As France has driven Islamic militants from the cities they occupied in northern Mali, the insurgents are fleeing to safe havens in the mountains of northern Mali but also across the borders into neighbouring states and as far as southern Libya and Sudan.
At a border crossing in southern Libya a convoy of 13 vehicles carrying rebels from Mali overwhelmed border guards. The trucks carried anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons. Although the guards managed to arrest 5 rebels the remainder disappeared north into the desert. The report of the clash comes from a Tuareg activist in southern Libya who has sources at remote border posts.
Islamic miltants are migrating out of Mali ahead of the advancing French forces and migrating across porous borders to safe havens elsewhere. The jihadists are no doubt in full tactical retreat but a retreat that may not bode well for security across a wide swathe of desert areas in Africa.
There are even reports that rebels have already traveled southern Libya entirely and reached Darfur in western Sudan. Their presence was reported by Sudanese rebel groups active in the area. Many provinces in southern Libya have been declared a closed military area and border crossings closed but the government has little control in many areas.
Hamed Fadel a Tuareg leader in the area said:. “They hide in Libya, mainly because of the absence of government.” Fadel also said that weapons were everywhere and that Islamist groups got most of their weapons from Libya since the fall of Gadaffi.
Libya has no border with Mali. The militants need to cross northern Niger or southern Algeria. However, these areas are mostly desert, with few or no security forces and few border controls. The region has multiple smuggling routes. Many jihadist groups raise funds through smuggling.
The Libyan border is poorly protected with the guards not having good equipment or vehicles to chase militants when they enter. Kalmi Ramada, who heads a human-rights group in southern Libya said:“We can’t do much about it. We don’t have the ability to stop them. We don’t have the resources to control the borders. There’s no army or anything, no support and no equipment. Nobody is guarding the border, except the same people as before.” Libya's southern borders are thousands of kilometres long and given the lack of resources of the central government are impossible to close.
Even though there are signs that militants are still hiding out in northern Mali and there have already been some skirmishes, roadside bombs, and a suicide attack, the French seem anxious to leave Mali as soon as possible and let Malian and ECOWAS forces take the lead.
The situation is also being complicated by the return of the Tuareg MNLA groups to some areas, especially around Kidal. The Malian forces are not yet there and the French and the Tuareg are cooperating. While the French want reconciliation and autonomy talks, the Malian army and army-influenced government may have a quite different view on this. Last spring the Tuareg defeated the Malian army in northern Mali.
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