In the West African nation of Mali, French forces have led a military campaign to rid the country's vast northern desert of militants linked to al-Qaida. The French are preparing to leave, and hand over to an African peacekeeping force. To find out what happens next, Renee Montagne talks to Lindsey Hilsum, a correspondent for Britain's Independent Television News.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've been closely tracking events in Mali since French forces led a military campaign to rid that country's vast northern desert of militants linked to al-Qaida. Those Islamists had taken over much of the region last spring and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law. But the fabled Timbuktu and other cities have been taken back with almost no fight. Now the French say it's time for them to step back and hand over to an African peacekeeping force.
To find out what does happen next, we reached Lindsey Hilsum. She's with Independent Television News in northern Mali. Good morning.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Is there a sense of closure with the French successfully leaving the fight to retake major centers like Timbuktu and another town, Gao, that I know you've just left? Or is it too early to be sure that this is a victory?
HILSUM: Well, I think that there's a sense of jubilation, or that's at least what I saw in Gao. But having said that, although the French and the Malian army are there now, there's still a long way to go in this. The jihadis disappeared into the desert but they will inevitably be back. The guerilla war is likely to start, I would say, in the next few weeks.
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, break this down for our audience. The players here, if you will, there are Islamists militants; there's an ethnic group, nomads, who have lived there a long time, the Tuareg; and there's the Malian government in the South. Just quickly, when you say guerilla war, what would that involve?
HILSUM: Well, this started last year when Tuaregs, they had fought for Colonel Gadhafi in Libya. But the Tuaregs, who are spread out amongst a number of countries, they don't have their own state. And so they decided this was the moment to try and carve out their own state in northern Mali. They came back from Libya heavily armed to fight the Malian army. They won very easily.
The Malian army just ran away. But then these Tuaregs embarked on a rule that was very cruel. They joined up with jihadists, many of whom were ethnic Arabs, and eventually the jihadists drove the Tuareg separatists out and they took control of the north of the country. It's an extremely complicated situation. It's not just that the jihadis have had this harsh Islamic rule; it's also that most of the victims of these Sharia punishments they've had in the North have been black Malians.
So there's a great danger of reprisal now from black Malians against Tuaregs and Arabs.
MONTAGNE: Is the government of Mali, which is not a strong government, is it up to the task of keeping peace without French help?
HILSUM: Absolutely not. The government is now nominally civilian, but it's really in the hands of the military. And the military is still extremely weak. So I think that the French are going to find that they have to be here for quite a long time. And the African armies coming in are going to need help from the Americans, the British, and so on. This is a conflict - it's important party because Europe sees itself as being under threat.
The jihadis here (unintelligible) I was in Gao, they were Pakistanis, they were Tunisians, they were Mauritanians. This is an international conflict. And they want to carry out attacks in Europe, not just in Mali. This is an international issue and I think that it will require an international solution.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Lindsey Hilsum is a correspondent with Independent Television News. We reached her on the road in northern Mali. Thanks very much for stopping to talk to us.
HILSUM: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.