Radical Islamist fighters spent weeks on the run from Malian cities under a French ground and air assault—but they're brazenly fighting back this week at French troops. The French, meanwhile, are tightening a dragnet against the al-Qaida-linked militants in one of their last remaining redoubts, mountain sanctuaries near Algeria's border.
France's government said Wednesday it's still hoping to pull out of its thorny Mali operation in the coming weeks. Defense analysts say that if France wants to make that work, and avoid getting bogged down in a protracted, Afghan-style occupation, now's the time to hit hard—dismantling the hideouts and killing all the insurgents they can—to crush what it fears is a growing terrorist threat that could spread to Mali's African neighbors and even as far as Europe.
French and Malian authorities on Wednesday sifted over the fallout from a nearly six-hour gunfight Tuesday, when about 30 jihadist fighters surprised a 50-troop French reconnaissance patrol about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the town of Tessalit in the Adrar des Ifoughas region, and opened fire with machine guns.
The far-more-muscular French called in support from Mirage fighter jets, helicopter gunships, and armored vehicles firing 105-mm cannons. By the end, more than 20 insurgents and one French legionnaire were killed, French officials said.
The French operation in the area, code-named "Panthere," or panther, is continuing for a third day Wednesday.
President Francois Hollande insists that France—eager for African forces to help stabilize the impoverished West African country and its wobbly central government—is entering the final phase of its operation. But he says France will "go all the way—that's to say, arresting the last terrorist chiefs in northern Mali."
Defense analysts are blunter.
The extremists "have their backs against the wall," said Francois Heisbourg, president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, and adviser to France's Foundation for Strategic Research. "They have been clobbered. And the best time to hit a guy is when he's on the ground on his back."
Heisbourg estimated there are about 1,200 to 2,000 radical Islamic fighters in three extremist movements in northern Mali: Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies; the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO; and Ansar Dine.
The groups controlled northern Mali for 10 months until the French incursion began Jan. 11. Heisbourg cautioned that if rebel fighters headed south to Niger, home to higher mountains than the Ifoghas, it could present longer-term problems for counterterrorism forces. The French have backing from Malian soldier, as well as forces from nearby Chad who are seen as battle-hardened and used to operating in harsh desert terrain and working with local Tuareg tribes.
French authorities are not yet clear if the zone between Gao, northern Mali's largest city, and the Niger border has been fully scrubbed of the insurgent threat, officials say.
Officials in France are aware of the perils of trying to predict a quick end to counterterrorism operations, which can foment suicide bombings and other guerrilla tactics that defy resolution through military force.
One comparable example is the eastern African country of Somalia, where it took a U.N.-backed force of African troops—backed by U.S. drone and aircraft strikes on targeted militant leaders—many years to degrade al-Shabab insurgents enough to allow the formation of a functional transitional government.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France-2 Television on Wednesday that France hopes to start moving out its 4,000 troops in Mali within weeks but, at the same time, he acknowledged that the counterterrorism operation in the Ifoghas range will continue "for a while."
Even as France talks about an eventual handover to Malian and other African forces, French troops are greeted warmly in Malian cities by waves from women selling their vegetables in piles on the street, and children who cheerfully shout "Mali! Mali!" as the soldiers pass.
Gao Mayor Sadou Diallo said about 1,000 French troops are in the Gao region, along with about 3,000 Malian and African soldiers. He said he hoped the French won't leave the job half-done.
"I am optimistic that they won't leave without finishing their work," he says. "We don't want them to stay for years. We hope that MUJAO is wiped out, that elections can be held and that development can begin."
At the Nour mosque in Gao, Imam Alassane Maiga puts the French intervention in the plainest of terms: "If they had waited until September, we would have been dead"—referring to the initial timetable planned for international troops to start fighting alongside Malian forces.
U.N. discussions about an African force for Mali have been under way for months, alongside efforts for a European Union training mission to help the Malian military. But while the world was waiting for those to come together, the extremists who had been imposing strict Islamic law on northern Mali started moving toward the capital in January. So France struck back, sending troops into help Malian forces push the radical fighters back.
Krista Larson contributed from Gao, Mali.