Monday, 2 August 2010

UPDATE: France's military intervention in the Sahel

Following the publication of Algeria Politics & Security on Friday afternoon (30th July), a number of further developments have taken place in connection with the Franco-Mauritanian raid(s) into the Sahel on 22nd July.

It was reported Friday evening (30th July) by AFP, and Saturday morning (31st July) in numerous other papers, such as Algeria's El Khabar, that Sidy Mohamed Ould Mohamed, a local councillor for Timbuktu and member of the Arab community, had told AFP: "We have filed a complaint against the Mauritanian and French armies for the kidnapping and sequestration of two civilians, just after an attack on a camp in the northwest of Mali."

According to AFP, a judicial official in the Timbuktu court confirmed that the complaint had been lodged.

Ould Mohamed charged that "when the French and Mauritanian soldiers arrived in the camp, after they had killed those they were looking for, they went to a small camp occupied by Arab families to arrest and kidnap two civilians. … These are innocent civilians who were taken away. It's arbitrary. We demand their release."

France has denied that anyone was detained. In Paris, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said, “Nobody was detained at the end of the Mauritanian operation of 22nd July against AQIM, to which France gave logistic and operational support."

So, what happened? At this stage we do not know.

If the charge is true, then France and Mauritania have some very serious explaining to do. And there will be consequences.

Should the French government's denial be taken at face value? Government ministers and their spokespeople are renowned for being 'economical with the truth', but we are inclined to believe that France would not be so foolish as to have associated itself with such a kidnap.

In Friday's Algeria P&S, we said that the Franco-Mauritanian version of the raid was a 'fiction', designed to provide an 'alternative explanation' for the events around Tessalit. Given that this charge has been lodged, it is conceivable that some sort of decoy incident might have been instigated somewhere to the NW of Timbuktu. In which case, the charge, which could conceivable be false, could have been laid to lend it further credibility.

Alternatively, there are many other parties with vested interests in stirring up further trouble in the region who have the means to arrange such a kidnap. They include various government agencies in almost all the countries concerned, and not least Algeria whose DRS agents are known to be active throughout the Sahel region.

As El Khabar commented, the incident is likely to further aggravate relationships between Mali and Mauritania.

There are several reports that more than one operation was undertaken in Mali. For example, a “foreign military source” in Bamako (whom we believe to be French or Mauritanian) told AFP that the 22nd July raid on a suspected al-Qa'ida base has just been “a smoke screen”.

“Somewhere else in the vast desert, another (operation) is underway,” the source said, adding that forces from other countries in the region were also taking part.

On Saturday morning (31st July), we received confirmation from a 'specialist' and very reliable source in Mauritania that the camp attacked in Mali was not an AQIM one, but only a traffickers' “bivouac” and that it is highly questionable whether Mauritanian troops actually participated in the operation. The photos of the dead 'terrorists' displayed on Mauritanian TV and on the web were taken in this camp.

We are receiving increasing information all the time that this operation was merely a decoy for a larger and more serious operation at Tessalit. (Which the French, Mauritanians and Algerians deny).

Mali's Le Républicain (26.07.10) reported that a second Franco-Mauritanian raid took place on Saturday, 24th July in the Tessalit region. (It was reported to us as taking place on 22nd July).

The report described Tessalit as being a former French military base in the north of the Tigharghar Massif that was abandoned in 1961, but that its airport was still operational and the only airport in the region with a tarmac runway and capable of taking large aircraft. The airstrip was used occasionally for military and private flights. (We should mention that US Special Forces have used it intermittently since around 2003-04).

The report confirmed that the raid took place in the Tigharghar mountains (as we reported) and that the town of Tessalit, in the Kidal administrative district, is much nearer to Algeria than Mauritania. The report implied that Tessalit's airport played a critical role in the raid.

The report also stated that the rock shelters and caves of Tigharghar had been used by the Tuareg in their rebellion of 23rd May 2006 but that it had become public knowledge that the Salafists (AQIM) had been occupying the site at least for the last year.

We should add that the Tuareg used these mountains as their main base in the 1990s rebellion and again during the 2006 rebellion. During this later period, which lasted for at least a year, they were provisioned (while cantonised) by Algerian government services (the military). Abdelhamid abou Zaid had used the mountains in 2003 and moved in again about two years ago. As Le Républicain mentioned, the mountains are reputed (with good reason) to be impregnable.

Since we received our first reports from Tessalit on the morning of the assault, we have had communication problems getting back to our very reliable informants. This was finally achieved on Sunday, 1st August. Our informants re-confirmed, giving more detail, that both planes and helicopters used the Tessalit runway during the Wednesday night and Thursday morning. They again confirmed that Algerians led the attack, although we are still not clear as to whether they mean that the helicopters and crew were Algerian, or whether the ground troops were also Algerians fighting alongside the French COS. They also confirmed that there was no sign of any Mauritanians.

Security sources in Nouakchott told the Chinese news agency Xinhua that the operation (to free Germaneau on Thursday 22nd July, “was launched in co-ordination with the Tamanrasset (Algeria) anti-terrorism unit where the Mauritanian, Malian and Algeria armies are represented.”

