PARIS: French, U.N. and Malian forces were engaged in a major operation aimed at preventing a resurgence of Islamist rebels in Mali, the French military said Thursday.
“We have engaged, with the Malian army and [U.N. mission] MINUSMA, in a large-scale operation” in the so-called Niger Loop, an area hugging a curve of the Niger River between Timbuktu and Gao, French general staff spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said.
“It is the first time we have seen forces of significant size working together,” Jaron said.
About 1,500 troops were involved, including some 600 French, 600 Malians and 300 U.N. soldiers.
The goal of the mission – dubbed “Hydra” – was “to put pressure on any terrorist movements to avoid their resurgence,” he said.
“This is one of those operations that are conducted regularly … to participate in the stabilization of the country.”
It was not clear exactly when the operation had started, but its announcement came after two Chadian U.N. peacekeepers and a civilian were killed in northern Mali Wednesday.
Al-Qaeda-linked militants said they were behind the attack on a United Nations checkpoint in the far northern town of Tessalit.
U.N. forces have been facing an upsurge in rocket attacks and bombings by militants ahead of nationwide elections next month in the troubled West African nation.
Jaron said such attacks were to be expected ahead of the first round of voting on Nov. 24 and suggested they were not cause for serious concern.
“Every time, these are operations that are concentrated in one location, that are not long term and are based on terrorist acts … without having the ability to engage in lengthy combat.”
A French-led offensive in January drove Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda out of cities of northern Mali – including Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu – that they occupied in the wake of a coup in Bamako last year.
But the rebels have taken to bases in the surrounding mountains and launched strikes on the French and peacekeeping forces.
U.N. special representative to Mali Bert Koenders said last week that recent attacks had been “an important wake-up call” over security.
France has 3,000 troops in its former colony but Paris plans to draw down the force to 1,000 servicemen by the end of January. The U.N. peacekeeping force is eventually expected to include about 12,600 troops.
Concerns have also been raised about divisions within the Malian army, with Amnesty Wednesday saying the military was carrying out a purge of some soldiers involved in protests at a barracks outside Bamako last month.
Leaders of the West African Economic and Monetary Union welcomed progress in conflict-scarred Mali and voiced hope for a “happy ending” after a coup in Guinea-Bissau as they held a summit Thursday.