The lights of the French military base in the northern Malian city of Gao fade into the distance as a convoy of vehicles winds its way up the nearby Batal plateau to stop militants from using the area to fire rockets at the town.
The mission of the French troops on the plateau was to install a solar-powered system to detect the origin of rockets that strike Gao, as on April 5 when a young woman was killed in the courtyard of her home. While French and United Nations forces have weakened the insurgents, they’ve been unable to extinguish their threat in Africa’s third-biggest gold producer.
“They avoid direct confrontation with our forces,” said Colonel Bruno Helluy, the deputy commander of the French force in Gao. “They’ve gradually lost the ability to inflict damage in the past months, even if they still manage to carry out attacks.”
As peace talks drag on between some rebel groups and the government in the capital, Bamako, about 950 kilometers (590 miles) southwest of Gao, the attacks have increased in recent weeks. Mali and the supporting French and UN forces are facing insurgents who employ bombings and rocket attacks similar to those carried out by the Islamist militant movements Boko Haram in Nigeria and Somalia’s al-Shabaab.
The insurgents have carried out as many attacks in the Gao region in the past three months as in all of last year, Anouk Desgroseilliers, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Mali, said in an interview in Bamako.
“We are scared of new attacks in town,” Ali Bady Maiga, a representative on Gao’s Council For Dialogue, said in an interview. “Now the jihadists target us directly. People who want to move are scared to travel on the road outside of town.”
A suicide bomber killed three civilians and injured 16 in the Gao region on April 15 while targeting a UN military camp. The attack was claimed by the al-Mourabitoune group, led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed former Algerian soldier accused by the U.S. of planning a 2013 attack on an Algerian gas facility that left dozens of hostages dead, including three Americans.
Three days later, two drivers for the UN were assassinated when their convoy was stopped outside Gao, and on April 20 another UN driver was killed 30 kilometers from the city.
“Attacks on convoys and vehicles happen at least two or three times a week in the north,” Radhia Achouri, spokeswoman for the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as Minusma, said by phone from Bamako.
The French and the UN sent military forces to Mali in 2013 to regain control of the north after Islamist militants invaded the region. France has about 1,000 troops at their base in Gao, while there are 3,200 UN soldiers and 340 UN policemen in the region.
They’re facing a myriad of armed groups. They range from ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamic militant groups such as Al Mourabitoune, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, known by its French acronym Mujao, and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Maja Bovcon, senior Africa analyst at U.K.-based Verisk Maplecroft, said in an e-mailed response to questions.
“Armed groups in the Gao region fight as much against each other as they attack the UN peacekeepers and French forces,” she said. “The number of attacks around Gao has been on the increase due to the power vacuum and lack of state presence, which create a fertile ground for the proliferation of various armed groups.”
The violence has forced aid agencies and non-governmental organizations to curtail their operations in the region. Nationwide more than 2.6 million people need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. Donors have provided 17 percent of the $377 million needed for assistance this year, Desgroseilliers said by phone Wednesday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross halted its work outside of northern cities after one of its drivers was killed in the Gao region on March 30, ICRC spokesman in Mali Valery Mbaoh Nana said by phone from Bamako.
“We suspended all movements in the regions of the north,” he said Wednesday “Our activities that do not require us to move out from urban areas continue, like the ones at Gao hospital and the rehabilitation of Kidal city health center.”
While the streets of Gao are patrolled by Malian forces in 4x4 vehicles with cannons mounted on them and by blue-helmeted UN soldiers and French forces, residents say it’s not enough.
“The job is not well done. Farmers are scared to come into town with their cattle; transporters are scared to travel by road to bring us cereals,” Gao Mayor Sadou Diallo said in an interview at his Tizimizi hotel, which is ringed by sandbags and caters to foreigner visitors. “Twenty kilometers out of town you will be often attacked, looted or killed.”