I have been writing about Mali since before the military coup last March. My friend Yeah Samake, the mayor of Ouelessebougou, was running for president until the coup destabilized the country and the elections were called off.
Islamist extremists took advantage of the ensuing lack of governance in the northern region and seized control of the towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. They instituted Shariah law and brutalized the Malian people in these towns and surrounding villages. There was also an influx of insurgents from countries as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Northern Mali — about the size of France — had become the epicenter for the Islamists in the Sahel. Many of these insurgents were involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
On Jan. 10, Malian President Dioncounda Traore called French President Francois Hollande and asked for military help because extremists from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) had moved south and taken over the town of Konna, just 300 miles from Bamako, the capital. The next day French troops and Mirage jets arrived from nearby Chad.
Additional troops also came from several neighboring countries. The Islamists were quickly driven from Konna, and within weeks Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal were liberated. The Islamists were driven into the northern frontier mountain region near the Algerian border, where French and Chadian troops are still seeking the extremists.
Since I continue to write regularly about Mali, I planned an information trip to the northern region for mid-March. Mr. Samake arranged for me to meet with Mahamadou Alou Toure, the mayor of the town of Bourem Sidi-Amar, 30 miles from Timbuktu.
On March 18, I paid a courtesy call on French Ambassador Christian Rouyer, who was confident the Islamists would be defeated. “The French will stay to finish the job,” said Mr. Rouyer, who was recalled as ambassador on March 21. Their goal was to drive the Islamists from northern Mali. In addition, the French troops would probably stay beyond the national elections planned for July.
Mr. Rouyer noted that France intended to introduce a resolution to the U.N. Security Council in April, asking to authorize a peacekeeping force in Mali to replace the French and African military coalition. The goal is to transfer peacekeeping responsibilities to a U.N. force of up to 10,000 troops.
At 4 a.m. March 19, Mr. Samake and Mr. Toure picked me up for our long drive to Douentza, about 400 miles from Bamako. On the way we stopped at the town of Konna to view the remains of the Islamists’ camp, where several machine gun-mounted pickup trucks and one armored carrier had been destroyed. Armaments were strewn everywhere, indicating a fierce battle had taken place.
In Douentza, we met up with our escort team, consisting of 20 Malian soldiers in four pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, to accompany us the last 120 miles over extremely rugged terrain to Timbuktu. The fear was that Islamists could still be embedded in the area near the Niger River crossing. We arrived after midnight without any problems other than two flat tires. The convoy surrounded us for protection.
The next morning we met with Col. Keba Sangare, the head of Malian forces, at Fort Elbekaye to get a briefing. He said that security had improved dramatically since last April and that people were reporting suspicious activity, since some of the Islamists have relatives living there. More than 1,000 Islamists were driven out since the incursion began in January. Col. Sangare said that if the French troops were to leave, it would be difficult to keep the region secure and the Islamists would return.
With an escort of 10 Malian military vehicles, we went to Mr. Toure’s town, Bourem Sidi-Amar, where hundreds of people lined the entry road waving Malian and French flags. Col. Sangare assured the villagers that they could count on the military to protect them. Several village elders told me they were thankful the Islamists were gone and the people were free from their brutal treatment.
In Timbuktu, there was a peaceful feeling, with shops open and people walking everywhere. There were even young boys listening to music, which had been forbidden under Shariah law. At the Hotel Colombe, the owners were barely managing to remain open with journalists and other media people staying there. They were hopeful that security would continue so that tourists could again arrive at the airport, the main access to Timbuktu.
On March 21, I was awakened at 4 a.m. by an explosion. At first it appeared to be a dream. Then reality set in as there was continuous gunfire, which seemed to last for several hours. At daybreak Mirage jets were flying back and forth over Timbuktu. Soon we were asked to evacuate the hotel and go to the nearby military camp, where Col. Sangare gave us a briefing.
Five miles from the edge of town a car or pickup drove past a checkpoint without stopping. In the firefight that followed, a suicide bomber riding in the vehicle detonated his belt, injuring seven Malian soldiers. Five insurgents were killed and one was captured. A Malian soldier apparently was killed by friendly fire. A second report indicated there were insurgents at the airport, and two suicide bombers were killed before they could detonate their belts.
Timbuktu was under tight security, and leaving the area was not recommended. No escort would be provided, so we were trapped.