French troops in Mali campaign face storms, mud, mistrust

French troops in Mali campaign face storms, mud, mistrust

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The French soldiers seeking out jihadists in central Mali's savannahs were prepared for the sandstorms, the thunderstorms, the lack of anything resembling a road and the need to tow vehicles whose wheels kept getting stuck in floodplains.

They knew getting information out of terrified villagers would be difficult.

. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
A French soldier of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment conducts an area control operation.

But as the multi-week operation wore on in Gourma district, where 400 French troops and 100 allied Malians searched for 50-odd jihadists they estimated were hiding in the shadows, the obstacles kept piling up.

First, there were the storms, forcing them to abandon supper, pack up their mosquito nets and sleep contorted in their vehicles. Then up at 3 a.m. for a mission that couldn't start because the weather had grounded their helicopters at base.

. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
French soldiers patrol in an all terrain armoured vehicle.

Then, flash floods turned sandy ground to sludge and burst the wadis so only their newly deployed tracked fighting vehicles could cross.

When they reached the thatch-and-wood villages where they suspected jihadists were hiding. Men tended cows. Women pounded millet. Everyone smiled. And nobody told them anything.

. Gossi, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
Commander David talks with Almedi Ag Agissa, a vegetable grower who benefitted from a small aid project to build a communal tool shed.

"We're not going to resolve this in a day," said David, the commander of the French forward base near the town of Gossi. French military rules permit publication only of his first name. "This is going to take some time."

Efforts led by France to stop a region on Europe's doorstep becoming a launchpad for attacks at home are increasingly trapped in an endless cat-and-mouse game with well-armed jihadists, who know the terrain and hide easily among civilians.

On a rare reporting trip with the French troops into central Mali, Reuters journalists saw first-hand why a five-year-old mission -- initially planned as a short-term stopgap to hand over to local forces -- may have many more years left to run.

. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
Local women and children arrive at an abandoned clinic to receive medical care from the French military.

The 4,500 French troops deployed in this patchwork of former French colonies for 'Operation Barkhane' face huge logistical challenges in hostile terrain. Hardest of all, they rely on the cooperation of a civilian population spread thinly across vast and remote spaces, often either sympathetic to the Islamists or terrified of informing on them.

In Gossi, a haven for Islamic State fighters next to the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger, the town's local government councillor had fled after being threatened and was now sleeping in the Malian base, the French base Commander, David, said.

. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
French soldiers of the Belleface Desert Tactical Group (GTD) set up a temporary forward operating base.

Operation Barkhane was launched in the wake of Operation Serval, a French offensive that pushed back Tuareg rebels and allied Islamists from northern Mali's vast desert in 2013.

While Serval had brought moderate stability to northern Mali, unrest had spread to the country's more populated centre, with attacks also reaching neighbouring Burkina Faso, Niger and even Ivory Coast.

. Gao, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
Colonel Nicolas James poses for a photo at the Operational Desert Platform Camp.

With no end date announced at its launch, the follow-up operation would try to stabilise countries in the region by assisting their governments in a West African anti-terrorism force. Five years on, no end is in sight.

"We have a dogged adversary, who is tough, drawing from a breeding ground that is favourable to him because the population is isolated," Colonel Nicolas James, Commander of Desert Tactical Croup Belleface, told Reuters at its base in Gao.

. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
French soldiers of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment search a metal case during an area control operation.

On the first day of one mission, in 40 degree Celsius (104 F), the French soldiers arrived in a hamlet 10km north of Ndaki town, next to a small wood where suspected jihadists had been seen fleeing earlier.

They separated the women and children outside a thatched dome where camels chewed cud. They searched the men, took their smartphones and copied them onto a computer. One contained incriminating jihadist propaganda.

. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
Military clothes are found during an area control operation carried out by French soldiers.

"Is this your telephone?" a soldier asked the suspect, and he nodded. They fingerprinted him, but with just circumstantial evidence, they let him go.

