By Jemal Oumar and Raby Ould Idoumou
Al-Qaeda offshoot Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) last week drove Touareg rebel group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) out of Gao.
The first-ever armed clashes between the rival factions left at least 21 dead.
The fighting followed a protest last Tuesday by residents angry over the killing of municipal councillor Idrissa Oumarou. Malian rebels opened fire on the rally, but it was unclear which rebel group had started shooting civilians.
MUJAO has become the dominant force in the city and imposed a night curfew last Wednesday, Le Journal Du Mali reported Friday.
“We are now present in the Koro Gusso area after MNLA’s army escaped last night,” MUJAO member Abu Daoud told Sahara Media. He added that MNLA had a chaotic pull-out and left behind equipment, including two tanks, two trucks and a Grad missile launcher.
Echourouk reported that terrorists had seized an unknown quantity of heavy weapons and anti-aircraft missiles. MNLA fled the scene after their field leader Belal Ag Sharif was wounded and transferred to Burkina Faso for treatment along with four interim government ministers, according to the Algerian daily.
With the MUJAO controlling Gao, the three main cities in northern Mali (Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao) have now fallen under the sway of terrorist groups.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb “provided military supplies and equipment to MUJAO and was a part of the military operation, forcing MNLA to depart from city and airport”, Gao-based journalist Osman Ag Mohamed Osman told Magharebia.
Meanwhile, rumours circulated that AQIM emir Khaled Abou El Abbas (aka Mokhtar Belmokhtar, or “Laaouar”), who was reportedly personally directing and participating in the fighting against the Touareg rebels, was killed in the confrontation.
MNLA media official Moussa Ag al-Saeed told azawadpress.com his body had been seen on a public road.
In a telephone interview with Magharebia, MNLA member Yahya Osman Ag Mohamed said that the terrorist leader sustained critical wounds to his chest and leg.
AQIM, however, refuted rumours of Laaouar’s death.
The MNLA is preparing for a large-scale military campaign that would put an end to terrorist presence in Azawad after the terrorists were supported to prevent the establishment of a civil state, Ag Mohamed told Magharebia.
According to MNLA media office chief Bakai Ag Hamad Ahmed, “the national army of Azawad is preparing for a decisive offensive on al-Qaeda in Gao, and it is now fully prepared to launch the attack”, Azawad news agency reported on Friday.
Gao resident and MNLA member Brahim Ag Noman told Magharebia that MNLA fighters had come “under a heavy weapons attack from the different factions of al-Qaeda which came to take part in the attack”.
“Those terrorists started to intimidate, arrest and torture people,” he added.
“However, this won’t weaken MNLA because it started to re-arrange its forces on the outskirts of town,” Ag Noman said. “It is waiting for supplies that moved from Kidal towards Gao to re-capture it and expel Islamist militants from it.”
The recent battles forced the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to withdraw workers from Gao amid threats from salafist groups.
Guess Benoit, an official with Doctors without Borders, talked to Magharebia about his worries over the deteriorating security conditions after the city became crowded with vehicles and gunmen.
The importance of recent developments is that they made international forces support MNLA in its war against al-Qaeda, journalist al-Hasan Ould Meddou told Magharebia. For his part, reporter Mohamed Ag Ahmedu told Magharebia that Azawad youth volunteers were “mobilising people to move against the terrorists and were co-ordinating with the forces that would supply MNLA with necessary forces”.
“The city will be liberated from the terrorists, and so will be the other cities,” he said. “I think this is the decisive moment for confronting the terrorists who we have been waiting for long.”