Mali conflict: Fear overtakes joy in Gao
- 13 February 2013
- From the section Africa
The mood has changed in Gao, where there were scenes of jubilation last month when French troops recaptured the northern Malian town from Islamist fighters.
Uncertainty now hangs over the former militant stronghold as the war in northern Mali has taken a new turn.
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up two days in a row at the end of last week and a group of jihadi fighters kept Malian soldiers, supported by the French, in street combat for more than four hours on Sunday.
Despite an announcement from the local authorities that shops could reopen on Tuesday morning, most of them have remained closed.
Government troops have beefed up security downtown, where the military presence is clearly visible.
"We fear another attack or an explosion because they dispersed around here and we don't know what they left behind them," says Massoudou Maiga, a shopkeeper who sells staple products at the central market.
Groups of soldiers hold positions at certain street corners while others conduct patrols, either on foot or on pick-up trucks.
Army units from Niger are also driving around the town.
The French have been sending in troops to clear areas after suspected improved explosive devices (IED) are found.
They then carry out controlled explosions.
This climate of fear has already affected the life of many.
"I had just enough money to find some food to put on the table yesterday, but I don't know whether we will eat today," Mr Maiga says.
He is taking care of an extended family - together with his children and his brothers and sisters he is responsible for almost 20 people.
The Islamist militants, who have melted away into the surrounding areas, have vowed to carry out more attacks in order to force the French-led forces into a guerrilla-type of war.
General Bernard Barrera, who commands the French operation codenamed "Serval" in Mali, believes that only a dozen jihadi fighters took part in Sunday's fighting.
He explained that they crossed the River Niger to infiltrate the town and regrouped at the former police station which had been the Islamic police headquarters for the 10 months they had controlled the town.
"Locals spotted them and immediately informed the Malian armed forces who rushed at them in order to cut short a potential bigger plan they may have prepared for," the French general said.
Eyewitnesses say Islamist fighters have been mainly using traders, who often cross the river, to re-supply them and collect information.
Since the French helped soldiers from the Malian army repel Sunday's incursion, Islamist militants are believed to be sending children scouting to avoid raising suspicions.
Other residents seem to be playing a major role in bringing intelligence to the Malians and the French.
As I was on a patrol that was sweeping the streets for booby-traps, a man waved at us to stop the convoy.
He then led the troops to a house where members of the Islamist armed group Mujao were living when they still controlled the town.
Soldiers searched the house. They found nothing but a used syringe.
However, weapons and ammunitions have been pulled out from other places already.
"The military is doing a good job," says the mayor of Gao, Sadou Harouna Diallo.
"But I urge them to search even more houses because the risk that jihadis are hiding among the population is just too high," he tells the BBC.
A senior French army officer, who refused to be named, acknowledged there are differences with the war being fought in Afghanistan.
But the "enemy's reaction is very similar", he says.
"They're in civilian clothes, creating asymmetrical warfare."
The French have been praised for the rapid deployment of their forces, more than 1,000 of whom are now stationed in Gao.
Their impressive military base at the airport is spreading by the day.
But they now face a double challenge.
They must pursue operations further north in the mountainous areas bordering Algeria and support the Malian army and their African allies to tackle terror threats in populated neighbourhoods.
Both theatres of operations are tricky.
At least seven French nationals are still in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked militants believed to be hiding in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, where most of the fighting has been handled by jets and attack helicopters so far.
"Most of us have toured in Afghanistan or in Libya," said a French pilot, who agreed to talk to me on condition of anonymity.
"But there we knew where we were flying into; here we're flying into the unknown."
The death of a helicopter pilot on the very first day of the French campaign sent a worrying sign.
"We thought they would be overwhelmed by our firepower," the pilot said.
While the French air force is busy bombarding militant positions, another battle is being organised in town.
The French must help the Malians "avoid an inter-communal war", according to the same senior army officer.
Many people are hungry for revenge against ethnic Arabs and Tuaregs, who are accused of having backed the rebels.
But the local authorities play down the ethnic dimension of this conflict as they fear the militants' capacity to carry out more surprise attacks.
"They don't need 1,000 fighters to launch an attack," Mr Diallo says.
"One man will be enough for them to strike again."