French bomb disposal experts were deployed early on Wednesday morning to neutralise an impressive cache of explosives that were primed and ready to use.
The French government seems to be having an excellent war so far, with fulsome American praise coming from across the Atlantic and an impressive surge in popularity (from 26% to 35%) for Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
The entire operation appears to be moving quickly and efficiently, with most of the areas formerly held by the rebels now secured and dates set for legislative elections this coming July.
On the ground in Mali, meanwhile, there was a timely reminder yesterday of the sort of thing that the Franco-Malian force are up against. A large arsenal was discovered in the middle of the ancient city of Gao in a residence belonging to one of the leaders of the West African jihadist movement MUJAO (Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Djihad en Afrique de l’Ouest).
Up to 50 troops were deployed in the immediate zone surrounding the building, as well as in the quarter around the Askias Hotel where a number of foreign journalists based. Inside the property last occupied by MUJAO chief Abdoul Hakim, soldiers found a large stock of bombs – four 200kg barrels of hydrogen peroxide; a nitrate-based home-made explosive. The containers were connected by a cable to detonators. Sealed and isolated, the devices were ready for use. All that were missing were the triggers. There were a further ten containers – empty but set up with for the same purpose – in the yard. Shells and ammunition were found inside the house.
Next-door neighbour Omar was separated from the house by a wall the height of a man. When the islamists were there, he didn’t dare peep over the wall:
“They’d point their Kalashnikovs at me at the drop of a hat. They were very nasty,” he says.
Hama, who lived opposite the explosives house, lived in fear of her extremist neighbours:
“We feared the peaux blancs (whiteys) because they would hassle us over the smallest thing,” she says. “We used to see the four-by-fours coming and going and heard them talking in Arabic.”
It’s believed that the jihadists had planned to use the explosives to blow up a bridge at the entrance to the town a month ago at the beginning of Operation Serval. Caught unawares by the speed of the French advance, they didn’t have time to execute their plan and opted to flee instead.
The depot could have been used as a reserve base from where attacks could be launched. The infiltration of the jihadists amongst the local population has given rise to fears of significant suicide attacks as an urban guerilla strategy and of the spectre of a prolonged and costly operation. Two armed insurgents blew themselves up at a check-point last weekend, while on Sunday last, a group of rebels held out for more than four hours against Franco-Malian forces in the city centre.