Operation Gustav: France launches major ground offensive against Mali Islamists
A French force of 1,000 soldiers has begun a sweep of a valley thought to be a logistics base for Al Qaeda-linked Islamists near the Malian city of Gao, a journalist accompanying the mission said.
Operation Gustav, one of France's largest actions since its intervention in its former colony, will involve dozens of tanks, helicopters and aircraft, said General Bernard Barrera, commander of the French land forces in Mali.
"We surrounded the valley north of Gao, which we believe serves as a logistics base for jihadist groups, and we began to search methodically," said Barrera, who is based in Gao, the largest settlement in northeastern Mali.
The city, 1,200 kilometres (750 miles) from the capital Bamako, was a stronghold of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the Islamist militias which occupied the north until the French-led Operation Serval dislodged them in January.
It suffered the first suicide bombings in Mali's history in February and has been the scene of violent clashes between the French-Malian forces and armed jihadists involving seven deaths over the last two weeks.
No Islamist fighters were encountered on the first day of Operation Gustav, launched at dawn on Sunday, but troops neutralised around 340 artillery shells and high-calibre rockets and destroyed a Toyota pick-up truck.
All access points to the valley were shut off and its ridges secured at 6:00 am (local and GMT) on Sunday.
At 8:00 am France's 3rd Mechanised Brigade began the excavation of a thick forest where military intelligence suspects a jihadist base may be hidden.
French soldiers will spend the coming days combing the 20-kilometre (12-mile) valley with the help of Malian soldiers and police officers going into the nomad camps and mud houses which line the dry river basin.
"This is the fourth wadi we have gone into in the Gao region. There will no doubt be other such operations but perhaps not to the same extent," Barrera said.
Ethnic Tuareg rebels seized the country's vast arid north in the chaos following a coup in Bamako on March 2012 before losing control to well-armed Islamists.
A French-led intervention quickly drove insurgents from most of their northern strongholds, but significant pockets of resistance remain in Gao, as well as in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.
"We have defeated the jihadist groups further north in the Ifoghas (mountains). There are none there anymore," Barrera told reporters.
"We are now operating in north-central Mali, to break the enemy by denying it time to reorganise."
Listening to audio recordings, flying observation missions and cross-checking with information from witnesses, French intelligence officials have concluded that the forested "wadi", or dry river basin, would be perfect for concealing weapons stockpiles.
The fighters themselves, whom France believes were present just days ago, may have moved to another valley, under cover of a sandstorm that raged the previous two days.
Colonel Bruno Bert, who is commanding the mission, warned against complacency, however.
"Many times these guys have hidden themselves for hours just a few metres away from us, and then suddenly stood up and opened fire," he said.
"This isn't over. This valley is big, with many secondary wadis. We will take however long we need to complete the search."
France is to start withdrawing its 4,000 troops from Mali at the end of April, and plans to leave a "support force" of 1,000 soldiers after elections promised for July.