Malian Army Controls City of Gao, French Say

The northern Malian city of Gao is now “calm” and under the control of government forces after three assaults by Islamist militants last weekend, the French Defense Ministry said.

“These attacks were rapidly controlled by the Malian armed forces,” the ministry said in an “operational update” posted on its website late yesterday. French forces “supported these actions to bring the town back under control.”

The attacks in Gao, including two suicide bombings, were carried out by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three Islamist groups that took control of northern Mali last month before being pushed out by French and Malian forces. Astor Bilal, an adviser to the town’s mayor, yesterday reported “violent clashes” between the Islamist fighters and troops from the Malian army and allied African forces.

France intervened in Mali to help restore government control over a nation that vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-biggest gold producer. Some of its 4,000 troops may start withdrawing in a few weeks as an African Union-backed regional force prepares to take over and hold key areas, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Feb. 6.

“All the public areas and strategic locations in town have been secured by the Malian army and its allies,” Sadou Diallo, the mayor of Gao, said today in a phone interview. “But all economic activity is completely paralyzed at the moment.”

Central Market

People living near the central market detained two men this morning on suspicion they may be militants and handed them over to the security forces, he said.

A French light armored unit and troops from Chad are securing the northern town of Tessalit, the defense ministry said. French engineers have been parachuted in to take control of the town’s airport.

President Francois Hollande yesterday said that French military operations will continue “as long as any part of Mali’s territory is under terrorist control.”

African forces in Mali now number 4,100, of which 1,800 are from Chad, the French say. The first installment of European Union military trainers arrived last week.

Islamist rebels and ethnic Touareg separatists seized control of much of northern Mali last year after a March coup in the capital, Bamako, by soldiers who said they didn’t have enough weapons and equipment to fight the insurgents.

Tourism Collapses

Mali is now led by interim President Dioncounda Traore and Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, who was appointed in December after the leader of the coup, Captain Amadou Sanogo, forced Cheick Modibo Diarra to resign.

The country’s tourist industry, already affected by kidnappings of western visitors to the north, collapsed as the insurgencies spread. Northern Mali is home to the desert city of Timbuktu, a World Heritage Site and historic center of ancient Islamic scholarship.

Mali’s $10.6 billion economy contracted 1.5 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. It’s expected to expand 4.5 percent this year, the IMF said on Jan. 28, as gold mining in the government-held south continues during the conflict. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. are among the miners in Mali.

The IMF said last month that it approved a disbursement of about $18.4 million to Mali under the rapid credit facility “to support the authorities with policy advice and financial support to maintain macroeconomic stability and growth during the next 12 months.”