Mali Islamists ‘much tougher than France anticipated’

French troops’ initial clashes with Islamist militants in Mali have shown that the desert fighters are better trained and equipped than France had anticipated before last week’s military intervention, French and other UN diplomats said.

Mali Islamists ‘much tougher than France anticipated’

The realisation that the fighting could be bloodier than anticipated in the weeks — or months — ahead might make Western countries even more reluctant to get involved alongside France. French officials, however, hope it will rally their allies behind them, diplomats say.

“The cost of failure in Mali would be high for everyone, not just the people of Mali,” an African diplomat said, on condition of anonymity.

The seizure of dozens of hostages in neighbouring Algeria, where Algerian troops launched a military operation to rescue the captives from “diehard” Islamist militants at a desert gas plant, also raises the possibility that Islamist violence could snowball beyond Mali’s borders.

The diplomats spoke after French forces had their first encounters with Islamist fighters in recent days. The ground war looked set to escalate as French troops surrounded the town of Diabaly, trapping rebels who had seized it three days ago.

“Our enemies were well armed, well equipped, well trained and determined,” a senior French diplomat said. “The first surprise was that some of them are holding the ground.”

He said others had fled during six days of French airstrikes aimed at halting the militants’ offensive and preventing the fall of Mali’s capital, Bamako.

French, Malian and African forces are facing off against an Islamist coalition that includes al Qaeda’s North African wing, AQIM, and the homegrown Ansar Dine and MUJWA militants. The motley mix of Tuareg rebels, Islamists and foreign jihadists has been united by the threat of foreign military intervention, which the Security Council called for last month.

Some of the militants are believed to have been trained and armed by the government of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

A number of diplomats said the initial French assessments underestimated the strength of the militants. It is a view French officials do not dispute.

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