New EU task force tackles elusive Mali activists
ANSONGO, Mali, October 6 (Reuters) – When the soldiers reached the end of the road, they got off their trucks and motorcycles and partially deflated the tires to make it easier to cross the soft terrain of eastern Mali.
Then they continued to rumble in the moonlight along a grassy path that meandered through the stronghold of the Islamic State.
“We are in an area where there has been a lot of cattle rustling recently. Stay alert,” said a senior officer as a herd of cows slowed the convoy’s progress. “We are entering a region of armed terrorist groups.
The troops were part of the Takuba Task Force, an elite group of soldiers from across Europe tasked with turning the tide in a decade-long Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands of civilians in the Sahel, the gang of arid terrain south of the Sahara Desert. .
Force is also at the center of a political quarrel. Takuba was created to succeed in part to Barkhane, the 5,000-man French counterterrorism operation in the Sahel that French President Emmanuel Macron wants to halve. French troops are still involved in the new mission.
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The soldiers’ mission was familiar: to approach a village near the Nigerien border undetected and uproot Islamic State-affiliated militants suspected of killing 50 civilians in the region.
The methods, however, were new. Takuba uses smaller, more mobile units with lighter equipment that mostly travel at night and which commanders say are better suited to the conflict.
Revolutionary tactics are badly needed in the Sahel, where violent attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have increased eightfold between 2015 and 2020, according to the United Nations. This has driven 2 million from their homes and left swathes of land out of government control.
On the ground in Mali, things were difficult even with motorcycles and unarmoured vehicles, said a Reuters reporter who was on the Takuba mission.
The area near the Niger River is familiar to militants, but for French and Estonian troops it was an ever-changing landscape of rocky outcrops, sand, meadows and swamps.
On the second day, not far from a village where, according to the soldiers, militants were hiding, heavy rains flooded their makeshift camp. The truck tires were engulfed in mud and it took three hours to get them out. The howl of their rotating engines pierced the morning stillness and exposed their position.
“Terrorists have a very developed network of informants, which we call ‘doorbells’, capable of providing information about our actions,” said the senior officer, who requested anonymity.
“As soon as they know or suspect a force in the area, they either seek to hide their weapons and blend in with the population, or to flee.”
By the time they arrived in the village, there was no sign of militants. They arrested two men in possession of walkie-talkies and regrouped to read the voices crackling through the receiver.
“The terrorists are watching us right now,” the officer said.
Report by Paul Lorgerie; Editing by Edward McAllister and Angus MacSwan
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