Friday, March 19, 2004

Reuters - US-Trained Malian Troops Ready for Desert Battle

America's seriously stepping up its effort to take the battle to the Islamists, even in West Africa. Good.

Thursday marks the final day of training with U.S. Special Forces for Mali's troops in the Sahara desert, patrolling a region roughly the size of Texas where Washington says Islamic extremists are roaming freely along ancient trading routes.

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U.S. military experts have been in Timbuktu since January, giving basic weapons training and teaching Malian troops how to move effectively in platoons and ambush the enemy.

The aim is to help the former French colony's army to police massive swathes of sand and stop what the United States calls terror networks criss-crossing the desert and setting up cells.

Washington is most worried about the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a hardline Algerian Islamic militant movement that has pledged allegiance to al Qaeda.

The armies of Mali, one of Algeria's southern neighbours, and Chad say they have clashed with GSPC members in recent months.

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Colonel Younoussa Barazi Maiga, who heads the Malian forces that cover the huge region north of Timbuktu, said his troops had chased up to 100 GSPC members out of Mali in January.

"They had some bases towards the west and we attacked them. There were about 20 vehicles with around four or five people in each," he said, watching his troops complete an ambush exercise.

"They have never done any harm to our people but we don't want them here," he said, adding they had fled to Niger and Chad.

SHADOWS IN THE SAND

Chad's government said earlier this month its army had killed 43 Islamic militants in two days of heavy fighting. It said those killed were GSPC members and included nine Algerians and nationals from Niger, Nigeria and Mali.

The armies of Chad and neighbouring Niger will receive U.S. training, like their counterparts in Mali and Mauritania.

U.S. satellites are also helping pinpoint suspected militants.

I knew Nigerian involvement had to show up sooner or later. With scum like Kano state governor Ibrahim Shekarau and Sheikh Ibrahim el Zak Zaky (a Shiite protege of the Iranian government) doing their best to foment religious strife in the country. Add Algerian, Chadian and Nigerian oil into the mix and you have all the ingredients for big time trouble.