entire contraption was welded on the back of a pickup truck, the most recent avatar of the improvised ‘technical’ pickups first seen in Somalia in the 1990s. One such vehicle could have shot down the French helicopter in Konna.

Soldiers also found a profusion of rocket-propelled grenades, Kalashnikov ammunition, hand-grenades, and even a manual for a Beamshot, barrel-mounted laser sight for light handguns.

The airstrikes targeted the rebel vehicles with great precision, while the ground forces focused on the militants themselves, soldiers said.

No civilian casualty

“The aircraft can strike very small targets very efficiently,” said the French soldier. “The ground team gives precise coordinates to our helicopter and jet teams who carry out the strikes.” No civilian was killed in the operation, according to the Malian Army and residents interviewed in Diabaly.

As dusk slowly gave way to night, some shops switched on lights and played music. Soon, the regular beats of remixed pop music floated through the streets like a riff suspended over the regular thrum of diesel generators. “Today is the first day we are playing music at the shop,” said Mr. Arch. “It’s true that the rebels are Muslims and we are Muslims, but they have guns and I don’t like that.”



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