France digs in for a long war to gain 'total' Mali victory
France has declared that its goal was the "total reconquest" of Mali as a frontline commander admitted their forces could be heading for a long war in the African state.
The French authorities had initially insisted their operation in Mali would be short, lasting only "a matter of weeks".
However, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French defence minister, said the goal of France's military action was to retake control of the entire country from Islamist militants, who have seized the north.
"The goal is the total reconquest of Mali. We will not leave any pockets (of resistance)," Mr Le Drian said.
France's military action against the militants in Mali began earlier this month. However, there are already signs that the deployment could last longer than predicted.
Three days after the country's al-Qa'ida rebels and their allies left the town of Diabaly after being targeted by air strikes, the French infantry has halted 40 miles to the south.
They have established a new forward base in the town of Niono, but have not pressed on to fill the vacuum created by the departure of the Islamists. Instead, French soldiers could be seen eating and sleeping in their new camp, protected by 14 armoured personnel carriers.
Their commander, who asked to be named only as Colonel Frederic, admitted the "situation in the vicinity of Diabaly was confused for the moment". He said "more information" was needed before his forces could resume their advance.
Col Frederic insisted everything was going to plan. The halt "does not mean the situation is hard", he said. "We are here to continue the operation".
Asked whether this marked the start of a "long war", Col Frederic replied: "Maybe yes."
Further up the road in Diabaly, French special forces helped the Malian army to enter the town and drive away al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). But booby traps and improvised explosive devices might have been left behind.
The French air strikes against AQIM were highly effective. Hamidou Tounkara, who left Diabaly yesterday for the safety of Niono, said that seven vehicles were singled out for precise and clinical destruction at the hands of the French air force. "Not even one" civilian was killed, he said.
When AQIM occupied Diabaly last Monday, moving beyond their stronghold in northern Mali, they spread the word that "we are Muslims, we come in the name of Allah – and we are not going to harm anyone," remembered Mr Tounkara.
They generally kept their promise, although they looted the town's pharmacies of all their medicine and forced the population to stay indoors during the first day of their occupation. One man who ventured out was shot, said Mr Tounkara.
Many of the guerrillas were Algerians and Libyans, although most were Tuaregs from northern Mali, said Abubakar Maiga (35), another resident who fled to Niono. He could tell their nationality only by language and accent because all the Islamists kept their faces swathed in turbans.
"You never see their faces, you only see their eyes," he said. Some people from the local area were also in AQIM's ranks, added Mr Maiga.
French and Malian soldiers are acutely aware of their enemy's ability to melt into the population, even after a town has supposedly been cleared. This helps to explain their cautious approach to Diabaly.
"The war against the Islamists is not easy because they will enter into the population and some of the population will join with them," said Col Seydou Sogoba of the Malian army. (© Daily Telegraph, London)