Malian soldiers fight mutinous paratroops

February 09, 2013 - 6:33:06 am

Malians look at the charred motorcycle used by the suicide bomber before he blew himself up near a group of Malian soldiers in the northern city of Gao, yesterday.

BAMAKO, Mali: Malian government soldiers fought mutinous paratroops in the capital Bamako yesetrday in a clash that threatened to undermine a French-led offensive against Islamist rebels which has moved up close to the Algerian border.

In the southern capital, local residents fled in panic as heavy gunfire echoed from the Djikoroni-Para paratrooper base on the Niger River and army units with armoured vehicles surrounded the camp. At least one person was killed, state media reported.

Smoke rose from the base, where mutinous members of the ‘red beret’ paratroop unit loyal to deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure, who was toppled in a coup last year, started firing with their weapons to protest attempts to redeploy them.

After several hours of firing, calm returned at the camp.

The paratroopers had been ordered to join other units at the front in the ongoing French-led campaign against Al Qaeda-allied insurgents. But they insisted on staying together as a regiment and resisted the military police, Malian officers said.  

The shooting between forces loyal to Mali’s current rulers and the Toure partisans revealed splits in the armed forces still lingering after a military coup in March that plunged the previously stable West African state into chaos.

Last year’s coup resulted in Tuareg rebels seizing the north in a revolt later hijacked by Islamist radicals. Mali, a former French colony, is Africa’s third-largest gold producer.

The Bamako fighting pointed to serious weaknesses in the Malian state which could set back the rapid military gains made by France’s four-week-old military intervention in north Mali, which has driven Islamist insurgents from major urban areas.

Residents of the capital, who had been celebrating the French battlefield successes, expressed their frustration. “I don’t understand how at a moment when French and African forces are here to fight our war in our place ... Malian soldiers, instead of going to fight at the front, are fighting over a stupid quarrel,” said one west Bamako resident, Assa. 

“This is a real shame. I feeling like dropping my Malian nationality,” she added.

After driving the Islamists into the mountainous northeast, French troops joined by Chadian soldiers have been trying to flush the retreating rebels from their remote Saharan hideouts, where they are believed to be holding French hostages.

French special forces parachuted in to seize the desert town and airfield of Tessalit on Friday, about 50km as the crow flies from the Algerian frontier. This was the northernmost town reached so far by the French. 

But in a sign the rebels could fight back with guerrilla tactics, a suicide bomber on a motorbike blew himself up on Friday at a checkpoint north of Gao, recently retaken from the Islamists. A soldier was injured, a Malian officer said.

It was the first reported suicide bombing since the French-led military operation launched on Jan. 11 expelled the Islamist rebels from their desert strongholds of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

At least two landmine explosions on a main route to Gao since its recapture have killed several Malian soldiers.

Malian and other troops from a UN-backed African force expected to number 8,000 are still being deployed and are due to provide security behind the French.