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Mali's Militants - Did They Really Just Vanish?

Soldiers secure the port in Gao, Mali on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013.
Jerome Delay
Soldiers secure the port in Gao, Mali on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013.

An enormous cache of explosive material turned up this week in Gao, one of the northern Malian cities retaken by French and Malian troops. There are varying reports on its complexity and size, but the Associated Press reports the French military pulled about 1,700 pounds of explosive material out of a single building.

Although Islamist fighters first withdrew from Gao without heavy fighting more than two weeks ago, they came back in waves last weekend. Last Friday, a suicide bomber set off a device at a security checkpoint. A second suicide bomber detonated a device on Saturday, wounding a Malian soldier. Then on Sunday, Islamist militants coordinated a surprise attack on Gao, sailing up to city docks in wooden boats and assaulting police headquarters. The battle lasted for several hours, says Reuters, and three civilians and three attackers were killed.

Troops are still searching house-to-house for more explosive devices, says the BBC, which reports Gao residents are fearful and many won't go outside. The development could pose a problem for France, which wants to pull its troops out of Mali next month and hand over military responsibility to Mali and other African nations.

Given the weekend attack on Gao, are the Islamist militants vanquished? Probably not, suggests McClatchy reporter Alan Boswell. He finds "the strongest evidence yet that the quick advance by French troops against al Qaida-linked Islamist militants was less a military rout than an orderly and strategic withdrawal into terrain far more suitable for a gritty, drawn-out insurgency campaign."

"In other words, their retreat from northern Mali isn't game over, but game on."

Boswell describes how carefully militants appeared to pull out of towns they'd held: a convoy of vehicle drove out of the town of Diabaly one at a time, without headlights, over 12 hours. This way they weren't likely to attract much attention from French warplanes. Boswell suggests that in this manner, thousands of militants may have evaded French detection.

And where are the retreating militants going?

Foreign Policy Magazine warns the Islamist rebels may migrate east, to Niger. That country's political problems are "highly volatile", and an influx of militants from Mali could swell dissident groups there. That, in turn, spells future problems for France, which FP notes, gets three quarters of its energy from Nigerien-mined uranium.

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Korva Coleman is a newscaster for NPR.
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