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Tensions Remain High as Malian Troops Advance Into Islamist Territory

January 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Malian government has received more help from the United Kingdom and France to combat rebels in the north. Independent Television News' Lindsey Hilsum reports on preparations by Malian troops to make further advances in the north of the country to recapture areas controlled by Islamist militants.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And next: to the West African nation of Mali.

Today, Islamist fighters destroyed a bridge using explosives near the Niger border. Meanwhile, French forces pushed towards the rebel stronghold city of Gao.

But Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports that the Malian army is now posing problems for the French military.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Malian army is on the lookout for jihadis running from French bombing. Soldiers in units fighting further north say the Islamist fighters are well-armed and many of them very young.

In the gendarmerie in Sevare, an officer brought out a 16-year-old he said had been captured near Douentza, a town the jihadis had occupied until last week. The boy said he’d just been looking for work.

ADAMA DRABO, Mali (through translator): They gave us clothes and shoes. We stayed with them, cooking for them. After a few days, one team of mujahedeen went out to fight, but we stayed to cook for the others.

LINDSEY HILSUM: He seemed bewildered. “I never carried a weapon,” he said, “and my friend and I ran away when the fighting started.”

ADAMA DRABO (through translator): When the mujahedeen left to give food to their colleagues at the checkpoints, we realized that we had to leave. When we were walking, we came face to face with a patrol of the Malian army. They started asking us questions. When they realized that we stayed with the mujahedeens, they took us with them to gendarmerie to find out more about us.

LINDSEY HILSUM: On a barren wasteland across town, a sign that both sides in this war can be cruel, and civilians are the ones who suffer. The well is spattered with blood. The Malian army is said to be responsible. You can just make out a body at the bottom of the pit. The old man showed us a second well.

The French International Federation for Human Rights says, in the last two weeks, Malian soldiers in Sevare have summarily murdered 11 Tuaregs and Arabs, accusing them of being jihadis. At least two bodies have been stuffed down these wells.

The local people took this red earth and put it down the well to stop the body from smelling. This conflict is entering a very dangerous phase. Most of the people I have met so far hate the jihadis. They want to support the Malian army, but if the soldiers behave as badly as their enemies, then what is to stop the people from going to the other side?

The French are only too aware of the problem. Tuaregs and Arabs further north fear reprisals by the Malian army. To them, the jihadis may be the lesser of two evils.

COMMANDER SEBASTIEN, Operation Serval (through translator): Listen, it depends on the will of the local population. They have to choose their fate, whether or not to accept the jihadis. It’s hard to fight against a population who is in favor of the jihadis. So the Malian people will decide the future of Mali.

LINDSEY HILSUM: French armor is far superior than that of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, but if the people of Northern Mali fear and hate the Malian troops fighting alongside the French, victory may me hollow and short-lived.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Malian army got a boost from Britain today. Its defense ministry will deploy a spy plane to Mali to help with the military intervention.