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France faces intensified insurgency in Mali

Islamist gunmen attacked the largest city in northern Mali on Sunday following two straight days of suicide bombings, intensifying their insurgency on territory reclaimed by French-led forces.

France faces intensified insurgency in Mali
French soldiers in Gao, in northern Mali on February 10th. Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP

In the first large-scale urban guerrilla assault of the conflict, rebels from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) attacked Malian troops in the streets of central Gao, sending residents running for cover as Kalashnikov bullets and 14.5-millimetre rounds pierced the air.

Rocket-propelled grenade explosions and fire from heavy machine guns and light weapons resounded late into the afternoon before dying down in the evening, when a power cut plunged the city into darkness.

A French Tiger attack helicopter was circulating over the neighbourhood around the governor's offices and the central police station, the focal points of the attack.

French and Malian forces conducted joint patrols, warning residents that snipers could be hidden in the city. "Many Islamists were killed," said Colonel Mamadou Sanake of the Malian army.

A death toll could not immediately be established, and it was unclear whether any soldiers had been killed. Sanake said the rebels had infiltrated the city by motorcycle and via the Niger river, which passes near the governor's offices.

MUJAO, one of the Al-Qaeda-linked groups that seized control of northern Mali for 10 months in the wake of a military coup in March 2012, claimed the attack and a suicide bombing Saturday, its second in two days.

"Today God's faithful successfully attacked the Malian army, which let the enemies of Islam come to Gao," said spokesman Abou Walid Sahraoui. "The combat will continue until victory, thanks to God's protection. The mujahedeen are in the city of Gao and will remain there."

A witness said the gunmen had hidden in the empty police station  which MUJAO used as the headquarters of its "Islamic police" until French-led forces recaptured Gao on January 26  then attacked Malian soldiers when they arrived.

When reinforcements came, snipers hidden in surrounding buildings opened fire on them, he said. The man said he had seen one body that appeared to be that of a civilian hit by a stray bullet.

A security source said there had been "several dozen" attackers. The French army said it had evacuated some 50 journalists who were in a nearby restaurant and hotel when the fighting erupted.

The latest violence underlined the threat of a drawn-out insurgency as France tries to map an exit strategy nearly one month into its intervention in its former colony. Late Saturday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the same army checkpoint where the first such attack in Mali occurred a day earlier.

His severed head, still lying on the ground the next morning, was later picked up and placed in a wheelbarrow as French troops swept the site at the edge of Gao for landmines, finding three, according to a soldier.

The two MUJAO suicide attackers were the only fatalities in the explosions, although one soldier was lightly wounded in Friday's blast.

'We aren't just going to leave surreptitiously'

France is anxious to hand over its military operation to UN peacekeepers, and last week announced it would begin bringing its troops home in March.

Asked whether there was a risk getting bogged down long-term, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told journalists Sunday: "No. I've said that of course we have to be pragmatic but… the goals of the operation must be clear and the duration must not be infinite. "But we aren't going to just leave surreptitiously," he added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told France it was reaping in Mali what it had sown in Libya by arming rebels fighting slain dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

"In Mali, France is fighting against those it armed in Libya against Kadhafi's regime," he said. Lavrov has previously criticised French arms drops to rebels fighting Kadhafi's regime, denouncing France's interpretations of a UN resolution allowing the use of force to protect the civilian population.

Mali imploded after last year's coup waged by soldiers who blamed the government for the army's humiliation by a separatist rebellion among the Tuareg, a north African people who have long complained of being marginalized by Bamako. Many of the Tuareg rebels had fought alongside Kadhafi's forces in Libya.

With the capital in disarray after the coup, Al-Qaeda-linked fighters hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and took control of the north, imposing a brutal form of Islamic law.

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WAR

French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron

French forces "tortured and murdered" Algerian freedom fighter Ali Boumendjel during his country's war for independence, President Emmanuel Macron admitted on Tuesday, officially reappraising a death that was covered up as a suicide.

French forces tortured and murdered Algerian freedom fighter in 1950s, admits Macron
Malika, the widow of Ali Boumendjel, pictured in 2001. Photo: Stefan Fferberg/AFP

Macron made the admission “in the name of France” during a meeting with Boumendjel’s grandchildren.

The move comes after Macron in January refused to issue an official apology for abuses committed during the occupation of Algeria – instead, he agreed to form a “truth commission” as recommended by a report commissioned by the government to shed light on France’s colonial past.

Atrocities committed by both sides during the 1954-1962 Algerian war of independence continue to strain relations between the countries.

Boumendjel, a nationalist and lawyer, was arrested during the battle of Algiers by the French army, “placed incommunicado, tortured, and then killed on 23 March 1957,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement.

“Ali Boumendjel did not commit suicide. He was tortured and then killed,” Macron told Boumendjel’s grandchildren, according to the statement.

It is not the first time the real cause of death was acknowledged.

In 2000, the former head of French intelligence in Algiers Paul Aussaresses confessed to ordering Boumendjel’s death and disguising the murder as a suicide, according to the statement.

It added that Macron on Tuesday had also reiterated his desire to give families the opportunity to find out the truth about this chapter of history.

Last month, Boumendjel’s niece Fadela Boumendjel-Chitour denounced what she called the “devastating” lie the French state had told about her uncle.

French historian Benjamin Stora, who wrote the government-commissioned report, has said there is a “never-ending memory war” between the two countries.

The report has been described by the Algerian government as “not objective” and falling “below expectations.”

During his 2017 election campaign, Macron – the first president born after the colonial period – declared that the occupation of Algeria was a “crime against humanity”.

He has since said there was “no question of showing repentance” or of “presenting an apology” for abuses committed in the North African country.

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