In Algeria, the daily news service Echorouk-online (26.07.10) reported: “Earlier on Thursday (July 22), a unit of the Mauritanian army reinforced by 30 French soldiers carried out an attack on the GSPC's strongholds in Mali. Aircraft (we presume they mean attack helicopters) directly struck the terrorists killing six of them. Others escaped and ran away before land forces had arrived and continued its attack for many days.”

As France has denied that any aircraft were used by Franco-Mauritanian forces, it must, therefore, be presumed that the aircraft (it is not made clear if they were fixed-wing, helicopters or possibly both) were Algerian.

Echorouk also confirmed that: “The International French radio said the Algerian government participated in the military operation carried out by the Mauritanian and French forces.”

We have received absolute confirmation that Claude Guéant, President Nicolas Sarkozy's general -secretary (i.e. Chief of Staff), met with Mediene in Algiers on 20th June.

Mauritania has released the identities of three of the seven AQIM 'terrorists' killed. One is reported as being the brother of a Mauritanian who is currently in prison for his presumed role in the assassination of an American citizen in Nouakchott in 2008.

A second is named as Béchir el-Magrebi. Reported to be of Moroccan origin, Béchir is said to have been the right arm of Yahia Hamane, reportedly one of Abdelhamid abou Zaid's lieutenants.

The third is named as Bilal El-Djazaïri (Bilal 'the Algerian') and said to be the right arm of Abdelhamid abou Zaid and, according to the Mauritanian authorities, an expert on desert trails and surrounding areas.

We do not know Béchir el-Magrebi. However, we believe, according to our own research and records, that Bilal may be Bilal abou Abdeldjalil, alias El Bejdhaoui, who, according to his Algerian police file (which we have), is actually Kamel Djermane.

Bilal (or Djermane to give him his original proper name) served alongside Abdelhamid abou Zaïd as one of El Para's lieutenants in the DRS-managed kidnap of 32 German-speaking tourists in the Algerian Sahara in 2003. (14 of these were brought to the Tigharghar mountains under the supervision of Abou Zaïd prior to their release in August 2003.)

We have photographic evidence of Bilal traveling to Chad (with El Para) in February 2004.

On 19th March 2004, AFP, relying on the information of an unnamed 'African diplomat in Bamako', reported him as having been killed in Chad some ten days earlier. That information was incorrect.

In July 2004, he was identified by the French photo-journalist Patrick Forestier (Paris Match) as having being captured in Chad and being in the hands of the rebel Chad MDJT.

At around that time, he was reported as having been handed over to the Libyans. We believe that he may have been handed over with El Para, who was reported as having been returned (through Libya's good offices) to the Algerian authorities in October 2004.

While El Para, who was a DRS agent, subsequently received a court sentence in Algeria in absentia, nothing more was heard of Bilal.

We believed that Bilal was 'recycled' by the DRS into Mauritania at some time in 2005 or 2006. The Mauritanians believe that he was involved in the Lemgheity garrison attack in July 2005, but we believe that they are mistaken in that, and that the Lemgheity attack was associated with an internal revolt by Mauritania's Les Cavaliers du Changement.

If this is the same Bilal, then questions are immediately raised as to why such a close colleague of Abdelhamid abou Zaïd was not also 'tipped off' about the raid, as we believe was the case with Abdelhamid. At the moment, we have no answer.

Finally, we should just mention that we are receiving unconfirmed reports from sources within Algeria of military manoeuvres in the South at around the time of the 22nd July assault. We have no further details at this stage, but hope to get more confirmation and details in the course of the next few weeks.

There is mounting evidence that there were two operations: a decoy near the Mauritanian border, where six 'traffickers' (supposedly AQIM) were killed, and a more serious and politically-sensitive operation run out of Tessalit (and perhaps Tamanrasset) which was an unmitigated disaster. This main operation not only appears not to have located any major AQIM base (probably because they were tipped off by the DRS) but failed to find any trace of Germaneau.

There is considerable evidence that Germaneau died sometimes after 14th May, the last time there was any confirmation of his being alive, but some time before the present operation.

It is suggested that one motive for Algeria manipulating France in this way is to make France/Sarkozy appear responsible for his death.

There are far greater consequences for France and Sarkozy when the truth of this operation becomes known in France and Africa, as it certainly will within the next week or two. (See future copy from Al Jazeera).

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was immediately sent on 'damage limitation' visits to Mauritania, Mali and Niger. His reported speeches from these countries suggest that he is perpetuating the 'untruths', which, in the long-run, and perhaps starting as soon as next week, may not be the cleverest of foreign policies.

Algeria was almost certainly heavily involved, both in giving 'false information' to the French, and thus 'suckering' them into an unmitigated disaster, which will have huge consequences for them, and in providing the helicopters, other logistics and possibly also ground troops.

Algeria, which claims not to have been given any notice of the operation until two days beforehand, obviously has to deny any involvement. If it becomes known in Algeria that French and Algerian forces operated together to kill (Muslim) 'terrorists' in another country, it is political suicide for the Algerian regime.

For more news and expert analysis about Algeria please see Algeria Focus, Sahara Focus and Algeria Politics & Security.

© 2010 Menas Associates

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