Bamako - Ousted from their major northern strongholds by a
French-led military intervention and all but defeated in their mountain
hideouts, Mali's Islamist militants are beginning to regroup at home and
French and African soldiers have inflicted heavy losses
since launching a military operation on January 11 to block the advance of al
Qaeda-linked insurgents on the capital Bamako, with Paris claiming to have
killed 400 rebels.
But dozens have fled Mali over the mountains of northern
Niger and Chad, passing into southern Libya and western Sudan, where they are
reorganising, military sources told AFP, while others are recuperating in
"Some Islamists left the Malian territory to seek
refuge elsewhere," an African serviceman told AFP.
He said members of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in
West Africa (Mujao), one of three Islamist militias which occupied northern
Mali last year, had gone into the Algerian camps of the Polisario Front, a
rebel movement demanding the end of Moroccan control in the disputed territory
of Western Sahara.
"Recently, when the highest UN authorities have
expressed their concern and called for urgent settlement of the Western Sahara
problem, it is because of the risk of terrorists turning the refugee camps into
a new home for jihadists", the African soldier said.
The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a
report to the Security Council in early April that governments in the region
had "raised serious concerns about the risk that the fighting in Mali
could have an impact in neighbouring countries and in helping to radicalise the
refugee camps of the Western Sahara" which he described as "a ticking
Ousmane Maiga, of the "Youth Co-ordination
Association" in Gao, Mali's largest northern city, said small groups of
Islamists had headed not just into Algeria but also into Mali's neighbours
Niger and Mauritania.
"Now the fear is that we will see them coming back into
northern Mali to take up arms again," he said.
But not all members of Mujao and the two other main armed Islamist
groups in Mali, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) and Ansar Dine
(Defenders of the Faith), have fled abroad.
"The enemy is still on the ground," said a member
of the general staff of the Malian army, pointing to suicide bombings in the
cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal as well as the lengthy engagement of Islamist
fighters by French and Chadian troops in the northeastern Ifoghas mountains.
Many of the militants have abandoned their weapons to enable
them to move more easily, but have an efficient supply chain which could
resupply them at a moment's notice, a Malian colonel told AFP.
After the death of one of its main leaders, Abu Zeid, in the
Ifoghas, Aqim is trying to regain control in north-western Mali "under the
leadership of the Algerian Abu Yeyia Hamame, chief of Aqim in the Sahara and
northern Mali", according to a confidential military document seen by AFP.
The document goes on to say that a Malian ethnic Touareg
named Abdelkrim Taleb has organised a "resistance" in the north-east,
around Gao and Kidal.
Regional security and military sources interviewed by AFP
described the French army as "the backbone of security in northern
Mali" but France has begun a phased withdrawal of its 4 000 soldiers, with
all but 1 000 expected to have left by the end of the year.
Chadian President Idriss Deby, who sent 2 000 troops to
Mali, announced on Sunday that the country's forces would be staging their own
withdrawal ahead of schedule.
"The face-to-face war with jihadists is finished. The
Chadian army has no real competence to cope with a nebula. Chadian soldiers
will return to Chad. They have completed their mission," he said, without
According to military and security sources, "it is
feared that Islamists have set foot back in these areas to give new impetus to
their terrorist actions".