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Hunting for Islamist insurgents with the Mali Army

image copyrightMike Thomson

Since Islamist militants took control of much of the north of Mali earlier this year, the government has been trying to end the instability in the region. The BBC's Mike Thomson has been on patrol with the Mali military.

A heavy steel door, set in barbed-wire-topped walls, slides open to reveal a waterlogged courtyard ringed by small accommodation blocks. Mopti army barracks is to be home for the next three days.

Sitting on a sofa in what passes for the officers' mess is Colonel Didier Dako. Speaking in clear, well articulated English, he extends his hands and invites us to sit down.

Gently stroking his well-tended moustache, our host smiles warmly and says, "Wherever you go here, my special forces will ensure your safety."

After thanking him for this generous offer, I ask what distinguishes his "special forces" from the rest of his men? "Ah," he whispers with a gentle shake of the head, "that is sensitive information".

The next morning - after a night of intermittent power cuts, clouds of ravenous mosquitoes and thunderous downpours - we pile into an old Landrover, before speeding off to join an army patrol hunting for insurgents.

As promised, we are being tailed by a pick-up truck full of heavily armed soldiers and these, it seems, are not any old squaddies. They are wearing light brown instead of green uniforms, as well as fancy knee pads and black T-shirts. Are these the Mali Army's special forces? It appears so.

Soon we are sandwiched between a long line of pick-up trucks rammed with gun-toting soldiers.

Every minute brings us nearer to our ultimate destination - the Islamist-controlled zone to the north east of Mopti where the Mali Army's writ runs out.

Spotting a good opportunity, we leap up and start filming as we pass a small village. At that very moment, for some unknown reason, the driver in the lead car puts his foot down and we roar off.

We cling on heroically. Finally, the officer in charge of our vehicle gets the convoy to slow down and I am invited to perch on a large wooden box which, they tell me, will be more stable when things get rough.

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe Ansar Dine Islamist group holds towns in the north of the country

About half an hour and many backside-breaking bumps later, I discover what is in this box - numerous rounds of live ammunition!

As the patrol continues, I ask the soldier next to me - who is intensely scrutinising everything we pass - what in particular he is looking out for. "Men with long beards," comes the reply.

A little while later, we stop at the point where the Islamists begin to hold sway.

This, for now, is as far we can go, an army captain tells me. We decide to film this unmarked border between north and south. As we jump off the truck, a coach full of people - possibly northern refugees - comes tearing around the corner towards us.

While we wait for the vehicle to pass out of shot, the captain starts shouting and waving his arms. In an effort to be helpful to our film, he orders the coach off the road and out of sight.

Within seconds (this being the wet season) it is stuck in an ocean of mud and that - despite the efforts of its many pushing passengers - is the last we see of them all, as our patrol turns around and heads for home.

image captionThe army is determined to fight back against Islamist forces
image captionThe Mali Army's training programme for militia recruits includes headstands, walking on your hands and 'jousting' on piggyback
image captionMike Thomson with the Mali Army patrol group
image captionBoats are loaded with emergency food supplies for the north of Mali where people are experiencing food shortages
image captionAll images by Mike Thomson

Back at the army base, I ask Colonel Dako how confident he is that his men can successfully take on the well armed and, in some cases, battle-hardened al-Qaeda-linked Islamists? After all, earlier this year, they did run away from them, with scarcely a shot fired.

"We were beaten by the Islamists," he replies, "not because of their strength but because of our weakness. We are working on that and are quite sure we can conquer these areas."

Going by an interview I did with the country's communications minister, his government is less optimistic.

At least the nation's forces can rely on the help of army-trained local militia groups, though this might prove a dubious asset.

At one training camp, I saw some militia volunteers enthusiastically doing cartwheels, walking on their hands and engaging in what looked like jousting by piggyback. I am not sure what military manual all this came from but that question - and the lack of any weapon to train with - did not seem to bother one determined, young recruit.

"Even if the army cannot give me a gun to fight with," he told me, "I'll go into battle with a stick if I have to."

I only hope it does not come to that, either for that young volunteer or the very likeable and determined colonel and his men because, even if there is a lot more to Mali's "special forces" than fancy knee pads and different coloured T-shirts, the battle ahead looks like being a tough one.

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