"I'm sure he's a jihadist," a French soldier guarding him later whispered. "He's making fun of us."

An elderly man in the flowing robes common to the Fulani people spread across the region brought out some fresh milk as a gesture of hospitality. Only two tried it, before they moved on to the next village.

. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
French soldiers of the Belleface Desert Tactical Group (GTD) try to move an all terrain armoured vehicle from the mud.

That night it rained hard, so the next afternoon a logistics team spent all day towing vehicles out of mud. The mission set off before noon. When the troops returned nearly nine hours later, they'd covered just 5 km.

At one stage they heard reports of an armed group heading towards them. War planes were called in to scare the fighters off. One unit wanted to check a forest where weapons had been abandoned, but the troops were still stuck towing vehicles.

The next morning a joint Malian-French mission visited a Fulani village next to woodland where they had spotted some men fleeing. The village chief, a bearded man with a green scarf and sky-blue robe, denied seeing any armed men.

. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier
Military police unit Captain Balassine invites locals to come for a free health check-up.

"They want to talk to us but they are afraid," Malian military police unit Captain Balassine later told Reuters.

"The other day we were talking to a young girl," he continued. "First she lied. Then she said she was scared of talking because, after we leave, people will come and kill her."

Malian military police unit Captain Balassine later told Reuters: "they want to talk to us but they are afraid."

"The other day we were talking to a young girl," he continued. "First she lied. Then she said she was scared of talking because, after we leave, people will come and kill her."

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Slideshow

An NH90 Caiman military helicopter lands next to a temporary forward operating base.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

An NH90 Caiman military helicopter lands next to a temporary forward operating base.

A young Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) soldier poses for a photo.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A young Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) soldier poses for a photo.

A French soldier of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment uses an explosive detection kit.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A French soldier of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment uses an explosive detection kit.

A French soldier of the Belleface Desert Tactical Group uses a sniffer dog to check for explosives.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A French soldier of the Belleface Desert Tactical Group uses a sniffer dog to check for explosives.

A drone operator from the French 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment launches a drone during an area control operation.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A drone operator from the French 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment launches a drone during an area control operation.

French soldier of the 7th Alpine Hunter Battalion, Lieutenant Melissa, a communication officer, drives a Peugeot P4 at the Operational Desert Plateform Camp.
. Gao, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

French soldier of the 7th Alpine Hunter Battalion, Lieutenant Melissa, a communication officer, drives a Peugeot P4 at the Operational Desert Plateform Camp.

A Vanguard Armoured Vehicle (VAB) is seen during Operation Barkhane.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A Vanguard Armoured Vehicle (VAB) is seen during Operation Barkhane.

A French soldier is silhouetted as he looks out over Operational Desert Platform Camp.
. Gao, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A French soldier is silhouetted as he looks out over Operational Desert Platform Camp.

A French soldier of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment prepares his equipment.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A French soldier of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment prepares his equipment.

The French flag is hoisted at Operational Desert Platform Camp.
. Gao, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

The French flag is hoisted at Operational Desert Platform Camp.

A member of a French military medical unit provides medical action during Operation Barkhane.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A member of a French military medical unit provides medical action during Operation Barkhane.

A French flag patch is worn by a soldier of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A French flag patch is worn by a soldier of the 2nd Foreign Engineer Regiment.

A French soldier of the Belleface Desert Tactical Group (GTD) eats at a temporary forward operating base.
. Ndaki, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

A French soldier of the Belleface Desert Tactical Group (GTD) eats at a temporary forward operating base.

French soldiers adjust the cargo nets of a pallet at the Operational Desert Platform Camp.
. Gao, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

French soldiers adjust the cargo nets of a pallet at the Operational Desert Platform Camp.

French soldiers go for an early morning run at the Operational Desert Platform Camp.
. Gao, Mali. Reuters/Benoit Tessier

French soldiers go for an early morning run at the Operational Desert Platform Camp.